This is a text-only trip report. The pictures are slowly coming online - Grand Canyon - Petrified Forest - Mesa Verde - Arches - Yellowstone (critters) - Yellowstone (geothermal) - Yellowstone (Views)
To see some notes I made planning this trip see this.
Executive Summary: We toured a lot of the national parks between the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and had a great time. As usual this is written partially because some people want all the details, and partially because I know people have found them useful in planning their own trips. Because of this planning aspect I've made an effort to drop in names of good hotels and restaurants if I remembered them. I don't intend to follow up to make sure they're still in business so use some common sense about this.
Background: And on this trip I brought over 30 rolls of film. . . so we decided to see what we could do driving! The basic loop was 3,000 miles but we actually drove about 5,000 including driving around in parks and so forth.
Driving: San Francisco to Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon: We live near San Francisco. We wanted to basically work south to north to avoid crowds and heat in the southern parks. Our first official park was the Grand Canyon, but there are basically two ways people get there - they stay in Las Vegas or LA. We'd been in Las Vegas quite recently and we have family in Pasadena. So we drove down to LA without incident, spent the night with family, and in the morning hit our favorite doughnut place - the Donut Man, formerly Fosters (not associated with the chain) in Glendora. I had a strawberry doughnut for the first time in years. If you know what this is, you're drooling, if not I won't even try to explain it. It's at 915 E Alcosta, which coincidentally is on historic route 66. We would be on and off route 66 for some time which is kind of fun if you like tacky. By the time we arrived at the Grand Canyon we'd done 850 miles in two days but we still had time after checking in to see the canyon before it got dark.
Grand Canyon: We stayed three nights at the Quality Inn just outside of the park gates. It's nothing special but was nice enough and I really liked the outdoor pool. It was very hot and dry in Arizona (a week later they started getting huge wildfires) and it was a nice way to cool off. Normally I'll stay inside the park, but in the case of the Grand Canyon it's popular enough all the cool rooms were taken well in advance, and although the park is large in terms of square miles it's also only about a mile from town to the gate and maybe 7 more to the rim. If we used the "express lane" we could use to get through the gate since we had a national parks pass ($50, good for a year at all national parks) we could be at the rim in 10 minutes.
The Grand Canyon gets a huge number of visitors every year, but many just look over an outlook or two and continue on. That's fine, and worth the detour if you're in the area, but it's also a great place to hike even if you don't want to do the death marches into the canyon heat. One nice option is that you can take a shuttle out to the west, and there's about 8 miles of hiking before you get back to where the cars can go. You can do this in one day if you have lots of water, or you can break it up by picking up the shuttle at various points along the way. It's really very pleasant and for the most part not as crowded as other areas. Additionally there are a lot of places the trail splits and there are a couple of parallel trails so you can pick your way along just on or even a little under the rim, or you can make better time a little further back.
Anyway, we broke things up so we did a combination of the rim trail and hitting the various outlooks you can visit by car on any given day. We saw a couple of outlooks the first night before it got dark, spent two days doing the rim trail and the rest of the outlooks, and then visited some of the local ruins in the area. These are worth seeing if you're in the area but were nothing compared to the ruins we would see later in the trip.
One nice coincidence is that there was a partial eclipse while we were at the Grand Canyon. Most people didn't seem to know about it, which is a little odd because it was a pretty nice eclipse. That far south it was about 80% complete (at home it was more like 60%) and it was just before sunset. This made for a nice combination because there are a bunch of outlooks that are really lovely during sunset plus you got to see the eclipse. I knew about it before we left, so I packed some #14 welders glass but a lot of the people there only found out when they were asking why people were looking at the sun with filters. Some of them got creative and were using their binoculars as a projector (which is safe but hard to aim). If we had a dozen eclipse glasses we could have moved them at a good price, I suspect. I'm really glad we hunted down the welding glass three eclipses ago. It's cheap, lasts longer than the glasses (which scratch) but a lot of welding places will look at you like you're a nut if you ask for #14. Actual welders rarely even use #12, and the only reason why welding places carry #14 is because people ask for it for eclipses occasionally. So a welding place run by a smart owner will have a little stack of #14 in a corner somewhere, but you may have to ask.
