Tom’s final thoughts

— Intro —

July 10th, 2018 – This trip was originally conceived of several months ago, but it was only really planned out a couple weeks prior to the start. The trip was a graduation gift from my parents, but it has always been an intention of mine to visit more of the United States. Whenever I flew between coasts, it felt like a large part of the United States was missing. In high school I ended up visiting several midwest states, but I always heard people talking about Utah and Colorado. So, I decided during my senior year of high school that I wanted to “fill out” my mental image of the United States by seeing different regions, while understanding the transitions between each part by making it a road trip. It was going to be three legs, with adults switching out between each one. We would take turns driving so no one would get overly tired of driving. Unfortunately, it turned out that I wasn’t old enough to drive the rental, so I ended up being the passenger for the whole thing. That meant taking pictures along the way, especially in the Southwest where it was very scenic. Because we didn’t want Mom driving for too long at a time, we ended up cutting out her leg of the trip (New Orleans to home). Unkie (Mike) drove us from Philadelphia to Lincoln, Dad flew in, Unkie flew out, and Dad drove us from Lincoln to Las Vegas. In hindsight, it might have been cool to go to Los Angeles because I had been there before, but the trip was great enough as it was.

When I left that Friday morning, I was a bit nervous. This is close to (if not the) longest trip I have been to away from home, and because it was entirely on the road, I was never going to be in any one place for too long. Dad’s weekend conference in Denver served as a nice midway break, but I knew it would still be exhausting. Anyway, Unkie and I left early in the morning that Friday and went to see Fallingwater. I was not very familiar with his architecture, and I wasn’t even aware that it was that famous. It just served as a nice place to stop on the way. I ended up loving it. Even if I didn’t see anything else quite as nice as that before hitting the Southwest, it would have been worth it.

— Summary of Trip —

Hopefully you’ve seen the blog, but I want to give you my own thoughts on all of the stops. After Fallingwater, we went to Cleveland due to weather at Put-In-Bay. After skipping out on a sunny day on a beach, I was pleasantly surprised with what a nice time we had! We ended up seeing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Botanical Gardens. I enjoyed the Hall of Fame fairly well, but I don’t think I know enough about rock history to have gotten out of the experience as much as some people would have. I really loved the botanical gardens though. It was cool to see animals and plants from different parts of the world with their various quirks. I especially liked the butterfly gardens. Many pictures were taken.

In Indianapolis, I was once again surprised at how well I liked it. We started off at the speedway. The race history museum was mildly interesting, but I more enjoyed just staring at all of the cool cars. The actual track was cool, although like the Hall of Fame, it would have been even better if I watched any sort of car racing regularly. Overall, the speedway was not too crowded though, which made it a more pleasant experience than the Hall of Fame. After that, we headed into the actual city. I wasn’t expecting anything different from the sort of small, boring city of Cleveland, but once again I was surprised. We ate lunch in the center of town beside the historic statue. All the roads around that area were brick, and because it was a Sunday, it wasn’t too crowded. Afterwards, we walked around in a gorgeous park for a couple hours. Once again, it was a really pleasant, easygoing experience.

Later that day, we made it to the lovely Chicago suburb of Oak Park. A Sunday evening gathering was going on at the park next to our hotel when we came in, and it gave the wonderful first impression of the thriving neighborhood it was. After a nice breakfast the following morning, we headed out to Chicago. We went to the planetarium, which although it was a nice experience, ended up being disappointing. I already knew most of the material. The presentation on planet nine was interesting, but that was pretty much it. The boat ride we did later on in the day gave an unforgettable view of the Chicago skyline. I ended up getting sunburnt from it, but it was worth it. We spent the next several hours walking around and seeing various parks. I enjoyed seeing “The Bean”, and the surrounding gardens were very pleasant. After dinner, I attended my very first comedy show I have ever been to. It wasn’t hilarious, but it was still pretty funny. It was a great experience, and maybe I’ll see a similar show some time in the future. We started the next day having breakfast with Sue and meeting her family. It was cool to see relatives in the middle of our travels — something I have definitely noted for any future road trips. We then browsed through various Frank Lloyd Wright houses on a self-guided audio tour. It was nice, but nothing like the tour of Fallingwater.

The following day, we headed towards Nebraska. As we passed into Iowa, I noticed the scenery changing for the first time. The hills were becoming less extreme, and trees started to become less common. It wasn’t flat by any means, but I confirm that everything was corn. We visited Charlie at Grinnell on the way. We had dinner together at a small restaurant, and it was pretty enjoyable overall. It felt very personal, and it was once again nice to see a relative while on the road. We stopped in the Northwest corner of Missouri that night in preparation for a State park the following morning. I’ll never forget the flies from the Missouri river hitting the windshield that night. It was like rain.

