Grand Arizona

For every day that we spend in the US, we add another location to our list of places we want to visit. As such, it’s nice to every now and then actually tick something off the list.

Earlier this month we were able to welcome my parents to the US for a short vacation. We used this as an excuse to do a trip out to the Grand Canyon, and see just a few of the many sights Arizona has to offer.

Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon is a well-known international destination, and for good reason. Growing up in South Africa I had the opportunity to visit Namibia, and hike through the Fish River Canyon. With majestic views and beautiful scenery, it’s a sight to behold. But as the saying going, everything’s bigger in America.

We’ll skip around the confusing definition of what a canyon is, versus a gorge, or valley, or kloof, or poort, or the many other words with similar but different meanings, and just accept that the Grand Canyon is much larger than the Fish River Canyon, but by no means the largest in the world, or even the Americas.

Stretching almost 540 km, the canyon reaches depths of almost 2 km, with rims as far apart as 30 km. It is truly grand to behold. The most common place to visit is the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. And this is where we ended up. November is considerably cooler than the Summer months, and although snow is always a risk, we were blessed with very mild conditions. The cold weather does ensure far fewer visitors to the park compared to the summer months.

From LA it’s a pretty easy 8 hour drive to the Grand Canyon. There are different routes you can take, but not a lot to be seen if you’re trying to do a one day trip. Above you can see our full route for the trip. Green marks a place we overnighted, yellow marks a POI we stopped at and blue is the route we drove on a particular day.

We spent two two full days exploring the Grand Canyon National Park (three nights), opting to stay at an AirBnB just out side the park instead of the variety of hotels within the Park. Camping is on the list for next time, but wasn’t feasible with overseas guests. Instead we got a spacious, woodfire heated cabin, miles away from anyone, all to ourselves.

Two days is certainly not enough time to see everything in the park (and we were only looking at the South Rim), but we tried to see as much as we could. Day 1 we just spent getting our bearings. Hiking out to Yaki point in the East, returning via shuttle for lunch, and doing a combination of hiking and taking shuttles along the rim path to Pima Point in the West. Getting to take in all the splendour of the canyon, spending plenty of time stopping for photos.

Bright Angel Trailhead, Grand Canyon National Park

For day 2, we really wanted to get into the canyon a bit. The easiest way to do this is the Bright Angel Trail. Starting in the Grand Canyon Village, the trail drops down past two rest stations and onto a small plateau. From there it carries on through the Indian Garden where it splits. One route takes you further to Phantom Ranch (on the north side of the Colorado River), and the other to Plateau Point ( a viewpoint into the canyon).

The National Parks Service (NPS) have to deal with hundreds of thousands of visitors coming to the park every year. All of them wanting to see the canyon. Many of them of questionable fitness. Unlike most hiking trails which make you do all the hard work first (climbing the mountain) and give you an easy route back, hiking into the canyon is the opposite of this. As the signs regularly warn you, “Down is Optional, Up is Mandatory”. Additionally many of these people arrive in the heat of summer.

Grand Canyon National Park

This has resulted in the NPS posting very conservative times for completion of hiking routes. We got down to the Indian Garden in pretty good time, but had no idea how long it would take us to get back. Taking the NPS posted times into consideration, as well as the short winter days, we opted to head back up instead of pushing on to the plateau viewpoint.

In hindsight, we could have easily made it to the rim and back without trouble. The hike back up, although gaining considerable elevation, does so at a steady gradient. Meaning it only took us marginally longer to get out, than it did to get in.

Oh well, now we know for next time. We did at least get a chance to stop by the Yavapai Museum of Geology, which offers spectacular views into the canyon, and good displays explaining how the canyon came to form. Well worth the visit.

Grand Canyon National Park

Our next stop was Page, Arizona. If you’re heading north, you should definitely take the time to drive the Desert Trail along the rim of the canyon out East, instead of just sticking to the main roads through Flagstaff. Beyond the additional viewpoints, you also get to stop at the Desert View Watchtower for even more spectacular views of the canyon and the Colorado River.

