Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Park blitz three: an outbreak of hoodoos

Mesa Verde National Park. 2 Days. Accommodation: Far View Lodge inside the park. Attraction: Ancient Puebloan cave dwellings.

Cliff Palace
Balcony House
Starting about 1500 years ago and for about 700 years an ancient civilisation created homes, and whole communities, in the natural sheltered alcoves in the canyon wall of Mesa Verde. Really elaborate and exquisitely preserved, the cave homes reveal a fascinating insight into the lives of these ancient people. We visited three of these dwellings: two by ranger tour only and one was freely accessible behind the museum.

Balcony House
Cliff Palace was entered by easy stone steps, but Balcony House was a little more challenging. Firstly easy stone steps descend deep into the cliff and then you climb up into the cave using a ladder. You step inside an amazing world built into the cliff itself of homes and community areas of the ancient Puebloan people. The ranger enthusiastically relays stories of what their lives were like, how they grew food and where their water came from. To get out you crawl through a tunnel (a likely defensive structure, think guy with club as enemy comes through), climb up a ladder and then pull yourself by chain up the rest of the way on the cliff itself. Really cool and great fun. The last one, Spruce Tree House, you were allowed to enter and wander through yourself and could even climb into a kiva. These were underground structures used for religious ceremonies, schools and the like. A bit too small a classroom for my liking (shiver).

Elizabeth escaping from Balcony House
Exiting a Kiva

Spruce Tree House

Using the tunnel

Autumn colours on a popular hike
There were many other things to do at Mesa Verde and the high surrounding countryside with its Autumn clad hills provided many spectacular views and relaxing hiking trails. We had time to cover a few nice ones. But to me the best part was these amazing cave homes.

Bryce National Park. At least 2 days. Accommodation: Foster's Inn, close and cheap, just outside the park. Attraction: Weird rock formations called hoodoos. 

This is one of the most unique locations I have ever come across. Spread across a panoramic landscape are thousands of weird rock protrusions sticking out of the ground like they grew there, a forest of rock trees. But they did not grow, more precisely the ground collapsed around them. At an altitude of approximately 2300m in Utah, the uplift here is in the perfect location for continuous freezing and melting over the 180 plus days per year it rains. During the day the water pools in cracks in the rocks and then freezes at night, expanding and leveraging the rocks apart until they crumble and collapse leaving these weird structures they call hoodoos.

Tower Bridge
We just could not get enough of the amazing views, driving to every lookout and hiking as many trails as we could get to over the two days we were here. Legs sore and tired by the time we left but we still wished we had allowed 3 days. Must do hikes are the Queen's Garden/Navajo Trail combination loop (billed as the world's best 5km hike) and the Fairyland Loop. Both loops put you into a world looking like what I imagine Mars would look like, but with trees. Some of the trees also look otherworldly as the rim erodes and the trees hang on with the bare edges of their roots seemingly ready to hop off and go on a stroll. We were unable to complete the Fairyland Loop as the day was windy and cold but we made it to the Tower Bridge before turning back. I found it hard to cull the photos for this post so I have probably displayed too many :-)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Park blitz 2 from black canyons to sandpits

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, 2 Days. Accommodation: Montrose. Attraction: Canyons

A less well known canyon, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison was a surprise in its depth, breadth and colour. It was as impressive as any we had seen but is not as well frequented as some of its cousins. After a day exploring its many viewpoints and hiking trails on the south side we headed up to Sunset Point to watch the sun go down. We were the only ones there; the only sounds we could here were the flowing river and crickets. Such an incredibly peaceful moment. Just after the sun went down another couple arrived; we left to let them have their turn at the solitude.

