Winter Vacation in the Southwest 2002-2003

The purpose of this travel log is to relate some of our interesting anecdotes and capture the essence of the experience and logistics to help you in case you decide to embark on a similar journey.

It also should be entertaining along the way

This winter we decided that we would like to take a road trip through the Southwest. I've done similar trips before but Cathy never has and there is much to see.

The plan was to drive through California, Arizona and New Mexico and spend the most time in Taos, NM and Sedona, AZ but also stop by the Grand Canyon, The Meteor Crater, London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, and other fun sites.

To even contemplate such a trip you have to love driving through different landscapes with the open road ahead of you. We really enjoy it.
Cathy and I have always enjoyed taking long road trips. This was our first one with our boy Jacob (15 months old) and our Honda Odyssey . Jacob is a very well behaved boy and can be content for hours driving in the car. Just to make sure that would be the case we brought with us several new toys and books that he has never seen before. We would introduce the new toy at the beginning of a long drive and it usually worked out well. One of us was always in the back seat to play with him and the other would drive.

Jacob bundled up for the Grand Canyon
We decided from the beginning of planning this trip that we would not drive more than 5 hours a day to give us all time to stretch our legs and complete our trip during the short winter daylight hours. The Honda Odyssey was also very well behaved and did not let us down. At the end of page there is a table with all of our gas fillups.

We started our journey on Saturday morning, Dec 21. Our first stop was Bakersfield, CA. On the way we broke up the afternoon with a short stop in Fresno at Roeding Park which is right off US 99. Jakie ran around in the park and played with other children and we all got to stretch our legs for a bit.

Bakersfield, CA

Bakersfield is a pretty big town in the Central Valley with about 175,000 people. After we checked into the hotel we started reading about a restaurant for dinner.

We found out that Buck Owens from Hee Haw has his own restaurant and theatre called the Crystal Palace. We were pretty hungry and thought it might be interesting to check out so we grabbed Jakie and went straight over there. At the door they told us that on Saturday nite we would not be able to get in without a reservation. Buck plays with the Buckaroos on Friday and Saturday nights and its pretty popular. Slightly disappointed we left and ended up going to a Fresh Choice which has better service than any we've had in the Bay Area.

The next day as we were leaving town we made a reservation for when we would be back in Bakersfield - on our way back. We were all set almost two weeks later when we rolled into town but it turned out that Buck was sick that night and wouldn't be performing. We saw the Buckaroos without him. The food was good but a bit overpriced.

In the morning we headed east out of Bakersfield through the Tehachapi mountains. There was heavy fog as we drove through the mountains and visibility was down to a minimum much of the time. We had to be extra careful. This area is also called the Tehachapi-Mojave Wind Resource Area. There are over 4900 wind turbines (windmills) that collectively generate 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. That is enough to meet the needs of 500,000 people and makes this place the largest producer of wind generated electricity in the world. The windmills are quite a sight as you drive through the area - not too unlike the windmills as you drive through Altamont pass near San Ramon - just bigger.

Soon we slipped down into the valley and approached the Mojave desert. It is pretty amazing that so close to the Pacific Ocean two sets of mountain ranges can choke off any moisture from reaching this area and create a desert.

As we drove through the town of Mojave, CA we could see an airfield. It was filled with more airplanes than I have ever seen in one place - quite a strange site for the middle of the desert. There were full size commercial jets there from airlines all over the world. It turns out that you can store planes in the desert indefinitely if you drain out the gas/oil and tape up the windows. Since Sept. 11, airlines have been parking planes there that they aren't using. There are some pictures HERE from last year. I read in the newspaper that there are over 800 jets parked there now and they are running out of room.

After we passed through the town of Mojave, we passed just north of Edwards Air Force base. This is the spot in which supersonic jet flight was born. It is also an alternate landing location for the space shuttle.

We continued through the area passing desolate desert scenes and ancient lava flows and worked our way past Barstow and then down into Lake Havasu City in Arizona.

Lake Havasu City

Lake Havasu City has two things going for it. The first is location - it is in between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon - a great place to stop on your trip. The second is the London Bridge.
London Bridge was originally built in 1831 and resided over the Thames River until 1968 when it began to sink into the river. The bridge was put of for sale and the founder of Lake Havasu City snapped it up for $2.46M. Then he spent $7M to move it brick by brick to Arizona and reassemble it.