Dinosaur Tracks, Tuba City

When travelling between Page and the Grand Canyon South Rim, you can also stop by Moenkopi Dinosaur Tracks. Sitting on a part of the Navajo Nation, this attraction is self-managed, and not part of a National Park. In my opinion this makes for a non-ideal situation. You’re given an amazing first hand experience of multiple dinosaur artifacts, including very clear dinosaur tracks, with the ability to even touch them. However, there is no thought of conservation. And no information is available, besides what a guide may be able to tell you. Entrance is free, but you will be approached by locals offering to guide you, also free of charge. You should take a tour, and tip your guide at the end. Less than half an hour, but amazing to see. You can read more about it here.

Horseshoe Bend, Glen Canyon National Park

Page is a small town that many people probably don’t know about. It started as a company town to house the people building the Glen Canyon Dam, that contains Lake Powell. Many residents now work for the nearby Navajo Power Station.

Lees Ferry, Glen Canyon National Park

Lake Powell is a popular tourist destination for boating enthusiasts, but Page is also well located as a center point between a multitude of National Parks. As for things to do in Page, it’s most notable tourist attraction must be the distinct Antelope and other slot Canyons. Amazing colours, with intricate lighting provides plenty a photo opportunity. The well-known Horseshoe Bend is also only a few minutes drive out of town. We can also recommend a drive out to Lee’s Ferry. It has several great hikes, and access to the Colorado River.

Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation

With only a week for our trip, we didn’t have time to see much else, but did make sure to drive through Zion National Park. Another location with stunning vistas, immense mountains and natural beauty. We fortunately were able to take the time to stop in the park for lunch and hop on a shuttle up into the deeper parts of the canyon. As with every stop we made on the trip, it was well worth it. Zion is definitely staying on our list of places to visit, deserving more time to hike and explore.

Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park

Our trip was scheduled to end in Ventura, visiting some family. To cut our last day in half we set our sites on Las Vegas. Picking a hotel just off the strip we were able get just some of the Vegas experience, without diving in completely. A walk down the strip, dinner and some fountains were a nice way to wind down.

Bellagio Fountains, Las Vegas

One week is by no means long as far as US roadtrips are concerned, but it gave us enough time see what we wanted to see without rushing. The trip added another 1,700 incident free miles to our car, getting it to cross the 90k mile mark somewhere between Vegas and Barstow.

The rest of the year looks to be fairly quiet beyond some local camping, but next year we hope to limit the international travel and instead focus on seeing more of the US. Zion is already on the cards for April.

Three days, three mountains

A local outdoor supplies store puts on the A16 3-Peak Challenge every year. I first heard about it last year, but it was too late in the year to attempt. The challenge is to climb three of the highest peaks in Southern California within a certain self-defined time, either 24 hours, 3 days, 3 weeks, or 3 months. 3 days seemed like an achievable but tough goal, so at the beginning of the year already, my wife and I decided we should attempt it.

The year got busy and we didn’t. Running out of time, we identified the Labour Day long weekend as the perfect opportunity. With only two weeks to spare, we started planning. And realized how late we’d left it. While the peaks are all within viewing range of each other, depending on traffic, it could take us 4+ hours to get to some of the trailheads. It made sense to camp somewhere central for the weekend.

As we’ve come to realize though, Americans are far more active campers than South Africans, that or there are just more of them. Los Angelenos are anyway, as all 250ish of the campsites in the San Bernardino Forrest had already long been reserved. So we decided to chance it, and grab one of the first come, first serve campsites.

The next challenge is that San Gorgonio requires a permit to hike. The popular Vivian Creek Trail’s permits were all issued, for every day of the weekend. After a bit of digging, we found that an alternative route had recently opened, and still had permits available, turnaround time was 5 days though.

And so it was Friday afternoon that we set off to the San Bernardino Forest to camp in a site we didn’t yet have, and climb a mountain we had not yet acquired a permit for. But apparently it was meant to be. We arrived late on Friday evening, and after finding a full South Fork Campsite, we lucked out on an empty spot amongst the Yellow Post Sites.

As part of the challenge you are allowed to choose any order to do them in, and pick any route to the top. We wanted to do Baldy (San Antonio) last, as it was closest to home, and would allow us to go straight home, instead of returning back to camp, this meant it had to be done on Monday. We didn’t arrive early enough on Friday to pick up a permit from the ranger station, so that meant Gorgonio would have to be on Sunday. So our first hike was San Jacinto.