Once we exited our horrible hotel (worst one of the trip), we headed into Nebraska. On the way, we stopped by a small-town supermarket where we picked up lunch, snacks, and sunscreen. Indian Cave state park was a really nice change of pace. It was completely away from the city, and it was almost completely empty. We did a couple of trails, saw some old farming equipment on display in a historic village we visited, and had a really nice time overall. We found some great views of the lush forest, and by the end of the day, we were both exhausted. We headed into Lincoln to pick dad up.

In Lincoln the next day, the three of us first visited the Strategic Air Command museum. It was nice just to look at all the planes, but I loved the tour we got about the design choices on each one even more. We then had lunch at an extremely slow and fancy french restaurant. We probably should have chosen something different, as the food quality didn’t justify the price or wait. Then we dropped Unkie off at the airport.

As dad and I drove across Nebraska, it started getting drier and drier. Corn started to be replaced by small bushes and dirt. Somewhere in far western Nebraska, I remarked about how hot it was outside (104 degrees). We got outside and took some pictures. That was really our first set of pictures we shot of each other that trip. It wasn’t a remarkable view compared to what we would see in Utah and Colorado, but at the time the dry plains seemed pretty unique. This was also the first time on the trip that we noticed how much of a difference the humidity makes to how hot it feels. Although I’m sure we would have gotten dehydrated rather quickly, 104 degrees was not even that uncomfortable.

We headed into Denver that Friday night. The mountains looked amazing, especially with the haze on them that accentuated the layered appearance of the range. That weekend in Denver was mostly unremarkable for me, and I enjoyed the quiet time in the room. On Saturday, I went ziplining. I Ubered about 30 minutes west into the mountains. After barely managing to get on my gear correctly, I headed out in a bus with the other 8 people in my group to the set of ziplines a couple of miles away. We hiked about 10 minutes up the mountain to the first zipline. This was my first time hiking in Colorado, and I immediately noticed the lack of air as well as undergrowth. There were still fairly good-sized trees, but everything was very dry compared to East coast forest (and less buggy!). The ziplining itself was pretty fun, although I think my decreased fear of heights since the last time I did it made it less intense. It was more just a nice view of the mountains. About 1 and half hours later, I barely managed to find an Uber back to the hotel. We actually had a pretty good conversation. Because I recognized her ringtone as a song from Legend of Zelda (a video game series), we talked a bit about that, which was really cool.

On Sunday, dad and I headed out to Estes Park in Colorado. We got our first really magnificent view of the mountains from up close (better than I had had the previous day while ziplining). We stayed in a nice motel/resort type thing. After a sunset walk and watching some of the Fifth Element (chosen from the motel’s complementary dvd selection), we went stargazing. I pointed out 4 things which I thought were planets instead of stars. After opening a stargazing app, I was right. They turned out to be Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. I had learned one thing from the planetarium in Chicago. Planets don’t twinkle.

The next day, we drove to Salt Lake City. We started off on Trail Ridge Road. After each stop, I thought that that was the highest we would get. Things started to look more and more alpine-like, and about an hour of driving on this road, we reached what turned out to be the actual highest point. We hiked about half a mile to the very top of the mountain at about 13,000 ft. The air felt extremely thin (by my calculations, it was about 38% less dense than at sea level in a standard atmosphere), so it was quite exhausting. The view was amazing, and once again the haze made it even more beautiful yet hard to capture in pictures. After the scenic part of the road was done, we decided we wouldn’t do the planned hike due to time constraints. Instead, we headed straight towards Salt Lake City. It turned out the best way was to head north into Wyoming before going south again, so I got to go to Wyoming! The road switched from being sandwiched by mountains to being in the middle of a large plain closely surrounded by mountains. It was a stunning view, and something unlike anything I never even knew existed.

