The grandest of the canyons

We arrived at Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower at sunset and I took my most memorable shot.

Grand Canyon sunset

Minna had booked accommodation in El Tovar Hotel well in advance. Even if a bit pricey, staying within the park had several benefits: the hotel was right on the edge of the canyon, you could take the early buses around the park without queuing at the entrance and the overall the ”Twin Peaksey” atmosphere of the lodge. Another thing that needs to be booked well in advance is the dinner at El Tovar.

In the morning we took a bus to Hermit’s rest and hiked about 8 km back to Mohave Point from where we took a bus back to the village. The bus rides are included in the park pass. The path followed the edge of the canyon and included The Abyss: 900 m drop from the edge to the bottom of the canyon.

Hike from Hermit’s Rest to Mohave Point
From Hermit’s Rest to Mohave Point

Here’s a three-minute-video of the hike (plus some footage from Mather Point).

From Hermit’s Rest to Mohave Point

One of the exciting perks of staying on the edge of the canyon was the possibility of viewing the canyon after dark. I tried to take some pictures of the stars but my lense was too wide so no milky way shots. However, you could see to the North Rim and the lights of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the other side. I could also see the campfires of the hikers of Bright Angel Trail in the bottom of the canyon.

Grand Canyon at night from South Rim

Next leg of the journey took us to Route 66. We saw some authentic towns and lots of Route 66 memorabilia on the way to Barstow. The next two days would be spend driving 1000 km to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California.

Movie scenes, slot canyons and a dead cow

We were about to start one of the most amazing rides in the world: From Cortez, CO, to Page, AZ. While still at home I went through some of the preplanned legs of the journey zooming in to the Google maps marking some of the interesting spots. For example, this is how I found the Forrest Gump Point on the map. A memorable scene in which Forrest’s ”runnin’ days was over”. Here’s a funny recreation of the scene.

Most of the area here was Native American country. The first interesting stop after we left Cortez, CO, was Four Corners National Monument. This is the only place in USA where you can have all you limbs in 4 states simultaneously. And people really want to do this, even Minna did. There is a fee to enter the site. Basically it is just a parking lot with Native American crafts for sale.

Four Corners National Monument
Four Corners timelapse video

We had booked accommodation in Page, AZ but we didn’t take the shortest route. To see the Forrest Gump Point from the right angle you would have to drive there from north. We drove to Bluff through Red Mesa and then took the US Route 163 towards Monument Valley.

Before arriving at Forrest Gump Point we took right and entered a gravel road. I don’t remember why we took the turn but we probably saw the name of the road somewhere: Valley of the Gods Road. We drove a couple of hundred meters and saw a dead cow by the road. It was very hot so I expected it might not be very pleasant to walk to a shooting distance but this we too good of an opportunity to be missed. I took some fresh air in the car and stepped out. I was a bit afraid if there would be some animal eating the corpse but I had to take a picture of the cow. The smell was bad but not unbearable. When I came back into the car Minna claimed that my clothes started to smell like a dead cow already even though I had been out for just a couple of minutes.

Valley of the Gods

Later I found out that Valley of the Gods would have been worth a visit as it had also served as a filming location. We didn’t drive any further because we had to get to Monument Valley.

We had concerns that we would miss the exact spot where Forrest stopped running as Monument Valley could be seen from many parts of the route. When we got to the right spot, we saw that it cannot be missed. The roadside was full of cars and people were taking pictures in the middle of the road. And so did we. It is one of the quintessential views of America.

Forrest Gump Point towards Monument Valley
Monument Valley ahead

And then to the place where the westerns were made. It is truly an amazing place. The best view to the valley is from the hotel parking lot but if you’d like to see a little bit more, take drive 17-mile-long Monument Valley Loop Drive with your SUV. High clearance vehicle is strongly recommended. John Ford Point is located on Loop Drive.

John Ford Point, Monument Valley, Utah
Monument Valley timelapse from the hotel parking lot
Filming timelapses is serious business and boring

We stayed in Best Western View of Lake Powell, without the view of Lake Powell. Before we checked in, we drove south from Page and managed to get to Horseshoe Bend at sunset. The cliffs were full of people taking selfies on the edge. Apparently not everyone always survives. There were no rails to prevent people from falling down but they had started to build some to save the rescue persons efforts.

Horseshoe Bend, Page, AZ

There was one more sight in the area: the slot canyons. The most famous one is the Antelope Canyon but Minna had read that it is also very crowded. Canyon X tours had very good reviews so we booked it. The tour was shorter than some of the other tours but there was plenty of time to see the whole canyon. The slot canyons are on Native American grounds and they are all run by the family who owns that particular part of the land. Canyon X had very nice service and we heard some interesting stories from the lady who drove us down to the canyon. We certainly recommend Canyon X tours.

Canyon X slot canyon tour

After seeing the slot canyon we started the next leg of the journey. Our next destination was Grand Canyon village 223 km away from Page, AZ.

