Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Visiting Arizona: Sedona

The drive from the Grand Canyon to Winslow is as desolate as it gets. Once we got through Flagstaff, the trees fell away and the desert stretched to the horizon, interrupted only periodically by random rock formations and jagged hills.

We got to Meteor Crater in about 2 hours. The wind was howling over the rim and in the bowl, and we wandered around for a bit on the paved pathways and in the small museum. The exhibits on meteors, asteroids, comets, and general space stuff were actually pretty impressive considering the size of the place.

The gift shop had a variety of expensive trinkets, and like all the other gift shops in the state of Arizona, a large selection of rocks and gem stones. I passed on all of the collectibles except for a sticker to put in my scrap book.

It's a quick detour, but I encourage everyone to visit Meteor Crater as it is quite a rarity!

After the crater we drove to Sedona and checked into the Wildflower Inn, a cozy and convenient little motel in the town of Oak Creek. We dropped off our luggage and headed to Jerome, a ghost town my Dad visited in the 70s while he was living in Tempe. We stopped at the visitor center first and I picked up a few post cards. We made conversation with the park ranger at the visitor center and he explained how Jerome has changed since my Dad's last visit.

Apparently the term "ghost town" has two meanings when talking about Jerome. 30 years ago, Jerome was like the set of an old Hollywood western with abandoned buildings and tumble weeds blowing down Main Street.

Today, Jerome is a hot spot for arts and shopping, and the historical society offers ghost tours after dark as there are many haunted hotels and buildings down town. The Wild West atmosphere is gone.

Dad seemed a little disappointed by this shift but Jerome is still a pretty cute little town with boutique stores and souvenirs galore.  By the time we left, it was after 4:00 and a storm was rolling in. The clouds were dark and heavy, as they would be for the rest of our trip, and wisps of rain were visible on the horizon - not a great omen for the early morning balloon expedition we had planned.

We called the hot air balloon company to find out whether our balloon ride was cancelled. It was. Because of the increasing wind and rain, the pilot decided it was too risky.

We ended up spending the morning hiking around the red rocks, despite the bad weather. We drove to a few scenic overlooks and picked a trail near Bell Rock and Oak Creek. Even though it was gloomy and overcast and the colors are very vibrant, we found several impressive scenic views and enjoyed a few hours out exploring. The sun did peek out every now and then, which at least offered a few rare spots of blue sky.

Back in the car on our way to another stop, we found a family of Roadrunners in our path - two adults and three tiny babies. They scurried across the road in front of us. I so regret not getting a picture of them, but at least now I can say I've seen one!

We went to Montezuma's Castle and enjoyed a quick view of some high-up cliff dwellings from a long forgotten people.  At the recommendation of the gift shop cashier, we ended up at Montezuma Well a few miles down there road, a natural spring in the middle of the desert and the only known habitat for five microscopic species which thrive in high carbon dioxide levels of the water.

After a late lunch at the Blue Moon CafĂ©, the weather forced us to call it a day, but we took a quick detour through downtown Sedona and found a really awesome store with a huge selection of art and gifts. We spent an hour or so there before heading back to the hotel for the night, and just like that our trip to Arizona was over!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Visiting Arizona: The South Rim of the Grand Canyon

There's nothing like a hike on Bright Angel Train to remind you how out of shape you've gotten. We started early in the morning on Tuesday, June 2, at about 7:30. We took the shuttle bus from Yavapai Lodge right to the trailhead. The shuttle at the canyon is really awesome. There are three lines that take you clear from one end of the south rim to the other which makes it so easy to explore without worrying about parking.

There were some mules at the trailhead prepping to carry people down to Phantom Ranch, an excursion that is definitely on my list for next time!

Bright Angel Trail was pretty steep going down with a mixture of packed dirt, loose gravel, boulders, and logs (set into the trail as stairs in some parts). The view was ok but not necessarily anything to write home about. I was much more impressed by the views along the Rim Trail.  On Bright Angel we were situated in a sort of corner of the canyon with cliffs surrounding us on three sides.

We made it about 1.5 miles down the trail before I decided I was ready to turn back. I knew the climb up would be much more difficult than going down and I didn't want to go any further into the canyon especially if we would just be looking at the same rocks the whole time.

We made it back up to the rim shortly before 1100, so it took us about 3 hours to go 3 miles.  Once we were back up at the rim, we grabbed a quick breakfast at one of the hotels. Dad got a giant burrito and I enjoyed some fruit and cheese grits.

