Off to Flagstaff

Off to Flagstaff

So another day began, and another substantial breakfast was consumed prior to checking out. Well there’s no point in risking starvation when you’re out in the desert, even if you do have a car and a Visitor Centre handy. Best not to risk it, in my opinion.

Our objective for the morning was to walk along the rim, so we parked up in a big lot in what looked like an old railway yard, and found our way to the bus stop going to Hermit’s Rest.  The bus driver on the drive out had what could probably be described as the ultimate low stress retirement.  Her and her husband basically lived in a large RV, and camped down somewhere warm every winter.  Every spring, they got in contact with the NPS and took seasonal jobs driving buses in Grand Canyon.  They had both done several seasons, and didn’t seem to tire of it.  I guess if you spend half the year driving around people who are there to enjoy themselves, you probably get to see people who are always at their best, and are unlikely to moan about buses being late, slow, hot, or overcrowded – not to the driver anyway.  So she had a whale of a time meeting a significant proportion of the American population ( and assorted others ) and driving them somewhere they wanted to be, rather than somewhere they were paid to be.  Can’t be a bad life.  Probably doesn’t pay too well, but they weren’t doing it really for the money, more for a chance to meet people whilst keeping occupied during their retirement.

It was quite a long wait for the bus out to Hermit’s Rest, because we just missed one when we got to the bus stop, but we didn’t mind too much and we didn’t moan at the driver, and she rewarded us with a prompt drive and potted life history.

When we got to Hermit’s Rest, we had some pretty grand ideas about walking all the way back to Grand Canyon Village, and our minds were suitably numb to the distance we traveled on the bus and the heat outside. So we set off back along the Rim Trail towards the village with our usual bags stuffed with water and photographic equipment.  We left lunch in the car to encourage us not to be late.  The views from the rim are pretty dramatic from much of this walk, and the relatively peaceful trail on this section was most welcome.  Grand Canyon Village, and most of the major viewpoints, are very busy, but even though this trail is very close to the road and there are frequent bus stops, not many people seem to walk along it.  This is a shame for them, but a bonus for us.  We walked and walked for what seemed like an eternity, and we both resolutely agreed to pass bus stop after bus stop and keep walking.  Each new promontory gave a slightly different perspective and this kept us going when the feet started to hurt a bit.  We took some rests and drank some water.  The we walked a bit more.  Then we found a bench in some trees and photographed a squirrel.  And we found another British couple who kindly took a photo of us.  Then we walked a bit more.  Eventually the water started looking a bit short, and the feet definitely hurt, so we mutually agreed that we’d had enough.  In fact, I think we hadn’t actually looked at the canyon for a couple of miles, and so this was enough justification for stopping.  If you’re not looking at the scenery any more, get on the bus and have a rest.

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We waited for the next bus, rode back and then trudged across the village to our car.  We had thankfully parked under some trees, so the car wasn’t too hot.  We grabbed our lunch and walked up to the canyon rim for one final overlook whilst eating.  There are worse places to sit with your sandwiches and Pringles.

We were debating the plan for the rest of the day and the following day, and plumped for staying in Flagstaff and then heading out east to the Petrified Forest.  We had a half afternoon to fill in, so we decided to take the scenic drive round to Flagstaff rather than the quick route.  This involved following the eastern Rim Drive back out to where we had originally come in to the park.  We stopped off at a couple of the overlooks on the way out, but neither of us felt inclined to take loads of photos, which was probably a good sign that we were all canyoned out. So eventually we just headed for the park exit and then took the turn south towards Flagstaff.

Wupatki.jpgOn the way, we decided to drive through the Wupatki National Monument ( ), as it wasn’t really out of the way and we were both intrigued.  We stopped at two main sites, Wupatki Pueblo and Wukoki Pueblo.  Wupatki is a pretty big one, and if you’re into this style of thing, a very impressive specimen.  The loop trail is fairly easy going and the free brochure from the Visitor Centre gives you all the details you need to know when walking round.

The instructions, however, seemed far to complicated for some of the visitors.  One pre-pubescent girl and her family were going round the loop in the opposite direction to the numbered signs, and were getting all confused because they couldn’t follow the text on the brochure. Another couple disgracefully allowed their teenage children to climb all over the monument, despite the abundance of signs asking you to respect and preserve it. Good to see people paying so much attention. Never mind, it was an interesting walk round and good to learn about current thinking on how these people lived and what eventually forced them to move on. If I was any good at history I could probably compare their culture to the state that Europe was in at the same time, but I’m not, so I won’t.  Wukoki was a much smaller site, and consequently occupied us for a much smaller amount of time.  It is basically a single building surrounded by a single, loop shaped track.  Neither of us took any photos, which was a bit of a shame. Maybe we were still feeling knackered after the efforts of the morning, and had basically run out of enthusiasm. Anyway, no photos. The one here is borrowed.

Flagstaff_04 Sunset Crater NM.jpgThe loop road out of Wupatki continues on its way to Flagstaff via the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument ( ), but by the time we got there it was getting to be quite late and the Visitor Centre looked shut.

I don’t think we were keen enough to stop anyway, so we just hacked on down to Flagstaff to look for a hotel for the night.  On a previous visit to the area Kev had stopped in a hotel on the old Route 66 coming into Flagstaff from the east, and remembered there were loads of places there.  So we tried this as a first stop.  However, we tried a couple of decent looking places but they were full.  We couldn’t really figure out why they were full, this was not an experience we were used to in the USA, until some kind soul pointed out to us that it was Labor Day weekend, and as tradition would have it, the hotels were all full of weekend tourists and people on conventions.  D’oh !  We did some further research into our ageing Moon Guide and determined there should be a few more hotels the other side of the railway tracks, just beyond downtown.  There were a couple as promised, and one had some vacancies, so as it was getting late, we took the option of paying an inflated rate for a pretty average room, rather than head out of Flagstaff to somewhere else.  Anyway, Kev had a headache coming on, and we really couldn’t be bothered with any more driving.

We had a quick clean up and then walked back under the railway up into Flagstaff’s bijou and compact downtown area to get some food.  We found a likely looking restaurant / bar place which was busy and quite loud. A little table inside had our name written on it, and after a short wait we got seated, fed and watered.

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Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

The Quality Inn  has a big open atrium area in which they serve breakfast.  It consists of an open buffet table of cereals, fruit, etc, unlimited tea, coffee and juices, and a special menu ( at slightly higher price ) to order hot food.  We partook of the hot option whilst making our plans for the day.

Grand_Canyon_Airport.jpgGrand Canyon National Park ( ) is very large, and has lots of things to do which were candidates for us.  The thing we were debating most was whether to take some sort of flight over the canyon while we were there.  It would be fairly expensive, but then we might never go again.  Grand Canyon Airport was very near the hotel, and the hotel had many, many flyers ( no pun intended ) from tour companies offering flights by light aircraft or helicopters of various lengths and prices.  To be honest, I’m not sure there was ever any doubt, it was more a matter of getting used to the idea that we would have to pay for it.  We plumped for a short-ish ( 45 minutes ) helicopter ride with Papillon ( ) and we were lucky enough to get on a flight mid-afternoon on the same day.  Top stuff.

That left us with a long morning to fill in, and we had the urge to do some walking.  We hadn’t done a great deal in Monument Valley, so the legs were itching to get tired again.  We started with the usual park orientation visit to the main Visitor Centre, and picked up lunch and water, as you do.  We were heading for the South Kaibab Trail, which starts from Yaki Point, a few miles east.  The best bet seemed to be a bus from the central bus terminus jobby, rather than moving the car around everywhere, especially seeing as the bus stops were right outside the visitor centre and the car was miles away lost in a car park somewhere.  That’s the thing about Grand Canyon, it is very commercialized and very heavily visited, and as a result they have to have a lot of parking space at the Visitor Centre.  Many of the visitors just park up here, wander around the visitor centre and peer over the rim, and then go home again.

Kebab.jpgSouth Kaibab Trail proved to be one of the more entertaining walks of the holiday, although I did spend half the morning thinking about the similar sounding post beer stomach-filler-come-laxative.  It starts of rather steep and winding, and the opening section was nicely in shade when we started.  However, the shade soon disappeared, but the slope and corners didn’t.  Our normal water planning was thrown into confusion here as well, because the outward leg was downhill, so we had to change to allow most of the water for the trip back.  The tour guide said to allow about four or five hours for the walk but we were pretty fast going down, and reached a sort of halfway station on a little plateau with some basic toiletry facilities.  From here, you could stroll out onto Cedar Ridge and get a pretty decent panorama.  The walk into the Canyon is well worthwhile, and although I wouldn’t say you “must” do a walk inside to say you have truly been there, I would say that the view is much improved.  From the rim, everything is below you, and the angles are strange.  Because the horizon is dead flat from most of the south rim area, from the top the views all consist of rock against rock.  It must be very difficult to see what’s going on in flat or diminishing light.  When you get inside the canyon, you can see more of the perspective.  It becomes clearer which parts are close to you and which are far away, and you can see upwards as well as downwards.  It would be rather strenuous to get right to the bottom, so I’m not sure whether the view here is better, but certainly from halfway down you get a much better sense of both the scale and the beauty.

