Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Day 5: Twelve hours of driving, a switcheroo, and proof of Iowa's beauty!!

So, Day 5 (Friday) was always going to be the longest day.  We were leaving Omaha, NE and the endpoint was just west of Cleveland, OH.  Yeah, that's twelve solid hours of driving.  The longest driving day of the entire trip.  I did plan a couple of stops along the way to which I was looking forward, but nothing like Antelope Canyon or Mesa Verde National Park.

I was so sick of driving.  Fortunately, my mom volunteered to drive across most of Thursday and the first few hours on Friday.  I was so grateful to take a break from that!!

Our first stop of the day was approximately 2.5 hours from Omaha in Des Moines, IA to see one of my very best friends in the whole world.  This was an especially fun stop because not only did I get to see Layne, but Maggie also got to meet Layne's playful yellow labrador.  It was a wonderful visit, but too soon it was time to hit the road again because we still had a long ways to go.
Back on the road after stopping in Des Moines with a new toy from Aunt Layne!
After another two hours of driving, we arrived at our second stop of the day.  I know, I know....if we keep stopping like this, we'll never make it all the way to Cleveland.  However, this was a very important stop.
It was time for a little travel companion switcheroo:  my mom needed to head back to Ottumwa =( and my dad would be joining me for the rest of the trip!  I really wish that both my parents could have been on the entire trip, but there was definitely not room in the car for all three of us plus Maggie.  In addition, this way they both didn't take tons of time off from work.
After my mom hit the road, my dad and I were off.  He's my hero because he drove the whole way from the switching point to Cleveland (approximately 8.5 hours).  I'm especially grateful because this wasn't exactly a fun day of hiking and sightseeing like the first few my mom and I had.  And, there wasn't an exciting end point with family and an adorable 2 year old.  In fact, there was only one "tourist site" at which I planned to stop on Friday, the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa, the birthplace of the only president born in Iowa.

I'd visited here a looooong time ago when I was in either 5th or 6th Grade, but when I read that you were allowed to walk dogs around the site, I knew this would be the perfect stop to get Maggie out so she could stretch her legs (me too).  The site consists of a replica town that gives a sense of what West Branch, Iowa was like at the time that President Hoover was born, including a blacksmith shop similar to the one his father owned, a schoolhouse, and the cottage in which he was born.
Blacksmith shop 
the cottage in which he was born
As part of the National Historic Site, the National Park Service reconstructed 76 acres of tallgrass prairie, which used to cover the state of Iowa before it was covered in corn and soybean fields.  

There are also trails that wander through the prairie grass on which dogs are allowed, so we walked a bit further.  I really enjoyed soaking up the sunlight and remembering/enjoying the beauty of the state in which I born and raised.

my dad said this was a weed, but I love the yellow color
Other than the stop at the Hoover Historical Site, there really isn't that much to relay about Day 5 of the road trip.  Just a lot of driving and some bad traffic around Chicago (surprise, surprise).  

We did drive by the World's Largest Truckstop, which is located on I-80 in Iowa, east of West Branch.  This really isn't anything of note to those of you in Iowa reading this, but maybe some of the non-Iowa readers will find it humorous.  No, we didn't stop.  I've stopped there before and it is, not surprisingly, underwhelming.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Road Trip Day 4: Long drive to Omaha with a sweet reward

I fear that this post is going to seem like a let down in the beginning.  Day 4 (Thursday) of this road trip largely consisted of driving mile after mile on I-80 across Nebraska.  But, your patience will be rewarded with some adorable pictures of the most adorable little man I've ever met.  Our day started out early.  Are you noticing a trend?  We needed to drive from Breckenridge, CO to Omaha, NE.  And, we wanted to get there early to spend some time with my brother, sister-in-law, and my nephew.  The beginning of the day was probably especially unpleasant for my mother because I was tired, hungry, and still a little salty that the weather hadn't cooperated for us to do Quandary Peak.  I think it was largely a food issue because once I had a yummy steak, egg, and cheese bundle from Mavrik convenience store in my tummy, I think I was a more pleasant travel companion.

