High (Slightly Dangerous) Places

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It was slow-going. For each step that I took, I slid down half of a pace. The loose rubble crunched under my hiking boots, and I was glad that I had worn such sturdy shoes to traipse across the rugged, winding terrain. I felt the heat acutely, both from the sun shining down overhead and the steam coming from the black piles of rock in front of me. Every time I looked up, I was in awe.

I was hiking an active volcano.

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On the way up: two other volcanoes (Fuego and Acatenango) in the distance.

No, I’m not crazy – this is a popular activity in Guatemala, as the country has over 37 volcanoes, three of which have erupted in the past couple of years. I was told that the hike would be 5ish miles there and back. Piece of cake, right? Perhaps, except I didn’t take into account that I would be at elevation. Pacaya Volcano stands at over 8,000 feet above sea level. I was huffing and puffing, my pulse beating rapidly with each step I took. Edwin, the guide-slash-park-rancher, practically skipped upwards, looking back with a flashy grin every so often to check on the slow American.

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Partway up!

I was glad that the scenery was absolutely gorgeous; it gave me an excuse to regularly stop and snap photos. The luscious green of the surrounding countryside juxtaposed nicely with the black ashy volcanic rock. I’m not quite sure what came to mind when I envisioned Guatemala before this trip, but I was overwhelmingly surprised at all of the mountainous landscape, covered with immaculate shades of green.

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A couple of wild dogs trailed me the whole way up, hoping for a handout. One bounded ahead, and I realized that I had arrived – or at least as far up as I could safely go.

It was incredible.

The steam from the volcano came at regular intervals, and the whole eastern side was on fire. I expected a viscous lava flow, like Hollywood has taught me to believe, yet it was more like a huge scree field of campfire coals. As rocks tumbled – small and large – glimpses of red could be spotted. In fact, there was a rock pile right close to me that looked like the remnants of an epic bonfire.

And then marshmallows started to get passed around.

I was literally toasting fluffy sugar balls on top of an active volcano. The weariness of the hike behind, I rested and enjoyed this unique experience. The sky was blue, fluffy white clouds mixing with steam from within Earth’s crust. The breeze helped cool down my over-heated body, and my muscles relaxed with each breath of smokey air. I was happy to be exploring a wild place so out of the norm from anything I’ve done before.

My marshmallow caught on fire, and I didn’t even care.

It still tasted delicious.

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Petrified Forest Recap

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Length of Stay:

  • 3 days, 3 nights

High:

  • Painted Desert Inn lantern tour
  • Investigating an ancient petraglyph calendar which perfectly aligns with the summer solstice
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Nice landscape, nice sky!

Low:

  • Falling down a soft rock strata during one of my back country expedition

Favorite Hike:

  • Agate House
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Agate House – an ancient dwelling made from petrified wood

Favorite Treat:

  • Sopapilla (a Mexican deep-fried pastry)

Stony Wood and a Haunted Inn

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Petrified Forest national park is chock-full of fossilized wood. Based on the pictures I’d seen, I figured that there may be a couple of key places where one might be able to see this mineral-permeated organic matter. After all, how much “rock-wood” can actually be found in an arid desert-like environment?

Apparently a lot.

Thanks to plate tectonics, this area of Arizona used to be near the equator, resulting in a lush, rain forest environment. These trees got buried under layers of sediment, became saturated with minerals, and turned to stone. (This all took many, many years, of course). There are big chunks that can be found at the Long Log section, and smaller multi-colored pieces that are strewn all about the Crystal Forest.

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Crystal Forest

It’s pretty. It’s unique. It’s science!

I also had a chance to tour the Painted Desert Inn, an old traveler’s rest stop that now serves as a museum. In the spirit of Halloween, we took the entire tour in the dark. Using only glow sticks to light our way, the ranger told stories and tall tales about a myriad of suspicious and creepy behavior that happened in the old inn. Spoiler alert: someone actually did die there. We entered the basement through a locked door – a place where park visitor’s are only allowed to go once a year. The floor creaked and the dumbwaiter was super eerie.

Was it truly haunted? The park rangers and volunteers seem to think so.

Was it semi-historical and fun? You bet!

One Big Canyon

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“I hope you’re not scared of heights, cuz I’m going to assign you one of our tallest mules.”

“That’s fine. Will I be riding that one over there?”

“No, yours is in a separate corral. She needs to be isolated from the other mules.”

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Me on Cher, the “troublesome” mule

And that’s how my mule riding adventure at the Grand Canyon began (not the most comforting thought to be told you’ll be placing your life in the hands of an ornery animal who has social issues). Yet mule riding and the Grand Canyon go together like peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, and other food-related famous duos. How could I not ride on the back of one of these stubborn, sure-footed creatures overlooking one of the most famous canyons in the world?

My ride was fabulous. Cher ended up being a little bit of a handful, but didn’t launch me off the edge, so I was happy. Each turn along the trail brought another view of the canyon’s sheer expansiveness.

The Grand Canyon sure is big!

Zion Recap

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Length of Stay:

  • 3 days, 4 nights

Highs:

  • Unique hikes
  • Scenic drives
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The view from the top of Angel’s Landing hike

Lows:

  • Litter! (Tossing sunflower seeds, nut shells, and food scraps on the ground is rude and unacceptable. Yes, it may be biodegradable, but it’s not native to the desert environment, it’s an eyesore to your fellow hikers, and it will take a long time to decompose) #leavenotrace

Favorite Hike:

  • Angel’s Landing

Favorite Treat:

  • Fry sauce – apparently this is a Utah thing.
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Hanging gardens along the Virgin river

Full Circle

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Last November I visited Zion national park and was completely astounded at what I discovered. My eyes were opened up to a whole other world that existed beyond my day-to-day reality. Looking up at the cliffs, barely acknowledging the below-freezing weather, something inside of me shifted. A blatant desire was born – a passion to see more of the beauty in America hidden in plain sight within our national parks.

Thus, Zion has a special place in my heart. Returning to this park made me realize how far I’ve come on my journey – both geographically and experientially.

Many people see Zion as a sacred place. In fact, early pioneers named various features of the park in such a way as to describe a spiritual awareness. Angel’s Landing, Court of the Patriarchs, Temple, Great White Throne… all of these majestic places are truly awe-inspiring.

Despite the crowds, I enjoyed viewing parts of the park that I didn’t have a chance to during my first visit. The Narrows was an interesting hike. Wading through water along a slender canyon was an enjoyable challenge. It was slow-going; I was extremely cautious not to lose my footing on the slick rocks and plunge into the 49° water. The Museum of Human History was another place in the park that was fun to explore.

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The Narrows

I reveled in the feeling of coming full circle at Zion national park. Looking back at all of the adventures I’ve had fills me with a genuine sense of fulfillment. And now I look, once more, to the future. Ready to engage in more exploits and take on the world… one park at a time.