We usually take our summer breaks after everyone has gone back to work. This is because my summers are very busy and things settle down once the academic year starts again. It also has the added advantage that with everyone back to work and school, prices are cheaper and places are less crowded. Thus it was in September 2016, we ventured down to the southwestern part of the USA, specifically southern Utah and Arizona. This is desert country and full of spectacular scenery, often featuring in TV shows and the movies, but is far more spectacular in real life. The highlights were to be the National Parks down there, specifically Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon National Parks. However, we also like exploring and traveling from place to place, seeing the local areas is just as much fun . Having never been to the southwest before, it was also going to be a new part of the country to me. We weren’t dissappointed.
The trip started by flying into Las Vegas, grabbing a car and getting the heck out of town. Las Vegas has absolutely NO attraction to me. When we picked up the car it was over 100 degrees in the shade!
Getting out of town, we got onto the main highways north, heading for Utah. Immediately, the immensity of the American southwest strikes you with the vast landscapes opening out and the huge wide open skys above you. As in the movies, the road stretches off to the horizon.
On the road heading north though Nevada
Northern Nevada is somewhat dusty and a bit grey, with scrubby desert, but as we clipped through the extreme northwestern tip of Arizona and into Utah, the scenery became more majestic and thrilling, with the rocks and desert taking on the red colours so frequently seen in the movies set in the southwest desert. (It turned out there is a reason why the scenery in movies often has red rocks in it – as we were to find out, many westerns and films of similar genres were filmed in this area). After getting off the interstate, and stopping to collect provisions, we made our way up into the hills on smaller roads to the small town of Springdale, UT, where we were to stay for two nights.
Climbing up into the southern mountain range of Utah
Approaching Springdale as the sun goes down
Upon arriving, it was late in the day and the sun was dropping, emphasizing the magnificent redness of the sandstone scenery and vast openness of the Utah desert. So we grabbed a bite to eat, meeting a nice couple from Blackpool as we did so, and headed for bed, truly thrilled to be here.
View from the Hotel
The next day, we woke up to a truly spectacular view of the mountains that surround the hotel. Heading on up to Zion Canyon after breakfast, we took a hike up one of the trails, the Watchman trail. This heads up the mountain, giving truly stunning scenes, but about half way up, I suddenly started to get severe vertigo and lost the ability to determine which way was up! This isn’t a good thing when you are walking along a cliff edge! Indeed, I was to experience this throughout the trip, which certainly made things more interesting when at places like the Grand Canyon! Although we pressed on for a while, we eventually decided that it wasn’t worth it, took a reak and headed back down. It was a disappointment, but better than falling off a cliff!
Taking a break halfway up the Watchman Trail on a natural stone chair
Back down in the canyon, we headed off up through the park. No cars are allowed in Zion Canyon, the main area of Zion National Park (a good thing!), apart from those on the main road transiting the park, and so there are buses taking you to various parts of the park. This was a good system and you can drop-off and pick up a bus quite easily. Since it was Labor Day weekend, the park was quite full and had everyone had a car, it would have been horrendous. We went right up to the head of the canyon, a natural amphitheater known as the Temple of Sinawava, a truly spectacular location. I’m afraid that after the mornings vertigo, I was not up for the scary climb known as the Angels Landing Trail, a trail that runs along the extreme edge of a cliff climbing to the tip of one of the highest peaks in the park. No thank you. Instead, we had lunch down by the river with a very determined ground squirrel!
Natural Ampitheatre known as Temple of Sinawava
Hungry and Determined ground squirrel – “Can I have some of your sandwich?”
By late afternoon, we had had enough and headed back to the hotel. Someone mentioned that it was truly spectacular up at Kolob reservoir, which is a very remote lake just outside of the park, accessible by vehicle, but with hardly any tourists. This sounded attractive to us! It is much higher than the main Zion Canyon at over 8000 ft altitude, but was worth the drive! You start out in the red sandy desert of the lower altitudes, but as you climb, this gradually gives way to Alpine meadows and lush scenery. It is a gradual transition, but surprising – who knew that such lush meadows existed in the desert?. A few people have holiday homes up there, but it is very remote and mainly used for farming.