Okay, I'm going to fast-forward through most of the day, because it pretty much just looked like this:
at this point, we still had approximately 350 miles to go until we reached Omaha
Although this day involved driving mile after mile and no fun side trips before our destination, our work was definitely well rewarded.  Just a few of the reasons that our stop in Omaha was one of my favorites:
  1. Maggie got to run around in a back yard with her cousin puppy (my brother's dog).
  2. My sister-in-law made us an AWESOME dinner of barbecue shredded chicken, broccoli salad (a favorite of mine), etc.
  3. I got to play with this little guy on his swing set.

After dinner, the five of us went for a walk near the Old Market area of Omaha.  It is a really great area and a really fun place to walk.  Our first objective was "the big slides."  These were two parallel metal slides that were surprisingly long and even more surprisingly fast.
My heart melted when he came to the top of the slides with me and climbed on my lap to go down with me, without any provocation =)
After the big slides and a bit more walking, we arrived at our ultimate goal: ice cream.  This kid is definitely related to me.  The level of obsession with ice cream that we share has to be genetic, right? (I think my dad has it too).
This ice cream shop was phenomenal!  I had a flavor called "Salty Susie."  I'm not sure what's in it, but it tasted like a salted caramel ice cream with Oreo chunks mixed in.  My brother told me that you can call ahead and they'll make any flavor you want, as long as you order at least a gallon or some surprisingly reasonable volume.  Next time I'm in Omaha, I'll be placing an order for cotton candy ice cream, my absolute favorite =)

After our exploration of downtown, we returned home.  It was time to get some sleep....I had 12 hours of driving scheduled for the next day.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Road Trip Day 3: Mesa Verde National Park & a rainy drive to Breckenridge

Wow.  Waking up at the Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park was incredible.  I'm not sure if it was the excitement of seeing the cliff dwellings, the relief of having Maggie with me, or just the overall surroundings in these adorable bungalows, but I was just so happy to be there.  I think I mentioned this yesterday, but just in case, the food at Far View was really, really delicious:  chicken biscuit sandwich with green chipotle gravy.
Wouldn't it be awesome if I could start out each day with such a balanced meal and have such an amazing view of the mesa?
After my excellent breakfast, we headed in the direction of the cliff dwellings.  For the safety of the visitors and for preservation reasons, most of the cliff dwellings are accessible only via tours conducted by park rangers.  These tours ring in at the whopping sum of $4/person/tour and my mom and I both agreed that it was some of the best $4 that we ever spent (well, it was the best $8 my mom ever spent...she paid for mine =)).  
The canyon through the mesa.  In some places, you could see cliff dwellings on each side of the canyon walls.
You can book the tours either at the visitor center at the front of the park or at the museum, which is approximately 20 miles into the park.  Because we were already 15 miles into the park, we went to buy our tickets at the museum.  Because we only had a limited amount of time before we needed to move on, we had time to tour one cliff dwelling.  Our top choices were either the 9:00 am (the earliest available) or 9:30 am tour of Cliff Palace or the 9:00am (there was no 9:30 am) tour of Balcony House.  I was a little stressed when I realized that the museum doesn't start selling tickets until 9:00am because that meant that the 9:00am tours were definitely not an option.  Thankfully, the ranger that was in charge of selling the tickets opened 30 minutes early!!  After talking to the amazing rangers, we learned that there was an excellent view of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling, from an overlook that was less than .25 miles off the road.  We also learned that the Balcony House tour would require us to climb a 32 foot ladder, crawl through an 18" wide tunnel, climb another 10 foot ladder, and walk up a cliff face (with guard rails and fencing of course).  I don't think you'll be surprised to find out that Balcony House quickly jumped ahead of Cliff Palace as my preferred tour.  My mom was a little more hesitant than I was, but after some coaxing and sweet talking, we bought tickets for the 9:00 am Balcony House tour =)

Before we got to the start of the Balcony House tour, we decided to run down to the overlook to snap a few pictures of Cliff Palace.  This is probably the cliff dwelling that comes to mind first when most people think of Mesa Verde.  It is huge and extremely well preserved!!

