BY SCOTT KERN
When most first time tourists arrive in The Meadows (aka Las Vegas) they are all set to explore The Strip or perhaps Old Las Vegas on Fremont Street; ready to eat, gamble and party the days and nights away. Since there is absolutely nothing in Vegas that cannot be had for enough money or time this seemed like The Plan. To lose yourself in the splendor, decadence and excess that defines Sin City seemed like the way to go. To escape the reality of a boring routine filled existence back home seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime.
However, Lauren and I had different a plan.
We looked at this trip as a unique opportunity over five days to visit four states, sample three vastly different and majestic national parks, with two cameras and one vision. To photograph Wild America! We reasoned when we returned nightly to the city from the desert we would have plenty of time to explore the bars and wedding chapels, chuckle at the Elvis imperators and stand in awe at the man-made towers built in homage to the gods of Greed and Capitalism.
Each morning, we walked past the late night gamblers stumbling in a drunken stupor trying to find their rooms and the early morning workers who readied the Golden Nugget for another day of glitz and glory. We looked out of place in our hiking boots and backpacks filled with bottled water, trail mix and maps. With our cameras slung over our shoulders, our imaginations raced in anticipation of what we would see and photograph beyond this urban sprawl out on the open road.
Lauren was the driver. She navigated the twisting and turning Interstate highway roads that at times seemed to disappear into the cavernous mountainside switchbacks. Monitoring the GPS coordinates she would call out the exit numbers and remaining miles left until we crossed the approaching state line.
I was the passenger. My primary duty consisted of leaning outside the car and photographing the scenery at 75 miles an hour trying to balance my cell phone in close proximity to the hood of the car imitating a GoPro. I also had the responsibility of programming my iPod carefully selecting songs that attempted to capture the mood both inside and outside of our rental car as we raced by wind turbines, buffalo, overhead power lines and trains. We were a couple of modern day cowboys riding this pure white gleaming 2015 Dodge Charger disappearing into the horizon as we gazed behind us watching the sun peek over the mountains in what photographers call the blue hour. As we raced forward, time stood still. We were locked into the moment.
We laughed out loud at the funny sounding name of the next approaching town or the bizarre and ridiculous billboards which dotted the desert landscape. We chatted idly about what we saw through the car’s windshield which was now our lens to nature and held random conversations dads and daughters have when time is suddenly no longer a precious commodity. Occasionally, we wondered if Marie had finally risen from her uninterrupted sleep, if the others back at the hotel were enjoying their all-inclusive casino buffet and if anybody had struck it big at the slot machines.
As we left Las Vegas at dawn each morning, we had a special feeling that this daily opportunity to explore and photograph this rugged and rocky part of the original Wild West may not come again. For five days we lived on barely five hours sleep, with no regrets.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (Nevada)
This was our first stop 17 miles west of Vegas, where in the company of Marie, Jackie, Shawn and Jim we witnessed our first sunset over Las Vegas complete with a glorious rainbow over Sin City in the distance. At Calico Tanks, we climbed on some red and rust colored rocks that are over 600 million years old posing with arms extended overhead merrily taking selfies and shouting exuberantly into the canyons listening for our resounding echo. At Sandstone Quarry, we popped some champagne and toasted the newlyweds, Mr. and Mrs. Shawn Carter. We all promised to come back someday and hike the back country of Ice Box Canyon together. Concluding our evening, we stopped briefly at Red Rock Wash Overlook and watched in silence as the early Las Vegas lights began to illuminate the skyline. Bring on the Night!
Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)
Today, we had not one, but two spectacular national parks in our sights as we pulled out of the parking garage and headed north on Interstate 15. Our travel guides explained that when driving and hiking in Zion you looked upward towards the skies, versus Bryce where like the Grand Canyon, you hiked and looked downward into the basin. From majestic vistas, we photographed tranquil streams and endless valleys. Arriving at Checkerboard Mesa we discovered our serendipitous National Geographic “photographers moment“. A herd of bighorn sheep were feeding no more than 200 yards from our rental car. Instinctively, I grabbed my zoom lens and proceeded to follow them into the hills. Wow!!
Toasting our good fortune and enjoying some of the best homemade apple pie ever at the rustic Thunderbird Restaurant, we mapped out our route north on 89 that would eventually lead us to Bryce Canyon. Of all the images I viewed online from my computer back in New Jersey, this was the park I most wanted to experience firsthand!
