Saturday, July 24, 2021

Southwest Parks 2021 - Day 9 (7/17/2021) - Returning home; final thoughts

Not much noteworthy happened on this day from an excursions perspective, but we did spend essentially the whole day traveling. We left the hotel, picked up a little breakfast, then drove the couple of hours to LAX to return the rental car and catch our 2:30pm flight home across the country. All told, we put 1104 miles of driving on the Nissan Sentra over the week that we had it. We arrived at JFK a little before 11pm local time (a 3 hour time difference), and didn't get home to our apartment in Brooklyn until 12:45am.

An aside... Now that Uber/Lyft are significantly more expensive and have fewer drivers, NYC taxis are the cheaper car option from the airport. But unfortunately there are now fewer taxis because Uber and Lyft have taken away their business over the years. This has resulted in us having to wait a long time (on the order of an hour, though slightly less this time) for a taxi the last couple of trips home from the airport, as we didn't want to pay the exorbitant Uber/Lyft prices. At this point it's probably comparable in time to just take the AirTrain and subway home, and certainly cheaper.

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Anyway, here are some final thoughts about the trip...

Overall, it was another good trip with Fran. The timing for those national parks probably wasn't the best in terms of summer heat, and especially the heat wave in the region this year, but that aspect turned out not to be as bad as I expected. Other times of the year are probably better to visit them, but we have some schedule constraints that come into the picture. Nevertheless, there's still plenty to enjoy about them even in the peak of summer.

Fran and I agreed that we visited the national parks in order of descending amazement. The Grand Canyon is one of my all-time top sights to behold, and the park is definitely one of my top three. I liked seeing it from the more remote North Rim this time, and appreciated having some trails all to ourselves. Zion wasn't too far behind, and I think it offered a better range of hikes and activities (a hike up a river isn't something that I've seen before, and it's too bad we didn't get a chance to at least try it out a bit) than the Grand Canyon did; my opinion on this might be different if I was the overnight hiking type, as I'm sure camping in the canyon is pretty spectacular. Unfortunately, or fortunately (depending how you look at it), a LOT of people also appreciate all that Zion has to offer; though the crowding to get in wasn't as bad as some news stories had led us to expect. We also wish we had more time to explore more of Zion, including the eastern and northwestern parts. Joshua Tree was clearly the least striking, but it still had plenty to appreciate. The fields of Joshua trees are a unique sight, and the rock formations are not just great to look at, but also fun to play on/in. Cooler weather would have been most appreciated for this park.

I can't end without mentioning the sleeper hit of the trip for Fran - Mount San Jacinto and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The park at the top is more of a treat during the summer heat of the desert at the bottom. And what made this even more special for her was that she didn't know anything about it going into the trip.

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Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/FQpbDfmdGRksjimi

 

Southwest Parks 2021 - Day 8 (7/16/2021) - Joshua Trees

Today was dedicated to Joshua Tree National Park. We headed out around 9am, made a quick stop at Starbucks, then drove the 40 minutes to the west entrance of the park. For the next few hours we toured the northwest section of the park, stopping at the following locations (in order): Quail Springs, Hidden Valley, Keys View, Hall of Horrors, Jumbo Rocks, Skull Rock, and Split Rock. Keys View and Split Rock were places where we mostly just got out and saw the thing that we were supposed to see. At Quail Springs, Hall of Horrors, Jumbo Rocks, and Skull Rock we did more of a walkabout, or perhaps scramble-about - Fran loved climbing on the rocks and finding little high points to admire the view and take some pictures. At Hidden Valley we actually did the 1 mile loop trail, of course with a detour so that Fran could scramble up some rocks. I somewhat kept up with her over the course of the day, though didn't go up on all the rocks that she did. For being a desert park in the summer, the heat was more tolerable than expected - the temperature hovered in I would guess the mid 90s °F - and especially so when there was a bit of a breeze. That being said, it was still too hot to go on a strenuous hike, and we ran through the water in our two camel-packs by about 2pm.