Salt Lake City itself was overall unremarkable, but it was really fun to visit the Mormon Temple Square. I got to see some cool statues and learn about the history of the Mormon church. Dad was understandably nervous about being accosted by some Mormon missionary, but I didn’t think they would be that forward. I understood how luring the panoramic video of Joseph Smith’s first vision was supposed to be, and how the magnificence yet exclusivity of the temple was meant to attract members. Next, we went to the Great Salt Lake. After much waiting at the gift shop, we managed to get in and get some sunscreen. We then marched out onto the rough, dried sand beach. There were flies everywhere in the parking lot, although less so further towards the water. Still, there was brown sand consisting of fly corpses and clouds of flies getting blown around like sand near the water’s edge. The view was pretty nice, especially of the mountains in the distance. Dad floated, the tide came up more than expected, most of dad’s clothes got wet, and after some cleaning we were back on the road. Different from what might have been expected at Put-In-Bay back in Ohio, but nevertheless an experience to be remembered. We finally made it to Pando around 6. Sunset was at 8:30, so we had plenty of time. Dad aptly explained the whole fiasco on the blog, so I won’t retell all of it. All I’ll say is that we should have moved the car, but I was being pointlessly eager to get to Pando. Once we finally made it to Pando an hour and a half later, the sky was beginning to turn orange. The sun’s light hitting the aspens was something that you had to be there for, but I’ll give you an all-exclusive, never seen before picture from my phone to try to give you a taste:


It was a dream of mine to visit this forest ever since I had seen it placed by wikipedia as the world’s largest organism several months prior. I did it. We had a nice dinner later in Escalante with a local who knew about the clone tree colony. She said it was pronounced (pahn-dough) not (pan-dough). Now I know. I still like my way better.

The next day, we saw the Petrified Forest in Escalante and Bryce Canyon. The forest was pretty cool, as some of the wood was claimed to be 150 million years old. It was multicolored, and very pretty. While in the forest, we saw a small canyon, which in retrospect was one of the smallest we would see on the trip. At the time though, it was really cool. Next we saw Bryce Canyon. Dad said this was one of his favorite parts, and I could definitely tell. About every 30 seconds on the trail he would stop to take pictures from an angle a couple degrees different than the last place he had stopped. The hike was long because we took it pretty slow, but it contained a great variety of scenery. The great heights of the trail leading down into the canyon were really exciting. Then, there was a whole ecosystem at the bottom of sparse trees and red rock. Then, at the end of the hike, we passed through that narrow canyon nicknamed “Wall Street”. The chipmunks in the canyon really had their “feed me” routine down.

That evening, we arrived in Zion National Park. The feeling of passing through the tunnel and coming into the park is unbelievable. It felt so isolating sitting in the middle of those mountains for the next 24 hours. We had a pretty good, expensive dinner. Outside on the lawn after dinner, we could hear the deer chewing grass. The next morning, we got up bright and early to do some hiking. We did the upper and lower “emerald pools”. The lower one was pretty lame, probably because of the drought. The waterfalls were little more than a trickle. The upper one was a much steeper hike, but it was much more worth it. As a note, there were a weird number of French people at all these Utah and Arizona parks. To end our day at the park, we did the Watchman’s trail. We left a couple people in the dust (suck it 60 something and her daughter) because we were in such a hurry to get to the Grand Canyon. We had plenty of water, but it was still completely exhausting. The view was awesome, and overall, it was my favorite hike in the park. After leaving the park, we saw a group of domesticated adult and young bison. I can’t recall seeing bison before, so it was interesting. I absolutely loved watching the young ones trying to get out of the mud. Probably my favorite wildlife experience of the trip.

better bison

We arrived at the Grand Canyon that night. We caught a couple glimpses of the sun’s last minutes above the horizon. Like at Zion, we had dinner at their expensive restaurant in El Tovar lodge. The food was amazing, so it was a well-worthwhile indulgence. We went stargazing that night, which I will honestly say was even better than the view in upstate New York. Maybe it was a combination of elevation and dryness. The Milky Way was fully visible just 30 ft from the hotel. It was pretty cold. The following day, we had difficulties getting around. After seeing the canyon from a couple of different vantage points, we went to the watchtower. The traffic was brutal due to construction on one lane of the main road into the park. About an hour and half later after I had wanted to get started on the hike we were waiting for the bus that was one step in the master plan of eventually getting to the trailhead. It turns out you’re supposed to enter through the front doors of the bus, so we couldn’t get on in time to get a spot. I wasn’t waiting any longer, so we headed off to get an early start on Las Vegas. At the last minute, dad had the excellent idea of doing a different trail that wouldn’t be as nice but was closer. We hiked for about 20 minutes into the canyon and another 20 back up. We saw a mountain goat, which was awesomely unexpected. It was great to get a different view of the canyon.

