Dan and Hannah in the Mojave Desert at Death Valley National Park, California

 

DV map of NV CAAfter breakfasting at the Comfort Inn in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, we drive west to the California/Nevada border on Route 160 to Pahrump, NV. As I drive, Hannah says she’s not really fond of heading into the Unknown. I think – it’s not the Middle East; it’s not Antarctica; it’s not Mount Everest or K2. Who would have thought we’d ever get to Death Valley in our lifetimes! Clearly not Hannah.

Sierra Nevada from Death Valley, California

Sierra Nevada from Death Valley, California

I was not always so adventurous. When my parents drove us three kids in an old Ford woody station wagon West, I would have just as soon stayed home; playing tennis on the Radburn courts or baseball at Plaza Field back in north Jersey with my friends. But, I have to say, those family trips planted the seeds for my wanderlust.

Badlands of Death Valley

Badlands of Death Valley

Given the chance to spend six weeks with a French family in Algeria in northern Africa as a high school sophomore, I grudgingly agreed to go and spent 42 days being homesick and wasting what could have been a great experience. As a kid, I was a homebody. Finally, realizing that playing it safe as an Ohio college student was leading me nowhere, I rolled the dice and moved to the Wild West and transferred to Arizona State. I didn’t know a soul but had the chance to kick the tires on the unknown and its possibilities.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Once we have gone the 60 miles over the 5400’ Mountain Springs Pass to the desert community of Pahrump, we then take the Bella Vista Road out of town to the forsaken crossroads of Death Valley Junction. From there it’s very desolate Route 190 with little traffic to Furnace Creek, CA, home to the Death Valley National Park.

DV1B Furnace Creek signAt 190 feet below sea level, Furnace Creek is 12 degrees warmer than it will be today in Las Vegas. The average daily high temperature here in July and August is 115F!  Furnace Creek had been the center of mining operations with the historic 20 Mule Teams hauling wagons of borax across the Mojave Desert. By the way, borax is used in household cleaning products.

DV1A  D at DVNP signDeath Valley itself is the lowest, hottest, driest area in North America. Located in the Great Basin, east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Death Valley was named by prospectors during the California Gold Rush in 1849.   Unsure where to hike, we learn from the ranger of the most popular hike in Death Valley is the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch four mile loop hike.

DV3 Golden Canyon signThere are a surprisingly lot of people, both families and the ever present retirees, on this first Tuesday of March. Before we find the trailhead, we chat up the clerk at the Furnace Creek Gift Shop; I ask about the summer here. She says, With temperatures in the 120s, Death Valley in summer is still more popular than it is in March. Death Valley gets less than two inches of rain per year. Phoenix gets seven.

Hannah heading into Golden Canyon

Hannah heading into Golden Canyon

The terrain in Death Valley is badlands, which is an area that has been extensively eroded by wind and water. Three miles from the Visitor Center, Golden Canyon is just down the Badwater Road to the trailhead. The trail accommodates all sorts of hikers. There is a 2.5 mile up and back trail down Golden Canyon to the base of the Red Cathedral Mountain. Through a canyon that was once a paved road, we see chunks of weathered pavement along the river bed.

Fluted walls of Red Cathedral

Fluted headwalls of Red Cathedral

Once a mile in, we rock scramble through a narrow passage way at the base of Red Cathedral with its fluted headwalls. Fluted headwalls?  Grooved walls of sandstone on the mountainside. With little wind and under sunny blue skies, the 70F day is ideal hiking weather.

Golden Golden Mountains

Golden Golden Mountains

Once back at the loop trail, we climb into the golden mountains. The trail is a ribbon along the mountainside where the hiking is never perilous, but we do step carefully. At the top we view the salt flats and beyond is Mount Whitney at 14,567 feet, the highest mountain in the continental United States.

Mountainside trail

Mountainside trail

Marked with pliable four feet high plastic, the trail through the golden mountains is easy to follow in a land with almost no plant life. There is the occasional dried out mini-tumbleweed, but there is literally no vegetation around us. Death Valley seems appropriately named.

