Saturday, January 9, 2016


2015 Winter Western Trip  -- by Miranda

We began our Winter Trip to the United States Southwest in Orange County, CA, where Charles was completing a run of the Nutcracker with ABT. From Orange County we drove to Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, the Grand Canyon (our ultimate destination), and the Joshua Tree National Park before returning to Orange County and flying home to New York. This trip had been in the pipeline for quite some time. It had originally been planned during the summer months 2 years earlier but Charles had a knee operation for a torn meniscus which meant postponing the trip. We were finally able to complete our mission of sharing the beauty and majesty of this part of the world with our boys.

Charles, our awesome travel planner, guide, husband and dad has excelled himself. We had an unbelievable adventure. North America is a treasure trove of wilderness and amazing sights that one can only dream about unless lucky enough to experience it first hand. And so, let me begin:

Friday December 18 -- New York

We took the boys out of school early for this trip, they were supposed to have 4 more school days but we made arrangements with their teachers so that they wouldn’t miss any critical test.  Charles was already in Orange County so our friend Ron gave Max, Riley, and me a ride to Newark Airport,  and we flew to Orange County. Charles picked us up at the airport and drove us back to the hotel where Max’s had a great time reuniting with his ABT friend, Justin, who was dancing the role of Fritz in the Nutcracker.  One evening Max even did a pre-show warm up with the rest of the kids in the show. Now if that isn’t a sign of ballet passion, I don’t know what is.

The boys had a great time enjoying the pool and hot tub and generally just hanging out with us. We had conveyor-belt sushi, saw the recently released movie Star Wars VII, The Force Awakens, and even saw a matinee of the Nutcracker.

Saturday December 19 -- Orange County 1

The first day there was a busy one. It started with a 10am show of Star Wars VII then a 2pm performance of the Nutcracker.  There was a minor ticket problem. Charles got us settled at the movie theater at 9:45 then raced back to OCPAC  to pick up our Nutcracker tickets (that box office opened at 10am) then raced back to the movie theater. Luckily, there were 20 minutes of ghastly previews before the movie so he made it back in time for the opening credits! The boys spent the evening in the pool and hot tub and we were all asleep when Charles arrived back at the hotel from conducting the evening performance.

Sunday December 20 - Orange County 2 (hyperlinks show hike stats)

This morning we took a “practice” hike to get us into shape for the next 2 weeks of trekking around the desert southwest. We drove to El Moro Canyon just south of Newport Beach and walked from the top of the canyon down to the Pacific Ocean and back. The trails were a bit muddy as it had rained the night before so we “broke in” our hiking shoes with lots of viscous mud. It turned out to be a long and rather non-eventful hike.

Practically all of the trails in El Moro Canyon were “jeep roads” and not particularly interesting. It was a long hike, over 9 miles with 1,700 feet of elevation change. That evening, Charles closed the ABT Nutcracker run and we went to bed early to prepare for our adventure.

Monday December 21 -- Las Vegas


Today our vacation began in earnest. We set off for Vegas early (about 6:30am) to avoid the rush-hour freeway traffic. We arrived around midday, checked into the Tropicana Hotel (which had an extremely long walk to the room, but an enormous tub which for me was the absolute highlight of our Vegas stay) and took a walk down the Strip to pick up tickets for a magic show. The Strip was like a long Times Square and surprisingly, a real turn off for the boys, Riley in particular.  It took us some time to find the ticket booth but we finally got the tix and went back to the hotel for a short rest with a quick detour through the Bellagio.

The Magic show was very entertaining particularly for Max as he knew and had mastered some of the tricks Murray, the Magician, performed including the phone going through the balloon trick. After seeing the same magic tricks performed in Vegas we were all very impressed with Max!

The true highlight of the show was Charles being asked to come up on stage. We had front row seats so obviously the chances of being part of the act were relatively high. The boys loved that, and Charles was totally at home up on stage, hamming it up even turning over one of his brown shoes (the one with a hole in the toe -- Murray the Magician said, “Thanks for dressing up!”)  that Murray insisted he trade for a luminous hot pink slipper.

