Arizona Offers Adventures Out West

Through every North Carolina winter, there are a handful of mornings that, as I scrape the ice off my windshield, can’t help but yearn to be back in Arizona.

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Sarah Davis
Through every North Carolina winter, there are a handful of mornings that, as I scrape the ice off my windshield, can’t help but yearn to be back in Arizona.

Not that it doesn’t get cold in Arizona – there can be snow by October at the Grand Canyon north rim – but there’s just something about snow clinging to scraggly pinyon pine branches that’s tough, enchanting and lovely at the same time.

Grand Canyon National Park is one of my favorite spots in the state. Even though it can be filled to the gills with people, especially during the summer, this national park is a must see.

Backcountry permits – the permit provided by the park to those who want to camp inside the canyon – need to be applied for about four months in advance. So if you want camp in October when crowds are waning and the scenery is beautiful, you’ll need to start planning soon.

Within 15 minutes of standing at the rim with my husband on our honeymoon, we said we would return to hike to the bottom.

The next year, we hiked down a popular South Rim trail called the South Kaibab Trail and hiked back to the South Rim on the Bright Angel Trail. For those who have the physical ability to hike or ride a mule to the bottom, the destination is a place of indescribable beauty. As for the physical ability part, our trip included a chat with a 70-plus year-old man who hikes the canyon at least once a year. He seemed more energized than I after a long day of hiking.

However, so rewarding was the experience that my husband’s first comment upon reaching the top the next day was, “Let’s definitely do this again.”

That was in 2005. Last November, I returned to the land that simply stuns me every time I look at it, whether it’s when I pull up in my car or during a water break three miles down the trail. My 2006 hike would be even more exciting, followed up with a trip to Lake Powell, at the Utah border.

My husband wasn’t able to make this hike, but two friends, Spencer, who idea of training for this hike was a one-mile walk two days before, and Ed, a former triathlete, joined me.

We started hiking on a Wednesday morning after a short shuttle bus ride, during which we spotted mule deer and elk. Our backs carried plenty of food, our tents, sleeping bags and a few other necessities. Leaving the trailhead of the South Kaibab Trail, we were already at an elevation above 7,000 feet and would descend about a mile in elevation in 6.8 miles.

An ideal spot for sunrise viewing is at Ooh-Aah Point, a spot 1.5 miles down the trail. Here, hikers can munch on breakfast while the sun breaks over canyon walls, bringing desert colors into vivid hues.

Red walls, yellow rocks and a few spots of white formations are the backdrop to a surprising amount of green. However, greens here are shades of mint, sage and other lighter colors, rather than the dark, hearty greens of Carolina rhododendron, live oaks and holly bushes.

The cooler November temperatures revived some of the 1,737 known species of vascular plants, 167 species of fungi, 64 species of moss and 195 species of lichen found in the park.

Later that afternoon, we reached Bright Angel campground, a magical place with cottonwoods lining the rock-bottom creek.

After setting up camp, we peeled our socks from our feet, chomped on snacks and then headed over to Phantom Ranch, less than a half-mile away.

Phantom Ranch has small cabins and a cantina that serves hot dinner and breakfast. Rooms here can fill up two years in advance during summertime, but November is a little less busy, and rooms were still available.

As for dinner, our trio opted to cook on our camp stove instead of spring for the $20-plus-meal at the ranch. While the meal sounded delicious – hot beef stew – we had food in our packs.

As the sun set, a pair of plump turkeys that would have looked perfect on a Thanksgiving table were prancing about camp, pecking at those who bothered them. Maybe this is why I love national parks so much. It seems they are the closest example of a modern-day Garden of Eden. Animals here don’t know humans as predators, just strange, two-legged nuisances.

The three of us were busy spotting satellites out of the starry night when a raccoon startled us all by running into Ed’s tent wall, sending the tent shaking and rattling. Yep, it seems we are just in the way of the real life here at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The next day we made our way out on the 9.6-mile Bright Angel Trail. As we neared the top, the crowds grew heavier, and they were filled with lots of people who didn’t know a hiking rule: Uphill hikers have the right of way. No worries, though, because we had the phenomenal privilege of spotting a condor soaring along the canyon wall. The California condor is slowly being reintroduced, and there are only two currently in the park.

