Archive for September, 2004

South Rim to Bright Angel Campground


Almost 15 years ago, my Uncle Dave took me to see the Grand Canyon. I was so excited. He was so excited for me. He popped Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite into the tape deck and the anticipation just built. Soon I would see America’s most famous attraction in person. I had been warned, “it’s nothing like the pictures” and “it’s really big” among other things. All from people who still had that look of amazement in their eye even in remembrance.

South Rim View Getting to the Canyon was more trouble than we had expected. There were roadblocks, helicopters, car searches and a lot of start and stop traffic. The Suite was never allowed to build; the volume kept getting turned up and down. We would soon learn that an escaped prisoner from the Arizona penitentiary had made his way into the Canyon. The fugitive had become an Arizona cause celebre, noted for, above all things, his politeness. Somehow, he had intimate knowledge of the Canyon and was living off the land somewhere below. When the police realized he was not hiding out in our trunk, they let us through.

Amid all the hubbub, it was hard to focus on the wonder to come. My Uncle parked the car and giddily proclaimed that it is just over the Rim, right there. We hurried out and I stood, mesmerized. I could not react, it was too awesome, just too big. Then a thought overwhelmed me, I wanted to hike into it.

The notion obsessed me. I could not accept the view from the top. My Uncle was even a little disappointed. “Isn’t it amazing?” I may have not look amazed, but I was. “Yes it is, but I want to hike down.” “See what you can do, we have a few hours,” he responded.

As crazy as this sounded, escaped felon on the loose and all, I started walking. Even though I was in great shape, high school football season was about to start, the Canyon’s steep switchbacks intimidated me completely. It was over 90 degrees and I was going to have to come back up. The path seemed to go on forever, straight downhill. After twenty minutes of going down, I had had enough. The vista angles had not changed; I was going nowhere. This is some Canyon.

After slogging my way back up, my Uncle had a wry grin on his face, “That’s a big Canyon, no? Indeed. We moved onto the Visitor Center where I bought a Hiking in the Grand Canyon book. It did not make much sense at the time. We were leaving soon and who knew if I’d ever be back. But I wanted to read it. I wanted to know how I could get to the Colorado River. I had to hike the Canyon. It became a dream of mine. Someday I would have the chance.

Today was that unbelievable day.

We both did not get much sleep. We emerged from our tent before sunrise and started to pack in the dark. Yesterday, a last minute shopping spree at the Grand Canyon Supermarket ensured our food needs, we thought. But the Park pamphlets do their best to impart holy terror into the hikers mind. They read, “Be careful, people die on the trail,” and show pictures of 20-30 year-old males being carried out of the Canyon, strapped to gurneys. The hike could not be that bad, could it? The elevation change of 5,000 feet does not sound that treacherous.

First StepsWe hopped on the hiker’s shuttle scared. Much more scared than the day before. The thought of the Grand Canyon echoes around in your mind and spreads fear. Are we crazy? Nobody else on the bus has a huge backpack. Have we overpacked? Am I going to regret my three pound sleeping bag? Did we really need all those Clif Bars? Remind me again why I’m doing this? Because it has been a dream of yours, your whole life. Because hiking the Grand Canyon is the reason you are on this two-year trip. Right. Thank you, voice of reason.

We exited the shuttle and walked with proud, confident strides to the trailhead and the Canyon rim. Oh man, it’s the Grand Canyon. What are we doing? Are we crazy? Hold on. Breathe deeply. Today’s the easiest day. Straight downhill for a few hours. We will be done before noon. Let’s get cracking. Grand Canyon here we come.

P.S. They did end up finding the fugitive somewhere near Phoenix, at I think his cousin’s house. He had spent some time in the Canyon but slipped right under the police’s nose and the numerous roadblocks. Arizona felt a collective loss when he was finally caught.

Read On! Grand Canyon Day 4; Grand Canyon Day 5; Grand Canyon Day 6

Missed Day 1?;
Missed Day 2?


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northern Arizona
Visited: September 30, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 105 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Want More?

Click Here to Begin Our Six-Day Grand Canyon Adventure

South Rim View WHAT IS IT?
Uh, it is the Grand Canyon. 277 miles long and ten miles wide of Colorado River carved amazement. The South Rim is the most visited area of the Park, the most accessible and by far the most tourist-friendly. Oh, yeah, the views from the South are pretty spectacular.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Absolutely overwhelming. Your mind cannot comprehend what it is looking at. The Canyon is so big and so deep that it feels like an abstract. “I cannot be looking at what I think I am looking at.” And even after you have stared for hours from different overlooks and myriad angles it still does not make sense. The Grand Canyon cannot be captured on camera, it must be seen and experienced.

We did not get the historical feel up top that we get down below. The Colorado River seems distant, like you are not even in the place where John Wesley Powell rafted through.

On the other hand, from here it is easy to empathize with Coronado, the first European to see the Grand Canyon. Legend has it that while looking for the seven cities of gold he got to the Canyon and turned around dejectedly, believing it to be impassable.

The most visited archaeological site in the National Park System, the Tusayan Ruin, stands along the South Rim, about 20 miles east of Grand Canyon Village. A walking loop wraps around the stone ruins while panels explain what once stood on top of the remaining base.

CROWDS (4/10)
It is crowded here. Regardless of the season, you are going to run into swarms of tourists. Fair enough, it’s the Grand Canyon. The shuttle buses do their best to alleviate the traffic problem that is created by the street’s confusing layout.

The people at the South Rim are not nearly as friendly as their counterparts along the Canyon switchbacks and even those at the North Rim. Our hellos were often met with rude looks. Tourists cut in front of us and some nearly ran us over even though we had just hiked out of the Canyon and still toted 40-pound backpacks. Maybe they forgot that they were no longer in Las Vegas.

People do crazy things at the South Rim. For a photo opportunity, a family of Japanese tourists posed their seven and ten year old girls next to a squirrel and had them pet the nasty little rodent. Who knows what happened. We put our heads down, kept walking and tried to forget what we just saw. The precipitous ledges and their 3000-foot sheer drops also do not deter people from hanging over the edges, risking life and limb. No wonder the newly reintroduced California condor has chosen to make its nest just below the South Rim. Those wily scavengers are not stupid.

Desert View Overlook EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The South Rim Visitor Center is a straight 60-mile shot from Interstate 40 up Arizona Route 64. The Park is only 80 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona. If you can’t find lodging at the Grand Canyon, there are plenty of options along Old Route 66 in delightful downtown Flagstaff.

The Park Service operates three shuttle bus routes along the South Rim. The Red Line that travels from Grand Canyon Village to Hermits Rest is the only mandatory shuttle. Automobiles are allowed in all other portions of the North Rim. Parking should not be much of a problem.

The Rim Trail is paved for five miles from Pipe Creek Vista to Maricopa Point. Much of the remainder of the Rim Trail is a easy flat hike along a dirt pathway. You could spend all day walking along the South Rim. Trouble is that you are sure to have an urge to go down into the Canyon. Then things get tricky so see our Grand Canyon (Canyon Floor) review.

