Go to claeysroaddiaries.com for all pictures and full description
We skipped Death Valley National Park during the summer because of the intense heat and crowds, and figured that the fall/winter would be a better time to circulate through it. So, we came back from southern Colorado, across Utah and Nevada, and rolled into Death Valley in the middle of last week and spent 4 days there. The weather was beautiful with nights down in the mid-thirties and the days up in the 60’s and 70’s. The crowds were limited and we didn’t have any problems acquiring campsites in different locations in the park. Outside of the National Parks located in Alaska, Death Valley is the largest of America’s parks coming in at just over 3.3 million acres of wilderness. The valley itself is arid, intensely hot, and dotted with salt flats, and salt marshes during the rainy spring season. The salt looks like water from a distance. The valley is bordered on the west by the Panamint Mountains which rise above it 3,000 feet and on the east side of the valley by the Amargosa Mountains that rise above it 5,000 feet. The park holds three records: it is the hottest; the driest; and contains the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level.
As with all of the parks we visit, hiking is the way to get up close and personal with the amazing features that a park offers and Death Valley wasn’t any different. It also gets you away from the crowds so you have the ability to enjoy nature in some solitude, which is an important part of it. Most of our hikes took place either in the mountains, or, down in the valley on trails that took us into and up through canyons. Several of the roads that took us to the trail heads for these hikes were via rutted, rocky, dirt roads that were recommended for 4 wheel drive vehicles with high clearances, not exactly the features of a 24 foot Winnebago. Traveling those roads in the Winnebago were an adventure in and of itself!
Our first hike was 4 miles through Mosaic Canyon. The walls of this canyon consisted of beautifully smooth, quartz and sediment layers as well as what is called Mosaic Canyon Breccia, which is fragment’s of rocks suspended in a cement like matrix. The passage through the canyon varied from about 100 feet across to ones we had to squeeze through. It also involved a bit of scaling passageway obstructions that required some bouldering and one vertical climb of about 20 feet up a rock wall. It ended with a dead end at a dry waterfall that was about 20 feet high and too smooth to climb. This was a great warm up hike and introduction to the various canyon rock formations we would be seeing. The second hike was 8 miles and took us to the top of Wildrose Peak. By far the most strenuous of our Death Valley hikes, Wildrose Peak is on the west side of the park in the Panamint Mountains. The final mile or so was switchbacks heading up to the summit and was a steep, windy and cold final stretch. The summit was colder with strong gusting winds but provided an outstanding view of the valley below as well as other summits in the mountain chain. This was meant to be our warm up hike for Telescope Peak the following day which is 14 miles, but for a number of reasons, especially the condition of the road that leads to the trail head, it didn’t happen. In addition to mountains and canyons, Death Valley also has a significant set of sand dunes near the Stovepipe Wells campground where we were staying. Much of the beauty of Death Valley is in the contrasts that the park provides you. There is certainly an amazing contrast in the colors, layers, and geologic form of the rock formations but there is also the contrast between flat desert, sand dunes, hills, and mountains. That was the case here where the dunes rise out of the desert and provide the tan, rounded foreground to the colorful, high peaks that are behind them. Our hike was about two miles and took us to the top of the highest dune where the colors and other contrasts were gorgeous. Hiking in sand by the way is a real chore where you take one step forward and then slide back two but the views were worth it. Our fourth hike was arguably the best because the contrasts of colors and layers, and geologic formations was absolutely jaw dropping. This was not a difficult hike but ran a little over seven and a half miles. It was the Golden Canyon to Zabriski Point hike and then a return through the Gower Gulch Loop. Like I said, it wasn’t a difficult hike even though it had a few ups thrown in but the contrasts encountered are difficult to describe and I’m tempted to say, “just look at the pictures above”. There were cliffs of red from oxidized iron interspersed with mounds of white and yellow and cliffs of greens and purples and jagged peaks as a backdrop to low rounded hills and views of the valley below and peaks of browns and layers of quartz sandwiched between all sorts of colors and when you put this all together in one view from the top of a high point, well its just too amazing to describe! One other key difference to note is that the hills and mountains here are not hidden by a thick layer of tree’s. Their surfaces, their colors, their history, and their story are fully exposed for all to see. How old you are, whether you’re sedimentary rock or volcanic rock, how you have eroded and what that erosion has exposed and how were you formed is all right there in front of you. I’ve said before that our National Parks in the western United States are a true geological paradise and there are all kinds of explanations for how these incredible features of our landscape were formed and how they have changed with erosion from rains and flash floods and the grinding of tectonic plates and what accounts for the different colors and the crazy formations etc. and, the National Park Service does a great job of giving descriptions in Visitor Center displays and informational handouts but its’ hard to keep track of it all. What you really need, or, what we really need, is our own private geologist to accompany us on these hikes, as although I’ve learned a lot in my 6 months so far, we always have more questions than answers when it comes to earth science. If I could, I’d order a geologist through Amazon since they make available just about everything else, but until they do, we’ll just keep searching for the answers on the internet when the hikes are done. Although it wasn’t a hike, a visit to Death Valley National Park is never complete without a visit to Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. You can walk out on a carpet of packed down salt that has been carried here from the mountains, dissolved in water that quickly evaporates, leaving the salt behind. There is a whole story about how the water gets here and how long it has taken but I’ll leave that for another time. Our last hike was six miles through Fall Canyon. Unlike the other hikes and other canyons, Fall Canyon’s floor is covered with a thick layer of gravel of a multitude of different colored and size stones. Nothing against different colored stones but hiking through gravel is second only to sand as being a pain in the arse. When you reach the end of this canyon there is a steep climb up the side that gets you past the final wall and takes you into some supposedly magnificent passageways but we didn’t get to do that as it was late in the day and the cliffs were somewhat difficult to climb. Upon exiting the canyon, we encountered huge clouds of dust descending over the valley and blanketing it due to high winds. We decided to not stay in the park that night as the winds were supposed to be significant and basically would sentence us to an evening inside the RV. So, we headed the 60 miles southeast out of the park and spent the night in Pahrump, Nevada.
If you want to observe wildlife in Death Valley, the winter is not the time to come here. Flowers and plants and other wild life thrive in the spring rains. At this time of the year, the arid landscape is decorated by generally small mesquite tree’s, dry grass, tumbleweeds, etc. and animal life, at least that which we came across was limited to birds. Interestingly, we did find a mesquite tree in the sand dunes no less, that was flowering and had a dragonfly sitting on one of its flowers which was a nice surprise. The incredible geology of this park makes it easy to not feel you missed anything though. We could easily have spent another week here and never gotten bored with the amazing geological contrasts it provides. It is an awe inspiring park and one that should not be missed. As strange as it may sound, I sort of regret not experiencing the 130 degree temps that you would find here in the summer. It’s not an experience that you could have in very many other stops in ones travels, even if you only do it once. It is a wondrous treat however, any time of the year.
