Grand Circle

I have tried to take one daughter on a National Park trip every other year. It’s Natalie’s turn! Also joining us on this great adventure to the southwest will be Anthony and Julia Marsango – good friends from our church.

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Las Vegas, NV

We flew into Las Vegas Nevada and arrived very late in the night. On the New Jersey clock it was about 2 in the morning. We checked into our hotel and did our best, amid the present adrenalin rush and anticipated excitement, to get a decent night’s sleep. After the continental breakfast in the morning, Natalie and I took a dip in the pool.

On the way to Zion there was an unmistakable souvenir shop along the road. The place not only had a lot of neat items for sale savoring the southwest flavor, but they also had a small animal park and some mock scenes that made for fun investigation and great photographs.

Zion National Park

Our first primary destination was Zion National Park. Zion is located about 2 1/2 hours northeast of Vegas. Thought it was only my first time to Zion, it rapidly became one of my favorite parks. As their website declares, “Gaze up at massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky.” The place is absolutely beautiful! Yet beyond the incredible scenery, there’s a lot of unique adventures awaiting all its visitors willing and able for a little exploration and adventure.

In the pictures below you can observe some of the incredible landscape to be seen. Zion is a canyon. In two of the pictures you can note the Virgin River that runs through the middle of it. The picture of me holding Natalie was taken at “The Three Patriarchs” (three peaks named after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the Bible). And to help preserve this pristine location, environmentally friendly shuttle buses were available (and required) to see the inner canyon. Two buses were attached and in one the pictures you can see Natalie and Julia in the driver’s seat of the second bus.

We had a great campsite for our first night right on the Virgin River.

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Two hikes are worthy to mention.

First is the famous hike called “The Narrows.” The Narrows are located in the narrowest section of the Zion Canyon. The gorge, lined by 1,000 foot walls and at times only 20-30 feet wide, is your trail as you literally walk in the Virgin River to your desired destination. If you would like, the hike can be short or last an entire day if you wish to cover the full distance from one end to the other. Unfortunately the waters were too high when we were there and the rangers were prohibiting people from entering the canyon. That was a bummer for us!

The second hike is called “Angel’s Landing.” Angels Landing is a unique fin-like mountain formation that juts out to the center of the main canyon. The trail follows the narrow spine to the final viewpoint roughly 1500 feet above the canyon floor. After about 2 miles of hiking uphill (a bit strenuous at times) the trail reaches a nice plateau with an amazing view. Then the fun starts! The final ascending half mile or so is along steep cliffs with walkways only inches wide at times. To assist you are chains anchored into the rock wall. Yet don’t think for a moment this is a cakewalk. One slip or lapse of judgment and certain death is awaiting (as several have tragically died on this trail – a warning that is made explicitly clear on the first sign you see when entering the trail – pictured below). The four of us went up about halfway and then I thought, this is crazy with a our young daughters! We turned around, much to the chagrin of Natalie. Even though I was a little uncomfortable on this trail, I hope to make it back someday and reach the summit of Angel’s Landing. It’s on the “bucket list” to experience the amazing 360 degree view and witness a place where the early explorers said could only be reached by an angel. Depending on your pace (and the crowds) a round-trip on this “fairly strenuous” hike will take you between 3-6 hours.

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On the trail!

At the chains!

Below is some raw footage from our hike up “Angel’s Landing.”

Looking for a ghost town and getting lost on the corner of Main and State Street!

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Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

We considered going here, but it became an logical stop when we unintentionally drove past it looking for the Grafton Ghost Town. It was hot. The sand was a neat color; don’t know if I really call it “pink.” We did a short hike and then moved on

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The pictures below show the campsite for our second and final night in Zion. We splurged a little on this one and stayed at the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. Not only did this place have a fantastic swimming facility with a rock water slide (pictured below), but it also afforded us the opportunity to sleep in a chuck wagon. How often to you get the opportunity to do that! In the picture below you can see Natalie and I “holding up” our own wagon.