Fran couldn't resist climbing into one "eye" of Skull Rock

We exited the park via the north entrance, and promptly found a gas station to buy some drinks to re-hydrate ourselves. From there we looped back to the west on 29 Palms Highway to head back to the hotel. Fran then went for a brief swim in the pool while I dipped my feet in from the edge. We had discussed going to the Palm Spring Art Museum that evening, but when we checked the hours at 4:58pm we found that it would be closing in 2 minutes; we were misled by the fact that it was open until 7pm the night before - those hours are only for Thursdays.

We cleaned up and decided to head into Palm Springs for dinner and some ice cream. We did exactly that, with dinner at a place called Juniper Table, and fancy gelato from Gelato Granucci. After a very pleasant evening out we headed back to the hotel for the night.

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Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/FQpbDfmdGRksjimi9

Southwest Parks 2021 - Day 7 (7/15/2021) - To Palm Springs

We were in no particular hurry this morning other than checking out of the Paris hotel before the designated 11am time. We braved the long lines at one of the cafes to pick up some pastries for breakfast, which we then ate while sitting in the car in the garage. We then hit the road for the 4 hour drive to Palm Springs.

According to Google, the fastest route was through the Mojave National Preserve; so we took it to save the whole 9 minutes compared to the next fastest alternative. This made for an...interesting...drive as the route immediately lived up to the "Rough Road" warning signs. The first 10 or so miles had many places where what looked like floods had washed dirt and small rocks onto the roadway. I'm guessing we lost at least that 9 minutes having to slow down for those.

We got a little nervous about the fuel remaining while going through the preserve, as we had about half a tank heading in. We were down to a quarter tank after getting out, understandably not having passed any gas stations inside. The first gas station on our route at this point was a place called Roy's Motel & Cafe. It looked like it was still in the mid 1900s, with an analog (for lack of a better word) pump that the attendant had to unlock and pump for customers. The gas was also super expensive at almost $5.50 per gallon; but I guess you can charge that much when there's almost literally nothing else around. Right after getting gas we got stuck at a railroad crossing, though the "oncoming" train was standing about 100 yards away and not moving. When a couple of cars drove around the barrier (the first truck cutting the line to do so), we decided to do the same and continue on our way. Thankfully the rest of the drive didn't have any more incidents.

Fran (and I) are perplexed by the old-timey gas pump

We arrived at the Aqua Soleil Hotel in Desert Hot Springs around 4pm. After checking in and sitting around for a minute, we hopped back in the car to head out to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. We got a couple of day-of tickets at the counter and were fortunate to begin boarding for the 5:15 departure right as we arrived. This was my second time riding the tram, and the first time for Fran. There is apparently a difference of on average 40 degrees between the temperature at he bottom of the tram and at the top. The last time I was there was in March 2017, and at that time of the year the top still had unmelted snow. This time the bottom was somewhere around 105°F while the top felt like a very pleasant 75°F. The top station of the tram is at the peak of Mount San Jacinto, and part of the state park there. There are a couple of relatively short "hikes" from there, and we decided to do a stroll around the shortest loop there (I believe it was called the Nature View loop, but I'm not certain). Fran really enjoyed the scenery and climate at the top. Another highlight for her was the tram operator playing a few popular oldies (e.g., "Sweet Caroline", "Ain't No Mountain High Enough") on the ride down.

We took the 7pm tram back down to the base, then drove to downtown Palm Springs to find dinner. After a short walkabout we happened upon a street fair that was going on - the Palm Springs VillageFest. We watched a bit of some break-dancers, then waited in line for some food from 3 different vendors (tamales, Mediterranean - falafel, and Salvadorian). We ate the grub on a bench before driving back to the hotel.

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Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/FQpbDfmdGRksjimi9

Southwest Parks 2021 - Day 6 (7/14/2021) - To Vegas

This was a morning of redemption for Fran, as missing out on summiting Angels Landing the day before did not sit well with her at all. She woke up early, and was prepped and out the door by 5:30am. She walked to the park, took the shuttle to the trail, and then hiked all the way up to the peak and back down in barely over 2 hours, a very impressive accomplishment. Meanwhile I had barely gotten out of bed. She texted me to let me know when she was done and heading back to the visitor center via shuttle, and I left the B&B (a little before 9am) by car to pick her up there.