If you want anything Grand Canyon-related, books (T-shirts, hats, jigsaw puzzles, you name it) and don’t find it at the South Rim, you haven’t looked hard enough. There are fifteen bookstores/gift shops along the Rim, many of which are found in Grand Canyon Village. It is not only knickknacks. The Hopi House, Verkamp’s Curio, the Desert View Trading Post and maybe a few others specialize in southwest Indian art: woodcarvings, pottery, kachina dolls and jewelry.

The South Rim may as well be a small bustling town. The services are plenty and in general centrally located. There are 10 places to eat including the expensive El Tovar Dining Room. We preferred the menu selection, prices and views of the Grand Canyon North Rim lodge to any of its counterparts in the South.

Most welcome at the South Rim is the General Store, an affordable priced, well-stocked supermarket. If you have forgotten anything for you hike or want to have a picnic alongside the Canyon Rim everything you need is here. And they have a great selection of powdered Gatorade mix so you don’t have to drink the Grand Canyon’s piped in potable water straight.
Other services at the South Rim include a kennel, a National Parks library, a bank, a dentist, an auto repair shop, a judge (for marriages we presume) and a post office.

COSTS (2/5)
Entry is $20 per vehicle, or free with the National Parks Pass.

There are an astounding number of lodging options along the South Rim. 363 campsites ($10-$15), an 80-site RV village ($25) and six Hotels ($49-$286). Of course, plan ahead, especially in the summer. Only the 50-site Desert View Campground operates on a first-come, first served basis. We had no trouble getting a campsite at the 313-site, more centrally located Mather Campground.

Grand Canyon NP keeps the South Rim stocked with Rangers. There are many Ranger-led talks and plenty of people to answer your questions. We asked a Ranger, “where should we leave our car while we hike to the bottom?” She told us Parking Lot E, then take the Hiker’s Express shuttle to South Kaibab Point.Not only is the ride there much quicker, but when you emerge from the Canyon, your car is only a few hundred yards away.

After telling us what a nice route we had planned, she and another Ranger started talking about different routes down and their experiences in the Canyon. They both spoke so passionately about where they work. We excused ourselves from the conversation and they kept sharing interior Canyon stories. We left even more excited about the hike to come.

In the off-peak month of October, there are 18 Ranger talks a day, an incredible number. We are sure that the number swells come summer. The degree of walking difficulty ranges from a strenuous Ranger-led 3-mile hike down the South Kaibab Trail to a leisurely nature walk along the paved Rim Trail. Topics include Grand Canyon geology, the invasion of non-native plants, the early photography of the Canyon, a Ranger’s choice lecture, Shakespeare and the Park (we don’t know either) and the successful reintroduction of the California condor.

We attended the terrific condor talk. After it was over, we walked along the Rim with the Ranger, as did half of the tour group, and spotted birds. The Ranger had an extensive knowledge of the Park’s birds. When we asked what raptors we might see on our hike, she rolled off a list of fifteen explaining their migratory patterns and habitat. Much to our delight, we did spot a California condor high above us while we hiked in the Bright Angel Canyon.

The Ranger also told us that throughout fall, members of HawkWatch International spend all day at both Lipan and Yaki Points. They count migrating raptors and are more than eager to help the amateur birder.

Future PathThe South Rim has two (maybe three) museums. The Tusayan Museum showcases southwest Indian artifacts in an incredibly cramped and dark room. Spend a few minutes, but don’t expect to learn much. The Canyon View Information Plaza is more of an outdoor, exhibit-aided trip planner. In that sense, it serves its purpose well. The Kolb Studio we guess is a museum. Inside are paintings done of the Canyon as well as a traveling exhibit: photographs of the Navajo Nation.

If you want to learn anything about the Canyon, you need to take a Ranger tour; the museums are not going to help. We much prefer the human interaction to a static museum. We like the educational route that the South Rim has taken.

FUN (9/10)
Don’t expect quiet solitude at the South Rim. Excited people are everywhere. It is still possible to lose yourself in the power of the Canyon views.

Uh, it is the Grand Canyon and the South Rim boasts the classic panoramas. A must-see American destination.

TOTAL 62/80

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North and South Rims


We woke shortly after dawn, shook the ice from the tent and wondered what to do until the Backcountry Office opened. We drove to the Lodge in search of coffee and perhaps a warm place to occupy. Unbeknownst to me, Michael had other plans.

When we arrived at the Lodge, he went straight towards the restaurant menu and suggested that with so much time to waste, breakfast might not be a bad idea. I could see the biscuits and gravy and fresh fruit on the buffet. I could smell the French toast with walnut butter being served. Weak willed when it comes to good food, I will never be the one to say no to a meal.

An hour later, we were waiting, along with four other hopeful hikers in the cold outside of the office/trailer for a Ranger to arrive. She opened the door, surveyed the small crowd and told us to pile in and get warm. She had “a few” openings for tomorrow. How many is a few? You could see the panic flash in everyone’s eyes. We were all thinking the same thing. With my stomach turning, I suddenly wished I hadn’t taken a second helping at the buffet.

The first two people in line were actually hiking together. Good news. The second hiker only wanted to go in and out in three days starting at the North Rim. More good news. Our turn! We wanted to start from the South Rim, stay at Bright Angel, then Cottonwood, back to Bright Angel, then Indian Gardens, then up and out. The computer said No.

We nearly cried. We offered to switch around the nights, spend two days at one spot – still no. Finally, the Ranger realized there was a three-night limit along the “corridor” the popular Rim-to-Rim trail that we planned to take. The computer was balking at our length of stay, not our choice of camps. We gladly said ok to a shortened trip, paid our $40 and walked away with a prized permit. We got it!!

We packed up camp and drove the circuitous route to the South Rim to begin preparations for the next day’s hike. The mood in the ‘Tima was celebratory, which is a good thing because that drive is lo-ong. Only ten miles apart as the crow flies, the North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon are separated by 215 miles of road.

Desert View OverlookBefore we knew it we had arrived at the South Rim entrance of the Grand Canyon. You hear it all the time, but the view really is completely different than its colder, less crowded Northern companion. As we were admiring the colors from the Desert View viewpoint, I heard Michael meekly say, “Mr. and Mrs. Hill? It’s me, Michael…” After he was smothered with a shriek, hugs and handshakes, Michael explained to me that the Hills had been neighbors of his family. They marveled at his beard and his wife and how time flies. We marveled at how small the world really is – this isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last time we run into faces from home. It is great.

That celebratory feeling that had lingered all afternoon was now turning a little anxious, at least for me. What started as a “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” had now turned into a “there-is-no-excuse-not-to” kind of hike. How far is it to the bottom? How hot does it get? We can do this, right? I can do this, right?

