Monday, 24 September 2012

Grand Canyon, Vegas and Death Valley: Early starts, wet t-shirt competitons and flamingoes

5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year for, on average for 2 hours, and only about 1% make the journey down to the bottom where the temperature can be 20c hotter, rattlesnakes are common and water sources unreliable en route.  With a list of attractions like that, we couldn't resist.

We based ourselves at the less popular North Rim which sits on the higher, cooler, green Kaibab plateau. The canyon is awesome in the true sense of the world and a full moon rising shortly after a fiery sunset certainly didn't detract.  But I’ll admit; we were a bit nervous about the next day.  The park literature makes a summer descent in the heat sound a bit insane and even a little dangerous.  We'd chosen the longer 28 mile route and seemed to have budgeted half the normal time to do it.  The advice was to complete all hiking by 10am so it was an early night...

...followed by an early start; alarm at 4am and we were on the trail by 5.  It took 7 miles to drop to almost the bottom, then another 7 to reach the mighty Colorado river 1000m below the rim.  And actually, it was pretty easy; with only 1 hour not in the dark or shade we arrived at our campground at 11.30.  Plus, it was all downhill, though you knew what goes down must come up....
It was actually pretty comfy
We had no tent, sleeping bags or stove to save weight, (at 38 in the shade we didn't get too cold) and so rigged up a survival blanket for a quick afternoon nap.  Every activity factored in a trip to the river to soak t-shirts in the cold water to try and regulate our temps (it stayed around 50 in the sun all day).  The highlight was an extra 3mile hike at 4pm half way up the South Rim with phenomenal views and another great sunset.  If we hadn't been quite so cautious we realised we could have attempted the Rim to Rim to Rim, but always good to leave a challenge for next time...

A 3am start got us to the top by 10.45 (yes, weirdly it took us roughly the same time to get down and up), but 45min in the full sun was enough for me to feel a bit strange - must be lack of sodium which convinced me to eat a whole tube of Pringles (except for those stolen by a chipmunk after I dozed off).  Pizza, a rare shower and beer completed an awesome trip.  We left the empty green plateau, drove through the empty desert and felt rather surprised to arrive at...
Las Vegas, baby!  If you've been, you'll know how crazy it is if you haven't here's a summary:

Our low key hotel
- they've built the streets of Venice inside a hotel, gondolas on canals on the third floor (I've been to Venice, this was identical but cleaner);
- they've rebuilt Paris, including the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, replete with Gordon Ramsay's face on it, (I've been to Paris, it was pretty similar, but the waitresses were more polite);
- you can gamble wherever you want, whenever you want, whatever you want but we didn't because my great great grandmother (the Countess Voltaira dontcha know) lost all her money gambling in Monte Carlo so I can't touch it; and
- girls, girls, girls are available everywhere ("in your room in 20 minutes") - not nice, now it becomes clear why so many conferences happen in Vegas.

Zabriskie point, Death Valley NP
Awesome to see, but having driven through hundreds of miles of desert it's pretty obvious it's about 200% not sustainable.  In 1000 years humans (if there are any left) will pick over the ruins and hold it as an example that, despite all the technology of the 21st century, we couldn't magic up water. However, it could serve incredibly realistic French food about 8000 miles from Paris so that was a bonus.
And, after 30 minutes of enforced pool time (by me) we headed to our Park 8: Death Valley.  Officially the hottest place on earth, can I admit we were a tiny bit pleased to be in a car with air con?  For some reason, I had forgotten that valleys need mountains on either side, so the 3000m peaks on either side were somewhat of a surprise. 

Don't worry, he came back
We waited until 5pm to do the obligatory walk on the salt flats at the lowest point in the US (the water in Badwater certainly didn't look inviting) but it was still roasty toasty.  And even with my desire to tick everything off from the guidebook, the walk on sand dunes in 46c was too much and I fled to the car.  Our campsite was luckily 2000m higher than the valley floor so not too hot to sleep.  But most excitingly we spotted a newly-discovered-in-the-park-newspaper-species, a tiny, non water drinking, nocturnal kangaroo rat (so inquisitive about our camp spot I nearly trod on him). 

Desert: tick.  Now back to the mountains with the Sierra and the climber’s paradise of Yosemite...

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