With the exception of some of the parks in Alaska, Great Basin National Park is probably one of the most remote in the lower 48. Whether you choose to head to it from the north, south, east or west, your going to be crossing hundreds of miles of desert and prairie with not much in the way of humanity sprinkled along the route. We left Colorado to the east and headed west across Utah until we were just over the border in northeastern Nevada, and that’s where you’ll find Great Basin National Park. As the name implies, it is a series of huge, flat, sagebrush covered valley’s (basins) that are hundreds of square miles in size and are bordered by mountain ranges on both sides. This geological arrangement ensures that any snow or rain that runs down the mountains into the basin will never run out to the sea. It stays in the basins, forming salt lakes, salt marshes, and mud flats. It stays in the arid basin until it eventually evaporates. The Great Basins and the mountains that border them occupy most of Nevada, almost half of Utah, as well as parts of Oregon, Idaho, and California. Quite a significant geological feature of the western US and yes, they are huge. The visitor center and campgrounds as well as the hiking trails for this National Park however are situated in the mountains that border the west side of this basin, in Nevada. This park contains a number of caves, the most popular is Lehman Cave and we took the one hour tour. The ranger was very knowledgeable and went through all the formations of stalagmites, stalagtites, disks, columns, broccoli formations, etc. and how each is formed. These caves are pretty unique and the trip to the “underworld” is definitely worth the time.
We were surprised and happy to find that they still had a campground in the park that was open at this time of the year so we secured a spot for a couple of days in order to do some hiking. We have been less than lucky in a number of the parks since the Calendar hit November as the colder temps freeze the water pipes in the campgrounds and the roads become dangerous and impassable due to snow and ice. The result has been no campsites in some parks and some popular trails and roads closed as well. Like I said earlier, although the park is named after the “Great Basin”, all of the activities are located in the mountain range that borders it. What this means is that instead of hiking on trails that are at sea level where the air is thick with oxygen and the slope of the trail is 0 degrees, we were hiking on trails that started at 7,000 feet and went up from there. As happy as we were to find that their campground was open, we were disappointed to find that several of the roads and trails were closed because of the winter conditions. Still, we hiked the Osceola Ditch trail which follows a ditch (what else!) which was dug by hand for miles and miles along the side of a mountain through rock to channel water from a creek to a gold mining operation. The ditch then had a wooden “flume” built into it which is basically a trough to keep most of the water moving to its destination. Gold mining operations require massive amounts of water to separate the gold from the rest of the dirt and rock. As we hiked this trail the remains of the wooden flume laid along side it. Amazing amount of human labor went into building it but the mine itself never produced much so it was abandoned. Much of the western US is littered with mines and mining operations that are no longer in operation and lay as a reminder of the rush to exploit the mineral wealth that the west held. Some produced and some didn’t, but all of them played a roll in causing treaties with the American Indians and stealing land from the American Indians. It was about a 3 mile easy jaunt and when we completed it we headed to the other side of the park for a second hike. We did about a mile up on a second trail that started at 8,000 feet but altitude sickness hit Laurie hard and we had to turn around. Altitude sickness is nothing to fool around with and although the symptoms she had was light headedness and nausea, it can cause serious and life threatening effects as well. We got back down to the RV and not only drove to a lower elevation in the park, we drove another thousand feet out of the park and down to the small “town” of Baker, which is outside of the park. Dropping altitude is the best remedy for this condition. We stayed there for a couple hours and then drove back up to our campsite, which is at 7,000 feet, where she continued to recover. By the next morning, she was feeling better so we headed for the Lehman Creek trail that would take us up to the base of Mount Wheeler whose peak sits at just over 13,000 feet. The trailhead starts at 8,000 feet and takes us on a 7 mile roundtrip hike that brings us to the base of Mount Wheeler that sits at 10,000 feet. The hike has a vertical increase of 2,050 feet. We didn’t plan on pushing it and were not planning on doing the final 3,000 feet when we reached the base because of time constraints and, the significantly higher altitude. OK, so this at best was a moderate hike as the literature from the Ranger Station assessed it, and, I wouldn’t disagree with that. The altitude was the wild card though. For a couple of pilgrims like us that haven’t spent a significant amount of time at this altitude, it puts a little bit of molasses in your step. Sort of like having a governor on your engine (for those who know what that is). It’s certainly not in the same category as the world class climbers who head into the “death zone” above 20,000 feet often with bottled oxygen on Everest and the other big ones, nonetheless, you can definitely feel its effects here. So as is often the case, I find myself thinking “biologically” about lots of things and this hike was right in line with that. Some basic bio here: Our muscles run on ATP and in order to make it we need sugar, oxygen, and water. The higher you go in altitude, the less oxygen there is in the air and that means you can’t make ATP as fast as your muscles need it. The result is that you tire faster. To compensate for the diminished O2, your heart rate increases and your respiratory rate increases as your body tries to get more blood and the O2 it carries, to your muscles. The hemoglobin in your red blood cells in effect are carrying less O2 so increasing the exchange of gases in your lungs by breathing faster and you’re your heart pumping your blood faster does help but, you’re still not going to perform at peak levels . We made sure it was only the lack of oxygen slowing us down by eating twizzlers (sugar), staying hydrated, and taking a slower gait in our hike. In effect, hiking slower lowered our muscles demand for oxygen to make ATP by slowing its use of ATP. It all seems to have worked out pretty well as even though we took longer to cover the distance, we made the round trip relatively easily. There were a few wild cards on the way though. About an hour into the hike, we started to get light snow flurries. Throughout the hike the gusting wind kept making it feel colder than it actually was but the snow let us know that the temp was dropping most definitely as we gained altitude. By the time we got to the base of Mount Wheeler, the wind was blowing fiercely and the snow had increased significantly. Instead of staying there for a few minutes to enjoy a granola bar and a drink of water, we turned immediately around and headed back down the trail. What a change of weather. In no time it had gone from a pleasant though cloudy day to the white of winter. The pines and boulders and trail were now covered with a light blanket of white, which was both beautiful and surprising and brought a smile to my face as the wind and snow bit into it. I noticed on our trip up the predominance of lichens on the rocks that were a burnt orange color. They really stood out. There were also some cacti growing at the high altitudes which was also a little surprising. The higher we climbed resulted in forests of Aspen, Junipers, and a variety of Pines. A real treat on this mountain is the rare Bristle Cone Pine, which is the oldest living organism on planet earth. They live in nutrient poor soil usually above 10,000 feet and we had only seen it once before on our trip. The oldest Bristlecone Pine is 4,700 years old! It was cold and our jackets and packs were covered with the white by the time we made it back to the RV. We roused Jackson from his nap and immediately took off our wet jackets and put on a pot of Laurie’s home made chicken soup to warm us up. Just what the doctor ordered as that soup took the chill out of our bodies with every slurp we took. It was 1:00 in the afternoon and this would be our last hike in Great Basin. I did the dishes and we turned the RV around and headed down the mountain and out of the park. Down the six mile hill we rolled with the tiny hamlet of Baker at the bottom where we would dump our tanks, reload with water, and start heading west again. It had started raining down there which was probably a welcome site to this parched landscape. Our next stop would take us back again to the very western edge of California to either Death Valley National Park or, a swing on the way down there with a stop at Monmouth Lake, an idyllic area of California along the edge of the Sierras. Decisions like this are easy to make since either way, you win. We were off again across the desert and up through the mountain range that we just came from, which was now noticeably accented with snow. Death Valley here we come.
