South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon (AZ)


It’s been over 30 years since we’d been to the Grand Canyon, much too long to stay away from perhaps Earth’s greatest geologic wonder. We made a last-minute decision to come here, only three days before, after we altered our itinerary to go back home in order to avoid dust storms in central Arizona. Granted, spending only a day and a half doesn’t nearly do the canyon justice, but based on the short stay, we vowed to come back and stay longer. For our sakes, it will have to be before another 30 years go by.

The crowds are as big as ever. Though the worst time of year for congestion are the peak summer months, even now in October there are hordes of people. It is a destination site for people from all over the world.

Ooh Ah Point, South Kaibab Trail

Ooh Ah Point, South Kaibab Trail

All we had time for was one good hike. We took a half-day hike down the South Kaibab Trail as far as Cedar Ridge, about 1.7 miles from the rim. Although the temperature was only 70 degrees, at high altitude it felt more intense, especially on the climb back up to the trailhead. We could only imagine how much more of a gasser it would be in the summer when temperatures soar to around 90-100 degrees. It turns out that the South Kaibab Trail is the shortest distance to Phantom Ranch down by the Colorado River. For some reason, most people take the Bright Angel Trail, so we suspect that track may be more gradual.

Cedar Ridge overlook

Cedar Ridge overlook

The canyon is such a wonderful laboratory for studying the earth’s geologic history. All the sandstone layers that are laid bare reach as far back as 2 billion years.

Ancient juniper

Ancient juniper

It still is a cause for wonder how the Grand Canyon came to be. The Colorado River is the current candidate for sculpting the immense canyons. And yet, when you marvel at the gaping chasm before you, estimated to have been carved out over “only” 6 million years, you still have to wonder if there was something else, some shattering event that gave it a push-start, as yet undiscovered by scientists. There are rogue geologists who believe the canyon is much older, a result of two ancient rivers that predated the current Colorado.

The climb back to the rim

The climb back to the rim

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM)


Neither of us has ever been to Carlsbad Caverns. We set aside three whole days to explore it since its remoteness in the southeast corner of New Mexico makes it unlikely we’d ever have an opportunity to return. This remoteness is the reason that, although its wonders are many, far fewer visitors show up than at the more popular national parks. It is located in an almost featureless desert, indistinguishable from much of west Texas, but possessing oil deposits underground that supports much of the local economy. You’re more likely to hear a Texas drawl here than not.

The Big Room, Kings Palace, Queen’s Chamber, Papoose Room and others, “rooms” all named by the 16-year-old Jim White who purportedly first discovered the caves, are wondrous to behold. The word cavernous seems to describe The Big Room aptly, an immense chamber big enough to hold six football fields. An almost level, paved walkway allows everyone to enjoy The Big Room. For those so inclined, there are slightly to much-more-strenuous ranger-guided tours that vary from mild climbing, scrambling (sometimes on rocks that seemed coated with candle wax), rope climbing and going through claustrophobic tunnels barely large enough to squeeze through.

Millions of years ago, at a time when the area was more tropical than at present, an ancient reef was transfigured when hydrogen sulfide gas rose from the oil deposits below and mixed with the oxygen in the water from above. The resulting sulfuric acid carved out the caverns in limestone. The decorations we see today—stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, popcorn and the rest (collectively called speleotherms)—are the result of the “normal” process of deposition built up over time by calcium-rich droplets of water. Artfully designed by a Hollywood lighting director many years ago, the major rooms are beautifully illuminated by artificial lights, effects that Jim White never saw that he would likely denounce as removing the “mystery of the caves.” Our favorite tour was the Kings Palace which showcases rooms so elaborately embellished with cave decorations that the word opulence comes to mind.

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

The other attraction here are the Mexican free-tail bats that fly out from the so-called Natural Entrance about an hour before sunset. The Park Service has installed some high-tech equipment within the cave that can detect when the bats are ready to emerge; it translates the bats’ echolocation sounds to frequencies that humans can hear. At first, over the amphitheater’s PA system, there was a single click or pop; within seconds, there were so many clicks that it sounded like microwave popcorn. Shortly thereafter, the bats emerged in waves, rather than all at once. No photography (nor turning on of electronic equipment of any kind) was allowed during the bat flight. They disturb the bats as they fly out. The park ranger told us that the more impressive sight is the bats’ return an hour before sunrise, when they swoop back (literally dive bomb) into the cave at about 25 mph or more. On the morning of our departure, we rose early and got to the amphitheater when it was still dark. Try as we might, we couldn’t see the bats, even silhouetted against a lightening sky. But we did hear zipping sounds in the air around us, like bullets whizzing by, which we could only assume were the bats returning so fast that we couldn’t see them. A thickening fog also likely obscured our vision somewhat.

