Friday, March 16, 2018

Road trip in the American West

In February, we went on a road trip from San Antonio to Las Vegas and back, stopping at several national, state and tribal parks on the way. It took 13 days (12 nights) start to finish. The timing worked out perfectly for us because the Engineer is on sabbatical this semester and the Little Prince hasn’t started school yet, so we were able to just up and go once we had confirmation that the government wouldn’t shut down (and, therefore, that national parks would be accessible). And it was such a wonderful trip! I’ll give you highlights in case you ever want to travel in that area with small children. Here’s the itinerary, so you can scroll down to a specific site of interest (which are in bold in this post): El Paso, TX; White Sands National Monument, NM; Saguaro National Park, AZ; Sedona, AZ; Grand Canyon, AZ; Bearizona, AZ; Hoover Dam and the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge; Las Vegas, NV; Red Rock Canyon Natural Conservation Area, NV; Valley of Fire, NV; Bryce Canyon National Park, UT; Horseshoe Bend, AZ; Monument Valley, UT; Four Corners Monument; Albuquerque, NM; and Roswell, NM.

If you ever want to make a similar trip but want to fly in and rent a car locally, and/or if you have less time, I’d suggest flying in to Phoenix or Las Vegas and making the loop in about a week, omitting Texas as well as Albuquerque and Roswell, and perhaps not visiting Las Vegas if you’ve already seen it.

First, a few tips and recommendations. We did have some restrictions: we were travelling with small children (4.5 years and 11 months, respectively), and we did not want to bother trying (and probably failing) to get passes awarded through lottery for certain parks. So we knew we wouldn’t be visiting places like the Wave in Coyote Buttes, Utah or Havasupai Falls in Arizona, nor did we think that seeing Antelope Canyon was feasible (one can only get there with private tours, but they don’t provide car seats, and of course the canyon isn’t stroller-friendly!). I’d love to go back someday to see Antelope Canyon, but for now it wasn’t meant to be.

We were also not interested in anything beyond short easy hikes – I mean, if you are used to hiking and your kids are used to walking with you and you have the proper equipment (like a hiking backpack-baby carrier combo), basically if you know what you’re doing, then yes, you can hike with your kids, but that was not our case. I had an umbrella stroller, a baby carrier, and all the diaper bag stuff was in a backpack. As for water, since we weren’t doing much hiking and since it was winter, we opted to bring reusable water bottles that we refilled at our hotel each night, plus a gallon jug of water that we kept in the car and that we used as needed to refill during the day. Also, shelf-stable salty snacks (hummus, crackers, jerky sausages; plus baby food) to eat if we got too hungry at a park before we could make it to a restaurant.

Note that because of how many parks we wanted to visit, it was more economical for us to purchase an annual pass (called the America the Beautiful pass), so you should definitely look into that when planning your vacation. It’s often worth it for families (two adults and their children), and two seniors can get a lifetime pass for the same price! The pass doesn’t cover state parks or private attractions, obviously, but it was worth it for us.

I’ve put a few restaurants and a hotel in the post below, but let me tell you about two chains we frequented for the first time and gladly recommend. First, Which Wich Superior Sandwiches, which had some really great options, delicious sandwiches, and a nice bright dining room. The sandwiches, wraps, and gyros are highly customizable, too, with vegan and gluten-free options, and you can even have them made into a salad instead. It’s definitely the kind of place where we like to have lunch when we’re on the road! We also discovered Village Inn, a very family-friendly place with good food and good value. Plus, you get free pie on Wednesday! But it’s worth paying for on other weekdays, too.

Our first sightseeing stop was El Paso, where we spent a few hours on our way north to New Mexico. We went to the UTEP campus and visited the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens (free admission; parking is also free, though you have to get a permit inside), which have a lot of information about local culture and history as well as local flora and fauna. Plus, the campus has gorgeous views across the Rio Grande to Mexico! We then had lunch at nearby Crave Kitchen & Bar, which has great healthy options as well as comfort food.

