To my surprise and delight I was warm enough in my tent last night though it was between 5-10 degrees below zero. I had three layers of merino on top, two on the bottom, my divine down booties (a new and much loved post Sweden purchase), a down jacket, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and two buffs, and of course my sleeping bag which is rated to minus 7 degrees. I got so hot I had to take the booties off. However I didn’t sleep much given the altitude, but I did get to see the most glorious stars from the tent and an amazing sunrise
Today started off slow – I am not moving that fast at 3000m and with a really heavy pack – those bear canisters weigh a tonne. I wandered around the basin for a while and checked out the gorgeous lakes
Then it was up past sunset lake to the first pass of the day – hurricane! There was a blizzard a week before but thankfully there wasn’t much snow left and you could find the trail. The reward for getting up to 3500m was a gob smacking view of the three boobs right up close
And below the pass the stunning schoolroom glacier and lake
After that, a lovely meander down the south fork of the cascade canyon, along a lovely gushing river and then back up the north fork of the cascade canyon to the inappropriately named solitude lake. The lake was lovely but busy
After that a lung busting 600m up to the paintbrush divide where I caught my last view of the Tetons from the west side
I am camping tonight at the lovely Holly Lake a little way down the paintbrush canyon. I arrived early but can’t really go further as I don’t have a permit for the campsites further on. Am cooking up Mac and cheese for dinner! Hopefully will get some more sleep tonight. I also have company tonight, Eric from California just showed up to pitch next door, so hopefully if we have nocturnal bear visitors that will head for his tent
From Alaska Basin to Holly Lake via the Hurricane Pass and the Paintbrush Divide
With hubby safely returned to his natural urban habitat after our Utah adventures, I headed up through the beautiful wide open spaces of Idaho (resisting the temptation to visit the potato museum) to the Teton National Park (named by early French settlers as the mountains look like boobs – trois Tetons = three boobs).
The plan was to spend four nights in the backcountry but I was a little bit worried by the recent snowfall, the forecast of subzero temperatures (minus 10), and of course the Bears!!! This was my first foray into bear country
The ranger reckoned I would be OK and gave me bear canister for my food (very much like the expression ‘don’t shit where you sleep’, in bear country you don’t eat where you sleep).
I went for a run that afternoon and broke all the rules on this sign! But I did manage to get some bear spray before I hit the trail for real!
I didn’t get off to an auspicious start, as with my usual crap urban navigation skills, I couldn’t find the trail head in Teton village. I had wanted to leave the car there as it was safer. But after 5km of wandering past McMansions, and meeting multiple construction workers who didn’t know where the trail was, I gave up and drove to the trailhead at Granite Canyon.
For the first seven miles I didn’t see anyone and was worried I would run into a bear at every corner. I contemplated holding the bear spray in my hands and going around every corner like a cop in a cheesy 80s sitcom but suppressed the urge (I felt less bad about this two days later when I ran into a guy doing precisely that). I eventually encountered some humans – a couple and then two guys, so no longer think I am completely nuts to be here.
After 15km, I reached the gorgeous Marion lake, and then shortly after traversed the Fox pass at 3000m to arrive at the Death Canyon Shelf which stretches above a deep canyon for 5km. This was where my permit allowed me to sleep tonight (long story, camping here requires permits which can be a pain but means it isn’t overcrowded or overused).
It was too early to stop so I continued over the Mt Meek pass and found a divine campsite 6km on at mirror lake! I cooked a lovely dinner and have now put every item of clothing on that I have and am in my tent hoping no bear comes to visit. Still at 3000m so have a bit of a headache but the view is worth it.
From Teton Village to Alaska Basin via the Granite Canyon
Stupidly I ignored my own advice and we headed up to Arches National Park when we arrived in Moab at lunchtime. It was like a nightmarish cross between buying a new kitchen in ikea and trying to shop on Oxford street on Christmas Eve – a positively vile and overcrowded experience. We gave up after an hour of bumper to bumper traffic, slow moving tourists and crowded carparks and made a plan to return in the morning at 6am
Instead, we drove up the Potash rd to hike to the spectacular Corona Arch! Not too many hikers and a lovely walk.
