Sunday, 21 November 2010

Living Desert, Palm Springs

Just a few more blogs before I sign out for 2011!
Our last day in Palm Springs, and we planned to visit The Living Desert, which we called in on last visit.  It's a gem of a place, with coyotes, big horn sheep (who get a proper mountain in their enclosure), Mountain Lion, a Mexican wolf, peccaries, golden eagle, roadrunners and various other.  But  the real stars are the several fantastically laid-out landscapes, devoted to different areas and plants.  Trees and palnts from Baja California, Mojave Desert, Sonaran Desert, Chihuahua,and the Colorado Plateau.  All teeming with plants, birds and insects, with extremely helpful info about the qualities of the plant/tree and the uses the Native Amreican Indians put them to.  There was a special eco-botanical area dedicated to the Native Indians, with a number of "kish"/ dwelling places, built mainly using the Palm leaves, and a thriving garden, growing various types of beans, climbing up corn, with squashes grown for ground cover- "the three sisters" cos they're always grown together.  You can learn such a lot from this feature park, and it helps you to see the "barren, wasteland" desert in a more appreciative light.  The desert is a larder, full of plants of medicinal and nutritional value.
Back to the room, and Slipknot/ AC-DC are blaring out at 1pm,  around the pool- Americans' idea of relaxation!  I assumed "grumpy old woman" mode and pottered off to complain!  Time to go, I think.  (The couple in the room next door had got themselves all over-excited and went from hysterical giggling to a domestic at 2am! and once they'd quietened down, the couple upstairs were testing out the bed-springs for the next 10mins (at least, it was only 10mins!!!)
Looking forward to seeing the kids and "bump" tomorrow, after a mere 150mls to LA!

Baby Shower

Baby Shower Bibs
 Yep!  The only wet thing to happen since we arrived- The Baby Shower.  With all Andrew's workmates being male, this was always going to be difficult.  But Lizzy and friend, Alex/Lexy, the food was fantastic, and entertainment, imaginative.  They'd bought lots of inexpensive little baby vests, and fabric pens.  There was a competition for the best designed and drawn baby vest.  There were some incredible results.  Their friends were very supportive and generous, and Lizzy had a number of gifts and clothes to put in the nursery.

The following day, Ian and I went off to Babys R Us and bought a "stroller" from Gran, and "crib" from us, which we set up with Lizzy.  It's seems hard to believe that our little grand-daughter, all 18" of her, would be sleeping in this massive crib, which converts to a full-sized single bed.

The Stroller
Anyway, we left Lizzy resting back at the flat, went off to Santa Monica to the beach, had a brief swim in a very cold sea, lunch at Bubba Gumps, which was great, and then back into all the traffic leaving LA. So different to the last week, we were stuck in traffic, on a six lane highway- madness!

Gran's Woollen Jacket
We called in at the long-stay travel-lodge and booked our accommodation for two weeks next Feb, when the baby's due, then a hug goodbye and off to Venice Beach for a stroll and quesadilla, before dropping the car off and catching a shuttle to the airport.  We got talking over a beer, with a couple from Saskachewan, Canada, who were on their way to New Zealand.  Calgary's only a three hour flight.... mm!  Canada's not far away is it.  They told us about their lifestyle, hunting elk, moose and deer, and her husband was clearly finding it difficult, leaving Saskachewan in the height of the hunting season!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Through Four States to Palm Springs

