Southwest A to Z (Sep 25 to Oct 9, 2009)

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Southwest Road Trip A to Z

Conditions: Road trip with easy day hikes
Gear: Car, camera gear, hiking boots...
Area: Southwestern US (southern Utah, northern Arizona)
Stats: 4,083 miles on the car, $350 in gas

arches_coverA is for Arches National Park
Arches National Park - Sept 27, 2009

Arches NP Slideshow

I'm not sure how the idea for this trip germinated. I really wanted to get in a larch trip this year but it was clear the knees would not allow it. I do usually take a long solo trip of some kind every 5 years or so, so I was overdue for one. Maybe it was the publicity surrounding the airing of Ken Burns National Park series on PBS. Either way, I decided I was going to do a driving tour of the classic national parks in southern Utah and northern Arizona. I would literally do a trip of the parks from A to Z. Besides, this was going to give me a chance to get a whole bunch of stamps in the National Park Passport that dad got me a while back.

After trying to tidy things up at work and hand off several projects, I left Redmond (WA) at noon on Friday 9/25. I drove through to just outside of Ontario, OR and found a nice state park campground to crash at (Farewell Bend, nice, cheap and has showers). Then, driving 12 hours straight through to Arches NP on the 26th, I arrived late, nearly 9pm and campsites within the park even "off season" were full. I reluctantly camped at Slickrock RV campground (commercial, moderately priced, so-so accommodations).

I was up before dawn and did the drive out to the Devil's Garden TH. It's a short walk out to Landscape Arch. I watched the sun rise and the place just lit up with color. I've never seen a place glow like this place did. Wow. After the color died down a bit I did a couple of other short walks in the area out to Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch.

Another short walk out to Sand Dune Arch (very cool, the sand it amazing) and Broken Arch and I was boiling. It was late September and temps in the park were upper 80's. It was hard to find cool shade. Everything was hot. For lunch I found an overlook at the Cove of Caves and then hiked up to see the Windows.

After lunch it was time to head off to Balanced Rock (weird stuff here), and eventually on to the Park Avenue TH. It was hard to not hike this trail. I made a couple of promises to take it easy on the knees for this trip so I settled for the overlook and then went off to check out the Courthouse Towers.

The place I picked to watch the sunset was the Fiery Furnace overlook. The views look over and down into the furnace and off to the side there is the great expanse of a very colorful valley.

As the day came to a close I knew that if Arches was any indication of the beauty of the parks that awaited my visit, I was going to have a grand time.

canyonlands_coverC is for Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park - Sept 28, 2009

Canyonlands NP Slideshow

So, stop two on my Southwest road trip is Canylonlands National Park. Stop 1 being Arches NP.  If you are at Arches...Canyonlands is spitting distance away. It's just across the road, literally.

First I headed up to the Island in the Sky District (north part of the park). The Subie was having an awful lot of fun by now. Lots of dirt roads and it was starting to collect a nice dusting of red grit.

Lots of overlooks on the way into the park. I stopped by the pullout for Mesa Arch and spent some time enjoying the views. The view through the arch to the valley below was beyond description. Probably the most spectacular was the overlook to the Green River. Not only was this my first glimpse of green on this trip (trust would be rare) but the view was job dropping. I mozied across the parking lot expecting a nice sight but when I got there, I head myself in a whisper go "WOW". I did it and every person who walked up to the viewpoint did it. The pictures don't do it justice. The view is expansive and the river canyon deep. Just incredible.

Eventually I made my way over to see Rock Canyon and Grand View. The descriptions are so spot on. Wow.

After lunch it was time to drive south to the Needles District. The rock was just was wonky in this section of the park at earlier in the day. Growing up in the Midwest I just never saw anything like this. I found myself looking at all the interesting rock formations just like I did when I spotted my first palm tree in it had been dropped off by aliens. I didn't do much hiking in Canyonlands this trip but next time I will. The only real way to see this park is to get into it and under the rock formations.

Every NPS booth agent for each park reminded me "do not step on the crust". The soil is called cryptobiotic soil. It's apparently a living groundcover which is very delicate and once damaged takes an extremely long time to recover. Some kind of of bacteria or organisms thrive in the environment and give it an interesting blackish almost burnt look.

Later that afternoon I exited the park and camped at a nice commercial (private) spot (Needles Outpost). Nice clean campsites, clean facilities and showers!

natural_bridges_coverN is for Natural Bridges National Monument
Natural Bridges NM - Sep 29, 2009

Natural Bridges NM Slideshow

I spent the previous day just outside the Needles District of Canyonlands NP. It was a short morning drive to get down to Natural Bridges NM. It was a short stop in on my way to my next NP visit.

