After months of planning to the minutia of each detail, the Lord had a much different agenda for our family. Within the first few days of a two week “vacation of a lifetime” the twenty-page itinerary was tossed and we were making adjustments on the fly.
Not off to a great a start!
It wasn’t the beginning to the trip that we had envisioned. The attendant at the airport informed us that due to the delay of our initial flight we would be unable to make our connecting flight. The best he said he could do was put us up for the evening in beautify downtown Newark NJ; a plan that would then call for us to depart early in the morning. I told him that was unacceptable. Since he knew I wasn’t about to leave his counter until satisfied, he found us a direct flight to Denver and gave me (and only me) a first class ticket – only problem, the flight was leaving out of JFK in 2 hours! We were split into two groups and whisked off in taxis to Long Island as you can see in the video below.
I co-pastored with Russ for nearly a decade at Grace Bible Church. He and his family had recently been called to Wellington Colorado where Russ assumed the role of Senior Pastor at Wellington Community Church. It was a pleasure for our family to visit with our good friends as we were on our way to Glacier Nation Park.
National Historic Trails Interpretative Center
Sadly we arrived at this placed just as they were closing the doors. It was a last minute stop that caught our attention as we were passing through Casper, Wyoming. It’s called The National Historic Trails Interpretative Center. The facility educates visitors and commemorates the four great western trails – the Oregon, Mormon, California and Pony Express Trails – all of which converged at this location.
Little Bighorn Battlefield
Located in southern Montana, this National Monument memorializes the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne in one of the Indians last armed efforts. At this spot on June 25 and 26 of 1876, 263 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George Custer and personnel of the U.S. Army, died fighting several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. The large monument on the top of the hill in the left picture marks the spot where Custer supposedly had his “Last Stand.”
Watch out for those mosquitoes!
We now found ourselves in South Central Montana at a National Monument fondly known as Pompey’s Pillar. William Clark of the famed “Lewis and Clark” expedition climbed this rock and etched his name in the sandstone, 150 feet above the bordering Yellowstone River. Along with his name, Clark inscribed the date, July 25, 1806. Clark’s inscription (now protected with a glass plate) is the only remaining physical evidence found along the route that was followed by the expedition. In his journal Clark wrote, “This rock I ascended and from it’s top had a most extensive view in every direction on the northerly side of the river high romantic cliffs approach and jut over the water for some distance both above and below… I marked my name and the day of the month and year.” Captain Clark named the Pillar “Pompy’s Tower” in honor of Sacagawea’s son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, whom he had nicknamed “Pomp.”
Oh yes, this one (above)! So we stop off for lunch at the local Arby’s. While Shane is eating his chicken strips he stops, looks intently into the small slap of meat and while pointing says, “What’s that?” None of us could identify the foreign object embedded in his fast food delicacy (actually we didn’t care to look at it long enough to draw a formal conclusion). All we knew was that it was something that didn’t belonged there! We took the specimen to counter only to have the store manager’s shocked reaction even exceed ours! She apologized and gave us a new order of chicken strips. Everyone was fairly grossed out by this point, but I couldn’t let a free snack go to waste.
Glacier National Park
So after 2 days and about 14 hours of driving we final hit our primary destination, Glacier National Park in Northern Montana. As we pulled in that evening it was overcast, rainy and cold. When we woke up is was still overcast, rainy and cold! I rolled over in my sleeping bag to check the weather for the week on my phone (we had five nights booked at this campground) only to discover rain and cold temperatures were predicted all day for every day of our stay. One night foretasted a winter weather advisory. Not the circumstances we were expecting!
We packed up our wet gear and made the corporate decision to leave. In the video below you can see Natalie shaking out the wet tent and a very tired Kayla “going for the ride.”