As we only took an hour or so to get down to Cedar Ridge, we assumed that it was going to be very hard work getting back out, so we set off in good time, and realized that the books were probably written to guide the average to unfit walker.  We found ourselves overtaking loads of people and getting back out in about 90 minutes.  This even included a fairly slow 20 minutes when we were walking and talking to Mervyn from Palm Springs, who was there on holiday but was struggling a little bit with both altitude and steepness.  Mervyn eventually seemed to almost apologize to us because he was holding us up, so we split up, and although we had to wait a while for a bus at the top, there was no sign of Mervyn.  So we hope you made it out of the canyon and we’re sorry we didn’t allow time to come round to visit you.

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We got back to the car in time for some drinks and a quick trip back to the hotel before our appointment at the airport.  It was a proper flight, with all the regular check-in procedures.  We had to go through a safety briefing and there were proper boarding cards and gate control – the whole nine yards.  There were, however, only three passengers on the helicopter – well, there was a pilot as well, obviously.  I don’t know whether the pilot was telling the truth, or just fancied Kas, but she got to sit up in the front, while me and the Mexican geezer got to sit in the back to make sure “the weight distribution” was OK.  How much effect can the odd twenty kilos or so make to the balance of a helicopter anyway ?  Never mind.

Papillon Helicopter.jpgThe flight itself was quite short (45 minutes),  but enough to get the hang of what was going on.  We flew from the airport to the west of Tusayan and over the canyon rim to the west of the park HQ.  The piped commentary on the headphones was a little cheesy, but was fairly informative.  The main sensation you get, however, is the distinct queasiness when you cross over the rim and the canyon is actually below you. You’re quite close to the floor and then suddenly you aren’t any more.  If you’ve ever been to one of those IMAX cinema thingies and they show the trailer of various vertical shots down from aircraft, well this was just as vomit-inducing, only for real.  Don’t go on flights like this if you are a nervous flyer.

The actual flight just took us right over the canyon to the north rim, and then the pilot played around with ducking up and down below the rim, so you got a similar perspective as if you had walked in.  It wasn’t the most heavily visited area of the park, because there aren’t any trails from either north or south rim in this area, so you get a bit of an “unspoilt beauty” effect, but it also didn’t seem like that long a flight, and we could have coped with maybe twice as much time.  It’s probably better than the day trip flights you get from Vegas though, because you get a high proportion of close-up canyon per unit flying time, and I think the ones from Vegas have to fly a bit higher.

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After the flight we chilled for a while and then headed off for some sunset viewing.  We asked the ranger at the fee station for an opinion on where was best, and he suggested we go all the way over to Desert View, some 30 miles away.  We had a fair while before the actual sunset so off we went.  Kev had been to GC on a previous visit and was looking for the same place, but couldn’t remember which overlook it was.  However, on arrival, it definitely wasn’t Desert View.  Nevertheless, it was a pretty romantic spot to watch the sun go down despite the fact that it was quite busy.  We sat there until is was very nearly completely dark, and we were sitting on rocks right at the edge, to the side and in front of the proper paved area, so it was challenging getting back to the car.  However, we made it back safely and Kas turned on the waterworks in the car on the way back.  She eventually convinced me that this was the release of lots of built up excitement and happiness, and she was just really, really happy as if you’ve just done something you’ve been dreaming of for years.  In fact, this was something we’d both been dreaming of for a number of years.  A couple of years before we had planned, and then failed to book this trip because it was going to be too expensive.  When we finally did decide we could afford it, the trip was nine months in the planning and the excitement levels had been building up to fever pitch as the holiday got nearer and nearer.  In the end, then, it’s not all that surprising that the emotion eventually came out, after all we’d been into the canyon, flown over it and watched the sun set over it all in one day, and it was one of the best days of our lives.

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We finished off this excellent day with a trip over the road to a restaurant in a sort of western style – you know, denim skirts and red & white checked blouses for the waitresses, string ties for the chaps, and so on.  We started off badly, because our waitress wanted to see some ID for Kas, believing she was underage.  OK, she’s younger than me by a few years, but was still 28, and if I claimed she looked under 21 I’d probably get a slap for a particularly poor attempt at flattery.   Thankfully we had our passports with us, so once the necessary verification was performed the waitress was all sweetness and light again.  The rest of the meal went well and we came out suitably stuffed.

There was probably some beer involved as well, and it was probably cold and wet.

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This morning started off as a complete disaster for us.  Overnight, Mexican Hat had been hit by a power cut as a result of the thunderstorm the night before.  You wouldn’t think this was a particular problem, but here’s why.  First, we were low on fuel and both gas stations were out of order because the pumps were obviously electric powered.  Second, it was very hot and sweaty in the motel room because the air conditioning has been off for an unknown length of time while we were asleep.  Finally, breakfast was going to be tricky.  It’s times like this when you realize how dependent on electricity we are.  The general store next door was open, but it was also dark, and they didn’t have hot coffee or hot anything else.  They did still have cold drinks, but they were warming up quickly and everyone who opened the fridge to get a can out caused the remaining cans to warm up a little bit more.  And then, of course, it’s difficult to pay properly because the till was electric powered as well.  We eventually got pastries and cold drinks, but didn’t find anything entertaining for lunch.

Mexican Hat.jpgThis was one of the low points of the trip.  The main problem was the lack of fuel.  If we left Mexican Hat, we certainly didn’t have enough to get to Grand Canyon, and that’s where we needed to end up because we had prepaid some rooms there.  In fact, we weren’t sure we could make it to Kayenta either.  And although Kev had been to Monument Valley before, he couldn’t remember the form, and so couldn’t picture whether there is a gas station or not.  And even if there was a gas station there, would it have power ?  So if we stayed, we would waste a day and lose the money we paid for the hotel at Grand Canyon, but if we left we risked getting stuck somewhere with no facilities until the power came back on.  Flip a coin, do we feel lucky or not.

After the best part of an hour sitting in the car waiting to see if the power came back on we gave up and headed towards Monument Valley.  The Moon Guide mentions a nearby place called Goulding’s Trading Post.  It sounds like an old fashioned place with a couple of wooden huts selling hardware and guns, but maybe the book was a bit out of date.  Anyway, we got up to Monument Valley and saw the signs for Goulding’s just up a road on the opposite side.  We hacked the couple of miles up there and were somewhat relieved to see not only a gas station with all the lights on, but also a Subway outlet.  I think this was our first Subway of the trip, but it proved not to be the last.  Fill up with juice, then size large sub with lots of dead animals and a couple of tubes of Pringles for us.  Panic over, what were we worried about ?

Monument Valley ( ) is famous for a number of films which were shot there.  It’s the archetypal western scenery, with flatish land punctuated by towering buttes, mesa, and the like.  You can just picture John Wayne slowly riding his horse through the valley in some incidental shot in the middle of the film, just after he’s received the call for help and just before he starts shooting all the bad guys.  It is now classed as a Tribal Park and is entirely on land owned by the Navajo.  This means it is not part of the NPS, and so we had to pay to get in. And you get to drive down this piece of road, with this spectacular view, as you’re approaching it.

Monument Valley.jpgThere is a reasonably impressive visitor centre at the top of a hill, and from here there is a good viewing platform looking down over the main expanse of valley.  The closest monuments to you from here are the two Mittens, and these are probably the most recognizable features from all the old cowboy films.  On the day we arrived, it was cloudy, and there were still some thunderstorms left over from the previous night.  These were drifting by to the west of the valley ( over by Goulding’s ) and you could clearly see lightening strikes bouncing off the top of the mesas and torrents of rain.

None of this quite made it over to Monument Valley while we were there.  Having convinced ourselves that the weather wasn’t going to be too bad, we decided we were OK for the 17 mile scenic drive.  The brochures will tell you that this isn’t suitable for any vehicles apart from jeeps, but my personal opinion is that this is a marketing ploy by the guys who run the jeep service.  OK, if it was raining or snowy you wouldn’t want to take a normal two wheel drive car on the drive.  Likewise, if you had a sports car you’d end up losing your front spoiler and exhaust system, and there are a couple of stretches of track which have loose sand, so aren’t suitable, but these were gated off when we went.  In good weather and good light, the majority of the drive is OK for your average family saloon, and certainly wasn’t a problem for our RAV4, with its reasonable ground clearance and fat-boy tyres.

The scenic drive takes you into the valley and then has a loop at the end portion before returning you back up the initial slope to the visitor centre.  There are about 20 stop-offs, all well signposted and covering most of the parts you would want to see such as the Totem Pole, the Thumb, John Ford’s Point, the Mittens, and so on.  We picked our way around the drive stopping at most points and taking loads of photos.  This day, Kas was doing colour and Kev Black & White, so we got a mix.  The passing clouds made for some interesting interplay of light and dark, and was much more interesting than it would have been if it was just sunny.  The further and further we went round, the more the sky cleared and the brighter it became.

We probably spent 3 hours driving round before ending up back at the visitor centre for a service stop and some lunch.  The Subway specials were now suitably warmed up to room temperature, and there were still some clouds drifting by to the west and it was windy, but still warm. You can see all the clouds clearing away if you look at the photos below.

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By now, we were beginning to feel the pressure of time again, even though we had a confirmed room in Grand Canyon, so we drove back out of the valley, past the long lines of stalls selling “genuine” Navajo craft items, and headed south towards Kayenta .The drive towards Grand Canyon through the Navajo lands is fairly dull as landscapes go, there isn’t a huge amount to look at. It’s also a surprisingly long way, and once you pass Kayenta and turn west there seems to be just mile after mile of straight flat road with an accompanying line of telegraph poles, and not much else.  This part of the drive was made more interesting by a 10 minute hailstorm which gave the car a good rattling, but otherwise it was pretty uneventful.  We stopped in Tuba City for ice creams and kept going.

