Climbing Up the Walls

Spring Break in the Southwest!

As this part of the country has been gushed over by thousands more eloquent than I, I’ll defer here to pictures, with a just a smattering of commentary. 

I will say that this was our first somewhat extended experience with convoying, which is a bit surprising.  We loved it.  Primarily due to the company of course (Tacco’s sister’s family), but much like eating a great meal or seeing an amazing concert is better when you have people to share the experience with, coordinated RV travel compounds the fun while only marginally increasing the complexity.  I wish we had known this sooner – we may have made a more concerted effort to reach out a bit more.

We departed Southern California over Cajon Pass and through the desert to Valley of Fire state park, just past Las Vegas.  We’d spent an afternoon hiking there the year prior, but this time we were able to snag a double large campsite and spend the night.

First though, a hike (of course).  The cousins were thrilled to see each other again, and immediately charged up a rock, like you do.

Below was my attempt to set up an “our album’s about to drop” pic, but couldn’t manage to pull it off.  I like the first one, but far too smily for an album cover, and the second found Firebolt taking things a few steps over the line and into Spinal Tap territory.

We headed up to Zion next, and found to our surprise that Zion in the Spring bears only a passing resemblance to Zion in the mid-late Fall.  Now, Zion is Zion, and will always been breathtaking.  But we learned how good we had it when we essentially had the park to ourselves, with a clear Virgin River, Fall colors, and no traffic on Angel’s Landing. 

Again though, Zion is a gem – easily one of our best National Parks by any standard, no matter when you’re there.  Other than playing around in the campground (which we had to book outside the park, as the ones inside were full), hiking was again the activity of choice.

We heard about some damage on the Emerald Pools trail which would prevent us from getting to the upper Emerald Pool, but took the hike anyway, figuring we might be able to scramble up over the “damage.” 

Nope, this was MAJOR damage.  Like you’re going to have to build a completely new trail around that rockfall damage.  So we stayed at the lower Pool and enjoyed the views from behind the waterfall.

Angels Landing take 2 was sporty, and not at all a given that we would attempt it.  If you remember from last year’s visit, we hiked up to the spot where the knife edge ridge begins, with the bolted-in chains, and stopped there.  That’s a spectacular hike in itself, and try as I might, I couldn’t talk my way into ignoring all the warnings about this not being a suitable kids’ hike and taking one or several of my own higher up the trail.

This time we discussed the merits of going up again with the entire group, and decided it wasn’t something we could miss.  The question of course was what we would do once he hit the plateau where we had stopped last year. 

The sisters chatted along the way up and stopped to look gorgeous framed against the scenery.

Firebolt stopped to bemoan her fate at the base of “Walter’s Wiggles,” an infamous set of steep switchbacks which leads to the plateau. 

And then we made the plateau.

To my surprise, both Firebolt and ex-acrophobic Keeper expressed a desire to keep climbing, as did their oldest cousin.  A group re-jiggering ensued, we left Woodsprite with her younger cousin and aunt to amuse themselves at the plateau, and we hit the chains.

I tried to capture the absolute craziness of this hike in pictures, and found it utterly impossible.  Thousand foot drops on either side, and this tiny, steep scramble up the sandstone, aided by the chain that they’d bolted into the rock, but thwarted by the mass of people you’re hiking with, going both directions on a very much one lane road.  Quite a bit of waiting on people to traverse especially dicey sections, peppered by nervous chatter and too-loud laughs of false confidence.  At one point we even watched a woman faint and collapse. The people next to her on the trail immediately grabbed her as she fell, preventing her from slumping over the edge and down the cliff, but she did hit her head in the process and begin to bleed. Fortunately there was a nurse on the trail just up from us. I presume she made it down ok.

Keeper proclaimed a relapse of his acrophobia about a third of the way up, and opted to hang out there with Tacco while the other four of us pressed on.

We finally made it to the top, and I can’t tell you how proud of Firebolt I am.  Not once did she freak out or even doubt herself, at least not openly.  And if there’s one thing you can count on with Firebolt, it’s that she’s telling you exactly what she thinks.  Never have I met someone more of an open book, more endearingly sincere than Firebolt.  And now evidently she’s a badass too.

Our next stop was in Page, Arizona.  I had heard about Antelope Canyon, which is a small slot canyon which branches off of Lake Powell near its southwest end, and is viewable via guided tour.  What I hadn’t known was that EVERYONE has now heard about Antelope Canyon.  This is apparently a recent thing.  For good reason though, it’s otherworldly.