From ghosttowns.com, “Grafton was first settled in 1859 one mile below its present town site. In January of 1862 the town was completely washed away by a flood. The people rebuilt the town a mile further up stream at its present site. By 1864 about 28 families lived here. There were many log houses, a post office, church, school and community hall. The town was deserted in 1866 due to Indian attacks. The people moved back in 1868. By 1920 only 3 families still lived here. Grafton has had parts of several movies shot here. One movie that was partly shot here was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

We arrived as the sun was setting. There wasn’t a lot see, but the short drive to Grafton was worth the experience. As you can observe from the pictures below, two of the original structures were nicely restored. There was also the town graveyard nearby that afforded the opportunity to read the tombstones listing several names and describing the various causes of death. The overwhelming majority deceased from disease and Indian attacks.

We had a very interesting time discussing the old lures from the area with a local rock shop owner.

Ask Natalie about it sometime!

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Bryce Canyon National Park

Many have called Bryce prettier than the Grand Canyon. At a high elevation (almost 9,000 feet above sea level), Bryce packs a punch with beautiful colors and unique rock formations caused by erosion known as “hoodoos.” They just appear to shoot up from the ground. Technically Bryce is not a canyon, but a collection of “amphitheaters” easily view-able by a short walk from your vehicle. If your desire is to see the dozen of so closely spaced amphitheaters, a few hours at the part will suffice. If you’d like to hike down inside the amphitheaters plan to spent a full day.

Pictured below are some of the amazing sights to behold!

What I failed to mention above is that Natalie became quite sick the one day we visited Bryce. She was fine in the morning up until the point we departed from our campsite. We are all packed up and were just beginning a great hike – a walk inside the canyon near the base of the hoodoos. Suddenly I heard, “I’m not feeling too good, dad.” The Marsangos went on and we stayed behind. Soon several kind park rangers had surrounded us running all kinds of tests seeking to determine her specific illness. They attributed it to “elevation sickness.” It turns out she simply had the “stomach bug,” as she infamously called it for the remainder of our vacation. The picture below shows one of the rangers who came back in the evening to check on Natalie to see how she was feeling. We did get to see the hoodoos from above, but seeing them from below will have to wait until another trip.

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A  couple final shots at Bryce on our way out!

Capitol Reef National Park

Of the 5 National Parks in southern Utah, Capitol Reef is without a doubt the least visited. The sandstone rock formations are wonderful and different, but hard to compare with Zion and Bryce as it pertains to beauty. We arrived in the heat of the early afternoon. We took a drive around the park road, did some short hikes, visited historic Fruita Village (with its old general store and working orchards), went for a swim in the Freemont River (see the picture and video below), grapped some pizza, took in an evening ranger program and then called it a night.

This part of the trip was a lot of fun!

My make-shift raft in the video below was Natalie’s dollar-store air mattress.

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Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges was a quick stop along the way after we passed through Glen Canyon and Lake Powell. Three majestic natural bridges are viewed from short loop trail.

Re-hydrating was a frequent and necessary responsibility in the arid climate!

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Four Corners

As the name implies, “Four Corners” is the point where the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico converge. It’s a hot place to see (both in heat and tourism). Not sure if I’ll ever return, but neat to say you’ve visited this one-of-a-kind location.

Monument Valley

Just north of Arizona in southern Utah is Monument Valley. We didn’t enter the private park owned and run by the Navajo Nation, but we were able to see some of the iconic southwest monuments from the road.

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Grand Canyon National Park

At last we arrived at our primary destination. We saved the best for last and weren’t the least bit disappointed. Being it was the first time at the Grand Canyon for all of us, the park was a spectacle to behold. As we arrived we were treated to a beautiful sunset during our “first look” at this most remarkable natural wonders in the world.