Eventually you come to a junction where the left turn goes south to Flagstaff and the right goes north to Page.  If we had been brave, we could have reached here by taking an unpaved road through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which eventually leads into Page and thus to here.  This round trip would have meant we could avoid Capitol Reef completely, and cut about 400 miles out of the journey, but we wanted to go to Monument Valley anyway, and we didn’t fancy the full 70 miles of dirt track through the monument.  This bit of road is still in Navajo country, and every few miles there are more little roadside stalls selling “genuine” stuff.  We wondered how you could make a living doing this.  The roads aren’t that well traveled, and surely there is only a certain amount of trade that a roadside stall is going to attract.  Most of them only seemed to have only the stallholder present, no customers. We finally reached the right turn to the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.  We still had a fair way to get to our hotel ( in Tusayan ) and time was still marching on ( as it does ) so we skipped any ideas about stop-offs and just drove straight towards park HQ and on to Tusayan for a very welcome night at the Quality Inn.  The hotel proved to be pretty well fitted out ( this was one of the more expensive stops of the trip ) so we went for a quick dip in the pool then got ready for some food.  We chose a fast-ish looking generic pizza/pasta place just over the road from the hotel.  The food was fine, and it was about as much as we could manage for the day.

Anyway, tomorrow was going to be busy and exciting, so both of us wanted to get a good night’s sleep.

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Bridges & Cliffs

Bridges & Cliffs

The motel did, however, have a room where they did free breakfast for guests – cereals, coffee, pastries, fruit and free.  This was more than sufficient.  The gas station outside the motel was sufficient for refuelling and lunch, so off on the road.

Capitol Reef was about the most lonely place we visited.  After a quick stop off at Goosenecks Overlook ( deserted )  we headed down the Scenic Drive and parked up at the end of the Capitol Gorge trail.  Capitol Reef is a very long, thin area which follows a geological feature called the Waterpocket Fold.  There is a huge area up to the north which can only be reached by a huge round trip on unpaved roads.  Likewise, there are large areas on the southern spur which can only be reached on unpaved roads.  As we were short on time we were only really left with the Scenic Drive and the stop offs on the main road through the centre of the park. From the Capitol Gorge park, at the end of the scenic drive, we started with the hike towards Golden Throne.  It was a quite long walk, with lots of canyons and headlands, rough stony paths and slick rocks.

At some points, you had to work hard to identify the pile of rocks that was the marker for the trail, in other places it was obvious.  It was a long way, and I don’t think we ever found the Golden throne itself.  We eventually gave up when we were two thirds of the way through the six litres of water we brought with us.  This was our yardstick for the holiday – two thirds of the water going out, one third coming back, regardless of the location.  We were probably away from the car for nearly three hours on this walk and we didn’t see another soul for the whole time.  We were very parched and a bit tired when we got back, and helped ourselves to some more of the water reserves from the boot.

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We then forced ourselves to walk up the Capitol Gorge itself for as long as we could be bothered.  Kev could be more bothered than Kas, but neither of us was that bothered, so I think we only went about a mile or so.  It was nevertheless impressive to think that for quite some time this was the main ( and only ) road through the Waterpocket Fold.  It is a stony dried up river bed.  Whenever it rains there is a flash flood and you need to be able to climb quickly up slick rock slopes to avoid drowning.  The vehicles that used to come this way must have had a pretty high ground clearance.  Maybe when it was an actual road, people used to carry the bigger stones out of the way, but not so now, and there are some pretty big chunks on the floor of the gorge.  The side walls are scoured fairly smooth by the rubble caught up in the occasional floods, and here and there are strange formations where rocks have been caught up in eddy currents and have scoured little potholes in the sidewalls.  However, at this time we were both mainly concerned with the aches in our feet and rumbles in our stomachs, so we moved on.

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A quick look at the map, and a bit of route planning, made us feel that we needed to get a move on.  We wanted to get over to Monument Valley by nightfall, and it’s the rough end of 200 miles from Capitol Reef.  We therefore had to leave Capitol Reef without stopping at any of the stops on the main road.  We continued straight through to Hanksville and made a stop for lunch.  Shame really, the northern part of the park, the Cathedral Valley, is supposed to be particularly impressive.  Maybe we’ll come back on another trip some time.

Hanksville.jpgHanksville is quite a long way from anywhere else, and to a certain extent, it shows.  There was nothing especially wrong with the place we stopped – the food was fine and the coke was cold – but we got distinct feeling that we were from out of town.  We didn’t linger for very long, we just got back into the trusty car and set off south along Utah 95.  This stretch of road was everything that a European would expect of the American west.  There is really nothing there.  The road is well surfaced, but there isn’t much evidence of it being well used.  It passes through some tremendous scenery, with badlands, and the enormous Henry Mountains, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with its dramatic deep red rock formations.  It’s 95 miles from Hanksville to the junction with Utah 261 near the Natural Bridges National Monument, and in that whole time I think we passed two cars going our way and one going the other.  This was mid to late afternoon on a weekday, so I would have expected at least some occasional business traffic like delivery lorries, but there weren’t even any of those.

As we approached the Natural Bridges National Monument ( ) we could see the sky looking a bit threatening as if a thunderstorm was on the way.  We consulted with the ranger in the Visitor Centre and he concurred, it was about to rain.  As time was once again marching onwards we restricted our trip to a quick stop off for photos at each of the three bridges.  There is a little car park and a viewpoint at each, and also a trailhead for a hike running down to the bottom.  To be honest, the view from the top is limited.  In dull light with no shadows the scene looks mainly like rocks with a backdrop of more rocks, so we didn’t really get good photos, but then we didn’t have the time ( or the will, bearing in mind the weather ) to do any of the hikes.

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We planned to go to Mexican Hat for the night, but the roadmap showed a worrying looking unpaved section in the middle of the most direct route – Utah 261.  We consulted with the friendly park ranger again to check this out.  He told us it was indeed unpaved, but perfectly safe ( even if the rain starts ) and was worth the drive because of the view.  Well, you’ve got to respond to a challenge like that – the most direct route is the most entertaining.  Once again, Kas was at wheel when we got to do some off road driving.

Moki_Dugway.jpgThis was probably the most bizarre piece of road we’ve ever been on.  It’s called the Moki Dugway. You are quite happily trolling along a flat straight paved road with not a care in the world, and then you suddenly appear to have reached the edge of the world.  There are a few signs warning you that the road goes unpaved for a bit, and there is a bit of a steep descent on the way.  What you can’t see from the top is where the road actually goes.  That is, of course, until you actually get there.  You drive off the paving and around through a bit of a cutting and then you suddenly find yourself uttering a prayer very heavily based around the idea of brakes.  You are driving down the side of a very steep and very high cliff.  The height from top to bottom is measured in thousands of feet, and the road has basically been engineered by driving bulldozers and motor graders continually up and down, backwards and forwards until the cleared patch is wide enough to get two cars passing each other.  You get the distinct impression if you came back the following month, the road would take a different route.  And nestling at the bottom, on what looks like a flat plain, is a narrow strip of black stuff heading off into the distance.  It’s as if there was a really massive earthquake which created a 1100ft shift between north and south cutting through the existing road, and the highways maintenance crews haven’t quite repaired this part yet.

The road at the base actually wasn’t that flat, it’s just flatter than the part over the cliff.  This left us with a relatively short 10 miles or so down to Mexican Hat, the closest settlement to Monument Valley.  It is quite a small town, just one street with a couple of motels, gas stations, stores, and the like, and a couple of smallish housing areas set back off the main road.  All the buildings down the main street have parking which is basically just a packed earth verge at the side of the main highway.  You can drive nearly from one end of town to the other by just staying on this verge.

There are a couple of hotels, but the Moon Guide wasn’t much help, so we plumped for the second one we passed and pulled in.  It proved to be the cheapest place we stayed and also the most basic.  Still, it had a bed, shower and air conditioning, so what more could you want.  We cleaned up and headed out for some dinner.

The place we chose was a steak bar, outdoors and very much at the side of the road.  It was the home of the “Swinging Steak”. The floor was the same packed earth around the outdoor tables and bar.  This proved very shortly to be a limiting factor on their business this night.  Just after we arrived, the second thunderstorm of the night attacked, and we moved quickly from an uncovered table to a couple of stools against the bar.  There were a surprisingly large number of other people there, and also a large dog which was camped underneath our seats to escape from the buckets of rain pounding off the roof.

Swinging Steak.jpgThe menu was limited, but pretty well done.  The basic form was that you choose a type of meat ( mainly steak, but some chicken options just in case ) and a quantity.  This could be accompanied by salad and potatoes/rice in a selection of styles.  Beer appeared magically from a small fridge behind the bar. Salads and potatoes came from a kitchen inside the building. The meat was hacked off a huge lump and prepared by the guy at the barbeque, right there in front of you ( and thankfully underneath the same piece of roof as we were – we wouldn’t want a soggy steak ).  The barbeque was not just you run of the mill steel bars over hot charcoal affair – no indeed.  This consisted of an overlarge fire box, which was necessary to get enough heat into the meat as it swung backwards and forwards on a large metal grille tray attached to a large metal bar by some lengths of steel chain.  “Swinging” indeed. The chef was responsible for all aspects of meat management, from preparation to fire management and oscillation.  The steaks were definitely good and the beers were cold and wet.

