Before leaving Vegas, we hit one of my favourite restaurants – Hash House – for some Indiana-farm inspired brunch. Sage fried chicken with bacon waffles and chipotle salmon eggs benedict. Prepare to salivate.
And then we left Vegas. A flying visit but that is the only way my sanity can do it – after weeks of hiking and wilderness and sleepy motels, Vegas was a true shock to the system. Blaring horns, bustling crowds, endless smoking and the flickering lights of gamble and losses can really push a quiet mind. So, adios America – see you soon, hopefully for another trip to Lake Crescent in Washington, possibly the most perfect place on earth. Just look at that serenity.
Our final day of our adventure. We had an early start to Page, where we had booked onto a tour of the famous and oft-photographed Antelope Canyon, a sacred place on Navajo land. Carved by wind, water and regular flash flooding, the canyon is a beautiful sculpture of narrow, twisted corridors and eerie, red passages. Even the entrance to the canyon is stunning:
We visited Antelope Canyon on our last trip, by kayaking across Lake Powell to hike in from the opposite end but now we wanted to see the classic slot canyon views. As the canyon is on a Native American reservation you can only visit with a guided tour or permit and it gets pretty busy. Our tour was with a knowledgeable and deadpan guide and an interminable Australian tourist who kept crying about how ‘spiritual’ everything was, from the canyon to a bird to the effing bus ride.
We had been warned about the canyon as it gets pretty crowded and as slot canyons are by their nature narrow and slotty, there was some scrambling and single-file navigating of tour groups and gawping idiots with tripods. Still, definitely worth it.
The 'heart' of the canyon.
We spotted a huge horned owl watching over us from the roof of the canyon. Of course, the Australian tourist burst into more tears and proclaimed it her sacred animal and a sign that she was ‘meant’ to be there. Our native American guide instantly slammed her down, explaining that owls were messengers of death and should not be revered as ‘spirit animals’ just because they are cute. BOOM. The Australian did shut up for about five minutes. The owl looked unimpressed by the whole thing.
Back at Page, we had two more stops before driving to Vegas for our final night in the US. The first was Horseshoe Bend, an overlook to a meander of the Colorado River (and the part that we canoed down yesterday!). It is a hard sight to describe in words (and harder to take a decent picture of without a step ladder and nerves of steel) but here we go.
Our final stop was at the Glen Canyon dam. Having canoed from one side of it down the Colorado, and kayaked on the other side in the beautiful Lake Powell, we wanted to see how this dam had changed the landscape of the river. Scarily, when the dam site was being decided in the 60s, many people were in favour of damming and flooding the Grand Canyon or Canyonlands instead, destroying these sites of natural beauty for the ever increasing need for water as humans insist on inhabitant and cultivating deserts. It is hard to see what the Colorado River may have been like without the dam, but it is definitely an intrusive sight on the landscape.
When exploring beautiful natural vistas, I tend to go through several emotional stages. Having discussed this with people with similar interests, I am confident that I am not alone with these feelings of natural disillusionment:
1). I want to see a place of natural beauty such as the Grand Canyon
2). I love the Grand Canyon – I want to see more!
3). I look for more nature, more wilderness, places off the beaten path, places more stunning, more extreme, harder to access
4). I start to realise the impact that my curiosities have on nature – roads plowed through forests, wilderness crippled and tamed, agencies like the National Park Service and Forestry Service given powers to poison rivers to introduce fishable trout, sell trees to logging businesses, kill off wolves because they hunt more palatable elk.
5). I start to feel guilty about the impact of my curiosity
6). I reflect on this impasse and have a tantrum on a mountain or a breakdown in a stream
7). I decide to live my life regardless, in a way that allows my love and interest of nature whilst acknowledging my impact and finding ways to make amends for it
I challenge you to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or hike up Angel's Landing, or wade the cooling waters of the Virgin River and not feel the same.
And so, onwards to Vegas. The gaudy lights of this artificial oasis rises up out of the sands like a blight. Vegas is a place you have to love and also hate – the pinnacle of human arrogance, a miracle in the desert purely designed for play. On the rec of a trusted friend, we checked into The Orleans which we hoped would be a casino of creole mystery, delicious Cajun cuisine, hurricane cocktails and voodoo. We were mostly disappointed although we did have a little flutter on the machines, some pretty good Louisiana gumbo, alligators and corridors right out of The Shining.