Las Vegas was absurd. Coming into the city, everything was advertisements (even more than usual!). I had no idea what a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip was like, so it was really amazing to see one for the first time. I found out that I couldn’t gamble (the age is 21 in Las Vegas for casino gambling), but there were other things to do. The next day consisted of visiting the Hoover Dam followed by walking through various hotels. The Hoover Dam was interesting, although compared to all the magnificent nature we had seen on that trip, it was more just fascinating that humans made it. My favorite hotel that day remained our own Paris Hotel. I loved the fake sky it had matched with the Frenglish signs (“les elevators”). We did a Virtual Reality game where we shot robots with several other people. I loved the 3 dimensionality of it and the challenge of aiming in such an environment. We saw a variety show that evening, which although it was cool, was not amazing. The next day, we visited some more hotels, making the Venetian my favorite hotel. They had a canal going right through the mall! We did an Escape the Room with just us two playing. We failed, but it was fun trying. I really quite enjoy the puzzles involved in these things. We then went to a comedy magic show. The magic was cool, but it got boring for me after only a few minutes. As our final stop, we watched a Cirque du Soleil show. The story wasn’t very good, but it was really relaxing and spectacular to watch. A great end to the trip.

— Final Thoughts —

Overall, the trip was a success. The car didn’t break down, most of the intended stops were seen, and nobody got hurt. Now it is time for the superlatives:

Favorite City: Indianapolis. Lots of homeless people where we were, but a beautiful, spacious park and nice brick roads made it a truly enjoyable experience.

Favorite Hike: Pando. It was dry and exhausting, but fulfilling the dream and seeing the amazing forest was worth it.

Favorite Nature: Alpine and Subalpine region of the Rockies on that Trail Ridge Road. It was amazing being at that elevation and we saw those Elk on the way down

Favorite Show: Comedy show in Chicago. I guess I’m a simple guy. I like to laugh at jokes in a small theater at night. The fancy stuff in Las Vegas didn’t do much for me in the variety show and magic show, although I’ve got to say that Cirque du Soleil was a close second.

Favorite Day: Mormon Temple Square, Great Salt Lake, Pando. This day was so long, as we saw three major sites, all quite different. The Temple Square was cool and I learned a lot. The Great Salt Lake was an interesting beach experience. Seeing Pando was a unique opportunity made possible by determination and a true pleasure to experience.

Favorite Song: I put on A Horse With No Name by America on our way to the Hoover Dam. Definitely the right decision.

I want to do something like this again in the future, but I don’t know when that will be. I’m just glad I had the opportunity to experience so much before college.


Last day: The Venetian, Escape Room, Magic Show, Ka

We began the day with a delightful breakfast at the French Cafe near the guest room elevators.


We checked out, and drove to the airport to return the rental car. (The timing of our flight will be tight after the end of the Last show.) I was really worried, because last night I called the rental company to see if they would let me return the car at a different location, but they wouldn’t even tell me if that was possible, because Mike was the one who had signed the contract. So, I was concerned that maybe they wouldn’t let me return the car, even though I was on the contract as a second driver. I was also concerned because when we picked up the car, it had an unusual number of minor scratches. The attendant there had photographed the car from several angles, and assured us that that would be enough description of the scratches, but when I saw the photos later on the web form, you couldn’t really see the scratches. However, on fact the return went extremely smoothly.

We then visited the Venetian Hotel, which is by far the best themed on the inside.

They even have a canal with gondolas:

The gondolas actually are powered by electric motors. We think they are computer controlled for steering since the gondolieri weren’t doing much with their oars.

Then we did “The Study”, an “escape the room” in which we were escaping from a serial killer. It was just Tom and I, and there were several parts that were quite scary (in a fun way), especially because they separated us at two points. Tom had to dress up as the killer’s mother, and allow the blind and deaf butler (played by an actor) to feel his clothes and feel for the glasses we’d found to verify he was the mother. We ran out of time, so we didn’t escape, but we got pretty far for a team of two. It was quite fun.

escape the room
We posed as corpses, since we didn’t escape.  Since we were wearing green shirts (and the photo was taken in front of a green screen), we look ghostly.

We had a little time after that, so we did a tiny bit of gambling, on 25 cent per play video slot machines.  We lost a few dollars on video poker, but then tried a more typical slot machine and got a little lucky.  This machine had a great 3d graphics effect, so that when we hit the “jackpot”, we could see video coins apparently coming out of the screen.  It was quite fun!  After that, we were a dollar ahead of where we’d started before the video poker, so we quit.  Ha!

