“You can’t handle this!”

(neither fiery furnace nor fiery naan… 🙂 )

Our epic “National Parks vacation” started with a most unexpected and pleasant surprise of a south Indian Breakfast on the Las Vegas Strip! We were looking for any breakfast place before our four and half hour drive to Page, AZ. We just literally stumbled on “Mirchi – South Indian Kitchen” on one end of the the famous strip and this fast food place was actually open for breakfast. We were the first and only customers at that time. So we ordered our favorites – Masala Dosa and Idli followed by hot Masala Chai. Yes… It’s an Indian thing, even on a 100 degree day, we like our hot chai!  Don’t try to look for a rational explanation for that! 🙂. The breakfast was yummy and filling. I may be biased but, no cereal, pancakes, oatmeal or waffles can compete with dosas and idlis. After this sumptuous breakfast we drove to Page, Arizona,  while admiring the desolate desert that seemed to progressively pick up vegetation as we moved from Nevada (Las Vegas)  to Arizona (Page). During these 4 hrs we drove in and out of Utah and Arizona several times before arriving at Page, as the route straddled these states. 

As soon as we got to Page, we first checked in to the National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Center and sought guidance from the helpful representatives in covering the most important points in the time we had. This is a move we repeated at every park we visited and we are very happy we did that. The Park officials were always very helpful and gave us the best pointers for the limited time we had at each place (~48hrs per place).

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The natural beauty themed road trip spanned 12 days, 1600 miles and 4 states

Page , Az (Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend)

We were very happy with the AirBnB that was centrally located close to the main drag in town. All the restaurants, grocery store etc were within walking distance. It was just 1 block from Big John’s Texas Barbecue which was so popular that it had long lines outside at dinner time. There was an awesome Country/Rock concert on a tiny stage for their outdoor seating area.

Because of the helpful suggestions from NPS visitor center, we barely managed to book a tour of Antelope Canyon (which is through local Navajo guides). You cannot tour this canyon without the guides. It was a one hour hike through this slot canyon, where you descend into the ground and walk through a narrow canyon whose walls reflect sunlight in amazing hues. This was early in the morning and lasted about an hour and it wasn’t too hot (it got to over 100 degree F later in the day). The guide pushed us along as there was a pipeline of groups lined up back to back. The Navajo guide also showed us the best vantage points for these amazing photos and also some neat tricks with iPhone cameras.

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Unreal shapes caused by erosion over millions of years! Unreal  colors caused by sunlight streaming through! Visions of a yummy chocolate + Caramel + Mango  dessert! 🙂

 

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Thanks to our Navajo guide for teaching us clever  iPhone techniques (like vertical panorama)!

In the afternoon hot sun (really HOT sun!) we drove the short distance to Horseshoe Bend, which is a beautifully carved canyon that is shaped liked a horse shoe by the once mighty Colorado river. The half mile walk to the canyon was not too bad as it was mostly downhill. We marveled at the Windows10 ScreenSaver beauty from every angle possible and also took the requisite photos and selfies from dangerous looking angles.

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Horseshoe Bend. I don’t have a fear of heights. I am just afraid of precariousness! 🙂
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Uma perched on top of the amazing rock!
The sights were breathtaking! The hike back to the parking lot (uphill this time, unfortunately) in the 110 degree brutal sun was intense (to say the least). We had to take it easy for the rest of the day to recover from the heat.
If you go…

Be sure to make reservations for Antelope Canyon before you get there.  These tours get booked up fast. We were very happy with Dixie’s Lower Antelope Canyon Tours. You can make the reservations online at : https://antelopelowercanyon.com.  We paid around $120 for the two of us.

I recommend the AirBnB we stayed at, hosted by Karl (132, 8th Avenue, Page Az).

Do check out Big Johns Texas Barbecue. 

Tropic, UT (Bryce Canyon)

Next day we drove straight to Bryce Canyon (in Utah).  We reached the NPS visitor center around 4:00 pm and got the details on what we could do that afternoon and what hikes we could go on the next day. We loved the shuttle service provided by the Park Service that takes you to the 4 scenic overlooks along the rim of the canyon. We got off at the 1st one and marveled at the Red and Tan Hoodoos in the vast canyon. Then we walked along the rim to the other three overlooks. We frequently stopped to take pictures with the amazing geologic formations in the background. None of the photos do justice to the wonder of nature that was in front of us. But that did not stop me from clicking away.

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Amazing Bryce Canyon amphitheater!

 

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This one was not shy at all!
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Loved the bright colors – especially the blue skies and red hoodoos of the canyon!