This just left the final event of another long day, the walk back down the verge to the motel, getting muddy stains all up our trouser legs as we went.

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Bryce to Capitol Reef

Bryce to Capitol Reef

We were so kippered the previous day that we woke up wide awake after a good night’s sleep. We decided to just grab a quickie breakfast of pastries and coffees from the general store, and then we filled up with juice and headed into the park.

Rubys Inn.jpgYou can’t really get a feel for Bryce Amphitheatre if you stay on the rim, so we decided that one or two of the loop trails below the rim were necessary. We parked up near Sunset Point and headed off down the Navajo Loop Trail. This started with a very steep drop down multiple switchbacks into a very narrow slot called Wall Street. There weren’t any big financiers in pin-striped suits and white shirts down there, but there was a tremendous pinky glow to the rocks caused by the angle of the morning sun. It’s difficult to describe but it was really pretty.

As you wander down between these hoodoos you can’t help but wonder how they formed. The key to it seems to be water, as it is with most things, even here in the desert. Rain doesn’t do much good because the soil/bedrock isn’t very absorbent, and as mentioned before it all tends to come at the same time, so it runs away instead of soaking in. The thing about liquid water as well is that most of it bounces off the vertical sides of the hoodoos and heads straight for the bottom. The erosion from liquid water is therefore mainly in the bottom, and acts to make the little valleys deeper, but not really much wider. Ice, however, is another beast altogether. And for all you Europeans who think deserts are universally hot, think again. Apparently there are about 200 nights a year when Bryce is cold enough for freezing. That explains why the trees that exist are mainly coniferous evergreen varieties which in Europe normally appear in cold or barren places, so that they don’t have to waste half the year producing new leaves.

So little bits of water get into cracks of the hoodoos as the sun warms up the snow and it thaws gradually. When night comes, some of this thawed snow turns to ice in these cracks, and as all good physics teachers will tell you, water expands as it freezes. Hey presto, you have an agent of erosion which flakes little bits off the sides of the hoodoos, which then fall into the bottom to be washed away by snow melt and rain later in the year. Clever stuff, this nature thingie. Eventually, they get so thin that the remaining part is unstable and gets knocked over by something like a strong wind or a small child. And the erosion seems to go pretty quickly here. The book says the plateau edge is receding at 1 foot every 50-60 years. In geological terms, this is only just slower than using explosives and earth moving machines. If it keeps going at this rate, Bryce Canyon National Park will be in California before you know it, and Ruby’s Inn will be a bit out of the way.

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The second walk started from Sunrise point, so we did a short dash along the Rim Trail, stopping off at the car for some more water. The next trail was the Queen’s Garden. The descent and ascent into the amphitheatre from here proved to be less severe than Navajo Trail, and it all seemed a bit more spaced out and open. The trail seemed to meander around in between a number of relatively isolated ( and therefore easy to photograph ) hoodoos. We eventually reached the Queen herself ( good old Queen Victoria ), and they’re right. It does look like a typically stony faced ( ha ha ) statue of the old lady who presided over the time that put the “Great” into Britain. Sadly, the state of her face is reminiscent of the state of our country now – a bit weather worn and still far too busy living off its history.

There are those of us in Britain who appreciate our nation’s tremendous capacity to change and adapt, and celebrate its diversity, but there are far too many others who believe that we shouldn’t just preserve old buildings and statues but we should preserve old values and attitudes as well. Anyway, this isn’t supposed to be a commentary on modern Britain, so back to the Her Majesty Queen Victoria. We arrived at roughly the same time as a father and son combo from somewhere in the southern US, I think. Neither of them knew which queen it was supposed to be, and the boy thought it wasn’t a very good likeness of anyone at all. So that about sums it up. If you really used your imagination it could be Barbara Bush, or Miss Ellie from Dallas, or any one of a million other famous late-middle aged women. Some of these would have resulted in more whimsical names for the hoodoo and it’s trail. I guess Barbara Bush would never win because of the potential naming conflict with the fun-park-come-whatever-it-is place in Tampa.

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By now it was well into lunchtime, and we still had to go back round the Rim Trail for half a mile to get back to the car. Once we got there, we dragged our hearty lunch rations from the back and had an ad-hoc picnic on a bench back on the rim. Nice view !

After the two walks into the amphitheatre the attractions further south in the park proved to be a bit disappointing. You can see a very long way from Yovimpa Point, all the way across to Navajo Mountain, which is over 100 miles, apparently. I think it was visible when we were there, you really could see a long way. Natural Bridge was worth a stop as well, even though there seems some debate over whether it’s a bridge or an arch, or a bit of both.

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And that was that for Bryce Canyon. We only had three days and two nights to get from Bryce Canyon to Grand Canyon, and there’s a lot of southern Utah in between here and there. Judging by the state of the road map, you also have to go a long way north before you can start coming south again, so we’d better get on with it.

The reason why you have to drive a long way north is because there aren’t any proper roads which go through the Grand Straircase Escalante National Monument. I’m perplexed about this place. It is on our map, and in the book, but it isn’t on the NPS website as far as I can tell. It occupies quite a big chunk of Utah, so you’d have thought they’d have noticed it. The road going round it goes up and down and in and out of forests and small towns. The High Schools in all of these towns have constructed a huge letter on a hillside somewhere near town to advertise their sports teams, so it’s fairly easy to place yourself on the map. E – must be Escalante, B – must be Boulder, and so on. The mileage was so great, and our interest so fervent, that we had decided to spend the night in Torrey and have a look at Capitol Reef National Park ( ) for a half day or so.

We found a Holiday Inn right by the main road on the way towards the park. Good enough for us, especially when we got the normal discount to encourage us to stay here instead of going next door. It was getting quite late and the light was going quickly so we had a swift drive down to the Visitor Centre for orientation and free brochures.

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Back home and some dinner. The motel didn’t have a restaurant so we headed out in the RAV4 to see what Torrey had to offer. We weren’t in a very exploratory mood, so we pulled off at the first likely looking place and I don’t think we even actually found the town of Torrey itself, I think we stopped somewhere on the eastern edge. Anyway, it was a large family restaurant, with loads of tables, a typical American menu, and absolutely no other people apart from the waitress ( and presumably there was a chef in the back somewhere ). We weren’t in the mood to argue or explore any further so we settled in to our choice of many tables and ordered something. I think we both ordered lasagne, and on reflection I think the chef was actually a freezer and microwave. At least they had beer.

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Zion to Bryce Canyon

Zion to Bryce Canyon

This day looked like it was going to be fairly strenuous and action packed, so what better way to start off than with a good old substantial breakfast.  Although the motel didn’t have a breakfast room, there was a very convenient family run place just over the parking lot.  We can’t remember the name at all, we remember it being fairly basic but comfortable inside, and there being the usual array of American breakfast fare.  We both consumed an unhealthy quantity of carbohydrate based foods and coffee, and set off for the National Park.

We used the helpful free newspapers as a guide, but essentially decided to do the same as the previous night, i.e. catch a bus up to the top of the valley and work our way gradually down.

So the first stop was the Weeping Rock stop again.  This time, we decided to take the somewhat longer and more strenuous hike up to Hidden Canyon.  It certainly lived up to its name.  You get some fine views over the main canyon as you climb up, and then eventually you loop round a couple of corners, scramble across some fairly loose bits of rock and you are there, in a fairly flat bottomed and very narrow slot canyon halfway up a mountain.  It made for interesting photos, especially as the canyon walls overhang in several places.  As we were entering the canyon we passed a group of four lads coming the other way who turned out to be British, and supporters of Wimbledon Football Club.  There aren’t many Wimbledon supporters at the best of times, and this was one of the worst times in their history as they were planning to move to Milton Keynes ( our home ).  In fact, they have now moved and are also rebranded as the MK Dons.  So it just goes to prove how small the world is, when you can travel several thousand miles and climb a mountain, and there find about 0.1% of the total of all fans of this club.

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After a fairly harrowing descent back into the main canyon, we caught the bus down to the Zion Lodge stop and decided to hike up the various trails to the Emerald Pools.  These are, as the name suggests, three vaguely green tinted pools at various levels up the canyon side.  The path up got progressively steeper as you passed by the lower, middle and then eventually to the upper pool.  As it was now getting towards the middle of the day and the sun had moved round, most of the hike was in direct sun, and we were getting a bit frazzled.  Just as well we had done our normal trick of stuffing every available pocket in the bags with water bottles.  The pools turned out to be a worthwhile hike.  You get a sense of claustrophobia as you are surrounded by steep walls, which definitely seem to be undercut as well.  Presumably in the spring you get wet as waterfalls flow over the rims and into the pools, but in August there isn’t much water flowing.We hiked back down and by this time it was definitely time to eat again.  We plumped for a self-service café at the Zion Lodge and sat outside in the sunshine.  It was a bit windy, so our food and napkins were all trying to escape down the valley while we were eating.

