Outside of my insatiable attraction to mountains, one of my life long dreams is to hike the Grand Canyon. For years, I looked at the pictures of Grand Canyon and imagined what it would be like to experience that landscape through a regular day hike or with overnight backpacking. My desire for the Canyon hike was so strong that I didn’t want to ruin the excitement by merely visiting the rim without hiking. So in spite of being in the vicinity of one of the natural wonders of the world a few time before, I decided to not do the standard rim tour.
This summer, specifically two weeks ago, I ventured on a long road trip out west, a road trip that would require me to drive about 5000 miles in a week. My initial plan was to check out the Rockies, settle in around the Estes Park area and hike the mountain trails for the entire week, but it didn’t make sense for me to drive all the way to Colorado from the midwest and not get a good feel for for Colorado plateau province, the Four Corners unique landscape in the South Western United States made up of elevated deserts and forests along the southwestern corner of Colorado, northwestern corner of New Mexico, northeastern corner of Arizona and southeastern corner of Utah. So, I decided to sacrifice my hiking plans and charted out this loop from Denver limited to a drive-through site-seeing through the Rockies, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon with a stop in Vegas before returning back to Denver.
Road Trip through the Colorado Plateau Province (Rockies :: Arches :: Grand Canyon :: Vegas :: Rockies). Click on the pic for a HD view
Draining water through out the plateau is one major source, the mighty Colorado river, which starts with snow melting from the Rocky Mountain peaks and flows southwest through the plateau, eventually merging with the Pacific Ocean in the California gulf. The overlay above is a hack job and a rough approximation, but close enough for this journal. I couldn’t find an overlay of rivers in Google maps to provide a cleaner view, but it should suffice for the purposes of this blog.
Day 1: To Denver
I arrived in Denver after a lengthy and boring drive through the cornfields in the midwestern plains of Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska, but what lay ahead was well worth the full day driving marathon that took me there. Driving through Western Nebraska along the green prairies of North Platte leading up to the Colorado foothills was my first look at a barren green landscapes with grass and shrubs and no trees anywhere for as far as the eye could see, different from the fertile irrigable farmlands dotted with tall trees I had been over-exposed to for the past 24 hours. These North American prairies are a result of Rocky Mountain rain shadow, a dry area created due to blockage of the rain producing weather systems by the mountains causing only dry air to advance in, resulting in an ecosystem that kills any trees.
Day 2: Rocky Mountain National Park
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
– America the Beautiful, by Katharine Lee Bates.
“ It is a beautiful day in Colorado. I have no idea why anyone would live anywhere else? I visit other places, and every now and then I meet a few people who actually claim that they live there by choice. Can you believe? By choice! I don’t know why but I an not going to waste my time attempting to rationalize insanity…“, boasted a local talk show jockey on the Colorado air waves as he started off his daily show. Tuned in to the channel while driving through the rocky mountain terrain, I stared at the spectacle that unfolded in front of me and and couldn’t agree more. The alpine-sloped hills with sharp-edged rocks and snow-capped summits glittering in the bright summer sunlight left me giddy with excitement. The purple mountain majesties that inspired Bates to pen America the Beautiful is evident in all its glory. As I got closer, I slowed down for the a stream of cyclists riding in front of me while a horde of runners cut right across the road at the stop sign and started heading for the hills directly, along some narrow running trails by the hill side. Why wouldn’t everyone want to live here?
On the way to the Rocky Mountain National Park (Click on the pic for a HD view)
I entered the Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, about an hour away from Denver, and took the Trail Ridge Road, which is a stretch of US Highway 34 and the highest continuous highway in the US reaching a maximum elevation of 12,183 ft.
Trail Ridge Road Entrance (Click on the pic for a HD view)
As you can imagine, the road is closed during winter due to heavy snow and is an extremely popular and busy route when it is open, weather permitting, mostly during late spring and summer, as was the case on this day. Going west from Estes Park, it winds through several breathtaking overlooks along the mountains and finishes in Grand Lake, CO in the west. My plan was to head out south west from Grand Lake and spend the night in Grand Junction, CO.