So where do we go? The nasty weather front that stalled over the great plains wasn’t going anywhere anytime in a hurry. We were determined to find sunshine, even if it took another 14 hours of driving to get to the regions of Southern Utah. Yes, your analysis is correct! That would make for 6 people and 4 days of driving some 2,000 miles. So goodbye Glacier. Yellowstone was written off as well. Hello to a completely new itinerary that will now be planned on the fly.
Thankfully, on the way out, we were able to “see” (whatever the fog didn’t obscure) some of Glacier as we drove from one side of the part to the other. This also began our departure to warmer and sunnier environments.
Here’s a rather comical video below showing a cold family trying to make the most a tough situation!
A video recapping out all-too-short stay in cold/rainy Glacier (along with some of the other sites we visited):
Farewell Glacier, hello Laundromat – time to to dry out our gear!
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Golden Spike National Monument
On the way to our new destination we couldn’t help but make a short detour to visit this National Monument in northern Utah. Golden Spike marks the very location where the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined their rails on May 10, 1869 completing the first Transcontinental Railroad. The final spike, the “golden spike,” was made of 17.5 carat gold and created only for commemorative purposes (as it would have never withstood the blows from the hammer). The “last spike” was the one actually used at the ceremony and now resides for display at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.
The Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake is the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River. At the current level, the Great Salt Lake is approximately 75 miles long and about 35 miles wide. The lake is salty because it does not have any outlet for is various incoming tributary rivers. Once the water is evaporated, the salt is left behind. The salt content of the water averages around 12%, making it much saltier than the ocean. Because of its high salinity, fish cannot survive in this environment.
The lake levels were very low when we arrived there in August of 2014. We parked the car and needed to walk a few hundred yards to make it to the water’s edge. The stay was brief and the wind was intense as you can see from the video below.
Arches National Park
We made it – Southern Utah! We drove for days to avoid the foul weather and guess what we experienced our first night at Arches? Yes, a nasty rain storm! The video below does a good job depicting the morning after and the situation in which we once again found ourselves.
Overall, we had a nice time at Arches. I absolutely love this park! We had four full days in Moab, Utah. We devoted most of one day to Canyonlands and the remaining three to Arches. The geological formations are breathtaking and the hikes are adventurous. The contrasting colors are phenomenal, especially at sunrise and sunset. If you like out-of-this-world rock structures and ample opportunities to climb to your heart’s desire, this is the place for you. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks. Some arches are located a few steps from your car; others require some more effort to see.
Posted below are my four favorites.
#4 “Double O Arch” #3 “Landscape Arch”
#2 “Double Arch” #1 “Delicate Arch”
Since we had so much time at Arches, we were able to embark on a few extended hikes. Nothing crazy, but enough to get the muscles moving and break a sweat. In my humble opinion, from all that we experienced, highlighted below are three “must do hikes” for any visitor to the park. Each moderate hike can be completed within a few hours.
First, is the hike that went to Dark Angel and back. On this trail you walk about a mile to see Landscape Arch. Landscape Arch is considered to be the longest natural arch in the world having a span that measures 280 feet. About another mile past Landscape Arch is Double O Arch. The hike to this arch is much more rugged and challenging. The footing is rocky and climbing at certain points is necessary. There are narrow ledges and significant drop-offs. The scenery throughout the hike is continually changing and is absolutely beautiful. Below is a video that shows some of this hike as we navigate up column of rock know as a “fin.”
Second, is the hike to Delicate Arch. I’ve done this one twice and this hike, especially at sunset, is my absolute favorite. It’s about a mile and a half each way – uphill going there and downhill on the return. They make you work for this one, but once you get there you won’t be disappointed. A natural rock amphitheater surrounds this iconic spectacle (it even made the Utah license plates!). Everybody’s chilling. A lot of cameras. A line occasionally forms near the arch to have your picture taken under the world-famous landmark. This year we were the last ones to leave. I could have stayed there all night!
