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Quintessential Tours Clients - The Sopers

About the Sopers   |  About their Trip   |   Photos   |  Letter from the Sopers
Trip Length: 31 Days
Pickup Date: May 17th
Drop-off Date: June 16th
Rough Distance Traveled: 2630 Miles
Pickup Location: Handlery Hotel, San Diego (Mission Valley)
Drop-off Location: Handlery Hotel, San Francisco (Union Square)
Overnights: San Diego, Phoenix, Sedona, Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Monterey
Group Size: 4 adults, 3 children
Vehicle: Passenger Van
Guide: Bob Cunningham
Photo: Rex Soper
San Diego 5 nights (2 after we joined them)

The Sopers had already been in California for nearly 2 weeks by the time we met them. They had spent their time in Los Angeles, Disney's Magic Kingdom and San Diego. We met them with a couple days remaining on their San Diego agenda, in time to help them see parts of greater San Diego not conveniently seen without a car.

San Diego Highlights
Visiting the Reuben H Fleet Science Center, the Model Railroad Museum and Museum of San Diego History at Balboa Park.
Eating at a Kiwi restaurant in the Gaslamp District. The verdict: not very Kiwi, but tasty all the same.
Visiting the San Diego Zoo and Sea World.
Taking a stroll through Old Town, where the Spanish colonists were California's first European settlers.
Legoland for Nick and the kids.
A full day excursion to the small former gold mining and current apple producing town of Julian for Rex and Joy, while Nick and the kids were at Legoland and Julie was relaxing back at the hotel.
Having freshly-made apple pie while in Julian.
Joy losing her jacket on the side of the highway while stopped to photograph a coyote, only to find it still there when we drove back to find it a couple hours later.

Photo: Rex Soper
Phoenix, Arizona 2 nights

After a couple of days together in San Diego, it was time to head off for the relative wilderness of the Southwest. We would start with not-so-wildernessy Phoenix, where Rex wanted a couple of nights, and time to do a bit of teddy bear shopping for Joy.

We departed for Phoenix in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave. En route, we saw temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit when we stopped at the General Patton museum in the bustling metropolis of Chiriaco Summit, California. We arrived in Phoenix after a long day's drive at just about dinner time.

Phoenix Highlights
Visiting the General Patton Museum en route - Rex and Nick are big military history buffs.
Shopping for teddy bears and Christmas items - two of Joy's major interests.
Visiting the Pioneer Arizona Living History Village, where Arizona's mining-era history is reproduced in the open air.
Photo: Rex Soper
Sedona, Arizona 3 nights

The heat held up while we were in Phoenix, breaking records each day. Then, en route to Sedona, things changed. The trip to Sedona from Phoenix was bearable (when outside the air conditioning of the vehicle). We stopped off at the Pioneer Living History Museum (95 acres of 19th century desert history, and Montezuma's Castle (nearly 10 thousand year old ruins of an early native settlement), before arriving in Sedona at about dinner time for a relaxing 3 night stay.

After days of record-breaking heat, the weather flipped on its lid. The morning after we arrived, I was scraping snow off of the van before heading down from Flagstaff to collect the family.

Sedona Highlights
Visiting Montezuma's Castle, where the Sopers got their first look at ancient Pueblo dwellings.
This was one of Nick's and Julie's favorite stops of the trip, simply due to the peaceful atmosphere.
Taking drives out through the red rocks, and stopping for photoshoots
Scrambling over the rocks near Sedona Airport for stunning views.
Shopping! And not just at Sedona's well-known art galleries and other artistic shops, but WAL MART! Turns out Wal Mart is Julie's favorite store. We managed to find two of them within driving distance of Sedona.
Getting snowed on at the Flagstaff Wal Mart.
Photo: Bob Cunningham
Williams, Arizona Lunch, coffee and a parade

Nick, Julie and the kids were scheduled to take the steam train to the Grand Canyon from Williams, while I drove Rex and Joy by highway. So, our first stop after Sedona was to be the basic town of Williams. Weather was still a bit dicey with intermittant rain, but after dropping the younger members of the family off, Rex and Joy were up for a bit of a look 'round the town.