Michael tried to calm my nerves by reminding me that we had hiked a canyon once before – the Colca Canyon in the South of Peru. If you ask a Peruvian, they will tell you that Colca Canyon, not the Grand Canyon, is the deepest in the world. We’re not quite sure how that measures up. I do know that, yes, it was a canyon and, yes, I did hike it. But that was years ago. Am I up to it now? Am I up to it tomorrow? Our final dinner of cheese and salami and red wine bought cheap in Boise brought back more South American memories and made me a little less anxious about the morning.

Read On! Grand Canyon Day 3; Grand Canyon Day 4; Grand Canyon Day 5; Grand Canyon Day 6

Missed Day 1?

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northern Arizona
Visited: September 29, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 105 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Want More?

Click Here to Begin Our Six-Day Grand Canyon Adventure

Loungin’ at the North RimWHAT IS IT?
The more rugged, less crowded, higher altitude Grand Canyon option. Getting a glimpse of the Canyon and all its awe-inspiring splendor is more difficult from the North but you won’t have to deal with tens of thousands of people.

BEAUTY (10/10)
The drive down Arizona route 67 to the North Rim passes through the Kaibab Forest, green meadows, the fall foliage of aspen and maples and the stateliness of ponderosa pine. You are at an altitude of over 8,000 feet and you don’t feel as if you’re nearing the Grand Canyon, especially when there are mule deer lining the roadsides. In fact, snow closes the entrance road for much of November through May.

When you pull up to the Visitor Center, the Canyon is out of view and you are still in a semi-dense forest. After you walk through the rustic Grand Canyon Lodge, there it is. The Canyon feels far away and the Colorado River is impossible to see. Despite the colors, the vista from Bright Angel Point is far from intimate. Hikes around the lodge highlight areas adjoining the Canyon, like the Transept and Roaring Springs Canyon. But it’s not the Grand Canyon.

We preferred the awesome power and grandeur of the South Rim panoramas. But we did not take the long drive out to the Cape Royal and Walhalla Overlooks. Those points are much closer to the Colorado. That being said, it’s still the Grand Canyon and it’s still unbelievable.

Aside from the pictures of Teddy Roosevelt astride a donkey in his eponymous pub, our visit did not feel historic.

The Last SiteCROWDS (8/10)
Unlike the easily accessible South Rim, the North Rim is so remote that visitation almost requires a night spent in the Park. Reservations are essential. The nearest one-motel town, Jacob Lake, is 45 miles to the north on Arizona Route 67, the only road to the North Rim. The Park Service offers limited lodging opportunity at both the Lodge and the campground and its visitor’s services are minimal. So, despite the small visitation numbers, the North Rim can feel crowded.

That being said, seclusion is a real option in the North, whether you’re hiking through the woods or looking over the Transept. The Grand Canyon views seem more personal and unique. An air of accomplishment and fraternity flows between the visitors. People are friendly here; everyone says hello and feels free to open conversations with strangers. We had a great time. The Lodge and the Campground were full but we had no trouble securing a wood-carved seat outside the Lodge where we watched the sunset.

It is not easy to get to the North Rim. From the northwest, it is almost 150 miles from St. George, Utah and Interstate 15. The South Rim is more than 220 miles away. Kudos to those trusty friends who pick up their friends hiking rim to rim. Flagstaff, Arizona is also about 220 miles from the North Rim.

Even if you are traveling the southwest “Grand Circle” of National Parks, the North Rim is not an easy detour.

We loved the clever T-shirt designs at the North Rim gift store, especially the Teddy Roosevelt-related ones. The knickknacks are all North Rim specific, even though the gift shop shares the same operator as the South Rim. All the books are here to.

Of special note is the Grand Canyon Lodge Dining Room. The food is terrific, prices surprisingly affordable, service heartwarming and the Grand Canyon view breathtaking. Have at least one meal here.

The Park General Store’s well-stocked aisles were dwindling rapidly as it was about to close for the season.

North Rim OverlookCOSTS (2/5)
Entry is $20 per vehicle, or free with the National Parks Pass.

There are only two lodging options in the North Rim area of the Park, the Grand Canyon Lodge ($91-$116) and the 72-site North Rim Campground ($15). If you know you are coming to the North Rim, make reservations for both places well in advance.

We arrived at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, late September. We got the last North Rim campsite and were able to sleep outside during a mild ice storm. During summer, the DeMotte Campground operates 18 miles to the north in the Kaibab National Forest. It wasn’t open during our visit. Had we not luckily procured the last campsite, we would have had to hike into the National Forest, packs and tent on our back, to spend the night near the North Rim. Don’t be like us; plan ahead at the North Rim.

The North Rim offers Ranger services only from early May to mid-October unlike the always-open South Rim. Inclement weather shuts down the high altitude North Rim, which can receive up to 150 inches of snow in the winter. During our late September visit, we had to wait in line to talk to the one Ranger on duty at the sole Visitor Center. Our question, “How can we get into the Canyon?” Her response was to go to the Backcountry Office.

The Backcountry Office was staffed with two helpful and vivacious Rangers. They suggested many routes in just a few minutes. They were so eager and spoke so fast that we had trouble taking it all in. They told us to get here at 8am (maybe even a bit sooner) to apply for a hiking permit. “Do you think we’ll get one?” we pleaded. With a knowing wink of an eye, one Ranger quietly nodded and said, “I don’t think you’ll have a problem.”

We arrived at the end of the season when only four talks were available. All Ranger-led activities end by October 13. We were unable to attend any of the talks because of our quest for a backcountry permit. We did take two self-guided nature hikes. Both were nice but strangely devoid of Grand Canyon views.

During the summer, there are 10 talks per day. There is no museum at the North Rim.

North Rim ViewFUN (9/10)
The North Rim is relaxing, the air is crisp and the forest smells intoxicating. Go to the Grand Canyon Lodge bask in the warm Sun Room take in the Canyon views through its gigantic windows. Go outside. Sit on the super comfortable pine tree chairs. Unwind, grab a drink and watch the sunset. Or watch the sunrise from inside the grand dining room. The breakfast buffet is spectacular. We loved the North Rim. It is not manic and there are not busloads of Las Vegas day-trippers.

The North Rim experience is miles apart from the South Rim’s. The advantages of the North Rim: less people, forested scenery, nicer Lodge and dining area, isolation, non-traditional Grand Canyon experience. North Rim negatives: hard to get to, very remote, lodging dearth, less dramatic views, fewer walking trails, short season, colder weather, much steeper hike to the bottom. Our preference is a toss up, although the South Rim might provide a better introduction to the awesome vistas. Whichever you choose, at the end of the day you are still looking at the Grand Canyon.

TOTAL 55/80

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North Rim


The Last Campsite“…Well, let’s just see if we can get a permit/cheap room/ticket/campsite and then we’ll make a decision from there…”

This sentence starts at least two conversations daily.

Somewhere in Michael’s computer is a very large, detailed Excel spreadsheet which plots our two-year trip to the day. Mileage, cities where we might spend the night, distance to parks and sites, names of friends and family who might be nearby – all of this information is painstakingly noted on this sheet which we look at from time to time and shake our heads. Planning ahead was a useful exercise, but is impossible in practice.