Not much to say about this NPS unit. It's small but special. There are 4 very accessible natural bridges that one can view from overlooks or hike down to. I found a nice campsite to stay this night right outside the NM. Lots of BLM land there. I just drove 1/4 mile off the main road, found a nice flat spot and insta-camp. There wasn't another soul for miles around. Remote. Quiet. Perfect.

capitol_reef_coverglen_canyon_coverC is for Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park - Sept 29, 2009

Capitol Reef NP (and Glen Canyon NRA) Slideshow

So after my short visit to Natural Bridges NM it was time for the 2+ hour drive up to Capitol Reef. I left my BLM campsite outside Natural Bridges set up. I would be returning later that evening for a second night. I had heard I shouldn't miss a visit to Capitol Reef NP, that it was amazing. I sure wasn't disappointed. CRNP sits about half way between Arches/Canyonlands and Bryce/Zion. I could have hit it coming or going. I hit it while I was still travelling generally south which meant I had to take a short detour to go back north.  The miles kept clicking away on the odometer.

I found this park unit really interesting. It's a huge 100+ mile long monocline called the Waterpocket Fold. It's pretty darned amazing. I've found this part to be one of the more interesting and colorful parks on my trip. Located west of Canyonlands and north of Escalante NM and Bryce Canyon's a bit out of the way. But wow...such wonderful color. I'd definitely like to return and explore the park more.

I drove both the Capitol Gorge and the Grand Wash drives (both dirt roads). Amazing.

To get there I was "forced" to twice drive through Glen Canyon NRA. Rats.

monument_valley_coverM is for Monument Valley
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park - Sept 30, 2009

Monument Valley Slideshow

After my visit to Capitol Reef NP, Monument Valley was next on my list. For some reason it's a place I'd always wanted to visit. Maybe it was the John Ford westerns I grew up watching. It didn't matter. In the end  I was going to visit it darnit!

First I had to get there. Natural Bridges had a sign right at the Visitor Center front desk warning drivers of this place called "Moki Dugway". I read the notice and thought to myself, that looks pretty kewl and then promptly let my brain set the thought aside. Later that evening in camp, I looked at my road maps for the most direct route to Monument Valley. That route is 261 which goes south toward Mexican Hat and then on to MV. I noticed that the map showed the dugway on this route. Hmm...I thought, it's gonna be an interesting drive.

The road is steep and narrow with lots of sharp switchbacks. This short clip only gives a hint at how steep and exposed the road really is. What else can you expect from a road built by a mining company? There were lots of signs as I approached the dugway and I found I kept asking myself what I had gotten myself into? Then...the sky just opened up in front of me. It literally looked like the road ended at the edge of a cliff...then I realized the dugway literally switchbacked down the steep face of the cliff I was parked on top off. I took a deep breath, looked for other cars, RV and mining trucks (the road is so narrow in some places that there are pull offs so drivers can pass) and headed down. I think I actually heard the Subaru whisper to me...thanks...this is gonna be a blast.

At the bottom of the road I snapped a couple of shots of the dugway. It's really hard to even see the road even though you know it's there. Wow, I can't wait to drive this road again!

I tried driving the dirt road into the Valley of the gods but the road was in such bad shape, horribly washboarded, that my kidneys went on strike. It didn't help that a huge low pressure system was moving through kicking up a substantial dust storm which considerably reduced visibility. Even if I did drive into the Valley of the Gods it wasn't likely I'd see much. I started to drive the loop but even in my AWD Outback the drive was a real kidney punching trip. The road was in horrible shape. What if I got a flat? The decision to turn around was pretty easy.

The sand and dust continued to kick up the entire drive down to MV coating everything inside my car with a fine layer of red grit. And yes, I did have the air intake off and the windows rolled up. Still, it wasn't until I got home and wiped the entire surface of the car interior down that the sound of that grit went away.

My first view of MV was awesome. Pretty darned apt I felt that I had Andrea Bocelli's Sancta Maria (Mascagni) playing on the iPod. I had hoped to catch sunset in MV but the dust and lack of a decent camping option didn't leave me many options.

Monument Valley proper is part of the Navaho Nation and they have provided it special designation. It's clear to see why. It's just a stunningly beautiful and desolate place. It truly was one of the highlights of my trip. My only wish would be next time, I hope there isn't a dust storm while I'm there. While the ambient dust gave my photos a strange cast more often than not, it made it impossible for me to risk opening the camera up by changing lenses. I decided the one lens that was on the camera (thankfully it was the 24-70) would have to stay put until the dust settled, literally. May of the photos got an eerie purplish or orangish cast in the sky. It was really cool...

canyon_de_chelly_coverC is for Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon De Chelly National Monument - Sept 30, 2009

Canyon de Chelly NM Slideshow

So after leaving Monument Valley a bit disappointed that a dust storm had moved it, I decided to head down to Canyon De Chelly (pronounced "Shay"). The park was on my radar and was willing to make time for a visit if time permitted. This park was probably one of the greener ones I would visit. Green sure did seem to be in short supply on the trip.  The sights to see in this park are the cliff dwellings. Lots of those clinging to the canyon walls. It's a nice park but unless you are "in the area" I don't know that I'd go way out of my way to see it.