To our delight, Williams was having a Memorial Day parade, and it was timed just perfectly for us to enjoy. After a quick lunch and a bit of coffee, we all enjoyed small-town Americana.

Photo: Bob Cunnningham
Grand Canyon National Park 2 nights
Despite our prolonged stay in Williams, we arrived at the Grand Canyon in plenty of time to meet Nick, Julie and the three kids. Once convened, we checked into the park-run hotel, and arranged for a few excursions to coincide with good photo-lighting.
Grand Canyon Highlights
For Nick, Julie and the kids, the steam train trip on the Grand Canyon Railway.
For Nick and Julie, a helicopter flightseeing trip that crossed the deepest, widest part of the canyon. For Julie, this may have been the highlight of the entire trip.
Photographs of the canyon at differing times of day in different light conditions.
The group of extremely tame deer that joined the family just outside their lodge rooms.
The numerous elk we saw throughout the park.
Photo: Rex Soper
Canyon de Chelly 1 night

After the grandness of the Grand Canyon, we were in for a bit of a change of pace, heading out into Navajo Nation, and the quieter pace of life to be found there. The drive from the Grand Canyon took us swiftly through the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, although by the time we got to those points of interest, everyone was ready to keep on moving in order to get to our home base for the evening.

We did manage a stop at Meteor Crater, which turned out to be a bit overblown, as I had begun to imagine after seeing just a few too many signs advertising this "natural wonder."

At Canyon de Chelly, we managed to sort out the time issues (Navajo Nation observes Daylight Savings Time, while the rest of Arizona does not), and get prepared for an early morning guided tour of Canyon de Chelly's historic reaches.

Canyon de Chelly Highlights
A private tour through Canyon de Chelly led by a local Navajo guide and resident of the canyon.
Photo: Rex Soper
Monument Valley 2 nights

Having seen Canyon de Chelly properly, it was time to head off to one of Rex's
"mecca" destinations: Monument Valley. A huge fan of John Wayne, Rex had seen "the Duke's" grave while in Southern California, and had been looking forward to visiting this quintessential filming location ever since first booking the trip.

We set the Sopers up in a vacation-rental-style house overlooking the famous valley. The family invited me over for my first barbecue with them, and as the sun set, we all attempted to take advantage of the changing light to somehow capture a scene that can't possibly be captured.

Monument Valley Highlights
A private tour of Mystery Valley led by a local Navajo guide for Rex and Nick.
A private tour of Monument Valley just for Joy (led by me) while Rex and Nick were at Mystery Valley.

A second private tour of Monument Valley led by a local Navajo guide for both Rex and Joy (who took advantage of the two tours to photograph the Moroliths in differing light.

A day of relaxing and swimming for the kids, who were getting a bit travel-weary and enjoyed the break.
Photo: Prise de vue personnelle
Arches National Park CANCELLED!

I had a very exciting second day in Monument Valley. While Rex and Nick went off with a local Navajo guide to see Mystery Valley, a lesser-known destination, I took Joy on a late-morning tour of Monument Valley's most accessible drive.

Rex and Joy would later retrace my steps (and then some) to afford the two some different lighting, and then the lot of us would return home for the evening.

At around 8:30 PM, things got interesting. I didn't have great cellphone reception at my cabin, but I did get Rex's call. One of the kids wasn't feeling well. Could I take her and her parents into the nearest town to see a doctor.

"Of course" was my response. 45 minutes later, Nick and I were parked at Kayenta's remote medical facility, discussing Taila's heart condition, and praying that there wasn't anything seriously wrong.

After several hours, Julie received the report that Taila had accute appendicitis, and needed to be immediately medivaced to Flagstaff. 30 minutes later, Julie and Taila were gone, and Nick and I were driving back to Monument Valley wondering what had just happened.