The views along the road are spectacular. Here’s a small sampling. Click on the image to view a HD version of it.
Views along the Trail Ridge Road (Click on the pic for a HD view)
From one of the overlooks (Click on the pic for a HD view)
No shortage of crowds.. children enjoying the mountain top views (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Nearly one third of the park is above treeline. Above 11,400 ft of elevation, the conditions are too harsh for trees to grow, resulting in the rugged rocks covered with ice that melts through out the summer producing a river system that drains most of America. Missouri river flows east from the Rockies originating in Montana whose watershed covers over two-thirds of American Great Plains and Colorado river originates in Colorado Rockies and flows west through the Colorado plateau province draining the American South west.
Mountain top with frozen tundra.... on the Trail Ridge (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Rocky Mountain beauty (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Rocky Mountain Snow Caps (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Alpine tundra is a complex of high-elevation meadows, fell (barren) fields, and talus (rock) slopes above treeline. Grasses and sedges dominate the meadow communities, and fens (a type of wet meadow) and willows exist in wet soils. Vegetation in the alpine zone is similar to that in the Arctic.
These meadows below are that subsection of Rocky Mountain alpine tundras that the Trail Ridge traverses through. It is truly a unique experience to get to witness these changes in climate and ecology by being able to get to such heights within an hour to two by car. These summits are the same areas the Trail Ridge hiking trails lead the hikers to, and while there is no substitute to the hiking experience, the drive up here is a close second.
Trail Ridge Road at the height of its elevation (Click on the pic for a HD view)
The rugged mountain tops (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Too cold for any vegetation (Click on the pic for a HD view)
View of the valley from one of the overlooks (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Bull Elk feeding in the pastures (Click on the pic for a HD view)
After that breathtaking trip through the Rockies, the Trail Ridge finished in Grand Lake, CO. It was time for me step on the peddle and drive Southwest to Grand Junction, CO.
An unexpected surprise on the way to Grand Junction was the I-70 section through the Glenwood Canyon. This is as scenic a stretch of interstate highway as I’ve driven through anywhere in the country. My only regret was that I couldn’t spend more time there since I wasn’t prepared for it. I wouldn’t even have noticed it if I hadn’t stopped at one of the rest areas entering into that stretch and at the visitor center read the details of what was essentially a blue-eyed project from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). The highway itself weaves in and out of tunnels through the canyon, with the Colorado river flowing right next to it accompanied also by an old rail track through out that beautiful stretch.
Scenic Glenwood Canyons through I-70
This road system is the primary highway link between Denver and the states to the west, and the complexity of squeezing in a modern 4-lane freeway into a gorge that could barely allow two lanes was solved by building two elevated roadways, one on top of another with 40 bridges and viaducts stretching over 6 miles, 15 miles of retaining wall and 4,000-foot-long tunnel with bores for traffic in both directions, creating a scenic beauty surrounded by imposing canyon walls all around. If you ever drive through this stretch, there are about 6 rest areas through out the 12.5 mile stretch, and it is worth every minute of your time to spend taking it all in by stopping at a couple of them and driving through it at speeds below the speed limit. You can read all about the history and background behind Glenwood Canyons from this DOT site here.
Weird exit names during this stretch
Hot Sulphur Springs:
No points for guessing what you can find in this town.
Hot Sulphur Springs, CO
Granted, it is home to a gypsum wallboard products manufacturer, but do you really want to name your town after a mineral?
No Name Exit on I-70 (Pic source unknown.. not taken by me)
This one’s a classic. It is a census designated place (CDP) so named after I-70 was constructed. I could make all sorts of jokes here, but apparently there is a reason for the name.. or.. no name, and if you are interested, you can read about the history behind it here.
No Name, CO
I got to Grand Junction late in the night to get a few hours of sleep before heading out for the Arches next day.
Day 3: Arches National Park
How many weary centuries has it been
About those deserts blown!