Next, we went to Nathan Burton’s comedy magic show, which I thought was great. Tom liked it pretty well. Here’s someone’s picture of the trick I liked best:

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It’s clear the women couldn’t possibly support his weight.  It was really amazing!

After dinner, we went to the Cirque du Soleil show “Ka”.  The star of the show is the stage, which has two huge moving parts, which can move to all kind of angles and elevations.  At a few points, one part moved so it was nearly vertical; the best part was a dance/battle at one of those times.  (There was a safe landing zone below, out of the audience’s view.)

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(photo looking up, from the web)

Although the stage was amazing, and the actors’ dancing/fighting skills were very impressive, the story was a little muddy, and not that emotionally involving.

Finally, we brought our adventure to an end by heading to the airport for an overnight flight back to Philadelphia.

Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam

[You may also want to check the “Salt Lake City and Pando” post, the part starting after touring temple square.  I added more about our visit to the Great Salt Lake, and also our visit to Pando.]

Yesterday, we drove to Las Vegas.  Most of the drive was through very flat desert, with the highway stretching perfectly straight for dozens of miles at a time.  At one point, we could see a line of rain ahead of us:

fingers of rain

As we drove toward it, I felt like we were chasing the end of a rainbow, as it seemed to keep moving away from us.  (I think really it was just quite far away.  I was going 80 mph, but it still took us a half hour to reach it after this photo was taken.)  By the time we reached it, it had mostly dissipated.  We arrived at about 8 pm, and checked into the Paris Hotel.  In front of the hotel are half scale models of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and the hot air balloon from the Paris World Fair.  The interior is really nicely themed, to give you the sense that you’re walking through the streets of Paris, with little restaurants and shops (actual ones, not just simulations) lining the “road”, and an illuminated painted blue sky with clouds on the ceiling.  The transition from the relatively peaceful time we’d had in the national parks for the last several days, and the very quiet drive through the desert, was a bit overwhelming.  Here’s the view from our room; you can see the Arc de Triomphe and the balloon.


The next morning, we drove out to the Hoover Dam.  We took the “power plant tour”, which was nice, but brief.  (There’s a longer tour, but we would have had to wait 2 hours for it, even though we got there by 10:15; you can’t buy tickets in advance.) They have 1.3 million visitors per year, so they have to process people through the tour efficiently.  I was particularly impressed by their method of loading us onto the large elevators.  We were instructed to stand shoulder to shoulder, facing the front.  Although they didn’t say it explicitly, this avoids having people face each other, which would make it uncomfortable to stand so close.  The elevator takes you down 500 feet, where you see one of the tunnels used prior to construction of the dam to divert the water from its original course.  Then you go back up for a short elevator ride, leading to one of the generator rooms:

That was it for the tour.  We then got some nice views from outside.  The dam is 726 feet high, and more than 600 feet thick at the base, tapering to 40 feet thick at the top.  (I had not realized how thick it is at the base!)  The amount of concrete used to build it could create a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York.

Here’s me leaning backwards over the dam.  (It would have been bad if I’d dropped the phone, but I was in no danger.)

Here we are plummeting to our doom, after falling off the dam!

hoover dam with jets
(Of course, this photo of us was actually taken in front of a green screen as we went through the line.  We were the only ones to do a fun pose like this! Also, this background shows the extra side jets of water, which they only allow through when the water level is very unusually high.  They’ve only done that about 5 times since the dam was built, and certainly not when we visited.)

We drove back, and walked through some of the other hotels, all of which have extensive interior shop and restaurant malls, with varying degrees of theming.  On the sidewalks, there are occasional costumed characters, hoping you’ll pay to have your picture taken with them.  We decided to get one with this interesting variant of Batman:

Here we are inside the Luxor, which looks on the outside like a giant black pyramid.

At the MGM Grand Hotel, we experienced the “Virtual Reality” attraction, which is less than a year old.  We don’t have photos of ourselves, but here’s how the players and the room that the entire adventure takes place in look in reality:

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Here’s how things look through the virtual reality goggles; the armored figures are the way the other members of your team appear to you.

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It was a pretty straight shoot-em-up, but quite fun.  Tom scored highest on our team!

In the evening, we went to the “Ultimate Variety Show” in the Planet Hollywood Hotel complex.  There was a bit of snafu with our tickets, but we straightened it out and didn’t miss much of the show.  We didn’t take any photos, but here are some I found online of some of the acts we saw:

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These guys had a stunt (not shown here), where the top one balanced head down above the bottom one, with the only point of contact being the backs of their necks!