Comic book heroes of my childhood

I read a lot of comic books as a child. My favorite ones were published in Zoom magazine which had comics from Belgium and France. Zoom featured the usual Tintin and Asterix but also Blueberry which was called Navaho in ”Finnish” back then. Blueberry had the most beautiful western scenery and there was one title which especially caught the attention of the 7-year-old boy: The Ghost with the Golden Bullets. It had a picture of a Native American dwelling which was on a cliff. Somehow this image was etched in my memory. And Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado would have these dwellings. It may be that the artist Jean Giraud used Canyon de Chelly National Monument as a source of inspiration but Mesa Verde was close enough for me.

Right after we left Moab we had another americana moment. We saw a huge rock which had a text Hole ’n the Rock on it. A couple of Danish origin had lived here and the husband had excavated 50 000 cubic feet of sandstone from the rock over a period of 12 years. I wonder if this featured in Sam and Max Hit the Road computer game.

Danish version of Finnish ”sisu”: Hole ’n the rock.

Our next accommodation was booked in Holiday Inn Mesa Verde Cortez, Colorado. The distance from Moab to Cortez is 183 kilometers so it was merely a 2.5 hours drive. We had burgers in J. Fargo’s, I should’ve stuck with the burger. The nacho plate starter was just too much. A junior league baseball team had placed their orders just before we arrived.

The next morning we drove to Mesa Verde National Park. The first stop was Park Point Fire Lookout. There are two sections of the park: Wetherill Mesa and Chapin Mesa. We didn’t visit Wetherill Mesa at all. Long House in Wetherill Mesa required tour tickets and all tours had been sold out already.

Park Point Overlook, Mesa Verde National Park

We were not the first Finns in Mesa Verde. Gustaf Nordenskiöld had explored Mesa Verde in the 19th century. There is even an excavation site named after the Finnish-Swedish scientist. Times were different back then and there were no laws about what can be done with the artifacts. Apparently some of his findings are still in the National Museum of Finland.

Cliff Palace is possibly the most famous site of the park. You can see it from two places without a tour ticket. You can get very close to it by driving along Cliff Palace Loop. If you drive along Mesa Top Loop you can see it directly from the front. It’s really amazing how the native people here managed to live on the cliffs considering that the water and possibly also the food was available in the bottom of the canyon. They must have spent big portion of their time climbing up and down the walls of the canyon.

Navajo Canyon View
Cliff Palace from Cliff Palace Loop
Cliff Palace from Sun Temple

On the way out of the park, very close to Morefield Campground, we saw some cars parked by the roadside. People had stepped out of their cars and were pointing to the other side of the road. We parked the car also and we were told that there were two bears 150-200 meters away from us. And yes, this became one of the highlights of this trip. We saw a cub and its mother. I started taking pictures but they were too far to really get a good picture. ”Why don’t you change the lense?” was Minna’s reaction. The situation was so exciting that I had completely forgotten the telezoom lense I had in the car and I managed to take a couple of pictures of both bears. We had never seen a bear in the wild before. I wonder if the bears came from the campground.

Highlight of Mesa Verde National Park

Reader’s Digest brought me here

When I was a kid my dad bought a lot of Reader’s Digest books. One of the most memorable was the Natural Wonders of the World. It had amazing photos and I must have read it a dozen times. One of the pictures I remember well was a picture about rock formations shaped like a tower. It was Bryce Canyon, Utah. Just a few hours of a very scenic drive from Zion and we were on a gate to another national park within a day. We had read that the sunset would be spectacular so we entered the park before checking in to our motel.

Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon

We stayed in Bryce View Lodge which was a basic motel close to the park entrance and also close to the few restaurants in town. It was late already so we picked up take-away pizzas from the Canyon Diner. The funny thing about the town was that all commercial establishments were Ruby’s something. There was a Ruby’s Restaurant, Ruby’s Horseback riding, Ruby’s Inn and General Store. Even the Canyon Diner was Ruby’s. It would have been interesting to see her.

In the morning we went back to the park. We drove all the way to Rainbow Point and walked the Bristlecone Loop which was an easy hike but exotic pinewood forest for us Finns. The trees were completely different from the Finnish pinewoods. On the way back we stopped at Natural Bridge and basically everywhere where there was a photo opportunity not to be missed.

The main attractions here were around Bryce Amphitheater which was close to the Visitors Center. Again, Minna had carefully pre-planned the visit so we headed towards Sunset Point. We had planned to take the Navajo Loop Trail. We had read that it was recommended to walk the loop clock-wise. We started the descent and noticed that there were a lot of people walking towards us and we thought what a bunch of suckers, taking the hard way. There was an interesting zig-zag towards the bottom of the canyon. When we got to the bottom, the ranger advised that the Wall street had been closed due to falling rocks and we had to turn back. The zig-zag was much harder upwards. Everyone who went down, had to come back the same way. Who’s the sucker now?

View from Bristlecone Loop Trail

Next leg: Distance from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park: 214 km.