Upon reaching the top, back to the land of cars, SUVs and tour buses, I headed to Page, Ariz., to meet my sister and her fiancé for a few days on a houseboat at Lake Powell.

I must admit I was a little tenuous about visiting America’s second largest manmade lake. I had recently read environmentalist Edward Abbey’s book Desert Solitaire and his rant against the damming of the Colorado to make the lake, which filled Glen Canyon.

I was unsure if the lake had become a recreation area with unmonitored human impact.

But then I did my research on ARAMARK, the authorized concessioner of the national recreation area, and found they are making efforts to be more environmentally sound. For example, the company, which manages Lake Powell Lodge and Wahweap Marina, uses electric carts on the property. Additionally, the lodge offers Java City Shade Tree Coffee in all their guest rooms. Rather than clear-cut forests to plant coffee, Shade Tree coffee is planted among existing forests to help protect more than 150 species.

OK, so maybe the creation of Lake Powell changed the face of Glen Canyon, but stewards more than 40 years later are working to enjoy the outdoors with minimal impact.

In fact, ARAMARK, through a partnership with the National Park Service, installed floating restrooms and pumpout stations to keep the water in Lake Powell pure.

After we completed orientation on the 59-foot houseboat we would be rooming in for the next few days, we loaded the kitchen with groceries. Backing out of the marina, we made our way to a beach for anchoring. Here, at a sandy spot beneath a massive canyon wall, we could relax and watch the sunset and lights of nearby Page begin to sparkle.

The next morning we bundled up and climbed into a 22-foot powerboat to do most of our exploring on the lake. The houseboat is great for luxury but moves like a dinosaur. In the powerboat, we quickly moved from around the canyon wall and shut down to sip our coffee and watch the sun rise.

As the sun began to make the clouds ignite with color, my sister Emily turned to me and said, “What color do you think that is? Orange? Pink?”

The truth of the matter is that nature has a fantastic way of creating colors I’ve never seen in a crayon box – not even in the big 96-color box I always wanted in elementary school.

I guess the best way to describe the recipe for this sunrise is this: add a few scoops of orange sherbet with a few cups of pink lemonade on top of some spirals of blue cotton candy.

Once back at the houseboat, we made breakfast and headed out to explore. We jetted up to some of the side canyons where the water meandered between narrowing walls.

A map of Lake Powell looks as if someone left a leaky pen on a napkin, as blue squiggles along the shore. I guess that’s to be expected when you’re drawing a lake with 96 canyons and that stretched for nearly 200 miles.

Lake levels are nowhere near the level they were just a few years ago. White bars, some about 40 feet tall, spread across the expansive walls showing previous levels, and maps from earlier this decade mark landscapes that were once islands but now connect with the shore.

However, with these lower levels come miles and miles of new hiking trails and more canyons to explore.

One spot that should be on everyone’s itinerary is Rainbow Bridge National Monument. From April to October, Wahweap Marina hosts 7-1/2 hour boat tours to the monument, about 50 miles away. Once there, there is a 1.25-mile hike through a canyon to the foot of the bridge, which spans 275 feet and is 290 feet high – nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Late afternoon was reserved for fishing, which we did with both an Arizona and a Utah license since more than 80 percent of the lake is in Utah.

Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, striped bass, walleye and several other fish are ripe for the picking.

Once we headed back to the marina to end our trip, we spied on a few other houseboat options. There was the 75-foot luxury boat that included six staterooms with queen beds, a gas fireplace, a hot tub, eight TVs and three in-suite bathrooms with showers. That one rents for more than $11,000 a week.

On a slightly less extravagant level was our Discovery series 59-footer, which sleeps up to 12 people, with four queen beds, one shower and an upper deck driving helm, and renting for more than $6,000 a week during peak season.

For smaller families, the 46-foot Expedition series seemed the best choice. With room to sleep six people, a weeklong rental was about $3,000.

All boats include a waterslide off the back. We had made several attempts to slip down ours but never could gather the courage to splash into the cold water. The chill in the November air was enough for us.

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