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

The video below from YouTube shows a much larger swarm emerging from the cave than we witnessed. Bat populations ebb and swell, depending on the season.

The closest town with full amenities is Carlsbad City, some 25 miles away from the park entrance. However, right at the intersection of the park road with Highway 62/180, there is a Rodeway Inn and a few services, including an RV park, gas station, convenience store and restaurant. It’s called White’s City, where we chose to stay, only about 6 miles from the visitors center. It’s much more convenient, but which seems to be on most travel sources’ lists of not-recommended places to stay. Our own experience here was not ideal, but not terrible either. Eating at the same restaurant for breakfast and dinner quickly got old.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park (NM)


In 2009, we avoided it because of its remoteness and the difficulty of getting there on unpaved roads. This time, we reversed course and decided to visit Chaco Culture National Historic Park (a mouthful, but it used to be called Chaco Canyon National Monument). This is the mother lode of all ancient Puebloan ruins, having begun building early in the 9th century and thought to have served as a major crossroads to travel and trade with peoples as far away as Mesoamerica. It is one of the cultural and archaeological treasures of the National Park Service, yet no plans, let alone funds, have been drawn up to improve access or facilities. Is this a good thing or bad? Making it easier for more tourists to come—and come they will if given the chance—would certainly have a major impact. With only a small campground for overnight stays, the vast majority of travelers can only make this a day visit. Still, visitors come from all over the world.

During my Southwest trip-planning, I made sure to secure a campsite in advance.

The most-photographed alignment in Chaco

The most-photographed alignment in Chaco

Chaco boasts the largest preserved series of ancient Puebloan complexes. The architectural achievements alone are enough to marvel at. The scale and detail of the masonry are impressive. Five distinct styles can be seen that evolved over centuries, all using stone tools, eventually developing into a matrix of large sandstone blocks chinked with smaller stones set in mortar. To support the multi-levels above, the walls of some structures were built a yard thick at the base, then tapering as they went upward. Chaco shows signs that it had connections with civilizations as far south as Mesoamerica in some architectural influences, which means there must have been considerable travel and sharing of ideas over vast distances.

Several masonry styles are employed here

Several masonry styles are employed here

Pueblo Bonito, the most famous of the complexes, is estimated to have had around 600 rooms and 40 kivas, but archaeologists think that only a very few people lived there relative to its size, implying a residence for elites. Of course, this is all speculation because there was no written record left behind. There are other structures throughout the Chaco valley that seemed to have been inhabited by many more people. There is also evidence that Chaco engaged in trade with peoples to the south and in Mesoamerica. All this illustrates how much we don’t know about ancient America, the likely rich heritage and far-flung civilizations that left behind no records, all gone by the time Columbus arrived in the Americas. The Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and other tribes all claim ancestry to the Chacoans.

One of over a hundred rooms in Pueblo Bonito

One of over a hundred rooms in Pueblo Bonito

Damage to Chaco’s architecture, as throughout the Southwest, is extensive. Nature will takes its course since sandstone and mortar are not resistant to water and wind damage. We saw quite a few leaning structures or walls that tilted one way or the other. Behind Pueblo Bonito, a large sandstone block collapsed within the last 70 years that destroyed a back portion of the complex. It was called Threatening Wall for the longest time, and it lived up to its name. Humans, including early archaeologists, have also contributed to damage by removing or otherwise damaging some of the material, not to mention plundering ancient artifacts. One great 400-foot D-shaped wall behind Pueblo Bonito is supported by buttresses and modern cements used in places to prevent erosion, but there is internal debate within the Park Service as to how much it should intervene when modern-day Puebloans and Navajos urge that the structures be allowed to disintegrate on their own and “returned to the earth.”

Buttresses shore up sagging walls in Pueblo Bonito

Buttresses shore up sagging walls in Pueblo Bonito

To see the Great Kiva at the Chetro Ketl complex is to see the largest kiva ever constructed in the Southwest. It must have held hundreds of people during ceremonies, impressive in both scale and effort to create it. As a community, it was second in size to Pueblo Bonito, consisting of over 500 rooms.