To be honest, the boys didn’t like Las Vegas at all. In Riley’s words, it was “awful, the epitome of all American horrors”. When asked if they will go back to Vegas, the undisputed response from both Riley and Max was an emphatic, “NO”. Hopefully that means that the boys have good taste and good morals. We were silently proud.

Tuesday December 22 -- Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon

We had an early start for a trip to the Hoover Dam which was fortunate as the entry line stretched a half mile when we drove out. We did our best to walk out onto the bypass bridge but the wind was howling.  We hurriedly took some photos and went immediately down to the tour entrance for the dam.  We got right on a tour (go early!), took the elevator down to the bottom and saw turbines, tunnels, and interesting mosaics on the floor. To complete the tour we had a great snack stop with hot dogs, breakfast sandwiches and gummies to go.

We were soon on our way to Red Rock Canyon with its bizarre red and white stone mixed together.  This was one of Riley’s favorite hikes, Turtlehead Peak. He and Charles reached the top. Max and I on the other hand were not enamored with the high winds and gusts of sand that attacked us on the uphill climb. We chose to go back down while Charles and Riley went on to the top. On the way back to the car they somehow went off the trail and got lost. Max and I received a call from Charles to say they were lost but thought they had found a way down.

Riley found an interesting "shortcut" between a split in the rock which unfortunately ended in a 30 foot drop! They decided against that way but eventually made it back. All in all it was a happy ending -- thank goodness. We slept at the Tropicana and had room service having no desire to be with the hordes.  

Wednesday December 23 -- Zion National Park 1

This morning we had our typical breakfast of bagels and coffee but the boys got hungry soon after we left Vegas so we stopped early at a Burger King for 2 hamburgers and 2 breakfast ham and egg croissants. We checked into the Hampton Inn in Springdale about noon. It was a warm and cosy hotel with a wonderful view of the Zion canyon wall.

Charles had picked out several hikes for us to do here, and as we drove into the park there was a sudden downpour at the trailhead for Angel’s Landing so we opted for hike #2, Weeping Rock to Observation Point. It was a good choice in hindsight as the weather quickly cleared up as we hiked our way up the switchbacks with a few stops along the way to take in the incredible view below.

From there we found our way through smaller, narrower canyons, across creeks and onto another steep incline that involved yet more switchbacks and a lot of power to hoof our way up. We stopped a few times along the way to refresh with trail mix and chocky, then onward. We walked for about an hour and a half before stopping for lunch and deciding to turn back. Our decision was influenced by 2 factors, 1) not knowing how much longer we had to go to the end, i.e., not wanting to run out of daylight, and 2) by the comment of a surly hiker on his way down who gave us nothing to go on but a grunt of superiority saying to Riley "you got a flashlight?"

Riley was really disappointed not to reach the finish. Had we not come across the snarky hiker we may just have taken our chances. As it turned out the trail ahead becomes relatively flat and we could have made it with time to spare.  (Adviso: don't listen to the guidebooks or negative people on the trail -- use your common sense.)

The spot we picked for lunch had a spectacular view so we didn't miss too much. We made it back down with 90 minutes of daylight to spare so we drove to the end of the canyon to take in the beauty of the an area of the Canyon called the Temple of Sinawava. (Methodists, Mormons and railroad men came up with the names in Zion!)

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No auto traffic is allowed in the park except during the winter months so we were able to drive and park wherever we wanted to.   The Narrows Trailhead begins at the Temple but it was too cold to hike. It’s mostly wading through knee deep water and Max thought would be really fun, but perhaps on our next trip here during summer months. We had dinner at a funny little restaurant in Springdale called Meme’s with a whacky waitress. To Riley’s disappointment they had run out of burgers (what!?!) which seemed a bit strange.  

Tuesday December 24th -- Zion 2 (my birthday and our wedding anniversary)

After a delicious FREE breakfast we drove toward our next chosen destination, the Angel’s Landing Trail. Since the sun was still hidden in the mist we stopped just short of the trailhead and trekked up to the 3 Emerald Pools. This was a short hike but rather icy and snowy the entire way.  The pools themselves were lovely but apparently the green color is more pronounced in the summer months. Then it was on to Angel’s Landing as the sun was now burning through the overcast sky.

