Thursday, May 31, 2007

Vegas and Canyons

Already I had wasted a long weekend (Thanks Giving) here without going out any where. But that time I had just landed in US and there was work related issues too. This time it is Memorial Day Weekend. Monday is a holiday and I get three days together. But since it was the most preferred long weekend for all in America for a vacation trip, even my three months advance plans didn’t help me in getting better deals for flight and hotel rooms. So I decided to add one more day by taking leave from work and did all the planning in detail for a grand vacation from 2007 May 26th, Saturday to 2007 May 29th, Tuesday (4 Days). It is interesting how easy it is to book flight, hotel room, and rental car well in advance through internet, but at the same time how difficult it is to search through numerous options and deals to decide on better ones.

Even though many of my friends and their families had committed earlier to join us for this vacation, they all changed their plans as expected J leaving me and my wife alone to enjoy the vacation in peace.

On Saturday, we started very early in the morning to catch Flight 101 of US Airways to Las Vegas from Dallas Fort Worth airport. We reached there by 07:30 AM after a two hour flight and headed straight to the McCarran Airport car rental center to pick up our compact Mazda car from Hertz. Our hotel (Riviera) was not very far (on Last Vegas Blvd, known as The Strip), but they didn’t allow us to check in early. So we headed for Red Rock Canyon which was just half an hour drive from Vegas.

Red Rock Canyon conservation area has large red sandstone peaks popular for hiking and rock climbing. We started from the Visitors Center picking up the brochures and maps and drinking plenty of water. It has a one-way loop road, 13 miles (21 km) long, providing vehicle access to many of the view points and hiking trails in the canyon. We stopped at the first view point named Calico and hit the hiking trails to get a closer look of those strange red rock formations. Climbing those rocks was not tough and was interesting except for the scorching sun. By the time we were back from the rocks, we were out of water supply and thirst was killing us. Nevertheless we continued enjoying the vistas and completed the scenic loop drive looking for water and not finding it anywhere, and stopping at all view points (but not hiking any more). We should have carried enough water!

The most significant geologic feature of Red Rock Canyon is the Keystone Thrust Fault. A thrust fault is a fracture in the earth's crust where one rock plate is thrust horizontally over another. About 65 million years ago, it is believed that two of the earth's crustal plates collided with such force that part of one plate was shoved up and over younger sandstones. This thrust contact is clearly defined by the sharp contrast between the grey limestones and the red sandstones.

Why are the rocks RED? Here is the explanation from Keystone Visitor Guide:
More than 600 million years ago, the land that would become Red Rock Canyon was the bottom of a deep ocean basin. Over time, changing land and sea levels resulted in the deposition of both ocean and continental sediments that became the gray limestone found at Red Rock Canyon today. About 180 million years ago, a giant sand dune field formed over what became the Western United States. Powerful winds shifted the sands back and forth, forming angled lines in the sand. Over time, the sheer weight of the layers of sand compressed into stone. This formation, locally known as Aztec Sandstone, is quite hard and forms the cliffs of Red Rock Canyon. Exposure to the elements caused some of the iron-bearing minerals to oxidize. This oxidizing process can be more easily thought of as a "rusting of the sand," which resulted in red, orange and tan colored rocks.

By the time we reached our hotel room back from Red Rock Canyon we knew well how exhausting the desert sun can make you after a day trip. So for the next day’s trip to Grand Canyon, we carried lots of water and snacks.

On Sunday morning, we started the road drive from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon and covered a distance of about 300 miles (482 kilometers) in more than 5 hours. The drive was really thrilling with straight roads (US-93 and I-40) cutting across vast deserts with changing landscapes and I was able to hit the 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour mark at times.

We stopped at Lake Mead and Hoover Dam at the border of Nevada and Arizona states. By the time we reached Grand Canyon, it was almost noon. It was over crowded with long weekend tourists and finding a parking place was really difficult.

Though I had seen many photos and videos of Grand Canyon, I never had an idea how it will be to feel and experience one of the world’s premier natural attractions and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Grand Canyon is a very colorful, steep-sided gorge or chasm (a deep valley), carved by the Colorado River cutting a channel over about 6 million years through the rocks of the Colorado Plateau. It is 277 miles (446 km) long, ranges in width from 4 to 18 miles (0.4 to 24 kilometers), and attains a depth of more than a mile (1.6 km). Nearly two billion years of the Earth's history has been exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut through layer after layer of sediment as the Colorado Plateaus have uplifted.

We landed on the south side (known as South Rim) of this deep cut on earth’s face and the views from there were breath taking. There were many activities possible other than sight seeing, like helicopter rides, water rafting in the river, hiking down to the bottom of canyon and camping there a night, etc which demanded more time and planning besides money. So we limited our experience to hiking through the rim taking time to enjoy the wonders of nature. Also we spent considerable time at the visitors centre learning the historical and geographical details of canyon.

Sun set and sun rise were special in Grand Canyon as it will cast a magical effect of lights and shadows on the canyon walls. So we waited until sun set and watched this magical play from Hopi Point.

The return trip was not that nice and we were totally exhausted when we reached back to our hotel room in Vegas at around 3 AM in the night.

So the next day, we spent most of the time sleeping as anyway it didn’t make much sense to explore Vegas in the day light as the city has all its activities rolling in the night. We started exploring the attractions in the city by evening, and soon realized that there were too many man made wonders along the Vegas streets, than we could cover in a whole night.
Vegas is internationally known as a vacation, shopping, entertainment, and gambling destination. It was unbelievable how glamorous and special a desert city can become with its huge hotels and casinos each having their own specialty, be it a gigantic volcano simulation, huge water falls and water canals with boating, dancing fountains, or numerous thrill rides.
We were stunned by a Pirates show setup in front of a huge casino where life size ships came running through the water canals (all man made) and displayed thrilling actions that included firing with canons and all.

The last day in Vegas was again needed for taking rest rather than adding more places to our ‘To See’ list. We went to airport early and were back in Dallas by 9 PM, ending our longest vacation in America.