Zion National Park

Day 10 Soundtrack:

Morning - Vaudevillian, Salty Dog

Late Morning - The Beatles, White Album

Evening - The National, Boxer

When we do this trip again (because we plan on it.... maybe in the spring though) we will give ourselves more time to get to the Grand Canyon.

In order to stay at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the GC, you need to book your trip well in advance. We were lucky, and due to the time of year, we were able to get a cabin with only two months notice. But if you were going peak-season, you'd need to book 6-12 months ahead of time.

Our trip-planning process was looser than most - we booked our stay at GC for January 10th, giving ourselves 12 days to drive down and make some stops along the way. Other than our first stay at Starved Rock State Park (because the friendly border patrol guards want to know you're not just gallivanting around the States with no itinerary), we didn't book a single thing the whole trip - we would spend each day of driving looking online or phoning parks to make sure we could stay there for the night. If we couldn't get a hold of them, we just showed up, and hoped for the best (this only backfired on us once... stay tuned for another blog post).

Canyon Overlook Trail Zion National Park
Zion National Park

The only problem with this plan was that we quickly ran out of time to see all the things we wanted to see. We could have spent all 12 days at any one park!  (Except maybe that night in Brush CO - no offense, Brush)

And so it was that we had 48 hours to get from Escalante UT to The Grand Canyon AZ, with about a billion things still on our list. No surprises - there were things we didn't get to do, and places we didn't stay long enough. This is where the "when we do this trip again" comes in...

En route to GC we were within a stone's throw of Zion National Park, so we decided to take a slight detour and spend a few hours there (not nearly long enough!) before continuing to Page AZ where we would spend the night.

Zion Canyon
Scenic Drive Zion Canyon

With only a few hours in one of the most well-known and beautiful parks in the US... what to do? You ask a ranger, and follow their suggestions.

First we drove the length of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (normally a shuttle-bus-only road in peak-season, the SD was open to personal vehicles for the winter). We were able to take our time, stopping at the scenic views and lookouts along the way, and finally ended at Temple of Sinawava where we took in the waterfall view while snacking on smoked oysters and trail mix. I half expected to see a pterodactyl come sweeping down from the cliff tops, or a tyrannosaurus come barreling through the trees. There was something especially prehistoric and grandiose about this place. If there is another Jurassic Park movie in the future - they should film it here (but don't, you'd ruin it).

Canyon Overlook Trail
Checking out the view
Canyon Overlook Trail
Zion Canyon

After driving back up many switchbacks, and barreling through the Mt. Carmel tunnel, we parked and hiked up the Canyon Overlook Trail which, SURPRISE, overlooks the canyon. It was a slightly treacherous hike up, with spotty sections of ice, loose rocks and steep drop-offs, but we made it to the top and were thrilled that we did (Thanks ranger!) The view was astounding - red cliffs stretching out into the distance as far as the eye could see. And though there were spots with railings for the folks with height-related fears, there were lots of perching opportunities for those without. But please, don't fall!

 
The Edge
 

Wecontinued on to Page AZ where we quickly lost cellphone reception (thank you, all of Northern Arizona, for your terrible cell reception) and wandered around for a bit looking for an appropriate place to camp for the night. In our wandering, we discovered that you can easily get McDonalds WiFi from the parking lot, and returned to the parking lot on 3 separate occasions that evening after finding that the sites we looked for no longer existed (or maybe never did?), were closed, or were merely a patch of dirt at the side of the highway.

We finally found a nearby RV and tent park that accepted late arrivals, and set up camp.

Zion National Park
Zion National Park
Canyon Overlook Trail
Zion National Park

 

 

GUEST POST: The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Day 9 Soundtrack:

Traveling to the Canyons - George Harrison, All Things Must Pass

When Emma first mentioned to me that she wanted to visit The Grand Staircase, I envisioned a rock formation, in the shape of a staircase. I was not wrong, but my imagination was not completely right either. The Staircase, similar to “Balanced Rock” at Arches National Park, or the Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, was formed over millions of years. (Geologic time-scales almost completely unfathomable to this big-brained monkey.) Unlike these other awe-inspiring rock formations, however, The Grand Staircase does not fit into one’s field of vision (or even a “pano” shot on the iPhone). It is not the “naturally formed” set of stairs that you might see Rocky Balboa running up in a montage, so much as it is a metaphorical geologic construct that stretches over millions of acres in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. The “steps” in the staircase refer to the layers of sedimentary rock that begin around Bryce Canyon National Park, and stretch down through the National Monument in Escalante, through Zion National Park, and finally reach the Grand Canyon.

