We traveled in three different states, starting off the month in Arizona, a week in Nevada, then on to Utah. After a wonderful eleven-day stay at Camp Navajo (west of Flagstaff), we reluctantly left but it was time to move on. Shelley visited the vet one last time - her eye had improved so we left there with a few follow-up instructions.
Back in the late 70s, early 80s, we were stationed with friends Buddy and Sally in Germany. They now live in Dolan Springs, not too far from the Arizona/Nevada border. We made plans to visit with them for a couple of days, having last visited them in 2005.
Even though we are living our dream, traveling full time, we are not immune to illnesses, mechanical problems, or similar situations. Larry started to feel under the weather when we left Camp Navajo and was one sick puppy by the time we got to Dolan Springs, a few hours later. We think it turned out to be a particularly bad case of food poisoning, though we’re still not sure of the cause. It was comforting having Buddy and Sally close by but we were disappointed we couldn’t spend as much time with them there as originally planned. Thanks again to sister-in-law/nurse Kathie for advising us on how to treat Larry’s bout with food poisoning. He rallied enough to get in a couple of visits with Buddy and Sally but we made plans to see them again in Las Vegas, our next destination.
Our ride to Vegas was short but scenic, especially when we crossed over Hoover Dam. Commercial traffic is not allowed to cross the dam, but passenger and recreational vehicles can, subject to Homeland Security checkpoints near the dam. There is a bypass and bridge being built to allow for all traffic in the future – it was amazing to see the partially-built bridge – two arches springing from the rock on each side but not connected yet.
Our home for the week we were in Vegas was Nellis Air Force Base. This is a very nice military campground with friendly folks working there, wide spacious sites, and not too far from the Strip for those interested in going to the casinos and shows.
While we were in Vegas, we visited the following:
The Thunderbird Museum on Nellis Air Force Base. We were treated to watching five of the Thunderbird jets take off from the flight line right behind the museum – what luck! While going through the museum, we learned that the Thunderbirds have been around since 1953, exhibiting the skill and training of today’s Airmen.
The first Thunderbird team was comprised of seven officers and twenty-two maintenance professionals. Today, the team includes twelve officers and more than 120 maintenance and support personnel, representing a snapshot of America.
During a show, the 6-ship Delta Formation uses about 21,000 pounds of fuel and 260 gallons of smoke oil. The smoke oil is 10-weight oil and burns efficiently so that it doesn’t pollute. The heat of the exhaust is too hot for dyes currently available – any attempt to color the smoke turns it a dirty brown. It was interesting to see the various types of aircraft flown by the Thunderbird teams over the years, with the F-16 in use for the past 20 years.
The Atomic Testing Museum. Located not too far from the Strip, this museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian, has an interesting self-paced tour through several galleries that tell the history of the Nevada Test Site and the atomic testing that went on there. One of the guides highly recommended watching a movie of an atomic explosion in the Ground Zero Theater. At the second that the explosion occurs, a great blast of air rushes through the theater, simulating being there in person. The guide told us that they had to tone down the air blast because it knocked a man’s toupee off – too funny. There are free monthly tours to the Nevada Test Site, but seating is limited and was already booked up for the time we’d be there. The test site is no longer active but is still maintained in the event it is reactivated in the future. We were surprised to learn that underground explosions were horizontal as well as vertical.
In keeping with the education we were getting, our next stop (after a reasonably priced and tasty lunch buffet at Terrible’s Casino) was a stop at M & Ms World. There are four floors of shopping with gifts, souvenirs, a bank of different-colored M & Ms that you can mix and match, paying by the pound. And let’s not forget the 3-D movie we watched about Red M losing his M at one of the casinos in Vegas.
Next door is Coca Cola World, which we wandered through, but we passed on getting our pictures taken with the Coca Cola polar bear. We can only take so much excitement in one day!
Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Cactus Garden Tour. In 1911, Ethel Mars and husband Frank made chocolates for their friends and family in their kitchen. This was the beginning of the internationally renowned brand of Mars candies. In 1981, son Forrest Mars, Sr., created Ethel M gourmet chocolates as a tribute to his mother.
Some of the production lines were down for re-tooling, but we did get to see the brittle being made. Samples of the brittle and some of the other confections are available in the store at the end of the factory tour. The pecan brittle is sinfully rich – we bought a box to go. Las Vegas during this time of the year is very warm – the cashiers provide you with small ice packs to keep your goodies from having a meltdown – very thoughtful. We strolled through the cactus garden as we left – multiple varieties of cactus from all over the world.
As promised, Buddy and Sally came by for a visit. We had lunch at the Silver Nugget Casino, one of the original casinos, and then did some shopping at Sam’s Club. It was a treat to see them again.
Our week’s stay at Nellis ended on Mother’s Day – we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast at the Victory Café at the Cannery Casino, with leftovers to go. Although we visited several casinos, we never did play any of the machines or games. It had been over 20 years since we last visited Vegas – we felt like country bumpkins when we learned that the machines are all electronic now and don’t accept coins at all, just paper bills or tokens. Oh well….no sense trying to lose any money there – we seem to be doing just fine losing dollars through the stock market.
Our next destination was the St. George RV Resort, outside of Hurricane, near what used to be Harrisburg, now a ghost town. Sites there are very short and narrow – the best part about staying there was that they are part of the RPI membership campground program so the rates were cheap.
The main reason for our stop in this area was to visit Zion National Park, the first of many Utah parks we’ll visit over the summer. But first a bit of geology background…
The Colorado Plateau, encompassing parts of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, is an 180,000-square mile chunk of rock in which the following national parks are located: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and several others. We learned that, geologically-speaking, the bottom layer of Bryce Canyon forms the top layer of Zion and the bottom layer of Zion forms the top layer of the Grand Canyon. We’d visited one layer of the Plateau already when we visited the Grand Canyon last month – we’ll work our way up the layers, with Zion the second stop.
Many millions of years ago, “streams, oceans, deserts, and volcanoes deposited thousands of feet of mud, lime, sand, and ash. The immense pressure and heat of accumulating sediments turned lower layers to stone. Later, underground forces uplifted the Colorado Plateau more than 10,000 feet above sea level. Rain…then worked the Plateau’s minute cracks, loosening grains and widening fractures-and eroding today’s mighty canyons. These processes continue.”
Over the course of several days, we did the following at Zion - As in the Grand Canyon, a shuttle bus takes you to the different scenic overlooks and hiking trailheads, thus alleviating traffic logjams on the park roads. We started off at the visitor center, watched an orientation movie about the park, and visited the Zion Human History Museum.
We enjoyed the following stops and hikes: Weeping Rock Trail where springs continually drip from overhead, creating an ideal environment for hanging plants clinging to the rocks; Court of the Patriarchs, with spectacular views of three mountain peaks, named Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Lower and Middle Emerald Pool Trails, where we found ourselves walking above and behind the waterfalls, and spotted three baby squirrels on the return path; the Riverside Walk, a shaded path that meanders through forest glens, following the Virgin River into a high-walled canyon.
We drove the 10-mile Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, an engineering marvel when it was built back when Model T Fords were the cars driving the switchbacks to the tunnel, which connects the east and south entrances to the park. Because we are wider than a Model T, as are the motor homes and tour buses that travel this highway, traffic is stopped in the opposite direction to allow wider-vehicles safe passage through the tunnel, with instructions to drive down the middle. While on the east side of the tunnel, we spotted a pair of California condors flying high overhead and a bighorn sheep just strolling down the highway.
One morning, we got up bright and early to catch a ranger-led bus tour up and down the scenic drive, learning lots of history about the park, with a stop at Menu Falls, only accessible when you take this tour. We learned that the falls were so named because a picture of them appeared on the first menu printed for Zion Lodge. We also learned what the definition of a desert is - more evaporation than precipitation. Zion’s annual average is 12” rain to 54” evaporation. Also, there are more plant varieties found in Zion than the entire state of Hawaii.