To Winslow - Navajo, the Painted Desert, Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano, and Meteor Crater: I barely need to write anything since that heading was so long. Once you leave the park you're in Navajo land. You can tell this primarily because there are roadside stands with people trying to sell you all manner of stuff, and because the gas is cheap since apparently they've managed to get out of paying Federal taxes. Good trick, that. In this area you can see a little of the painted desert, although we would get a better look the next day. If you're not familiar with the painted desert, it's an area where there is a ton of color in the rocks. It's quite beautiful.
We took a slight detour to visit the Wupatki National Monument, which has extremely interesting ruins from the natives that lived there 800 or so years ago. The same road goes through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument which has all kinds of interesting lava beds and cinder cones and so forth. A couple of weeks after we were there, they closed this area due to the surrounding wildfires so we really lucked out in terms of timing.
We went to Meteor Crater. It's on private land, and they recently added an expensive visitor center, so the big admission charge strikes people as odd. I've talked to people who have turned back. I generally don't worry too much about admission charges - there are better ways to save money on trips - and I've always wanted to see it so we saw it. Sure enough, it's a big crater - about a mile across - and there's some interesting exhibits about the history of the crater and the attempts to prove its origin.
We ended up in Winslow simply because it was convenient, but we had some pretty good pizza (with absurdly cute waitresses) and the Econo Lodge had a couple of laundry machines so we got some clean clothes out of the deal. Once nice thing about traveling in the US is that you're much more likely to find laundry machines then the equivalent kind of motel in Europe. It's not a huge deal; there are big laundromats in any city center anywhere as far as I can tell; but sometimes it's nice to just hang out a bit and read in your hotel room and know the laundry is getting clean just downstairs. We've found that even if you just wash things in the sink that after a couple of washings it's nice to get things back from almost clean to all the way clean.
Petrified Forest: I'd heard mixed things about the petrified forest. I think you need something of an appreciation for quiet details to really get the park. We entered through the southern entrance (taking the suggested detour on the 180 to get there) and were rather disturbed to find stores selling petrified wood that had hundreds and hundreds of logs sitting behind the store. They say they're from outside the park, and I'm under the impression that a lot of it comes from Mexico, but I can't believe they can go for very long at this rate before running out of the stuff. The park service estimates that they lose 12 tons a year from the park, and they question you on the way out but it would be trivial to steal a piece. (I later bought a small piece at a very nice rock shop in Moab for $8. It's nice because it's only polished on one side so you can see the color nicely on the polished side but see the wood texture on the other).
The petrified forest has several areas with different things of interest. Coming from the south, there are several areas with petrified wood. The "wood" is very well preserved for the most part, and unlike a lot of petrified wood the rock itself is very attractive with lots of colors. You can pick up a lot of pretty big chunks without leaving the trail - it's just all over the place. Continuing north, you start getting more ruins and other things the natives left behind including some amazing petroglyphs. And then in the northernmost part there are stunning views of the painted desert. The wildlife is also fairly interesting - we saw our first pronghorn antelope. And although we were to see many more in Yellowstone, spotting and photographing two big animals like that in the middle of a desert was a nice moment.
To visit this area you end up going on a lot of short hikes in very hot dry conditions. It's not that big of a deal if you carry water (and I put a "whoops" 2.5 gallon container of water in the back seat in addition to any water we planned on using for the day) but there were a lot of people who didn't carry water and they were having a lot less fun.
Gallup, NM: Gallup probably deserved more time than we gave it, but I didn't realize it was interesting until after I was there. Gallup is primarily interesting because 80% of the native goods traded go through there. They're middlemen for the whole region - if you've just carved 20 items and want to unload them, or if you have stand and need to get stuff to sell you go to Gallup. In addition if you want to pick up really interesting old items you can visit pawn shops since there's a long history of pawn in the area.
Cortez and Four Corners: We drove to Cortez (used as a base to visit Mesa Verde) and visited four corners. Four corners is just a point where four states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) come together and there's a monument. Not a big deal, but also not a big detour and if nothing else it's a fun place to people watch. There are also about a billion people trying to sell you things, and since it's on a reservation they've erected a little toll booth. Cute. At least it was a lot cheaper than meteor crater! I don't have a lot to say about Cortez except we had some pretty good pasta at Lotsa Pasta 332 E. Main. Mostly it's just really close to. . .
Mesa Verde: Mesa Verde is mostly known for having amazing cliff dwellings.
