We were sitting at home because of the coronavirus for months, and the time was running out on my sons' summer break. I had meant to take them to Utah, that they did not even remember any more, for some time. After making a chance reservation inside the park in Zion, a vision of hiking the Narrows became the last impulse. Along the way, we spent a night in Vegas, enjoyed the majesty of Zion and the delicate beauty of Bryce Canyon. On the way back we paid a visit to Death Valey and the lowest point in North America. Bodie, a ghost town east of the Sierra, capped off our trip.
Having rejected flying to Vegas earlier in the planning process, a good part of our first day was spent driving the 550 miles there. As we crossed from Central Valley to the Mojave Desert, we reminisced about watching trains on the Tehachapi loop. Hoping for a bit cooler temperatures, we had lunch at the top of the pass in the scenic town of Tehachapi. Since our favorite burger chain ran out of burgers, not sure if because of the covid too, we settled for McDonald's. At least their patio was open as indoor dining was closed like in much of California.
As we descended into the Mojave Desert, we made bets on how hot it would be there. We saw a big plume of smoke rising from the mountains to the south. We attributed it to the Apple Fire, a big wildfire in Riverside County that had started just a few days earlier. As we passed the railroad junction in Barstow, I offered Matthew to go sit down on the same cactus near the railway station during our big road trip to New Mexico and Colorado in 2013. Once past Barstow and on a freeway to Vegas, the highest temperature bets made earlier were shattered as we hit 118 F in one of the lower elevation spots. Just before leaving California, we passed Ivanpah, which in 2014 was the world's largest solar thermal power station. The temperature went down to a cool 113 F as we approached Las Vegas...
Two days earlier, I made a reservation at the Trump Hotel after Expedia offered a great deal on it. I figured we might just as well stay there while he was still the president and not just a disgraced celebrity. We got a room on the 50th floor and enjoyed the view toward the Strip. After a quick trip to get a take-out dinner convinced us it was still too hot to head out, we enjoyed the sunset while having dinner in the room and finally headed out shortly thereafter.
It was a Saturday night and I was surprised to see the crowds strolling the Strip. Some wore masks but many did not. Social distancing was non-existent, and many were in a party mood, carrying glasses of alcohol as they walked. We walked by many of the Las Vegas landmark casinos until we reached the Bellagio where we enjoyed the fountain show. We traced our steps back past Flamingo, the Venetian, and the Wynn until we were on the 50th floor again.
It was a cool night inside the air-conditioned hotel. Outside it was a hot 90+F morning, which did not invite to tour more of Las Vegas or its surroundings but instead to spend some time by the hotel pool. With our check-out extended to 3 pm courtesy of the hotel and Expedia, we had plenty of time to do it. It was entertaining to see the golden styling of water fountains next to the pool, fittingly matching the gaudy Trump theme and the gleaming golden tower above.
Shortly after leaving for our two-and-a-half-hour drive to Zion, the visibility became much worse. As I later found out, it was smoke from another wildfire in western Nevada. It seems the whole West is burning every summer these days. The poor visibility made the desert north of Vegas seem that much bleaker. It got a little better as we went along and we certainly enjoyed an exciting section of the interstate after it enters the Virgin River Canyon through an unlikely opening in the mountains. After emerging out of the canyon, I could not help but marvel how much the St. George region had grown. The cliffs of Zion became ever so clearer as we approached. We checked in at the Zion Lodge just as the canyon floor submerged into the shadows.
The hike through the Narrows was to be the highlight of the trip. I had been to Zion before but most of my trips were in the winter off-season when the water in the river is frigid and requires special equipment to hike. Other times I tend to avoid the crowds that the other seasons, and the summer in particular, bring. This summer was different - the coronavirus kept most people from traveling, and the park itself limited the number of visitors not only by operating the usual high-season bus shuttle system but also by issuing a limited number of tickers for the buses.
After taking the bus from the lodge to the Temple of Sinawava, the last stop in the canyon, it still seemed like a crowd as we set out for our hike. The Riverside Walk trail follows the river on a footpath we had walked many years before in winter. After about a mile, the trail comes to an abrupt end as the canyon walls close in on the river and the only way to continue is by getting in the water. This can be a dicey proposition when the water flow is high, or when a chance of thunderstorm resulting in flash floods is in the forecast. The conditions were perfect for us, and with Philip ahead much of the time, we quickly proceeded upstream. The bottom of the river is covered with rocks, and I felt for people who were attempting the hike in sandals or even flip-flops. Many other opted for renting special ankle-high river hiking shoes. I congratulated myself for bringing a set of trekking poles for each of us as the footing in the not-always-clear water was made that much steadier by another pair of supports. We passed Mystery Falls and as we continued upstream, the crowd thinned out to the point we had the river to ourselves in places. There were sections where it was possible to hike outside the river, but much of the time we were in ankle-to-knee deep water which in some sections was rising to my crotch.
