Driving. Driving. Driving. It might seem ridiculous to say that you do a lot of driving on a road trip. But when you are crossing America, you need to prepare yourself for a LOT of driving. It isn't a bad thing though. The windscreen frames a beautiful picture at every turn.
The changing landscape from lush greenery of the east, to the arid inhospitable planes of the west. Each with their own charisma and magic that captivates your attention. Personally, i am drawn more to the vast dusty planes of the west, particularly the road to Monument Valley.
The sawdust soil that is dotted with whispy blades of grass, a floating tumbleweed that can roll for miles until out of nowhere appears a cavernous canyon. This natural break in the landline revealing a rainbow of geological sedament showing how mother nature has sculpted the earth to this picture of beauty of today.
Where there isn't a canyon, you may find an imposing tabletop mountain that juts out of the landline and towers high above reminding us how small and insignificant we are compared to Mother Nature herself. There is nothin like Mother Nature to give you a reality check.
I visited three national parks on my cross America adventures; Monument Valley, Grand Canyon and Zion.
Monument Valley represents to me an iconic landscape and backdrop to so many famous films. The huge Native American reservation hosts a dramatic landscape of sandstone towers and skyscraper rock formation. The majority of this reservation is restricted access to the Navajo decendents only.
The Navajo people have such a interesting and fascinating story. The American military used their skills as code translators, due to their unique language signals. They were critical influences of Americas success in emancipation from the United Kingdom. Nowadays, the Navajo people exist as a nation within the United States and exist off the success of mainly tourism to support the locally managed infrastructure. From the outside it could be perceived that this is a very ineffectual set up for the Navajo people, but in reality it has enabled a community to sustain its traditions and culture. However, there are cracks appearing with the impact of commercial enterprise contaminating the cultural foundation of the Navajo nation , leaving them in a state of go commercial to or don't survive.
In spite of this, my experience at Monument Valley was nothing short of amazing. Electing to take a 4WD tour with locally owned company, our guide welcomed us with hilarious banta and interesting facts whilst simultaneously driving through the rugged terrain of Monument Valley. As the evening drew to a sunset, the tour united with another four groups for dinner and a dance. Greeted by a dancing man in full regalia, i became mesmerised by the combination of a single man singing and playing a drum, a man dancing with such a passion and history, and watching all of this sitting in the shadow of a colossal natural wonder. From there I proceeded to the camp site where i waited with baited breath for nightfall. You see, I was going to be sleeping under the stars in Monument Valley. A geek to the core, i love astronomy. Space, stars and the planets as well as the opportunity to photograph them make me like a kid in a candy store. Like all things when you travel, you can plan as much as you like but it doesn't always go as planned. On this night the area was facing a storm, so Photography opportunities were not at a premium but the experience was still as diverse as it was amazing. In the distance i could see a lightening storm building momentum. The electrical forks striking the horizon through a darkened haze of clouds that were just begging to rain. Immediately above, a blanket of stars lighting up the sky like a million diamonds on a bed of black velvet. Only a faint outline of the giant rock formations visible through the blackness of the night. All of this was to the soundtrack of nature herself. The cries of wildlife echoed across the landing until the distinct sound of sand storm approaching cut through. I bunkered down in my sleeping bag but soon decided to take shelter in the nearby Hogan. While it might sound like a horrible night, i can confidently say that it was the greatest experience. Many people never get to see each of the natural wonders occur in this environment, and i was fortunate to witness them all on the same night.
Next, it was off to the Grand Canyon. America's crowning gem. I was adamant that I was going to hike through the mouth of this beast. While the name implies the size, it is only when you visit that you can truly appreciate the enormity of this natural wonder. Being over 446 km long, 29 km wide and attaining a depth of over 6,093 feet, you feel an alteration in your depth perception when you are in the Canyon. Nearly two billion years of Earth's geological history have been revealed as the Colorado River, which runs through the centre of the Canyon, erodes the sediment.
I was ready to go for sunrise. It was 5.30AM and the sky was a technicolor dream. The colours of the Canyon were already beginning to change with the shifting light. I had my two shoes laced and loaded, plenty of water and snacks and a can do attitude. The Bright Angel Trail would take me on a 13 mile round trip to Plateau point. I know that 13 miles doesn't seem like a long distance, except that I was going to do this in 41 degree celcius heat. Yep. The national park had released and extreme heat warning that very morning. It was going to be a scorcher and I was going to be facing the greatest physical challenge right at the peak of the heat.
WARNING: I don't recommend that everyone do this. I come from Australia and this particular type of dry heat is familiar to me. I am acclimated to it, of sorts, however, even this is a stretch for me.
After pausing to take in the breathtaking scene of sunrise peaking over the Canyon horizon forcing the night sky to yield, the trek began.
Walking around switchback after switchback was pretty easy, but the whole time I was acutely aware that every step i took down was one I would have to take up again in the heat. And we took a lot of steps down. After four hours, the decent began to plateau, which was a relief, however by this time the sun had begun to peak over the Canyon ridge, which up until this point had been shielding us from the heat.
So here I am, half way at Plateau Point, in direct sunlight, 40 degrees celcius and a banged up knee from an earlier fall, thinking nothing but how utterly spectacular the site was. That is how breathtaking it is. Every angle. Every colour.
Unfortunately I couldn't enjoy the moment for too long as I had to commence the gruelling walk back up. Was it painful? Yes. Was it an extreme physical challenge? Yes. Would i do it all over again just to see that beauty? Hell yes! I finished the walk off with an ice cream at the top as a reward.
After Grand Canyon I couldn't imagine that another National Park would have a profound impact on me. Despite this we were bound for Zion National Park, so i put my prejudices aside and prepared myself. To be honest, Zion National park was a bit of an unknown for me. I had never really heard or seen much about it.
After setting up camp we decided to take the shuttle to the Narrows, which is a 2.5 mile trail that runs along / in the river. What makes this trail so special is the ravine that it runs through. The challenge of walking in the water current soon eased the further along the trail we walked. I'm not sure if this is because the current eased or, I just got more skilled at my footing. Gliding past waterfalls, and beautiful rock formations I enjoyed the chill in the water as a vacation from the hot dry desert heat.
The Narrows were a preview of the mornings next adventure. Hiking Angel's Landing.
Angel's Landing is a strenuous hike with rapid altitude gain, exposed cliff faces, switchbacks and an area where a chain is the only thing to hold on to.
We decided to set off early for two reasons, the suns heat would be epic later in the morning and we had planned to drive to Las Vegas in the afternoon. Catching the first of the National Park Shuttle buses, I was impressed with the infrastructure that Zion had in place. Proper toilets, drinking fountains and shuttles that ran as frequently as 15 mins. This was a stark contrast to the Grand Canyon, who despite having thousands of people visit on a daily basis, struggled to have the same sleek finish.
The trail commences with a well defined path that hugs the valley created by the Virgin River. It is flat, sandy and pretty easy to walk along. It gave me an opportunity to marvel at the staggering geological formations that surrounded me. The trail began to ascend quickly, snaking up the side of the canyon and for about an hour I pretty much walked up switchback after switchback, gradually making my way up the face of the canyon.
Then i reached the final half mile. This is were things got interesting. The path changed from a trail to a cliff edge scramble. Being careful to not look down.....I'm scared of heights..did i mention that...we slowly ascended to the top of Angel's Landing, and to the stunning display of Mother Nature.
I am now sore and tired but i would do it all over again. America is a lucky country to have contained within it three such beautiful, and distinctly different national parks. If you get the opportunity I implore you to try your own adventure to explore Mothers Nature's finest.