How many strange vicissitudes has seen,
How many histories known!
– Sand Of The Desert In An Hour-Glass by H.W. Longfellow
I am not sure how many times you’ve been to Utah. This was my first. Prior to the trip, if I played a word association game, the first thing I would have come up for Utah was Mormonism. After all, 60% of Utahns are Mormons and the influence of Brighan Young as a major Mormon pioneer that spread the influence and membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is still very visible in the street names and church names wherever you go. But, after my visit, I can only see red when I think of Utah. Utah is Red Rock state, the landscape that defined the rugged western looks in Hollywood, the grand vistas and sprawling deserts with red sand, red stone and red lands everywhere is as much the identity of the state as its religious homogeneity.
Entering Utah (Click on the pic for a HD view)
By the time I crossed the state borders from Colorado into Utah on I-70, the change in the landscape is quite evident. The heat index went up, the trees got smaller, the sand got drier, the land looked arid and the vistas got broader, and I can tell the desert land awaited me.
I took the US-191 S exit on I-70 and headed south. Arches National Park is right off of US-191 in Moab, Utah.
View of US-191 at the entrance to Arches (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Arches National Park is home for over 2000 sandstone arches and other unique red rock formations naturally sculpted by forces of nature.
Red stone monoliths (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Natural erosion of slabs of red rock (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Red stone wonders (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Impressive and implausible landscapes (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Remarkable structures created from nature's magic (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Tall sandstone fin (Click on the pic for a HD view)
After staring bewildered at these red rock sculptures from nature’s hands, I turned to the material handed out at the park entrance to get a sense for how these rocks are formed. Here’s the explanation from the geological types..
About 300 million years ago, a sea flowed into this region and eventually evaporated, depositing a salt bed thousands of feet thick in places across the Colorado plateau. Over millions of years since, residue from floods, winds and the oceans that came and went blanketed the salt bed. The debris was compressed as rock, at one time possibly a mile thick.
Salt under pressure is unstable and the thick cover of rock in this region caused the salt layer to be shifted, buckled, liquefied and re-positioned, thrusting the rock layers upwards as domes and causing whole sections falling into cavities.
Geological story of Arches (source: NPS, Arches National Park)
Faults deep in the Earth made surface even more unstable, causing vertical cracks contributing to the development arches. As salt’s sub-surface shifting shaped the landscape, surface erosion stripped off younger rock layers. Over time water seeped into superficial cracks, joints, and folds, ice formed in the fissures, expanding and pressuring the rock, breaking off bits and pieces. Wind later cleaned out the loose particles, leaving a series of free-standing fins.
Wind and water then attacked these fins until the cementing material in some gave way and chunks of rock tumbled out. Many of these damaged fins collapsed, but others hard enough and balanced, survived despite missing sections. These became the famous arches.
This is the possible story of the Arches National Park and they are sticking to it though the evidence is largely circumstantial.
Balanced Rocks.. the precarious one on the left is about 3 school buses tall (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Arches.. one of many in the park (Click on the pic for a HD view)
In case you are wondering about the reason for the color being so red, it is due to Hematite, a common mineral form of Iron Oxide. The presence of Iron in these regions causes the release of Iron Oxide with exposure to air and water. The surface coating of this Iron Oxide on rock and its grains is the reason for the redness of the rock.
I did found it curious that they have campgrounds at Devil’s Garden, the interior site of the park. I am all for a camping experience in a forest or a mountain, but I am not so sure about it here. With 100 degree temperatures a commonplace in summer and the sun beating down mercilessly with few clouds in site and the glaring red rock radiating more heat around, you’d have to be a die-hard enthusiast of these rocks to pitch a tent there. They do claim to get about 1 million visitors a year, so, the interest must be much more substantial than I am assuming.
