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 :-)

Zion National Park. 2 days. Accommodation: Hurricane the closest town we could get. Book early and get lodging in the park. Attraction: Down within a canyon environment.

Normally we have been looking at canyons from above and if lucky can hike below to get a more intimate feel. This was the case with Black, Grand and Bryce canyons, but with Zion the lodge, amenities and roads are all at the bottom of these fabulous high canyons. A pristine environment in which the free park shuttle bus is the only transport allowed into the depths of surrounding canyons and challenging trails. We arrived in mid October and all the ranger programs had finished for the year, but the weather was perfect and the park was teeming with people. I think with the changing seasons due to climate change they may need to rethink when they should start shutting down for Winter.

The easy part to Angels Landing

Angels Landing

As recommended by new friends we met at the Great Sand Dunes we decided to tackle a hike called Angels Landing. As you approach the stop for the hike the shuttle, which travels with taped narration, pointedly reminds you that 'safety is your responsibility' and recommends you re-think the trek if you are afraid of heights. Undeterred we hop off and look up at our destination. The peak looks a long way away and pointed. It is an 8km round trip with the final 2km along the narrow spine of the mountain, steep and only able to be traversed with conveniently placed chains at the most treacherous locations.

Elizabeth scaring me
Nearing the top
The hike was exhilarating, fun and the views from the top stupendous. We found ourselves trading positions with another couple as we went up and a natural camaraderie ends up developing with the people you meet along the way. Often hikers coming down would need to cling to side positions to allow other hikers to pass on their way up and vice versa. Scatttered along the top were small groups of hikers enjoying the view and discussing the accomplishment. The more brave (or foolish) would even find more treacherous locations to head for or balance in ways that made our hearts race and our senses worry for them. One guy planked on a large rock that had sheer drops all around and was threatening to do a handstand, but his friend talked him out of it. I was ready with my camera...
At the top

One of the views

The Narrows

There are many other less challenging hikes including some famous ones such as 'The Narrows', a trail where you need to get your feet wet as you follow the river into the narrowest parts of the canyon. Yep, we could have allowed another day here as well.

Weeping Rock
And so concludes our blitz of the national parks in the US. Including 2012 we have visited 16 of the 59 national parks and it has only increased our hunger to visit more. Very well organised, looked after and filled with enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable rangers that want you to love their parks as much as they do. For a top three I would have to say Bryce followed by Yellowstone and then Arches: all unique and filled with features rarely seen elsewhere. As we unwind for a few days in Las Vegas before leaving 30 minutes before our 90 days are up, Elizabeth is already planning our next trip to the fantastic, varied and unique national parks of the US.

More Bryce Canyon photos plus straddling the states

At the four corners monument

Straddling the states of New Mexico,
Colorado, Utah and Arizona

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