How sore do you think a fairly fit 40 year old mother of three is after backpacking and mountain climbing?
Oh I'm not so sore. I can still...
*starts moving a little*
I'VE BEEN HIT BY A TRUCK
In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that my calves were on fire, my quads screamed f*ck you! every time I tried to go down stairs, and I waddled around like an 80 year old woman needing a hip replacement for 3 days.
How brutal was this little walk in the woods, you ask? Well….
The trail itself is 8 miles roundtrip. You start out at 9,650 ft. and climb over 4,500 ft. to summit at 14,197 ft. It is STRAIGHT UP and then STRAIGHT down. My crazy friend Julie (yes, that is her name. I can’t remember if her friends gave it to her or she gave it to herself) thought it would be fun to camp overnight at treeline - about 11,000 ft. At the trailhead, she straps a 30 pound pack to my back and points me up the mountain. The pack was so heavy and the grade was so steep that I found myself doing the ‘weevils wobble but they don’t fall down’ dance all the way up the trail. When we stopped, I had to lean uphill to avoid being tipped over by my massively altered center of gravity, or prop Gigantor against a tree to alleviate some of the torture from my burning shoulders.
Did I mention it was raining?
It was pouring.
Thankfully I had brought a poncho, and it kept me dry...ish. Except for my lower legs and feet because I was silly enough to wear tennis shoes. Don't do that.
We slogged uphill in silent determination, slipping in the mud, teetering on slippery logs to cross raging mountain mini-waterfalls. WHAT WAS I DOING?!? I kept thinking. I’M NOT BEAR GRILLS!
When we finally made camp, it was still pouring. The mountain wasn’t kidding. Did you know that you can get hypothermia if you are wet and it is 50 degrees? I didn’t either. I DO NOW.
We set up the tents in the rain, and quickly realized that nobody in the group knew how to put together one of the tents! After a quick scramble, I found myself in crazy Julie’s tent, and Amy, my irstwhile tentmate disappeared to the other tent for the night. I won’t even go into how the rainfly was on upside-down, or that water was pouring through the tent like a river until we got that fixed.
I remember bitching and moaning because the electric wasn’t working in our pop-up trailer at the Grand Canyon last month, and how there was a leak in the water heater so we couldn’t have hot water in the trailer...HA. First world camping problems.
That night was, shall I say, one of the coziest I have had in my history. It is a good thing my crazy friend Julie is a GOOD friend, because the tent was tiny with a capital T. Actually, no. It’s tiny with a lowercase t because a capital T is too big for this tiny house. You couldn’t sit up straight. It was long enough for us to lie down and wide enough for two sleeping bags. Barely. It was too cold and too wet to cook dinner, so the menu for the night consisted of crispy M&Ms and nuts, and we were grateful.
The next morning, we were up at 3 a.m., on the trail by 4 a.m., and summited 14,197 ft. by 7 a.m. It was spectacular and brutal. Mt. Belford doesn’t require any technical climbing, but the trail is very steep, and it hurts as much (or more) going down as it does going up. We had the mountain to ourselves for the summit, and enjoyed top of the world views that I really can’t explain. You have to be there.
Was the pain and hassle worth it?
One hundred percent yes, and let me tell you why.
Going into the weekend I had anxiety of epic proportions. I think my husband was actually glad I was leaving because financially-threatened Sarah is no fun to live with. She’s a crabby bitch that can’t enjoy anything because she is obsessively mulling over what financial catastrophe may befall her. Nevermind that she is completely provided for at the moment - SOMETHING MAY HAPPEN BAD NEXT MONTH AND SHE MUST WORRY WORRY WORRY.
What you may not know is that I am in the midst of the scariest career transition of my life. I have moved from having the bulk of my income come from practicing medicine to the bulk of it come from writing, speaking, and media work. This would not be nearly as scary if I wasn’t the primary bread winner (I am), or if Aaron wasn’t going through a massive expansion that honestly I have no idea how we will fund (he is), but that is how our fates aligned. Both of us are feeling the winds of change at the same time and when I am doing well mentally, it is the most awesome roller coaster ride of my life, but when I am not doing well, it is a cesspool of anxiety, and like waves pounding on the shore, one confidence crisis after another.
I don’t do well with the unknown. Stepping away from the W-2 has been the scariest choice I have ever made. If you ever do it, BRACE YOURSELF, because personal doubt and growth will act synergistically and try to swallow you whole if you let them, which is what I was letting happen to me.