San Jacinto (via Palm Springs Aerial Tram) – 3,300m

SanJacinto

View from the top

We had previously attempted San Jacinto via Marion Mountain. It wasn’t really a planned attempt though; started far too late in the day (11am) and ended in the dark (8pm at the start of winter), without us having summited (me being ill being partially to blame).

The A16 challenge however encourages you to take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway part (most) of the way. Although making it an easier climb, it still requires some effort. The tramway is something in itself; a cable-car setup identical to Table Mountain, but climbs from 805m all the way up to 2,600m. Cost is roughly $25 per person, and there was a $5 parking fee. This leaves an additional 700m (920m of climbing) to the summit.

San Jacinto Cablecar

There is a large area you can walk around if not intending to summit, but if you intend to enter the wilderness area, a permit is required. Permits are free of charge and can be collected at the ranger’s station at the top of the cable car. It’s a beautiful hike through the pine forests at the top. While fairly short, at only 8.8km, it’s still a tough hike. We were in a bit of a hurry, as we still wanted to get back to Gorgonio to pickup a permit, so pushed through to do 2ish hours to the summit. With a 20min lunch break at the top, it actually took us a bit longer to get back down. Mainly due to waiting to allow later ascenders to pass us by (mountain rules are you yield to those ascending), many of the higher paths only have space for one person at a time.

The weather at the top was cool but sunny, with thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon. It made for easy hiking, and the forest provides a lot of shade during the hike. Just before arriving back at the tram station, you’re forced to endure a short climb up again. This promptly necessitated a stop at the restaurant/cafeteria at the top to grab an ice-cream before our descent.

18.5km, 920m elevation
Tram up departed: 08h43
Summit: 11h15
Tram down arrived: 14h15

San Gorgonio (from South Fork) – 3,506m

SanGorgonio

View near the top

San Gorgonio, also known as Old Greyback, is the highest mountain in Southern California, topping out just over 3,500m. There are three main routes to travel it, but up until recently only the Vivian Creek route has been open. The South Fork and FIsh Creek options having been closed due to fire damage for the past year or two.

Vivian Creek is still the most popular route and results in its permits getting issued quickly. As such we resorted to the South Fork trail. It was conveniently located only a few miles from our campsite, which made a 7am start a bit easier, and you could still receive same day permits if you desired. While Vivian Creek is the shortest route to the top, the South Fork route doesn’t have as much climbing. We hiked up via Dry Lake, and after reaching the summit circled back via the Dollar Lake route.

SanGorgonioScarredThe fire damage has resulted in some truly spectacular scenery on this hike. The route takes you through vastly different landscapes, all very green for this late in the summer. The route has one of the most constant gradients I’ve ever experienced. There are very few extremely steep sections, and at the same time, almost no flat areas. This makes the hike quite a slog, and the hike back down can get very long. Many people prefer to do this route as a multi-day hike.

Not an option for us. We enjoyed being surrounded by various birds all the way along. After dry lake, you reach a first section of short switchbacks, followed by a long stretch to the Fish Creek turn-off. From there you have several sweeping switchbacks which gain you some elevation and take you past the remains of the a C-47 which crashed in the mountains in the 1950s. It’s remarkable how much of it is still left 60+ years later.

OldGreyback

After the switchbacks, it’s still a bit of walk as you swing around behind the mountain, meet up with the Vivian Creek trail and do the last stretch to the summit. From there you’ve got a long walk home. The Dollar Lake route may not have as many switch backs, but it is just as long.

We were once again blessed with ‘good’ weather. It was cool and pleasant on our hike up, but the clouds rolled in as we summited, leaving us with little view. On our way down the rain decided to pay us a visit, and while not terrible, we had to break out the rain jackets, and do some trudging. Would definitely like to give the Vivian Creek trail a try some time to see how it compares.

33.7km, 1,500m elevation
Started: 07h00
Summit: 12h33
Finished: 17h17

San Antonio (via Baldy Bowl) – 3,070m

SanAntonio

View from the top

Mt Baldy should really be done as a round trip, but we’d just spent our entire long weekend hiking, and opted to cut our final day short by heading up and down the same route (something we prefer to avoid), the shorter Baldy Bowl Trail, which passes the Ski Hut.

