Roadtrip, Part 2: Toadstools, petroglyphs, and slot canyons

Amina and I left Zion before sunrise. Driving through the park, the majestic cliffs were hidden in the darkness, and the two-lane road seemed almost like any other. We turned left onto Route 89 just as dawn was breaking. Soon after, I slammed on the brakes and yelled, “Buffalo!” at a startled Amina. Indeed, a herd of juvenile bison were corralled next to the road, frolicking in the day’s first light. I wanted to get out of the car and pass them, but a tractor was driving down the road and I didn’t want to upset a farmer. Besides, bison aren’t really petting animals.

We started driving again, but made it only a hundred feet or so before I had to stop the car again to look at the sunrise.

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That was just one of the wonderful sights of the morning. Every few miles the landscape seemed to improve: majestic mesas reflecting the morning light, deer bounding through groves of pine trees, a bald eagle.

Our plan for the day was to hike in the Paria Canyon- Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area, but trail information was scant on the internet, so we made a stop in Kanab, Utah to see if the folks at the visitors’ center could help us out. The man working there should be the face of Utah: cowboy hat, white bushy mustache, and a large turquoise bolo-tie. He had maps galore, and gave us detailed directions to the trail we were hoping to hike. We thought we had everything we needed and were about to leave when he said, “You know, while you’re out that way, you might check out this other little hike.” He walked to a carousel of brochures and pulled one out. “Toadstools,” he said. “They’re about a mile and a half off the road, worth a visit.”

Amina and I took the brochure, thanked him profusely, and took off.

Forty-five minutes later we found the trailhead for The Toadstool Hoodoos. We were the first ones there, a lone car in a vast expanse of desert split by a two-lane highway. I imagine this is a brutal place to be in the summer with its scant shade and sandy cover, but in December it was perfectly pleasant.

The trail out was easy enough, and in 20 minutes or so we found ourselves facing some pretty cool rock formations.

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We explored for a bit, admiring the sheer dramatic cliffs, sweeping vistas, and the odd, towering toadstools.

DCIM100GOPROG0621806.Amina amid the toadstools

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We could have spent hours there wandering around, but we were eager to get to the Paria  and see the slot canyons.

The most famous formation in the Paria Wilderness Area is The Wave, a spectacular, undulating sandstone rock formation. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the area is tightly controlled and only 20 permits a day are granted for hikers to access the area. Not wanting to waste a day trying to get a permit (you have to visit the Bureau of Land Management office in person to enter the lottery), we didn’t even try and see the Wave. Instead, we headed to Wire Pass, a narrow slot canyon that stretches across the Utah desert.

The trail was eight miles down an unmarked dirt road that we very nearly drove past. We didn’t see another car the whole time, and there were just a few cars in the parking lot when we arrived; a big difference after Zion.

The entrance to Wire Pass was two miles away, an easy walk in the winter, but likely a lot harder when the sun is blazing. Entering, I was struck by the way the light hit the walls, illuminating the red.

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The path was only wide enough for one person, and I was grateful there was no chance of rain. Walking through here and having the canyon start to fill seems like it would be harrowing.

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We didn’t make it very far before we reached a boulder blocking the path. On the other side was an eight-foot drop. Amina and I figured that we must have entered the canyon the wrong way and turned around to try and find another entrance. We wandered for the next two hours, and very nearly gave up. Finally, we met some hikers who explained how to climb down the boulder so we could continue on.

By the time we reached the slot canyon for a second try daylight was getting short. We figured we’d walk for 45 minutes and then turn around.

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After wandering through the narrows, the whole canyon opened up; we’d reached the junction with Buckskin Gulch, which stretches east for another 15 miles.

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A BLM employee we met at the trailhead had cryptically told us there were petroglyphs in the area where the two canyons met up, but the area was vast, with 100 foot canyon walls on all sides. We looked a bit, but couldn’t find them and continued on our way. On the way back through, I finally spotted them.

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The explanatory display at the trailhead called these “text messages for cavemen.” It was pretty amazing to see they had withstood the test of time.

I would have loved to wander more, but we didn’t want to end up in the slot canyon after dark, and it was a two hour drive to our hotel for the night. Also, between the toadstools and the getting “lost,” we’d walked more than 13 miles that day. It was time to call it quits. We headed back to the car, and into the sunset.

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Roadtrip, Part 1: Mojave, Vegas, and Zion

The morning after Christmas I picked up a rental car, said goodbye to my family, and headed East. It was tough to leave, knowing they would all spend a week together in the Bay Area, but I haven’t spent much time in the southwest and I wanted to check it out.

I’m not sure how the idea hatched, but last fall I started thinking about and planning a road trip. I wanted to see a few national parks, do some hiking, and see my friend Beth who moved to Phoenix last spring. Originally, I was going to do the trip solo (much like Iceland) but then my hiking buddy Amina said she wanted to come along, and suddenly I had a travel buddy.

I drove from San Diego to Twentynine Palms on Saturday, and spent a miserable night in a sort of disgusting motel with no heat. I could have kept going on to Vegas in the dark, but I wasn’t too excited about seeing Sin City (it’s never appealed) and I really wanted to see the Mojave desert, so Twentynine Palms it was.

