As mentioned in the introductory remarks to the previous post, recently we returned from a four-day trip to Las Vegas. Our purpose was not a mere acquaintance with the gambling Mecca of the USA, despite its undisputed glitter and style. At least fifty percent of our time was spent east of Vegas, surveying Nevada, Utah, and Arizona’s natural wonders. Those included the Valley of Fire, Horseshoe Bend, (Upper) Antelope Canyon, Grand Canyon (South Rim), and Lake Mead. Hoover Dam augmented our itinerary as the only man-made attraction.
Another half-day we dedicated to the exploration of California’s Death Valley, thus technically expanding the coverage of our journey to four states. (Just to be clear, we by no means consider our travel duties complete in any of them.) Because of all the destinations presented in this post the Death Valley chronologically accounted for the first third, let me begin respectively.
The Death Valley State Park is, of course, quite large, and we could not possibly traverse all of its scenic viewpoints. Certain abridgements and trade-offs had to be made in order to work out a decent itinerary. Zabriskie Point ended up being the first point in it, literally.
The farther we drove into the park, the more we got enthused with the magnificent landscapes of the American West, so different from what we had grown accustomed to. Everything looked so fantastic that we did not worry about reaching any particular location so long as we stayed on the road and kept moving.
The Zabriskie Point provided a good opportunity to pause for more than a minute and take a closer look around. (Let me mention that all panoramic shots in this post, starting with the second one below, can be clicked on to view their full-size originals.)
Next we proceeded to the Badwater Basin. At some 280 feet below the sea level, it is the lowest point in North America, the fact of which certainly lands a respectable place in our travelogs’ The Most… category. (Amazingly, the highest mountain of the continental US is only 85 miles away.) Below is the visualization of what 280 feet really is, with a human figure for scale (look for the white sea level marker on the side of the mountain).
Another curious place nearby bears an endearing name of the Devil’s Golf Course. Known for its ragged formations of salt deposits, the Course would certainly challenge a golfer of any proficiency.
Agog to extend our travel chronicle with several exciting entries at once, we rushed to the Furnace Creek, not only America’s but one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. In fact, the highest temperature ever recorded was observed here in July of 1913, when the thermometers read a staggering 134 °F. Boy, were we happy to be visiting the site in late October.
Although the present-day Furnace Creek looks to be primarily a tourist veneer, it still has an operating airport, a gas station, a general store, a post office, and so on. It even hosts a large solar panel array, whose area exceeds that of the airport. The solar panels are encircled by a fence of palm trees. I can only hypothesize as to their purpose.
Furnace Creek also features a Borax Museum, showcasing a selection of minerals previously mined in the area as well as various transportation mechanisms invented by the engineers of the past.
Shortly after visiting the museum, we headed to the ghost town of Rhyolite, a few dozen winding miles away.
I thought that the appellation of a ghost town is given to places deserted by their former inhabitants, but in case of Rhyolite the term seems to be understood quite literally, with a rather peculiar notion of ghosts.
Other than that, one can rightfully expect to find such artifacts of the past as withered dwellings, construction debris, and various articles of communication infrastructure.
Everything in the Valley looked so appetizing that we would have eagerly spent the rest of the day there, but that afternoon was our only opportunity to explore Las Vegas, so we had to turn around.
Valley of Fire
About noon the following day, through with the Vegas sightseeing agenda, we left for Page, Arizona, where we reckoned to be before dark. Heartened by auspicious weather and long stretches of scenic roadways, we gladly prolonged our trip west by a thirty-mile detour via the Valley of Fire State Park.
The more we drove, the rockier were the mountains and twistier the roads.
At some point the rock formations became clearly reminiscent of those in the Grand Canyon, with distinctly orange and red hues.
Some reminded of animals; others were arranged in most peculiar configurations.
Given extra time, we would have certainly lingered around to enjoy more of the spectacular scenery the Valley of Fire has to offer. But, alas, spare time was not a luxury we could afford, so we rushed along.
Our plan for the day was to meet the sunset at the Horseshoe Bend, a spot where the Colorado River, as the name suggests, bends in the shape of a horseshoe. Located only 10 miles away from the Antelope Canyon—the place we wanted to see the following morning—it sits right outside the town of Page, Arizona. In other words, we had two great destinations, lodging, food, and gas all within minutes of driving.
The road to Page, however, took several hours and had us zigzag along the Utah-Arizona border for almost two hundred miles. The views did not strike us as thrilling, probably because we subconsciously compared them with the earlier sights in the trip. Still, the ride was not entirely dull, for we saw and learned about the hillside letters, an interesting phenomenon of the American West, which I initially hoped to be a puzzle of sorts rather than a form of dedication or commemoration that they really are.
We were, perhaps, a half-hour away from the Horseshoe Bend when we realized that the sun sets rather early at high elevations, and that we had to pick up our pace, even if it meant skipping some of the splendid views that whizzed increasingly more often outside our windows.
When we finally arrived and hastily got out of the car, we faced six or so hundred feet of sand-covered trail taking us to a small gazebo atop of a hill. Though we had pictured the terrain to be perfectly flat, we had no choice but to quell our annoyance and walk the extra distance. After all, we were sure to find some sort of observation platform just over the apex. Alas, the trail stretched for another mile-and-a-half in the downhill direction.
After ten minutes of impetuous chase with a tripod in my hand and a camera bag across my shoulder I was finally approaching the brink of a massive rupture. As I got closer, I became awestruck by the magnitude and deadly peril of the site. And surely, there was no observation platform in sight.
