National Park Week: Bryce Canyon and the mystical hoodoos

When is a canyon not a canyon? When it is actually a collection of giant amphitheatres. Bryce Canyon may have a deceptive name, but there is nothing misleading about its beauty.

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Only a couple of hours away from Zion National Park, Bryce was a quieter place to stop and explore for a night. We again got lucky and snagged one of the last available campsites, with the two campgrounds filling up for the final weekend of National Park Week. Once we had sorted out the tent and grabbed some food to cook that night, it was off to explore via the scenic drive. I am particularly impressed by the emphasis the National Park Service places on accessibility. Whilst there are loads of options for people who want to explore further, for anyone who is unable (or simply less inclined) to set out on a hike easy access has been arranged. Roads are maintained and link together a lot of beautiful sites. As well as this, individuals with permanent disabilities are eligible for an Access Pass, which allows for free entry to the parks, whilst senior citizens can obtain a lifetime pass for just $10. It is just another thing that impresses me about the National Park Service.

Bryce is known for its intriguing hoodoos, the rock formations that emerge out of the ground. According to the Bryce Canyon website, it is not flowing water that has carved out the landscape – instead it is a result of ‘frost-wedging’. For more than half of the year, the temperature gets above and below freezing on a daily basis. This causes the water to seep into fractures in the rock during the day, then freeze and expand at night to chip away at the rock. The result is the landscape we see today (which is therefore in a continuous state of change).

We opted to enjoy the formations from the lookout points this time, as we arrived late and would be leaving early the next day. From our vantage points, snow was still visible in the amphitheatre, and the towering hoodoos looked like something from a far fetched fairytale.

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It is the kind of place where you can imagine spending a day getting lost in the world of hoodoos. Alas, we stayed at the top and looked down upon the magical land of Bryce Canyon, before heading back to our campsite for dinner. The regular appearances of fire grills have allowed Ashby’s inner pyromaniac come to the fore, and meant my contributions to dinner have been the simple role of observer.

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Despite not venturing into the ampitheatre, we did decide to wake up early the next morning and check out the hoodoos as the sun rose. I can report that the below freezing temperatures certainly happened when we were there, and it was jolly cold getting up. And, as luck would have it, we also choose the morning where the cloud cover interfered with the sunrise. I admit, I chickened out and only lasted about ten minutes at the viewpoint before my extremities got too cold, leaving Ashby to continue his photo taking. Despite the cloud, he still got some lovely photographs.

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With feeling returning to our fingers, we returned to the tent to pack up, grab a cooked breakfast from a nearby restaurant, and then got back on the road again. Next stop: the gods’ playground, Arches National Park.

National Park Week: Zion

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There is a beautiful legend regarding the naming of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. An explorer of the name of Frederick Fisher looked skyward in 1916 and exclaimed that only an angel could land upon it. Ten years later, two park service employees, Thomas Chalmers Vint and Walter Ruesch, set about proving him wrong. The impressive trail was eventually listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and is now one of the greatest day hikes anywhere.

Ashby and I set out with the intention to use National Park week as something of a sampler. We wanted to see what was on offer, and perhaps mark out places to return. For me, on my second visit to this remarkable spot, returning to Zion was something particularly special. I wanted to share this place with my husband, introduce him to the most beautiful place I have ever been.

Horseshoe Bend and the majesty of the Colorado River

In a move perhaps unsurprising to those who know me, I rather grossly underestimated our drive time from the Grand Canyon to Zion. In my flurry of planning, I had confused my distances, and the result was an unexpectedly long drive day. Luckily, we had a host of podcasts to listen to, and a special stop along the way – Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.

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This rather lovely sight is only a short walk from the interstate. The almost hidden nature of it adds to its beauty, as it is so close yet so easy to miss from the road. It is technically a meander of the Colorado River, and we spied kayakers in the water below. A stunning example of the beauty within the rocks.

Campground Full

Driving on from here, we made it to Zion in the early evening and arrived to the dreaded campground full sign. This park in particular is rather notorious for difficulty in securing a campsite, and alas we were too late. However, another campground was available just on the edge of the park and we snagged a spot there. It was a little more expensive, but came with such luxuries as showers, and wifi. The sites were rather cramped, however, and missing that special touch that the National Park Service offers.