Wally Eastwood, the longest running comedy juggler in Vegas, played part of  “Fur Elise” by Beethoven by bouncing balls onto an oversized keyboard.
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These roller skaters whipped around at terrific speeds on a rather small elevated platform.  In the performance we saw, her head got within inches of the platform on each swing around.
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This pair swung way out over the audience on an overhead cable.

Of course, there were some parts that were less good (e.g. getting one side of the audience to cheer louder than the other), but overall it was great, especially because we had seats fairly close to the stage.  Here’s a picture I took afterwards of the cast:

The Grand Canyon

This morning, we found that indeed our lodge is right at the rim of the Grand Canyon!  We spent a short while admiring the view from there:




Then we decided to go to the “Desert View” site, where there is an observation tower built in 1932.  Unfortunately, there was construction on the road, so it took us much longer than expected to get there.  The tower was OK, but probably not worth the time.



We had planned to go on a hike down into the canyon.  We realized we wouldn’t have time to get anywhere close to the bottom, and now because of the extra time spent getting to and from the tower, we would only have a rather short time for the hike.  The hike that had been recommended was only accessible by shuttle bus.  By that point, the park had filled up, and there were no parking spaces left at the shuttle bus lot.  So, we went to a further lot where we were barely able to find a space.  From there, we could catch a blue line shuttle, and then transfer to the orange line shuttle that would take us to the trailhead.  Unfortunately, at Grand Canyon, the buses only run every 15 minutes.  (At Zion, they run every 5 minutes.)  We got to the shuttle bus stop, and it was clear we’d just missed one, since there were only a couple of other people waiting.  Eventually the bus arrived.  It was already pretty full, so I was anxious about whether we’d be able to get on.  Most of the people lined up at the front entrance of the bus, so we went to the back entrance; at Zion, we’d been allowed to get on at both entrances.  However, it turned out that at Grand Canyon you’re required to get on at the front.  By the time we got to the front of the line, the bus had just barely filled up, and they wouldn’t let us on.  We were really frustrated and disappointed.  We really didn’t want to wait for the next shuttle, then have to wait to transfer, then have to go through it all again to get back, so we gave up on the hike idea, even though we both had really wanted to do it.

We decided instead to try to park at one more lookout point on the rim, although we’d already done several of them.  But as we drove toward it, we remembered that there was a second hiking trail down into the canyon that was not as highly recommended.  Miraculously, we found a parking spot fairly close to the trailhead.  It was a slightly scary (for me), but quite nice hike.  We had time to hike down for about 25 minutes.  Here we are at the lowest point we got to:


On the way back up, we saw a mountain goat!

goat at Grand Canyon

Then, Tom started to lose his balance, and almost fell into the canyon!  (Just kidding.)


Zion National Park, and first views of the Grand Canyon

I would describe Bryce Canyon National Park as an utter delight. There are so many different views and sharp shapes (“hoodoos”) projecting up into the sky. To our surprise, Zion National Park is completely different. It is awe inspiring. There are _gigantic_ “rocks”, or perhaps “rock mountains”, each projecting almost vertically many hundreds of feet, and simply massive. While the formations at Bryce Canyon are carved by freezing and thawing of ice, those at Zion are formed by flowing water.



We entered Zion fairly late last night. We hadn’t previously realized that, to get to the main part of the park, you drive through a long, rather narrow, unlit tunnel. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to have no lighting in the tunnel, except that from your own headlights. There are occasional (perhaps every few hundred yards) gaps in the wall for ventilation; these let in a little light.

At Zion National Park, the most famous hike by far is called “Angel’s Landing”. However, much of it is right along cliff edges, and the last 200 feet is along a slim (perhaps 2-3 feet wide, but not completely flat) ridge, with treacherous drop-offs on both sides. There is a chain you can hold onto as you make your way along it, but the prospect just seemed terrifying to me. It has been termed “America’s scariest hike”.

Someone else’s photo of the Angel’s Landing trail

Several people have died on it over the last few decades. One of the people we talked to said that she had to turn back in tears partway through that last part. I have some fear of heights. For example, I get uncomfortable when dogs or other party members get too close to the edge at the top of Cat Mountain. I knew that I wouldn’t be up to doing the last part of the Angel’s Landing hike, and that I couldn’t even stand it if Tom did it without me. It was frustrating for him, because there were a lot of other people doing it, but he was understanding, and was willing to do other hikes instead.

We started with a hike to the lower and upper Emerald Pools; that part was only OK. The upper pool was nice, because there’s a large cliff that leans out partly over the pool, so we got some nice pictures with us in the foreground and the pool and huge cliff in the background.


