santa fe & taos

Things I did not see coming after finishing my last post on my southwestern trip in June: a) The Delta variant’s arrival in the United States, and subsequent rapid rise in cases and deaths, and b) Getting a tenure-track political science post, after years of working as an adjunct and in temporary “visiting” positions. Both these hit at the same time. The mix of bitterness–or something making to that–about the pandemic getting so much worse, largely due to low vaccination levels, and excitement over the new job? It was an odd combination. And then I was busy or agog at whatever horrible news the day brought. The trip seemed like a brief, manic little dream–well, manic, if you exclude the mix of strenuous (to me) hiking in hanging out in a ’60s trailer and eating ice cream and such in Taos.

Now that the worst of the pandemic is seemingly over, or over for now, and I’m planning a new trip out west for December, a different sort of west this time (more later), my thoughts have returned to the trip. Will I be fine with eating inside restaurants more often now, like last time? Will going into stores and museums seem like fun again, or too stressful and odd? I’m not sure yet.

Even without all the COVID insanity and the new job, writing about Santa Fe and Taos was going to be harder, especially the former. The above two are the best I really have of Santa Fe, aside from photos I took at sunset from Fort Marcy Park outside of downtown.


I spent most of a day-and-a-half otherwise in museums and galleries, stores for everything from top-of-the-line, custom-made cowboy hats to vintage clothing to records and books, the amazing state capital (aka the Roundhouse) with its multi-million art collection, the local farmer’s and artists market in the Railyard District, and on and on. I enjoyed the much-ballyhooed Meow Wolf (where taking photos is verboten), but what will probably stick in my most over time is having Roundhouse galleries all to myself, spending all day exploring an unfamiliar city when I hadn’t even gone out much in a familiar one in so long, and one stop in a record and bookstore, where I picked this graphic novel up for a ludicrous $8 or so. A few more shots anyway, below!

Next it was off to Taos, where I spent two largely blissful (although for a couple of hours on the second day a bit too hot) hiking, largely cooking on my own inside of a stationery 1960s RV, exploring a few local places here and there (including the stellar Millicent Rogers Museum, with its extensive collection of southwestern Native American art and crafts), and fairly strenuous hiking to 11,000 feet, then having a mix of pistachio and Mexican chocolate ice cream.

Of all the places I visited, Taos had the most varied landscapes, from flat and dry to high and wet, with even some leftover snow pack around, all within 30 to 40 minutes of each other. Also, did I mention that I stayed in a 1960s RV? I think I had that in an intro post, right? Well, yes. Go to Taos and stay at the Hotel Luna Mystica, if you ever have the time.

And then those sunsets. I had never seen a sky at sunset or dusk (or sunrise or dawn) this big and varied anywhere, ever.


The two nights at Luna Mystica and hanging out in Taos were so much slower paced than my Santa Fe visit, or really the rest of the trip. Going there toward the end, then, ended up being nearly perfect. It’s a beautiful area, and I want to return at some hopefully not-too-distant point.

From there, it was back to Albuquerque, snapping photos along the way to Santa Fe, and then the scenic Turquoise Trail between Santa Fe and ABQ. Then I took a few Breaking Bad location photos for my own fun and giggles, bought a Gus Fring votive candle, and headed to an airport hotel. That was it.

Next on the travel agenda after this and, if it counts, Clarksdale MS in October? The Bay Area and Big Sur, in early December 2021. With a booster shot, it’s on. How different it will be than last time out? Who knows? Who knows anything now? Just enjoy the moments. We’ll all end up being unable to enjoy more on this planet, just like the man below found out. (I bet he would have worn a mask and been vaccinated, though. Too many days of work to miss otherwise.)

el morro & environs

After a wildly busy three days in Arizona, and a big breakfast in the morning at La Posada, I began shifting the action back from whence I came, to New Mexico. This meant a long drive, and I hate long drives. Through some planning and research, however, I was able to pinpoint some interesting historical and cultural spots along the way, the first after a quiet drive through mile after lonely mile of curiously beautiful Arizona desert.

