Monday, October 6, 2014

Canyon Country - Utah & Arizona

Leaving Nevada, I had mixed feelings on my desert experience so far. Everything was too hot, too flat, and too utterly barren (excepting some alien looking Joshua Trees, which were cool). My opinions changed when I entered the Canyon Country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. The topography became varied and interesting - the landscape spoke to the powerful action of water and erosion. Thick pine and alder forests suddenly appeared while climbing from lowlands to the high plateaus. Temperatures moderated with increased elevation (and the onset of fall). I had found the American Southwest desert mecca I was hoping for!

Fall has arrived in the high country! 
For my first canyon experience, I decided on an out-and-back thru nontechnical Coyote Gulch in the Grand Staircase-Escalate National Monument/Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The trip started in the quaint adventure town of Escalante, full of canyoneering outfitters and coffee shops. From there I drove 36 miles of washboarded dirt road to the trailhead. The deeper I went into the Gulch the higher the red sandstone walls rose, eventually towering a couple hundred feet above the cool brown waters of Coyote Creek.

Coyote Gulch
Cottonwoods in Coyote Gulch
Coyote Gulch was full of scenic delights - a number of arches and natural bridges, a riparian oasis of cottonwood trees, sandy stream side campsites, cold gushing freshwater springs, and the darkest night skies I've seen since my time underway on the Pacific Ocean. I hedged on a perfect forecast and decided to forgo the weight and bulk of carrying a tent, quite literally sleeping under the stars and enjoying the sight every time I tossed myself awake in the night.

The Jacob Hamblin Arch
Coyote Gulch Panorama (note the arch in far left)
Self proclaimed "shower spring." You better be ready to get wet when you try to fill up your bottles in the spray.
Camping on a beach under the stars.
I didn't realize the extent of my good fortune with the weather until I tried to go to Bryce Canyon National Park. I had assumed the desert in the fall would always be perfectly sunny, but an epic thunderstorm storm blew in, bringing the heaviest rain (and sleet!) I've seen in my life. The local PD turned me around on the mountain road, citing flash floods and washouts. I spent most of the day waiting for the storm to abate in a coffee shop, catching up on Tom Clancy. When the road reopened I made my way to Bryce Canyon and spent a miserably cold night getting sleeted on in near freezing temperatures.

Bryce is a small but scenic park. I hiked to see bristlecone pines, some of the oldest trees in the world, gnarled and twisted by the wind like oversized bonsai. I took my requisite photos of the Hoodoo Amphitheater before a thoroughly enjoyable walk thru the hoodoos themselves. They were more impressive up close than from afar, the better to see the weathered detail and carved shapes.

Bryce Canyon Amphitheater 
Hoodoo Arch, Bryce Canyon
Can you find my favorite hoodoo - Thor's Hammer?
The drive from Bryce to Zion National Park is a short one. Perplexingly, all the NPS campgrounds were full, on a late season weekday. I'm beginning to think that fall is not the "whole park to yourself" experience that I originally thought I'd have, but then again the temperatures in the desert are formidable in the summer and more folks might be trying to take advantage of the cooler weather. But still, on a weekday!?!? So I had to stay in my first RV park of the road trip; a little more expensive but with better amenities.

Zion is a stunning park. I drove thru a mile-long CCC built tunnel through the canyon wall. I watched rock climbers tackle impressively high sandstone walls. I hiked to the top of waterfalls and spring fed hanging gardens. There is a convenient, free NPS shuttle to take sightseers and hikers up canyon along the Virgin River. It even continues into the town of Springdale, dropping one off back at their RV park following dinner at Oscar's Cafe - a delicious avocado & corn chip cheeseburger and a pint (or two) of Wasatch Brewing's Polygamy Porter. With a name like that you know it's OK to have more than one!

Zion Canyon reflection in Emerald Pools
The must-do hike is Zion is supposedly to the top of Angel's Landing. Pish-posh. Real hikers skip the crowds and hike higher and farther up to Observation Point. From there the entire Zion Canyon is before you and you can look down and sneer at the ant-like lines up Angel's Landing, 600 feet below your viewpoint. Along the way, enjoy the short passage thru Echo Canyon.

Echo Canyon
The view from Observation Point. Angels Landing is the summit of the sandstone rib jutting into the valley, far far below 
The other must-do is obviously the famed "Narrows," a 16 mile nontechnical slot canyon of the Virgin River at the head of Zion Canyon. I had originally planned for a thru-hike of the Narrows but the shuttle, equipment, and permit logistics proved too much of a hassle. And I'm glad I opted out and settled for a shorter day hike; the Narrows were quite awesome but about as crowded as a Walmart stampede on Black Friday. I had to wait for 10 minutes at a time for people to walk out of my planned shots. Thanks but no thanks. If I'm going to invest that much effort in a backcountry trip, I'd like to have the place mostly to myself. I'm happy with my Coyote Gulch experience. I think I'll try Buckskin Gulch on any future canyon trips vice the Narrows.

Zion Narrows 
Zion Narrows
The finale of my canyon country travels was, of course, the Grand Canyon. I chose the less popular North Rim and thoroughly enjoyed the resultant solitude. Most of the North Rim is governed by Kaibab National Forest, with an extensive network of dirt roads and an easy going "go ahead and camp anywhere and feel free to collect firewood" attitude that is occasionally a welcome contrast to "don't touch anything" NPS management. Crazy Jug Point is an absolutely amazing drive-up campsite with oh-my-god views right along the rim of the Grand Canyon. You couldn't backpack to a better spot. And let me tell ya - sunrise and sunset views were greatly enhanced by my ability to sit in my deluxe camp chair, sipping on some coffee, watching the canyon walls deepen in their pinks, oranges, yellows, and reds, with a small campfire at my feet. Even as hardcore as I am, I'll admit that car camping can be rewarding, especially toward the end of a long summer of taxing physical adventure. I spent two nights just soaking it all in. The Grand Canyon is impressive and beautiful beyond description. I'll just let the pictures do the talking.

A short hike from camp to Monument Point, North Rim Grand Canyon
Monument Point Panorama, North Rim Grand Canyon
Sunrise view from camp, Crazy Jug Point, North Rim Grand Canyon
From here I've plans to cruise along Historic Route 66 as best I can and catch the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Matt, great to read your blog and hear about your adventures. Very awesome. Let me know when you get to the New Orleans area, I live just outside the can crash here as long as you need and there's some great kayaking/swamp adventures close by. Hope to catch you soon!