Our next stop was White Sands National Monument, which is essentially 275 square miles of white gypsum dunes. Gypsum retains water better than sand (supporting more flora and fauna) and is also cooler to the touch. The scenery is breathtaking just to get there, but once in the dunes, we were in awe! It was also eerily quiet, even with other people around. You can drive through the park on a road (paved at first, then it’s tightly packed gypsum); there’s also a boardwalk that is stroller-friendly, but you should definitely walk up a dune barefoot. We really enjoyed walking there, and the Little Prince had a blast repeatedly climbing up a dune and tumbling back down (we didn’t have a sled, but he didn’t know what he was missing). We brushed off his clothes as best we could, but like Pig-Pen, he left a trail of sand behind him until we got him into the bath that night. We loved that park! There were also several animal tracks visible, including those of kit foxes and horned larks, and I learned about using soaptree yucca for cooking and personal hygiene purposes. I should mention that White Sands Missile Range surrounds the monument and the area is sometimes closed for missile testing (!); according to the pamphlet, this happens on average twice a week, for 1-2 hours at a time. Dust storms are also possible, but we never saw one. For what it’s worth, we spent the night in Las Cruces and had a delicious, healthy, inexpensive dinner at Santorini (hummus plus fattoush salad for me), and dessert at Let Them Eat Cake a few doors down, where they had three kinds of vegan cupcakes! I tasted (and loved) both the raspberry and pink lemonade.

The next day, which happened to be Valentine’s Day, we went to the eastern part of Saguaro National Park (technically Saguaro East Rincon Mountain District; map here). It was cloudy with a light drizzle, but visibility was good and it was still pleasant enough to walk. (I actually much preferred that to the sun beating down on us!) We drove along Cactus Forest Loop Drive, stopping periodically to take pictures, and parked at Mica View. From there, we walked the trail until Broadway Boulevard and back, a total of roughly 1.5 miles. The trail is paved, but because of the weather, I wore the Fox in a carrier under my M Shell, while the Little Prince rode on the Engineer’s shoulders for about a third of the way. It was our first time seeing saguaros (or any cacti of that size and shape, really), and the scenery is breathtaking. I strongly recommend visiting! We left there with some prickly pear candy and prickly pear jelly, as well as a pair of binoculars for the Little Prince (and a pressed penny that he absolutely needed in order to continue living and in which he immediately lost interest once he held it).

After a decent night’s sleep, we made our way north towards Flagstaff, stopping to see Sedona on the way. When we first started seeing the beautiful red sandstone formations in the area, we decided to make a pit stop to enjoy the view at the Collective Sedona (and enjoy a prickly pear and lime sorbet at Rocky Rd Ice Cream Co.). We got back on Red Rock Scenic Byway, which is Highway 179, and the view just got better. I admit I wasn’t sure exactly which rock formations were which (even though I knew the names of the major ones, like Cathedral Rock), but here’s a handy map that would have been helpful. As it was, we were content to take in the stunning views without knowing their names. There are places to park along the highway and look at the scenery, and you could hike if you wanted to (but it looked more challenging than what we were prepared for given our circumstances). We then drove into Sedona proper, which is known for relaxation and spirituality. There are lots of spas, sure, but the Yavapai Natives believe the area is sacred, so there’s also a lot of “New Age” stuff if that’s what you’re into (energy vortexes, crystals, salt rooms, sage-burning, chanting, etc.). The touristy part of Sedona also had a lot of shops, restaurants, art galleries, etc., and it would have been nice to have an afternoon to spend walking around. Heck, maybe someday when the kids are older I’ll plan a solo getaway at a resort spa here.

We kept going north on Highway 89 towards Flagstaff, driving along a creek much of the way in what felt like the third climate since we had entered Arizona. We had started with a desert climate, you know, the typical sand and cacti and occasional agaves and yuccas. Then there were the red sandstone formations near Sedona, standing out against shrubs and short trees, and it felt like a different planet. And then that evening, in a much higher elevation, we ended up in mixed coniferous forests with snow on the ground and in the mountains ahead, all in all not very different from what I had seen in Canada. For what it’s worth, we stayed at the DoubleTree in Flagstaff and liked it very much (bonus: there’s a restaurant right in the hotel, so you don’t need to drive out again for dinner.)