Entering Gower Gulch

Entering Gower Gulch

Climbing down the mountain we descend through the Grey Gulch dry river bed. Here, the trail is not well-marked at all; but it seems there is only one way to go – down the river bed. The occasional marker reassures us. We do some modest rock scrambling through the river bottom, but eventually we descend into the foothills for the ¾ of mile walk back to the trailhead.

Rock scrambling in Gower Gulch

Rock scrambling in Gower Gulch

Returning the 2+ hours back to the Vegas Metro area, we see many parallels to our one-time home in the Valley of the Sun in Arizona – the tract (look alike) homes in subdivisions one after another; a valley setting surrounded by mountains; interstate highways to move the transient population; shorts and sunscreen year round.

Comfort Inn, Henderson, Nevada

Comfort Inn, Henderson, Nevada

Our Comfort Inn has a free happy hour with a “Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra” octogenarian at the piano in the breakfast room.  Even so, we opt for our Bud Lights up in our second floor room looking at the snowless mountains surrounding Las Vegas.  For tomorrow in New England, there will be more snow than we’ve seen in 33 years living in Maine.

 

You might wonder what I do to plan our trips to escape the winter in New England.

As far as trips go, In Dan, Hannah Trusts. (in my dreams!)

Deciding where? For us, it is going somewhere in the 48 States, we think warm; we think hiking; we think far from population centers. This trifecta leaves out Florida and the Valley of the Sun in Arizona, but coastal California fits the bill as do the deserts of Nevada and Utah and the mountains of Wyoming and Montana.

Flights? I go to Expedia, which I find easy to negotiate. Orbitz, Travelocity, and CheapOair all have basically the same prices for flights. I check prices over a two week stretch three to four months before our planned departure to get a good sense of what’s a good price for non-stop flights. Nonstop is key for cross country flights. It’s worth the extra buckaroos. Traveling non-stop cross country for six hours from East Coast to West beats layovers that can make the trip eight to fifteen hours. A week and a half ago we got in the air from Boston and landed in Las Vegas on a day when 1500 flights were cancelled because of ice in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

One more thing. Once you have chosen the airline you want, go to their website to make the reservation. The price is the same as Expedia. If you have trouble and need to make adjustments with your flight, the airline will deal with you and not say, You made the reservation through a third party and we can’t help you. Please contact Expedia.

Rental cars. Start with Expedia or any other travel site to see what are the range of prices for the kind of car you want. Stick to national chains. We have been blindsided by local cheapy car rentals with all sorts of conditions presented to us once we reach the counter. As with airlines, go to the website of the car rental agency itself.

The mountains of Zion National Park from our second story deck at the Bumbleberry Inn

The mountains of Zion National Park from our second story deck at the Bumbleberry Inn

Be Flexible. If you are hiking, weather has a big say in when you can hike. Get a motel room for the first night of your hiking vacation so you have a place to stay when you first arrive by plane, but leave yourself open from there so you can adjust for weather conditions. The weather determines where you can hike. With rain in the forecast for Zion this past weekend, we were able to move up our visit by one day and hike both trails we wanted.

Bumbleberry Inn. Stay at the Bumbleberry Inn in Springdale, UT and breakfast at Wildcat Willies when you go to Zion National Park.

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Dan and Hannah Have a Dam Good Time at the Hoover Dam

HD map

If you are looking to do more than gamble when you come to Las Vegas, NV, you have many excellent options.  Hiking in Red Rock Canyon is minutes away from Sin City. On the Colorado River, Valley of Fire State Park is a mere 90 minutes northeast on I-15. Zion National Park is within three hours. And Hoover Dam is less than an hour from the Brittany Spears show at Planet Hollywood.

HD1 Dam itselfOpting for the Hoover Dam over Brittany in the first week of March, we drive southeast through Henderson to Boulder City just five miles from the dam. Snaking down to the Colorado River, we pay $10 to park in the new garage on the Nevada side.

HD1A  welcome to HDBoulder City was initially built in the 1930s to house the workers that built the dam. Once known as Boulder Dam, it was later named for the 31st president of the United States, Herbert Hoover.  Built to control floods, provide irrigation water, and produce hydroelectric power, the dam also had its punsters.

