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Friday 8 April 2016

Spring Break in the Desert

Last week Ava and Lola were on Spring Break so we decided to take a trip to show the girls a little of America's most stunning natural landscapes in Nevada, Utah and Arizona. I'll have in depth posts (and a gazillion photos!) coming about each place we visited, but for now I want to share an overview of our trip.

Easter Sunday night we hopped on a plane and headed to what is most likely America's tackiest and most unnatural landscape - you guessed it, Las Vegas!

We took a late night flight from Oakland and arrived in Las Vegas just after 11pm. I hadn't foreseen this being too much of an issue for the kids (they're generally fine with late nights on occasion), but little did I know that it would be 2am before we made it into our hotel room! It honestly never occurred to me that Las Vegas would be so crazy busy on a Sunday night. We lined up for well over an hour to collect our reserved and prepaid rental car at the airport. We then discovered that Nevada law prohibits rental car employees from installing car seats for customers, and spent half an hour wrangling with a baby seat of the likes we'd never encountered before. By the time we arrived at our hotel it was after 1am yet there was a line at least 20 people deep waiting at the check in counter. A slow moving line that felt like it took forever to move even the shortest distance. When we finally made it into our room at 2am, Lola and Mathilde were fast asleep. Ava, Kim and I, however, were wide awake and famished. Thanks to a late lunch, we'd skipped dinner at dinner time and planned to grab a bite at Oakland Airport. Unfortunately we made it through security just minutes after every single food store had closed for the night. Everything in the airport was closed when we arrived in Las Vegas too. No problem... we'd jump in our rental car, check in at the hotel and head out for a super late dinner all within an hour. Ha! It was 2:30am by the time we got our "dinner". By then Ava was completely wired and we stayed up until after 3:30am watching tv. As you can imagine, the next day was a bust!

We had planned on taking a day trip to Death Valley to see the wild flower Super Bloom which is happening right about now. With our lack of sleep, a day trip was out of the picture. So instead we spent the day exploring Las Vegas. Or at least, trying to explore Las Vegas.

Note to self: Las Vegas kinda sucks! Ok, so I already knew that from our previous visit (which you can see here) but everything seemed so much harder this time around. And I don't think that it was just because we had kids with us this time. Everything took forever. There were huge lines everywhere we went. There were loads of road works happening with detours taking pedestrians quite far out of the way. And worst of all, it was incredibly windy which meant that a lot of the things I wanted to do with the kids were closed for safety reasons. There was no water show at Bellagio's giant fountain. The Eiffel Tower was closed. The High Roller observation wheel wasn't running. Our hotel's pool closed early due to the wind and the teeny, tiny amount of rain that had started to fall. Ava did not let up about that last one!

Despite all of this, we did get to see a few pretty cool things in Las Vegas. We stayed at the Flamingo and the girls were pretty excited to see the real life flamingos on display in the resort grounds. We visited the Venetian and Lola got to pretend that she was showing us all around Italy (her dream since our visit to Tuscany a few years back). We missed the water show at Bellagio but we did get to see the amazing flower show inside. We bought cupcakes from the Sprinkles cupcake ATM. We swam in the (unheated - eek!) hotel pool in the morning before we left. And thanks to the tv screen built into our bathroom mirror, we got to shower and brush teeth while watching Spongebob. Trust me, that last one was a major highlight for the kids!

From the cigarette haze filled absurdity that is Las Vegas we headed to the stunningly beautiful Valley of Fire State Park, just over an hour's drive away. You seriously couldn't get more of a contrast between two places so close together! Nature certainly has a way of making you appreciate her more after spending a day in Las Vegas. I hadn't heard of Valley of Fire until a friend told us that we just had to make a stop there. I'm so glad he gave us that advice because it's such an amazing place. From a distance the valley does appear to be filled with red flames. Gigantic red earth rocks fill the weather worn landscape. Their rounded surfaces dotted with small caves of varying sizes create the impression of a prehistoric city. Flintstones style skyscrapers! The girls enjoyed scrambling over rocks, finding little caves to hide in, and trying to decipher the petroglyphs scratched into the rocks . The colors in the park are just amazing, and unlike Zion and the Grand Canyon, there was hardly anyone else there so were really able to appreciate the natural beauty. Valley of Fire has to be one of my new favorite places. If you're ever in Las Vegas, jump in a car and head to Valley of Fire. You won't regret it.