Chetro Ketl's Great Kiva

Chetro Ketl’s Great Kiva

To our complete surprise, we had the good fortune of serendipitously having timed our arrival with the autumnal equinox. The campground filled up fast with people who arrived for this very purpose. We got up early to observe this astronomical phenomenon. At dusk on the mornings of September 23 and 24, at Casa Riconada (another complex) as you gaze eastward through two portals that are aligned east-west, the sun rises precisely through the center of the portals. Also, the leading edge of a bluff on the horizon marks exactly where the sun will rise. Furthermore, looking westward over the easternmost wall, its portal shadow will frame the western portal dead center. No one can say for sure whether this feature was intentional or not, but it is compelling enough that a volunteer archaeo-astronomer spends quite a bit of time studying and giving lectures about all the astronomical alignments throughout Chaco.

On the autumnal equinox, the sun rises through two portals aligned precisely east-west

On the autumnal equinox, the sun rises through two portals aligned precisely east-west

We were originally going to spend two nights camping at Chaco but decided to move on after a single night of freezing temperatures and soul-deadening freeze-dried food. We’re wimping out in our old age. One phenomenon we got to experience was the heavenly vault of the Milky Way in all its glory, a sight we modern humans rarely get to see. There were no clouds or light pollution to obscure all the stars in the sky as well as the belt of clouds that comprise billions of stars at the outer edge of our galaxy. It was really humbling.

Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion NP


The Canyon Overlook Trail is a nice, moderately difficult hike, but it’s so easy to miss. The trailhead doesn’t start from the valley floor but rather from just east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, 600ft above the valley floor. Entering or exiting Zion will also treat you to spectacular vistas as you take the winding road to reach the valley or tunnel.

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway ascends 600ft from the valley floor

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway ascends 600ft from the valley floor

The trail, which is only one-mile long, skirts a narrow ridge winding over and past slickrock that forms all sorts of strange, eroded rock shapes, which are previews to even stranger shapes that we’ll see later on our trip. The dominant geologic layer visible all around is Navajo sandstone showing off banded streaks of various shades of orange. The whitish areas were long ago removed of iron oxide that gives this rock its reddish color. Along the way, the trail ducks under impressive natural excavations.

The trail briefly passes under overhangs

The trail briefly passes under overhangs

From the trail, some examples of blind arches can be seen, formed from sections of rock that millions of years ago fell away to produce these arch-like excavations. The most spectacular one is The Great Arch of Zion that you can see from the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. At the end of the trail is a breathtaking overlook of the Zion Canyon looking west. In fact, this overlook sits atop The Great Arch.

Great Arch of Zion

Great Arch of Zion

Probably the most interesting and bizarre sights in the Southwest are the strange, sculpted rock formations called hoodoos, prominently featured at Bryce. But the handiwork of wind and water erosion is everywhere to be seen, taking on various, sometimes fantastical shapes depending on the sandstone material with which natural forces had to work. Even here at Zion, consisting mostly of the very hard Navajo sandstone, these outcroppings, shaped vaguely like mushrooms, are thought to have been created when a stupendous geologic force lifted up the plateau and gave water a faster, more forceful route to lower elevations. Smoothed over millions of years, these formations are a wonder to behold.

Aside from the spectacular geology, we also came across local flora and fauna.

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Virgin River Narrows, Zion NP


We’d been looking forward with some trepidation to this hike. Last time we were here in April 2008, it wasn’t possible because the currents were too strong and water levels too high. The Narrows at Zion National Park is not a hike in the traditional sense because it involves wading in the Virgin River virtually the entire length (save for a few sandbars here and there), in spots chest-deep. Most people do The Narrows in summertime when it’s a lot warmer. The intense Southwest heat gets considerably tempered by the water and high canyon walls that don’t admit as much sunshine.

Today, we finally got to hike The Narrows. First, we rented equipment from a local outfitter in Springdale, which included wooden hiking poles, waterproof boots and neoprene socks. The day didn’t start off so promisingly. A light drizzle was beginning to fall. Sucking it up, we decided to go ahead. The first step into the river took some adjustment, getting our feet entirely wet since the shoes and socks would do little to keep water out. The next mental and physical adjustment was getting used to walking on smooth, slippery rocks, most bigger than your feet, which meant that often we were struggling to keep our ankles straight. Hiking poles helped. I was certain that even the light precipitation overhead was accumulating in the river with thin sheets of water cascading down the canyon walls to raise the water level and boost the power of the current.