The “Grand Staircase National Monument” is about 2 million acres of public land in the desert of Western Utah. It is rich with streams, monoliths, and slot canyons. Again, I was naive to the meaning of a “National Monument”. When I think “monument”, I think “statue” or “plaque”, not 2 million acres of mostly primitive, completely gorgeous land, protected from development for the sole-purpose of public use. America is serious about their public land – and good on em’! In that neck of the woods (or desert, in this case), one may set up camp, free-of-charge, almost anywhere, at any time, and stay for up to 14 days. There are some stipulations to be aware of if you are going to do this, but they are straight forward and make sense. (Fire regulations, proximity to developed areas/parks, etc..) There are also some areas that have been intentionally developed into campgrounds, that do charge a small fee to offset maintenance costs/up-keep. These are great value, often the designers of the sites are very creative about working within the confines of the landscape with minimal impact. Pit toilets can also seem like a luxury after you’ve been shitting like a bear for a few days.

Escalante

Escalante

Calf Creek Campground, which we could have easily driven right by without any clue that it was there, may be my absolute favourite car-campground of all time. As we were driving through the landscape pictured above, up and down switch-backs, and along cliff-sides, there was a small side-road down to the camp. Upon arrival, we felt at home. Cosily nestled between two large red cliffs, beside Calf Creek, there are maybe a dozen beautiful little campsites. It was $7 per night. Each site has a cast-concrete picnic table, coloured to match the surroundings, and a heavy-duty iron fir-pit/grill. (As we learned is standard practice in the U.S.) There is a wonderful suspension bridge for pedestrians to walk over to the pit toilet. Each campsite has its own, unique features.. 2 have man-made pole-barns for shelter, and all have amazing views of the wild formations that have been carved out of the red cliffs all around.

There were 2 other campers on the first night of our stay. On night 2, it was just us and the coyotes (and the possibility of a mountain lion).

Emma's whippin' up some hot din.

Emma's whippin' up some hot din.

This is normal, right?

This is normal, right?

Just a typical Utah campsite.

Just a typical Utah campsite.

 

From Calf-Creek (where I wish we had spent a few more days), we day-tripped out to some slot-canyons. Apparently in the summer-time these things are so full of tourists that you can’t move. Not so in January. We didn’t see a soul out there all day. We visited Peek-a-boo Gulch, Spooky Gulch, and the Dry-Fork Narrows, all slot canyons, located in the Dry-Fork area of Escalante.

 

Goin' fer a rip in our 1994 Mazda MPV.

Goin' fer a rip in our 1994 Mazda MPV.

As we started heading down Hole-In-The-Rock Road, we realized why all of the canyon-tour shops back in town (closed for the season now) had jacked-up Jeeps and giant, 16 seat dune-buggies parked beside them. This place is “Goin’ fer a rip”-ville USA. We stuck to the main road, as the directions said, but there were intricate networks of side-roads for all levels of off-roadin’ vehicles (and their crazy drivers). Even the main road got pretty rough at times. It was no match for ol’ Vanny though. Save for the odd, seemingly wild, cow, we didn’t see nothin’ ‘r nobody for a good 26 miles on our way into the “parking lot”.

 

MPVs only.

MPVs only.

The trail to the slots is about a 3.2 mile loop, with each slot canyon accessible from the main loop. There is a “check in” station at the trailhead with a book to sign in and out. This makes sense, considering the trail is not super well defined. It’s not ultra difficult to navigate, but there were a few moments of minor confusion as we looked around for the next pile of rocks (cairns) to guide us in the right direction.

Spooky Slot Canyon is aptly named. It can be pretty dark, even in the middle of the day, down in the depths of the canyon. It is also very narrow (10’’) at points. Bringing a backpack was a poor decision.

Good thing she's small.

Good thing she's small.

Better shimmy.

Better shimmy.

The canyons are prone to flash-floods in heavy rain, and there are no warning sirens. If it starts pouring.. get the hell out! All of the surrounding desert basically funnels acres and acres of surface water down into these canyons. It is the extreme force created by all this water that keeps eroding away the walls and carving out the beautiful, sculptural forms.

Just chillin'

Just chillin'

The canyons do require a certain level of agility, determination, and willingness to traverse. There is some climbing, and there is the odd pool of water that may require some creativity to navigate without getting wet. The kid inside me loves it. In a way, it is a giant, beautiful playground. If we ever have kids, I’ll wait until they are 10 or 12 years old, I will definitely bring them here. Mabe ol’ Vanny will even still be kickin’ around.

 

The entrance to Peek-a-Boo requires about a 20’ climb.

The entrance to Peek-a-Boo requires about a 20’ climb.

Don't get wet...

Don't get wet...

Once inside, rock scrambling skills required.

Once inside, rock scrambling skills required.

She got wet...

She got wet...

