Heads up on this post: it’s a long one. Hopefully you can make it through, and if you could help me out with whether you thought it was too long or whatever, I appreciate all feedback.
After putting the finishing touches on my car organization, I picked up Lily at the airport at 10am. She stated that she was okay with camping out for the night, so I decided we could get some more use out of the National Park Pass and camp at Lake Mead. There is a $20 fee to enter Lake Mead National Recreation Area, but with the National Park Pass (annual pass), it’s free! Around Lake Mead there are established campgrounds that you have to pay for, but we drove to the Boxcar Cove where you can set up, swim, and stay for free for up to 14 days.
The only problem with camping at Lake Mead: it was 112 degrees during the day. I thought we could swim in the water to cool down, but even the water is hot until you get a few feet deep. Even when you get into the deep water it’s still warm, but it beat sitting in the dry heat all day. Lily thought the lake was dirty (and in a way, it was) so she sat in the shade all day. I walked around the edge of the lake to see if there were better (and cleaner) places to swim.
I was very disappointed to find large amounts of broken glass, beer and soda cans, plastic bottles and just plain garbage along my walk. It’s great that there are places in this country where you can simply enjoy the outdoors and stay for days, but it’s a shame that some people abuse that privilege. It was the epitome of the Tragedy of the Commons. If you let everyone use a resource, it takes a collective effort to preserve it (and sometimes only a small part of the population to spoil it). I actually found a knife blade on a rock near the water; just the blade. I can’t imagine what else was lurking just beneath the sand and in the water. I had shoes on the entire time I was walking (even in the water). I picked up the blade for safety, but there was so much trash, picking up anything else seemed like a lost cause.
Back at the car, I set up the tent and a tarp to try to give us as much shade as possible, but there is only so much you can do for 112F. Lily wound up lying down in the tent and sitting in the shade in an attempt to minimize energy use and keep cool. Luckily I had just purchased a 24-pack of bottled water. At the end of the day, it was down to 12 bottles. The desert just sucks the water out of you. Luckily the sun would set in a few hours and the temperature would drop below 100F.
Viva Las Vegas
We woke up early the next morning as we had to get to the airport to pick up Lily’s parents. Our hand was forced in waking up early as the desert sun heats up the air quickly and returned the temperature to triple digits by 8am. By 9 we were packed up and frankly couldn’t take the heat anymore. Air conditioning never felt so good as we drove out from Boxcar Cove and back to Las Vegas.
Lake Mead is closer to Las Vegas than I thought. It only took us 45 minutes to get to McCarran International Airport. After we picked up her parents, I finally got to see how 4 people fit into my already loaded car. Well, nobody was left behind and that’s all that matters, but Lily’s parents were a little crammed in the back seat with their suitcases and a couple of other bags. Her mother is creative though. She covered the pile of luggage with a sheet and towels and made the luggage pile (which she was sitting next to for the next 1,000 miles on our trip) into a pillow, much like the window seat on an airplane.
Since we were in Vegas for the day, we decided to explore the strip for the remainder of the day. It was over 110F again, so we visited a few casinos and stayed indoors. I think there is something for everyone in Las Vegas. If you aren’t into gambling, there are shows, food, rides, and sites. It’s a very interesting city to say the least.
Lily was looking for some form of entertainment for her parents. We wound up seeing Cirque Du Soleil’s Mystere since Lily’s parents do not speak English and the “words” in the show are mostly French gibberish that nobody understands anyway. I think it’s a good show; wierd, but good. There really isn’t a storyline (unless I missed something), but I think it’s definitely worth seeing at least once. Tickets start at $65! Ouch. Well, when in Rome (or Vegas).
The Grand Canyon – August 4-5
In my 30 years on this planet, I can’t believe I have not been to the Grand Canyon. Some people are not impressed by the canyon, some people are amazed. People that have been there have told me: “The South Rim is the best” and “The North Rim is the best”. We only saw the South Rim, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Each point that you can access, you are only able to see 1% of the canyon, if that. I guess that is why people take helicopter tours.