Photo: Derek Cashman.
Flagstaff, Arizona 1 night
Flexibility is one of our best attributes. After getting sufficient sleep to be coherant, the Sopers and I convened, and we set out on a short-term plan-of-action. We would all drive to Flagstaff, see what Taila's condition was, and make decisions from there. The drive was moderately uneventful, as each passenger considered the future.

On arrival in Flagstaff, we went immediately to the hospital, where Julie had been keeping a 24 hour vigil since arriving. The first order of business was for Nick to relieve Julie so she could get some sleep. No authoritative word had yet been given on Taila's contdtion.

After switching parents, and getting everyone settled in to their new, unscripted digs, everyone turned in for the night.

Photo: Rex Soper
Las Vegas, Nevada 1 night

The next day proved to be a good-news day. Taila's fever had subsided, and the doctors were so happy with her recovery that they ruled out an appendectomy. She was released, and we were able to re-plan the route forward.

That route started with a trip to Las Vegas, where Taila would be able to recover within short shouting distance of medical attention. Everyone decided that the younger family would be best-served to stay in Las Vegas while Rex, Joy and I visited Utah's remote national parks.

So, I booked Nick, Julie and their kids into some very cool rooms in Las Vegas, and prepared to set out the next morning with Rex and Joy.

Photo: Rex Soper
Capitol Reef National Park 1 night

The trip to Capitol Reef was a fairly long drive, given how far we had come in the opposite direction in order to get young Taila to Las Vegas. One stop along the way was noteworthy, however.

Right around the intersection of I15 and I70, we decided to take a flyer on a historic site advertised on a highway sign called Cove Fort. While Rex and Joy went off for a look, I stayed with the van, and took a few photos. After a while, I could see the two of them engaged in deep conversation with one of the local "docents." Through my telephoto lens, I gathered that this was a conversation that neither Rex nor Joy was too excited to be having, and watched as Joy cleverly started taking pictures further and further away from Rex and their evangelist.

Yes, that's right, the price of admission at Cove Fort is conversion, and Rex and Joy were getting the full sales pitch from their Mormon host. As Rex recounted later, he began to suspect something when they taken to a room in the fort, and the guide asked them if they could name the 5 sources of light in the room. The doorway, skylight and 2 windows were obvious answers, leaving them one short. It was at this point that the "Book of Mormon," lying open on a table, was revealed to be the 5th source of light.

Not particularly in the mood to become Mormons on that particular day, the two made their excuses and we hightailed it for Torrey, where we would spend the night before seeing Capitol Reef the following day.

Capitol Reef was to be the start of a very photogenic 4 days in southern Utah. We spent a half day in the park, where Rex and Joy took hundreds of photos, before we headed west and south, down beautiful Highway 12, arriving at Bryce Canyon just before dinner.

Photo: Rex Soper
Bryce Canyon 2 nights
Back on our original itinerary now, we had 2 nights at Bryce Canyon to allow for a bit of cooling of the heels. So, we took a full day to appreciate the changing colors that came with the sun's course across the sky, and I believe the trip record for the number of photos taken in a 24 hour period was set during our full day at Bryce.
Photo: Rex Soper
Zion National Park 1 night

Leaving Bryce, we stumbled on one of the very cool finds of the trip, the Paunsaugunt Wildlife Museum. Created by Robert Driedonks and his wife, Teri, this museum features one of the finest collection of taxidermy I've ever seen.

Zion proved to be another photographic paradise, and it was well into the evening by the time we settled in for the evening in the small town of Springdale, just outside the park boundary.

Photo: Bob Cunningham
Las Vegas Nevada 5 nights

After about a 2 hour drive, our scenic voyage to Southern Utah ended, and the Soper family was reunited in Las Vegas. The first couple nights here would be a welcome break for Nick and Julie, who were relieved of parenting duties by the grandparents, while they enjoyed some time to themselves at New York New York casino and hotel.

The next few days would be spent taking in as much as can be taken in of Sin City over a 5 day stretch.

