Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Letter from... Canada

  Last week we visited Canada - a highschool friend of mine is living in Vancouver, so killing two birds with one stone, we went to Vancouver to see them and on the weekdays we visited the Canadian Rockies.
  Our flight was direct from Mexico City which was a relief after all the connections in the US to Japan. Also, Canada was relatively close, only 5.5 hours by plane. (A piece of cake compared to the 12-14 hours flights to Japan.)
   After getting off the plane we went to pick up our rental car - which finally messed up all our plans for the weekend, as even after 2 hours of waiting and quarreling at the rental shop, we couldn`t get a car... The Ace Rental Car was a very strange company - after arriving to them (outside of the airport), they told us they would took us to another place, because they hadn`t had any car at the place. So far it didn`t seem so strange (it happens), but than we arrived to a totally different rental car company where they wanted to give us a car twice the price we had reserved with Ace Rental Car. To me it seems as fraud, but as I am not a lawyer, I could only reason with them on the base of common sense: why they accept reservations online if they won`t ensure cars for the customers? Well, common sense hadn`t worked, so after a long flight and a long (unfruitless) wait for our car, we headed to downtown in a taxi where we had some delicious, fresh sushi before my friend picked us up.
   My friends are living in North Vancouver, just a few kilometers to the North from Vancouver. The road crosses the beautiful Stanley Park on the Western corner of the city and after a short drive on the highway you arrive to the suburban town of North Vancouver.
green suburban
   The city is quite and is at the foot to the woods, so the next morning we took a short walk in the nearby forest - it took only about 5 minutes among the houses to reach a trail that leads to an ecology center, and nice, wooden coffee near to a suspension bridge and trails over the bridge and the stream.
ths suspension bridge in North Vancouver
   The plan was to go visit Victoria the next day, but without car, we had to skip that and go to the airport the next day (again) to rent a car. This time we had more luck and in the afternoon we strolled around in the city: visited Gastown (the shopping area for tourists with its famous steam lamp), walked from there to the harbor at Canada Place where the seabuses and hydroplanes land.
Canada Place
   After lunch (of course, it was sushi again - a shabby looking, but turned-out to be extremely delicious place, called Hitoe Sushi) we walked around on Denman street which is full with restaurants and shops and leads to the beach. The weather was really nice, sunny and warm, but for me not hot enough to swim in the cold ocean.
English Bay beach
Even though, this weather (it was about 28 C) was so hot, a lot of people had enjoyed the nice weather on the beach - sunbathing, even swimming in the ocean. Even if you don`t swim, the beach is a little park with both sandy and grassy part and a lot of benches around to enjoy the view and the weather. This part of Vancouver reminded me of La Joya to the north of San Diego where the houses face nice beaches just across the streets. After a good walk in the city, before leaving to North Vancouver, we had dinner at the Fish House in Stanley Park. What is good in Vancouver is that there are many many restaurants (apparently Canadians love to eat out and try different types of food), and most of them are extremely delicious. The Fish House was no exception - it was an elegant restaurant with smaller portions (for me it was just the good size), but even more enjoyment to the tongue. The food was refined, the fish fresh and the service excellent. I really loved that place!
in Fish House
  On Monday we left early to the Canadian Rockies, as the distance from Vancouver to our destination, Canmore was 890kms. The trip finally took about 12 hours, because at places the highway was curvy and only 1 lane, but after a few hours of drive we reached the mountains and the drive was around flowery meadows and nice mountains, so the 12 hours hadn`t seem so long finally. Arriving to the Rockies, it turned out that the entrance for the National Parks are not for a week as in the US, but it is sold by days and one has to pay for every stop of the car within the National Park, no matter if it is only for 1 hour. Hearing this, we gave up to look around on the rest of the day and were also happy not to stay in Banff, as it is in the center of Banff National Park, we would had have to pay 40 CAD only for spending the night there. (Canmore is just outside the National Park, so we were "safe" for that night there.) Also, to me it seemed quite expensive paying 136 CAD for 2 people for 1 week, whereas in the US even in Yellowstone we paid 50 USD for the same period. I wonder why the Canadian government is not giving more allowance for the National Parks, if it is indeed called "National" Park. (Of course, everything is relative: compared to an entrance ticket to Disneyland, a 1-week pass to the nature might not seem so expensive for the same price.)
  Anyway, on this day we finally just drove all the way to Canmore, checked in to our hotel and just looked around a bit in the town. The whole town has a really good feeling - all the houses (even supermarkets, even McDonald`s!) have the same features of mountain lodges (steep roofs, wooden ornaments, earth colors) which gives a nice uniformity to the whole town. (Actually, I preferred this town than Banff - the latter was a bit over-touristicated, at least the center.)
our hotel in Canmore
  On Tuesday we drove to Banff (about 15kms from Canmore) to buy the park passes and start our journey in the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately after the hot and sunny Monday, it became cloudy although this day we were planning to see the turquoise-blue mountain lakes: Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Bow Lake.
Moraine Lake
But first we walked around in Banff a little - as I said, I preferred Canmore, as Banff is all about tourists and souvenirs. The houses are the same cute as in Canmore, but more concentrated in the city center and of course, everything is about tourism. So, if you would like to buy souvenirs, it is the best place to look around.
Banff downtown
We had lunch in Banff and left for the lakes. Lake Louise (maybe the most popular lake in this area) was just about half an hour from Banff. Thanks to the closeness of Banff and the huge hotel built on the shore of the lake, Lake Louise was packed with people! It was terrible! Like a nature`s Disneyland: there was a huge line for renting boats and you literally had to line up even for taking pictures! However, I have to admit, without the hotel and the crowd, the scenery would be beautiful as two mountains close above the turquoise lake.
Lake Louise and the crowd
   Moraine lake and Bow lake was much less crowded, but unfortunately due to the cloudy weather, was much less enjoyable as it could have been. So, we didn`t bother to take much time around these lakes, rather we took a little walk in the Johnston Canyon. The canyon`s trail goes along the Johnston Creek and leads to two waterfalls. We took the shorter trail to the lower falls, which was an easy 2km walk.
Johnston Canyon