It was impressive to see the scale at which nature can carve the landscape. I guess you have to use your imagination a little bit to imagine the river sinking into the canyon over time. We wound up going to the South Rim because Lily was able to find a campsite, which is difficult to do at the Grand Canyon on short notice. We stayed at the Mather Campground for 2 days. It’s a great campground (and big). Just be sure to store all of your belongings securely. We received a citation for not storing our food (or scented items) properly. They are very strict since the animals around the Mather Campground are very “friendly” with campers due to the popularity and size of the area. There are over 300 campsites at Mather.
The Grand Canyon is the first place (I think) that I have seen an elk. I swear the Park Service places a few of the elk around the popular sections of the park for the tourists because as soon as we passed through the entry gate to the park, there was an elk on the side of the road. We didn’t see any elk on the way into the park, of which the last 15 miles is all part of the Kaibab National Forest.
We made our way to the Visitor Center and then drove to Mather Point nearby to walk along the Rim Trail. The Rim Trail is great as it is paved, flat, and follows the edge of the canyon for 13 miles with dozens of great viewpoints. We were tired from driving and we made a short drive from the Rim Trail to our campsite to set up for the night. The Mather Campground is really nice.
The most dangerous animals in the desert
…apparently, are squirrels! Going along with the theme of animals being too comfortable with people, the park posts numerous warning signs for visitors to not feed wildlife, especially squirrels. Most people do not think of squirrels as causing problems, but since so many people cannot resist feeding the furry little critters, the animals may bite people (probably people trying to feed the squirrels out of their hands). I hate to paint squirrels in a bad light, but for the people and the animals’ sake, don’t feed wildlife. They know how to get food without our help.
Hiking the South Rim
The squirrel warning popped up at multiple points along the Rim Trail on our second day in the park. Hundreds of people walk (I wouldn’t call it hiking) along the Rim Trail due to the ease of access and its non-strenuous nature. For a real hike, the four of us opted for the Bright Angel Trail. I didn’t realize that the inside of the canyon is much hotter (especially in the summer) than the rim. This is due primarily to lower elevation and lack of air movement. There are warnings all over the trails that tell you not to hike into the canyon and back in one day; or even to try to make it to the river in one day. You will be at risk of heat stroke and dehydration. It’s apparently over 10 miles of hiking to get in and out, which makes sense since you are losing about a mile in elevation.
Anyway, we only lost about 800 feet in elevation on our hike, and you could feel the heat and elevation’s effects. The air doesn’t move much inside of the canyon so the deeper you go, the hotter it gets. It is deceptive too, since you start at the coolest temperature along the rim and the highest elevation. Hiking down is less strenuous so you could hike a mile down and not feel too tired, but then you have to hike a mile uphill to return while the temperature is rising. We wound up hiking approximately a mile into the canyon. Lily’s parents are in good shape, but I didn’t want to have to call for rescue before we felt too tired. I decided we should turn around after about a mile. It was a good call since her parents had to take several breaks on the way back up. I took a few breaks myself just to make sure I didn’t overheat. My lesson at the Grand Canyon: take your time, especially when it gets strenuous (uphill).
Only hiking a mile on the Bright Angel Trail, you pass through two tunnels (cleverly named the First Tunnel and the Second Tunnel). If you make it 1.5 miles, there is a resthouse provided by the Park Service. Every 1.5 miles along the trail, there is a resthouse to get shade and water. We didn’t quite make it to the first resthouse, but after 1.5 miles hiking into the Grand Canyon in the Summer, most people could use some rest and water; myself included.
For the remainder of the day, we walked around the Rim Trail again. It was the middle of the day, and there are warning signs posted all over the park (at least for the summer) that tell you not to hike between 10am and 2pm as the mid-day sun will wear you out. The Rim Trail is very easy and accessible so anyone can see the canyon. After a few hours of relentless sun, we decided to head back to our campsite, shower, and relax.
