Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Contrasting Stops: Flashy and Formidable

The past five days have been quite a contrast in our locations.  You might call the one flashy and the other formidable.     One spot we have visited before and the second we experienced for the first time.  .
When I last wrote here on the blog we had stopped for the night in Laughlin, NV.  Continuing our route north the next morning, we went west on Nevada state highway 163 toward Interstate 15 north.
Travel in NV and UT
  It was soon apparent that the strong winds whipping across the valley would be no great fun for driving that day.  So, why not make this one of our rare 100-mile-total-travel days?  Since we had parked very comfortably at the Las Vegas Elks lodge about 14 months ago, Ferd guided us easily off exit 41 of I-15 onto Charleston Blvd. Before we knew it we had a spot in the roomy parking lot.  This Elks Lodge is within the community, next to Fire Station No. 5 and near a middle school.  It’s a nice spot for a few days, away from the bright lights of the casinos. 
Speaking of the casinos,  we wanted to repeat a favorite restaurant from last year’s trip - an exceptional (in our opinion) buffet for $14 at the Main Street Station downtown.  Really, buffets aren’t usually our choice. But we were very impressed with the restaurant and the quality of food here. It’s too much food, of course, but if you combine lunch and dinner you can rationalize the many samples of dishes that are too hard to resist. On this occasion, the t-bone steak and bread pudding were a couple of the standouts on the menu. Additionally, our Las Vegas stay of three nights included an entertaining afternoon betting on horse races at the Hilton, as well as a rainy day of catching up on reading and Internet. 
After the brief Vegas layover, we were on our way north again. (Remember, our Destination Alaska 2010  trip approaches quickly.)  Moving in that direction, we chose a few spots in Utah that were calling us.  We’ve enjoyed many beautiful sites in southern and eastern Utah.  But, we had yet to do Zion National Park, which was now just off our route going north. So we headed approximately 120 miles northeast via Interstate 15 and Utah 9.  The drive up I-15 north from Las Vegas to St. George, Utah,  was a pleasant surprise for interstate travel. The road stretches through valleys and plateaus and mountain views, with a minimum of large trucks. Formidable cliffs of Zion NP
A few miles north of St. George we exited onto Utah 9, east toward Zion. This drive is yet another scenic one, introducing the layered sandstone cliffs and intermittent plateaus, passing through a few small towns.  Just outside Zion is the town of Springdale, the usual tourist mecca of shops, hotels, etc.  As we passed quickly through town, we were reminded that we were speculating on, and hoping to get,  a spot in one of the two park campgrounds for, oh maybe, two or three nights.  Nada. Our mistake on this trip is that we arrived at a national park campground late on a Friday afternoon.  We should really have known better.  The “no vacancy” signs were posted at the park entrance. But, fortunately for us, there was a cancellation in the reservation campground for that night. And it had just occurred in time for us to arrive.  Our guardian angel was working overtime.   A helpful ranger at the entrance gave us the news and some advice on parking for the next day so that we could have time to see more of the park. She also explained that we might move into the first-come-first-served campground in the morning.  The crowds shouldn’t have been a surprise to us. But, for some reason, we both had the illusion that the visitor population might be a little lower in the month of April. Not as far as we experienced this last weekend. We learned that there are two million visitors in this park annually.  That means that it’s pretty busy April through October, non-stop. The park seems to be managing it well, though. 
Settled quickly in our overnight spot, we had ample time to go to the visitors center to get the lay of the land. More friendly staff gave information on the shuttle system, hikes and ranger programs. To save on traffic through a good portion of the canyon, there is a shuttle system that runs during the peak season. We took our introductory ride the first afternoon, up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to the final stop at the Temple of Sinawava, taking advantage of the late day sun on the gigantic cliffs.   As I mentioned earlier, formidable seems to describe this place. Zion's  Virgin RiverThe sandstone cliffs are looming all around you and the Virgin River forces it’s way through them.    Flash floods have been known to take lives roaring through the canyon.  The next day we rode the shuttle again. But we got off and on this time for stops at the museum, the Zion Lodge, to walk by the river, etc.  
One of the features of this park that stands out is the diversity of landscapes, ranging from cacti to pine trees to cottonwood to aspen.  The elevations of the park range from 3600 to 8700 feet so there are vastly different environments represented in this 226 square miles.  The Human History Museum tells the interesting story of the explorers and inhabitants that played a part in Zion’s history.  For instance, the Southern Paiute tribe believe to this day that their people were here since creation. They first named this canyon “mukuntuweap,” meaning “straight-up-land.”   The sheer cut cliffs began formation 5-10 million years ago when the earth lifted developing the Virgin River that continues to carve the canyon today. Most of the cliffs were named by the Mormon explorers who began arriving in the 1860s.
To wrap up our visit, we drove the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, through the tunnel to the east entrance to the park. This road has full public access. Although, if you drive an rv through the tunnel, there is a $15.00 fee for the rangers to coordinate your trip from one side to the other.  It’s a fantastic zig-zag road up the canyon through four miles of beautiful views. And then you reach the mile-long tunnel through the mountain, complete with its own windows on the red cliffs.   
Zion was another example of how we are blessed to have our national parks.  Although we prefer a less-crowded situation, we were happy that we made this stop.  Click on the album below, if you’d like to see a few of the scenes from the park. 

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