After Fran cleaned up and we packed up, we checked out of the B&B then made the short walk to their partner cafe (Oscar's Cafe) to get some complementary breakfast. After that we hit the road for Las Vegas. This was the first time in a few days that we would drive on an interstate highway (I-15), which made for smoother sailing than the state roads; though descending a few thousand feet on a road is never boring, even on a highway. We did hit an annoying highway closure on I-15 about 10 miles outside of Vegas, which set us back about 30 minutes, but the drive was otherwise fine.

We arrived at the Paris Hotel on the Strip, parked the car, and checked in. Fran was eager to see what Las Vegas was all about, so we headed back down to the casino floor for a walkabout. We wandered out of the Paris across to the Bellagio, where we just happened to catch the 3pm fountain show - something Fran was keen to see. We wandered around the Bellagio then over to Caesar's Palace, with a stop at a Starbucks (with a long line) for a snack. We then headed south in the direction of MGM Grand, but we were getting short on time given our later plans, so we turned back for the Paris. Fran seemed to have a bit of sensory overload from trying to take everything in, at one point nearly being bowled over by a large man because she wasn't watching where she was walking. In the end, though, she (unsurprisingly) concluded that one day in Vegas was enough for a lifetime. Another thing to mention about the casinos - face coverings were not required for vaccinated people (as Fran and myself were), and the vast majority of people were un-masked; in the current environment it would be quite irresponsible to go there without being vaccinated.

Fran had previously booked us 8:15pm tickets for the Neon Museum, a boneyard for displaying historical signs from Vegas' past (some in better shape than others). When we got back to the room I got into a bit of a mood when we had trouble finding a decent restaurant to go have dinner at beforehand, and then became skeptical about the museum (which required a 20 minute drive) being interesting. After failed attempts to find alternate plans, we decided to stick to the original plan of going to the museum; and I'm glad we did. We headed back down and eventually settled on the Cafe Americano within the Paris for dinner - it wasn't spectacular, but it was probably better than the backup of crepes or pizza. We then headed out to the parking garage and drove north through the Strip toward the museum. As I alluded, the guided tour of the boneyard was fairly interesting, as the guide weaved in some history of the city as she explained the background of each featured sign; I would recommend it for people who would appreciate something besides gambling and spending money in Vegas. YOU RIGHT, FRAN!

After the museum we drove back to the hotel (with a detour so Fran could see the south end of the Strip) and then called it a night. Fran had initially wanted to go gamble $20 away at a blackjack table, but by then she was tired as the early wake-up for the hike was catching up to her. One random thing we were impressed/amused by (but might be common knowledge for many people)... The parking garage at the Paris has signs that indicate how many spots are available at each level and section - this is driven by sensors located above each parking spot; the sensors also show red and green lights that are helpful to tell where spots are available further down the row. Of course we had to play with the sensors to see if we could use our bodies to trigger them going red and green.

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Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/FQpbDfmdGRksjimi9

Southwest Parks 2021 - Day 5 (7/13/21) - Zion's Fallen Angel

Plan A for this morning was to try to go to the Narrows early to beat the forecasted thunderstorms. We didn't get going as early as Fran wanted, and the Springdale shuttle was running late (plus the first one was full), so we didn't get to the park entrance until after 8:30am. When we inquired about the weather conditions at the outfitter, the attendant strongly advised against renting gear for the Narrows since there was a decent chance of rain; it turned out that the rain never materialized, but nobody knew that at the time. We changed plans and decided to do a dry hike.

Fran's second choice for a hike was the Angels Landing trail, a strenuous and scary, but very popular trail. However, she was keenly aware that I was not in the best shape, lacked confidence scrambling down steep trails, and was scared of drop-offs. So she suggested that we check out the moderate Sand Bench trail instead. But once we got to the trail we could tell that it was going to be quite uninspiring; plus there were going to be "horse apples" all along it, as it is the trail used on the horse-riding excursions. We turned back, boarded the shuttle again, and headed to the stop for Angels Landing. As an aside, the temperature at this time was not bad at all (perhaps around 80°F); it didn't really get hot until we were just about done with Angels Landing.