By the way, what did the fish say when it swam into a wall? Dam!

HD3B toward Lake MeadThere’s a choice of two tours – the Turbine tour for $15 or the full Dam Tour for $30. Go big or go home. We are not coming back so we go large. The Dam Tour goes for an hour and also gives the payees access to the Old Exhibit Hall, the Hoover Dam movie, and the Visitor Center.

Within the tunnels of Hoover Dam

Within the tunnels of Hoover Dam

We go through a TSA screening, taking everything out of our pockets, removing our jackets, and walking through the screening booth. Today, they confiscate our apples and granola bars claiming they contribute to a rodent problem.

Arriving at 1015A, we luck out and slip onto the 1030A tour. A week before, our daughter Molly and hubby Tip arrived about the same time and waited two hours. If you must wait, you can watch the 15 minute film, check out the Visitor Center Exhibits, and walk on top of the dam to the Arizona side.

HD2B D in tunnel

A VCU Ram in the dam tunnel

Clustering our group of twenty in front of the elevator, our tour guides asks us, Are you ready for the dam tour? Smiling, she then asks if we have any questions. I ask, Is anyone is buried in the dam? She says, That is the #1 question we get. No one is buried within the dam. Concrete was poured three inches at a time when the dam was built.

She says, The #2 question is – is Jimmy Hoffa buried here? Jimmy Hoffa disappeared 30 years after the dam was built. I then ask, How many people work here? She wouldn’t tell me. It’s classified. I am a chatty son of a gun.

Picture taken from the air vent in the facade of the Hoover Dam

Picture taken from the air vent in the facade of the Hoover Dam

The dam elevator takes us 700 feet down to the turbine room where 17 turbines crank away creating the electricity generated by the dam. Looking out one of the four air vents in the dam, we get the full view of the Colorado River. Water comes from Lake Mead, passes through one of the four huge intake towers, circulates through the ginormous interior pipes, and then passes through the generators. This process creates electricity for a good part of Arizona, southern Nevada, and a mammoth amount for southern California.

The once mighty Colorado River

The once mighty Colorado River

The mountain West is in the midst of its worst 10 to 15 year cycle of drought in the last 80 years since the dam was built. There have been two times when Lake Mead was so full (1941 and 1983) that water was released over the two side spillways to avoid water cascading over the road atop the Hoover Dam.

Atop the dam with Lake Mead in the background

Atop the dam with Lake Mead in the background

Milling around at the top of the dam are families, couples, and three black jacketed bikers. Hell’s Angels love their American history, too. To avoid the weekend crowds, we have come on this Monday. When I ask, are the weekends busier?  She says, In fact, the weekends are not the busiest days; Monday is!  Arriving as we do just before the six weeks of Spring Breaks across the country, we find crowds, without it being crowded here in Black Canyon.

HD4A D on Bridge and 93For all the times Hannah and I would travel to Las Vegas from our one-time home in Tempe, Arizona, we would snake down the two lane road to cross the Hoover Dam and then inch back up the Nevada side. It was a nightmare of traffic jams as people crossed back and forth across the top of the dam from sidewalk to sidewalk. After 9/11, there were concerns about the safety of Hoover Dam. Hence, the Route 93 Bypass was conceived and built.

Chilly early March day high above Hoover Dam

Chilly early March day high above Hoover Dam

In 2010, soaring high above the dam, the new O’Callaghan-Tillman Bridge opened with six lanes of traffic. The architects have made this bridge a mini-tourist destination. From a parking area, we climb steps (there are ramps for wheel chair access) to the wide sidewalk on the bridge itself. Today at least fifty others join us for the view from the bridge. Wrapped in coats on a windy day, we travel across the bridge some 260 feet above the dam itself.

View from the O'Callaghan/Tillman Bridge

View from the O’Callaghan/Tillman Bridge

The story of the bridge’s construction is artfully laid out on metal panels along the bridge walkway. Named for one time Nevada governor Mike O’Callaghan and American hero and fellow Arizona State grad Pat Tillman (Dan – BA in 1970 and Hannah – MA in 1981), the bridge is worth the visit for its views of the dam and lake below.