Since we rarely know where we are going to be or how long we will be there, and since Michael for some reason is staunchly opposed to reservations, our trip is shaped and sculpted by first-come, first serve opportunities. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t.

Hiking the Grand Canyon does not seem like it would lend itself to a spur of the moment decision. We have heard stories of lotteries for limited campsites and reservations made months in advance for trips into the Canyon. As we approached the North Rim of this very big hole, we resigned ourselves to a few nights looking in from the outside but secretly held onto the hope that Ranger we met at the Badlands would be right – we just might have a shot at obtaining a hiking permit in October.

We were still an hour away from the North Rim when we saw a very bad sign, actually two: DeMotte Campground – Closed for the Season. North Rim Campground – Full. With heavy hearts, we trudged into the National Forest Visitor Center in Jacob Lake, AZ to ask for advice. A quick phone call from a kind clerk resulted in this response:

“If you two get out of here right now and haul *ss, there might be a spot left at the campground. Now git!”

We paused only to shake his hand, ran to the ‘Tima and began our mad dash to the North Rim. An hour and several passed cars later, we were the proud occupants of the last available site. We pitched the tent, did a celebratory dance, and went in search of the Backcountry Office. Heck, if luck is on our side, why not push it?

The “Office” was a little wooden trailer the size of a closet. Two Rangers were inside: one young and easygoing, one older and a bit manic. Both told us the same thing, if we were willing to wait a day or two, there might be space at the bottom. They took our names and told us to be at the office the next morning when it opened at 8 am. “Maybe a little earlier,” whispered the younger Ranger.

Back at camp, we took a short hike, explored the historic Grand Canyon Lodge, made dinner, built a fire which wouldn’t stay lit, read books, did crosswords, anything to make the night go faster. A monstrous thunderstorm which echoed through the Canyon and pelted us with ice (More ice??) did not help.

It will never be 8 am.

Read On! Grand Canyon Day 2; Grand Canyon Day 3; Grand Canyon Day 4; Grand Canyon Day 5; Grand Canyon Day 6

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near Kaibab, Ariz.
Visited: September 28, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 103 of 353
NPS Website

Pipe Spring OasisWHAT IS IT?
A natural water source in the desolate Arizona Strip, the portion of the Colorado Plateau between the Grand Canyon and the Vermillion Cliffs.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The grounds of Pipe Spring NM are a peaceful oasis that allow for remarkable views of surrounding pinkish orange mesas, cliffs and buttes. The red sandstone buildings, the Winsor Castle and the East and West Cabins, blend in nicely with their natural surroundings. The most unexpectedly charming part of the Site was the holding ponds, stocked with ducks. In the northern Arizona wasteland, no less!

Water attracts life even in a place as remote and as dry as Pipe Spring. The spring has been known for over 10,000 years and the lands around it were settled for at least 2000 years. The history explained on Site is mostly local, Mormon and Paiute, their relations and the many ways they used the water to thrive. The history taught ranges from the mundane: food sources, crop cultivation, telegraph lines and gathering techniques to the salacious: second and third wives hiding from polygamy marshals, Ute and Navajo slaving raids and Mormon-led massacres.

The Monument was created in 1923, partially because of the local history but mostly because the Park Service wanted a “cool oasis and potential lunch spot” for tourists traveling from Zion NP to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We are thankful because both the museum and the Ranger tours do such a terrific job in instruction that what seemed at first to be a site of dubious historical importance came alive. Pipe Spring was a rich historical respite from the area’s scenic wonders and an illuminating answer to how people lived on the Colorado Plateau.

Find the Warning WireCROWDS (8/10)
There were not a lot of people at Pipe Spring NM, but everyone there was just as excited as we were to have stumbled onto on of the National Park System’s true gems. All 12 of the people on our guided tour of Winsor Castle asked probing smart questions. We just sat back and listened; the other peoples’ questions led the discussion into fascinating territory ranging from transcendental cosmic travel methods to the nutritious value of piñon nuts.

Pipe Spring NM no longer lies on the road between Zion NP and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, completed in 1930, ended that as traffic now goes straight down U.S. Route 89 through Fredonia and down to the North Rim. Tourism has never completely recovered from the early 1920’s boom.

That is a shame, especially since Pipe Spring is only a 30-mile round trip detour from Fredonia. Pipe Spring NM is also about 40 miles east of Interstate 15 and St. George, Utah.

The bookstore at Pipe Spring, although half the size and flash of it’s neighbor at Zion NP, rivaled it in the quality and selection and of items offered. Books lined the shelves along with sand paintings, jewelry and other crafts that varied in size, quality and price. If you want a small inexpensive gift, you can find it here. If you want a quality handcrafted item to remind you of your trip out West, they are here too.

What they don’t have, unfortunately, are batteries for your camera. Our rechargeable batteries ran out of juice before we finished touring the grounds. In a gesture above and beyond her call of duty, the bookstore clerk pointed to a hidden outlet behind a shelf and let us plug in and charge up while we browsed the store.

You know a bookstore is good if we actually pull out our wallets (a rare occurrence!) Michael picked up a Wallace Stenger book on John Wesley Powell; Gab purchased a necklace made of tiny beads and seeds.

COSTS (4/5)
Entry is $4 per person, those 16 and under are admitted free. There is no charge if you have the National Parks Pass. If you come at midday, there might even be free vegetable stew.

The handful of people that traveled to Pipe Spring were met by one effervescent Ranger, a wisdom spitting guru of a Ranger and an exceedingly knowledgeable free-speaking volunteer. We could not ask for more. All three engaged us in conversation for at least twenty minutes apiece. Great people, great teachers.

Arid HorseTOURS/CLASSES (10/10)
Pipe Spring NM had three learning stations, all superior in their own way: a local history museum, a guided tour of Winsor Castle and a Ranger posted at a chuck wagon.

Our tour of Winsor Castle started a few minutes late since the guide was still answering questions and speaking with participants from the previous tour. We soon understood why they were so reluctant to leave his company. Our guide was not a Ranger. He was one of those rare volunteers that is incredibly well-read on the topic he is presenting, knows when to insert humor and his own reflections into a tour and when to allow visitors to make their own connections with the setting and situation and come to their own conclusions. He was friendly and thoughtful and he made Pipe Spring come to life for us. Thank you, John.

As we were exiting the Castle, we all noticed something that wasn’t there when we entered – the scent of a fire and something cooking by the chuck wagon. We, along with the other folks in our tour, all tried to act casual as we sauntered over to the man dressed in period clothes cutting potatoes and prepping a Dutch oven.

“So…what are you cooking?” (as in, when will it be ready and can we have some?) “Potatoes,” he said, stating the obvious and looking at us like we were idiots.

He then went on to talk about a number of things. This is where the transcendental cosmic travel methods and the nutritious value of piñon nuts conversation occurred. We’re not quite sure how that conversation started, but we stayed to listen to the whole thing. We’d tried to explain it if we could.

