After KP picked me up in Boise, we made our way through 4 states, 5 national parks, 1 state park, and 12 BLM/NF Campsites before entering Mexico. The two weeks we spent traveling from Moab to the Grand Canyon was full of some amazing sites and stories! Here are the highlights of each of the amazing places we visited:
Arches National Park:
Driving in Utah is not for the faint of heart. When we decided to drive an innocent looking back road into Arches National Park, we were still early into our Utah driving experience. We hadn't yet watched a Jeep roll over twice into the bottom of a canyon on a trail deemed "moderate" by the locals.
As we started down the road from our free BLM campsite, we remembered that the sign at the beginning of the road had said "4WD High Clearance Only." Well that should be no problem for our truck, we both thought. This was the first time we realized that when Utah says something they mean it... The road was through washes, over slick rock (a Utah staple as we would come to find out), and would have been completely impassible after the first bit of rain. It took us just over an hour to drive the 8 miles in to the park, but were rewarded with the most incredible (and surprising) view of Balanced Rock just as we came over the hill to the main road. Pawley off-roading for the win!
We drove to the back of the park to Devil's Garden and started out for a 7.2 mile loop marked as "strenuous" on the park guide. Again, we were underestimating Utah here... We thought from our experience with hiking at home that "strenuous" was usually relative, and we were overly-confidant in our hiking abilities, despite the fact we'd quit cross-fit two weeks prior and neither of us had worked out since... Oh and add to that the fact that we were used to elevations of about 1,000' and the National Park sits right around 5,000'
As we started out on the "primitive trail" we found it easy and scenic and were feeling very good about our abilities. As we entered a wash with clear signs that said "Trail Enters Wash," KP even went so far as to say "How could anyone get lost in here?" I think you can see where this is going.
In about 10 more minutes, we started hiking up a hill that led back in the direction we'd come from. At this point we start thinking this might not be right, but there is an obvious trail with lots of footprints, so we decide to just go with it. Another 10 minutes of alternately looking at the map, looking at our GPS dot and track we had just come from (without satellite view so no landmarks or marked trails), and marveling at how someone who just navigated successfully across 1400 miles of desert could get lost in a National Park, we admit defeat and start backtracking.
About a quarter mile back we see where we went wrong and feel less bad about our navigation abilities as the trail is supposed to scramble up an unmarked wall of slickrock into a canyon. We only figured this out because a mom and two teenage daughters scramble over and out of the canyon heading in our direction. We graciously explain to them which way they should go from this point so as to prevent them from getting as lost as we did. They roll their eyes a bit as they take the obvious trail in the correct direction, but we know in our hearts they were grateful.
About an hour and a half more of scrambling up slickrock, down slickrock, and around even more slickrock, we reach the place where the primitive trail meets the main trail and we had never been happier to see fat German tourists in our lives. The moral of the story here is, when Utah says "4WD High Clearance Only" or "Strenuous", they ain't f****n around!
Our visit to Canyonlands was all about the roads. We drove in via the Shaffer Trail which started at the mouth of what would eventually become the Grand Canyon. Since we had not yet seen the Grand Canyon at this point, I remember thinking, how is the Grand Canyon going to be any more beautiful than this area… spoiler alert, it was! One of my favorite spots on the trail was Thelma and Louise Point. This is the spot where they were chased by cops to the edge of the cliff and decided to drive in rather than get caught. I love that movie, and it was a total thrill to hang my feet over the edge they “jumped off.”
The drive along the Trail including the incredible Shaffer switchbacks that take you from a few thousand vertical feet in about a mile of driving. When you get to the top, you are in Island in the Sky, one of the three areas of Canyonlands. There are several areas, including the Mesa Arch which we visited, that give you views you would not believe. Looking out through the arch you could see so far and in such detail it looked like you were looking down at a topographical map of the area.
On the way down from Canyonlands we took Long Canyon, which was some of my favorite driving of the day. I wish we’d had time to visit the two other areas of Canyonlands National Park, but I think this is one we will definitely come back to again!
