How was the wild west tamed by the Easy Hikers?
The American Southwest is the place where nature is working on the grandest of scales. No effect, it seems, has been spared, all stops have been pulled to drive home the point of human insignificance: the size of the rock formations, their absurdly twisted shapes, and the enormously large blue sky that covers everything from horizon to horizon.
Easy hikers, one could think, may be a trifle out of their depth in a landscape that more resembles planet Mars than anything a European would readily recognize as “nature”.
Well, they may be – but then again, maybe not.
On the one hand, you can, of course, engage in some serious outdoor activity in most of the Southwestern National Parks, tent and provisions for several days on your back, compass and bear mace always on hand. A real hiking adventure, where we would like to think we tamed the wild west of America
On the other hand, most of these parks also have small easy hiking trails, between one mile and ten miles in length, which are far less terrifying than anything that the “proper” wilderness might throw at you.
Some of these paths are actually paved for much of the way, and on the steeper passages, stairs have been carved into the stone. What could be easier than that for a hiking holiday?
If you are planning to travel to the American Southwest, do yourself a favour and hike down at least one of those short hiking trails in every park you visit. Don’t get stuck in your car: explore the place on foot. The experiences that you will have along the way – the desert wind in your face, the sun burning in your neck – will be engraved ten times more vividly in your memory than anything you may see from the inside of an air-conditioned passenger cabin.
Before you set out, there are, however, a few things you should consider.
First, make time in your schedule. For a visit to one of the larger National Parks in the area (such as the Canyonlands and the Arches), stay for at least two nights in the area, reserving a full day for the park. Resist the temptation of “ticking off” all the major sights of a park in a single day: this can be done, of course, but you will never be able to get beyond the standard three-hour drive-through (which all National Parks offer and for which maps are handed out at the entrance).
There is such a thing as the European equivalent of the American tourist who tries to “do” Paris and London on the same day – and does not get to see anything beyond the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace.
Exhibit one: when we went to the Grand Canyon two years ago, we arrived in the early evening and left the next day shortly after noon. Is that idiotic or what? At least, we learned from our mistake and made up a less hectic schedule for our second trip to the area.
You also should book your accommodation in advance. National Parks are pretty isolated places, and there are generally no large cities or even medium-sized towns near-by where you can always be sure to find a bed. Some of the larger Parks operate their own lodges, but these are often booked out weeks in advance (and are a bit pricey, too). Your best bet would therefore be a motel in striking distance of the Park, say: 20 to 30 miles away.
Do your research and then, to book, just stay ahead of the pack (which tends to arrive at 3 p.m., inquiring about vacancies): you do not have to plan everything in detail weeks in advance. It is generally enough to reserve your room just a day before your arrival, over the phone or the Internet. (Most motels offer a free Wi-Fi service these days, so it is a good idea to bring a lap-top or at least a smart phone for this purpose alone.)
As for the hiking trails themselves, they are marked by cairns, little stone piles that show you where to go. The routes are sometimes very easy to find, sometimes less so. In any case, you should make little mental notes of tricky patches so that you, on your return, know what to look for. (Most of these trails take you from a starting point A to a destination B, which means that you have to walk back the same way you came.)
Also note that most of the time, there will be other people on the same trail as you. There is nothing wrong or shameful about keeping an eye on your fellow travelers. Just as a means of double-checking, of course – and of keeping safe.
Whatever you do: do not leave the trail and do not get lost.
Particularly not late in the afternoon where there is even less room for error.One moment, you are looking forward to a cold beer in your motel and the beaseball on TV, the next moment, you are wondering how you can avoid becoming Wile E. Coyote’s main course for the night. And no: outrunning him (meepmeep!) is a s strategy that will, in all probability, not work.
What do you need for such a short hike?
We could not help noticing that most Americans that we met on the trails appeared to be far better equipped (proper hiking shoes, hiking sticks, Gore-Tex shirts) than we were, but then again, we did not feel that all this outdoor gear gave them much of an advantage over us (in our regular tourist garb: shorts, T-shirts, summer shoes).
If you don’t want to do the trail in your flip-flops, buy yourself a pair of simple trainers or crocs in the US. Also get yourself some sunscreen lotion if you burn easily (or a sun hat).
One thing, however, that we would bring the next time around is a light backpack. Nothing big, just large enough for a bottle of water and, perhaps, a light snack. (This time, we took everything we needed with us in a plastic bag. Which made us look less like hikers and more like shoppers who had lost their way, badly, on their way out of the local supermarket.)
This is important: Do not go out, even on a short hike, without an ample supply of water.
How much you should bring depends, obviously, on the type of heat you will have to brace, but I would suggest taking at least one litre per person, more if you intend to hike for more than an hour. This may sound a lot, but believe me: you will need it.
Speaking about the weather: we went in September, at the tail end of the summer season, but even so, we had to contend with temperatures in excess of a 100 degrees Fahrenheit (around 40° C). Which should tell you all you need to know about going in July or August. Winters can be fairly cold, while much of the (little) rain that falls in this area apparently comes down in violent spring thunderstorms, so unless you want to be caught in one of those, you may not enjoy March or April either. Think of that when booking your flight.