We diligently got up the next day at 5.50am, fuelled up on the free biscuits and gravy and cinnamon buns in the hotel and arrived in the park at the Windows viewpoint at 6.50am. I was less than amused to see 40 cars and a tour bus with a breakfast buffet laid out already occupying much of the room in the carpark. A quick stop to see Double Arch and we headed to the next stop….
We went next to Landscape Arch (the header photo) and managed to get in to see it before the 100 or so people behind us – quite lovely and as long as a football field
Finally, we climbed up to the delicate arch – obligatory tourist photo below. There was a queue to get under the arch and take your photo…… hmmmmmmf! by the time we got back to the carpark it was overflowing with cars and there was a queue to wait for people leaving. By this point I had had enough of other people, so we headed out of the park (around 10am) and were bemused by the one mile line of cars waiting to come through the visitors entrance
So, if your idea of a great national park experience is to drive (in a long queue) from viewpoint to viewpoint (waiting to get a carpark), getting out occasionally to walk a 500m loop to see something and then scuttling back to the car, then Arches is the perfect national park for you! Honestly, while there are lovely things to see – I would not come again!
we stayed in Moab – as was with hubby, we stayed at the Holiday Inn. However there is ample free BLM camping with nice sites up to the Potash Rd
Moab was the first good food we had had in a while – we loved the eggs benedict at the Jailhouse cafe, the two pigs and cow burgers at the Spoke, or even better the cheese burgers at Milts, the icecream at Crystals cakes and cones and the Moab ribbon pie at sweet cravings
If I was a bandit hiding from the law (especially pre drone and heat sensing technology) I would head straight to the Needles in Canyonlands! The terrain is bizarre, endless numbers of sandy canyons interrupted by giant red rock formations needling straight up from the ground.
You could hide out (or get lost) in these canyons for days. This park gets my vote as the loveliest national park so far – not the stunning views of Bruce or the fear inducing climbs of Zion, but endless lovely trails looping around the canyons with very very few people on them! The Rangers were the friendliest to date also!
We stayed for a few days, hubby under duress trying out camping for the second time since we got together 17 years ago (suffice to say the first outing ended in a hotel after one night). I love camping, especially in the back country! It’s quiet, you are outside, and there is nothing to worry about! Hubby is less persuaded and wasn’t entirely ecstatic this morning, after his night in a huge luxurious borrowed tent, sleeping on a top of the range thermarest – he reckons it was like sleeping on a plank. Oh well! There are no hotels here and he signed up for one more night 🙂
The hikes are all splendid and interconnecting, so depending on how energetic you are you can do as much or as little as you like.
At a minimum I would recommend hiking out to the Chesler Park viewpoint and doing the Chesler park loop (18k round trip). This includes a stunning part called ‘the joint trail’ which is a 500m section traversing a narrow crevasse.
You can camp in the park, in nearby BLM campgrounds, or the the privately run needles outpost. All the sites were more or less the same. We stayed at the outpost as they took advance bookings rather than first come first served. They also had an overpriced shop and paid showers. Water is free at the visitors centre so stock up there versus paying in the camping.