Climbing up into the mountains from of the desert floor.
Diane with Alpine Meadows at High Altitude
Looking back across the alpine meadows down to the valley
Things were going well until we came round the corner to find a herd of panicked horses on the road in front of us. We stopped, as did the pickup behind us, and together with a bunch of locals, spent the next hour rounding them up and get them back into their field. We were actually doing quite well until an idiot with a pickup ignored our requests to wait for a few minutes whilst we got the herd back into the field, blasted along the road and panicked the herd, scattering them. Great! Thank You Jerk! It took us all another hour to get them all back together, calmed and back into the field. I think the locals were most impressed that we knew how to handle horses, especially being from the east. Indeed they were so impressed, they asked us to help them round up the 24 cows that were also loose and roaming. Which we did, using the car to help drive the herd along the road. All of this involved much running to get ahead of the herd in order to drive them back in the direction they needed to go. At first I couldn’t work out why I felt so awful – surely I wasn’t that unfit. Then I remembered that I was now at over 8000 ft altitude and had just come from sea-level the day before. Again, eventually, we all herded the cows a mile back along the road to their field and eventually got them safely tucked away!. We made some good friends that evening and it was good to meet the locals.
Escaped Horses on the road – we managed to round them up and get them back into their field
Herding escaped cattle with the car – Diane driving, Phil on left herding.
After finishing, we headed on up to the reservoir and JUST made it before darkness fell, as the picture below shows. After heading home and some dinner, we slept really well that night!
Kolob Reservoir at dusk – our intended destination
The following day, it was time to move on, via Bryce Canyon to Kanab, where we were to stay for the night. The road is twisty and spectacular, climbing up the side of the canyon into the high farming country. Nerve wracking at times, since it runs along the edge of the cliff. The run to Bryce was pretty, and even though Bryce was somewhat out of the way, the scenery was truly something else. Bryce sits on the edge of a mile valley and the various geological formations were breathtaking. I will let the pictures tell the story.
Climbing out of Zion on our way to Bryce Canyon
Rock Formations at Bryce
One thing about Bryce is that it is windy. Being at altitude, meant that it was also cold. Anyone visiting should wrap up warm. Another thing that one should note is that there are no barriers on the edge of the cliffs. One can just step into the void! This caused me no little concern when I saw parents letting their small children run along and play at the edge of the paths without restraint! I was a nervous wreck by the time we had finished.
Leaving Bryce, we then motored down to the small town of Kanab, where we would be staying for the night.
On the way to Kanab
On the way, we found a jewel of a site that we didn’t know existed. A small sign pointing off the road said “Coral Pink Sands State Park”. Hmm, sounds interesting, lets follow it! Driving down a series of increasingly smaller roads, avoiding wandering cattle, led to the most spectacular sand-dunes. If you think Sahara desert sand, but coral pink, you get the idea. The park lies in a valley consisting of red sandstone rocks and over the millennia, the winds have whipped through the valley, braking up the rock into fine sand and whipping the sand into spectacular dunes. A small section is set aside for dune buggies to play and it was fun to stand on the dunes in the wind and see them playing. The sand was extremely fine and we all did the usual thing of picking up handfuls and letting it drift in the wind. Again though, it was extremely windy and cold (most of Utah seems to be windy in fact!). I realized that I have in fact seen this place before – in the movies. Given its close proximity to Kanab and its spectacular location, it is no surprise that it has appeared as backdrops and locations in various westerns. A truly spectacular find and we would have stayed longer, but it was getting cold and the light was fading, so we headed off to Kanab.
Ever smaller roads and dirt tracks
Hazards of the road – Free ranging Cattle
Coral Pink Sands State Park
Kanab is right on the Utah / Arizona border and is known as “Little Hollywood”, since it is in this area that many famous Westerns were filmed, due to the spectacular scenery of the area. There was a ranch just outside of town where many movie sets were constructed – you may have seen these sets in a number of movies. After the ranch closed (today it is an animal shelter), some of the sets were burnt down, but others were relocated to small museum on the edge of town, which was kind of neat. It was quite surreal to stand on the set of my favorite Western, “The Outlaw Josey Wales!”
