23.06.2011 - 30.06.2011
It was a hot drive to Zion National Park, with the road dipping south into Arizona then north back into Utah, as a large part of the Navajo Nation area has no major through-roads.
Our Harrison soundtrack so far has consisted of classic kiwi music, country radio stations (our favourite country song so far: “I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was” has some great lyrics once you get your head around the chorus) and an album we downloaded before we left, American Anthems, which we have gotten a lot of mileage out of. Just outside Kanab we encountered a fighter jet doing manoeuvres overhead so that was our cue for a bit of Kenny Loggins, Danger Zone.
The approach to Zion from the east is a bit of a faff. There is a 1 mile long tunnel to pass through which is quite a feat of engineering but despite all those months of digging years ago, they didn't make it particularly wide so for any vehicles wider than 9 feet (that's most American pick-ups and certainly all Rvs), they have to stop the traffic coming the other way, let you through one direction at a time and charge you $15 (return) for the privilege.
Zion National Park is truly impressive. It is a monument of sheer cliffs and canyons; you spend most of your time looking up. Vehicles are banned from most of the park so the NPS runs an excellent free shuttle service linking the town of Springdale (where we were camped) with the park with stops at all the trailheads. We spent three nights at Zion and walked the Emerald Pools, Kayenta, Grotto, Riverside Walk, Weeping Rock and Pa'rus trails. The trails are either gentle ambles alongside the Virgin River or steep climbs up into the canyon. We saw plenty of whiptail lizards, squirrels (including one trying to break into a pack), mule deer, turkey vultures and were fortunate to see a California Condor in flight. They became very rare and have only been recently re-introduced to the park. Our campsite was in a gorgeous location next to a bend in the river with a monstrous cliff looming over from the other bank. It was stinking hot all three days so we tried to finish hiking by mid-afternoon so we could chill in the pool late afternoon.
We next drove the couple of hours to Bryce Canyon National Park; another place we had never heard of and hadn't planned to visit until other travellers talked us into it. Bryce isn't technically a canyon, not having been formed by a river. Instead its bizarre pillars of stone have been worn by erosion caused by freezing/thawing and are known as 'hoodoos' (ammo to invent immature 'hoodoo' puns). The different rock and sand layers in each hoodoo create beautiful arrangements of colour. The Native American legend says that the hoodoos are animals and people frozen in sandstone by the coyote. Luckily for us as we couldn't stay, Bryce is a very 'drive through' park and we were able to leap out at each overlook for views and photos.
We pushed on that same day to Arizona and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for two nights. Despite the millions of visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park, only 10% visit the north rim. It is 1000 feet higher in elevation so is cooler (pleasantly so at this time of year) and the plateaux on the rims are thick pine forest punctuated by lush, green meadows. It is also much less crowded! We took the short trail out to Bright Angel Point for the first of many stunning Grand Canyon views. Then at a ranger's advice we hiked the 10 mile Widforss Trail. The trail winds in and out of forest, popping out at the canyon edge every now and then for incredible views and ending at Widforss Point. We saw plenty of mountain horned lizards; squat, round-bodied creatures with horns around their head and down their back. It was HOT again despite the shade and elevation and the last 40 minutes or so were pretty hard going (for me anyway!)
The south rim is only 10 miles away as the condor flies but to drive it is a 220 mile trip through the scorching Arizona desert, along the base of the Vermilion Cliffs and crossing the Colorado River at the much more sedate Marble Canyon. We approached the South Rim from the east, getting our first south rim glimpses from off the Desert View Road. The south is much more developed and commercialised and the campgrounds had been fully booked for months but due to a cancellation we were able to nab a shady spot for two nights at the last minute at a national park site.
The south rim is serviced by a shuttle to keep the traffic down but the buses were packed and not as regular as they could be. We took the bus as far west as it goes, Hermit's Rest and walked the 7.5 mile trail back to the main village. We had the trail mostly to ourselves for a large part of the hike as most people bus between the viewpoints so it was great to enjoy many of the views on our own. We also saw our second snake, it crossed the path in front of us.
On the day we left the Grand Canyon we packed up early and presented ourselves at the little airport 7 miles away for a special treat; our helicopter ride over the canyon. The helicopter went west along the rim, over the canyon to the north rim and then back again. It was my (and Arthur's) first time in a helicopter and it was really exhilarating; seeing down into the canyon from directly overhead on a perfect, still, blue morning. Arthur didn't think much of the experience, falling asleep in my arms just after takeoff and remaining so until we landed.