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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.

Zion National Park

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.

Zion National Park

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.)

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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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Well, we’re up to Saturday, May 23….at this rate, I might get this trip report finished before the next trip.

Maybe.

As you might recall, we’re finished up our stay at the spindly Bryce Canyon, having survived being taken to the edge by quadrupeds.  Time to move back south…

The destination would be the Grand Canyon, but not until Sunday.  Why? Well, I’ll recap the “planning” process:

Pin down rooms at the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge, which I had believed would be the most difficult to obtain (in retrospect…no. But more on that when we get to Sunday). Then work everything else around that.  The difficult issue was that Memorial Day Weekend falls right in the middle of this, and I had a heck of a time finding rooms that weren’t $300 a night for that Saturday night. (Sunday and Monday were GCNP nights, and I checked many times a day, but nothing ever opened up for Saturday.  It if had, I certainly would have grabbed it).  There are two lodgings not ridiculously far from GCNP North Rim – in Jacob Lake, about 45 minutes out, and then another lodge a big closer. Neither of them had Saturday night vacancies.  I thought I had checked Kanab – just over the border from Arizona in Utah –  out pretty thoroughly, and nothing reasonable ever came up. However, I’ll say now that when I drove around Kanab both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning…I didn’t see packed parking lots in the hotels.  I’m going to guess that the chains that came up on Kayak were either indeed unavailable or too expensive for me, but there might have been independent motor lodges and such that weren’t listed on those aggregate engines.

It turned out fine, and we had an adventure, but staying in Kanab would have saved me a bit of driving…a trade-off.  But that’s the way it is with [insert Life Lesson and Metaphor here].

SO, where we ended up for Saturday night was this, via AirBnB – two little “bunkhouses” just a bit south of Colorado City (does that ring a bell? Well it just might….). That would be our goal for the end of the day, but in between Bryce and that spot was a lot of space and all day, so…time to set out and find stuff to do!

First stop, very close to Bryce, is Red Canyon – which is certainly red! We only spent about thirty minutes here – a place where Butch Cassidy is supposed to have used for a hideout – but you could certainly spend all day, at least.

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Then we’d catch 89, and take it to Kanab.  Every town along the way had at least one historical marking, each telling the tale of yet one more Mormon settlement.  Rock shops are also very common, not surprisingly, and we stopped at one where we learned all about the Septarian Nodule – Geode-like, but not really – and bought a few things, including some small pieces of petrified wood.  The owners gave us restaurant advice, but we didn’t take it, continuing on down to Kanab.

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Kanab is a small town, but it’s a pretty busy gateway, with several hotels, including the Parry Lodge, famed for the movie stars who stayed there back in the day –  the area was a popular location for shooting movie Westerns.   I actually thought I’d gotten a room there when I was on the search for Saturday Sleeping, but the woman called me back five minutes later and said, oops, she’d made a mistake.   Alas, no spirit melding with Tyrone Power (my mother’s favorite) this time.

There’s a terrible “Little Hollywood Movie Museum.”  I mean – it’s the worst.  You don’t pay to walk around the purported sets collected behind the shop,  but you know things are in a sorry state when you feel ripped off…. by a free attraction.  I hadn’t heard of any of the movies except McCabe and Mrs Miller , and all it was was a collection of shacks and false fronts (which is all it would be, I know).  There seemed to be a small foreign tour group there that was being led through and being invited to dress up and play with fake guns, but I didn’t stick around to see. It was just awkward.

Lunch was good – at this great little pizza buffet called Lotsa Motsa.  Just what everyone needed.  I always tell my kids when we travel that when they have a chance to eat…EAT A LOT.  Because they never know when they’re going to get a chance to eat again.  Sound sad?  Well, that’s just how our days tend to go on the road, and it’s especially how it can go when you veer into “picky eater” territory.  So they’ve learned: eat what’s there, when it’s there.  A pizza buffet was perfect, and the pizza was actually good. It was a popular place, too – crowded with obvious tourists from all over world, although the group of Asian tourists walked in, then walked right out, back across the street to McDonald’s.

It was early afternoon by then, and we had plenty of time to Do Things, so I decided that we should head back up north a little ways to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. 