All in all, I highly recommend this little venture if you’re anywhere near the neighbourhood. Don’t go in peak tourist season. A local man was telling us that tempers can flare up in Spooky Canyon when dozens of folks are trying to squeeze by one another in the 10” wide sections. For me, much enjoyment was derived from the atmosphere of the experience as a whole. This included the sense of adventure that came from the solitude in such a vast, open space as the gulch. Obviously there is some risk involved, so a jeep tour is good for those who’s vehicle isn’t up for the challenge. I wasn’t joking when I said the road is rough. It is in no way maintained. We absolutely took advantage of the 4 wheel drive. There were some very deep sandy spots, huge bumps and cracks, and some pretty tilty spots. Had it started to rain hard, a 2 wheel drive vehicle would definitey have gotten stuck. (There may be a story about such an event coming up after our visit to Sedona.. stay tuned.)

Thanks for reading.

Jesse

If there were ever a suitable selfie spot - this was it.

If there were ever a suitable selfie spot - this was it.

Dry Fork Narrows

Dry Fork Narrows

Up and through.

Up and through.

 

 

 

Bryce Canyon National Park

Day 8 Soundtrack:

Morning - The Velvet Underground, VU

Lunch - The Pesky Alders, Heavy Meadow

Evening - Roy Orbison, The Very Best Of

Half of the enjoyment of road-tripping is the driving.  Not the act of driving itself, but the opportunity to pass through miles and miles of land that one would otherwise miss if they flew. 

 
Scraping out Vanny's wheel-well, after tackling the Rocky Mountains.

Scraping out Vanny's wheel-well, after tackling the Rocky Mountains.

 

Since leaving Ontario, the landscape has changed so frequently that it seems we are almost in a new land everyday. As we travelled South, the soil became lighter and lighter, slowly changing from the almost black, nutrient rich soil of Southern Ontario, to deep browns, to reds, to tans. The plants at first grew larger - in the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, everything seemed gigantic - and then slowly shrinking as we passed state after state. 

Snow capped hoodoos - winter in Bryce Canyon
IMG_0126.JPG
Red Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon

As we get further from the Canadian border, the environment becomes "curiouser and curiouser" as Alice might say, and Bryce Canyon was the tip of the "curiouser" iceberg. The most photogenic and striking park we've been to so far, the bright orange hoodoos stood with strength on a bright blue skyline. 

We pulled into Bryce after leaving our motel, travelling the historic byway (passing several "Prospector" themed stops - "Prospector Gasoline" "Prospector Lodge" "Prospector General Store") and slowly following the changing landscape. After the blizzard the night before, the sky was bright and clear, but it was a chilling -12C, the coldest day we'd had yet.  

Bryce Canyon National Park
Navajo Loop Bryce Canyon

We spent a number of hours hiking into the amphitheatre of hoodoos, following the Navajo and Queen's Garden trail in a loop from one edge of the rim to the next. 

Few people ventured deep into the amphitheatre that day, so we enjoyed the peace of the wooded valley just the two of us.

Despite the frigid weather, the sun shone brightly, and we couldn't help but sit in awe of what existed on this planet, right in front of us. It's a big, big world out there - lots to discover, and Bryce Canyon is a must see if you're in the Utah area. We will be back. 

Arches in a Blizzard

Day 7 Soundtrack: 

Morning - Spiritualized, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

Late Morning - David Bowie, Hunky Dory

Early Evening - Rufus Wainwright, Take All My Loves

Late Evening - Timber Timbre, Hot Dreams

After leaving Black Canyon we stopped at the local truck stop in Montrose and paid $7 for two showers (we got BOGO because we also filled up on gas). We filled up our water jugs from the hose and had a gigantic biscuit, egg and gravy breakfast at Starvin' Arvin's - $5 for a platter the size of a laptop, Jes had the second half of mine for dinner.  

Then we were on route to Utah! 

For many miles there was nothing but arid desert, with a coat of fresh snow sprinkled on the tops of sharp, gnarly bushes, and dried wildflowers. The occasional red cliff appeared as we got closer to Arches National Park, a short drive from Moab UT. 

Hiking to the North Window.

Hiking to the North Window.

It was a wintery day to try and spot the arches in the distance, but that almost added to mystique of them. At the start of our jaunt through the park, there was a thick fog hovering over the trails, with the odd flurry of snow. By the end it was coming down in waves - the wind whipping through the natural holes in the rocks with a fury. 

Snowey desert. 

Snowey desert. 

South Window. 

South Window. 

The bright red of the rock and clay formations were made more striking by the contrast with perfectly white freckles. The lack of full sized trees, and huge expanse of snow covered rock, reminded me of our trip to Iceland when we first started dating, back in February 2010. I had imagined that Iceland was what the moon looked like, and Utah in the winter is what I imagine Mars might look like. 