Obligatory selfie.  Yes, that glare in the bottom right corner is from a crack in my iPhone screen that is over the camera lens... oops.
After our brief stop at Cliff Palace, we continued our drive to the beginning of our Balcony House tour.  I was excited; my mom was a little nervous.  We met our guide and the other two people on the tour.  Yes, there were only four people on this tour.  (Five, if you count our the Ranger)

The tour started by meandering down a path that was built in the 1930s that descends the canyon about 100 feet.  Once at the bottom of that trail, we encountered our first "obstacle," the 32 foot ladder.
View from the top of the ladder
View of the ladder from later in the tour
At the top of the ladder, we immediately found ourselves standing in the middle of 13th century pueblo structures.  It was thrilling.  
The "balcony" on the structure on the left gives this cliff dwelling its name
The hole in the ground is actually called a "kiva," which is a Hopi word for underground room.  Originally, the kiva would have had a roof over it, but none of the original roofs have survived.

Looking out over the canyon from Balcony House 
The ranger that led the tour was fantastic and pointed out many fascinating aspects of the Balcony House, including petroglyphs and differences in the construction indicating that certain parts of the structures were built later.  He was also extremely patient with all of our questions and then gave us insight in to his studies and philosophies regarding the archaeologic record of Mesa Verde.

As our tour continued, we encountered a couple additional obstacles including two tunnels.  
My mom emerging from the shorter of the two tunnels
Before we knew it, we had finished walking through the pueblo structures and it was time to climb back out of the canyon, which required scaling one final ladder and stepping in footholds carved out of the rock with protective chains and fencing.
View from the top after we climbed the ladder and the cliff face to ascend the side of the canyon wall
After we completed our tour, we drove back to the museum so we could walk through the one cliff dwelling that is self-guided, rather than ranger-guided, Spruce Tree House.

There was an excellent view of Spruce Tree House at the beginning of the trail.  But, you can also take the short, paved trail all the way down.  There is a Ranger at the bottom to ensure that visitors are staying in the permissible areas.  The National Park Service advertises this cliff dwelling as the best preserved, and I'm sure they want to keep it that way.  Spruce Tree House is very much worth a look because they even have an original "kiva" for which the National Park Service has reconstructed a roof.  They also installed a wooden ladder so you can actually climb down in to the kiva!!  

And, with that, our morning of playing in cliff dwellings was completed.  We headed back to collect my extremely stressed out labrador and I promised her that I wouldn't leave her for more than 20 minutes at a time until we finished our road trip (3 days from then).  This turned out to be a promise that I could easily keep because almost our entire drive from Mesa Verde to Breckenridge was spent in the rain.  There would be no attempting Quandary Peak, a 14,000+ foot peak near Breckenridge, for us on this trip.

After a few hours of driving, we arrived in Breckenridge, checked in to our hotel and ordered food in the hotel to avoid the rain.  Thanks to our reclusive evening in Breckenridge, the labrador stress level, which had upgraded to extreme in the morning, had once again been downgraded from extremely stressed to very stressed.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Road Trip Day 2: The Wonders of Northern Arizona

We woke up so early on Tuesday morning that I'm sure no matter when you are reading this, I'm still tired.  We woke up around 5:15 am Mountain Time, which means it felt like 4:15 am to me.  Not fun. But, as you'll see, well worth it.  My plans for our Tuesday made for a jam-packed day.

We started out by picking Maggie up from Doggey Dude Ranch, where she had a blast. (she went swimming multiple times, including 15 minutes before I picked her up).  From there, we had to boogie to make it to Page, Arizona before our 9:30am tour of Antelope Slot Canyon.  Antelope is located on Navajo land and for the safety of the tourists and for the preservation of the canyon, the only way to experience the canyon is by tour.  Thankfully, Arizona was an hour earlier than Zion because Arizona stays on Mountain Standard Time year round; they don't do daylight saving time.  We made it to Page with plenty of time to drop of a very nervous labrador at the vet for the 2 hours during which we'd be touring the slot canyon.

