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. 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Day 3 Soundtrack:

Morning - AA Bondy, American Hearts

Afternoon - silence.

It didn't take long after leaving Denver for the Rocky Mountains to swallow us whole. They rose up in front of us, then consumed us as we climbed the steep and winding road into their depths.

View from the Moraine campground road

View from the Moraine campground road

Through the winter the park doesn't take reservations – instead you self register, and set up camp at whichever site you'd like. $18 a night, plus a $30 entrance fee. Not the cheapest, considering there is no running water in the cold months,  but the beauty of the park was worth the expense. We were one of only 6 sites occupied on the large loop of ponderosa pine forest. Our site was right on the outskirts, so a short walk up the hill and a view of looming peaks awaited us. We were surrounded on all sides. 

Cozy sleeping place. 

Cozy sleeping place. 

After setting up our tent and getting comfy for the night, we ate dinner over the firepit grill (did I mention that every single park has had emmaculate, super fancy grills?) and cuddled up in our sleeping bags.

And then the wind started.

When we arrived at the park, the ranger warned us they were expecting up to 2ft of snow over the next couple days – be prepared to dig yourself out.

Well, that first night it didn't snow, but the wind came down with GUSTO and shook our tent with an incredible force. We could hear the wind starting on the other side of the valley and slowly building in volume and speed as it made its way down the mountain and up the hill into our campsite. I enjoyed laying in the dark listening to its strength. But we  didn't get much sleep that first night.

The next day we didn't have to drive anywhere (HOORAY!) so we spent the day exploring the park. We started our hike at Bear Lake (9475ft) and trekked up to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes (1011ft) – a 4 mile round trip. The steep climb and icy hike across frozen lakes was worth it. The wind was wicked, but the views were spectacular – great open spaces surrounded by snow covered peaks, shaggy pines growing from the side of boulders, and more wind, whipping across the lakes and blustering snow in their wake.

Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake

The climb.  

The climb.  

All bundled up. 

All bundled up. 

Overlooking the mountains. 

Overlooking the mountains. 

Dream Lake.  

Dream Lake.  

The hike down was easier on the lungs, but harder on the knees. By the time we got back to our campsite, we were ready for another big dinner over the fire.

Making Dinner on night 4.  

Making Dinner on night 4.  

Tea making equipment - the most important. 

Tea making equipment - the most important. 

It snowed over a foot that night. The sound of snow delicately sprinkling on our tent was peaceful to wake up to through the night. In the morning we had to dig ourselves out of our tent-turned-igloo before hitting the road.

Snow day. 

Snow day. 

Onwards to the next stop, (and the one I was most excited about seeing) the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Billboards, Corn and Cattle Piss

Day 1 Soundtrack:

Morning - Here's the Thing with Alec Baldwin
Afternoon - Elton John, Greatest Hits

Evening - Pink Floyd, Meddle

 

Day 2 Soundtrack:

Morning - Chad VanGaalen, Soft Airplane

Afternoon - The Travelling Wilburys, Volume 1 + 3

Evening - Spiritualized, Acoustic Mainline

Late Night (to get us through the dark expanses of nothing but corn fields) - David Bowie, Hunky Dory

Lots of fields, but mountains on the horizon. 

Lots of fields, but mountains on the horizon. 

If I were to sum up the first two days of our trip, it would be "Billboards, Corn, and Cattle Piss" - we've seen (and smelt) an abundance of each, after 20 hours crossing the Central States.

We left Hamilton at 9am on Friday and by 7pm we had made it through Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois to a small state park called Starved Rock. We pulled in from the I-80 in the dark, and haphazardly cooked some beans over the camp stove. We lost some beans when the stove fell over from the wind, but otherwise had an uneventful evening in the park with all of two other campers.

Cooking breakfast. 

Cooking breakfast. 

Yesterday was equally uneventful - though we made a pit stop in Iowa City so I could see AKAR Gallery in person (their online shop is known worldwide for their excellent selection of ceramics, and many of my favourite artists are represented there). After our quick stop we were back on the road, and decided to haul ass all the way to Colorado so today we could take it easy and enjoy some time in Denver while the sun was still up.

AKAR Gallery in Iowa City - I came very close to purchasing a Julia Galloway pitcher, but wasn't sure it would survive a month of us living out of the van.  

AKAR Gallery in Iowa City - I came very close to purchasing a Julia Galloway pitcher, but wasn't sure it would survive a month of us living out of the van.  

Our New Year's Eve plans were thus:

 

1. Stop for Instant Fresh Onion Soup at a rest stop just outside of Omaha NE while the sun sets.

2. Pull into the parking lot at Bush Municipal Park and get cozy. They had electricity (so we could plug our little heater in), and the park was free.

Bush CO Municipal Park

Bush CO Municipal Park

IHOP breakfast.  

IHOP breakfast.  

As a reward for finding a free place to crash, we had New Year's Day breakfast at the I-76 IHOP on our way to Denver.

We're now at (what appears to be) the hippest coffee shop in Denver CO "Thump Coffee" - where the exposed brick, industrial steel and raw wood furniture, excess of succulents and cacti, and bottled milk in the fridge are reminders of hipster cafes in the Hammer. The trends span far and wide, it appears. Great service, delicious tea, and a nice view of the Denver bustle.

We've got a couple hours of driving before we make it to our first "real" stop - the Rocky Mountain National Park where we will enjoy sub zero temperatures in our tent, very little public interaction, and lots of mountains. I'm stoked.

 

I hope you are all having a wonderful New Years.

Jesse waiting for the tea to steep. 

Jesse waiting for the tea to steep. 

E.