PLANNING FOR OUR TRIP TO THE canyons of southern Utah began with a visit to the webite for the US weather: http://www.usatoday.com/weather/default.htm.
My wife Sheila and I would be dealing with altitudes of more than 10,000 feet/3,000 metres in the Canyonlands and we wanted to avoid freezing temperatures and snow. After checking the weather site, we decided that September would be the best time for us to go.
We left our home in Coquitlam on August 12, travelling east to eventually hook up with the I-15. On both of the nights we spent at the Waterton Townsite RV Park in the Waterton National Park in southern Alberta we were often surrounded by mule deer feeding on the nice watered lawns around the sites. (See front cover photo.) We attended some very funny and enjoyable Parks Canada Interpretive Programs in the evenings. We drove out Red Rock Canyon Road to hike to Blakison Falls and saw three bears! One bear on the drive out, another by the Falls Trail, and another on the drive back to town! We also drove out Akamina Parkway to Cameron Lake. Great scenery, but no bears.
From Waterton we drove into the USA on August 29 and stopped at Johnson?s of St. Mary RV Park near Glacier National Park?s ?Road to the Sun?. The elevation at the RV Park was 4,500 feet/ 1,372 metres and we drove up to the Continental Divide Summit, elevation 6,646 feet/ 2,026 metres. The admission (good for up to seven days) for the two of us in our car, to just Glacier Park would have cost $25, so we bought the ?America the Beautiful Pass? for $80, good for admission to all National Parks, Monuments, and Recreation Areas, (but not State Parks) for 12 months. The Pass is a really good investment ? it pays for itself in about three major National Park admissions. We visited about 15 parks on our trip! The Pass is valid for one vehicle and up to four adults, so it can be a major saving.
At a Ranger Talk at the Logan Pass Summit Visitor Centre, we learned that the glaciers are fast disappearing. In 2003, there were 39 glaciers in the park, and now, in 2007, there are only 26! The Ranger also gave a very interesting talk on the effects of the warmer weather on the park?s wildlife and the tree line.
We spent the night back at St. Mary RV Park, where we enjoyed delicious huckleberry ice cream pie in their ?world famous? caf?.
We continued onward down the I-15, with a detour in Montana at Virginia City and Nevada City Ghost Town, and arrived at Cedar City, Utah in early September, where we met up with our touring friends Rod and Vicki. On September 6, the four of us headed up ? and I do mean up! ? to explore Utah?s canyons.
Cedar City, Utah
We left Cedar City, elevation 5,800 feet/1,768 metres, on Highway 14, then turned north onto Highway 148, and only 50 minutes later we were at Cedar Breaks National Monument, elevation 9,910 feet/3,020 metres. The Ranger gave a good talk about how ?freeze and thaw? erosion creates the rows of pillars and hoodoos we were looking at. We stopped at two more viewpoints in the area. Chessmen Ridge Overlook is at 10,460 feet/3,188 metres. The natural amphitheatre of Cedar Breaks is 2,000 feet/610 metres deep and 3 miles/5 kilometres in diameter. As we looked down into this bowl we saw a multitude of pillars and hoodoos in various shades of red rock. One viewpoint has a trail to 1600-year-old Bristlecone pines. We saw a lot of dead-looking trees, victims of the Spruce Bark Beetle, which is similar to our Pine Bark Beetle. The cause of the infestation is a fungal root disease that weakens the trees natural defenses. The fungus has spread partly because of fire suppression over the last century. It?s a double-edged sword: whether to allow forest fires and lose trees, or suppress fires and lose trees to the Beetle?
After lunch at a viewpoint we turned east onto Highway 143, which changed to Highway 89 as we entered Panguitch (?big fish? in Paiute). Panguitch was settled in 1864 and is the largest city in the county with a population around 1800. We stopped at the Hitch-N-Post Campground, which offered Good Sam, AAA and senior discounts. It also had free WiFi and ? a rare find: a place to wash your RV!
The next day we were back on Highway 89, heading to Bryce where we changed to Highway 12 to drive through the scenic Red Rock Canyon. There are several pull-offs, plus a fairly level long bike/hike trail that parallels the road but is well off to the side. Both sides of the highway were a sea of yellow sagebrush flowers. Very pretty! In less than an hour we were at Ruby?s Inn RV Park (elevation 7,894 feet/2,406 metres) at the entrance to Bryce Canyon. The campground has a swimming pool and large hot spa tub ? great for after a hike or for no reason at all. Campers can also use the pool and spa at Ruby?s Inn Lodge, run by Best Western, which is just a short walk away. There is a shuttle bus with stops at the lodge and at the campground entrance. The ride is free with park admission, or four adults ride free with the Annual Park Pass. The buses, which run every 12 to 15 minutes, take you first to the Visitor Centre and then to several viewpoints while the bus drivers provide a commentary on the area.
