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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 15: grand canyon/buckskin gulch/monument valley

hoover dam/arizona hot spings

bill: we drove out of vegas towards grand canyon and across the hoover dam which was kind of cool, but really it is just a big dam. please don't tell america that it is actually green energy or they won't like it so much. some friends who used to live in vegas gave us the tip to check out the arizona hot springs nearby (thanks lance and ally!), so we headed in that direction.

Amy: About 45 minutes outside of town, an unsuspecting trail curves away from the highway, over a range of hills, and through a winding slot canyon toward a hidden hot spring oasis. After an hour of hiking, we arrived at the backside of the spring. Steaming hot water poured out of a tiny hole in the rock wall, cascading into a series of pools. Local folks have piled sandbags at various points along the canyon to contain the hot water in little hot tubs of varying depth and temperature. We explored all the pools, settling on one that felt just right. We spent about two hours soaking in the steamy water. Feeling refreshed, we hiked out to the Colorado River, where we discovered an idyllic camp spot. We must come back to camp here!

bill: the hike into the hot springs was much like all of the hikes in this post: down first, up last. this is definitely the worst way to hike, saving the hard part for the end, which in the desert gets a lot of people into trouble. if you are hiking up first, you can always turn around if you get too tired or run out of water, but in canyons “what goes down must come up” and so people get over their heads fairly easily, especially since the temperatures at the top of the canyon are so much lower than at the base.

grand canyon

bill: driving up to the grand canyon, you may as well be driving through north grenville. it is decidedly unremarkable, with no clues as to what could be unfolding even metres away. no foothills or whatever the inverse may be. just flat ground, trees, and some melting snow. i had no idea how high the rims of the grand canyon are; the south rim is at about 2200-2300m (at which height you could easily be on top of a mountain in banff), which lowers the temperature so much (lows below freezing in april) that you may as well be in ontario in the spring.

my main complaint is that the grand canyon is too big. you can’t even try to get a grasp of the scale or size of what you are looking at. it is about 1600m down from the rim to the river, and about 28km across, and 450km long. there is infinite texture and layer at every angle. it is very different from other big landscapes that all pop out of the horizon and give you a reference to their size and distance, because it unfolds below the horizon and the distances are so great, it tends to collapse into a single visual plane, which makes it even more difficult to understand. it is probably one of the coolest landscapes out there, but honestly, there is something in my brain that just doesn’t get it. it doesn’t scratch the same awe part of my brain that other things have, probably because my brain just doesn’t understand it.

i also think there is something about looking up at things; when you tilt your head to look up at something, your jaw naturally drops, which physiologically probably triggers a part of that feeling of awe, whereas looking down at things just isn’t the same. anyone who climbs mountains can tell you that the view from the summit often isn’t the best view of the day. there is also something about the sheer swarms of people everywhere, standing next to a bunch of people trying to figure out how to work their cellphones and their selfie sticks (and yelling, why is everyone always yelling?) is very different from one of those serene nature communing moments. nonetheless, the grand canyon is thoroughly amazing, but too amazing for my little brain to understand so i give it a 7/10.

Amy: We dove about 3 hours to reach the Grand Canyon, through the thick evergreen Kaibab National Forest. It's been a while since we've seen a landscape this familiar! We parked and took the shuttle bus to the south rim, to hike the Kaibab Trail. As we hopped off the bus and got our first glimpse of the canyon, we couldn't believe our eyes. The flat, forested landscape dropped abruptly into an abyss. The canyon is so vast and expansive, it looks flat - like a projection or a green screen. We descended into the chasm! The trail switchbacked down the steep cliffside, following the contours of the rim. The further we traipsed into the canyon, the bigger it felt. We admired the view at Ooh Ahh Point, then continued down to an outcropping of rock - Cedar Ridge - where we ate our lunch. By this point, we were about halfway down and still couldn't see the bottom of the canyon - just a series of flat plateaus that dropped off into more, deeper canyons. I would like to hike rim-to-rim one day when we can get the permit. Adding it to the bucket list! The hike back up was challenging but easier than expected (overall, 6km and 400m). We stuck around the rim to watch the sunset at Yaki Point. As the sun sank, the canyon was illuminated in a thousand shades of burnt orange, rusty red and dusty purple. We froze our butts off, but it was worth it!

bill: there is a rim to rim hike that we wanted to do but getting permits is very tricky and needs to be done months in advance or by waiting around for days hoping to win a lottery, so we had to skip it for now and did the kaibab trail. the exposure on basically every part of the trail is wild for a tourist destination; the canyon is absurdly sheer; they had to blast the trail out of the cliffs and even then you are basically always 3 feet away from a ledge over a 300m+ drop. surprisingly, only 3 or 4 people die per year falling off the rim of the canyon, which seems very low given the 5 million visitors annually and the drive-up accessibility of some of the most breathtaking exposure i have seen so far. we watched the sunset from yaki point which was surreal but very very cold! we did jumping jacks to keep from freezing.