On the way, we made one stop, however, at the Best Friends Animal Society.  This is a huge no-kill sanctuary spread over thousands of acres. Folks go and spend days or ever weeks volunteering at the facility.  They do offer tours, but they are lengthy, and you have to reserve them ahead of time – we missed the opportunity, but that’s fine.  I respect the work that they do, as well as their decision to be a refuge and a sanctuary and not a zoo, open to drop-in gawkers like us.

We did see these guys, though:

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"amy welborn"

Such an interesting place.  The red rocks from two more or less parallel mountain ranges blow off into this valley and form enormous dunes of, well, pinkish sand.  What’s unique is that the park is open to both foot traffic and ATV’s (you can see the tracks in the photo), so while you are not going to get a peaceful afternoon in the dunes, ever, probably, everyone seems to respect each other and make way.

We probably spent two hours there  – the boys had a great time wandering and playing their imaginary games, whatever they are about.  I walked a bit, and then just sat and sand dune and people watched.

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There’s a small visitor’s center with super nice folks who talked to me about one of the things that had started to obsess me – finding petroglyphs and dinosaur tracksites.   The woman told me of a couple of near-ish sites and I filed them away for consideration.

Now on to the bunkhouses…finally!

Yes, it was a drive, but it’s what we had to do, and I didn’t mind – I would be driving through places I’d never seen, and they are beautiful places, so why not?

The bulk of the drive took us through the Kaibab Paiute reservation – unfortunately we were too late to go through the Pipe Spring historic site. But we did stop at the convenience store, and very weirdly, saw (as fellow customers) the couple who ran the rock shop we’d been to earlier – which was about fifty miles away…

When I booked these rooms, I hadn’t understood how close they were to Colorado City and Hildale. As we drew near, I saw that it was just a few miles, so I said, “Time for a detour!” and I explained, as best I could, what the FLDS was all about.

(And there’s a restaurant in Hildale – called the Merry Wives Cafe – that I’d hope to get to – but alas, they’re closed on Saturday evening, not surprisingly. I was disappointed.)

Trying not to think of Big Love, we reached the area, and I took a quick drive up and down some main streets, curious, I admit, to see what I would see.   It was early evening, so there weren’t a lot of folks out, but I did see a couple of typically dressed women – in the long dresses and big hair – and the really huge, sprawling, but somewhat ramshackle houses, clearly added onto over time – were quite noticeable, and everywhere.  The place had a shabby, tired, feel about it.

Yup, a quick view was good enough, so it was time to shoot back down the road to our home for the night:

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They’re tiny and immaculate and have absolutely everything you need, including little solar-powered lights (that’s the panel on the roof on the picture directly below- they are good, I think for three hours at a high level and five at a low – I’m pretty sure this was it), bunks inside, a chair, a side table, and a propane space heater.  The toilets were in a separate small outhouse/building and the shower was outdoors (behind a fence!).  The boys had their own pad, and I had mine. It was fun.

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Supposedly this bag containing water and pennies repels flies. Hey, I didn’t see any, so maybe. 

This was the cooking/device-charging area.

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The only unfortunate thing was that it was rainy.  If it hadn’t been, the boys would have spent a lot more time outside playing, and we would have been able to sit outside around a fire (the other people in the other bunkhouses tried to build one, but with no success.) But it was fine – very snug and a lovely little respite.

And dinner? Cheese, crackers and fruit. I warned you, didn’t I!

Now, on to Sunday and…WHAT TIME IS MASS ANYWAY?

"amy welborn"

Welcome Committee.

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Friday, May 22….

Time to ride!

At some point on Thursday, I’d booked a horse/mule/general quadruped ride down into Bryce Canyon.

You have two options: a 2-hour, or half-day trip.  The half-day is really just about four hours. We opted for the latter.  It wasn’t cheap, but it really was worth it.

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Despite my near-terror at times.

You might already know this, but the thing about these creatures and the trails down into canyons involving switchbacks on ledges and cliffs is that their preferred path…is the edge. As in the outer edge of the path. With you perched on top of their hundreds and hundreds of pounds, looking down, watching them pick their way delicately along (did I mention?) the edge, dislodging gravel that you can hear tumble many feet in a downward direction.