The canyon was produced by a myriad of geologic events starting with volcanoes 1.7 billion years ago, then an uplift of land 70 million years ago to more volcanoes 26 million years ago. Then carved exquisitely by the Gunnison River over a period of about 2 million years at the rate of the thickness of a human hair per year to create a foreboding, dark and mesmerising canyon that is up to 1 kilometre deep. This did not sound right to me; surely the canyon is way more than 2 million hairs deep. Sceptic as I was I decided to put my friend Google to work. Google, what is the width of a human hair? The answer comes back: 0.02mm or 20 micrometres. Google, what is 0.02 times 2,000,000 in metres? The answer comes back as 1016m. That is basically a km. Thanks, Google. So amazing how such tiny changes over a long period of time can create something so beautiful.

The next day we went to look at the other side, and after a visit to the ranger station decided to hike the Curecanti Creek Trail. The trail winds its way down to the river and then follows it as it cascades continuously over rocks as we cross several bridges until finally finishing at a sandy beach where the river widens into a more peaceful vista. The hike reminded us of trekking in Nepal. Anyone national park hunting like us should definitely put this on your must see list.

Colorado Springs

Next we went to Colorado Springs, not a park, but we wanted to take the highest cog railway in the world to the top of Pikes Peak, over 4000m. It completes the 2000m in altitude change in just over an hour but the difference in temperature is phenomenal. At the top they had a blizzard the day before; fresh snow covered everything like a blanket and I could only handle being outside for about 10 minutes at a time. After about 40 minutes they take you back down.

Colorado Springs had more than just the train: many mountains, waterfalls and hiking trails, but one other thing it is famous for is The Garden of the Gods. Not a garden in the traditional sense but a garden of rocks. Charles Perkins and his family gifted it to the State on the condition it will always be free, cared for, protected and maintained as a public park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park. 1 Day. Accommodation: Motel just outside the park or Alamosa. Attraction: Giant sand dunes.
Sunrise over the sand dunes from our patio

Seriously, only in America would a giant sand pit get turned into a national park. This huge 604 square km of sand dunes comes out of nowhere. They are the tallest in North America and start at an altitude of about 2000m. While we were hiking on the sand dunes (the done thing to do) the thought crossed my mind as to why I am hiking a sand dune. The only answer I could come up with is, because it is there. It was fun and the views from the top were impressive. There was silence and a feeling of solitude as there were not many other hikers up high, with panoramic views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on one side and nothing but rolling sandhills on the other and crisp blue sky above. Once we got lower there were people with boogie boards having fun in the sand.
Trekking in the mountains across the road


Finally we stopped in at Durango to take a trip on the steam train to Silverton. This narrow gauge train spends 3 hours travelling through some incredible scenery, winding around tall mountains with canyon views, running alongside the bubbling and churning river and through luscious forests with their trees changing colour. I really don't think the steam part is necessary but it's nice being in historical train carriages and feeling like you are in a cowboy movie. The town of Silverton, where you stay for 2 hours, has an Old Western town theme complete with Old West interiors.

Well, we only went there for the train and set off the next day for our last 3 national parks, and boy, did we save some awesome ones for last.....

Friday, October 10, 2014

The climate changes in Salt Lake City

Not the normal reason for people to visit Salt Lake City, but our reason was to participate in the climate change rallies occurring around the world on the 21st September 2014. It was a drizzly day and I was worried that this would reduce numbers, but a fair good natured crowd turned up of around 300 to 400. This was above the expected numbers of 150 to 250. Signs were everywhere encouraging action to protect our climate, including a dog wearing a sign saying 'It's pawsible to stop climate change', a child carrying a sign saying 'invest in my future' and signs saying 'people over profits'.

People seemed to be from all walks of life and all ages, and a feeling of commitment pervaded the crowd. We were all here for one purpose, to preserve our planet for future generations. The speakers likewise came from all over, from politicians to a lady representing The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Around the world similar rallies were taking place from smaller to the massive 400,000 strong rally in New York. While it gave me optimism to see bigger crowds than expected they should be 10 times the numbers.