Given we were in the vicinity, we popped by the Grand Canyon. We first visited 16 years ago, and have been a few times since, and it hasn’t changed much. It’s still stunning and there are still way too many people. But I would still recommend going, and applying my standard advice of ‘go early and go further’, ie hit the trails by 7am and head out on a long hike and that way you will see very few people*
I had a lovely morning running the 16 mile loop trail from the South Kaibab trailhead to the Bright Angel campground on the Colorado river, and then back up to the rim on the bright Angel trail (1500m down and then back up). The Rangers recommend against trying to do it in one day (including posting graphic signs on the trail of people barfing to try to dissuade you) but if you are fit it is an easy day hike or a great run. You don’t see as many people as you would expect, though you start to hit crowds in the last 2-3 miles uphill. One day I am keen to try the rim to rim to rim where you add an extra 28 miles to my itinerary by visiting the north rim also – but given it is a 12-14 hour mission, I am looking for company so let me know if anyone is keen
We also had a lovely stroll along the rim from the village to hermits rest – given most people take the shuttle buses everywhere, you will have the path to yourself, especially at 8 am. The canyon views are stunning!
Heading out to the canyonlands national park, we also stopped over at Monument Valley, which is worth the $20 entrance fee (which goes to the Navajo nation :-)) to drive around the valley, especially at sunset. It is a few hours drive from the Grand Canyon and another few hours from there to Canyonlands
– we stayed at the budget maswik lodge at the Grand canyon. I’ve stayed at the El Tovar and the Bright Angel lodge before and neither is worth the premium
– at Monument Valley we stayed in a tipi at the Tipi village, run by the delightful Bob – highly recommended
*Side note – where are the people?
While I think the US national parks are overcrowded with 4wds and Rvs, there are surprisingly few people in what is described here as the ‘backcountry’ (what we would call the bush in NZ). Maybe it is because they don’t like walking much, but as a percentage of population you will see way fewer people on most long trails here than you would see on comparable trails in Europe or NZ. If you like hiking, definitely come to the US, just make sure you do the longer tougher trails and you will likely have them mostly to yourself
We are still in the under-rated Vermilion cliffs national park – a fantastically surreal landscape of reds and pinks and whites – which most people drive past without exploring on their way from the Grand Canyon to Zion or Bryce. Today we headed out on the rough 4wd road to White Pocket, a stunning area for which no permit is required (yet!)
Apparently no one knows how this pocket of landscape was formed – swirls of red and white, bizarre ‘brain like’ rock surfaces, odd shaped cliffs, yellow ‘oyster’ formations and the odd ‘pocket’ of water.
We spent a good four hours wandering around and could have happily spent longer – the light in the evening and at sunrise would have been spectacular
We hired a photography guide with a 4wd to take us there as we didn’t have the right car and the maps aren’t helpful at identifying the best places to go. It was expensive but worth it for us as we didn’t have a 4wd and the guide was good. We booked through grand circle tours who were pretty disorganised so I would advise going direct to Gary at email@example.com who is a fine art photographer and guide
If we were doing it again, I would take a 4wd and a tent and stay overnight to take advantage of the evening and morning light. There is no water and no facilities, but ‘no trace’ camping is allowed
Two amusing notes on Utah
– without fail, anyone you meet who isn’t a Mormon will let you know that within 30 minutes. Some people let us know they were not of the ‘predominant faith’ before they told us their names! If someone hasn’t told you they aren’t Mormon and you are in Utah, assume they are
– liquor licensing laws here are quite amusing. You will find booze easily in places that serve food, but lots of places, including taverns and grocery stores, are only allowed to sell relatively low alcohol ‘near-beer’.
The Buckskin Gulch is rated as one of the most lethal hikes in the US – it’s the longest uninterrupted slot canyon in the world. It runs for 11 miles and in parts is so narrow your shoulders touch the sides. Any hint of rain and you should absolutely not start hiking – the logs and debris you see wedged in between the rocks 50 metres above your head are more than sufficient evidence of the power of the flash floods that torrent through these walls.
My ‘top five global day hike’ list is getting reshuffled again, as this is a must do! Some people overnight in the canyon (permits required and available in advance online), but it is a relatively easy 16 mile day hike if you leave your car at White House campground (the end of the hike) and organise a shuttle to the start at wire pass (most operators in Kanab will do this for you). A permit is required for day use but can be bought at the trail head.