About two miles up from the beginning of Narrows, the trail enters the narrowest stretch of the canyon. It is often called the Wall Street and it is easy to see why as the sandstone walls of the canyon rise vertically from the river that spans the bottom of the canyon, only some 20-30 feet wide. We passed Orderville Canyon and continued a bit farther upstream. It became a game of going to the next bend and I pushed on still more before turning around.
As we hiked downstream, we were joined by others returning like us and meeting up what seemed like hordes still hiking upstream. We got to appreciate how cool the river and the narrow canyon were only after we got out of the river and finally felt the heat along the Riverside Walk.
It was a short bus ride back to the lodge. We spent much of the rest of the (100+ F) hot afternoon relaxing before heading out to the town of Springdale just outside the park boundaries for dinner. After a fare of fast food in the previous day, we had our first dine-in experience in five months since the coronavirus pandemic began. A Thai restaurant exceeded my expectations and the view of the Zion Canyon from the window was just a bonus. After dinner, as a preview of our next day, we drove up the Zion-Mount Carmel highway a little past its tunnel to enjoy the cliffs illuminated by the sun that had already disappeared behind the walls of the main canyon.
We left early to beat the heat and the crowds at what I consider one of the highlights of the park - Canyon Overlook Trail. It starts just behind the tunnel and winds its way back to a viewpoint overlooking the switchbacks of the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway and the main Zion Canyon. The trail follows some minor exposed ledges secured with hand rails. They were much easier to negotiate than in the icy conditions we encountered 11 years ago. After a mile, the trail arrives at the overlook. The visibility was much improved from the two previous days and the view was just as good as I remembered it.
In my previous visits to Zion, I never walked one of the easy classic hikes in the park - Emerald Pools. This time it seemed like a nice choice when many of the park trails were closed due to rockfall or coronavirus, and the ongoing heat wave made long hikes unappealing. So after we checked out, we crossed the bridge across from the lodge and hiked to the lower of the pools, enjoying the little waterfall dripping water from the Middle Emerald Pool on the cliff above us. We continued around and up to the Middle Emerald Pool, which was just a tiny pond surrounded by too many hikers looking for some rest in the shade. Reaching the Upper Pool was a bit more work as the trail continued up steeply on a south-east facing slope which was baking in the late morning sun. The Upper Emerald Pool had some magic, with the backdrop of rock faces behind it. We turned around and, after passing the Middle Pool, continued on Kayenta Trail to make our hike into a loop. There were excellent views of the valley below but no clouds to give a respite from the burning sun.
I originally had big plans for the next night - driving to Toroweap and spending a night camping there. These were thwarted by the coronavirus again as the Grand Canyon National Park was not issuing any backcountry permits that were required to stay at a small campground near the rim. With the heat on, doing the trip, that requires driving almost 60 miles on a dirt road each way, followed off by a short 4WD section, as a day trip, or camping somewhere on national forest land outside the park did not seem particularly attractive. So we checked into a motel in Springdale and instead enjoyed views of the Zion Canyon from a pool.
After the relaxing afternoon at the pool, I drove out to the park to take a few photographs as the sun was going down. I spent some time on the switchbacks of the Mt Carmel Highway and by the Canyon Junction bridge, even taking a few shots of the Watchman from there, probably one of the most popular pictures in the park.
It was about a two hour drive to Bryce from Springdale. We again drove through the tunnel on the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway. This time, we continued past the Checkerboard Mesa through the eastern part of the park before turning north toward Bryce. The landscape changes and supports forests in the higher elevations toward Bryce which was a welcome change. After reaching the park, we found a campsite and pitched our tent before checking out a few of the canyon overlooks.
Navajo loop is a short (1.3 miles) trail that descends into the canyon from the rim at Sunset Point. It features views of Thor's Hammer and Two Bridges before ascending up Wall Street, a narrow section between the hoodoos, back to Sunset Point. Most of the trail is graded with many switchbacks but it still descends and ascends almost 600 ft vertical feet, providing a bit of exercise.
Back at the campsite, I cooked pasta for dinner. We made a camp fire and watched the stars and the Milky Way until the rising moon spoiled our stargazing.
I got up before the sunrise and drove a short distance to Sunset Point. The name would indicate I was there at the wrong time but it was still a great experience watching the first sun color the white cliffs across the canyon pink and then illuminate the hoodoos and the canyon walls below the overlook.
