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AZ UT CA Deserts
April 2014

    Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
    Vermilion Cliff National Monument, AZ
    Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
    Zion National Park, UT
    Mojave National Preserve, CA


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Drought in California lead us to seek out new desert areas this year. We had never been to the Grand Canyon or nearby Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks so decided it would be a good time to tour those parks. We flew into Las Vegas where we picked up our rental truck and stocked up on supplies before heading out.

Grand Canyon

After a four hour drive from Vegas, we arrived at the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village - a bustling network of roads, parking lots, lodging, shops and cars. The campground was full the first night, but we made reservations so had no trouble getting to our site among the open ponderosa forest. Few of the sites we saw had any form of privacy. They were all fairly open to neighboring sites both adjacent and in different loops. Sound traveled easily and so did light from cars, camp fires, and Coleman lanterns. But what can one expect from a campground with more than 100 sites full of tents and RVs intermingled. However, the campground held a variety of bird life - White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers and Western Bluebirds were common.

Over the next couple of days, we hiked the 13-mile Rim Trail that hugged the South Rim of the canyon. One thing quickly became clear - all the pathways in the village seemed to be an afterthought when trying to get from one location another. Often the paved paths would lead to a vast parking lot and leave you with no indication of which direction to go to find the next pathway. I think it was the result of a "village" quickly built to meet the needs of a growing number of tourists and without the foresight to make it clear to people who actually walk. Most people ride the shuttle system or create their own paths through the forest in order to reach the Rim. The latter results in a destroyed understory, which isn't very attractive.

The Rim Trail was a relatively flat, wide, paved walkway that lead from viewpoint to viewpoint over the canyon. The more impressive viewpoints were on the west end of the trail, which was only accessible by shuttle bus or foot during the busy season. Some parts of the trail here were not paved (yet) either. It was interesting noticing the usage of the Rim Trail and the time of day. In the mornings before 9AM, everything but English was spoken. Along the path and away from the viewpoints (which would require walking), there were many foreign tourists as well. As the mornings grew, more people showed up and English became dominant and along with that a noticeable amount of stupidity. The number of people who think they get the better view by crawling over fences and down the canyon walls makes me wonder why the death by fall rate isn't any higher. What's worse are the parents who encourage their little kids to follow them out to the ledges. Sadly, humans have beat back natural selection and the results can be found on the Rim Trail after 9AM.

As for the canyon itself - they don't call it the Grand Canyon for nothing! Looking at the canyon it's hard to comprehend just how big it is. Measuring an average of 10 miles wide and a mile deep, it's hard to truly understand what that means when looking at it. Often I found myself searching for people hiking down into the canyon just to get an idea of scale. Still it's tough getting my brain to wrap around how vast the canyon was. Even harder is capturing the beauty by camera. Those megapixels don't seem to capture it all. Sunrises and sunsets were of course the most stunning - the low sun bringing out colors, casting shadows and adding depth to the walls.

Birding along the canyon rim was surprisingly good. Perhaps it was because the "dwarf" forest along the rim were more conducive to seeing the birds, but there were many, many singing Black-throated Gray Warblers, Juniper Titmice, Mountain Chickadees, and White-throated Swifts. The best birds were the two California Condors that sailed right over our heads. I didn't get a close enough look to read their tags, but I was able to see their red crops peaking out of their black feathers. It was a majestic feeling watching 2 of the 230 (as of 2012) wild California Condors soar over our heads.

As we left the Grand Canyon, we drove east out on the Desert View Drive and stopped along the many viewpoints and turnouts. Our last view of the canyon was at the Desert View Tower, which was conveniently turned into a gift shop.

Vermillion Cliff National Monument

After the Grand Canyon we headed northward, through the Navajo Reservation, stopping to look at the Little Colorado Canyon (really nothing compared to the Grand Canyon). At the Vermillion Cliff National Monument, we stopped at the Condor Viewing Site, which I initially didn't have high hopes for. I thought it was just a viewpoint where on occasion a condor may be seen. Instead the viewpoint was of a release center for the captive breed condors, and as a result there were many adult California Condors sitting on the cliffs and soaring above. I didn't get an exact count, but there were easily a dozen adult condors. They were pretty far away, but their size and distinctive coloring made it unquestionable. After watching the condors circle above the cliffs, we turned north into the BLM-run national monument. The west side of the Vermillion Cliffs sloped gently, and a well-maintained road (initially) lead into the monument. In our 2-wheel drive truck, we attempted to drive on a smaller deep sandy road, but quickly got stuck. After several attempts at digging in the sand and pushing the truck, we managed to move the truck back about 10 feet, but were still stuck deep in it. Luckily another car came in the other direction. After deflating the tires and with the extra man power, we were able to back out onto solid ground. We headed back to more solid road and set up camp near some red rock formations. The birds in the area were generally the same found at the Grand Canyon, but at night a pair of Western Screech Owls serenaded us with their song.