They were built by the people we used to call the Anastasi but are now calling
the "Ancestral Puebloan People" because it's more PC (don't ask but
I do want to say that the park service at Mesa Verde spends more time trying
not to offend anybody than any single other activity). They left ruins dating
from 700 to 1300 AD some of which are very elaborate. The way this is structured
is that the couple largest dwellings you can only visit with a ranger and you
can only do one per day. So I set things up that we would have a shot at getting
into one the first day, we would have a full day, and then if we had to we would
have a shot at another one the next day before leaving and if we didn't need
the time we'd just get started at Arches. As it turns out we were able to visit
Cliff Palace the first day, and Balcony House the next. Of the two the coolest
is Balcony House but you have to be able to fit into a tunnel to get out. They
have a "virtual tunnel" where you buy the tickets so you can try it
out if you're concerned. We didn't get a ticket to Long House, but could have
because we saw the final tour leave and it had maybe five people in it. It's
just as well because we went to Step House instead, and it was one of the highlights
of the trip. They're redoing the trail at the moment, so it's something of a
hike there and back and it's at the end of a long road with nothing there except
Long House (which requires a ticket). You can't see it until you round the last
corner, and then it appears in all its glory. We had it to ourselves except
for one ranger who is there guarding the place. We chatted a bit and she hadn't
seen anybody else for 45 minutes. Luckily she was using it as an opportunity
to think and meditate but she did say that a lot of the rangers get bored out
of their minds.
Moab, UT - Arches National Park - Canyonlands National Park: Moab is a town that seems to exist largely because it's in the middle of a vast area of national parks, BLM land, and more outdoor activities than you could touch in a summer. It has an excellent information center (get breakfast next door at Breakfast at Tiffany's) a vast number of camping gear stores, lots of hotels, and a few things are even open on Sunday. There's also great shakes made from high quality ice cream at the Moab Diner (189 S Main St).
On the way to Moab you should drop by the House in the Rock, not to be confused with the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. Basically a family carved an entire house out of a huge rock (originally to run a diner out of the heat). You'll know it when you see it. It's not something you'll drive by without noticing.
We were primarily interested in Arches, but we did spend an afternoon driving through part of Canyonlands. It's very attractive but also very rugged land and is really three parks in one because you can't get from one part to another without leaving the park and driving hundreds of miles to the next entrance.
Arches is an amazing park. To count as an arch you have to have a hole in stone that forms a kind of natural bridge and the hole has to be at least three feet in some dimension. Sounds simple, but it doesn't really convey the point. You could look at the Utah license plate which has a picture of Delicate Arch, or the 2002 National Parks Pass which also has a picture of Delicate Arch. But neither conveys just how improbable these things look in person. Landscape Arch is 306 feet long and really doesn't look like it can hold itself up. Again, this is a park where you can see some stuff from the road but you're best off if you can do some short hikes. If you're up to a 5 mile hike in the heat I highly recommend going out to Double O Arch and hitting the various side trails to different arches but we drank 5 liters of water between the two of us. I also highly recommend hiking up to Delicate Arch for sunset. It's very pretty, the hike isn't too bad except for one killer stretch in the middle up slickrock, and it's not so hot then. There will also be a ton of people at the top from all different countries which is pretty interesting. Still, I saw people turning back part way, especially families with kids, so it's not trivial. You'll need good shoes and even when it's cooler you can go through the water pretty quick. I had high expectations for Arches and like most of the parks it totally exceeded my expectations.
Salt Lake City: We went through SLC primarily because it's on the way to Yellowstone but it's worth a visit. Temple Square is interesting even if you're not LDS, there's a nice set of signs in the historic district explaining the old buildings, and on the advice of a friend who used to live there we visited Antelope Island which is in the middle of the lake and filled with wildlife. We got to be stuck in the road while a herd of bison passed (larger than any single group we saw in Yellowstone), saw pronghorn antelope, and all manner of birds we'd never seen before as well as old friends like American avocets. There's also a Hooters at 7157 South State Street.
One very nice thing about Salt Lake City is that's where the temperature dropped enough that we stopped drinking water constantly. We could also we away without a hat and sunscreen for more than a few minutes outside. Paradise!
Yellowstone: We spent seven nights in Yellowstone and could have used more time. Yellowstone is big!