Kolob Canyons are also part of Zion National Park but at the northwestern end, accessed by heading north on I-15. After a quick stop at the small visitor center, we drove the very scenic one way five-mile road. We walked Timber Creek Overlook trail at the end, and enjoyed a picnic lunch there. We had a couple of small world moments on the trail – first when we met a fellow hiker whose husband had had a heart attack in Huntsville (Alabama) in 2001, staying at the military campground till he recovered; and secondly, one of the other gals also on the trail was born in Huntsville and her family still there. (Huntsville is where ‘we last cut grass’ before hitting the road December 2003.)
Just across from the campground is the Red Rock Recreation Site – we hiked part of the Silver Reef trail and also walked around more of the remains of the ghost town’s buildings.
From Hurricane, we drove about 120 miles to Hatch, stopping for a break at a rest area where we spotted some prairie dogs and their young ‘uns, popping in and out of their burrows. (They were too quick for us to take a picture. We’ve since found out they are most likely the Utah prairie dog, formerly on the endangered species list.)
We easily found the Riverside Resort and selected a water and electric site on the loop bordered by the Virgin River – we had fellow campers just one of the three nights we were there – our own private campground! We highly recommend this campground – not only do they honor camping club discounts, or offer a three night stay for the price of two, they gave a 10% discount in their restaurant and gift shop. We enjoyed ice cream treats there one day and breakfast another – good food and reasonably priced.
Hatch was a short drive to Bryce Canyon National Park which we visited the first afternoon to catch a hike led by Ranger Nova, strolling from Sunset to Sunrise Point while she told us a little about the geology, critters and trees found at Bryce. Upstaging her talk were four mule deer passing behind us, grazing on something tasty, to them. We learned that Ponderosa pine tree bark smells like either vanilla or butterscotch. Men seem to smell butterscotch while women smell vanilla. Nova had her tour group scratching and sniffing the trees. We also learned the difference between a national monument and a national park. A national monument is declared by the president; a national park is an act of Congress, thus getting more funding. The mule deer weren’t the only ones grazing that afternoon – we spotted several pronghorn ‘antelope’ on the way out.
Larry returned the next day to hike the popular Queens/Navajo Combination Loop – what goes down, must come up….The 580 feet difference in elevation from the bottom to the top was accomplished by many steep switchbacks ending at Sunrise Point.
Another day, we drove the scenic 18-mile drive out to Rainbow and Yovimpa Points, gaining over 2,000 feet in elevation with the temperature dropping about 15 degrees. On the way back down the drive, we stopped at Natural Bridge, Bryce Point and Inspiration Point overlooks. The view from any of these stops was gorgeous and the scenery different, based on the lighting. Bryce is gorgeous no matter what the weather but the ideal time is when the sun is shining. Some of the hoodoos look transparent.
You ask - what’s a hoodoo? Hoodoo (it means to cast a spell in Navajo) is a pillar of rock formed by Mother Nature over millions of years. Most of the sculpting at Bryce Canyon is formed by freezing and thawing. Other canyons elsewhere are typically formed by flowing water, such as a stream or river. Approximately 200 days a year, ice and snow melt and re-freeze, exerting enormous pressures on the rocks, forcing them apart from inside the cracks. As the rock is chiseled into broken remains, monsoon rains remove the debris, revealing fins, the first step in hoodoo creation. Next, frost-wedging cracks the fins, making holes called windows. When the windows collapse, they create the rust-painted pinnacles called hoodoos.
Shuttle service is available seasonally but is optional and doesn’t go all the way out to the Rainbow/Yovimpa Points. The parking lots at the major overlooks are larger than those at Zion.
