Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Southwest Loop

This summer, in late June/early July, I took five days and did a 1600 mile solo roadtrip through four of the southwest United States. I started in central New Mexico and drove north, passing through the corner of Colorado and into Utah, eventually looping downward through Arizona and finally back into New Mexico. Along the way, I hit four national parks, did 20+ miles of hiking in temperatures above 80 degrees, and went through a LOT of water. In efforts to do this on a budget, I rented a Kia Rio which got 40+ MPG (offset by "underage" rental fees), stayed mostly in Airbnbs, and ate peanut butter sandwiches or canned ravioli for most meals. It was a blast.

Zion National Park
Arizona line
The first day was a lot of driving (roughly nine hours). I began my trip heading north and made several stops along the way. The first was at the Aztec Ruins in northwest New Mexico, where I spent an hour or so wandering around the reconstructed dwellings.

I also stopped at the Four Corners monument that lies at the epicenter of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of all the places I visited, this is the one that felt most like a tourist trap. Pay $5 to stand in line for half an hour and have your picture taken at the same place hundreds of others people are going to that day. 3/10, would not recommend.

Look at me, I'm a tourist!
The bend
My last major stop of the day (and probably favorite roadside stop of the whole trip) was in Page, Arizona to see Horseshoe Bend. I had seen pictures of this canyon before, and it looked amazing, so I really wanted to see it for myself. A huge sign in the parking lot flashed dire warnings for anyone who would attempt the hike without water, so I was expecting a bit of a trek to get there. Turns out it was less than 3/4 a mile over a couple of ridges. This overlook was not nearly as developed as many of the other ones I encountered during the rest of my trip (with concrete, guardrails, etc.), and there were a few people who seemed very set on testing fate near the edge.

The edge
My lodging that night was a hostel in Kanab, Utah. Little sketchy, but it was a bed close to Zion National Park, which I hoped to visit the following day. By the time I arrived in the park the next morning, the parking lots had already started filling up. I parked alongside the road in the town just outside the gates of the park and entered on foot with other latecomers

Quick side note on the "America the Beautiful" Pass. If you plan on visiting three or more of the big national parks within a year, this is definitely the way to go. For $80, you and anyone else in your vehicle (or you + three others when per-person fees are charged) are allowed admittance at any of the national parks (as well as other sites managed by the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management, among others) for a year. Considering admittance to Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon was $30 each, this pass paid for itself just within a couple of days.

Zion canyon
Having arrived late, I made the decision while riding the bus into the heart of the park to spend the full day there, rather than splitting it with Bryce Canyon, as I had originally intended. I'm very glad that I did! Zion ended up being the highlight of my entire trip. I did two hikes and there were many more I would have liked to have done. I could easily have spent several whole days there.

My first challenge was the Angel's Landing hike. My friend Dietrich had recommended it to me as a tough hike, but very rewarding when you got to the top. At about five miles round trip and ~1,500 ft of elevation gain, it is known to be one of the more strenuous hikes in the park. It is also one of the most dangerous, with the last half a mile or so lined with chains that you hold onto to keep from falling off either side of the mountain (see picture below for perspective). The park service is aware of "about five people" who have died accidentally on this trail.

Angel's Landing (note hikers for scale)

Ledge sitting
With that in mind, I filled my Camelbak, put on some sunscreen, and headed out. It was hot, and the elevation, terrain, and technicality made it probably the hardest hike I've done. I was thankful for every bit of shade along the way, and my (sarcastic) mantra became, "Yay, switchbacks. I love switchbacks." I actually made it all the way through my two liters of water by about mile four, on the way back down. The view from the top, though, was incredible.
Little sweaty

I'm a big fan of shade
My second hike of the day was The Narrows - a slot canyon with a river flowing through it. You can hike up the canyon wading in the river (which can get waist deep and beyond at times) for quite a few miles. I ended up going two or three miles upstream, just to get away from the hordes of people, but I met a couple of guys coming back who had gone six or so miles.
My turn around point

Smoke on the horizon
That night I stayed in Panguitch, Utah, which I didn't realize happened to be on the edge of the large Brian Head Canyon fire that was burning that weekend. I first noticed something was up when I started smelling smoke, and then saw the fire on the ridge as I rolled into town. The second picture below is a view from behind the motel I was staying in that night, which was just across the road from the "incident command base." I asked a couple of people if there was any concern, and their response was overwhelmingly casual, saying things like, "Oh, it's 65% contained."
This is fine
I went to church at the local cowboy chapel the next morning (the weekend before the 4th of July, ironically), which looked to be the only non-Mormon church in town. They wanted me to stay to eat soup with them, but I wanted to get going to my next destination... Bryce Canyon National Park.

