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Archive for the ‘Grand Canyon’ Category

As promised, this is one of two posts I’m going to write on our trip to Belize and Guatemala (July 16-22, 2017) This one will be about the the practicalities, with tips and mini-reviews, and the other will be on the food, which was consistently great.

Why in the world did you go? Should we?

We went on this trip because my 12-year old has a strong and serious interest in Mayan history and archaeology, his brother was doing another out-of-town activity for the week, and I gave him the chance to pick a destination, and this – specifically Tikal – was it.

There are 2000 Mayan sites in Guatemala alone (some just one mound covering a temple, but still…), some quite extensive. Tikal is the most well known, but is close to some other very interesting sites, so we decided to make it the focus of the trip.

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There are other reasons to go to this part of the world. A lot of North Americans head down there for recreational and adventure reasons – you see more of it in Belize, which is becoming a very popular destination, not only for tanned retirees heading to fish, but families and young people as well. People go diving, fishing, caving and tubing. It’s a popular cruise ship stop. There are lots of all-inclusive resorts (including three owned by Francis Ford Coppola) and it’s popular with North Americans because the first language of Belize is English, they take US dollars everywhere, and the exchange rate is easy to figure out on the fly (basically 2:1 Belize:US).

Guatemala has plenty to recommend in this regard as well, and more, considering the geographical diversity of the country.

People also go to Guatemala for the family and cultural connections they have, and to do mission work. Our flights into and out of Belize each had at least two mission groups aboard, and I saw more than a few vans on the road crammed with blonde-haired Anglos and guitar cases visible through the back window – I assumed they were mission groups ,too. Was I wrong? Maybe, but I doubt it.

So. Should you go?

If you want to, sure!

I felt safe and, after a day or two of adjustment, at ease in the culture. Everyone is very friendly and helpful, and the sites we saw were fascinating. There were many American and European families with younger kids at Tikal – none at the other sites we visited, but then, we were mostly the only people at those sites, anyway, so…..

If Mayan culture interests you or you want to expose your family to that part of our hemisphere’s history, Tikal and the other sites are great. If you have never done anything like this before, it might be a little easier to start in Mexico with Chichen Itza and Uxmal, perhaps using Merida and Campeche as bases or Cancun if that is your thing (although crime is becoming more of a problem in the Mexican resorts, it seems, so I’m not so sure about that…).

Or, if you want your family to experience ancient American cultures…try the Southwest. No, it’s not the Temple of the Jaguar, but it’s still interesting and important to understand.

As for the other activities in the area, they don’t hold much appeal for me at this point. When it comes to outdoor type of activities there’s so much in this country that I haven’t experienced – the Florida Keys, the Rocky Mountains, the Northwest – that any energy for that kind of thing that I have…I’ll direct to those places.

How Should I Get There?

When I first started planning, I assumed we would fly in and out of Guatemala City – until I figured out how far it is from Peten, the area in which theruins that are our focus are located. It would be an 8-9 hour drive unless I wanted to fly from Guatemala City to Flores – which is expensive.

So the next possibility was Belize City, which is what I ultimately decided on. Weirdly, it was cheaper to fly from Birmingham to BC than Atlanta to BC – I mean, I’m happy about that, but that’s not the norm and I don’t know why it was so.

Another option is Flores, which is right there.  Unfortunately flying into Flores from either Birmingham or Atlanta was far too expensive. However, if you can fly, for example, out of Houston, the fare is very decent. So if you can get to a major hub in the southwest, check out the fares for Flores.

I worked this journey as two separate flights. I had enough miles to get us down there on American at no charge, but not enough for a round trip, and the AA flights back were at bad times and expensive. So I opted to fly United, one-way, back from BC. This would have been a lot cheaper if we lived in South Florida or Texas…just sayin’.

Should I Drive?

All right. It depends. I won’t bore you with the back-and-forth I went through in my head on this. Well, not much of it, anyway.

I am a very independent traveler. I like to be in control of my own destiny, at all times. The long-haul public transportation in Belize and Guatemala is confusing and not great, especially in Belize. So, should I drive? My reflexive answer was not “NO!” and in fact, I did consider it.

The real question before I went was renting a car and taking it across the border. It can be done, but it adds a level of complication to the border crossing between Belize and Guatemala that might already be fraught. You have to drive the car through fumigation portals, etc, plus there’s the documents you have to have…yeah. And then you’d have to do it again. All that.

But I will say that after spending a week being driven around Belize and Guatemala, if I were going to do anything like it again, here’s what I would do.

First, though: if you are a timid driver – forget it. Don’t even try. I’m not a timid driver, so given that I see how it all works now, if I went back, and were only going to be in one of the countries, I’d drive, with a couple of caveats.

I’d drive in Belize, no question. The roads are fine, and the driving doesn’t seem too crazy. I wouldn’t drive in Belize City, but then I wouldn’t drive in any foreign city if I could help it.