lower waterfall
  This day we have already entered the land of the icefields, so on our way to our hotel (The Crossing) we saw a lot of glaciers and icefields (in the middle of the summer).

  The next day it was raining from the morning... we were planning to go to see the Columbia Icefield, so after checking the weather forecast (it forecasted the same weather for all week), we decided to go to the Icefields anyway. Fortunately at the Icefields (about 50kms from The Crossing hotel) it wasn`t raining, so we bought a ticket to the Icefields. A tour started in every 30 minutes and we were lucky only having to wait 10 minutes for the next.
the Icefield tour starts
   As it turned out, the tour wasn`t to the Icefields (which spreads to an amazing 200km2s), but to its "leg", the Athabasca Glacier. First a normal bus took us to the "gateway" of the glacier (just across the street), there we changed bus to a more robust bus that took us to the glacier. Altough the way up on the glacier was about 2kms, it took us 30 minutes. During this time our driver (Andrew) talked a lot of interesting things about the glacier.
up on the glacier
  Once we arrived, we had 15 minutes to walk around on the snowy-icy glacier. There was a little creek as well, and we could try glacier water. Well, Evian or Chrystal Geyser is nothing compared to that ice-cold water.

the beaver boardwalk
 As the weather stayed gloomy, we decided to go all the way up to Hinton. It was about 200kms, but was worth the drive, because up in the North is was warm and shiny. In Hinton there is a beaver-boardwalk. After getting instructions in the city`s information center, we headed to the boardwalk - it was just behind a residential area.
Apparently not even Canadians know much about it; by the time we got there (around 3pm), it was only us. The trails are around 3kms long, mainly going along the swampy lake where the beavers live. We were told they are more active in the evening and morning, but we only had to wait about 30 minutes to spot the first beaver. They started to work already in the afternoon - swimming in and out from their nest, taking branches to it. We spotted some little ones as well - which turned out to be a muskrat. Apparently, beavers and muskrats are relatives and can live together in peace. Actually, it seemed they are dividing the job pretty well: the beavers were taking branches while the much smaller muskrat cut grass and leaves to build the nest or to accumulate them as food for the winter.
   Walking around the trail we have seen various smaller and bigger dams built by the beavers. They are indeed the engineers of the nature! We`ve seen a trunk about 50cms in diameter that the beavers cut out - checking it after, apparently the beaver can cut down a 30cm diameter tree in just 10 minutes!
beaver at work
  We`ve been so amazed by the beavers, we ended up looking at them for 3 hours! (As they started to come out, they were coming and going in every 5-10 minutes.) On our way back to Canmore (about 380kms long drive) we saw 4 huge caribou deers and later at night a coyote. This was our best day in terms of animals!
caribou deers
   On our last day in the Rockies we took it slow: in the morning we went to the Banff hot springs.
Banff hot springs
After an hour of relaxation, we headed to our destination, Golden. On the way we stopped by the Emerald Lake and Natural Bridge.
Emerald Lake
Natural Bridge was a big rock stretching over a river with a hole inside. Literally a natural bridge.
Natural Bridge
We drove another 150kms to Golden. Thanks to that, the next day was a bit easier to get back to Vancouver. We left early in the morning and got to the city by early afternoon. Spent the rest of the day with our friends before leaving the next day back to Mexico.