With almost 400 miles to Death Valley, it was time to pack up and hit the road again. Since we came out this far, I figured we could see a few more overlooks in Bryce. It was strange to see all the signs regulating traffic and prohibiting parking next to the road and at the same time almost empty large parking lots, another testimony to the coronavirus times. The lack of crowds sure made for a more intimate experience. I ended up driving all the way to Rainbow Point. At over 9,000 ft in elevation, it was a downright chilly 65 degrees F there in the late morning hours, our last cool down before heading to one of the hottest places on Earth. The vote was to drive through Zion again instead of taking a potentially faster but less scenic road. It was a chance to make a few road side stops in Zion again, including one by Checkerboard Mesa.
After leaving the red rocks of Zion behind, it was time to decide where to stay the next night. We were making a good time and I decided to make a reservation in Death Valley rather than staying just short of it in Pahrump. As we approached Las Vegas, some F-18s flew over our heads. We refueled and restocked in Pahrump, and continued through the empty landscape of Pahrump and Amargosa Valleys toward Death Valley, making a short stop at Zabriskie Point when we reached it.
We reached Furnace Creek, 190 feet below sea level, after 7 pm and it was a cool 105 F, well short of its all time record of 134 F, the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. This record is disputed and the second highest reading of 130F also belongs to Furnace Creek and was recorded only a few days after our visit during a heat wave we felt even in the Bay Area.
Our place for the night was the Ranch at Death Valley, a part of an oasis at Furnace Creek. I went for an evening swim at its sun heated pool, whose temperature by my estimate was at least 100 F. It felt like swimming in a giant hot tub and it was a bizarre experience only enhanced by the full moon rising over the mountains of the Amargosa Range to the east.
It was a cool night by Death Valley summer standards as the temperature dropped just below 90F. I explored the Borax Museum a bit more on my morning walk before taking another dip in the pool.
At 282 feet, or 86 meters, below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest place in North America. It takes its name from a small spring-fed pool of "bad water". Out to its west is a large area of salt flats.
As we drove back north toward Furnace Creek, we made a brief stop at the Golden Canyon trailhead and walked an initial section of the trail that featured many colorful rocks in a landscape of badlands without any vegetation. Back on the road we passed Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. As much as I am into sand dunes photography, it was easy to continue driving as the sun was too high in the sky already. It has been a while since our last visit, but they are not my favorite sand dunes in Death Valley - that title belongs to Eureka Valley Sand Dunes where I am sure to return. Shortly after that, the road leaves the Death Valley itself and we made a brief stop in the next valley to the west - Panamint Valley before leaving the national park itself.
Having left the Death Valley behind, we soon said good bye to the Mojave Desert as we saw the last patch of Joshua tree behind. As we descended toward Owens Valley, I pointed out the Alabama Hills and above them Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in California and the contiguous USA, on the other side of the valley. We continued north along the eastern Sierra, with me constantly pointing toward the peaks on the western horizon, until we reached Bishop where we grabbed a take-out lunch. We ate it in a city park, one of great features of many small towns in the West, and probably elsewhere. The tree-shaded park in Bishop was perfect for a picnic.
We continued north, passed Mammoth Lakes, reminiscing about our skiing adventures there. The shortest route home through Yosemite was off limits because I failed to land a pass that was required to drive through during the pandemic, and we headed farther north still...
Bodie went from a small mining camp when gold was discovered there in 1859 to a boom town of almost 10,000 in 1870s. I am not sure if times have changed but it seems opportunities for striking "gold" are harder to come by these days, especially for people outside of the tech sector, and lottery is the choice to get rich quickly. It sure is safer than gold mining but the chances of winning are likely even smaller. The town largely emptied out by 1920s but maintained a post office through 1942. Very little remains of the original town and what is left is operated as a historic state park.
After visiting Bodie, our shortest way home was over Sonora Pass, at 9,624 ft the second highest pass over the Sierra after Tioga Pass. The road is narrow and winding, especially on the east side, gaining elevation over numerous switchbacks. A shower passed through just before we got there giving the landscape a fresh look and us a view of thunderstorm clouds that we did not see all week. After descending from the Sierra, Matthew got his first Chipotle's experience after our search for food at his favorite Panda Express turned up empty. After a Subway the day before, it was two new fast foods in two days; one day he will sure be eating everything!
We drove 1,830 miles in seven days. The way my road trips go, this was neither the shortest or the longest by any means, but it sure felt special after a long period without any travel. It was also the first long road trip with my sons in some time and it was fun to tour the great scenery of the Southwest together again.