Little Hollywood in Kanab
The reason we were staying there was that we had arranged to go riding in the desert the following morning. Whenever we travel, we try to go riding at least once. Firstly, it is a good way to see new places, secondly, riding in different places and with different horses improves your riding technique. We went with a guide and set off just after dawn to ride through the desert to a Slot Cayon, known (with good reason) as Peekaboo Canyon. This was the first time I’d ridden on deep sand and it took a few minutes to get used to the feel of it – the horses are working much harder. But after a few minutes, I grew comfortable with the motion. Our guide (who owned the horses) was a real old-time rancher and once he realized we could both ride, really opened up, discussing what it is like to be a rancher, his love of his horses and pointing out all sorts of wildlife trails in the sand, including a discussion of the different types of snake tracks (I’m not fond of snakes!). Riding across the desert in the early morning light was magical. We went through various terrain, including desert scrub and down into a dry wash (with a pretty steep drop down into it) that lead to the destination.
Riding through the desert to the slot canyon
A slot canyon is a region where a river is forced to flow through a narrow crack between two rocky outcroppings, forming a very narrow channel. Most of the year, the desert is dry, but when it rains , the water can come flowing through the canyon at high speeds and with significant force. The water can rise very rapidly in a matter of minutes. This is why one really needs to pay attention to the weather when out in the desert – rain many miles away can cause severe flash flooding in the vicinity of the canyons. The force of the water has eroded the canyon walls into smooth flowing lines to form a mysterious landscape – the name Peekaboo canyon is apt as kids could have a great time here playing hide and seek. The morning was a truly superb experience.
Entrance to Peekaboo Canyon
Deep in the Canyon
Diane exploring the Canyon
Other worldly water erosion of the rocks
Diane and I with our steeds for the day – Linda and Sara
After riding back to the car and un-tacking (we had to persuade the horses that we needed to dismount – they knew the routine and were bent on self-loading onto the trailer, with or without us on their backs!), we bade good-bye to our guide and got back on the road headed for our next destination – the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where we were to spend the next two nights.
It is only 50 or so miles from Kanab to North Rim if you go the direct route, but we had all day, so why hurry? We took the very indirect route that ran along the UT / AZ state line, crossing the Colorado river at Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon dam and then doubling back to North Rim via the road running along the foothills of the Vermilion Cliffs. On the way we stopped at various side spots, including a small, but fascinating site where dinosaur fossils had been unearthed.
Glen Canyon Dam with Lake Powell Behind
This was true desert southwest country. The landscape was vast and empty, with a backdrop of red, chocolate and cream rocks and mountains, set against a deep blue sky with no clouds. It was rare to see other cars on the roads and towns were few and far between. One drove for miles without seeing any living thing, indeed nothing but an empty landscape and the road dissapearing over the horizon. Crossing the Colorado River again at Navajo bridge, we started to parallel the Colorado on the left and the Vermillion Cliffs (so named for their spectacular red colored rocks) on the right. Occasionally, especially as one got closer to North Rim, one would see Native American stalls on the sides of the road, selling beautifully made jewellery. We purchased some for presents and got talking to the various vendors. They actually act as a co-operative, so all moneys go back to the tribes. However, it is still obvious that most Native Americans are desperately poor, something that is just not right in this day and age.
Down by the Colorado River
Getting closer to North Rim, we started to climb and yet again went through the odd sensation of suddenly climbing up into Alpine meadows. Driving down the dead end road to the Lodge, we passed through extensive meadows filled with large herds of bison, feeling for all the world like we were in Montana rather than in northern Arizona.
