Road Trips

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is the oldest and most popular National Park in Utah, and was our final stop during our 5 day road trip through southern Utah. Interestingly this park started out as the Mukuntuweap National Monument, before becoming Zion National Monument and eventually becoming Zion National Park in 1919. The name change was apparently done to lure more tourists to a National Park whose name they could more easily pronounce! I guess the re-branding did help in some way, since this was the 8th most visited National Park in the US last year.

Of the 3 national parks we visited as part of this trip (Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef being the other two), this was the park I was most excited about. The picturesque Zion Canyon is almost 15 miles long and about 0.5 miles deep carved by the Virgin river flowing though the bright red Navajo sandstone. Apart from the canyon, this park also has mountains, buttes, mesas, natural arches and probably some of the most scenic hikes; the most famous of them being The Narrows.

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Hiking the Narrows is mostly done by wading through knee deep water for 12 miles while being at very close proximity to the high and majestic canyon walls. I remember reading somewhere that if any place had the power to inspire awe it’s the Zion Narrows, so like most other travelers who have been to Zion, this was also on my list of things to do! However, a 12 mile water hike is no easy feat, so I set a more realistic expectation of doing about 3.6 miles up to a section where the walls of the canyon really close in and then return back. However, after getting to the start of the hike, I realized it would have been very strenuous to even do the relatively shorter version of the hike due to the lack of proper gear. So, I made a note of being better prepared in my next trip to Zion and saved this for another day. (I am headed back to Zion National Park again in May’ 2013 and this will definitely be on the top of my agenda!)

Some of the other very popular hikes in Zion include Angels Landing, Grotto Trail, Kayenta Trail, Weeping Rock, Riverside Walk and Canyon Overlook. We did the Weeping Rock, Riverside Walk and Canyon Overlook trail and all of these were relatively easy even with our two year old. We had entered the park from the east entrance after travelling south westwards for about 90 minutes from Bryce Canyon on a very scenic section of Highway 89. The Canyon Overlook trail is a great introduction to Zion National Park for all the visitors entering from the East. This trail is about 1 mile long and the elevation gains are fairly steep but not too exhausting. This trail takes you away from the road, through a large natural cave carved out of the rock walls, and eventually offers an extraordinary view of Zion Canyon below, where you can see the road wind through the canyon, and the steep canyon walls far in the distance.

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From early April until late October, the Zion Canyon scenic drive Road (main section of the park with all the viewpoints) can only be accessed through a park shuttle. We had a hard time trying to find a parking spot, but after we did it was really convenient to hop on to the free shuttles that run every few minutes from the Visitor Center and the Human History Museum. Our first stop on the shuttle was the Court of the Patriarchs (these are 3 sandstone cliffs named after Biblical figures Abraham, Issac and Jacob), then we stopped at the Zion Lodge for a quick bite and continued northwards to visit The Grotto, Angel’s Landing, Weeping Rock and all the way up to the Temple of Sinawava, where we did the 2 mile round-trip, Riverside walk that runs along the Virgin River, leading to the Zion Narrows.

By the time we had completed the Riverside walk trail, it was approaching sunset and we took the shuttle back and headed to the Canyon Junction. This spot is one of the most popular spots in Zion for Sunset photography and by the time we reached there, it was already crowded with people crouching over their tripod mounted cameras.  Sunset was spectacular and Vaishakhi managed to capture the breath taking views on film. Finally it was time to head back to our hotel in Springdale, located about 5 minutes from the south entrance in the park. Spending the night in a hotel so close to the Park allowed me to get into the park very conveniently the next morning in order to witness a beautiful sunrise. After a very fulfilling trip, we headed westwards for the 430 mile trip back home.

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Categories: National Parks, Road Trips | 1 Comment

Bryce Canyon National Park

A lot of folks have asked me what is there in a National Park?

While it is almost impossible to describe all the splendors of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Badlands, Grand Canyon, Death Valley or for that matter any National Park merely through words or pictures; I have usually found a way to exemplify all the marvelous sights across these parks in a few words or sentences. However, after our visit to Bryce National Park, I realized I would probably need more than just a few words to describe the grandeur at Bryce Canyon National Park.

The primary reason why millions are drawn each year towards Bryce is the abundant concentration of ‘Hoodos’ that exist all across the park. Hoodoos are tall skinny spires of rock that have variable thickness and protrude from the bottom of arid basins. The main reason for this peculiar shape is erosion due to frost and rain spanning over 35-40 million years and resulting in Hoodos that vary in height from a few feet to being as tall as a 10-story building!