Antelope is located on Navajo land and for the safety of the tourists and for the preservation of the canyon, the only way to experience the canyon is by tour.  I booked this tour at least a month ago.
We met our tour guides at an office in a strip mall and they drove us the 20 minutes out to the entrance of the slot.  Our transportation:
Yes, we sat on those benches in the back
Now, I've been in slot canyons before.  But, this was incredible.  It was deeper, darker, longer, and more narrow than the others I've walked through.  The one downside of visiting such an awesome place, it gets crowded:
However, they do a pretty good job of spacing out the tour groups and enabling you to take pictures without other people in the background.  It also helps that the canyon is so curvy.  The group in front just needs to disappear around the curve that is 4 feet in front of you.
Speaking of photos, these tours are also awesome because the tour guide literally tells you where to point your cameras to best capture the colors and contours of the canyon.  There's no way that we would have captured a single one of these images without our fantastic (and patient) tour guide.
This one is hard to see, but he's kind of standing on his back legs and growling at the sky.
"Arizona Sunrise"
This image is created by the sun shining into the canyon and lighting up the orange/red walls of the canyon.
The first thing I saw was the heart.  However, there is also an antelope face on the left, and that's all I can see now.
The tour winds through the slot canyon and out the back.  Where we milled around a bit and snapped a few pics.
After doing some flawless posing (lol), it was time to wind our way back through the canyon to the entrance, where our ride was waiting for us.
Did I mention this is a popular place?  Look at all those tour trucks!!
Once we got back to town, we picked up my adorable stressed-out labrador, and headed in the direction of Horseshoe Bend, a 270 degree bend in the Colorado River.  The trailhead is located just a couple minutes outside of Page, and involved a really easy 1.5 mile roundtrip hike out to a really beautiful overlook that, shockingly, does not have any guardrails!
The best part is that this is on BLM land, so Maggie was allowed on the hike!  It was good for her to get out and stretch her legs before the next leg of our journey.
Ultimately, our Day 2 would end at the Far View Lodge at Mesa Verde National Park, but there was one stop along the way that I couldn't pass up:
Yep, Four Corners.  Now, as a word of caution, I wouldn't recommend going crazy and driving any more than about 10 minutes out of your way for this one.  But, the turn into the driveway for the monument was literally right on the route from Page to Mesa Verde.  Therefore, I couldn't pass up the chance to stand in four states at once.
From there, we had a bit to go before we arrived at Mesa Verde National Park, known for its numerous 13th century pueblo cliff dwellings.  We arrived around 7pm, so there were no cliff dwelling tours on Tuesday night (plus, it was raining).  We did, however, check into our accommodations for the night, which were located within the boundaries of the park and situated high up on the mesa (pics were taken on Wednesday morning when the sun was shining).
These places were fantastic - the rooms were great and the food at the lodge was better than I could have possibly imagined!!  I highly highly recommend staying here.

There were four cabin-type rooms in each row.  
And, each room had an adorable little porch on the back.
And, it gets better!!  They even allow dogs (no weight limit as far as I can tell), for a mere $10 fee!!
My extremely stressed out labrador has been downgraded to a very stressed out labrador and conditions are continuously improving.  Poor Maggie....she doesn't deal well with change.

I cannot wait to share Day 3 with you, but for now, it is off to bed.  Tomorrow is yet another early morning!  I'm so glad I don't start work in DC for a couple of weeks.  I'll need the time to catch up on sleep!!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Road Trip Day 1 - Tears & Zion Narrows

So, I'm going to take a break from my previously scheduled catching up on posts about 52 peak hikes and what you'll soon learn was the most epic summer ever, so I can do a bit of current blogging about a drastic change that's happening right now.  I'm moving to DC.

I knew this time was going to come.  I knew that I was only in Vegas for two years.  I just didn't realize it was going to fly by so quickly.  I didn't know how much I was going to love my job.  And, I didn't know how many amazing friends I would meet along the way.  Today was really hard.  Ok, really, the last few days have been really hard, to the point that I feel dehydrated from all of the crying.

