Monday, November 3, 2014

Bryce, Zion, Antelope: That epic national parks trip

Sigh. Greed has a price.

I was going to write about our epic national parks trip. The last of our Goodbye-US series.

We were going to drive from Las Vegas to Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Antelope Canyon in a 4D3N trip. We would be weaving in and out of three states - Nevada, Utah and Arizona. We would be covering more than 650 miles on the road. And we have never been more ready for it!

And all would have gone according to plan.

If I hadn't change my mind at the last minute.

The night before departure, I read on Bryce Canyon National Park's website that there would be a astronomy & night sky programme on Saturday, Day 1 of our trip. It would be a ranger-led talk, followed by the viewing of stars and distant planets through a telescope.

I had romantic ideas of looking through the lens at the twinkly Milky Way, hearing stories of far-flung galaxies by the fire. Perhaps, I could even shoot some award-winning photos, never mind that I am clueless on how to shoot night sky. The most important thing is that, we would be standing under a blanket of stars in one of the world's darkest skies! How could I miss the chance?

With that, I managed to convince Panda that we could switch the plans for the first two days without changing our accommodation. That means on both days, we would be making two hours' drive late at night to the day's hotel.

Shouldn't be too difficult since I am, ahem, a pretty good driver.

What could go wrong?

Day 1 (part I) - Bryce Canyon and the endless trail 

We landed in Las Vegas at 10am. After getting our car from Enterprise, we stopped by Costco to stock up on our water and food supply before heading out to Bryce Canyon.

We should have known we would lose track of time once we step into Costco. We ended up having a mini shopping spree (again!) where Panda bought a jacket. It was value for money and he could wear it immediately. Fair enough. But by the time we finished shopping and eating our lunch at a nearby fast food, our estimated time of arrival at Bryce Canyon was 4.30pm. Shriek!

I had completely forgotten that Utah is on mountain time - one hour ahead of Nevada. I was still hoping to do some hiking before the sun sets.

We thus sped through the rest of the drive, suppressing the urge to stop every now and then to admire the mountainous range that Utah is famous for. When we reached the Bryce Canyon Visitor Centre, the park ranger told me I have about two hours left before sunset to complete my hike .

I knew exactly where I want to go since I have done my research: The section of the Rim Trail from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point to get the view from the top, then down the Navajo Loop and the Queen's Garden Trail to walk among the hoodoos.

In fact, NPS' advice is to hike in the reverse direction, since it is safer to hike UP the steep Wall Street portion of Navajo Loop, rather than down. However, most people still prefer to start with a steep descent, rather than to end with a sharp ascent. 

Up on the rim, the view was amazing. Perhaps, it was a blessing that we didn't come earlier. Mid-day sun would be harsh, but the late afternoon rays cast a warm, pastel orange hue on the hoodoos. Soft and gentle. I too love the tinge of white tips amid a sea of tangerine. Reminds me of snow on pine trees.

It would have been lovely to sit on one of the benches, admiring the view for the rest of the day. But we came to get the real experience - hiking down to the hoodoos. So we quickly made our way to Sunset Point, and began that steep descent down Wall Street. 

It wasn't as difficult as I thought. The trail snakes down the narrow canyon in a series of twists and turns, so the only steepness we felt was more visual than physical. 

Before we knew it, we were already halfway down the canyon. It was only when we looked up that we realised how deep we had gone.  

The thing that we did have to worry about was rocks. Falling rocks are more common on this part of the trail than on any other trail in the park.

Besides the risk of having dislodged stones raining down upon you, there is also the threat of slipping on loose pebbles and breaking your ankle.

So as much as it was fun zig-zagging down the Wall Street, it was a relief to finally reach the bottom of the trail. Flat ground, at last!

By then, the skies have gone a little dimmer. We have taken more time than expected at Wall Street.

For the next five minutes, we continued on the trail on the valley floor. When we reached a fork in the road, my dilemma came: Do we continue on to the Queen's Garden Trail, or get back to the rim via the Navajo Loop?

