Canyons, arches and grassy plains- The Grand Canyon to the East Coast: USA PART 3
I didn't have long left in this glorious country with an incredible amount still left to cover but for 11 fun filled days I would have company in the form of John, Princess and Merince who flew to Phoenix from New Jersey to join me- it was Brennan Family Vacation time!
Fortunately they landed on time and so after eating at the most local down to basics Mexican cafe we scoured Walmart for all the deal's, agreed on everything financially and drove nearly 5 hours straight to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon! Trying to fit 4 people (albeit two Filipinos weighing a combined 70kg) into a small hatchback with all bags, camping gear and food was interesting to say the least but we did it and continually made adjustments each day to see how far the car would go.
Knowing how busy the sunset spots can get I found one that was only a five minute drive and 15 minute walk away that had no more than a handful of other people- Shoshone Point. Jutting out over the canyon it is a slender promontory enabling a view for miles around on all sides so the perfect place to show the girls their first National Park that left Princess very emotional. We posed, finished a couple of can's, stared at wonder how such a place can exist then returned to Mather Campground for a chilly early night beneath the stars.
Leaving everyone else in bed I could have tried finding another secluded spot but being 4am I was not in the mood and just accepted being around a few other human's trying to get my tripod in a good spot for the day's first light. Wholly unsatisfied I saw an unoccupied rock and so scrambled down ever so carefully in my flip flops for one of the most epic photos I have ever had taken but this nearly ended in tragedy as a little Chipmunk scared the crap out of me and I nearly took a step off a 1000m ledge into the abyss.
When I was last at the Grand Canyon it was July 2007 and simply far too hot to do any real hiking so was determined to go 'below the rim' on the South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge and back in about 2.5 hours- was warm but very doable. With no phone signal it was difficult to rendezvous with the other's at the vast Visitor Center complex, delaying us slightly, as we needed to leave the GC already for a tiring 5 hours drive, plus an hour time difference. I was the only one insured and love to take the wheel but it can be tough when on a schedule and feeling sleepy especially when the other's in the vehicle are passed out themselves so can't keep you entertained. Luckily the scenery and weather was ever changing as we increased in both altitude and latitude past the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with dark storm cloud's bringing rain for the first time in day's just as reached Bryce Canyon NP to set up camp.
We took a gamble and went to see the 'sunset' at Bryce Point with low expectations and were amazed to see a double rainbow, part of the storm and the sun shining over the hoodoo's all at the same perfect time- we got out the car so quickly everything was left unlocked and visible. Running around like loon's we took as many photos as we could before the view was lost then I climbed up to the very top of Inspiration Point where a cold wind cut right through me as kept clicking away.
For the second day in a row I rose for sunrise, along with John and Merince, because we had an hour more sleep then ate a fried breakfast by the damp tent's and just about beat the crowds to park and do both the Navajo & Queen's Garden Trail. They formed one nice loop through the main sections & amphitheatre of the very unique park full of spire shaped 'hoodoo's'that almost glow when the sun touches them- beautiful contrast with the green trees that surround them.
From one National Park to another it was time to pack up shop and move on to the deep and very accessible Navajo Sandstone Zion Canyon a mere two hours away. We saw a small herd of Buffalo (Bison used to be the largest wild community of animals on the planet) just before we were in the shadow of Zion's huge cliff faces and an obligatory sign photo then impatiently waited to get through the tunnel as over sized RV's occasionally made it one way only.
In less than two days I completed the 3 hikes I intended to do- the treacherous 5 mile Angel's Landing late the first evening, 8 mile Observation Point/Weeping Rock that is a punishing never ending accent to a view along the whole length of Zion Canyon that did with John and friend Whitney, and finally a portion of The Narrows where I walked up the Virgin River (used my scuba booties) about 3 miles into the world's largest slot canyon before turning around. The weather co-operated and each was timed so that there would be few people around but I did not take care of myself very well and left with a gaping hole on my right back heel that began life as a small blister- I am still to this day waiting for it to fully heal but was totally worth it!
Back into Arizona we joined the masses and did a quick 90 minute 'tour' (walk) through the famously narrow Lower Antelope Canyon (so busy now photo tour's are not allowed) and I did a fun kayak adventure on Lake Powell getting some arm exercise in, playing with a non deadly snake and going for a real swim for the first time since leaving the Caribbean- water was ideal.
Our next stop was the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park- a place immortalized in so many Hollywood movies. I had visited a decade ago and driven past it only a few days earlier so what most excited me was the location of our View Campground where you can wilderness camp with right in front of the Mitten's- It was hot & dusty, the toilets were not close and the car had to be parked at the top but none of the mattered. At 5pm we began the 17 mile scenic loop stopping at nearly every single viewpoint, having a cheeky beverage and really making the most of the afternoon until nearly getting stuck for the one and only time in two months- FWD on an uneven hill will do that. The moment the sun went down John yet again worked his magic for dinner (he cooks I drive) and the girl's washed up so we could enjoy some boxed wine/beer under the stars and bright moon that made a constant silhouette of the land.