Deeper into the Desert
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is around 7,000 feet above sea level. As you exit the park to the east on Route 64, you gradually lose elevation. As you drive, the forest gradually disappears and gives way to scrub and sand. The temperature also increases dramatically. We departed our campsite fairly early and beat some of the heat. We received a little rain shower on the way out of the Kaibab National Forest. That would be the last time we saw water for the remainder of the day.
Our destination for the day was Mesa Verde National Park in Southwestern Colorado. Lily wanted to see the Cliff Palace, an ancient cave dwelling built centuries ago by the indigenous people. I had seen pictures of the cave dwellings before, but I did not realize that they were in Mesa Verde. After a quick detour through Monument Valley, we returned to US 160 headed for the Four Corners.
Four Corners – we can check that off of the list
Many people driving through the Four Corners area probably get sucked into detouring to see the Four Corners Monument; the point at which Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah all meet. You can stand in all four states at one time. I didn’t know there was an entry fee, let alone $5 per person. I felt like a sucker, $20 to stand on the ground. We paid the entry fee and made our way to the monument. The design of the monument is very cool. There are flags surrounding the corners in a circle and a large open area in the middle where the four states meet and where everyone takes a picture.
On the other hand, there was a line of people waiting to get a picture at the state intersections. There was a sign next to where the line forms that states “Limit 3 pictures”; not that it was enforced. There were several vendors surrounding the monument selling crafts and food as well. I was disappointed at the four corners because we were only there for a few minutes and the entry fee was high. The entire attraction is that you can touch four states at once. It was very anticlimactic and the whole thing had a tourist trap vibe. I suppose it is worth doing once (just for the picture), but don’t expect much more.
Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison – August 6-7
After a very short drive through the Northwest corner of New Mexico and another hour on the road, we arrived at Cortez, CO, where we would stay in a hotel for the night. Before checking in, we drove about 15 minutes farther on US 160 to make it to Mesa Verde National Park. The main attraction for us was the Cliff Palace. It was getting late in the day, and when we talked to the ranger at the visitor center, she told us that the tours of the Cliff Palace for the day had already ended. You must have a tour booked in order to walk inside of the Cliff Palace. There are several other cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde (hundreds I believe) and the ranger recommended that we tour the Balcony House instead of the Cliff Palace. The Cliff Palace tour doesn’t get you too close to the dwellings as the Park Service really wants to preserve it. But the Balcony House (a smaller but equally impressive dwelling) is open to walk, climb, and crawl through (as long as you don’t touch the manmade structures). Therefore we booked a tour for the next day early in the morning to walk through the Balcony House.
Mesa Verde and Cliff Dwellings
Mesa Verde is a very cool park. I didn’t know what to expect beforehand. The climate around the area is fantastic (in the summer) as the high elevation and low humidity provide ideal conditions for being outdoors. After entering the park, you have to drive about 45 minutes onto the mesa and to the other end of the park to see the major Cliff Dwellings. We met our tour guide for the morning, Ranger Rachel, and proceeded to walk down the path to the Balcony House. The Balcony House is hidden from the road, so it made the tour a little more special. Since the dwellings were constructed hundreds of years ago, several of the walkways and openings are small so you have to crawl and climb to make your way through. The cliff dwellings are built right into the sides of the mesas, and most of the cliff edges do not have barriers, so watch your step!
After our tour, we explored around the mesa for an hour and visited several of the outstanding overlooks of the canyons and cliff dwellings. Some of them are hard to spot, but they are all over the place. We also stopped, of course, at the Cliff Palace overlook. It might be better just to see it from a distance than to tour it to truely appreciate it. I can’t speak for the Cliff Palace tour, but the Balcony House tour is definitely worth checking out!