Have we mentioned how much we love this full timing RVing lifestyle? We continue reconnecting with friends along the way. This time, Dixie saw on our web page that we’d be in the Bryce area. She and husband Lou were there at the same time, so once we got settled at our campground, we called to make arrangements to meet. We first met Dixie when we worked at Desert Haven Animal Refuge in New Mexico. Last year, she and Lou spent a few days with us in Richmond Hill, Georgia, again having spotted our location and itinerary. We enjoyed great pork steaks and green chile stew at their place one evening, but more importantly, we enjoyed hanging out with them, playing catch up on the past year.
While in the Hatch/Bryce Canyon area, we snagged several geocaches, one of which was a mere 200 yards away from our campsite.
Time to head to Torrey, our destination for the next two months. Torrey is a small town, population about 120 year-round folks, located in Wayne County - total population 2,450! Boggles your mind to think how few people live in the entire county, and there are no traffic lights in the county – another mind-boggler.
Karen and Galen, with whom we’ll travel over the next several months, met us when we pulled into Thousand Lakes RV Park. They’d worked here the summer of 2006 and are familiar with the area. They promised they’d have dinner for us that first night – we were surprised when dinner was at nearby Capitol Reef Inn and Café – great food and somewhere that I’m sure we’ll frequent often.
Capitol Reef National Park is a mere 11 miles away from the campground – we’ve visited several times during May and will continue to enjoy their hikes and ranger talks till we leave here mid-July.
What is Capitol Reef? First declared a national monument in 1937 and redesignated a national park in 1971, it lies in the heart of Utah’s canyon country halfway between Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon. The Navajo call it the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow because of the landscape of multi-hued rock layers. Every time we have driven to the park, we are stunned by the beauty of these layers, and based on ambient lighting, we get a different perspective. Some of the earlier visitors were seafaring folks and thought the rock formations looked like a reef; others thought some of the domed mountains were similar to state capitol domes – thus the name Capitol Reef.
The centerpiece of the park is the Waterpocket Fold, stretching for 100 miles across south-central Utah. The fold was created 65 million years ago when parts of the Colorado Plateau buckled, flexing into a huge fold.
The orientation movie, Watermark, explains how water has been the primary sculpting force creating all these rock layers. We picked up a handy hiking guide of the parks listing the many hikes and trails, categorized as to level of difficulty. We are slowly working our way through hiking most of those listed.
Some of those trails we’ve done so far:
Grand Wash is a fascinating study in huge walls, sandstone crossbedding, and desert varnish. (Wikipedia definition: “Desert varnish forms only on physically stable rock surfaces that are no longer subject to frequent precipitation, fracturing or wind abrasion. The varnish is primarily composed of particles of clay along with iron and manganese oxides. There is also a host of trace elements and almost always some organic matter. The color of the varnish varies from shades of brown to black.”) Capitol Reef has some wonderful examples of desert varnish throughout the park.
Early travelers occasionally used Grand Wash to travel through the reef – at one point the canyon walls narrow to a 16-foot width. We did half the hike one day, approaching it from the park’s Scenic Drive, returning another day from the UT highway 24 end.
Cohab Canyon - we parked at the UT highway 24 trailhead, hiking up a gentle climb which took us through a notch in the rim into a canyon. The views overlooking the park’s campground at Fruita were awesome.
Not a trail but a scenic stop is the pullout for some of the petroglyphs found in the park. We followed the boardwalk, searching the rock walls alongside for the petroglyphs, maybe man’s first attempt at graffiti?
Larry and Galen biked from our campground to a trailhead for a hike up the Velvet Ridge, the mountains behind our campground. They called when they reached the top so we could wave at each other.