We got up before dawn the next morning to arrive at the Grand Canyon (South Rim) early. It is recommended to get there by 9 am to get a parking spot, otherwise you have to park much further and use their (free) shuttles to get to the Canyon. In our case, there were still spots after 9 am that morning because it was winter, but I have to admit that since we dislike crowds, we would have found this visit unpleasant in the summer. Even though temperatures hovered in the 20s all morning, I’m glad we went in winter! We followed the recommendations of the guide at the visitor center to get the most out of our few hours there: a hike from Mather Point (just behind the visitor center), west along the Rim Trail, and up to Yavapai Point and the geology museum. (Did you know that the Grand Canyon started forming 5 or 6 million years ago and that the exposed rocks at the bottom are over 1,800 million years old? Also, the Colorado River probably always had the same width, but erosion has widened the canyon at the top.) We then took the orange shuttle to get back to the parking lot.

After this, we drove west to Hermits Rest and saw some elk along the way. It was surprising how large they were and also, given their size, how well they blended into the background (on our way back along the road, all the people who had crowded around them upon their arrival had dispersed, but the elk were still there and hikers across the street were completely oblivious.)

We walked around a bit at Pima Point, from which there is a beautiful view of the canyon and the Colorado River down below. There are also paved trails in the area that are stroller-friendly. (That being said, the road is open to private vehicles only in the winter, so 9 months of the year it’s accessible strictly via the red shuttle from the Village, which itself would be accessible via the blue shuttle from the visitor center, assuming parking lots are full in the Village. You could also rent bikes near the visitor center, and I believe they had some bike trailers for small children. Hermits Rest is about 9 miles from the visitor center. There’s a map here.) There are of course sites beyond the South Rim where one can see the Canyon, but this one is the most visited. The famed Grand Canyon Skywalk is actually some 250 miles west, much closer to Las Vegas, in the Hualapai Indian Reservation.

Since we were in the general area, we decided to trust the recommendations of a friend of the Engineer’s cousin and go to Bearizona, which is a drive-through wildlife exhibit with only local animals (so, no lions or tigers, but lots of bears and deer, some wolves and bison, etc.). There are also a walk-through exhibit where we can see foxes, badgers, otters, peacocks, farm animals and the like (and there’s a black jaguar in an enclosure behind the gift shop). There are also birds of prey in the warmer months. I was surprised that there were no gates between the drive-through exhibits, so I was wondering why the wolves weren’t going for the deer in the adjacent pen, but it turns out that there are cattle guards between the exhibits, and some of those are electrified, and that’s enough to keep all animals in their place during the day (there are gates to close at night for added safety). We enjoyed the area, but I liked walking around with the kids more than driving next to bears, even though I was expecting the opposite.

The following day, we drove to the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge and Hoover Dam. If, like us, what you really want to do is see the dam (without actually going into it), the best thing to do is to park on the Nevada side of the Memorial Bridge (parking is free) and, from there, go up the walkway and onto the bridge’s pedestrian access. You’ll have the best view of Hoover Dam, as the two are only 1,500 feet apart! Afterwards, you can drive on the dam and park at one of the scenic points on the Arizona side, from which you’ll see the back of the dam as well as the bridge. You can also visit the dam itself and tour the power plant if you wish, but I think our kids were a bit young to enjoy it, so we moved on after that to Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas, we splurged on a suite at the Staybridge Suites for two nights, and we *loved* the hotel. It felt luxurious compared to where we usually stay, and it definitely helped us recuperate from being on the road! We were able to do laundry and eat healthy food in our own kitchen (Whole Foods is about 8 minutes away). The fact that it was off the strip and casino-free was a good thing for us, but obviously we had our own transportation. If you are looking for other family-friendly hotels, Expedia (among others) has recommendations.

