Hoodoos, Churros & Bighorn Sheep: Summer Vacation Highlights

IMG_1125Last March when I started thinking about Mitchell’s 13th birthday, it occurred to me that we had only five more summers left before he went to college. Then I panicked. Only five more summer vacations? It has gone so fast.

And I thought I better get planning. What part of the country do I want these kids to experience before they head out on their own?

I decided on the Southwest.

Despite the fact that my family traveled a good bit growing up, prior to marrying Greg I had never been to the Southwest. For our five-year anniversary, we went to Arizona, because we had friends we could visit in Tempe while also sightseeing. Several years later, the two of us traveled to New Mexico, based on my desire to go to Santa Fe and Taos. But there were still huge chunks we hadn’t seen.

After talking to a friend who traveled to the Southwest a year ago with her family, we decided on an itinerary. We would fly into Vegas, rent a car, drive to southern Utah, then to the Grand Canyon and Sedona, and fly home from Phoenix.

Neither Greg nor I had ever been to Vegas, so I figured we should stay there a couple of days before moving on.

There is nothing like visiting Vegas during the hottest month of the year with two kids in tow.

Our plane landed at almost 10 p.m. Vegas time. By the time we collected our luggage, secured the rental car and made our way to our hotel/casino it was 11:30. Greg and Jules stayed in the car while Mitchell and I waited in a 45-minute line to check in.

When we finally made it to our room at 12:30 (3:30 a.m. our time), it was still being cleaned.

Despite that hiccup, we managed to get a restful night’s sleep, and I woke up ready to explore.

When it comes to traveling, I can be a bit of a slave driver. During my first trip to Europe in my early teens, my aunt gave me the advice to “Take advantage of every opportunity and enjoy it to the fullest.”

It has been my mantra ever since.

On our first full day in Vegas, I decided we should walk the strip and check out the casinos. Unfortunately, the temperature was more than 100 degrees. Luckily, there were plenty of casinos in which to get respite from the heat.

IMG_0289While some people wouldn’t attempt to bring their children to Vegas, I saw it as an education. Some women wearing only G-strings and pasties first approached us to have our picture taken with them outside Excalibur. We saw them again when we ducked into CVS to buy water. Greg was nowhere to be found as the kids and I tried to exit CVS while an employee turned the women away for not wearing enough clothing.

“That’s not fair,” said Julia. “Those ladies are thirsty, too.”

Indeed they were.

A little over 24 hours after arriving in Vegas, we were ready to move on. After eating at In-N-Out Burger on the outskirts of town, we began the three-hour drive through the desert to Southern Utah.

Our destination was the lovely town of Springdale outside of Zion National Park. While I originally had planned to find lodging through Airbnb somewhere between Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park, my friend recommended we stay in Springdale and I’m so glad she did.

The area offered free shuttle rides through the town and into the national park. Lucky for us, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, all fourth-graders and their families got in free to national parks last summer. Thanks to Julia, we saved at least $90.

On our first full day in Utah, we decided to make the two-hour trip to Bryce. To get there, we drove through Zion. Several cars had stopped at a narrow curve, so we pulled over, too.  Mitchell, our family photographer, got some great shots of bighorn sheep posing near the edge of the road.

IMG_0481Bryce is the smaller of the two parks and known for its hoodoos, red rock formations shaped like upside down twisters. We arrived shortly after lunch and asked at the visitor’s desk what the best short hike would be for our day-hiking family. The ranger recommended a three-mile hike she claimed “Camping” magazine had ranked as the most scenic three-mile hike in North America.

The hike and hoodoos were spectacular. Unfortunately, the sky looked ominous and the forecast called for thunderstorms. I read in multiple brochures not to get caught in a thunderstorm. Also, we did not have the gear to withstand a downpour. This made for a tense hike while Mitchell stopped for numerous photo opps.

We finished right as the skies opened.

Our time exploring Zion was not as adventurous, as we opted to pass on the popular Narrows hike after hearing numerous rangers inform tourists to hike the Narrows at their own risk due to flash flooding.