After, we chill at our Comfort Inn in Henderson, Nevada (a suburb of Las Vegas) where we learn that from Monday through Thursday there is a happy hour with free beer, wine, and popcorn.

Bingo. Today is Monday!

 

Drought’s Extremes Tallied at Record-Low Lake Mead from the New York Times, May 5, 2015.  The article below tells of the effects of the 15 year drought in the Southwest.  Lake Mead is at 38% capacity.  Click on the link below for the full text of the article.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/05/us/droughts-extremes-can-be-measured-at-record-low-lake-mead.html?emc=edit_th_20150505&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=66895847&_r=0

Dan and Hannah Hike the Valley of Fire in Nevada

Pool and Jacuzzi at La Quinta Summerlin

Pool and Jacuzzi at La Quinta Summerlin

La Quinta Red Rock/Summerlin Motel has morning golden biscuits that melt in my mouth and soothe the raging breakfast beast within. Fact is, I highly recommended this motel away from the Las Vegas Strip. Our queen bedded room has a hide-a-bed couch for relaxing and a full kitchen with counter, flatware, and silverware. Two or three times a day we soak in the outside Jacuzzi.

Las Vegas to Valley of Fire State Park

Las Vegas to Valley of Fire State Park

Raring to hike 55 miles to the northeast, we escape Las Vegas by 9A in light traffic through a highway system designed to move the gambling public. With no interest in the terrible odds for winning at slot machines or the smoky atmosphere at the blackjack tables (who else still allows smoking inside a public place!!), we drive north on I-15 heading for the Valley of Fire State Park near Lake Mead.

Approaching Valley of Fire

Approaching Valley of Fire State Park

In these wide open spaces, the 75 mph speed limit acts as a suggestion as we cruise at 80 miles per hour to exit 75. There at the truck stop advertising a casino, liquor, and a smoke shop, we take the shoulderless Valley of Fire Road through the treeless desert landscape of scrub brush and miles of sand.  You would not want to break down here as there are no services and a climate only a lizard would love; and, of course, Mainers escaping the snow and cold of New England.

Indigenous VCU Ram at Valley of Fire

Indigenous VCU Ram at Valley of Fire

Gladly supporting the state of Nevada, we pony up $10 to enter the Valley of Fire State Park, named for the red sandstone throughout the park. Contrasting with the green (and much of the winter white) of New England, the landscape welcomes us to a quiet part of our country.

VF map of park itself

At the visitor center, the volunteer behind the counter suggests that we drive to the end of the six mile scenic road and start our hiking at White Domes. With an average of four inches of rain per year, Valley of Fire has summer highs well north of 100F.

The sandy start to the White Domes Trail

The sandy start to the White Domes Trail

The Mouse Tanks Road (Mouse was an outlaw who used this area as his hideout) climbs among red rock canyons into the high desert. Ahead, we see a Nevada State trooper’s squad car angled across the road. As we slow, he waves us by and we wonder what gives?  A mile down the road another trooper has us slow again; I wind down the window and learn that the Ford Motor Company is filming a commercial with the spectacular red rock background.

Descending the rocky White Domes Trail

Descending the rocky White Domes Trail

This winding narrow two lane road under Arizona skies (brilliant blue without a cloud anywhere) has us spotting other seniors in RVs and SUVs. The White Domes trailhead has room for 20 cars and sheltered picnic tables.

Trails throughout the Valley of Fire are short and sweet, maybe a mile or so. The White Domes Trail has red rock sand that we don’t sink into like we would at a beach. Heading into the wilderness on a well-marked trail, we descend on sandstone steps to ease the steepest points.

The narrows on the White Domes Trail

The narrows on the White Domes Trail

Our son Will would love scrambling the rocks above us to our right and left. This one mile loop trail bears right through “the narrows” sandy bottom canyon wall. Aware that there is the Prospect Trail off this loop, we look for it to get an extra mile or two of hiking to reach our goal of three hours of hiking today.