Palm Canyon Palm Springs
A curious thing, there are four states and they're really close together in this area.  On the 400mile drive from St George, Utah, we passed through the canyons of Utah, and deserts of Arizona, through Las Vegas in Nevada to arrive six hours later in Palm Springs, California.  Now I'm not very happy with the laws in SoCal. Having been desperate for some fresh fruit, with no added sugar, salt or seasoning, Ian bought me some satsumas, which I was working my way through nicely, with at least 30 more to go.  Anyway, we were pulled up on some random agricultural check on Highway 15, and the beggars confiscated my satsumas, and left me with some poxy, tasteless golden delicious apples.  They didn't search the car for all the satsuma peel, which was mounting up on the backseat.  I think they just fancied some fruity snacks.  The irony is that the satsumas were from 2 miles down the road from Andrew at Sherman Oaks, in South California, so I'm not sure what all the fuss was about,.....and, he took my number plate.  I should have asked for his details, but didn't fancy waiting around whilst he went over our contents with a fine tooth-comb.
Anyway, not pleased!! I'd been so looking forward to the rest of those satsumas!!!
And another thing, US driving stinks!!!  You've got to get used to the fact that they overtake you on either side, insude and far-side, and it's all perfectly legal, if unnerving.  However they do have this good system in LA, of a lane on the 6 lane highway, at rush hour, or at any time, designated to car sharers.  If there's more than one of you in the car, you can use the much less congested car pool lane.  That is good.
We were to spend the next three nights in Palm Springs.

Jack Rabbit
Early the following morning we set off up the road to Indian Canyon, with its largest number of Californian Fan Palms in California.  All around dry, arid desert, with creosote bushes, cacti etc, and then this amazing canyon some five miles long with shady clumps of tall Californian Palms and running water, even at this particularly dry time of year.  The Cahuilla Indian Reserve covers the whole of this area and there were several Indian Park Rangers on duty.  It's easy to understand why they considered this to be a sacred place.  It must have been such a haven of tranquillity in this cool oasis, after spending all day in the heat of the desert.
We walked along one of the numerous trails for about three hours and then headed back to the hotel. 
Back to the Strip in the evening for a Mexican meal and bed by 9.30pm.  It's dark now by about 5pm, since daylight saving came in.  Forecast for the coming week- sunny every day, with temperatures in the 80sF, and cool at night- in fact, quite chilly tonight.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Bryce to Zion National Park

Another bitterly cold start- minus 5 deg F, with wind chill, feeling more like minus 10!  Could n't wait to get back into the weird wonderland of Bryce Canyon once more , before the short drive into Zion Park.  Bitterly cold but blue sky.  We parked up with the intention of walking another of the several trails, and set off from Bryce Point but after about a hour, we decided to turn around, as the next section of the trail was again in shadow and the wind was ripping through.  We opted for the sunnier and more sheltered Queens Garden trail, which we'd already done the day before, but was so attractive and packed with amazing sights, that it could stand to be repeated.  Again more beautiful photos but this time with blue sky, rather than the snowy greyness of yesterday.
With more snow forecast here for the afternoon, we headed south and down to a warmer elevation.  Our ultimate destination, St George is at 3000', rather than over 8000'.  A short, two hire drive took us to Zion National Park, about 80 miles away.  This is a deep narrow canyon, with curiously named towering cliffs, beloved of climbers, and there were three of them toiling up a precipice.  In the base of this canyon, and this is what makes it so attractive, is the meandering Virgin River, which gushes and flows through, creating an oasis for aspens, maples and cottonwood trees.  At this time of year, the canyon is a blaze of autumnal colour, vibrant yellow aspens and deep red maples.
  In the Spring, there are waterfalls tumbling down the cliffs, and filling pools.  Even though it was so out of season, and a chilly day, it was much busier than Bryce and the Grand Canyon, and you feel it more because there's only one easily accessible trail, the Riverside Trail.  I would not want to do this at a busy time, but today it wasn't too busy.  Only drawback was the limited number of trails, the majority necessitating a hair-raising, steep climb up the cliffs, to what I'm sure must be impressive views, but after what we'd seen on our travels, I didn't feel a burning desire to do a steep climb up, followed by a worse, steep climb down.  But, in spite of that restriction, we were still very pleased to have seen Zion in all its autumnal glory.
With more bad, snowy weather forecast for the next few days, we felt we'd been lucky to visit Bryce Canyon so late in the season, and glad to be heading somewhere warmer.  So two nights at the Holiday Inn Express, St George.  After the comparative isolation of the last few days, St George seemed buzzing and vibrant.  Lonely Planet describes this area as being as dull as dich-water, but we felt that was a bit unfair.  People are polite and very friendly. 
The day after we set off for Snowy Canyon State Park, which was on the door-step, and mentioned as a little gem by LP guide.  A much lesser known, and understated park, with a fee of only $5, but it turned out to be a great place to wander and experience desert walking, with very few visitors, apart from guys in RVs parked up, overnight nearby.  Again a number of well-marked trails through varied terrain.  We went on the Hidden Pinyon Tree trail, recommended by LP, and it didn't disappoint.  The trail weaves through and over tight passage ways and boulders, opening up into views of the "snowy" white limestone mountain in the distance, petrified sand-dunes, red cliffs topped with "black varnish", and lava outcrops.  All along the trail are up to 20 markers, describing the plants and features that you come across, one of the most curious being the "creosote bush", which is older than the giant redwoods, and have many medicinal and household uses for the Native Indians.  I rubbed it beween my fingers, which then had a distinct smell of TCP!  Amazing plants- don't appear too showy and colourful, but had so many uses for those "in the know".  I love these little information sheets!  These State Parks are just wonderful, and the Americans look after them so well.