Walking with the Angels

We slept well and arose early to tackle Angel’s Landing. This is one of the hikes available at Zion, and a particularly notorious one at that. A quick google for information and one of the first things that come up are figures of just how many people have fallen when doing the walk. However, it is an accessible walk, as long as you are smart, and take your time. Getting to the trail is straightforward, as there are shuttles to get you around the park. The first part of the climb is just a tough slog uphill, including the Walter’s Wiggles – a lovely stretch of switchbacks to get you puffing.

Once you get to Scout’s Landing, then the fun really begins. This is the final spot for a lot of people and really does allow you to appreciate the beauty. The next step does not work if you have any fear of heights, because it is a long way up and some sheer drops down. Thankfully, someone else has put together a wee video just so those at home can appreciate it (Mum, I know you will love this one).

It is a bit of a highway getting up and down, but at the end you will come to one of the most magical places in the world.

Driving out, we stopped often to take in the view and snap some more photographs. Ashby had scoffed a little when I said Zion was more breathtaking than the Grand Canyon… Both places are different, but Zion wins in my books. I think it is because you cannot help but be confronted with the stunning landscape.

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One day, I intend to spend a week camping in Zion National Park. There are a hosts of other hikes I want to go on, and hours to spend just soaking in the beauty. It really is one of my most favourite places.

Journeys in America: The Grand Canyon, the mountain lion and wildlife corridors

It is impossible to grasp the scale of the Grand Canyon as you stand at one of the vantage points looking out. At about 433km long, and on average 18km wide, it is visible from space. But the Canyon itself is only one part of the National Park that surrounds it. The vast majority of the 4930 km² park is home to an array of wildlife. This includes the mountain lion.

One of the impressive aspects of America’s National Park Service is the emphasis placed on education. There are a range of programmes available for children, offering them a chance to learn about the environment that surrounds them. For the adults, there are talks on a variety of topics. When we visited the Grand Canyon, we went along to listen to an excellent talk: ‘God of Hunters: The Mountain Lion’ which was presented by one of the rangers at the park. The expectation was to learn more about the animal, yet this went well beyond that. From understanding the interaction of humans and nature, through to appreciating the beauty that is the mountain lion, I walked away feeling both informed and excited to learn more about the merging of nature and civilisation.

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First, some quick facts. The mountain lion is known by a multitude of names. You have heard of pumas, cougars and panthers as well? They are all the same animal: Puma concolor. The San Diego zoo website has a good summary about the mountain lion which is well worth a read. Perhaps most striking is its jumping stats. They can jump 5.5m from the ground into a tree, and they can jump 6.1m up or down a hillside. Yep, 6.1m – the height of many two story buildings.

The mountain lion is a striking predator, but the risk to humans is actually pretty minimal. For the most part, they simply stay away from humans where possible. Where the natural habitat has been impacted, there can be more interaction with people and their livestock. Unfortunately, there are fatal attacks on humans – normally children or lone adults – but the numbers are minimal. In a study of mountain lions in the Grand Canyon, they found that there was little evidence of the mountain lions venturing into the areas where humans were most prevalent. Instead, the cats stayed in the shadows and hunted elsewhere in the expansive park. Learning how to share the space is important; whilst there was a drive to eradicate the mountain lion, it is now understood that they play a crucial role in the North American ecosystem.

Two biologists from Oregon State University, William Ripple and Robert Beschta, study the impact of predators on the ecosystem. One of the intriguing aspects of their research for me is the demonstration of how removing predators can have unforeseen consequences lower down the food chain. In a study of Zion and Yosemite national parks, they found that the scarcity of predators (in this case the mountain lion) led to an increase in deer population. The consequence: a substantial decrease in biodiversity. This can be seen in the case of Zion Canyon, where the biologists report that:

Increases in human visitors in Zion Canyon apparently reduced cougar (Puma concolor) densities, which subsequently led to higher mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) densities, higher browsing intensities and reduced recruitment of riparian cottonwood trees (Populus fremon- tii), increased bank erosion, and reductions in both terrestrial and aquatic species abundance.