Nothing prepares one for the Grand Canyon. I don’t care how many pictures one sees of it, it is not the same as being there staring into the void. The road into North Rim is the only way in or out and is closed in winter due to snow fall. Unlike the more well known South Rim village, North Rim is pretty isolated, which makes it less commercial and more enjoyable. The Lodge and the cabins form the centerpiece of the area and once darkness falls, people gather round the various outdoor fires and at dinner to share experiences. Staying at a lodge inside a national park really should be done by everyone at least once. The cabins are basic, but functional. People go for dinner at the lodge and pick up hiking supplies at the store. After dinner, there are ranger-led talks on a variety of subjects (we went to one on bats) and as the sun drops down over the canyon, the rocks change color in a never-ending sequence of hues. As darkness closes down, you can hear the animals in the woods near by and you realize that this is not a normal hotel – you truly are out in the wilderness, albeit with the comforts of the lodge.
Grand Canyon at dusk
Our Home at North Rim – Basic, but functional and comfortable
The thing to realize about Grand canyon is that it is a REALLY big hole in the ground. It is a huge gash in the landscape, which on either side is quite flat in many respects. As a result, it is all the more surprising because you don’t get to see it until you are really close to it and it seemingly comes out of nowhere. And it is big – over a mile deep. Indeed, it is actually hard to see the Colorado river that formed it from the top. Birds fly below you and it is not unusual for people (including me) to get vertigo looking down into it. It is possible to thru hike from one rim to the other – it is only about 10 miles across from North rim to South Rim village. Indeed, after dark, you can see the lights of the lodge on the opposite side. However, when thru hiking, you are descending over a mile to the bottom of the canyon on narrow treacherous and rocky trails, which you then have to climb up again. And you are in the desert, where it is hot, especially at the bottom of the ravine. Most people do the hike in 2-3 days, camping overnight at the bottom. It is possible to do it on mule back, but either way it is not for the fainthearted and we chose not to do it. Instead, we explored the various sites on the North Rim, just enjoying the epic scenery and the changing colors of the rocks as the sunlight moved round, since we had planned to drive to South Rim a few days later anyhow. I will leave the pictures to do the talking.
One of the things about Grand Canyon is that it is at altitude, over 7000 ft at the rims. This can affect people who are not used to altitude and don’t make allowances for it. We experienced this on the second evening we were there. I had stepped out for a moment and came back into the lodge lobby to find that someone had keeled over suffering from heart irregularities, and that Diane (a former EMT (Paramedic in UK terms)) and another person who was a doctor, were about to start administering CPR to the victim. Fortunately, the victim had a pacemaker and after what seemed like an eternity, it kicked in and he came round. Still, he was bundled off in the ambulance as a precaution. since we were going into dinner, we were given a free desert and a window table overlooking the Canyon as thanks, which was very kind. I remarked later that I can’t leave Diane along for more than a few seconds without her getting into trouble, She was not amused!
North Rim Lodge
After spending a second night at North rim, it was time to move on to South Rim. Although a distance of only 10 miles as the crow flies, it involved a drive of about 250 miles, taking up much of the day. Much of the first part of the route involved back-tracking along the route we had taken to North Rim, again driving along empty desert roads back to the head of the Canyon, before turning south and heading for South Rim.
South Rim is the better known of the two lodge areas at Grand Canyon National park. It is also the more commercial and as such I wasn’t as fond of it – it was too much like a resort, which is essentially what it was, having been developed as such by the Santa Fe railroad, who built a railway line right to the edge of the rim. There are some spectacular buildings there – the old Railroad depot (still in use with the daily train from Williams, AZ), the Magnificat old hotel the El Tovar. And as always the sight of the canyon is spectacular. However, South Rim didn’t have the same feel as the north rim and it didn’t quite do it for us. In addition, Diane had also become affected by the altitude, dust and dryness, and was starting to contract bronchitus. Thus it was that although we were scheduled to stay for two nights, we decided to leave early and head for lower altitudes and a warmer climate at our final destination in Phoenix, in order for her to avoid getting really sick.