All the desert we could want

All the desert we could want

We wonder about the protocol for passing other hikers when the trail is wide enough for only one?  Deferential by nature, when in the lead, Hannah always steps aside. The male in me figures there are other guidelines. I step aside for those older than us. I expect dog owners to step aside as they approach, which they usually do. I think those climbing up have the right of way.

VF3A  Prospect trail signIn 30 minutes, we return to the trailhead never having seen the Prospect Trail. Checking out the trailhead map we see that the Prospect heads through a river bed; Hannah suggests we retrace our steps and do the loop in reverse. With no signage directing us, we venture around a large sandstone cliff and spot this sign.

Desert-style bushwacking on the Prospect Trail

Desert-style bushwhacking on the Prospect Trail

Unmarked trails are not Hannah and Dan hiking. We like well-marked trails with company so we can be reasonably assured we are not lost. There is no joy in being uncertain whether we are on the trail or not. That said, we decide to explore further for fifteen minutes, always aware of the way back to the White Domes Loop Trail. The elevation gain is at most a couple of hundred feet and the sand and sandstone are easy on our feet.

VF4 D at Fire WaveReturning to the scenic drive back that will take us back to the visitor center, there are other side trails that we can take. We choose the Fire Wave Trail (1.2 miles roundtrip) through the desert and along the sandstone rock formations. My hiker’s hat blocks the full sun and we never think once of what we are missing in February, the snowiest winter in Maine since the Ice Age.

Fire Wave of Valley of Fire

Fire Wave of Valley of Fire

Hiking midday has its advantages – we have had a leisurely motel breakfast with Sports Center and the USA Today; it’s also warmer. What is not great is the light for picture taking; we miss the morning and late afternoon brilliant sandstone reds.

Among the red rocks of the Mouse Tanks Trail

Among the red rocks of the Mouse Tanks Trail

As we drive back towards the visitor center, we take twenty minutes to see the petroglyphs of the Mouse Tank Trail. Though we haven’t hiked many miles, we are ready for our 90 miles of driving back to I-95 through Nevada and Arizona to St. George, Utah, where will stay free, thanks to credit card points we’ve earned through Choice Privileges.

Adios

Adios

Our Comfort Inn at St. George, UT has us poolside for our evening Dos Equis, a Jacuzzi for a late soak, and ESPN2 for some VCU basketball v. Richmond. All the comforts of home and none of the snow.

 

 

Dan and Hannah Hike in Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas, Nevada

 

RR Map of NevadaI’ve been roughed up of late.  This Maine winter has beaten me down pretty good.

Four weeks ago, Hannah and I took a two week bite out of our January by hiking on the coast of California. Today we begin ten days on parole thanks to the Snow Warden in New England to visit the red rocks of Nevada, the mountain perches of Utah, and the deepest desert in California.

RR route one traffic

Traffic heading to Logan Airport in Boston

Leaving home in York, Maine at 540A for our 855A flight to Vegas from Boston this late February morning, we cruise down I-95 quite blissfully.  Then boom.  We get snarled in the Monday morning commuter traffic of big bad Route One in Danvers and Saugus, Massachusetts.  Crawling along at 15 mph, we finally arrive at Park, Ride, and Fly in Revere where we leave our Hyundai Elantra and get ready to take the shuttle van to Logan Airport.  Unfortunately, delays due to this past weekend’s snow storm mean the shuttle doesn’t arrive for us til after 8A.

RR jet blueWith minutes to spare, we arrive for our Jet Blue flight. Never again will we cut it so closely, as the stress of “will we make it or not” messes with the start of our hiking vacation in the West.  Jet Blue knows how to soothe the beast within the air traveler: an individual TV makes my six hours of non-stop flying, well, fly by.

Once in Vegas, we take two shuttle buses to get to the Fox Rent-a-Car lot; we always rent the cheapest car we can. Today we end up with a Toyota Yaris. It is basic wind-up toy – hand crank windows, no cruise control, side view mirrors that you adjust by hand.  At $226 for ten days, it’s all good.