That is, ecological change comes not only from changes at the bottom (where humans impact natural food sources etc), but can also be a result of altering the top of the food chain. Predators, such as the mountain lion in America, play an important role in maintaining ecological balance. Through continuing to understand them, we can learn how to live side by side with them.

So, the question looms over how to work with the mountain lion so that they can continue their role in ecosystem, whilst also reducing the fatal encounters with humans. One of the intriguing ideas presented at the ranger talk we attended was the concept of wildlife corridors. A big challenge for wild animals is the human alteration of the environment. When humans encroach into what has been a hunting ground for centuries, the consequences can be dire for the animals who called that home, and ultimately humans as well. Finding a middle ground allows for conserved space for the likes of the mountain lion to call home. There are large swaths of land that has been deemed public space in the United States and, as a result, conservation efforts have been able to reestablish populations of animals who were once struggling to maintain numbers. The mountain lion is not considered to be a threatened species, a result of a change of human ideas around the cat – from pest to an important part of the ecological system. (Also of note, mountain lions are a self regulating species – they are a cannibalistic animal, with older males in particular committing acts of infanticide. Their preference for isolation and large spaces means that they will control the population spread effectively.) However, there is still work to be done in ensuring their continued place within the ever-changing landscape.

The next stage is supporting the migratory patterns of animals throughout the American continent. Borrowing from ideas successfully implemented in Europe and Canada, there is a move towards implementing wildlife corridors. These allow for the safe passage of animals across major highways – which benefits both animals and humans through a reduction in collisions.

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A wildlife overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park, British Columbia. The Park is a leader in highway mitigation, part of a 30-year-old initiative that has installed 44 crossing structures. Credit, Adam Ford, Highwaywilding.org

On our drive east, we were lucky enough to see a newly established wildlife crossing in action in Colorado. A long length of fence has been installed along both sides of the roadside, helping to corral animals into tunnels and over bridges – avoiding cars along a notorious stretch of road. It’s working too, within days the animals were safely crossing over or under the road.

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Wildlife crossing (credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife)

One of the big disadvantages of this approach is the cost. Someone needs to be able to pay for these, and in a country with an awful lot of roads it is going to be astronomical to attempt to instigate wholesale change overnight. However, with ongoing discussion about the importance of improving the American infrastructure, there is surely space to consider the environmental impact alongside upgrades. Allowing space for American wildlife alongside the development of the American infrastructure will ultimately benefit everyone.

If you are interested, you can donate to the program (I’m not sure how this works outside of the US) to support these beautiful animals in the Grand Canyon. Details here.

National Park Week: The beauty of the Grand Canyon

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Cedar Ridge, South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon has been a drawcard for visitors well before it was decreed a national park in 1919. Native American tribes have called this area home for thousands of years, and tourism has been a feature since the nineteenth century. I cannot imagine ever being able to look out at the view without being awestruck – the sheer scale cannot be appreciated through photographs.

There is ongoing debate amongst geologists regarding the specifics of how the Canyon was formed, and just when the formation took place. However, there is a general agreement that over millions of years the Colorado River and its tributaries cut out the canyon we see today. For a more detailed discussion, you can look here. The result is breathtaking, and lures you back for repeat visits.

Both Ashby and I have visited the Canyon before, but under quite different circumstances. I was here five years ago as part of a Trek America trip I did across the US. We camped out and I hiked into the Canyon. Ashby came here as a small boy, travelling across America with his Mum. We opted to stay two nights as we had a long drive day to get to the Canyon, and wanted the chance to hike down. Luckily enough, we managed to snag one of the last available campsites – the campground full sign went up not long after.

Camping at the Grand Canyon is a cool experience. It’s cost effective and close to the action. Each site has a fire pit, picnic table and good amount of space to call your own. There is a great set up, with grocery stores, restaurants, and lodging available if you want it. Millions visit each year but it is still possible to find your own little spots of solitude (at least when you visit in April – summer might be a little more difficult). The weather varies from snow in winter, through to be 40°C days in summer. The shoulder seasons appear to be the best time to visit, particularly if you want to hike.

