Now, we all know, I’m a water girl. There’s not an ocean you could show me that I would dislike. Pop me on a body of sand; add in some salty sea air, the crush of white caps of waves on the shoreline and a heavy dose of Vitamin D and I’m one happy girl. Like in all travel, it seems that the internal learning is sometimes greater than the external and I for certain, have learned on this trip. Who knew I’d be taken with features of land?
Knowing we’d have the opportunity to visit national parks across the country, we purchased the national parks annual pass. For $80, access is granted to your vehicle for national parks and countless other national entities for an entire year. The first week or so of our journey was mainly cities and large swaths of land dotted throughout by cattle, farmlands and changing scenery but even more amazing bits of natural beauty was yet to come.
Driving north from New Mexico to Arizona we decided on a short side trip to Colorado for a few hours. As we drove through the two-lane roadway of colourful topography and natural crevasses I found myself smiling more than I thought I would. Colours of sunsets were instilled within the rock-weathered texture withstanding time and weather while natural beauty oozed with serenity at every turn. I’m not sure words even do it justice. At each windy turn through Mesa Verde National Park, snow capped peaks of mountains and valleys coaxed us upwards as they continued to share their secrets of the earth with seekers along the way. Each time we crest a hill it feels as if we’re headed straight for the clouds. The air is clean and crisp and my asthmatic lungs are even happy at 8,000 feet. Although I’ve noticed that I still do feel more trapped than comforted and still wanting to get up and over to the other side, the beauty of the land is not lost on me. Powerful, picturesque, daunting and welcoming all come short of describing the grandness of these gifts of nature and man. I even found myself thankful for Teddy Roosevelt and his conservation policies-thankful that so many before me and even more after will continue to get these amazing glimpses of national parks.
Further north more greens than browns enter the midst and share sunshine with us the entire way. A stop at the Navajo run Four Corners plops our little feet in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado all at the same time. As our car starts to look more and more like a dirt covered road-tripping vehicle, we witness many others achieving the exact same goal right there…including a car from Hawaii! One unique rock formation after another followed by beautiful sunsets, insanely dark skies, some of the brightest stars I’ve ever seen and we made it to the land of canyons and parks-the beautiful southwest! Some, who greeted us said, ‘welcome to the pretty part of the country’.
If you’ve never heard of Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, now is the time to Google it. A spectacle unlike any other I’ve before witnessed, this state park housed on a reservation provides a space for light to dance and Mother Nature to showcase some of her many talents. Visitors must have a Native American guide to enter. Views will change in an instance and depending on the time of day and season there will be either light beams shooting through colourful crevasses or brilliant colours streaming off the sandstone walls. Either way you are beholding magic and grace with each step. Mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, stunning, fascinating and all other adjectives are a waste. From the moment you stand before the entrance to the moment you pop out the other side, mouths are agape, eyes are darting in each direction and cameras are fiendishly snapping to try to bottle and capture the amazing scenery before you. Truly it should be renamed the ‘wow’ canyon, as it seems to be the word most likely heard inside.
From Arizona’s Antelope, we made our way to the southern parks of Utah and were once again blown away by the mysticism of canyons and parks and a desire to see more land features (a feeling completely foreign to me). Oddly enough, even though we have been traveling in December (as a goal to completely ditch winter and snow) there have been some benefits to this time of year. Minimal people have crossed our paths giving us the ability to get those photos of endless vistas sans random heads and backpacks in the background and lines for attractions have been sparse. Interestingly enough, even though Bryce Canyon is a winter canyon (as its elevation is higher and does get its share of snowfall) the rest of the area’s attractions are closed for the season leaving less for others to see and do. Although there was snow on the ground, Bryce welcomed us with open arms, gorgeous vistas, friendly rangers, other Aussie travelers and trails at elevations I never thought my little lungs could handle.
Canyons…the great equalizer! No matter age, stage, means or political ideology, all canyon and park visitors become the same. One set of footprints adjacent to the other all come from visitors wandering and hiking along to share in the magical experience of Mother Nature’s creation. Perhaps some are in search of a personal goal while another is overcoming an obstacle and still another is just out for an enjoyable walk-none of the nonsense of life matters. When you’re here, you’re an onlooker and nature is supreme. When you’re here passersby share map directions, sightings, the best angle to take that daunting photo, warnings about a steep incline or the onset of a muddy trail. When you’re here people are living life outside and doing their best to take in the depth of the day and their surroundings. The state sign welcoming you to Utah claims: ‘Welcome to Utah: Life Elevated’, and I’m just beginning to understand why. This may be my first visit to Utah, but if I’m lucky enough, it most certainly won’t be my last.