It’s the same at the Grand Canyon, and I read that there are something like 140 switchbacks going down (on the south rim, I’m thinking, since that’s the steeper side), and I know now I wouldn’t be able to handle that.

All right, let’s backtrack.

The ride left very early – we were supposed to be there by 7:45, and we were, gathering first at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, and then heading down to the corral where we’d be matched with our rides.  There was one trail guide for about every 6 or 7 riders, it seemed. I got a mule – I don’t know what that says about me, but I did.  The boys got horses, and they, being the only children in our group, rode right up behind the guide then me, then the other 4 riders.

"amy welborn" "bryce canyon"

Various pieces of advice were given, the most important being:

  • Don’t be afraid, nothing will happen, it’s safe, etc., etc.
  • Don’t get too far behind because you don’t want your ride to start running to catch up. Because……?

Better not think about it.  Just keep up with the pack.

The guide was a very nice, super-polite young man, who gave us a few tales about the canyon and what we were seeing, but honestly, not as much as I had expected or hoped – somehow, I thought it would be just a bit more informative regarding the geology and history of the area. Like anything else, it all depends on your specific guide, I suppose.

"amy welborn" "bryce canyon"

"amy welborn" "bryce canyon"

And yes, I was a little nervous. It’s just nerve-racking, as the heavy beast plods along on the edge of a cliff. (Did I mention the edge?).  It’s bad enough when the path is straight, but then you get to the switchback where the animal is going to turn, if not on a dime, at most on a half-dollar, and the gravel is rolling around and dropping..

The woman behind me was on a horse named Comanche, and, well, better her than me.  It was fine, of course, but Comanche was just a little more rambunctious than I would have been comfortable with, and there was one point at which he paused and saw something decent to eat right over the edge, and with his weight, there was a little bit of slipping and sliding, and…

…I’m glad I wasn’t on Comanche.

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But of course it was all fine. Every time. But I won’t deny that I was breathing easier when we finally hit the bottom of the canyon.

"amy welborn" "bryce canyon"

And that’s another thing.  Looking at Bryce from the rim, I had thought that the hoodoos represented the whole of it – that the base of the hoodoos reached the base of the canyon.  But no!  Not at all, not even one bit.  The hoodoos actually begin far above the canyon floor, which is lightly forested with some mostly dry creekbeds. (Remember Bryce “Canyon” exists because of a freezing/thawing cycle more than water flowing at the bottom).  It’s where we stopped for a restroom and water break.

Despite my terror, I am really glad we did this.  The boys claimed they weren’t scared at all, so good for them. I mean…good for them. 

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I’ll write more about this later, but after going to the Grand Canyon, I can see a Rim-to-Rim experience somewhere in my future, but…I’ll walk it, thanks. No question.

********

After lunch in Tropic (here – the boys really liked the hamburgers), the older boy was wiped out and was ready for a rest, but the ten-year old wasn’t near finished, so he and I headed back to the park to do some more hiking.

First we tackled the Navajo Trail.

(I thought I had photos, but I guess not…)

Then, as we left the park, I saw the turn-off for the Fairyland Loop (which is actually before the pay entrance to the park), so we decided to check that out.

If we ever go back, I would finish this one out.  We just walked a little way out on it, since we needed to get back but the landscape and trail itself (see how it goes out in the middle there?) was distinctive enough, I think it would be quite interesting to follow.

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It’s otherworldly.

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Navajo Trail was quite crowded with all kinds of folks, individuals but most in tour groups (Germans, Japanese & Backroads, I noticed in particular)

Back to the hotel – there might have been swimming that night – it was either then or the night before – in the substantial indoor pool at Ruby’s – but no overpriced buffet for dinner.  There was a Subway a couple of miles away, so that would have to do – with no complaints from anyone.

"amy welborn"

A common sight in public places in Utah.  Everything you need.

Tomorrow…heading south, on our way to the Grand Canyon….

thinking)

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It’s Thursday, May 21, and we need to get going, both back in history and in terms of these blog posts….