 

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Check out the steep switchbacks (hair pin bends as we used to call them in India). Going down was not bad. Coming up – downright brutal!

The next morning we came back fresh, to try out the first hike – i.e trekking down into the canyon and hiking back up (huffing and puffing, taking a lot of breaks and photos). Then after a brief break, we went on one more hike down a different and more difficult path called “Wall street hike”. It was steep with a lot of switchbacks. As we were pooped from over 4 hrs of hiking, we opted to come back up on a different (slightly easier) trail (Navajo Loop Trail). It was totally exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. We are so glad we did these hikes and took in the sights up close.

A word about Tropic , UT – This is a tiny town near Bryce canyon. It is so tiny that there are no street lights, just one gas station and a few restaurants. It is very cute and the 8 room motel that we stayed at was extremely clean, comfortable and reasonable.

If you go…

If you plan to visit National Parks, consider getting a US Park Pass ($80  per annum). This will enable free entry into all National Parks for your family (1 vehicle). Check out details here : https://www.usparkpass.com/

I strongly recommend staying at Bybee’s Steppingstone Motel in Tropic. It’s a delightful, cute place.

There is an elaborate buffet at “Ruby’s Inn Cowboy’s Buffet and Steak Room”, that I recommend. We definitely needed that after a crazy day of hiking.

Moab, UT (Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park)

While we were checking out of the Bybee motel in Tropic, the manager recommended that we take the little longer but scenic route to our next destination, Moab. We are so glad that we took his advice, as we got to see wonderful countryside, huge mountain ranges and the red rock and sand stone behemoths of Capital Reef along the way.

Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park were near the town of Moab. Just before we left on the trip, one of our friends had strongly recommended that we should not miss the ranger led “Fiery Furnace Hike” in Arches National Park. We got to National Park Service Visitor Center just in time to book the ranger led “Fiery Furnace Hike” for the 4:00 PM slot on the day we were supposed to leave town and drive to Aspen. We decided to go for it, as it was highly recommended, even though that meant getting to Aspen quite late in the night after a brutal hike.

The next day we did the popular hike to Delicate Arch, which is like the Mona Lisa of the Arches, as everyone has heard about it and wants to see it, even though there are bigger and better arches nearby. It was a moderate hike (3 miles round trip), with some parts being steep and intense. Heeding the warnings from the NPS Visitor center, we started early in the morning before it got very hot. Later we covered Windows Loop, Double Arch and Landscape Arch. All in all we ended up walking 11.5 miles on that day.

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Delicate Arch. Round trip hike (moderate difficulty) of 3 hrs was definitely worth it!
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Check out the people at the foot of the arch! (..and the lady posing behind Uma 🙂  )!
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Beautiful, massive arches are everywhere! We hiked to as many as we could..
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Another famous one – The Landscape Arch!

The last day after we checked out of the hotel, we essentially rested and prepared for the “Fiery Furnace Hike”, which started by meeting the ranger and the rest of the hikers (14 including us) at 4:00 pm near the trail head. It was brutally hot and the ranger wanted to check if we all brought the requisite amount of water per head. We thought we had enough but she declared that between the two of us we only had half the amount needed. One of the other hikers had some spare bottles, so they were kind enough to share with us. We were very thankful for their generosity. The ranger initially made a fuss about the heat and said she herself doesn’t like to hike the canyon (furnace) in such hot weather. That did little to instill confidence in us. Then she asked if anyone wanted to drop off. She said that once we are in the canyon and if someone has problems/medical incidents, it could take up to 16 hrs to rescue! She would sweep the whole team with her gaze while saying this, but we felt that her eyes would linger on longer on the two of us. Clearly she sensed that the two of us could be the weakest links of the team.. 🙂! I guess the prowess of us Indians as non-athletic is quite well known. To the hiking gang (and especially the ranger), we probably looked like two spelling bee coaches who showed up at the wrong place for the coaching session. We declared  that we were ready for it, and we proceeded, briskly walking into the canyon, taking multiple water breaks.. (did I mention 104 degree F?). It was not just an ordinary hike. It involved squeezing through narrow cracks, walking on high ledges, crawling on all fours (and fives  – as the butt got involved too sometimes)! Thankfully lot of the path was in shade and the entire group was very friendly and helpful, encouraging each other and helping to pull/push when needed. After two and half hours when we made it back to the parking lot, we were thoroughly exhausted but extremely thrilled to have gone on this amazing and challenging hike, and came out of it with memories to last a lifetime

 

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Water break already? We just got started..
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Uma: “Are we there yet?”
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That was a tight squeeze back there! Appreciate all the pushing and pulling by fellow hike mates!
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Cool techniques taught by the ranger to make it through narrow passes like this..
If you go…

Make sure to visit the NPS visitor center  for recommendations.

