Shannon and I took the Vantage Travel National Parks trip July 22 - August 6, 2009.
The weather was great, only a few drops of rain and some clouds for shade on days that otherwise would have been very hot. There were 27 of us a good group. Our guide did an excellent job explaining what we were seeing and keeping us on schedule. The hotels and lodges were all very nice, and the food was good. We stopped at quite a few museums and visitors centers that had good exhibits.
Throughout our travels from Bozeman, Montana, through Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada, sometimes following the paths of Lewis and Clark and the Oregon trail, the landscape changed from woods to plains to cliffs to dry land, but mountains were always visible.
I learned about the shifting of the earth's plates millions of years ago causing the mountains to rise, and that most of the area has been covered by oceans, several times, resulting in so much sandstone, and of the volcanic eruptions. Rivers, wind, rain, and ice etched the canyons, arches, and hoodoos that are pretty unbelievable and constantly changing.
We were among MANY tourists. I was surprised by the number of visitors from other countries we heard a variety of languages. The parks stress that visitors not take anything, not leave anything behind, and stay on the paths so that even with millions of visitors, the environment is preserved.
If you travel to the parks, be aware of fees. There are park entry fees and a tunnel had a fee. Some of the parks provide shuttle buses. Parking space in overlooks is small so taking a shuttle eliminates parking headaches and allows you to relax and enjoy the views while you travel.
July 21: We stayed overnight at Fairfield Inn, Marriott, at Raleigh-Durham Airport for an early morning flight and left the car there ($25 for parking for 16 days, with free shuttle).
July 22: Arrived Bozeman, Montana (Hilton Garden Inn). Welcome and trip briefing.
July 23: The bus took us down the main street of Bozeman and then into Wyoming to Yellowstone, the first national park. Elevation about 7,000 feet. Three tremendous volcanic blasts have occurred in Yellowstone in the period from 2 million to 640,000 years ago. The last formed a cater more than 45 by 30 miles. Yellowstone has the most varied collection of hydrothermal features on earth.
I walked the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs boardwalk, more than a mile on a hot day.
Heat, water, limestone, and rock fracture combine to create the terraces. Travertine is deposited as white rock, however the microorganisms and living bacteria create beautiful shades of oranges, pinks, yellows, greens, and browns. More information.
There were elk lounging around the hotel area where we gathered after the walk. In the afternoon, we went to the Upper Falls and then the Lower Falls, at Artist Point. More info about the falls.
From the bus on the way to Yellowstone Lake, we saw elk and bison and some white pelicans. Old Faithful erupted soon after we arrived. We stayed two nights at Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
July 24: In the morning, we saw Firehole Canyon, Fountain Paint Pots, and Middle Geyser Basin. We had a buffet lunch at the Old Faithful Inn, built in 1904.
July 25: On the drive out of Yellowstone to Jackson Hole, the land was covered with trees that burned in the 1988 fire and new, young trees that germinated because of the fire. On the bus, we watched a movie about the fire. (Info about the fire.)We stopped at Lewis Canyon, and we got our first views of the Grand Tetons at Colter Bay, Jackson Lake, and Jenny Lake. The Colter Bay Visitor Center had a nice Indian Arts Museum. Jenny Lake was formed by a Glacier.
At Jackson Hole’s Visitor Center, Dan Thomasma told us about the Lewis and Clark journey, with songs. The Center had especially nice exhibits. We stayed one night at Snow King Resort in Jackson.
Sunday, July 26, we traveled from Jackson (the town is Jackson, Jackson Hole is the valley), Wyoming, to Salt Lake City, Utah, following the Oregon Trail, through Idaho. Yellowstone had bison, elk and ground squirrels. Idaho has cattle, sand cranes, osprey, wheat, irrigation systems, potatoes, wide-open areas, sparse small towns (100-200 population). This is Mormon country, with everything closed on Sundays. Our lunch was by special arrangement (the restaurant was closed). In Salt Lake, we passed the capitol building and monument to settlers. We had a tour of Temple Square, the Assembly Hall and Tabernacle. We stayed two nights at the Salt Lake City Marriott Downtown. Shannon and I skipped Monday's activates and had a quiet day to ourselves with meals at the hotel. It was hot.
Tuesday, July 28, we traveled to Moab, Utah, through red rock country, stopping at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum on the Green River, where we saw a film about Powell and his trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers.