So, not only am I moving to DC, I'm currently doing so by way of road trip with my car full of my belongings, my mom, and my dog (is that a country song? probably).  To ease the pain of moving from so many people that I love dearly, and to ease the pain of driving 2000 miles, we're making a few stops along the way.
After an extremely teary farewell on Sunday night and a tear-filled morning, I left Vegas.  Monday was a short driving day (3 hours) to reach our first stop: Zion National Park.  (If I'm being honest, I wanted to cry the whole drive, but my mom did a good job keeping me distracted in the car)

My mom had actually never been to Zion, which is just criminal, so I decided this was something that I needed to correct pronto!  We first dropped Maggie off at Doggey Dude Ranch outside the park and headed to the Zion Visitor Center, where we parked our car and boarded the Zion shuttle toward the trailheads.  Because we're a couple of ambitious girls, we decided we'd conquer a few miles of the Zion Narrows from the Bottom Up.
Blue Skies, Narrow Canyon, Perfect Day (minus the puffiness under my eyes from all the crying)
Several of my friends had done this hike, so I knew what to bring and I knew what to expect.  What to bring: water shoes (salomon techamphibians), trekking poles, waterproof camera, and a dry bag to store a long sleeved shirt and my cell phone.  What to expect:  walking in somewhat chilly water that was up to 2.5-3 feet deep in places.
Knee deep water in calm water? no problem
Knee deep water with a current? I think she was glad she had those poles
The hike starts out with a 1 mile walk along the paved River Walk trail.  At the end of the mile, you enter the Virgin River, and begin hiking in the river through an increasingly narrow canyon.
The canyon started out reasonably wide, which allowed for some sun to shine in.  However, the walls of the canyon are so tall, there really wasn't that much sun.  I'm not even sure how hot it was in the rest of Zion, but in the Narrows, the weather was so perfect.  It was warm enough that the water felt good, but not so warm that you felt gross.
It really is amazing to me how the power of water and wind can shape rock into such beautiful formations.  Of course, at the same time, I had terrifying thoughts about all of the flash floods that must have come rushing through the canyon to aid in creating this magical place.
Eventually the canyon got even more narrow and more dark.  This was my favorite portion of the canyon.  Sadly, we were reaching the point in the afternoon when we needed to turn back in order to check in to our cabin for the night.
As we hiked back through the canyon to the trailhead, we found that river crossings had almost become second nature and we moved at a much greater rate of speed than we did on our way in.  

Although this was not the most challenging of hikes that I've done, it was truly spectacular.  This is a great hike for hikers with modest skills (I would NOT do this without the trekking poles, they were so helpful for walking on the uneven rocks below the water's surface).  You can hike back as far as you'd like, but I highly recommend spending at least 2 hours hiking back to the more narrow portions of the canyon.  During this portion, I continuously thought to myself "I never thought I'd be in a place like this."  
How could you be anything but at peace in a place like this?
Thanks to the wondrous Zion Narrows, my sadness from leaving Vegas vanished for fleeting moments throughout the day.  At the same time, hiking the Narrows made me even more sad to be leaving an area of this country where natural marvels like this are basically in your backyard.  I certainly plan to come back when I have a permit to do the more technical Top Down route, a 21-mile route that starts in the back of the canyon and hikes one-way to the mouth at the end of the River Walk Trail (where my mom and I started this time around).

Once we finished our time in the Narrows, we boarded the Zion shuttle back to the Visitor Center.  Once we got to my car, we drove the 40 minutes to our cabin at Zion Ponderosa Ranch.  We were starving!! 
Bighorns on the side of the road in Zion National Park.  I was so hungry, I alms wanted to stop and have a meal with these guys.  I opted to wait and have a bacon cheeseburger at the Zion Ponderosa Ranch restaurant.
We checked in to our adorable Cabin Suite at Zion Ponderosa Ranch, ate dinner, spent some time on the free wifi (so happy to have wifi!) and went to bed.  Tuesday is an EARLY morning with a lot of exciting plans!!