Even though we were technically in Arizona we were on Navajo Nation time which is Utah so the sunrise was at a more reasonable 5.30am but from nearly an hour earlier I opened up my tent and just watched the colours change in the most amazing ways. I was on my own for ages and even set the tripod up quietly as movement was heard in the other tents and groups were visible above us by the visitor centre.
After one of the laziest morning's of the trip got going north past Forrest Gump Point and Valley of the Gods (nearly feel like a local having been here twice in quick sucession), up and over the Moki Dugway and to the small but unique and relaxed Natural Bridges Monument. Here there was a 9 mile loop with 3 main viewpoints, including one over the second largest bridge in the world- Sipapu that we also hiked under to really get a sense of it's enormity with only a handful of people around.
With no accomodation booked I had pinpointed a few potential sites to wild camp at using the amazing iOverlander app, off the road that heads to the Needles District of Canyonlands NP near some ancient petroglyphs called Newspaper Rock, so after a useful supermarket stop and finding our first site full we took a gamble and took the car on a track to what was the best place I have ever had the pleasure to pitch a tent. Right by a beautiful long ridge that had views both east and west there was a sheltered area, lots of wood, a fire pit, no sign of cattle, dry and not a sole for miles around- winning!
Wood was gathered, the music was turned up and drinks were poured as we gazed at the setting sun and lit a fire that would continue burning long into the night making memories that would last a lifetime. I stayed up with John to polish off some wine and most of a bottle of rum as the stars came out in full force above wishing could stay at this place a lot longer but we needed to get to the adventure capital of the area- Moab! Despite being little more than an hour away we found a couple of cool places there were worth a stop- Wilson's Arch and the extremely random Hole N' The Rock.
Memorial Day weekend was not an ideal time to be in Moab and initially we were concerned about accommodation but the lovely guys at Slickrock Campground (good shaded spots and has all facilities you need including a pool!) made room for us even if the RV area was crammed full of huge RV's, trailers, UTV's, ATV's and hundred's of rednecks. As it was still 'only' Friday we did the sensible thing and went to explore Arches NP late afternoon to avoid the bulk of the crowds that became so much two days later that the park was shut off to new arrivals for most of the day. The 3 hours we gave ourselves was no where near enough but we still were able to be almost by ourselves at several key landmarks and even drove out in pure darkness- Landscape Arch, Double Arch (from Indiana Jones), the Windows and Balanced Rock. Just how a combination of geology and erosion created such wonder's is unbelievable and I was so glad to finally set foot after 11 years of trying.
Alongside our good friend Brian (flew in from Rochester NY) we explored the dramatic canyons and buttes formed by the Colorado River at Canyonlands NP & Dead Horse State Park, saw what all the fuss was about at the glowing Mesa Arch, watched Liverpool play in the Champion' League Final at an all you can eat pizza restaurant, lounged by the pool, cooked Bison burgers, woke up early enough for sunrise in Arches and was able to hike around the maze that is the permit only Fiery Furnace getting lost more than once to make for one hell of a weekend!
Somehow just like that, my time with the Brennan's was almost over with only the journey to Salt Lake City left to do, although we were still fortunate enough to be able to walk around the heart of the Mormon religion at Temple Square, brave big storms to see the Utah Capitol building, eat at my first Cheesecake Factory (bar's here do not let minors in so only choice on a public holiday) and see Solo at the movie theatre before leaving them with Brian to go to the airport so I could meet some nice people at an AirbNb- was nice to have my own space and clear the car but now much quieter.
The history of exploration, in particular the settling of the American West in the 19th century, fascinated me and one of the key events of this time was the building of the railroad's so I made a 150 mile de-tour north of the Salt Lake itself to Promontory Point as this was the place the Union and Central Pacific met to form the first Transcontinetal Railway in 1869. Here I geeked out to the max by waiting for an exact replica train to steam it's way down the tracks and stop right by the Golden Spike, watched a short film, read every information board and tried my best to imagine the excitement way back then.
I was now driving east towards the finish line, leaving the desert behind and going over part of the Rockies to beautiful sparse Wyoming to catch up with my old friend Zach in the little town of Lander where hiked to a waterfall at it's glacial melt-water peak flow, climbed up Independance Rock, did much overdue preparation for required visa's, played golf/lawn darts/corn hole, ate lots of meat and sampled many IPA's from the region- $2 singles mix and match.
The last real stop for multiple nights was Denver/Boulder with the real focus being ALL the breweries I could get to as well as scuba diving inside the shark tank at the Aquarium with Wendy, shopping at REI, visiting Buffalo Bill's grave and trying to get out of the 35c and high humidity.
Now all that was left to do was to drive the near 1800 miles to New Jersey via Omaha and Greg's Black Cloister Brewery in up and coming Toledo, passing over the full length of the legendary but visually boring Great Plains at a near constant 80 mph and completing the journey in 3 days- mentally taxing!
Returning to John's house two months later in summer was quite surreal, especially so as the Suburu (with a new engine in it) was parked right outside like nothing had happened!
I enjoyed finishing my 10,000 mile road trip as was now time for me to get home to family and the Mongol Rally but leaving the US was tough as I now have so many friends there and many more places to see with so little time to do it all in. It is one of my favourite countries and this trip has only increased this feeling so have no doubt in my mind I will be back very soon...