Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Scenic Highway 12- Bryce Canyon

Day 1

Starting point: Las Vegas, NV

End point: Bryce Canyon, UT

Roads traveled: I-15 N to Cedar City, UT -- UT 14E -- US 89N -- UT12E78 -- UT 63S (within Bryce Canyon National Park)

Highlights of the day: Scenic Byway 12 Entrance area,
                                      Lookouts in and sunset over Bryce Canyon

As we traveled away from flat Las Vegas strip, flatness which remained vast initially started to narrow down gradually and rocky hills reproached closer and closer to the I-15. Interestingly, before entering Utah, I-15 passes through the  north western corner of Arizona, so you get a state welcome sign- "The Grand Canyon State Welcomes You". For me, it was as sweet and pleasant an invitation as it were a dear friend inviting to his/her home. We were missing Grand Canyon by couple of hundred miles. After a few miles- " Life (was) Elevated" and we were excited to be near our destination.

Immediately after the state line, red rock started to appear and terrain become hilly. We could see distant snow-caped (Cedar?) mountains.

I-50 entering Southern Utah

We pass through St. George, Cedar city on our way to US89 N which leads to the western end of Highway 12. There was a big, well fitting sign suggesting the road's character - scenic, red and beyond speed limits.

Western end of Scenic Byway 12
After a few miles on this road, there comes a sort of natural gate - road narrows a bit and red rocks come to stand like pillars on both sides, almost like the Gates of Argonath (Lord of the Rings), inviting into Red CanyonThere are three information boards- about the highway, landscape and safety and attractions on the route.

Start of Red Canyon

Interpretive Exhibits
The road starts within Dixie National Forest and Red Canyon is the first attraction. This area has hiking trails, and a seasonal visitor center just besides the road, managed by the Forest Service. There is a camp ground too. For more info go to Red Canyon Visitor Center. When we passed in late April, both visitor center and campground were closed. We were still 30 or so minutes away from Bryce Canyon and it was already 2pm. So, we took pictures and did not hike in this area.

Hoodoos of Red Canyon, a preview of next stop

We turned on to UT 63 S toward Bryce Canyon. The 2.7mile road passing through unbelievably recently established and incorporated Bryce Canyon City has inns, RV park and grocery stores. It is just outside the park entrance and shaped up to cater tourists. An interesting fact from Wikipedia: Bryce Canyon City is a company town consisting solely of the property of Ruby's Inn and the Syrett family, its third-generation owners. Rod Syrett, the company's board president, was chosen as the first mayor. 

We entered the park and went to the visitor center for trail and weather information. It was already approaching 5pm, luckily we were there just at the start of the extended hour schedule. So the visitor center was going to be open till 6,30pm and in-park shuttle service was going to start the next day. By the way, taking a picture with the park entrance sign, stamping my passport and picking park map and latest newspaper/guide has become a mandatory tradition for me. I have a collection of those now and for me, they are the best souvenirs.

We were prepared for camping. So first thing we did was to secure a campsite at North Campground and setting up the tent. Luckily a couple of sites were still available. Sunset was going to be around the longer days...especially while visiting parks. Based on advice from a ranger at the visitor center, we decided to drive up to Paria view lookout a few miles south and drive back with stoppage at each lookout, last being the 'Sunset' point at sunset. Hiking was planned for the next day.

We first stopped at Bryce Point lookout. It overlooks the most beautiful and quintessential Bryce Canyon area- the Amphitheater. It is a view one should not miss. When you stand at the end of the trail, overlooking red banded, delicate, spiring hoodoos carved over millions of years surrounding you, it is hard to decide who is the spectator and who is the performer. Symmetrical rows of hoodoos one behind the other, is one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring creation of nature. It is a joyous spot.

A section of the Amphitheater at Bryce Point

Tried to capture the Amphitheater in sectional panorama

Our second stop was Paria View which is on the opposite direction from the Bryce Point and over looks Paria river watershed. You can see the end of the Bryce canyon and large tree lined valley beyond. It does not have dramatic views as of Bryce point but it is a good place to see hoodoos in last rays of sun before sunset. For more info check NPS' page. You can go window hunting in this area. There are a couple of window formations in rocks near and far. If you are interested in geological changes leading to a hoodoo or a window formation go here.

