Instead, Mark planned a fantastic road/hiking trip that spanned through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. Though Mark and I get really excited about international travel, this country also has some amazing scenery (all the foreign tourists we encountered seem to agree!) and the best way to discover it is on a road trip. Our entire trip was also cheaper than a single ticket to Cambodia.
The trip through West Texas was surprisingly neat, with fields of windmills and lots of tumbleweeds and a Texas-style thunderstorm (love these). We stopped for the night in Amarillo, where we bypassed the 72 ounce steak at the Big Texan and sought out our last Texas dinner, which ended up being extra moist brisket and a few Shiner 101's. The next morning we got up early to photograph Cadillac Ranch at sunrise. Who knew an empty field full of old, graffiti'd Cadillacs off the highway would be pretty, in its own way?
From Amarillo, we drove to Santa Fe, where we ate great New Mexican food: green and red chile, carne adovado, excellent chile rellenos and sopapillas drizzled with honey. Santa Fe is worth a trip just for the food, but imagine how Disney would interpret the Southwest and you have downtown Santa Fe. We opted to take a stroll down Canyon Road, drive through the mountains and seek out the best chile we could find. Mark preferred the green, but I couldn't decide and invariably asked for both, Christmas-style. Amazing food and views to be seen in New Mexico.
From Santa Fe, we drove through the colorful state of Colorado on to Moab, Utah. You guys, Utah is amazing. Amazing. AMAZING! I had no idea, so I was blown away. Everywhere you look is a photographic opportunity. Even if we hadn't hit any national parks, I would have been happy just with the beautiful scenery on the drives. We bought an annual parks pass, which I think is $80 or so and grants your car access to any national park for an entire year and it has already paid for itself. First stop: Arches. To break in my hiking boots and acclimate to the altitude, we did a series of short hikes (2-4 miles) here. My favorite hike was near Landscape Arch. At that time of day (mid-morning), the sky was insanely blue.
The Windows at sunrise was another beautiful sight. As the sun's rays hit the arch, the rock literally glows.
After several days in Moab, we drove on towards Bryce Canyon, with a detour through Capitol Reef park and the Burr Trail, an old cattle trail.
Bryce was a little difficult to photograph, and I don't think our photos even come close to capturing how gorgeous it is and how colorful the hoodoos (rock formations) are. After a quick dinner, we drove back into the park to star gaze. I've never seen so many stars (and planets!) in my life. Amazing.
The next morning, we did a super hike down into the Canyon just after sunrise. This was the most pleasant hike -- it stays cool in the canyon since Bryce is at such high altitude.
From Bryce, we drove to Zion. Mark hiked in Zion several years ago with his brother, and he promised me it would be incredible. Of course, the first day sucked. It was uncomfortably hot (100+ degrees) and we picked a boring/crowded hike. I also started to doubt whether I could physically hike to the top of Angels landing -- a park ranger psyched me out with tales of how narrow and terrifying the ridges are, how brutal the switchbacks are, how hot it got, etc. I told Mark about my fears but, ultimately, I decided it would be lame not to try. To make it easier for me, Mark said he would carry all the water, the camera and tripod, our first aid kit, etc. (Mark said he used to carry 80 pounds of backpacking gear back in his Seattle mountaineering days so "this is no big deal" but believe me... that backpack was heavy.)
We got up at 4:45 the next morning to take the bus into the canyon and started our hike while the stars were still out. We saw glowing animal eyes in the brush and a huge buck startled us on the trail. In the end, the trail to Scout's Lookout, with all the elevation gain and the 21 switchbacks, was grueling but doable -- my expectations were way, way worse than the actual hike. Anyway, how could I have been intimidated by something called Walter's Wiggles?
Once you get to the Lookout point, you can choose to continue to the top of Angels Landing or stop.
To get to the top of Angels Landing, you have to navigate a series of narrow, steep ridges with somewhat scary drop offs. Luckily, neither of us are afraid of heights but I can totally understand why the height-phobic would turn around here (on the way down, we saw more than a few people stop and turn around).
After 45 minutes (spent taking pictures and protecting my Kind bar from an enthusiastic chipmunk), we were joined by two guys and, as my best friend Julia later noted, nothing ruins a good moment like other people. So we made our way back down. We did a few other hikes at Zion, but Angels Landing was the most rewarding by far.
You might have noticed I haven't said anything about food in Utah, so atypical for me. About that -- the coffee and food options were uniformly miserable (though we had some decent beer). But we came to Utah to hike, relax and see something new. Not to eat. However, we did our best to make up for it with an incredible lunch at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. If you go at lunchtime, avoid the buffet and order from the menu. We ordered so much food that the waitress laughed at us, but the food was super and authentic -- we ate every bite. I'm still thinking about the khao soi (Northern Thai coconut soup with chicken, pickled vegetables and springy egg noodles), the crispy panang duck and the mango sticky rice. Say what you will about Vegas but you can eat extremely well there.
I already posted some pictures from Death Valley and Yosemite and you can see all of our vacation pictures here, if you are so inclined.