Secondly, I would sort of  drive in Guatemala. Maybe. Sometimes.

It would be considerably more challenging, but having seen those challenges, I could manage. Yes, the roads are not smooth. Yes, there are people on the side of the road, including little kids some of whom are dragging machetes because every male seems to carry a machete around in rural Guatemala. Yes, there are dogs, horses, chickens and pigs on the side of and often in the road. Yes, there are frequent and potentially damaging speed bumps. Yes, there are loads of motorcycles, perhaps 3% of which are being driven by people wearing helmets, and a surprising number of those motorcyclists are transporting small children and babies. My favorite was: 2 adults on one cycle, with a toddler in between them and a baby in a carrier strapped to the driver’s front.

But yeah, I could do it. However….

The roads leading to most of the ruins except for Tikal are terrible. Even Yaxha, which is a major site, and perhaps the most visited in the area after Tikal, involved about 8 miles of really rough road.  Even if I had the most comprehensive insurance on the planet (which is what I would have), I would be extremely tense about driving those roads myself because, well, what if something happened? I can change a tire, but you know what? I really don’t want to, especially in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country.

And since visiting sites would be our major interest…there’s no reason to spend 70/80 bucks a day on a car that I’d have a nervous breakdown driving because I’d be afraid of puncturing a tire or the gas tank or whatever. And I wouldn’t drive at night. Yeah, all that. So while I don’t particularly like being dependent on others for my transportation, it really doesn’t make any sense to do otherwise. Jesus, take the wheel.

Conclusion?

Renting and driving a car in Belize and Guatemala is expensive, and if you did this, you’d want plentiful insurance coverage (and would be required to get it if you rented in Belize and traveled to Guatemala), which makes it even more expensive.

For long distances, you can take buses, but the Belize buses are not great – don’t know about the Guatemala buses. Mexico has really nice buses, but Belize, at least, doesn’t have that kind of service at this point.

In communities, taxis and collectivos (vans) and tuk-tuks (in Flores and probably other places) are plentiful and inexpensive. Everyone, it seems to me, uses taxis to get around because relatively few people actually own cars. You have a motorcycle, probably, but if you need to carry things or take more people, you just get a taxi, no big deal.

In addition, there are plenty of shuttle services, and every taxi driver you encounter will amywelborn78nose about for more business: So…are you going to Tikal? Do you need a driver? Are you going to the airport? Do you need a driver tomorrow for that? But if you do go long distances via shuttle, build that cost in. So, for example, this past Saturday, I paid $100 (50 each) for us to be driven in a shuttle from San Ignacio, Belize to the Belize Airport, about 73 miles away, with a 90-minute stop at the Belize Zoo. I wish I didn’t have to spend that kind of money, but in the end, hiring a driver ends up being not that much more expensive than renting a car in these countries, and while you don’t have the freedom to go anywhere whenever, you have freedom from stress about responsibility for driving mishaps. Life, as I like to say, is a trade-off.

Where Should I Stay?

Again, I’m writing this for people interested in Tikal and other nearby sites, so I’ll start with Tikal.

If you look at a map, you’ll see several possibilities. People do day trips to Tikal from spots in Belize, as well as closer Guatemalan communities like El Remate and Flores. It’s certainly possible, but there are advantages to staying in the park itself.

The best times to experience Tikal are in the morning and late afternoon. Not surprisingly, those late morning and earlier afternoon hours get hot, plus the jungle is quieter during those hours, as the animals are sensible and taking a rest as well. So to experience the jungle and the ruins in their fullest, in the most convenient way – it makes sense to stay in one of the three hotels located in the park.

It makes particular sense if you’re going to do the Sunrise tour, which necessitates you start walking to Temple IV at about 4:30 am. Adding an hour drive to that would be…torture.

There are three hotels in the park: The Jungle Lodge, the Jaguar Inn and the Tikal Inn.

All are located near each other in the same area. We stayed at the Jungle Lodge, and I was very happy with the accommodations. They are separate cabins that were constructed originally back in the 1950’s for the team from the University of Pennsylvania that was excavating the ruins.

(Here’s an article published in 1970 upon the completion of the team’s work. 

Here’s a set of really interesting archival videos on the project – they are silent and just that – archival – but interesting to dip into.)

The bungalows are very clean – as was my experience in all three places we stayed. There is no air conditioning, but there is a ceiling fan. The unusual thing about this to keep in mind is that most electricity is turned off during certain hours in the middle of the day and from about 10:30 pm to 7 am or so – with the ceiling fans being on a separate generator that keeps running. But if you get up for that Sunrise Tour, if you haven’t brought flashlights (we did), you’ll need your cell phone flashlight, which probably isn’t great. You should take a flashlight anyway because you’ll need it for the walk to Temple IV for the Sunrise Tour, and if you go to another onsite restaurant in the evening, you’ll need it for walking on the grounds – there are no streetlights around the parking lot, it’s pitch black and the great thing? The stars.  I’d never seen them so bright and in such an array. It’s what I had hoped to see at the Grand Canyon but didn’t. Gorgeous.