Lunch at another Cracker Barrel (which we'd googled-how sad are we!) and then, believe it or not, Ian went shopping with me.  New Balance trainers for $45 and a couple of things from Ralph Lauren outlet, at a great price.  Ate at a Red Lobster that night.  Everyone we saw drinks water or soft drinks.  The stranger sight is guys propping the bar, drinking coke!  We were the only ones having a beer, which can be really expensive, but it seems that the drink-driving laws are strictly enforced and offenders will be"prosecuted aggressively".
So "I'll have an Iced Tea, please"!

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

240 miles to Bryce Canyon

Just a mention before we set off for Bryce Canyon.  Kayenta, where we spent the night, is on Navajo Land, which means that signs in shops are in their own language, and the occupants are nearly all of Navajo origin.  Apparently the Navajo Nation is the largest of all reservations, attributed to the fact that they are skilled at adapting and assimilating.  Their territory extends over 17million acres across NE Arizona, NW New Mexico, and S Utah and between a quarter nd a half are Christian - so that explains the Christian churches.  After you've spent a few days driving around their lands, you get the impression that it could only be the Navajo who could manage to live in such hostile, desert environment.  There is a striking difference between the poorer Native communities and the more comfortable, affluent American towns and villages nearby.
Another point of interest- we called in to read a display about the role that the Navajo Codetalkers played in the war with Japan in WW2.  The weird thing was that the display was adverised as being in the Burger King!  It seemed that the Navajo language is so complex that it was indecipherable and so the Americans were able to communicate, without fear of comprehension by the Japanese.  Such a commendable skill praised in such a mundane setting.  Maybe the thinking was that plenty of native people would  see this information here and feel pride in their history.
Anyway, onward!
On the way to Kanab we almost ran into a Roadrunner bird, of Tom and Jerry fame!  Beep, beep!  Unfortunately moving too fast to get a photo.  A flightless bird, it's able to run at amazing speed, its legs a blurr, managing to successfully cross a highway!  So chuffed to have seen it.
We continued gradually climbing past Red Canyon, on to a high level, narrow plain with cows and horses and a few ranches.  up and up and we finally arrived at Bryce City, altitude 8000'+.  There's hardly anything here, and what is seems to be owned by Ruby's, who established a hotel and staging post here in 1820s.  There's two Best Westerns on the site, a petrol station, gift shop, restaurant and a few houses and that's about it- the City!  Remarkably, we'd covered nearly 300mls by about 1pm, with just enough time for a sneak preview of the Canyon.  With the temperature dropping to just above freezing, we set off on the Queens Garden Trail, having paid our $25 park entry fee.
This place is so WIERD!!!
Thousands of rocky "hoodoos", caused by erosion, rising up from the canyon floor, as far as the eye can see.  Looking like something out of Gaudi's imagination, like melting wax, like toy soldiers, like a cathedral, like ....nothing on Earth.  With snow flakes starting to fall, we weaved our way along the intricate, cleverly arranged paths which drop you down among the hoodoos.  Absolutely stunning, and culminating in a glimpse of a hoodoo named after our Queen Victoria, and it's pretty accurate. 
With deteriorating weather we drove back to our stop at the Best Western Grand, opposite Ruby's.  The Lonely Planet guide is disparaging about the city and its food reputation, but we couldn't fault it.  Great hearty buffet and reasonable prices.