However, we then went along quite a nice trail with a view down into the canyon a couple of hundred feet below.


We then went on the “Weeping Rocks” hike, a very short but steep walk to an area where water comes out of the side of a cliff, after seeping through the rocks above.


After lunch, we went on “Watchman’s Trail”. Unlike the other hikes, this one was almost deserted; we only passed three other parties on the two-hour hike. It was quite steep, with a sharp dropoff on one side (but a reasonably wide path, so not too scary). The sun was quite intense, but we had sunscreened thoroughly and had plenty of water. At the top, we got out onto a small mesa, with a spectacular 360 degree view.

Tom at top of Watchman trail

Watchman pano

We then headed out toward the Grand Canyon.  Shortly after leaving Zion, we saw some domesticated bison by the side of the road:

We then drove several hours to the Grand Canyon, arriving close to sunset. We got some great initial views, first of Little Colorado Canyon:


Then of the Grand Canyon:



We are staying at the Kachina Lodge, right next to El Tovar lodge, the original park lodge. Our building is modern, but we had dinner in El Tovar, and it was _great_! The lobby walls have lots of stuffed deer and moose heads, and much of the construction is of logs.


After a fabulous dinner (but with rather slow service), we gazed at the stars a bit. We could see the Milky Way even more clearly at Cranberry. I think we are right at the edge of the canyon, but it’s too dark to tell. It’s quite late, so I’ll sign off now.

Petrified Forest, Bryce Canyon, entering Zion

We spent last night in a bed and breakfast in Escalante, Utah, then headed out to the nearby petrified forest.  The pieces of wood look fairly drab in the pictures that follow, but really they were more colorful.  We hiked a trail that went past many sections of petrified logs, usually unmarked so we had to be on the lookout for them.  These are all as they were discovered.

Tom holding a piece of wood that was petrified 150 million years ago.


Tom standing on a circular piece of petrified wood


You can see the rings pretty well.

Then, we drove to Bryce Canyon National Park.  The canyon has lots of “hoodoos”, roughly cylindrical rock formations about 10 feet in diameter and 10 to 100 feet high.  Each one looks like a drip castle you might make on the beach.

We hiked down into the canyon on the “Queen’s Garden Trail”.

The leftmost hoodoo in the main formation above is called the “queen”, because the top part (the whitish part) looks like this statue of Queen Victoria:

queen victoria

Then we hiked back up on the “Navaho Loop” trail, which ends with a steep set of switchbacks, to gain a lot of height in a short lateral distance.

If you look carefully in this next one, you can see people way down below working their way up the switchbacks.

It was astonishingly beautiful!  After that fairly long hike, we went on a shorter, ranger-guided walk along the rim.  However, her talk was aimed mostly at kids, so mostly not that interesting for us.  However, we did learn that the hoodoos are surprisingly short-lived; they erode away (and new ones form) in about 2000 years.

We then drove to Zion National Park, also in Utah.


Salt Lake City and Pando

(This is a partial post.  Go ahead and read it now, but check again tomorrow, as I’ll be inserting more content, and not just at the end.)

Today included some surprising physical challenges!  We got up a little late, then made the mistake of having breakfast at Denny’s.  The service was really slow, and Tom’s dish was undercooked.  So, we left fairly late, which came back to bite us later.  We started by going to Temple Square in Salt Lake City, which turned out to be surprisingly interesting.

The most impressive building is the temple, built from granite over a period of about 40 years.  The walls are nine feet thick at the bottom.   The overall design, by Brigham Young, is unique (I think) in having six towers, three at each end.  It’s hard to capture it in a photo, so here is a painting from the visitor’s center:

temple painting

I tried to get a picture of Tom in from of the Temple, but even after 15 tries, I couldn’t get the image straight.  Here is Tom directing me on the angle at which to hold the phone.  The golden statue at the top is the angle Moroni, who made the revelations to Joseph Smith.

tom in front of temple

The public isn’t allowed inside, but there is a model and photos in the visitor center.  Here’s a photo (I think of the real thing, rather than the model) of the baptismal room, which is reserved for baptisms for family members who have died, but weren’t Mormons.  (For the baptism, a family member who is a Mormona act as a proxy for the deceased.)  The 12 oxen supporting the baptismal pool represent the 12 tribes of Israel.



Here is the model, showing the many rooms inside:


Here’s the model, with the real Temple in the background:


There were a couple of nice statues, including this one of Joseph Smith and his buddy receiving the authority of the Melchizidek priesthood from three of the original apostles.