So yes, the Jungle Lodge is more expensive than other accommodations in towns outside the park, but again – everything has a cost, and it’s up to you what currency you want to use – do you want to pay with money or do you want to pay with the extra time and hassle of being an hour away from the park? I’d say it’s worth it to spend at least one night in the park.

The restaurant at the Jungle Lodge is not what I expected and I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you have nowhere else to go (and there are other places – the other two hotels both have restaurants, and during the day, there are comedors – or small restaurants just down the road. The comedors only take cash though, so be prepared.). The service was fine and the food wasn’t terrible, but it was oddly enough, not at all Guatemalan, Central American or even vaguely Hispanic. It was mostly sort of Italian. Weird and overpriced.

In Flores, we stayed at a hotel owned by the same people – the Isla de Flores. Very nice – good sized room and bathroom. The best noise-blocking windows I’ve ever experienced in a hotel. Could have used them in Madrid where the party just gets started at midnight…

Bookending the trip, we stayed at Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio, Belize. I highly recommend it. Very nice people running the place and the room we stayed in was very large, with a balcony.

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Miscellaneous Tips:

  • When you cross the Guatemala-Belize border, you’ll be immediately swarmed on either side by men offering to exchange money. Don’t do it. I had gotten Guatemalan money before we went – I usually don’t do that, but I knew I would need cash right away to buy Tikal tickets (next tip), so I made an exception this time. It might be a good idea to do the same, but there are secure ATM’s in banks all over the place – not in villages, but in towns.
  • Make sure you understand the process for buying Tikal tickets – research it or if you have a guide, he or she will explain it. Because of long lines, delays and corruption, the government took Tikal ticket-selling away from the park and you must buy them at a branch of a certain bank now – there is a branch at the border and at the airport and other places, but just be prepared. You have to pay cash and know exactly what kind of tickets you want because there are no tickets sold at the park.
  • They take American dollars all over Belize. They also took them in souvenir shops in Flores and at the shops and snack places around the Tikal park. I would advise downloading a currency exchange app on your phone to avoid conflict and confusion – you can just punch it numbers and show it to the clerk or server – end of argument. If you think you might use US dollars in Guatemala, make sure they are clean, unmarked and not too folded or wrinkled. The problem, as our guide explained, is that the Guatemalan banks will not accept US dollars that are in less than good condition – so if a vendor accepts one and tries to deposit them and they’re rejected – they’ve lost that money.
  • San Ignacio, Belize and Flores Guatemala are full of tourists. Young American and European backpackers and adventurers, retired Americans and lots of students. It’s got that kind of vibe – a mix of locals hustling to make a living, mostly off the tourists, and the tourists hoping what they’re experiencing is “authentic” – San Ignacio is much more ramshackle than Flores, though.
  • The tourist-centered economy of these places means that they’re full of tour companies. Choose wisely and read reviews. Plan ahead if you want (I did) but I think it’s easy to pick up a guide or join a tour on short notice.
  • Internet: I have a cel-phone plan through T-Mobil that provides free service overseas. The data is slow, but it’s there. I had access through my phone in most places except in Tikal. It was weird – we trekked through various other jungles that were more isolate than Tikal, and I had access in those places, but not in Tikal. The hotels all had wi-fi, but the Jungle Lodge’s service was provided only in the lobby and at the pool and it was terrible. Everywhere else, the wi-fi was fine. Now. Before anyone scolds about “just unconnect! Be free!” – listen to me.  I am a single mom, who had one minor child up in Chicago while I was in Guatemala. I needed to be available. My finances are all on me – no one else – and I needed to keep an eye on my bank account and credit card account to make sure there were no ATM or other shenanigans brewing. Wi-Fi wasn’t important because I wanted to check Facebook. It was important because most of life is on the internet now, for good or for ill, I’m the head of the household with responsibilities that are all on my shoulders, so yeah…making sure I’m in range is important. No apologies.
  • We prepared, health-wise, by loading up on probiotics for a couple of weeks before. It probably wasn’t necessary. We were very careful and never drank tap water – I don’t think most natives do either – and were fine.
  • Do take good insect repellent. I got this one, and it worked great. We were in a rainforest amid swarms of mosquitos, and they didn’t touch us.
  • What did we pack? Our clothes filled one small satchel. M wore hiking boots and packed his sandals. I took hiking sandals and tennis shoes. We each had a backpack – mine is one I bought for the 2012 trip that holds a camera in the bottom and has a laptop sleeve. I took regular camera, phone, laptop and chargers for each. We had journals and pens, and a couple of books. Two small flashlights, insect repellent, the usual toiletries and basic first aid (band aids, itch cream, antibiotic cream) that I always travel with plus Pepto-Bismol and After-Bite. I wasn’t sure about the Jungle Lodge electricity situation – I knew they turned the power off at night, and didn’t know if that included the fans or not, so I bought a small cheap cordless fan and took that. I didn’t “need” it, as it turned out, but it did add some extra breeze on those two nights.

