A Travellerspoint blog

April 2010

Saguaro National Park

I first start seeing cactus - and I mean real wild cactus dotting the land like trees - south of Phoenix. There’s something endearing and sometimes even humorous about the way saguaros are shaped. They seem to have personalities (in a way).


Saguaro National Park flanks both sides of Tucson. The western side was larger and more remote with more hiking trails, while the eastern side was pretty much just a nice short scenic drive popular with cyclists. There is a marked difference in the vegetation once you pass from other open lands into the park boundary. The plants don’t grow everywhere. It seems to be related to elevation. But when the conditions are right they blanket the hillsides, fighting for space. It almost looks like the whole national park has been landscaped. The varieties of cacti and other desert plants seem to space themselves out so that no two alike touch each other.


I hike to a lovely viewpoint at the top of a hill, seeing jackrabbits and snakes along the way. And afterward I stop by the visitor’s center. When I see a postcard of the crested cactus I have to say, “Oooo.” I’ve never seen anything like that. The ranger directs me to one. It’s not on a trail and I didn’t see it at first from the road, so I was just wandering around for awhile in the general location when I stumbled upon it. They are incredibly rare: about 1 in 200,000 saguaro have this type of shape. There was another more accessible one just down the road in front of the desert museum. It struck me as odd that there seemed to be more cars at the desert museum than there were in the actual desert.


Next I decided to visit a mission - the first one on this trip - called San Xavier just south of Tucson. I’ve always liked missions. Growing up in California I had easy access to them. This mission is still a very active place in the community. There was a truck selling treats in the parking lot and music coming from the market across the street. Inside the church is quiet, but the décor is loud. The building itself was quite beautiful and stuck out from miles away - shining white in the desert like a palace.


Posted by Velora 08:18 Comments (0)

The Grand Canyon and Northern Arizona

I know I might insult some people by saying this, but the Grand Canyon is overrated. I think I always suspected as much, which is why I’ve turned down opportunities to visit before. But since I’m here, I drive by. It just does not have the same beauty as the other canyons I’ve seen lately. Some people might appreciate the muted colors of Grand Canyon, but to me they are dull in comparison with Canyonland’s saturated red rock. But there are so many tourists here - even this early in the season. I feel claustrophobic as crowds push by to snap pictures. I just don’t understand why the Grand Canyon is so famous and popular. The size is pretty remarkable in terms of length and width, but I don’t consider it to be very beautiful. But here’s the obligatory picture:


That being said, there was one way of seeing the Grand Canyon that I was sorry I missed out on. It’s a place called Supai. You hike down the rim 10 miles to the Havasupai Indian Reservation, pay $50 to camp and then take day hikes around the valley floor where there are beautiful, blue-grey waterfalls. I’d seen a picture of this place in an REI vacations catalogue once. But this is the kind of thing that takes planning - which is not really possible for my road trip. I called them up, but of course, they were booked until August. I was so set on this place that no other option would do, so I left the Grand Canyon quickly. I might go back, if I can schedule a trip to Supai ahead of time.

As I made my way into the cities and suburbs of Arizona, I’m struck by how similar everything is to the central valley of California: the stucco strip malls, dry landscaping, even the same chains. Maybe it’s that familiarity, but the cities and towns have not been appealing tourist destinations for me. They’re either too touristy (Sedona and Tombstone) or too metro and full of shopping malls (Phoenix). The culture does make me want to start dressing like Stevie Nicks, but that’s about it.


But it's the beauty of the landscape that makes this part of the country so unique and beautiful. And this time of year all the cactus are in bloom. To take advantage of this I stop by Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park. They’ve brought together desert plants from around the world and planted them together so densely that the area becomes something like an oasis in the desert. I take in the rich smell of the flowers and the sounds of the birds as I walk down the shaded paths.


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Zion National Park

My first impression of Zion is that it feels like a version of Yosemite - only copied in red sandstone instead of grey granite. The main area of Zion is a large canyon valley just like Yosemite, and it has the same kind of developed park system amenities.


The first day I take the shuttle up the scenic drive and stop at the popular destinations: Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Riverside Walk. During drier times of year, the end of the paved trail on Riverside walk continues into the stream for miles into what is called the Narrows. Unfortunately it’s closed this time of year because of the strength of the river. I’m disappointed because this was the one thing I knew about Zion before I got here. It’s a shame too because I really love walking in rivers.