Now here’s an example of how it’s important, while traveling, to leave space and time for new and unexpected discoveries.  At this point, the shape of the next three days was to be mostly Bryce Canyon. But since I had never been there before, I had no idea how much time we would want or need to get our fill of it.  Would Thursday late afternoon and evening and Friday be enough? Or would that leave us aching for more and regretful that we didn’t have it? Would we want two full days? Three? The accommodations were booked – Thursday and Friday night at Bryce, Saturday night just over the border in Arizona, on the way to the Grand Canyon. But we could spend all day Thursday at Bryce (once we arrived)…or just the evening.  We could spend most of the day Saturday, too. Hmmm.

Decision time.  So, since we had that stretch of time open to us on Saturday, upon rising Thursday morning, I thought we might take a slight detour, head just fifteen minutes north of St. George to Snow Canyon State Park.

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It was…great. 

We spent all morning there, and could have probably spent the day.

It’s a gorgeous, fascinating landscape with lots of fossilized sand dunes, lava fields and white hills (hence the name).

(We never got the white hills, by the way)

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We spent our morning climbing over the dunes.

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Then set out in search of lava tunnels.

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"snow canyon state park"

The trail to those tunnels is clearly marked at first, but somehow, we missed another sign at a crossroads – later, when we did find it, we all wondered how we’d missed it, but we did. No matter. That particular detour led, as detours often do, though, to one of the more memorable sites of our trip – a prairie dog stretched out in a bush, leisurely stuffing berries into its furry fat cheeks.

We didn’t actually go into the lava tunnels because we weren’t at all equipped for it, and besides, I don’t do things like go into lava tunnels when I’m traveling alone with two kids. I’ll do a lot, but I always have the what if something happens  caution in the back of my mind. I mean…there’s only me. Aside from my obvious safety concerns about my kids, sorry, but * I*  have to stay safe. There’s no fallback.

I believe I had read about this park before, but hadn’t worked it in because I was fixated on the big sites and, I’ll repeat, I had no good understanding of the distances, and didn’t realize that it was such an easy drive from St. George. It would be a great spot to spend an entire day…or two….

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We finished up around lunchtime then headed back into St. George to the Chick-fil-A my son had tracked down, and then it was on to Bryce….

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Which is amazing. Other-worldly, and quite out of the blue. You could spend your life living five miles away and never know it’s there – which is sort of what happened, historically.

Almost every natural site we visited on this trip was a canyon or valley, but none were anything at all alike.

Bryce Canyon is called a “canyon,” but it’s not primarily formed, as most “canyons” are by a body of water moving through it, carving that canyon which is the first stage to “valley.”

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These hoodoos and other formations have been formed, they say, not by the wind-generated erosion like that which formed the hoodoos we saw in New Mexico, but by a particular process.  Bryce is in an area subject to extreme temperature variations. During the winter, there is a lot of snow and ice, which settles into the rock. With all these temperature fluctuations and the presence of the freezing, then melting ice, the softer forms of rock crack and erode away.

Let’s backtrack a bit.  How did I get to Bryce? Well, I drove on the interstate 15, then up and over.  For the next few days we’d be staying in accommodations that, I knew, held monopolies over the areas in which they were located, and prices on things like breakfast bars and snacks and fruit would be high (I was right).  I wanted to avoid being gouged, so a side-trip to the Wal-Mart in Cedar City, Utah seemed like a good idea, and it was….and by the way, that was a bit of a shock…to get out of the car into temps in the high 30’s? What?

(It ended up not being that cold in Bryce, though.)

The drive to Bryce takes you through the beautiful and aptly named Red Canyon, which we would visit on the way out.

Now, this part of the entry is for those considering visiting Bryce.  I want to clarify a couple of points that were fuzzy to me before I got there and actually saw how things were laid out.

If you want to stay at Bryce, you don’t have a busy little town as you do at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, or Springdale outside of Zion, with more accommodations and restaurants from which to choose that are right there. (Not necessarily a bad thing, except….)

Starting from the closest to Bryce, your choices are:

  • To stay in the park and the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge, part of the NPS, but operated by Forever Resorts (which also operates the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge).  This is, of course, right in the park, with hiking trails jutting off from it – great location.  There are rooms in the lodge itself, plus a bunch of cabins, which looked nice.  I checked here, but there was never any availability that popped up during the month I was searching. Note, there’s no internet at the Lodge.
  • Moving out from there, you have  the Ruby’s Inn complex right outside the park itself – and I mean, right outside. It’s a five minute drive from the Visitor’s Center. There are two hotels, a general store, a souvenir shop, a campground, gas station, etc. The hotels are now part of the Best Western chain. Super convenient, but you pay for it.
  • Then moving maybe ten to fifteen minutes further down the road, off the Ruby’s Inn property, there are a number of smaller hotels, motels and cabin outfits.