Paria View overlooked Paria River watershed

Now we were driving back towards North Campground. Next stop was Inspiration Point. It is in same general area as the Bryce Point but overlooks different section of the canyon and has hoodoos stacked in rows on one side. From the parking lot for the point, there is trail leading up to a lookout which is on the rim trail. There is another lookout a few steep feet higher up the rim trail. Evening light on the hoodoos was enchanting.

A view from Inspiration Point lower level

Next stop was Sunset Point. It is near to the Sunset campground and Bryce Canyon lodge. Rather than a single lookout point, it is a sami-circular extension with a walking path along the rim. You can connect to Navajo loop, Queen's Garden trail and Peekaboo canyon trail on canyon floor by hiking down which involves switchbacks. We spent remaining evening here walking around rim trail and clicking different hoodoos.
Spot a hiker on rim trail (lower left)
Banded Hoodoos

Hoodoos and shadows at evening
the E.T. hoodoo in view
Switchbacks to Navajo Trail leading through The Wall Street It was closed when we went.
The Sentinel hoodoo

Sunrise Point which was the last stop, closest to our campground were to be visited the next day.

We went back to campsite, cooked and finished dinner. By that time, I started to realize how cold the night was going to be. I was curious to see the night sky over open canyon and see how photographs of hoodoos turn out with starts. So, we went back to Sunset Point. It was hard to believe, the canyon was so dark, no a hint of so many hoodoos. We could not see anything beyond couple of feet from the railing. Sky was clear, moon was hours behind to shine over the canyon. We tried to click long exposure photographs. They were better than our vision but did not turn out as crisps as we wanted. We had to fight with darkness and growing, biting cold (remember elevation is 8000ft), which we could not withstand even with winter jackets, hats and regular gloves.

From Sunset point at Night
We rushed back to our tent, tucked inside our sleeping bags. Who knew my brand new sleeping bag which promised to work comfortably at 15 degree Fahrenheit did not keep me warm at 24 (despite woolen socks, jacket etc.)?!! My husband's sleeping bag was suited for much warmer temperature, however he was not troubled by cold. So, for the next night camping was out of the question. Bryce is at the highest elevation on highway 12 and on the Colorado Plateau for that matter, 'currently'. As we traverse eastward on highway 12 elevation reduces and nights become warmer.

Same travel description in StoryMap

Monday, May 11, 2015

Southern Utah Trip- A Summary

We are back from our 14 day tour of the southern Utah. We saw and explored many new places, features and hikes which we could not include in our previous trip. And still, there are places remain to be visited. I agree, no amount of time is enough to explore it thoroughly and enjoy Colorado plateau's beauty which is so unique, awe-inspiring and heartwarming. It is remote, rugged, arid and labyrinthine. It is so paradoxical! The towering, hard rocks and its softer counterpart- sand which create such hostile environment for creatures to live or even pass-through them, suddenly, at your next turn metamorphose into such a sublime, delicate and touching form, revealing the power of forces of nature not just in gradual weathering and degradation but also in creating, designing artistic masterpieces. I have felt this many times while traversing long, strenuous, hiking trails to see a special hoodoo, an arch, a bridge and the Wave.

Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon Nat. Park, UT

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges Nat. Monument, UT

The Wave, it was the highlight of the trip. Actually, it was the reason this trip was planned at first place. Although, I have....we all have..seen it in photographs and been impressed by it so many times, I did not know where it was located. After strings of internet searches, I found out that the Wave is located in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ and requires permit from the Bureau of Land Management to visit it. I applied for one such lottery based permit for month of May and luckily got one in my first try. It was a golden chance and exciting opportunity which, I have read, many people get after multiple trials. My husband did not believe that it was a big deal, till he saw the wave and heard other visitors mentioning how difficult it is to get the permit.