Amy: The next day, we woke up to book another campsite and...what's that in the distance? Our friends' unmistakable blue van! Em and Dan! The vanlife world is small. We met up to hike the Bright Angel trail - the other main path that leads to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We hiked about halfway down to 3-mile-rest (10km roundtrip, 700m down), then shared a tub of ice cream as a reward (PSA: Pretzel Path flavour is AMAZING!). Back at camp, we caught up over a fire and roasted some hotdogs. The perfect end to another great day!

bill: the next day we did laundry for the first time since the southern point of mexico (!) and drove to page, arizona, with a plan to meet em and dan later in indian creek for some climbing. on the way out of the grand canyon, our blinkers stopped working. they do however work if we manually push and pull them, so that will have to do for now. for those keeping score, we currently have no blinkers, no gas gauge, a leaking black water tank, and a tail light made out of a tostada bag. guess i have some work to do.

Amy: The drive out of the park was spectacular. The highway curved right along the rim, and we stopped at nearly every viewpoint to see the changing landscape. Soon enough, we left the Grand Canyon in our rearview and drove into the setting sun.

buckskin gulch

Amy: Page is right on the border of Arizona and Utah. It's famous for its tours of Antelope Canyon, a stunning slot canyon carved into the layered orange sandstone via flash floods and erosion. Unfortunately, neither of us wanted to spend $100 for a tour, so we opted to check out a similar slot canyon off the beaten path: Buckskin Gulch. This was our good friend Carl's "top Utah recommendation". He's trekked all across Utah (and much of the western U.S. wilderness), so we took his word. It did not disappoint! The road was ROUGH, and the hike was long, but entering the canyon was like going through the wardrobe into Narnia. We squeezed past the narrow, curved walls into another world. The canyon was so tall, only a sliver of blue sky was visible 50 feet above us. Rays of sunlight reflected off every curve and crevice, highlighting each layer of the Jurassic-era sandstone. Parts of the canyon were so narrow, only one person could pass at a time. The undulating walls almost felt alive - like we were walking through the intestines of a giant desert worm (Dune, anyone?). We spent about three hours exploring the branches of the gulch - there seemed to be something new around every corner. We could have spent an eternity wandering through the canyon, but we headed out to catch the sunset over Horseshoe Bend.

bill: the road into buckskin gulch was absolutely fucked, but we made it. sandy, rutted, massive potholes, hills, washes. not 4x4 necessary but close. the bike on the back extends our length by about 2 feet and only has about 4 inches of clearance, so it typically scrapes when going over big drops or particularly bad speedbumps, but this was another level, we had to cross about 5 washes where a downhill abruptly meets an uphill and the bike would basically be stuck on the downhill while the van is already going uphill. we emerged unscathed but were not stoked about the drive out.

new and old graffiti

bill: turns out the road was more than worth it. buckskin gulch is insanely cool. a super narrow canyon that is super deep, the walls made of rippling sandstone in a million different formations. it is photography on easy mode. the inside of the canyon is so deep that it is actually cold and damp like a cave. it is claustrophobic, but at least you can still see the sky. there was a little bit of scrambling involved to get over some boulder jams and puddles, but overall extremely pleasant mostly flat hiking, all said we hiked about 18km in the canyon. that awe feeling i felt was missing at the grand canyon was very much present here. here again, there are camping permits where you can hike the whole 40km (!) of the canyon and camp inside the canyon (!) but it is a lottery that you need to enter months in advance, so we are happy to just day hike it. overall: unreal, 10/10.

monument valley

bill: we are now entering utah proper, our first stop: monument valley. the first sights you get are from the famous highway 163 of forrest gump fame, with towering mesas and buttes exploding out of the valley floor. they are incredible. we drove into the navajo land to get access to the park and closer to the monuments. there is a scenic drive that we opted to do that drives through the valley floor right next to each of the monuments. it turns out that what utah finds acceptable for a “scenic tourist drive” is also a supremely fucked road. so far we have been on so many roads in the van that i would never take my truck down. a series of rutted, steep, rocky, potholed switchbacks leads to the valley floor, again not 4x4 mandatory, but close. the van has been performing admirable so far, but jeez does it ever give me sweaty palms.

Amy: After catching up on errands, we headed into the wild world of Utah! This desert is different than Texas, Arizona, southern California, Nevada or Baja - the rock is vibrant orange and has been eroded in so many funky shapes. As we drove into Monument Valley, giant orange mesas welcomed us in like friendly waving monsters. East and west mitten buttes were my favourite - shaped like left and right mittens! (see above picture). This part of Utah is Navajo territory - Monument Valley is run by the Navajo Nation, so you can only access certain parts of Tribal Park via the scenic drive and a hiking trail, which we did at sunset. There was a magical moment when we crossed paths with a free-roaming silver mare, grazing in the desert scrub. We finished our hike just as the sun set behind big storm clouds, then made our way to Mexican Hat to camp for the night.

bill: so far, our time in utah has been 2/2 for amazing otherworldly scenery and 2/2 for absolutely fucked roads. tune in next week to see if our 35 year old suspension survives, same bat time, same bat place.

here's this week's video:




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