Of course, you can guess that the price of the accommodations increases, the closer you get to the park.

The Lodge wasn’t going to happen for us, so I settled on Ruby’s Inn. It wasn’t terrible. It was fine!  The room was clean and normal sized. I got an internet special, so that helped.  But if I were to do it again, I wouldn’t stay there. Here’s why:

  • The distance of the other, smaller, less expensive accommodations from the park isn’t that far, and the drive is very easy.  You’re not having to deal with winding switchbacks or driving through miles of nothing to get from those further-away hotels to Bryce Canyon.  You can stay in a decent place for less money that’s fifteen minutes away on straight roads that are no hassle to drive any time of the day or night.
  • The Ruby’s Inn complex is a monopoly – they own that property right outside the park (they were the original developers of the area as a park, and that’s all a very interesting history), and ….they hold that monopoly.  Prices on food in both the stores and in the restaurants are very high – ridiculously high, even for an area in which prices do tend to be higher in restaurants because of a general lack of competition and the cost of getting supplies.  I mean….$23 for a mediocre buffet for anyone over 11?
  • I just wouldn’t want to get caught in that web again.

So, that said, there we are…

Checked in, along with half of Germany and a third of Japan (amazing!), and set out to explore.  We drove into the Visitor’s Center, looked around there, then drove on down to a couple of hiking/walking trailheads.

(Note – Bryce, like Zion, runs a shuttle bus system.  Unlike Zion during the summer months, it’s not required, but recommended because of possible parking issues. We drove the car, and had no issues, but it was also early in the season.  Judging from what I saw, I would guess that taking the shuttle in the summer would be your best choice unless you were getting there at 6 AM)

OH – forgot this.  Admission to these popular parks is not cheap, and that’s okay, since they really are one of the things that we do best, and a big chunk of the rest of the world gets to us via these parks, so they’re worth the upkeep. Plus, Nature.  It’s now $25 per private car. Because we were visiting so many of these parks on this trip, I opted to just go ahead and purchase the “America the Beautiful” pass for $80 that gets us into all federal recreation sites (that sounds….penitentiary-like, doesn’t it?).

We drove out to Sunset Point, then walked the Rim Trail to Inspiration Point. Then we did a big chunk of the Queen’s Garden Trail.

It really is unreal.

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And gorgeous.

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Then back to settle in a bit more, eat and then return to the Lodge for a nighttime ranger program on astronomy. We drove out to the Lodge, at which point I discovered I had the program time wrong, so we had 45 minutes to kill. We killed it by driving up through a good chunk of the park and stopping at various viewpoints.

At one viewpoint, there was a very friendly, large raven.  The couple that was there when we drove up said it just hopped right up to them. No fear.  Obviously it has been fed by human beings, and this is too bad.  It really was a little menacing, very Birds-like.  When we went to our car it roused itself and flew right to our car, obviously holding out for one last opportunity.  People are stupid.  Don’t feed the wildlife. Please!

Now, back to the Lodge for the program.  I had been looking forward to this.  In fact, I had scheduled us to be at Bryce on a Thursday night so we could catch one of these astronomy programs.  It turned out not to be….the best use of our time for a couple of reasons.

  • It was cloudy.  This couldn’t be helped, but it did mean there would be no actual star-viewing.  But surely the program would be worth it anyway?
  • Sorry, no. We heard some ranger programs at the Grand Canyon that were very good, and this, unfortunately, was not anywhere near the standard of those.  The well-intentioned, enthusiastic fellow spent an hour giving a sort-of history of the science of astronomy, most of which was familiar to anyone with a high school education and not engagingly-enough presented to interest anyone else.   I had expected a presentation about the skies above Bryce Canyon in May  – what’s up there, how to see it, where to look….and that’s not what we got at all. It was fairly torturous.  Not a good start to the NPS Ranger talk program…but it did get much better, so stay tuned for that.