Our one-year journey on the road has been filled with nothing short of the amazing. Mostly the amazing encounters we have had with Mother Nature in our national parks. We have been treated to the absolute best that nature in America has to offer and its effect on us has been profound, inspirational, and transformative to say the least. The other aspect of our trip that has been amazing though is the truly wonderful people we continue to meet. We meet them in gas stations, in campgrounds, on the trails, and in restaurants and there is a certain camaraderie that seems to attract us to one another. It’s a sort of brotherhood of the road or of the trail or of the park it seems. You immediately share a common experience and bond. You’re members of a certain fraternity. You don’t know when it’s going to happen or who you’re going to run into and then all of a sudden you’re having a conversation with someone as if you knew them your whole life and you’re sharing and comparing and their giving you their address to come visit them when you’re in their state. It’s really amazing but quite common. It has a renewing effect on your faith in humanity and often leaves me wondering why more of us can’t be sharing our common experiences more often instead of our differences. That brings me to the current point in our journey which is about 3 hours east of Denver in central Colorado. We spent a day and a half in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and then drove a few miles to the town of Montrose, Colorado. Montrose is a big town although I wouldn’t go so far to call it a city. It’s full of the flavor of cowboys and the west and country music and pick up trucks. Big wide streets and open skies. It’s a community you immediately feel comfortable in. We knew we were going to be missing Thanksgiving with Mike and Matt and the rest of our family and that was a little depressing. We decided that it would be a good way to spend the holiday to see if we could volunteer at a soup kitchen for Thanksgiving. Sort of give thanks for all we have by giving some help to some others. That desire put us on course for a meeting with a truly amazing group of individuals and an experience with this town and community called Montrose that we won’t soon forget.
It was the day before Thanksgiving. We made a few phone calls to food banks and soup kitchens but just got recordings. No luck. Is it possible that we can’t get to do this? We even called some other towns that were close enough to drive to and the same thing. It’s the day before Thanksgiving. This has got to be the biggest feed the less fortunate day of the year and we can’t even get someone to answer the phone. Finally we gave up and decided to just drive to one of the soup kitchens and see what was going on. “Christ’s Kitchen” was located in a strip mall and was a pretty roomy place and that’s where we met Jeremiah. Jeremiah was not only in charge of the soup kitchen; he was also the cook and the pastor. He was eager to talk, eager to smile, eager to converse, and welcomed us in to help, even though they probably had enough volunteers for this particular meal. The other volunteers seemed to be regulars there and knew exactly what to do. They were welcoming to us and interested in our backgrounds and travels but mostly, they were all individuals who were committed to helping those less fortunate, and Montrose isn’t unlike most other towns and cities who have some citizens who can benefit from a descent meal. Like I said, Jeremiah was a real conversationalist and was more than willing to share his story after listening to ours. He grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which used to be a major whaling town before whales lost their usefulness to us and then it became a major textile town until the mill owners realized there was cheaper labor down south and moved their factories there and then unemployment and poverty hit the town and all the side effects then came along like and crime and substance abuse and…well, Jeremiah fell into the dark side of this cycle eventually, but here’s a brief summary of his somewhat amazing story: started cooking in his Dad’s restaurant at the age of 10; went astray and joined a gang, the Vipers, and was quite a delinquent with fights/knifings and drug and alcohol abuse, etc.; spent several stints in juvenile detention; a judge saw some possibilities in him somehow and granted him parole because he asked the judge if he could join the Army as he was smart enough at this time to realize he had to get away from all of the things that were pulling him down in the wrong direction; found religion; became an Army Ranger and Drill Instructor; was injured and lost a finger and part of his hand which led to an honorable discharge with a disability; became an LPN but had to give it up as he couldn’t lift people with his hand; became a minister and moved to Colorado; and is extremely committed and involved in helping community members who are less fortunate. Great guy and a real inspiration. So we helped him out that afternoon and when we asked if they would be serving the next day on Thanksgiving he answered no. Now at first we were surprised because again, wouldn’t this be the big day for providing food to those in need. Then he explained. All of the social services support organizations, at least for providing food and meals, would be closed as all of them would instead be coming together for one, huge, community Thanksgiving Day meal at an airplane hanger sized building in the towns fairgrounds. The meal would be free to anyone in the county, regardless of your financial status. We would see the next day that there were a number of people attending who definitely benefited from this amazing meal and that included many small children, homeless, old, and otherwise in need of the meal. All of the food would be provided by donations and all of the preparations and serving would be handled by volunteers. Jeremiah would be working there as well and he told us to go over and speak to John, the guy running the whole event, and see if he needed help. This would put us in touch with another amazing individual. So, we followed Jeremiah’s directions to the fairgrounds, entered an enormous building and quickly located John. You could see that John was the man in charge. He had a number of people around him who were asking questions but you could also see that at the same time he was keeping a watchful eye on all the bustling activities that were taking place. He was standing outside the enormous kitchen. I walked up and introduced myself and told him that Jeremiah had sent me over and did he need any help. John was somewhere around my age, a grey goatee and a baseball cap and someone you could immediately like. Easy to smile and engaging too, straightforward, nothing pretentious, and bubbling over with positive energy. He somehow got to asking me what we were doing and I briefly told him about our trip and being from New Jersey and his eyes brightened up and he said he had lived in Pennsylvania by Yardley for awhile and I told him that was where my wife was from and I think that got us in. We went outside where Laurie was walking Jackson and he smiled and said he heard she was from Pennsylvania and they talked briefly about their common backgrounds. He told us we could work with Jeremiah the next day doing the mashed potatoes and asked if we could be there by 8am on Thanksgiving morning. No problem we told him. We’d be there whatever time he needed us. We were excited to be part of something that was not only so big but was helping a large number of people from the community. There was something more though. It was community. I mean, it was community with capital letters! It was the whole town coming together to put something on that not only benefited some who were less fortunate, but, made