Stuck in the desert – Zion, Grand Canyon & Mojave Desert

Our second week in the USA saw us in the desert for a very long time, when I heard the word desert prior to this trip I just expected sand as far as the eye can see. However this week in the deserts of Utah, Arizona and California showed me that deserts all look completely different from one another and aren't just sand. Despite initially being a bit indifferent to the landscape, I did grow to love it and when we left the desert for the final time I did get a bit upset about probably not being in a desert ever again.

Zion National Park, Utah

We awoke in our free campsite near the Valley of Fire to daylight pouring into the van, feeling pretty smug as we didn't even need to close all the curtains due to there being very few people around. Apart from getting used to weeing outside, it was a great campsite for us. Particularly as it brought down the ridiculous costs of America!

We soon got on the road as we were on our way towards Zion National Park and we'd heard that their campsites are normally full very early, if not completely booked out already. On our way to Zion we stopped in our first Walmart of the trip – it was HUGE! However it was cheap and if we checked the packaging enough we were able to find relatively healthy food.

When we arrived at Zion we paid for the annual park pass so that we could hopefully save some money on entering other parks later in our travels. Then we pulled up to the campground and my heart sank. The sign said 'CAMPGROUND FULL', I was fully prepared to be disappointed and have to find another free area to camp with no toilet. Josh (ever the optimist and normally level headed one) said we should ask at the campground anyway to see if they had any cancellations. I doubted that they had as we arrived early afternoon but tried it anyway. As luck would have it they had one last cancellation campsite left – hurrah! We set ourselves up – feeling very lucky to have a site, running water and a toilet.

Once we were set up we took the free shuttle bus to the end of the canyon, looking in amazement at the landscape which had been carved by the Virgin river out of the window.

The queue may look long but as the buses are so regular we were on a bus within 15 minutes

We walked a relatively short and easy walk at the end of the shuttle bus line and saw lots of over friendly squirrels. Unfortunately we also saw a lot of people which Josh really wasn't a fan of.

One friendly squirrel of many

When we'd finished the walk we got the shuttle bus back halfway down the canyon to another walk stop where we did the walk to three emerald pools. I don't know what I was expecting from an emerald pool, but to find algae topped pools was a bit of a let down. However the walk itself was more challenging and had less people so it was a little more interesting than our previous walk.

The views were a bit better than the emerald pools themselves!

When we got back to the campsite, relaxed and had dinner I got into bed and Josh left me to go to the toilet. When he got back however he was not alone. It turns out that some strangers had got talking to him outside the toilet and asked if they could camp with us and offered to pay him half of the campsite cost [Summarised like that it sounds incredibly weird – Josh]. He agreed, we had neighbours and we also now had people who would go and line up in the queue in the morning to see if there were any new cancellations. An all round win in my eyes!

The next day our new neighbours were nowhere to be found, but Josh received a text late morning saying they'd secured a campsite for the next two nights and we were welcome to share it. SUCCESS. That decided for us that we would stay in Zion two more nights.

After receiving the text we tried to do the Hidden Canyon walk, we got halfway and then I freaked out at the sheer drops and the slippery rocks. I just didn't trust my trainers not to slip so I decided to turn round and head back down the walk, it was a shame but I think it was the safest option.

Happy faces prior to thinking that I was going to die The moment I decided that this walk just wasn't for me

When we got to the start of the walk we did an easy walk that started in the same place to Weeping Rock, essentially a layer of impermeable rock where all the water which has seeped through the sandstone above now escaped to form little waterfalls. It was pretty but nothing spectacular, we've seen a few too many interesting landscapes this year!

Tree vs rock. I think the tree won. A bit underwhelmed by the weeping rock

Feeling a bit defeated about giving up on a walk that day I decided we should set out on another walk that afternoon called the Watchman trail. It claimed to have moderate drop-offs rather than sheer so I assumed I'd be alright. The walk turned out to be our favourite one we'd attempted in Zion, it was unpaved, extremely quiet as it was near the entrance of the park so everyone seemed to miss it out and had epic views from nearly every turn. We could have stayed out longer and taken more photos, but we saw rain clouds in the distance and hurried to get back to the dry van.

Must have been a pretty big impact when this rock fell! How is this place even real?! Should I touch a cactus? Those rain clouds looked pretty intimidating And the scenery only made it even more intimidating!

That night the rain was pretty intense and woke us up on several occasions but we set our alarm early as Josh wanted to go and take photos whilst it was quiet in the Narrows (a walk going through the Virgin river between sandstone cliffs). However when the alarm went off it was still dark and we went back to sleep for another hour before heading for the shuttle. At the shuttle we were informed that the Narrows had been closed due to an unsafe flow rate from the storm the previous night.

It was pretty atmospheric just after it rained

We changed our plans and had a shower instead (we hadn't showered since Vegas so it had been a while), it was bliss. We then decided that we should still go and do the walk to the Narrows so that Josh could take photos, but just not go in the water. So off we went in the shuttle bus with all of Josh's camera equipment ready. When we got off the shuttle Josh gave me his camera to hold whilst he went to the toilet, when he got back I looked at the screen and said "why's it all red?". He thought I was joking. I wasn't joking. Somewhere in between him giving me the camera and me about to give it back everything had taken on a red tint.

