SA Guide: Grand Canyon National Park

For most of us, squirrels are, at best, a mundane and ubiquitous part of the outdoor landscape. At worst, they're disease carrying pests that are perhaps more tolerable than mice or rats but not so much that we look upon them as an enhancement of the natural experience. I will admit that this has been my attitude as well. Aside from the odd cool fact - e.g., I do think it's pretty neat that adult ground squirrels develop a significant immunity to rattlesnake venom, and along with that often a rather bold aggressiveness toward them - I have never given squirrels much thought, or credit for having any redeeming features.

If you share this approach, let me tell you about a furry, black, house-cat sized critter with a striking white tail and large, tasseled ears. This little guy has a habit of digging up truffles or grabbing pine cones on the forest floor, running through the leaf litter carrying them in his mouth, and then sitting up, bracing the morsels between its cute little paws, and chowing down. Ladies and gentlemen, look to the left and meet the Kaibab Squirrel. I know, right? That little fur ball actually is kind of adorable. Turns out I may have judged squirrels too quickly. 

Now take that lesson, expand it to monumental proportions, and you have our recent trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in a...(ahem)...nutshell.

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SA Guide: Presidential Trail, Horsethief Lake Trail, Cliff Palace, Soda Canyon Overlooks, Square Tower House, Petroglyph Point Trail, Balcony House, Long House

So, we're off on the beginning of a swing through the west for our annual late-summer getaway, and we find ourselves in Keystone, South Dakota: just down the hill from Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. It was never a huge ambition of ours to go see the Big Heads. But we had come over the Rockies to visit our daughter in Denver - the plan being to then head up into the hinterlands of Wyoming to watch the 2017 total solar eclipse. At that point, since we would be so close anyway, we figured why not check out the Black Hills as well as the monument. Heck, we'd seen National Treasure II, and that made it seem kind of cool (though I was pretty sure there was no huge lake right behind those sculptures).

Well, we never made it to totality. In fact the best we could do was an hour north of Denver for a 93% show, after which we asked each other, "Do you still want to go?" The answer ended up being a rather uninspiring, "Ah what the hell. We've got a hotel booked, why not check it out?"

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SA Guide: Observation Point, Timber Creek Overlook

Setting up the tent in a gale was enough to encourage our departure from the campground for a while.

We'd just arrived in Springdale, the quirky, fun little town outside Zion's main canyon, shortly after midday, and the wind was up. Although there was time to get in a hike, for once we decided to avail ourselves of some of the more touristy, National Parkish activities. So we hopped on the shuttle bus - which rambles a continuous circuit along the north-south breadth of Zion Canyon - for a lengthy 90 second ride to the first stop: the Human History Museum. Here we found some good exhibits, a fine looped movie, and a nice little gift shop. It's well done, not given to excess. But like so many experiences in Zion, this apparent restraint merely sets one up for the jaw-dropper: in this case when you walk out the back door of the museum to be presented with what the park calls the Temples of the Virgin.

Things seem to start out small here, then they get really big. Zion National Park manages its ample sensations like a cagey master chef: leading you through a satisfying, if unremarkable, repast...only to completely blow you away with the Baked Alaska.

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SA Guide: Angels Landing

Angels Landing is not just a great hike, it's a seminal hike. It's a Zion icon. It's a Zicon! (Okay, I'll stop.) Angels Landing is breathtaking, exciting, dangerous - there are few superlatives too super to use in describing this beautiful five and a half miles of red rock wonder. But perhaps the most amazing thing about the Angels Landing experience, at least to me, is how many people opt to go ahead and experience it.

This is one of those adventures, like Half Dome in Yosemite, that, despite the relatively frequent loss of lives (six in the last ten years) has gained a reputation and become a must-do. And it is certainly much done. So when we planned for our three day weekend in the park, Angels Landing was at the top of our list of prospective hikes, but with a qualifier - something along the lines of: "Let's just see how it goes..."

I wouldn't say we were fearful of the climb. We'd been on too many hikes listed as precipitous or dangerous or too strenuous that turned out to be quite manageable. But we had looked at a number of videos, and read a few accounts. The visuals were staggering (and the reality is no less impressive) but the subject of fatal falls cropped up often. So it was with a niggling bit of trepidation mixed into the excitement that we hopped on the Zion shuttle bus and headed out for the early morning hike.

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SA Guide: Mile 54 to Mineral Bottom, Mineral Canyon

"Get up." 

I stirred, and rolled. I heard the words, but didn't really get the meaning. And as far as I could tell, they were being spoken by a human-sized lizard in a wide-brimmed hiking hat.

"Get up, Bob! We've got to put the fly on now!" Okay, that was no lizard, it was Laura, and her tone was unconditional. It reminded me of her "The trash truck's here and the cans aren't out" voice, only in this case she wasn't waiting for me, but was already grabbing the fly and exiting the tent. The wind was blowing sand through our campsite and drops began to fall while I hastily tried to find my headlamp and scramble out the zippered door. I pulled the fly out of the tent bag and we located the color-coded ends that needed to be snapped into the tent body. As we finished I could see through the scudding clouds that Orion was well up in the eastern sky, and there was a hint of light on the horizon. It was a lovely scene, and would have been worthy of further consideration were the elements not still threatening. Just as I was about to climb back into the tent I glanced around me and realized I had no idea what I did with the tent bag. Laura gave me a blank look when I asked if she'd seen it.

"Great, it's probably a couple of miles up the river by now," I said as we headed back to bed. Stupid atmospheric pressure gradient.

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