To see the Strip, we parked at the Venetian, which has free public self-parking. From there, we walked south all the way to the Bellagio to see the fountains – we walked through the casino to get there, so I played $1 in a slot machine just that once. The digital machines are hella confusing, but I won $0.10 (or, as the Engineer says, I lost $0.90). The fountain display is certainly worth it, though! Shows were every 30 minutes on Saturday afternoon, but are less frequent on other days. Then we made our way back on the Strip, passing landmarks such as the Mirage and Caesar’s Palace. The Strip really is crazy busy, as are the hotels themselves – they are almost self-sustained mini-cities packed full of luxury stores and restaurants. It was all a bit overwhelming, and we had the constant feeling that the city had a hand in our pocket. But I can tell you, the kids fell right asleep that night after all the excitement!

On our second day in Vegas, we started by seeing the famous ”Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. Then we parked at the Mandalay Bay Hotel to visit Shark Reef Aquarium. It was a bit small, in my opinion, but still fun to visit. My favorite part, predictably, was the clear tunnel under the water from which one can observe sharks, schools of fish and a few sea turtles. I recommend getting there as it opens, because a line quickly forms outside. We followed that up with a visit of Polar Journey, a temporary exhibit for the year that was included in the ticket price – I was a bit underwhelmed, and I admit I’m not sure how much any of us learned about polar animals or climate.

We then made our way north using first the free tram between the Mandalay Bay and the Excalibur, then by foot on the Strip. From there, we hit a bit of a rough spot as the Little Prince, who had been fit as a fiddle at breakfast, began crying and complaining of an earache. So for the record, there is a very conveniently located CVS at 3758 South Las Vegas Boulevard, in which there is a walk-in clinic that accepts most insurance companies – what a lifesaver! Once we had a diagnosis (double ear infection) and medication for him, we made our way back south and stopped for lunch at the Hard Rock Café. Pro tip: the ambient noise covered up the last of the Little Prince’s moaning, he was able to lie down on the padded bench in a booth to rest, and once he perked up, he had a kids’ activity book to complete and easy access to apple juice and chicken tenders. We then walked a block to visit M&M’s World (more info here; if Hershey’s is more your speed, there’s one of those a few blocks south, too). At this point, we were all tired and made our way back to the car (parking cost us $12 for a half-day, which is actually pretty reasonable). Had we had more time, I would have considered Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat or Discovery Children’s Museum, but as it was, we were content to just chill in our hotel room from mid-afternoon on.

We left Vegas early the next morning and drove to nearby Red Rock Canyon Natural Conservation Area (more info here). There is a 13-mile scenic loop on a paved road, plus several trailheads, one of which is a 1-mile loop on flat terrain (though not stroller-friendly, as it is a gravel path). It was a bit windy, but with our hats and gloves (and the Fox safely nestled under my M-Shell), we were fine. The rock formations were absolutely gorgeous, and it is well worth the stop if you are near Las Vegas!

From there, we went to the Valley of Fire State Park, the oldest state park in Nevada, which gets its name from the color of the rocks during sunset. We came in through the west entrance, on Valley of Fire Road. [I’m going to give people a fair warning here: the bathrooms at that fee station were fine, though lacking soap – it wasn’t the end of the world, I had hand sanitizer with me. However, the bathrooms at the visitor center were horrid, some of the worst I have seen on the continental U.S. – I couldn’t even use them, that’s how bad it was – and judging by the smell, the ones near Elephant Rock were the same. Plan accordingly.] We made sure to see Arch Rock and Atlatl Rock, which has petroglyphs you shouldn’t miss (we had a snack at the picnic area there, and before you ask, an “atlatl” is a notched stick used to throw primitive spears); then we drove north to the stunning Rainbow Vista with its multicolored sandstone and White Domes; on the way back, we stopped at the visitor center. Balanced Rock is on the left of it, but you’ll get the best view from the southbound road before reaching it. There are also rock formations full of holes where kids (of all ages) can play, and the Little Prince spent a good 15 minutes climbing the into the holes and back out again; he would happily have continued, had we not been pressed for time. We headed east to see the Seven Sisters and Elephant Rock (at the end of a trail on uneven terrain) before driving out of the park at the east gate.