Immediately when I saw Josh's face I knew that wasn't normal and I felt really guilty – it had happened whilst I held it but I hadn't pressed anything that I was aware of! We did the walk in silence, Josh fiddling trying to adjust the colour throughout the whole walk and me panicking about ruining his expensive camera. There didn't seem to be much hope and no photographs were taken.

As we gave up and went back to the campsite, Josh managed to fix it (it was a setting with the auto white balance that had been affected if you were worried [A really fiddly little setting and not the normal white balance setting – Josh]). We were both rather relieved and were able to relax for the rest of our time in Zion.

Lees Ferry, Arizona

After leaving Zion we knew we were heading towards the Grand Canyon but only realised the night before that the campsites and the road itself to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon were shut for the season. Bummer. It meant we had to stay at a campsite all the way at the very eastern end of the canyon to set us up to loop to the South Rim of the canyon, but that turned out not to be too bad.

On our way to our chosen campsite, Lees Ferry, HSBC blocked my account AGAIN (it is now nearly two weeks later and HSBC still haven't unlocked my accounts, as well as saying that they will definitely not unlock it until I enter a branch – they are a stupid bank and I hate them). However, we also saw some amazing rock formations on the way to Lees Ferry which lightened my mood a little.

Josh secured a spot in the campsite that overlooked the river, I settled and read whilst he went and took photos. We then tried to get to sleep but were SO cold that it was difficult. Turns out deserts are most definitely not warm at night. In the morning we decided to go and get an extra blanket from Walmart on our way to the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

On our way to the Grand Canyon we made a few stops for food, a blanket, fuel and photo taking.

Yep that rock is pretty cool but I think it needs something to show just how big it is Do you now see just how big it is? JUMP. The 'Oh my gosh, I'm actually pretty good at driving a van' face

Once we got to the Grand Canyon national park we breathed a sigh of relief as we found toilets close by and then made our way to the first spot where you can spot the Grand Canyon. It was a pretty bloody big ditch surrounded by tons of tourists, so Josh drove us further into the park so we could find a quieter spot to observe from. We stayed for a while to have a better look at the canyon and to take photos.

Do the instagram pose!

It was then that we decided to try our luck at the campground, knowing full well that it was the only campground open in a long distance and it was advertised that bookings were essential. So I queued up and waited to be told "No, sorry". However, by some kind of miracle we got the last cancellation again. We decided to chill that afternoon, both at the Market Plaza with hot drinks and then at the camper van.

Josh then decided to go out and take sunset photos, however he didn't take his torch with him and there's no street lights in the national parks… So when it got pitch black and there was still no sign of him I started to worry a little. I turned the light on in the van so he could see it from a distance away and started to get a torch and warm layers ready to go out and find him, although I had no idea where he went in the whole national park so stayed put for a little longer. Then as I opened the door I saw a shadow walking towards me, thankfully it was Josh! At least he hadn't fallen down the biggest ditch in the world! [Meanwhile my side of the story is that I left the van intending to walk a few hundred yards to the canyon. Turns out it can be very difficult to find the biggest natural feature in the world and I had to walk a MILE before I could find a path to access it. Then I had to walk half a mile back before there weren't hoards of people milling around. I got set up next to an old lady with whom I ended up having a nice chat with and took some photos as the sun set. Then it got dark and I hopped on the free shuttle bus to the campsite but had to navigate back to the van in the dark where I found a less than amused Nikki waiting! – Josh]

At least his photos were pretty

Mojave Desert, California

The Grand Canyon was the furthest east we wanted to be in America during this trip so we headed back towards the West Coast. A logical stop seemed to be Mojave so we made our way back to the same campsite in Mojave. During the drive there Josh had to keep constantly correcting for the wind pushing the van sideways and once we arrived at the campsite the ranger told us not to leave anything outside at night as it was likely to get blown away in the wind that was coming… It turns out she was definitely right and it felt like our van would be blown away [Nikki worries too much, it was only a little lot bit windy – Josh], let alone anything outside! We had 70mph gusts and a high wind weather warning for that evening, the next day and the next evening.

Thankfully we had enough water in the van that we were able to stay for another night than we'd originally planned. The weather warnings said that the constant wind was 40-50mph and the gusts were 70mph and recommended that people did not drive. So we spent a whole day in the van, only leaving it to go to the pit toilet. The van shook a LOT and the toilet block sounded like its roof was going to be ripped off every time there was a gust [Not an exaggeration, I was ready for the whole thing to blow away every time I went in – Josh]. It was quite an experience!

Our rather bored faces after being stuck in the campervan for nearly two whole days!

Looking back on this week I realise how intense it was and now I can see why we were both so shattered when we finally left Mojave (I now know its pronounced Mo-Har-Ve, thanks to a druggy old man [I mean, he did repeatedly offer us weed but that description is a little harsh! – Josh] we met later on in our travels). In the space of a week we drove through three states, we visited four main desert areas, we did a lot of walking and spent quite a bit of time scared! It was a memorable week and our time in the camper van is going by so fast!


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