And by the way, we always tip, be it shuttle drivers or housekeepers at our motels. We are the fortunate ones to share our wealth. Tipping is like praying. Praying changes the one who prays. Tipping changes us for the better.  As Maya Angelou says Giving liberates the soul of the giver.

Welcome to Las Vegas

Welcome to Las Vegas

Can you believe it? It snowed last night in Vegas; on our arrival Monday the temperature never gets above 50 degrees.  Have we brought the curse of the New England winter west?  Let’s pump the brakes.  We are lucky to even be here on a day when 1500 flights are cancelled. It will be -7 degrees tomorrow morning on the coast of Maine.  Fifty degrees is an excellent alternative.

Looking to be as far away from the Vegas Strip as we can, we settle in at the La Quinta Motel in the Summerlin section of the western Las Vegas suburbs. A mere eight miles from our first day hike in Red Rock Canyon, La Quinta has the requisite free breakfast and a Jacuzzi by the pool as a bonus.

RR blackjack tableThough Hannah and I want no part of traditional Las Vegas, I once was a blackjack card counter when we lived in Arizona. I’d take an airline shuttle at 8P from Phoenix, play a minimum of $5 bets through the night, and then be flown home the next morning.  All for $25! Weeks ago, thinking I might recapture some of my blackjack glory, I planned to study the basic strategy for blackjack (this system is online and legit for it gives the player a break-even chance of winning). And yet I couldn’t make myself study and put in the time for the chance to make a little spending cash. The memorizing of the proper blackjack plays was just too much work.

RR 4 map at end of trail CalicoTraveling east to west, we have ourselves a 27 hour day this Monday. By 7P Pacific Time, I can’t stay awake and zonk out.   The bad thing about that is that I awake at 230A the next morning (530A ET). I listen to Hannah breathe as she sleeps and think, Damn I’m lucky to be here just lying in bed, not subfreezing in York.

RR 1A D at RR sign

After yesterday’s high of 49 degrees, 60s with full sun are promised for our hike in Red Rock Canyon.  Heading out Charlestown Avenue, we have our senses blasted by the red rock mountains to the west. Pulling into the lane to pay at the Red Rock Canyon, we learn that the 13 mile one-way Scenic Drive is currently closed due to snow removal.  Really?  The visitor center is open; the Moenkopi Loop and the Calico Hills Trails are ready and waiting for us.

Hannah hiking on the Moenkopi Trail

Hannah hiking on the Moenkopi Trail

The terrain is déjà vu for us one-time Arizona residents. There isn’t a tree within the area. Scrub brush and cacti are our only friends. A lizard checks us out, but on the surface, the landscape has all the earmarks of a barren wasteland.

From yesterday's snow storm

Remnants from yesterday’s snow storm on the Moenkopi Trail

At 3400 feet, the Moenkopi Trail is a 2.5 mile loop that the guidebook says will take 2 hours. Nonsense. It’s, maybe, an hour or so over this mostly level terrain. With the wind whipping, I opt for shorts and Hannah capris.  Sweatshirts are a must as the full sun does balance out the wind and we are rocking along on, as you might imagine one would do on a rocky trail. Much of the time we can walk side by side. Always in sight of the visitor center, we never feel like we could get lost.

Red rocks of the Calico Hills Trail

Red rocks of the Calico Hills Trail

Once at the far end of the Moenkopi Loop we cross over the Scenic Drive to the Calico Hills trail. We meander between the road and the Red Rock cliffs. As a popular hike, we are not alone on what is the beginning of Spring Breaks across the country. The Red Rock cliffs are favorites of rock scramblers and sport climbers.

The Calico Hills Trail

The Calico Hills Trail

The rock scramblers are the ones who are just plain nuts going up vertical cliffs while sport climbers go up and over the boulders set in their way on, say, a dry creek bottom or mountainside. For us the Red Rock Canyon is a great transition from the cold of New England to the warmth of the West.

RR 3D along Calico trailOnce the park’s Scenic Drive opens, there are tourists up the ying yang at both Calico I and Calico II lookout points.  Far below, at times we lose the trail of loose rocks and scramble us some boulders back to the trail. The many loose rocks make for an uneven hike but not a difficult one.

