Saturday, August 6, 2016

an amazing Southwest U.S. trip

"What do brie and cheddar have in common?" -- me, to a couple that asked me to take their picture

Summer has been great so far as my family just came back from another awesome trip, this time to the American Southwest. We left on the 30th and came back early this morning. It wasn't just the three of us as we again took my aunt Jill's students along. Though the weather is really hot at this time of the year, the trip was still lots of fun.

Day 1: into the heat

The trip began a bit later than expected as there were a couple of things that needed to be done. Our first stop was Casa de Fruita in Hollister, where we bought some dried fruits and snacks. This was followed by a stop at the San Luis Reservoir. The smoke from the nearby wildfires made it hard to see the lake, especially considering that the water level was quite low due to the drought. The rest of the 400-mile drive to Barstow was fairly uneventful as none of us wanted to get out of the car too much due to the head. The temperature actually reached 114° F at one point. Yikes!

It was pretty late in the evening when we arrived in Barstow. All of us were too tired to go anywhere to eat, so dinner consisted of some leftovers and fruit.

Day 2: the start of a grand adventure

Given that Grand Canyon is one of the incredible places in the United States, my parents figured we had to let the boys see what it was like. We first visited Grand Canyon West, which isn't part of the park itself. One notable stop was the Grand Canyon Skywalk in the western area. This was really cool, although it's certainly not for people with acrophobia. Aunt Jill is scared to death of heights and would undoubtedly have stayed in the car had she been able to join us.

No more than 15 minutes after we got in, the staff kicked people off the Skywalk due to an approaching thunderstorm. Had we arrived just a bit later, our party would have missed out. That was a close call!

Though the Skywalk was an interesting sight, the admission was a little high in my opinion. It's definitely not a place we are likely to visit again in the future. This was followed by a few more photo shops before we headed to our hotel in Tusayan. All of us were a little hungry at this point yet didn't feel like walking to any of the nearby restaurants as it was close to midnight. The three of us had some dried fruit and cookies for "dinner" before going to bed.

Day 3: native grounds

Grand Canyon is apparently very popular for early birds. The hotel's dining room was filled with people even though it was barely 7 a.m. when we went down there for breakfast. It was then time to see what the rest of Grand Canyon had to offer. Though we came here during our 2000 Southwest U.S. trip, the cold weather at the time prevented us from making many stops. The nice thing is that we got to see much more of the canyon this time.

One nice thing is that the temperatures luckily weren't too high. Our party first checked out several of the vista points and got some great pictures. The boys wanted to go on one of the helicopter tours, for which my parents bought tickets. I wasn't interested at first due to the prices, but Mom figured I'd make a good tour guide. The helicopter ride was really awesome and easily my favorite part of the trip. It actually made me wish people could fly. If only someone would invent an arc reactor suit. :-)

A rain started shortly after the tour ended. The rain soon turned into an intense hailstorm. This was quite unexpected, especially in the middle of summer. It seems the climate in the desert is very dynamic.

We visited a couple more photo stops before stopping at the Cameron Trading Post for dinner. Due to the lack of restaurants along the route, none of us had anything to eat except for some junk food. As you could imagine, all of us were pretty hungry at this point. The food wasn't too bad, though!

The final destination of the day was St. George. The route took us through Zion National Park in the evening, although we didn't get to see anything as it was completely dark outside. The winding roads meant we couldn't drive fast without being unsafe. It was well past midnight when we got to the hotel!

Day 4: a dam hot day

Hoover Dam was another place we wanted to show the boys. The landmark hadn't changed much when we came here around 20 years ago, although security was now really strict. The tickets for the full tour were sold out, but the power plant tour still available. It was largely similar to the one we went on back in 1996 but still pretty informative otherwise. We were then free to explore the observation area on our own. The weather had gotten extremely hot again, but there were luckily some cooling stations around. Those were nice for sure.

The evening ended with a little mishap: the clerk at our hotel in Las Vegas gave the boys the wrong room number. Yet one of the keys were somehow able to open the door. Imagine the boys' surprise when they saw a stranger laying in "their" bed!

We were fortunately able to clear up the confusion with hotel management. The seven of us had a quick dinner before going on a drive on the Strip before checking out some malls and the fountains at Bellagio. One unusual thing is that Las Vegas was extremely crowded this time. I wonder whether it's a summer thing.

There was another mishap: Dad missed the exit leading to our hotel as he was exhausted from all the traveling. The fact that U-turns weren't allowed in many places didn't help the issue. It was well past midnight when we got back to our hotel!

Day 5: far from civilization

The first half of the day was spent on the road as the next two destinations were pretty far up north. Our journey brought us to Great Basin National Park in the afternoon. I had looked forward to visiting this place and finally got the chance to do so. The plan was to go on the Lehman Caves tour, but the last one had already ended. On the other hand, the views from the vista points were amazing.

Not too far from Great Basin was the ghost town of Osceola. Due to the lack of clear signs, it took us quite a while to find out how to get there. We arrived only to find that there was nothing more than a few buildings. There was a road leading further into the ghost town, but we decided not to continue after a guy told us there was nothing more than a cemetery. Yikes.

Our final stop of the day was Ely. There weren't any good restaurants in the area, but luckily we had bought some food at Costco earlier in the afternoon.

Day 6: it's pronounced "ee-lee"

All of us were kind of tired from all the traveling and wanted to rest for a bit before starting out. Dad and I went on a drive around downtown Ely and got some gas while Mom and the boys relaxed at the hotel.

One notable attraction in the area Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park. The site wasn't that far away, but the rocky gravel road made it hard to drive fast without damaging the tires. The ovens were much larger than I had imagined. There were a few trails leading from the area, although we didn't hike on them as it was getting hot outside. We instead went to a nearby trading post for snacks before continuing on.

The rest of the day was uneventful as we had a long drive to Mammoth Lakes ahead of us. It was really late when we finally arrived in town. On the other hand, we had a nice dinner at the villa where we were staying. This was actually my first time trying elk meat!

Days 7 and 8: a mild disappointment

Mammoth Lakes was one of our favorite stops when we went there 18 years ago, but the time constraints meant we couldn't really explore the town. So we decided to head to Mono Lake, which my parents figured was more interesting. It was fun to explore the lake shore, although it was a little gross due to the mud and stench.

We then headed west to Yosemite as it's arguably the best-known national park in the west. One thing that makes Yosemite famous is the many beautiful waterfalls. Yet most of them barely had any water due to the drought. The huge amount of people also made it hard to get around. To be honest, this visit was somewhat disappointing.

Wanting to make the best of the situation, Dad took us to Glacier Point for pictures. The views here were better, and a local astronomy club even let visitors look through their telescopes to see people on Half Dome. That was a cool experience for sure. We then made a quick stop at the Yosemite Village before beginning our drive home.

Due to the speed limits, getting out of Yosemite took around two hours. As we were all pretty tired, we didn't make any other stops on the way home except a Carl's Jr. for dinner.

Conclusions

This trip was super exciting as it was our first time visiting the Southwest U.S. in 10 years, not counting our trip to Las Vegas in 2012 for the CES. The scenery and the local culture make the Southwest one of the most fascinating places in the world. The Grand Canyon helicopter tour was by far the best part of the trip, although the other places we went to were also super awesome. The fact that we traveled with four other people made the trip even more exciting. It's definitely an adventure that will be talked about for years.

Currently listening to: "Hello" by Adele

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