Monday, 8 November 2010


Another cold and frosty morning as we set off at 7am. for Monument Valley, in Utah state.  People seem to get up very early around here, but then things are pretty quiet by 10pm.  200miles down the Navajo Trail Highway, and about 4hours later, we arrived at Kayenta, about 30miles away from Monument Valley.  After featureless, vast sand and desert, there were signs of the wonders to come- rocky, spikey outcrops springing up out of the flat plains. $5 each allowed us into this sacred site of the Navajo.  The Navajo-owned hotel The View blended into the landscape, and we could drive along a dirt track through this amazing landscape.  Vivid blue sky, red earth, and massive rocky sculptures rising dramatically out of the desert.  We drove along the very rough track to John Ford Lookout, where we turned around and enjoyed the whole thing again but from a different perspective.
We returned to the Holiday Inn, Kayenta, an unpretentious hotel in this bit if a backwater.  Admittedly it was Sunday, but the area had a distinct end-of-season feel.  As with the Grand Canyon, it was quiet here also, perfect for us, but many places do seem to shut down in October.  Kayenta is distinctly Navajo, and all the people in the shops and cafes have similar Navajo characteristics- round, moon faces.  Babies in papooses, just as you'd imagine they've been carried years ago.  The other interesting fact- great evening meal of fajitas with water- yes, water- it is illegal to sell alcohol on Navajo tribal lands, so water with your meals or non-alcoholic beer!
Although we'd booked in for 2 nights we decided to stay only one night- because we'd seen all there was to see here in one day!  and because we had a very long day of 300miles drive tomorrow to Bryce Canyon, where we decided to spend the night instead to give us the best chance of exploring the area the day after. 

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Walking into the Canyon

Forgot to mention yesterday- we called into a Cracker Barrel for breakfast- couldn't face the long wait at the Holiday Inn, with under-staffed and over-stressed service.  Great move- the breakfast was amazing.  I'm not a breakfast person, and struggle with the over-sized, over-flavoured, over-sweetened food in the USA, but these breakfasts are astounding.  With a choice of healthy right through to artery-damaging indulgence of ribs and grits!  Opted for middle-of-the-road- buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup, two perfectly-poached eggs and turkey meat patties- fantastic.  It's got a old homestead style all of its own, with rockingchairs lined up for sale, on the porch, and all timber and cosy-cabin inside.  The waiters and waitresses look like they've walked straight off the set of "the Waltons"-  America at what it does best!  I had to make sure I made a reference to it!
Anyway, as for today, off on a hike into the Canyon, but not until we scraped the ice off the car, on a freezing cold morning.  Keep forgetting we're at over 6000'.  It reaches a very pleasant 70deg F during the day, at present, dropping to below freezing at night.  In the evening you need a warm jacket, unlike in Las Vegas and LA where it's still warm enough at night to walk around in a short-sleeved top.
We drove to the Visitors Centre, which is only 15 minutes away from our base at Tusayan, ideally close to the Park. From there, we caught a green route shuttle bus to the Kaibab Trail Head.  Still chilly, we began the breath-taking descent down into the Canyon.  Breath-taking because of the views, not because of the route itself, which was a wide, easy walk, zig-zagging down at a pleasant gradient. An old mule trail and still currently used to transport visitors up and down.  After a long descent through the various strata, with fabulous views, as the sun lit up the canyon, we reached the ridge route, which would take us on to Skeleton Pt.  Stopping to gaze deep down to a glimpse of the Colorado River, you are overwhelmed with the scale of what you see.  Distances are deceiving. Continuing along the ridge, we reach Tip Off, at about 4 1/2 mils on the trail and decision point.  We'd descended about 3000'.  The advice is that you don't attempt to descend all the way to the bottom and back in a day, as it's likely to take about 13 hours, to say nothing about how strenuous that would be.  Later we would be able to glimpse the wooded campground, and other overnight accommodation down by the river, at least another 1500' down.  We could go back the way we came, or do something a bit more interesting.  We opted for the latter.  We'd got quite a bit of water left and a couple of Snickers, as we headed off on a traverse of the Tonto Trail, heading west.  The Tonto trail also goes on for miles and miles in an easterly direction.  In Spanish, "tonto" means "stupid".....Anyway, starting to a bit tired now and crossing the head of yet another ravine in the plateau.  Fortunately it wasn't too hot today, but I can imagine you have to be very careful walking in this forbidding place.  You do get a feel for the vastness of this area, when you embark upon one of the numerous trails into the canyon, rather than sticking to the Rim Trail.  Another 4-5 miles later and we'd finally reached Indian Garden, having spent two hours crossing from one trail to another!  Indian Garden is in an oasis of green and yellow trees and reeds, with babbling water, and a timely supply of fresh tap-water.  There's a campground here too, but don't think that the canyon is full of facilities, because it certainly isn't.  Water is very scarce, and even fit athletes have died from being under-prepared and over-ambitious!  A couple of years ago two women, one of whom had completed the Boston Marathon in 3hours, got into trouble in 100deg heat, having taken very little water on a long hike.  One ran on to try and get help, whilst the other waited until dusk, and the temperature dropped.  The woman who tried to get help died of heat exhaustion, whilst her friend survived.  A sobering thought, as we began the ascent back up Bright Angel Trail.  Today was cool and in fact the last two hours are in shade.  The trail weaves across buttresses, and disappears around bends, so you look up and can't see where the path leads.  All you can see is a succession of impenetrable rock cliffs, with no way up.  But there is a path which leads on through a narrow gorge, as you climb up and up.  You know you've nearly reached the top, as more and more day-trippers come towards you, with smarter clothes, having the curiosity to walk down the first 200' and then realising the scale of the task ahead of them, turn around and head for car or bus!  After just over 7hours walking, we look down at where we've been.  You look back down to Indian Garden and it doesn't really seem so far away, but when we look on the map, we see we've walked about 15miles, and it was a great route.  But hard! 