 

Should I Hire a Tour Guide?

Unless you yourself are an expert on Matters Mayan, yes. You can get the basics about Tikal from a book, but having a good guide puts it all in context. You must have a guide for the Sunrise Tour. The other sites we saw are incomprehensible without prior knowledge or a guide. There was English signage at Tikal, but everywhere else was Spanish only, ,which is decipherable for me, but very basic. As I said above, you can easily grab a guide on site or in one of the outside towns, but I needed a guide and driver for the entire week, so I made arrangements ahead of time – based on recommendations on the TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet discussion boards, I went with Marlon Diaz of Gem Guatemala Travel. It was a great decision – he was smart, flexible, deeply knowledgeable and a great animal spotter as well.  Here’s my TripAdvisor review of his service. 

So there you go…I might add to this as the day goes on and more occurs to me. Ask questions if you like either in the comments or to amywelborn60 – at – gmail – dot- com.

 

Tomorrow: the food. And that will be it for blogging on it – look for an ebook with a complete account in a few weeks, I hope. 

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We spent the weekend at the pool (and serving at Mass), and by last night the natives were just a little restless, so today became a road trip day.

As much of my life I have lived in or near Tennessee, one place I had never been was the Shiloh Battlefield Park. I have an excuse – well, two. Battlefields are not really my thing, and secondly, if you look at a map, you see that Shiloh is a bit out of the way – at least from the places I’ve lived and the regular driving routes that took me through and around the state – between Nashville and Knoxville, from Indiana to Knoxville, from Florida to Knoxville and back.

So today became the day to check it off the list.

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We left a little after 8 and a bit before 11 rolled into Corinth, MS. Corinth was the actual reason and excuse for the Battle of Shiloh, being the major rail junction for the Confederacy’s hold in what they then called the West.  The Confederates needed to hold on to it, and the Union wanted to break it down, a goal that seemed quite possible after two important victories in northern middle Tennessee in March, 1862.

Corinth had only existed since 1854, and now, just a few years later, it would be inundated with troops from both sides, troops alive, wounded and dead.

So that’s where we began.

The NPS runs an excellent Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth. The museum part is superior to what we saw at Shiloh, the 18-minute film on the role of Corinth in the war is excellent, fair and moving, and there are design features of the facility that deepen the experience.

 

The path from the parking lot to the Center features sculpted remnants of battle strewn about on the ground and embedded in the sidewalk. 

The fountain feature behind the center is quite striking. You can read more about it here. It’s a good visual representation of the course of American history from the formulation of the ideals in the Declaration and the Constitution through the Civil War. 

One of the most interesting things I learned concerned the Corinth Contraband Camp. After the victory at Shiloh, the Union eventually moved south and took Corinth. During the months of occupation, area slaves began to move into what was now Union territory, hoping for eventual permanent freedom.  Many of the men joined the Union army, and those that didn’t, along with the families of those who did, lived and worked in Corinth. They formed a community, were paid for their labors for the first time, had a church and schools. Abolitionists and Protestant missionaries arrived from the North to minister to them. When the Union pulled out in 1863, most of the inhabitants of the camp followed them to Memphis.

We spent about an hour at the Center, then ate lunch at Borroum’s Drug Store – the oldest in Mississippi. My younger son declared the hamburger to be the second best he’d ever eaten. (First? Nope, not mine. Five Guys.) It was a fun experience, but if you go…they don’t take credit cards, only cash or checks. Luckily I had my checkbook!

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The park on the site of the Contraband Camp was a bit east of downtown, so we made a quick stop there – it is just open land with various statues scattered about – and then set off for Shiloh. It’s a bit more than twenty miles north, but the drive takes about 35 minutes.

Historical markers begin to appear far before the park boundaries because, of course, the battles raged and troops moved all along the land between Corinth and what we now call Shiloh. (Named for a Methodist meeting house in the area of the battle)

We arrived and decided to go ahead and watch the film, even though at first I said we’d only watch part of it – it was 45 minutes.  But, well..it was so well done and so riveting, no one moved, and after one of my sons declared that it had not seemed to last that long at all. Perhaps some of you have seen similar films at other NPS-run battleground sites and they are all equally good. I don’t know. But I was impressed, not only with the professional quality, but with the smooth integration of explanation of tactics and movement along with personal narratives. I always, of course, have my eye out for the treatment of religion and while of course it was not central, it did enter the picture as soldiers were depicted praying, reading the Bible and singing a hymn.

Now, if you are not deeply into the history of a particular battle, the question arises…what now? The battlefield is huge, markers delineating troop position and movement are everywhere and obviously if you are into that, it’s a day-long excursion or more and you’re ecstatic. But if you can’t get interested in what the Indiana 30th did at 10 AM on April 6th…what next?