We managed to get a glimpse of "Delicate Arch" the most famous natural arch in the world. Not the biggest or thinnest or longest span, but the most photographed. We could just barely spot it through the blizzard between us and it.

Whiteout. Even Jes was taking pictures here!!

Whiteout. Even Jes was taking pictures here!!

Hiking back from Delicate Arch.  

Hiking back from Delicate Arch.  

That night, after several hours of driving in a knuckle-clenching storm "The Great Blizzard of Utah 2017" - we dubbed it, we decided to pull over into the town of Richfield and get a motel for the night. There was no use taking on more mountains, in the dark, in a blizzard. It was nice to sleep on a bed for the first time in a week, and get some reliable wifi (even if the "continental breakfast" they promised us consisted only of coffee with frozen milk, toast, and cheerios.) 

Red, red rock. 

Red, red rock. 

Colour palette. 

Colour palette. 

On Mars.

On Mars.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Day 5 Soundtrack:

Morning - Elton John, Greatest Hits

Afternoon - Real Estate, Atlas

Evening - Spiritualized, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

Late Evening - Bob Dylan, Modern Times

Day 6 Soundtrack:

Nature sounds while on the trail.

 

Snow trudging break. Not a bad view. 

Snow trudging break. Not a bad view. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison has been my favourite place so far (and I'm writing this after visiting several parks since we were there).

Before getting to the park, I wanted to cover a couple things. There are both advantages and disadvantages to hiking the National Parks in the winter time.

Let's start with the disadvantages:

1. Many of the trails and roads are closed - The North Rim of Black Canyon is closed in the winter months, and the South Rim Road that runs the length of the park is closed to vehicles and converted into a snowshoe/cross-country ski trail. The trail is over 14miles though, which was a bit further than we planned on snowshoeing in one day.

2. Lots of snow! The campsites at Black Canyon are not plowed/maintained through the winter - no running water, and when we arrrived there was ~2ft of snow where our tent should go, and no real place to sit around the firepit. We ended up sleeping in the van.

Overlooking the canyon. 

Overlooking the canyon. 

But the advantages FAR outweigh the drawbacks.

1. FEWER PEOPLE!! We were the only people camping at Black Canyon, both nights, and we passed all of ZERO people on our 5 hour snowshoe trek. In the summer time the parks are full, but the peace and silence of solitude was part of the magic of Black Canyon for me.

2. Winter Sky. The sky at the top of the canyon is so dark, that on a clear night, you can see almost 7500 stars (three times the normal amount seen in the average park). Black Canyon was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2015 - the first night we spent there we lay on the picnic table and watched the stars come out all around us.

3. Lots of snow! I know I said this was a disadvantage (and sometimes it feels that way), but it also allowed many awesome opportunities. The rangers at the Black Canyon Visitor Centre lent us snowshoes for the day, and we were able to hike down partway into the canyon on the Oak Flat Loop trail before winding back up and breaking ground across the rim. The snow also fills in all the craggy nooks and crannies, adding an additional layer of information for the eye to see.

Winter trekking. 

Winter trekking. 

4. Fewer people = more wildlife. Thanks to the quiet of the trails and roads, on a single day we were able to spot more than 20 mule deer, a handful of elk, tons of birds, and a fox.

5. Free stuff. In the winter many of the campsites are free (Black Canyon is one of them) or they offer off-season rates. Also, sometimes the park entrance fees are waived (as was also the case with Black Canyon).

The depths. 

The depths. 

"Several canyons of the American West are longer and some are deeper, but none combine the depth, sheerness, narrowness, darkness, and dread of the Black Canyon." - Duane Vandenbusche

The Black Canyon, as seen from the Oak Flat Loop Trail.  

The Black Canyon, as seen from the Oak Flat Loop Trail.  

Black Canyon gets its name from the fact that some areas of the canyon receive only 33 minutes of sunlight per day - for most of the day the canyon is cast in shadow, appearing black. It is the 5th steepest range in North America, and its vastness simply cannot be caught on camera. This is definitely one of the spots that must be seen in real life to be appreciated.

Sneaking out to the edge.  

Sneaking out to the edge.  

There was a sombreness to the canyon - I could have looked into its depths for days. Staring into it from above, you couldn't help but feel its solemn presence. I will most definitely return here - I hope to one day hike down into the depths and experience the canyon from its heart, and hear the rushing sound of the Gunnison River echo in the dark around me.

Out on the rim.
Out on the rim.

After our long hike through deep snow, we had tortellini over the fire and were in bed by 5. Early to bed, early to rise. 

Colorado flora. 

Colorado flora.