everyone equals. It brought neighbors as well as people you may not otherwise see in your daily life, together in one place, seated next to each other, all happy, and all enjoying a reason to give thanks. The positive energy in the room was like a fever that everyone relished. I believe they had been doing this for upwards of 20 years straight and the coming together of the community in support of it was now a tradition. John had a daunting task in front of him. The logistics of the endeavor were overwhelming. They were expecting over 2,000 people to show up for the dinner as well as 430 individuals who were to have their meals delivered because for whatever reason, they couldn’t make it over to the meal itself. Some of these individuals for sure were aged, shut in, members of the community who would now be having a wonderful and hot Thanksgiving meal delivered to them. John explained that of the hundreds of volunteer drivers that would be heading out at 9:30am with the meals, they could only give 2 or 3 deliveries to each driver as the individuals they would be dropping off the meals to, often invited the drivers in and wanted to talk to the them and if they had any more than a couple deliveries, the drivers wouldn’t be able to make them on time. It literally brought tears to my eyes to think of old community members who were shut-ins and who relished the opportunity to talk to someone, to have some human interaction, as much as they did the meal that was being delivered to them. For those who did come to the fairgrounds building for their meal, the doors opened at 12:00 noon and serving ended at 3:00PM. The meal was really extraordinary. The menu consisted of turkey (151 total), thick slices of ham, homemade stuffing, mash potatoes, gravy, corn, string beans with bacon, rolls, drinks, and a multitude of different pies. The crowds started lining up outside the building at 10:30. There were 4 different serving lines so no one had to wait to get their food. At noon, the festivities kicked off with the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the National Anthem (which everyone did), and then a prayer. Again, very moving. Throughout the three-hour meal, there were a number of musical acts to entertain the attendee’s, mostly country music. Laurie, Jeremiah, Rich, and me were on mashed potato duty outside the kitchen door. We had cases upon cases of pre-made mashed potatoes in plastic bags. We had six propane tanks and individual grills with large pots to heat up the bags of potatoes. Once heated, we cut them open, empties them into serving pans, covered them with aluminum foil and brought them into the kitchen and put them in warming ovens ready for serving. We prepared close to 600lbs of mashed potatoes and sat down for only 20 minutes to scarf down a turkey dinner during the 8 hours we worked. It really was a great time and throughout the day we met and talked with numerous people, all of them reaffirming our faith in the goodness of people. Dan and Rich were dishwashers who had been manning that station for a number of years. Great guys with big smiles and engaging personalities who scrubbed pots and serving pans for 8 hours straight without a break. You couldn’t give them enough work to do. Another woman came out and started talking to me only to find out she was originally from Dover, New Jersey but always knew she was really a country girl and moved to Colorado. Broke her front tooth cap off that morning and put it back on with Crazy Glue! Smile, smile, and smile. So many people who came up to us to just talk and be nice and were sincerely interested in who we were and what we were doing, and even though John was running the biggest event imaginable he continued to chat with us and never ran out of energy that was needed to keep this whole thing going. And there was a horse tied up out front, apparently from a guy who goes around town on it everywhere instead of a car so we took a big carrot out of the RV to feed it and he was immensely appreciative of that! And you didn’t have to tell anyone to do anything cause everyone was helping and if something needed to be done it was just that everyone did it cause damn it, we’re all here helping the community and each other and getting a great meal and whatever you need done we will do and if that doesn’t say Thanksgiving, then I really don’t know what does. And between our trips bringing the mashed potatoes in and also pots of hot water we heated for the kitchen cause the water heater couldn’t keep up with the pot washers, we continued to have conversations with Jeremiah and Rich about life and helping and the community and their lives and our lives and damn it if at the end of the 8 hours we were pooped and felt that we were part of this amazing community and that was a reason to give thanks. It certainly gave us a Happy Thanksgiving. We made one last stop to help Jeremiah unload some leftovers at the soup kitchen that he would use to make meals with during the next few days and he stopped us and said how much he appreciated all that we had done and though he may not be showing his emotions on the outside, inside he was very emotional and said he couldn’t thank us enough for all that we had done. I think Laurie summed it up best though when she replied, “Thanks Jeremiah, but we definitely received more than we gave today”. These two days definitely put the happy in our Thanksgiving and it’s funny in how short a period of time we had been allowed to pass through a window into the heart of this community. It was an amazing two days that touched us and will be a Thanksgiving experience that we will remember for a long time.
We left Durango and our friends, Marilyn and Ken, around noon on Thursday and headed out on our 3 hour drive east to Great Sand Dune National Park. As with many of the parks, we had heard a lot of great things about it. We crossed over Wolf Creek Pass on the way which is quite high and since they were forecasting 14 inches of snow in the pass that night, we were glad to get through it and to the other side early in the afternoon. As we came down out of the mountains we started across what seemed like a high desert until we reached the turn off for the park. Unfortunately, the campgrounds in the park were closed for the winter, even though we weren’t aware of that in advance. Major Bummer. The problem is funding. They would like to keep them open but they can’t afford staff to manage the campgrounds in the slow season. It’s slow but there are plenty of people who still are looking for campsites when visiting the park. We went to the visitor center and the ranger directed us to a campground 8 miles outside the park. As long as we didn’t mind driving up a 3 mile dirt road after the 8 mile turn off. Beggars can’t be choosers so we decided that’s where we would go. First though we stayed to watch the park movie. All parks show about a 20 minute movie that introduces visitors to all the park has to offer but the movies especially go into how the parks were formed (geology), the ecology of the parks, and all the things the park has to offer. They are really helpful and Laurie and I always eagerly consume all the ecology and wildlife info. What is really unique about Great Sand Dunes is the number of ecosystems that are included in the park. It goes way beyond just the sand. The sand dunes are actually sandwiched between a wetland area below it in the valley and a mountain alpine system above it. The Sangre de Cristo mountains are quite high and include alpine tundra, sub alpine, and Montane Forest. This area included Pikas, Perigrine Falcons, Black Bears, Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep, and Bobcats. The sand dunes and grasslands contain a number of flowers, Kangaroo Rats, Elk, Cranes, and the Great Sand Dune tiger beetle which is only found here. The wetlands are