With so many great national parks scattered all over the southwest, we’re wishing we had much more time to see all of them.
Saguaro National Park: Home of the giant cacti and one of the stops on our trip. We visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which had all kinds of desert animals and even had a walk-in hummingbird house filled with flitting, iridescent little birds whizzing past us, enjoying the rain showers.
One of Kathleen’s most anticipated stops on the trip has been the Grand Canyon, and its vastness was awe-inspiring and almost impossible to comprehend. A return trip will definitely feature a rim-to-rim hike and we wished we had time for it on this one. We did get to explore the first section of the Bright Angel Trail and we loved the ever-changing views as you descend lower into the canyon.
From Arizona we went to Utah and Colorado which are two states we wouldn’t mind relocating to. Both have so many outdoor recreation opportunities, a variety of landscapes and terrains, numerous national and state parks, and lots of rock climbing gyms!
Zion National Park has lots to offer but we both agree that our hiking and climbing of Angel’s Landing will forever be the most prevalent memory. A gradual incline leads to a set of 21 switchbacks know as Walter’s Wiggles which leads out to the ‘fin’. There are sheer drops on both sides of the narrow fin with intermittent chains to hold on to which ultimately lead to the aforementioned Angel’s Landing. The sighs of relief of making it to the end is only briefly experienced before remembering you must go back. It was challenging when encountering people coming from the opposite direction; we’d either have to wait while leaning over the cliff and hanging onto a chain, or climb around the other person. This was definitely a scary hike and one that you must be careful on. But wow, it’s a great accomplishment and story to tell (with pictures of course)!
Arches National Park in Utah was our next stop and the beautiful reds and oranges filled the park. The sandstone bridges and arches came to vibrant life at sunset and sunrise and the towering rock fins display millions of years of geology along their faces. A short sunrise hike gave us the opportunity to see and hear a group of Buddhists perform their sunrise chants from North Window arch. We then took advantage of the full day ahead of us by exploring close to 10 miles of trails with views of all the iconic arches.
We crossed over the Colorado border and visited Mesa Verde. We got a tour of Cliff Palace, the largest village in the park, and Balcony House. The tours including walking through the villages, climbing ladders and crawling through a crawlspace door entrance on our hands and knees.
Spent the night in Silverton, fueled up the next day with bagels and started our 8.4 mile hike to Ice Lake from 9900ft of elevation to 12,580ft. We saw the beautiful turquoise Island Lake first, surrounded by gray and red peaks and then Ice Lake, another spectacular blue that we thought was only reserved for Caribbean waters. We hiked a bit further to Fuller Lake which was another beautiful site to see. The majority of the trail was abloom with wildflowers from white to yellow to pink and made us feel so appreciative of being able to experience such beauty.
Yosemite was our first destination in the beautiful state of California. Ansel Adams’ draw to this beautiful wilderness was very apparent after seeing it firsthand. The park is huge and offers a variety of sights and tons of hikes. During our few days there we got to do and see a lot! We started in Tuolomne Meadows, saw Half Dome from two sides, humbly walked through a giant redwood grove including the famous drive-through tree, watched climbers make their way slowly up El Capitan’s rock face at night, guided only by their headlamps, hiked to the top of Yosemite Falls and saw sunrises and sunsets from different locations in the park.
Instead of traveling inland toward southern California, we decided to drive down to the coast and experience the highly reviewed Pacific Coast Highway. Starting near Palo Alto we drove through Big Sur which had beautiful redwood trees and forest coming out to the coastal cliff, leading straight down to the beach below.
We left the salty, humid air and headed further south, catching sites of rolling golden hills, agricultural fields, into the SoCal beach scenes in Santa Barbara, Malibu and Venice Beach, and finally to the hot, arid desert of Joshua Tree National Park.
We took a long stop in Venice Beach, checking out the great shops and then venturing over to the beach to find an eclectic mix of boardwalk vendors and and visitors. Our stop wouldn’t have been complete if we didn’t conquer/attempt (depends on which one of us we are talking about) the rope climb at Muscle Beach.
After watching the sunset on Hermosa Beach, we checked into a hotel for the night which had great views and audible barks, of the local sea lions. Then we were eastern-bound for the first time on the trip.
Joshua Tree National Park is not lush in the same way most people think of the majority of our nation’s national parks. It is, however, lush with Joshua trees and cholla cacti! It was hot in the middle of the July in the desert, and this may be the reason we felt like we were one of only a few other visitors, but the silence and emptiness was comforting after Yosemite’s crowds.
After an amazing night watching the 4th of July fireworks from our hotel hot tub in Jackson Hole, we set our alarms to be up for sunrise. Our goal was an iconic photograph of the historic barns on Mormon Row.
We made our way into the park and the headlights in our rear-view mirror gave us reassurance that we were heading to the right place. We set up our tripod and adjusted our composition after lots of second-guessing. As we waited for the sun to take the chill out of the morning air, we began to see the iconic Grand Tetons turn a warm shade of pink against the blue sky. Most of our sunrise-viewing mornings have been just the two of us, bundled up and surrounded by nothing but the gentle stirring of nature as it wakes. However, on this particular morning, we were among a small crowd, speckled through the tall, dewy grass and shrubs with cameras and tripods, searching for the perfect spot to capture the jagged peaks set behind the famous Moulton barns along Mormon Row. While we often enjoy the solitude you can find off the beaten path, it was nice to be able to share in the experience with others who appreciated the experience and views just as much as we did.
We can now say that we understand why this remote spot is so popular at 5AM!
On the drive to reserve our campground site for the night, we spotted a steep, zigzagging trail that was begging us to climb it. So we did!
After setting up camp at Gros Ventre campground we were ready to hit the trail. A long, twisting dirt road climbed up to an elevation of 8,000 feet where the Goodwinn Lake trail began. The pothole-filled road made us thankful to be in our rental car. About halfway up, we switched drivers, each of us thinking the other’s position was more ideal.
But we finally made it and began heading down the picturesque trail traversing mountain meadows, ridges, a rocky stream and ending at a beautiful lake view at 9700ft of elevation.
We ended our hike just as the sun dipped behind the same mountains we had marveled at when the day was just beginning.