Bryce Canyon is known for the hoodoos. These colourful rocks look like cake toppers, sand art, designs made out of play-doh or modeling clay and each is more amazing than the next. The shades of sandstone change from varying angles and in December our view was covered with snow changing the landscape once again. With the highest elevation of all of Utah’s parks, Bryce’s pinnacle is over 9,000 feet above sea level and windier than places below. Not knowing how these inhaler needing lungs would play out, we gave it a shot and amidst the snowy footpaths, crisp air, sunny skies and endless height we hiked, laughed and smiled snapping photo after photo of the time we spent with our heads actually in the clouds. I think a thank you letter to my lungs and allergist are in order for between the two of them I got to experience the amazing gift of Bryce Canyon’s Rainbow Point Trail.
Stop after stop, trail after trail Bryce doesn’t disappoint. Paths covered in snow and mud led to angles that walking the rim didn’t present. The natural bridge is natural but not at all a bridge yet walking away from this spectacle of stone was almost impossible. There are no adjectives to use or words to describe the sight of sandstone so close if my arms could stretch just that much farther I could touch it. Two days was just enough to touch the surface of this canyon to remind us that trails, paths, nature, blue skies, clean air and time to hike are things that we not only embrace but will continue to make time to do. Lesson learned! If you’re not in a hurry to leave, a drive through Dixie National Forest shares tree-lined views of green (and for us snowy branches as well). Again, this allergic to trees, grass and all things pollen girl was thankful for this time of year (which is also something I rarely say) so I could drive with the windows open and see the pretty sights in front of me without a sneeze, wheeze or puff of medicine. Normally, unless they’re in a tropical paradise without any pollen I don’t often say I like trees, but this sight managed a turnaround.
Throughout the next few days we saw more canyons and parks than we knew what to do with and one was more different than the next. Zion National Park in southern Utah is expansive and envelops guests in reds, yellows and tans with each trail providing its own gifts, magic and difficulties. It was here where we saw our fist masses of people this entire journey as our first day at Zion coincided with the start of many schools Christmas holiday break. Yet again, it has been noticeable that nothing matters here except trail etiquette and a love of nature. Language is no barrier since all visitors understand the universal signs for ‘can you please take a photo for me’ and ‘thank you for letting me pass on the trail’. Strangers become acquaintances discussing things like travel, what was special about that last trail, how do you feel about those hiking shoes you’re wearing and what other parks would you recommend. Rangers answer question after question and as we all know, all good tours continue to end in a gift shop.
Continuing to traverse the US we spent time in California’s Death Valley and Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon. Although there was a camera mishap that left our point and shoot in a fully distended position and in definite need of technical medical attention, each again provided its own beauty. Death Valley took a long time to actually make it into the park and was again flooded with hundreds of visitors. One particularly amazing spot sparked our memory of time in Africa as we stood on monstrous sized salt flats that took us far below sea level. Being the water girl that I am, this whole marker of sea level means something to me. Oddly enough in only days of each other we’ve gone from over 9,000 feet above sea level to now hundreds of feet below. Life continues to amaze me. Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon is also special. Steps away from the lights and glitz of the Las Vegas strip, this state park looms large in more ways than one. Massive red rocks that remind Arizona fans of Sedona’s fame jut out from every angle. Hike one and another comes into view. Think you’ve reached the top and you realize there are more rocks and sand in your future. We hiked, climbed, laughed, rubbed our achy muscles and continued to be wowed by landmasses we never knew we enjoyed so very much.
Park passes punched, hundreds of photos clicked, miles of trails hiked and as heaps of fresh air has filled our lungs and Vitamin D flooded our skin this is a journey we won’t soon forget. Our travels prior to this one have taken us to some amazing places. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have stepped foot in the world’s top three largest canyons (Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Namibia’s Fish River Canyon and South Africa’s Blyde River Canyon) around the world. More often than not we’ve visited canyons and parks outside of the US than we have inside and this trip is doing a great job to help us rectify that. My dad and brother have made a point of spending time in the national parks of the US for about one week each summer and now I have an even greater understanding of why. For me, I’ve found an even playing field, serenity never before able to be provided by land, inner peace and a continued appreciation of the world’s beautiful spaces. From what I can see, that annual park pass will certainly be dog-eared by December 2015 and if I’m lucky, I’ll get to put my hiking footprint in more places around the country. Happy hiking.