We decided to leave Bluewater Lake a day early. We were headed to Flagstaff, AZ, four hours away, where we planned to camp with our daughter, Lora, and son by marriage, J. Michael. The Saturn needed a good cleaning, and we had to remove and store the mobility scooter and our folding bikes. The extra day provided us time to do that and reconnoiter the area. We checked in at the Flagstaff KOA shortly after noon. We got a little earlier start than we had planned and Arizona doesn't change to daylight savings time so we gained an hour. That gave us plenty of time to get everything done before we were to drive to the Phoenix airport to pick up Lora and J. Michael.
A lot of people swear by KOA, apparently because they have a reputation for nice, clean restrooms and showers; but we never use campground restrooms or showers so we're not big KOA fans. Our experience is that their sites are too close together, and they are usually at the top of the rate scale for the area. This KOA certainly was no different. The sites were only about 16' -18' wide and and were mostly dirt. Actually, the sites were mostly fine dust. Our dog, Molly, got filthy and with all the wind, so did our motor home. The cost was over $33 a night, even with the KOA Kamper Kard discount and without the additional $3 a night charge for cable. Our neighbor's picnic table was right under our slide-out window. Fortunately there was a ban on charcoal fires due to drought and high winds because the KOA-provided charcoal grill was so close to our motor home the charcoal lighter would have blistered our paint. Unfortunately, we had to set up close to our neighbor's grill because it was the only place we could position the motor home and still reach all the hookups, miss the electrical box with the slides, and have room to get out the door. This KOA has made an effort to leave a few shrubs between sites to help with privacy. Unfortunately, because the sites are so narrow, that means you tend to get poked in the butt by branches when you try to get into your outside storage compartments. There was a fair amount of traffic noise from US 89 and there were a lot of distant train whistles.
The campground does, however, have a nice balance of shaded and open sites and they have planted some flowers here and there to help beautify the place. We like open sites because of our satellite internet dish, but a lot of people prefer shade. The road leading from the office to the main camping area is lined with fairly large trees. Unfortunately, there are quite a few that are very close to the road. Most of these trees have large pieces of bark missing in an area about 3' from the ground and again at about 10 to 12' from the ground where unsuspecting RVs have strayed too close. We're happy to say, we did not leave our mark. :)
We went with KOA this time so that Lora and J. Michael could stay in one of their cabins. We could have put them up in the motor home, but being full-timers we have little space left to store luggage for week-long company. Besides, they are relative newlyweds, and we were afraid accommodations with parents in the motor home would be a little too close for comfort. So we thought the KOA Kamper Kabin would be a way for everyone to have their own space and privacy and still be close by to share morning coffee and meals. The office staff at KOA was very accommodating in giving us a site near their cabin that had an unobstructed view of the southern sky for our dish. They also accommodated us arriving a day early.
The 2 1/2 hour drive to Phoenix to pick up Lora and J. Michael at the airport was so interesting as we went from 7,000' pine forests around Flagstaff, through high desert, and down to the Sonoran Desert around Phoenix. Most of the stately Saguaro Cactus had little white flowers clustered at the ends of their arms. After returning to the KOA, Lora and J. Michael checked in to the Kamper Kabin, took a nap, then we all enjoyed a leisurely dinner.
We were all anxious to see the Grand Canyon, but we thought it would be better to have a less strenuous day after Lora and J. Michael's travel day. Additionally, they had just moved the previous week and the 3-hour time change was an adjustment so we decided to take a leisurely drive to Sedona, AZ. Sedona is an artsy community in the Red Rock Country of Arizona. This is a view of the Oak Creek Canyon in the Coconino National Forest on the way to Sedona.
The main street of Sedona is lined with eclectic shops selling anything from western wear to jewelry to tee-shirts to psychic readings. It's not difficult to see why Sedona is a popular tourist destination. The views from almost anywhere in town are fantastic!
On the way back to Flagstaff we stopped by Montezuma's Castle National Monument. Montezuma's Castle is a five-story, 20-room cliff dwelling in the Verde Valley about 40 miles south of Flagstaff just off I17. Early settlers assumed the dwellings were built by the Aztecs and gave it the name Montezuma's Castle. The name stuck even though it was later determined the dwellings were built by the Sinagua people. The Verde Valley had been occupied for thousands of years by hunter-gatherers. The Sinagua, who were sophisticated farmers, moved into the valley around 1125 and built the cliff dwellings around 1150. The dwellings were occupied until the early 1400s. Today the dwellings are somewhat deteriorated by time, weather, and vandals. They have been stabilized, but can only be viewed from the valley floor.