For more pictures, click here! → Canada

Monday, June 9, 2014

Letters from... Grand Canyon (3)

Bryce Canyon
   As we missed the lottery to The Wave and North Coyote Buttes, we went with plan B: Zion National Park. But befor, we headed to Bryce Canyon National Park. 
   Bryce Canyon is about 2 hours’ drive to the north from Kanab. Passing the pink-orange walls of Vermiliont Cliffs and the Coral Sand Dunes, we arrived to Dixie National Forest before Bryce Canyon. Dixie National Forest is the beginning of the Martian view of the Bryce Canyon. Here the tall pine trees still cover the orange hoodoo statues at places, but arriving to Bryce Canyon (after 2 tunnels dug from the orange rocks above the road), the Martian view can be enjoyed in full.
tunnel on scenic byway 12
   The main characteristics of the Bryce Canyon National Park are the hoodoos – these strange, chessman-like statues are formed by frost weathering and stream erosion. The hoodoos get their shape as a harder layer on the top resists better than the softer lower layers to the erosion, forming a chessman-like shape finally. The Martian feeling is from the color of the surrounding rocks: the orange, red, white color can be seen all around the Grand Escalante (Bryce Canyon is part of this sedimentary rock layer) – the color comes from the high concentration of iron (iron oxide) in the rocks.
   The visitor center was right next to the entrance gates, which was convenient to decide immediately where we wanted to go. As we had only one day here, we decided only to take a hike in the canyon (which is officially not a canyon, rather an amphitheater). We chose the Queen Garden`s Trail which starts from Sunrise point, goes down the valley among the orange walls and hoodoos and took a big loop to Wall Street and then back to Sunset Point from the Navajo Loop Trail. As the canyon is located in 2400m altitude, in the end of April it was still chilly (cold, strong wind), but as we got lower to the valley, thanks to the protective walls and columns the wind stopped and it got nice and warm. This trail was really amazing as it took us first to Sunrise Point where we could have a good view to the amphitheater – the overview was really hard to believe to be true: it looks like a huge, orange chess board or the natural version of the terracotta army of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
on Queen Graden`s Trail
on the trailhead of Wall Street
  Going down to the valley and walking around these hoodoos gave us another perspective – the admiration of the size of the hoodoos. Although from the view point the hundreds of hoodoos seemed small, but actually one such column can reach 20-30 meters. From below we enjoyed not only the hoodoos but other formations of the nature, like windows, arches, bridges. Down in the valley we took the trail to Wall Street  (named not after the famous bank district, but rather the fact that the trail climbs up between tall, vertical walls), where a thin but tall pine tree stands between 2 vertical walls. This trail would have taken us back to the rim, but it was still closed for winter due to danger of rock fall from winter`s erosion. So, we took our way back and climbed back to the rim on the Navajo Loop Trail. Here we saw the Two Bridges formation and after a steep serpentine trail up to the rim, we found ourselves back in line with the “heads” of the hoodoos. Here, at the end of the trail we found “Thor´s Hammer”, a rock shaped exactly like the Marvel cartoon hero´s weapon.
   After this hike we drove around the park, stopping at the further view points. Although Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce Points are the most famous due to their closeness to the lodge and visitor center, there are 10 other view points along the road in the park. We stopped by at Bryce Point, , Natural Bridge and Rainbow Point. Rainbow Point is the highest view point at 2778 meters and although the view was spectacular, the wind here was so strong that we just rushed out of the car, took pictures and ran back. Rainbow Point is called so because already being far enough from the amphitheater the rainbow-arch like position of the hoodoos can be well seen here. 
   Despite the wind however, we took our time at Bryce View. For me this was the best spot to take a view over the park.
Thor`s Hammer
   We stayed at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, just outside of the park, so it was easy to go back in the night for stargazing. Bryce Canyon is said to be one of the best (darkest) parks in the US. Well, I don´t know the other parks, but Bryce Canyon was indeed great! As soon as we turned off all the lights in the car, pitch black obscurity fell around us. But as we looked up the sky opened; not only the countless number of the stars on the sky, but the number of the falling stars were astonishing.  After a while (weather it was 10 minutes or 30, I wouldn´t be able to tell), we headed back to our hotel. On the way, we saw mule deer venturing forth to the roadsides for feeding. At daylight we´ve only seen birds (like the beautiful Steller`s Jay) and chipmunks, ground squirrels, but at night as the park becomes quite even these shy deer can be seen. We also saw a smaller shadow running across the street before us in the dark - by its size it couldn`t have been other than a prairie dog... 
view from Bryce Point
Zion National Park
   The next day we headed back to Zion National Park. Zion is on the way back to Kanab, about half-way to the city from Bryce Canyon. It is also close to Las Vegas, so we expected more people here. And indeed there were more people in Zion as in Bryce Canyon.
   Zion National Park showed another face of this area. To me it resembled a little to Yosemite Park with its huge rocks and the narrow valley where the road runs. We took the Eastern entrance of the park from I89, which turned out to be the furthest entrance from the visitor center. But we didn´t care because this way we could drive around the yellow-pink-orange rocks before arriving to the center. As the valley is narrow and goes only one road, cars are prohibited in the valley and visitors have to use buses. Before getting on the bus we checked out the visitor center to know what we can see here. It was really useful as the trails were grouped by time – as we had only one day here as well, we looked for the shorter trails.
buses took us all around the valley
 As the Narrows are the most famous trail in Zion, we headed there first. The Narrows goes between two enormous rock walls (some places towering 600ms tall) but as the trail is mainly on the path of a creek, one needs good waterproof clothes and boots for this hike. As we didn´t have, we just walked the 1 mile riverside trail to the river and only crossed the river to catch a glimpse of the Narrows Trail.
riverside walk trail
 Although the creek was only ankle-deep, at this time of the year it was still so freezing that my feet almost froze while crossing the river. Although the trail seemed really interesting and turned out that in the visitor center you can rent hiking shoes for this trail, this really wasn´t the season for this hike. (Even tough, many people took the trail – I guess their feet were made of steel.) 
Akinari crossing the cold creek
   So, after a short peek to this trail, we headed back on the riverside trail that gave us a nice view to the creek flowing gently between the steep rock walls in the bottom of the valley. On the way we saw a lot of ground squirrels. They were so used to the people, they walked with us on the pavement, some of them even tried to steal food from backpacks. We even saw a “model squirrel” posing us on the top of a rock.
ground squirrel posing for us
weeping rock
   From the nearby bus stop we took a few stops back to take the Weeping Rock. The bus drivers were really nice here (wish the bus drivers were the same in the cities): explained the road, showed us rock climbers (apparently Zion is the Mecca of the rock climbers), pointed out deer or just generally told some stories about the park. The way to the Weeping Rock was only a few hundred meters long from the bus stop. It is called so because water here sprinkles continuously from the rock making it look like it cries. Thanks to the eternal water supply the vegetation around here was beautiful. Also, as the weeping rock is a bit on higher grounds, the view to the valley was really nice. As the water sprinkles around from the rocks, it is a great place at summer to freshen up.
view from weeping rock