The best view is from the Bryce amphitheater (Inspiration Point, Paria View and Bryce point) about 2 miles from the Visitor Center in the northern part of the Park. Looking down on these bright red Hoodos from these vantage points would leave even the most avid traveler transfixed by their grandeur. If you can ignore the crowds around you, and take a moment to soak in your surroundings, it is almost like being transported to a completely different world. The whimsically arranged patterns and shapes of these Hoodos makes one’s imagination run wild and that’s probably the reason why the more shapely ones have names like ‘Wall Street’, ‘Thor’s Hammer’, ‘Queen Victoria, ‘Chessmen’, ‘Tower Bridge’ and ‘The Poodle’!

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The most convenient way to see the park is to travel all the way up to Rainbow & Yovimpa Points at the southern end of the park after having visited the Bryce amphitheater and then start travelling northwards to see the Black Birch Canyon, Ponderosa Canyon, Agua Canyon, Natural Bridge, Farview Point, Piracy Point and Swamp Canyon. Following this approach will ensure that all the lookout points will always be to your right and allow you to leave the road and park conveniently in order to enjoy every one of these spectacles.

While we were at Rainbow Point, I did the Bristlecone hike which is a 1-mile loop trail that gains almost no elevation and offers a relaxing tour of Blue spruce, Douglas firs and white firs before leaving the trees to get really close to the edge of the Canyon and see the cliffs and views across the Paunsaugunt Plateau and as far as the eyes can see. On the walk back I passed by some bristlecone pines that were up to 1,800 years old!

While most people who visit Bryce Canyon national Park only view hoodoos from the overlooks along the canyon rim; the most rewarding way to see them is by hiking the trails that descend into the canyon. If there was only one thing you could do at Bryce Canyon, it should be the Queens/Navajo Combination Loop Trail during sunset or sunrise. This 3 mile long trail is hands down the best way to see the hoodoos rise up from the canyon floor. Since it is a loop, it can be done clock wise or counter clock wise. We had chosen to do the counterclockwise loop which starts at Sunset point, connects with the Queen’s Garden Trail up to Sunrise Point and then returns back to Sunset Point along the Rim Trail.

Almost immediately after the start, the trail descends almost 520 feet to an area called Wall Street. This narrow canyon, named for its resemblance to the New York City street and its skyscrapers, is one of the many highlights along this route. Emerging from Wall Street, the trail swings to the left where it follows Bryce Creek for a short while. Just a little further down the trail, at the 0.7 mile marker, the trail comes to a junction with the Peek-a-boo Trail. We opted to just hike up the Queen’s Garden Trail and as we continued hiking we reached the formation known as Queen Victoria. This lightly colored rock formation bore a resemblance to the statue of Queen Victoria! From this point it was only about 0.8 miles to Sunrise Point with a gain of roughly 320 feet in elevation. The remainder of this amazing hike is no less spectacular than the start, winding through ever more sculptured spires and colorful pinnacles, passing through picture perfect tunnels, each turn in the trail bringing yet another fantastic view of Bryce Amphitheater. What probably made this one of the most memorable events of our entire trip was having some great friends for company.

It wasn’t  long before we were are back on the rim at Sunrise Point, and even though I took the last few labored steps to climb out of the canyon, I found it equally hard to tear myself away from the magnificent landscape. From this overlook, it was a short 0.5 miles along the Rim Trail back to Sunset Point. Once back at Sunset Point I was able to catch a glimpse of the Bryce Amphitheater which had lit up like an inferno in the cool October sunset. Even though we kept changing our lenses and clicking away, no picture could do justice to what lay in front of us. Finally as the sun set behind the canyon walls, we got back into our cars and drove to Ruby’ Inn (about 1 mile outside the park gate) to end a very exhilarating day!

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Categories: National Parks, Road Trips | 5 Comments

Capitol Reef National Park

Ever since we had visited the Arches National Park (in July 2010), I have been anxiously waiting for an opportunity to get back to the red rocks of southern Utah!

After relocating from St. Louis to L.A in the summer of 2012 and having checked off most of our relocation To-Do’s, I finally had time to start planning for the much awaited trip. My initial thought was to drive eastwards from L.A all the way till Canyonlands National Park and spend a day each at Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion National Parks while travelling back westwards. This meant a total drive of more than 1500 miles, and since the days were getting shorter by early October, I was finding it really hard to squeeze in all we wanted to see and do across these four National Parks. Unfortunately there did not seem to be an easy solution, so I decided to leave Canyonlands for another day and only visit the Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce National Park and Zion National Park as part of this trip, thus cutting our total trip length to about 1250 miles.

Capitol Reef was the first stop of our 5 day trip. We had travelled from L.A to St. George, Utah the previous evening and stayed over at the Best Western. After an early start, we covered about 250 miles to reach Capitol Reef National Park by 12:30 pm. The last 15-20 miles drive on highway 24 just before entering the park was visually spectacular! We picked up a quick-lunch from Torrey (small town just outside the park gate), did the customary photo shoot near the entrance and headed in.