Bryce Canyon
With tires deflated, we drove over the Kaibab Plateau to the nearest town where we refilled the tires and got underway to Bryce Canyon National Park. We arrived mid-morning and were able to get a nice campsite at the North Campground - the only campground open during that time of year. At our campsite, we watched a very determined Pygmy Nuthatch excavating a hole in a Ponderosa Pine. Every once and a while another nuthatch (presumably the mate) would come along either to switch duties or to check on the progress. Birdlife at Bryce Canyon was typical of the high desert pine forest, and similar to the Grand Canyon. The biggest surprise was a pair of Purple Finch that were perhaps migrating through.

From the campground, we drove down the main road toward Rainbow Point and stopped at the viewpoints to admire the amazing hoodoo canyon views. There were still a few small patches of snow dotting the ground and the weather was breezy and cool. Yet the sun managed to peak through at times. We found the bristlecone pines along the Bristlecone Pine trail. These odd pines are highly specialized for this high desert climate. We had attempted to see them at the Great Basin National Park, but failed because of the deep snow. Here at Bryce during this time of year, it was just a matter of driving up to them.

As with the Grand Canyon, from the campground, we hiked along the rim trail to the various viewpoint. In the early morning, we also hike down from the Sunrise viewpoint to the Queen's Garden - named after a spire that looks like the queen. From there, we hiked back up to Sunset point. It was a short 2 mile hike into the canyon giving a great perspective from both from the top and bottom. Of the Rim Trail viewpoints, my favorite was from Inspiration Point with a field of hoodoos spread thick it made you think you were seeing double or had a serious concussion. Rolling red hills surrounded the hoodoos and were dotted with ponderosa. Tall red cliffs stood out above the forest in the horizon. It was a truly magical (perhaps inspirational) place to see the sunrise, when it wasn't hidden behind a cloud (which happened to us the morning we tried to watch the sunrise).

Seemingly true to the nature of canyon national parks, Europeans were more likely to be walking the trails, while the majority of people were clumped around the drive-to(thru) viewpoints. Of course there was stupidity as well - such as the guy who kept climbing up on top of rocks/hills off the trail for the "better" viewpoint. Justice was served when he lost his traction coming down a steep rocky hill, slide into a short fall and landed on his back. Still wasn't sure if he learned anything from that, but I can only hope.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
About a 1.5 hour drive away from Bryce Canyon are a set of highway viewpoints of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The area is truly unique - a giant slab of sculpted rock worn down by wind and rain. The national monument is huge, so we didn't have the chance to see much of it - just a small portion along highway 12.

From Bryce Canyon, it was a relatively short drive to Zion. We entered through the east entrance and descended into the canyon past large rock sculptures, solid mesas, and ponderosa pine. We passed through the impressive 1 mile long tunnel that took us through the canyon wall. From the tunnel, we were emerged into a tall canyon surrounded by red, gray and white walls. Penstemon, Prince's Plume, and Indian Paintbrush bloomed along the sides of the road.

At the South Campground, we circled the many loops searching for a decent campsite. But the competition was pretty cut throat. Even though we arrived at the campground around 9AM, all the good spots were taken. We settled on an open campsite at the end of one of the loops, we had a few trees, but were very exposed.

After choosing our campsite, we walked over to the visitor center to catch the shuttle up Zion Canyon, which is only accessible by shuttle most of the year. We road up to the end at the Riverside Walk, where we. along with hoards of other tourists, walked the paved trail to the Narrows trailhead. Along the Riverside Walk, the cottonwoods were thick with singing Yellow Warblers.

From the Big Bend stop, we hiked along side the road and the Virgin River with the rock canyon walls towering above us. There was a good dirt trail connecting to the Weeping Wall, a large rock wall with a dripping seep where moss, ferns and flowers grew. At the Weeping Wall, shooting stars and scarlet monkeyflower bloomed and thrived in the crevices. From the Weeping Wall we walked side trails paralleling the road, but when the side trail started to climb up the hillside, we eventually ended up walking on the road. Thankfully the only vehicles allowed on that part of the road are service vehicles and the buses. At the next bus stop, the Grotto, we hiked the trail to the lower Emerald Pool - a large seep that collected into a greenish pool next to the canyon wall. Without the sunlight to reflect on it, the pool seemed less emerald and more murky. We followed the trail from the Emerald Pool to the next stop at Zion Lodge, where we continued walking down the riverside trail. The trail here followed the river and sometimes joined a horse trail, which was super soft and sandy making it difficult to walk on. At the Court of the Patriarchs, the road side trail stopped and we had to walk on the road. Unfortunately there are more cars on this section of the road as people (idiots included) were driving to and from the Zion Lodge. The rest of the trail back to the campground was on a wide and pave walkway with several sturdy foot bridges.