Well, we hit the high points. We drove to Pittsburgh Landing, then circled around to some of the high points on the driving tour, and happened upon another Ranger talk near the site of where Johnston – the CSA commanding officer – was killed during the battle. The Ranger was animated, clear in his descriptions and picked just the right anecdotes to keep everyone interested in the aspect of the battle he was describing – not as memorable as our favorite, Ranger Jake from the Grand Canyon, but a not-distant second.

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So we listened to that, got back into the car, drove around to some more of the major landmarks..and well, that was it for us. Even though we’re not interested in a lot of detail, the experience of being on the battlefield, the landscape of which remains much the same as it was 150 years ago, internalizing the struggle, sacrifice and carnage and comparing it with the peaceful scene of the present, is important. The ranger emphasized the history of the battlefield park: that it had been veterans from both sides of the conflict who had spearheaded the effort at the end of the 19th century, veterans who wanted to send a message to future generations: let this not happen again.

As I’ve said before, I am a major fan of federal and state parks and historical sites, and so grateful to the enthusiasts whose energy, knowledge and commitment is so evident in the quality of every one that I’ve ever visited. If you’re in the area, do visit Shiloh, but I would definitely incorporate Corinth into the visit as well.

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As I’d quickly “planned” the day, I’d noted a Tennessee state park near Corinth – Pickwick Dam. It advertised “swimming.” Oh, what a fabulous way to wrap up the day, I thought – some time in the water! Nice try. We drove down that way (it’s on the way back to Alabama) and found that both swimming areas were very, very circumscribed. A small beach with a roped-in area on the water that was nice and safe for all the five-year olds, but uninteresting to anyone older. So we passed, but did drive across to the other side to take a look at the dam and its workings.

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By that time it was almost five, but with a few hours of daylight left, I thought we might try to hit another state park, this one in Mississippi. It would take us a bit out of the way, but we were in no hurry to return. I thought this park would be a good choice for an hour or so stop because it had an interesting CCC construction and a trail with rock outcroppings – always popular with Someone in our group.

We took a ten minute detour on the way south through fabulous Iuka, home of mineral waters that won first place! In the 1904 World’s Fair! 

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Well, that wasn’t very exciting. But we’re spoiled. It’s hard to top our 1904 World’s Fair contribution. Sorry, Iuka! 

But yes, we did …drink to our health.

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*****

We got to Tishomingo State Park a little before six, drove to the CCC-constructed swinging bridge, crossed it and walked much of the Outcropping Trail.

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I’ll shove this into the Roadschooling category, so let’s recount some of what was discussed: General Civil War history. Corinth and Shiloh in particular, before (I’d studied up on it last night), during and after the visits. What “contraband” means. What a slugburger is. The role of Catholic clergy and especially sisters in ministering to the wounded of Shiloh and Corinth – details here (again, I’d read up on it last night). Remembering Hoover Dam. Talking about National Parks, especially Zion, Grand Canyon and Bryce. Someone really wants to go to Arches. How people with perhaps 8th grade educations – the non-officer “ordinary” soldiers and citizens whose words were used in the films we saw –  wrote so beautifully, and what that means in regard to our definition of “education.” Lew Wallace, the author of the novel Ben-Hur, the movie of which we watched a couple of months ago, was a Union general at Shiloh. John Wesley Powell, about whom we talked a lot last year for his role in exploring the Grand Canyon, lost an arm in the Battle of Shiloh. Connections, always connections. The Sixth Sense (we watched it last night). How some people hate all football teams from Mississippi and Alabama. Why World Fairs were a thing. The TVA. Elvis.

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Back home by 9:15. Not bad for 11 hours.

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A couple more pool days..then Charleston bound.

Remember….Instagram & Snapchat (amywelborn2)  for more current travel images.

 

 

 

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Okay, I need to finish this!

For those of you not keeping up, or who have forgotten because this trip report is taking me weeks to complete, let’s recap:

Over all plan described here  (For all posts related to this trip, click here.)

Left Birmingham on 5/19, flew to Vegas.

5/20 – Hoover Dam and then on to Saint George, Utah.

5/21 – Snow Canyon and then on to Bryce Canyon

5/22-23 – Bryce Canyon (here and here)

5/23 – drive down to Kanab, UtahRed Rock Canyon and Coral Pink Sand Dunes on the way.

5/24-26 Grand Canyon North Rim (Here and here)

5/27-28 – Zion National Park

(Still to come, Death Valley & Vegas)

***

Zion National Park

I enjoyed every single spot we visited, had my breath regularly taken away, and was impressed by the national and state park infrastructure at every turn.

However, I’d say that Zion National Park is the one to which I’d return. We barely scratched the surface on our visit, and there is much more to do and see than we were able to even begin to try.