All in all, it was a worthy trip to the Arches, one of those visits that you can do once to experience the uniqueness of the place. When I first charted out the plan, I was considering visiting one ore more of Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands national parks. I tried every combination I could to see if it was feasible to squeeze in a visit to Bryce Canyon, but it just didn’t fit into my tight schedule. Only practical option was the Arches, so while I was a bit circumspect coming in, I left well satisfied with the visit. After wrapping up the 25 mile course back and forth through all of the Arches sites, I was ready to drive to Arizona for the big finish next day. The plan was to spend the night at Williams, AZ, south of Grand Canyon and west of Flagstaff, AZ, and head out to the Grand Canyon South Rim in the morning.
As I got closer to Utah-Arizona border, the desert got a lot flatter, with long stretches of flat and straight roads with few cars and nothing but scattered and tiny shrubs on dry and sedimentary soil with distant pillars of sand of various different canyons scattered across the scenery. It was a picture of a landscape depicted in many a rattle-snake-infested, wild-west desert shot of Hollywood, though I didn’t see any dead rattlers on the road or any live ones since I didn’t stop to checkout the desert in search of one. I did see many tumbleweeds roll across the road, a staple for any movie shot foreboding impending doom in a desert scene — perhaps an escaped convict is about to arrive for a secret rendezvous at a desolate bar nearby or a drug lord was arriving with his posse to settle a score against a rival gang, or may be if I paid proper attention, I would have noticed Brad Pitt shooting down a knelt-down-smug-faced Kevin Spacey with Morgan Freeman pleading him not to…. but I digress.
What I did find as I got closer to Arizona border is an increase in Hispanic presence in the small towns along the way and one or two mobile homes with trailers and small Indian habitations scattered in the middle of nowhere across vast stretches of completely empty desert lands. As I crossed into Arizona and approached Flagstaff, I saw the San Francisco Peaks, a volcanic mountain range that imbued a greenery to the surroundings that has been absent for the past several hours. Flagstaff with nearby Williams is a pleasant towns surrounded by several hills with moderate temperatures and with its relative proximity to Las Vegas and Grand Canyon, they are a popular spot for a growing number of people who call them home as well as tourists from Vegas who make the town a base for their South West trips to Utah and Grand Canyon.
Weird exit names during this stretch
Not sure why I find this funny, I might even find a town in New Jersey called Indian Saree and perhaps a town near seattle called Japanese Kimono.
Mexican Hat, UT
Day 4: Grand Canyon (South Rim)
Be a provenance
of something gathered, a summation of
previous intuitions, let your vulnerabilities
walking on the cracked sliding limestone
be this time, not a weakness, but a faculty
for understanding what’s about
to happen. Stand above the Seven Streams
letting the deep down current surface
around you, then branch and branch
as they do, back into the mountain
and as if you were able for that flow,
say the few necessary words
and walk on, broader and cleansed
for having imagined.
– The Seven Streams by David Whyte
There is no way to prepare for it, no way to anticipate it. You hear that it is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, so it must be large, but just how large and how deep? As you park in one of the 3 large parking lots at the visitors center close to the park entrance (they get an estimated 4 million visitors a day), and start walking towards Mathers point, the nearby viewing area at the visitors center, you start imagining a hole in the ground, deep and wide.. based on the post cards or blown up posters you are exposed to.. but still, there is no way you can anticipate the sensation you are about to feel.
You finally get to the viewing area, shuffle in between the crowded visitors towards one of the railings and stare at the landscape in front of you in jaw dropping amazement. The immediate feeling is a mixture of awe, shock, exhilaration and incredulousness. You notice that the crowd, huge crowd, that is witnessing this with you is not very noisy. You see people murmuring, almost whispering to each other, as if they are in some sacred grounds. Depending on your views and believes, you might even say it is a hallowed ground. You are witnessing deep time.. millions and even billions of years of nature at work.. right in front of you.
Mathers point - spectacular views (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Naturally carved canyon walls (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Another perspective (Click on the pic for a HD view)
A view from the side (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Spanish Discovery (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Near here, in late summer of 1540, soldiers from Spanish expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado became the first Europeans to see Grand Canyon. After journeying for six months, Coronado’s army arrived at the Hopi mesas, east of Grand Canyon. From there Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, guided by Hopi Indians, led a small party of men to find a reported “great river”. After 20 days, they reached the south rim of Grand Canyon, emerging from the forest to stand on the edge of this vast chasm.
