It’s time to wrap up the tales from our late winter road trip since, in reality, we’re now about to cast off the lines and get ADVENTURES underway for summer cruising on the water. We certainly enjoyed cruising on the land, but it can’t compare to cruising on the water, especially here in southeast Alaska. It’s a wonderful place to find some peace and healing.
The final park we visited was Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah. The “reef” is a monocline – a natural wrinkle in the earth’s crust that’s almost 100 miles long. The “capitol” part of the park’s name comes from some light colored pointed dome features.The park has a nice variety of hikes, with natural arches……large washes……round depressions that capture water called “tanks”, odd holes and shapes from wind and water erosion……and wonderful petroglyphs.Although we wanted to explore the farther reaches of the reef, we were running short on time and had to settle for the Scenic Drive… not too shabby!Jim had fun shooting panoramics……and I loved the vivid colors in the rock layers.Deer and wild turkeys were the dominant wildlife that we observed, and we definitely plan to return when we have more time.We were staying in a campground about 20 miles outside the park, and we passed a little area that we remembered visiting with a photo group when we lived in Salt Lake 25 years ago. After poking around we finally found the right road and were rewarded with a view of Factory Butte.Although it was tempting to hike out to the foot of the butte (it’s one of those things where it looks closer than it is, and you hike and hike and hike and it never gets closer), there are some washes nearby with odd colors and shapes. Add some approaching storm clouds and Jim had a tough time getting me to leave.Oh, and remember – always keep a sharp lookout for wildlife on the road. You never know what you’ll run into.We put the camper to bed for the summer, took the very interesting Boeing Factory Tour, and checked out Paul Allen’s excellent Warbird Museum before we did a little shopping and set up a pallet to go on the barge to Petersburg.I don’t remember how many miles we traveled, but we visited 7 National Park/Monuments and 3 state parks, and we had a ball.
Another gem of a place in southern Utah that I’ve always wanted to visit is Goblin Valley State Park, just east of Capitol Reef National Park. For you quirky science fiction fans, it’s also one of the filming sites used in the Star Trek spoof movie Galaxy Quest.Goblin Valley is home to thousands of small hoodoos – eroded mushroom shaped Entrada sandstone formations about 170 million years old. It’s a magical place to explore.If you look carefully in the photo above you can spot a person standing next to the goblins to the left of center. In the photo below you can see Wild Horse Mesa in the background, and some crumbly green rock in the foreground.
We spent two days exploring the goblins, wandering deep into the valley to find caves, climb the odd cone-shaped mounds, and to let our imaginations see things in the rocks – especially faces.
We loved all the views from the different sections of the valley, and it was very easy to lose one another since most of the goblins are taller than we are.On the second day we hiked around the end of the ridge to reach the Goblin’s Lair – a large cavern accessible either by roping down or by a rough scramble over boulders to the entrance, and then a rather challenging climb down boulders to the bottom. Whichever way you get down into the Lair, you have to climb over the boulders to hike out.Of all the places we visited on this road trip, Goblin Valley made us feel the most like little kids, finding fertile ground for our imaginations, scrambling and running around like someone forgot to give us Ritalin.
Goblin Valley is known for its extremely dark skies, making it a perfect place for stargazing (and star photography). Of course on the days we were there we had too many clouds to see much, but as we say about all the places we fall in love with – we’ll be back, and next time we’ll camp right in the park.On this trip our campground was a 45 minute drive from Goblin Valley, but after dinner one evening we thought we might get skies clear enough for some nice sunset light, and we were glad we drove all the way back out there.We spotted some small herds of pronghorn as we traveled in southern Utah, and were lucky enough to get close to some near the park entrance.I know I keep calling so many places “favorite”… but who says you can only have one?
The 528 square miles of Canyonlands National Park is divided into four distinct districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the Rivers – the Colorado and Green Rivers that wind through the park and helped shape the land. Island in the Sky is closest to the town of Moab and Arches National Park, so it’s the most visited part of Canyonlands. Entrance to the Needles district is about 100 miles to the south, and the Maze district entrance is around to the west, accessible only by 4 wheel drive and backcountry hiking. We’ve been to the overlook at Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab several times to look down into this part of Canyonlands, but we were anxious to explore at least the Island in the Sky district a little more closely. Here’s a map to help you see where things are in relation to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, and so you can see how close Arches and Canyonlands are to each other.Island in the Sky is a flat mesa at an altitude of 5900′ on the Colorado Plateau, 2200′ above the Colorado and Green Rivers. Sheer cliffs drop 1200′ to a plateau topped by white sandstone carved by the mighty rivers another 1000′ below.Monuments, buttes, spires, fins and arches are all found in this improbable landscape, though so much of the park is very difficult to access. The sweeping views from the rim of the Island mesa are breathtaking, and there were several shorter hikes that we took to see some of the highlights, such as the Mesa Arch…
…and the Grand Overlook…
…and the Upheaval Crater – which has two possible theories about its creation, but no one can agree……but we wanted to see more. The rangers told us that we would be able to negotiate a short section of the famed White Rim Trail (1200′ below the mesa top) in our long 4 wheel drive truck, and that we should be able to ascend the steep switchbacks of the Shafer Trail to get back up on top. Armed with a backcountry permit and the ranger’s assurances, we set out for a day trip onto the lower rim.
