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Road Trip USA – Arches & Zion

After an early start from Salt Lake City it was a three hour drive to our first major sightseeing stop: Arches National Park, just outside the city of Moab. The park houses over 2,000 naturally formed arches, with numerous trails branching vein-like from the 20 mile road that runs through the centre to reach those a little further afield.

Upon our arrival, we scouted the campground for somewhere to sleep that night, but with no availability, decided to park up, explore and find somewhere to sleep in Moab later in the day. The nearest attraction to the campground is Skyline Arch, only 100 metres away, and we used this as our first photo opportunity of the day.

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Climbing into the void…

A short hike down the petrified dunes later and we were able to complete a two mile loop back to the car, in which we drove to the Devil’s Garden Trailhead. The trail leads hikers to multiple structures, including the Tunnel Arch, Dark Angel and the rock fins. We decided to hike the four miles to the two most impressive sculptures: Landscape Arch and Double-O Arch.

Landscape Arch is extraordinary due to its physics-defying nature alone. It is nearly 100 metres long, and with sections collapsing from the thinnest part in the middle, the park has closed the path that used to run beneath it.

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The ever-diminishing Landscape Arch

Another hike, another arch. The Double-O arch is fairly self explanatory; it consists of two arches, one atop another. It is an awesome sight, sitting sheltered in a cove surrounded by taller rock formations. I decided to climb into the higher arch, which required a certain amount of balance and an army crawl underneath a huge boulder sitting on a steep incline.

Once up, I had my photo taken and was delighted with the view. The problem, however, came when I had to get down. I couldn’t crawl back through the same space between the rocks due to the drop on the other side and my claustrophobia taking hold, nor could I jump for the height of the arch.

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If you look closely, you can see the weedy kid stuck up on the higher level

A half-hour later, a Dutch family made an appearance and, with the help of a Swiss teen, helped me down the steep face of the rock. I was starting to worry and am very grateful to all of them for their assistance. Not my proudest moment, and I can’t help but look back at pictures of the arch without a certain resistentialism.

A quick hike back to the car and a short drive later and we arrived at Balanced Rock; again, self-explanatory by name and impressive by sight. The rock that sits on the column is the size of three American school buses and used to have a smaller sibling “Chip Off the Old Block”, until 1975 when it collapsed.

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Precarious much?

The plan had been to watch sunset through Delicate Arch, but with matters not going to plan at Double-O, we were somewhat behind schedule, so opted to watch the sun go down from one of the highest points on the road. I count myself lucky to have travelled as much as I have, but it would seem that sunsets in the States outdo any others I’ve seen in the past.

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A rather stunning spectacle

We slept in a small, privately owned campsite in Moab that night, our first and last use of the tent, mostly because the air mattress I had brought along was a kingsize and filled all bar three cubic feet of the available space; a slight miscalculation on my part.

The next day was all about travel. We left early from Moab and completed the 350 miles to Zion National Park in a little over seven hours. The weather had gotten steadily worse along the way, even treating us to a lightning show as we entered Springdale, the town nearest the park.

We spent an uncomfortable night in the car which I had parked in a somewhat creepy parking lot with very little light. We were probably the only people for a mile in every direction, so when I was awoken at 3am by the sound of a footstep outside the window, I automatically assumed the worst, but, slowly lifting my head up to window level, I was stunned to see a huge stag standing mere feet from the car, illuminated fully by my headlamp.

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After arriving in Springdale in the dark, it was quite a surprise to wake up to this!

A follower on Twitter had recommended we attempt the Angel’s Landing hike at Zion, but had warned us that it was dangerous, with constant 1,500 foot drops only two feet from the pathway for the last half-hour of the trek. Heights don’t phase me, nor Marina, so we decided to go for it.

We were dropped off at the Grotto at 11am and made our way along the sandy path that soon becomes paved as the incline steepens. The views all the way up are spectacular, but are suddenly hidden once the path disappears between Angel’s Landing and Zion Canyon. Walter’s Wiggles are a series of 21 steep switchbacks, after which one arrives at Scout’s Lookout.

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The view from Scout’s Lookout

This is where most people turn around, as it is the next half-mile to the summit that it very treacherous. Marina changed into climbing shoes and we ploughed on, holding the chains in one hand and our cameras in the other.

The drop-offs are incredibly daunting, even to someone who isn’t scared of heights, and with at least five deaths on this trail alone in the last year, we were being extra cautious. It is a strenuous climb, but there is nothing more rewarding than the view one can appreciate from the top. There is no cynosure, because quite literally everything one lays eyes on is stunning.

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View from the top, 1,500ft from the canyon floor below

We stayed for roughly thirty minutes enjoying the view and taking on some water before making our way back down the chains to Scout’s Lookout. From there, we used the opportunity to run the two miles back to the Grotto, covering the distance in just over twenty minutes.

Given more time, I would have loved to have seen Bryce Canyon National Park, but no matter, that definitely isn’t the last time I will be visiting Utah. It is one of the most scenically stunning places I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

Once back at the car, it was time to continue onwards to the main attraction: Las Vegas!