The sport climbers gulch

The sport climbers gulch

First days of our hiking vacation in the West have good energy and all the possibilities lie ahead. The snow?  Forgiven and forgotten.  The Valley of Fire State Park on the Colorado River awaits for Wednesday and Observation Point at Zion National Park on Thursday. We are at home in the Mountain West.

 

Dan and Hannah Hike the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Bright Angel Trail – 1     Danny Boy – 0

BrightAngelTrail-wayne-2004

Bright Angel Trail by Wayne Boardman

That score has been burned into my mind for the last two years.  Not wanting to miss out on our beloved breakfast of biscuits, scrambled eggs, and fresh brewed coffee and reading the USA Today, Hannah and I did not arrive to hike the Bright Angel Trail of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon that day two years ago until 10A.  What were these kids thinking?  Starting a desert hike mid-morning?  Were they smoking something?  No,  but we had taken the bright out of the Bright Angel Trail.

Bright Angel Trail at 3 Mile Rest Stop

Bright Angel Trail at 3 Mile Rest Stop

On that day after two hours of hiking into the canyon we began our ascent from Indian Gardens a little after noon.  Mistakenly I had the idea that if I drank enough water, I’d be fine.  I wasn’t fine.  I wasn’t good.  I wasn’t fair.  I was rotten.  Dizzy and light-headed, I soon learned from a canyon volunteer during our assent that I was suffering from hyponatremia – basically too little salt in my system.  Indeed, I had broken the Second Commandment of the Trail – Eat salty snacks with water, D. B.  With Hannah’s help I wobbled, nay teetered to the top, consumed peanuts and gorp on the rim, and before long was reasonably coherent; clearly the Bright Angel had kicked my butt.  For two years, I  have been looking to settle the score.

The desert landscape of the Bright Angel Trail

The desert landscape of the Bright Angel Trail

Today, driving the 78 miles north from Flagstaff on excellent two lane roads at 540A, we encounter very little traffic and are able to park on the road in front of the Bright Angel Lodge.  Staying at the South Rim takes planning and forethought as the rooms fill up months ahead of time.  Getting reservations for the BAL a year ahead of time is not too early.

View of the Grand Canyon from Bright Angel Lodge

View of the Grand Canyon from Bright Angel Lodge

Ready to hike a good two plus hours earlier than two years ago, we descend the Bright Angel Trail at 7000 feet with water bottles, Salty Cajun Trail Mix, and liberally-applied sunscreen to begin the nine mile round trip to Indian Gardens at 4000 feet.

Bracing our knees with each descending step, we enjoy the clearly marked rocky trail, though in most places only wide enough for one, with its panoramic views without a cloud in the sky.  After having lived in Tempe. Arizona for ten years, we know this is a typical desert day: blue skies and hotter than Charles or any other dickens.  Stepping aside against the canyon wall and carefully avoiding the prickly pear cactus when the mule trains pass, we smile and wonder why everyone climbing out looks so beleaguered.  We have short memories and continue to “good morning” everyone.  Unfortunately our desire to verbally engage goes for naught.  It seems three quarters of all trail hikers today are European, and most of those German, who are not confident enough in their English to engage or just find our upbeat manner a little too annoying.

Mule train from the South Rim to Indian Gardens

Mule train from the South Rim to Indian Gardens Travels Faster Than We Do

Within two hours, we are at Indian Gardens and snacking on peanut butter and crackers as well as gorp under the shade of covered picnic tables with water available at a nearby fountain.   The thermometer in the shade by the mule hitching posts indicates a temperate 78F.  It lies.  Opposite is another thermometer in the sun bragging of its 110F.  It’s 10 AM and there is no shade on the Bright Angel Trail.

Indian Gardens - Dan and Hannah's Turn Around Point

Indian Gardens – Dan and Hannah’s Turn Around Point

Our ascent is hot and shadeless and we are not so chatty.  The Bright Angel Trail is strutting its stuff.  On steeper inclines our breathing gets heavier.  Being the stronger hiker, Hannah sets the pace where my mantra is:  Get to the rim, just get to the rim, Danny Boy.  Nasty smelling mule urine distracts me, but only slightly.   There is water at the three-mile hut and at another hut within a mile and a half of the rim to supplement our trail mix.   Approaching the top I have nothing left to give.  Plodding and surviving accurately capture my condition on those last steps to the rim.