After lunch we continued the bus descent and went for another short stroll up to Court of the Patriarchs Viewpoint.  The light on the Three Patriarchs was much better this time around, so we got some decent photos and then rushed down the path to catch an incoming bus.Our final walk for now was to jump off at the point where the canyon road separates off from the main highway (Utah 9).  From here there is an easy slight downhill walk back to the Visitor Centre, which plods its way down through a much wider area of canyon floor with still impressively steep canyon walls and a good view of the Watchman mountain at the bottom.  It was a good way to round off the visit, just to take a few “grand vista” photos and stretch the aching leg muscles a bit.

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We took one final visit into the Visitor Centre and then jumped back into the trusty vehicle for the drive round to Bryce Canyon.  On the way out of Zion, you pass by Checkerboard Mountain, which is a sort-of cone-shaped mass with buff coloured sides, on which some roughly square cracks have appeared.  You have to use the imagination to see it as a checkerboard, but never mind.  The highway out of the eastern side of the park is pretty and is a good route to take ( not that there’s any other way of getting east from Zion ).

It took less than two hours to get round to Bryce Canyon, and so we did a bit of ad-hoc hotel selection from the Moon Guide and drove into Ruby’s Inn to check out availability.  Ruby’s is the famous hotel at Bryce, and is now owned by the Best Western chain.  To call it a hotel is probably a bit of an understatement.  It is a massive confusion of accommodation blocks, utilities, shops, restaurants, and other bits and bobs.  Once we found the reception area they were more than happy to accept us, at an eminently reasonable price, so the decision was made.  We took the half hour drive round to the block that had our room in it, dumped the bags inside and went of for the now traditional park orientation visit.

Bryce Canyon National Park ( ) is one of the smaller parks we visited, but probably one of the most scenic, and certainly the best for taking jaw dropping photos.  A couple we know have a large poster print of a sunset shot at Bryce, taken from Sunset Point I think, and this was one of our main motivating factors in going there.  We wanted that shot, but taken on our very own cameras.  So after collecting all the free leaflets and papers and having a quick walk around the Visitor Centre we decided to pass away the evening until dusk by taking photos from the rim of the Bryce Amphitheatre.

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Unlike Zion, the shuttle bus at Bryce is optional rather than mandatory, so we stuck with the good old RAV4.  We parked up behind Sunset Point and wandered to the adjacent viewpoint to see what we could find. What we found was a big hole full of very pointy and incredibly vivid coloured pinnacles of rock called hoodoos.  “Do you do hoodoos ?”  At sunset, the best view in the house is from Sunset Point ( hence the name ) and the nearby Inspiration Point.  We went to both.  It is a view that is really quite difficult to take in, and equally difficult to describe.  You don’t get much sense of the scale from the rim of the amphitheatre, what you do get is a confusion of pointy bits, each casting shadows over their neighbours.  You could seriously sit there for hours and just watch the patterns of light moving around with the sun.  It really is one of the most awesome places.  The rocks come out in various shades of terracotta, pink, amber, purple, red and white depending on the minerals in the rock and the angle of attack of the sun.  As most photographers know, you need to move quickly at sunset because your shot doesn’t last for long.  Here, it is especially important not to dither, because if you look away for a few seconds the shadows have all moved round a bit and the view is different.  We wouldn’t claim to be good photographers, and I think if you really wanted to do it justice, you would have to spend 1-2 weeks here just checking out the view at sunset from various angles to get an optimal configuration.  Our little snaps give an impression of the scale, but we weren’t really well prepared enough to take anything you’d call beautiful.

Launderette.jpgThis being more or less halfway round the trip, and with Ruby’s being a well equipped sort of place, we spent the rest of the night sorting out domestic niceties, so it was off to the launderette ( via the shop, to obtain detergent and a pocket full of quarters ).  We had an interesting early evening reading the free newspapers ready for the next day, whilst watching our underwear spin round in circles and explaining to others where we got our detergent and pocket full of quarters from.  We’ve never used a launderette on holiday before, but then we’ve never been on a 22 night holiday before either.  There’s a finite limit to the number of t-shirts and socks you can carry through an airport with you, and so we figured we may as well clean up now, while we had the time and location.  This more or less saw us through the rest of the trip.  In fact, I think I took a couple of clean shirts and some fresh socks home with me.

Dinner was a fairly quick but acceptable meat based affair in the main restaurant, accompanied by the traditional cold, wet beer, and this was followed up by a return to the room to iron all of those freshly laundered t-shirts and shorts.  By the end of it, this had been a long day, and we both crashed into the king size bed and slept like a pair of logs.  We lead such an exciting life sometimes.

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Hoover Dam to Zion

Hoover Dam to Zion

The wedding party in the basement proved not to be that noisy, so we got a decent night of sleep and got up fairly early again and went for breakfast.  There were a few people from the wedding party enjoying a hungover morning repast of coffee spiked with alka-seltzers.

For the morning, we were obviously well placed for going to Hoover Dam, being just a couple of miles away.  The new visitor centre cost more dollars than the original dam, apparently.  That’s inflation for you.  It looks good and blends in as well as it’s possible for copper and smoked glass to blend into rocks.  There’s a few visual displays on the top level, but for the full experience you have to do the tour.  You watch a film about the history of the dam and the sacrifices of the workers who built it, and then you get to go down in an elevator to the bottom, walk along a bit of tunnel, and then peer out over the Nevada powerhouse.  Great for black and white photos, and still impressive looking.  After the tour we walked across the top and took photos of various bits.  We walked to a different timezone in Arizona and took photos back to the visitor centre, and then walked back and peered over the front edge to get a truly vomit inducing view down the front face.  All I can say is, I’m glad I didn’t have to mix all that concrete in my wheelbarrow at home.  By the way, do they clean the front face of the dam to keep it looking such a pristine white-grey colour ?  It looks very spangly and new for a 80 year old lump of concrete.

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Over on the Nevada water inlet towers, a ranger was giving a talk about water management.  He explained how all the spillways worked, and what they deemed to be a sensible water level for Lake Mead, behind the dam.  It looked fairly empty to us, there was a distinct dividing line around the rocks at the edge.  White rocks where it gets wet in the spring, and red where the rock is constantly above water level.  There was quite a lot of white.  Apparently, though, they don’t like it too full, because they don’t want to have to spill water over the sides.  Bit of a waste, that.  So empty is bad, but full is bad as well. It’s amazing to think that most of what you see in the American desert between Denver, Salt Lake City and LA is powered and watered by this dam, and a couple of others further down.  Pretty useful thing, the Colorado River, everyone should have one.  And not only does it bring water and power ( and thus air conditioning ), there’s also a nice lake hosting a variety of watersports ( ).  It also seems a bit funny that a large proportion of that cheap, environment friendly power gets used up in illuminating massive neon signs which entice people into cool darkened rooms where they pile masses of quarters into machines that say “thank you” by means of a few silly flashing lights and bleeping noises.  Did the guys who put all that time and effort into building the dam know that it would go to power the world’s biggest gambling den.  OK, so Californians, Arizonans, Mexicans and others use their share for more earthy, wholesome pursuits, but we all know where they go to spend the profits they make from those wholesome pursuits.  Aren’t humans wonderful things, we turn the desert into a place where old people retire because the weather’s always fit for golf and where the main tourist attraction is a cool dark room full of slot machines.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this, each to his own as it were, I just think it’s a bit bizarre.

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By this time we’d had enough of water retention, as it were, so we looked round the souvenir shop and then jumped back into the trusty RAV4 and headed on towards the next destination.  We’d decided that we still wanted to go around the top of the Grand Canyon and maybe come back to Vegas later on.  We’d still got two whole weeks of holiday left, so we thought we weren’t in a rush.  This meant we headed back to Vegas and then turned right on Interstate 15 heading for Utah.  The plan was to get up to Zion National Park ( ) by evening.

I-15 through Nevada was a bit dull, and the highlight was stopping at Mesquite for fuel and ice creams.  This is the last chance to spend a few more quarters before you get to Utah.  As you approach the border. You first cut across a tiny corner of Arizona, and you start to climb through some big hills.  This is a very dramatic piece of highway engineering which brightens you up after the apparent miles of nothing in Nevada.  You eventually reach Utah and then start descending again.  We ducked off the interstate and turned east towards Springdale.

Our Moon Guide for Utah is a rather old version, printed well before a previous trip of Kev’s in 1994.  I assume it has been revised since then, and I hope the revised version has a better description of Springdale.  Our book described it as a small Mormon settlement on the edge of Zion NP, and that was about as far as it went.  The reality is that Springdale is a reasonable sized town, with any number of motels, shops, restaurants and other amenities.  OK, so most of them are there to cater for tourists, but then that’s the point, isn’t it.  If you’re going to be a small town near a national park, make sure you have plenty of places for visitors to stay and to eat.

We checked into one of the many motels, but can’t actually remember the name.  It was roughly in the middle of the main street, and had all the usual features, such as two storey accommodation blocks, and a small pool.  It also had an internet connection in the lobby, which proved useful.

It was still fairly early when we had finished checking in, so we dumped the bags and headed off for the traditional park orientation visit, to the main Visitor Centre just outside Springdale village.  After collecting all the free newspapers, guides and info available we decided we had time for our first trip up into the Zion Canyon as well, to get our bearings and do a few of the less strenuous stop-offs.  It was getting to be early evening, and the shadows were lengthening in a very artistic way.