After an unslept night, we found ample evidence of our nocturnal prowlers – tiny footprints everywhere, larger prints which we later identified as racoon, and even larger prints that are still unidentified and I don’t want to think too much about. At least we didn’t hear any redneck Deliverance banjo solos.
Still, the beautiful view of nature unspoiled by humanity (28 Days Later… level beautiful) was totally worth it.
After a few more miles in the canoe, we stopped for a break at a secluded bank to admire the view and noticed a very musky smell in the grasses. We found what could only be mountain lion prints. Check out these bad boys:
Now, mountain lions are known to be solitary and wary of humans. But, they are also big bastards who can tear out a jugular without really trying, so we decided to be wary and finish our trail mix quickly return to our canoes. Oh yeah, they can also swim.
We stopped up again to explore a slot canyon that was barely marked on the map. Compared to the busy spaces hyped by national parks and guided tours, this canyon was just as striking but empty of other explorers. Another lovely, peaceful place.
Eventually, we made it back to the launch site and loaded our canoe back onto the car. We drove to the lodge and unloaded it, more than ready for showers, beers and ribs but already missing the solitude of the river, rabid chipmunks aside.
We woke in good spirits in preparation of our night on the Colorado. After a ridiculously massive breakfast of eggs and jalapeno sope (yummy, extra thick Mexican tortilla) from the gruff Arizonian chef at the lodge, we picked up the rental canoe and strapped it to the roof of our car (again, don’t tell the rental company). The chef told us about the condor release project and that you can sometimes see these incredible birds circling the Vermillion Cliffs.
Our plan was a two-day canoing trip from the Glen Canyon dam down the Colorado River through the canyon that eventually becomes the Grand Canyon, with a night camping on the banks. As the flow from the dam is fairly strong, we booked a backhaul boat to take us up river rather than try to paddle against the flow. As we had time before the boat, we drove (slowly) to nearby Marble Canyon to look at the view and spot condors. Amazingly, we saw one. They are huge birds, ugly as sin (like massive, freakish vultures) with 10 foot wingspans. The bird circled the cliffs and was attacked by a couple of foolhardly crows. Crows are epic – they don’t give a damn about anything.
We went to the launch site and got our backhaul up to the canyon. There was a group of people planning to raft down the Grand Canyon (it takes 22 days and seems to require more planning and equipment than Hannibal crossing the Alps) – compared to them, we looked both proper and unprepared. We had heard a rumour that Americans are so aware of terrorism since 9/11 that snipers line up along the Glen Canyon dam to prevent anyone trying to paddle right up to the valuable structure. We asked our backhaul captain about this and he laughed, but did not deny such rumours.
Deposited downriver of the dam, we started our journey by canoe. The water was clear and beautifully green. We saw two other boats on the river – both fishermen – but no one else. We saw diving hawks scoop fish from the water and chattering crows followed our progress from the cliffs. Murders of crows, in fact, as promised. Far quicker than we expected, we reached our campsite three miles downriver and hauled up. No one else was camping and we didn’t see a soul as we put up our tent and set a fire to cook chilli and more s’mores. A more beautiful spot to sleep has yet been found. I anticipated a night of tranquillity in the heart of nature, far away from the intrusion and frustrations of human noise and misery.
Instead, I was terrorised all night by chipmunks. The little f***ers climbed under our tent, over our tent, chewed at the fastenings and generally made a nuisance until dawn. Now, chipmunks are small and cute but when you are lying at a supposedly isolated campsite with only a thin sheet of nylon between your physical being and your recollections of a thousand horror films (Wolf Creek? Eden Lake? I Spit on Your Grave? Blair Witch Project? Evil Dead? Shall I go on?), even the tiny scamperings of a rodent can be terrifying. We also heard larger, more determined animals pushing through the trees – we had read warnings of mountain lions that prowl the banks of the Colorado. And after waking to try and catch the rodents in the act, I found instead a MASSIVE spider on my pillow. Yep, no sleep for Amy.
Today was another day of mostly driving. That’s the problem with an American road trip, the US is generally frickin’ huge and some days have to be sacrificed to eating miles. We left our ghost town and headed into Moab for brunch and a few last minute supplies for our camping trip. There had been some rumours of bears on the Colorado River but we tried not to think about that too much. James did read a news story entitled ‘Murders on The Colorado’ but it turned out to be referring to crows.