I first stopped at a Zuni Pueblo visitor’s center about an hour (and change) southwest of Petrified Forest National Park. There, I admired pottery and read about the Spanish being misinformed about gold and silver deposits in this part of the world. Misinformation! It leads to so many problems. A dozen or so miles up the road? Cliff dwellings, about three-quarters of a mile off NM 53 (Ice Cave Road), ones unattached to any state or national park or landholdings.

You wouldn’t have believed the number of cars that passed by, on a rocky road, as I took the photos. I saw fewer between Holbrook AZ and the turnoff. No idea what that was about!

Cliff Dwellings near Ramah, New Mexico

A few quick snapshots and a snail’s-pace drive back onto 53, and I headed to El Morro National Monument. I do not have the time or the mental bandwidth (I’ve been painting a ceiling and getting ready for a fall semester) to get into all the details. You can read up on the place here, though. Suffice it to say that while the contrast of colors at the park, and a hike to the top of its sandstone rock alone make the stop worth making, what makes it most memorable is its history.

El Morro National Monument, New Mexico

El Morro’s lower reaches are, for instance, filled with a mix of petroglyphs, along with engraved signatures dating from 1605, and continuing on through the immediate post-Civil War years. The reason: This area had, and still has, an oasis at its center (which I photographed but wasn’t much to look in a drier-than-usual mid-June 2021).

Atop the rock (and four or five steep flights of stairs), meanwhile, are what remains of a large Native American pueblo.

Verdict: El Morro rocked! I also picked up a discounted T-shirt at the gift shop that memorialized the U.S. Army’s “Camel Corps,” whose namesakes often passed by the rock and oasis. (I’d known about the Camel Corps via a connection to the Siege of Vicksburg, via a presentation I checked out during a marking of the Civil War Sesquicentennial of 2011 at the Vicksburg National Military Park.)

grand canyon to la posada

The photo above was taken at the historic La Posda Hotel in Winslow AZ toward the end of Day 3 of my mid-June 2020 trip through northern sections of Arizona and New Mexico. It seemed to me, when planning the trip, that this would be an appropriately grand place to stay after a first visit to the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t disappointed.

Before getting there, however, I had one other big thing to do at the Grand Canyon: Get out at dawn, take photos, and then hike down into the canyon a bit.

I’d looked at several trails, including the South Kaibab Trail. It was clear that I would have to get up early early to see anything, and that shuttle buses could take me anywhere starting far enough before dawn. Given how busy I expected to be, however, I decided to keep things simple and take the Bright Angel Trail, closer by foot to my hotel. I spent about 10 to 15 minutes getting photos first, spotting only one other person nearby outside of the El Tovar.

(Tip for avoiding crowds: Arizona doesn’t have Daylight Savings Time. Wake up before dawn!)

South Rim Trail near El Tovar Hotel & Mary Colter’s Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park

I then headed over and down. Verdict: MUCH harder than I thought it was going to be, even after reading plenty about Grand Canyon trails being rough. The hike gave me a much greater appreciation for the enormity, or grandness, of the canyon, though.

From the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
From the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

I knew the rule about how it will take you twice as long to go back up as it did to head down, meanwhile. I wanted to get breakfast at the hotel by 8:30 to 9 a.m., at least. Consequently, by the time I got down to the 1.5 mile Resthouse, I decided to turn around. I started around 5:15 a.m., and returned around 7:45.

Getting back up was murderous, but I felt decent enough, and promptly ordered a room service breakfast. I headed out to Flagstaff by 10. I stopped briefly in Williams AZ, just for photos of the old Flintstones Bedrock City place. I spent about two-and-a-half hours in Downtown Flagstaff at lunchtime, snapping photos of its many retro signs, sitting in a swank coffee shop and writing in a journal, and browsing through a fantastic bookstore and outdoors apparel and accouterments stores.

After that, I headed to Winslow (yeah, that Winslow) and La Posada. And here, there’s a connection with previous trip stops, namely, with architect and designer Mary Colter. She was behind several Grand Canyon National Park structures, including the Hopi House, the Desert View Watchtower and the Bright Angel Lodge. She also designed the landmark Painted Desert Inn at the Petrified Forest National Park.