This was a strenuous hike and not for those with acrophobia or the faint of heart. The first part of our hike involved several series of switchbacks which took us upward along the canyon wall with spectacular views around and below. The boys entered a small cave just off the trail but on the way out Riley knocked his head against the top of the cave. Luckily, Mom, MD, had an ibuprofen in her backpack.
It was a little icy on the trail so we took our time. I knew the last part was going to be difficult, and had tried to keep a positive, gung-ho attitude to complete the hike and take a video for Mamma, my 100 year-old grandmother, at the end. However, as soon as we began the single file climb that required clinging on to a chain while navigating the icy rock, I was overcome by fear. The journey ahead simply didn’t seem feasible for me. The boys decided to continue on -- very brave indeed -- while I retreated, or rather shakily scaled my way back down to safer ground clinging onto the chain for dear life.

Returning hikers told me that it was about an hour to reach the summit, so I set myself down to await the return of my warrior family. About 30 minutes later I was very glad to see the boys coming back down. They had continued along the skinny treacherous path to a point where they unanimously agreed not to go any further. Apparently at one point there is an extremely narrow path (2 feet wide) to balance across with one sole chain to cling to and sheer drops of over 1,200 feet to the canyon floor on both sides. I was never so happy to see my family return to me safe and sound. I like to think that even though we are an adventurous family, it’s ok to not always reach the final destination. It’s more important to enjoy the journey; to smell the roses so to speak, or in this case, the fresh canyon air.

Since we had some extra time we hiked up along the West Rim Trail a bit for more amazing views of other parts of the canyon. After our picnic lunch with a million dollar view we descended a still slippery path to our waiting car and back to the hotel to freshen up before my birthday dinner at Zion Lodge. There simply couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate our special day. It was perfect. Charles had arranged for a birthday cake complete with candles to be brought out after dinner and the waiters and the boys sang "Happy Birthday" to me!

Friday December 25 -- Zion to Bryce   Christmas Day (no GPS - phone froze!)

While New York was seeing 70° temperatures we received a beautiful white Christmas in Zion! We woke in the morning to a lovely view of the snow covered canyon wall from our bedroom window. The snow had fallen softly during the night and was forecast to continue through the morning. After another FREE breakfast we drove slowly through the sleeping town of Springdale and back through Zion National Park weaving our way up the slippery switchbacks and through the dark tunnels. At the end of the last long tunnel we stopped and took our final hike in Zion -- the Canyon View Trail. It was still snowing but there wasn’t too much wind. The hike was very beautiful through the snowy woods and around the canyon walls.  

The boys pretended to be mountain goats cavorting on the rocks.  When we came to the overlook the snow had not really let up. Charles had hoped the clouds would break up by the time we arrived so we could see the entire canyon but the snow lasted longer than forecast. We hiked back to our car and onto our next destination.

As it turned out we were lucky to have left Zion when we did. The rangers closed the road entering the Park just as we finished our hike. The drive to Bryce National Park was only 60 miles but it was over snow covered roads. The driving was a little tricky but our all-wheel drive vehicle got us through safely.

We checked into our room at Ruby’s Inn and headed for Bryce Canyon (which is not actually a canyon but a huge erosion zone). It was definitely much colder here, temperatures ranging between a low of -11° to a high of 15°. The snowstorm that hit Zion had also hit Bryce which is 1,000 feet higher in elevation. They had gotten over a foot of new snow and there was still lots of ground snow blowing in the air when we got into the park.

Our first destination was the Fairyland Loop Trail. We quickly decided it was not a good idea due to waist-deep snow drifts which left us wondering where the trail was and what might happen if we put our foot in the wrong place. The wind was pretty stiff and after trudging about 100 yards through snow drifts we turned around. The trail would have been perfect if we had snowshoes.