Better would be to leave your car at wire pass, hike the canyon in one direction the first day, camp at White House and walk back to your car the next day (requires two day permits). It may sound bonkers to walk the same trail twice but it genuinely looks different coming in the other direction and the light changes how the rock looks constantly throughout the day
We were mesmerised by the light on the walls and the fact that the canyon looked different as we turned every corner. Like much of this region it is hard to do justice to the landscape with the camera, so you really need to come see for yourself. I have never seen anything like this anywhere in the world (for those of you who have been to Petra in Jordan, it is just like the canyon leading up to the treasury BUT instead of only running for 100m it goes for miles, has no tourists and is redder, so yup, I have never seen anything close to this in my life!)
The walk is pretty easy for most of the trail. In the early section from wire psd there is a 2m drop that you need to navigate down by wedging your back against the wall. In later sections, including the notorious ‘cesspools’, you may need to get up to chest deep in stinky mud (really stinky sewage smelling mud, hence the name). None of this is difficult, but go prepared. The only other people we saw in the gulch we met at one of the stinky water areas where everyone was clubbing together to gather big rocks and throw them in the water so we could have some stepping stones.
There is also no water in the gulch or at wire pass trail head, so pack accordingly.
Side note – getting to the wave
If you are coming to the area it is worth trying to get a permit to visit Coyote Buttes North a.k.a ‘the wave’. You can apply online three months in advance, and the odds are about 1/300 for the ten permits available. Another ten permits are available for walk ins at the visitor centre in Kanab the day before, where your odds are better (depending on the season but we were 1/90). The process is fair and easy, you turn up to the ranger station between 8.30-9.00 to complete an application and they run a lottery (using the old fashion wooden bingo balls in the cage) to see who gets to go. We sacrificed getting to do the whole buckskin gulch in a day to try and get permits and were unsuccessful, but it was worth it to give it a shot. Several people were there for their 5th or 6th lotteries, and apparently the record is a German couple who attended 38 consecutive lotteries before being successful. What the hell you would do in Kanab for 38 days is beyond me….
We did contemplate trying to find our way their without a permit but a) part of me respects the Parks decision to limit visitors to protect the area, and they run a fair process and b) part of me didn’t want to be busted by the Rangers and pay the $1500 fine
We stayed in Kanab as a base to visit the buckskin. We had booked the cheapo sun n sand, but the dodgy owner claimed to have lost our reservation. So we ended up sleeping in a basement room at the barber shop motel for $78 per night as all other options were $250 per night. Kanab has plenty of accommodation but is wildly overpriced and touristy! If you have a tent you can camp anywhere on BLM land for free provided you are 500 feet from a road.
Everyone in Kanab recommends Escobars for Mexican food. I don’t think any of them have been to Mexico – worst and blandest Mexican I have ever eaten! I don’t think this is the fault of the Mexican owners, more a problem of them catering to local taste buds. Instead go and eat at Rocking V cafe where the bison steak and key lime pie are stonkingly good
It is easy to understand why Bryce is one of the most popular parks in the US. Most other parks in the US make you work hard to see the best they have to offer – at the Grand Canyon, you really need to go to the river to get the most of the experience (a beautiful but tough day walk down and back up 1500 m of elevation), at Zion you need to wade through the river up to the Narrows or sweat a bit to climb 500m up to see the views from Angels Landing. Not Bryce, Bryce just puts it all out there for you, and for the majority of visitors that just walk the 100m from the bus to the rim, they are rewarded for their minimal efforts with the best view the park has to offer. Bryce is not playing hard to get.
So, if you want to do it the easy way, Bryce is for you. However, of course I am going to recommend you do a bit of hiking as well. The trails are short and relatively easy, and we did them all (Queens, Fairyland, Navajo, Peekaboo and the Rim) – some walking, some running. Some of the climbs were breathtaking, as we weren’t quite acclimatised to the 2500m altitude. There are more people on the shorter trails so make sure you hit the long ones. I ran fairyland at 8.30 and apart from a few people near the trail head I only saw two people in an hour.