It was not Colter’s reputation that led me to La Posada, however. It was reading about it in the context of thinking, Wow! There has to be something more interesting along the way than a $200-a-night chain hotel in Flagstaff to stay at after the Grand Canyon, but before heading to Santa Fe. Turns out there was. This hotel, a railroad era hotel renovated room-by-room beginning in the late 199s, features a mix of design elements, from the streamline moderne style of its era, along with Mission-style architecture and Navajo art. Then the property had Jacuzzi whirlpool tubs in every room (which came in handy after the canyon and Sedona area hiking.)

Oh, and a stellar restaurant, the Turquoise Room. I had more flavorful food at the restaurant here, for dinner and breakfast than anywhere else on my trip. During the one month or so I experienced a bit of the old maskless indoor life, I enjoyed being treated like a benign kingly ruler, with mega-pro gloved staff and all. (Didn’t have to dress up, though!) Makes me feel almost wistful now.

A few pics below. A day of luxuriating here, and I headed out for a purposefully slow, half-scenic route trip to Santa Fe.

Black Currant Margarita at the Turquoise Room of La Posada Hotel, Winslow AZ

Huevos Rancheros at the Turquoise Room of La Posada Hotel, Winslow AZ

oak creek + grand canyon

My right arm was feeling heavy. THAT is why it took me entirely too long to even start a new entry. The perils of hiking up trails with steep climbs, using a stick, when you live in the lowlands. Also all the driving.

(Long delay.)

OK, I bought a new mechanical keyboard and an ergonomic mouse. Then I still had to get medication for muscle inflammation in my lower right arm. After that, I had to finish an academic piece due on the first Friday in August. In the interim, so very much changed around me, making the trip of this summer seem like a distant whirlwind of a dream. I was eating indoors, not all of the time but almost every day, and not worrying about it! People did not freak me out. The news wasn’t filled with stories of infection, death, and childish outrage over masks. Imagine.

In any case, here are happier times from Day 2 of my second trip out to the southwest in the past year, this one to northern sections of Arizona and New Mexico. This day in a visit to the Grand Canyon, my first ever, and before that an early morning hike in a ridiculously beautiful trail in the Coconino National Forest near Sedona AZ.


The latter was the West Fork of Oak Creek Creek Trail, which I hopped up at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, June 9 to head out to while still at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook AZ, about two hours away. I was hoping to get to the trail by 7. And I made it with about 8 minutes or so to spare. And when I got there, it was still a tad chilly, leaving me to keep my gloves on. It was also uncrowded, which thrilled and surprised me a bit, while also leading me to think that Grand Canyon National Park was not going to be as uncrowded as everyone and every website said it might. So parking that afternoon would likely not be much of an issue, was my thought, basing my hunch on how much more crowded parts of Zion were early even amid what was then a seeming height of the pandemic. (I was correct!)

I thought I might be able to visit Sedona, but did not have time once finishing this nearly 7-mile long trail through Oak Creek Cayon. I’d seen this trail in guides, however, and thought it looked like it could provide enough of a red rocks experience, while also being more green-and-shade-intensive than what I was seeing of trails around the city proper. It ended up being the perfect choice, I think, practically idyllic. The only thing you can’t experience in these photos is having to walk over a creek about eight times when carrying a camera over your neck, and carrying a hiking pole. Also the wondering of, How much longer to the end? Then the occasionally swatting of bugs and such. Also the questions I kept asking myself, such as, Should I take the 97th photo, or what?

I made it back to Flagstaff around 11:15-ish, stopping for lunch there at a little bakery and coffee place on Historic Route 66, the appropriately named (for me at least) Eat ‘n’ Run Route 66 Cafe. Super-friendly staff, one server mega-charming, OK food but great coffee. Then it was up to the Grand Canyon, which I entered from the eastern side, instead of the more heavily trafficked southern entrance. The first stop: Desert View, right after the Grand Canyon becomes the Grand Canyon, as opposed to the river gorge you could see on the way in.