We went on to our next trail, the Navajo Loop Trail. On the short drive over Max read the trail description out loud and sweetly called it the “Nav-a-joe” trail! It took us down a series of switch- backs to the canyon floor where it was quiet and serene -- an excellent choice. The sky had cleared by then though there was still a great deal of powdery blowing snow in the air. There were several different trails to choose from at the bottom of the canyon and we ended up deciding on the Peekaboo Loop Trail. Had we known what lay before us, we may have decided against it, but in hindsight we are so glad we hiked it.

I had in mind that it would be a charming loop along the Canyon floor that required very little energy (or chutzpah as the boys like to call it). It was anything but; the path was strenuous, winding, drifted, very windy in parts with blowing snow, and downright difficult, but well worth every step. We stopped when we needed too, revived with a little chocky, helped each other when the going got tough, and finally after 4+ miles of tough snowy hiking, completed the circuit. Of course, we were still at the bottom of the canyon and had to ascend to top via the same switchbacks that we had descended -- another 1.5 miles. It was not easy. But we made it and have incredible pictures, video and memories to take with us as we journey forward. We had a simple dinner at Ruby’s Inn, it seemed to be the  only place in town to eat in the winter months.

Saturday December 26 -- Bryce Canyon 2

We knew from the forecast that there would be high gusty winds today so we had a slow start. Today was going to be low key. We were pooped. The two snow-filled hikes yesterday took it out of us. A day of recovery was welcome so we slept in. After breakfast that wasn’t FREE  (Max and Charles went to the dining room while Riley and I stayed in bed!) we took an impromptu drive through the Grand Escalante NP to the town of Escalante and took a small hike through a petrified forest.  Personally, trees that have become rocks didn't excite me 14 years ago on the last trip with Charles to the Petrified Forest NP. This trip was no different. I realize I have no interest in trees that have turned into stone. But everyone is different, and for Charles there is a real fascination.

There was no one in this Utah State Park, in fact there was only one other set of bootprints on the snow- covered, “moderately strenuous” trail. As we were hiking Charles casually pointed out large paw tracks in the snow that were obviously not human. In his words, “I don’t want to alarm anyone, but look at these”! Well, that was it for me. I couldn’t wait to get back to the safety of the car. I certainly didn’t want to come face to face with a mountain lion on our path winding through a petrified forest. It’s simply not the way I want to go.

Thankfully, we didn’t meet any large 4 legged creatures in the wild that day (though we did see a few small ones) and we are here to tell the tale. We drove back to Bryce, then out to Bryce Point (the road was closed past there) but the wind was still howling so we made one last stop at Sunrise Point where the wind was much less intense. We took a quick rim walk, snapped some photos and headed back to warmth. A disappointed Max and Charles returned to the room after an unsuccessful trip to the pool (cold) and jacuzzi (not working).

Our room was in a building adjacent to the main hotel and in subzero temperatures even small journeys out were unpleasant. The key slot on our door constantly malfunctioned and denied us entrance. We called maintenance several times and they gave us clues (“bang here, lift the handle this way” etc.) as to how to get in but it was always a struggle. Once I even tried to ram the door open warning Max to get out of the way. It was not fun coming back from hiking, tired and very cold, and not being able to get into your room. Ruby's Inn may be the oldest lodge in Bryce but it could use newer equipment and management.

Sunday December 27 -- Bryce to the Grand Canyon
We woke bright and early and were on the road by 7am. Today was a long drive, a 5½ hr trip crossing the border from Utah into Arizona, through a town called Page with glorious sights of canyons and mesas to our ultimate destination -- the Grand Canyon.

IMG_7394.JPGWe arrived at Grand Canyon National Park around 1pm and took a mind blowing look at the Canyon from the Desert View Watchtower. Surprisingly, there were lots of other tourists there, the majority of whom were Asian. We are still scratching our heads as to why it was so busy at this time of the year. We had visited here 14 years ago during the same time period and there wasn't a soul around to share the Canyon with, in fact not at any of the National Parks we went to. This time it was totally buzzing.

After leaving the Watchtower we wove our way through the road along the rim and then exited the park out the south entrance to the Red Feather Lodge where we unpacked and gathered ourselves together. We drove back into the park, waiting 20 minutes in a long line to get back in, and made our way to Hermit’s Rest for yet another spectacular view and our first hike.