A short distance away is Castle A, as it was named by archaeologists. Because it was built closer to the base of the cliff, it was more exposed to the weather and to vandals and today only a few original foundation bricks remain. However, in its day it was a six-story building with about 45 rooms.
On Friday we drove from Flagstaff to Williams, AZ, to board the train for the Grand Canyon National Park. The train is operated by the Grand Canyon Railway, which provides two regularly scheduled round trips a day between Williams and Grand Canyon Village. Back in 1901 the Grand Canyon Railway (then a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway) built a rail line from Williams to the South Rim of the canyon as a means to lure tourists. The three-hour train ride quickly became more popular than the six-hour stage coach ride. However, as use of the automobile grew in the '40s and '50s, the train fell from favor. In 1968 passenger service was discontinued although the train continued to haul freight for several more years. Then the rails lay unused until Max and Thelma Biegert bought the rail line in the late 1980s and began restoration. The Williams Train Depot was reopened on Sept. 17, 1989 - exactly 88 years to the day after the first passenger train traveled from Williams to the Grand Canyon. Max and Thelma retired this year and sold the railroad to Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which is the concessionaire for the Grand Canyon and many other National Parks.
The train provides a fun, relaxing way to travel to the Grand Canyon. There is a staged gun fight before the passengers board the train. Here the "bad guy" has been shot and is about to make a soft landing.
The gun fight characters later stroll aisles of the train after it is underway chatting with the passengers. A singer in cowboy garb also goes from car to car singing old western songs. It was a lot of fun, and we really recommend the train as a way to have a relaxing trip to the canyon.
Words simply can't describe the Grand Canyon. Pictures can't do it justice. It is just so vast that it is beyond words and pictures. You have to see it in person. See Photo Album 19: Grand Canyon and the Flagstaff Area for pictures of the train ride and our attempt to capture the majesty of the canyon in photographs.
We opted for a 1 1/2 hour guided bus tour of a portion of the Hermits Rest Loop, which is just to the west of Grand Canyon Village. This particular tour was only available to Grand Canyon Railway passengers. As first-time visitors, we thought it would be a good way to get oriented. The tour was very informative, and we thought it was well worth our while. Here are Lora and J. Michael at one of the stops along the bus tour.
One thing that becomes very evident is how deceiving distances are. Your mind knows that canyon is about a mile deep, but when you look down into the canyon and the tour guide tells you what look like shrubs about half-way down the canyon are really 70' tall cottonwood trees, it really surprises you. The photo below shows Indian Garden. The green ribbon in the center of the photo are the 70' cottonwoods along the famed Bright Angel Trail. Bright Angel Plateau with the trail showing up as the light tan line is visible beyond Indian Garden. The edge of the plateau in the upper left is the turnaround point for the one-day mule trip, which means it is a half-day's ride. The trail to the bottom follows the trees and goes off to the right of the plateau. The mule trip to the bottom takes a full day down and a full day back with an overnight stop at Phantom Ranch.
On our way back from the Grand Canyon we all agreed we wanted to experience more of the canyon so we decided to travel back by car. We left bright and early two days later and stopped in Tusayan, which is just outside the south entrance to the park, to see "Grand Canyon Movie" at the National Geographic Society Visitor Center IMAX Theater. This is the most watched IMAX movie of all time having been viewed by almost 40 million people. The movie starts with the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloans or Ancient Ones), who were early inhabitants of the canyon area. It then moves into more recent history with Spanish discovery in 1540. It details the exploration of the canyon by John Wesley Powell in 1869. John Wesley Powell was a 35-year old Civil War veteran who lost his right arm in the battle of Shiloh. Powell, who was also a professor of natural history, and nine companions explored the uncharted and dangerous canyon in 4 small, wooden boats. Three of Powell's companions, in fear for their lives in the dangerous rapids, left the group to climbed out of the Canyon on foot. They were never heard from again. It is assumed they were killed by Indians.
Learning a little about Powell from the movie really piqued Margery's interest in him. She is currently working her way through the 573 page A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell by Donald Worster. How interesting to learn that in the spring of 1857, he stayed on Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh before beginning his exploration down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers where he learned about the geological history that had made the North American continent what it was.
From the IMAX movie, we went to the rim of the canyon and explored the area to the east of Grand Canyon Village as well as Kolb Studio at the Village. The Kolb brothers operated a photographic studio at the south rim of the canyon from 1904 to 1976. In 1990 the building was restored and today operates as a book store, museum, and art gallery. The studio is located near the trailhead of Bright Angel Trail, which descends down into the canyon. Paul and Lora took a short hike down the trail. We saw this mule party a ways below heading back up the trail. Mules have the right of way on the trail and hikers must pass by on the outside next to the drop-off.
