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Western U.S. 4–22 May 2013Back

In May 2013, Mark and I were to present our joint paper about On-the-fly Confluence Detection for Statistical Model Checking at the NASA Formal Methods Symposium at the Ames Research Center near San Francisco. Together with Mark's colleague Alfons and his girlfriend Laura, we took this opportunity to explore a bit of the Western U.S.: Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Yosemite National Parks as well as several other sights like Hoover Dam, the Valley of Fire, Las Vegas, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, Mono Lake and Bodie were on our well thought-out schedule for the 7 days before the start of the conference. As my schedule was a bit more flexible, I flew in two days earlier and departed four days later than the others. This allowed me to visit Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve on the way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas Airport, where Alfons, Laura and Mark would arrive. After the conference, I enjoyed the hospitality of Michaela in Menlo Park and explored San Francisco for a day before embarking on Amtrak's California Zephyr for a two-day-and-one-night trip east over Sierra Nevada and through the Rocky Mountains to Denver. The most amazing part of this trip were of course the desert, canyon and mountain landscapes, closely followed by the amazing organisation of the U.S. National Park system. With an abundance of visitor centers, helpful rangers, good maps and knowledgeable volunteers, there was no chance you could get lost or not know what to do and where to go for it. Finally, the train trip was about the best possible conclusion I can imagine: while lounging in the observation car, relaxing in the sleeper or enjoying a meal in the dining car, with always a witty employee around, all the grand landscapes passed by again outside.

Joshua Tree National Park

Since an 11 AM flight at Frankfurt Airport was difficult to reach by train from Saarbrücken on a Sunday morning, I spent a night at Sven's place in Frankfurt before beginning a long day on US Airways from FRA via PHL to LAX. (Despite a cheerful and welcoming immigration officer, I cannot say that PHL is a nice airport, and the whole immigration queue–baggage claim–customs–baggage drop off–security re-check procedure for connecting flights is simply stupid.) I spent the next night at a hotel close to the airport in Los Angeles, then picked up our rental car the next morning. From rainy Los Angeles (It never rains in southern California, anyone?), I drove to windy but dry Palm Springs for a quick interview by the local TV station at the visitors center (tourists seemed scarce that noon) and to load supplies at a supermarket. The day's destination was Joshua Tree National Park, where I did a few short hikes and missed a good spot for sunset (due to the only bad recommendation by a park ranger on this trip). I then found my rather bland hotel in the town of Twentynine Palms just north of the park.

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Mojave NP, Hoover Dam, Valley of Fire, Las Vegas

The plan for the day was to pick up Alfons, Laura and Mark at Las Vegas Airport around 1 PM, then go on a little sightseeing loop around Las Vegas before taking in the city of neon lights (and highly affordable hotel rooms) in the evening. On the way from Twentynine Palms, I took a look at the Route 66 village of Amboy as well as some dunes and a bit of desert in Mojave National Preserve. Due to my getting up later than planned (and contrary to jet lag expectations), everything was a bit delayed, but worked out okay in the end: we did see Hoover Dam, we were in Valley of Fire State Park precisely at sunset (a bit more time would've been nice, though), and we had a nice, albeit late, evening in Las Vegas.

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Zion & Bryce Canyons

After a relatively short night, which would not be the only of its kind over the following days, we took off northwards on the Interstate to Zion National Park. In little more than the scheduled four hours (including the incredibly slow and annoying mandatory park bus), we—that is, Alfons and Laura—made it all the way up to Angels Landing, supposedly the most exciting hike in the park. Mark chose to stay at Scout Lookout, which is just before the final bit of narrow path along steep drop-offs begins. After a bit of that, I also opted for relaxation and scenery viewing instead of continuing on the final ascent. Leaving the park via scenic Zion–Mount Carmel Road, we quickly drove over to Bryce Canyon National Park, a mere two hours to the northeast. Instead of a beautiful sunset, what awaited us at the park were clouds and a light drizzle. This, however, meant that few toursist were still around and we enjoyed a nice, calm atmosphere while admiring the magificient views. When we went to check in to our pre-booked rooms at the village of Bryce just outside the park, we found that our lodge was already full, and we were upgraded to the Best Western on the other side of the street. What a nice surprise, followed by an equally nice and solid dinner.