London Bridge
Lake Havasu City, AZ
Around the bridge they've added an English village complete with shops, galleries, pubs, a double decker bus, and even bright red British telephone booths. The place was pretty deserted in the winter but in the summer it is a center for all types of water recreation on the lake.

We pulled out of LHC around 11am and headed east on I-40. The landscape had a backdrop of desert mountains surrounding red and brown rocks with no vegetation. This slowly gave way to mountains with bushes and then high plains with desert plants covered by a light dusting of snow and then finally heavier snow.

As we approached Flagstaff the snow cover got even thicker until the road and all the ground was covered and it was coming down lightly. The temperature in Flagstaff was the coldest we felt yet - significantly below freezing.

Flagstaff, AZ

Flagstaff was a charming, small town. Somehow, smaller than I expected with a population of 46,000. It has that western college town feel with Northern Arizona University having a prominent campus and influence.

We walked around the small downtown area and then stopped in to warm up with a snack in Macy's European Coffee House and Bakery . This is a cute unpretentious place with exotic coffee drinks and vegan cookies and cakes. We were also able to find some good dinner in surprisingly empty restaurants. The university crowd probably went home for the holidays.

The Wiper Fluid Conspiracy

The next morning we planned to drive to the Grand Canyon. The trip should take about 1.5 hours in good weather. It had been snowing most of the night and it was foggy and overcast in the morning. We debated whether it would be worth the trip if the visibility wasn't going to be that great but we decided to go for it.

On highway 180 out of Flagstaff the roads were plowed and there was plenty of salt on the road. Shortly, there was slush and salt sprayed on our windshield from other cars. We went to use the wiper fluid but nothing came out. We knew we had some fluid - it was checked before we left. I kept trying a few times and all we got was some blue slush. The wiper fluid was frozen. The car was just a little over a year old and we've never filled it ourselves. I guess that the Honda dealer in the Bay Area didn't use fluid that was rated for this cold weather.

We were still able to see good enough to drive but we knew it would be a bigger problem when it got dark. We stopped at the first gas station in Valle - a tiny town that is not much more than a street corner. The two gas stations there were both out of wiper fluid. We bought a small bottle of windex for $3.60 to clean off the window immediately. We stopped at 4 more gas stations on the way in and out of the park. No one had any fluid. It seems that everyone in northern Arizona needed wiper fluid at the same time.

We were able to drive the rest of the day and had to occasionally pull over and spray the window with windex. It didn't stop us from getting where we wanted to go. Later that night when we got back to Flagstaff we stopped in a Walgreens and picked up a gallon of "All Weather" wiper fluid rated for -20F for $0.60. The next day after it warmed up we emptied all the fluid out of the car and loaded up with the good stuff. We never had the problem again.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is especially spectacular in winter. This was my fourth trip to the Canyon and all of them have been in the winter but this one had the most snow I've ever seen.
I was very happy with how the Grand Canyon photos turned out from this trip. I think they are the best I've ever taken. When we first stopped at Mather point it was very cold - maybe 15F. We had Jakie all decked out in his winter gear. At least 10 people commented: "He is all bundled up".

Click on the photo to see more
After looking at the view for a few minutes we headed inside to warm up. The El Tovar was able to meet our needs. It is an old hotel built right on the south rim. The lobby has that hunting lodge feel with animal busts all over the walls. We got hot chocolate and ate our sandwiches in the lobby. Jakie walked around and said hello to all the hotel guests as they came and went. People seemed to be from countries all over the world. Later we walked along the rim and took some more pictures.

As we drove back to Flagstaff, Mt. Humphreys was a beautiful sight. It is the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet. The top was completely covered in snow and was entirely above the tree line. The peak was a strong rugged white contrast against the fading blue sky. We left Flagstaff the next morning on Christmas Day. Several gas stations on key corners were closed but we were able to get gas on our way. Our first destination that morning was the Meteor Crater.