The small museum was actually one of our final stops at Pipe Spring. It was quiet and unassuming, filled with pictures and explanations of the Paiutes and their culture alongside the later inhabitants of Pipe Spring, the Mormon settlers.

Pipe Spring was a tithing farm for the Mormons, the place where they kept all of the cattle and livestock donated to the church. There are pictures and artifacts of the families who managed the farm and lived in Winsor Castle. Gab’s favorite part of the museum was a corner full of handmade photo albums and oral histories of Mormon families who lived in the Arizona strip in the 19th and early 20th century, detailing their daily lives with diary accounts, stories retold from grandparents, pictures and drawings. Some albums were in memory of people who had passed away. Other photocopied collections were still maintained by local families. It is rare that museums get this personal. This was a nice touch.

CamouflageFUN (8/10)
As we were walking back out to the gardens and spring, we ran into our guide from the morning’s tour. “Did you kids get lost? The highway’s in the other direction!” He was amazed that we were still there. So were we! We then stood and chatted at length with the older gentleman about several of the other parks we have or plan to visit. Turns out he is also a volunteer at the Golden Spike NHS. So then we started talking about railroads.

This is how our day at Pipe Spring progressed. Conversations kept springing into more interesting and diverse topics. How often does that happen? We felt as if we had opened a treasure box with each person we spoke with – visitors, rangers, volunteers. Everyone. Where are we? Perhaps we were just longing for some social history and learning after spending so much time contemplating nature. Pipe Spring hit the spot.

We came to the Site without any knowledge of the Arizona Strip. We dreaded our visit and did not expect to spend more than a half hour at Pipe Spring. Three hours later we left, fascinated by what we had learned, appreciative of the wonderful educational tactics and thankful to have encountered intelligent, idea-challenging Rangers.

If you go to Zion NP, also come to Pipe Spring NM. The historical undercurrents of Zion, Bryce Canyon and the entire area’s 19th-century settlement are addressed here without judgment as to who was in the right. The southwest National Parks do not talk about their human past. They tell you 1) appreciate the beautiful scenery (not a bad thing) 2) Indians lived here 10,000 years ago and 3) figure the rest out on your own. Pipe Spring NM fills in the blanks.

TOTAL 62/80

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near Page, Ariz.
Visited: September 28, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 104 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Unbelievable Country

The Site consists mostly of the massive Lake Powell, the second largest man-made lake in the United States. The federal government created Lake Powell by damming the Colorado River with the Glen Canyon Dam. Lake Powell is 186 miles long. The Dam is marked as Mile 0. You can access the Lake at one point in Arizona at Mile 1 (one mile north of the dam). You can access the Lake at three points in Utah, at Miles 92, 96 and 139. Because of the limited access, we have broken up our reviews into an Arizona portion and a Utah portion.

The Arizona section includes only a small section of Lake Powell as the state border stands at Mile 13. This review includes the Glen Canyon Dam and undammed parts of the Colorado River to the south, including Marble Canyon, the Navajo Bridge and the historical river crossing at Lee’s Ferry.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The brochure quotes Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell on the Glen Canyon, “(the Canyon is) a curious ensemble of wonderful features.” He is not wrong. The Vermilion Cliffs, the dramatic buttes and the painted mesas still astound. Of course, we will never see the Glen Canyon as Powell did. His namesake artificial Lake has changed the land forever. The beauty has not disappeared; it has just changed.

Many National Park Service sites highlight infamous incidents in American history. Glen Canyon NRA is no exception. Except that in Glen Canyon’s case, the NPS does not address the history, ignoring that there was any controversy at all.

The Glen Canyon Dam was the last dam built in the United States; construction started in 1956. The lake it created covered thousands of acres of irreplaceable canyon scenery, flooded prehistoric cave dwellings, washed away petroglyphs and made sacred Indian land inaccessible. The Dam has spawned numerous lawsuits, protests and anger. Its building is often cited as the birth of the modern-day environmental movement.

Neither the Glen Canyon Museum nor the guided tour mentions any problems regarding the Dam. No discussion of the growing movement to drain the Dam. To be fair, Michael’s questions about the Dam’s other history were answered frankly and with great depth by the Tour Guide. If you are not familiar with the area’s history, you are led to believe that you’re visiting just another Bureau of Reclamation project.

The Park also glances over the Mountain Meadows Massacre perpetrated by the Lees Ferry boat operator, John D. Lee. We would have loved to learn more about this forgotten episode in western history.

A Mighty SpanCROWDS (4/10)
The once-an-hour free tour of Glen Canyon Dam is a popular tourist attraction and tour groups are limited to 20. We arrived on a Tuesday but the last three tours of the day had already been filled. We booked a spot on the first Wednesday excursion. In that sense, the crowds had a negative effect on our visit.

Our tour group consisted of mostly retirees. Their esoteric questions regarding the Dam’s construction led us to believe that many had been engineers or construction foremen. No one asked about the environmental impact and all failed to hear our guide’s repeated statements that the dam no longer produces much energy at all. They kept asking who gets the energy and what would Las Vegas do if the dam shut down and our guide kept responding that coal plants provide all the area power; the Dam’s main use is just water storage for local farmers.

Busloads of tourists meander around the Dam Visitor Center parking lot and along the Glen Canyon Bridge, the second highest steel arch bridge in the world. Only the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia is higher. We were there just a few months ago! Heights. Scary. Be careful and drive slowly. The tourists walk as if they are in an area without vehicular traffic.

Humans have inhabited this area for nearly 12,000 years. The Colorado River has forever been a highly effective barrier to travel. There are three River/Lake crossings in the Park. Utah Route 95 crosses at the Mile 140 mark in the northeast. The next crossing is in Moab, some 70 miles upstream as the raven flies or 150 miles by road.

The next time the Lake is crossed is at the Glen Canyon Dam, 140 miles southwest on the River but 230 miles by car. The Lees Ferry crossing is only about 5 miles downstream but is a 45 mile vehicular detour. The Colorado then forms the Grand Canyon and weaves nearly 300 miles until the next crossing, the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. The car distance from Page to Las Vegas, 351 miles. Amazingly, these are the same River crossings that have existed for thousands of years.

It is not easy to get to Page, Arizona, but it does sit at the pivot point on a U.S. Route right angle between Interstates 40 and 15. I-40 and Flagstaff, Arizona is 135 miles to the south and I-15 and St. George, Utah is 135 due west.

The Glen Canyon NRA can easily fit on your itinerary if you are traveling the Grand Circle of southwestern National Parks. You have to cross the Colorado and odds are it is going to be through the Park. In addition, you must pass through Lees Ferry if you are driving from the Grand Canyon North Rim to the South Rim. Lees Ferry is also the launch point for all white water excursions down the Grand Canyon.

Prior to entry, Michael claimed that if the bookstore had Paul Auster’s Moon Palace this rating would automatically be a 5. Glen Canyon Dam plays a big role in the Brooklyn author’s book, believe it or not. But alas, it wasn’t there.