After that, we explored the Rim Trail for the rest of the afternoon. My FitBit said I walked 30,000 steps, 13.62 miles. We stopped at several view points and I must have taken a billion pictures. The view from the rim was great and we had perfect weather. The sky was bright blue and the light on the cliff faces was awesome. It was like nothing I've ever seen before. Dad and I climbed around several outcroppings off the path to get the better views. The wind was howling, which helped cool us off in the 100 degree heat, and if I got too close to the edge it really felt like I might blow away.  I also had a run in with an adorable new friend - one of the canyon squirrels. Cute as he may be, he also is apparently a carrier of the PLAGUE, and they had multiple signs posted warning tourists not to pet or feed the squirrels. This is something I don't have a problem with as it always saddens me when animals in popular areas become accustomed to human food and attention. We have to keep the wildlife wild!

Our second day at the canyon we took a helicopter tour over the north rim - something I definitely recommend. It was a 45 minute flight but it felt like 15 minutes. I'd never been in a helicopter before and it was the coolest sensation. I also got to sit front and center which worked out because they assign seats based on weight distribution of the passengers. It was me and Dad, plus five other riders.

You really get an entirely different perspective of the canyon from up above. The layers of rock are so pronounced and the colors are so vibrant. I could have flown around up there for hours.

Once we landed, we took a shuttle to the west end of the south rim to explore a different part of the rim trail and to scout out a good location to take sunset pictures.

Getting to the canyon feels like driving through an alien planet. You go from high flat desert to an almost alpine setting, and then the south rim is like a combination of the two. We saw several elk (including babies!) hanging out near our hotel. We also saw a jogger get chased by a mama elk after he accidentally started them on his morning run. The trees were mostly Juniper, but there was another type of tree that looked really dramatic in photos. I don't know if it was just really old Juniper or another species, but they were all over the rim, these bare and mangled trunks with twisted branches that look almost like deer antlers.

We ended up watching the sunset from Powell's Point on the rim trail. We got there more than 90 minutes before official sunset time to try to stake out a good spot. We'd found a rock ledge earlier in the day and it turned out to be the perfect place. Dad and I were pretty much alone except for a German couple who also came to watch the sunset. The man was a photographer with a tripod so we sort of had an unspoken agreement to share the handful of good view points and we rotated back and forth as the sky dimmed into twilight. One of my favorite pictures from the evening is actually of that couple silhouetted against the setting sun.

We stayed until about 8:00 watching the colors change from red to purple as the shadows grew and the haze turned blue. The 100 degree day quickly faded to a 50 degree evening and I was glad I'd changed into jeans. The varying temperature was really unusual for me - I'm used to like a five degree variant over the course of the day, but at the canyon it goes from Summer to Fall in a matter of hours, so I advise you pack a light sweater, even if you go in the middle of August.

Northern Arizona was really spectacular.


Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Visiting Arizona: Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend

This was one of my favorite days of the trip. We left Monument Valley early and drove to Antelope Canyon outside the city of Page. Dad had arranged a special guided tour of the slot canyon. It was specifically for photographers, so they required each individual person have their own DSLR and tripod (neither of which he brought). We figured my tripod and camera would be enough, but the Navajo tour company was very strict and did not allow tag-alongs. This was a new policy they'd began enforcing in March - after my dad booked our tour - but they were holding us to it. I was pretty upset about it. I didn't want to go on the tour without him. I'm not sure how, but eventually he persuaded the rule enforcer to let him on the tour anyway. It was just six of us all together.

We drove down a wide dirt road - it seemed like a dry riverbed - for about 10 minutes before reaching the canyon entrance. Our guide warned us there would be about 700-800 other tourists throughout the canyon while we were in there. The benefit to the photography tour is that the guides block traffic so you can get a tourist-free shot of the canyon. They also throw sand in the air to catch the beams of sun coming down from the open sky. It's scary to think about when you're in there, but the canyon floods pretty regularly. The rushing water is what creates the surreal curved walls.

That last picture is what the canyon looks like when the tour guides aren't working to block other people from the photos. It would have been impossible to get a clear shot of anything.

When our tour was finished we drove about 10 more minutes down the road to Horseshoe Bend. It's only marked by one sign and the small parking lot is right off the highway. You can't see the river from the road, so everything works together to make you feel like it's just some ordinary tourist trap...I mean it's just a river that makes a hard U turn, after all. But when you hike down and get to the cliff overlooking the water, it really takes your breath away. The area had also received more snow/rain during the spring so the banks of the river were lush with green and the water had this unnatural tint to it.

I think this was dad's favorite place we visited during the whole week. He was really impressed.