Arriving first at Sunrise Point and then at Sunset Point this breathtaking scenery did not disappoint. In front of our disbelieving eyes, hoodoos and spires anchored in the ground for millions of years reaching for the heavens, something that the most elaborate Hollywood special effects team could never recreate. Finally, at Inspiration Point (aptly named) stood Thors Hammer in all its glory. Not satisfied with my south rim view, I hiked into the belly of the amphitheater. I imagined Roger Dean visiting this place, drawing inspiration from this natural beauty to create his famous Yes album covers. Before we left this sacred ground, Lauren and I posed on the rim in separate yoga asanas marking the moment in photos captured on our cell phones forever. If we had left immediately and not taken any additional photographs the entire trip, I would have been eternally grateful to have experienced these last ten hours!
What should have been as easy as reversing our directions and traveling southwest another 300 miles back to Las Vegas (in hind sight) thankfully did not turn out that way. Heading east instead of west on Route 12 we somehow ended up at the end of road in Kodachrome Basin State Park. A quiet campground nestled in the heart of Red Rock Country. Just as the rain begun to fall, some locals took pity on us and helped us navigate back to the Interstate.
This unbelievable day was far from over!
Taking a short-cut west on Route 14 heading for Cedar City, near Navajo Lake, we encountered snow and rolling fog. Like a couple of teenage kids, we stopped the car, got out made snowballs and took selfies with the snowcapped mountains serving as our backdrop. Another gentle reminder that at 9,000 feet above sea level, very few things are in your control.
Arriving back in Las Vegas, exhausted and elated dad and daughter toasted the day’s adventures knowing full well this was one day of exploration and photography we would never forget!
Grand Canyon National Park (Nevada & Arizona)
Today, we gave the rental car a well-deserved break as we took to the sky with a bird’s eye view of Las Vegas from 4,000 feet as we headed towards the Grand Canyon in a Sundance helicopter. Lauren and I had a front row seat as we watched the sun appear over mountains formed over 20 million years ago. From our South Rim view, we could see the mighty Colorado River appear as but a trickle below us, twisting and turning below rainbow colored rocks.
Shortly, we touched down on Havasupai Indian ground 3,000 feet below the rim in the belly of the Canyon feeling the smallest (and ‘coolest’) we’ve ever felt in our entire lives. Six people claimed these 20 acres as their own for almost an hour, exploring the rocky terrain of desert flowers and scrub vegetation. For a moment, we felt like the astronauts of the 60’s who briefly claimed the moon as theirs. Noticing some loose rocks, I quickly built a small tower of stones pointing towards the heavens as my personal reminder along with my footprints as time spent on this sacred soil.
We boarded our magic carpet and on the return route sailed over Lake Mead and Hoover Dam before coming to rest back where it had all started almost four hours earlier in Las Vegas. Touching down at McCarran Airport it all seemed like a dream in the town made famous for dreams that are won and lost with a single “hand” (or “experience”).
Death Valley National Park (California)
If Zion and Bryce Canyons boasted hundreds of acres of red and orange mountains along with lush vegetation, waterfalls and tranquil streams, Death Valley was for the most part the complete opposite in terms of topography and surroundings.
Fortunately, our weather conditions were sunny and a cool 66 degrees when we arrived at the DV Visitor center. With limited time and much terrain to cover, we decided to start at Furnace Creek and head south to make sure we experienced some of the more popular sites and trails. Sadly, exploring The Racetrack and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes would have to wait for another visit.
We had fun exploring the Natural Bridge and climbing up and around the nearby slot canyons, taking selfies and enjoying this unique experience together.
We passed by the Devils Golf Course (not a real links course) but a large salt pan located within the Mojave Desert heading towards Badwater Basin. At 282 feet ‘below’ sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in all of North America. The unusual name comes from the water that collects near the road which when combined with the nearby salt flats make the water undrinkable. Gazing across the road a small sign set high up in the mountains proclaims “Sea Level” to give you a perspective of how low you really are.
Valley of Fire (Nevada)
It was Monday, Memorial Day.
It was our last 24 hours in Las Vegas, with our escape from reality quickly coming to a close, Lauren and I decided to head out to the desert one last time. For this road trip we headed 50 miles northeast of Vegas to the Valley of Fire and home of the Moapa Indian tribe.
Arriving approximately one hour before the park ‘officially’ opened we were the first visitors to arrive at the Beehives which represented the first collection of red rocks after Checkpoint #1. It was like the alien spacemen who visited this planet 150 million years ago had organized the brightly colored limestone and shale rocks in disparate columns and piles for groups of eventual human beings to gaze upon in wonder and awe as if to say…..“How in the heck did these rocks end up like this?” Endless columns and piles of jenga-like pillars that seemed to defy gravity appeared from out of nowhere and stretched as far as the naked eye could see towards the horizon.