Las Vegas Highlights
Shopping! The outlet mall and Miracle Mile shops at Planet Hollywood highlighted a the list that also included places like Best Buy for electronics. One "miss" was the scrapbooking shop that we took Julie to that had just gone out of business.
Rex and Nick going to the shooting range and trying their hand at a variety of automatic weapons, including an Uzi.
Nick and Julie having 2 nights to themselves at New York New York while Rex and Joy assumed parenting duties. During this spell, I took the couple casino-hopping all along the Strip, including stops for the Foutains at Bellagio, The Sirens of TI (at Treasure Island) and the Wynn's unique casino water and light show. Highlights of the evening were the Ferari museum at the Wynn, where Nick had his picture taken in a cherry model, and the Tournament of Kings at Excalibur, where Nick and Julie treated me to dinner and a jousting tournament HuzAAA!
Family night on Fremont Street.
Visits to the M&M's World and Circus Circus for the kids.
Dining buffet-style; something for everyone.
With the gang wanting to have an adults-only night, and unable to find a hired sitter service, I volunteered to hang out with the kids for one evening. Rex, Joy, Nick and Julie had a ball at the casinos, while I learned the intricacies of World of Warcraft from Bryden.
Photo: Roger Diener
Death Valley 1 night

Having already endured 115 degree heat earlier in the trip, the family wasn't all that excited about Rex's plan to spend a night in Death Valley. But, it turned out pretty well, beginning with a trip to Scotty's Castle (built by a gold-rush-era huckster), and culminating with a steak dinner at the Wrangler Steakhouse, before retiring to the swimming pool and air conditioned rooms of the Furnace Creek Ranch.

The following day would see us drive the length of the National Park, before heading towards Sequoia.

Photo: Rex Soper
Sequoia National Park 2 nights

After leaving Death Valley, we took a detour to the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Here, on an active military base, we had a look at some very cool weaponry before having lunch at a "local-flavor" diner in Ridgecrest.

Leaving modern warfare behind, we skirted the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, on our way to Sequoia. The highlight of what became an incresingly scenic trip through the mountains was stopping on a remote mountain road, so that I could shoo a snake from middle of the road.

Sequoia turned out to be a tour high point, thanks in no small part to bears. On our full day in Sequoia, we saw three bears in three different places within 2 hours. I love seeing bears in their natural habitat. So often, in the national parks, when a bear is sighted, it becomes tourist pandemonium. We were able to enjoy the bears we saw in Sequoia as they went about their daily business of foraging, unmolested by throngs of people or park rangers commanding us to "move along." This was nature the way it is meant to be enjoyed.

Sequoia Highlights
Seeing three bears within 2 hours, and actually having time to watch them go about their daily business.
Scaling Moro Rock (see below for more on that).
Walking among the massive trees.
Bear-proofing the vehicle after a long day driving from Death Valley.
Stopping to watch a yellow-bellied marmot.
Sneaking a chip or two to the squirrels and chipmunks (shh).
Photo: Rex Soper
Yosemite National Park 3 nights

The one downside of our "3 Bear Day" in Sequoia was that Rex missed it. He was feeling a bit "crook" and stayed back at the hotel while the rest of us toured. So, it became a bit of a mission for me to find Rex a bear while we were in Yosemite.

Ultimately, (as evidenced by the picture at left), we were successful, albeit in a bit less of a natural setting than we'd experienced in Sequoia.

In the mean time, 3 nights in Yosemite allowed the family to see the entirety of the park, with Rex and Joy deciding that the long drive up into the high country was a highlight of the entire trip.

Personally, Yosemite was rewarding for me, as it was here that I got to spend the most quality time with the Sopers. The Kiwi-style barbecues we enjoyed out back of the vacation home we rented for them are among my favorite memories of 2008. Good food, great conversation, and the ocassional appearance of a local coyote who seemed to be posing for the camera, were hallmarks of a wonderful three night stay.