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Here are some interesting statistics:

The Grand Canyon became an official national monument in 1908 and a national park in 1919. The highest point at the Grand Canyon on the north Rim is 8,803 feet compared to the elevation at the Phantom Ranch on the bottom which measures in at 2,400 feet. On the average, the canyon’s width is 10 miles across. It is about 1 mile deep and is visited by more than five million visitors each year. Less than one percent travel to the bottom. We would soon be among that minority!

Natalie still wasn’t feeling too well, so we were a bit apprehensive of starting our challenging trip to the bottom of the canyon. We thought it best to begin the day with a “test hike” along the south rim (pictured below).

Let’s do it!

We packed our gear and were dropped off by the shuttle at the South Kaibab trail head. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon and our goal was to reach the Bright Angel Campground (6.8 miles down the face of the canyon) shortly after sunset. We fell a little behind schedule. By the time we reached the Colorado River were were fully depending on our headlamps. We followed the trial along the river in complete darkness. After locating an available campsite, we pitched the tent and fell asleep knowing full well we’d be waking up in a few hour to begin our ascent. The pictures below show our hike to the bottom.

Here’s Natalie and I on the bottom at our campsite.

The walk downhill was more exhausting than I thought it would be!

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We woke up the following morning at 4:00 am and were packed and on the trail by 5:00 am. Thankfully Natalie was feeling better each day, but she was still not fully recovered (testified by the fact that I carried her hydration pack down most of the trail the day before!). Personally, I wasn’t sure if she’d make it so we set a reasonable goal, Indian Garden Campground (basically half way up the trail). Things changed positively for Natalie and soon, after going past Indian Garden, she returned to her normal form and excelled us regarding the final half of the hike up the Bright Angel Trail (the trail is 9.3 miles in total length).

The pictures below of our return trip each tells a great story.

The photo on the far left top shows the start of the hike with the Colorado River cutting through the canyon. Also in this picture are both the “Black Bridge” (background-built in 1928 and reached from the South Kaibab Trail) and the “Silver Bridge” (foreground-built in the late 1960’s and reached from the Bright Angel Trail).

Pictured on the lower left is a mule trail, the only way other than walking in which people can experience the inner gorge of the canyon. Though these are often a frequent occurrence, we only saw one on our hike back to the rim. Watch where you step!

On the top right is the four of us immediately after we completed our hike (talk about excitement!) and below that is the portion of the canyon we walked through on the final half of our ascent. The trail is visible and the cluster of trees in the middle is the aforementioned Indian Garden Campground.

The picture on the bottom right shows me pointing to a cluster of cacti. For some very odd reason, I just happened to lose my balance at this point on the trail. I fell over and guess where I landed? You got it!

The video below contains some raw footage. Many of the events I explained above are captured in this collection of video clips.

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Lake Mead

Natalie has her thumb up, but there wasn’t much to celebrate when we pulled into our last campsite late in the evening and it was still over 100 degrees! As you can see from the picture to the right, the campground was nice, but what you can’t see is that all the other campsites were unoccupied. Obviously, everyone else knew something we didn’t! This is not the place nor the the time of year you want to be sleeping outside!

Though we didn’t sleep very much, in the morning we rented a small fishing boat (it looked like a speed boat to me) and cruised around Lake Mead. The lake was massive and even though we had a map, it would have been very easy to get lost in all the canyons that branched off the main channel. We did some swimming too. The waves picked up later in the afternoon (check out the funny video below) around the time that we were due to return the boat.

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. Construction began in 1931 and the immense undertaking was completed in 1936. Dedication was on September 30, 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thousands were involved in building the dam and over a hundred of them sadly lost their lives in the process. The purpose in building the dam was to control floods, provide irrigation water and produce power. Lake Mead was created by the water that was held behind the dam.

US 93 ran across the top of the dam until the Hoover Dam bypass was completed in October 2010 (less than a year before we arrived). Known as the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, it is the second highest bridge in the US and the world’s highest concrete arch bridge. The picture above on the far left is the bypass, the picture above on the right and the video below were both taken from the bypass.

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At the airport and we are still picking out cactus needles from my fall at Grand Canyon!

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