Draw a cactus

If I asked you to draw a cactus you would draw a saguaro. Saguaro National Park is split into two separate areas: east and west. We didn’t have time for both so we picked west because that’s what you pick when you don’t have much time.

Saguaro National Park west entrance

To be honest we took quite a detour to spend half-a-day in Saguaro in the first place. It would have been much easier to take the old Route 66 from Kingman through Flagstaff to Petrified Forest National Park. But as this was one of the remaining National Parks of the southwest on our list, and there was the airplane boneyard on the way there, we couldn’t skip it.

Saguaro National Park panorama

So it is mostly about cacti. Lot’s of saguaros, which we hadn’t seen elsewhere, but also chollas and other types as well. The saguaro core looks very interesting. You can see a dried one in the bottom right corner of the following picture.

Saguaro cactus
Cholla cactus

We met a man with his elderly mother on the trail and they asked us if this was our first visit to the national park. They also asked where we were from. When they found out that we were from Finland the mother said that when she was young her best friend was Finnish. What a coincidence. We also found sign which had been modified by an amateur geologist.

Sign edited by amateur geologist

Saguaro was the third national park on this trip and quite simple to be honest. In the evening we took a 320 km drive to Pinetop-Lakeside. On the way there we stopped at the gate of Biosphere 2. The gate was closed already so we didn’t see the building itself. We were already a bit late so we had to hurry. At that time we didn’t know that we were about to enter a part of Arizona which would deserve more time for exploration.

Biosphere 2

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

In the footsteps of pioneers and outlaws

Utah State Route 12 is one of the state’s scenic byways. Near Boulder we were at the highest and coldest point of our journey (2926 m above sealevel and 6 degrees centigrade). The views were magnificent and diverse. First we drove through the winding road across rocky desert and soon we passed the birch wood forests similar to the ones in Finland.

Scenic Byway 12, Utah

We were also following the footsteps of some famous outlaws. Minna had booked a room at the Torrey Schoolhouse. Its Saturday night dances used to have famous visitors. Butch Cassidy is said to have attended the parties. Robbers Roost, the legendary hideout of Butch Cassidy’s and Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch gang, is also nearby.

On arrival in the evening we had dinner at Cafe Diablo in Torrey. They served Rattlesnake cakes for startes and because we had never tasted a snake before it was an obvious choice for us. We booked a table beforehand but on the same day just to make sure we would get something to eat. It was just 1.4 km from Torrey Schoolhouse to the restaurant so we decided to walk. I know that walking is a bit frowned upon in the USA. Without street lights or sidewalks it can be also a bit dangerous. But mainly it feels really weird when no one else is walking. Some kids actually shouted something at as from a moving vehicle.

Rattlesnake cakes for dinner

The Torrey Schoolhouse had very nice rooms and breakfast was included in the price. As it was run by the owner and her son the breakfast was organised at a set time in the morning for all guests. We had breakfast with a French diplomat couple and a British couple. The French diplomat was very interested in tanks and had even visited the Parola Armour Museum in Hämeenlinna, Finland. It turned out that all guests in our table were either going to the same direction as we were or coming from that direction already. All of us were visiting the same National Parks. We all shared some tips and moved on.

Panorama Point, Capitol Reef National Park Utah

It was a short drive from Torrey to Capitol Reef National Park. We got our first view to the park from Panorama Point and Gooseneck Overlook. Then we drove further towards Capitol Gorge. We didn’t need a four-wheel-drive but a high-clearance vehicle was really necessary here. On the way to Capitol Gorge we saw an uranium mine. Radioactive materials were used for health purposes. Once they found out it’s not good for you the mines were closed.

The main attraction of Capitol Gorge is Pioneer Register. It is a rock wall with engravings of the late 19th century Mormon pioneers. The names and dates were still very clearly visible on the wall.

Next we drove back to Fruita village. The village was an oasis in the middle of the desert. Unfortunately it was not the fruit season. The fruit trees in the village are available for the tourists and they can pick free fruit from them. There are also some Indian petroglyphs in the village. We parked the car and took a hike to the Hickman Bridge before we left. The next leg of the journey would be 238 km from Capitol Reef National Park to Moab, Utah. It is possible to visit two national parks from Moab: Arches and Canyonlands.