We then headed north to Bryce, Utah. Admittedly, this was a very long day, complicated by the fact that there was a snowstorm and we were driving after dark for part of it. We made it to our destination (Best Western Ruby’s Inn, not to be confused with the Best Western Plus directly across the street) around 8 pm – luckily, there is a restaurant right on the premises, so we didn’t have far to go for dinner. That said, if we had to do it over again, we probably would have picked something closer. We didn’t have snow tires (coming from South Texas, this isn’t something we could come by easily), but pro tip: do make sure you fill your windshield washer fluid tank with an antifreeze formula, and definitely bring an ice scraper.

When the sun rose in Bryce, it was 6 °F, which was significantly colder than we had expected. This meant that we opted not to go on any trails at Bryce Canyon National Park. (The fact that most trails were ice patches and snow on gravel and that we didn’t have appropriate footwear was enough of a deterrent, but throw in the cold? We kept the kids in the car. That being said, there is a 1-mile paved trail between Sunset Point and Sunrise Point, so that might be worth it if the weather is nice, though obviously you’d have to make your way back to your car so really it’s 2 miles.) For what it’s worth, the park flyer gives a top 10 list of most common reasons for injuries in the park and they are (in decreasing order): improper footwear, over-exertion, leaving the trail, dehydration, ignoring the weather, lightning, feeding animals, climbing or descending cliffs, unsafe driving, and firearms (even though those are prohibited in the park in the first place). And we saw an ambulance rush in as we left, so maybe someone took one risk too many… We’re glad we didn’t. What we did was drive around the park to take in the scenic views, and the Engineer and I took turns walking to the lookout points from the parking lots; the Little Prince tagged along at Sunset Point to see Thor’s Hammer with each of us, but that was it for him. We were awed by the hoodoos, which are rock pillars left standing by erosion – Bryce Canyon has the largest collection in the world. Unfortunately, because of the snow, the roads leading to Fairyland Point and Rainbow Point were closed, but Bryce Point, Inspiration Point and Sunset Point were well worth the trip.

We were in Kanab, UT, for lunch, and the reason I bother mentioning it is that we stopped at Big Al’s Burgers, and they were unexpectedly good! Service was very friendly (I believe the waitress’s name was Jean), we had a really good lunch, and… they served fried Twinkies. So I had my very first fried Twinkie ever. And it’s scary how awesome those things are and I love them and I’d better not have them again or I’ll get back to my pregnancy weight. End of side note.

From there, we went to Horseshoe Bend Observation Area, between mile markers 544 and 545 on Highway 89. It doesn’t sound very promising said like that, but there are signs on the highway and they were building visitor facilities, so I doubt you’ll miss it. There’s a ½-mile hike from the parking lot to get there; it is not a difficult hike, but it is uphill and then downhill each way, on sandy terrain, so a baby carrier is a must. Also, be warned that there are no guardrails once at the viewpoint, so watch your kids closely! The place was relatively busy, though everyone took turns being front and center to see the river down below; I can imagine this gets very crowded, and therefore perhaps more perilous, in the warmer months. (We spent the night in nearby Page, where many businesses were closed until March, but Strombolli’s Pizza is a good dinner option year-round.)

We headed out early the next morning to go to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. From northbound Highway 163, the entrance is just after the Utah border, on the right hand side of the road, which is paved all the way to the visitor center. (I specify this because for some reason, the Engineer had originally entered rough coordinates in the GPS instead of the actual address, and we first ended up near Oljato on a sandy road on private property where we almost got stuck.) Even though the address of the visitor center is in Utah, the park itself straddles the Arizona/Utah border and the trails are in Arizona. (And for what it’s worth, this center had very clean bathrooms, as well as a nice gift shop with Navajo art, pottery, blankets, and jewelry.) The park is a 17-mile dirt road on sometimes rough terrain, mainly the steep hill from the visitor center. If you don’t think your car can handle it, book a private tour from the visitor center. Calculate about 2 hours to see the whole thing, more if you stop along the way to buy souvenirs at one of the stands, take a horse ride, hike, etc. We were once again absolutely awed by the rock formations, even though we’d been seeing similar stuff for over a week by then. It’s just like in the movies! (Here’s an interesting tidbit: even though Monument Valley is the stereotype we associate with the entire Far West, it’s actually only 5 square miles!) It turns out there are actually Navajos living near some of the rock formations, in what looked to me like a pretty desolate, albeit beautiful, place. I couldn’t help but wonder what it’s like when they have to run to the store because they’re out of milk or something!

