Sunday, November 22, 2020

Grand Views of the Grand Canyon


As we were leaving Death Valley National Park, my pilot (and amateur meteorologist) filled me in on the change of plans. The warm front that was heating up Death Valley was also bringing above average temperatures to the highlands of northern Arizona. Instead of heading to Sedona, Doug decided that it would be a 'grand' time to check out one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Grand Canyon ... Here We Come!

While I had visited Grand Canyon National Park many years ago, it was fun to see the amazement in Doug's eyes as we pulled alongside the Pipe Creek Vista. There stretched out as far as our eyes could see ... a 277 mile long, 10 mile wide canyon carved by the teeny, tiny Colorado River that flowed a mile down below us. Time to enjoy the Grand Views of the Grand Canyon!

It was the first week of November, and winter (along with that white stuff that we try to avoid) can make an appearance any time in the Grand Canyon area. In fact, the North Rim was only open for day use, so we headed to the South Rim where nighttime temps were still above freezing and some campgrounds were still open. Surrounded by national forest land, we found that paying for a campsite was not necessary as we stumbled into a ...

Boondocker's Paradise!

Using the app IOverlander.com, we found locations and reviews of some primo campsites along a gravel forest service road just ten minutes from the South Entrance. These sites were well marked with fire rings but not much else. But with a dump and fill station located in the national park and batteries that get re-charged as we drive, we had everything that we needed to explore the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for the next four days.

Let the Hiking, Biking, and 'Grand' Views Begin!

Hiking into the Grand Canyon from South Kaibab Trailhead

A trip to the Grand Canyon is not complete without hiking at least a little ways down towards the canyon floor. Since it is at least a ten mile journey to just get to the bottom of the canyon from the various rim trailheads, hiking 'rim to rim' takes a lot of preparation and training. It is definitely not a day hike for amateurs like us. But we were happy to join the many other visitors and hike a few miles down into the canyon from the South Kaibab trailhead. Along the way we had great views of the layers of colorful rocks that reveal two billion years of 'grand' geological history. We stopped at Ooh Aah Point and Cedar Ridge to admire the views and rest up for the mile and a half hike back up ... which is just a tad bit more difficult than going down. We have a new admiration for friends of ours who have completed the 'rim to rim' hike in much less perfect weather conditions than what we were enjoying. 

Hiking Along the 'Grand' South Rim Trail

Since the Grand Canyon is the second most visited national park in the United States, we were grateful that it wasn't terribly busy on the days we visited. Baby Beest easily secured prime parking spots overlooking the canyon. From there we were able to access the South Rim Trail for gorgeous canyon views as we walked and biked along the edge of the canyon.

Biking With a 'Grand' View Along Hermits Road 

Just west of Grand Canyon Village is the seven mile long Hermits Road that leads past amazing canyon overlooks. The road ends up at Hermits Rest, an early 20th century tourist destination where you can still see the beautiful stone structures designed by famed Grand Canyon architect Mary Colter. Because the road is narrow, twisty, and has limited parking, the sights are only accessible by shuttle bus, by walking, or ... as we happily found out ... by bike. It was great to have the road almost completely to ourselves and be able to easily stop whenever we wanted for magnificent views of the canyon and river below. 

Desert View Drive and the 'Grand' Overlooks Along the Way

East of the Visitor Center along the South Rim begins the scenic twenty-five mile Desert View Drive. Because the last three miles of the road are on the Navajo Nation lands, the iconic Watchtower (also designed by Mary Colter) and the East Entrance were closed. But we were still able to enjoy amazing views of the canyon, river, and the flat high desert to the east where the great carvings of the Grand Canyon began centuries ago. Every viewpoint was worth a stop and offered a new and different perspective of the canyon and river below. At Grandview Point we hiked about a mile down into the canyon. While it was a little more steep than our other trail descent, the spectacular views were our reward. 