The trail near Indian Gardens

The trail near Indian Gardens

Yet, let’s update the score.

Bright Angel Trail – 2 (Very good and still champion)     Danny Boy – 1 (Bloodied (metaphorically) and bowed but still standing)

As always when hiking, be ye olde or be ye younge, know thyself, thy limits, and the conditions.  Be prepared.

The switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail

The treeless switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail

Dan and Hannah Hike the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Snowing in late May!  Late May?  Really?  Yes, snow falls in late May in northern Arizona.  Two years ago in late May while hiking at the North Rim in long pants and sweatshirts, Hannah and I were under the threat of snow throughout the afternoon.   After hiking, we drove at 25 mph north to Kanab, UT in a blinding snowstorm that New Englanders would be proud to call their own.  But today 60 degrees welcomes us to the North Rim on this Memorial Day.  Before we hike we use our cell phones to call our daughter Robyn (veteran of the War in Afghanistan) and my parents (World War II) to thank them for their service to our country.

The North Rim is out of the way, in a big way.  From central Arizona, we drive five hours north on lonely roads on Route 89 through the Navajo Reservation, over the Colorado River south of Page, AZ, and through the Kaibab Plateau.

National Geographic meadows and Smithsonian forests open up as we now drive south to enter the park.  Slightly dismayed at the fifteen-minute midday wait at the North Rim gate, we wonder what must the traffic be like in mid-summer?  Finally, we proudly flash our Seniors Pass, available to all those 62 and older.  For ten greenbacks we now get into all National Parks without paying another dime.  It’s the deal of a lifetime.

In the early afternoon at the North Rim, we have left behind the heat of the desert and take to the five-mile roundtrip, clearly marked Uncle Jim Trail on the rim of the Canyon.   Through a forest of dappled sunlight the trail meanders gently to a Canyon overlook.  Only a few hikers pass by this loop trail that is easy on the feet, and the mild temperatures have us drinking less water than we did in the desert.   Passing crews working on the trail, we learn that they have a short season to repair trails as they must wait til the snow melts in May to begin trail maintenance.

 

Due to heavy winter snows the North Rim, at an elevation of 9000 feet, doesn’t open till mid-May.

Surprisingly, many areas of the forest are burned.  The ranger says the use of controlled burns minimizes major forest fires, which maintains the high plateau ecosystem.

 

To meet our goal of hiking for at least three hours, we take to the level, easy to negotiate hikes of the Bridle Trail and Transept Trail near the Bright Angel Lodge.

With many views of the canyon, the hikes are leisurely, well marked, and satisfying.  Which brings us to the Fifth Commandment of the Trail – Ask others to take your picture with your phone or camera.  The actual picture is secondary.  It’s the entrée to a conversation with another hiker, to find the connection that we yearn to find.

Since we waited till just a week before our trip to make lodging reservations at the North Rim, we have no park accommodations and must head north to find motels.  There are few motels 45 miles due north in Jacob’s Lake, AZ or 75 miles away in Fredonia, AZ.  Some 80 miles away, Kanab, UT gives us many choices for motels.  Opting for the quite inexpensive, we choose The Red Rock Country Inn at $49/night with a queen bed, a refrigerator, and microwave.

Kanab has wide streets and a lazy feel, something out of American Graffiti (A George Lucas coming of age film set in Modesto, CA in 1962 – A couple of high school grads spend one final night cruising the strip with their buddies before they go off to college.)  We sit by the pool, toast the evening, and watch the cars roll by as the sun sets.  To our right is a patrol car parked by the side of the road to slow down incoming out-of-towners.  Once we examine it more closely, we realize there is a dummy in the front seat.  We smile in admiration.

As always when hiking the North Rim, know thyself, thy limits, and the conditions.  Be prepared.

North Rim Lodge at Bright Angel Point by MScott