frequented by a variety of birds including American White Pelicans. The dunes are formed by erosion in the mountains and the sand is carried down by streams and the wind to form the highest sand dunes in North America. Winds from the valley below, blow the sand up to form the dunes and downward winds and streams bring it back down from the mountains to regenerate the dunes. They just keep recycling the sand. Much of this information came from the movie. After the movie we left the park and headed for the campground. We noticed that it was getting a little windy at the visitors center and by the time we got to the turnoff for the campground it had picked up even more. Now the Ranger said it was a dirt road but he really didn’t go into the details. Like, it’s three miles up the side of a mountain. Yes it’s dirt, but its strewn with huge ruts and rocks and boulders. We averaged between 5 and 10 mph with the RV rocking violently from side to side. There was a huge crash and one of our tupperware containers stored above the cab came crashing down. Luckily Jackson wasn’t under it. It probably took us about 25 minutes to make it up to the campground and we shared it with only one other camper. I suppose the road was a detriment to more than a few people. The wind was howling by now and the temperature dropping but it was a beautiful sunset so as I was making dinner, Laurie was able to capture some great photos by standing on the picnic bench to shoot over the scrub pines that were in the way. It didn’t get as cold as it had been over in Utah but the wind was another story. It was howling and gusting and rocking the RV all night long. The stars were absolutely amazing out here where there’s little light pollution but I’m surprised the wind didn’t blow them out of the sky. As the morning light made it’s presence known, the wind kept up its relentless gusting. We did a short hike on the mountain to see Zapata Falls which was kind of cool as you had to walk up through the creek and then into a cave with an open top through which the falls fell. Jackson accompanied me and Laurie into the falls. With the wind howling, it was quite cold and the sky was cloudy and threatening rain. This has been the one and only national park that allows dogs pretty much anywhere as long as they are on a leash. The hike to the falls and through the creek made Jacksons day. From there, we climbed back into the RV and headed down into the park with the goal of climbing to the top of the highest sand dune in the park. Again, we took Jackson and disregarded park rules and let him run free in the sand. It was off season and not many visitors around so it didn’t seem to make much difference. We first had to cross Medano Creek which is unique in that the water flows in waves. This is due to the sand which slows it down and is then washed aside, releasing a new wave of water. The wind was howling, and it was cold, and the sand was blowing. To say the least, it wasn’t a pleasant endeavor for us with the exception of Jackson who was running and enjoying every minute of it. We made it about a half mile and decided that it just wasn’t worth it. We don’t usually turn in the towel when the going gets tough but this just wasn’t enjoyable. The sand dunes were amazing but the wind and the cold really put a damper on the visit. I suppose timing is everything and we could easily have spent several days here hiking on the mountain and in the dunes if the wind was calmer and there was some sunshine but it just wasn’t going to be. It was disappointing to say the least. Maybe we’ll make it out here again when the weather is nicer. This visit was a casualty of the season.
Sitting at the booth table in our RV a few weeks back, I was laying out the plans for the Utah portion of our journey. I had the large atlas out and was starting to plan the sequence of parks and the roads to get there and so forth. OK. So we leave Grand Canyon in northern Arizona and then enter southern Utah and hit Zion. Check. Then we start heading a little to the northeast and stop at Bryce Canyon. Check. We continue in a northeast direction and next comes……Capital Reef National Park? The first thought that hits me is where the heck did this name come from? A reef is in the ocean and this is most definitely a desert. Well, this desert used to be under an ocean so maybe there’s a reef still there. What’s the deal with the Capital? When you actually get to Capital Reef National Park, it starts to make some sense.
As with the previous two parks, Zion and Bryce, Capital Reef has it’s own unique geological forces at work that give it a distinctive geology different from the others in Utah.
So, first the Capital. It doesn’t take long after entering the park to notice the large, white, dome shaped mountain among the other hills and ridges. This to the early settlers reminded them of the US Capital, so that is the name they gave it. Since it is such a distinctive part of the geology here, it made its way into the parks name. Now a reef is a coral or rocky structure in the ocean that blocks ships from getting near a bay or coastline. It also doesn’t take long to notice a range of white, rounded, steep, cliffs that run for over 100 miles. This is the reef and so named because it formed a barrier to the settlers trying to get to the other side of them. The question to me then became how is it that this “reef” formed here but not in the other parks. I decided to attend the ranger talk the morning after our arrival where the geology of the park would be discussed. I’ll try to recount it here to the best of my limited earth science abilities. As with most of this state, there are multiple layers of sediment that has been deposited over millions of years as it has been covered with oceans, deserts, swamps, and forests, a result of climate change. The bottom most layer is white, Kaibab Limestone and that in turn is covered with a variety of colored sandstone and other deposits. Underneath all of this, there were two of the earths tectonic plates grating over each other that pushed the land up and formed the Colorado Plateau, but, in this park and in this location, there was a fault underground and these plates caused the earth by this fault to push up even higher, to 7,000 feet and then fold over. This is referred to as the “Water Pocket Fold”. Now the sandstone formed the top layers of the fold and erosion eventually wore these layers away, leaving the much tougher Kaibab Limestone layer on top, which is what you see today. It is quiet impressive. Like the other arid parks in Utah, Capital Reef only gets roughly 8” of rain a year but when it comes, it causes tremendous erosion and flash flooding. You can easily see how these upper layers were carried away, leaving only the limestone. You can see the white Water Pocket Fold in some of the pictures above.
The area here was first settled by the Mormons and their orchards, fields, cabins, homes, and barns are still here and still in use. The valley that runs through this amazing area is snaked through by the Fremont River, which provided them with an abundance of water for farming and raising animals. It really is like a garden of eden in the valley. No doubt it was to the Mormon as well. Our hikes took us up to the high ridges above the valley and gave us the ability to gaze upon them down below. Quite a sight.
The hikes also took us through the lows of the canyons and the ridges of the high desert, and as with the other parks in the Utah desert, the nature here is a powerful drug, and one that is difficult to get out of your system. I am quite surprised by the impact these desert ecosystems and geology have had on me. It’s hands have turned my head and made me see the amazing beauty, and color, and lines, that is all around me here. It has told me to breath, and to stop, and to look and to listen. And I have.
