Sunday, December 4, 2011

And I Didn't Even Have to Cut My Own Arm Off: The Parks of Southern Utah

After Thanksgiving, I had a decision to make. My general plan is still to meet with friends in San Francisco around the middle of December before driving across the country in time for Christmas. But how would I spend the time in between? I'd thought of dawdling my way up the California coast, camping near the beach and bumming around. But there was also time to squeeze in a section of the trip I'd previously skipped: the Colorado Plateau, specifically southern Utah. The tradeoff would be long miles and cold temperatures. But hell, I thought, I've already driven up the California coast. So straight north I went, to red rock country.

I only had about two weeks to cover the territory I'd originally thought might take me a month. I'm trying not to have regrets over the way this trip fell into place, but if I'd had more time, I'd have spent it here. The canyon country of southern Utah is as extraordinary as all the tour brochures make it seem. The other regret I'm trying not to have is not being able to find my camera charger. (It's in the car. Somewhere. I swear.) About halfway through Canyonlands, the battery died, leaving me with my phone's rather clumsy and relatively low-res camera. Fine for blogging, but it can't take photos you'd want to frame.

It was a whirlwind tour, with just one night each in Arches and Capitol Reef, and skipping Zion entirely. But it was well worth it.

The way up from Tucson passed through Monument Valley. You know, this one:

 Copyright Ron Niebrugge,
Unfortunately, I made my closest pass to the classic view long after dark. I camped at a spot called Gooseneck State Park, just over the Utah border. I knew I was in dramatic country, but I couldn't see anything but stars. When I woke up, I stumbled around my tent and saw this:

The San Juan River making a dramatic meander

I took a scenic drive along a dirt road around the area.

Monument Valley in the far distance.
A "mini Monument Valley" along the scenic drive.
Nonno gets a bit of dust on the back windshield.
Then it was north to Arches.

Arches National Park

You know what they got in Arches National Park?

Yes. They also have cool rock formations. Upon arrival, I did a series of short walks along the main scenic drive.

I also toured the biggest concentration of arches.
Double Arch

 That night, I was one of the few people at the lovely campground. It was chilly, but not really cold.

These snowy mountains made a lovely backdrop to much of the park, though they seldom came out in photos.
Sunset from camp
The next day, I walked the longest maintained trail in Arches, a mere 7 miles. Arches is very small.

The trail traversed a series of rock fins, eroded so they resembled cruise ships in harbor.

They were about the size of cruise ships, too.

That was it for Arches! On to...

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is divided into three sections, ranging from car-friendly (Islands in the Sky) to hiker-friendly (Needles) to nobody-friendly (the Maze, which requires high-clearance 4WD, "advanced driving skills," and days' worth of water. This is where that guy cut his arm off). I opted for the Needles district. I took three long hikes, the first being the most spectacular. It was halfway through this hike that my camera's battery died. Very sad, because the rock formations on this hike were unbelievable.

The formation in the pic above is on the right of the wall here.

The trail itself was also exciting, passing over slickrock scrambles, up ladders, and through tunnels.

I also took pictures of cool plants.
This picture is NOT upside-down. A tiny trickle emerging from overhanging rocks sustained these perfect inverted bonsais.

The lumpy soil is cryptobiotic, formed by colonies of microorganisms.
I took a similar hike the next day, this one ending at a relatively lush spot by a river, where there were Native American pictographs on the rock walls.

Streaks of "desert varnish," oxidized layers left by evaporating water.

Another narrow spot, with ladder

The third hike, on my last day in Canyonlands, was probably the least interesting. It traversed more rock formations to a spot that overlooked the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri of the West. It didn't help that the day had gone cloudy and blustery.

Hard to tell from the photo, but that's a long way down. This entire area is part of the same rock/river system that formed the Grand Canyon.
On my way out of Canyonlands, I encountered the snow that would stay for the rest of my trip through Utah.

Capitol Reef National Park

I almost skipped Capitol Reef. It's small, not very well known, and guaranteed to be cold. But it was a convenient distance between Canyonlands and Bryce/Zion, so I stopped.

Capitol Reef is a prominent rock formation that dominates its area of southern Utah. Rock formations aren't exactly rare around here, and Capitol Reef's main claim is that the Fremont River runs through it, creating a hidden valley that's a tiny paradise of trees. Pioneers planted thriving orchards here, and though isolation doomed the towns, the fruit trees still survive. You can even pick fruit there, if you arrive in season. It was like a little Midwestern 19th-century village nestled in the red rock canyons, and a nice break from all the juniper-and-rock scrub desert. I spent one night here, and took one hike the next day.

I chose a campsite next to the horses, so I got to pet the horses.
Circular holes in the rock were common in all the parks. I still don't know what causes them.

All the trails and back roads are made of powder-fine red dust, which turns to ultra-sticky clay when wet. Dirt roads become impassable.

Red mud with snow.

Capitol Reef was lovely, but if I wanted to see Bryce Canyon, I had to head on.

Bryce Canyon

In some ways, Bryce Canyon is the spark that inspired this whole trip. Any time I saw a picture of Bryce Canyon, I sighed and thought, "I have to go there." Pressed for time and constricted by weather, I got one good day in Bryce. Luckily, the park is tiny, protecting just the one unique rock formation, so I saw quite a bit. Not that I wouldn't go back, if given the chance--especially when it's maybe a teensy bit warmer.

It was way too cold and snowy for camping, so I explored the park from the comfort of a motel-room base camp.


Hey, that looks like Ariel's Castle! Erm...

I wish my regular camera was working.

The End

So yeah. That was my last national park of the trip. I've still got more traveling to do; I have to traverse all of Nevada on my way to Tahoe, where I'll enjoy time with some Grand Canyon friends. Then it's off to the Bay Area, more friends and more fun. And, of course, I have to drive all the way back from Pacific to Atlantic, which will certainly be an endeavor. I may or may not add to the blog before I get home; I'm sure I'll fill in bits here and there afterward. But Bryce Canyon stands as the end of the wilderness portion of the journey.

I'll see many of you soon!

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