The Wave, Vermilion Cliffs Nat. Monument, AZ

In our previous trips, whenever our trip included flying in and out of a major airport near our destination rather than driving there from home, we avoided camping. Taking all the camping and sleeping gears, cooking materials and utensils and other essential items for camping were too much to carry as checked luggage on flights. But this time, as we had given 2-3 days to each national park, we decided to do camping and staying near/within the parks. Southern Utah has so many national parks, state parks and Bureau of Land Management campsites (with walk-in availability) as well as private RV/campground parks that we believed we would not have trouble getting a campsite without reservation. So, taking additional baggage turned out to be a favorable plan. There was no much trouble getting a campsite, even in evening and night hours. And once in, we saved time by cooking all possible meals at our site rather than going out to finding a (vegetarian) restaurant, especially in remote areas.

I had done a lot of research to plan this trip- deciding the route, scenic roads to drive, hikes and possible backpacking opportunities. We are happy that we could do most of the things we had in our list. It was very cold, rainy weather that affected first two days of the trip. Additionally, it was my health. Due to a temporary health issue, I was not 100%. Due to nature of the treatment, it was expected that I will be easily fatigued, which i had been already experiencing while packing but however weak I feel, I was not going to cancel the trip. We decided that we will do less hiking, camping and more drive through sightseeing if I am not up to it. So, I was a bit upset and doubtful at my capacity to enjoy the trip in a way we usually do...roughing it out...our way.

Anyway, Bryce Canyon, our first stop, the highest elevation on Colorado plateau, still had below freezing temperatures (24° F/ -4.4° C) at night. So we stayed in a hotel and I rested more for the first two days. Afterwards, I do not know when and how fast I regain full capacity and energy that did all the hiking and camping we planed without any health issues...just like I expected.

Southern Utah's large, arid area beyond managed park facilities and beyond small, desperesed towns  is inaccessible, as there are no paved roads. From Bryce Canyon on the west of the Utah state to Glen Canyon on the east of the state only paved corridors are-
     a. I-70 - faster but way north, skips Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument (GSENM) & Capitol Reef National Park
     b. Highway 12 - a scenic byway with multiple interesting hiking, museums locations, visitor centers and small towns.  It passes through Grand Staircase- Escalate and connects to Capitol Reef. It is the best and only way to see GSENM without a high clearance, 4 Wheel Drive  (4WD) vehicle.
From highway 12- there are unpaved, gravel roads which branch out in north-south general direction. They pass through rugged areas and allow deeper exploration of the wilderness, and access to back-country, long hiking/ canyoneering trails. No doubt, these roads are scenic! Some of these connect to a town, some end at a point abruptly. All these unpaved roads, by the fact that covered by very fine sand which turn to clay when wet, become impassable (for any 4 wheel vehicle) after rain. Even when dry, some roads have so much fine sand on that 4 Wheel Drive, high clearance vehicle is required. For some other unpaved roads with have some gravel base, may be traversed by 2 WD vehicle when dry. Along with weather, getting updated road conditions for these backcountry roads is equally important if you are planning to drive on them. Lo and behold, if it rained and you are stuck, you will be far, far away from any help, possibly food/water and more importantly any phone networks. That is why it is better to have updated information, proper vehicle, additional food/water and someone who is informed of your travel plans.

We rented a Jeep Patriot from Las Vegas airport. We could not get a 4 WD vehicle from any rental company at that airport location. It was surprising! The Jeep was high clearance but 2 Wheel Drive. I was doubtful that we could drive on any such backcountry roads even on a dry day and we would miss most of the GSENM. However, rangers at visitor centers confidently advised us to drive on (even with 2 WD) when the weather was perfect and on other instances strongly urged not to drive if weather was playing up. We trusted and followed their advises. However, I would say, if you can't get a high clearance + 4WD and it is comes to choose between a low clearance + 4WD vs. high clearance + 2WD, it is better to have a vehicle with high clearance. My logic is, when wet, all these roads become impassable for any 4 wheeler anyway. When dry, 4WD is not needed much but high clearance at least will make one comfortable, secure driving over rough, bumpy roads which often pass through washes. We were happy with our rental. We drove on the Hole-in-the-rock road and burr trail road. One we could not go on due to weather was Cottonwood Canyon road, past Kodachrome Basin state park. We changed our route to accommodate it on our return travel but unfortunately, it was rainy again on second time too. One very good thing about travelling to Souther Utah's parks is, that they are situated within average 2 hours distance from each other (through highway 12). So, you can relatively easily change your route to revisit a place if you want.