Bryce Canyon is only about an hour and a half away from Zion, so you might think that they would be very similar but they aren’t. They both have canyons but the geology, and therefore what you come to see, is very different. It’s actually quite amazing that such profoundly different geological forces were at work in areas that were so close, but in fact, that is the way it is with all 5 of the national parks in Utah. They are all amazing but they are all different. Bryce is home to the Hoodoo’s, which is what the red sandstone columns in the pictures above are called. I’m not going to go into all of the details here of how they are formed. In fact, if I have decided upon anything on this trip, it is to learn more about earth science because many of our national parks out west are amazing examples of geological forces at work and I just plain don’t know enough about them. In any case, in order to understand how the Hoodoo’s are formed you have to go quite a ways back in time. This area was covered with oceans and sand and swamps, etc. over and over again over millions of years and that is what left the differing layers of sediment you see in the cliffs. Most of it is sandstone but the top layer is something called Dolomite. It gets cold here in the winter and water that seeps into the cracks in the sandstone freezes and starts splitting the sandstone (red because of iron in it) apart into columns. Now sandstone erodes quite easily but Dolomite does not and since the Dolomite (white sediment) is on top of the column (being the last layer deposited) it in effect protects the sandstone directly beneath it from being eroded by rains. Thus you get these amazing columns in the canyon. We did several hikes down through the canyons and up through it’s high points and through tunnels and through tight passage ways and every corner we turned gave us another amazing view of the Hoodoo’s. There is also a type of tree here called the Limber Pine (picture above) whose claim to fame is that is can inhabit locations and harsh environments where other tree’s are unable to thrive. It’s easy to see them because they are really the only tree’s that are living right on the edge of the canyon, usually with the soil eroded from out under their roots so the roots look like spider legs. We had great weather while in Bryce. It was in the 20’s at night but in the 70’s during the day. The weather in the canyons though seemed to change from moment to moment while we were hiking. The air would be still and the sun hot and you’d be sweating and the next moment you’d be in the shade and a frigid gusting wind would be cutting straight into you. There was a lot of zipping, unzipping, adding and removing layers of clothes on the hikes. We got one other treat on our stay in Bryce and that was a full moon which for some reason was referred to as the “Beaver Moon”. I don’t know why but it was amazing. I wish I could have gotten more photo’s of it but I was perched on the edge of the canyon for over two hours waiting for it to rise above a low cloud bank and the wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping and it was dark and we hadn’t eaten yet, so it was back to the RV and back to our campsite! As with Zion, Bryce was an amazing display of the wonders of nature and taking the time to hike down into the canyon put you right in “mothers” lap. From an ecology standpoint, many of these southwest parks, especially those in Utah, share similar flora and fauna and that’s because the climate and soils are similar. You get the mountain lions, coyotes, cacti, bushes, rodents, lizards, etc. with some variations where more water may collect but there isn’t a lot of differences. Bryce is reason number two why Utah is a must destination for anyone looking to thrill to the natural wonders of our national parks out west, with the unique and amazing flare of the southwest. (Reason #1 was Zion)
When I met Dave, he seemed to have only one speed. Snail. He sauntered as if he had not a care in the world. Still today, in stores, around the neighborhood, he is always dragging behind. But get him on a trail and it’s a whole different story. He’s like lightning. I am the one following him now, usually about 2-3 car lengths behind. Not by design but for preservation. Slow and steady am I as Dave leads the way. I am eating his dust. I don’t know where he’s found such pep but he has and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.
I have voluntarily relinquished any real role in planning our hikes; Dave plans most of them (hence, Desolation Peak – that was all him!). He reads about each of the trails and talks to the Park Rangers and usually offers up some options. I go along willingly with his suggestions but it does not stop me from whining. Mostly just to be a brat; leftovers from my prepubescent days. Mostly. But then, he is getting a little crazy lately. When we arrived in Canyonlands National Park, we had hiked 8 of the last 9 days. I was pooped! As usual, he read over the park paper and told me that there were no short hikes in the park; he said most of them were 10 miles or more round-trip. I responded with a “How can that be?”. I mean, that would significantly cut down the number of folks visiting this park, right. He reaffirmed it was true and off we went on the Murphy Loop trail: 10.8 miles with a 1,400-foot elevation change. We hiked down (and back up, of course) a rock face (called a ‘wash’), through the desert, to a bluff that overlooked the Colorado River. We walked for 5 hours. It just so happened that I was fueled with some angry thoughts that kept me moving rather quickly on this trail but that is not a typical day for me. Anyway, when we returned to the RV, I looked at the paper and noticed there were plenty of other hikes in the ‘easy’ or ‘moderate’ section that were less than 10 miles. When I brought this to his attention, he said we were beyond those now. “Five miles is for beginners – that’s like taking a walk for us”, he replies. Huh, someone forgot to tell my legs that! He won’t even look at the moderate hikes any longer; he goes straight to the ‘strenuous’ section to choose our hikes. He has high expectations for us.
And so, the second day in Canyonlands was no exception. He chose the Confluence Overlook trail – ten miles that involved some delicate foot balancing and several butt slides on rock slopes. I told him we need to mix in some moderate hikes; that we cannot keep up this pace. He reminded me of the couple we ran into in Grand Tetons National Park back in July. They were also on a year journey that began in January so when we met them they were six months in. We met them on the trail and hiked together to stave off the grizzlies. We eventually reached an intersection where we were turning for the 6-mile trek and they were turning for the 14-mile trek. They smiled as we parted and said it was the same for them when they started – it took them time to work up to 14 miles. Dave says: “That’s where we’re at now, Laur, 10-12 miles is nothing for us now”. Is he out of his *bleeping* mind? I could literally hear my knees screeching and my feet were aching. My legs were so tired I started missing my step. I couldn’t wait to be done. I was cursing him! That’s when I officially crowned him “The Trail Sergeant”. But, unlike Sergeants in the military, this one doesn’t get in your face and call you a wimp. He uses flattery (“You’re like a hiking God”; “Your calves are getting bigger”) and reminders of prior hikes (“You climbed down the Grand Canyon with a 25-pound pack on your back”; “You blazed through the 11-mile hike yesterday”) and he constantly cheers me on (“You’re doing great, Hon”; “Nice job”). He offers me a hand to get up a steep incline. He watches to make sure I don’t slide down a steep slope. He saves his water so there is more for me. He waits for me when I fall behind. He keeps me moving even when I’m ready to give up. And, he reminds me that in spite of all my bitching, this is exactly where I want to be. He’s right.
Truth be told, I really don’t mind. I mean, 5 miles would be nice once in a while so my hip and feet, and, oh, my knees can recuperate. But I do like the challenge and I want to be out in the park, not just standing on the edge. When we do these hikes, especially the longer ones, we are often either the only two on the trail or among very few others. It’s sometimes like we have the whole park to ourselves (or, at least, that part or section of it). It’s a treat to be away from the crowds (the tourists, we call them). We get to enjoy the solitude and peacefulness that hiking in nature brings. We hear the birds, smell the flowers, feel the wind. We are seeing things we otherwise wouldn’t see if we weren’t hiking 10 miles. And that’s the point. So, I’ll continue to follow The Trail Sergeant where he leads me. And, I’ll probably keep complaining along the way.
NAVAJO TIME MACHINES
We are visiting Arches National Park in southern Utah. Today we are hiking, again. We’ve gone a couple of miles and at this moment, we are standing alone, in front of “Navajo Arch”. It is a geological wonder. A huge archway hollowed out in a giant wall of red sandstone. After taking our obligatory pictures, I put my hand on Lauries arm and gently say, stop. Listen. Silence. I don’t mean quiet. I mean complete silence. There isn’t even the sound or touch of a breeze. You can’t even hear yourself breath. It is completely still. Then you notice it. The sound of a propeller driven plane, far in the distance, is moving across the sky towards the horizon. Because it is distant, the sound of the engine is just a lazy hum that slowly disappears as it moves farther and farther away, until it fades and then it is gone. I am taken back to my childhood at this moment. When very young, I would get up early on summer mornings and go outside before my family woke. I suppose there were very few people stirring in my neighborhood for if there were, they were very quiet. I would stand in my backyard, the sun warm on my face and I would notice the sound of a plane in the distance. I would look up to see if I could find it but usually I couldn’t. The world was so quiet with the exception of that hum as the plane made it’s way across the sky towards the horizon and then it slowly faded away. At this moment in Utah I am far away from New Jersey, but I could be a child again there, and I am.
