Southwest vacation leads to adventure
My wife and I recently returned from a vacation to the Southwest.
Karlene ran in a half marathon in Las Vegas the second day of our trip, then spent most of the rest of the trip reading books on her Nook. I, on the other hand, spent the time cramming as much action as possible into the two-week trip.
Although phones are admittedly not the most accurate way to measure distance, that is all I have. According to my phone, I walked 110.81 miles during the two weeks, including four consecutive days of more than 10 miles. My mileage would have been even higher, but twice I made the mistake of leaving my phone in the car during lengthy hikes.
There would have been more mileage, but we spent part of the trip with some of our grandchildren. Those days, most of the exertion was chasing kids in a swimming pool just north of Tucson, Arizona.
Instead of some exotic hike in the wilderness, my biggest walking day was 16.22 miles on the Las Vegas strip.
For those who are checking, that is three times from the south to the north end of the strip and back, zig zagging through casinos and shopping centers. It is impossible to walk in a straight line on the strip as they force you to go through various tourist attractions and go over the strip on overpasses at least three times as you go from north to south.
Each overpass has escalators, but at least during our stay they were mostly not working.
The day before, I probably walked even more, because my phone says I walked 11.65 miles and that was before we got to Las Vegas. My wife's phone said that she walked nearly 10 miles on the strip that day, and I was beside her or trying to catch up most of the way. That means I might have topped the 20 mile-mark that day, but we'll never know as my phone was resting in the car.
The highlight of the trip was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. According to my phone, I only walked 13.83 miles that day. However, it was an unforgettable trip.
For those of you who have been to Page, Arizona, it is famous for its slot canyons. Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are possibly the most photographed canyons in the world, with thousands of photos readily available online. Located on Navaho Indian Reservation land, the two short pieces of slot canyon have become a major tourist attraction. The Tuesday, we arrived in Page, and I checked on getting tickets to view Lower Antelope Canyon. The tickets would have been a four-plus hour wait for a tour of 20 individuals with just over a half hour in the canyon.
Since Karlene wasn't interested, that would have left her sitting in a hot car for about five hours, so I passed on the deal, and we set out to look at the area on our own.
In order to hike on Navaho land, an $8 permit is required and in many cases hiking is still restricted to guided tours only.
Before the trip, I had researched the slot canyons in the area and had elected to tour one that is little known. So little known, in fact, that the website for the tour claims that fewer than 150 people have ever seen the canyon. The canyon, called Cardiac Canyon because of the steep climb into and back out of the canyon, is also on reservation land in the same drainage as Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon.
The same tour company, Taadidiin Tours, runs tours in both Cardiac Canyon and the more accessible Canyon X. As I checked in for my tour at 9 a.m. Wednesday, I enquired if it would be possible to tour both Cardiac Canyon and Canyon X on the same day. The response was yes, however, some of the tour guides expressed doubt that I would be able to complete a hike through both canyons.
With no one else choosing to tour Cardiac Canyon, my tour guide, Allan Rock, and I set out on a UTV to get to the top of the canyon. We then slid down a large sandy wash at a greater than 45-degree angle for nearly 200 feet as we dropped to the canyon floor.
As we headed up the canyon toward a dry waterfall that would be as high as we could go in the drainage, the canyon became narrower and narrower until eventually I could easily touch both sides with my hands. The canyon continued to narrow until the floor became so narrow that it was easier to walk on the sides of the canyon, hopping back and forth from one side to the other than to try to walk on the canyon floor.
As we continued up the canyon, we came to a narrow area that climbed steeply approximately 30 feet up. The guide took a big step, placed his back against the right side of the canyon and then worked his way up the canyon by moving his feet up higher and then pushing himself up, while keeping his back tight to the canyon wall. He quickly reached the top of the climb and turned around to assist me.
I quickly stepped into the slot, took one big step up and immediately got stuck. Try as hard as I could, I couldn't get my back against the canyon wall and my feet against the other side. No matter what I tried, my knees hit the far wall, stopping my progress up. Eventually, with the guide's help, I just scraped my knees up the side of the canyon, skinning both knees, but managing to climb.
A few steps above the drop off, we stopped to look at the dry fall, which probably fell 75 feet or more to the canyon floor. The walls of the canyon continued up far above the fall, making a chamber where you were surrounded by rock no matter where you looked. After a brief pause to admire the scenery and take a few photos, it was back down the same chute that we had come up and a trip back down the canyon.
Climbing down was somewhat easier, although I had to drop the final three or four feet as I once again got my knees stuck against the far wall and was unable to make any progress going down.
Anyway, we headed back down the canyon to where we first entered it and then started down the wash. It immediately opened up so that we were walking in deep sand with the canyon walls maybe 20 feet away on each side.
After about 10 minutes of easy walking, we came to an 8-foot ladder leaned against the canyon wall. Maybe 4 feet above the top rung of the ladder was a rope ladder which was tied off to a boulder up a side canyon.