All in all, our route changed considerably from a simple, straight forward loop to a bit complex back-forth, not-so loopy route.

After reading various geology presentations in visitor centers and attending a couple of ranger talks and video presentations, my brain was overloaded with names of rock formations, layers and which layer is responsible for which rock features in which national park. Although I love geology and I learned a lot through the presentations, I could not grasp the whole picture. So, on return, I searched online for any documentary or teaching video on formation of Colorado Plateau. This one I found most educational- titled Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau with Wayne Ranney from Universality of Utah- Humanities.

I hope to follow-up with detail travelogue!


Federal Lands visited
Bryce Canyon Nat. Park (#2 on map)
Capitol Reef Nat. Park (#6)
Arches Nat. Park (#11, #18)
Canyonlands Nat. Park (#10 Island in the sky district, #17 Needles district)
Zion Nat. Park (#23)
          Glen Canyon Nat. Recreation Area (#22)

          Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (#14)
          Antelope Canyon (#22)
Vermilion Cliff Nat. Monument (#20, #21)
Grand Staircase Escalante Nat. Monument (#8)
Natural Bridges Nat. Monument (#15)
State Park visited
Kodachrome Basin State Park (#3)
Goblin Valley State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park (#11)
Anasazi State Historic Site (#4)
Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument (#16)

Scenic Byway Traveled
Highway 12
Hole-in-the-Rock Road (#8 Escalante- starting point, #7 Hole-in-rock)
Burr Trail connecting Notom-Bullfrog Road (#4- road starting point, #9 road entering Capitol Reef)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Trip to Southern Utah's National Lands

We are planning to visit some national parks, monuments and untamed wilderness of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona this summer. I have never seen such awe-inspiring, other-worldly and at the same time formidable place. Those stratified red rocks, smoothed out tepee formations, emerging hoodoos, narrowing canyons, water carved rock bridges, occasional waterfalls, a patch of greenery within towering stand-stones are some things we do not get to see often. I believe, there is no place like Colorado plateau, such expanse with myriad of rock formations with geological, paleological and historical (native American) importance, anywhere in the world.

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Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon Nat Park, UT
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The Teepees, Petrified Forest Nat. Park, AZ

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Finns, Arches Nat. Park, UT
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Painted Desert, Petrified Forest Nat. Park, AZ

Colorado plateau expands over four US states- Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. It probably encompasses the highest concentration of national parks and other protected lands. See the list below.

We visited a few national parks in this area way back (2011)....when we were just learning the nuts and bolts of exploring the national parks. At that time we were so naive that we gave a day to explore some of these parks...looking back  we have come a long way. This time we plan to give more time to better explore each park..hopefully...even though we know seeing all is an illusive dream.

From east cost, we are flying-in and out of Las Vegas airport. So, our travel will be on a circular route. In 13 days, my "over ambitious" plan include exploring around 3 national parks, and around 3 or so national monuments and a couple of small state parks. Here is our tentative road route.

South Utah | My new trip on!

Hope to keep updating this with our upcoming adventures and experience!

View of Colorado river from Desert View, Grand Canyon Nat. Park, AZ


National parks and monument of Colorado Plateau:

  • National parks (from south to north to south clockwise):
Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Zion National Park, UT
BryceCanyon National Park, UT
Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Canyonlands National Park, UT
Arches National Park, UT
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO
Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, NM

  • National Monuments (alphabetical):
Aztec Ruins National Monument, NM
Canyon De Chelly National Monument, AZ
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, CO
Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT
Colorado National Monument, CO
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, NV
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT
El Malpais National Monument, NM
El Morro National Monument, NM
Hovenweep National Monument, UT
Navajo National Monument, AZ
Natural Bridges National Monument, UT
Rainbow Bridge National Monument, UT
Sunset Crater National Monument, AZ
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ
Walnut Canyon National Monument, AZ
Wupatki National Monument, AZ

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Our campsite at Colter Bay Campground, Grand Teton Nat Park
A typical, maintained campsite usually has 1. a fire pit, 2. picnic bench, 3. a cleared, flat area/sort of raised platform to setup your tent, and 4. space to park your vehicle. Bear proof storage and trash disposal units are offered in "bear county" (where black, grizzly or Kodiak bears are common). Some campgrounds have well demarcated individual campsite and at some places there are not distinguishable site boundaries.