Bryce is more of a line of canyons with spectacular views, rather than one big long canyon like the Grand Canyon. The shuttle stops at Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration (elevation 8,100 feet/2,469 metres), and Bryce Points. You need a vehicle to continue on down to Rainbow and Yovimpa Points, as well as Ponderosa, Aqua, Natural Bridge, and Swamp Canyon viewpoints, but there is also a commercial bus tour available to these viewpoints. There is a lot to see and many trails to hike, ranging from easy to difficult. The Navaho Loop Trail at Sunset Point provides a different viewpoint by taking you down about 500 feet/152 metres through a narrow canyon and around the formations. The Loop is only 1.3 miles/2 kilometres, so it is not too demanding.
Another great viewpoint and trail is Fairyland Canyon, elevation 7,758 feet/2,365 metres. This is back near the campground, before you enter the park, and you need a vehicle to access it.
We were pleased to see recycling bins in Bryce for plastic and aluminum as we bag our cans, bottles and plastics to travel with us for eventual recycling. Besides the Ruby?s Inn Lodge?s Best Western facilities, there is an AAA-approved full service gas station with repair bays and a very easy access propane island for RVs.
Kodachrome State Park was a short run eastward of Bryce. We found our stop at the Cannonville Visitors? Centre before we entered the park to be well worth the time. They have a big area relief map, knowledgeable staff, and film clips and information on the area?s Paiute Indians. There was a display of a unique ?Rip Gut? fence that was described as ?horse high, bull strong, pig tight?. I wouldn?t want to even try climbing over it!
Kodachrome State Park is $15 for the night, and offers a picnic table and BBQ grill, but no hookups at the 27 sites. But it has nice clean bathrooms, free shower facilities, and water available. There are several short, (quarter to half-mile/half to one kilometre) hikes and we found that quite often there was a pamphlet trail guide at the trailhead.
Another sight to take in is Grosvenor Arch, about 10 miles/16 kilometres south on a red clay/sand road. The park staff told us not to drive it if there was any chance of thunder showers as hard rain turns the red clay/sand mix into a slick gumbo with no traction. This warning about unpaved roads holds for the whole area ? do not drive them if it has rained or if rain is predicted, even if you have 4-wheel drive! The Visitor Centres will have a road conditions bulletin posted to let you know which back roads are open and which are impassable.
Our next stop was Escalante Petrified Forest State Park (elevation 6,000 feet/1,829 metres). Camping was $15 and there were no hookups, but there were free showers in a very clean restroom building, plus water and dump onsite. And, yes, there is petrified wood there, both at the campground and occurring naturally along a trail on top of the mesa. The trail has a 200 feet/61 metre elevation gain up to a level easy trail on top.
The large Escalante Visitors? Centre, about a half mile (one kilometre) east of the State Park, has films, exhibits, and lots of information on the area.
At our lunch stop at the Burr Trail Grill & Deli in Boulder, I had to try the ?Ranch Raised Lean Longhorn Beef Burger?. It was very good. There is a Trading Post there with lots of local artist and craft work to look at.
The road from Boulder is quite a scenic experience! It goes through Sliprock Canyon and over ?Hogsback?, where the narrow two-lane Highway 12 has steep drop-offs on both sides. Fortunately, there are some pull-offs to enjoy the panorama. Boulder Mountain offered us great mountain scenery and vistas as we drove up to 9,600 feet/2,926 metres, over the top, and then down to stop at Wonderland RV Park at the junction of Highways 12 and 24.
Going up Boulder Mountain was the steepest climb we experienced on the whole trip. For awhile it felt as if gremlins were in our towed car with the engine started and the car in reverse! It is possible that driving a 31-foot/9-metre motorhome towing a car uphill to 9,000 feet/2,743 metres where the oxygen levels are lower affects the performance. I don?t know, but it was a slow haul!
One thing that I discovered by chance is that the lower octane gas in some States can affect your vehicle?s performance. Our motorhome is rated for a minimum of 87 octane, which is the lowest rating for regular gas. Or so I thought. On one fill I didn?t pay attention to the numbers on the pump and put in 86 octane. Until I ran through that tank it felt like I was driving with a lawnmower engine ? very slow acceleration and lower than normal gas mileage. Once I put in 87 octane or better the problem was solved. It costs more for the ?plus? gas to get the higher octane, but the engine needs it.
Capital Reef, Fruita and Green River
We continued eastward on Highway 24 and stopped at Capital Reef National Park. The Visitors? Centre has a great film called ?Watermark? and large relief map of the Waterpocket Fold which is a 100-mile/160-kilometre wrinkle in the earth?s crust. We had thought of exploring it via the Burr Trail and the Norton-Bullfrog Road, but these are both clay/sand roads and the Visitor Center road bulletin listed some sections as ?impassable?.
