In the planning stages, this trip was one of those things that started relatively small but sort of took on a life of its own, growing in length and ambition until it ultimately spanned 13 days and more than 3,300 miles! It was a memorable adventure that was definitely well documented … as evidenced below.
I’ve written here about our gear setup for travel photography, and those details remained the same for this trip other than that Seth now has an iPhone X. I’ll admit I sometimes experienced separation anxiety in not having access to our higher-end equipment, but it’s much easier to hike through a national park or walk several miles through a city without the weight of a DSLR system. Plus: The best camera always is the one you have on you, and my little Olympus was easy to wear all the time!
Some other things that served us well this trip:
We occupied some of our time on the road with “Rich Dad Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki and “Educated” by Tara Westover. They’re both great reads (or listens) if you’re interested in financial savvy (the former) or memoirs (the latter).
We call them “Seth bars” … because Seth makes them, and we evidently aren’t too creative in food-naming! Since Larabars aren’t cheap, it saves quite a bit to make your own. We also traveled with a large cooler that was so well stocked I didn’t eat anything from a restaurant until we were well into our second week of travel (although some of the credit for that goes to my family for feeding us so well during the first few days of our trip … but more on that later!).
multiple navigation apps
In addition to Apple Maps and Google Maps, we also used Navigon, which navigates through satellites rather than cell towers. (And in the event all else failed, we had a trusty road atlas, too.)
America the Beautiful pass
Since we visited four national parks, we more than got our money’s worth out of this $80 annual pass. It was almost an afterthought to purchase it, but I’m so glad we did. (Plus, we now have an excuse to try to fit in another national park visit before next summer!)
But before we get too focused on future trips, here’s a look this one!
day 1 • 06.30.18
Independence, MO >>> La Junta, CO
We drove all day without making it into the mountains … But we did see a roadrunner (unfortunately not pictured, since just like in the cartoons, it evaded capture!). That was a first for both of us, so we chalked it up as a worthwhile first day of travel.
day 2 • 07.01.18
La Junta, CO >>> Bayfield, CO
What was supposed to be a six-hour drive ended up being more like eight-and-a-half, since we were rerouted due to a wildfire. But on the plus side, it was a really scenic route, and at the end we were greeted by our beautiful mountain rental house and everyone sharing it with us!
That included my aunt and uncle and my cousins and their families, who made the trip from Texas and California. We took a big family vacation to nearby Durango, Colorado, 19 years ago, and although we missed having my parents and grandparents with us this time, it was fun to get to share a similar experience all these years later. (It was also a little surreal to see my aunt and uncle as the grandparents this time, and my cousins as the parents … )
day 3 • 07.02.18
Above: Our impressive front door. And below: A good view of the great space we had to hang out. (I think the composition of that shot is pretty perfect, despite it being entirely candid!) We spent quite a bit of quality time around the house this trip and, as I mentioned earlier, ate some great meals made by my aunt, uncle and cousins.
On a related note, we all brought a ton of food, so the logistics of fitting everything in the refrigerator were interesting early in the week! (And we also had a very full pantry to match!) Regardless of that struggle: If you ever have family that invites you to join them on vacation and cooks breakfast and dinner for you every day, definitely take them up on it.
That afternoon, we had a picnic lunch and then walked around Lake Vallecito. Seth and I picked this occasion to break out our brand new, super cool Columbia hats (which, fashion value aside, did serve their purpose in keeping us from burning during our almost two weeks in the Southwest summer sun).
My cousin and I share a guilty-pleasure kind of love of Lifetime movies, so of course we had to fit in a viewing of one when we returned from the lake. (And you know — or at least we know — that if Eric Roberts is in it, it’s a winner.)
Above: An awesome if slightly unsettling sight to come across on your evening walk. And below: One other scary character.