Multiple campsites share restrooms + drinking water located centrally. Depending on the size of the campground and orientation of campgrounds, there may be multiple restrooms.

There might be an individual tap and or electric outlet for each campsite, which, however, are not found in most national parks. Campgrounds in state parks and in private RV parks usually provide those individual connections.

Camping requires completely different trip preparation. You have to think about many factors which usually do not come into play while staying within well developed, well connected areas i.e. securing meals, adapting to sudden weather changes, unpredictable phone/internet connectivity, shower availability etc.
a. Camping gear and paraphernalia: e.g. tent, tent footprint, canopy/shelter, headlamp, torch
b. Sleeping equipments: e.g. sleeping bag and/ pad/ bivy, pillow
c. Cooking tools e.g. portable stove, propane tank, utensils, cleaning material, cutlery
          d. Food items: ready to eat or raw items which you can cook in minutes, condiments, oil
                                  Energy bars, trail mix etc for when on hiking
e.Weather wise: clothes suitable to possible temperatures and sudden and extreme weather changes- winter/waterproof jackets, hats, gloves, sweaters, layers, lip balms, moisturizer for cold nights; poncho, umbrella for rain; breathable cloths, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen for high heat. 
f. Cleaning supplies: for you- toothpaste, body wash, shampoo etc, for utensils and for clothes in case needed. Not all the parks have laundry facility in or even near the park so you have to take enough clothes or plan to wash some yourself if needed. There are multipurpose, biodegradable liquid soaps available for all kinds of cleaning.
Importantly, not all parks have shower facilities at/near their campsites, so one have to manage accordingly- wash cloth, baby-wipes, sponging, or skip a bath. I found a nice video on How to Bathe while Camping from Howcast and a very helpful article on backcountry hygiene on LoweGear website (designated camp sites in parks have flushed toilets most of the times but in remote areas there might be pit toilets. Most of the remote parks will not have hot water. Parks with shower facilities do offer hot showers, for which you might have to pay and go to the shower facility which might be only one in the whole park, away from your camping area.
All visitor centers and campgrounds will have drinking water doubt. And, if not they will give ample warnings at visitor center or last location beyond which you will not get drinking water.
g. Camp fire items: log (always use log sold locally), fire starter, kindle, matchbox
h. Additional items we carry to enjoy the stay- DSLR Camera, hammock, folding chairs, cooler, games, mosquito repellent, additional pair of shoes.

Types of Camping
1. Front-country camping- which involves camping at developed and maintained campground facilities, which is described above. As suggested by its name, typically these campgrounds are situated around main features and facilities of the park, and connected with paved roads where vehicles can reach. So, it is very convenient in way that you can carry everything in you car to the site, unload and assemble. This will allow you to go in and out of the site with/without car for exploring the park or for any other task.
This is the type of camping we have been doing so far. 
2. Back-country camping- any wilderness area of the parks beyond paved roads and developed hiking trails is back-country. As it is away from paved road, you have to carry everything that you might need on your travel to back-country- tent, food, water, clothes, cleaning supplies etc. This is the fundamental difference between front and back-country camping and has huge practical implications i.e. type of backpack to use, amount and type of food, refilling water, number of clothes to carry, maintaining hygiene and overall amount of weight you can carry with you.
A park may have some demarcated camping locations or it might not, in which case, you can set up your tent anyplace- safe and, 200ft away from water source. There might be shelters to designate. There may be a fire-pit.There are no restrooms. Obviously there may not be a man-made water source, in which case you need to rely on natural water source. Due to this dependency, you need know your route and to have a plan to purify (by boiling/filtering/chemically) the water for long hikes. 
Pack-in, pack-out is the standard policy in backcountry. It is almost like living in a jungle, away from civilization except you have to carry your trash with you and depending on park's regulations it may include human waste and used toiletries.
I have only known Grand Canyon Nat. Park to have a developed campground in "back-country" i.e. below the rim level.  
People who set out to hike long trails like Appalachian, Pacific Crest spend many days- months in wilderness and do this sort of camping. 
3. Primitive camping- this type falls in between front and back-country camping. The campsites may be just a cleared area without individual water and electric, and without flushed toilets. Pit-toilets are usually available.