In the day between our two treks to the Grand Canyon we stayed a little closer to our home base. Sunset Crater National Monument is about 15 miles north of Flagstaff. It is at the beginning of a 34 mile scenic loop that ends up at Wupatki National Monument, which is the site of numerous pueblo ruins. Sunset Volcano is a 1000' high black cinder cone tinged with yellows and oranges. The volcano erupted sometime between 1046 and 1071 spewing ash, cinders, and lava over a wide area. Below is a view of the Bonito Lava Flow in front of Sunset Crater Volcano.
Even though over 700 years has elapsed since the last volcanic activity, there is surprisingly little vegetation on either the lava flows or the cinder cones. Weather usually breaks down the lava and cinders to turn them into soil, but the low amount of rainfall in this region has slowed the breakdown and thus the plant growth. The area is in the San Francisco Volcanic Field (named for St. Francis and not connected to San Francisco, CA) and is dotted with numerous cinder cones and several lava flows. Although the cinders begin to thin out quite a bit as you get closer to Wupatki National Monument, their black evidence can be seen essentially the entire 34 mile scenic drive,
At Wupatki National Monument we visited two of the seven pueblo ruins that are open to the public. The first was Wukoli Pueblo, which is the best preserved dwelling in the park. Two or three families lived in this pueblo which was occupied from about 1120 to 1210.
The second site we visited was Wupatki Pueblo, which is the largest pueblo in the park. This dwelling had approximately 100 rooms at its peak and rose multiple stories. It also had a circular ceremonial or meeting room and a ball court.
Now, we don't really like big cities, we don't like a lot of glitz, and we don't gamble; but our curiosity got the better of us and since Las Vegas is kind of on the way to our next area to explore in Utah, we planned to spend a couple of nights in Vegas. We wanted to see the lights, see the exotic hotels, and take in a buffet or two.
Lora and J. Michael had arranged their schedule to fly back to Pittsburgh from Las Vegas. We made reservations for us at the Circus Circus KOA and for them at the motel section of Circus Circus. Again, KOA usually isn't our cup of tea, but we needed a campground with reasonably priced motel rooms nearby. The Las Vegas Circus Circus KOA is basically a paved parking lot with side-by-side hook-ups. There's not much shade and not much grass, but it is conveniently located at the north end of The Strip and it does have both a hotel and a motel. But at over $50 a night for a campsite (with a KOA Kamper Klub discount and without the extra charge for Wi-Fi), it leaves a lot to be desired.
The route from Flagstaff to Las Vegas takes you right across Hoover Dam. We had heard about restrictions crossing the dam with large vehicles such as trucks and RVs after 9/11. Although RVs are currently permitted to cross, they may be subject to search. Since, as full-timers, our motor home is well packed and since we didn't know the extent of the search or the length of the backup, we opted for the half-hour longer route through Laughlin, NV. Besides, there are also construction delays at the dam because they are buiding a bridge 1/4 mile downstream to eliminate most of the traffic across the dam and eliminate terror threats to the dam. Completion of the bridge is scheduled for 2008.
After we all got settled, we drove The Strip while it was still daylight and again later at night and marveled at the lavish hotels. The Luxor Hotel is built in the shape of a black pyramid with a huge sphynx in front. Caesar's Palace looks like Roman architecture with a reproduction of the Collesium out front. Paris Las Vegas has a large replica of the Eiffel Tower.
New York, New York looks like the New York skyline with a replica of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. At night, The Strip lights up like no other place you've ever seen. The older hotels and casinos have most of the neon, although even the McDonalds have elaborate neon signs. Many of the newer hotels rely on their design to be noticed and have somewhat more subtle lighting. Most of the newer hotels do, however, have a jumbotron out front previewing their shows and advertising their casinos.
As far as we can tell, the hotels (even the large, expensive ones on The Strip) all have free, self-park garages. They want to make it easy for the general public to stop by and maybe spend a little time in the casino or attend a show. Some even have free shows outside to draw people in. Treasure Island has a pirate show and the Bellagio has lighted fountains that are choreographed to music. There is a 1000' long, eight-acre lake in front of the Bellagio with fountains that can propel water up to 50' high. The fountains twirl, sway, pulse, rise, and fall to the music.
