Rocky Mountain National Park and Colorado Respite

DSC_3010After five weeks, I’ve come to the realization that about every 7-10 days we need some city time and, more importantly, some hotel time.  After Black Canyon, we headed to Denver for a great meal at Kona and a relaxing night in a hotel.  Then – on to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Sarah and I were just there in August so we didn’t feel pushed to see everything while we were there.  We drove the Trail Ridge Road from east to west, using the one-way gravel Old Fall River Road as our route to the Alpine Visitor Center.  We continued on almost to Grand Lake then turned around and drove the paved road all the way back.  On the way we saw this critter on the side of the road.  At first, he was laying flat on the edge of the road, looking like roadkill.  Then he popped up for Sarah to take this picture.


We saw two herds of elk on the drive as well as these two big guys.

DSC_3018DSC_3008DSC_3025As always, the drive was beautiful.  There was some snow in the high country and it was really WINDY!

DSC_3001DSC_2983DSC_2989DSC_3003DSC_3006DSC_3033No pictures but on our last full day of vacation – before we started the trek home  – we did a whitewater raft trip on the Cache la Poudre River out of Fort Collins.  We chose a trip with Class II and III rapids and kind of wish (well, Sarah wishes) we’d chosen the trip with Class IV rapids.  Still, it was a memorable way to wrap up a great trip!

Black Canyon of the Gunnison


Yes, we’re both wearing National Park Service centennial gear!  We thought we should suit up for one of our last parks.  Hokey, I know!  But – Happy 100th birthday, National Park Service!  We have loved celebrating your centennial this summer!

Black Canyon of the Gunnison was designated a National Park in 1999.  Prior to that (and the last time I visited) it was a National Monument.  A National Monument is typically  designated by the President.  Congress designates National Parks.

Black Canyon is unique in that it is very steep, very narrow and has sheer walls.  Little light penetrates the canyon, thus the moniker “Black Canyon”. We’ve seen several canyons on this trip and I appreciated the interpretive information Black Canyon provided in their unigrid brochure.   It pointed out the difference in types of canyons using the Black Canyon, Yosemite Canyon and the Grand Canyon as examples.  Grand Canyon – soft, river-carved rock sculpted by erosion.  Yosemite – hard, river-cut rock later gouged by glaciers.  Black Canyon – hard rock uplifted then cut through by fast moving water.

We visited the South Rim of the Black Canyon and drove the scenic road, stopping at multiple overlooks.  We also hiked the nature trail at Warner Point.  The payoff on that hike is that it ends at a 2,700+ feet drop-off into the canyon.





Canyonlands National Park

DSC_2883I mentioned in an earlier post that we were probably not doing the Utah parks justice since we were limited on time.  We visited Canyonlands on the same day as Arches so we weren’t able to spend a lot of time here.  Canyonlands has three distinct districts – Island in the Sky, The Needles and a four-wheel only remote area known as The Maze.  We entered from the north so spent our time in the Island in the Sky area.  We drove the scenic drive and did a quick hike to Mesa Arch which was really picturesque, however, there were a lot of people there so we weren’t able to get a good picture of the entire arch without someone else’s family in the picture.

DSC_2901DSC_2902A good part of the credit for establishing Canyonlands National Park is due to Stewart Udall’s leadership as the Secretary of the Interior in the 1960’s.  Interpretive signs at the park indicate that Udall was flying over the area with the chief of the Bureau of Land Reclamation when the chief said he wanted to build the “next big dam” near the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers.  Udall thought the area was better suited for a national park.

Stewart Udall expressed his mission this way:  “Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife, are in fact plans to protect man.”


Arches National Park

DSC_2852We spent a night in Moab and, even though we were in a commercial campground, we were amazed at the millions of stars we saw – including, faintly, the Milky Way.  It’s not just a matter of the big skies we’ve been privileged to view on this trip.  It seems like communities are more conscious about light spillage but also don’t require (or allow?) the level of lighting that we are accustomed to in Springfield and the Midwest.  Not sure how I feel about that.  The darker skies and the abundance of stars are awe-inspiring but it’s also a bit uncomfortable, especially when walking around an unfamiliar community.  I think I could get used to it.  The stars are a big trade-off for the bright streets we have in Springfield.

Arches was one of only two National Parks we visited that had fast pass lanes for annual pass holders.  We appreciated that because there was a line of 20+ cars waiting at the entrance and they were each taking several minutes to process.