Zion National Park ( ) has a very convenient shuttle bus service in the summer.  It’s convenient for two very different reasons.  Firstly, you can’t take private cars up into the valley during the summer months, so unless you like very long walks it’s the only way to go.  Secondly, it’s very convenient because there are lots of stop-offs and the buses run every 5 minutes or so during the middle of the day, so you don’t have to waste much time getting around the place.  We decided the best ploy was to head for the far end, and work our way back down.

Sadly, the final section of road up to the Temple of Sinawava was closed when we were there.  The road was being re-surfaced, so the buses couldn’t get up there, so we got as far as the short hike up to Weeping Rocks for our first stop.  The name gives the game away here.  There is a shortish hike up the side of the eastern valley wall and you come to a curved overhanging section of valley wall, out of which drips water which has presumably rained onto the top and has taken some time to permeate through to this level.  The effect is eerie, because it is fully shaded most of the time, and so the damp and shade contribute to flora which are definitely wet marginals, rather than the much drier tolerant things elsewhere in the valley.  It was getting quite dusky by this time, and there was a fair amount of company for us going on this hike, so it was an ideal hike because it suited close up photography of the plants and rocks, rather than sweeping vistas.

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We then jumped on the next bus going downhill, and jumped off for the very short hike up to the viewing platform for the Three Patriarchs.  A few good shots over three big mountains, but the light was fading fast, and was beginning to get too dark, so we resolved to come back again the following day, and beat a strategic withdrawal to the motel, where we took a refreshing dip in the pool.

We weren’t sure what to expect for dinner, so we went out with an open mind.  I don’t know whether Springdale is still a predominantly Mormon community, but if it is, they have certainly embraced a few changes to encourage people to visit.  There were plenty of restaurants and not many appeared to be dry.  We ended up finding a brew-pub just up the road which had some very nice beers ( mainly cold and wet ) and a small but cosmopolitan and well done menu.  I think we both had pasta.  Following this, we had the need to walk off a few of the calories, so we strolled further up and down the main street for an hour or so, and spent a little time in a gallery which was full of very good photos of local landscapes – I think the photographer was practising techniques for changing the apparent colour balance of his work, and he had managed to get a very fine collection of images of local geology.  If only we were good enough to take photos like that.  I think it may have been here that Kas first got the inspiration to buy Kev a book called Plateau Light as a birthday present.  It contain many similar artistically taken shots of the southern Utah landscape, not just in the National Parks, but in some of the more remote, little known spots.

Before going to bed, we decided to have a think about our plans for the rest of the week.  This was mainly because we wanted to go to Grand Canyon, and previous experience taught that it was best to pre-book some accommodation.  We tried to book accommodation on the North Rim but failed, so we ended up booking somewhere on the South Rim for the following Thursday and Friday evenings.  This gave us three more nights to spend in Utah before needing to be at Grand Canyon.  This essentially set our plans for the rest of the week.  The only problem we encountered was that our Moon Guide for Arizona was also quite old, and the telephone area codes all changed since it was written.  The motel internet connection therefore proved useful because we were able to go on line to find hotels.  In fact, we ended up actually booking the hotel in Grand Canyon from a website, and getting a printed receipt in the motel there and then. And so to bed.  We’d now been in the US for over a week, but still felt that we had plenty of exploration left in us.

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Not Las Vegas

Not Las Vegas

We had once again failed to plan much of the route for this day, except that we had it in our minds that we’d stay in Vegas.  We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay, and hadn’t tried to book anywhere, so it was going to be an adventure.

The books all said the most visited part of Death Valley NP is Scotty’s Castle, up on the north end, so we decided this would be our first stopping off point.  We had pretty much the same breakfast as they previous day, and bought pretty much the same lunch to take with us. We checked out of the motel and gave our home address to the receptionist because the maid had taken one of our towels and added it into the laundry.  Note to oneself – if you take your own towels on holiday, take brightly coloured ones, rather than off-white.  Off-white ones look like hotel towels, so if you leave them lying around, they disappear.  Probably a hotel industry business conspiracy to claw back their losses from all the British people who steal towels as a memento of their fortnight holiday in Benidorm.  Enough said – one towel down and back on the road.

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Scotty’s Castle wasn’t quite open when we arrived.  At least, the gas station wasn’t, and this was the part we needed first.  So we bought the tickets for the next available tour, and then wasted the intervening 50 minutes or so by walking round with our cameras, and visiting the little museum attached to the ticket office.  Quite interesting stuff, difficult to get decent looking photos because of all the unfinished bits.  OK, I know they are original features, but there is something about exposed reinforced concrete that doesn’t look good on a photo.  It spoils the intended effect of the main building.  Just time to fill up with gas from the now open station as well before the main event.

BuckRogers.jpgThe tour of the building was quite exceptional, not because of the grandeur of the building, but because of the way it was done.  There would be a temptation on such a thing to be entirely factual or historical in outlook, and to treat it with a kind of hushed reverence like you were on hallowed ground.  Instead, the guide dropped into character as soon as we passed through the gate.  The character he dropped into was that of a house worker, odd-job man come butler who worked at the house at the time it was originally built.  He painted a picture at a human level, passing on stories about the inhabitants, their habits, snippets of conversation he’d overheard and so on, and it was all done in the present tense.  He was very good also at ignoring the modern world outside, so when he talked about the wonderful new appliances the Johnsons had put in the place, he managed to sound genuinely impressed.  Obviously it was just a guy painting a picture, and much of the story is probably extrapolated from what’s known about the Johnsons and Death Valley Scotty, but it was well done, and it made an interesting trip round what was actually just a moderately sized and unfinished house in the desert.

After Scotty’s Castle we headed back into the valley floor to visit Ubehebe Crater.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to pronounce this, but we plumped for making funny noises like the robot on Buck Rogers.  Ooh-bee-hee-bee, ooh-bee-hee-bee, OK Buck !  Ubehebe is a volcanic explosion crater, caused by molten lava rising up to the surface and hitting some pockets of water.  Lots of heat when applied to water embedded in rock makes for a big bomb.  The result was several big holes.  We parked up in a stop at the foot of the trail walk around Ubehebe, and walked up a steep cinder path to the lip of Ubehebe.  It was very windy, and the overall effect was like trying to run up a massive sand dune to switch off the massive hairdryer at the top.  By the time we got to the top, we were a bit drained, and the single litre of water we had taken with us was running out fast.  We took a few photos of the holes and scurried down the cinders back to the car for more water and air conditioning.

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Lunch was about due, so as Ubehebe was a bit of a moonscape we decided instead to go and sit under the shade of the trees back at Scotty’s Castle.  Very pleasant indeed.

Rhyolite.jpgSomeone, somewhere ( at the Ranger Station, I think ) said we should maybe try the ghost town of Rhyolite, just off Route 95 over the Nevada border.  We decided the way to get there was to drive out of Death Valley on the road at Scotty’s Castle, and then make our way south.  As with all things in this part of the US, it was further than it looked on the map, but we eventually got there, only to be rather disappointed.  I’m not sure what we were expecting from a ghost town, but there was very little there.  There were a few signs stating what the buildings were, but there were no facilities or services at all.  I think our problem was that we were feeling a bit drained by the heat, so we just couldn’t be bothered with walking round a ghost town in the middle of a scorching afternoon.

The better option seemed to be a burn down highway 95 to Las Vegas, and try to find somewhere to spend the night.  This took a little while and we arrived in the middle to late afternoon in need of a drink and rest.  We went downtown, intending to find a reasonably priced hotel, and just spend the one evening in Vegas wandering up the strip and just spending a night in a city rather than the country.  The reality proved a bit different.  We parked up in a big lot behind one of the bigger hotels downtown and then walked around for ages through a number of slot machine arcades trying to find the bit where they allowed you to check into hotel rooms.  We found several that had rooms, but none for less than about $150 a night.  Serves us right for just turning up on a Saturday afternoon without reservations.

Las Vegas.jpgWhat was remarkable, as a none gambler, was the sheer number of people who are prepared to buy a large popcorn bucket full of quarters and feed them into slot machines for hour on end, and the ultra convenience of the casinos with their food malls, bars, and upholstered stools with integral flush mechanism so that you never have to stray away from the real business of emptying those popcorn buckets.  The real big rollers who play other games that cost more than 25 cents a go can get cheap rooms at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon, but not us.  We didn’t want to gamble, we just wanted to spend a night of relative civilization sniggering at other people gambling.

So our experience of Las Vegas came to an end much sooner than we planned, and certainly much sooner than most other people’s experience.  We went to a Starbucks in the arcade shown here to read a couple of books, and sort ourselves out. We settled on a drive down to Boulder City, and a very cool sounding hotel.

Boulder City is a few miles to the south-east of Las Vegas, on the road to Hoover Dam.  The Boulder Dam Hotel was originally built as part of the dam project so that various visitors of high status had a reasonable place to stay.  The building is wonderful.  To me, it seemed as if someone had stolen an old colonial mansion from somewhere in The Carolinas or Georgia.  This was then just dropped into the desert, with an appropriate strip of bright green grass round the outside, and off you go.  This was a bit of a gamble in itself, because the Moon Guide was written when the refurbishment was halfway through, so there was the possibility of being able to have dinner there but then go somewhere else for sleep.  Not a problem in the USA, but we were lucky that the renovation had finished and the rooms were open for business.