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.

The bridge of Zion

There used to be an old bridge in my hometown of Suonenjoki, Finland called The bridge of Zion. It was a place where the churchgoers used to sing hymns. The bridge was dismantled long time ago and a new one was built. They still call it by the same name but it’s not the same bridge.

The Zion Canyon though has had many names depending on who inhabited it. Eventually the government decided that all the native American and Spanish names were too difficult to pronounce so they named the National Park, then National Monument, Zion.

I did not even know about this place before one of my colleagues visited it a year ago. I saw the pictures on the Facebook and as we had started planning this trip it was a natural stop right after Las Vegas. Of course Death Valley would have been even closer but we thought that this would not be our last trip to this area so Death Valley could wait. We left our daughter at the Las Vegas airport and the two of us started the serious business of visiting the rest of the 10 national parks we had in our plan.

Lonely Planet recommended a small B&B called Under the Eaves in Springdale and we had booked it well in advance as it was a very popular one and it was a very small town after all. The price included a breakfast in a nearby cafe. The room was very small and the floor was squeaky. However the host was very nice and the breakfast was huge. We left our luggage at arrival and went immediately to the park. We had booked one night in Springdale so we had basically 24 hours to visit the park. There is a free shuttle bus service from the town to the park so there is no need to take your car.

Under the Eaves in Springdale

Minna had again planned everything in advance. the plan was to drive through the canyon, see the Narrows and either climb the Angel’s Landing trail or Observation Point Trail.

The first afternoon we took the shuttle bus to the end of the park through the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The last stop was the Temple of Sinawawa. From there we took the Riverside Walk to the Narrows. The Narrows is a narrow part of the Virgin River in the canyon and you have to walk on the river bed as there is no trail by the river. The canyon is very deep there and there is not much sunlight in the afternoon which means it is also very refreshing to walk in the cool water.

We had also read about the Emerald Pools and the frogs living there. There was still some time before dark so we returned to the Grotto shuttle stop and climbed the easy Emerald Pool Trail to the Upper Emerald Pool. It was like an auditorium in the canyon and you could hear the croaking of frogs echoing from the walls. I don’t think we even saw any frogs but the sound they made was amazing. You can here the sound if you will watch the video in the end of this post.

We walked down from the Upper Emerald Pool to the Zion Lodge shuttle bus stop and took a bus to the village. I was dark already and we had not made any dinner reservations as we didn’t know when we would be back in Springdale. Many of the restaurants close at 9:00 pm but luckily Casa de Amigos was open until 10:00 pm. We still had a big decision to be made.

We had been watching videos from Youtube about the Angel’s Landing trail. We knew that people had fallen down from the trail and died. Even earlier this year a 13-year-old girl died when climbing the Angel’s Landing trail. Luckily another colleague of mine had visited Zion just a couple of weeks earlier and she recommended Observation Point. You could actually see the Angel’s Landing below Observation Point, there were less hikers and it was a safer but longer hike.

The recommendation is to leave as early as possible in the morning because in the afternoon Observation Point Trail has little shade from the sun. We had not managed to go grocery shopping in the evening as we barely managed to get dinner. So we bought some apples, water and sandwiches for the hike. We also had huge breakfast in the nearby cafe. This means that we didn’t really leave early. On the way up it wasn’t a problem but in the afternoon it got really hot when we came down the trail.

On the way to Observation Point

We took the shuttle bus to the Weeping Rock stop and started climbing. I was really difficult to estimate how long it would take because we didn’t even recognize our destination from the bottom of the valley. We just climbed without understanding to which of the peaks we were heading. At first the trail was zigzagging along the mountainside and we could see the bus stop below. We felt like we didn’t progress a lot. Then the trail went behind the mountain and it didn’t really make it feel any shorter. Of course I managed to follow the trail on my phone so I had an idea how many meters we had walked. The problem was that sometimes the phone lost GPS connection so it didn’t record accurately. The return trip was 12 kilometers and elevation gain 640 meters.