But this would be awaiting us in the morning….so get a good night’s sleep!

"amy welborn"

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So, where are we?  Yes. Wednesday night, the 20th.

After Hoover Dam, we made our way through the gorgeous Virgin River Gorge on I-15, which gave us the first taste of the amazing, dramatic landscapes coming over the next few days.  I had booked us at the Best Western Coral Hills in St. George.  It had decent reviews and the price was good.

(I don’t believe I’ve ever stayed in Best Westerns before – but I stayed in three on this trip, and was generally impressed. I felt that most of the time, the value for the money was unbeatable.)

Why not go all the way to Bryce that day?  We could have – it would only have been about two more hours, but the truth is that accommodations around Bryce Canyon National Park are a lot more expensive than they are outside the park.  I didn’t know how long we’d spend at Hoover Dam, or what we would discover after we left, so I thought it best – financially, and flexibility-wise – to not think any further than St. George for that night.

It was a good choice!  The hotel was very clean, run by friendly, helpful folks.  And a nice little pool.

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We had some free time in the evening before sunset, so I asked the desk clerk what he would suggest, and he pointed up the cliff above the hotel and mentioned the Pioneer Park – another good choice!

It’s just a park full of red rocks, but you know, the rocks are huge and in intriguing formations, and a great landscape for racing about and pretending you are on another planet or whatever you do.

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The white in the distance is the LDS Temple – the first built in Utah and the oldest in continual use in the state.

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After a couple of hours there, it was dinner time.  I was determined to do LOCAL NO CHAINS. Across the street from the hotel was a diner-looking place called the Iceberg Drive Inn. It seemed to be a regional chain, so I amended the rule to LOCAL NO NATIONAL CHAINS, and in we went.

Mistake.  Should have gone to Wendy’s. Because evidently, Mormons do Wednesday night church, too?  So they were all there. The burgers took forever to get to us and the shake? For which they are famous? Only the 14-year old got one, and since it was chocolate, he was in favor, but really just looking at it, and taking one taste, I wasn’t impressed.  They sell it on the “IT’S HUGE!” factor, but really, it’s more like a Wendy’s Frosty than an actual milkshake.  Plus, they really are stupidly large.

Eh. At least it was just across the street, we could walk back and forth, and therefore absorb the Homey Utah Vibe along with dozens of our local LDS friends…

Bonus:  Why is this town, established by the LDS, called “St. George?” And why are there allusions to “Dixie” all over the place?

1. It was named after a fellow who urged his companions and fellow townspeople to eat raw potatoes as an antidote to scurvy. He was named George, he did life-saving work, so he was referred to as a saint.

2. Brigham Young  assigned his fellow settlers to plant cotton at the outbreak of the Civil War, and many of these people were from the South. So…Utah’s Dixie was born. 

Source!

Tomorrow:  Bryce, finally!

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First, a digression about research and preparation for this trip.

On my part, it was the usual mix of following discussion boards on Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion and Death Valley on Tripadvisor, Frommer’s and Fodors, as well as a few other sites, especially those related to family travel in those areas.  I read the history and scientific/geological background sections in a few guidebooks, brushed up on my Mormon history and read Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy through the Grand Canyon. I had the boys read a few shorter books on the national parks, and one on Powell’s journey.

I had great hopes of watching this American Experience episode on the Hoover Dam, but never got to the right library to check it out.  In retrospect, though, it all might more sense to us now having actually been there.

So…

After I had risen before 7 and gone through the contortions to get the car (hotel shuttle to airport, airport shuttle to car rental center), the boys had breakfast, and we set out on a short drive, first just up and down the Strip – a first for all of us, I’ll add.  We were all sort of stunned in an ambiguous way, and found the stretch of road, even this initial brief introduction, to be very strange and not compelling.  On this first exposure, what surprised my 14-year old sports fan was the proximity of UNLV to the Strip.   I mean…it’s hard for me to imagine sending a kid off to college just a few blocks from that environment.  An education, to be sure.