Saturday, 6 November 2010

East to Arizona

Andrew and Lizzy went back to North Hills and we set off east to Arizona, to the Grand Canyon. We set off at 7am and arrived at the Grand Canyon National Park at about 1pm. The incredibly straight road rises through impressive desert landscape, through high level scrub and pine, rising to about 6000’ at Tusayan, just outside the park, where we were staying at the Holiday Inn Express.

We left the car at Mather Point for our first glimpse of this epic spectacle. It’s overwhelming and leaves you emotional and speechless. A gaping great scar eroded in the earth, about 10mls wide and 270 miles long and one mile deep. AWESOME. Different rock layers laid bare, pink and grey.

With a few hours left before it went dark at 5.30pm, we decided to do a gentle walk from Bright Angel Lodge along the Rim walk to Hopi point. There are several clear paths, graded according to terrain, distance and height climbed, clearly described in the Visitors Centre. The views from the rim walk are astounding, and can be accessed on foot, by bike, by wheelchair, by shuttle bus, by helicopter and by the Colorado River! The best thing about these national parks is that you are not able to approach by car and all the tourist tat is left at the shops outside the park. Everything inside is unspoilt and natural. Brilliant! After about a hundred photos taken into the canyon, it was time to head back. A steak and a beer at the steakhouse across the road and then back to do the blog. It couldn’t be more different here than last night in Las Vegas. Tonight’s “strip” had a Texaco garage, a couple of food marts, a few motels, Wendys, a Mexican, a Pizza place and that was it!!! Also average daytime temp 70 deg rather than 80deg, and plunging at night to a cool 55deg. But then we are 6000’ up!! Back to bed for 8.30pm and planning to get off early for a walk into the canyon on the South Kaibab trail to Skeleton Pt. tomorrow. Great names like Brahma Point, Vishnu Point and Wotan Plateau….