Initially, we explored Atlatl and Arch Rocks. “Be careful, dad” Lauren cried as I climbed up on the red and orange rocks to get a closer look at these jagged walls where no two rocks looked the same. We proceeded next to the Balancing Rock Trail where this square shaped rock balanced on the end of cone shaped rock formation. At Rainbow Vista Trail we trekked through the scrub vegetation and cacti on trails of orange colored sand that gleefully covered our hiking boots.
Our final destination was the famous Elephant Rock Loop Trail. We hiked to Elephant Rock where Lauren took photos of me posing next to the arch openings which gave way to the bright blue skies overhead.
With time no longer on our side, we bid one final farewell to the lands of the Valley of Fire knowing that the Indian spirits we experienced on this Memorial Day would forever live within our souls until the day when we could no longer walk this earth.
We arrived back at the Las Vegas hotel knowing full well it was time to head east and travel back home to Moorestown, New Jersey complete with the experience gained to answer some of the burning questions from this wanderlust and soul searching Vision Quest.
These photographs of the trails we hiked and experienced first-hand would live on in our mind’s eye…..forever.
Dad and Daughter
Lost Somewhere in America
Memorial Day Weekend 2017
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight
“In God’s Country” ~ U2
Beyond Las Vegas - Exploring In God's Country
I'm leaving Las Vegas
I'm leaving Las Vegas
For good, for good
"Leaving Las Vegas" ~ Sheryl Crow
Day #1 - Exploring America's Mountain at 14,000 feet.
Waking to our first glorious Colorado sunrise we headed south on I-25 towards Colorado Springs, destination: Pikes Peak, one of the state's 53 14,000 foot elevation mountains. Pikes Peak is known as "14ers" to the native Coloradians.
From our car's window we viewed the nearby Garden of the Gods, a natural red rock formation millions of years old. We hope to explore this destination later this week. Today, however our eyes were on the prize - Pikes Peak.
Before our driving assent we made sure we had plenty of water and snacks as elevation this high (nearly 3 miles above sea level) can affect people's bodies differently, including feelings of lightheaded and dizziness. We stopped off at Big Foot Crossing to see if there were any visible signs of the mythical monster creature's existence. If he was here, we must have just missed him.
Next stop was Crystal Reservoir Visitor Center at 9,000 feet to take in the magnificent beauty of Pikes Peak off in the distance. We enjoyed an epic snowball fight with the kids at Glen Cove about 11,000 feet elevation. At the Bottomless Pit, we enjoyed rock climbing at nearly 13,000 feet.
I began my assent slowly as this East Coaster was quickly feeling the effects of the higher elevations. Hard core cyclists could be seen outside our car window, biking up the mountain seemingly defying nature and the limits of the human body.
Winding through the switchbacks, we arrived at the summit at 14,115 feet. Off in the distance Kansas was visible. Make sure you sample the legendary doughnuts at the summit lodge. A true reward for all your hard work.
On our decent, we stopped off at Boulder Park and the Devil's Playground for once-in-a-lifetime photo ops.
Heading home we passed Santa's Workshop a commercial Winter Wonderland paying homage to Christmastime. Make sure you stop off at the Pickle Shack for homemade pickle, jams and jellies for the ride home.
Exhausted but elated and thankful to have conquered my first 14,000 foot mountain.
Thanksgiving Week 2017
My daughter and I headed out this morning to explore and photograph Pennsylvania en route to Cleveland, our eventual destination. Day #1 found us enjoying a walking tour of America's oldest brewery - D. G. Yuengling & Sons established in 1829, located in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Our next stop was Centralia, Pennsylvania, home to a devastating coal fire in 1962 which, some 50 years later, has turned the once thriving city into a modern day ghost town currently occupied by approximately 10 residents. Nearby is the Graffiti Highway, a stretch of abandoned asphalt that has turned into a cement canvas of spray paint expression.
Traveling the National Freeway (aka I-68) through parts of Maryland, we enjoyed the summer scenery as we drove through the mountain passes and stunning vistas. Opened in 1991, it travels east-west through Sideling Hill.
Just before sunset, we arrived at Historic Summit Inn located in Farmington, Pennsylvania along skyline drive. Established in 1907, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places once hosting Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
Watching the sun set over Uniontown, Pennsylvania, we gave thanks for a wonderful and safe journey.
More to follow.....
Scott & Lauren Kern
Dad & Daughter Photography
August 2, 2017
Road Trips - Why Summer Was Born