Around 1560 Pedro de Castaneda, a soldier with Coronado recorded his memories of the expedition 20 years earlier. It is from him we have our record of Cardenas’s discovery of Grand Canyon. Castaneda reported frustration and amazement:
“After they had gone twenty days they came to the banks of the river (the canyon rim)…. They spend three days on this bank looking for a passage down…. It was impossible to descend…. the three lightest and most agile men made an attempt to go down at the least difficult place, and went down until those who were above were unable to keep sight of them. They returned about four o’clock in the afternoon, not having succeeded…. Those who stayed above had estimated that some huge rocks on the sides of the cliffs seemed to be about as tall as a man, but those who went down swore that when they reached these rocks they were bigger than the great tower of Seville.”
An overwhelming experience (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Canyon walls tell an impressive story (Click on the pic for a HD view)
The sheer enormity of it all with humongous walls of sand carved down the elevated plateau by the Colorado river, day after day after day, for millions and millions of years, and the result is a masterpiece in front of you. You gape deep down into the middle of the canyon to locate the snaking Colorado river, that looks like a mini-creek from up near the rim, and you wonder how it could have caused all this and you gaze up and down, wide and across, all over the canyon and you are overwhelmed by it all.
Desert View - Colorado river at work (Click on the pic for a HD view)
Rain in the distance (Click on the pic for a HD view)
One of the unique features of climate around these parts are views like these where you seem to be able to see black streaks of rain coming down from afar, something new for me. As these rain clouds passed over the canyon, bringing with them a short period of rain accompanied by brief thunder and lightning, while scurrying for shelter, I overheard a teen yelling excitedly to a group of friends “Hey, if this lightning strikes me, make sure you take a picture of that and put it up on Facebook.” That just about summarizes the social network hysteria of these times.
Desert View - A view from the gift shop inside the tower (Click on the pic for a HD view)
I am an anti-hype scoffer of anything and everything that is even remotely overrated and over-hyped. I can’t help it, its in my blood. Yet, this is one place that is beyond any description that could be construed as hyperbole. It is above all description, and imparts a feeling that can only be experienced and not explained. As I drove out of the park and headed towards Vegas, my resolve for coming back to the Grand Canyon for a proper hike only grew stronger.
Weird exit names during this stretch
At this rate, By the time I am back home, I wouldn’t be surprised if I drove through the entire Periodic Table of Elements.
Day 5: Las Vegas
I went for a walk along the Vegas strip late in the night for the normal touristy thing of checking out the fountain show at the Bellagios and the volcano show in front of the Mirage and the pirate show near the Treasure Island. Drinking on the streets is fairly pervasive, and if you walk long enough, you will see thinly veiled solicitation from prostitutes and pimps working hard at the street lights, providing the right constitution for that sin city texture Vegas prides itself on.
Each time I am here, I see a couple of new high-risers boasting something new to outshine the competition, and the average age of the crowd on the street seems to go down a few years. It seemed like there were more teenagers than adults on the street. I remember staying at the Luxor a few years ago when that sphynx-shaped casino was hailed as a cool attraction. I am told it is outdated now. As I watch the glitz and glitter of Vegas, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. After the experience at the Grand Canyon, it just looked jaded and inconsequential.
Day 6 and 7: Back to Denver and back to home
This was clearly the worst part of the trip when I started questioning the sanity of my choice to drive 5000 miles within a week. Until now, the anticipation of visiting these great places and witnessing the great new landscapes kept me excited and fresh, but now I was left with the omnipresent cornfields of midwestern flatlands on a very long stretch of a return trip that I was not looking forward to. By the time I was done with it all and reached home, I needed another vacation from my vacation to recuperate, but I was very happy with the trip. And those Rocky Mountains and Grand Canyon, I am already looking forward to the next time I will be there.. with a backpack.