"amy welborn"Hoover Dam is only about 45 minutes from Las Vegas, and therefore a popular day trip.  We were there on May 20, and the crowds weren’t bad at all, but I would imagine they’d get worse as the summer wears on and tourism to Lake Mead increases – this really only being an issue for two reasons:  the line of traffic through security, and the ability to get on the dam tours you want without eating up your whole day. There’s one tour you can book ahead of time, but the other, you can’t.

The drive to the dam takes you through Boulder City, which came into existence for the thousands of workers on the dam. It’s a nice little town, scattered with statues, both of contemporary art and historical nature, the latter depicting various types of dam workers.

Once you arrive at the dam, there are a couple of options for parking.  First, there’s a pay garag"amy welborn"e on the Nevada side. But if you drive over the dam, there’s a free open lot on the Arizona side (seen at right)  – and since you’re probably going to want to have the experience of walking over the dam anyway, you might as well.  That’s what we did.

Walk over the dam, find the border between the two states, admire the Art Deco design.

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There are two different tours of the interior of the dam:

The Power Plant Tour is the shorter of the two. It lasts about 45 minutes, takes you in a group of about 40 into a short introductory film, then down into the dam to view some of the huge intake pipes and then the power plant.  You can purchase tickets for this tour ahead of time. 

The Dam Tour is longer, and takes you to just one or two more stops. This is the one I had wanted to do …because..longer? So it must be better?  I guess.  But you can’t buy these tickets ahead of time, only on site, and when we arrived (around 11), the next available Dam Tour was at 2:30, and the ticket seller basically told us on the down low…hey, it’s not worth the wait.  You really don’t see that much more.

So Power Plant Tour it was.

Hoover Dam Power Plant TourIt was interesting, and the guide was fine, but honestly, I am so tired of jokey tour guides. They are everywhere.  Caves, historical sites, what have you. The jokes are invariably lame and awkward, and everyone sort of chuckles nervously and wonders why we’re being talked down to like this and can we please move on.  The fellow at Hoover Dam wasn’t the worst, by any means  – those, I repeat, then to be at show caves…they don’t tell you a blasted thing about the geology, but shine their flashlights up to a formation and say things like, “I call that up there my cupid. If you look at it from here, can you see it? Watch out, or my cupid might shoot you! Oooh…did you feel it?”  And other stupid nonsense.  And it’s always my Whatever Formation with those cave guides, like they own the rocks.  I don’t get it.

Back to the dam. This guide had his share of awkward jokes, but he was also informative and, most importantly was able to answer the intelligent questions tossed at him by engineering/historian types in the group.

After the tour, you’re spilled out into the Visitor’s Center (for which you must pay to visit, even without the tour, by the way), for some views of the Dam.  It’s from inside, glassed in at that first level, but nonetheless, there was one middle-aged man, who couldn’t handle it. Clearly terrified, he was being pulled toward the window by his companion, but couldn’t look out. I felt badly for him.

There’s a small history museum, which does a good job of laying out the process of building the dam  Why was it constructed?  The power generation is a side benefit.  The foundational reason behind Hoover Dam was flood control – the "amy welborn"Colorado was so unpredictable and destructive in its flooding, especially as agriculture was developing, something had to be done.  The power generation has, of course, been a boon, and has been what has enabled the Dam to pay for and support itself.

I was particularly interested in the preparation work that had to take place before the first cement could be poured: blasting tunnels so the river could be diverted and the area for the dam itself could be dried and dug out to the bedrock level.  I was also interested in the human stories of families resettling, of the camps that grew, and then Boulder City, and even of the support you don’t even think about, but is absolutely necessary.  There’s a statue in Boulder City of a man with a ring of rolls around his neck.  We passed by and had no idea what it was until we got to the Dam, where we learned that it represented one of the men who took care of the latrine areas for the workers – truly an essential role, with appropriate historical credit given!

After you finish at the dam itself (or before…we just did it after), you can drive back just a couple of miles to the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Bridge that now takes the bulk of traffic crossing the area. It’s a great view and the walk up to the bridge from the parking lot is marked by signage with tons of information on this, the longest single-arch bridge in the United States, and the second-highest bridge in the United States.

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Finished at the dam, we had to backtrack – even though Hoover Dam is east of Las Vegas, and so was Saint George, Utah – our next stop – there was no direct northeast route from Boulder City up to Saint George.  We’d have to backtrack to the east side of Las Vegas to catch I-15, which would take us back up.