This was a pretty crowded stop, but not unmanageable or overwhelming. I still got to see a father walking ahead of me be jerk-ey to his children, a la answering “No!” to every question they had, including, “Daddy can we get some ice cream?” In my head, I was thinking, in all caps, just like this: THEY’RE AT THE GRAND CANYON, LET THEM HAVE ICE CREAM!

It took me a half-hour to get to Grand Canyon Village from there, where I’d be staying the night, the historic El Tovar Hotel (built just prior to the park’s opening, by the Fred Harvey Company and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (now the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe), a duo that shall come up in a later post. I couldn’t get a parking place at my hotel, but drove right up to an open spot a block away. I soon checked in, checked my dinner reservation, looked out my window at fellow tourists and the canyon’s edge for a bit, then took a nap. Then it was time for dinner at 5:30 p.m., the only time I could get within my range. (There, I heard a kid telling his family trivia about rats, his favorite numbers, and “high-end” Mandarin classes.)

My dinner was followed by a trip back out to the Desert View area for the Golden Hour. I’d done my research here, and wasn’t disappointed. No giant crowds.

Desert View, Grand Canyon National Park

That was it! Well, except for the drive back. I left after sunset, but I could see a bit of blue sky all the way to Grand Canyon Village, where I finally saw completely dark skies. There were plenty of spaces in the El Tovar lot. (I saw so much ragging on the South Rim area, before and after my visit, for crowds and parking problems. I experienced no big problems.) The drive through the park was strangely beautiful. I listened to Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives’ “Way Out West” as an accompaniment. The drive will stick with me for a while, like so many this time.

holbrook & the wigwam

The time passed much faster this time than in my last trip out west. Or it seemed like it did, and not just because I could only spend so much time in the Wigwam Motel, a Route 66 classic, on my first night. My first night of the trip!

The main reason: People. Unlike in December, when I traveled to largely desert or at least especially dry parts of California, Nevada, and Utah via, on the way out, I saw more of them. There were far more people at the Jackson airport for sure. And though I went through the Hobby Airport in Houston for a connecting flight this time rather than Atlanta, I presume the former’s crowds meant that ATL was similarly crowded. Last time the latter’s trams were practically deserted at noon on a Tuesday.

While I engaged in only one really extended conversation with anyone, however, the latest trip was a more detailed small talk-intensive venture. And I chatted with people with masks off, in commercial settings galore, in lines, crowded shuttle buses, and packed aircraft. I waited on food inside restaurants. Some people I know had been doing the same for months, but not me. My trip was a heavy dose of interaction with strangers, engagement of a sort I hadn’t experienced in months.

At the same time, though, having more stops planned, and more hours in the day to see things, also probably helped push the time along, in a sense. I mean, as soon as I could get out of the Albuquerque Int’l Sunport rental car center, with a rental company’s 1980s dot matrix printer (no app-driven Silvercar rental available this time, alas) and a 15-minute wait at an exit and such, I was set out to explore. An hour-and-a-half later, I was on a scenic route starting from an exit near Grants NM, headed toward the second-largest natural arch in the state–La Ventana, part of the surrounding El Malpais National Conservation Area.

La Ventana Natural Arch, near Grants NM

A Melted Earth Turned Blue: Petrified Forest NP

After that, I headed as quickly as I could to Petrified Forest National Park, about another two hours west of Grant. Getting there soon was essential, given that the park closes to traffic in the evening, due to the threat of the theft of crystallized wood. I knew that much, and that the park contains a section of the Painted Desert and a National Register building, the Painted Desert Inn, by architect and designer Mary Colter (more on her in a later entry). Otherwise, I had no idea what to expect.

The Painted Desert? Loved it, took 15 gazillion photos. And I almost started off on a hike into it, below the Painted Desert Inn. I stopped myself only because I feared staying past closing time, then headed to the southern part of the park, below I-40 (which follows old Route 66, part of which is in the park). A good 20 minutes or so later, it looked like the earth had melted and turned different shades of blue.