After feasting on Anasazi beans and cranberry smoothies (yes, Moab is one of those places) we headed south towards Monument Valley. We stopped at the town of Monticello and met a sweet lady in the visitor centre who was obsessed with Doctor Who. She gave us lots of great advice and was very excited when we said ‘brilliant’ – we sounded just like David Tenant, apparently.
We crossed into Navajo land where the rock formations have grand names like ‘Valley of the Gods’ and ‘El Capitan’. On a whim, we stopped at Goosenecks State Park to look at the incredible meanders on the Colorado River – we will be canoeing around a similar meander near Page in a few days. The river is mostly green/brown due to all the silt and wonderfully fertile, if less attractive.
On our last trip, we skipped Monument Valley in favour of another day at Canyonlands but we thought we should at least drive through it on this visit. The ‘monuments’ are towering monoliths of red rock that paint a perfect Wild West picture in the desert (most Westerns were filmed using this backdrop and John Wayne had a cabin around here). Some have funny names like ‘Mexican Hat’ and ‘Bear and Rabbit’ but if I’m honest, they all just look like rocks. There is a charge to do the full drive of the scenic tour but we were cheeky and just looked at them from the road.
The Navajo reservation is a weird combination of stunning scenery and sad little towns. On our way out of Tuba City (no tubas, not much of a city), we turned onto a dirt road at a random sign for ‘dinosaur tracks’. A Navajo man called Mike flagged down our car and offered us a tour. There were thousands of tracks all over the sandstone. He pointed out Dilophosaurus and Velociraptor tracks, a huge T-Rex footprint and fossilised claws, bones, eggs and 65 million year old poo. His patter was a little exaggerated – he suggested that two pairs of static prints were evidence of raptors watching in awe as a meteorite hit the earth and wiped them out – but entertaining. He insisted we take a raptor tooth and some petrified wood as a gift. It was interesting to see ancient relics preserved differently to a museum or national park, where the Navajo can gather the many teeth or bones and take tourists out to the trails without restriction.
Finally we made it to Lees Ferry Lodge, one of few outposts in a picturesque middle of nowhere known as Vermillion Cliffs. We had an awesome dinner of smoked trout and sweet potato fries before packing up for our camping night on the Colorado River. There must be something about us that is attracted to abandoned things - at time of writing, it appears that we are the only people at the lodge, and the restaurant just closed and the chef and server went home. It’s just us and the moon.
Today we were back to our favourite park, the under-rated, rarely visited Canyonlands. After haggling a little with the trailer park owner about ATV rental costs ($299 for four hours?! No way), we went to the national park for the stunning vista points.
Canyonlands is especially dramatic but – as explained by a friendly ranger Nathanial, whose geology talk we attended and hi-jacked – the park doesn’t have any of the iconic images which its sister parks have adopted as logos eg south rim, delicate arch, Zion canyon. Plus, it is less accessible – there is no fancy lodge, no restaurants or motels or gas stations. Just how we like it.
We kept the ranger talking far too long about dark tourism and ghost towns and Chernobyl (he expressed his interest in going and we reminded him that there was a war on), so much so that he missed the start of his next talk. After a few short hikes along the rim and some photos of massive, prehistoric ravens, we headed back to our ghost town for more exploring.
On a creaky old sign at the edge of town was a crude, hand-drawn map suggesting a route to Indian pictographs and Sago, another ghost town. We drove our car as far as we dared along the town’s dirt-road, passing more creepy half-inhabited houses, including one whose fence was adorned with what I can only assume are the pelvis bones of unlucky female hikers, then parked up at the side of the road to hike the rest of the way.
The Indian pictographs were interesting but also quite disconcerting – there seemed to be a trend among drawing what are undoubtedly aliens. Tall, elongated figures with hollow eyes who hold serpents and all manner of other creepy paraphernalia. Maybe the X Files was on to something with all that Anasazi bullcrap.
A further two miles from the alien landing stop, we found the remnants of Sago. A small mining town obviously fallen to ruin, with interesting wooden bridges and little mining huts. While exploring one of the huts, I noticed the unmistakable smell of death (after my work with the SDPD, I know what dead bodies smell like). I saw a dark suited man standing by the ruin. He disappeared the second I noticed him. My first ghost in a ghost town!