View from Observation Point, Angel’s Landing in the center foreground

The view was really worth the climb. Observation Point has the best view to the valley and even the Angel’s Landing was way below it. We had some rest and then we started the descent. The return trip always feels shorter. However, this time the sun was against us. There was no shade and it became very hot in the afternoon. Lots of water and a hat is mandatory.

Our Observation Point hike

Zion National Park is an amazing place and the whole park is very well organized. We left Zion through the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway as we headed towards the Bryce Canyon National Park. We also had a very interesting experience when passing the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel. There was only one lane open in the tunnel so they stopped all cars and let them go through in batches. Because we were the last car from our batch to get in, we got a kind of relay run baton from the ranger which we had to hand over when we got to the other end of the tunnel. This was an indication that we were the last ones to come through so another batch of cars could start coming through from the other end of the tunnel.

Distance from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park: 193 km.

The last in line
Scenic byway from Zion to Bryce Canyon

Here is a 6-minute video about the Narrows, Emerald Pools and Observation Point lookout.

How to get yourself a porn star name in Vegas?

Our choice of entertainment was done months before the trip. The obvious choices were one of the 6 Cirque du Soleil shows. However, Minna and I had seen ”O” in Vegas already and the other one ”Ka” on TV. None of us are interested in Michael Jackson or The Beatles so we decided pick one of the magic shows instead. At the time of our planning there were plenty of seats available everywhere so which show would most likely include audience participation?

So Penn & Teller at Rio it was. Row 4, aisle seats booked months before the trip to increase our chances for 15 minutes of fame. They even used to be my dads favorites so they’ve been around. Rio is a bit off the Strip so we took a taxi.

The show began with some jazz music played by a pianist and a contrabass player who looked familiar. Next the audience was invited on stage to look at a chicken and sign a cardboard box. This far the row 4 seats had paid off already as it was just a couple of meters to the stage so we were able to look at the chicken and sign the box with Kia. Very exciting, at least for people who had not seen a chicken up-close before. We had because my father-in-law used to have a chicken farm. However, we had not signed a cardboard box on a Las-Vegas-stage before.

Kia on Penn & Teller stage signing a cardboard box

Magicians always need help from the audience. Several people were needed for a trick where Penn & Teller would create a perfect password which could not be cracked. I was sitting in the section right across the center of the stage on my row 4 aisle seat when Mr Teller approached me and started talking. Can you imagine? I was really amazed and thought that this was the best trick ever. Like the tricks preachers do when they make people with crotches walk again. And the first words I’d ever hear him say were: ”Mr, would you join us on stage to help with the next trick?” To be honest, this is exactly what I’d been hoping for since I bought the row 4 aisle seat a couple of months back.

I went on stage with 4-5 other people. As English is not my native language, I was a bit nervous if I would freeze and couldn’t say a word in front of the 1000 people in the audience. This would be my biggest gig ever and it would take place in Las Vegas.

In short the trick was about collecting random pieces of information from all audience members who were on stage. People were asked about their credit card PINs etc. When it was my turn I was supposed to provide my porn star name from which one letter would be used for the perfect, uncrackable, password. It would have been impossible for me to invent a witty porn star name in front of the audience so luckily I was given some hints. My porn star name would consist of the name of my first pet and the street address of my childhood home. The first pet was easy as we used to have a golden retriever called Dusty. Technically it wasn’t our first but the name was perfect for a porn star. The street address of my childhood home was trickier as naturally it was a Finnish street address. This would be perfect spot for freezing and not managing to say a word. My mind worked quickly under pressure. In 1994 I lived in Cambridge MA and my street address was Newport Rd. Much easier for a magician to understand so my porn star name would be Dusty Newport.

I have to agree with Mr Penn Jillette that it is a perfect porn star name. So one letter from my porn star name was used in the password which was eventually found from a jar they broke in the end of the trick. In the end of the show I was invited on stage for the second time to witness an elephant disappearing in front of us. It was actually a cow dressed up as elephant, at least I think so. Penn & Teller meet the audience every time the show is over so we also got selfies and autographs after the show. Very funny and entertaining show.

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