From the first day’s shuttle tour I start hearing about this hike called Angel’s Landing. It’s a difficult hike and many people come to the park just to climb it. Then I start hearing the horror stories about how dangerous it is: You have to hold onto chains to climb up. The trail is 18” at some parts with steep drop-offs on either side. A man was hiking back down with his wife: one second she was there, the next moment he turned around and she was gone. Things like that get me kind of nervous, so I look up some pictures online. It is indeed scary - especially one picture where the photographer admittedly used a fish-eye lens to make the trail seem even more narrow.

I decided to hike up the trail to the point called Boy Scout’s Landing. After that point is where it starts to get scary - the final ½ mile ascent where the chains are needed. I’ll see what it looks like in person, and if it’s too scary, I’ll just turn around. On the shuttle ride to the trailhead one woman tells another, “That trail is for 20-somethings who don’t understand what ’death’ is. You slip one time and it’s certain death.” But I stick with my plan.

The hike up to the landing is very tiring, with 21 switchbacks and a constant elevation gain. I decide not to even look out at the view here and just keep going. The very first part is probably the most dangerous because the sandstone cliff is covered in slippery sand and the angle makes it difficult to stay balanced. But the chain is comforting.


I keep telling myself, “Just take your time. Keep focused and keep your weight balanced. Don’t look anywhere except for the path ahead.” And it works. There are a lot of people on the trail. Some of them surprisingly atypical for such a strenuous hike. And there are definitely those who don’t take it seriously: climbing up trees on the edges, not waiting for other hikers to descend before rounding a bend, basically showing off. But after numerous frightening moments, I make it to the top.


The hike is absolutely awesome. And I think, if you’re scared that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It’s the people with no fear who are in the most danger. You just have to know what your abilities are. Overall though, it is a safe hike for experienced hikers. And the view is worth the effort.


Posted by Velora 14:46 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Bryce Canyon

How is it that I keep having little to no idea what to expect in all these National Parks I‘ve been visiting? I don’t know what I thought Bryce Canyon would be, but I never would have guessed it was so remarkably strange and beautiful. When I first catch a glimpse of a bright orange rocky formation outside the park’s boundary it is being illuminated by the setting sun. And any park ranger will tell you this truly lights up the rock and makes it glow. It’s shocking.


But I have to drive past because it’s late in the day and I need to find a hotel in town because it’s snowing. I never would have guessed there’d be snow this late in the year, but we’re at such high elevations that this is normal. In the morning, the dusting of snow has left the orange rock formations (called hoodoos) blanketed in snow. I actually think the snow made them even more vibrant and brought out their dimensions and the texture of the rocks.


It doesn’t seem like snow and evergreen trees would go together with desert rock formations, but here they are. The bright orange set against the green pine trees is very striking.


The scenic drive through the park has many pull-outs with views of the canyon below, but I don’t think you really experience the park unless you take one of the hikes down into the canyon. It almost seems wrong to venture down into this magical place, but it’s such a neat experience to walk down among the hoodoos and even walk right through them.

The path I took was so muddy that at one point it actually became difficult to pick my feet up from the sludge. My hiking boots maintained an orange coating for days afterward and I noticed others with the same badge of honor.

Posted by Velora 19:38 Comments (0)


Right across the highway from Arches is another National Park: Canyonlands. I drive to the end of the road, walk out to a viewpoint and stand at the precipice in awe. Out below me is a vast valley flanked by mesas and cut with deep canyons.


Canyonlands is divided into three sections by the rivers that run through the canyons. The section I’m in is called Island in the Sky. From this vantage point, looking down into the canyons, the great expanse of the region comes into focus.


All the dramatic geological scenery exposes the forces of nature still shaping the world. There are short walks to beautiful Mesa Arch, made all the more lovely by the way it frames the valley floor below, as well as Upheaval Dome, which appears like a giant grey-blue sand dune surrounded by red rock mountains.


I liked the Island in the Sky area so much that I decide to drive down to the Needles area as well. And while I can see why it isn’t as popular (for one thing it is much more remote) there are great views of vast mesas and even petroglyphs to find in the sheltered eaves of the rock boulders.


And it was that remoteness that lead to one of the coolest camping spots I’ve had so far. The regular sites were full so I drove just outside the park boundary and down a dirt road to a marked primitive site. I nestled my tent underneath juniper trees growing around the base of an alcove in a rock grouping the size of a house. At night I climbed to the top of the rocks and watched the sun set over the mesas in the distance. Stars started to appear in the clear sky above and little bats fluttered by.

Posted by Velora 18:09 Comments (1)

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