Story and photos by Dr. Phill A. Morgan
Heading west over the majestic Rocky Mountains opens up a plethora of national parks all the way through to the Pacific Ocean. The only summary word to describe the scale and extent of the natural beauty is SPECTACULAR. Below I suggest a one-week “sampler” journey that covers six very different, but all amazing, attractions.
Two major events occurred in the 1930s: Nevada legalized gambling, and the Hoover Dam was built to provide abundant hydroelectricity and water. Out of this corner of the Mohave Desert then arose the gawdy, adult entertainment “Sin City.” However, Las Vegas has now been transformed with the advent of family casino resorts into “The Entertainment Capital of the World.” Indeed, it boasts more 5-star hotels than any other city in the world.
Whilst casinos were originally centered on Fremont Street, the newer casino resorts are organized along the 4.5-mile “strip.” The Bellagio with its dancing fountains (and even a Gallery of Fine Art), Caesar’s Palace, Luxor, The Venetian and The Mirage are prime examples of the new generation. Vegas at night is transformed into a truly magical and unique wonderland with musical fountains, volcano flows, world-class shows and frozen columns of color.
From Vegas, it is only a one-hour drive to the spectacular engineering feat that is the Hoover Dam, which tamed and exploits the Colorado River forming Lake Mead. The National Park Service is excellent (with a passionate set of expert rangers) and has created a visitor center capturing the history and wonder of the dam’s building. Interestingly, it was completed two years ahead of schedule and under budget!
The Grand Canyon
Crossing the dam (or using the new bypass) brings us into Arizona and, about three hours later, to the geological feature which, in the minds of most world travelers, symbolizes the USA.: The Grand Canyon. President Theodore Roosevelt said it is “the one great sight that every American should see.” This year marks the centennial of the park’s founding and its designation as a “dark sky” venue ideal for start gazing.
The canyon is truly gigantic: 277 miles long and about 10 miles wide, rim to rim. It is amazingly ONE MILE deep to the Colorado River, and so its numerous striations cover much of Earth’s geological history from the Precambrian era (2 billion years ago) forward. The vastness and ruggedness of the terrain means fewer people have hiked the length of the canyon in one trip than have been to the moon!
The South Rim is the most developed part, and again, the National Park Service has organized shuttles, accommodation and facilities superbly well to handle the expected 6 million annual visitors; this compares with 44,000 back in 1919. Book early. The view changes perpetually as one drives the rims or explores by helicopter/plane but is most dramatic at the rise or setting of the sun, which brings out the depth of the canyon structures. At sunset in particular, thousands gather and are silent in awe.
My first visit was in May 1980, which is even more notable as the date of the most disastrous volcanic eruption in U.S. history: Mount St. Helens. Although it was over 1,000 miles away, the fine volcanic dust created a spectacular solar halo at noon. While that was a rare occurrence, a more common, yet wonderful, sight is the daily flight of the reintroduced Californian condors near Bright Angel Lodge.
Driving deeper into Arizona through desert and hills, one arrives at the border with Utah. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park straddles the border, and again, the scenery changes dramatically: a flat valley floor from which rise 1,000-feet tall buttes and mesas shaped largely by wind erosion. The valley drive is 17 miles long but really requires a 4WD vehicle. With our adventurous spirit, one night we carefully and ever-so-slowly took our SUV onto the park tracks, lit solely by the light of the moon. I should add Navajo guides are available for difficult terrain.
It is fun to guess the names of the different structures. The Mittens, the Totem Pole and the Three Sisters are so easy to identify — with hindsight! The landscape typifies everyone’s view of “The Wild West” (of Hollywood fame) since John Ford, John Wayne and others filmed classic movies here like “The Stagecoach” and “Fort Apache.” To this day, one can tip a Navajo horseman to pose on a butte, capturing those iconic “western photos.” Goulding’s Lodge makes a fun overnight stopping place; this is where Ford’s crews were based, and it is full of interesting memorabilia.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Heading north and to a higher elevation (8,000 feet) in Utah, we reach Bryce Canyon, which many consider the have the most colorful rock formations on earth. It is not really a canyon cut out by an active river — rather a series of amphitheaters, spires, pinnacles and irregular hoodoos accessed from the 18-mile, pine-clad rim drive. Hiking down from trail heads, one enters a maze-like structure which Ebenezer Bryce himself (the original homesteading rancher) described as “one hell of a place to lose a cow!” The colors come from minerals in the rocks — red, yellow and brown from iron and purple/violet from manganese. Again, the 3D effect and colors are most striking at sunrise and sunset.
Zion National Park
The sixth and last star on this sightseeing “loop” back to Vegas is Zion National Park, down in elevation to about 3,000 feet but with SPECTACULAR (that word again!) steep, red sandstone cliffs carved out by the Virgin River, rain and wind. This park is onl
y 225 million years old! The eight-mile scenic Canyon Drive follows the river and leads to the Narrows where one can wade through the water as deep chasms rise on either side. One caveat: Be careful of flash floods!
The above is but a small sampler of THE AWE that awaits those who venture out to explore the Southwest USA. Other spectacular national parks like Yosemite and Death Valley remain to be described, but those will have to wait for future “samplers.”
Editor’s Note: It is with a heavy heart we inform you that the author, Dr. Phill A. Morgan, passed away unexpectedly on July 23. Phill was a world traveler with a PhD in chemistry, who was born in Wales and worked internationally in England, Italy, Belgium, Turkey, Germany and the U.S. Our sincere condolences go to his wife and best friend, Nancy Morgan, and their family. The Morgans split their time between northern Kentucky and Estero, where they reside in Riverwoods Plantation. Phill was the founder of the Riverwoods Photo Club, a volunteer with New Horizons and an occasional guest lecturer on international business at FGCU. He will be greatly missed in our community. Read the full obituary on the Linnemann Funeral Home website here.