Bigger Than IMAX

We enjoyed our trip up the coast in July so much that we decided to do some more driving, and Laurel and I drove through much of the Southwest in early October. Wow! I’ve traveled to a lot of places in this world, but I’ve never seen places that are so expansive and huge. The idea of wide open spaces had never been revealed like this to me before.

Photo courtesy Beaver Street Brewery

We left early Friday morning and stopped in Phoenix for lunch, where we discovered the Phoenix Ale Brewery Central Kitchen. Like the name says, they brew ale and serve food, both delicious. Two hours past Phoenix, we reached Flagstaff, where we stopped for the night. Since it’s 7,000 feet high, there’s beautiful high pine forest around the city, and we visited Picture Canyon, a nearby park. Back in Flagstaff, both of us were surprised at what a hoppin’ place it is. After checking into our motel, the Days Inn Flagstaff East, we had dinner at the Beaver Street Brewery and Whistle Stop Café, a very cool restaurant with lots of craft beers.

A note about Days Inn. We used these motels on several of our overnights, and we’re happy to report that Wyndham Resorts, who has acquired the chain, is doing an admirable job of updating and redesigning fresh, comfortable rooms with nice attention to detail. Most of them have bedstand lamps with electric outlets in the bases. Very handy for recharging phones and tablets. The Flagstaff East Days Inn has a hair dryer with a night light built into it, useful when you’re stumbling around in the dark looking for the bathroom in a strange room.

Saturday morning, we got up bright and early. And it was bright. We were fortunate through the entire trip and managed to miss a couple of storms passing through. Later in the week we arrived in Farmington, NM on a sunny day right after three days of rain. We headed north to the Grand Canyon, one of the main reasons for our trip. Laurel just couldn’t believe I’d never seen it, so I was knocked out (as everyone is) by the scale of the place, not to mention the beauty and colors of all the geological layers.

While researching our trip, I read that there was a hawk watch going on. An organization called uses volunteers all over the country to count raptors during their spring and fall migrations. We had already visited two hawk watch sites on other vacations: Hawk Hill at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, where WWII gun emplacements once guarded the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and Key Largo in the Florida Keys where raptors leave the U.S. and head down into the Caribbean and South America. The Grand Canyon watch was taking place on Yaki Point, a small peninsula of rim jutting out above the southeast corner of the canyon.

At Yaki Point, we followed the signs and found three volunteers sitting in lawn chairs on a mostly level slab of rock whose edge dropped off to the bottom of the canyon. Needless to say, neither of us approached the edge. One of the men got up and welcomed us, and we began to chat about what they had been seeing and the other hawk watches we had visited. In my research, I had seen that three California Condors inhabited the Grand Canyon. The volunteer told us that was old info, and the reports were seldom up to date. In 2017, there are about thirty condors living in the canyon with three nests confirmed. Plus, that very day, a group from the Peregrine Fund, in collaboration with the Oregon Zoo, was releasing three condors south of Marble Canyon on the Vermilion Cliffs. We told him we were actually spending the night at Marble Canyon Lodge, and he told us that there had been a nest under the Navajo Bridge, just half a mile north of the lodge. Since it was a 3 1/2-hour drive, we decided to leave and get up there, but, before we left, an American Kestrel and a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew overhead, and they added them to their list. They told us it had been a slow day. Only about forty birds.

By the time we crossed the Navajo Bridge, it was nearly dark, so we drove a half mile past it and stopped at the lodge. We checked in and looked around, which took no time. Marble Canyon consists of the lodge, its gift shop and restaurant, all owned and operated by a Navajo family, plus a Chevron station. We paid for our dinner in the gift shop and discovered some beautiful artifacts, including one of the finest Navajo rugs we’d ever seen. Incidentallly, the LA Times just reviewed the lodge in their Travel section on October 22nd. Short article, but worth reading.

The sky was clear and blue on Sunday morning as we drove back to the bridge. The original steel Navajo Bridge was built in 1929, one of the first bridges to span the Colorado River before it reaches the Grand Canyon. In 1995, a new, wider bridge was built, and the old bridge became a pedestrian bridge. An interpretive center and parking lot are now located at its south end. Hikers, bikers and visitors who only want to take pictures of the beautiful view of the river and canyon use it regularly.

We parked and began to walk across the bridge as the sun moved above the canyon rim, lighting the west wall of the canyon. Laurel was taking pictures of the beautiful location, but we were also working hard to see below the bridge, searching for the kind of structure that could only nest young condors.

The California Condor is one of the world’s rarest birds. It is also the largest bird in North America, having a wingspan of almost ten feet, compared to the six-foot Golden Eagle wings. It became extinct in the wild during the 70s, mainly due to hunting and lead poisoning caused by the birds eating animals shot with lead bullets. The few remaining pairs were bred in captivity at the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos and by the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho. The Peregrine Fund was originally created to breed Peregrine Falcons, which were also on the verge of extinction due to DDT. Today, the fund breeds many species of raptors and works with other zoos, releasing condors at the Vermilion Cliffs, about 15 miles south of Marble Canyon. Today, including the three condors released the day before, there are more than 500 of the great birds in the wild.

At about two-thirds of the way across the bridge, I leaned over and looked back beneath the bridge and saw a huge black bird standing on a sunwashed ledge with its mammoth wings spread out to dry. Laurel was on the other side of the bridge, and I motioned her over, and she got this shot. Our first ever condor in the wild. We saw what looked like white paint on its wings. Our bird was P6, and the Peregrine Fund tells us it’s a female and the first second-generation condor from their program born in the wild. Her mother was born in the wild as well. She’s a juvenile, a little more than two years old and still with the blue head that young condors wear before they become adult and change to a red head.