I wasn’t in a good mood when we left for the trip. I wasn’t in a good mood during most of the drive. And then the universe must have picked up on my sour mood because I manifested a speeding ticket in Jefferson County from the surliest sheriff I have ever met. UGH. I wasn’t in a good mood when we stopped for lunch in South Park (yes, it's a real place), or took a funny picture.
Thankfully, everything changed on that trail up to the campsite.
You see, when you are gasping for air (it’s a little thin up there), and every muscle is straining and burning, and you are focused on not falling into a stream, or you are counting the steps in your mind because that is ALL YOU CAN DO TO GET UP THE FUCKING MOUNTAIN, there is no room left in your conscious mind for anything else. Huffing and puffing, I burned every last drop of anxiety I had out on that mountain. I got angry. I cried. I gritted my teeth. I kept my mind focused on just getting to the next cairn and not rolling my ankles when my legs got weak and shaky. I tried not to be frustrated when I reached a summit and it turned out to be false - the summit teasing me from even further above. The trail snaked to dizzying heights above me that seemed impossible, so for the most part, I kept my head down and didn’t look up. One step after another, don’t focus on the immense task before you, just take the next step - that is how you climb a mountain.
As I climbed alone (Julie was either far behind or far ahead), I understood that this mountain was a metaphor for my career in so many ways. The path I have set before me is hard and the summit is far, far away. If I see how far it is, anxiety paralyzes me from taking action and I just want to quit. It’s too hard. It’s too big. But if I just focus on the next 5 steps, then I feel like I can accomplish that, and I move forward, and after 5 steps, just focus on the next 5 steps after that.
You see...in the past I have been a destination person. I could not relax into the journey because I was so focused on getting to the destination. Life has taught me that when you reach the destination, you die. Life is about enjoying the journey and embracing the adventure of uncertainly. In the words of Helen Keller, after all, life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.
If the trail ever leveled out enough so that I could catch my breath, anxious thoughts would immediately start to sneak in. I learned that all I had to do to quiet those voices in my head was to stop, take a breath, look behind me to see how far I have come, and enjoy the view.
Standing on that ancient, crumbling mountain reminded me how small I am, and how finite and temporary my problems really are. When we frame the situations of our life in this type of perspective, everything evens out, and we can move forward again.
So if you find yourself worrying about something in your life and you find you can’t stop, go climb a mountain.
I mean it, snickerdoodles. Doctor's orders.
Thank you to everyone who followed our summer trip. I have the best time planning vacations - I think I missed my calling! Here is the itinerary as promised - a couple of disclaimers - you need to be relatively fit to participate in all the activities, and you need to be OK with getting up SUPER EARLY some of the days so you can catch sunrises or beat the heat. Now go forth, and have adventures! If you do end up following this itinerary, let me know, and tell me how your trip was.
You may be wondering why I put this on a veterinarian website and my question back to you is - why not? I have a passion for travel, and I love to combine careers - so why not post it here? Work life balance is a big issue in our profession, and I would love to see more vets posting pictures from the parts of their life that doesn't revolve around veterinary medicine.
So here goes - the itinerary for the most epic southern utah grand canyon trip you will ever take - 8 parks, 2 weeks, no holds barred - HERE. WE. GO.
If you have a 4th grader, make sure to get your ‘every kid in a park’ pass - it'll save you $80!
Day 1: Travel day
This is a road trip. You need a camper of some variation, or a tent. Our trip started in Greeley, Colorado, but you can start this from anywhere. For now, I will pretend you are starting in Greeley.
Drive Greeley to Durango, stay in cheap hotel. Stretch your legs at the fun park on the river, and visit Ska Brewing for beer and street food. This brewery is very family friendly, the beer is good, and the food is cheap and good! There is an awesome outdoor area for kids to play and outdoor seating to relax and enjoy the food and view.
Day 2: Mesa Verde NP
Up and at em! Get up at 5:30 a.m., hit the free breakfast at the hotel at 6 a.m., and drive to Mesa Verde National Park. Several of the cliff houses are only accessible with rangers, the tours are popular, so you have to get in line early to score tickets. Be in line at 6:45 at the visitor’s center. We had wanted to go to Cliff Palace, but the tour we wanted was already sold out, so we opted for Balcony House instead. Allow 30-45 minutes of driving from the visitor center to the trailhead.