From the town of Moab we picked up the Potash Road on the north side of the Colorado River, traveling along a dirt road that slowly climbed higher to give us nice views of the river’s muddy flow.The road leads past potash (potassium salts used primarily in fertilizers) drying pools and railroad sidings, a reminder that this area has a great deal of mining (including uranium) in its history. The 4 wheel drive trails in this area are outside the park boundary and are popular with OHVs – Off Highway Vehicles with beefy suspensions and big tires that can tackle the rough terrain with impunity. We were jealous at how easily they zipped along, but going slow gave us more time to appreciate the magical scenery.
We reached the lower entry (a cattle gate with a sign) to Canyonlands, and connected with the White Rim Trail – for mountain bikes or sturdy 4 wheel drive vehicles only. It takes 2-3 days to traverse the entire 100 miles of the trail in a 4 wheel drive, and several more days to do it on mountain bikes. We took the ranger’s advice and only traveled about 15 miles to the Musselman Arch – by then we were ready to turn back. The road hugs the rim of white sandstone, and there were limited places where we could pull off to the side to allow other trucks or mountain bikes to pass.
Whew! Now we just had to get out of the canyon and we had two choices: return on the long rough dirt road back the way we came, or take the shorter, scenic, challenging Shafer Trail that climbs 1200′ to the top of the mesa. That tan line in the middle of the photo above is the beginning of the Shafer – the easy part. The photo below shows some of the switchbacks on the not-so-easy part.The challenge with the switchbacks is that our 21′ long truck was a little too long to make the sharp turns, and the road is narrow, dirt, and it has no guardrails. Jim had to drive up and almost kiss the cliff face, then back up a few feet in order to make each tight turn. I really didn’t like the backing up part! Passing another vehicle is something you’d like to avoid, but it happens. You just have to choose a spot that feels wider and pull the side mirrors in. Next time, maybe we’ll rent a small jeep. But it was an adventure, we had a great time… and I had a big glass of wine when we got back to the camper. We loved what we saw of Canyonlands, and we hope to explore more of it on another trip.
Here’s a little video that Jim shot with a camera mounted on the dashboard. The switchback section has been sped up to 4x normal speed – we took it slow and easy in real life.
In the early 90s we were in graduate school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and that gave us an opportunity to explore some of the wondrous parks in the southern part of the state. Arches National Park was always our favorite, with glowing red rock in surreal formations. There are over 2000 arches in the park, though we only saw about 15 of them since many are difficult to access.
The landscape was formed by deposits of sand and silt many millions of years ago when the state was part of a massive inland sea, drying and flooding multiple times. Sandstone formed over salt domes, and the domes eventually bulged, causing the rock to crack in parallel lines. Water and wind began the erosion process, shaping rock into fins and dissolving some of the “glue” between grains of Entrada sandstone to form arches… like the Window arches……the Landscape arch……and the iconic Delicate arch, just to name a few.Geologic forces are also responsible for shaping Arches, starting with the Moab Fault which split the rock face and shifted the west side 2600′ higher than the east side.The road just outside the park follows the fault, which means that if the earth starts to shift again it could make for some dicey driving! In addition to arches, flat panels of sandstone stand proudly in the landscape such as Park Avenue……and the Courthouse.Balanced Rock is another well-known formation – we’re always glad to see its 128′ still standing……and we keep wondering what the Three Gossips are whispering about.While some of the arches are easy to get to and lots of fun to climb around, such as the Double Arch……some are a short hike through the improbable landscape at the Devil’s Garden… …to see the Sand Dune arch……and the Broken arch.We also wanted to see some of the more remote arches, and first on our list was Tower arch. This arch can be reached by a very rocky 4-wheel drive road and a short hike (we found the road to be too rough for us) or a 9 mile dirt road and a moderately difficult 2.5 mile hike, scrambling up to a rock ridge and a brutal slog on a few steep sand dunes – but it was worth it! Can you spot Jim under the arch?The view from the arch to the west was gorgeous, and we loved scrambling around underneath it.The next day we got a backcountry permit to venture into the Fiery Furnace area – a more challenging part of the park requiring a lot more rock scrambling, where trails don’t exist, and with a risk of getting disoriented. We took it slowly and carefully, backtracking often to find our way among the tall fins to discover a small arch we could crawl through, and eventually we found Surprise arch after making our way carefully along a narrow ledge.Arches never ceases to amaze and delight with its many shapes and hidden treats, and I think it’s still our favorite of Utah’s treasures.