A bit more Grand Canyon. Essentially, it was a still massive hole in the ground with some water at the bottom, much as it was the previous day.
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. She 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.
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 half an 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.
On the way, we decided to drive through the Wupatki National Monument ( www.nps.gov/wupa/ ), 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 around 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.
The loop road out of Wupatki continues on its way to Flagstaff via the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument ( www.nps.gov/sucr/ ), 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. 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. Well, beered rather than watered. It was cold and wet.
The Grand Canyon. Essentially, it’s a massive hole in the ground with some water at the bottom.
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 National Park ( www.nps.gov/grca/ ) 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 ( www.papillon.com ) 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.
South 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 off rather steep and winding, and the opening section was nicely in shade when we started. 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.
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.
The 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.
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 it 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.
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.
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.
We’d had about enough by that time. Another long day out in the desert. We hadn’t planned a huge amount for the following day but thought we should get some rest in anticipation of it being long and hot again.
Monument Valley, the very epitome of the American western desert. We managed to go on a day when it rained.
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 electrically 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.
This 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 a 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 ( www.monumentvalleyonline.com ) 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.
There 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 leftover from the previous night. These were drifting by to the west of the valley ( over by Goulding’s ) and you could clearly see lightning 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 in the gallery.
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.
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.
We spent the morning in Capitol Reef National Park.
In the afternoon we made our way to Natural Bridges National Monument.
The motel had a room where they did free breakfast for guests – cereals, coffee, pastries and fruit. 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.
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.
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 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 ( www.nps.gov/nabr/ ) 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.
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.
This 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. 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 through a bit of a cutting and then you suddenly find yourself uttering a prayer based very definitely 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 impression that 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 it 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.
The 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.
We spent the day in Bryce Canyon National Park.
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.
You 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 snowmelt 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.
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 its 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.
By now it was well into lunchtime, and we still had to go back around 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.
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. Given that it was designated in 1996 under Bill Clinton’s presidency, I could understand if it wasn’t in the book, which I’m sure I bought in 1994. I can’t understand how it wouldn’t be on the NPS’s website though. It occupies quite a big chunk of Utah, so you’d have thought they’d have noticed it. Apparently it was the first National Monument to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the National Parks Service. I guess that explains it.
Anyway, 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 ( www.nps.gov/care/ ) 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.
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 into 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.