Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon and East

Monday January 9, 2006 – We slept in just a little bit this morning before meeting checking out of the hotel and meeting Vinny at the Omelet House for breakfast. One of the off-strip ‘locals’ breakfast joints this restaurant definitely specialized in omelets with around thirty to choose from in addition to the requisite design your own. Following breakfast we headed out of town towards Boulder City. Boulder City is a medium sized town that sits in between Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. Built during dam construction to house workers the city remains the gateway to the Lake Mead National Recreation area and our next stop, the Hoover Dam. Having seen several documentaries about the building of the Hoover Dam I knew about what to expect out of the dam itself but I was somewhat surprised by just how far it was from Boulder City to the dam. By the time you leave Boulder City the divided highway has turned into a two lane US Route which winds its way down to the dam. There is some construction going on in the area and it looks like they are attempting to improve the road to a divided highway but I don’t know what they’ll do at the dam itself which only has room for two lanes. We crossed the dam an parked on the Arizona side before walking back across. We did run into some security checkpoints on both sides of the dam where they just waved us through but were a little more inquisitive of people with trailers, RVs and trucks. They do offer tours where you can actually go down into the dam itself which would have been fun but we needed to keep moving to get to the Grand Canyon around dusk. After a few photos at the dam and a walk across it we continued on our way. The route along I-40 in western Arizona is nearly identical to the historic US Route 66 and along the way we found several reminders of this including a state highway 66 and several gas stations with references to the famous US Route. Just before dusk we turned north from the interstate and began our trek to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Before you actually reach the canyon you go through some additional national forest land and by the time we reached the Grand Canyon park boundary it had gotten quite dark. I guess because of (relatively) low car volumes in the winter they did not charge a vehicle admission fee or even have the entrance gates staffed. Once we got to the rim we made our way to the El Tovar hotel which is the oldest existing hotel at the canyon. Here we checked into our room located next door in Kachina lodge which was built in the 1960s or 70s and has no front desk. For dinner we walked down the road a bit and ate at the Bright Angel Lodge Restaurant even going so far as to live it up a bit and get some of the delicious chocolate cake. Even through the darkness I was able to see the massive depth of the canyon and decided it would not be a good idea to take a sleepwalk because of the “big hole in the ground” about 40 feet from our room.

Tuesday January 10, 2006 – With morning came a beautiful view of the canyon from our window and the plan for the day was to do a bit of hiking and exploring in the park. Knowing that a good hike starts out with some energy our first stop was at the white linen El Tovar Restaurant where I had the triple pancakes (wheat, buttermilk and blue cornmeal) which were fantastic and Matt had the waffle which he raved about for the rest of the trip. I’m also told that the special Fred Harvey coffee served at the El Tovar is the best around. After breakfast we drove out to the South Kaibib trailhead at Yaki Point. During the summer car travel and parking is severely restricted in the park due to high volumes of traffic. I believe the eventual goal is to completely eliminate car traffic in favor of mass transit but for the time being one of the advantages of going in the off season is being able to drive to all the viewpoints and trailheads. I was split between hiking down the traditional Bright Angel trail or the (supposedly) more panoramic and steeper South Kaibob trail. Knowing this was to be a day hike only I had no illusions of reaching the canyon bottom and returning to the top, in fact signs all around warn of attempting such a feat. The South Kaibib trail has an interesting history surrounding it (as do many of the trails in the canyon) but I’ll leave you to research that yourself. The short of it is that the trail is generally considered more strenuous than Bright Angel but offers better views of the canyon. Thinking we were up for it I proposed a hike down to Cedar Ridge which is about 1.5 miles and 900 feet of elevation change. We took our time on the way down taking in the views and a few photos. Once we reached Cedar Ridge I had some water and crackers and while Matt took a little break I took some photos. Expecting it to take up to three hours to ascend (you’re supposed to plan for twice as long to ascend) I suggested we start so we’d still have some time to explore the rest of the park before dusk. In the end it took us less time to ascend (about and hour) and I was a bit disappointed at how easy it was even for the casual hiker such as myself. I found the day hike I did in the Canadian Rockies this summer to be much more strenuous. When I return to the canyon I’ll certainly plan a longer and more challenging hike because that’s just part of the fun and excitement. On the way back towards Grand Canyon Village we stopped at Yaki Point to take in some of the scenery. Most of the visitors to the canyon never walk more than fifty yards from a parking area which means viewing only from the rim at points such as this. While the views are spectacular they are nothing compared to making an actual descent into the canyon. Continuing west through the village we took a driving tour of the rim out to Hermits Rest. Along the way we stopped and checked out a few of the viewpoints including one with a descriptions of some of the mining that went on in the canyon including Plutonium mining at Orphan Mine that continued will into the 1960s. All of these viewpoints and trails have some amazing history behind them and I would have loved to spend more time looking into that than I did. We also got to see some of our first fauna in the park which was evident by the small traffic jam caused on the road. Once we got to Hermits Rest and poked around a bit we returned to the village and looked around the village train depot which is one of the last three remaining log train depots in the United States. Matt decided he was going to take a rest until dinner while I returned to Hopi Point which is supposed to be one of the better places to see the sunset. I photographed the sunset with about a dozen other people. One thing you notice in the desert is that from sundown to sunup the temperature is quite a bit cooler than it is during the day, something I noticed again the next morning. We hoped to have dinner in the Bright Angel Arizona Room which I’m told is a better spot for dinner than El Tovar but a downside of coming in the off-season is that there are some services that are scaled back. Because of this and the fact that we had dinner in the Bright Angel Restaurant the evening before we walked back over to the El Tovar Restaurant where we each had a New York Strip Steak and a delicious cherry brownie for dessert, feeling we had earned such an indulgence with our hike into the canyon. Before retiring for the evening I copied photos from my Canon Rebel XT camera to my laptop, sorted the photos I had taken so far and did some updating of this travel journal. I turned in a bit earlier than I had been so that I would be able to get up and see the sunrise which is also supposed to be a fantastic view.