On one hand, Queen's Garden Trail would mean a flatter, prettier route back to the rim. But it would also be an hour longer. I was worried about timing - I didn't want to get stuck on the valley floor after sunset. 

On the other hand, Panda was feeling breathless from the slopes. Going back via Navajo Loop means the same set of sharp inclines. The worst thing that could happen is him fainting on me again

And unlike the Lake Tahoe incident, I would be all alone.

Needless to say, we chose the safer option. And Queen's Garden Trail is truly beautiful; we were surrounded by towering hoodoos throughout the hike.

But I wasn't paying as much attention to the view as I should. I was too anxious about completing the hike before sunset, and I had to check my speed against Panda's state of health. He had to walk slowly and drink lots of water.

It also didn't help that there wasn't a single soul on the trail, but we kept hearing voices. Sometimes, they seemed to drift right down from the rim, tricking us into thinking that we were approaching the end.

But the road seemed endless.

The skies turned darker with every slope and every turn. I was getting scared about night fall. At some point, I started singing hymns.


At long last, we reached the end of the trail before the last rays were gone. 

Thank God!

Hurray for me, who was worried about groping in the dark on the valley floor; Hurray for Panda, whose bladder was about to burst. 

The sun has set completely by the time we walked over to the Bryce Canyon Lodge, where the astronomy programme was about to take place. While waiting for Panda to go to the rest room, I looked down at my feet. It was as if I had traversed 20 miles across the desert.

My poor trotters.

After getting ourselves cleaned up, we went to the the hall where the astronomy programme was conducted. It was obviously popular - the room was overflowing with attendees. We were lucky to have secured two seats at the back.

But as the ranger switched off the lights and began speaking animatedly about the stories behind the constellations, my eyes started to get heavy. The combination of a morning flight, a long drive, and a hasty hike has finally taken its toll on me. I could hardly keep my eyes open. Panda, as expected, was already dozing off.

I fought for a good ten minutes before making the decision. There was no way I could stay awake till the end of the talk to use the telescopes. And the later we start our 2-hour drive to the hotel in Springdale, the more dangerous it would be.

With much reluctance, we gave up our precious seats and creeped out of the room. Argh. So much for changing our plans for this astronomy programme.

In a last-ditch attempt to see Bryce Canyon's night sky before we go, we walked back to the rim in the dark.

How I wished the talk had been conducted outside. The crisp, cold air woke us up immediately. And I have never, ever seen more stars in my entire life. It was as if someone had spilled silver glitter all over the sky. And for the first time, I could see The Milky Way with my naked eye.

So clear, so bright a white streak across the sky.

Too bad for me, I had missed an earlier opportunity to learn how to shoot the night sky with Kevin, my photographer friend. What turned out on my camera eventually looked like this.

I had to stare REALLY hard to confirm that I had indeed remove my lens cap. And I wiped the screen several times with my finger to make sure those are not dust specks.

With my failed attempt at night sky photography, we packed up and began our drive to Springdale some 85 miles away.

Day 1 (part II) - Zion Park Blvd, accident with that deer

It was close to 9pm.

We had anticipated an uneventful drive, with me at the wheels and Panda sleeping in the passenger seat. In retrospect, we should have checked the route instead of over-relying on our GPS. Then, we would know that we were to drive past some wilderness reserves.

It was pitch dark as we turned into SR-9. We were alone except for a distant car in front.

From afar, I saw the car braking in front, so I followed suite. Maybe wildlife, I thought as I slowed down.

I dimmed my headlights, too, out of courtesy for an oncoming vehicle.

Everything happened in a split second.

As I flicked off my high beam, I caught sight of two large silhouettes sliding right in front of my windshield.

"DEEEEEEERS!" I screamed. I slammed hard on the brakes and shut my eyes.


I felt the impact of hitting something big and hard head on. My heart stopped.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. I hit an animal. I hit it. I hit it. Oh my God!!!