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Bryce Canyon, Horseshoe Bend & Antelope Canyon

This Thursday was probably the most precisely planned and scheduled day of our tour. Altough the total absence of any direct sunlight over Bryce Amphitheatre at 6:30 AM was an initial disappointment (to Mark and me, who chose scenery potential over sleep), our later hike down into the amphitheatre and back was very nice. We then had to leave for Page, where Chief Tsosie's Navajo guides were to take us into Antelope Canyon at 1 PM. Fortunately, the time zone chaos that Utah, Arizona, the Navajo reservation and daylight saving time conspire to create meant that we "gained" one hour. Approaching Page, it turned out that we would have about 10 minutes to see the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River. Of course we went for it, and still arrived at the Chief's gas station and trinket shop a few minutes before the start of the tour. Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon of rounded rocks and beautiful light effects with lots of photographic opportunities. Its touristic potential is maximally exploited by the Native Americans on whose reservation it lies. Still, our guide was a pleasant lady who knew how to keep some separation from the other visiting groups and had all the photo tricks and best camera settings memorised. Back in Page, we headed southeast on a detour via Highway 98, Navajo Route 21 and Tuba City towards Grand Canyon. The direct route via Highway 89 was impassable due to a significant landslide that had occurred months before. Our planned quick lunch/dinner stop at Cameron Trading Post turned into a long break as we fought with our famous(ly immense) Navajo Tacos and meandered through the gift shop. This meant that all we saw in the fading light of the day was the canyon of the Little Colorado River before entering Grand Canyon National Park in darkness. A surprising number of deer crossed the road and a few blissfully ignorant drivers had fun overtaking us and each other.

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Grand Canyon & Death Valley

This morning, I was the only one to favour scenery over sleep. It finally paid off in terms of a quick but beautiful sunset over the Grand Canyon that I witnessed from Yavapai Point. Two hours later, all four of us went for a bit of walking along the canyon's rim. In contrast to Zion, the park's shuttle bus system was actually useful. We then started our long drive west, passing by Las Vegas again, then via the Old Spanish Trail and Jubilee Pass into Death Valley. It was, as expected, hot and desolate. We walked on the salt of the mostly dry Badwater Basin, which contains the lowest point of the U.S., looked at the Devil's Golf Course, and were on the Artists Drive while the sun was slowly approaching the mountains to the west. Just after sunset, we arrived at Furnace Creek Ranch for a night in Death Valley. By the time it had cooled down after dinner to just below 30° C, we concluded the day with a relaxing swim in the ranch's pool.

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Death Valley & Mono Lake

After visiting Zabriskie Point and panoramic Dantes View, we briefly stopped at the visitor center before taking a look at the ruins of Harmony Borax Works and then Salt Creek with its abundance of hardy, but cute little pupfish. We now enjoyed Death Valley to its fullest with temperatures exceeding 40° C. Due to the extremely low humidity, however, the heat was actually tolerable—as long as one didn't move around too much. We left Death Valley to the west after a quick stop at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and an unnecessary detour over a rocky road to the Darwin Falls trailhead (where I finally managed to "convice" everyone that this hike wouldn't be a good idea considering the time and our schedule). On Route 395, we made our way through Owens Valley along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada via Lone Pine, Big Pine and Bishop (fuel stop) to Mono Lake. We arrived in time for a nice warm evening sunlight and joined all the other photographers awaiting sunset. We then went back a bit to beautiful June Lake for the night.

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Bodie & Yosemite

The June Lake Loop road allowed us to quickly admire the beauty of the June and Silver Lake area before continuing to the gold rush ghost town of Bodie. We had lunch at Nicely's nice diner in Lee Vining, then turned west to climb Tioga Pass—which had just opened the day before after its winter closure—into Yosemite National Park. A mere 24 hours after enduring 40° C in Death Valley, we could now lie in the snow. Following a mediocre hike in the Tuolumne Meadows area, we continued with stops at Tenaya Lake, Olmsted Point and Tunnel View all the way to the other side of Yosemite Valley to arrive at Glacier Point, again right in time for sunset. Due to the lack of reasonable and not-fully-booked accommodation options inside the park, our disappointing hotel (restaurant already closed, no Internet) was located a bit to the west at El Portal.