We were towing a camper and they don’t allow trailers up the road - too twisty! Fortunately there is a parking lot where you can leave your trailer right inside the park.
Balcony House is the Indiana Jones Tour of Mesa Verde and super fun for kids. You hike down a short trail and are first faced with a 30 foot ladder to climb up into the cliff dwelling. Then you must climb in and around the cliff dwellings to complete the tour, as well as crawl through a short tiny tunnel, climb two more 10 foot ladders, and then scale a vertical cliff face - don’t worry - there are chains to hold onto. It was SUPER fun and we loved it! If you aren’t into that much adventure, Cliff Palace is more sedate, but tickets are hard to come by and you still have to climb some ladders. The tour of Balcony House cost $25.
Next, we stopped at the Four Corners Monument to snap some photos and horse around. It is the mid-way point between Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon. Personally, unless you really want a photo, skip this. It was $25 for a family of five, and it is distinctly underwhelming. Kinda a rip-off, if you ask me.
Roll into Grand Canyon around 5 p.m. and camp at Mather Campground inside Grand Canyon National Park on the South Rim. I highly recommend this campground because it is pretty and convenient. While it doesn’t qualify for glamping (there are no hookups and the only showers are pay showers - $2 for 8 minutes - are located right outside the campground at the bottom of the hill - it is quiet, wooded, beautiful, and the camping spots are spacious. It only fits small trailers and tents. We brought a generator and car batteries, so we had power the whole time, and filled our water tanks with potable water, which is located right next to the showers. There is a grocery store and general store very close to the campground - but it is best if you drive to it - you can get ice there. The firewood is a bit overpriced, I thought. $80 for 4 nights lodging- cheap.
There is a free shuttle that stops at the campground that will take you anywhere within the South Rim of the Grand Canyon that you want to go, which is nice because parking spots are difficult to come by. If you are going to stay here, get your reservations in early as it is popular.
PRO TIP: Grand Canyon is at elevation. It gets cold at night. Be prepared.
Sleep in and enjoy the quiet of the campground, and when you are ready, head over to Bright Angel Lodge for breakfast. I recommend riding the shuttle - but don’t catch it at the campground. Walk a short distance to the Shrine of the Ages and catch a shuttle headed west to Bright Angel. Bright Angel Restaurant serves up reasonably priced and SUPER HEARTY breakfast. $50 for a family of four - you will want to skip lunch. Enjoy the views of the canyon behind the lodge afterwards - they are stunning.
Catch the shuttle to the visitor’s center to look at the ranger led programs and get your bearings. There are tons of free ranger-led programs at the Grand Canyon, as well as an outstanding Hopi demonstration.
Walk to Mather Point, soak in the view, then walk along the rim to Yavapai Point and Geology Museum. Then, continue your Rim walk along the trail of time and walk to the Hopi House. Make sure to go in the Hopi House and window shop handmade wares from local tribes.
Afterwards, catch the 1 p.m. Hopi demonstration in front of the Hopi House. Indigenous dancing, singing, flute, and storytelling - it is MAGICAL. Don’t miss it! Also make sure to check out El Tovar Hotel, which is a historical lodge right next to the Hopi House.
While at the Grand Canyon, catching sunrises and sunsets are a must. Get up at 4:30 a.m. and drive to the visitor’s center. DO IT.
PRO TIP - there is a parking lot for buses behind the visitor’s center that has tons of parking and is closer to the canyon. Park there, and walk to Mather’s Point. Be prepared to jostle all the international visitors to get your perfect sunrise photo, and wear a jacket - it is chilly and windy.
After the sun rises, do a run or a walk along the rim from Mather’s Point to Bright Angel Lodge. It is a STUNNING run, there are elk, and you have the trail to yourself. It’s about 3 hilly miles, but the course is ultimately all downhill. Then stop in at the lodge and get a GIANT pastry and a coffee from the little coffeehouse as a reward, and sit out on the rim and soak in the views.
Afterward, we chose to chill out at the campground for the rest of the day, reading and playing games. You can also choose to ride the shuttle to any of the other viewpoints, catch ranger programs, or go to Hermit’s rest. We needed rest.