The guide nimbly climbed to the top rung of the ladder, reached as high as he could on the rope ladder, and then hoisted himself up into the side canyon.
This was one time when I was glad that I was tall as I was able to reach much higher up the rope ladder than my guide. Grabbing the rope ladder with both hands, I lifted myself high enough to get one knee up onto the ledge, and from there, the guide grabbed my hand and helped hoist me the rest of the way up.
The side canyon was narrow, dark and beautiful. Water had left vertical stripes in the canyon, while the striated walls left horizontal stripes. The sun was hitting the top of the canyon walls turning them golden, while the lower walls were black from the deep shadows. Perhaps 20 feet up the walls were a series of petroglyphs that had been carved in the canyon at some time when there was more sand in the canyon floor.
After taking a few more photos, we started back down the side canyon. My guide tested the rope ladder to make sure it was secure and then dropped over the side onto the ladder. A few seconds later, he said he was off the ladder so go ahead and start down, "just make sure you test the rope ladder before you put all of your weight on it," he said. So I grabbed the rope ladder and yanked. Seeing that it was secure, I gripped it firmly and stepped off the side of the cliff, only to miss the ladder below. After hanging for a few seconds attempting to find the ladder, my guide said to just stay still for a few seconds and he would climb up the ladder and place one of my feet on the ladder.
So I hung in space until he placed my right foot on the second from the top rung of the ladder and then retreated to the bottom.
From there, it was really no problem to go the rest of the way down the ladder.
We continued to walk down the wash for about another mile, seeing bobcat and porcupine tracks as well as lizards and small birds. A bobcat or owl had caught a rabbit in the canyon and rabbit fur was strewn along the floor of the canyon for nearly half a mile. Eventually, we reached a branch in the canyon. The guide said that continuing down the canyon would eventually lead us to Antelope Canyon. Heading up the fork would take us to Canyon X.
As we walked up the canyon toward Canyon X, an owl flew ahead of us, landing maybe 50 yards in front of us, then taking flight again each time we got too close. More porcupine tracks filled the canyon floor as well as a couple of hardy trees that clung to life in the sand.
The walk up the canyon was uneventful until we finally reached a narrow area. The slot was only about 8 feet deep, as I could reach the top, but it was so narrow that I had to remove my backpack and turn sideways to make it through the twisted rocks. Even that was tight as I drug on the rocks, tearing my pants and getting dirt on both the front and back of my shirt.
Reaching the top of the slot, the canyon once again widened out briefly, until the canyon walls became taller and taller, and then started to narrow.
Suddenly, we hit an area that was so dark that the tour company had placed flashlights at the bottom of the area to help people navigate the darkness. We chose to leave the flashlights, waiting for our eyes to adjust before slowly moving up the canyon.
Up to this point, I had been shooting hand held. In places, the canyon had been dark, but I was able to hold the camera still enough to still successfully take photos. All at once, there was no way to shoot. My camera said that I would need at least a 45-second exposure to light the canyon walls.
We went further up the canyon and eventually hit an open area where the company had built a road of sorts to bring individuals into the canyon on six passenger UTVs. The road was steep enough that when we finally went up out of the canyon, they maxed out the UTV as it struggled to make the climb.
However, before we left the canyon, there was one more dark, tight area of slot to explore. Once again, too dark to shoot without a tripod. That piece of canyon also ended abruptly in a dry fall.
After looking at the canyon with awe, I discovered that I still had nearly an hour of time left on my tour, so I got my tripod out of my backpack and took some shots in Canyon X. Then we drove out of the canyon and waited for an SUV to take us back to the highway.
While waiting, I looked down on Canyon X from the top. The canyon was so narrow that it was possible to easily step from one side to the other. Above the piece of canyon that we explored there were more ladders leading into upper reaches of the canyon, but since they were on private land and not part of the tour, I failed to venture inside. Maybe some other time, as those pieces of canyon looked even more narrow and dark.
Anyway, the rest of the tour was uneventful. As we drove back to the highway, I dusted my clothing off, got in our rental car and drove back to the hotel to pick up Karlene for dinner.
The canyon was a beautiful place, and I'm glad I did it now, when I'm still strong enough to climb. I'm pretty sure that there is a reason that more people haven't toured the canyon. It's a lot of work to see a canyon that is probably not as photographic as other portions of the drainage that are more readily accessible.
Still, I think it was the right choice to make and would highly recommend it to anyone else wanting to explore a remote slot canyon.
I also explored a slot canyon called Water Holes Canyon while we were in Page. The remainder of our trip we toured Saguaro National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, both in Arizona, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and Zion National Park in Utah, and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada as well as a couple of Spanish missions and a Spanish fort near Tucson, and, of course, the strip in Las Vegas.
It was a lot of fun, but I'm glad I'm back in Prineville. My body wouldn't have fared well if I had continued to walk so much. I was starting to get blisters on one of my feet and a hip was starting to hurt. Guess old age is starting to catch up with me.
Guess it's time to start planning the next adventure.