Reserving a campsite in National Parks and National Forests

Campgrounds in National Parks are managed by National Park Service. Most front-country campsites can be reserved through website. Most of the campsites are open year around (limited facility in winter). However, in summer, reservations are allowed and limited number of sites will be spared for walk-ins on first come, first serve basis.

I found a very good, informative website on National Forest Campgrounds. I have not visited this site before, but I am happy I found it. It will be very helpful in planning my next trip.

Most parks require back-country hiking and staying permits, for which the procedure should be followed as mentioned on a park's website on For well-known parks and trails, it is hard to get even these permits at last minute. So, researching your destination well is necessary.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Planning a Trip II

~Deciding destination~

Based on your goal for the trip, now you can think about your travel destination. Now on, your decision on destination, travel and stay will be like an algorithm, influenced by multiple factors- big and small- and will require thinking back and forth multiple times, especially if you are planning to explore a national park.

With limited amount of vacation and budget, for us, reaching a final, well informed and optimal itinerary is time demanding process. For two to four weeks of long/road trips, I usually start to think about a possible itinerary two- three months in advance.

Important information to have on hand is

a. Duration
  •   how many days you have or can allot
b. Destination
  •  do you have a bucket list/priority list of places to visit?
  •  which places you can visit in available days for decided purpose?
  •  if you do not have such list, you can explore National Park Service website: to search parks around you or in a particular state or on you route. The site is great to get park specific information, especially park maps and hiking trail list/map which are not available in such detail on any other site. It is even hard to find printed version of these particular maps outside of park. Most of the time paved, drive-able roads situated inside the parks and all the park entrences are not shown in Google maps. So you would not know existence of a road passing through, connecting major roads outside the park till you study the park map given on the website. Park maps are absolutely essential in planning if you going to explore. You will definitely get a park map (printed version in a brochure form) when you visit the park- either at the entrance or at the visitor centers. These maps are usually free and, in my opinion, the best souvenirs.
I encounter this one issue often.For me, it is hard to corroborate and judge location and directions of places and roads given in the park map with the generic online road maps. My mind gets sluggish when it comes to assessing and matching scales of online park and road maps unless I print them and then compare.
c. Mode of travel
  • what is time and cost effective- driving or flying?
  • based on the number and location of destinations, you can map out if you will need multi-city   flight tickets and car rental according to that.
At this point you should have a tentative route of your travel ready. Once the lodging is decided you should have detail idea about how much time you have to explore the park.