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A good representation of the drop-offs…

Road Trip USA – Idaho & Northern Utah

It has been on my bucket list for many years to partake in a road trip across at least some of the USA. I didn’t, however, think it would happen this early on, until, as outlined in my last post, the opportunity arose, and a very rough plan was thrown together and a route sketched in Google Maps.

This inevitably changed as the days leading up to the trip wore on. We realised we were being a bit ambitious trying to get all the way up to Yellowstone National Park in Montana given the time constraints, so the decision was made to head east out of Oregon, south east through Idaho and enter Utah from the north west after a brief couple of hours in northern Nevada.

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The first 859 miles of our trip

The Tuesday we were due to leave was plagued with problems, including bad traffic, wrong turns and a car breakdown. I am eternally grateful to the pickup driver who stopped to jump us out of that particular tricky spot.

At 5pm we finally departed Portland and onto the open road with the nice lady in my phone satnav declaring we “continue on Interstate 84 for 564 miles.” Unlucky as we had been that day, we were struck by some good fortune when we reached the highest point of our trip (30 miles west of La Grande) just as the sun was setting.

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Sunset from the mountains

As darkness fell, we continued east towards Boise, the state capital of Idaho. Glancing over at Marina and seeing that she was out for the count in the passenger seat, I decided to drive another ninety miles before pulling over in a rest stop area in Bliss at 3am.

(Just as a side note, don’t let the name “Bliss” fool you. It’s utter crap.)

Five hours later and I was up and driving again to what would be our first real stop: Twin Falls, Idaho. I had been told by so many people that Idaho had absolutely nothing going for it, but we had stumbled across its redeeming feature. The landscape is stunning, with the sole 150-metre-high Perrine Bridge crossing the thousand-mile Snake River.

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The Snake River Canyon

Twin Falls appeals to those who seek thrills. It always has. This is the place where, in 1974, Evil Knievel attempted his doomed canyon jump in a makeshift rocket; the mound of dirt used as a ramp is still on the canyon’s side. A local, who was there for the launch, recounted how the parachute had already deployed before take-off, calling the daredevil “nothing but a chicken-shit showman!”

Nowadays, the city holds the name of BASE jumping capital of the world. For those who don’t know, BASE jumping is the art of throwing oneself off an inanimate object and opening your parachute before you hit the ground. It is skydiving’s more extreme sibling. In Twin Falls’ case, the inanimate object comes in the form of the bridge.

In the two hours we spent there, we saw at least twenty jumpers make the leap of faith. After watching longingly, but not wanting to dip my hand in my pocket and spend $400, I settled for taking some pictures from the bridge. This should give you an idea of the view one has on their way down…

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BASE jumpers generally shout “See ya!” before plummeting to earth

As the morning came to an end, we drove on through Idaho, northeast Nevada and into Utah, marvelling at some of the so-called cities we passed through along the way. A personal favourite of mine was Jackpot, sitting a hundred miles from nowhere, comprising of approximately three casinos, one hotel and a smattering of houses. It is the kind of place that is impossible to ever leave if one is unlucky enough to be born there.

Our first stop in Utah was a surprise to Marina. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, ever since watching “The World’s Fastest Indian” in fact. As we pulled off the freeway, one hundred miles from Salt Lake City, and crossed over the bridge, there they were, laid out in front of us. I am of course writing of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

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Panorama of the Bonneville Salt Flats

Used for the last 99 years to break land speed records and, more recently, host events for motoring enthusiasts to push their cars to their limits, the flats offer ten miles of uninterrupted smooth surfaces, framed to the north by mountains and to the south by the freeway.

It is a public area, and visitors are permitted to drive on the salt. We decided against it, however, seeing as we had brought a Honda and didn’t want to pay for a car wash. So instead, we went for a run and took photos of each other doing silly jumps. It was amazing fun, and I am so glad I have managed to do it before the potash plant nearby decreases the flats’ size further.

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An amateur photographer’s dream come true

As darkness fell, we drove onward to Salt Lake City. By another stroke of luck, we had arrived on Pioneer Day, a Utah state holiday celebrated on July 24th to mark the entry of the first Mormon settlers on the same day in 1847. We were treated to firework displays as we drove into the city and automatically assumed they must have known we were coming.

We parked up and realised fairly quickly that absolutely nothing was open due to the festivities, so we instead used the time to explore. We walked from the main shopping district to the Mormon Church, where we unashamedly waited for a security guard to pass by before stripping off and taking a free bath in the local fountain.

The night was warm, allowing us to dry off as we walked up to Capitol Hill, where it felt like we were suddenly transported to Washington, D.C. The 101-year-old Utah State Capitol is majestic, to say the least. It sits upon a grassy mound overlooking the city, and provided quite a view at 11pm; fireworks could be seen in every direction and there were close to fifty people on the steps enjoying the spectacle with us.

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Utah’s State Capitol building

A half hour later and we were walking back into town to attempt to find food. Dairy Queens, McDonald’s, Taco Bells and Starbucks, most of which normally open late into the night, were all closed for the occasion.

At last, we found an urban coffee shop that was open until 1am and settled down with some food and a book. For the second night in a row, we found a quiet spot in a cul de sac in the hills that possessed no streetlights and, with our seats reclined as far as they would go, slept a solid seven hours.

At 8am, we were up and ready to keep driving to our first full-day stop on the trip: Arches National Park.

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