Near the Visitors? Centre are remnants of the pioneer Mormon community of Fruita. It was settled in 1880, but no more than 10 families lived there at any one time with the last ones leaving in 1969. The orchards they planted are still there ? some 2,700 assorted fruit trees. The National Park Service owns and maintains these orchards and you are free to wander in and eat as much as you want while you are there. If you wish to pick and keep fruit there is a small fee at a self pay station.
The campground in the orchard area has 71 sites, restrooms, water, and a dump station. There is a paved 10-mile/16-kilometre scenic drive south into the Capital Gorge area where there are several hiking trails. Butch Cassidy and his gang supposedly hid out in the sandstone hills there. Just east of the Visitor Centre on Highway 24 is the original Fruita schoolhouse and there are petroglyphs that can easily be seen from a boardwalk.
We motored on up Highway 24, then onto the I-70 and into Green River for a stop at the Green River KOA, which offered a swimming pool and free WiFi. Green River is a watermelon capital and they have ?Melon Days? in September. Fortunately, we arrived a week before the festival, which attracts thousands of visitors, or we wouldn?t have gotten into the KOA. Also in Green River is the William Powell Green River Museum, which honours William Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first exploratory boating expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. Lake Powell is named after him.
Next stop, Moab, elevation a mere 4,025 feet/1,227 metres, where we stayed a week because there is so much to see in the area! Arches National Park is just that ? arches everywhere. There are lots of short trails that get you right in and under the various arches. At the Visitor Centre we saw a movie detailing the formation of the arches by mechanical and chemical erosion. ?Mechanical erosion? is flowing water eroding sandstone into ridges called ?fins?. ?Chemical erosion? is water dissolving the calcium carbonate in the soft parts of the sandstone ridges, causing it to erode into potholes or arches. Also pressure from water freezing in tiny cracks causes the sandstone to flake and crumble, forming an opening or arch in a ridge.
A drive up nearby Highway 128 took us to Red Rock Cliffs Adventure Lodge which has a free movie museum of posters and artifacts from movies that have been filmed in the area which was a favourite of Director John Ford. Further up the road is the historic Dewey Bridge, built in 1916 to carry the weight of six horses, three wagons, and 9,000 pounds/4,028 kilos of cargo. Until 1986, it was the only connection between Moab in southwest Utah and their markets in Colorado and the East.
Back near Moab, we saw a natural spring near the junction of Highways 128 and 191, on the south side of Highway 128. Clear, cool, good water comes out of a pipe in the rock face. It?s a good place to fill up water jugs and bottles and there were always one or two cars there getting water.
Other things to do in Moab include a raft trip on the Colorado River, and the Bar-M Chuckwagon Western Show and Cowboy Supper, which is lots of fun! If you have a day or two, you can drive north on Highway 191 to the Highway 313 turnoff to Dead Horse State Park and visit the Canyonlands National Park?s ?Island in the Sky? area. The Grandview Lookout, elevation 6,080 feet/1,853 metres, and the Green River Overlook offer almost unbelievable vistas of rivers meandering through mesas, buttes and other incredible formations. There are Visitor Centres at both the entrance to Canyonlands National Park and the entrance to Dead Horse State Park. The Dead Horse Point Overlook is 2,000 feet/610 metres above the Colorado River. While you?re there, you can get the story behind the name ?Dead Horse?. Sites can be reserved at a rudimentary, rustic campground in Dead Horse State Park.
You could spend much longer than a week in the Moab area exploring the Canyonlands ? the Needles area, Newspaper Rock petroglyphs, and the many hiking trails, as well as the innumerable 4-wheel drive back roads throughout the canyons.
Visitor Centres are a must stop throughout the area. We learned the difference between a mesa and a butte (a mesa is wider than it is high; a butte is as tall as, or taller than it is wide), and between pictographs (symbols painted on rock) and petroglyphs (symbols etched or carved into the rock). During the summer months there are Ranger Talks at most Visitor Centres, and at some of the viewpoints, at various times throughout the day. These are always worth making the effort to attend.
Mesa Verde National Park
We took a break from the canyons for a couple of days and drove into Colorado to see Mesa Verde National Park. We stopped in Cortez at the Colorado Welcome Centre and then drove to A & A Mesa Verde RV Park, which has a great view of the mesa and a nice heated swimming pool and a hot tub. Up on Mesa Verde there are several cliff dwellings to explore with Ranger Guides. You have to go up and down ladders and stairs, but you can get right into the old village ruins. There is also a loop road so you can drive to various exhibits of pit houses, kivas, and temples. Like at Montazuma Castle in Arizona, the builders of these cliff dwellings just vanished around 1300 AD. There are several theories, but no one knows for sure why.