That evening, my cousin made Grandma’s apple pie (literally from our grandma’s recipe). And my uncle was a good sport about playing Guess Who? with his grandkids.
day 4 • 07.03.18
Hiking the Animas Mountain Trail, we had a great view of Durango (above) and also a great photo spot for our group (below).
After our hike, the rest of the group went back to the house, but Seth and I stayed behind to explore Durango a little.
Located off Highway 550 outside of Durango, Pinkerton Hot Springs is marked by a man-made rock pile that was formed to be a safe place for the hot springs to discharge. The water comes from snow and rain that trickle down toward the earth’s core, then reverses course and springs back up from the ground at temperatures between 95 and 105 degrees. Due to the water’s minerals, the rocks have become colorful over time.
After its discovery in the 1800s, Pinkerton Hot Springs became a travel destination, as people believed it had healing powers. A resort once stood at this location, complete with a swimming pool filled with water from the springs. It’s rumored Marilyn Monroe once stayed there.
On our way back to the house, we passed this firefighters’ camp (above) for crews that were fighting the 416 Fire.
“Friends” Scene-It: A highlight of the trip for sure. Team Barcalounger won the first game, and Team Central Perk Sofa won the second. My cousins are the pros, but special recognition goes to my uncle for answering two questions correctly without having any substantial knowledge of the show!
day 5 • 07.04.18
We marked the July 4 holiday with a highlight of the trip: A ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The route to Silverton was closed due to the 416 Fire, but the alternative ride we took was awesome anyway!
This railway has been in continuous operation since 1882, running train excursions on a 45-mile spur of the Denver & Rio Grande rail line. Much of the scenery it passes through the Rocky Mountains and San Juan National Forest remains unchanged since then.
When we arrived back at the station, I wanted to recreate a photo from our ride on the Durango & Silverton 19 years earlier, in the summer of 1999. That photo tells the story of my cousin Kevin getting scolded for putting bunny ears on his mom in the previous shot. I don’t have that photo — It must have been on someone else’s camera — but despite that missing link in my own album, I still remember what was going on in that moment! It was hard recreating my original pose precisely with my cousin Katie being a lot taller now than then, but I think this is still a really fun then-and-now comparison.
Our last evening in Bayfield, we had some backyard visitors (above). And I also had to capture these fun flowers below:
day 6 • 07.05.18
Mesa Verde National Park & Four Corners Monument
Seth and I said goodbye to our group and went out on our own at this point, heading to Mesa Verde National Park. A fun fact is that Mesa Verde was the first National Park each of us visited — during that 1999 trip for me and at some point earlier in childhood for him. But it was still fun for us to revisit together!
Mesa Verde is best known for its Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, which were inhabited for more than 700 years beginning around 500 A.D. It’s believed that climate change and competition for resources as the population grew led to the abandonment of these dwellings.
We hiked the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Point Trail, which offers views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons and travels past a large petroglyph panel.
Above: Seth “wondering” where the petroglyphs were after we almost hiked past them without seeing them!
After Mesa Verde, we were off to the Four Corners Monument.
Above: We’re standing simultaneously in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona!
We were also excited to spot a double rainbow at the Four Corners.
We had a beautiful sunset as we made our way through Navajo Nation on our way to Kanab, Utah.
day 7 • 07.06.18
Bryce Canyon National Park
We expected to be wowed by Bryce Canyon, and it didn’t disappoint! Bryce contains the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular spires of rock), and it’s truly unlike anything we’d ever seen before.
Our first stop was Bryce Point, which seemed like an appropriately picturesque place for bearing the name of the park.
We then took the shuttle north to Inspiration Point before hiking back south on the Rim Trail. We followed that trail for quite a while and didn’t tire of the view!
This tree standing on tiptoe at the edge of the canyon is a bristlecone pine, which is among the oldest species of trees in the world. The oldest living is more than 4,500 years, while the oldest in Bryce Canyon is more than 1,500 years. They can keep their pine needles for more than 40 years. Some travelers come a long distance just to see bristlecones, which are found only in the United States and, more specifically, only in five states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah.