We also passed on the steep Angels Landing Trail and opted for an easier hike on the Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails. On this hike and at several shuttle stops throughout the park, we experienced the beauty of this park.

IMG_0894After two full days in Utah, we packed up and headed south.

Due to my belated planning, I could not get a hotel near the Grand Canyon, and instead booked a room in Williams, Ariz., an hour away.

On our four-hour drive to Williams, we found ourselves stopped for a bathroom break at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Kanab, Utah. The barren landscape and small visitor’s center tucked down a curved drive made me feel like we were in an episode of The X Files. Upon entering the building, the kids happily located the gift shop, and Greg wandered over to the display containing dinosaur fossils discovered there.

A five-minute bathroom break turned into a 30-minute stop after which we exited with this souvenir of a sheep in a can.

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Sadly, since our visit there, Donald Trump has issued a proclamation to reduce the amount of land protected by this national monument.

Shortly after Grand-Staircase Escalante, we passed Lake Powell, a breathtaking turquoise body of water in the middle of the desert. A former co-worker of mine had rented a houseboat on Lake Powell years ago. At the time, I thought it an odd choice for a vacation, but after observing the lake firsthand, I can understand the appeal.

We finally made it to Williams, a charming town on Route 66. We didn’t have much time to explore, however, as we wanted to spend as much time in the Grand Canyon as possible.

On our first day, we slept in and did not get moving until late morning. That was a mistake, as the Grand Canyon at noon in the middle of August was packed. We waited at least 30 minutes in the car just to enter the park. As we walked the scenic Rim Trail, we dodged fellow tourists the entire way.

Hot and tired, by mid-afternoon we headed back to Williams. We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Barrel and Bottle and made plans to wake up early the next morning for a ranger-led hike on the South Kaibab Trail at the Grand Canyon at 7 a.m.

We reached the park within minutes of seven and waited impatiently for the shuttle to take us to the trailhead. Fortunately, we joined the group in time to make the 1.5-mile hike into the canyon. The weather was cool and the scenery beautiful as we shuffled down the steep, dusty, often slippery trail.

Our ranger educated us about the vegetation and wildlife and identified several California condors flying overhead.

IMG_1087Our trek back up the trail was more strenuous than that on the way down. Partway up, the two child athletes tired of our pace and sprinted up the canyon. They filled up our water bottles, and when we finally reached the top, persuaded us to treat them to ice cream for lunch.

IMG_1162Our last destination in Arizona before heading to Phoenix was Sedona.

The excursion we loved in Sedona during our previous visit was the Pink Jeep Tour, so we were excited to take the kids to repeat this experience.

IMG_1249We also visited the gorgeous Chapel of the Holy Cross and much to Julia’s delight, shopped.

Unfortunately, the abundance of spiders in our hotel room tarnished our memories of Sedona. Spiders don’t usually bother us since we have many in our old farmhouse. But not only did I spy two black  hairy spiders on the bathroom floor, but a third such spider  also woke Greg up by crawling on his back.

Needless to say, we were all ready to move on to our final destination of Phoenix.

My original plan had been to drive directly to the airport; however, the baseball fans in the family suggested we show up a day early to see a Diamondbacks game.

As with any half-hearted baseball fan, besides the field’s retractable roof, the highlight of the game for Julia was the food. During the trip, Julia had become obsessed with churros. She had tried them at camp earlier in the summer and ordered them at a Mexican restaurant in Sedona. She even used her spending money to buy a stuffed cat, whom she named Churro.

Luckily for her, one of the specials at Chase Field is the Churro Dog, a churro placed on a long-john donut, topped with frozen yogurt, chocolate and caramel sauce. It did not disappoint, with the exception of the soggy donut on the bottom.

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After the game ended (the Dodgers won), we trudged back to our hotel, worn out from the excessive heat and 10 days of overindulging in Southwestern cuisine and dessert at every opportunity. Overall, we had a wonderful vacation, filled with memorable sightseeing, minimal electronic usage, and most importantly, quality family time. Now the question is — where to travel next?

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