   After this short trail we stopped by at Zion Lodge to have a short lunch before heading to our 3rd hike to the Emerald Pools. Despite their beautiful name, these pools were not emerald green. Even though it was a nice trail – there are 3 pools (lower, middle and upper) and one can take only one or all of them, depending time and stamina. As we still had time, we took all the way up to the upper pool. The lower pool was a small pond surrounded by red rock walls from where a small waterfall supplied the water to the pool.
at lower emerald pool
 Going further, we heard croak – turned out, in the middle pool there were many frogs giving the visitors free concert. From the middle pool to the upper the trail became steeper and sandy, but the view became more and more beautiful with every step. 
frog concert at middle emerald pool
 The upper pool´s still surface reflected the 30 meter tall rock wall right behind it. As this high wall surrounded us almost 360 degrees, the upper pool was quiet and peaceful.
upper emerald pool
After taking a little rest and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere we headed back to the visitor center. Not to go back on the same trail, we took a small detour to the Grotto trail. On this trail we had some nice view to Zion valley.
on Grotto trail...
...and the view
   Right at the end of the trail there was a bus stop (again, how convenient!) which took us back to the visitor center. It was around 5pm when we got back to our car – the shadows already got longer in the valley, but it was still sunny on the top. We stopped by on the way out at some "Wave"-like rocks and the chessboard rock (really, it was hard to believe it hadn´t been made by some giant for its chessboard!).

On the way to the exit there were 2-3 shorter and longer tunnels and at one of these tunnels we encountered some big horns. Apparently a family was going to have dinner – some of them crossing the road, some of them elegantly crossing over the tunnel while eating every plant on the way.