d. Type of stay

      1. Within the parks
National parks, created to preserve and care for America's wilderness and environment, are not bound to provide any lodging, that way limiting human impact. However, many parks offer variable range of lodging options starting from back-country camping, primitive camping, RV-camping, cabins, inns and lodges. Most famous and large parks offer all these options but availability are limited especially in summer season. Most of these inns and lodges are historic and carry old country charm. They offer closest accommodation (i.e. within the park itself) and a unique perspective to the place. They are not designed for luxury but staying within the park is an enhanced experience. It saves time of commuting in and out and allows easy planning for hike/rest and activities like sunrise/sunset watching, and ranger programs. For these reasons, reservation at last sometimes even within 3-4 months before starting extremely hard to find. Limited walk-in campsites sites are often kept aside for RV-campers and occasionally available for inns and lodges. We have not tried back-country camping, it is a bit beyond my comfort zone, but I know that for some parks you also need to have a back-country permit in advance which may also go as fast as lodge rooms.
Old Faithful geyser and Inn, Yellowstone Nat Park, WY
Majority of parks situated in northern USA, although stay open throughout, close down their lodging/camping and some other visitor facilities in winter. You must check for closing/opening dates, weather trends, road closures, park maps, hiking trails, ranger-led activities and other important updates, instructions and suggestions before finalizing your plans and reservation  methods. Although we know that America is so vast and different areas of the country experience such a wide range of weather simultaneously, it comes as an epiphany that when most parks (e.g Yellowstone, Yosemite Nat Parks etc) start experiencing peak visitor rush, some other (e.g Death Valley Nat Park) are preparing to close for the season.
  •  Hotel/ Lodge/ Inn
Considering a small window of opportunity to stay inside a park and summer rush, it is advisable to reserve the accommodation well in advance (5 months or more) for next summer season or to be extremely lucky. We were lucky enough to get a reservation, although just for one night, in Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone Nat Park a month or two before our trip, for rest of the stay we camped. However, we might have got a better room and longer stay at the inn if we had tried to reserve 6-7 months earlier. Reservation becomes available almost year in advance for most of these lodges. Majorities of these lodges/inns are managed by a concession company Xanterra which handles reservations also.
I would recommend watching 'Great Lodges of the National Parks' to get more information on history and architecture. After watching it, it will be hard to avoid lure of these lodges. Individual park webpage on will give more information on availability of lodge/inn and reservation procedure.
If staying at these historic hotels is on your (uncompromisable) wishlist, I would advise you to reserve even if you do not have any concrete itinerary planned. Once you get a desired reservation you can plan your itinerary around it. Usually, I first design an itinerary and then reserve accommodations accordingly. But, I so want to stay at Crater Lake lodge- in a room overlooking blue waters of the deepest lake of US that this year I have reserved a room even without any schedule or itinerary. Even then, I found almost all of the dates in summer for lake-view rooms were gone in early February itself.
Many Glacier Hotel, on the bank of Swiftcurrent lake, Glacier Nat Park, MT

Furnace Creek Inn, Death Valley Nat Park, CA
  • Cabins/ Chalets
Many large national parks also have smaller, specialized accommodations like cabins and chalets. Just like lodges they are offered directly or through a concessionaire or occasionally through private companies. Some of these require hiking for quite a distance to reach there. Glacier national park has a couple of such, well-known chalets- Sperry, and Granite park which provide unparalleled vista at the heart of the park. They open only in summer seasons and by the fact that they are remote, groceries, fuel and other items to run the facilities are supplied on horses. 
Granite Park Chalet, Glacier Nat. Park, MT
  • Camping
Camping is an adventure, well not as intense as kayaking through Colorado or rock-climbing the El Capitan or summeting Mt. Rainier or hiking Pacific Crest/Apalachian trail, but it is, for people who are new to the idea of unaided stay and self planned exploration. For me it is an adventure.  
Our tent at Colter Bay Campground, Grand Teton Nat Park, WY
Camping is like initial stages of love- starts with a bit of hesitation, fear of heartbreak, anticipation of sweet moments but once you enter into it fully, euphoria takes over. Thought of sleeping just surrounded by a thin layer of polyester material in wilderness, in dark, is crazy...crazy adventurous?!! Coming from India, I had no idea parks here facilitate camping and I can manage it by purchasing tools (oh...and from so many options for individual need) myself. I am amazed at technology, product designing and huge market specifically for each sports, recreational activities.
Most camping reservations withing the parks are available through This site also provides reservation platform for picnic shelters, permits and tours.
 More on camping is posted here.
  •  Recreational Vehicle- RV campintg
RV is a motor vehicle or trailer which contains essential facilities and living area like a home. In India, we call it Caravan. When I saw American RVs initially, I was amazed at how well they were designed to accommodate so many facilities in a small area. Wherever we are on the road, we wish, we had an RV. With it you are completely free from worries to find accommodation ever again. You can also manage cooking/ preparing your food. However, some drawbacks, we think, are fuel efficiency and accessibility to remote/high altitude areas which often prohibit a large vehicle like an RV to drive up on narrow, windy roads. I feel, RV is for the time when you want to stay and relax at one place for longer time. A person like me, who creates a long list of places to see and activities to do would like swiftness of a car.