Do stop here if you’re ever driving I-40 out west. The crowds were not as thin as I expected, but I never felt hemmed in or overwhelmed by people. There is more variety here than you’d expect, and I barely had time to explore that much of the park. I barely stopped, say, at trail full of crystallized petrified wood.

Blue Mesa, Petrified Forest National Park

A Bucket of Blood, and So Much More (Say, Dinos)

Next stop: The nearest town, Holbrook, a place chock-a-block with old Route 66 color, kitsch, and a bit of Old West history–like, say, the Bucket of Blood Saloon story and street.

A little P.S.: If you ever find yourself in Holbrook, and you like sake, be sure to stop by any local liquor store and look for Arizona Sake. A liquor owner told me a brief version of the story behind the brewery, but Atlas Obscura gets into more detail.

I wish I could slow down the days, except for the parts where I’m dealing with heat, traffic, and such, and spend more time in, say, the Mexican place from which I took the above. The moments were all too fleeting, after all the planning, or so it seemed this time. I’ll always have the photos and memories of the Wigwam Motel–a Route 66 classic–and environs, though. Maybe I’ll put a few on the wall, extend the tour in my head.

A couple more of those Wigwam shots. Why not?

southwest pt 2

Coming over the next two weeks or so: An account of what was, to me, an extension of the trip I took to the southwest in December 2020. That one took me to Death Valley, the Mojave in Nevada and California, and Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in southeastern Utah.

That trip, however, was taken at the seeming apex of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, back when the airports were uncrowded, Delta had empty seats on purpose, and I barely talked to a soul while mostly eating take-out meals, or eats from food trucks and room service. I completely avoided going into retail establishments or public spaces in any city, including Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.

The environment in June 2020 was dramatically different. I ate inside quite a times, sat inside coffee shops and breweries, went to book stores, retail establishments, and galleries and museums. I talked with people more.

I carried over some experiences from the pandemic era into what seemed like a new one (but ultimately was not), however, most notably: Glamping and staying at more interesting places—say, the RV above in Taos NM. I ate outdoors and did the room service thing a bit too, and cooked on my own twice.

I’ve put my thoughts together on the trip, and the idea of a post-pandemic world and such, in posts below:

Holbrook & the Wigwam

Oak Creek + Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon to La Posada

El Morro & West-Central New Mexico

until non-pandemic time

After leaving the diner in Hurricane UT (and what a name for a town!), referenced in the last entry, and a brief stop for coffee at the edge of nearby St. George UT, I headed into Nevada again, this time for two last stops. The first: The Whole Foods on the Strip in Las Vegas. The second: A dude ranch in the Mojave, about 45 minutes south of the city on I-15.

I would be bypassing Vegas altogether, really, except for needed foodstuffs. I only needed some place to get things to cook, and the Whole Foods location near the Strip casinos and the airport was perfect. It also wasn’t at all crowded, so I managed to pick up a New York Strip steak, asparagus, butter, and one tall beer for the night in short order. The objective was to get down to the dude ranch and cook at a place I was staying there, while having enough time to see a sunset. I made it.

That place was a tipi, a glamping setup, on the property of Sandy Valley Ranch, located about three miles south of the Nevada border in San Bernadino County CA, about 30 miles from the Mojave National Preserve. It was located on a piece of land behind the ranch house, along with a (then-taken) tiny house and such.

I wouldn’t say that the place was wildly glamorous if you expect that with the “glamping” name. But the tipi and deck had all the cooking utensils I needed properly cook and cut a steak, along with a propane stove and a fridge for butter and the beer and such. It also featured an outdoor shower, a fire pit, and a couch and chairs on the deck, then a heated mattress and plenty of thick Navajo blankets and such inside the tipi.