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I was on road by 6 a.m. on Sunday, and watched the sun rise over the desert as I drove. It was very pretty, but I couldn’t help think about how hard it must be to live in a corner of the world that’s so hot, barren, and dry.

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Everyone seemed to be just passing through, though considering that its North America’s driest desert, I suppose that’s not a surprise. I stopped briefly to admire the Joshua trees, and then continued on my way.

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Shortly after 9, I crossed over into Nevada, and had just enough time to grab a cup of coffee before Amina’s flight landed. We wasted no time getting out of Vegas and pretty soon we were ooh-ing and ah-ing over the landscape as we dipped into Arizona and finally Utah.

Zion National Park was our first stop. While waiting for Amina to get her baggage in Vegas, I scoped out hikes. While some people might have planned a more detailed itinerary, I wasn’t sure what the weather would be like in Zion in late December and didn’t want to get my heart set on a hike, only to have to bail because of snow. This way, I figured, we could make the best choice for current conditions. The Hidden Canyon trail, which starts from Weeping Rock and heads to the right, seemed like a good one.

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Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken the time change from Nevada to Utah into account (oops), and we ran out of daylight after about an hour. Fortunately, that was enough time for us to scope out the trail and decide we needed some sort of traction device for our hike the next day, as the trails were covered in packed snow and ice. Our second stop in town was the Zion Adventure Company, where we rented the gear we’d need for the next day.

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The alarm went off early Monday, and we were out the door just after sunrise. While most head to Angel’s Point, Amina had just hiked that trail a few months earlier, and I wasn’t to keen to do it with all the ice on the trail. Wed decided on Observation Point instead, a four-mile out and back trail that offered fantastic views.

The trail leaves from the same parking lot as Weeping Rock and Hidden Canyon, but veers left after about a half a mile. There were several people in the parking lot when we arrived, in various states of preparedness and physical ability. I always hike with day pack stocked with a first aid kid, space blanket, snacks, and water, but some people on the trail were in shorts (it was 30 degrees) and carried nothing.

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The trail is listed as strenuous, but the incline isn’t as bad as many of the trails in the White Mountains, and it’s paved almost the whole way. My sense is that book times and ratings are based on summer conditions, which are unrelentingly hot. In December though, the trail was just steep enough to keep warm (though I wore a fleece and buff the whole time).

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The views on the trail started out good and only got better. While it mostly looked out over the main road and the Virgin River, the movement of the sun meant that the scenery and colors on the cliffs were always changing. The trail was often covered in packed snow and ice, but the traction devices helped, and it was wide enough that the switchbacks up a sheer rock wall were more or a mind mess than actual threat. Still, it was a bit scary walking on snow and ice just a few feet from a cliff edge.

We made it to the Observation Point outlook (4 miles, with 2,100 feet elevation) in two hours. We lingered at the top, enjoying delicious pb&js (my go-to hiking sandwich) taking obligatory photos, and bantering with a very fit family from Florida whose kids basically ran up the mountain.

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With the hike taking only about half the day, we had plenty of time to see the park’s other sights, poke around Springdale, shower, and have dinner at the Zion Lodge.

Observation Point trip details:
Length: 8 miles (round trip), 2,100 feet elevation
Time: 4 hours, 3.5 hours hiking
Temp: ~30 degrees
Gear: heavy base layer, fleece, down jacket, buff, hat, gloves
Other stuff: space blanket, water, snacks, headlamp, first aid kit

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Dateline: San Diego

When I decided to spend Christmas in San Diego I envisioned a holiday filled with sunshine, lazy poolside afternoons, and long runs on the beach. I was mostly right, except for the fact that it was warmer in Boston on Christmas day than on the beach in La Jolla.
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But still, it was great to be around family, away from “real life.” I haven’t taken more than a day or two break since June, and between work and classes I was a bit burned out. San Diego was a chance to reconnect with my family, take naps, read, cook, and run.
Here are a few highlights from the week:
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Sibling time: 
With three siblings, you might expect that some of us are closer than others. But we are all pretty tight, and it was fun to be together again. It was mostly low-key stuff: wandering around La Jolla, napping, getting coffee, watching Elf, and cooking. My brother and I caught the seals early one morning, and my sister and I watched this gorgeous sunset one afternoon.
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Marine Mammals:
Growing up, nature documentaries were about the only TV my sister and I were allowed to watch. As a result, we now love watching wildlife in person. A few mornings we snuck off to downtown La Jolla to watch the seals and sea lions before the crowds showed up. Throughout the week we debated the merits of various marine mammals. What’s your favorite marine mammal? I vote for the humpback whale.
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November Project:
I visited the NP tribe twice while I was there. My cousin and I ran the Sunrise 6k Monday, where I posted a respectable 30:17 (new goal: break 30!). On Wednesday, I got my dad to join me for a workout at Balboa Park, where we did squats, pushups and sprints. Dad did his first burpee! Actually, he did a few.
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The week flew by, and pretty soon I was hugging everyone goodbye and heading east for a bit of adventure…