We found a few collapsed houses, some bullet-ridden Bonnie and Clyde cars and a stone building that may have been a bank. I love ghost towns, especially when you come across a piece of humanity – some clothing, a cup, a scrap of wallpaper lovingly chosen. A place of hope now left as sad, lonely little memories, trapped in time because their owners have fled.
On our way back to the car we found more ruins and what may have been a cemetery. Jack-rabbits followed our drive back to the trailer, where the sun was just starting to set. As the evenings grew colder, we grew more anxious about the dropping temperatures and whether we’d freeze to death on our camping trip. I guess it depends if the mountain lions eat us first.
Today mostly involved driving, from our little cabin in Kanab through Capitol Reef National Park to a ghost town outside Moab where we are spending the next few nights. On our route we did pass some incredible views as the landscape changed from red sandstone to craggy cliffs and yellow cottonwood trees, to bleak desert without signs of civilisation.
We stopped briefly in Capitol Reef National Park. We weren’t that impressed with this park on our previous visit – compared to its neighbour parks, it’s pretty unremarkable, but this time the cottonwoods were out in full yellow glory (although it was still fairly dull).
We carried on towards Thompson Springs, an abandoned town that used to be a thriving railway stop-off before the I-70 diverted all trade and left it in ruin. Our home for the next two nights was a converted trailer on the edge of town and we immediately set to exploring the place. A deserted railway station, motel, grocery store and plenty of cute wooden houses, all left to nature and the elements, are all that’s left. An ancient train did pass through town but it didn’t stop (it might have been a ghost train, though). Sad, when people still live here. As with most ghost towns in America, it is often hard to tell which houses are empty and which still have inhabitants clinging to survival.
We went into Moab for dinner (on account of the local diner looking a little…. haunted). Moab is a pretty town but also super trendy, full of people who love both the outdoors and massive gas-guzzling trucks. Hmm, paradoxical. We had huge salads that had no business calling themselves salads in the Peace Tree restaurant where an aging jazz man serenaded no one on the patio.
Back at our ghost town, the only sounds we could hear was the wind whistling through the crawlspace and the occasional hoot of a far off train. It is definitely eerie but also a sad little place, a shell of its former bustle and success. A perfect place to spend a few, scary nights.
(as a side teaser, this was not the creepiest night I was to have on our road trip.... we still had a camping trip ahead)
Sadly, my excitement about hiking to The Wave meant that I didn’t sleep a wink which may have been a disadvantage before embarking on a gruelling hike. It was only six miles round trip but it did involve desert hiking (sand, which I hate), ascending and descending several peaks, no shade at all and avoiding tarantulas, scorpions and rattlesnakes. We also found out that people regularly die on this hike due to not taking enough water. The rangers advised a gallon per person – that is a heavy amount of water to lug on your back.
The first challenge was getting to the trailhead. The first 30 miles out of Kanab were easy – the last 8 miles were more challenging. An unpaved, rocky dirt road that we definitely, definitely shouldn’t have taken our rental car down. We took it slowly – ten miles an hour makes eight miles an interminable distance – and were a bit unsettled when we saw a 4x4 tear past us only to promptly get a flat tyre and pull over. Nerves in shreds, we finally made it to the trailhead and started the hike to The Wave.
The Wave is a hidden rock formation carved in swirling red sandstone by air and water – without a detailed map or GPS location, you would be unlikely to find it and apparently people have hiked all day with no joy. It is true wilderness here – no trail markers, no obvious routes, very disorienting desert landscape – and to keep it that way, only 20 people are allowed to hike to The Wave per day.
Now, I could write endless words on the solitary beauty of this place but it wouldn't do it justice. Photos also do not come close but here are some anyway:
On our way back, we scoured the desert for wildlife. Sadly we didn’t spot any snakes or coyotes (most likely too hot for them) but we did find a dinosaur print. The area is littered with the little beasts’ feet.
Back at the trailhead, we braved the 8 miles of unpaved road again to join the freeway back to our final night in the little Kanab cabin. I don’t know what it is about the Utah sky but they have the most amazing sunsets.
Next stop – our trailer in a ghost town near Moab. Let’s hope we make it out alive.
This was to be our easy day – to recover from Observation Point and rest for another hike tomorrow. We had intended to go back to Zion but after giving The Wave permit lottery one more shot before we left Kanab but…. WE GOT PERMITS! The last bingo ball called from the wheel was ours, taking the last two hiking permits for tomorrow away from all the disappointed faces. Suck it, WE’RE GOING TO THE WAVE!