The first three nights we spent at the Old Faithful Inn. This is a nice central location, and it's a very cool building, but we were in the old part with shared bathrooms which isn't my first choice. Still, we were lucky to even get that since we booked very late and I would have hated to stay outside the park because it's a serious drive to get anywhere from there. It's also a very crowded area which is a little disturbing once you've spent a few days in calmer areas. This area is in the heart of the geothermal region, and we spent a couple of days exploring the geothermal features and looking for wildlife.
The next two nights we spent in the backcountry. Crevice Lake, 1Y4 in the local coding system. You have to get a permit that lets you spend the night, and you have to watch a videotape on safety (mostly bear related) but it's not that big of a deal. We spent the big $20 on an actual reservation so we had a really nice campsite. We were about 4.5 trail miles from the road, and even though the trails there are fairly popular we saw almost no people. As an example, on the hike back we saw one family, and that was it all day. On that same say we had a herd of antelope right smack on the trail so we saw maybe 10 times as many antelope as humans that day.
The last two nights we spent at Canyon. It's not that popular of an area, but it's actually a pretty convenient area to be in if you've already seen the geothermal stuff on the other side of the park. It gives you access to some excellent wildlife areas (we didn't see any bear until we got here, and but in this area we ended up seeing several) and isn't that far from the lake. Plus, we had our own bathroom which was very exciting after a couple of days in the backcountry.
They say Yellowstone is the best place in the lower 48 to see wildlife and I'm not inclined to argue although it's a polite way of saying it's not as good as Alaska. Still, we saw a moose, bison, elk, trumpeter swans, white pelicans (we have brown pelicans where I live so that's a big deal), both kinds of bear including black bear cubs, pronghorn antelope, marmots including a baby, a nesting bald eagle with juvenile in nest, a nesting osprey, osprey carrying fish in flight, and mountain sheep, as well as things we get at home like mule deer.
The Yellowstone experience involves a lot of seeing cars pulled over, and pulling over yourself to find that somebody saw a bear half an hour ago, and it's gone, but everybody's pulling over because cars are pulled over. As you go to pull out you see somebody else pulling over because they saw your car, and so the cycle continues. Therefore it's critical when you pull over to ask somebody what the deal is instead of trying to figure it out, because you can waste a lot of time otherwise. It's also the case that after you've been there a few days you're just not going to be thrilled by, say, bison unless they're tap dancing or something. But on your first day they're simply amazing, so if you're near an entrance it takes less wildlife to get people to pull over. You have to adjust your willingness to pull over according to where in the park you are and how jaded you've become. The good news is that everybody we ran into was very friendly and we ran into some people who were very familiar with the area and did things like point out osprey nests that we probably wouldn't have spotted on our own.
Speaking of talking to people, there's a social thing that when you're hiking and you run into people you make eye contact and say hello. It's partially because people who hike are friendly and partially because you're trying to show you're not an ax murderer or anything. Or at least not a rude one. It's very odd when you're hiking back out of some area and you hit the area where people are just walking, because you're still thinking you're hiking so you're saying hello and they're looking at you like you're an idiot. Well, the further back you get and the fewer people you see the more likely you are to stop and chat for a bit. As a consequence although we saw very few people in the backcountry, we learned more about them than people we ran into in other places. One guy we met had been working for the park for 13 years in one of the general stores, but had decided not to start that year until the August crowds appeared. He was wandering far behind his son and grandsons because he knew that they'd come back and carry his pack once they got to their destination. As a result he was in no rush! On the way in, we met a Russian couple. The woman really wanted to see bears. The man really didn't want to see bears. After a bit it became obvious that there was a bit of an undercurrent, which is that the woman wanted the man to protect her from the bears and the man wasn't having any of it!
The drive home: We more or less took our time driving the thousand miles home, sleeping in SLC and Reno. It's only 4 hours from Reno to here and Nevada doesn't have a lot of distractions along the way so we probably could have pushed on through in one fewer days but it was over 500 miles as it was and I'm glad we took a bit of a break even though we didn't end up doing much in Reno. It was also interesting going straight from Utah to Nevada. In Utah you have to know what you're doing to buy alcohol. In Nevada prostitution is legal in most counties. Sure enough, just across the Nevada border, just 90 miles from Salt Lake City there exists a town solely to provide sin for Utah. There's a casino about 10 feet from the state line.
All in all it was a great trip. I might have changed a few little things if
I had it to do over, but nothing major. It was really a nice trip!
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