IMG_4613.JPGThe Hermit Trail took us down a couple miles into the canyon on a trail with interestingly varied surfaces. After an hour or so we decided to head back up before losing our sunlight for the day. This was a very pleasant sun-filled walk with only a few fellow hikers on the trail. The very top of the trail was snow covered and other parts steeply descending down paths made of logs and rock. Charles took a photo of me in a  headstand right at the canyon lip to send to my friend Matt who sent me a photo of himself in headstand on the beach in Brisbane.

We returned to the hotel to rest before a late dinner at the Mexican restaurant adjacent to the hotel, with imported pizza for Max, which he ate sneakily as busy waiters bustled by. Then back to the hotel for an early night.

Monday December 28 -- Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon

Today we rose early and headed back to the canyon for an 8:30am start down Bright Angel Trail. It was a glorious day, blue skies, a few tiny white clouds, a little snow covering the first part of the trail and about 25° but no wind. A winding, weaving path took us down past rest stops to the Indian Garden and out to Plateau Point. This was beyond where we had planned to go and beyond even where Charles and I had hiked to on our last trip. The plateau was very colorful and beautiful, covered with the purple scales of new cactus.  Also, a small herd of very tame mule deer was feeding as we made our way out to the point. We had a great view of the Colorado River where we stopped for lunch.
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We returned backtracking over the same terrain all the way to the rim. Our trip took just over 6 hours and covered more than 13 miles. The boys were truly amazing. They took on board the challenge with gusto and chutzpah and were we proud! We suspect on their next trip they will be experiencing this magical place with their own family or friends.

We decided to have an early dinner to avoid the rush. There isn’t much to choose from in Tusayan, AZ, the town just south of the park entrance so we chose the pasta/pizza place and had a hot meal. By the time we left the place was packed.

Tuesday December 29 -- South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon
Today we took our 3rd and final hike in the Grand Canyon down the South Kaibab Trail. Given our strenuous hike yesterday we weren't quite sure how far we might go. The evening before we did a little research and decided upon Skeleton Ridge, about 3 miles down, as our point of destination. It seemed like a realistic challenge. Skeleton Point has a nice rocky plateau with spectacular views of the Canyon, a perfect place to stop for lunch. From Skeleton Point the trail drops steeply down toward the river and wasn’t recommended for day hikers. (We found out later that it’s often easily trekked in a day by experienced hikers -- which we now considered ourselves!) Had we not hiked all the way
down to Plateau Point and back on Bright Angel Trail yesterday, it was very possible we would have attempted the 13 mile round trip to the Colorado River today.
However, as it turns out, we made a good decision as we were feeling yesterday’s hike. On our return up from Skeleton Point, about halfway back, just above Cedar Ridge, we realized we were minus our camera. Charles had left it on a ledge where we had eaten lunch about 40 minutes before. He made a spur of the moment decision to retrieve it and gave me the car keys and literally dashed back down the Canyon to find it. He was without food or water but thankfully it was cool and there were a few other hikers on the trail in the event he needed help. The boys and I, although not happy about him going back alone, were only slightly comforted by these few factors. The boys both offered to go back with Charles to find the camera but their very sweet offers were declined and as Charles hurried down I  ushered the boys up the trail to the top and the welcome warmth of our cozy car.

Only about 30 minutes after we had reached the car a very flush-cheeked Charles returned -- in record time. Needless to say we were very relieved. Unfortunately there was no sign of the camera. However, on a positive note Charles had removed all our pictures from yesterday and downloaded them onto his computer. We will be sad to say goodbye to our camera that has been with us since 2005. It has given us so many fantastic pictures and memories. On the upside, we now have an excuse to upgrade to a newer, smaller, lighter model. Always look on the bright side of life. (Charles did fill out a lost item report at the Visitors Center but we're not holding our breath!)

We arrived back at The Red Feather Lodge around 3:30pm, had a welcome rest, a nice hot shower, and a huge Mexican meal with burgers for the kids. After watching some YouTube videos of other hikers on the same trails we had hiked we crashed around 9.30pm.