I won’t say that any one part of the night stood out as The Highlight. The sunset, however, clearly made for the most dramatic shot. And I did not notice the big red line for a bit, being busy with moving things around and starting the fire and all. Once I did notice, I went immediately for the camera. Otherwise, I cooked a steak while a ranch dog longingly looked on, read on a big red couch next to a fire, looked at the stars in the remarkably clear desert sky, and so forth. Then I went to sleep, with the assistance of a propane heater (safe to use with a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm inside) and a heated mattress, along with a Navajo blanket. I still struggled to keep warm, but loved every second of the experience.

The next morning, just after sunrise, I thought maybe my lucky streak on this strip had finally come to an end, given that the shower wouldn’t turn on. Oh well, I thought, I can at least get a shower at the Concourse F lounge in Atlanta, since I planned to go there again Wednesday (December 9, specifically). Even so, I called the owner, who figured the pipes must have frozen, and he sent me over the then-empty ranch house for a shower. So all worked out fine.

I used an extra K-cup from a hotel to make coffee in an old pot. Worked out beautifully. The cup I had felt like the best in a long, long time, given the bitterly cold morning. Then I finished packing and headed out.

I was a tad worried when my smartphone, after sitting on deck while I had a shower, wouldn’t fully turn on afterward. But within a couple of minutes inside the car, it was going again. Then came the Joshua trees with Christmas decorations on them, one after the other on the way back to I-15, and I started cackling, while making sure to pull over and get at least one photo.

If U2 ever gives up and releases a holiday album, one of these trees could be on the front cover– say, “The Christmas Joshua Tree,” featuring the hit single, “I Still Haven’t Found the Gift That I’m Looking For.” (A friend sad another single could be, “Where the Malls Have No Name.”)

And that was it for the trip. I watched “Singin’ in the Rain” on the plane back to Atlanta, and had a nice margarita and such at the Delta Sky Deck. Really, though, that was it.

Maybe I’ll have some thoughts on COVID and travel later, and on funding for and treatment of national and state parks and such, or climate change. You never know. I did write in a journal entry that I wondered a couple of years ago if I’d gotten back into travel via a middle-class salary just as all the fun would be ending, thanks to political and possibly economic instability and climate change (even a budding backlash against air travel pre-COVID thanks to the latter).

Maybe I could extend that idea into an entry down the line? Hmm. Otherwise, this is it for now.

bryce canyon

One more exclusively natural wonders-related post, covering the last full day of my trip out west on Tuesday, Dec. 8. This post also covers the crème de la crème of the natural wonders I saw; namely, Bryce Canyon. It’s the smallest of the national parks I visited, but I took more photos in two hours in this park at sunrise than anywhere else. If I get to see anything of the park’s ilk again in this life I’ll be lucky.

For background purposes: I had walked to Bryce Canyon’s rim on the previous Monday, after driving over in the afternoon after morning inside Zion Canyon and a beautiful drive over, albeit one where I had to struggle to stay fully alert a couple of times. (I solved this issue by listening to a Frank Sinatra-themed channel, first, and then a classical channel via satellite radio from the rental care. Have no idea why that worked.) I snapped a couple of shots off the road at Red Canyon of an agglomeration of the same sort of rock formations found at Bryce, ones known as hoodoos.

Hoodoos at Red Canyon Visitors Center, about 20 minutes from Bryce Canyon National Park

I was walking stiffly when I got out of the car, however. And the front desk clerk at the Lodge at Bryce Canyon‘s Sunset Lodge, where I stayed, told me that I would definitely get better photos at sunrise, that it was the big thing there. He wrote down sunset and sunrise times as a matter of routine. He also gave me directions and phone numbers for food–important, since all park restaurants were closed. I opted to go look for food (settling on barbecue in nearby Tropic UT and getting breakfast foods at a grocery next door) before sunset instead of waiting for photos then, but I took a few shots at the rim all the same before doing so.

I got it at dusk, and enjoyed a quiet night in the TV-less lodge, but thankfully with good Internet, and furniture re-created from 1920s lodge patterns (as shown at right, above).

The next morning brought the drama. But I thought at first that it would be over quickly, given that it was so ridiculously cold at dawn–around 15, according to weather archives online–and windy. I was thinking, Maybe just take photos at sunrise, and call it a day? And I did take dozens of photos well before that, including the shot in the title shot above. Below are a couple of others.