During the afternoons, the shows are every half hour. At night, the shows are every 15 minutes. We were there in the evening and stayed for four shows. The shows are relatively short (about 4 minutes) and by the time each show was over and we found a new vantage point, it was almost time for the next show. Each show had different music and different fountain choreography. There are at least 20 or 30 different music selections including classical, pop, broadway, and Christmas. It was agreed by all that it was one of our favorite parts of Las Vegas.
There are food bargains to be had in Las Vegas if you look for them. The new, large hotels on The Strip are quite expensive, but the smaller hotels and casinos (which are still very nice) off The Strip or downtown have much lower prices, especially if you stick to the coffee shop, grill, or cafe instead of the main dining room. For example, at Kitty's Grill in the El Cortez Hotel downtown you can have an 8 oz. prime rib for $7.95 (12 oz. for $9.95) or surf and turf (7 oz. NY strip steak and 12 to 15 decent-size broiled shrimp on a skewer) for $12.95. All dinners include soup or salad (the blue cheese dressing is excellent), vegetable, and potato. The food is good, especially for the price, and ambiance is not bad (linen napkins, but no table cloths - this is the grill, not the dining room). We also had a great breakfast buffet for $5.99 at Sam's Town, which is off The Strip on Boulder Highway. The hotel is beautiful with a large atruim/lobby, although not as extravagant as those on The Strip, and is very well maintained. The food at the buffet was excellent with all the usual breakfast items (scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, cereal, rolls, muffins, etc.) plus freshly-carved ham and made-to-order omelets. They also had lunch and dinner buffets, but we didn't make it back to try them.
On the one full day that we had in Las Vagas we backtracked 30 miles to Hoover Dam. There is a tour of the dam that easily accommodated Margery's scooter.
The tour includes a movie about the history and construction of the dam and an elevator ride 500' down into the rock of the canyon wall to see one of the two 30' diameter water intake pipes that carry up to 90,000 gallons of water a second...
...and the eight huge generators on the Nevada side of the dam (the Arizona side has nine). The smaller, horizontal generator in the foreground is one of two generators (one on the Nevada side and one on the Arizona side) that power the dam facilities, the Visitor Center, and the power plant itself.
In the 1800s and early 1900s the Colorado River often flooded low-lying farm land and communities as it surged with water from snow melt in the spring. In the late summer and fall it often slowed to a trickle too small to be useful for irrigation. The river needed to be controlled; but before that could happen, there needed to be agreement on how the water could be equitably divided. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact was signed by the 7 states served by the river. Then in 1928, Congress passed the Boulder Canyon Project Act authorizing construction of the dam. Although the act called it the Boulder Canyon Project and the dam was initially called Boulder Dam, the dam is actually located in Black Canyon. In the end, Black Canyon was chosen because it is narrower than Boulder Canyon and it had less silt to be removed to get down to bed rock. Construction began in 1931 with the building of diversion tunnels for the Colorado River. The first concrete was poured in June, 1933. The dam was completed in 1935 - two years ahead of schedule and well under budget. Not only did the dam make it possible to provide water and electricity for much of the southwest, it provided thousands of jobs during the Depression.
Here are some interesting facts about Hoover Dam. It is 726.4' high from bedrock to the top and contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete weighing 6.6 million tons. There was such a great mass of concrete that a large chiller was used to circulate cool water through the concrete to cool it as it cured. The dam is 1244' wide at the top, 45' thick at the top (width of roadway and sidewalks) and 660' thick at the base. Some of the equipment used to build the dam was too large to transport so it had to be built on-site. Of the thousands of people that took part in the construction, 96 lost their lives. Contrary to popular myth, none is buried in the dam. There are 17 total commercial generating units plus 2 service units to supply power for the facility itself with a total capacity of 2080 megawatts. Lake Mead, which is behind the dam, is currently 53' below its normal level for this time of year because of ongoing drought. Therefore, the power plant can not be operated at full capacity at this time. The photo below shows Lake Mead with one of the water intake towers in the foreground. The white "bathtub ring" shows the normal water level.
See Photo Album 19: Grand Canyon and the Flagstaff Area for more photos of Hoover Dam. We are disappointed that not many readers are taking advantage of the photo albums. In addition to the pictures, there is other information included that is not in the weblog. If you are having trouble accessing the photo albums in a timely fashion, please let us know. We'll see what we can do to speed up the time.
The time for Lora and J. Michael to return home arrived all too soon. We got them to the airport, then returned to the motor home to finish packing and hitch up the toad just in time for the 11:00 AM checkout time. We were headed for Zion and Bryce National Parks in southern Utah.