If you are moderately fit, do not miss the Fiery Furnace Hike. It costs $16 per head and should be booked in advance.

While in Moab, do not miss yummy quesadillas at “Quesadilla Mobilla” – a food truck. You will love it! There are other food trucks there as well in a unique food truck park, with a shaded seating area that is covered by overhead tubes that spray refreshing mist.

Aspen, Co (Maroon Bells)

After  the grueling “Fiery Furnace Hike”, we started driving at 7:00pm,  and reached our hotel in Aspen around midnight. Our hotel called Mountain Chalet was a wonderful facility and we really wished we had stayed there more than the 1 night that we actually did. The staff was very friendly and helpful and they had a sumptuous fresh breakfast that was included with the room. I highly recommend this place for anyone that is staying in Aspen area. We boarded the free bus (right across from Mountain Chalet) that took us from Aspen to Highlands area, where we got on another bus ($8 per person round trip) to  go to Maroon Bells. The driver of the bus is also a tour guide and gave a nice talk about the area and the avalanches that they experience (pointing out the damage to the Aspen forests caused by last year’s avalanches). It was a short 20 min ride. Maroon Bells is this “heaven on earth” like place with beautiful mountains, lake, streams and trails through amazing woods full of wild flowers. The photos, of course, do not come close to capturing the real beauty of the “nature on steroids” over there. Some who saw our photos said that they look fake. After hiking through some of the trails for a few hours we took the bus back and then started driving to our final destination – Denver area.

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Nothing fake about this backdrop!
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Maroon Bells: A wonderful way to balance out the earlier dry and rugged part of our vacation!
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Wish we had stayed longer at this piece of heaven!
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Try not to be distracted by these legs! 🙂

Denver, Co 

The drive from Aspen to Denver area was mostly through high mountain passes and beautiful vistas. Uma enjoyed these sights.. while I kept my gaze on the curvy road (for the most part).  After about 4 hours, we started seeing the familiar generic landscape of any American city (and suburbs) – Walmart, Best Buy, Home Depot, McDonalds, Burger King etc.

The next day and half were spent relaxing and recovering from the intense physical activity.  We went into downtown Denver for a few hours just to get a feel for the place and strolled down the famous 16th street mall (which was designed by the famous architect I.M.Pei). The concept is good, but unfortunately, with lots of homeless people throughout the street, it did not feel very pleasant. Because of this,  every business on the street has codes on their bathroom doors and big signs that declare that bathrooms are for customers only.

The final item on our agenda before boarding the late night flight back to Philadelphia was to attend the finals of “World Championship of Public Speaking” at the Toastmaster’s International Conference. Earlier in the year, over 30,000 speakers (including Uma) started competing at club level and after 6 levels of elimination it came down to the 6 finalists competing in Denver. We thoroughly enjoyed the awesome speeches by the contestants. It’s amazing how they packed so much humor, emotion and gripping storytelling into those 7 minutes! We were jumping with joy when Aaron Beverly (from Philadelphia region) won the championship. His speech was awesome! It’s possible that I may be biased, as he is from our region and his speech was about an Indian wedding ritual.

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With the 2019 World Champion of Public Speaking!

Later we stopped by at an Indian restaurant for dinner, on the way to the airport, to cap off the wonderful vacation, which started with an Indian breakfast in Las Vegas. At this restaurant called “Coriander”, Uma and I picked  a curry called Madras Chicken and their signature naan – “Coriander Naan”, which is supposed to be stuffed with Serrano peppers. Imagine our shock and surprise when the waitress discouraged us from ordering these. She said that these are very spicy and we may not be able to handle them! That’s right.. after taking one look at us (south Indians), this Indian waitress decided that we would not be able to handle the spicy food!  This felt exactly like the scene with that Park Ranger at the start of the Fiery Furnace hike,  who (probably for a  good reason) felt that some of us (just the two of us, really), would not be able to handle the hike. Uma asked the waitress, “How spicy are these? In a range of …”

“5 out of 5! 10 out of 10!”, she quickly retorted before Uma could finish her sentence.

Wow! Ok!! We decided to play it safe and order some other tamer stuff from the menu. These items were very tasty and we were very happy with the place. During the meal, when the waitress stopped by, I had to ask her,  “If these are so spicy, who orders them?” She said,  “It’s mostly white people. Some of them can eat crazy hot stuff!”

Our collective jaw dropped!

I made a mental note to come back and take them up on the challenge, and maybe bring along one of my white friends for moral support during this daring culinary adventure.