The short story of the Angels Landing experience is that it kicked my butt and turned me into a chicken. We made decent time up the first part of the trail and then up Walter's Wiggles (a series of short but steep switchbacks). We came up on a mother-daughter pair that helped inspire me to keep pushing on. Once we got on to Scout Lookout it was decision time - the trail turned from being paved into a narrow spine along the slanted sandstone, with chains bolted to the rock for some measure of safety. Fran was eager to press on the final 500 feet to the top, but the mother, daughter, and I were much more apprehensive. After gathering myself for a second, I decided to go for it, and the ladies initially tagged along as well. They decided to bail during the first section of chains, and I didn't make it much farther either. After the first section the trail descended a bit before going back up. The anxiety and fear that hit me once I touched the chains for this section made me realize that I would be freaking out for the next hour-plus round trip. So I peeled off and turned around.

What was left of the trail to the top when I turned back

Fran and I discussed me waiting there for her to head to the top and come back to meet me, but decided that me waiting probably 1.5 hours would not be the best idea. Fran could make it up and back much faster than that, but the trail was so busy that you spent half the time waiting for people coming in the other direction (since usually only one direction could pass safely). We scrambled back down the first section of chains (this in itself validated my anxiety), and on a tip from a friendly hiker decided to go up the West Rim trail to one of the high lookouts. This section of trail was more like the first part of the Angels Landing trail, though less paved. I was pretty beat by the time we stopped at the overlook for a bit of a rest and snack. We then made our way all the way back down to the trailhead, and then took the shuttle back to the visitor center.

At this point I was done being active for the day - I was soaked in sweat and my legs didn't want to move anymore. However, it was only 1pm and Fran still wanted to hike some more. So we made a plan for me to take the town shuttle back to the B&B and clean up while she did one more moderate hike. It later turned out that the trail she wanted to go on was closed. When she eventually made it back to the room with more recently-purchased snacks and drinks in hand, she found me in a semi-catatonic state. After she also cleaned up we lazed around he room for a few hours. We later walked to a nearby restaurant, MeMe's Cafe, for dinner then got a couple of ice cream cones.

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Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/FQpbDfmdGRksjimi9

Southwest Parks 2021 - Day 4 (7/12/21) - To Zion

Fran got up to see the sunrise over the canyon, but I stayed in bed. When I did get up I was definitely feeling a bit dehydrated. After checking out we headed to the general store to buy some Gatorade for me and a couple of yogurts for breakfast. We ate at a picnic table on the campgrounds next to the store, then departed around 9am for the drive to Springdale and Zion National Park.

The drive had another interesting transition between landscapes and elevation, from the comparative lushness of the North Rim back down to the desert. One of the few towns that we drove through was Kanab, UT, and it as there that we had a fortuitous occurrence. As Fran and I were discussing looking up whether there were any electronics stores around where we could find a replacement battery for her camera, she noticed a camera store - Terry's Camera Trading Company - on the side of the road. I quickly pulled into the parking lot and we went in to find out whether they had the specific battery model that she needed. As additional background, Fran had spotted a few Canon camera owners over the last 2 days and asked whether they had a compatible battery that she could borrow for a few minutes; in each case the battery was the wrong model - either too big or too small. It turned out that Terry's did have one unit remaining of the needed battery type, so we bought that along with a charger. Needless to say, Fran was over the moon.

We carried on northwest, eventually entering Zion via the east entrance. We were immediately struck by the beautiful cliffs and rock formations. After a couple of stops at scenic points, we continued on through the narrow, long, and somewhat scary Zion Tunnel to get to the central portion of the park. From there we turned south into Springdale and found our lodging for the next 2 nights - the Red Rock Inn. I have to say that I am a fan of this little bed and breakfast - the location was good, the room was quite nice, and the "innkeeper" Sharon was super friendly and helpful.

By the time we checked in and got our act together it was approaching 3pm. After a bit of confusion and deliberation, we drove to the park entrance and parked the car in the paid side parking. The main entrance to the park is surrounded by Zion Canyon Village, an outdoor mall of sorts with a pub, supermarket, and a couple of outfitters. As suggested by Sharon we asked at one of the outfitters about renting waterproof boots and walking sticks for the water trail to the Narrows for the next day; they told us that the forecast was not looking good, as there was a chance of thunderstorms - this can cause dangerous flash floods on the river.