After a lunch at Scratch House in Boulder City, and some ice cream….we were on our way….

Previously: 

Part 1: Itinerary

Part 2: The flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas

Next:

Part 4: Saint George, Utah

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You can read Part I – an overview of our itinerary – here. 

If I had not been hamstrung by some uncertainty regarding dates, the way out and back would have been clear: Southwest from Birmingham, direct. We probably could have done it for around 200 bucks a ticket.  However, that uncertainty meant that by the time I could commit to dates, the cheapest tickets on Southwest were no longer available.  Darn.  Then none of the timing for the other Birmingham-based flights were good (You know how it goes – the decent outgoing flight is never paired with doable return flights.), so I turned to Atlanta.

(The Atlanta airport is about a 2-hour drive away from here. It seems as if, with fairly good air connections from Birmingham, you wouldn’t even consider Atlanta anymore, but believe me, it has its attractions  When we came back from Germany last year, the complications and delays on the connecting flight from Atlanta to Birmingham meant that we would actually have gotten home sooner if our flight had ended in Atlanta, and we’d been able to simply hop in the car and drive 2 hours home, rather than waiting around, re-checking our luggage after it went through customs, waiting for a delayed flight to Birmingham…)

Again, because of scheduling (since we were flying out of Atlanta, I didn’t want a super early flight out, nor a terribly late flight back), I ended up booking two 1-ways on 2 different airlines – total cost around $200 a ticket.

The first airline was Spirit – a super budget airline that sells itself based on the “bare fare.”  The fare is for your seat and then everything else – even carryons and water on the flight – is extra.

Which is fine, because they are up front about it.  We had two carryons that I paid for ahead of time..

(Oh, another thing.  What did we take?  For a ten day trip, each of us had a backpack kind of thing, plus we took two suitcases.  If we hadn’t had to pack jackets for chillier temps at the Grand Canyon – we would be there from May 24-26, and the North Rim had only opened on May 15, and it had snowed that first day – we could have gotten away with just one, I think.  I planned on doing laundry (which I did, twice), and none of us are averse to wearing the same thing two days in a row.)

….and we didn’t pay $3.00 for Cokes or what have you on board, so it worked for us.  Yes, the seat pitch was the smallest I’ve ever experienced, but none of us are big people, so it was okay, if weird.

The couple heading for a two-week hiking/camping vacation in Zion  sitting behind us, however, wasn’t as accepting.  Apparently they hadn’t read the fine print, which is actually in big bold font all over the Spirit website, and were totally shocked by the extra costs – didn’t know they were going to have to pay for carry-ons, drinks, etc, and were prepping for Big Protests.

Eh.

Anyway, our flight left Atlanta at 9:30pm – I parked in one of those off-airport parking lots, and the service was amazingly prompt – the van to take us to the airport pulled up even before we could get ourselves fully out of the car.  As I said, the quarters were tight, but it was mostly fine, except for the loud, continual complaining from behind us.

Got to Vegas on time – around 11, despite some delays on the ground in Atlanta.

Caught a taxi to the hotel, which was this one – the McCarran Best Western – super cheap at $50/night, and a very good value. It was clean, close to the airport, had free breakfast.  They also have a free shuttle to and from the airport, but it only runs until 11, so we couldn’t catch it when we arrived.  I did, however, use it the next morning, when I got the rental car.

I knew I wouldn’t want to bother with getting the car right when we arrived so late at night.  Hauling the kids with the luggage onto the shuttle that takes you several miles away to the off-airport car rental facility, dealing with the inevitable high pressure from the counter agent, and then driving through a strange city back to the hotel at midnight didn’t seem like a fantastic end to that first travel day. So instead, I booked the car for Wednesday morning, got up early, got the free hotel shuttle to the airport, found the shuttle to the car rental facility, walked right up to the counter (no line at 7am), got the car (Nissan Rogue SUV, Hotwire rate, less than $300 for ten days), drove back on largely empty streets, and was back by 7:45. With Me Time inhe car as an extra bonus. Hey, I take what I can get

"amy welborn"

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Next…off to Hoover Dam!

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