For a moment, I lay still. My hands were still gripping the steering wheel and my face down. I don't want to open my eyes. I don't want to look. The bloody animal must be on my hood. Its glassy eyes must be staring at me. Worst, its guts must have spattered all over my windshield.

But I couldn't stay like that forever. Not on the road in the dark.

I had to breathe hard and slowly forced open my eyes.

The brightness of my car's headlights made me blink. But it was shining into nothingness. No animal on my car. No bloody windshield. Everything was eerily quiet. All the cars were gone.

"Oh my God. What should I do?" I've never felt so terrified.

Panda didn't answer. He was in shock. He must have been awaken by the impact.

There was no way I'm getting out of the car onto the pitch dark road. I am staying in the car. But I had to do something. Anything. So I inched the car forward, praying that I won't roll over any limps, body, head. But I was only half-relieved when no humps were felt.

I must be rolling over a pulpy, bloody mess.

"Can you see... if there's a number we should call to report?" I asked Panda, feigning calmness in my voice. I didn't want to be arrested later for hit-and-run.

Panda stared down at his phone. No reception.

In our still shaken state, we both agreed that the only choice we had was to continue driving until we could call for help.

About ten minutes' later, we saw an unmanned gate.

With a heavy heart, I realised we were driving through Zion National Park to get to Springdale.

More animals.

It was as if the nightmare would never end.

I have no doubt the park is beautiful in daytime. But at night, it is a completely different story.  It was as if we were in a deserted amusement park with mannequins coming alive.

True enough, barely five minutes into the park, we jammed our brakes with a yelp as a baby bobcat came dashing across the road in front of us. Before we could catch our breathe, my headlights caught another pair of glimmering eyes in the bushes as we round a corner.

And as if it wasn't horrible enough with animals popping up every now and then in the worst joyride ever, the road had a series of hairpin turns. I held my breathe every time I maneuvered the car around a bend, dreading what we might see as our headlights swept around the corner. It was too dark to tell if we had a cliff or a forest beside us. All I could do was to tell myself - never, never to swerve even if another animal comes charging out. We could go crashing down a cliff.

On the last stretch, we went through a mile-long dark tunnel, which was an untimely reminder of the scene at Cabin at the Woods. Somewhere along the way, a car appeared behind us. I kept thinking it was after us, because we either had a decapitated deer stuck on our bumper, or we were leaving behind a trail of blood. We only started breathing when we came out of the tunnel and exited the park. And the car zoomed past us as we turned into our hotel.

"So... it's time to check," Panda said. We were still sitting in our car after I switched off the engine, dreading what we would see when we get out.

"I'll do it," I volunteered. I was the one driving. I am the one responsible.

But Panda had already stepped out of the car, and was slowly making his way to the front. I watched him through the windshield. He was frowning.

I pushed open my door to get out, too. But I realised I couldn't. My car door was stuck.

It suddenly dawned upon me then that we didn't hit the deer. In fact, the deer had hit us from the side when I screeched to a stop on the highway.

I wiggled out from the passenger door to confirm my theory. True enough, there was no blood, no fur, no severed deer remains. Only my left headlights were shattered, and my driver's door was dented at the hinge - the reason it could no longer swing open. But a huge flood of relief came over me.

I didn't run over the deer. I am not a murderer! YAY!!!!!!

Panda was frowning and muttering about insurance. And I still didn't know if I should have called the sheriff or ranger about the accident.

At 11pm, the lady at the reception was taken aback to see two disheveled-looking Asians running through the door.  "We hit a deer or I think a deer hit us... " "Am I supposed to call the police?" "It was so dark on the road..." "Would we be caught?"

The lady got us to calm down to tell our story properly. She said that it is common in Fall to see deers on the road since it is the mating season. (Gosh, why didn't that pop up on my research?!) In fact, she got into deer accidents twice herself. Normally, she would get out of the car to check if the animal is OK. If the animal is injured, or it happened inside the park, we would have to inform the park ranger. We could be fined whether or not it is the animal's fault. However, on public roads, there's nothing the sheriff could do, unless you need him to come to end the animal's misery.