We took the pedestrian entrance into the park, and then hopped on the shuttle. I was still feeling low on energy, so we weren't planning to do anything too strenuous. A friendly couple that we had seen at the outfitter and also on the shuttle told us that they had enjoyed the Emerald Pools trails, and gave us some tips about them. Following their advice, we got off and first took the Middle Pool trail. The pool itself turned out to be underwhelming. Instead of connecting down to the Lower Pool trail as they had suggested, we detoured to the Upper Pool trail, which was slightly more strenuous but had a better payoff. Unfortunately, we went up at the same time as a very large group of teenagers, which (as Fran had previously claimed would happen) made me appreciate the solitude that we had on most of the Grand Canyon North Rim trails. We descended back down via the Lower Pool trail.

Fran going off-trail and taking pictures using the new battery for her camera

After that, we took the shuttle to the last stop to check out the Riverside Walk trail. This is a easy 20 minute walk along the Virgin River, and is the precursor to getting into the river to hike to the Narrows. We stopped at the end right when it transitions into the river, as we did not have the proper gear to continue. That being said, there were plenty of people who continued on in their sneakers, so it's certainly doable up to a point.

We then took the shuttle back to the visitor center and exited the park. We drove home, cleaned up, and then walked down the street to a Tex-Mex place (called Bit & Spur) for dinner.

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Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/FQpbDfmdGRksjimi9

Southwest Parks 2021 - Day 3 (7/11/21) - North Rim exploration

Today was a day of exploration of the North Rim. We were out of the cabin before 8am, and our first stop was the deli by the lodge to pick up a couple of breakfast burritos. We filled up our camel packs and water bottle, then hit the road heading for the Cape Royal Road to the eastern points.

After some deliberation, our first stop was Point Imperial (via the Y junction turn-off to Point Imperial Road) - we got there around 9am. After admiring the view we set out on the Ken Patrick trail. We initially intended to go the full 3 miles until the trail intersected the Cape Royal Road, but we ended up turning back after a little less than 2 miles. That section of the trail mostly hugged the rim of the canyon, providing great views from varying angles. The trail was mostly of moderate difficulty without drastic changes in elevation, though there was one steep, difficult section where I almost chickened out and turned back; but I had my trusty trailblazer, Fran, to help me through it. Although the weather was pleasant (~85 degrees), I still worked up quite a sweat; while I naturally sweat a lot, it didn't help that I was out of shape from foregoing exercise for much of the pandemic.

Fran poses with the Grand Canyon behind her

Upon returning to the car we headed back Point Imperial Road to the Y junction and turned toward Cape Royal. We stopped along a couple of the viewpoints on the way, including Vista Encantada, Roosevelt Point, and Walhalla Overlook. At Roosevelt Point we also took the short Roosevelt Point trail out to an overlook, and then did a little off-trail exploration. As usual, Fran was the braver of the two of us when it came to hanging out on outcrops. At the end of the road we took the paved trail out to Angels Window and Cape Royal. After that we turned back on the road and then stopped to go down the short Cliff Spring trail. The "payoff" for this trail was a cool (in terms of temperature) spring that flowed through the overhanging cliff into an alcove. Unfortunately, the flow was at best a slow drip - further research revealed that this was typical, though some description implied it would be more spectacular.

It was now 3pm and I was pretty beat; though I know Fran could have carried on hiking for many more hours (even though she was carrying the much heavier pack and was routinely having to wait up for me). We were also out of water. In any case, we had a 4:45pm dinner reservation at the lodge, so we made the 45 minute drive back and then cleaned up for dinner. After dinner we scoped out the veranda of the lodge and staked a couple of the lounge chairs (which are in high demand) to relax and wait for the sunset. We didn't get to see the sunset again, though, as storm clouds blew in around 7pm and brought a brief thunderstorm. We initially tried to brave it out on the veranda but eventually took cover in the lodge to wait it out. Although the storm had passed before the sun was due to set around 7:45, the clouds lingered to block any view of the sun. He headed back to our cabin to call it a night after a fruitful and (for me) tiring day.

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Full pictures for the trip here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/FQpbDfmdGRksjimi9