One can choose dozens of spots for photography along the rim of the steep, but to get a decent shot, you have to stand dangerously close to the edge. As I was looking for the best shooting position and desperately trying not to drop some of my equipment into the abyss, the settling darkness was aggravating the already hazardous conditions by the minute.
When it became so dark that the camera refused to auto-focus, I was compelled to cease my efforts and retreat until the following morning, when we knew we would be returning there again.
There was, however, one predicament. We were scheduled for the Antelope Canyon Tour at 8 a.m., while the sun was to rise around 7. So, instead of just leisurely carrying out our morning routine, driving back to the Horseshoe Bend, and spending time taking proper pictures, we had to once again rush every step of the way. Hopefully, that did not impair my job with the pictures too much.
(Upper) Antelope Canyon
Despite the morning bustle, and much to our credit, we were among the first to show up for the Antelope Canyon tour. In retrospect, I can say many nice things about the Canyon, but hardly anything about the company organizing the tours. In fact, there are five of them, and neither has earned favorable reviews.
Located on Navajo land, the Antelope Canyon is accessible only through guided tours operated by Indians. Despite the competition, the tours are generously overpriced. A tripod is only allowed on special photographic tours, which obviously cost more. But even those do not guarantee that a hundred or more fellow tourists will not be hauling around at the time of your visit. One simply has to come prepared.
Since we signed up for an early tour, lighting was limited at times, which is why, in the absence of a tripod, I opted for an apparent solution of bumping up the ISO speed. Therefore, I apologize for noisy pictures.
The colors are probably warmer in the summer than they were in November, but even so most of the pictures turned out pretty vibrant. As we slowly advanced into darker recesses, hues waned into contrasts.
Towards the end of the canyon the sun started beaming through again, and I had to play with exposure to keep my shots from oversaturation.
Ultimately, despite all the mistakes I made taking or processing the pictures from the Antelope Canyon, I figure that a place so beautiful that its photographs sell for $6.5M could not come out too bad anyway.
Upon returning to Page, we grabbed a hearty brunch, filled up, and finally hit the road for the Grand Canyon.
It was sunny, and while driving I kept noticing the “puddle effect,” when the air heated by the underlying asphalt would bend light such that the road would disappear on the horizon.
Not long before reaching the Grand Canyon Village we stopped at a few scenic places, whose names I no longer remember. Looking at one gorge, in particular, gave us an idea of the scale of the landscapes ahead and indicated a low water level in the region.
When at last we entered the Grand Canyon State Park, we were a bit surprised by the abundance of vegetation, especially conifers, which runs counter to the pictures of the Canyon we are usually seeing. But once we reached the Desert View (the first observation point in the westbound direction) our confusion was resolved.
Still, we could make out lots of geological details in the panorama that are commonly omitted from Grand Canyon slide shows.
Our second stop was the Navajo Point, which provided a different standpoint for much the same scene.
It was followed by the Lipan, Moran, and Grandview Points, until we lastly arrived at the Grand Canyon Village.
As I mentioned, it gets dark early in high altitudes, so after we checked into our Yavapai Lodge Cabin, had a meal at a cafeteria, and made a trip to the local supermarket, it was pitch black outside; that is, we were done for the day.
At night I stepped outside in hopes of taking a long-exposure shot of the clear mountain sky, but since our camera is equipped with neither a remote control nor a shutter-locking feature for the bulb mode, my only option was to hold the shutter-release button manually. It was freezing, and I could only manage about five minutes before disturbing the tripod too much with my tremors. As a result, I did not obtain enough exposure or stability, but even so it was enough to capture the color of each star on the photograph
The following morning we got up early and took the first bus on the Hermit Road route, a section of the Grand Canyon Park that is closed to private traffic most of the year and is rightfully considered the most scenic route around the village. Buses arrive at each stop at fifteen-minute intervals, so we had time to get out and take pictures at each one, except, maybe, one or two.
Some of these views are surely prettier at dusk or dawn, but they are not half bad in broad daylight either.
As the time approached noon, we hurried back to the Village to sign out of our hotel and get the car packed for the ride back to Vegas. It was our last day of the trip, and, having lots of miles to cover, we wanted to make our flight even in the event of a road impediment.
Above all, there were still some entries to strike off our itinerary before returning the car to the rentals and boarding our plane home.
Some four hours after the departure from the Grand Canyon Village we were pulling into the Tillman Memorial Bridge parking lot, which provides pedestrian access to the Hoover Dam overlook. I have already mentioned that the water levels in Arizona seemed low at the time of our visit; it was especially obvious when looking at the rim of the dam because one could instantly assess how much the Colorado River had dropped below its full capacity.
But frankly, we had fancied a more august and stupefying view, regardless of the water situation. Perhaps, the bridge just felt too safe and secure to fill us with reverent trepidation, or we had seen too many aerial pictures of the dam with superior perspectives and illumination. Either way, the Hoover Dam is a feat of engineering and one of the most prominent U.S. landmarks.
For a few dozen miles prior to hitting the dam, the Colorado River flows through Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country. Due to its size, we had no intention of surveying the lake’s shores. Besides, other than backpacking or yachting, it offers few sightseeing options. In my opinion, the view one gets from the overlook a few miles west of the Hoover Dam sums it all nicely.
And that was the final destination of our first trip to the American West, whose astonishing beauties had made us certain that it will not be the last.