Hopi House, South Rim
El Tovar Hotel – we stayed there one night
The Grand Canyon from South Rim, AZ
Alco FP4 at the depot
Grand Canyon Depot
Train Reversing in
F40’s on the head end
Arizona is a big state and driving from Grand Canyon in the North to Phoenix, located in the Sonoran Desert of the south, involves quite a few miles of driving. Leaving Grand Canyon and heading south was a bit of an anti-climax. I was expecting the sweeping landscapes that we had become used to, but it was in fact quite scrubby for much of the way. We took the back routes, meandering here and there, passing over mountain terrain and past large cattle ranches. Towards the end of the day, we started to drop down into the Sonoran desert, with the landscape becoming much more in line with what we expected, i.e. flat, sandy and miles of open space. The horizon opened out and we started to see Saguaro cactus trees that everyone expects to see in southern Arizona. As the sun dropped, the red hues of the desert started to really show themselves. Reaching our destination and checking in, we were reminded that this is a very different environment from what we are normally used to. Firstly, there was a bloody great tarantula warming itself on the path in front of our cabin. This scuttled off angrily when we appeared. Secondly, a dead scorpion was found inside the room! This reminded us of the frequently quoted adage when in the desert, “Check your shoes before putting them on”!
Even in September, Phoenix is hot. Very hot. This really does limit what you can do during the day and air-conditioning really is a must to survive in that area. It easily reached over 100 degrees by mid morning and the buildings and landscape retained that heat long after dark. The purpose of our few days in Phoenix really was a few days of R&R, and most of the time there was spent doing just that. However, of the many things to do in Phoenix, a couple of museums really stood out.
The first of these was the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix, which is dedicated to Native American Art and history throughout the ages. I’m not really into art museums, but this contained many interesting pieces, both traditional and contemporary, organized in such a way to illustrate the story of the the Native American people through the ages. The galleries show the traditions and cultures of the various different groups, the effect of the coming of the white man, and what it is to be Native American today. A very powerful museum and well worth the visit. Unfortunately, being an art museum, it was not possible to take many photo’s, so it is difficult to illustrate.
Some of the Art on display at the Hearst Museum
The other site we visited was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West architectural studio. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of Americas best known architects of the first half of the 20th century, designing such well known buildings as the house at Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum building. As well as an architectural practice, he ran two architectural studios named Taliesin East and Taliesin West, where young architects came from all over North America to learn from the master. One of these (Taliesin East) was in Wisconsin, the other (Taliesin West) is located in the Phoenix area of Arizona. Wright and the students would alternate between each studio, moving south to the warmer climates of Arizona for the winter and back north to the cool of Wisconsin for the summer. Both studios are still operating as part of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and the practice of alternating between the two studios continues to this day.
Wright was an odd man to say the least and by most accounts, wasn’t particularly pleasant, being over-bearing and a control freak. However, he was innovative in the practice of architecture, and although a lousy structural engineer (nearly all of his buildings currently have or have had significant structural issues), he designed some of the most iconic buildings of the first half of the 20th century. He used his two studios not only as spaces for teaching and living, but also as laboratories for experimentation with the use of different designs and building materials. The studios were always changing as parts were redesigned and rebuilt. Today, although the studios still house the School of Architecture, they are available for visitation by guided tour in order to get an idea of this remarkable, though difficult man and his designs. We chose to visit late in the day, as the sun was going out, both because it was cooler to be wandering around the grounds, but also because the desert colors are at their most vivid early in the morning and late in the day as dusk approaches.
Mountain Backdrop at Dusk
The Setting of the Sun
Native American Art
Studio with Guide
Studio at Night
In many cases, Wright didn’t just design the buildings, but also the interiors and the furnishings. Many of the originals from Wrights private living quarters at Taliesin West still exist and unlike many museums, you are encouraged to touch, sit on and experience the furniture (most of which in my opinion I have to say was damned uncomfortable!). I didn’t always like the designs or the furnishings, but they were very much of the period, original and like everything from this difficult genius, unique. I hope the photo’s give a feel for the place and the unique environment that exists there..
Wright’s private living space
Taliesin West in Lego
Phoenix was our last stop. From there, after a few days, we had to head home and back to normality. But I love the southwest. It is vast, but not in anyway empty, with outstanding scenery and a fascinating mixture of cultures. Like most of the west, I love it there and feel right at home (apart from the tarantula!). We shall be going back.