We continued our drive late in the day and made our way to the tiny Utah town of La Verkin, half an hour's drive from the entrance of Zion National Park.

The following day we visited stunning Zion National Park - as did half of Utah! Ok, it wasn't quite that busy, but it was busy none the less. The parking lots were full when we arrived so Kim dropped the girls and I off while he headed back out of the park to find a spot to park the car. Surprisingly he found one fairly quickly and joined the girls and I in the long queue for the shuttle bus to Angels Landing where we planned to take a short hike. The hike to the top of Angels Landing is quite a strenuous and potentially dangerous one. A message warning that hikers have died on the trail was broadcast in the shuttle bus just before we arrived, and oh man did Ava freak out! It took quite some time to convince her that we would only be hiking the lower part of the trail. I'm sure that the hike to the top is amazing, but with young kids in tow, it was out of the question. Our hike took us under a small waterfall before heading back down the hill towards Zion Lodge where we stopped for lunch. We then hiked back to the visitor center via the history museum where the girls completed their Junior Ranger programs and earned their Junior Ranger badges. They're accruing quite the collection.

Zion is absolutely beautiful. The colors and patterns of the rocky landscape are stunning and the light dusting of snow in places made it even more so. The sun shared the sky with perfect fluffy clouds for most of our time at Zion, making for perfect hiking conditions. Not too hot; not too cold. Later in the day fog started to roll in over the higher peaks making for a beautifully atmospheric sight.

We spent the following day driving from Zion to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. There was a lot of spectacular scenery along the way, but there was also quite a lot of nothing. We made a few stops at scenic lookouts, stopped to take photos as we crossed the border into Arizona, threw snowballs at each other when we found snowy patches along the road at the higher altitudes, and, my favorite, stopped to take in the views of the Colorado River from the Navajo Bridge. Boy, was it a long way down!

We arrived at the Grand Canyon late in the afternoon. If we had thought that Zion was busy, we hadn't seen anything yet! Despite the fact that we were staying at a lodge in the park for the night there was nowhere nearby to park our car. Every single parking space was taken. We eventually managed to find a parking space after driving around and around. Going out for dinner in the park was just as crazy with every restaurant in Grand Canyon Village full for hours over dinner time. We finally got a table in a restaurant before the kids fell asleep.

The advantage to staying in the incredibly busy park was that we were there bright and early in the morning and could avoid the crowds. I set my alarm to wake me up just before sunrise so I could witness the rose pink glow of the canyon as the sun wakes it up for the day. Unfortunately Mathilde also woke at this time demanding "boob time" so I missed the most spectacular part of the sunrise. It was still pretty amazing when I did get outside though. Of course, the Grand Canyon is pretty amazing at all times of day!

Our day at the Grand Canyon coincided with April Fool's Day so I pranked the girls with an official looking letter stating that the Grand Canyon had filled with water and scuba gear was required to visit! They worked out pretty quickly that it was fake.

We spent the morning and early afternoon hiking along the top of the Grand Canyon close to the village. Last time we visited Kim and I hiked into the canyon a little but the kids were keen to stay at the top. While they didn't get to experience quite as much as we did on our previous trip (which you can see here), they still thought the Grand Canyon was amazing.

We left the Grand Canyon in the afternoon to head back to Las Vegas for our flight home in the morning. On the way to Las Vegas we made one last stop: Hoover Dam. Last time I visited, the road over the dam was the main road itself. Now there's a brand spanking new bridge that takes drivers just past the dam while affording spectacular views. The bridge has a pedestrian area for views over the dam but we decided to drive to the top of the dam itself and take the kids for a walk across. That feels a little more authentic to me. Plus I'm a huge fan of Art Deco design and Hoover Dam has some of the most amazing Art Deco motifs I've ever seen on the original buildings. The girls thought that Hoover Dam was pretty cool. Mathilde was keen to go for a swim in Lake Mead and when I told her that it's not for swimming she responded with "Very hot. Water very hot.". Not quite, but very deep maybe!

And that brings us to the end of our Spring Break trip. From Hoover Dam we just headed straight to our airport hotel for an early night before our early flight home on the Saturday morning.

As I mentioned earlier, I'll have dedicated posts about each of the destinations that we visited coming soon. Enjoy...

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