We saw our first mesas (they are wide) and buttes (they are tall) coming into Moab. Our guide said that traveling Canyonlands is a good car trip but the roads do not accommodate buses. We went to the "Canyonlands By Night" barbecue and float trip. Going up-river, the guide pointed out images in the canyon walls. His patter was humorous. The light show coming back was impressive, but too loud for us. We stayed at Best Western Canyonlands Inn.
July 29, traveling from Moab, Utah, to Kayenta, Arizona, the vegetation changed to juniper, mountain mahogany, black brush and Mormon tea.
Arches National Park lies on top of an underground salt bed, deposited by the sea that was there 300 million years ago. Water, ice and underground salt movement are responsible for the sculptured rock. Our first stop in the arches was at Park Place, where our guide took a picture of us. Some of the monuments look different when you look at them from the other side, for example the 3 wise men become 3 gossips. We saw Courthouse, Balanced Rock, petroglyphs, Devil's Garden, Delicate Arch, Windows, and Elephants. We stayed at Hampton Inn Monument Valley.
July 30 we had a tour of Monument Valley, led by a Native American (Goulding Tours, gouldings.com). We gathered in a hogan, then traveled through mesas and buttes, stopping for views and opportunities to purchase native made jewelry and souvenirs. Many movies and some car commercials (car on top of a high butte) have been made here. There's a John Wayne cabin and John Ford Point. We were fortunate to have a cool, cloudy morning for our tour.
We had an early barbecue steak lunch and then headed to Grand Canyon Village, stopping along the way at Cameron Trading Post and Gallery (www.camerontradingpost.com).
We saw a dizzying IMAX film of the Grand Canyon at The National Geographic Visitor Center before getting to Maswik Lodge, where we stayed for two nights. The rim of the canyon is like a small city of lodges and restaurants. LOTS of tourists.
July 31: In the morning, Shannon and I and four others from our group took a 45-minute plane ride over the canyon (www.grandcanyonairlines.com). What an amazing view! I had no idea the Grand Canyon was so big over 200 miles long and an average of 10 miles wide. I held my breath when the ground fell away from under us...
We had lunch at the El Tavor Lodge and did a little walking but the afternoon was pretty hot. These pictures are from our walk.
We had the rest of our meals at the Maswik Cafeteria. Our guide said that Grand Canyon is about half the size of Yellowstone Park. 80,000 tons of water flow through each day to a gulf in the Pacific. There are lots of Pinion trees. People come in the fall to gather their pine nuts. Mistletoe is killing the juniper.
August 1 we retraced our path back to the Cameron Trading Post, then traveled north, through barren Navajo land. We had lunch in Page, Arizona, where the Glen Canyon Dam creates Lake Powell. The lake looks very out of place in a landscape that looks like it could be on the moon.
After lunch, we went back into Utah. We stopped at Denny's Wigwam in Kanab and then on to Bryce Canyon Lodge, Utah, where we stayed two nights.
August 2. Hoodoos are eerie, wind-carved red-rock formations.
August 3: We traveled from Bryce Canyon to Zion Lodge in Zion National Park, Utah, going back through Mt. Carmel. We stopped at the Visitors Center in Red Rock Canyon, and White Mountain Trading Post in Mt. Carmel. As we approached Zion, there were trees growing in the sandstone and an interesting texture to the sandstone, it was layered, like shale. There were a couple of tunnels. One looked like it had been cut with a corkscrew. There was a one-mile, one-way tunnel. It was built for cars and not big enough for buses and RVs. There were troopers on each end. One would pass a baton to the last car and the last car would pass the baton back to the trooper on the other end so they'd know everyone was through. The tunnel didn't have any lights in it, but it had windows on one side. One of the windows was especially big and gave a nice view of the area we were getting into. We went to a visitor's center theater to see a large screen film of Zion and Bryce Canyon.
Zion Lodge has a huge cottonwood tree in front of it, surrounded by lawn with people just sitting or playing games on the lawn. Very friendly.
We had a guided tram ride. It was a different experience to be looking up at canyon walls instead of down. Zion is a natural amphitheater.
August 4 we left Zion for Las Vegas, Nevada. We were still following the Virgin River. The scenery was gray and reminded me of the Lord of the Rings. We rode through high rock walls, then a very flat area.
We had lunch at Virgin River Crossing. We had two nights at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino, Las Vegas. What a contrast to the quiet and natural beauty of the parks. Culture shock. If I had been 40 years younger, I might have liked Las Vegas more. We stuck to the hotel, which had an ample number of restaurants inside, and headed home August 6.