When I made it to a designated sunrise point, there were only six other people around, no press conference-style environment with all the tripods this time. This made sense since most lodging and all park restaurants are closed for the year in November. The highest elevation at Bryce is 9,100 feet, and Sunrise Point is just under 8,000. It can get brutally cold at the park in winter. The front desk clerk told me that the only reason park lodging is available past mid-November and just past New Year’s Day is high Christmas demand.

There were so few people around, then, that it felt safe to talk with others from a distance for a bit. Then four in a group began walking around, and one guy started coughing. So I thought, Um, why not walk down this adjacent trail? It was the Queen’s Garden Trail, which headed down into the canyon.

Next thing you know, I was seeing more light out, and I was just too floored to think about anything else otherwise (besides reminding myself that I was walking straight down and would have to walk back up eventually).

Around 7:30, we had sunrise. A big, dramatic sunrise, in hindsight. I put together this panoramic shot from sequential ones later, a week or so after getting home.

I took at least 150 more shots just around or after that point, many of them through attempts to produce wide-angle shots without having to take off my backpack, open it, and get out my wide-angle lens. It was warming up, but still frigid enough that I didn’t want to bother. I realized later that I could have produced what I wanted to be composite shots in-camera. But I’m not sure how well that feature works. I will experiment with it later. The shots I took through Queen’s Garden and on through the open section of the connecting Navajo Loop Trail (the popular, towering Wall Street section was closed for winter) were still thrilling to check out.

The climb back was not that bad, about six or seven long switchbacks. Not long after making it up, I got a shower, checked out, and headed into Nevada again. I opted to take the scenic route on to and through Zion again, which took me again through places with plenty of evergreen trees and a curious array of rural fancy coffee joints. After getting through Zion and environs, I ate at an outdoor “diner” food truck in Hurricane UT, one that would surely be consistently mobbed in any city, small to large. Along the way, in one of the small towns I passed through, I bought firewood for a stay I had planned south of Las Vegas that night in the Mojave, at the far edge of San Bernadino County CA.

third day: scenic drive, zion

Featured here are photos I took on the morning and early afternoon of Monday, May 7 in the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive section of Zion National Park. For those not in the know: I was in the park at the only time of year you can take the scenic route in a personal vehicle, given that it is the off-season and park shuttles do not operate then. Even so, parking spaces within the drive area are first-come, first-serve, and the route is shut off when parking is full. As such, I had to get up early again Monday to make it into this zone.

This was not a challenge, however, as I had regularly been getting up before dawn on this trip. I even managed to get a full breakfast and get checked out and still get into the scenic area around 7:45. Then I walked, hiked, took photos, and took things in. I ate a large, yummy chicken cordon bleu sandwich from the park lodge restaurant while out on the lodge lawn. Then I headed for another short trail. And I took off around 1:30 or so to head for Bryce Canyon, an hour-and-a-half down the road.

The only big hike I did was a popular one called the Emerald Pools Trail that is easy-peasy on the first third, only to get maddeningly strenuous by the last third. I loved it, except for the oh-great-slippery-rocks-and-more-rocks-again bit in the last third. But it wasn’t as interesting photographically as an earlier, somewhat lazy walk along the Virgin River.

I thought the same was true of the easy path I took after lunch, the Riverside Walk trail, which starts at the Temple of Sinawava (the quasi-official beginning of Zion Canyon) and heads toward the Narrows section, where it’s only water and a towering, narrow canyon–and you need special water-resistant gear to make the hike, neoprene socks and waders and such to keep going.

Speaking of the Narrows, I didn’t do any of the Internet-suggested “must do” hikes, because a) There was an NPS danger alert about toxic algae in the Virgin River, and this was December besides, and b) There’s already this virus thing going on, and the Narrows and the (risky) Angels Landing trails are said to be nearly always crowded. This year, two major trails elsewhere were also closed due to rockslides. That made hiking the most publicized trails a big nope for me. I had a good time anyway!