We next hiked the Queen’s Garden Trail, which starts from Sunrise Point and descends 320 feet into the canyon in a little less than a mile.
In the photos above is the Queen Victoria hoodoo, which was named for its resemblance to a statue in London. And at below right is an elk thistle.
Seth snapped this shot during a break we took on our hike back up to the rim, and we had to laugh later at how we’d unknowingly positioned ourselves in a way that gave me a witch’s hat.
During a break before our last hike, Seth made a (hungry) friend!
Last up was the Navajo Loop Trail, which starts from Sunset Point and descends 550 feet into the canyon in 1.3 miles.
We traveled the trail’s switchbacks to the base of the hoodoos, then hurried to get back to the top of the canyon before sunset (although we did have a headlamp to use if necessary!).
We took one last look at this awesome canyon before heading to the shuttle stop … only to discover our adventure wasn’t exactly over. We realized at about 8:20 p.m. that the last scheduled shuttle had come at 7:30 p.m., and just as we were wondering what our chances were of finding a stranger who’d give us a ride to our car parked in a lot outside the park, we met a ranger who informed us of a wonderful “secret shuttle” that would be coming momentarily to save stragglers like us. We’d never seen a more beautiful bus:
day 8 • 07.07.18
Zion National Park
We started the day with an invitation from our Airbnb host to see a rattlesnake in his driveway, then continued the excitement by making our way to Zion National Park.
Zion is Utah’s oldest national park and is known for its expansive Zion Canyon. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive cuts through its main section, leading to forest trails along the Virgin River. The river flows to the Emerald Pools, which have waterfalls and a hanging garden. Also along the river is The Narrows, an iconic hike through the narrowest part of the canyon.
Only having part of the day to spend in the park and knowing we wanted to hike at least a little of The Narrows, we did just a few short hikes before heading to the last stop on the shuttle line. Our first stop was Court of the Patriarchs (above). These individual peaks are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Our next hike was the Emerald Pools Trail, which leads to three tiers of waterfalls and natural ponds.
Finally we reached the Temple of Sinawava (above left) and the Riverside Walk (above right), which lead to the jumping off (or wading in?) point for The Narrows hike.
The Narrows was so beautiful and so much fun! With an impending storm and a tight schedule, we had less than two hours to spend on this hike — but it is undoubtedly one of our most memorable and the one from this trip I’d most love to do again.
The clouds were really closing in as we left the park, and the storm hit soon after we arrived back at our car. We noticed people staring at the sky as we left the town of Springdale to head to Las Vegas, so we paused to look behind us at what had their attention. And there it was: Our second double rainbow in a span of two days!
day 9 • 07.08.18
Las Vegas, NV
We did wonder if we were a little crazy to visit Las Vegas in July, but we toughed out the 110-degree heat and had a great time in spite of it!
Our first stop on Las Vegas Boulevard was the Eiffel Tower, where we took the elevator to the top for some city views:
Fun fact: The Planet Hollywood restaurant is actually at Caesars Palace, not Planet Hollywood. After figuring that out and doing the requisite walking, we were more than ready for some burgers, ice cream and AC!
After lunch, we went to the Titanic exhibit at the Luxor – truly incredible!
So we don’t seem insensitive to a monumental tragedy, I feel I should clarify that we weren’t actually smiling while standing with a piece of the Titanic wreckage (at above right). This was one of those green-screen shots that places you in front of various backgrounds. We did buy that photo, though, because it was our only way to have an image of that piece of the ship that actually is in the museum. Since taking your own photos isn’t allowed, it seems those green-screen photographers could at least suggest you have a more sombre expression for some of the backdrops!
Heading back toward the other end of the Strip, we passed the Excalibur (bottom left in the collage above) and New York, New York (below). If you need visual proof that Vegas is basically a theme park for adults, I’d say these serve that purpose!
