Last year for my last birthday, Charly and I spent a week in California exploring Yosemite National Park. I sadly never made a post about it!
This year for Charly’s birthday we went out west again, but this time to Nevada, Arizona, and Utah to visit National Parks out there. The photos in this post were taken by both of us.
We flew out on the auspiciously numbered Jetblue flight 777 into Las Vegas where we stayed at the Longhorn Casino. Well off the strip and $35/night, it’s exactly what I think of when I think of an off-strip casino – dark, full of mirrors and overlit slot machines, stinking of cigarettes and with more security guards than patrons.
Charly liked it though.
We rented a van from Jucy RVs. Their name could be better, but the concept is great – retrofitted minivans that are now mini-RVs, with a kitchen and mini-fridge in the back and able to sleep 4. Renting the JUCY van meant we didn’t have to bring or buy camping equipment or cooking equipment, and since some of the parks still had nighttime temps around freezing it meant more warmth than a tent.
Our first destination after picking up the van was Zion National Park, in Utah. We crossed through Arizona on the way. Since it was my grandmother’s birthday, we brought her along.
There were some sites along the way, such as the Disney-esque collection of ‘old timey’ buildings this was a part of:
And we arrived in Zion in the afternoon.
After finding our reserved campsite we did our first hike of the trip, Watchman Trail. It’s a short, 3-mile round trip hike with only 300 feet of elevation gain and was a good shakeout hike after being on a plane and in a car for so long.
Our main goal for Zion was to hike Angels Landing. It’s a fairly strenuous and exposed ~5 mile hike up 1500 feet that ends along a narrow ridge. Since we had to leave that afternoon and also because we wanted to beat the crowds, we were on the trail by 7am.
It starts as a pleasant, well-groomed trail meandering along the base of the hills. But soon you hit a number of very switchbacks named Walter’s Wiggles.
The hike after this point is no joke.
Half a dozen people have died falling from this route since 2004.
We heard the hike was difficult and exposed. While the difficulty was highly overrated, the exposure definitely was not. After the cables up Half Dome in Yosemite, this is definitely the second sketchiest hike we’ve ever done.
I have to give Charly a lot of credit for overcoming her nerves and totally rational instinct to want to turn-the-fuck-around on this one. She didn’t (and I didn’t, though I thought about it) and we were treated to some great views at the end.
We also met a 51 year old man who was doing the hike for his 51st time. Show off.
After Angels Landing, we left Zion for Bryce Canyon.
On the way we stopped by THE ROCK STOP in Orderville, UT. We chatted with the owner a bit about how much better he thinks the desert is than out east even though they also get many feet of snow (news to us).
According to The Rock Stop’s website, it started as a dinosaur museum in the 60s or 70s. The building is shaped like a rock.
Before entering Bryce we drove through Red Canyon in Dixie National Forest. This photo doesn’t do it justice though, it was really red. Also tunnels.
Finally we arrived at Bryce.
We only had the afternoon in Bryce and much of the ground was snow-covered, so we asked the ranger to recommend a ~3 hour hike that wasn’t totally snowy.
She suggested the Navajo loop to the Peekaboo loop. It was a great suggestion.
The spires of rock at the park are called hoodoos, and look just like drip sand castles kids make at the beach. The hike was about 5.5 miles of mud, then snow/ice, then mud. But we were comfortable in just long sleeves and managed without any crampons.
After driving the night before from Bryce in Utah down to the city of Page, Arizona, we awoke and joined the first morning tour of Lower Antelope Canyon.
Antelope Canyon (there’s both an upper and a lower) are located on the Navajo Nation and access is controlled by only a few Navajo tour companies. In addition to paying for your ticket you also pay a Navajo Nation access fee.
We had read that Upper Canyon was more easily accessible (it cuts through a hill, so you can walk in, through, and walk right out the other side without any elevation change), but that meant it was also more popular and therefore more expensive and probably more crowded.
Even if it wasn’t cheaper, lower antelope requires some ladder climbing and more uneven walking surfaces so it sounded more fun anyway. So that’s where we went!
Even if the name Antelope Canyon doesn’t sound familiar, the imagery is. Its walls have been featured everywhere, from National Geographic to Microsoft Windows desktops. Learning about the history of the canyon, as well as how it still floods and has to be maintained by the tour companies, was fascinating and made for a really great morning.
From Lower Antelope we drove a short distance to Horseshoe Bend. It’s accessible via a 10 minute walk from the road. The lighting that morning wasn’t very good so you can see better photos than I took online.
Then it was back into Utah to see Monument Valley!
It was okay.
Just kidding, it was pretty awesome.
The picture above is from the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park visitor’s center. While there you can do a 2 hour self-guided tour along a rutted dirt road through the monuments or a hike around one of them. Our rental contract said we couldn’t drive on unpaved roads so we definitely didn’t do that one. Promise.
We ended the day with a 3 hour drive arriving at the Grand Canyon right before sunset. This was the main destination of our trip.
Day four was our big day. The primary goal of our trip, and the biggest source of uncertainty, was a desire to hike from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River and back, a hike of 16.6 miles and over 5,000 feet of elevation gain, in just one day.
I hiked the New Hampshire Presidential Traverse last summer, which is ~19 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation, but we did it during the solstice when the days were long and we had plenty of bailout options along the way.
The hike down South Kaibab trail and back up Bright Angel in the Grand Canyon was a major unknown planning for this trip. First, the trails can be covered in snow and ice in March. Second, the temperature difference between the rim and Phantom Ranch at the river can be as much as 30 degrees, and it was predicted to be 60F+ at the rim when we were there. And third there are no bail-out options along the way.
As one sign we saw read, “Hiking in is optional. Hiking out is mandatory.” However far we made it into the canyon, we would have to come back just as far, and in potentially dangerous heat.