Her matter-of-fact tone gave us some much needed assurance. I honestly hoped my theory was right, that the deer hit us at the side, it was fine, and it had galloped off somewhere since I didn't see any blood or animal parts on the car.

With that, we took the keys to our room and finally settled in for the night. It was 3am by the time we finished calling the rental car and insurance companies.

Before drifting off to sleep, I mumbled to Panda something about heading back to Vegas tomorrow and canceling the rest of the national park trips.

No more animal risks for me.

Day 2 - A new rental car, Zion National Park

The next day, we drove an hour to St George Airport to get the damage assessed at Enterprise and to get a new rental. We were still grappling with what had happened the night before, but thanking God also that we came through unscathed.

We realised it could have been much, much worse from what we see online. (More yucky photos from here.)

Our damage was laughable in comparison. And I am so grateful for that.

Despite me swearing off national parks after our deer scare, we decided to continue with the journey because 1) it would be costly to cancel our pre-booked accommodations, and 2) the Zion National Park really looked lovely in day time.

It took us a while to settle the car issue. In the end, we had about less than three hours left to explore Zion National Park before it turns dark.

We decided to take the round loop on the free Zion Shuttle -  the fastest, most convenient way of seeing Zion when we are on a time crunch. The best thing was the audio guide on the shuttle, which was perfectly timed to introduce every stop. We could appreciate the entire stretch of the scenic drive from the comforts of our seats, and still make a couple of stops if time allows.

Before the deer accident, I was really looking forward to hiking in Zion, especially a portion of the Narrows where you have to wade in water. To get to the Narrows, however, we would have to stop at the Temple of Sinawava and hike down the trail to the Virgin River. The whole Riverside Walk would take up about 1.5 hours, and that does not include going further into the Narrows.

With us being jumpy about time and getting out of Zion before dark, we decided to abandon the Narrows plan and go for the really short Weeping Rock Trail.

Apparently, the rocks 'weep' due to the presence of thin layers of shale (mud deposits) within thick layers of sandstones. While water could seep through sandstone easily, it could not pass through shale layers. It hence moves sideways to emerge from the cliff face as spring.

I wasn't expecting a spectacular view at the Weeping Rock, and was thus taken aback by how picturesque the canyon looked from the vista point.  The curtain of water droplets made everything look misty, and the pitter-patter sound of water was almost hypnotic. 

I felt as if I could stare at the scene forever...

I snapped out of trance when Panda reminded me that it was time to go. We hurried back to the shuttle stop - we still had to change a bus back at the visitor centre in order to get to our car in Springdale.

On our return journey, I saw many avid photographers setting up their tripods for sunset. Next time, I told myself. If there is a next time.

God must have sensed my longing to at least take one shot of that beautiful sunset. While waiting for the Springdale bus at the visitor centre,  He gave me this. Unedited, unfiltered, unrivaled pastel purple-pink evening sky. Pretty like a lady.

With that one last gorgeous view, we bid Zion National Park goodbye and headed towards Bryce Canyon, where our hotel for the night is. 

Almost three hours later, we arrived safely at Bryce Canyon. We had taken a longer route because there was no way we would travel on the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway again.

Not exactly animal free on our alternate route too, as we had hoped: I-15 (coyote sighting), SR-20 (sign warning of cows?!), US-89 (deer sighting). I had tried hard not to even blink while I was driving, in case something comes leaping out again. My poor eyes were going to pop out of the sockets from all the straining.

But we arrived safely, and that's all I cared about.

At the hotel at Bryce Canyon, we found no less than 10 stuffed deer heads mounted on the wall. I almost cracked up at the irony of it - there's no escape from those darn deers, is there?

I was tempted to ask the receptionist if the heads were contributed by hotel guests like us. I supposed not everyone would be as freaked out as us by a deer accident.

Oh well...