      2. Outside the parks
In a peak season, it is equally hard to find lodging in hotels/inns within nearest areas outside of a national park entrances.
Besides these commercial hotels, motels etc which one can reserve through common travel websites, one can also camp in privately owned RV-campsites. Among a couple of such nationwide RV-campsite providers, we have stayed at KOA's sites during our road-trip. Their network is convenient enough while you are travelling on highways and need a campsite for a night or two. We have found that, they are often not situated very near to the national parks and require as much or more commuting to and from the park as an nearby outside hotel accommodation. In these instances, staying at KOA may not be an time effective option. Additionally, their locations on highways are most frequently near railway tracks and sometimes crowded and noisy. Unlike, those within the most national parks, these campgrounds provide shower and coin operated laundry facilities.

It is advisable to keep looking for flight and lodging options simultaneously to avoid trip scheduling issues.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Planning a Trip I

Being nature lovers, we mainly visit state and national parks. Camping and hiking provide us relaxation and solitude we yearn after long stretch of work weeks and gloomy, cold wintry days. Now after so many days of living in routine- a sort of hibernation forced upon by short days and cold nights, we are looking forward to sunny days and some trips. We are planning to visit Arizona, Utah again, checking more national parks off our bucket lists and probably exploring more ones we visited before.

We have been often asked how we plan our camping, hiking long trips. I would say, if you are enthusiastic about planning and designing your itinerary, it requires quite a bit of research and planning in advance. It is not that information is not available, it is, but it takes time to piece them all together and then for us to understand and apply it to make an optimal, cost and time effective, and obviously, an enjoyable plan. By far, our itineraries have been quite intense. We see more than one national park in a trip- not that we just stop by at a designated lookout points but we also try to do 1 or 2 days of hiking and participating in interesting ranger-led programs.

Here I am sharing lessons I learned and experiences I had planning and then following those plans visiting various parks.

In planning, the first thing is to figure out what is the purpose of this trip.


a. Relaxation - you will just enjoy the vista from comfort of your hotel/car and physical activities will be minimal.

b. Checking out - you want to visit the place because it is famous. You would like to see the most famous features only, take selfies (to impress your facebook buddies :) ) and you are not interested in exploring the area further. You can achieve this by driving to the place or taking tours. This is also not physically challenging if you plan to stay in hotels/motels/lodge.

Viewing deck @ Old Faithful, Yellowstone Nat. Park, WY

c. Exploring - you would like to explore deeper areas of the park beyond well defined, iconic and so, obviously crowded look-out points or board walks. It is about getting the essence of the park and intimately experiencing nature. It is about walking into vastness and realizing our minuteness, passing through canyons and realizing our puniness, standing in front of turbulent waters and realizing our frailty.

(It is in these humbling moments, I feel bowing down to nature's grandeur in reverence. Simultaneously, in flow of the sad, worthless feeling arising from decrescendo of my existence, I experience smallest of smallness and shortest of fleetingness. I feel my physical existence melting in the nature, merging into surrounding elements. Next comes the feeling of joy and exhilaration...with a feeling that every molecule of me is in nature and every molecule of nature is in me...realization of oneness (Aham Brahmasmi!?). Then the understanding that as a part of the universe, molecules that made "me" are imparted boundless, timeless existence through eternal cycle. And so, they will be destroyed but then remade and recycled brings my worldly mind to peace.)

“I... a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe.”  - Richard P. Feynman

Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton Nat. Park, WY

Anyway, it is needless to say now that we like exploring and spending as much time as we can in these parks if time and cost permit which does not occur often. So every now and then, around 4-5 months past our earlier trip, I start to crave another national park trip.

Although your schedule, availability of lodging, season and local weather play varying degree of roles in influencing your trip later, it is important to be clear in your mind about purpose of your trip. That will help you focus, prepare and pack accordingly and keep your travelling partners and loved ones informed.