Wednesday January 11, 2006 – Waking about an hour and a half before sunrise I headed out to the east on the Desert View Drive. Another benefit of coming in the winter is that sunrise is much later than during the summer when I would have had to get up far too early for my liking. Along the way to Desert View I saw a lot of fauna near the road which seems much more active near dawn and dusk. I arrived at Desert View just before sunrise and was the only person there, with the exception of one National Parks worker, until after the sunrise was mostly complete. While not especially colorful this day the sunrise was beautiful as it rose along the canyon rim. Because the canyon cools down so much during the night I was quite frigid even in my winter coat, hat and gloves from Minnesota so I didn’t stick around very long after sunrise. On the way back to the hotel I stopped to check a few of the viewpoints east of the village. One of the most interesting was Grandview point which was home of the first hotel on the rim and an early mining operation. Once I got back to the room I woke Matt up, did some more computer work and took my things down to the car so we could get checked out. On the way out of town we stopped for breakfast at the Yavapai Lodge cafeteria but had just missed breakfast so we had a small lunch instead. Leaving the park we drove out of the east entrance instead of the south entrance where we entered. The land quickly dropped off as we continued towards the intersection of the Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Mew Mexico borders at Four Corners. Along the way we got to see some of the most beautifully red rock contrasted with some of the poorest living conditions and towns in the United States. We stopped at the four corners monument and took some pictures along with GPS coordinates. The actual junction is on an Indian reservation and the locals charge per person to access the monument so we wanted to make sure we were actually at the junction. After leaving we continued northeast into Colorado. Stuck in between the US interstates I knew we had a hard drive ahead as we drove North towards Grand Junction, Colorado. I drove as far as Durango, CO, where we had dinner, leaving Matt the real challenge of driving through the mountains on a two lane US route. Let me say there’s a stark contrast between crossing the mountains on the wide and graded interstate with its system of efficient routes and tunnels and the old US route system we were on. With many sections and sharp turns limited to 15 miles an hour it takes a long time just to go a short distance. Thank goodness we had good weather conditions and a full moon or it would have taken even longer. While Matt drove I was able to take in some of the scenery which is much nicer than what you find along the interstate. Here the road feels like a part of the mountain as it winds up and down through passes instead of a man made object just passing through. Late in the evening we arrived in Grand Junction and were even able to find a hotel with free internet access so I was able to post some pictures and travel log entries to my website where people could enjoy them before the trip was even over.

Thursday January 12, 2006 – When we left Grand Junction this morning there was just a little bit of frost on the car but once we got up into the mountains we found some real snow. I did encounter some snow when driving through the mountains on the way out but nothing like the snow we saw today. As I drove up I-70 towards the continental divide visibility got increasingly worse and at some points it was even difficult to make out the tail lights of the car in front of us. Needless to say I was thankful to not have encountered snow like this on the US highways last night. Once we got East of the Eisenhower tunnel things improved markedly, it seems the snow has stayed mostly west of there. Once again we found ourselves in the brown land of Denver. As we continued East the only weather phenomena we encountered were high winds in the flat plains of eastern Colorado and Nebraska. We stopped in North Platte, NE for dinner and ate at the regional Italian buffet chain Valentino’s. If you have ever been to the west central part of the country I would be surprised if you hadn’t stopped or at least seen one of these omnipresent restaurants. In any event after a filling dinner Matt took the helm and drove us just past Omaha, NE to Council Bluffs, IA. Pulling in just before midnight we found a room at the Motel 6 which was definitely the poorest accommodations on the trip but the price and location were right.

Friday January 13, 2006 – Today I had an easy drive from Council Bluffs, IA back to Minneapolis where we arrived just after 5:00pm right during the height of rush hour. I took Matt back to his apartment in St. Paul and slowly made my way home through the traffic. All told our twelve day trip took us over 3800 miles through eight states. Our longest day of driving was our first where we drove over 850 miles from Minneapolis, MN to Fort Morgan, CO that was quite a haul! Matt thinks I must have a secret life as an over the road trucker.

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