Back in Utah, we drove to Natural Bridges National Monument, where, at the Visitor Centre, we learned the difference between an arch and a bridge. They look similar, but a bridge is formed by the erosive action of fast running water in rivers that cuts through and under cliffs leaving bridges, and arches are formed by mechanical and chemical erosion, as described earlier. We also learned that in 1914 one of the Bridges ? Owachomo ? was 20 feet/6 metres thick. Now, in 2007, it is only 9 feet/2.75 metres thick.
There is a campground at Natural Bridges, but it was originally designed as a tenting site and is limited to vehicles 24 feet/7 metres or less because the juniper trees overhanging and surrounding the sites limit the space. Bigger rigs are directed back to Highway 95 and the turnoff to Highway 261 where there is an overflow free BLM camping area.
When we left Natural Bridges we headed north on Highway 95 and turned down the road to Hite in the Lake Powell National Recreation Area. Hite was a gold mining town that was flooded in 1961 by the filling of Lake Powell. The river and lake water levels are way down now and the boat launch there is unusable, but there is a nice restroom, showers and a free campsite area nearby.
It was September 23 and we finally got rained on after days and days of temperatures between 75?F and the low 90s. Across the Colorado River from the Hite area, a sheer cliff rises up a few thousand feet. The next day, we were on top of the cliff looking down ? a spectacular view, east to the Highway 95 Colorado Bridge and the confluence with the Dirty Devil River (named by a member of William Powell?s expedition because of the smell coming from the water), south towards Lake Powell, and straight down to the Colorado River. The river looks muddy because of the hundreds of tons of silt it carries and deposits into Lake Powell.
Backtracking past Fruita to get around the 100-mile/161-kilometre Waterpocket Fold in Capital George, we headed south on Highway 12 and back up and over Bolder Mountain where the fall colours were starting to show in bright yellow leaves. We stopped in Boulder to visit the Anasazi State Park Museum, which features recreations of different types of dwellings and a history of the Anazasi people.
Our final Utah Canyon was in Zion National Park. To get into Zion on Highway 9, we passed through a tunnel built in the 1920s for the cars of that era. There is a height restriction of 11 feet 4 inches (3.4 metres) and a width restriction of 7 feet 10 inches (2.4 metres). We had to obtain a $15 permit, which was good for one in-and-out trip. We lined up and went through the tunnel as a one-way convoy down the middle of the road.
Once you are in Zion, there is a free shuttle bus system for the 6 miles/9.7 kilometres to the end of the road. The buses run frequently and the drivers do a very interesting commentary on the trip. There are eight stops where you can get off to explore and hike some of the many trails. At about the halfway point is Zion Lodge which has food and other services. They offer trail rides from the Lodge and we did a trail ride on mules. At the end of the road, you can continue on a trail up the Virgin River. At the end of the walking trail, you can venture up the river even further ? but be warned ? you need to ford the river, so bring dry socks and shoes.
Zion is unique in that you are at the bottom looking up at the towering cliffs. It is sometimes difficult to take pictures because everything is straight up. With all the red rock canyons in Utah, one would think that it would be a lot of ?same old, same old? but no, each canyon seems to be unique and has its own features. They are so unique that you could take pictures in them all, shuffle the pictures, and then correctly identify them all.
Another thing we learned: National Park, National Monument, what?s the difference? The Parks are created by order of Congress; the Monuments are created by Presidential Decree, which is why some monuments have become parks by congressional order.
After Zion, we left Utah to do the Grand Canyon ? both North and South rims. That Annual Park Pass really got a workout!
It was September 28 when we pulled into Kibab Campe RV Village, (elevation 7,900 feet/2,408 metres). It was cold, 59?F in the afternoon, colder at night, and windy. The lodge at North Rim has great views over the canyon and there are several viewpoints that are right out on the edge of the canyon. (They do have railings.)
After leaving North Rim, enroute to South Rim, we made a stop at Navaho Bridge. The original 1928 bridge is now open for pedestrians and it gives great views down to the Colorado River. We could see three or four rafters going downriver. We drove into South Rim by the east entrance to stop at the Watchtower. At 7,438 feet/2,267 metres, it is the highest point on the South Rim and was built as a replica of the watchtowers built by the area?s ancestral Indians. The Watchtower was built in the 1930s on the order of Fred Harvey, of the ?Harvey Girls? fame, and was designed by his architect, Mary Colter who also designed the El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim.
You can drive to a couple of viewpoints west of the Watchtower, but then you need to park and take the shuttle to get to the lookouts and viewpoints by the village and the hotel that look down to Bright Angel Mule Trail and Indian Gardens and over the expansive vista that is the Grand Canyon.
It was now October 1st and we decided that after almost a month in the sparse population and rarified air of the high altitude Utah Canyons, we needed a bright lights fix. So we headed for Las Vegas and points south for a few weeks of relaxation and fun in the sun before heading north to be home for Christmas.