At the campground birdlife was more interesting than in the canyon. The campground was full of cottonwoods and riparian area around the Virgin River. Yellow Warblers sang from the willows, a brilliant Summer Tanager displayed itself, and a Say's Phoebe hunted near the bathrooms.

We only stayed one night at the campground, but we were absolutely amazed at how quiet it was. Despite the full campground's openness, it was absolutely dead quiet well before 10PM. Usually all it takes is one group gabbing over the firepit, one generator, one dog barking, or one cowboy singing to break the silence. But even with 100+ groups of people in a small space in the desert together, it was one of the quietest nights I spent on the trip so far.

Mojave National Preserve
To end our trip, we headed back to the Mojave National Preserve for some hiking and wildlife viewing near the Granite Mountains off the Kelbaker road. We were concerned about how the California drought would affect the wildlife and wildflowers in the desert. But we were pleasantly surprised to see quite a few flowers in bloom including the beavertail cactus, silver cholla, mariposa lily, indigo bush, bladder sage, larkspur, and creosote. Desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, and white-tailed antelope squirrels also seemed to be doing well in the area.

Opposed to the high elevation of the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion, there were many more bird migrants moving through the lower elevations of the Mojave National Preserve. These birds included Townsend's Warbler, Hooded and Bullock's Oriole, Cassin's and Plumbeous Vireos, Lazuli Bunting, and many Empidonax species (Pacific-sloped, Hammond's and Dusky). I even found a Palm Warbler gleaning among the creosote bushes. Resident desert birds were also present in numbers. A family of Loggerhead Shrikes, which included 3 fledglings squawked around the old corral. At Cottonwood Springs, group of Phainopeplas sallied out from a bare bush. In the wash, 2 fledgling Verdins among the yucca and cats claws begged for food.

We spent a couple of days relaxing around the Granite Mountains, hiking out to the various springs, and just soaking in the scenery. The Cottonwood Spring was surprisingly dry, but there was still water (and toad poles) in the spring in the middle of Cottonwood Wash. One cool evening, we waited next to the spring for the Red-spotted Toads to emerge. They eventually did, but they refused to sing for us.

During the last night of our stay, our traditional desert storm rolled in. Dark clouds moved in the afternoon followed closely by strong gusts. By the time we retreated into our tent at night, the rain began to pelt down. We were assaulted by strong winds and rains throughout the night. The good thing about the rain was that it kept large amounts of dust and sand from being swept in through the tent. The other good thing was that the desert needed the rain. In the morning, the rain moved off, but the winds were constant. Driving out of the preserve through higher elevations and the joshua trees, the snow began to fall at a steady rate. A nice dusting collected in the trees and on the higher mountains. Seemed like the perfect way to end the trip with beauty yet the reason to leave.


Pictures (click on thumbnails)