There are two main entrances to Zion National Park – one to the west, and one to the east, north of Kanab.  We were coming from the Grand Canyon, so toggling west would be out of the way and take longer, but I was given pause by guidebooks’ descriptions of the SCARY WINDY CLIFF-HANGING nature of the east entrance.  I mean, I’ve driven some windy places before – Sicily and the Pyrenees, for example, but still.  This sounded treacherous!

Well..it wasn’t.

(I eventually went for the east entrance because, I usually do end up choosing speed over everything else.)

The one thing I would say, however, is that going this way requires you to go through a narrow tunnel, and the line of cars can get backed up for that.  We didn’t have to wait too long, but I imagine that during the height of summer, the wait is considerable.

But windy roads…you don’t scare us!

And more than that, the prize for going in that east entrance?

Mountain goats.

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Much delight.

After surviving the not-scary drive, we made our way to Springdale, which is the little town at the west entrance of the park and where the closest accomodations are located. We found lunch at a Mexican restaurant, then checked into the hotel, which was Flanigan’s Inn, which I liked very much – it had an eastern, spa-like vibe, but the price was decent for the area, and the employees were probably the nicest of the trip – and on a trip through Utah, that’s saying something – because everyone is nice there.

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Not our hotel, but iconic.  This is how close Springdale is to Zion. Basically in it. 

Springdale is right at the entrance to Zion, so what’s great is that you can walk everywhere, including to the park, and there’s a shuttle system that runs up and down the main drag of Springdale itself and to the park entrance.

(The shuttle within the park itself is mandatory during the summer months – traffic would be crazy if it weren’t.)

Please go to Zion.  Well, go (almost) everywhere we went on our trip, but Zion – yes. It’s beautiful and well-managed and rather varied in landscape. In case you’re wondering about the origins of the name:

When Nephi Johnson arrived in what would become Zion National Park in 1858, the Paiute Indians occupied the canyon. Isaac Behunin became the first permanent European-American settler in the canyon when he built a one-room log cabin near the present location of Zion Lodge in 1861. Behunin named his new home Zion, remarking, “A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church – this is Zion.”

After we had eaten and settled in, we walked to the park entrance, flashed that membership card, and entered. We took the shuttle up to the Zion Lodge, got off, and then hiked for a couple of hours – it was a great loop up the Emerald Falls trail, then over to the Grotto and back.  It’s all paved, it’s easy, I imagine it’s super crowded at high season, but it was gorgeous at every turn, and at the highest pool, we found friends:

Then back down to the shuttle which we then took to the end to the Riverside Walk and The Narrows.  On the way, we looked at Angels Landing – one of the most famed hikes in the country, and one which I will never do – and saw several rock climbers ascending sheer cliffs, along with their cliff-tents thumbtacked into the cliff face.  Sheesh.

(The Narrows is also famous – it’s a hike basically through water to get to some great scenery. It’s recommended that you rent special shoes and pants for the hike, and a lot of people of every shape and size were doing it.  It wasn’t anything we were going to do this time, and I was also given pause by the stories I overheard from hikers who had cut their hike short that day because of the presence of a dead, decaying deer in the water.)

Zion National Park Zion National Park Zion National Park

Zion National Park

So we did our exploring, had a great time, and went back on the shuttle. Ate dinner, etc.

The next day was going to be biking.

Since there is no car traffic on the Canyon road, only the shuttles that come by every few minutes, the road is open to bikers during the summer, and considered safe.

We first did the Pa’rus trail, which is just that – a walking and biking trail that runs along the Virgin River.  It also runs along the campgrounds, and although I’m not a camper, I’d say that if you are, camping at Zion, with that scenery, would be gorgeous.

Then we hit the road!

Biking at Zion National Park

I didn’t have a plan. We would just go as far as we could – I was hoping we could make it to the end of the road (the Narrows.) What I hadn’t counted on, however, and really hadn’t considered, was that the road into the canyon is mostly uphill.  It was a bit more challenging than I had expected, so we stopped at The Court of the Patriarchs, waited for a shuttle, loaded our bikes on it (you can do that) and took the bus down to the end – it would be downhill all the way back, and that might be fun, right?

It was!

(No more photos, because it’s not safe to take photos WHILE BIKING on a road with even occasional buses coming by.)

We made one stop – at Big Bend, where we parked the bikes and walked down to the river, then coasted all the way back.

It’s very safe – I wouldn’t do it with a five year old, but if a kid is steady on a bike and understands that the minute you see or hear a shuttle bus, you are to pull over and stop, it’s fine.  We really enjoyed it!

But then…it was time to move on.  See? Not enough time.  We’d definitely return and explore more.

The next stop would be back to Saint George, explore a bit around there, and then on to Death Valley – a pretty long drive – the next day….

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It’s iconic. Emblematic.

Is it even possible to visit the Grand Canyon non-ironically?

Can you even say “I’m going to the Grand Canyon” non-ironically?

Well, it’s Grand.

Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge

But first, I want to backtrack and talk a bit about my planning for this part of the trip in detail.  Perhaps it will be useful to someone.

When you visit the Grand Canyon, you have two main choices: South Rim or North Rim. (There is also a Grand Canyon West,  where the Haulapai glass walkway is, but it not actually in the National Park. )

The South Rim is the more heavily visited section: about five million people a year visit the South Rim.  It’s closer to Phoenix, obviously, and closer to Las Vegas.  It’s very developed – there are many choices for accommodations and eating, and more nearby communities.

The North Rim gets a tenth of the South Rim’s traffic – about half a million people a year visit.

It’s more challenging to get to, with a tiny fraction of the tourist infrastructure as you find in the South.

But if your visit is oriented to the north – that is, you’re doing some iteration of the “Grand Circle” – it makes no sense to do the South Rim, which may be ten miles across the Canyon, but is a four hour drive from the North Rim.

And since we were doing Zion and Bryce, North Rim It was.

(Also good to note that if you want to see the Grand Canyon at any time other than between May and October, you must do the South Rim.  The North Rim is only open during the summer and early fall because of snow.)

Accommodations are a challenge.  Unless you are camping, there are only three even sort-of nearby choices for the North Rim.

About 45 minutes from the actual Grand Canyon is the Jacob Lake Inn, which also features a café, a small store, a well-known bakery and a gas station.  It would not be a bad choice, if you were just looking to spend one day at the park – and as I learned, while I was glad we spent two days, I think you can get a good sense of the Grand Canyon in one day – if the weather is good, you can actually do all of the driveable and walkable vistas and viewpoints in a day, easily.

Closer in, about 5 miles from the Park entrance (which would then put you still about 17 miles from the Rim), is the Kaibab Lodge.

Finally, in the park itself, is the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge, operated by Forever Resorts (which operates several other NPS accommodations, including the Bryce Canyon Lodge.)

It is much larger than the other two, of course, with a variety of types of rooms, including regular motel rooms and cabins with various layouts. Because I didn’t want to drive 45 minutes back and forth, and because I just wanted the experience of being right there at the Grand Canyon, this was my choice.

So of course, given the distance of the other two accommodations from the actual park, you can see what’s most popular.  Which means it has a reputation of being devilishly hard to get – A YEAR IN ADVANCE YOU MUST.

Well…not so sure about that.

No, I wouldn’t wait until the week before I left, having purchased airfare and rented a car to finally get around to trying to get a room at the GCNR Lodge, and if you definitely know when you are going to be there, sure…go ahead and grab the rooms that far in advance.

But if you have flexibility and if you decide, for example, today, that you’re going to try to hit the North Rim next week…yes, you might be able to get a room, and if you’re thinking…maybe next month?  Sure.  You can do it.

Check the availability calendar (screenshot taken today –  6/24)  and see.

gcnp

And here’s the thing: at this point, you can make and cancel reservations at the Lodge with no penalty.  Yes, they charge your card with a deposit when you make the reservation, but I found that after making and cancelling a few times, they reversed the charges very quickly without having to be asked. And this is what people do – you grab something when it comes free, and then if you really would like something different, you wait, check many times a day, and when what you want comes free, you make that reservation and cancel the last one.

Availabilty changes constantly. Part of the reason, I think is that tour companies reserve blocks of rooms many months in advance, and as they change plans and group sizes, rooms become available.

So when I first started planning, I reserved a couple of days in the first rooms that came up, near the end of our trip. But then I started wondering if I really wanted us to do the Grand Canyon at the very end, and then have a fairly long drive back to Vegas, made even longer by everyone’s interest in seeing Death Valley, which is two hours beyond Vegas.  So I started looking at the middle of the trip, which was, unfortunately, Memorial Day.  The type of cabin I wanted finally came available for Monday the 25th, so it was up to me now to watch and wait to see if anything would come open either the 24th or 26th.  A few days later, the 24th came open for the same type of cabin, I booked it online, then called the reservations center to consolidate the bookings – they are super nice, and used to people doing this reserve/cancel/consolidate dance.

What did we finally get?

A “rim-side Pioneer Cabin.”

Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge

Described here.

Some of the cabins are duplex style, this was not.  There were two bedrooms, one with a double bed, the other with bunks and a futon.  The bathroom was modern and clean, both rooms had space heaters, and there was a small fridge.  Yes it was, “rim-side” but unfortunately, ours didn’t exactly have a view. From the cabin.

Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge

That’s our cabin on the right.   That’s how far I had to walk to get the view in the second photo.  Not bad!

There are “nicer” cabins with front porches, and that are larger, but those are all located closer to the actual Lodge (which might be nice for you if you don’t want to have to walk far to eat)…but that means they are also right in the thick of foot traffic – I mean, you get a front porch, but what you get to see (and hear) from your front porch is mostly other people walking around.