BoulderDamHotel.jpgWe went through an interesting discussion with the receptionist in which she eventually persuaded us that we’d get a better deal on the room if we claimed fraudulently to be members of Triple A.  For our money we got a big double room and a warning about the wedding party in the hotel that night.

The restaurant proved excellent.  We went al fresco and sat at a little table out on the patio in front of the lawn, and at one point we got wet ankles when the sprinklers in the flower bed against the wall came on for a while. It was pleasantly cooling.

I remember being slightly disappointed over Las Vegas, but we hadn’t really decided on the rest of the trip, so I think we resolved that once we’d done our planned loop round the Grand Canyon we’d maybe come back to Vegas on the way home. We didn’t think twice about it really, and we never did get round to going back, as we got sidetracked by driving into Southern California instead !

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Death Valley

Death Valley

Nothing prepares you for the heat of Death Valley National Park in August ( ).  You could use a few old clichés to try to paint the picture, but basically, it’s hot.  We’ve been to some warm places in our time such as the Greek Islands and Egypt, but this is hotter by several notches.

DV_51.jpgIt was probably before 8am when we emerged from the room to go and hunt for breakfast, and we hadn’t bothered putting on any suncream, because we normally do this after breakfast.  We just decided to walk over the road and go to the general store for breakfast, because we weren’t hungry enough for a big breakfast, and anyway the motel was likely to cost a few pennies.  It was maybe 150 yards over the road but my head and arms were starting to feel distinctly burnt.

Breakfast comprised a couple of pastries and a 20oz of chilled coke.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a chilled soft drink for breakfast, but somehow a hot steaming coffee didn’t feel right.  We walked back to the motel somewhat quicker than we’d walked over and had breakfast on the porch.  The view was pretty impressive from there.  There was a huge caravan/RV park just over the road, but it was totally empty.  There weren’t many other cars at the motel or on the road, and so we had a clear, unobstructed view of an expanse of desert flats, with the Panamint Range in the background, this time viewed looking North East, and lit by early morning colours.  This was the first time on the trip where I felt like we were in America.  If your European and you go to San Francisco, you could think you were in a European city.  OK, the people speak English, Spanish or Chinese, but the architecture and culture and food could be somewhere in Europe.

The same applies to Yosemite.  There are trees and mountains and lakes and waterfalls, but we’ve been into the Alps a few times, and there is the same kind of scenery.  All of this familiarity goes out of the window when you get to Death Valley.  There is no doubting that this is not Europe.  You don’t get scenery like this in EuropeGreece and Spain have hot, dry-ish areas, but even they have rain in the winter.  Here it is hot, dry, and barren, but you can see mountains with snow on the top.  And you can tell how barren it is, because our pastries were suddenly the centre of attention for a substantial bird population.  Most were quite small and were picking away at the crumbs we’d dropped on the floor.  There was one quite large, black one which looked to me like a raven, but then I’m no ornithologist.  It sat on the stone pillar of a fence around the porch and looked menacingly at us.

Furnace Creek.jpgThe plan for the day was to go for a look at the southern end of the park.  There’s a lot of it, but what the heck.  As ever, we started with the Visitor Centre in Furnace Creek to get the usual collection of free brochures containing information on current conditions, walks, and so on.  Furnace Creek also furnished us with by far the most expensive refuelling stop of the trip.

We decided the plan was to head up towards Dante’s View first, and then come back down into the lower valley in the afternoon.  We hadn’t discussed it, but I think we’d already come to the conclusion that this wasn’t a place for doing long hikes.  Not today, anyway.  Sounds like a plan.

The first stop was Zabriskie Point.  There was a short walk up a hill from the car park to get up to a constructed viewpoint looking down on what can only be described as a strange landscape.  It’s called badlands, I think.  But basically, it goes like this.  You have a bedrock that doesn’t absorb water very well, and conditions where there isn’t much water anyway.  When it does rain, it rains quickly, and in large amounts.  None of this can get soaked up into the ground, even though the surface is absolutely dry, so this means two things.  Firstly, there’s no water in the ground to support plant life, and secondly, the water can’t do anything but run away, taking the top layer of soil/rock with it.  This ends up looking like a large scale map of rivers and valleys, all joining into each other like a tree.  But it’s all in minature, with complete valleys only a hundred or so metres long and maybe 10-20 metres deep.  Because there are no plants, you also get to see the colours in the rocks, and because there are variations in concentrations of minerals in the rock you get lots of colour.  At Zabriskie Point, they are mainly yellows and oranges at the lower levels with a reddy-brown cap around the horizon level.  All of this forms a nice big bowl shape, with a view out over salt pans in the lower valley and the Panamints behind.  This would have been more dramatic with shadows, but you can’t have everything, and it was still pretty darn impressive.

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Next we decided ( well, I think Kev decided, being at the wheel, and Kas didn’t try very hard to stop it ) to go off the paved road and round the Twenty Mule Canyon Road.  We didn’t see that many mules, but there was more badland scenery in similar shades to Zabriskie, and the road was the same colour this time because it had no tarmac on it.  In fact, in places it was only the occasional tyre print that showed you where the road was supposed to be.  The drive was OK, but I wouldn’t like to go a long distance over it.  We had a couple of stops for photos, most of which show no sign of humanity at all.

From here we continued along highway 190 to get to the turnoff for Dante’s View, past a few bits of abandoned industry and eventually to a few switchbacks up to a car park in between two quite high peaks.  From the car park you are aware that there is going to be a view, but you have to get out of the car and walk up to the edge to get the full effect.  It is a pretty good effect ( by now, you can tell I’m running out of superlatives to use, so I apologize if I repeat myself ).

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What you get to see from Dante’s View is this.  There are the Panamint Mountains in the background, with Telescope Peak (11,050ft) at the very top.  Then there’s a huge wall a few miles away, as the mountains give way to the valley.  It’s probably not actually a wall, it’s more likely to be cliffs and debris fans like this side.  In front of the cliffs there’s an expanse of flat land with salt pans.  From this height, it looks like a river and a couple of lakes of milk.  Right beneath you is Badwater, at 287ft below sea level.  Hugging the base of the slope on the near side is a little wavy black line, which turns out to be the road.  Then the cliffs and debris fans lead up to your viewpoint at 5475ft above sea level.  You’re basically a mile or so up above the valley floor and you can see all the way across.  You’ll see our description of Grand Canyon later on, but my personal view is that where Grand Canyon is big, it is also complicated, and that maybe detracts from the beauty because you can’t really take it all in.  From Dante’s View, there is a simplicity to the view.  Here’s some mountains, here’s a deep valley, and here’s some more mountains.  You can see up and down the valley and all the way across, and you can see all of it.  You don’t have to peak around corners or over cliffs, and you’re not searching around for the important bits, they are just all there, all visible.  You don’t feel like you need to walk into it, because it wouldn’t improve the perspective.  Personally, I could have sat there for hours and just stared at it, not really changing my viewpoint, but just absorbing it and admiring. I was also wondering what happened to the Mos Eisley Spaceport, which mysteriously appeared and then disappeared from the valley floor in the 70’s.

However, the rocks were too hot to sit, and it was getting on towards lunchtime.  So we had a good old gawp for an hour or so, and took some big panorama photos.  Kas took the obligatory photos of me taking photos, with a rather good view in the background. From Dante’s View back down into the valley, and then down to Ashford Mill takes a while, but we decided this was the way to go.  Firstly, this meant we had a convenient lunch break before starting again for the afternoon, and secondly it meant that when we came back up the valley we’d be pointing the right way for the Artist’s Drive.  I’m not quite sure what we were expecting at Ashford Mill but there wasn’t a lot.  The main feature to remark upon was the picnic tables in the car park.  Imagine this, it’s about 120 degrees outside, the sun is blazing down and you fancy sitting outside for a spot of lunch.  OK, I can understand why there is no shade, because that would probably mean that the tables were visible from much further afield.  But neither of us could really understand the logic behind them being made of aluminium.  In this heat, they may as well have thrown broken glass and six inch nails on the top and electrified them.  I guess they’re more pleasant in the winter, or maybe we should have taken our big tartan blanket with us to sit on ( all British cars come fitted with an 8ft square tartan woollen blanket, just in case ).  We therefore discovered that the rear door of the RAV4 opens really wide to reveal a carpeted floor at just the right height and just the right width for two bums.  Sorry – two fannies if your American.  You wouldn’t want two bums sitting in the back of your car.  Then we had a bit of a walk around, found a few ruined bits of building and a very arty looking bush in the middle of a stony wasteland, and decided enough was enough.  Time for more air conditioning.

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From here, we pretty much went to all the stop offs on the road back from Ashford Mill to Stovepipe Wells, via Furnace Creek.  First up is Badwater.  There’s a little pool of water that you wouldn’t want to drink unless you want to lose weight quickly, what looks like a road made of salt disappearing into the distance, and a sign announcing where you are, and just how far under the surface you’d be if the sea ever found a way in.  Thankfully, it didn’t while we were there.  Maybe it’s still going round the one-way system in Yosemite.