The selection was average. Lots of Grand Canyon/Colorado Plateau stuff but very little about the environmental impact of the dam or the history behind its construction.

 Rushing Colorado COSTS (3/5)
Entrance costs $10 per vehicle. We are unsure where these fees would be collected. We encountered no fee requests at Glen Canyon Dam, Lees Ferry or Navajo Bridge. We think that the $10 entrance fee applies only to boaters wishing to use the Lake. The $10 entrance fee is waived if you have a National Parks Pass.

The 40-minute guided tour of Glen Canyon Dam is free. Just be sure to sign up early or make reservations ahead of time by phone. Tours fill up quickly.

There is a $10 boat launch fee if water recreation is your thing (and you own a motor boat). Once your out, lakeshore camping is free. There are two official campgrounds in the South, at Lees Ferry ($10 per site) and Lone Rock ($6 per site).

The Glen Canyon Dam offers free hourly tours and limits the tour size to 20. Hired Dam employees give the tours rather than Rangers. We have no quibbles here; the guides do a terrific job and give the visitors a great deal of attention. Then again, so did the Security Guard assigned to our Tour Group.

We encountered one surly Ranger at the Dam. Or maybe we were the ornery ones once we realized the logistical nightmare of reaching Rainbow Bridge NM located at Mile 49 of Lake Powell. Here are our choices: 1) $110 per person boat cruise or 2) 36-mile round trip hike through the desert. The trailhead lies at the end of a 30-mile unpaved road. 4×4 or high clearance vehicle necessary. Who knows how we will ever get to that place.

There were no Rangers at the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center or the Lees Ferry Ranger Station. We fruitlessly returned (on two different days) to the unmanned and locked Ranger station at Lees Ferry hoping to get an elusive National Parks Passport Stamp. We are such nerds.

Glen Canyon DamTOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
The Dam is the only developed portion of the Glen Canyon NRA. There is a small indoor exhibit next to the Navajo Bridge as well as bulletin boards, placards and a mimeographed walking tour pamphlet near the riverbank of Lees Ferry. The only organized tour options take place and involve the Dam.

Glen Canyon Dam is a high security area. Metal detectors frame the doorways to its Visitor Center. Visitors are allowed to carry only their camera and wallet; no purses or bags of any kind. Once through the security checkpoint, you have access to the bookstore, amphitheatre, multimedia exhibit and information desk where you can sign up for a free tour.

The excellent tour focuses on the logistics of the Dam – how it works, how it was built and its many functions. It was perfectly catered to the audience and their interests in addition to being surprisingly in-depth. Michael probed the guide for more answers and opinions around the notorious construction of the Dam, local viewpoints of the situation and future plans. Our young tour guide ably responded to each of his inquiries, usually offering more than one point of view. He was refreshingly honest and was able to knowledgeably stray from a set script.

One can take a self-guided walking tour of the historic dirt street of Lees Ferry. The absence of Rangers and the lengthy dirt road we needed to take to get to it were effective deterrents. We spent our time at Lees Ferry staring enviously at the few boats and rafts packing up and getting ready to set off down the Colorado River.

FUN (6/10)
Michael delighted in getting such an up close and personal view of one of the world’s most famous dams. We wish we had more time to spend with our tour guide but his schedule and the day’s full set of tours did not allow it. Just getting from one place to the next was more enjoyable than usual – vermilion cliffs, dry Arizona landscapes that change colors with the sun and glimpses of the winding Colorado River gave us new things to look at and made us uncontrollably excited for our next destination, the Grand Canyon.

While it includes boat launches into both Lake Powell to the north and the Colorado River to the south, the Arizona portion of Glen Canyon NRA fun rating does not take boating into account – only the dam, the historic sites and the beautiful Arizona scenery.

Towards the Grand CanyonWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (6/10)
Glen Canyon NRA is hardly user-friendly. Access to the Colorado River is extremely limited and security at the Dam is tight. Staffing at Lees Ferry and Navajo Bridge is beyond minimal. The free tour of the Glen Canyon Dam was a treat for an American Studies major like Michael. He may have even forgotten that he was angry at Gab for making us miss the prior day’s tour.

TOTAL 48/80

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near Cedar City, Utah
Visited: September 25, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 101 of 353
NPS Website

Bryce Canyon’s less publicized, higher altitude and maybe even more strikingly colored fraternal twin. Cedar Breaks NM, like its twin, is a geologic amphitheater filled with willowy multihued rock pillars, called hoodoos.

BEAUTY (8/10)
Because of proximity and physical similarity, Cedar Breaks NM beauty will forever be compared to Bryce Canyon NP. If Cedar Breaks were anywhere but near Bryce (and for geological reasons it could never be) it would be a national wonder. Cedar Breaks’ hoodoos and cliffs share the myriad hues of Bryce but they are not as dramatically situated. There are more hoodoos at Bryce and they are more compactly arranged. It is hard to throw platitudes and amazement at Cedar Breaks because it does not astound like its neighbor but it is still pretty cool.

Humans have lived in the area for over 9000 years but little of historic significance occurred at Cedar Breaks.

CROWDS (8/10)
Cedar Breaks NM receives a sincerely interested and sizable spillover from the area Parks. Our geology talk ballooned in numbers rather quickly. All participants paid close attention and asked the same geological questions we had. The Alpine Pond Trail gives plenty of opportunity for solitude. The path is long and the trees are so dense that fellow tourists are not an issue. The Cedar Breaks crowd all seemed happy to have stumbled upon such a beautiful and under publicized place. There were lots of smiles, no crowd claustrophobia and a tangible feeling of relaxation.

Cedar City, Utah and Interstate 15 lie about 20 miles west, and straight downhill, from Cedar Breaks NM. If you are approaching Cedar Breaks NM from the east along Utah Route 12, be careful. The right turn you need to make to get to the Park is not well marked. If you start going downhill, you have gone too far. Don’t drive the whole way to Cedar City like we did.

Sadly, the Cedar Breaks are an unrequited and fleeting partner. No hikes are allowed into and around the hoodoos. A five-mile road leads to four overlooks that offer much less of a scenic variety than their counterparts at Bryce.

Alpine Forest in Utah
Not much of a book selection in the tiny Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built Visitor Center.

COSTS (3/5)
Cedar Breaks NM cost $3 per vehicle and is free with the National Parks Pass. The Park operates a 30-site campground along the rim during the months of July, August, September and parts of June. A campsite costs $12 but sits at an elevation of 10,500 feet. Prepare for cold, windy weather even when nearby Cedar City weathermen boast of 90-degree days.

Cedar Breaks NM proactively cares about its visitors’ education and knowledge of the Park. Even though the campground had closed for the season and snow had fallen just days prior, a Ranger-led geology talk was scheduled every hour.

Three smiling Rangers eagerly made themselves available. One mingled with guests near the main overlook, one explained things at the Visitor Center and another gave us more than a few pamphlets and answered questions even though he was collecting entrance fees. The Rangers made us feel welcome and excited to be where they worked.