Hiking the Grand Canyon

We opted to do the South Kaibab trail, mainly because it is touted as one of the more stunning day hikes to do in the Canyon. Whilst I had done this particular walk before, it was five years ago and my memory for these things is not the best. Conscious of the warm weather, and the deceptiveness of walking downhill first (oh so easy to overestimate your ability to get back up) we set out midmorning.

We made it down to Skeleton Point for our lunch break. The Colorado River snakes along the Canyon floor below and a multi-day rafting mission along it has now been added to both of our bucket lists. Any activity in the Canyon itself requires some pretty intense planning, as mule rides, rafting and accommodation are often booked months in advance.

The walk up is obviously slower, but a good time to stop to admire the view. We took our time, but this was quite an accessible walk (despite my lack of fitness) as long as you have plenty of food and water. Mind you, it was warm enough in spring time – I do not think I would want to tackle this during the heat of summer!

One of the real highlights, however, of our visit to the Grand Canyon was hearing a Ranger Talk on the wondrous creature that is the Mountain Lion. It deserves more than a few lines, so I will reflect more on that in my next blog.

National Park Week: Camping in Lake Mead and admiring the Hoover Dam

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The Hoover Dam in all its glory

When you are married to an engineer, you learn to appreciate things you may not have in the past. Bridges, tunnels and dams become things to stop and look at. To be fair, I think anyone would stop and check out the Hoover Dam if they were going past – but this was a must-visit on our trip.

The dam was constructed in the 1930s and is widely regarded as an engineering marvel. You can read a bit more about it here, or watch a short educational video…

You can only imagine how my engineering husband geeked out when he got to see all of this in person. We did the tour (though the tour leader appeared to be pained repeating the same information for the umpteenth time as we were headed through), and checked it out at sunset. As a side note, there is a rather impressive bridge which now sits alongside the dam. It was pretty cool.

Visiting the Hoover Dam gave as an opportunity to visit another site administered by the National Park Service – Lake Mead National Recreation Area. We camped here for a night, and I relished such facilities as flush toilets. It is also nice and close to the townships of Boulder City (established to house the huge numbers of people who came to construct the Dam in the 1930s), and not too far away from Las Vegas (which we drove through briefly). As I touched on previously, the lake’s water level is a lot lower now than it has been previously. However, it still offered a pleasant site to camp.

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Camping at Lake Mead

Next stop: the wonder of the Grand Canyon!

The disappearing Lake Mead

 

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Lake Mead – note the waterline

There is nothing quite like driving through the desert to reinforce the importance of water to our understanding of civilisation. While nature has adapted ways of survival with minimal water, we have been driven by ways to control the environment so as to maintain our sense of civilisation. Not only do we need enough to drink to stay alive, we also have a host of other uses that quickly suck it up. We grow crops, shower daily, mop our floors and wash our dishes. Civilisation needs water, even in the desert.

As you drive through the desert there is an appreciation of how the spread of settlers across the American continent, and into the Wild West, meant there was a need to adapt their surroundings if civilisation was to be established. Over time, grand solutions have been found which allow humans to make their homes in the desert of the American southwest. However, this method can utilise, redirect or store the water that flows down – but it does not create it. For that, we need Mother Nature.

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Lake Mead in 1983 following record rainfall (By Bureau of Reclamation photographer)

I make no claim to be anything resembling a climate change expert. What I do know, is that travelling through California there was a lot of discussion around the drought conditions there. Visiting Lake Mead in Nevada highlighted to me how attempts to control water can only extend to manipulating its flow. The lake is manmade, formed by the Hoover Dam. The water in Lake Mead comes from the Rocky Mountains – snow falls, melts and then flows down the Colorado River. When the conditions change and less water flows down, then the water level at Lake Mead reduces. Since the year 2000, a persistent drought has hit the Colorado River, so the water level at Lake Mead continues to drop. This has impacted the electricity output from Hoover Dam. The impact of this is significant, and I thought this video offered an interesting insight into this.

Visually, the impact of dropping water levels is significant. This challenge is one for which a solution will need to be found if humans are going to continue to live in the desert of the American southwest.