Obnoxious celebration aside, we sat through a half hour orientation on what to do with our permits and how to get to the rock formation (how ironic if we spent all day looking for the damn thing) then we decided to drive 80 miles to the Grand Canyon North Rim to chill out in anticipation of our plans the following day. Now, I’ve made this rant before but I’m going to say it again… the south rim of the Grand Canyon is an overrated tourist trap. It may be 209 miles extra driving but the north rim is worth the detour, for the following reasons in photographic form:
1). The surrounding area is more beautiful than the south rim:
2). It is more apocalyptic:
3). The rim view is just as stunning:
4). They have buffalo roaming free:
5). The park and hiking trails are empty, even in peak visiting season:
6). The lodge and cabins are epic:
The man who runs the gift store was closing up for the season and told us that he was one of nine people staying at the lodge over winter, for maintenance work but he also intended to write a book. He had left his life as an attorney in DC because he craved solitude - his idea of solitude is five months snowed into the lodge with only a snowmobile to get away from the axe murderers (or get him to an axe store, depending which way it goes). I asked if he was worried about a Shining–esque scenario; he laughed and clicked a counter on his belt, telling me I was the 367th person to ask him that. He didn’t seem worried. He said he would never have an opportunity like this again. The only thing that worried him was the intensity of a raven’s wing beat over the deserted canyon and whether the silence would get to him. He is my new spirit guide. I WANT HIS LIFE.
After a relaxed afternoon strolling down the various rim trails and vista points (of which there are many), we dove back out to Kanab to the most mundane task of laundry. Would love to stay and chat some more but we’ve got to prepare ourselves for The Wave and that includes an attempted early night (not binge-watching American Horror Story, no matter how tempting….).
Today was the day. James had mentioned his desire to do a particular hike in Zion listed under the ‘strenuous’ section. I won’t lie, I’ve been a little apprehensive about this excursion.
After another unlucky attempt at getting a permit for The Wave, we went back into Zion. The Observation Point hike is serious business – 8 miles up several mountain peaks, 2148 ft elevation increase in desert heat. Interestingly, we were the only people who got off the shuttle bus at the trailhead. I tried not to see this as an omen (it totally was an omen).
We started the hike in fairly good spirits – it was a steep incline with repeated dusty switchbacks, but the view of Angel’s Landing and the surrounding peaks was spectacular. We saw a few people striding past us who appeared to be unprepared – trainers, no water, no sun protection – but we tried not to feel silly for being overly-cautious. We did see a few hikers with ‘seflie poles’, so they could film themselves hiking. Definitely more useful than water or sunscreen – I guess it is useful for recording your last will and testament as you die of dehydration in a ravine, alone, with no one to care if you’ve updated your blog or not (the irony of that sentence is not lost on me).
Soon the hike curved round the side of the peak into a rock formation called Echo Canyon. It was incredibly noisy – a group of high school kids were finishing their lunch on the sweeps of rock, but as soon as they left it was silent. A pack of rabid chipmunks swooped in after them in search of chips and cookie crumbs and Taylor Swift posters but we managed to escape unscathed.
Soon the hike became… darker. By which I mean steeper, hotter and more painful, with sheer-drop canyon edges and a very narrow trail. This might be the most intense hike I have ever attempted, or at least a close second to going halfway down the Grand Canyon then straight back up. Interesting fact: symptoms of heat exhaustion include fatigue, dizziness, confusion, disorientation and mad thoughts about what to buy dead people for Christmas. Luckily, we had trail mix and Gatorade which may literally have saved my life (and a ton of money – they’re dead, what could they need other than a new coffin?).
After what felt like a hundred years of penance for all the wicked thoughts I’ve had, we made it to Observation Point. Was it worth it? Yeah, it was frickin’ worth it. I can now see why Utah calls itself ‘The Greatest Earth on Show’.
The hike back down wasn’t anywhere near as torturous, mainly because we got to be the smug gits passing weary uphill climbers with encouraging smiles and assurances that it was worth it. I should have warned them really because the hike was still a beast (and accidents do happen).
Miles hiked: 8
Elevation gained: 2148
Coffins purchased: none!
Rabies infected chipmunks avoided: 72