A few minutes later Laurel spotted a second bird in the metal struts of the new bridge, which turned out to be an adult with the ID of J4. The Peregrine Fund tells us she was raised at their headquarters in Boise, Idaho and released at the Vermilion Cliffs. She’s about eight and a half years old.

We never found a nest, but we left soon after, elated with what we had seen. We turned off the highway a few miles south and drove a couple of miles up a dirt road to the Vermilion Cliffs viewing station that was still staffed by several volunteers watching yesterday’s release site. By the way, the Vermilion Cliffs are aptly named, standing out in the morning sun in bright red-orange layers.

At the top of the mesa we could see a structure that had been built, and the folks monitoring the site told us a butchered steer was used to coax the new birds out of their cages, which had taken several hours. The carrion had attracted several other condors, and at one point I saw five of them circling over the cliffs. Along with the numbered placards on their wings, each bird is equipped with a miniature transmitter, and one woman at the station was waving an antenna picking up VHF signals from the birds, while a second volunteer recorded her findings. A very impressive system, but when you’re saving an entire species, technology can be a big help.

If you’re as nuts about birds as we are, here’s a link to see the full list of the birds we saw on our way around the four states.

We crossed into Utah, and after passing through a couple of border towns, the sky opened up, and we were driving through the biggest country I can remember seeing. All around us were ranges of mesas and mountains, but all so far away that they seemed like miniature models. Close to us was nothing but sage desert, and it stretched away into the distance.

The beauty of Zion, including a desert bighorn ram.

When we reached Zion National Park with its spectacular cliffs and canyons, it felt downright intimate. We climbed aboard one of the shuttles, included in the entrance fare of many national parks, to get a look at the major parts of Zion’s canyons. On the way back to the visitor center, we got off at the trailhead for Emerald Pools Trail. The trail is nicely paved and involves some uphill walking, but is not too much for me. What was too much was the yelling and screaming of out-of-control children running up and down the trail, not to mention a couple of hikers who found it necessary to bring their bad pop music into the area on their iPhones. We couldn’t wait to get away from the crowds and find quieter spots in other parts of Zion.

We spent the night in St. George, about 50 minutes west of Zion. We had read good reviews about George’s Corner, a likely name for a restaurant in St. George, and we headed there after checking into the local Days Inn. It was Sunday night, and the place was full to the brim, so we gave the hostess our name and prepared to wait 30 minutes. True to her word, we were seated in just 30 minutes, and we discovered that Utah has some unique laws when it comes to alcoholic beverages, one being that you don’t order alcohol without also ordering food. Well, that was our plan anyway, so no bother. We ordered two Zion Canyon IPAs, brewed just outside the park itself in Springdale, and a lamb burger to split. Excellent on both counts.

Back at the motel, I checked the weather forecast for our visit to Bryce Canyon the next day. A couple of days earlier, the forecast was mostly sunny, but now we were dismayed to see a 40% chance of thunderstorms with rain and snow likely. Well, we had a schedule to follow, so we got up on Monday morning and drove north with our mugs filled with coffee. The highway traveled higher as we went north, and we reached an area full of small junipers and pinyon pine that had been dusted with snow. It was breathtaking, and we drove through it as tiny snowflakes drifted onto our windshield, so small and dry that the wind blew them off. We reached the entrance to the park under cloudy skies, but it was merely cold, not stormy as predicted.

Bryce Canyon isn’t a canyon at all. It’s a series of amphitheater-like areas between 8,000 and 9,000 feet high filled with “hoodoos,” strange towers created by frost and erosion, that resemble stacks of rocks piled high in rows that might be symphonic organs or architecture from some ancient Mesopotamian city. They fill a large area that’s best seen by car with stops at the more special geologic structures. Very different from Zion, but each incredible in its own way.

Two-and-a-half hours northeast of Bryce another national park fills the Utah landscape. It’s Capitol Reef National Park, and it surrounds what was created over millions of years when an ancient fault lifted the lands to the west more than 7,000 feet higher than those to the east. Instead of cracking, the higher land folded over, leaving the more than 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold. Today, the fold can be seen as canyons, cliffs, domes and bridges of multi-colored red rock.

In the 1880’s, Mormon farmers settled in a part of what’s now the park, and they named it Fruita. It’s located at 5,500 feet at the confluence of the Fremont River and Sulphur Creek, and they built irrigation systems and planted orchards of apple, peach, pear and apricot which still exist today. During the season, you can pick and eat fruit from some of the orchards in the park for free. Other orchards are privately owned, so be aware of which ones you’re sampling from.

And not to worry. When you visit Capitol Reef, you needn’t drive the entire 100 miles to see it. In fact, most of the park is only available to hardy souls on dirt roads, horseback or hiking trails. The eight-mile scenic route from the visitor center gives you a good look at what was created by the geologic cataclysm, plus a lovely drive through green and glowing orchards. The combination of red rock and green trees makes the whole place a painter’s dream.

-To be continued-

All photos by Laurel Scott unless noted.









One Response to Bigger Than IMAX

  • Vincent J. Patti says:

    The photos are breath-taking and the words are a heart’s guide. Thank you guys so much for the free excursion. I’m unfastening my seat-belt now to wish you both a terrific Thanksgiving! It’s indeed one of my favorite holidays and I can’t let it go by without saying “Thank you”, to two of my greatest supporters all year through.

    Much love,


    ps: Have fun!

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