Wall of windows
On my way into the park I unknowingly boarded "The Happy Bus" with a very enthusiastic bus driver who had obviously been doing this for quite a few years. The nice people of Blacksburg Transit have given me an overall positive view of bus operators, and this gentleman was no exception. He knew the capacity of his bus and wanted to make sure it was full of (happy) people!

A beautiful day for a hike
I devised a hiking route based on some advice from my friend Adam, whose family had visited the park earlier in the summer. It consisted of a 6 and 1/2 mile loop connecting the Queen's, Peekaboo, and Navajo trails. This was the first time I had done an "inversion hike." In Virginia, we hike up mountains. Then, when we're tired, we hike back down. Canyon hiking, however, is just the opposite. There's definitely a psychological difference in having to climb back up to the the rim at the end of your hike.
Selfies with tall things
While Bryce did have some cool rock formations, it wasn't nearly as varied as Zion, and I think I enjoyed the hikes there more. However, Bryce did have the advantage of being much less crowded than Zion on the day that I went. I hiked several miles on the floor of the canyon without seeing a single person, which was great.

North Kaibab Trail overlook
The next day I had a long drive to Sedona, Arizona (by way of Flagstaff) with a stop at The Grand Canyon thrown in for good measure. I actually planned on stopping at both the North and the South Rims of the canyon. Since hiking to the bottom or rim-to-rim is usually a multi-day, permitted affair, I was OK with my time there being limited, since I wasn't planning on doing any significant hiking. I stopped at the North Rim first, which, although not as spectacular as the South Rim (the primary tourist destination) may have been prettier in my opinion, with the vegetation. I hiked out to Bright Angel Point and then part of the way down the North Kaibab Trail.

Bright Angel Point

Bright Angel detail
After that, I drove around to the South Rim and hit a series of overlooks, gradually making my way to the main overlook near the visitor's center. I spent less time here than I would have liked, but I was under a little bit of a time limit because I had to check into my Airbnb by 8:00 PM.
The South Rim
Airbnb view
In Sedona I stayed with a nice older couple in a golf community. They had converted the private master bedroom suite to host guests, and I had a view of the red rocks out my bedroom window. They also cooked me breakfast the next morning, and I enjoyed talking with them before starting my final long day of driving.

As I drove through eastern Arizona back into New Mexico I stopped at the Painted Desert/Petrified Forest National Park. One of my coworkers had brought his family out earlier in the year and had loaned me the CD audio tour they had purchased for the park. I listened to this while driving a large loop through the park, which took an hour or two. It was interesting, but definitely falls to fourth on the list of National Parks I visited.

Lookit! Pretty rock
That night, I dropped off the rental car and got an Uber to my Airbnb for the night. I found this place while looking for a cheap place to stay near the airport. My flight left at 6:00 AM the next morning, so I knew I wouldn't be there for long, but, considering I had to go to work the day after I got back, I wanted to try to get some semblance of a night's rest (instead of just camping in the airport). With those criteria in mind, this room in someone's apartment popped up for $28 with no really terrible reviews. I thought, "I'm young. I'm by myself. Why not?!"

When my Uber driver dropped me off he asked, "Do you want me to stick around until you get inside?" I assured him I would be OK, as the host had told me to "just look for the bag of potting soil next to the front door" so that I didn't accidentally go into the wrong house. I reached through metal bars on the front door and let myself in. The first thing I noticed was the distinct lack of air conditioning on this hot summer night, which I didn't remember being mentioned in the listing. I wandered back to the bedroom and discovered the door didn't lock. No worries there, just set my pocket knife within easy reach of the bed. To their credit, the sheets at least looked clean, so I crawled into bed for a good night's sleep. Unfortunately, the mattress had a dip in it that kept wanting to dump me out in the floor, so I'm not sure if I ever really got any sleep that night.

When I got up at 4:00 AM to leave the next morning, I made my way to the bathroom and found a friendly cockroach feet up, twitching behind the door. So that was good. While waiting for my Uber in front of the house, the host actually showed up... at 4:15 AM. I asked no questions, gave him a nod, and moved on.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip home was relatively uneventful and I was back home around 3:00 PM the following day. Altogether an enjoyable vacation which resulted in some fun stories!

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