Yosemite Highlights
Glacier Point was a real treat for the whole family.
Family walks to Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls, which were flowing heavy in early June.
While it was a long drive to enjoy it, the High Country was a tour highlight for Rex and Joy. In fact, I believe I remember them saying it was the most beautiful place they visited.
Relaxing, and playing pool back at the vacation home we rented for the family.
Kiwi-style barbecues on the back deck of the home, followed by late night conversations.
Finally getting Rex his bear just as we were leaving Yosemite Valley for the last time.
Photo: Rex Soper
Monterey 1 night
Once again, Quintessential Tours' flexibility came in handy, as the group decided that it would like to give the Monterey Bay and Big Sur a try, in lieu of the originally planned night in the Gold Country. We made some calls, cancelled the hotel in the Gold Country and rerouted the final stop through Monterey. Getting in a bit late, after a late start from Yosemite, the group opted to settle in early for the night, and maybe get a bit of pool time in for the kids.
Photo: Rex Soper
Big Sur Side Trip
This would be our last day together, so I took the group down into one of the most scenic coastal regions in the world; Big Sur. Despite foggy weather in Monterey, the skies opened up for us, and Big Sur itself was sunny. We drove as far south as Nepenthe, where we had a bit of coffee and shopped in the Phoenix gift shop, before heading back north.
Photo: Bob Cunningham
Aptos En route to San Francisco

On our way to the coast from Yosemite, I asked the family if they'd like to have a beach barbecue. You see, the change in plans now had us traveling through my home town in Aptos, and after several barbecues where I was the guest, I wanted to play host for a change. After dropping the family off in Monterey the night before, I met up with my wife for the first time in a month, and the two of us did a bit of shopping for a good old fashioned California-style barbecue.

It was clear after a half day in Monterey and Big Sur that the beach was going to be a bit cold due to coastal fog, so we moved the venue to our home. Late afternoon, I arrived with the Sopers at our home in Aptos, and began cooking. I believe everyone enjoyed my cooking (ribs being the main course), and I was delighted to have the opportunity to have the family to my home.

Photo: Jeff Lowe
San Francisco 7 nights after we dropped them off
After a full month together, we (my wife, Tess accompanied us to San Francisco after the barbecue) bid adieu to the Sopers in San Francisco, where they would spend another week touring on their own. Happily, it turned out that this would be more of a "see you later" than a farewell, as (as of this writing) I am preparing for a follow-up journey with Rex and Joy in the fall of 2009.

During our 2 night stay in Sequoia, I took the family out for some hiking, photo taking and exploring. This was on the day we saw the three bears. Had nothing else happened that day, it would have been wildly successful. My personal enduring memory of that day, however, was Moro Rock. I accompanied the group (minus Rex, who stayed back at the lodge not feeling too well) up to the base of the rock, where I imagined that Nick's fear of heights would probably keep us.

Julie and Joy both started heading up the gigantic Monolith a bit. Just to get a better look at the surrounding mountains. Nick, to my surprise, followed. As the group continued to test the narrow, steep trail (there is a railing), Nick asked if I could look after his youngest, Madisyn. He wanted to see how far he could get, but wanted someone to be there for Maddie, if his acrophobia got the better of him. Julie was a bit ahead of us, and was taking care of Taila.

Up we went, me thinking that each turn in the trail would bring and end to the tentative quest. I kept watching Nick to see if he was losing his nerve. But, up we climbed, and it soon became clear that we were headed for the top. 400 steps, and a few stops to catch our breath later, we arrived at the top, where we stayed for a good spell, joined by other "daredevil" visitors, a few chipmunks and lizards, and a hummingbird that darted in and out of our scene. The 360° view was stunning.

This was one of those moments that embody why I started Quintessential Tours. I had participated in and facilitated Nick overcoming a personal hurdle. I was delighted for him, and also quite chuffed that he felt he could trust me with his daughter's safety on the potentially treacherous path. It was quite a satisfying 30 minutes at the top of the rock...

...and there was a bonus! I got to be Maddie's favorite person for the day.

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