Gone are the days of being shy about supporting the scientists' warnings; now it's time to shout. The scientists warned us in the 80s and 30+ years later CO2 emissions are still rising, with 2013 hitting a record 36 billion metric tons.
The climate has changed, people are already suffering, everybody will be affected. By how much and how quickly will depend on actions we take today. This is a hard issue for governments to tackle and they won't tackle it unless the people demand it.  Pressures from the well funded and powerful people with personal and profitable interests in delaying action are too great. This may lose me readers, but this issue affects every human being, parent and grandparent and I am all, and like I said, it is past the point of being shy. Further information and links on climate change are in my Blue Dot and Why I know I am right pages.

The main temple

Salt Lake City itself was a pleasant place to spend a few days planning. The city was founded in 1847 by the Mormons looking for a home to call their own after persecution from, well, just about everyone. Apparently telling every religious group that God told you they are all corrupt and you will be starting the only right religion, does not make you any friends. Surprised at the hostility they left to find their own home. Salt Lake City is still the headquarters for The Church of Latter Day Saints, so their temple was an obvious destination and we took one of their many free tours on offer. You cannot go into the main temple as that is reserved for the most faithful and properly prepared. The tour was interesting, the grounds and other buildings were beautiful and the people, well... a bit too enthusiastic.

We also found the city unexpectedly progressive with many alternative options for food. I found the only fully gluten free vegetarian restaurant that I've come across in nearly two years of travel and about 50 countries, and the place rocked. Full points and a big plug to Zest Kitchen and Bar. Unfortunately the great salt lake itself underwhelmed me but was still able to produce a lovely sunset.

Once we had finished planning the next few travel locations we headed off to continue our blitz of the US national parks.

Fountain, light, fire and sound show
found in downtown shopping mall

Monday, October 6, 2014

Park Blitz Part 1

Well, this is Part 1 of my park blitz blogs. Since some of these parks were done as lightning visits it did not seem prudent to stretch them into full posts each. I will try to give some tips on each park of what it is best for, where we stayed and how long we stayed for the benefit of anybody wishing to visit.

What we would normally do is go to the park's visitor centre first. The rangers are a mine of information and friendly and helpful. You will get a newspaper that gives you tips on what to do if you have half a day, a day or a couple of days, and dates and times of activities etc. You get a park map and other pamphlets such as a hiking map, depending on park.  There's also a noticeboard listing activities for the day like ranger talks and ranger hikes that are normally free and very informative and fun. There's usually a short movie running continuously about the park's history and how the geological formations were made, with lovely sweeping panoramas that give you a feel for the whole park. We always watch those. Then you plan your day and off you go. Most of it is also downloadable from the fabulous National Park Service website at http://www.nps.gov/index.htm . Finally, if you are going to park blitz like us then buy an annual pass at any park entry. After that you just flash your pass at any national park.

Arches National Park. 2 full days. Accommodation: Moab. Attraction: Thousands of arches.
Delicate Arch at sunset
Windows Arch
Balanced Rock
This amazing park was created by a perfect storm of geological events that created more arches than in any other location in the world, over 2,000 of them! Arches of every type: little, big, delicate, strong, old and young. Nature's sculptor did an awesome job, almost as good as Nature's painting pallette at Yellowstone.

Waiting for sunset
My top tip would be to go to Delicate Arch for sunset. It is a bit of a hike so allow yourself an hour and take a torch (or mobile phone with torch app like I did :-) because it will be dark when you return. The atmosphere at the arch is amazing at this time. Lots of people sitting around waiting for the sun to go down. Nobody is supposed to take selfies at the arch at sunset but some people do and will be 'gently' encouraged by the waiting throng to get out of the way. They came here for the arch, which is beautiful on its own and needs a rest from the perpetual 'I was here' photos from every Tom, Dick and Marjorie. Though sometimes a person in the photo is useful just to portray the sheer size of the arch, the scale of which is lost in a photo otherwise.