In any case, I read much before heading into this trip about how Zion has become a victim of overtourism and crowding in peak season. My impression, however, was that the scenic area is popular because it should be. This is not to say that other parks, and even other parts of Zion, are curiously overlooked. It’s just to say that sometimes crowds are right, as much as they may need to be shepherded around to other places.

Best not to follow people too closely right before a vaccine comes along, though. Gotta get up before most of the crowd, slip past people, all that. Maybe that will be a good rule of thumb for the post-COVID era, though, as much as we humans need and rely upon other people? I’m thinking yes. In all things, balance.

hiking in zion, days 1 & 2

Two Saturdays ago was meant to be more of what I call a “down day,” a rest and regrouping day. And it sort-of was, if you don’t count the unexpected two-and-a-half more hours of hiking over one rock after another after another in the late afternoon.

The hours before mostly involved getting reoriented and eating carb-heavy foods, including a St. George UT Hilton Tru hotel’s offering of healthy options including Belgian waffles with whipped cream (someone did ask if I wanted it added, uh yes, thanks) and toppings including chocolate chips and Oreo crumbles. I went to wash and get rocks out of my rental car after that, seeing a balloon race or exhibition or something on the way (Ooh purty, now where’s the car wash?), and asked for a chocolate-covered doughnut with chocolate chips on top afterward.

I headed to Springdale UT, bordering Zion National Park and about an hour east around noon. The plan was just to drive through the park, take some photos, and check into my hotel there. On the east end of the park, however, I stopped to go the restroom at a turnabout area. After talking with a couple from Idaho, with the two doing some outdoor bratwurst grilling there, I noticed what looked like a dirt trail leading down a hill. So I got my hiking stick, camera, and hat (Idaho man went, “Yeah, the hat!”) and headed to see what was there.

I remembered reading in a guide that the trails next to some of these turnabouts led to many slot canyons, and tended to be uncrowded. This proved to be accurate advice, even with two major trails closed due to rockslides earlier in the year. Later, I would find that these are in an area known as Clear Creek.

Two women I passed, a mother and daughter I think, told me after I’d been out for a bit that if I kept going I’d come across several pools and big horn sheep. But I kept coming across more and more piles of dry creek bed rocks, and thought, Well, that’s it for today. I mean, really.

I had other shots from the drive, shots which did not include cars, but liked the one here for whatever reason. Another non-trail shot is of the Virgin River, taken from my hotel’s grounds. It’s just the way the river is, no immaculate Hilton landscaping going on. A park campground is on the other side.

What I planned instead, at least for the morning, was a hike through was I saw referred to as the infrequently visited “desert” (in quotes because, I thought, it’s technically all desert) southwestern quadrant of the park. It’s less frequently visited because it’s lower-lying, has almost no shade on trails, and is too hot for hiking in most parts of the year. That’s not true in December.

I found varying reports about the trail’s merits. One elaborately detailed Zion hiking site called it mostly unimpressive compared to other parts of the park, but worth visiting if you like solitude. By contrast, a guide from a resort just outside of the eastern section of the park called it “epic” for winter. I liked the idea of a longer, uncrowded hike, in any case, so I thought I’d try it.

Verdict: I thought I’d made the wrong call on this trail until I walked up a “wash” (dry creek bed), into a petrified forest area, and came upon what looked to be a rockslide’s aftermath. I suppose I could have attempted to scramble over the rocks, but a) I’m from Mississippi, b) I was out here alone, and c) I didn’t want to risk burdening the already burdened health care system. So I turned around, and then … Then! Then things got interesting.

I took a break after four hours around here, barely getting out of the designated parking area’s steep, beaten up, and gutted driveway out (I had a 4WD, which did its thing, thankfully). Then I took the much more popular Watchman Trail at the edge of the main section of the park that afternoon. I walked to it from my hotel. I saw many more people here, but almost all wore masks, and one could do The COVID Shuffle to get out of anyone’s path.

I finally ate healthy that night, fancy salmon, veggies, taters, and greens dish. And ice cream with some blackberry/raspberry tart thing later.