31 May 2010

5-29 May 2010: National Parks, Southwest US

Like always I decided I wanted to combine travel with exciting activities...which involved hiking around the national parks of southwest USA and camping. I ended up choosing a trip from TrekAmerca ("Best of the West")...a great company and one I used last year when going to Canada.

The weather...
What I hadn't thought too much about was the weather....it was May, spring, and the US...it surely couldn't be that bad???!!! Keep reading to see how wrong I was!! Instead of the trip being called "Best of the West", it should have been called "Best of the Worst Weather". Saying that, the scenery on this trip has been the most beautiful I have seen, the hiking the most rewarding, and the mix of the group one of the best.

The group...
The group size was 13...including Rachel the tour guide, 14. Ten were Brits, 1 Austrian and 1 German/Spanish (and of course me)! The average age would be over 50 but it was a mix that worked really well and the group turned out to be one of the most organised, enthusiastic and timely group I have ever been part of!!! In fact we were always so early that Rachel made a point of leaving on time rather than any earlier!!

The trip...

Yosemite (California)
We rocked into Yosemite National Park in the late afternoon of Day 1 and realised how wet it was (ie very wet). 30mins after putting up our tents we saw a black bear walking along the edge of the camp...about 10m from the furthest tent! Not that it did anything but keep wondering through. We have to bear-proof in this park and Yellowstone (where there are grizzlies). That means putting anything that smells (food, toothpaste, toiletries etc.) into a metal box that the bear can't open.

We didn't do much that night as it was so wet....in fact all of us decided as a group to have dinner at one of the restaurants in the park rather than cook! No one was in disagreement.

The next day started off with sunshine but quite cold. Our plans for the day included a round 7 mile hike to Nevada Falls (via Vernal Falls) which was about a 1,800m elevation. Normally we would do Half Dome, but the cables weren't up and there was snow up there which makes it very dangerous to attempt.

The hike took us up through forest and then along a steep set of steps from Vernal Falls to Nevada Falls. The view from the top of Nevada Falls is stunning as you can see the falls from the top and its entire drop to the valley floor. We descended via the Mist Trail, where we actually walked under Vernal Falls, back to our campsite. By midday it was raining hard and we all headed for warmer climates...ie, the pub! We again decided to eat out as it was freezing and raining hard...and by the time we got back to our campsite it was snowing.....oh joy....

Lake Tahoe (California)
It was freezing last night!!! We packed up (trying to not get frostbite in our fingertips) and headed to Lake Tahoe. A long day driving and when we got there we nearly didn't stay as only one toilet block was open and barely any running water (we were the only crazy ones camping as the snow storm came through last night!). We didn't do much but walk around some of the Lake, cook dinner, warm up around a campfire and go to bed.

Nat Soo Pah (Idaho)
Last night was just as cold as the previous one...brrrrrrr! But at least the sun was shining and there was hot water for a shower....bonus. We then drove 480 miles across Nevada to Idaho (heading towards Yellowstone) to a place called Nat Soo Pah where a thermal pool was waiting. Absolute bliss.

Yellowstone (Wyoming)
From here we then drove 400 miles into Yellowstone National Park via Norris Geyser. We again had to bear-proof and again it was freezing...no change there! In fact we found out it was going down to -7C tonight (at Yellowstone we are now sitting at about 5,000ft). I know for sure that some of us definitely thought about other means of accommodation but no one sucumbed and we all went to bed dressed in everything we had!!!

It was absolutely, undoubtedly freezing last night...there was even ice in the tent! The warmest place in most of the campsites were the bathroom as they all have heaters in them.

The first place we visited was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone...a canyon that holds the High and Low waterfalls. Then off to Mammoth Springs to see more thermic activity (very much like Rotorua, NZ). The best was left for last...the Old Faithful geyser.

In fact I saw the eruption of four geyers including Old Faithful. I even had time to fit in a hot shower at the Old Faithful Inn (there are no showers at Yellowstone campsite). Again we headed back to the campsite for dinner, a campfire and a very cold night in the tent!

Jackon (Wyoming)
The next day we woke up to a stunning day...blue skies and sunshine. We drove out of Yellowstone and into Grand Teton...which is a breathtaking mountain range. We packed a lunch and hiked up to Inspiration Point (7,200ft)....well not so much as hiked, as crunched through ice and snow (sometimes up to our knees)! It was a 6 mile round hike, with a steep 400m ascent up to the Point as you put your foot in the footmarks of others but because the sun was out and it was hot, you sunk much deeper than expected! But it was definitely worth it for the views over Jenny Lake, which due to the snow blizzard, was iced over.

From the Grand Teton we drove on into Jackson which is much warmer as it is lower in altitude. Jackson is a 'ski resort' for most of the year but really quiet now as the fields are closed and the summer trade hadn't yet started. After dinner we went into town to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar where I consumed local beer (very tasty), eyed up the cowboys (no real talent) and played pool (poorly). A nice way to spend the night (rather than huddled around a fire trying to keep warm).

A following morning was spent drinking coffee and doing my laundry. Most of us then white water rafted down Snake River which was about grade 2 and 3. Not very exciting but a lovely way to see the scenery along the river banks. We all got back, changed and then Rachel took us into town. Lots of beautiful artwork (particularly the paintings done on copper and the massive copper statues). I did some shopping with a couple of others and then most of us met for a much needed steak at the same bar as last night. Yummy.