In addition to the Cliff Palace overlook, there are several overlooks of the Soda Canyon and, on the other side of the road, overlooks of several cliff dwellings. I didn’t realize the number of dwellings you can see around Cliff Palace. I recommend picking an overlook and just looking along the cliffs for a few minutes. The cliff dwellings will become apparent as you peer along the canyon walls.
Never Enough Time
With our shortage of time and long day of driving ahead of us, we were not able to explore the other fork at the southern end of the park: the Mesa Top Loop. This loop takes you past multiple other cliff dwellings and structures. If you are ever in Mesa Verde, definitely give yourself a full day to explore!
The Road to Gunnison
After Mesa Verde and the Cliff Palace/Balcony House, we had a long road ahead of us to get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We didn’t have anything in particular planned to see there, but there aren’t many routes in Southwestern Colorado to take you there. To get to Gunnison from Mesa Verde, we drove on state highways that wind through the mountains for most of the day. There was also a lot of roadwork that slowed us down a bit. We continued on Route 145 from Cortez to Placerville, stopping in Telluride to get a late lunch. Telluride is an extremely picturesque town, and it is worth the slight detour to drive into the town/valley to check it out.
On the way to Telluride, we passed through Lizard Head Pass, which I had never heard of, but it is now on my list of places to visit (revisit technically). Lily and I agreed that Lizard Head Pass was the best mountain pass we drove through in Colorado. It is located in the San Juan Mountains a few miles south of Telluride and there were several people camping (for free!) in the National Forest. There are so many scenic drives in Colorado, but the mountains around Telluride and Lizard Head Pass were the best that I saw. I could spend a few weeks just in the Telluride area and call it a vacation. There is so much to see, you don’t need to go anywhere else in the state. The same can be said about many of the other scenic areas of Colorado.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, much like the Grand Canyon, has a north and a south rim which do not connect by road (as there is an enormous canyon preventing this from happening). We entered through the South Rim entrance since it was an hour shorter driving from Mesa Verde.
The road up to the South Rim boosts your elevation significantly so you are basically at the top of the mountain. The Gunnison River bisects the mountain (it may technically be a mesa) and cuts an extremely steep and deep gorge. It is the most dramatic gorge I have seen. Looking along the tops of the cliffs, there are green rolling hills. There are even pastures that are privately owned on the top of the mesas. Then, out of nowhere, there is a sheer drop of over half of a mile down to the Gunnison River.
The contrast between the forests at the top of the formations and the grey gniess and granite along the gorge walls is quite a sight to behold. Note: I am not a geology expert so don’t ask me which rock (mineral?) is which. I wish I knew more, but to me they are all grey rocks.
If you are like me, then you are probably wondering why it is called the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Most of the cliff walls are grey or reddish in color. Supposedly, it is called the black canyon because the steep and deep canyon walls restrict certain parts of the canyon to less than 1 hour of sunlight each day. Therefore, much of the canyon is shaded, or black, in nature.
We ventured down into the gorge near the East Portal Campground to see the river. It’s over 5 miles to drive down to the river. After sitting by the river for a while, we decided to call it a day and make camp at the East Portal. Only $16/night with water and bathrooms available. There is also the South Rim Campground near the entrance if you prefer to be at a higher altitude. The lower altitude at the East Portal gave us a bit of a warmer temperature at night (I think). The view is good no matter which campground you choose.
Gunnison is also advertised as a stargazing destination as it is quite far from any major city and the mountains block artificial light from interfering with the sky. The high altitude helps too. Luckily the sky was fairly clear on our night in Gunnison. The view might be better from the top of the gorge, but the night sky did not disappoint down by the river.
In the morning, we climbed back up to the top of the gorge to exit the park. Our stay at Gunnison was short, but relaxed and scenic. You don’t have to go far for a good view. We were now on the road to Maroon Bells.