Third, is the trail that goes to Sand Dune Arch and Broken Arch. Sand Dune Arch, as the name implies, is located in sand. It’s not a massive arch, but quaint, hidden away and beautifully formed. You can see below my best attempt to “chimney climb” between two rock faces – Bear Grylls makes it look so easy! Also on this hike we traveled to Pine Tree Arch. To the girl’s surprise I reached down and picked them up just as the photo below was being snapped.
Thanks to our little friend in the path below, we never made it to Broken Arch.
Here’s a vlog showing some highlights of our time in Arches.
Our campground was relatively empty, the bathrooms were clean, the showers were free, and the staff was friendly (http://moabrvresorts.com/arch-view). It doesn’t take much more than that to please our family! Also included in the amenities was a small pool. Maybe I should have said, “A very small pool.” Let’s say a glorified kiddy pool with deeper water! Nothing impressive but perfect for a cool afternoon dip after a scorching day in the desert. The video below depicts one of my favorite episodes from our good times at the pool.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is massive. It’s only a short drive from Arches. Any trip to Moab Utah must find the time to at least check out both of these beauties. The pictures below give you a good sense of the terrain. You can see many of the popular sites from the car if you can break away from the AC for a few minutes. For the more adventurous, there are some great hikes and cool sites in this remote area of Southern Utah. The park is larger and less developed than Arches. Bring and drink a lot of water!
Dead Horse State Park, next to Canyonlands, is also a great place. The highlight is “Dead Horse Point” at sunset.
I lived most of the week on Tuna Fish! No problem on my end, but not all in the family were as excited.
We did go out for one nice meal. I believe this video captures the excitement of our children craving a change in the diet.
Just had to include this one from downtown Moab.
A recapping video of our day in Canyonlands:
We heard another storm was heading our way. To make every effort to stay dry we packed up much of our gear before going to bed. Another daughter and I (or two – can’t remember) slept in one lone tent and the others retreated to the car for the evening. We were fully prepared to a quick get-away! A few rain drops amplifying on the tent and some thunder rumbling in the distance is all the warning I need to spring into action. Within minutes everybody and every possession was in the car. We departed under the cover of darkness.
Grand Canyon here we come!
We were able to watch the sun rise as we were entering Monument Valley located just north of the Arizona border. I pulled over and got out of the car to stretch. I really enjoy this place. While I was taking a few pictures a Native American pulled over as well and asked if I wanted him to take my picture. Why not? And why not stand in the middle of the road for the shot?
Grand Canyon National Park
We only had two nights at the Grand Canyon. This was my forth visit to the Canyon, but in every trip most of my time was consumed with a thrilling hike to the bottom. So it was good to walk the rim, peruse the visitor’s center, and take in the sites from the typical tourist’s perspective.
NOT! Within a few hours I was begging a child or two to walk down to the bottom with me the next day. The plan would be to walk down the South Kaibab trail and then back up the Bright Angel Trail – a total of distance of nearly 20 miles – the dreaded “turn and burn”. Finally after much arm-twisting and a few promised rewards, both Kayla and Natalie agreed to join me. The park site says, “[People] tend to react to the experience in one of two ways, either they can’t wait to get back, or they swear they will never do it again.” You can see I’m definitely, definitely of the former!
We went out that evening to purchase the supplies we’d need for our adventure the next day.
The shuttle drops you off at the South Kaibab trailhead. This trail is much less traveled. It is shorter than the Bright Angel Trail, but much steeper. The big drawback is this trail offers less shade and water is not supplied for the duration of 7 mile hike to the Colorado River. The first picture below was taken at the very top of the trial as we were just beginning our hike. Natalie looks a bit apprehensive, Kayla is surprisingly jacked and I am contemplating the warning from the National Park Service brochure which “does not recommend hiking from the rim to the river and back in one day.”
Off we go!
We made it! Well, at least half way!
In the picture above we are standing in front of the world-famous “Phantom Ranch.” It’s nothing fancy, but a great oasis at the bottom of the Canyon where the temperatures commonly exceed 100 degrees. The air is somewhat conditioned in the small building. Hikers appreciate gathering at this place to swap their stories and enjoy a cold glass of “Lemmy.”