After we hiked a short distance upriver, we confronted our first test. A large depression in the river, like a bowl, made the water a lot deeper so that we had to wade chest-deep to get to the other side. At this point, you have to lift your belongings up in the air to keep them above water level, all the while maneuvering against the current. Oh, to be a little taller.

Most people hike to an area called Wall Street which is the deepest slot canyon in the world. Our attempt to reach Wall Street was thwarted by constant heavy drizzle which chilled us to the bone, almost to the point of hypothermia. We would have gone on if not for my wife’s sore ankle and my sore knee. Our lack of conditioning took its toll. We decided to turn back and had to retrace our steps in mild pain. The hike was definitely an experience.

The weather was much better on the following day (sunny with few clouds) so we thought it might have been better to have taken the hike then. But, we learned from a cashier in the Zion Lodge gift shop that, because of yesterday’s rains, the water level was higher and the flow rate stronger. Bottom line: you can never predict hiking conditions just by looking at the weather.

Word to the wise. Keep your electronics in a waterproof bag. I rented one from the outfitter. Dutifully, I took it out as needed when snapping photographs and put it back in when done. As you can imagine, this removes photographic spontaneity. At one point, I decided to chance it by hooking the camera strap over my neck and under one arm and proceeded to wade across the river. Bad idea. I slipped backward and the camera got submerged, though briefly. I yanked it out and hoped for the best. I wound up having to send the camera in for repairs. Human error like this is not covered under warranty. I repeat, keep electronics in a waterproof bag.

Check out this YouTube video of the Narrows hike (photographed by Amazing Places on Our Planet) taken only three weeks after ours. The water appears to be a lot calmer than when we went. Makes me envious.

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A Brief Visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park


It was a surprise to me—and probably a lot of other people, too—when I learned from my wife’s cousin that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in all of America. Even more than Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone. Hard to fathom.

One big reason is that there is no fee to enter the park. Tennessee can be thanked for adding the free-access stipulation when Newfound Gap Road, then the main artery for crossing the southern Appalachians, was transferred to federal jurisdiction. Lying between North Carolina and Tennessee, the park has over 800 square miles of protected land that hosts an incredible bounty of plant and animal life. Ample rainfall exceeded only by my own Pacific Northwest has produced a temperate rain forest. All that moisture gives rise to abundant condensation, giving the appearance of the characteristic blue smoke that seems to hover over the mountains.

One of the best ways to experience this diversity up close is to take a hike among the 800 miles of trails. Being wildflowers enthusiasts, my wife’s cousin and her husband, who live in Asheville, took us on a couple of hikes that showcased some of the over 1,500 wildflowers that bloom during the year.

We were also taken on a drive along the Newfound Gap Road along which are high-elevation lookouts with spectacular views of the Smokies. Their gently sloping sides are indicative of extreme age; geologists estimate 200-300 million years old. In the early summer, the hills are literally covered with spectacular catawba rhododendrons.

Our brief visit here only whetted our appetite for a return visit or two.

Catawba rhododendrons near Grassy Ridge (photo taken by the husband of my wife's cousin)

Catawbas ( June 2011) at Grassy Ridge (photo taken by JB, my wife’s cousin’s husband)

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Mt. Cook National Park (NZ)


At a viewing area along State Highway 80, where the tour bus made a temporary stop, there was a breathtaking vista of a portion of the Southern Alps. Without a doubt, the snow cover made for a most dramatic effect.

The tallest peak is Mount Cook (Aoraki, in Maori), the highest in all of New Zealand, which distinction makes it a favorite destination for mountain climbers, the most famous having been Sir Edmund Hillary, a native Kiwi.

We made a brief stop at Mount Cook National Park to have lunch and admire the scenery, though any views of Mount Cook could not be equalled by what we saw earlier. Still, from the Hermitage Hotel, you could get a glimpse of this towering mountain, one of over 140 peaks in the park and a large number of glaciers. At this time of year, only the cafeteria was open for lunch. On the exit door, a sign read: “Please do not feed the kea.”

Mount Cook from the Hermitage Hotel

Our attempts to take a short hike along some the tracks near the hotel were thwarted by snow cover, except for one. Outside, the most beautiful and delicate ice crystals formed on the plants.

Ice crystals formed delicate patterns on the leaves of plants

The park would certainly be worth a return visit when the weather is nicer.