Most of the guide books say you don’t need more than a day at Bryce, and that is probably right – even covering all the hikes, we needed less than 24 hours. But what a 24 hours!
Food options in and near the park are limited and largely fried. We came prepared with vegetables, salad, cold cuts, fruit and yogurt
Lodging options are relatively limited – we stayed at the Best Western outside of the park as it had wifi, a fridge and a microwave. It also had a pool and gym. If you are really bored it had an incredibly tacky giftshop. The lodge in the canyon is nice but basic.
Get thee to the Zion Narrows – in my opinion one of the top five day hikes in the world…..
In a rare turn of events, hubby and I are on a hiking holiday together! Being French (well Parisian), camping and hiking are not typically high up on his list of preferred activities, so I was somewhat surprised when his holiday choice for this year was a tour of the US national parks. We have put together a compromise itinerary which will overjoy neither of us (too many hotels and not enough mileage for me, and too much camping and hiking for him), but hopefully we will have a fabulous time regardless.
First stop on the itinerary, once we had swiftly vacated the human cesspool that is Las Vegas, is Zion National park! Our favourite experiences:
Virgin narrows – top down
Without doubt one of the top five day walks of my life! Apparently it is 16 miles long and should be done over two days, or a 12.5 ‘strenuous’ day hike. We clocked more like 20 miles, but we meandered, took a thousand photos, and stopped for lunch and it took us 7.5 hours. The trail is actually the river and for much of the distance it is in deep slot canyons, with sheer cliffs towering above you on both sides. The photos don’t really do it justice as it is hard to appreciate the scale of the cliffs, but you can see I am dwarfed by the cliffs :-).
Expect to be knee deep in water for much of the day. I got to waist deep, but apparently in bad weather it can get up to your chest. In really bad weather you aren’t allowed to go as the flash floods will kill you. Both hubby and I had the most amazing day. Irritatingly even though I am much much fitter than him (10x), he kicked my butt today as he has the agility of a mountain goat on slippery rocks and through rivers. In a record though, I only fell once, and so did he.
There were two downsides to this trail. 1. It is mandatory to have a permit to do the full top down trail and these go like hot cakes. I booked three months ago to the day and got the last one. The bonus about this is that there were only about ten people on the trail for the permitted area which was the first half of the hike. 2. The last hour is like an episode of ‘dumb and dumber tourists’. Park visitors are allowed to come up river, and while some of them have the right gear, some of them are laughably ill equipped and out of shape. Ok, so we did giggle at people trying to walk in bare feet or struggling in the deep end when there was an obvious shallow crossing, but the closer we got to the trail end the more of them there were, and I got close to whacking a few people with my poles as they were irritating me with their dufusness.
Angels landing and the west rim trail
Definitely worth an early wake up to get the first shuttle into the park at 6am. With head torches on we headed up the 400m climb to scouts landing to the beginning of the steep trail up to Angels landing. Normally I can control my vertigo, but with 300m plus drop offs on both sides of the exposed ridge there was just no way I was going up, or worse having to negotiate my way down past the hordes of people that were coming up the hill, and that was before I saw the sign that said six people had died making the climb. Hubby went to the top, while I did a couple of extra miles on the well graded west rim trail and watched the sun come up. Hubby walked back down and caught the bus, but I jogged back down the trail and along the Kayenta to see the emerald pools and then down the sand bench trail – it’s a lovely easy 10k jog, you just need to dodge the surprised tourists
This was the bus drivers vote for the best trail in the park, and it was fantastic. Many fewer people than angels landing and it went higher. A wonderful place to watch the sunset and contemplat life, and late afternoon is the perfect time to head up as much of the path is in the shade. If you have time, take the detour to hidden canyon. Apparently it takes 8 hours to do the 8 miles round trip, but it took me 3….. I am assuming the park service doesn’t want to have any liability risk so they massively pad the timings.