Next came the Natural Bridge, and Kev’s mini whinge to Kas, because she was getting to do all the driving off tarmac.  There’s a side road that leads up one of the debris fans a little bit, and a dusty car park at the end.  From here you walk up what must occasionally be a riverbed, but not today.  Kas was feeling a bit knackered, so she decided to sit on a rock in the shade while Kev trudged up another 6-700 yards to find the actual bridge.  As its name suggests, it’s a rock bridge over the top of the valley.  There weren’t any cars on the top, so it probably isn’t a road bridge.  Anyway, the air in the canyon was very oppressive and the walls vertical, so the whole experience was a bit claustrophobic.  Do a few photos, swig some more lukewarm water, and back to the car.

Next up was the Devil’s Golf Course.  This is an area of razor sharp pinnacles of salt crystals rising up from the valley floor.  If the Devil really plays golf here I bet he loses a lot of balls.  It’s good for photos though.

Then came Artist’s Drive, which branches to the east side of the paved road for a few miles and gives you a close up view of the various colours in the rocks and volcanic ash of the valley side caused by the different minerals in the rock.  There’s green, purple, orange, red, yellow, brown, white, grey and a few other bits.  Most of the colours are arranged in layers at varying angles, and then with various intrusions of different colours thrown in for good measure.  I’m not sure what school the artist belonged to, but it was probably one of the more abstract, modern ones.

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This took us past Furnace Creek, and then on to Salt Creek interpretative trail.  There were some salty flats, with interesting hexagonal patterns.  It was very good for abstract, close up photos, but there’s not much else to say really.

And finally for this day, probably the least clever part of the whole holiday.  Kas wanted to wander into the sand dunes for photos, and Kev didn’t, due to a headache coming on.  So rather than both go, or both stay, Kas went for a walk and Kev stayed in the car.  This may not seem too bad, especially seeing as Kas had a hat and was carrying water, and at the time neither of us thought about it at all.  A couple of weeks later, there was a news article on the telly about a guy from somewhere in the Midwest who went for a walk into the sand dunes from Stovepipe Wells with his wife one morning.  He was walking faster the her, and got some way ahead.  The woman stopped for a rest and let her husband go on.  He had a hat, long sleeves, sun cream and water. He wasn’t in bad health or unfit, and he was about 40 – two years older than Kev was at the time. After a couple of hours waiting his wife gave up and assumed something was wrong.  She walked the couple of miles or so back to Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station to find help.  It took 24 hours to find him and he died in hospital the day afterwards.  So I guess the moral of that tale is that the best survival aid is to make sure someone else is with you at all times, just in case.  Thankfully Kas made it back to the car, and because neither of us realized the danger at the time, we didn’t get upset about it either.

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By this time we were both a bit the worse for wear, so we decided to go home and chill out.  This involved showers, and for the first time on the trip, a dunk in the motel swimming pool.  It was outdoors, and getting dark again by the time we got there, but it was still uncomfortably warm around the pool.  Cooling in it, but warming out of it.  Most of the people we saw in the motel the previous night seemed to be doing the same thing.  In fact, I think there were eight people there, and apart from the Visitor Centre at Furnace Creek it was the most people we had seen in the same place all day.

After the previous night’s disappointing meal and because we didn’t fancy anything heavy for dinner, we decided to just go to the bar for cold beer and snacks.  Nachos, I think. They were freshly nach-ed, warm and substantial. And the beer was cold and wet. ‘Nuff said.

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Up, Over & Down

Up, Over & Down

Another substantial breakfast, more packed lunch from the general store and hump the bags into the RAV4 and then time to cross the divide and get down onto the other side of the Sierra Nevada. This is a trip which can’t be done in the winter, or at least can’t be done much of the time, because the road over the top gets a bit buried in snow. Thankfully it was August when we were there, so no snow.

It’s always worth one final drive round the Yosemite Valley one-way system, so we decided to do just that on our way out.  This time, we stopped at about four or five pull outs to take some photos of the meadows and surrounding cliffs.  At the bottom end of the valley there are some good shots of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks.  As discussed earlier, weren’t any waterfalls flowing at this end of the valley, but never mind, it’s still pretty beautiful.  It also proved to be a great area for engaging in conversation with others there to enjoy the scenery.  There was a father/son combination over from somewhere in Michigan, I think, and I think it took them longer to get there than it did us.  But, on a lovely sunny, bright, warm morning like this, you could see why someone would drive a few thousand miles.

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As time was pushing on, and we hadn’t quite planned where we were going or what we planned to do for the rest of the day, we decided to complete the valley loop and head of over the Tioga Road to see what the high sierra was like.  The answer proved to be equally beautiful, but a bit less craggy.  There are hills on the top – big by English standards, but just bumps in comparison to the main valley – and there are lakes, streams, trees, and some bears.  We managed to miss all the bears, maybe because we didn’t leave our pic-a-nic baskets in the car.  First stop was brief wander round and photography session at the side of Tenaya Lake.  It was still bright and sunny, but the chill on the breeze reminded us that it’s a long way up.  There were a couple of little beaches at the lakeside and some really arty bits of driftwood around the place, so some fine opportunities to experiment with depth of field on the cameras.

We then moved on to Tuolumne Meadows with the intention of taking the circular walk round Lembert Dome.  When we got there, though, it looked a bit bigger than we thought it might, and we decided that lunch was more urgent.  So we grabbed our Pringles, bread rolls and packed ham and went for a stroll towards a stream from a car park near the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Centre.  We managed to find a tremendous spot alongside a little stream babbling over an area of slick rock, with a couple of little falls.  There were a couple of other people there, but I guess they’ve got a right to enjoy the countryside as well.  We were getting sunburnt, but the breeze was still there to remind you of the altitude.

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Lunch finished and we had decided on our objective for the day.  We’ll drive up to Mammoth Ski Resort for a quick look at the interestingly named Devil’s Postpile National Monument ( ).  So we drove out of Yosemite on the eastern side, with some top views over Mono Lake and the vast expanse of NevadaMammoth is a half hour or south and then back up towards the mountains.  The road up proved interesting, and we ended up at the north end of the town and turned directly uphill towards the ski base station.  Thankfully this is where we needed to be, but the presence of the National Monument up there didn’t seem to be well advertised.  Neither were the parking arrangements.  I think we passed ( and didn’t read ) a sign telling us to park up at the ski base station and catch a bus, but as we missed it, we just followed the road to the top of a hill, until we reached a station where we were told we shouldn’t have bought the car here – busses only.

OK, back down the hill and park up miles from the bus stop, and then stand in line waiting for a bus.  They didn’t seem to be that frequent, because there isn’t much room for turning buses round in the valley behind the ski area, so I think we waited about 30 minutes and got a bit cold. We were both just dressed in shorts & t-shirt. But we eventually got onto a bus and followed it down the valley to the drop off for the Postpile.  This is a wall of crystalline basalt columns in hexagonal shapes, which are gradually falling away with erosion.  For those of you who’ve been to Northern Ireland, the shapes are a bit like the Giant’s Causeway except the side is exposed, rather than the top.  There’s a scree slopes of hexagonal sectioned lumps around the base and a few interesting bits where the heat and pressure forced the columns off the vertical.  It proved to be another top site for testing depth of field, trying to get both rubble and posts in focus at the same time.

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By this time, it was getting a little late, and we had yet to decide where we wanted to spend the night.  So we got back to the ski station and went for an ice cream and some planning.  We decided that there wasn’t much of interest in between here and the next big objective, Death Valley.  We also decided that Death Valley was big, so a) we wanted to stay in it and b) we wanted to get there on this day.  Out came the Moon Guide for Southern California to get some phone numbers, and we bought a phonecard so we could make use of the payphones.  The Furnace Creek Inn was a bit expensive, so we decided on the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel. The booking conversation went something like this:

“Do we need to give you a credit card number to reserve the room ?” said I

“No sir, we’ve got 50 rooms and only 5 bookings. We’re not going to be full tonight.”

“OK, we’ll take the room, and we might be a bit late, because we’re still at Mammoth Mountain”

So we made a quick hike back to the car, drove through central Mammoth Lakes for fuel, and then turned south for the next adventure, and judging by the scale of the map, it was going to be quite late by the time we got there.

Stovepipe_Wells.jpgThe drive down to Lone Pine is a bit dull.  A series of straight stretches of road with small agricultural towns which, by European standards, are a long way from anywhere.  Then you turn east towards Death Valley, and you start to realize why you’re making the effort.  The road in from this side is a bit winding as you enter the park and cross over the Panamint Range into the main valley.  By this time it was getting late, and the headlights were on.  The sun was behind us, so we got low level illumination of the area we were driving into, with our car casting a long shadow in front of us, and eventually no shadow at all.  The colours were very interesting with hues of red, orange and purple.  I don’t know whether this was the rocks, or the light, or both, but whatever it was it was gorgeous.

Stovepipe Wells is a tiny settlement, consisting of only about six buildings, and four of these belong to the only lodgings in town. It was fully dark and were fully hungry, so we decided to check in quickly, get into our room, and then see what the motel had to offer by way of food.  The restaurant seemed to just do an all-you-can-eat buffet, which sounds like a good idea, but it was late in the day and some of the dishes were finished for the night, and others didn’t look that appetizing, so we contented ourselves with a plates of something containing chicken and rice.  It turned out to be quite expensive as well, but then I guess when your nearest competition is 40 miles away and your nearest convenience store isn’t very convenient at all you can get away with more or less anything. At least the beer was cold and wet.

There were a few others in the restaurant room and they all seemed to be Europeans.  It must be off season for the locals.

Another long day, and time for a long snooze.

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