   Satisfied and tired we hit the road to drive about 120 kms back to Page. It was already dark by the time we got to Page, but as we had spent here 2 days already, we just headed to my husband´s newly-favorite fast food restaurant (Jack in the box) to have dinner and checked in to our motel.
night sky in Page
Grand Canyon - Watchtower at Desertview Point
   The next day we left early to our final and main goal: Grand Canyon. Again, we entered from a less popular entrance (the Eastern entrance) and thanks to that we never encountered any traffic jam at the entrance. From this entrance we picked up a few view points, like the above Desert View Point before entering the visitor center. 
inside the watchtower
   At the first view point I spotted out my favorite birds: swallows. I`ve always admired these small but elegant birds´ amazing speed and maneuver in the air. It was even more fun seeing them in the background of a 1800 meters deep canyon as they were playing in the air.

   After the view points along the road, we arrived to the visitor center. Grand Canyon´s visitor center had all the usual stores (information center, souvenir shop, cafes), but with a cool design that the country´s most popular national park deserves. It was interesting that in the other national parks (Zion, Bryce, Antelope, Rainbow Bridge etc.) foreigner visitors were the majority while Grand Canyon was full with American tourists. Although Grand Canyon was beautiful and really must be a thrill to make the trail from the south rim to the bottom and back (which takes 2 days, 1800 meters of altitude change and about 15 degrees of temperature change), to me Grand Canyon was just too big to perceive. The whole canyon is 449kms long and 29kms wide. In the millions of years, river Colorado cut its way through the rocks and now it is running through the canyon in 1800meter depth. To me, I just can´t comprehend these numbers. My home country (Hungary) is about 500kms long – so this canyon is as long as my country??? For me Grand Canyon is just over human scale.
Grand Canyon can be even seen from space
   As you can see from the above numbers, one can spend weeks here without getting bored. Although you might get bored from the view (after all, it´s a deep valley all the way for 400kms!), there are a lot of things to do: hiking on various trails, mule riding, rafting on Colorado River or just driving around. We took a short (1.5 mile) hike down the valley. Even in this short hike we could experience the temperature change from the rim down to the valley – as we got lower in the valley the temperature got warmer not only because of the exercise but because the wind stopped and we declined from 2500m altitude.
on the 1.5 mile trail
   On the way we not only saw the usual ground squirrels but even spotted out a rattle snake among the rocks. 
rattle snake among the rocks
   And in the valley, condors could be spotted circling around.

   Going down 1.5 miles was relatively easy but the way back wasn´t that bad as well, because we more or less know the way back. On the head of this trail was a photo- and souvenir shop with a small photo exhibition from the Kolb brothers who (apparently) discovered a big part of the canyon and took the first photos in the 1910s.
   After this hike we strolled around in the village a bit having some snacks and visiting the souvenir shops before we took the bus to the western part of the park. (The western part was only accessible by bus.) Both the bus driver and our guidebook suggested the Hopi point as the best view for sunset, so we got off and waited for the sunset. 
at Hopi Point
   We still had over an hour until sunset, but there were already people waiting. As the sun got lower and lower, the crowd got bigger. Looking back the pictures, the canyon indeed looked nicer (deeper) as the shadows gave dimension to the canyon. 
not the best sunset picture in the world...
   As the spectacular daily show of the nature finished, people streamed back to the bus stop. Fortunately the bus system was great again, already buses lined up at the main sunset stops, so even we queued a long line, we didn´t have to wait 10 minutes to get on a bus. By the time we got back to the parking lot it was already dark… it was again a short day.
   As we left back to Mexico the next day from Phoenix, we spent our last night in Williams just south from Grand Canyon. Williams lays on the historic Route 66 and although in the dark we couldn´t enjoy it much, next day we took a small time travel to the 60´s. 
The main road is full with souvenir shops not only with route 66 T-shirts, magnets, but Elvis stuff as well. People gather here with antique cars, so the whole street looks like a town in the 60´s. After a short walk in Williams we headed back to Phoenix. Fortunately the weather was nice this time so the 200km road didn´t take much. It was funny even the way from Phoenix to see the place-names around here. I guess many come from the English translation of the original Indian names, as there were names like Bloody Basin or Stoneman Lake.

Our flight was in the afternoon, so we had a little drive around Scottsdale and visited some malls for shopping. It was strange that just one week before it was chilly and even snowy around Flagstaff while this time it was steaming hot: just like one would imagine of Arizona. 

For more pictures, click here! →(Half) Grand Circle