The kolob arch
On the little visited east side of Zion there is a ‘strenuous’ day hike to the longest free standing rock arch in the world, which the guide book recommended as a two day walk (it was only 22km). It was a nice walk through the canyon alongside some pretty streams, but the arch was somewhat anticlimactic when we got there. Hubby did try and get up under the arch on a hairy non existent trail but didn’t succeed. On the way back, I was itching for some speed so ran up the hill to the trail head, surprising the crap out of the hikers I jogged past. It was nice but not amazeballs
We visited in September and were astounded by the volume of people. Lunchtime queues for the park shuttle buses were looooong. We got in early, hiked and headed back to town for lunch and then came back for the late afternoon. We definitely got the best light this way and avoided the worst of the crowds
Permits are a must for backcountry hiking and the top down day hike…. get yours here
We stayed at the Zion park motel, the cheapest in town at $92, and perfectly fine
Don’t expect to find anything remotely healthy to eat, but you can get absurdly overpriced groceries at the Sol supermarket. If you are not trying to be healthy the burgers at Wildcat Willies with sweet potato fries, followed by the chocolates at the Springdale candy company is a pretty robust refuel after a long day on the trails!
Kiev – not just famous for the awesome deepfried breadcrumbed chicken with garlic and butter, also a destination to visit for the amazing orthodox architecture and for the more adventurous, the opportunity to visit Chernobyl. I loved Kiev and can’t wait to go again, provided you have a European passport, it is a cheap, lovely and easy place to go for a fabulous long weekend.
Kiev is a wonderfully walkable city which is safe and lovely. The highlights of our weekend were
Walk around town and see the amazing architecture
Wander up Andriivs’kyi Uzviz (Andrew’s descent). This is a lovely old street with nice shops, albeit some of them are a bit touristy. At the top there is the lovely St Andrews church, designed by an Italian architect.
Then head down to the sky blue St Michaels Monastery which is quite lovely, and cross over to see St Sofias – Kiev’s oldest standing church. You can easily see the highlights of Kiev old town in a 30 minute walk, but I would stretch it out to a couple of hours to see everything. Ladies – don’t forget to cover your head when you visit the churches (either a scarf or a hoody works)
You can also wander a bit further and see St Volodymyrs cathedral and then walk down to Independence Square through the modern bit of town. Less lovely, but still interesting
Walk/Bus out to Lavra to see the monastery
Kiev Pechersk Lavra is a monastery based on a 900 year old underground cave system which still has mummified remains of the founding monks. Visiting the caves is a pilgrimage for many who walk the tunnels with lighted candles. Behave appropriately. Outside of the tunnels the orthodox church architecture above ground are beautiful
Head up to Chernobyl
I didn’t actually visit Chernobyl as had concussion and wasn’t up for the drive, but my darling hubby did and found it pretty interesting (photo’s are his). There are multiple tour options to head out there, all of which involve a bus, tour guide and a meal of some sorts. Interestingly, darling hubby did think that the Chernobyl experience was somewhat ‘curated’ as there were a few places where oxygen masks were artfully displayed alongside kids tours.
Eat Chicken Kiev
We had intended to try a couple of different restaurants in Kiev, but after the first meal at Kanapa we just kept going back. It is expensive for Ukraine, but the food was astoundingly good. I would be tempted to go back to Kiev just to eat their Chicken Kiev. In addition to Kanapa, there were plenty of good cafes serving great fruit pie.
We were in luxe mode this weekend and we stayed at the Fairmont Grand Hotel Kyiv, which was pricy but cheaper than the Radisson or the Hyatt It was nice enough, but the breakfast was a bit pants. Hotels were expensive here!
the town is very easy to walk around, don’t bother with cabs
The free in your pocket guides are pretty good and can be downloaded here