After leaving Moab, we had a plan to camp between there and Capitol Reef National Park, with one stop over at Goblin Valley State Park. Again, we went into this park without any expectations and were pleasantly surprised to see how cool it was. When you pass through the entry gate, you have no idea what to expect, all you can see are some cool looking cliffs and small mountains. Once you drive up to the observation area, it’s clear what they mean by “Goblin Valley”. The Hoodoos as they’re known, resemble goblin like standing rock formations all over the valley floor and up on to the surrounding hills. We spent over an hour wandering in and out of the valley, and up in to the slot canyons by the hills. If we hadn’t wanted to get further down the road that day, we would have grabbed out our tent and camped somewhere in the valley. Oh did I mention it was Halloween…. Could have gotten a little spooky there that night…
After camping down yet another quiet BLM road where we never saw another car, we made our way into Capitol Reef pretty early. We had bought a NatGeo map of that area the day before, and had already made a pretty good plan for our day the night before. A stop at the Visitor Center pointed us in the right direction to start our day with a quick 2 mile hike down one of the incredible canyons in the park. We were there early enough that we were the first car in the lot and got to have a peaceful hike down an incredible canyon that was used by the early pioneers 100 years ago. On the walls you can still see writing from the families, signing their names and dates of passage, to mark their passage.
The hike was enough to make us realize we were spending even more time in this park, but because we were trying to see as much as we could before we left the country, we settled for just our small hike and then headed towards another of KP’s bucket-list drives on the Burr Trail. We started from just outside the park and drove down a nice, if somewhat washboardy dirt road. We made it to another awesome set of switchbacks. These probably would have been every bit as scary as the Shaffer Trail ones, if we hadn’t done those first, but by this point we were so practiced it was no big deal.
Just a couple miles past the switchbacks you leave the Capitol Reef boundary and enter Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The first land to be designated as a national monument, and encompassing nearly 1.9 million acres, much of the area wasn’t even mapped until the 1970’s. This remote area became KP’s favorite of the trip, and as it’s so large, we ended up winding in and out of it multiple times over the next couple days. Our first campsite was an awesome spot next to a beautiful meadow where we could hear elk calling as soon as it got dark. When we woke up the next morning we found their tracks about 100 feet from where we were camped.
By now you can see we covered some serious ground in the week we traveled from Moab to the Grand Canyon.
Our next day was spent driving to Bryce Canyon National Park. We took the Burr Trail until it ended in the small town of Boulder, Utah. We had intended to go to the Burr Grill for beer and burgers, but found it closed when we got to town at 11am, so we went next door to the somewhat out of place hipster-brunch place. It was like we had arrived back in Portland as soon as we saw the menu. Lots of Quinoa, brown rice, and soy… Not that it wasn’t a good lunch, just not the greasy burgers and fries we were hoping for.
After leaving our fancy hippy lunch, we drove what some call the most scenic highway in the country, between Boulder and Bryce Canyon. And they wouldn’t be lying, it is truly gorgeous country. You drive over several gorgeous mountain passes, that all open onto different combinations of rock formations with every natural color you can imagine. It is not the kind of scenery you can get bored with.
When we got to Bryce Canyon later that day, we took a quick hiking detour to walk up Water Canyon and see the almost non-existent waterfall (we get pretty spoiled in Oregon when it comes to waterfalls) and the slightly more impressive mossy cave, which would have been even more impressive in winter when it fills up with crazy ice formations.
After a quick stop at the visitor’s center to plan out our next day in Bryce Canyon, we made our way back out of the park to the adjacent forest service (i.e. free camping) and KP finally built me our first fire of the trip. And it was the perfect night for it since it was below freezing from about the time the sun went down.
We woke up super early the next morning to see the sunrise over the canyon… ok it was not super early, we got up at about 6:30am so we could leave at 7am to be in the park early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:57am. We were about four days before the end of daylight savings, so we got lucky with such a late sunrise. It was still below freezing when we made our way to the observation deck at Upper Inspiration Point about 7:30am. We brought our coffee, our camera, and our big puffy coats.