Park Avenue
Landscape Arch

Canyonlands National Park. 1 day if only doing the Island in the Sky section, 2 if you want to see all of it. Accommodation: Moab as well. Attraction: Huge canyons (big surprise).
Canyonlands at the end of the rim walk at the Grand View Point Overlook
Canyonlands is down the road from Arches so you can do them both in the same trip. Huge canyons loom out at you from every viewpoint, nearly as good as the Grand Canyon and definitely clearer.

But Canyonlands has two main sections and it takes several hours to get to both. Due to time restrictions we only visited the section they call 'Island in the Sky'. It's a lovely drive with many scenic overlooks to stop at and admire the canyon and go for brief hikes. At the end of the road there is the Grand View Point Overlook that features a pleasant hike along the rim to some fantastic panoramic scenes. Well worth the effort. The sheer depth and breadth of the canyon with its needle-like rock formations doesn't transfer to a photograph, it looks much better in person.

Staring contest...he won

At this point we decided we wanted to participate in the global climate change rallies that were about to occur to encourage world leaders to tackle this critical global issue with greater urgency. The closest rally to us was in Salt Lake City so we scoured our national parks map and went to the following two parks merely because they were on the way to Salt Lake.

Capitol Reef National Park. 1 Day. Accommodation: Torrey is the closest town but we stayed at the isolated Affordable Inn as it was closer to the park. Attractions: Canyons, apple orchards and a small dose of Mormon history.

The school
In the 1870s the Mormons established a settlement here and there are many small buildings and other remnants of that time, including a school. They survived by farming and some orchards still remain where you can pick free what you can eat. Like Canyonlands there is a lovely scenic drive with many stops for viewpoints, hikes and archeological sites such as petroglyphs carved by ancient inhabitants. My top tip is to hike to the Hickman Bridge. This turns out to be a nice wide arch that you can walk through to some beautiful views and panoramas on the other side. Also exceptional was a ranger activity that day with a solar telescope and we got to look at the sun with some fantastic prominences shooting out from the edges.
Hickman Bridge

Great Basin National Park. 1 Day. Accommodation: Baker is the closest town but we stayed at the Border Inn on the border of Utah and Nevada because it was the only place that had rooms available. Attractions: Caves and star gazing.

Ranger talent show
As is usual for us we do some of our best planning when we do not plan at all. We went to the visitor centre on the day we arrived to plan for the next day and found out that we had arrived on the the first day of their annual astronomy festival. We decided to stay around as they had the ranger talent show that night. To call it talent was a bit of a stretch, but it was funny. My favourite act was a group of three playing a song they wrote themselves called 'Chickens in the Sky' about dead chickens attacking the farmer who sold them to the colonel (Kentucky fried colonel that is). Also one girl sang a haunting rendition of 'It's a Wonderful World'.

Follow the lights...
Afterwards we went star watching as this is one of the top ten darkest skies in the lower 48. We needed to follow white lights that got dimmer and dimmer and then changed to red lights before arriving at our destination. White light was banned, although the rangers provided red cellophane if you had to use a torch. The effect was it was so dark even the telescopes were hard to find. These were pointed at a myriad of galaxies and astronomical phenomena. Personally we preferred to just look up; the sky was filled with stars. The Milky Way was bright and resplendent.

Sample of cave photos
The next day we did the normal scenic drive thing to Wheelers Peak and a lovely hike among the trees changing to their winter coat. That afternoon we did a tour of the fabulous Lehman Caves. We have seen many caves around the world and this one certainly held its own. As the sun went down the night's activities began with the keynote speech from astronomer Vic Maris, who after a very entertaining and informative speech about our night sky, disappeared, only to return as a very convincing Galileo in a question and answer session. Our trip to Great Basin ended in the dark staring at a sky full of light.

The next day was our last leg up to Salt Lake City and a brief delay in our park explorations. Part 2 to come...