There are signs warning you of this along the way:
We ignored them. Here’s out route:
We got on the South Kaibab trail (red line) at the bottom right of the map. It was about 40F and the trail was mostly ice free. Our route would have us following South Kaibab down to the river, crossing to Phantom Ranch for a rest, and then heading back across the river to River Trail and then up Bright Angel back into Grand Canyon Village.
We started out at 8:10am with a goal of being back before sunset around 6:30.
As we descended it got warmer.
We’d seen signs at the top about mule trains heading into and out of the canyon, and about 45 minutes into the hike saw our first one. We passed almost everyone we saw ahead of us as we were descending.
It’s hard to emphasize how steep the trail is and how deep the canyon is. I was using hiking poles to reduce the impact on my knees so I don’t have many photos, but there were sections that were steep enough but smooth enough (the trail was very well groomed) that it was actually easier to run down them than to walk.
At the bottom are two suspension bridges, one to cross to Phantom Ranch, and one to cross back. The first is entered via a tunnel cut into the rock.
The NPS recommends 4 to 5 hours to hike down the 6.3mi South Kaibab trail. We made it to Phantom Ranch in just 2hrs40min.
Phantom Ranch is a campground and group of cabins deep in the heart of the canyon. Because the only way to get supplies into and out of the canyon is via the trail, almost none of Phantom Ranch’s facilities are open to hikers who aren’t camping with them – and those reservations have to be made a year+ advance. There is free water and some snacks available for purchase though.
Since we made good time we spent about an hour at the bottom. It was now 11:50 and time to cross the next bridge to begin the hike out.
The hike out is 9.3 miles and takes 7-8 hours according to the NPS. Since we had hiked down in 2hr40, I was hoping to be out by 4pm (4hr10min from now). I thought it was ambitious but we wanted to get to the Visitor Center store before it closed!
The hike up was tough. 5,000 feet of sustained uphill is something I’ve never done before and the day was getting hot. We learned it was supposed to hit 81 at Phantom Ranch that day.
South Kaibab trail has no water and almost no shade on the hike down. Combine that with how steep it is, and most people who attempt day-hikes of the Canyon like we did use it only for the hike down. Bright Angel is longer and therefore less steep, and has 3 potential water stations along the way. Because it was winter though, only one station was going to be open on our hike out so we each carried 4 liters (~9lbs) of water from Phantom Ranch.
Fortunately we didn’t need it. The hike was hard but much more manageable than either of us anticipated. With Charly setting the pace, we managed a pretty blistering 3hrs50min on the way up, for a total trip time of 7.5hrs, 6.5hrs hiking time.
We were exhausted but elated.
On our last full day we woke up early to begin the drive back to Las Vegas. But first we had a few stops to make along the way.
The town of Oatman is named after Olive Oatman, a woman whose family was killed when she was 14 by a Native American tribe. She was given facial tattoos to mark her as a slave and kept for years before the army secured her release.
Oatman is a former mining town, known for its kitschy shops and burros that roam the town with zero regard for traffic.
They’ll try to eat your plastic shopping bags if they can but the shop owners prefer you feed them only oats, man! (I’ll show myself out)
The bar in town is covered in dollar bills for some reason:
And every day they put on gunshows in the middle of the main street. They raise money for the Shriners.
After Oatman we took a detour to another old mining town, Chloride.
Besides a large RV park, Chloride is mostly known for its ‘replica’ old west town museum.
I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate.
Sadly we didn’t have much time to spend in Chloride. Our final destination, Hoover Dam, was about to stop giving tours and we wanted to get there before that happened.
Fortunately we arrived just in time to get on the second-to-last Powerplant tour of the day!
One of the most shocking things we learned about the dam, which is an incredible engineering marvel, was how much it cost in today’s dollars. Considering Trump’s wall is projected to cost $20billion+ and Boston’s big dig was $15billion (potentially $24b with interest), I assumed the dam would easily be $2-3 billion in today’s dollars. Especially since it was finished two years ahead of schedule.
Nope. It cost just $700,000,000. Incredible.
Our last full day was also Charly’s birthday. She had never been to Vegas before this trip, so I booked us a room in the Luxor hotel, a giant Egyptian-themed pyramid on the south end of the strip. We spent the night exploring the sights and sounds of the city.
We had a few hours to kill before our flight home this evening, so we returned our rental car and headed to Ronald’s Donuts. Ronald’s is a cash-only throwback to what I remember donut shops being when I’d get them with my dad during elementary school.
We don’t normally buy donuts in Boston, mostly because the vegan ones are $3 or more for a single donut. But we were in Vegas, the land of excess, and after our Grand Canyon hike we deserved it.
We had heard through the vegan grapevine that they offered vegan donuts. The only customers in Ronald’s when we arrived though were retirees drinking their styrofoam cup coffee and eating donuts while reading the paper. It also looked like the place hadn’t been renovated since the 1980s. Definitely not the type of donut shop to have vegan offerings.
I was worried we had come to the wrong place but tentatively asked the man behind the counter if they had any vegan donuts. Almost every donut in the store was vegan.
We ordered six and planned to pay $20+ for the privilege. When he told me the total was $9.54 I almost choked.
Between the two of us we ate 8 donuts that day (we bought two more before leaving).
From Ronald’s we walked to the strip – Vegas is not a walking friendly city – and because the temperature was in the 90s we did our best to stay inside and explor the casinos.
We walked almost 11 miles that day. In the evening we picked up our bags from the Luxor and caught a cab to the airport. We’d booked a red-eye to maximize our time in the city, but the 6am arrival back to Boston and 8″ of snow was challenging. But the real world doesn’t wait, so we caught the subway home, showered, and then headed straight to work!