In Natalie’s case, the sweetened lemonade just wasn’t sweet enough! She worked hard to get to this point so we’ll let her break a few of the rules!
Yes, that’s 120 degrees in the sun! Not the most encouraging thought as we began our 10 mile ascent up and out of the canyon!
You can see in the two pictures below both the Bright Angel Creek (left – the steam that runs through the campground) and the Colorado River (right – the river that we just crossed to start heading back up to the rim).
Pictures taken from the returning voyage.
The last picture above is the sign that unashamedly warns naive and unprepared hikers as they descend deeper into the canyon. The canyon is not only a challenging environment, but also the opposite of a mountain because the hard part is on the return home. Too many people go down exceeding their capabilities and then find themselves unable to make it back to the rim. Part of the sign reads, “Down is optional, up is mandatory!”
As we are wrapping up this hike our bodies at this point had been pushed to the max. You can see in the video below that I am unable to hold the camera still, Kayla is hitting the wall and yes, Natalie is carrying all three backpacks. What’s up with that?
This was the final stretch on the Bright Angel Trail as seen in the video below. The sun was set. The crickets were out and the stomachs were grumbling!
Here the whole hike in a brief music video:
A final picture before the entrance sign as we departed the Grand Canyon.
This is really one of those places you visit only once in a lifetime. Sure it’s a novelty! I mean how many times can you say you are standing in four states at one time? But with vending booths surrounding the site, overpriced refreshments, extreme heat and $5 a head for admission just to get in (thankfully Shane was still free), the place very quickly loses it’s appeal. The kids wanted to go, but weren’t overly excited minutes after they arrived. They were all ready to go leave before I even attempted to round up the troops. After a brief stop at Hovenweep National Monument and a bit to eat, we were off to Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.
A lot of the sites are free, but the best ones require a guided tour and will cost you additional money. None of us had ever been to Mesa Verde before. I know a lot of people love this place, but personally not sure if I’d go out of the way to make a return visit. For me it was nice to see one time and then move on. You could easily spend a day at Mesa Verde, but I personally would not suggest spending many more.
The cliff dwellings offered the original occupants excellent protection from the natural elements and also from their enemies. One particular location, the Balcony House, required climbing several ladders (one over 30 feet) and crawling through a 12 foot tunnel in length. Unless you are overly afraid of heights, the ladders weren’t too bad (Shane was fearless!), but the tunnels build for very short Pueblos were a challenge, as you can see below, for a guy of my stature.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Our car was riding on fumes as we approached this pristine and desolate national park located in southern Colorado. Thankfully there was a gas station just outside the park (you can see the sand dunes off in the distance) and the only one to be found in the area. Though the prices didn’t indicate it, using these pump was a stroll back in time – the old pull down lever on the side and the revolving non-digital numbers identifying the cost and gallons consumed.
I wanted to hike to the top of the sand dunes, but we simply ran out of time on this second to last full day of our vacation. A few folks rented wooden sleds that appeared to be a lot of fun. We found an old plastic one that failed to provide much success. We drove to a waterfall up the road based upon a recommendation from a ranger and then went for an afternoon walk along the base of the dunes. As you see see from the video below, it was extremely windy – a rather uncomfortable experience when you are standing in a massive field of loose sand!
The official music video summarizing Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes:
After meals on the fly and over two weeks in tents, I believe the family was ready to return home. We drove to our final campsite in Golden Colorado, an hour or so west of the Denver airport. We went out and found an unique general store that stocked a small variety of foods. What an experience this was! The kids picked up a few corn dogs and I bought some canned spaghetti and canned corn (turned out to be cream of corn by mistake – yuk!) to cook on the campfire upon our return to the campsite.
As Shane finishes up the rest of my dinner, I want to say, “Thank you, Lord, for a great family and memorable vacation!”