Grand Canyon National Park makes the eleventh national park that we have explored since July. While we never intended to visit so many, the lack of crowds (at every park except Glacier) and the abundance of outdoor activities made these great travel-friendly destinations during this not so travel-friendly time. Despite closures of visitor centers, campgrounds and some attractions, the true treasure of our national parks is found in the grand views that are still wide open and ready for all to discover.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Death Valley National Park: Alive with Color

The rising sun lit up the valley and surrounding mountains with hues of brilliant reds and yellows and blues. As we looked out, we couldn't help but be amazed with how the low lying desert floor known as Death Valley suddenly became ...
Alive With Color.

For the record ... Doug, who is usually not a ''morning sunrise'' type of guy, gets credit for suggesting that we get up at o'dark thirty to witness this event at Zabriskie Point. And as spectacular as it was, it was just one of the many sights that made us wonder about this national park's morbid name. Death Valley National Park may be one of the lowest, driest, and hottest places on earth, but during our week long visit, we discovered ...

mountainside homes of bighorn sheep,

salt creek refuges for endangered pupfish,

blooming desert plants peaking through rock openings,

and painted canyons just begging for us to explore. 

These are just a few of the hidden gems that made us realize that Death Valley National Park was truly misnamed. Everywhere you look, the lowest, driest and hottest part of North America is truly ...
Full Of Life!

Our home for the week: Sunset Campground in Furnace Creek

Not wanting to worry about freezing pipes in our van, Doug has become very good at avoiding cold temperatures. So when he saw that a winter storm system was moving into the eastern Sierras, we decided that it was time to find out why our travel friends talk so highly about Death Valley National Park. With projected highs in the 70s and lows about 45, it sounded like a perfect time to visit the desert. Located near the California/Nevada border, Death Valley is the largest national park in the continental United States. With so much land to explore, where does one begin?? 

We usually depend on the ''dumb luck'' method, and once again it worked out well for us.  We saw that Furnace Creek Visitor Center was centrally located in the park and had a number of services available including gas, groceries, restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds. We found plenty of space at Sunset Campground, a ''no reservation needed'' national park campground located near the visitor center. $14 a night gave us a place to park with dump and fill stations nearby, and the strong Death Valley sun supplied us with plenty of solar power. As we studied our park maps, we also discovered that we were close to many hiking trails that could keep Doug's energizer bunny going and going and going ... for a whole week.

Getting Around Death Valley National Park

Once we descended to the sea level floor of Death Valley from about 5000 feet up, the main paved roads were fairly easy to maneuver. But as we soon realized, not all the roads leading to the ''out of the way'' cool stuff are always paved.

Since we couldn't transform our van into a high riding desert jeep,

... Doug carefully drove us over the washboard gravel roads that led to a few of the ''out of the way and so worth the rumbles'' trailheads. These roads were never more than a few miles long, so it worked for us. But if exploring some of the more remote parts of the park appeals to you, then an off-road vehicle is needed. There was a business in Furnace Creek that rented jeeps for the day ... something that we would definitely consider on a future trip. That being said, we did see and do a lot during our week long visit ... so let's ZOOM you through a few of these lively Death Valley destinations.

First off ... the iconic ''everyone needs to see'' Death Valley sights ...

Badwater Basin

This is the ''must see'' for all Death Valley visitors. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. It was an easy walk out onto the salt flats which from a distance looked like a huge patch of snow or a skating rink.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

OK, I admit it ... I thought that the Death Valley desert floor would be covered with miles and miles of sand dunes. Wrong. Mesquite Flat is a relatively small area of sand dunes that is easy to explore, but not as interesting as the other more unique areas that we were about to discover. As we were walking along the dunes, the strong winds from the storm front that we were trying to escape picked up. It was eerie to see the mountains in the distance began to disappear behind the wall of blowing sand.  

Devils Cornfield

Someone had a wild imagination and lots of fun coming up with some of the names of interesting park features. These ''stalks'' of Arrowweed plants act as a wind guard against the blowing sand. As the sand accumulates around the plants, they take on the appearance of corn stalks on Midwestern farm just waiting to be harvested.

Devils Golf Course

We drove a mile down a gravel road just to check out this ''course'' for our golf-loving friend, Dave. Once again ... creative imaginations helped name this area where large salt formations poke up from the valley floor making this putting ''green'' a little more challenging than most.