Some points, addressing complaints and comments about the Lodge one finds online:

  • I can’t speak to the non-cabin accommodations – the complaints are that they are small and cheaply done.  But the cabin we stayed in was just fine.  It was very clean, warm and not-buggy.  The linens were clean, the bathroom was modern.  I have no complaints.  Yes, it was a little expensive, but you are paying TO STAY AT THE GRAND CANYON.
  • There is walking involved.  You can’t pull right up to your cabin and unload your luggage at the door.  You may have to walk forty feet.  Oh dear. GRAND CANYON.
  • Noise? We didn’t experience any.  We weren’t, as I said, in a duplex cabin or motel room, so that wasn’t an issue.  I found the park very quiet and peaceful at night. You would hope so, right?
  • Note: NO WI-FI at the Lodge or any of those rooms.   There is a General Store at the campground, about a mile down the road, with Wi-Fi.  There was a part of me that thought they should have Wi-Fi at the Lodge, in the lobby area at least, but then I had a vision of dozens of people sitting there in front of the picture window, Grand Canyon spread out in front of them, their noses up against their phone screens.  So…probably not. We can live without it.
  • Also at the campground is a laundromat, which I used.
  • They don’t sell bottled water at any of these National Parks, which is a good thing, but be prepared – have your own refillable bottle, or be ready to buy one there.
  • The food at the main restaurant is expensive and not very good.  We didn’t do the restaurant for dinner – I had made reservations, but then I looked at the menu and the prices and cancelled.  We did the breakfast buffet one morning, and it was mediocre at best.  Turkey bacon like leather, cold biscuits, that sort of thing. Nice waitress, though.  All of the employees were courteous and friendly. No complaints there.
  • There is a “deli” like place right next to the Lodge which has good sandwiches and pizza at decent prices.  The boys said the pizza was really good.  There’s also a “saloon” that sells alcoholic beverages and has a few food menu items.
  • And that’s it for food.  So really, take as much food as you can in with you (although it would need to be the kind you don’t have to , you know, cook…since the rooms don’t have anything but fridges – sandwiches that will keep for a day, milk, cereal, bars, fruit, carrots, crackers, cheese, bread).  You will probably want to avoid the restaurant, especially if you have a family.
  • (For contrast…the Death Valley accommodations are also isolated and also function as a monopoly, but they are operated by a different vendor –Xanterra (which also operates the South Rim lodge)   – and the food was much better and more fairly priced.)
  • I was curious about the employees. They are seasonal, obviously, since the place is only open a few months a year.  They all live on site, and many, it seems, are foreign students – I heard a lot of Eastern European accents while I was there.

Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge

This is the view of the main Lodge from one of the little hiking trails that goes out from it.  

The Lodge building itself is wonderful – historic and classic “National Park” style, with a fabulous glass-enclosed viewing lounge as well as patios with chairs.  The dining room also has that great view (those are the windows on the left) but again, the food isn’t good, and you can walk ten feet and sit on a couch and enjoy the same view. I thought I had photos of that lounge, but I can’t seem to find them.  You can get a good sense of it just from this search.  

Okay!

Well, I had intended to make this post about our first day at the Grand Canyon, but time is running out, so this will have to do.  But maybe it will help you out if you’re planning a trip…add your own insights if you like!

Tomorrow….

Grand….

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— 1 —

More rocks:

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Yes, its Grand.

We did the North Rim – given the other parts of our itinerary, the South Rim made no sense.  And no regrets.

— 2 —

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But before that, and after Bryce, we stayed for one night at two of these cute Airbnb bunkhouses in northern Arizona. Given it was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, there was nothing else available at a reasonble rate anywhere in northern Arizona or southern Utah.  It was crazy.  (Actually, after driving through, I saw a number of independent motels that probably had vacancies – I need to learn that for areas like this, I need to move beyond the online aggregate search engines for motels/hotels.)

— 3 —

Before we went to the Grand Canyon, we took a quick-ish detour to just drive along the Vermillion Cliffs…stunning.

— 4 —

Trust me, I will be writing a detailed series of posts on this trip next week.  But I’m telling you, I was so moved by the Grand Canyon.

Morning at the Grand Canyon, North Rim.  Both mornings started this way, and it was fascinating to watch the mist, fog and clouds rapidly rise up through the Canyon.

— 5 —

Skipping ahead, after we left Zion, we moved west and did some climbing.  Because after a morning of riding almost twenty miles, what everyone needs is a hike through the desert to find Anasazi petroglyphs:

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— 6 —

Ghosts:

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Rhyolite, a Nevada ghost town.  It existed for less than ten years, at its height boasting of between 8,000-10,000 residents then the boom busted for various reasons.

— 7 —

A few days ago, we were a little chilly. Not today:

"amy welborn"

amy-welborn

He’s pointing to the small white sign on the cliffface (assisted by my post-production arrow) that indicates sea level.badwater2
What I’ve seen of creation the past ten days has been almost overwhelming.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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