As we suspected, it was hot.  We drove the scenic drive through the park and took several short hikes to Landscape Arch, Balanced Rock, The Windows, Double Arch and the Delicate Arch overlook.  Because of the heat and our time constraints, we didn’t do the 3 mile hike to Delicate Arch.  Besides the proliferation of arches in this park (2,000+), I was struck by just how RED it is!  I loved the arches but one of my favorite features was Park Avenue.  It looks like some kind of ancient ruins.

Park Avenue

Landscape Arch


Balanced Rock


Delicate Arch – it’s on the Utah license plate!


Other arches

Capitol Reef National Park


Capitol Reef was my favorite Utah park.  The marquee feature here is the Waterpocket Fold, alternatively known as a monocline.  It’s a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust.  That just sounds amazing, doesn’t it??  NPS describes it as a one-sided fold in otherwise horizontal rock layers. The Waterpocket Fold is a magnificent feature that can be seen from far away.

Okay, so I took geology for my science credits but I’m nowhere near a geology nerd.  I liked this park for a number of reasons.

We took the scenic drive from Fruita to Capitol Gorge.  The last couple of miles were gravel.  Then we took off on foot into the gorge.  Nice, hot walk.

Along the way, we came across American Indian petroglyphs as well as the Pioneer Register.  The Pioneer Register contains names and dates inscribed by pioneers as they traveled through the gorge.


Near the Visitor Center is the small historic settlement of Fruita.  This was a Mormon settlement in the 1880’s.  They irrigated the fields and planted orchards.  The National Park Service still maintains the orchards, including apples, apricots and nuts, and lets visitors pick and eat fruit while in the orchards and pay a nominal fee if they want to take fruit out of the orchard.  There was a campground right next to the apricot orchard.  My Dad would have loved this place.  I can just see him walking from the old Airstream or Dreamer camper over to the orchard and chomping down on a juicy piece of fruit.

There was a gift shop in one of the old pioneer homes and each morning they bake individual pies for sale.  I bought an apple pie and enjoyed it the next morning for breakfast.

Our route from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef took us along Utah’s Highway 12 which is a treat in itself.  It travels through the Red Canyon and along the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  It’s a beautiful drive but not for the faint of heart.  A section of it is known as the Hogsback and the road literally drops off into the canyons on both sides with very little shoulder as cushion.  One of the viewpoints said that this area was the last in the lower 48 to be surveyed.  We have been so fortunate to have stumbled onto beautiful drives like this one during our trip.


Bryce Canyon National Park


We didn’t spend much time in Bryce Canyon, primarily just stopping at the Visitor Center and doing the drive through the park, stopping at the overlooks.  The hikes all involved hiking down into the canyon through the hoodoos and then hiking back up.  We didn’t have time to do that and Capitol Reef and get to Moab for the night.  I liked Bryce Canyon and appreciated that it was much cooler there than Zion.  When/if I go back, I think I’ll do a horseback ride through the canyon.

Zion National Park



It’s not that we’ve been leisurely about our trip but as we reached southern Utah, we realized that we were fast approaching the end of our trip.  We decided that we were going to try to “hit and run” the five Utah National Parks but still try to have a meaningful experience at each.  First up, Zion.

Zion’s doesn’t permit personal vehicles in the canyon unless you’re staying there but their shuttle system is good and they have lots of buses.  We didn’t even try to park close to the park.  We parked on the street in Springdale, grabbed a quick lunch and took the Springdale shuttle to Zion where we caught the canyon shuttle to see the sights.  We did the hike to the Lower Emerald Pool which, unfortunately, was almost dry.  Too late in the season.  We also took the Riverwalk trail from the Temple of Sinawava.  I wanted to see the beginning of the Narrows which, along with the Angel’s Landing trail, is one of the marquee attractions.  Over half of the Narrows trail is in the Virgin River in the canyon.  I wasn’t planning on us getting into the river but once we arrived at the end of the Riverwalk trail, what else could we do?  We waded up about one mile before we got to a turn where a six-foot tall guy said it would be chest high.  His chest was quite a bit higher than Sarah’s or mine so we turned back.  Our pictures are all taken in calm water but we waded up through some water that was moving fairly fast and was almost knee-high.  What an experience!  We weren’t entirely prepared for what we did – we didn’t bring our hiking poles – but it was a ton of fun.  We both want to go back and go further!