Friday, 5 November 2010

Daytime Las Vegas

So glad we saw the Strip all lit up at night, but today we toured in warm, then later hot sunshine.  Awake at 6.30am and writing the blog, breakfast with Andrew and Lizzy and then off to the Strip, whilst it was still cool.  We walked along down to Paris, with its amazing replica of the Eiffel Tower, then on to New York -New York, with its Statue of Liberty, and MGM.  Inside MGM were literally thousands of slot machines, millions if you multiply by the number of facades on the Strip.  We succumbed and put in $2, that's 50cents each, winning first time a total of $16 for the "baby fund"!  The lovely BMW car, that Lizzy was hoping for, was not to be ours today!  However, the Rough Guide quotes that the average person loses $635, so we had to be satisfied with our winnings and 800% return and move on.
We walked back towards the Belagio Hotel and went into the casino to the celebrated buffet, which exceeded expectations.  Lovely antipasti, sushi, fresh shell fish, cooked meats and fish, fresh vegetables and fruit and delicious puds- all for $22 each, which we thought great value.  Nice surroundings and attentive service.  Trouble was the wine and beers were a bit steep.  but would definitely go again.  Lizzy agreed that although all the gambling part is a bit gross, there's plenty of other stuff to see, and I'd definitely come back here for a show- currently playing The Jersey Boys, about the rise to fame of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, and also would like to see Cirque du Soleil show another time.
A really hot walk back and a siesta!
Right next to our base was a BahamaBreeze, one of a small chain, and we decided to opt for this as it was easier than getting shuttle into town and roaming the streets again, It proved to be an excellent choice and much better than last night.  We opted for appetisers, rather than main meals, which were still big portions, and plenty for all, washed down with mojitos and Sam Adams beer, with Lizzy, in stirling fashion, sticking to non-achoholic cocktails!  Great night and back to bed by 8.30pm, (Laura would be proud of us!  The time she came here on Mark's stag party, she didn't sleep much at all)

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Arrival at LA and on to Viva Las Vegas!

After a short delay and a long flight of just short of eleven hours, we arrived in LA.  We remembered the short trip to North Hills really well and arrived at Andrew's without a hitch.  Inermediate car hired from Alamo, a Ford Focus.  Good service. Ian's Tom Tom worked a treat.
Andrew (or should I say, Frank Zappa's baby brother!) and Lizzy both looked well, especially Lizzy with her larger than expected tummy!  It was great to see them both, after nearly nine months apart.  Andrew had shaved his hair for Halloween, and it did give me a fright!  Fortunately, it was not going to be a permanent style, and was starting to grow back.
After just one night, we all set off for Las Vegas, in seperate hire cars.  Six hours stree-free driving and we arrived in a tardis in the middle of the desert.  It doesn't look so big on approach, but as we wandered around later that evening, it was massive on the inside.
Anyway, to the hotel first, the Holiday Inn on Flamingo and Paradise Rd.  Lovely rooms with swimming pool, unheated at this time of year, and a bit chilly, as we later found out!
A brief swim and rest in the hot, hot sunshine, with temperature of 84 deg F, and then into town.  There was an excellent shuttle, because it's a bit too far to walk,  We were dropped off at The Venetian, with its impressive foyer, and painted ceilings.  We spent some time in there, wandering around "St Marks Square", with actors singing "Nessun Dorma", gazing over the Canals, with actors singing "Just one Cornetto!" and ornate italian frescoes and statues. The whole canal complex is upstairs! Weird.
We ate at Gilleys at Treasure Island, which was basic and expensive fayre $30 each, and not that good.  Then a fairly pacy walk to find The Bellagio, past the massive Caesars Palace, the Trevi Fountain and Colliseum!  We were inside the Bellagio, when the water display was happening, but said we'd go back tomorrow, and visit that end of the Strip.  The Strip looked brilliant, all lit up at night, and there's plenty to see and do, without even having to set foot in the gambling areas, which are all a bit overfacing and give you a desire to shout out in an evangelical voice "The End is Nigh!"
We rang for the shuttle back to the hotel, and then experienced "the magic carpet" of Las Vegas.  It was too easy to go with the flow, and we ended up being transported back into the shopping area of The Venetian.  We had to make a conscious effort to work our way towards the front of the building to the pick-up spot.  Everything is designed to get you in, and you have to work it out for yourself, how you get out!  Sneaky huh!