We listened to the organ in the Tabernacle (a separate building from the Temple).  The organ was really impressive; it had six or seven manuals (keyboards).  But we weren’t allowed to take pictures.  However, we were allowed to take pictures inside the assembly hall:

Then we went to view the Great Salt Lake.  We’d been warned by posts online that it can be quite smelly, and that there are lots of flies.  It would have take too long to drive to the ideal viewing site, where we might have been able to go swimming, so we went to a closer spot.  There were an amazing number of “brine flies”, but they didn’t bite at all, so it was mostly just uncanny:

We decided to at least get our feet wet, so we walked the several hundred feet of dried salt that separated the parking lot from the waters edge.  On the way, we passed several patches of what appeared to be darker sand, but actually was a mass of dead brine flies, with live ones crawling on top.  When the wind blue, small clouds of flies arose from these patches.


The water was fairly warm, so I decided to go for a swim after all!  The slope was extremely shallow, so were I was it was only a couple of feet deep, but here I am floating.  I could easily tell that I was more buoyant than normal!


Here’s a cute sign from the gift shop:


We then drove to the Fishlake National Forest, the location of “Pando”.  Tom found out about this when he was preparing for one of his Science Olympiad events.  It is the largest known living organism: a grove of genetically identical Aspen trees, that are all linked together by a common root system, and occupy 106 acres.

We used Google maps to navigate there.  We turned onto smaller and smaller roads, with less and less traffic.  The last step was a single lane dirt road, which seemed fine at first.  However, as we went up it, it got steeper and rougher, and we realized that our rented Nissan Versa was not even close to being up to this challenge; it really required a four-wheel drive vehicle.  We debated whether we should back it back down (there was no way to turn around) right away, or instead just finish the 1 mile hike up to Pando, and then come back to deal with the car.  Tom pushed for leaving the car there, since we’d hardly even seen any cars on the main road that the dirt road started from.  I was concerned that the car was completely blocking the dirt road, but really wasn’t sure what the right way to go was.   Tom has made an incredible number of correct decisions on this trip, often pushing to do things in a different way than I would have, but in a way that turned out to be right.  So, I went with his instinct.

It was a fairly steep climb (about 25 degrees), and a mile up from the car to Pando.  We were about 3/4 of the way there when we saw a pair of ATVs driving up the road.  When they reached us, we asked if our car had been a problem for them.  Apparently it hadn’t, but they said (or so we thought) that it was blocking a truck that was trying to get up, and that we shouldn’t be blocking this public road, which in fact goes on for 17 miles.  (Most people use it for off-roading, probably not realizing that it goes through Pando.)  So, wanting to avoid inconveniencing the driver of the truck that was stuck behind our car, we immediately jogged all the way back down the steep jeep track to the car.  There was no truck waiting!  We decided that we must have misunderstood the ATV driver, and he just meant that a truck _might_ be blocked by our car.  However, we carefully backed it down the third of a mile we’d driven, with Tom walking along outside and giving directions.  With a few hundred yards to go, Tom spotted another car at the bottom, getting ready to drive up!  Luckily, he was able to wave to them and communicate that they should wait for us to finish backing down.  So, it was definitely a good thing that we’d returned to the car.

At this point, I was pretty beat.  Also, we were out of drinking water.   We hadn’t realized there would be a significant hiking component, so hadn’t packed extra.  In fact, we had run out before our first attempt to hike up, but that seemed OK, barely.  I was concerned that we might be pushing things too far to try again, because it was very dry and these were close to desert conditions.  I was remembering a story Anna told about running out of water on a desert hike, and how the situation had gotten serious rather quickly.  We thought briefly about going for more water, but there was no place even remotely close.  However, our day wasn’t all that hot, and the first part was uphill.  We had been quite well hydrated until the point just before our first attempt.  I figured that as soon as we noticed any problems at all, we would turn around, and should be able to do the downhill part.  I insisted that we breathe in and out through our noses to conserve water, even though that meant that we couldn’t go as fast.

In fact, we got up to Pando with no problems at all.  It was quite beautiful, and very significant for both of us to feel a contact with this enormous organism.



The hike back down was beautiful.


When we reached the car, and popped the trunk, we found a full water bottle that we’d completely forgotten!  We drove to the nearest town, and arrived just in time to get into a diner before it closed.  We enjoyed a wonderful dinner of cheeseburgers, followed by pie a la mode.