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Even though this Park is not as well-known as some of the other famous Utah Parks, it was filled with canyons, cliffs, towers, domes, and arches and left us really impressed! The area was named for a line of white domes and cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, each of which looks somewhat like the United States Capitol building. Our first few stops included the Twin Rocks, Chimney Rock, Panorama Point and Goosenecks Overlook trail. We had to drive down a 1 mile dirt road to get to Goosenecks Overlook. After parking, a short walk from the parking lot brought us to a spectacular overlook where we looked virtually straight down into one of Capitol Reef’s canyons. The fences proved really handy to keep Daivik – our 2-year-old at bay! This viewpoint is also very popular with photographers during unset. The Sunset Point Trail is unmarked, but located next to the trash cans. Even though, we missed being here at sunset, we got some really good shots.  Our next stop was a quick one at the ‘The Castle’ viewpoint, after which we headed to the Visitors center to learn a little more about Capitol Reef.

One of the highlights of the day was our 2.4 mile roundtrip hike to Hickman Bridge. More notably this will always be remembered as the first real hike we did with Daivik. Even though we had prepared ourselves well, we were unsure how he would react to the long walk under the hot afternoon sun. Within a few minutes into the hike, we knew there was no cause for concern. The little guy had us totally impressed with his hiking prowess and walked/ran/jumped/climbed for most of the 2.4 miles. As and when we got a break from trying to control a very enthusiastic kiddo, we enjoyed the scenery every bit. The trail began in a beautiful spot by the river and climbed steeply through several switchbacks, till we got a very good view of the Fremont river valley. Walking further, we got some lovely close up shots of the Capitol Dome. During most of the remaining hike we were surrounded with eroded rock formations of many colors, with larger domed summits in the distance. Finally we arrived at the Hickman Bridge which is a large, elegant natural arch far above the Fremont River, surrounded by the great white domes of Navajo sandstone. This is what characterizes the national park and it was a moving experience to stand there all by ourselves and enjoy the whistling of the winds through the canyon…broken intermittently by the sheer joy of a toddler J

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The trip back to the car was a lot quicker as we were mostly walking downhill. Vaishakhi and I took turns in seeing the next couple of viewpoints which included the Benuhin Cabin, the Petroglyphs and the Fruita historic district because Daivik (probably tired from the hike) was taking a late afternoon nap happily cuddled up in his car seat. By the time he was awake we had taken the scenic drive all the way up to Capitol Gorge, where I did a small hike across the narrow wash bottom while being surrounded by the majestic canyon walls. That was the last stop at Capitol Reef for us and we started tracing our way back towards the park exit.  We had planned to do a quick stopover to have coffee/ice cream at Grifford Farm house, however unfortunately that had closed by the time we got there. It was almost nearing dusk, so we decided to call it a day and start heading towards Circle D Motel in Escalante (about 50 miles). The drive southwards on highway 22 through large tracts of aspen forests was a sight to behold in the October sunset.  We made a quick stop over at Larb Hollow Overlook and Homestead Overlook, and reached Escalante just as nightfall was setting in.

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Preparing for the first Road trip of 2012!

I have finally been able to convince Vaishakhi, so now starts my logistical planning for the 2000+ miles round trip we plan to undertake in a couple of weeks!

The drive would probably have been worth it just to see Mount Rushmore and the Badlands National Park. However since I began my research I have realized we cannot possibly return back without having spent a considerable amount of time in the Black Hills region, Custer State Park and the Wind Cave National Park! Lots to see, do and drive through… and I am really glad we’ll be in our good ole CRV to make the whole trip a lot more pleasurable.

Hopefully I’ll have the hotels booked soon and Vai would have gathered enough Elmo DVD’s to keep Daivik occupied during the long, long ride! 🙂

Missouri — Kansas — Nebraska — Iowa — South Dakota, and we’ll be driving through 3 of these states for the first time, cant wait to hit the road!!

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A memorable drive to the Capital

Trying to see all of Washington DC in two days is like going to a McDonald’s and trying to eat everything on their menu in a single meal! Impossible for most, however a challenge worth taking (OK…maybe if you are a BIG junk food fan). Travel definitely motivates us more than food…so not only did we plan to see as much of DC as we could in 2 days, we also decided to drive the 900 odd miles from St. Louis to DC to do all the running around. Oh, and did I mention, we planned to do all of this with our 8 month old!

In hindsight, convincing my wife to make this trip was probably the most difficult part of the trip! Travelling through 7 states with a 8 month old (who had just started crawling) strapped to his car seat for almost 15 hours is definitely not an easy feat, so I don’t blame her for her skepticism. However my persistence and the fact that her sister would also be accompanying us on this trip finally got us on the road over the Memorial day weekend in 2011.