Maroon Bells – August 8-9
We drove toward Carbondale on route 133 for the majority of the morning on our way to Aspen. Another scenic drive through Colorado as we paralleled the north fork of the Gunnison River (much less dramatic than the Black Canyon upstream).
We arrived in Aspen and turned onto Maroon Creek Road, which climbs into the White River National Forest and toward Maroon Bells. In case you are wondering (much like I was before visiting), Maroon Bells is the name for the two prominent mountain peaks in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. You can’t miss them once you reach the end of the Maroon Creek Road. We drove to the end of the road to check out the view before we set up our campsite down the road.
We retreated downhill from our scenic view to our campsite at the Silver Bells Campground (queue Christmas Carols). There are 3 campgrounds along the Maroon Creek Road, and we were lucky enough to snag one. The sign at the entrance gate said “All Campgrounds are Full” but the Forest Service employee at the gate told us that they typically leave that sign up as they usually are full. Good thing we checked! We didn’t have any reservations.
Hiking around Maroon Bells
After a good night of sleep at our Silver Bell campsite, we drove up the mountain again to catch the Maroon-Snomass Trailhead. We were hiking to Crater Lake.
Crater Lake is a very popular day-hike for several reasons. The temperature (in August) is around 75F, the hike to the lake is about 2 miles, the scenery is amazing, and the weather is usually good during the day. The trail was a bit crowded since it was a Friday in August, but the conditions were so ideal the crowds didn’t matter at all. The trail is a bit rocky in some parts, but if you are in reasonable shape and watch your step, just about anyone can do this hike. It’s only a net elevation gain of about 500 feet. The altitude might be the only factor to take into consideration since the Lake sits at just above 10,000 feet.
It took us a little over an hour to get to the lake, and the view is so rewarding. We ate lunch facing one of the best views I have ever seen. If you haven’t been to Maroon Bells, go! I cannot recommend a hike more than this place.
We ended our day fairly early after our hike. The altitude, if you are not used to it, can wear you down. Also, the sun is intense at higher altitudes. Less ultra-violet light gets filtered and it drains your energy. I think we were all tired from all the driving and touring we had done over the past week. We were content to sit back at our campsite surrounded by aspens and spruces and enjoy the sound of the stream running down the hill from us. I finally had some time to enjoy my hammock next to the stream. We later made dinner, played cards, and enjoyed spectacular Colorado Summer weather. Something feels good about playing cards and relaxing in the forest. I forgot to mention, the campsites leading to Maroon Bells are really nice, and only $15/night.
Returning to Civilization – August 10
At this point in the trip, I wanted to say that you should not plan to do too much when you are planning a road trip. Some place (like Maroon Bells) should be left for several days, if not a week to explore. I was sad to leave Maroon Bells, but I am glad we spent two (one full) day in the area. We were headed to Denver (and the airport) so that I could drop Lily and her parents at the airport to head back to the east coast. Along the way we crossed the continental divide at Independence Pass where I discovered that 12,000 feet above sea level is about my maximum elevation without much acclimation. I started feeling sick as we descended from the pass (probably because I decided I would run along the trail at the rest stop). Before the pass we stopped at one of the overlooks, where I discovered the plethora of stickers on the guardrail; one of which I was extremely excited to see (as a Maryland native). See if you can guess which sticker I was excited to see.
I saw some people biking over the continental divide (obviously from the Maryland sticker), but I was feeling ill just from driving over it. After we started our descent to a more reasonable elevation, we stopped for lunch at Buena Vista (not that much lower) and continued to our stop for the day: The Royal Gorge.
Sometimes, it isn’t worth the admission cost
We had one major pit stop along the way to Denver: the Royal Gorge near Cañon City. Lily had researched all of the places we planned to visit on the trip, and we really hadn’t been disappointed until the Royal Gorge. As much as the Four Corners Monument was a tourest trap, the Royal Gorge was the same two times over.
