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The National Parks of the South West

Theme song - "Horse with no name", by America

Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is about three hours north-east of Las Vegas. For us it was a little less than an hour north of Seligman, where we stayed the night. Park entry costs $20 per car for six days, which is quite generous. The Grand Canyon was formed over millions of years as the Colorado River wound it's meandering way across the landscape. The rock here is light sedimentary, laid down hundreds of millions of years ago when this land was the bottom of a shallow sea. Over the eons the river and rain cut through the soft rock to create this massive canyon - the largest hole in the earth. It is truly spectacular. As you gaze down into its depths you see canyons within canyons, each stretching further down. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of the Colorado River at the very bottom. It's a long, long way down.
I wonder what the first people who stumbled across the canyon said when got here. I bet it wasn't "Wow, that's magnificent." Probably more like, "F*ck! How are we going to get around this?"
We stayed on the Southern Rim until almost sunset and then set off east towards Monument Valley. We stopped in the little crossroads town of Tuba City (a bit of a stretch that!) at the Dine Motor Inn. The name confused us as the Motel did not have a restaurant, but we found it was the Indian name for Navajo.

Monument Valley
The iconic landscape of Monument Valley has been immortalised in hundreds of western movies. The first movie filmed in Monument Valley was John Ford's film "Stagecoach", starring John Wayne. John Ford loved the landscape so much he returned here again and again. "The Searchers", certainly his best filmm was also set here. The valley is in Navajo land on the Arizona and Utah border. During the 19th century the Navajo were progressively pushed into smaller and smaller reservations in this desperately harsh environment. Effectively the reservation policy was a form of genocide as the land is almost waterless and can barely sustain agriculture. But the Navajo did survive and they continued their guerilla war against the US under leaders such as Geronimo. In the 20th century the Navajo successfully sued the government to get their land back and the reservation is now significantly larger than it was. The Navajo people though remain poor with 50% living in poverty, but they are independent and are building industry and tourism.
Like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is the result of millions of years of erosion. The rocky spires, buttes and mesas are harder elements in the rock that have been left behind after scouring by wind and rain. The soil is very fine, like dust and the 'rocks' can easily be crumbled in your hand. It's a very fragile environment. One day even these mightly spires will be entirely crumbled to dust.

Death Valley
After Monument Valley we turned north west. We had to drive back along the same highway almost all the way to Las Vegas. We drove until about 9pm before we pulled over in the town of Mesquite and found out a motel. This was the cheapest accommodation we had in the US - $35 a night at the Desert Inn Motel. It was a pretty old motel but met the minimum requirements - bed, TV and WIFI. Mesquite wasn't much to write home about - on each side of the highway were massive casino resorts and not much else. The next morning we were up and out and heading north towards Death Valley. Death Valley, the lowest and hottest point in the continental US, was nothing like what we expected.
We'd both thought of the Valley as being flat and desertlike, but instead it was mountainous - still very hot though. The landscape here is nothing like the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley. The ground is all scorched and blackened laval rock. The shattered rock testifies that this was once the site of a massive volcanic eruption. At its lowest point there are salt lakes shimmering with false hope. There is no shade and the sun is fierce but that didn't stop a crazy long distance runner we encountered. Man, that's extreme.
In the 19th century Death Valley - around Zabriskie Point - was mined for Borax, which I think is an abrasive that was once used in household cleaning products. When the market died, so did the mine - it must have been terrible to work there - and the area was made a national park.
We headed west over a steep series of passes towards the eastern Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada range runs north to south across the United States. It marks the point where the North American and Pacific plates meet and grind against each other. These enormous pressures throw up mountains, create volcanos (Yellowstone National Park in the north is actually the collapsed caldera of a mega-gigantic volcano. It's one of the most volcanically active regions of the earth and if it were to blow..... goodbye Canada and the USA!), hotsprings, geysers, and causes earthquakes. The earth here is very busy indeed. Shelly found the journey just a little bit scary. Although there were not many cars on the roads, there were sheer drops to certain death all the way along the route. I think we hit about 7000 feet above sea level before we wound our way down to a more agreeable level.
We drove along a pleasant valley between the national parks, Death Valley and Mt Zion on the right and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks on the left. We stopped at Mammoth Lake, which is a ski and hiking resort. We stayed at a Motel 6. We kept an eye open for bears, which are known to break into cars to get food. We didn't need to break in anywhere as we had a huge meal of Irish stew and bangers and mash at the local Irish bar.

Yosemite National Park
The next morning we drove up and over the spectacular Tioga Pass, which reaches about 4900 feet. Tioga Pass is only passable about four months of the year. We had to stop every few feet to take photos.
Yosemite was a total contrast to the other parks - it was covered in forests and lakes! Coming over from the east the scenery was simply stunning. We stopped at Teneya Lake for some photos. It was mirror beautiful. Then we drove on to Bridal Veil Falls and Yosemite town.
Late afternoon we headed off towards Monterey, south of San Francisco. It was another long drive ahead and we just drove until we couldn't drive anymore. About 9.30 we saw motel just near the town of Los Banos (The Toilet!) so we just had to stay!!

Posted by paulymx 23:59 Archived in USA

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