Salt Lake (Utah)
The next pit stop was Salt Lake City...a chance to have a proper bed and a bathroom that is 10secs from the bed rather than a 10min walk!! I tell you, this was truly deserved! 

Salt Lake City was built up by the Mormons, so the first thing I did was go and see the Mormon church (chapel and temple).  I got guided around by 2 young missionaries from Korea and the US (they spend 18 months being missionaries in whatever country they get sent to) - it was actually a very informative tour. They then asked if I wanted a Mormon bible and no was pretty much the answer - they didn't push the point which was nice, or ask for a donation. 

I then bumped into Sue/Barry and we went and had a look at the Mormon's conference centre....very, very nice!  It houses a auditorium that sits 22,000 people - no columns in sight so everyone gets a perfect view.  They even have a 'meadow' on top of the building! Smelt of lots of money and the paintings were stunning...they said they were all donated, but I bet quite a few were bought by their millions (not that I can prove it!). 

Dinner was with the rest of the group and steak and beer were again on the menu.

Moab (Utah)
The next day we headed out to the desert... yippeeee.... warmth and sunshine!  We got there about midday and straight into Arches National Park.  As you might guess there are lots of arches and we did a quick hike of the main ones (we even had a heavy rain shower that only got some of us depending on which arch we were going to see).

After that we headed back to the campsite for pizza, shower and campfire in temperatures that didn't involve shivering!!

The next day was sunny and we headed out to the desert for some mountain biking.  I can't say I was a natural at it and the way the guide was looking at me when I crunched the gears (of the US$5,000 bike), I knew this would never be something I would be good at!!  After all the fun and many bruises that Sue and Gilly got, we then went on a hummer tour.

The hummer drove up and down the rock faces and though we were sometimes driving up a rockface at a very scary angle, we were never truly fareful for our lives. Lots of fun and I would highly recommend it to anyone travelling to Moab. 

The next day we entered Canyonlands...another national park on the opposite side to Arches.  I actually prefer this park to Arches as it is more sprawling and more dramatic.  In fact we had a BBQ at Dead Horse Point Reserve which was absolutely stunning.  The sunset was gorgeous as it highlighted the red in the rocks.

Monument Valley (Utah/Arizona)
Visiting Monument Valley will stay in my memory for a very long time...not because of its beautiful rock formations and amazing history, but because of the wind!  Particularly when it is mixed with red sand.  When we got there we went on a Navajo jeep tour of the area...Billy was funny, informative and he plays he flute beautifully...but it was very windy and sand was going everywhere.  One of the highlights was having dinner in a very secluded, wind-free area - we had Indian tacos and they were very tasty, and huge....though I think most of the boys finished them.

After this we headed back to a viewing ledge over the valley and started putting up tents or started setting up our sleeping area if we were going tentless.  Only 4 of us decided to go tentless....though we really should have been clever enough to realise the wind was not going to go away..... 

The wind must have been gusting up to 80km an hour during the night, constantly, unrelenting, with red sand in the mix....arrghhhhh.....by 11pm I had had enough and begged for a space in one of the tents...though honestly it really wasn't that much better!  The noise of the tent, the sand getting in through the mesh....we only got about 2hrs sleep that night and everything was covered, if not dyed red, by the sand. We were laughing about this the next morning and thankfully Rachel saw we were near-to-hysteria and got us into the Monument Hotel for breakfast and a clean-up (wet-wipes are the best invention ever). 

Grand Canyon (Arizona)
Our next stop was the very grand Grand Canyon.  Lots of people milling around, walking around the rim, taking photos...too many people if you ask me!  Anyway we spent the afternoon walking around ourselves, going to ranger talks and generally mooching about.  We all went and watched the sunset which was gorgeous and then had dinner (which was very quick as everyone was tired after only 2hrs sleep last night).

After a good night's sleep I was off to walk down to Skeleton Point which was basically 3 miles down the side of the canyon (via the South Kaibab trail) and 3 miles back (2,100ft descent, and then 2,100ft ascent). Thankfully I started early and was back at the campsite around midday which meant I could finally do my laundry, relax, chill out and try to find a condor (which I didn't see).

That night it was freezing!  Snow was forecast and snow is what we got by the morning.  So again we wimped out and went into town for an IMAX show (Grand Canyon one), and dinner (I love the concept of majority rules).

Zion (Utah)
The next day we headed to our final national park – Zion National Park...one of my favourites.  I love the expanse of it, the rock formations and the general feel of the park.  The Narrows was one hike I wanted to do but due to 'unnatural weather for this time of year', the water was too high and the hike up the river bed was closed.  Instead we all did Angels Landing. Wow....you do not want to do this if you hate heights as you climb 1,500ft and the last 500ft or so is along a ridge.  So if you fall you fall to the valley floor 1,000ft below (3 people actually died doing this hike the month before). 

After this hike we then did the Emerald Pools (nothing very exciting) and then I went and saw the museum and went back to the campground for a much needed shower and put-up-feet time.

Very sad that night as it was our last...but we voted to eat out at a local restaurant so at least we didn't have to cook!

The next day was clean-up, eat all the food, drive to Las Vegas and say goodbye to everyone.... :( 

All in all it was the hardest trip I have ever done....but the hiking, the scenary, and my fellow travellers all made it worth every minute of discomfort!

Here are some further photos....