We arrived at the Royal Gorge in the afternoon after driving for several hours from the Aspen area. There is an old rail bridge that takes you over the gorge (Arkansas River). However, when we entered the visitor center to the attraction, we found out that it costs $28 per person to enter the “park”. The admission cost includes being able to walk across the gorge on the bridge and a few other perks (like transportation). There were also additional “add-ons” for a nominal fee including amusment park rides.
Lily and I looked at each other an decided that this was not worth the price of admission. All we wanted to do was walk across the gorge, but this area had been monetized beyond belief (there is a “skycoaster” for crying out loud). We were disappointed, but we were able to take a few pictures of the gorge without being charged an arm and leg. If we had to do it again, I think we would have just taken the interstate from Aspen to Denver rather than driving to the Royal Gorge first.
I don’t mean to insult the establishment that runs the Royal Gorge attractions, but I only wanted to see a natural wonder, not zipline across it. Seeing the Grand Canyon and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison earlier in the week, this couldn’t even compare. After our stop at the Royal Gorge, we drove for a few hours back toward civilization (and traffic) in Denver.
Look on the bright side
Our trip did not end in vain. We found a Chinese hot-pot place (again: cities have their advantages) for dinner and made the most of our last day in Colorado. Technically, it was their last day in Colorado, I still had time to decide how I wanted to return to the east coast. I didn’t explore Denver too much, but I’m not much of a city person. Despite the “average” hot-pot experience at Blue Ocean, eating a professionally prepared dinner tasted amazing after a week of mostly “camp meals”.
Awwww man, time for more personal reflection?
If you are insecure about discovering parts of yourself that you were unsure of before, then do not continue to read this. I will say that this week that I am posting about (that hopefully you read) was a big “personal growth” week for me. I had to make sure that 3 other humans (two that I can’t communicate with very well) were comfortable and had the resources they needed. Luckily Lily’s parents are pretty easy, so if I had food, shelter, and water taken care of, they were willing to put up with some of the pitfalls of traveling, such as:
2) contingencies (often traffic) such as road construction
3) not enough of a “bubble” (especially her parents) since we were all crammed in a Subaru Forester with a ton of gear for a week
4) at least for the driver (mostly me): the annoyances of overlanding: particularly the mundane nature of some days, usually caused by road construction/traffic (aka “lost time”)
Looking back, our week together (4 adults in a small SUV with minimal personal space) worked out remarkably well. At one point I was very frustrated with the way things were going (it was probably car/traffic related) and I decided I would play my “Steve Miller Band playlist” fairly loudly in the car on my iPod (yes, I still have an iPod). I recommend the Steve Miller Band to listen to for anyone traveling. However, I would say you just need to find a group that takes your mind off the road. Steve Miller Band (specifically Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, for some reason) allowed me to relax from some of the anxiety-producing triggers of long-distance traveling. And try it old-school and listen to an entire album, not a shuffled playlist!
Where to now?
After a week through the four corners (and a deeper understanding of the Steve Miller Band) I dropped Lily and her parents at the Denver Airport early in the morning on Sunday. It was time for me to head back home as well (I had to drive my car back East after all), but I still felt the urge to stay out west. The road (and my direction) was wide open. Where was I to go next? From Denver, there are several options and I felt like I could go anywhere without having to worry about making a bad decision. Any direction would be a good one. So, to quote Steve Miller: The sun comes up, and it shines all around you, you’re lost in space, and the Earth is your home.
To my loyal readers
Thanks again for reading. I am honestly amazed that you were able to make it through this one. I was considering breaking this post into several smaller posts (essentially into posts about each place I visited) but you were able to make it through anyway! At the end of the day, based on this post, I recommend visiting all THREE national parks discussed in this post and White River National Forest so that you can see the Maroon Bells. Colorado (and the US Southwest in general) has some amazing features that I hope all Americans (and everyone) can experience in their lifetime.
Where am I heading next from Denver? Well, hopefully I can catch up and let you know soon, but I promise you won’t be disappointed.