The Ranger-led geology talk was the first (and only) explanation of the Colorado Plateau topology that made any sense. We left museums and Rangers of Timpanogos Cave NM, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP and Grand Canyon NP with none of the understanding that we received from the Cedar Breaks Ranger. Granted tectonic uplift, shifting continental plates and 18 billion years of rocks is not an easy topic but our time at this site helped. Michael wants to learn more, but short of returning to school and aiming for a geology degree is not sure what he can do.

The Site also offers a terrific self-guided walking loop, the 2-mile long Alpine Pond Trail. 25 learning stations are explained in a full-color brochure available at the trailhead for $1.00 and well worth it. The walk is tranquil and offers only a momentary glance at the hoodoos. The trail centers on the 10,500-foot altitude alpine forest. From late June through August the walk passes through colorful meadows of blooming wildflowers. Goldenrod, aster, penstemon, larkspur, shooting star. Indian paintbrush, columbine, cinquefoil and wild rose. Of course, we saw none of these in September but the pictures are awful nice.

These Are The BreaksFUN (7/10)
Everything that was lacking at Bryce Canyon NP, we found here. Attentive Rangers, easy-going geology talks, ample room to view the amphitheatre. The Alpine Pond Trail was sufficient to take our breath away, in more ways than one. The high altitude was a bit of a factor here, at least for Gab. Still, we were too disappointed that we couldn’t hike among the hoodoos.

We overheard that the young Ranger leading our talk was on her way to Alaska to start her next assignment. Despite being painfully jealous, we enjoyed spending time with her. She was more than happy to spend time with anyone who had questions after the official talk. That was pretty much all of us. Does any place in the world offer such a spectacular and diverse landscape as this region of the United States? That was the one question she couldn’t answer. We’re not sure either. Let’s say no.

If you are craving a simply worded, easy to understand explanation of the geography of this area, Cedar Breaks is your best bet. It is a shame that the way to Cedar Breaks isn’t better marked. We drove right past it. We wonder how many other tourists do. Despite its size, add Cedar Breaks to our list of hidden gems.

TOTAL 52/80

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Bryce Canyon National Park

near Tropic, Utah
Visited: September 23, 2004
Second Visit: April 21, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 100 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Inside the Bryce AmphitheaterWHAT IS IT?
A U-shaped amphitheater (not a canyon at all) that contains thousands of fancifully shaped pinkish orange pillars, called hoodoos.

BEAUTY (10/10)
The freakishly bright colors and gravity challenging shapes of Bryce Canyon defy the mind’s understanding of how nature works. What you look at does not make sense. The formations challenge the very concept of beauty. Is Bryce beautiful? No. Is it one of the most amazing things you have ever seen? Oh my gosh, yes.

The Paiute Indians described the hoodoos as evil men who were turned to stone because of their maleficent actions. That makes sense to us. At least as much as the confounding geological explanation. What you see at Bryce is limited only by your imagination. The amphitheater’s viewpoints and angles change dramatically with every step, whether leisurely walking around the rim or scampering around the hoodoo mazes at the canyon’s bottom.

Plenty of geological bizarre-ness but little to no human interaction prior to it becoming a National Park. Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce farmed on the land in the late 19th century and gave it its name. Even though he was living in a geological and sensory wonderland his most notable account of the land is the it is a “heck of a place to lose a cow”. A much different portrayal than the words of the Paiutes and later the flowery descriptions of John Wesley Powell‘s right hand man, Capt. Charles Dutton.

CROWDS (5/10)
The Bryce Canyon NP scenic drive stretches 18 miles from north to south. All views of the amphitheater, what makes Bryce Bryce, is in the first two miles of that drive. Understandably, few tourists venture south of the Rim Trail. The Trail is wide enough and provides enough benches that it is never hard to find a place to sit and enjoy the view.

Is that a Castle?Certain trails in among the hoodoos can be crowded with wheezing, sweaty hikers especially the Navajo Loop Trail. Good luck trying to get a picture of the Wall Street formation without somebody else in the foreground. Other amphitheater trails, like the Queens Garden Trail and the Peekaboo Loop Trail tend to have less traffic.

The overlooks do get crowded. We attended a Ranger-led geology talk at Bryce Point. We heard and saw very little of his talk because of a few cackling tour bus groups who evidently never learned parliamentary procedure or general politeness.

Bryce Canyon NP is a must-see destination park and a part of the southwest “Grand Circle” of National Parks. It is out of the way, but well worth the drive and more than just a detour. The Park entrance is over 50 miles from Interstate 15 Exit 95. The closest town is Cedar City, some 75 miles away. Here are some more relevant distances: 78 miles from Zion NP, 150 miles from the North Rim of Grand Canyon NP, 300 miles from the South Rim of Grand Canyon NP and about 250 miles from Las Vegas, NV.

The Park operates a free voluntary shuttle that travels from the intersection of Utah Routes 12 and 63 (about 3 miles north of the Park) to Ruby’s Best Western Inn, into Bryce Canyon and from overlook to overlook around the amphitheater rim. The shuttle is a nice alternative to driving but its necessity is dubious at best. While the Visitor Center parking lot may be strained for space, there is plenty of room at the overlooks. And the Rim Trail is a flat easy walk. Under no circumstances should you hop either in your car or on the bus to go a half mile to the next overlook. Just walk and savor in the breathtaking surroundings.

The Rim Trail is mostly paved and provides terrific views of Bryce. The best part about the Park is the access it offers to the amphitheater floor. Well-marked and well-maintained trails lead to astounding places.

The Bryce Canyon NP bookstore is blinding. Yes, blinding. Almost all of the merchandise (copious amounts of posters, coffee table books, shirts, magnets, etc…) displays the classic Bryce Canyon panorama at different stages of sunrise. The pinks, oranges and reds are overwhelming. They reflect off the clean white floor and walls creating multi-hued overload. Pretty much the same effect as the amphitheater, come to think of it.

Wide VistaCOSTS (2/5)
Entry costs a whopping $20 per car but is free with the National Parks Pass.

There are two campgrounds at Bryce Canyon NP. Both charge an inexpensive $10 per site. The 101-campsite Sunset Campground operates on a first-come first-served basis. We arrived at 6 p.m. on a Thursday, mid-September and snatched up one of the last sites. We might not have been so lucky in the summer months. The 107-campsite North Campground allows for reservations and had no weekend openings during our stay. It costs an additional $9 to make a reservation.

The Xanterra corporation runs the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge which sits right along the amphitheater rim. Room prices range from $107 to $135 per night.

We saw Rangers only at the Visitor Center and there only a few left to answer questions from over a hundred guests. The one Ranger we did talk to was so full of cynicism that we were immediately put off. Instead of telling us what to do, he told us what we should not do. Helpful, maybe, but Bryce is such a fantastic and unbelievable place that we balked at a Ranger so grizzled that he could not say nice things about the area. And only two Ranger tours per day at a packed American treasure? Just pathetic.