This being our last hike, we woke up at 05h30, packed up camp and drove halfway across LA, and followed the winding roads up to the ‘base’ of Baldy. As we were driving we were a bit concerned to see a big sign advertising a trail run on Mt Baldy. Things worked out quite well though, as the starting gun went off at 08h00, as we arrived. Giving them a good head-start, as we got our packs ready. In the end they took the longer fire break trails up the mountain, so wouldn’t really have been a problem.

LAInTheDistance

While we both enjoy hiking, it had been a long weekend, and we were a bit over it. The route is far steeper than our previous days’ hikes, even though it was just 3.3 miles. Regardless it was a slog. Along with some confusion as to where the top actually was, we were both slightly surprised to all of a sudden appear on top of the mountain, along with a bunch of runners who had just finished.

I’m sure the views from Baldy can be spectacular, but the normal LA haze had probably been exasperated by the recent fires, meaning our view was not particular amazing. Our hike up had been relatively cool, but as we descended the sun came out in full force, and we were very thankful to have already completed the hard section. The route down had us in much higher spirits, especially with the thoughts of a swimming pool and cold beer awaiting us at home.

10.6km, 1,190m elevation
Started: 08h21
Summit: 11h27
Finished: 13h40

Summary

It was a long 3 days, in which we did little other than hike and drive. By the end of the last day we were tired and ready to get home. That being said it was an awesome experience, and will probably be repeated some time. Each hike has its own unique draw, and (weather permitting) offers some spectacular views from the top.

Having completed it in 3 days, the next obvious step is the 24-hour challenge. While on paper our times would allow us to achieve this, a lot more training would be required to get it right without the luxury of sleep and full meals we ended each day with. Maybe not next year, but someday.

Baseball vs Cricket: the obvious(?) comparison

I don’t necessarily feel that I am the best person to make this comparison. While I feel I know the rules to cricket fairly well, I attended sadly few matches growing up in SA. Resigning most of my spectating to the TV-room couch. At the same time I’ve watched a grand total of one baseball match. Nevertheless I feel it necessary to comment.

It was a fun outing. We watched the LA Dodgers play against the NY Mets at Dodger Stadium. We were fortunate enough to go with friends who were able to answer all our questions, and when they were stumbling, a nearby spectator who overheard our conversation was happy to ensure we did not leave un- or misinformed.DodgerStadiumAt a base level, the sports are the same. You have bowlers/pitchers who try ‘throw’ the ball towards the batter/batsman, who after successfully hitting the ball have to run somewhere. Now there are obviously many differences too. In cricket you only get one ‘strike’, and technically the bowler can have as many ‘balls’ as he wants (no-balls & wides) as opposed to just four, although he’s forfeiting runs each time.

Bowls and pitches all come in different varieties with differing amounts of speed and curve on them. And the man with the bat who’s not receiving is always trying to gain a couple feet (or a lot) before the ball has been thrown. A home run is much like a 6, and even when the ball bounces, they can all still gain two bases in what is known as an automatic double, much like a 4. One complaint I will make is that baseball players apparently need help being told whether they should run or not, as evidence by the first and third base coaches who occasionally wander onto the field.

Like many other things in America, an MLB match isn’t just about the baseball, but the end of every innings instead brings entertainment for the spectators in one form or another. This could be spectators trying to win free tickets, kiss-cams, veteran appreciation or a rendition of ‘Take me out to the ball game‘. It’s understandable that cricket has had to lean towards the 20-over variety, considering the entertainment crammed into a 3 hour MLB match.And I don’t think it’s fair to compare a one-day or test cricket match to baseball. They certainly have different appeals. At around 3 hours, a 20-over cricket match is certainly a fair comparison, although I feel there’s a lot more action involved in such a match than a baseball game. Baseball appeared to have a lot more waiting, especially between batsmen coming out and innings changeover. Something that happens 17 times in a match. Compared to the single innings changeover in cricket, and fairly quick end-of-over switch.

At the end of the day I really enjoyed the game. It was fun learning all the rules and seeing the whole spectacle. My only gripe is the difficulty in distinguishing whether a ball or strike was called immediately after it happened. I feel that everyone on the field obviously knows what’s happening and has reacted, but it takes me a while to catch up. I’m aware the umpire does signal this, maybe our seats were too far away, but in cricket it’s usually immediately evident as to what happened.