Artists Drive/Artists Palette

This nine mile loop gave us a closer look at the layers of colorful mountains that adorn Death Valley. The road, though paved, was quite narrow and twisty at times, which is why vehicles over 25 feet were prohibited. There were a number of overlooks along the way that provided us with another scenic lunch spot. Four miles in is the Artists Palette parking area. A short hike took us deeper into the canyon for some even more colorful natural works of art.

Natural Bridge

This is a very popular stop just past Artists Point. The Natural Bridge rock formation was a short walk from the parking area, so there were a lot of people snapping selfies under the arch. But our suggestion ... keep walking into the canyon for more magnificent sights and a lot less people.

Dantes View

Ears were a-popping as we drove from Furnace Creek at sea level up to Dantes View at 5500 feet above sea level. Here we enjoyed the most magnificent view of Death Valley and came to appreciate the extremes that make up this national park.  

For those who want the ''slightly off the beaten path'' kind of visit ...

Mosaic Canyon

The trailhead is two and a half miles slightly uphill on a rough gravel road ... and it was well worth the bumpy ride! The hike into Mosaic Canyon led us alongside smooth marble walls that have been polished by rushing waters and blowing winds throughout the ages. Deeper into the canyon we saw the mosaic rocks that give this canyon its name. Nature's forces have cemented together rocks of different colors and sizes creating unique pieces of art on the canyon walls.

Golden Canyon

This easy-to-reach trailhead leads into the beautiful Golden Canyon and up to the rust-colored rocks that make up Red Cathedral. Side shoots lead into smaller slot canyons that allow the more adventurous to scramble over and climb up huge boulders in order to be rewarded with even better views. At one point, I just told Doug that I would take a picture of him before he disappeared from my sight so that I would have something to aid the search-and-rescue team ;-)

Zabrinskie Point

For those who want an easy-to-reach viewpoint and a great place to enjoy sunrise and sunset over Death Valley, Zabrinskie Point is for you! At the beginning and end of the day, the changing light angles highlight the brilliant colors of the ''Badlands'' of Death Valley. But I am so happy that we didn't settle for just a view. Doug convinced me to grab my hat, hiking stick and plenty of water in order to hike the Zabrinskie Point/Badlands/Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch loop (about 7 miles round trip) not once but twice. Hiking in the opposite direction the second day allowed us to enjoy the colorful scenery from a different perspective.

Desolation Canyon

This canyon lived up to its name as there were very few other hikers around. Could it be that the ''scramble'' up some dry waterfalls or the ascent up a narrow, sandy, hot mountain ridge scared them away? By our fifth day of hiking, I was glad that I was able to venture further out of my comfort zone and follow the ''shadow'' of my favorite hiking companion up to the top. The spectacular view of the valley below was a great reward.

Sidewinder Canyon

During our time in Death Valley, we developed a fondness for exploring the numerous slot canyons in the area. Slot canyons are long, narrow, deep, twisty openings that are formed over time from water rushing through cracks in the huge rocks. Half the fun of exploring a slot canyon is that you never know what beauty lies around the next corner, over the next wall of boulders, or through the next tiny crevice. That was especially true in Sidewinder Canyon. Four slot canyons, each with their own unique ''personality'', lie in wait ... hoping that we would be observant enough to find their secret opening. Luckily, Doug had a trail map to help us, and past hikers created stone sculptures and arrows to point out the not-so-obvious openings. 

Halloween Fun

By the end of our week, the ''cold front'' was replaced with more typical daytime highs in the 90s. On our last day here, we used this solar power to ''de-stripe'' the Baby Beest since the strong sun rays worked much better than a heat gun to soften the glue. Doug discovered the precise angle needed to best remove the adhesive stripes along with most of the glue. Goo-Gone and lots of elbow grease got rid of what residue remained. Since it was Halloween, we joked about finding new decals and dressing Baby Beest up as a Amazon delivery truck. But instead, we sat out, watched the rare Halloween full moon light up the normally dark desert sky, and shared travel stories with another van couple over a glass of wine.

Death Valley ... the lowest, the driest, the hottest.
But also alive with color, full of life, and just waiting to surprise you ... as it did us ...
with all of its hidden beauty!