Day 5: Hike Into the Grand Canyon
Come on sleepy heads - get up early to beat the heat and hike down into the canyon! We drove to Bright Angel lodge and parked at the Bright Angel Trailhead - we were on the trail by 7 a.m. and hiked 1.5 miles down into the canyon to the first resthouse. It is 1,000 feet down to the rest house, and then you guessed it, 1,000 feet back up. The kids did great and loved the hike - you also get to see all the backpackers who are hiking the whole canyon and the mule trips down into the canyon.
Rest, chill out at the campground until the afternoon, then go catch the free 5 p.m. Condor talk - the talk is in between El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge on the rim at a little ampitheatre. The kids really enjoyed the talk and learned a lot. Afterwards, Aaron and I headed over to get drinks at El Tovar hotel - try to get a seat outside. The drinks aren’t anything to write home about, but the location and view can’t be beat.
Next, catch a shuttle up hermit’s road to Hopi Point for the most spectacular sunset you may ever see. After the sun sets, the shuttles stop running, so as soon as the sun sets, head to the left to catch a return shuttle to the campground.
PRO TIP: There are two California Condors that hang out around the Hopi House on the rim. If you are lucky like we were, you will get to see these rare and majestic creatures.
Day 6: Travel Day
First you must stop at Desert View on the way out of the park. It is an incredible piece of architecture, and the views. The views.
Then get on your way, and stop at Horseshoe Bend, which is about halfway between Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. Take water, and wear good shoes - it is well worth the walk up and over the hill to see the natural wonder that is Horseshoe Bend, but it is HOT HOT HOT.
Stop at Glazier’s market in Kanab for groceries. A little pricey, but a cool little market and local business, and after your 4 days in Grand Canyon you likely will need some groceries.
Next, make sure to stop at Thunderbird’s in Mt. Carmel Junction for pie. It is a nice break, the place has the coolest back story and still family run, and the pie is yummy. I recommend the chocolate cream or the hot apple pie with caramel rum sauce. I love supporting local businesses, especially ones as cool as this. $30 for pie for 5.
Check into Ruby’s RV park and campground just outside Bryce Canyon late afternoon. We had electric and water and the site was spacious and wooded and looked out over a lake. So pretty. It is a short walk to the bathrooms and showers, and there is a pool which we took full advantage. There is a free shuttle into the park that stops at the campground - so convenient! $200 for 4 nights lodging. Also - great laundry facilities. Do your laundry here.
Day 7: Bryce Canyon
Sleep in a little, and then ride the free shuttle into Bryce Canyon National Park. Stop at the visitor’s center for information and your passport stamp (those are fun to collect!), then ride the shuttle up to Bryce Point. Get out and take in the views - SUCH VIEWS!! Hike the rim to Inspiration Point for views and to stretch your legs. Then, hop on the shuttle and ride it to sunrise point and hike the Queen’s Garden-Navajo Loop trail down into the canyon for mind-blowing hoodoo experiences. Be ready to do some serious climbing, and bring water - this trail is marked as strenuous but so, so worth it. Our kids did fine - you come out at sunset point - at which point you can walk over to the general store and enjoy some well-deserved soft serve ice cream for the kids and local beers for the adults, and enjoy everything out on the patio. We recommend Wasatch Polygamy Porter.
Day 8: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Originally we had planned doing some slot canyoneering on Hole in the Rock road - Peek-a-boo gulch and spooky Gulch - however the weather did not cooperate. Instead, we did Willis Creek - a 2 mile family-friendly river walk that encompasses 5 slot canyons! We had lunch at Circle D Eatery - which was highly recommended but just meh - $50 for a family of 5 to have burgers. Meh.
In the afternoon, we had the most spectacular hike - Lower Calf Creek Falls. Originally I hadn’t planned it because I thought it would be too strenuous for the kids, but they did great. It is 6 mile sandy loop trail up a riparian corridor - an oasis in the desert. Along the way you will see beautiful red rock formations, petroglyphs, cliff dwelling ruins, huge sandstone cliffs, and at the end you are rewarded with the most beautiful 130 foot waterfall!! Best of all - you can swim in the waterfall pool, so bring your swim trunks. The kids can play in the sand, slide down the slick rock, explore the pool, etc. It is a great place to linger, but don’t forget you have 3 sandy miles to hike back.
PRO TIP: Ask the camp host at the trailhead for the trail guide - there are markers along the trail that point out cool things.
Day 9: Kodachrome State Park
Sleep in - after hiking 8 miles yesterday, you deserve it! If it is not too hot, head to Kodachrome State Park for some red cliffs and solitude. I recommend the grand parade trail and Angel’s Palace. Angel’s Palace is not very kid friendly - there are some pretty steep cliffs!