Pawn Stars, buffet and pinball

I am not much of a fan of Pawn Stars but the possibility of seeing The Old Man or even the sons lured us into the store. It was smaller that I thought and to be honest wasn’t much of an attraction. Took a picture by the cardboard cutout and left. Ticked a box. 

Another important decision to be made was the selection of a buffet dinner. Previously we had tried Bacchanal at Caesars Palace and it was excellent. My colleague recommended the Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan so we chose to visit it this time. It was also very good but somehow I found the sea food section of the Bacchanal with it snow crab legs unbeatable.

Fountains of Bellagio

Visiting Pinball Hall of Fame is our must-see in Vegas. This time with the whole family. A couple of rounds of Addams Family, Twilight Zone and Monster Bash and we’re done with Vegas this time.

Kia playing Twilight Zone, the best pinball ever

P.S. The Premium Outlets Mall charged for parking. It applied only to visitors. I can’t imagine any other mall in US charging for it.

Welcome to Las Vegas sign

Vegas, baby, Vegas

Physically it is just 400 km away from Joshua Tree but worlds apart mentally. The home of Penn and Teller, Pawn Stars and Hangover. The Sin City has quickly become my favorite Americana destination replacing the legendary I-Drive in Orlando. Minna and I had been here once before but it was Kia’s first visit. She had to wait until she was 21 years old. Now the whole family was ready for gambling, free GTs and huge souvenir cups of Margarita.

We arrived on Saturday and stayed for 4 nights. This would be Kia’s last stop before going back home. Naturally the kiddo wanted to stay on the Strip and in a casino hotel. However, the Saturday stays on the Strip were surprisingly expensive compared to last time. But who wouldn’t want to experience Fremont Street on Saturday with their 21-year-old daughter? First of all it’s cheaper than the Strip and within a walking distance from the The Neon Museum: one of the most original attactions of Las Vegas. Minna and I had been there a couple of years ago already but that was during daytime. Now we wanted to see the neons at night as well as their newest exhibition: Brilliant. Brilliant is really worth seeing. The old neon signs came to life through light projections and music. Book early and see both the guided tour and Brilliant.

Brilliant, Liberace, Fitzgerald

We stayed the first night in Main Street Station. Good reviews for a Fremont Street hotel and slightly off the action and noise. The following day we moved to the Strip and stayed the next 3 days in Planet Hollywood right across the Fountains of Bellagio. Cheaper rates from Sunday onwards and Mid-Strip location was excellent because you could go left or right when you left the hotel for a walk. The last time we stayed in MGM Grand which was in the south end of the Strip so you had only one direction to go whenever you wanted to go out.

Fremont Street East

Joshua Tree is NOT where the cover of The Joshua Tree was shot

The album cover was shot 200 miles away from Joshua Tree National Park. We were not in the search of the tree like the unfortunate Dutch guy who died while attempting to find it.

However, we were in the search of the desert and Americana. Minna booked us our first AirBnB-accommodation and it had to be special over here so a regular motel room was out of the question. Hip Joshua Tree Airstream was an excellent choice and nicely located as we planned to visit our first national park the next morning.

 

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Kia, Minna and our camper

If you plan to visit several national parks within a year, the cheapest and most convenient option is to buy the America the Beautiful annual pass. With $80 pass you will have free access to all national parks for a year. Usually the entrance costs approximately from $30 to $35 dollars per park. I bought mine in the visitors center in the town of Joshua Tree and we entered the park through the West Entrance Station.

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America The Beautiful annual pass

Joshua Tree National Park is characterized by the Joshua trees which give the scenery a very distinct look. But the park is not only about the trees. Different sections of the park have very different characteristics. The following places can be visited within a one day.

Hidden valley is a labyrinth of rocks and one can imagine how easy it is to get lost here. This is where we also saw a rattlesnake at close range.

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Hidden Valley

 

The Cholla Cactus Garden is full of Chollas which are also called the jumping chollas. They don’t actually attack you but when you happen to have one stuck in your toe, it is very painful to get it off. The spines have microscopic barbs which makes them very sticky.

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Cholla Garden

Keys View has a panoramic view over the Coachella valley and Palm Springs. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the biggest palliative care unit of the west.

 

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Keys View towards east

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Kia, Airstream and the dark sky at Joshua Tree

We exited the park through the south entrance and took the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway towards east.

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Joshua Tree South Entrance

Looking for salvation

Salvation Panorama

The main attraction of this trip is all things Americana. We are about to see Route 66, Las Vegas, abandoned gas stations and lost highways. So it is only natural to go and look for Salvation Mountain. It is right on our path from San Diego to Joshua Tree. Salvation Mountain is an amazing display of faith and perseverance. Donations of paint are welcome.

Salvation Mountain collage

I had seen a documentary of the Slab City which is conveniently located next to the latex-painted mountain of hay bales. Slab City, The last free place, is a community for free-minded people who want to spend their winter off-grid in an RV in the Sonoran Desert. And yes: Poor Nat.