After an hour walking around the steep cliff and balancing on boulders, we got back in the car and drove the rest of the way to the Grand Canyon.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Visiting Arizona: Monument Valley

Last week, my dad and I took a trip to Arizona to visit Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, and Sedona. We flew in to Phoenix and then drove north, making a few pit stops along the way.

Our first stop was at Chilleen's on 17, a restaurant featured on Bar Rescue that my dad wanted to visit. We got there shortly before they opened so spent a few minutes browsing a nearby store selling hand-made Navajo jewelry and collectibles. The food was ok, but I wouldn't go out of my way to eat there again.

After lunch we continued north  on the interstate before exiting for  a smaller somewhat scenic highway to Tuba City and Dinosaur Tracks. We were up at above 7,000 feet at one point and the landscape seemed to change instantaneously as we went from parched desert to green wilderness back to desert. The Dinosaur Tracks attraction has been run by the same Navajo family since the 1970s when it opened, and they continue to unearth more tracks each year. It's made up of a few rinky dink shacks along the side of the road where they also sell jewelry and souvenirs. The dinosaur tracks are off to one side of a dusty unpaved parking lot, scattered around a patch of dirt about an acre in size. It was really neat to see all the different foot prints; there was also fossilized dino poop and a jelly fish, oddly enough. A toothless man with tan skin waved us down and offered to give us a free tour. He turned out to be the original owner's grandson,  and our de facto guide was very eager to show us around.

Back on the road, we drove up on the Elephant Feet, two behemoth rock formations that resemble (duh) elephant feet. We swerved into the dirt parking lot and wandered around these two giant pillars for a bit. Like everything in Arizona, it was awesome that these two really cool formations were just hanging out on the side of the highway like no big deal.

We got to Monument Valley in time for a late dinner purchased at Goulding's grocery store. We drove a few miles down a dirt road and finally got to our "bed and breakfast," a traditional Navajo mud dwelling called a Hogan. While still in Monument Valley, it was technically in Utah, so I got to cross another state off my list. After unloading our luggage, we made a quick hike up the cliff behind the B&B's compound. It was dusk, so we didn't wander too far, but what we got to see was awesome. The whole cliffside was covered with petrified wood. We were in the middle of nowhere. The moon was bright, the air was clear, and the night was quiet.  Our hosts were very nice, and there was even a resident stray cat (aptly named Diablo), who wandered around looking for attention each evening.

The next morning, we got up early (so we thought) to meet our tour guide for the day. It took us a while to figure out the time zone - Utah and the Navajo Nation in Arizona observe daylight savings time, but the non Navajo state of Arizona does not, so staying in Utah, but traveling in Arizona, and sightseeing on Navajo land all combined to create a lot of confusion as far as when we needed to be to make sure we were on time. So that morning, we set our alarms for 5:00, but luckily my dad ran into Raquel, the innkeeper, and she informed him it was actually 6:00. We scrambled to get ready and leave in time to make our appointment with Blackwater Tours for the 6 hour back country tour.

Frank, our Navajo tour guide, was super and I highly recommend that anyone visiting Monument Valley take a guided back country tour with Blackwater Tours! It ended up being just me and Dad because nobody else booked the tour for that day. We saw so much more than we would have if we'd just stuck around what was visible from the visitor's center. Frank took us to Mystery Valley in the morning and Monument Valley after lunch. The rock formations are so expansive and go way beyond what you see in the movies or from the highway. Frank was so patient and let us stop to take as many pictures as we wanted. He was also very knowledgable about some of the lesser known formations, arches, and buttes, and told us the names of everything he took us to.

Before the tour, I'd really just assumed Monument Valley consisted of the five or six iconic formations you always see in westerns but it was really so much more.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Visiting Washington DC: Highlights from our recent trips

Last May, my mom moved to DC. She got a new job with the Department of Veteran's Affairs. It was an opportunity she couldn't turn down, so just a few months after Mike and I moved to Hampton Roads, she relocated three hours north. Mike and I went to visit early in the summer. He'd never really been to DC or done the touristy stuff, so we spent a warm and sunny day exploring.

We started off at the Law Enforcement Memorial - a very emotional place for Mike (and me). After that, we walked around near the capitol building and all the way down the mall to the WWII monument.

In September, I drove up with my Aunt Betsy and we spent a day walking around Mt. Vernon.

My mom is retiring in May after one year in DC. She's moving to a town in North Carolina where we lived for a couple of years when I was in elementary school and middle school. I'm looking forward to many years of holidays and visits spent in her cozy new home.
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