If you do go out of your way to visit the park, head down into the canyon itself. The land itself is Navaho land. The north rim and south rim drives do not require a Navajo guide. A tour anywhere else in the park requires a Navajo guide/escort.

grand_canyon_covertuzigoot_coverG is for Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park - Oct 1-5, 2009

Grand Canyon NP (and Tuzigoot NM) Slideshow

So I was eager to finally reach Grand Canyon National Park (South Rim) after leaving Canyon De Chelly NM. GC was one of the places I really wanted to see. I had a hidden agenda too you see, a long overdue visit to see Deirdre. Deirdre is a friend from Seattle who went back to school, got her master's degree and now works for the NPS in an environmental position at Grand Canyon NP. The last time I saw Deirdre was when we met up for a week+ long backpacking trip to the Gallatin Range at Yellowstone NP back in 2003.

When I left Canyon De Chelly, the winds had finally died down. Thankfully. However, the low pressure system had also brought cooler temps. The first night at GCNP (south rim is at about 8000') was expected to be in the teens. No problem...I had a friend, with HEAT, to stay with!

I arrived around noon and spent the day visiting the sights on the way to the Visitor Center at the south rim finally meeting up with Deirdre about dinnertime. I had brought a great bottle of port to celebrate and we had a great evening catching up on news, friends, good books, and watching the first installment of Ken Burns National Park documentary. How fitting...doing a grand tour of the parks of the southwest, hitting the Grand Canyon, visiting with a grand friend and watching a truly grand documentary.

Over the next couple of days we took it easy visiting and seeing the sights. No bottom of the canyon trip for me though. Evenings were spent watching all the Burns documentary installments. It truly was a relaxing visit with a good friend.

There was a short day trip down to Flagstaff (breakfast at Macy's European Coffee House), down into Sonoma and then a visit to the ruins down at Tuzigoot National Monument.

When the visit to GCNP South Rim was over on Monday morning, I headed out for the long drive around to the North Rim (sitting at nearly 9000'). The feel of the North Rim is so different than the south. The place is practically deserted compared to the south. the aspen were in full blazing yellow color.

Finally it was time to say my goodbyes to the park and make the short drive to my next national park destination.

zion_coverZ is for Zion National Park
Zion National Park - Oct 5-6, 2009

Zion NP (with a side trip to Horseshoe Bend) Slideshow

I left Grand Canyon NP and drove the 4 hours on to Zion National Park. First, I stopped at the overlook to Horseshoe Bend. It's a short and easy walk to the overlook.

I was up early the next morning trying to catch sunrise. I wasn't as successful as I hoped but it sure was fun trying. Lots of early morning wanderings and then it was off to take the shuttle to the far north end of the park road. The shuttle is by far the best way to get around the park and best of's FREE! I rode the shuttle all the way to the end and then made several stops on my way back to the campground arriving back there early evening.

Zion rocks! Awesome park. Looking forward to a return trip someday! Hopefully on the next trip I can make it up Angels Landing!

bryce_coverB is for Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park - Oct 7, 2009

Bryce Canyon NP Slideshow

I left Zion NP and headed up to the final park I intended to visit, Bryce Canyon. Bryce sure lives up to its reputation. I know, someday, I'm headed back.

I had a little bit of everything on this trip. Cold icy temps at night, clear bright days, stormy skies and snow.

I finally ventured off into the Hoodoos of the park to get some hiking in. Wow, it's pretty kewl down there.

After visiting the park I began the long two day drive back to Seattle. I hit Farewell Bend SP outside Ontario, OR again. It's a good layover location. I had saved up some leftover rotini pasta and spaghetti sauce and the long drive from Bryce to Ontario...all I could think about was food. I got to Ontario, set up camp and started dinner. I forgot to turn the handle of the pot away from the flame and when I picked up the pot of ended up all over the dirt below the table. Dinner my last night consisted of spaghetti sauce with zucchini in it. I was so hungry I didn't care.

Oh well, hope you all enjoyed the TR series. My car sure did. The Outback performed like a dream. I put 4,083 miles on it and about $350 in gas into it, the two weeks I was on the road. It sure was a fun trip.

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