We also stopped at the Bellagio to watch its fountain show from eye level (having seen it from the top of the Eiffel Tower that morning).
This was the starting point for Travis Pastrana’s attempt at the Ceasars Palace jump – the one that in 1967 left Evel Knievel with more than 40 broken bones and in a coma for 30 days. Fortunately, Pastrana fared much better!
Seeing Cirque du Soleil, three rows from the stage, was also incredible!
Before leaving Treasure Island, Seth insisted on going big or going home at the Breaking Bad slot machine … and lost $21.
Above: St. Mark’s Campanile, part of the Venetian and a replica of the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy — one of the most recognizable symbols of the city.
Our last stop, at midnight, was the High Roller — the world’s largest Ferris wheel at 550 feet tall and 520 feet in diameter.
We had a pod all to ourselves as we took in the beautiful, bright landscape of city lights.
day 10 • 07.09.18
Hoover Dam & Grand Canyon National Park
We stopped at the iconic Las Vegas sign on our way out of town (managing to fit in some wedding photography while there!).
Our next stop was Hoover Dam, where it was brutally hot. But on the plus side, the heat gave me that much more appreciation for the people who had to work in it to build the dam. And it really made an impression on me what an impossible task building it must have seemed initially, given that there wasn’t any infrastructure around there at the time (so an entire city was created just for the workers who built the dam).
Hoover Dam was constructed between 1931 and 1936 to provide irrigation water and hydroelectric power, as well as to control seasonal flooding of the Colorado River. Putting this dam on the river created the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead — which today provides water to millions of people in Nevada, Arizona, California and Mexico.
At the time of its completion, Hoover Dam was the largest hydroelectric power station and the largest concrete structure in the world. Each of its spillways can handle the volume of water that flows over Niagara Falls.
The dam is located in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, on the border between Nevada and Arizona:
Our next destination: Grand Canyon National Park! I’d visited the Grand Canyon in high school, but this was Seth’s first time, and it was one of his most anticipated sights this trip.
But before arriving there, we saw some other interesting sights:
We were lucky a few weeks before our trip to find an opening at Bright Angel Lodge due to a cancellation. It was amazing having one of the seven natural wonders of the world just a number of yards from our room! And we were even able to park my cute blue car right at the rim:
During dinner at Harvey House Cafe, we enjoyed perusing this Harvey House menu from 1924 that hung right by our table:
day 11 • 07.10.18
Grand Canyon National Park
We were up at 5 a.m. to see the sun rise over the Grand Canyon and to get some hiking in before our checkout at 11 a.m. One good thing about getting such an early start was that it felt like we had the whole place almost all to ourselves.
After the sun was up, we set out to hike some of Bright Angel Trail.
We then took the shuttle to several stops along the South Rim.
I made Seth a little nervous for the above shot, but I’d say it was worth it!
day 12 • 07.11.18
Albuquerque, NM >>> Sublette, KS
We spent the night of July 10 in Albuquerque and of course had to hit some “Breaking Bad” filming locations before heading out the next day. We’ve watched the series together several times, and it’s probably Seth’s all-time favorite show. So he especially was just a little bit excited!
The restaurant that served as Los Pollos Hermanos in the show really leans into its tourist pull, complete with a “guest book” at the counter.
We also visited the car wash from the show, where Seth made good use of his binoculars to “look for Walt” (because, why not?):
Above are sights in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas (to make sure all nine states from our journey are featured!).
day 13 • 07.12.18
Sublette, KS >>> Independence, MO
The Kansas City skyline: A sure sign we were back in our own territory.
Above: Our total trip mileage and the sweltering temperature that welcomed us home (Good thing we were accustomed to heat at this point!).
Home again! My 2008 Toyota Matrix definitely deserves some recognition for transporting us safely through all those miles of mountains and desert. Seth has been asking for a couple of years now if I want a new car, but I love mine, and it’s obviously still performing like a champ!
– motion pictures –
See below for a slideshow of our adventure!
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