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Yosemite National Park

Our last day of tourism before the start of the conference was dedicated to Yosemite National Park. We had planned to do some relaxed hikes before heading off on the four-hour drive towards San Francisco around 5 PM. We left our car on the central parking lot and got some good advice from the volunteers in the information tent: We'd have a look at the easily accessible Lower Yosemite Fall first, then hike to the top of Vernal Fall. Time would probably not suffice to go all the way to the top of Nevada Fall. Except for the park shuttle buses being extremely annoyingly slow (walking would have been faster most of the time), everything went according to plan until we unintentionally separated in the area above Vernal Fall. We were on the way to a viewpoint to see Nevada Fall from below. It then turned out that everyone thought the others had gone on to the top of that waterfall, so they'd have to follow. We finally met again up there, and while view and experience were great, our schedule was totally messed up. We ended up having dinner in the park, skipped the (supposedly mountain-lion-infested) Sequoia grove that Alfons and Laura still wanted to see, and arrived at our hotel in Mountain View shortly before midnight. In the end, though, the amazingness of Yosemite Valley was totally worth the annoying drive through the dark and reduced amount of sleep that followed.

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NFM & Santa Cruz Day Trip

The NFM conference took place at NASA Ames Research Center on Moffet Field from Tuesday to Thursday. Sadly, there was almost no social programme, not even a tour of the premises. We thus had to settle for looking at the skeleton of the famous Hangar 1 from the outside. The talks scheduled for Wednesday were so far out of our area of interest that Mark and I decided to go for a tour to Santa Cruz by car instead. We finally saw some giant trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. In contrast to the giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada (Sequoiadendron giganteum), these were coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens)—which are actually the taller of the two species (but less voluminous). In Santa Cruz, we walked along the beach a bit, looked at the sea lions on the Wharf, and had lunch there. We then drove north along the coast to see elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park before returning to Mountain View via Highways 1 and 92. It should be mentioned that we found the California State Parks to be just about as impressively well-organised as the National Parks. Our joint talk on Thursday then went fine, although it is usually nicer to be scheduled on the first days of a conference so there is more time for discussions afterwards.

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San Francisco

For the days after the conference, I stayed at Michaela's place in Menlo Park. On Friday, we both took an early morning train into San Francisco, where I was invited for breakfast at Twitter. True to Silicon Valley cliché, the (free!) breakfast had an amazing choice, and guests like me were welcome (as long as no one abuses the system, apparently). I then explored the city on my own: get ripped off with hidden processing fees by the public transit company when buying a day ticket, queue for and ride the famous cable cars, walk down twisting Lombard Street, look at old ships on Hyde Street Pier (National Parks annual pass valid here, too!), and almost miss lunch back at Twitter due to unreliable and slow trams from Fisherman's Wharf. After lunch, I took my time to walk through Golden Gate Park (at least a part of it; it is bigger than New York's Central Park, after all) including the very nice Botanical Garden. For sunset, Michaela and I then met at a bus stop to be taken to the top of the Twin Peaks for an amazing view of the city (and an amazingly strong and cold wind). On the way back down, we missed the bus, walked all the way to the Mission District to find something to eat, then took a bus and train back to Menlo Park.

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Palo Alto & Menlo Park

The original plan for Saturday was to take/rent a bike and cross the Golden Gate Bridge (as recommended by Rick and Corrine). Both Michaela and I agreed that it was preferable to take it more relaxed after all the exertions of the previous day, though. We thus walked over to Stanford University campus in neighbouring Palo Alto to see the cactus garden and enjoy the view from Hoover Tower. As Menlo Park has a public open-air swimming pool, something that appears to be much less common in the U.S. compared to Germany, we went there for a swim afterwards.

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California Zephyr

The grand finale of this trip was a ride on Amtrak's California Zephyr from Emeryville to Denver. Departure was around 9 AM on Sunday from Emeryville, with arrival in Denver around 6 AM the following Monday. The train then continues overnight to Chicago, but as the landscape on that last leg was supposed to be relatively boring and sleeper tickets weren't too cheap, I chose the shorter option instead. The train does not depart from San Francisco, but tiny Emeryville station on the other side of the bay. Amazingly, that station is nigh impossible to reach by public transport, especially from Menlo Park on a Sunday morning. Another thank-you to Michaela for taking me there by car! The trip that followed was simply amazing: I imagine that being on a cruise ship feels similar, but there is much more to see from the train, all the time. Offsetting the price of the sleeper ("roomette", in fact) ticket was the fact that all meals were included, and they were good. The train's crew was a nice though somewhat quirky bunch. They were not afraid of making (friendly) jokes with and about their passengers, but ultimately provided extremely good service with a friendliness that appeared much more sincere than the over-the-top politeness sometimes encountered in other places. And all the time, an amazing landscape passed by outside.

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