Day 3 - Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend

A leisure, scenic 3-hour drive along US-89 brought us across the state to Page, Arizona. Fall colours were out in full force, and again, we had to resist the urge to stop and take pictures along this scenic byway. 

We saw the sign to the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs, where the famous wave formations are. Getting to the Wave would require you to be really, really lucky. Only ten walk-in hikers are allowed per day, and another ten would be selected through a lottery via online or mail application. Which means, you better make sure your lucky stars are shining way brighter than other's.

But wait, we were there for Antelope Canyon. Focus!

Antelope Canyon belongs to the Navajo tribe. In order to enter this native land, all visitors would have to pay an entrance fee and be accompanied by a guide. We had a choice between visiting the Upper or Lower Canyon; we choose the Lower Canyon because of better reviews.  

It took us a while to locate Ken's Tours because it wasn't visible from the main road. We only saw the shed-like station when we turned in to a dirt road. We paid $28 for the basic tour, and waited in the shade for our guide to come. 

For some reason, I had expected some sort of open top vehicle when our guide M came, like how it would be like in a safari. Perhaps, it was the desert-like atmosphere around us. 

In any case, I did not expect that we would be walking to the Lower Canyon, which happened to be just behind the shed. Less than three minutes.

And the biggest surprise of all, the canyon is beneath us. We would be climbing underground via a series of steep staircase. How bizarre!

It was a good thing I wasn't claustrophobic. The Lower Canyon looks really narrow from the top.  I would never have imagined that we would be doing a quarter-mile hike underground.

But once we have climbed down the ladders, we were blown away by the beauty of this slot canyon. This sandstone ravine, carved out through eons of flash floods, consist of both spacious vaults and narrow turns along a long, winding path. 

We were walking through a natural display of art - amazing swirls surrounded us at every corner. Seeing the lines on the walls, and the loose rocks present on the ground, reminded me that erosion is happening continuously, day after day. A few centuries later, the canyon would look different from how it is today.

Our guide let us take our time in the canyon and gave us suggestions on how to get the best shots. We benefited from the small group of five because it was neither the peak season, nor a popular time of day for photographers.

At the right time of day, you can get really awesome light beams shining on the canyon floor.

Since the group was small, I also felt less bashful about asking my 101 questions. I found out that the main difference between the Upper Canyon and the Lower Canyon is that the former is above ground, the latter below; the former is A-shaped, the latter V-shaped. And that July, August and September apparently have the highest possibility of flash floods. 

I also got excited when our guide demonstrated how sandstone is formed. She simply gathered a small heap of sand, poured water into the center, twirl her hand around the wet sand a few time, and voila, a shape was formed. Sturdy enough to be lifted up and passed around the few of us. 

Nature is just so amazing!

When we finally climbed out of the Lower Antelope Canyon, it was late afternoon. We had spent over an hour in the slot canyon.

Since we still have plenty of time before dinner, we drove to the nearby Horseshoe Bend to have a look. This 270-degree meander forms part of the Colorado River, and the view at the overlook was magnificent.

I had expected to feel scared at going too near the edge. There is no railing and it's a 1,000 feet vertical drop into the river if you loose your footing.

Perhaps, because there was no strong wind to blow me off, I didn't feel fearful at all. In fact, I inched closer and closer to the edge to take photos, much to the disapproval of Panda. He was standing in a distance, his brows furrowed. Maybe he was considering my cheeky proposal to tie a rope around my waist in case I fall.

Poor guy. Always on the verge of a heart attack because of a recalcitrant wife.

In any case, I wouldn't be standing on the edge of a cliff for a long, long time to come. Goodbye to all my national parks. Sobs.

End notes

In all sense, this trip is memorable because I finally get to fulfilled my dream to visit Zion, Bryce and Antelope before heading back to Singapore. But I also learnt a valuable lesson, that it is never good to be greedy. My desire to see/try/experience everything got us into an accident. A possibly very nasty one.

So take it slow. Save some for the future. 

Here's to the lesson I learnt from this last, epic trip in US!

No comments:

Post a Comment