EARTHTONES AND OPEN SKIES
Traveling up Rt. 12 through southern Utah. The car is cruising at about 75 but the earth tone scenery scrolls slowly. For hours we see barely a car; a house or town; hundreds of miles of nothing……….except a rich blue sky that makes you realize how big the earth is, and beauty for as far as your eyes can see.
SCHOOLS IN AND THE PARKS CHANGE
Schools in. When you’re on a year journey to try and visit all the national parks, that statement is music to my ears. It means gone are the crowds, the traffic, the full parking lots, the crowded trails, and full campgrounds. Since we are traveling with the flexibility that comes with not making reservations, it means that we can now pull into national parks and get a campsite. We can even get our choice of campsite. It means we don’t have to deal with loud groups disturbing the quiet on the trails. It means in general that we can enjoy more of nature and less of crowds.
We notice that the demographics of the park visitors has also changed. Gone are the families of 5 and 6. Yeah for school! What’s left now are retiree’s and foreign visitors with some weekenders thrown in. There is an entire subculture of American retiree’s that RV full time. Some are avid hikers and outdoors people and some are campground mushrooms who basically just hang out in the campgrounds. Some take advantage of everything the park has to offer. Others, have televisions on the outside of their “rig” with a satellite dish on top and a pop out bar on side as well. No kidding. They bring patio furniture and have outdoor lights strung. It’s really quite amazing. A true home away from home.
And then we have the foreign visitors. On a recent hike through Zion I would estimate that the number of foreign visitors on the trail outnumbered “English speaking” (I’m assuming Americans) by about 80% to 20%. I’m basing this strictly on the languages we heard being spoken. How great is this. We might have the best national park system in the world. I know it was the first. I love to see these foreigners experiencing some of the best America has to offer. Our national parks are flagships of the beauty of nature and we have a bunch of them. I think we’re up to 59 now. Probably about 50 of them are in the lower 48 with the rest scattered in Alaska and Hawaii. These visitors bring tons of photos and descriptions of their visits back to their countries. America is great! America is beautiful! It puts America in a very favorable light, especially at a time when that light might be a little dimmed in other parts of the world. They also bring in a lot of revenue during this slower time of the year and lord knows the parks need it, with them getting short changed in the budget and all. I’ve never had the good fortune to be able to spend time in the national parks during the fall and winter months before and it is really a great time to be here. We’re watching leaves turn color and fall along rivers in the desert. We’re sitting around a campfire not because we can burn wood even when it’s 110 degrees outside, but because we’re trying to stay warm. We’re stopping to have relaxed conversations with other hikers cause we haven’t seen anyone else for the past couple of hours on the trail. It’s a different world in the parks at this time of the year. I’m kinda glad that more people don’t realize this because it makes the experience so much better, but, that would be selfish. Take my word for it. It’s a good time to go. Do it, before schools out.
When I opened my eyes the other morning and looked out of our tiny ‘kitchen’ window, the mountain of rock was a bright orange/red from the glow of the morning sun. It reminded me of Owassa. Home. In the Fall, the Appalachian Mountains on the west shore of the lake are illuminated by the morning sun which is such a treat every time. I am always awe struck at the brilliance of the colors that I sit, frozen, watching the magnificent scene. The first time I saw them I thought the hills were on fire! I ran downstairs to get my phone to take a photo but by the time I returned the colors had faded. That is how it is at the lake, in the mountains, the morning unfolds at its own pace; it doesn’t wait for us. Even when I am lucky enough to get a photo, it never does the scene justice. I just cannot seem to capture the fiery orange/red glow and the beauty it bestows.
So, there I was transported in my mind back home. Lake Owassa. A place that holds such charm and allure for us; our place to escape and destress. At least that is what is was before we left for this trip. I cannot help but wonder whether it will be the same when we return. What will it be like to live there? Full time. Will it still hold the same wonder and awe? Will it still be that sanctuary; our nature retreat? Will it still feel like a warm embrace? It looks different, that is for sure, because we’ve moved a lot of stuff from Homer Street but we didn’t register that before we left because we never finished unpacking; we never settled in.
I cannot help thinking about what it will be like when we return. I’ll admit, there is a tiny part of me that misses home. I think it is the part of me that craves a place that is familiar; a place that was created by us; that is us. I also miss my bed. (I am so over this air mattress thing!!) There is a lot of time to think when you are traveling. Driving in the car, hiking on the trails and sitting around the campfire at night. And often I imagine how it will be to be back home. After living on the road, never being in the same place for more than a couple of days, will we be antsy? Will we want to get back in the RV and hit the road? Or will we sigh, relax and settle in? The lake house is a miniature version of Homer Street but after living in a 200 square foot trailer for 12 months, will it seem spacious? Or will it still not be big enough? Where will be work? Will we have to endure a long commute like the old days? How long will it take to find work? What if we cannot find work? How will we pay the bills? Will our money run out? Will we stay at Owassa? Will we move? What comes next after this journey? How will life be different? Will Dave and I be different; changed? There are so many unknowns and lots to be anxious about. But I am certainly NOT ready to go home yet. There is still so much to see and do and I am not wishing this year to be over or to go any quicker.
I know one thing is for sure: whatever comes next, I have absolutely zero regrets about our decision to quit our jobs, sell our house and take this journey together. I am 100% certain it was the right thing; the absolute best thing for us. If I die tomorrow or a year from now or 20 years from now I will never regret it. This is the single, and I mean single adventurous thing I have done in my life. I’m thinking this may be my mid-life crisis. Not a sports car or an affair, but still something wild and crazy to shake things up. I needed something big, HUGE, to catapult me into the second half of my life. I needed time to think. Time to ponder. Time to re-evaluate. Time to get to know me. And time to figure out how to forgive and let go. I want to let down my walls, abandon fear and live my true happiness. I want to do, not just be. I want my work to mean something; I want my life to be about something. I want to make a positive impact – to leave a mark. So that when I die it will be with a full heart, no regrets. And so those that knew me will have known the truest me and will smile and remember me fondly.
It becomes increasingly difficult to write about the essence of our experience in each National Park right now because one; it takes a lot of time to write them and most days we are out all day hiking, and two; we are hitting a stretch of parks that are very close together, which leaves little time in between parks to write things down. These two points collide and the next thing you know it’s whose on first and what’s on second. What you experienced in a park starts blending in with what your doing in the next park. It started with the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona and is now closely followed by 5 parks in Utah that are very close together. The parks in Utah are like pearls in a string but they are also very unique from each other. Unless we write immediately about the current park, you really start finding yourself falling behind and confusing them. Case in point: I’m writing about Zion today but we have already gone on to Bryce and are now in Capital Reef National Park. OK, so here’s a delayed recounting of Zion.