If I had to choose between a 20-over cricket match and a baseball game, I’d still go for the cricket match. But in the absence of such events, baseball does a great job of filling the gap. Next up, football vs rugby?

If you’re looking for an alternatively biased article, you can read Zack Case’s American view on how boring cricket is over here.

Camping California

The last few weeks have given us the opportunity to do some camping in and around LA, namely Monte Cristo in the Angeles Forest and a trip to Joshua Tree.joshuatree

Angeles Forest – Monte Cristo

Our first weekend we headed out to the Angeles Forest and spent a night at the Monte Cristo campsite. Campsites are all first come first serve. We got there midday on Saturday and about half the campsites were still available, but by the time sunset came around, the campground was pretty much full.

There’re no rangers at the campsite, so you buy yourself a permit at the entrance, and drop money in the drop-box. There are no ablution facilities besides a couple longdrop toilets which were surprisingly clean. Each site is quite large and has parking for two vehicles. Even though all the sites were full, there’s enough space that you don’t feel people are on top of you. Drinking water taps are shared between adjoining campsites.montecristoThe campsite is nestled nicely in one of the valleys with a river running through it. It is right next to the road, but traffic isn’t that heavy. While the Angeles Forest has plenty of hiking opportunities, none are close enough to the campsite to hike from there. You’ll have to drive to a trailhead before starting a hike.

It was nice to be able to quickly get out of the city and just relax with nothing going on. We didn’t get any cell reception at the campsite itself, adding to the quietness. Angeles Forest has a lot of other campsites which we’re keen to checkout, especially with summer on its way, opening up some of the campsites which were inaccessible during the winter.

Joshua Tree – Joshua Tree Lake

The next week, we headed out early on Friday and drove out to Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree has a mix of reservation and first come, first serve campgrounds. The reservations were full weeks before, and only arriving late on Friday afternoon, we decided to play it safe and camped just outside Joshua Tree at a private campground, Joshua Tree Lake.joshtreelakeThe campsite is quite close to the West Entrance Station of Joshua Tree, which never closes, so you can head into the park whenever it suits you. Joshua Tree Lake has a mixture of campsites and RV spots. The campsites aren’t demarcated, so you just find a spot where there’s space. It wasn’t particularly busy so we chose a spot without anyone nearby. Barrel fires and camping tables are provided, although if it gets very busy, I doubt there’re enough for everyone.

Being in a dessert environment, there’s no grass for camping, but even with a howling wind the whole time, dust was not an issue. Ablutions were clean and showers are also provided.joshtreelakepanoWe spent Saturday in the north end of the park, hiking Ryan Mountain and Lost Horse Mine. All the trailheads have limited parking, and in the busy spring, you’re not guaranteed a spot. We were lucky though, arriving early enough at Ryan Mountain that there were open spaces, and getting lucky at Lost Horse Mine that we arrived as another vehicle was leaving.

Neither hike was particularly difficult. Ryan Mountain is a straight up, straight back down route that is quite popular and offers good views from a central location. Lost Horse Mine was a flatter and longer loop. It goes past an old gold mine, and some of the buildings still remain there for you to see.

BeforeAndAfter

My wife has apparently been here before.

Before heading back to our campsite we decided to drive out to Keys View. It’s well worth it, with spectacular views into the Coachella Valley, spanning as far as the Salton Sea. We considered doing a section of the Geology Tour Road, but it’s marked 4×4 only, and although some of it is supposedly accessible to two wheel drive vehicles, we didn’t feel like risking getting stuck in the sand.

On Sunday we drove all the way through the park towards Cottonwood Springs. It was pretty amazing seeing the vegetation change from the Joshua Tree packed Mojave Desert in the North, to the Colorado Desert in the South. We did a short hike up to Mastodon Peak, which again offered good views.

losthorsemine

Lost Horse Mine

While we knew Joshua Tree was popular, we didn’t have major expectations, which resulted in an amazing trip. I don’t know if it was just the recent rains, but the park offers stunning scenery with many hikes and other points of interest to keep you busy. We stopped off at Hidden Valley to watch some of the rock climbers do their thing too at some of the world famous routes too.

California has camp grounds everywhere you look, so we’re looking forward to doing some more exploring in the future.