|The previous post was more of a summary. This is more of a commentary.
I was told by more than one person that the Grand Canyon can be experienced in just a few short hours. You can see the whole thing in an afternoon and move onto your next destination. While that's true, I sort of disagree. I'm more of an experiential kind of person than a look-at-pretty-scenery kind of person, so I'm thoroughly glad to have spent a solid day and a half walking around the park, taking pictures of lizards, bugs, and flowers, and getting dirty and sweaty hiking around. I almost didn't want to leave the park because I knew I'd never see anything like it again. The view is literally one of a kind and absolutely awe-inspiring. It's completely worth the expense and the time it takes to get there.
Bryce was my (and Wendy's) favorite park of the trip. I'm not sure if it was because of the weather (beautiful, deep blue skies; sunny and warm) or the fact that the park felt relatively small and accessible. To hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, you need to get a permit and do an overnight hike with tons of gear (mostly water). To get to the bottom of Bryce, you start walking and you're there in under an hour. There's plenty of walking around to be done once you're in the canyon, but the size of the place isn't at all overwhelming. Walk around for a few hours, and you pretty much see the whole thing. But again, we spent a solid day and half walking around, driving to different spots in the park, and just taking it all in. The sheer oddness of it all, with the red rock and the strangely-formed hoodoos, makes it a completely unique experience, entirely unlike anything I've ever seen.
I heard from several different people that Zion is awesome. My experience there wasn't all that great, and I have a feeling it was largely weather-related. It sucks that something so simple and temporal as weather can have such a huge impact, but if the plan is to spend time outdoors and enjoy nature, cold wet weather can get in the way. Zion was different from the Grand Canyon and Bryce because the park exists inside the canyon instead of on top of it. So instead of hiking down into a canyon, all the trails travel up. Also, since it was at a lower elevation, there was much more "green" scenery, i.e. plants and trees, and that was a nice change from desert shrubs and sparse evergreens. Thankfully, the second day at the park was a lot nicer and allowed us to experience a great hike up a steep narrow cliff, guided by metal chains and the people ahead of and behind us. That was easily the scariest experience of my life, but once I realized what I was getting myself into, we had already hiked 2 miles uphill and I knew I'd forever regret turning back like a pansy. Also, the old, out-of-shape people and the young children that so easily ascended and descended would have made me feel even worse. So despite the cold, wet weather, Zion was pretty cool. But its orange-red mountains and gorgeous scenery weren't completely new to me, so it wasn't the best park of the trip.
Death Valley, as expected, was unusual. I originally wanted to go there to experience its almost painfully high temperatures and its dry, desert climate. I'm not really sure why; maybe some sort of masochistic experiment to test my own physical limits. Thankfully, it was unseasonably cool the day we were there, and it even rained. Besides the weather, the park was ... in a word, weird. If I ever travel to the moon, I imagine it'll look a lot like Death Valley: Dry, barren, rocky, dusky, and gray. But as seen from some of my pictures, there was actually a good amount of color (from minerals in the soil), greenery, wildlife, large mountains, picturesque scenery, and history. It's probably good the park wasn't hot like normal, and I'm happy to say I've been to the lowest elevation in the western hemisphere.
The logistics of the trip actually worked out pretty well. We rented a car and camped everywhere, which makes us sound cool and edgy, but it's really just that we're cheap. We rented an economy car, so we got a good 35 miles per gallon. We camped in national forests, which were unexpectedly free. Lugging huge bags, full of sleeping bags and a tent, through the airport was a bit of a hassle, but it got a lot easier once we checked them. We originally thought about renting an RV, but I'm glad we didn't because the expense would've been pretty painful, not to mention the gas mileage and cost, and the fact that several sites (specifically in Death Valley) prohibit larger vehicles that can't handle dirt roads. We learned from a previous trip that many national parks and campsites have coin-operated showers, and these parks were no exception. Every other day or so, we'd get nice and clean and then start the dirtying process all over again. Staying in a hotel the last night was a given, largely to take a nice long, hot shower, but also to pack up our bags for the flight home. The mid-week hotel stay was partially planned and partially weather-based (it was on the rainy day in Zion) because it's always nice to sleep in a real bed and use a real toilet after doing quite the opposite for several days in a row. #travel