As it sits on reservation land, access to it is highly regulated – guided tours only.  We made our reservations and showed up at the canyon with about a thousand of our closest friends and several large buses.  Tour groups organize and make the walk to the canyon entrance every 10 or 15 minutes; there are an awful lot of people in that canyon at any given time.  This sounds highly unpleasant, and when we started the tour, filed onto the stairway with the others, and entered the first tiny segment of canyon with about 50 other people holding their phones in the air to take pictures, it appeared to be trending that way.

Thankfully, however, everything changed as we began our stroll up the canyon floor and the group thinned itself out.  It’s only wide enough to fit two or three people in most places, if that.  Consequently it became easy to feel like you had the canyon to yourself.  And the photo opportunities were legion. 

Every twist revealed another impossibly carved formation.

The guides are experts in phone photography as well.  Not only did they tell us precisely which photo settings to use, they pointed out exactly where to aim and meter each shot and even borrowed our phones to snap a few themselves. 

An image from a story I read about an American landmark famous for being the “most photographed xxx in the country” stuck in my head.  What exactly the landmark was escapes me, but in the story, two of the characters are watching people photograph the landmark and one remarks to the other than no one actually sees the landmark.

I wanted to make sure I saw the canyon.  So I got plenty of photos, but then I stopped snapping.

At the end of the canyon we emerged into the daylight again.  Here’s how it looks from the surface.  Seeing that, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what’s below.

Antelope Canyon went from a off-the-cuff target of opportunity to a potentially disagreeable tour experience, to a highlight of our trip, at least as far as natural beauty.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

I’ve since learned that there are dozens, if not hundreds of similar slot canyons in that area.  Access would be far more difficult, as you’d have to first find one, and then get into it without the help of stairways and ladders.  Then once in, you wouldn’t know what lies ahead, nor would you necessarily know whether there happened to be a thunderstorm far upstream that could flood it at any moment.  But finding one on your own and exploring it now strikes me as a worthwhile adventure goal.

We departed Page in the early afternoon, following our tour, and headed south toward the Grand Canyon.  It’s yet another stunner of a drive across northern Arizona’s high plateau.  I found the knowledge that this almost unfathomably massive canyon which I couldn’t yet see sat just north of me to provide an interesting form of anticipatory excitement.  You enter the park having only seen trees and terrain, and suddenly a few miles in you look through that section of trees to your right and BOOM, they just stop and you get glimpses of a view that just doesn’t seem right in its enormity.  You stop at the first overlook, and just try to process it.  It takes time, and you look around and see others staring, quietly slack-jawed like you are.

The campground is well appointed, with various trails leading to the viewpoints and points of interest.  What I hadn’t quite anticipated was how chilly it would be.  It sits at about 7000’ elevation, and dropped below freezing each night we were there.  There were still patches of snow in spots. 

Keeper and I took a ride on our bikes to the edge.  I could’ve spent a day doing only that.

We returned though, and gathered up the others for a group visit to the edge at sunset.

The following day we opted for another hike, the first one we’ve done (with the exception of Carlsbad Cavern) that started steeply downhill to our destination before climbing back up, rather than the other way around.

Signs warning of the hazards of attempting a hike to the bottom of the canyon unprepared abound.  It makes sense, too – the temperature can increase by 30 or more degrees as you descend, and gravity’s assistance could easily lull you into a false sense of being prepared for the several thousand foot climb back up.  There’s no drinking water around either, and the sun is merciless.  The signs pull no punches, showing crude drawings of people throwing up and passing out on the trail.

We went about a third of the way down, which was more than enough.  After stopping for lunch, we scrambled around on the rocks a bit, and made the climb back to the rim.

Back at the campground we grilled burgers and toasted a wildly successful joint family trip, and said our goodbyes in the morning.  The cousins/aunt/uncle/brother/sister made their way back to Vegas to catch their flight to Chicago and we set off back to southern California’s beaches, with an overnight in lovely Daggett after an aborted attempt to boondock in the middle of the desert.  It’s harder to find a place to pull 50’ of motorhome and car off of the road to sleep than you might think.  It’s harder than I thought it would be at least.  And ok, I admit it, we wanted to have a cellphone signal too, so that limited how far from the highway we could venture in our search.  So Daggett it was.  And yes, I was being a little sarcastic about the “lovely” part, but in truth the RV park in which we stayed was entirely decent. 

And now we return to Camp Pendleton to round out our Southern California time and hopefully decide on a place to live once and for all.  Park City and Bend are close to neck and neck, but Park City has taken the edge due to practicality.  Though Bend holds the top spot when it comes to lifestyle and vibe, professionally both Tacco and I will have a much easier time with work in Park City. And that’s important.  Plus those Epic Passes!…  The problem is, we need to find a house.  Those are in short supply and very expensive in Park City.  Pressing on!