You have GOT to do a sunset at Bryce Canyon. We drove to Bryce Point for sunset - just magnificent. After the sun sets, drive to Paria View, bring a blanket, a star chart, and some snacks for some of the best star gazing you may ever experience. There is a little bench halfway down the paved area that is perfect. If the moon is bright don’t despair - the moonlight on the white cliffs is mesmerizing.
Day 10: Travel Day
Plan your route to go through Capitol Reef National Park. As you drive, admire the crumbling red cliffs. Stop at the historic Gifford House in Fruita for PIE. Fresh every day, their pies are cute and delicious. Their fruit pies are to die for - just don’t get 5 pies, like we did. Too. Much. $30 for pie, and $8 for cherry butter (worth it!), and you can eat outside under a shade tree.
Check in to the Canyonlands RV Park in Moab in the afternoon. This RV park can only accommodate smaller rigs, has water and electric, a pool, and a sweet little creek area for cooling off - very necessary because Moab is HOT. HOT HOT HOT. They also sell ice, have free showers, and nice bathrooms. There are no fire rings at the RV sites - so plan accordingly. You can also tent camp. Honestly, by the time we hit Moab, we were all camp fired out. $200 for 4 nights lodging. One of the coolest things about this campground is that it is filled with adventure seekers - hikers, mountain bikers, everybody is there for desert fun.
You will likely be too tired and hot to cook dinner, so why not try the local restaurants? We ate at the Moab Brewery and Fiesta Mexicana. Both were GREAT - Moab Brewery has awesome beer and small plates, and Fiesta Mexicana has great service, a patio with MISTERS, and the best margaritas in town. Yum. Both reasonably priced, and ok with tired, dirty campers.
Day 11: Arches National Park
Set your alarm for 4:30 a.m. because you want to catch the sunrise at delicate arch. It is TOTALLY WORTH IT. The Delicate Arch hike is 3 miles round trip and is marked as ‘strenuous’ for good reason. There is no shade, so you want to be off this trail before the sun is high in the sky, but my oh my, to catch sunrise on the arch is magic. DO IT. On the way back, take the side trail to see some awesome Ute petroglyphs.
After, catch some more arches - landscape arch, double arch, and balanced rock are all short and easy. You can be done before 8 a.m. and head back into town for muffins and coffee at Love Muffin Cafe (a little pricey - $30 for 3 coffees and 4 muffins). We didn’t get a chance to get tickets for the fiery furnace, but if you can get tickets, the fiery furnace is supposed to be amazing.
After, you can hit slickrock or Bar M trailhead for world class mountain biking. We did Bar M - truly amazing.
The rest of the day we chilled out at the campground, swimming, BBQ at the pool, and card games.
Day 12: River Rafting
Sleep in - you will need your energy. After breakfast, go to Moab Adventure center to check in for river rafting and get your life jacket. After a wild bus ride up the canyon, be prepared for a super fun day on the Colorado River with a delicious BBQ lunch (included), Class 3 rapids, and fun water wars. This was the highlight of the trip for the kids. $270 for 5 people.
Day 13: Canyonlands and Jeeping
Canyonlands NP is about 30 miles from Moab, so to catch sunrise you are going to have to be an early bird. We got up at 4 a.m. and caught sunrise at Mesa Arch. Absolutely spectacular! Canyonlands is special in that it is completely devoid of people - if you ever want to have a NP to yourself, come here. We also hiked up Whale Rock for some slick rock fun and amazing views of Island in the Sky, and stopped and snapped a pic at Grandview.
On the way back, stop and get coffee from Moab Roasters - you are going to need it.
If you have followed this far, then you can’t miss a Jeep Tour with Dan Micks - the original pioneer of slick rock jeeping in Moab. This tour is the real deal - all the other companies go around the obstacles, Dan Micks goes OVER them. This is pee in your pants scary - not for the faint of heart! The jeeps defy gravity. Our driver was a sweet Mormon man who played Disney karaoke with the kids for an hour and drove like a bat out of hell. God bless him...and his seven sisters (not kidding). The kids LOVED LOVED LOVED this, and if you are in Moab, this is a can’t miss experience. It’s pricey tho - $500 with tip for a 3 hour tour....a 3 hour tour.