Wednesday December 30 -- Joshua Tree NP, Twentynine Palms, CA

Charles was up raring to go this morning while the rest of us dragged ourselves out of bed reluctantly. We were on the road by 8am after sadly bidding farewell to the Grand Canyon which had given us such a wonderful time and now headed for Twentynine Palms, CA, (a small town in the Mojave desert) and the Joshua Tree NP, our midway stop on route back to Orange County.
The Mojave desert is dry, flat, and devoid of just about everything. Driving toward Twentynine Palms we passed many odd run down homes, shacks, and once occupied abodes and found ourselves wondering if there really is a town called Twentynine Palms. The road went on endlessly through the dry landscape until voilà, like a desert mirage, Twentynine Palms appeared before us.
Like a welcome friend, our Best Western Hotel appeared atop the hill just when we were beginning to grow suspicious that Twentynine Palms hadn’t one at all. The best part, at least for Max, was the POOL. Our room wasn’t quite ready but the sun was shining brightly (but only 50°) so we took advantage of the pool and jacuzzi which were both warm and completely empty while we waited for our upgraded room to be prepared. 
About 90 minutes later we were 0n our way to the Joshua Tree National Park and our first point of interest, Skull Rock. The Rock was crawling with tourists scurrying like ants across its surface, everyone taking the typical photos. We opted to cross the road and explore the prehistoric boulders on the opposite side -- a much better decision.

The kids were like curious energetic mountain goats climbing and clambering all over the place with Charles close on their tail. I lingered, somewhat less enthusiastic and enamored with the perfect rock-scrambling terrain that lay before us, awesome as it was.

Perhaps we were somewhat spoilt by our past 8 days hiking huge canyons with immense panoramic views at every turn; this seemed less interesting and awe inspiring. I realize now that I am a girl who likes to tread the trodden path. I like a challenge but nothing too dangerous. The thought of sharing the path with the odd mountain lion or wild coyote isn't my cup of tea. Luckily the only animal we came across was a large hare bounding off into the sunset.

We took a small walk around Arch Rock then drove out of the park as the sun was beginning to set. Hungrily we devoured our pizza and tacos, then headed back to the hotel for an early to bed.

Friday December 31  New Year’s Eve; Joshua Tree to OC

After a solid night's sleep, another FREE breakfast, and quick soak in the jacuzzi we headed back into the Joshua Tree National Park bypassing Skull Rock which was a bit less crowded now, and arrived at Ryan Mountain, our last and final hike. I was delighted to discover it was a trail well trodden, challenging yes, but well groomed none the less.

Round trip, the Ryan Mountain Trail is about 3 miles with 1,500 feet elevation change -- no problem! On the way up there was a chilly breeze that cut through the warm sunshine. It certainly kept us moving briskly toward the summit. There was a spectacular 360° view from the top but with the chill still in the morning air we didn’t spend too much time up there.
IMG_1039.JPGThe boys ran the whole way down from the summit while Charles and I meandered slowly back to the car. By the time we arrived we were greeted by 2 exhilarated boys who were now in the mood for some serious rock-scrambling. There was simply no way we were leaving this strange Dr. Seuss-like National Park without one final rock scramble. As it turned out, one rock scramble quickly became 2, then 3. I chose to sit these out and perched myself on a low lying rock like a cold desert lizard warming herself in the sun watching her family leaping and bounding from boulder to boulder.
An hour or so later, with major scrambling accomplished, we found ourselves exchanging a group hug in celebration of our wonderful wild western winter vacation and back in the car heading west to Orange County, CA, and the Hilton Hotel.

This has truly been an incredible family adventure, superbly planned and mapped out by Charles. He dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”, and on the trails, left no stone unturned. We have been challenged in many ways, physical, emotional and mental, but there is no doubt that what we take from our experience is invaluable. We are definitely stronger and have priceless memories to treasure.
Thank you Charles for providing our beautiful family with this experience. I doubt there could be a better way to bring 2015 to a close and launch ourselves into the New Year. We are ready for 2016.


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