This was our first glimpse of the canyon, since the night before we hand only gone as far as the visitor’s center and then turned around to camp. When the sun started to hit the canyon, it became clear why this was a national park. We stood in the freezing cold at over 8,000’ elevation for almost an hour getting pictures and video of the incredible sunrise. We finally pulled ourselves away only because we remembered we were planning a 6.5 mile hike and the sooner we started it, the sooner we’d finish and could have lunch… most of our personal motivations are food based if you hadn’t picked that up already. (Also beer- Ed.)
Our hike took us down from Bryce point at 8,300’ to almost the canyon floor at 6,800’ and then back up to the point. It was a gorgeous hike, but some of the hardest either of us had done. KP was slightly more prepared having climbed South Sister in Oregon earlier this year, but neither of us was really ready for how hard hiking at 8,000’ for 3+ hours would be.
After making it through and eating a much needed, and deserved, backpacker’s meal, we got in the truck to head back in to Grand Staircase-Escalante and camp for the night. We had heard there would be rain, so we knew two things might happen the next day. One, we would probably have to abandon our hopes of going to Antelope Canyon, the famous slot canyon that is so gorgeous to photograph is really only worth seeing if you’ve got the sunlight, and would probably not be open if there was any rain. Two, we knew even the road we were on, through Cottonwood Canyon, might be impassable with enough rain.
We took our chances and made camp in the canyon, and were relieved that the little bit of rain we had heard through the night and that continued into the morning, was not enough to do any damage to the road we were on, and made for smooth driving all the way back to pavement.
Since the clouds hung on and we couldn’t do Antelope Canyon, we decided to head straight for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the grand finale of our National Park tour. By this point, we had done 4 national parks in less than a week and as beautiful as they were they were starting to blend together a bit. When we got to the North Rim it was mid-afternoon and getting colder by the minute. We’d heard that if the temperature dropped and it started snowing, then the roads would close and the access to the North Rim would be shut down for the season, so we were fortunate to make it in the park at all. When we arrived we took the ¼ mile hike out to Angel’s Point to see our first glance of the canyon.
We picked the North Rim because of it’s lack of tourists and we were not disappointed. There was hardly any one there, but you also miss out on that traditional Grand Canyon view that you think of from the movies. That can be seen at the South Rim. The North Rim is beautiful, but looks out over two canyons that open into what is the Grand Canyon in the distance. It’s really kind of a strange spot for an observation area, but the views are beautiful.
We camped in our customary middle-of-nowhere campsite and the next day decided to head out to a couple more viewpoints on the canyon to see if we could find that real Grand Canyon view. The first was called Jug Handle Point and the views did not disappoint. We drove miles and miles along forest service roads to what felt like the side of the canyon, but it still wasn’t quite right. What we were looking for, we found at Monument Point. We drove in to a trailhead lot where five other cars were parked, abandoned for the weekend by adventurous backpackers we assumed. Monument Trail drops almost 6,000’ into the canyon and down to the Colorado River over 12 miles of terrain. We were not prepared in any way for that kind of hike, so we conceded to the first mile of the hike dropping only 600’, albeit straight off the side of the point.
We stopped at a flat rock just on the corner of the point where we could see the trail switch-backing down and away and decided this was good enough because I had finally found my Grand Canyon view!!! KP hiked a little further down the trail just to see what was around the corner, but I sat on that rock and stared out into the canyon for well over 30 minutes. It is the only time I have ever understood how someone could be emotionally touched by a landscape. I will admit I shed more than a few tears, so KP deemed the rock I was on Taylor’s Tears. It was worth the ridicule because I could have sat and looked at that view for days!
We got to camp early that afternoon and spent a quiet afternoon reflecting on our national park experience. It was wonderful, but too quick. Any one of the many places we visited was worth an extra day of exploration, but we made the most of the time we had. It was on to Vegas for some R&R from here, and then just a few days until Mexico.