Bryce Canyon offers a shockingly small number of Ranger-led tours and classes, especially since, according to the Park brochure, nearly 1.7 million people visit the site every year. In September, only two classes are offered per day. During our visit, both campsites were full and people were everywhere. We attended the sole geology hike and left early. The Ranger started his geology talk before over 40 people by explaining that he does not know much about geology. Huh? His confusing explanations, when heard above the multitudes, proved his self-awareness accurate.

The lecture situation does not improve much in summer when the number of tours range from four to seven. If you want to learn anything about the geology of hoodoos you need to travel to the nearby Cedar Breaks NM where despite year-round sub freezing temperatures and much less visitation, geology talks are given every hour.

Also at Bryce, there are no self-guided hiking trails and the park video is terribly boring. Gab could not stay awake.

Closer ViewFUN (10/10)
Just as the City of Rocks N RES was a playground for climbers, Bryce Canyon was made for day hikers.

We had come to Bryce with the intention of spending a few days in the backcountry. A Ranger at the Visitor Center thought we might be disappointed, since all of Bryce’s landmarks are right here in the front country. He strongly suggested we fill our daypacks with water and snacks and just spend the days exploring the Canyon. We did. And it was great.

We descended into the Canyon as the sun was rising and just kept combining loop trails into figure eights and expanding spirals, each turn taking us into someplace more magnificent. Before we knew it, the day was nearly over and the sun was starting to set. We ended our hike with a final walk on the Rim Trail, where we could survey all of the trails that we had trekked during the day and finish off the remaining space in our camera. We have hundreds of pictures from our few days at Bryce. No exaggeration.

The very affordable campground also kept our spirits high. $10 a night – that’s a steal.

Bryce Canyon NP is an incredible scenic fantasyland. Does that make up for the Ranger shortage, the infrastructure problems, no human history and horrible tours? Gonna have to say yes. The hikes are transcendent, the views otherworldly and the experience an American must.

TOTAL 50/80

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near American Fork, Utah
Visited: September 23, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 99 of 353
NPS Website

A WarningWHAT IS IT?
A relatively small, mountaintop cave system that boasts the rare cave formation helictites as well as the standard flowstone and stalactites.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The scenic highlight of the Timpanogos Cave NM is not the cave at all; it’s the gorgeous surroundings of the American Fork Canyon. The walk up was much nicer than the walk in. The temperatures were warm, but the maple and oaks that line the canyon had already begun to change colors, stunning oranges, reds and yellows. We almost felt as if we were driving up 322, some beautiful Saturday morning, to State College to see a Penn State football game.

A Danish immigrant found the cave in 1887 while tracking a mountain lion. Later, it became a popular tourist spot and faced destruction; the visitors kept stealing all the cave formations. In 1922, Warren G. Harding stepped in and protected the land making it a National Monument.

CROWDS (7/10)
The Cave Tour group size is limited to 20 so there is little danger of further claustrophobia. Our group was amiable enough. However, the cave seems to inspire more than a fair share of strange behavior.

As we walked up the mountain (see EASE OF USE/ACCESS) a group of teenaged hooligans were walking down, intent on starting rockslides and dangerously sprinting down the side of a canyon. On our tour, a young girl forgot, despite the innumerable signed reminders, to go to the bathroom before she entered the cave. So the Ranger gave her a hikers bag to pee in. Her dad later complained to me that there should be a bathroom installed in the cave itself.

Find the Entrance
Timpanogos Cave achieves a level of inaccessibility previously thought impossible. To reach the cave itself you need to walk a mile-and-a-half of paved switchbacks up the slopes of the American Fork Canyon, an elevation rise of more than 1,000 feet. The Park allows you to start walking up the incline an hour-and-a-half before your tour is scheduled to begin.

Cave tours are frequent, every 20 minutes or so, but have a 20-person limit. Park literature warns that the summer wait can be as long as three to four hours. They suggest booking a tour by phone two weeks in advance.

Because the Cave path lies at such a high altitude, snow prevents all tours from early October to mid-May! The Site is open for only five months of the year, tops.

The Visitor Center lies right along Utah Route 92 and is easily accessible. It is about 10 miles east of Interstate 15, exit 287 near the suburban sprawl of Salt Lake City. If you continue up Route 92 and the Wasatch Mountain Range, you will be on the Alpine Scenic Drive and will pass the Sundance Ski Resort. Of course, that stretch of road is closed in the winter.

The bookstore had the standard selection of wildlife guides and caving books. A separate concessionaire operates outside the visitor providing snacks and snazzy Timpanogos Cave clothing. If you are forced to wait for a tour, the nice picnic benches could be a blessing.

COSTS (2/5)
Timpanogos Cave double dips you cost-wise. We understand the $6 per person cave tour, but in addition there is a $3 per car entrance fee into the Uinta National Forest. If you have the Golden Eagle Hologram on your National Parks Pass, the $3 fee is waived. The Parks Pass does not cover the $6 cave tour.

A 20:1 Ranger to visitor led tour is not so bad, especially when the tours are oft given.

 On the Way Up TOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
Gab enjoyed the kid friendly cave tour much more than Michael. Michael wished that there had been more geology explanation in lieu of the many flashlight identifications of goofy looking stalactites. Michael has come to learn the error of his desires after struggling through lecture after lecture in southern Utah Parks which attempted to explain the geology of the Colorado Plateau. Perhaps the Cave Ranger really did know best in not attempting to delve into that Pandora’s Box of questions.

FUN (7/10)
Luck was on our side the morning we arrived at Timpanogos. Rangers told us the next available tour began in 20 minutes, meaning that we could begin hiking up the mountain in 20 minutes. The tour itself would start in a little more than hour and a half. This gave us just enough time to browse through the bookstore and gift shop and purchase a second National Parks Passport Book. What? Yes it’s true. We completely exhausted all space in the Rocky Mountain Region of our first book. Don’t point to the extra space in the front and back of the book – that’s filled too.

So with that milestone under our belts, we began our hike. We enjoyed the brisk walk. But we’re not sure we would have wanted to be much closer to the descending group of hellions, or tried to hike up the hill with a number of younger children in tow, like some of the families we passed on the way up.

The cave tour took a backseat to the rest of the American Fork Canyon, whose fall foliage was just starting to show off. The hour and a half timeframe you are given to hike to the cave entrance gives you ample time to view your surroundings. Benches and rest points are everywhere, except for along parts of the trail marked in red – this is where rockslides, even without the help of high school students, tend to occur.

Timpanogos Cave NM is one of the few places you can see helictites, formations that look like twisted strands of curly ribbons or the DNA helix they were named after. The Cave doesn’t boast a lot of superlatives. It’s not the largest, the longest, the rarest. It’s just a neat little cave, halfway up a mountain nestled in a beautiful canyon, conveniently located next to a huge city. Worth the summertime trip out of Salt Lake or Park City? Yes.

Just remember to “go” before you enter the Cave.

TOTAL 45/80

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