The Meteor Crater

The Meteor Crater is 35 miles east of Flagstaff off I-40. It was created approximately 50,000 years ago by the impact of a meteor of nickel and iron estimated to be 150 feet across and weighing several hundred thousand tons. The impact would have had an explosive force greater than 20 million tons of TNT. Shock waves killed every living thing in the area.
The crater is 560 feet deep, 4100 feet across and 2.4 miles in circumference. Standing on the edge it doesn't look that big - probably because there in nothing to compare for perspective - but its big enough to contain 20 football fields.
The visitor center at the crater is really great. It has interactive exhibits, videos, articles about earth, meteors and space - great stuff for all ages. The gift shop was full of very affordable artwork and souvenirs. They really make it a worthwhile stop - otherwise it would just be a hole in the ground.

The 279 mile drive to Albuquerque consisted of wide open plains dusted with snow, dotted with high desert bushes and trees, occasionally accented by red and orange buttes and mesas. Some parts were dominated by red mesas spotted with white and green.

We got in to Albuquerque and our beautiful apartment at the Residence Inn. Too bad we were only staying here one night. We were pretty hungry on Christmas night and everything was closed except for Bennigan's - but that worked out fine.

We heard that the old town of Albuquerque was worth a visit. When we drove by on Christmas night we were surprised at how small it was - really just one block. They were preparing for a festival of lights that evening but we couldn't make it. It would probably be much better to visit on a busy sunny day when all the shops are open.

The trip from Albuquerque to Taos took us a bit longer than it should have. Some of the roads in New Mexico aren't labeled as well as others. Anyway, we did eventually figure it out. The best route from Albuquerque to Taos is:

I-25 N -> 285/84 -> 68

Taos, Nuevo Mexico

In many ways Taos is like a south of the border town from another time. Most of the buildings are in the traditional adobe style. There is not one building that is over two stories high. The roads are thin twisty paths through small houses and fields. Things here move at their own pace.

Taos does have some history in the American West. Kit Carson lived in Taos for 25 years. The house in which six of his children were born and raised is still there and has been turned into a museum.

Today Taos is a center for Southwestern art. There are dozens of galleries of paintings, sculpture and furniture. We especially like the work at La Unica Cosa. We ended up buying some handmade wool pillows for our couch at home.

Taos also has a decent ski resort that I've wanted to visit since I lived in Boulder, CO. Cathy doesn't ski and Jakie is a little too young. The idea of selecting a place like Taos is that I could ski during the day and Cathy could tour around the art galleries and historic sites.

On Christmas day, we arrived at the Sagebrush Inn and moved into our fantastic room. The whole building was adobe style and our room was at least 35 x 15 feet with a built-in Kiva style fireplace in the corner. There is complementary firewood brought to your room every night. When I heard that I said "Is the room heated?". Yes, but the fireplace makes it extra warm and cozy.

Taos at sunset
Ski Report - Taos Ski Valley

Taos Ski Valley is a great mountain. At 1800 acres it is about the same size as Alpine Meadows but still has that small resort feel. There are 12 lifts and there is still plenty of room for development. The top peaks can only be reached with a 10 minute hike. There were some people doing it but I didn't pay $52 for a lift ticket to hike up a mountain.

The mountain could have used a bit more snow but for someone who loves skiing you can always make the best of the situation. I love skiing. The morning of the second day I found myself on one of the first runs on an empty section of the mountain. I was criss-crossing the mountain, chaining my s-turns, catching air off small jumps - really just skiing and happily accepting whatever gifts the mountain saw fit to bestow upon me. Anytime, I would see a sign that said "easiest way" I would head in the other direction - but of course always skiing at the level of my ability. I never waited more than 30 seconds on a lift line.

The conversation on the lift is always great with hardcore skiers. Where have you skied today? Well, I started off in the back bowl, the sun hits there first and the snow softens up. By early afternoon the sun hits the front and you can take those steep runs over there but you'd better get off by late afternoon. It cools off and ices right up. Yes, I noticed that. Also when the sun is setting in the afternoon the light reflects back onto the mountain from the peak across the road - gives the whole place a golden hue. Real nice. Yes.

About half the people I met were from Texas. Taos is about an 11 hour drive from Dallas/Fort Worth and a 16 hour drive from Houston. They all had a shorter drive than us. Texans usually head to Taos or to Crested Butte, CO. Definitely some real characters. I rode up with a couple that had a strong accent that wasn't from Texas. I asked them "Are you Russian?" They said "How did you know?" I told them that their accent sounded Russian. I didn't tell them that I recognized it from Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. They told me they've been living in Houston for 10 years and they loved skiing at Taos.

