Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Great Southwest Canyon Road Trip - The Valley of Fire

[Sandstone formations at the Valley of Fire]
I'll warn you now, there's a not a lot of food in these upcoming posts. But there are giant holes in the ground, vast empty spaces, vertiginous drives and some quite incredible scenery. So I do hope you'll forgive me. I also hope my experiences might be useful to other road trip planners like myself!

First off, a tiny bit of geology. Many gazillions of years ago, much of America was under water, with Utah and Arizona once being the coast of a huge inland sea (look here if you can't picture this).

Over time those sandy shores and sea beds compressed down into a mile thick layer of sandstone - plate tectonics (words I never thought I'd see in my blog) pushed this sandstone some ten thousand feet into the air, turning the sea bed into a high plateau. In turn, water, wind and ice eroded the sandstone into the most amazing canyons, cliffs and valleys (if this has piqued your interest, read more about the Grand Staircase).

I am no geology geek - but these landscapes, after they'd taken your breath away, would always leaving you asking why? how? What possessed nature to create these landscapes?

[Mouse's Tank, Valley of Fire, Nevada]
Anyway, although it came about more by luck than judgement, I was rather proud of our route. The scenery built up slowly - from the human scale of the carved red stones in the Valley of Fire to brain melting enormity of the Grand Canyon.

Done in reverse (as had originally been the plan, which I reversed to ensure we caught the Route 66 Festival in Kingman!), the Grand Canyon would simply have overwhelmed everything else.

So, on day one, a thunderstorm chased us out of Las Vegas along the I15 and then onto the evocatively named Valley of Fire Highway and into the park. Within the park itself, there's a dead-end road that leads up the valley from the visitor's center.

The road winds past a number of viewpoints and trail heads - we chose to walk the short and relatively easy Mouse's Tank trail, while the temperatures were still relatively cool after the storm, and played a fun game of 'spot the petroglyph'.

By the time we'd reached the end of the road, the temperatures were soaring - so tempted as I was to see the set of The Professionals (1966), still preserved among the White Domes Hills, common sense prevailed. Plenty of time yet to do what only mad dogs and Englishmen do  ...

[It's not joking, it was seriously hot]
Given it's just an hour from Las Vegas, I'd expected the Valley to be busier - perhaps, if you're going to do just one natural wonder during your stay, you're off to the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon? For us, it was the perfect introduction to what was to come.

The red sandstone shapes were other-worldly, especially if you're used to the flat, tamed and manicured landscapes of Cambridgeshire, and the petroglyphs remind you there's a mysterious history to America that's older than Columbus or the Pilgrim Fathers.

Oh, and I have to sneak some food in at the end. Don't make the mistake we made and expect to be able to eat at the visitor's centre - this one is purely educational displays and a small gift shop. Hungry, we rejoined the I15 and stopped off at the little town of Mesquite - which has the usual range of ubiquitous eateries.We ended up at a Jack-in-the-Box, although I've since been recommend the Peggy Sue's 50s diner next door. Ah well.

After that, we're back on the road to Springdale, Utah - but this post is already too long and writing about diners has made me hungry. So I'm off to eat brunch and I'll tell all about Zion soon.

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