As with most of our other long road trips, we usually hit the road by early afternoon, cover roughly half of the total distance and break for the night in a hotel and tackle the remaining half of the trip the next day. We stuck to the plan, started driving by about 1:00 PM, drove about 500 miles through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky before breaking for the night in a hotel in West Virginia. The next morning we checked out of the hotel by 9:00 AM and rather than sticking to the tried and tested Interstates, we decided to take the more unconventional State Highways through West Virginia. This added an hour or so to our travel time, however driving through the Monongahela National Forest and the Seneca Rocks region was a feast for our eyes. Just being there a midst the mountains, forests, numerous small streams and lakes was quite invigorating! We reached our hotel in Arlington by 4:00 PM and I think Daivik was relieved to get out of his car seat finally! (Though, he had a pretty entertaining ride with his aunt doting on him every single minute that he was awake!)

As I mentioned earlier, there’s just too much to see and do in DC! Prioritizing and making the best use of our time, this is what we finally ended up doing:
Day 1 evening – spent 4-5 hours in the National Mall area visiting all the War memorials, Washington Monument, The Ellipse, Lincoln Memorial and an outside closeup view of the White House.
Day 2 – Got an early start and spent the first half of the day at the Museum of Natural History and the second half of the day at the Air and Space Museum. Also spent a short time at the Smithsonian Castle and at the Capitol.
Day 3 – Covered the Iwo Jima memorial, Arlington cemetery and a quick stop at the Pentagon before hitting the road for the return journey.

Finally, I think spending even the 2 days was definitely worth the drive…and to be honest I really enjoyed being behind the wheel. We drove through numerous cities (Louisville, Lexington, Charleston) and many more smaller towns and each of them had their own special character. Thankfully we did not encounter too much of traffic and the beautiful weather made it a very pleasant journey and a trip we will fondly remember for a very long time!

A few things that really helped us during the trip:

  • We booked a hotel very close to the National Mall area. Parking in DC (especially over a long weekend can be quite crazy). We found it a lot more convenient to park at the hotel and take a cab.
  • We walked and walked and walked! Thankfully we went prepared with our sneakers, Daivik’s stroller and lots of water…that definitely made it easier.
  • Taking your car along with you has a lot of advantages! We were able to dump our icebox, Daivik’s stroller, a whole bunch of his toys (even his bathtub!) and everything else we needed at the back of our CRV…most of them came in very handy all through the trip.
  • There were lots of decent restaurants close to where we stayed and ordering in food helped us (and more importantly Daivik) to get a good night’s rest.
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Driving through the Tetons, Wyoming

We drove from Salt lake City, Utah to the Grand Teton National Park…and this has got to be amongst one of the most scenic drives i have been on. It was about 300 miles..and we were mostly on the State highways driving on the border of Idaho and Wyoming.

Driving north of Salt lake City, we drove by the Great Salt Lake and went eastwards on Interstate 80 before finally joining State Highway 30/89, that would take us all the way to  the Grand Teton National Park. Most of the stretch is through the Bridger National forest and for long stretches we were the only car on the road! The weather was beautiful and the scenery was amazing..and since we were not on an interstate, we were able to make frequent stops and soak in all the natural beauty surrounding us!

Right after we entered the National Park, we were greeted by the Grand Teton Range (The Teton Range is a subrange of the Rocky mountains) and the road through the park runs parallel to this range for the next couple of miles. We drove past  the Moose junction and our first stop was the visitor center at Jenny lake. There are boats available to take you across the lake and you can then hike up to Inspiration Point. Though we did not have the time (takes about 3 hours) to take the boat ride (and the energy to do the hike up to Inspiration point with a 9 month old!), i have heard that the views of the “Hidden Falls”  along the hike is majestic. We spend about 45 minutes exploring the area around the lake and got some very beautiful shots of the adjoining area.

Our next stop was the trek on Signal mountain – The drive up Signal Mountain to the Jackson Point Overlook was well worth our time. We got a terrific view of the entire area atop Signal mountain. Our other stops were Jackson Lake Dam (this also offered some awesome picture opportunities from both sides. Lots of water action on the river side and a placid lake on the dam side), Cunningham Cabin (Another great close-to-the-road photo opportunity, the rustic cabin is situated with the Grand Tetons as a backdrop – though the best time to photograph it is in the early morning) and Snake River Overlook.

The Snake River overlook is the picture point of one of Ansel Adams Grand Teton pictures. The view will take your breath away…Vaishakhi went crazy and we spend about an hour (while she was trying to get the perfect shot, I  enjoying the breathtaking landscape of the Snake river winding through the Tetons).

Though we spent almost the entire afternoon and evening driving through the Teton National Park, we missed being there in the early morning hours. The mountains are East facing and the best time in the day to take pictures are during sunrise when the sun rays fall directly on the mountains. Unfortunately, we could not work out a schedule to ensure we were there in the early morning hours…though hopefully I will be back someday with a lot more time on my hands!

Categories: National Parks, Road Trips | 5 Comments

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