Bird List
Canada Goose B (4)
Mallard Z (2)
Common Merganser Z (3)
Wild Turkey Z (1)
Gambel's Quail M
Chukar M (heard)
Turkey Vulture G, B, Z, M
California Condor G (2), V (12, release site)
Osprey R
Golden Eagle R
Red-tailed Hawk B, M (1), R
Killdeer V (1)
Rock Pigeon R
Eurasian Collared-Dove M (2), R
Mourning Dove G, V, M
Greater Roadrunner M (1)
Great Horned Owl M (heard)
Western Screech-Owl V (2)
Common Poorwill M (2)
White-throated Swift G, B, M
Black-chinned Hummingbird G, B, Z, M
Costa's Hummingbird M (2)
Rufous Hummingbird M (2)
Calliope Hummingbird M (1)
Red-naped Sapsucker V (1)
Hairy Woodpecker G, B, Z
Northern Flicker G, V, B, Z
Ladder-backed Woodpecker M (2)
Peregrine Falcon G (2), B (1), M (1, near nest)
American Kestrel V (1 female)
Hammond's Flycatcher M (1)
Dusky Flycatcher M (3)
Pacific-slope Flycatcher M (2)
Ash-throated Flycatcher G (1), M
Western Kingbird M (1), Z (1)
Black Phoebe Z (1), Escalente River
Say's Phoebe V (1), B, Z(1)
Loggerhead Shrike K, M (2 adults, 3 fledglings)
Plumbeous Vireo M (1)
Cassin's Vireo M (1)
Warbling Vireo M (3)
Steller's Jay G, B
Western Scrub-Jay G, Z, M
Clark's Nutcracker B (3)
Black-billed Magpie R
American Crow G (1)
Common Raven G, V, B, Z, M
Horned Lark M (1)
Violet-green Swallow G, B, M
Mountain Chickadee G, B
Juniper Titmouse G, V, M (2)
Red-breasted Nuthatch B
White-breasted Nuthatch G, B
Pygmy Nuthatch G, B (excavating a nesthole)
Verdin M (1 adult, 3 juveniles)
Bushtit G, V, Z, M (2)
Rock Wren G, B
Canyon Wren G, Z, M (heard)
Bewick's Wren G, V, M
Cactus Wren M
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher G, Z, M
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher  V (1 male), M (2)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet G, B
Western Bluebird G, V, B, Z
Mountain Bluebird V (2), B (2)
Townsend's Solitaire G, B
Hermit Thrush G (1 heard), M (1)
Crissal Thrasher M (2)
American Robin G, B, Z
Horned Lark K (2)
Northern Mockingbird K, M
European Starling R
Phainopepla M
Orange-crowned Warbler M (1)
Nashville Warbler M (1)
MacGillivray's Warbler M (2)
Yellow Warbler Z (many), M (2)
Palm Warbler M (1)
Yellow-rumped Warbler G, V, B, Z, M
Townsend's Warbler M (1)
Wilson's Warbler M (3)
Black-throated Gray Warbler G, V, B, Z
Lucy's Warbler Escalente River
Green-tailed Towhee M (2)
Spotted Towhee G, Z, M (heard)
Chipping Sparrow G, V, B
Vesper Sparrow G (2)
Dark-eyed Junco G, B
Brewer's Sparrow V (heard), K, B, M
Black-chinned Sparrow M (1)
Black-throated Sparrow M
White-crowned Sparrow M, R
Lark Sparrow K (2), Z
Song Sparrow Z (3)
Sagebrush Sparrow K (3)
Western Tanager M
Summer Tanager Z (1)
Black-headed Grosbeak Z (2), M
Lazuli Bunting M (3)
Great-tailed Grackle G (2), M
Hooded Oriole M (1 male, drinking from nectar feeder)
Bullock's Oriole M (1)
Scott's Oriole M (4)
Western Meadowlark V (3)
Yellow-headed Blackbird R
Brewer's Blackbird R
House Finch K, B, Z, M
Purple Finch B (2)
Cassin's Finch G (2)
Lesser Goldfinch G (5)
Evening Grosbeak G (2)
Pine Siskin M (1)
House Sparrow G, M
Big Horned Sheep Z
Elk G
Mule Deer G, B, Z
Pronghorn B
Black-tailed Jackrabbit V, M
Desert Cottontail G, V
Utah Prairie Dog B
Abert's Squirrel G
Rock Squirrel G, Z, M
White-taield Antelope Squirrel M
Golden-mantled Squirrel B
Uinta Chipmunk B
Cliff Chipmunk G
vole G
Kangaroo Rat M
bat sp. Z, M
Plateau Lizard G
Spiny Lizard M
Desert Iguana M
Western Fence Lizard M
Whiptail M
Horned Lizard M
Mojave Rattlesnake M
Long-nosed Snake M
Arizona toad Z
Red-spotted toad M
Blooming plants and wildflowers
Beavertail cactus M
Bladder Sage M
Brittlebush M
California Buckwheat M
Checker fiddleneck M
Chia M
Creosote bush M
Desert canterbury bells M
Desert chicory M
Desert dandelion M
Desert larkspur M
Desert paintbrush Z, M
Tufted evening primrose M
Globemallow Z, M
Hedgehog/Calico cactus M
Indigo bush M
Mojave mound cactus M
Banana Yucca M
Notch-leaf Phacelia/scorpionweed M
Prickly poppy M
Rabbitbush M
Rock live forever M
Sacred Datura/Jimson Weed M
Seep Monkeyflower M
Silver cholla M
Skeletonweed M
Wallace's woolly daisy M
Desert Trumpet M
Desert mariposa M
Desert sage M
Mormon tea M
Penstemon Z, M
Prince's Plume Z
Primrose Z
Verbena Z
Shooting Star Z
Scarlet Monkeyflower Z
Phlox Z
Flax Z

Grand Canyon NP, AZ G
Vermillion Cliff NM, AZ V
Kaibab NF, AZ K
Bryce Canyon, UT B
Zion, UT Z
Mojave National Preserve - Granite Mountains, CA M


Grand Canyon National Park
Vermilion Cliff National Monument
Bryce Canyon National Park
Zion National Park
Mojave National Preserve


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page updated: 5/10/14