I want to start with two short stories here. One is that my niece, Meghan, asked me a few months ago about my favorite park and I answered “Glacier”. Our hikes into the alpine zone with all the alpine flowers in bloom was incredible. Story two: a guy in high school is enamored with the first girl he has dated. It starts getting hot and heavy and when I suggest playing the field for some perspective, his answer is that why should he when he has already found one he likes. I ask him if the first ice cream he tasted was vanilla would he ignore Baskin and Robbins for the rest of his life, since all the other flavors he hasn’t tried might “trump” vanilla? Wouldn’t he want to try them all before he entertains some ranking system? His answer is irrelevant but the two stories together are. I should never elevate a park to #1 when there are still about 45 to go. Yes, Glacier was magnificent, but, Zion is incredible. It may be the new number one. Not sure but it’s at least up there. The name Zion means “promised land” and it really does hold true to its name. From the very moment you drive into the park, your head is spinning from one direction to another as the views of the mountains and canyons and cliffs and different geological formations are all different and mixed together and are truly breathtaking. The eleven mile drive into the park has you has you spellbound looking at all of this geological creativity, and that’s before you actually get to the “attractions” further in the park. I can’t describe it all in detail without writing a book so take a look at some of the pictures and then plan a trip here because it is truly breathtaking. Once into the park, there is a valley that runs north to south on the east side of the park. Along each side of this valley are the second round of amazing peaks and cliffs and rock formations, each with their own unique features. The valley is relatively arid with the exception of the Virgin River which runs down its middle and which eventually connects with the Colorado River on its journey to the Pacific. The Virgin River is a flash of green snaking up through the valley and is lined with Box Elder and Cottonwood trees as well as shrubs and grasses. This provides a rich environment for birds, mule deer, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. Many of the cliffs are made of sandstone which is incredibly porous. Zion itself gets very little precipitation, but the rains and snow melt from far away on the elevated Colorado Plateau, seeps down through the sandstone until it reaches a layer of non-porous rock. It then is forced to travel laterally along this non-porous rock through many miles until it reaches the sandstone canyon walls in Zion. Once there it either seeps or pours out of the walls. It takes approximately 12,000 years for the water on the plateau to complete its journey to the canyon walls of Zion! The wet canyon walls and shade then become an environment for a variety of ferns and other plants that grow from the canyon walls forming hanging gardens. This water making its way to the canyon walls was really evident on one of the hikes we took. The hike was called the Narrows, because you hiked up the Virgin River as it makes its way through miles of narrow canyons. The river was our path and the steep canyon walls were decorated with plants taking advantage of the seeping water. This was really a unique hike. The width of the Virgin River up through the canyon varied at different points but all along the route we were boxed in by towering, red canyon walls, the sun and the sky far above. The depth of the river varied from 6 inches up to our upper thighs. At some points the rapids were very strong and it was a challenge to stay upright. The only thing that was maybe more amazing than the canyon and rivers beauty was the fact that I completed the hike without getting knocked over and taking a dip in the 50 degree water! The further up we hiked, the more narrow the passage became and also the deeper the water was. Although the river continues for quite a ways, we turned around and headed back after hiking in about 3 miles. Further up the river the water would have been over our heads in spots and we weren’t necessarily interested in getting soaked. Along the way we could see the end result of the 12,000 year journey of the water in both the hanging gardens and water running down the canyon walls. The water runs into the river which in turn provides the erosive power to continue cutting through the sandstone to deepen the canyon. The Virgin River in turn carries millions of tons of sediment down to the Colorado River every year. Flash floods are a real concern and the river can increase to a wall of water with short notice, even if it is sunny where you are. Storms that are miles away can send flood waters unannounced and its power will carry boulders and trees down as if they are insignificant. The plateau not only gets a significant amount of precipitation vs Zion, it also has much colder temperatures during the winter months. We camped above the canyon rim our first two nights and the nighttime temperatures were in the mid twenties. Later we moved to campsites down in Zion Canyon and the temperatures at night topped out in the mid forties. Big difference. Another hike we did was the “Angels Landing” trail which was only 2.7 miles in (5.4 roundtrip) but the final half mile was what gives the trail its name. It’s a place where only angels go. The trail runs up a very steep incline with thousand foot drops on either side of you. Definitely not the hike for anyone with a fear of heights. That final half mile has chains bolted into the rock for hikers to hold on to as getting a good footing is tentative at best. A number of lives have been lost on this hike although I didn’t think it was too dangerous as long as you got a good grip on the chain. The views of the canyon, valley, and surrounding peaks from the top was crazy. Quite a hike. We did a few other hikes in the canyon and then left the park to drive over to its western side. There we re-entered the park and hiked the Taylor Creek trail up through Kolob Canyon. This was a canyon hike and quite different from the up and downs we did on the east side. The weather varied from minute to minute, either being hot and the air still with you sweating or, the wind was howling, the temperature dropped and you were freezing. This pattern of canyon weather was something that we first encountered in our hike down into the Grand Canyon and we would continue to find it in Zion, Bryce and Capital Reef and I suspect any of the subsequent “canyon” parks we go to. Taylor Creek Trail was a 5 mile hike that took us up along the Creek and into the Kolob Canyons. It was a relatively easy hike but the views were again amazing. The reddish orange cliffs that channeled us up through the canyon seemed to glow like the embers of a fire. It was as if the cliffs had lights in them. There are a number of animals that make the park home although we didn’t see many of them. The beautiful Stellar Jays is a western bluebird that makes a habit of hanging around campsites for handouts. There are elk and Peregrine Falcons that hang out on the rim; Mountain Lions, Desert Tortoises, and Tarantula’s that live in the canyons; and amphibians and humming birds along the Virgin River. There are also a variety of plants that basically are adapted to varying availabilities of water.
It seems futile to search out the superlatives needed to describe the beauty of these parks and the wonder they inspire. I find myself repeating adjectives and not being able to capture in words the beauty these parks contain. And saying which one is the best is like going to an art museum and being mesmerized by incredible paintings of different subjects by different artists, all wonderful and unique, and saying which is the best. As we go from park to park, the wildlife, the flowers, the geological formations, and the weather are all unique. In addition to the visual affect it has on you, you also get to experience the smells and the sounds and even the feel of them. How can you say that one is the best? How can you compare a Rembrandt to a Monet? How can you compare a Glacier to a Zion. You really can’t and maybe you shouldn’t even try. However, Zion National Park by its name, promises the promised land…….. and Zion delivers. It is a MUST SEE. While you’re at it, extend your vacation and hit the other parks in Utah as well. It is a trip through the southwest that you won’t forget.