We had lunch at the visitor center. The restaurant was technically closed for the winter, but the kitchen was open and there was a menu up, plus some tables where we could sit and eat with a gorgeous view of the Mittens, so it was a de facto restaurant with takeout containers. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try typical (according to the menu) Navajo food: I ordered mutton stew and Navajo fry bread (basically, dough that is deep-fried instead of baked). The stew was good, but it was very much like something my grandmother might have made (vegetables and meat in clear broth) and therefore not exotic at all, but then again I’m not sure what I was expecting. It was good, though, and the fry bread was a good accompaniment. The Engineer had a posole, but that was too spicy for me! Note that there’s also a hotel on the premises, though guests still have to pay access fees at the park entrance.

After that, we went to Four Corners Monument, a remote area where four states meet (Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico; practical info here). It was pretty quiet, with only a handful of vendors (whereas there’s room for dozens of stalls) and about as many visitors, which gave us ample time to walk around and get our turn to take pictures on the actual four corners plaque. I’m going to anticipate your question here, “Is it worth seeing?” My answer is: Know your audience. Have you ever been to Stanstead? Did you love the black line on the floor of the Haskell Free Library and Canusa Street? I’m the kind of person who really enjoys stuff like that, so for me, Four Corners Monument was delightful. To the Engineer, however, those are just imaginary lines, so if it hadn’t been for me, he would have been happier to skip it. To each their own.

We made our way back to Texas via New Mexico. The first stop was Albuquerque; we had lunch at the Whole Foods, which has a beautiful view of the Sandia Mountains. Had we been child-free, we probably would have gone on some kind of Breaking Bad tour, but we didn’t want to have to explain the concept of a meth lab to a 4-year-old, so we went to Explora, the children’s museum, instead. And man, did we have fun! Albuquerque’s Explora really puts San Antonio’s Doseum to shame. Adults and kids were equally charmed and entertained by the various exhibits, including a perpetual motion ball run (that alone could have entertained the Little Prince for hours), multiple hands-on experiments with water, light, and air (in different sections), bubbles, and electrical circuits. Plus, the (giant) elevator contains a full living room! (I couldn’t help but quote Pretty Woman in there.) There was also a travelling exhibit called Curious Contraptions, made of wooden mechanical sculptures that I had actually seen in London, U.K., and it was nice to cross their path again! It’s a shame we don’t live here, because we would be back again and again!

Finally, on our second-to-last day (the last being just the drive home), we stopped in Roswell, where we spent about an hour at the UFO Museum, about half of which is full of information about “the Roswell incident” of July 1947, plus a tiny section to debunk some of it, and news stories of other sighting around the world. I might have read this before, but I had forgotten: the image that we have of flying saucers actually comes from the media misreporting what a witness had said (not even in Roswell, mind you). “Saucer” wasn’t describing the shape of the aircraft, which the witness specifically said had wings; but he compared the movement of the unidentified aircraft to that of a saucer ricocheting off a lake. But from that point on, we started saying “flying saucers” and a whole lot of photographic evidence of encounters popped up with saucer-shaped aircraft, some of which were faked with pie plates or hub caps thrown in the air! In any event, there are no photos of aircraft associated with the Roswell incident, only photos of a broken-down weather balloon several days later. It was a fun visit, though there’s nothing in the museum that you can’t learn online.

All-in-all, we loved our trip! We saw some amazingly beautiful natural wonders, and avoided crowds and heat to boot, so we were happy. For what it’s worth, the Little Prince says that his favorite things from the vacation were White Sands National Monument, climbing on/into the rocks outside the visitor center at Valley of Fire, and Explora in Albuquerque.


Katie said...

What an impressive trip! Your writeup makes me want to think more seriously about when we're going to make another trip out west... our last one was pre-kid, so this was helpful in prompting me to think about how we'd change things up when traveling with a child in tow.

Amélie said...

Awesome! That's part of why I wrote this post - I know that travelling with kids can be daunting, but this was totally doable. And so worth it!