One day, we drove to Goblin Valley State Park, where we walked amongst the hundreds of goblin-like rocks, sculpted by wind and rain. With imagination, you can spot a pagoda, Snoopy, frogs, bunnies….We enjoyed a picnic lunch afterwards, overlooking these wonderfully-strange looking mushroom-like formations. Nearby is Little Wild Horse Canyon, the most famous slot canyon in Utah. A slot canyon is one in which the walls at times are barely shoulder-width apart. Oh, if that was the only restriction with this particular walk! We came up on several roadblocks, literally boulders that had fallen down and wedged themselves in between the walls, making passage quite the challenge. At
one point, it took three guys to help both Karen and Lucille over the boulders. We hiked in about a mile and a half or so, then turned around, finding the roadblocks a little easier to negotiate on the return trip. The slot canyon was amazing, curving in and out, with very unusual geology and was well worth the few challenges we encountered.
On the way back from Goblin Valley, we stopped at Hollow Mountain Convenience Store in Hanksville, a store literally built into the side of the mountain.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the area’s monsoon season, usually in August, arrived late May, possibly dampening spirits for those getting away for the Memorial Day weekend. We’re glad we’ll be here for two months – if the weather is bad, we’ll just postpone our adventures till it’s more favorable. Rain can be a problem in the washes and canyons – we may not get much rain here but north of us may have a downpour, causing flash flooding downstream. We make it a point to check with the rangers first before we attempt any hikes.
One particularly stormy day, Larry filmed a thunderstorm coming over the Velvet Ridge. Little did he know till he checked the frames later that ground lightning had struck less than 100 feet from where we were standing.
Some of the other fun things we did in Torrey in May:
Karen and Lucille went grocery shopping in Loa, about twenty miles away. The fun part was when we stopped at Sunglow Café for lunch and a taste of some of their famous pies – sweet pickle and pinto bean pies. Karen’s made pinto bean pie before, having gotten the recipe after being here three years ago. It’s similar to pecan pie, complete with pecans. Sweet pickle pie - well, we tried it. It’s hard to describe – sort of like the same consistency and spices as pumpkin but with shades of green.
Another day the two gals went to nearby Teasdale for their annual yard sale where we picked up several books at bargain prices. On the way back, we stopped to check out an eagle’s nest Karen remembered from three years ago. We lucked out and spotted one of the adults in the nest, with one eaglet visible, and another adult in a lower branch. We heard an interesting story from one of the locals about the eagle family. Last year, Mr. Eagle got electrocuted when he landed on a hot-wired fence, killing him instantly. Mrs. Eagle had two eaglets to look after but without any help from a mate, she most likely wouldn’t leave the nest, threatening her own life as well as the chicks. Local residents got advice from naturalists on how to help the eagle family, which mainly consisted of bringing carrion they’d picked up elsewhere and leaving it nearby so Mrs. E could easily get it without abandoning the nest for too long. With the residents’ help, she successfully raised the eaglets and the entire family left at the end of the season, migrating wherever they go. Much to everyone’s surprise, even though eagles mate for life, Mrs. Eagle found herself another beau, returned to the nest, and has two eaglets again this year. Cool story.
We attended a couple of ranger programs at the park’s amphitheater. The first featured Dr. Martin Burkhead, an astronomer, who along with his wife (a story teller) volunteer at Capitol Reef for three weeks every year, putting on programs. His presentation that evening was on the Hubble telescope and the fantastic pictures it has sent back. The next night, Ranger Corree talked about critters and plants that hang around the park in the evenings, such as bats, owls, frogs, mountain lions, and some night-blooming flowers. To emphasize her presentation, we were treated to several bats swooping in and around the movie screen, catching bugs attracted to the lighting.
The grand finale to May was celebrating our 38th wedding anniversary – where does the time go? The four of us enjoyed lunch at Rim Rock Patio with beautiful views of the layered mountains surrounding us, being entertained by hummingbirds, enjoying their own meal at the bird feeders. A great finish to the month.
Coming up: We’ll be in Torrey through mid-July, then we’ll visit some more Utah parks as we head to the Four Corners area, visiting parks also in New Mexico and Colorado. Our ultimate destination is Mountain View, Arkansas mid-September.