We picked our hotel because it was a stop on the shuttle to take you to the mountain. That way Cathy and Jacob could have the car during the day and I could go skiing. The front desk gave me a printed schedule that said the bus would be there at 7am. The next morning I was ready to go at 7am in the lobby and the bus didn't show up until 7:30am. The driver said that the schedule was old. At the end of the day I showed up for the 4:30pm bus. There were a bunch of people waiting and it finally showed up at 4:45pm and said that we had to wait to 5pm to leave. Other people had a schedule that said there was a 4:30pm and a 5pm bus. He said those schedules were wrong. It was then that I understood.

The bus schedule is only revealed to the driver moments before he gets behind the wheel by means of an ancient ritual. The schedule may be changed throughout the day without notice. He is forbidden to reveal the true schedule to anyone including himself. The trick is to set your expectations very low and just accept that eventually you will get from point A to point B, don't complain and have plenty to read and you'll be fine.

Taos was as far east as we were going on this trip. Now we turned around and headed back to Albuquerque on our way back to Arizona and then home to California.

On our way back to Albuquerque we took a little time to drive around Santa Fe to see some sights. The Plaza in the center of town was very lively and much bigger than Albuquerque or Taos. The stores and galleries looked very interesting and we wish we had more time. On our next trip we will definitely stay in Santa Fe near the Plaza and explore.

Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest

I've always heard of the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest but we didn't realize until this trip that it was located right off I-40. It turns out that it is one of the best parks to see from your car. You can actually get off at the first exit drive through the park and then get back on the highway further down. Its definitely worth the time.
The painted desert is actually just part of the Petrified Forest National Park. The landscape consists of multicolored mesas and buttes that spread out as far as you can see. There are lots of overlooks and nothing is crowded. In the Petrified Forest section you can see huge logs that have been turned to brightly colored stone over millions of years.

Sedona, AZ

Sedona is simply one of the most outrageously beautiful places on earth. It is a small town of about 7700 people at the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon. We spent most of our time driving or walking around with our jaw dropped looking at the scenery. Its as if the town was placed in the center of an incredible work of art.
The landscape has definitely attracted more than a few people of new age spirituality. People believe that strong spiritual energies concentrate in the area in vortexes or psychic energy points.
I just like browsing through the shops like Crystal Magic and seeing all the books and information on everything from massage to bigfoot. As a fan of the X-Files and SciFi I enjoyed our lunch at the Red Planet Diner. The people there spent quite a bit of time decorating it with real UFO memorabilia.

There are also quite a few art galleries. Many of them are centered around the Tlaquepaque shopping area. There are dozens of fabulous specialty art shops there and the whole place is designed like an old Mexican village.

Later in the afternoon we took a hike in the Red Rock Crossing park. We let Jakie run around and have some fun in a field underneath Cathedral Rock - a spot in which dozens of westerns have been filmed.

By now we were getting ready to start heading home. We made one more tourist type stop on the way - Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam

I've driven by Hoover Dam several times but I've never stopped and taken the tour. We had a bit of time and decided to do it. The dam is definitely a major engineering triumph for any time. It really is something to look down the huge wall and think about all the concrete and the water behind it. Before Sept. 11th there was a hardhat tour you could take in which they took you down in front of the dam. Today they will take you on a Discovery Tour that shows you the turbines and some films but you can't go outside at the bottom. Anyway, I was glad we did it.

As usual, I think we tried to pack too much into the trip and it seemed like a lot of work. But we really do enjoy driving vacations. They give you a sense of where you fit in the big picture in terms of culture and geography in the world around you. We are looking forward to do a different version of a Southwest trip again soon.

Our Gas Fillups

Date Location
Total Cost
Dec-21 San Ramon
Dec-21 Bakersfield, CA
Dec-22 Barstow, CA
Dec-23 Lake Havasu, AZ
Dec-24 Flagstaff, AZ
Dec-25 Flagstaff after GC
Dec-25 Grants, NM
Dec-26 on way to Taos, NM
Dec-29 Taos, NM
Dec-30 Grants, NM
Dec-31 Sedona, AZ
Jan-2 Kingman, AZ
Jan-3 Barstow, CA
Jan-4 Bakersfield, CA
Jan-4 Dublin, CA
  Total or Avg