Great Basin National Park

Our trip at times has looked like a drunk walking in circles, knocking on doors trying to find an open bar.  Part of our whimsy has been driven by availability in parks such as Yosemite; part by a true change in plans and part by the fact that some of the National Parks are truly in the middle of nowhere.  Case in point:  Great Basin National Park.  It’s one of the least visited National Parks and that’s got to be driven by the fact that it’s on the way to nowhere and is close to nothing.  If you’re like me and have never heard of it, it’s in the northeast corner of Nevada, just over the line from Utah.

Like Petrified Forest, this was a spur of the moment change in plans.  From Grand Canyon, we had to travel east to Petrified Forest, then backtrack and skirt around the east side of GC (beautiful drive along the east and through Marble Canyon) to get to St. George, Utah where we spent the 4th of July.  We had planned to start our tour of the southern Utah parks from that vantage point but decided to go to Great Basin first.

We thought we’d camp in Great Basin because it has some of the darkest night skies in the lower 48.  You should know that I love showers – long, hot showers.  Sometimes twice a day if I’ve been working in the yard or hiking.   I was willing to forego that pleasure to stay in the park (which only has pit toilets and water spigots) until I saw just how isolated it was and the Park Ranger told us they had a boil order on the water.  Considering the fact that the only cooking utensils we have are hot dog sticks, that was a deal-killer for us.  So we did a day trip and then headed back south into Utah.

Besides the night sky, the big draws in Great Basin are the hikes and drives associated with Mount Wheeler, the native bristlecone pines and Lehman Caves (which is actually just one cave).

We took a 90 minute Ranger-led tour of the cave and it was pretty amazing.  There are all of the formations you expect in a cave but Lehman also has one of the largest collections shields known.  NPS describes shields as ” two roughly circular plates fastened like flattened clam-shells, often with graceful stalactites and draperies hanging from their lower plate.”  As far as scientists know, there are no “growing” shields in any cave so to see so many of them is pretty cool.  I took a ton of pictures in the cave but most of them remind me of a science fiction movie journeying through an alien stomach.  Judge for yourself!  The first picture is the famous parachute shield formation.  Isn’t it cool?


Petrified Forest National Park

Initially, we weren’t going to visit Petrified Forest.  We had planned instead to go to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon but, after visiting the South Rim, decided we should do something different.

I visited both Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest when I was six and my folks took us on a month long tour of some of America’s greatest national parks.  Maybe it’s the magical name but the Petrified Forest has always had a little bit of a romantic draw for me.

We entered from the south end and made our way through the park to the north end and the painted desert.  The painted desert paled somewhat compared to Death Valley but I think that part of that was the time of day we visited the two different parks.  Also, the painted desert had more grey/white sand than Death Valley.

The concept of petrified wood is kind of hard for me to grasp.  The wood is not so much petrified as it has been turned almost to stone.  Look at the beautiful colors created by different chemical reactions.

In addition to providing interpretive material about the petrified wood, the south Visitor Center is also interesting because it has information on fossils and dinosaurs.


Here are some pics of the painted desert.


We made two stops on the way to the Petrified Forest.  In memory of Glenn Frey, we stopped in Winslow, Arizona for the obligatory picture.


Winslow is on Route 66 and I think they did a nice job of branding for all of the Eagles fans who make this pilgrimage.


We also stopped at another Route 66 icon – the Wigwam Motel.  I love how they’ve positioned old cars at each unit.  You can still stay here but, so far as I can tell, the units don’t have any windows.  I think that would creep me out.


Grand Canyon National Park

DSC_2435I have mixed emotions about Grand Canyon.  It is  – huge.  and unfathomable.  But – we only viewed it from the rim and it was kind of a “okay, we’ve been there, done that” experience.  I imagine I would have a totally different impression of the Grand Canyon had we hiked into it (and survived), taken a mule trip or rafted through it.  Absent doing those things, we walked along the rim, fighting some of the 5 million people who visit annually – a significant portion of them seemingly visiting Fourth of July weekend when we did.  We did stick around for sunset and watched it from the Desert View Watchtower lookout point.  If you are merely looking at the Grand Canyon from the top, as we did, I recommend that you ditch the Grand Canyon Village scene and drive out to Desert View Watchtower.  Not nearly so many crowds and the view is just as nice.  You will have to drive, though, since the shuttle doesn’t go that far.