Tag Archives: Utah

June 6: Hoodoos and slickrock and cliffs, and jaw-dropping scenery

I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful scenery than I saw today. Not even the Blue Ridge Parkway. Not even the Icefields Parkway. Not even the Beartooth Highway. This was the desert version of all three, and it was spectacular. The photos I took don’t even begin to do it justice, and I took 150 of them today <wry g>.

I started the day at the crack of dawn by driving to the end of the road at Bryce and working my way back (this, as the brochure advised, puts all the viewpoints on the righthand side). I’d forgotten how pretty Bryce is (the last time I was here was in February, 1997). The colors and the shapes (collectively called hoodoos) and the curvature of the earth views are just magnificent, especially early in the day.

Bryce Canyon from Sunset Point.
Bryce Canyon from Sunset Point.
The start of one of the trails down into the canyon. Given the temperature and the requirement to come back whatever I went down, I decided discretion was the better part of getting myself in trouble.
The start of one of the trails down into the canyon. Given the temperature and the requirement to come back up whatever I went down, I decided discretion was the better part of getting myself in trouble.
Another view from the same spot.
Another view from the same spot.

But that was just the beginning of the scenery. I headed east on Utah Hwy. 14, which is marked on the map with those little green dots denoting a scenic route. This was the understatement of the year, if not the decade.

First, I stopped at a place called Mossy Cave. I never did see the cave, but there was a pretty waterfall (enhanced, it seems, by a canal dug back in the 1890s to bring water east of the mountains to the small town of Tropic). The real highlight, though, was being below the hoodoos without having to hike down and back out. Just a half-mile stroll in and back.

The stream along the Mossy Cave trail.
The stream along the Mossy Cave trail.

Things only got better from there, through canyons and broad valleys and up over hills and dales to the town of Escalante (Es-ca-LAN-te), where I ate lunch at one of those “okay, we’re too small a town for franchise fast food, so here’s something better than any franchise” places. Best hamburger I’ve had in a very long time.

And then the real gorgeousness began. The local term for the shining, smooth, red and white landscape dotted with dark green junipers is slickrock, I suspect because it would be hard to keep your footing on. The road came out on a viewpoint above miles and miles of this amazing territory, where I could do nothing but goggle and say, “Really? Seriously? Really?” I don’t have words for how beautiful that view was, and the pictures don’t do it justice. It was absolutely amazing.

Looking across one of the most spectacular views I've ever seen. The photo looks like crud in compariion.
Looking across one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen. The photo looks like crud in comparison.
And one more try. It was so amazing, really.
And one more try. It was so amazing, really.
Another failed try at capturing this unreal place. See the road snaking down? That's where I was headed.
Another failed try at capturing this unreal place. See the road snaking down? That’s where I was headed.

And then the road wove down through it, for miles. This stretch is called the million dollar highway, for how difficult and costly it was to build, but it was worth every penny. To the dairy farmers of Boulder, too, apparently. Before the road was built, the milk they sent for sale to Escalante often turned to butter on the rough trail. Or sour cream, which then exploded <g>.

I passed through the tiny hamlet of Boulder, and began the climb up over Boulder Mountain. I haven’t seen that many aspens since I lived in Colorado. I can only imagine what it must look like in the fall. Gold as far as the eye can see. Today, it was all pale green, except at the viewpoints (the pass topped out at 9600 feet) with more curvature of the earth views. This was a road I know we didn’t travel when I was a kid, because it wasn’t actually paved until 1985.

A view of the Waterpocket Fold, which is the main feature of Capitol Reef National Park, as seen from near the top of 9600 Boulder Mtn. Pass.
A view of the Waterpocket Fold, which is the main feature of Capitol Reef National Park, as seen from near the top of Boulder Mtn. Pass.

My goal for today was Capitol Reef National Park, beyond the northern foot of Boulder Mountain. The last time I was here, too, I wasn’t old enough to really remember. I have vague memories, but that’s it. And, again, I was on scenery overload. Tall dark red cliffs and monuments in all sorts of shapes and sizes, looming overhead like they were going to lean over enough to make a tunnel. I’m pretty sure the ten mile scenic side road (as if the whole place wasn’t scenic) wasn’t paved the last time I was here, either, and while I originally decided to take it because it was 97dF outside this afternoon here (only in the 70s on Boulder Mountain – part of me wishes I’d camped up there instead and come down here in the morning) and I wanted to stay in the AC some more, it was still far more beautiful than it had a right to be.

Aptly named Chimney Rock, in Capitol Reef National Park.
Aptly named Chimney Rock, in Capitol Reef National Park.
Along the "scenic drive" at Capitol Reef.
Along the “scenic drive” at Capitol Reef.

The campground here is in an old Mormon fruit orchard, so at least there’s shade, and now that the sun’s gone down the temperature is actually quite lovely. But heat aside, it was the most amazing day of the trip so far. I’m still just shaking my head at the glory of it all.

June 4: Disinfecting my shoes to protect the bats

Alpenglow on Wheeler Peak from my campsite.
Alpenglow on Wheeler Peak from my campsite.

I have to say, after last night’s incredible stars, that I can believe Great Basin NP’s claim to have some of the least light-polluted skies in the lower 48 of the U.S. Amazing.

This morning I took an hour and a half tour of Lehman Caves, which are one of the high points of this park. I discovered, to my delight, that my new (as of last winter) camera takes much better low-light photos than my old (as in ten years old) camera did. Both of the cave photos in this post were taken sans flash or tripod. Some of the others weren’t so great, but I’d say at least half of them came out well.

I had a little time between changing the ticket I’d bought several days ago via phone from this afternoon to this morning and the start of the tour, so I went for a walk along the nature trail on the surface above the cave, where I saw something really pretty called a cliffrose. I also saw the natural entrance to the cave (which isn’t used for people anymore, but is kept open for the bats), and the entrance and exit used for the tours, which were blasted out by the WPA in the thirties, before people knew better (I suspect this was about the same time the elevator that goes down into Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico was installed, too).

Cliffrose.  Smells kind of orange-y.
Cliffrose. Smells kind of orange-y.
This is the rifle that was all over social media in 2014 -- it was found up on Wheeler Peak, where apparently someone had just walked off and left it 100+ years ago.
This is the rifle that was all over social media in 2014 — it was found up on Wheeler Peak, where apparently someone had just walked off and left it 100+ years ago.  It’s now on display in the visitor center at Lehman Caves.  

Then I put my sneakers into a (very shallow, only the soles got wet) Lysol bath, to disinfect them and protect the bats that live in the cave from something called white nose syndrome, a fungus brought over from Europe that has killed millions of bats in this country and that they’re trying to keep from spreading. If you’ve worn your shoes into a cave before, you have to have them disinfected. So because I’d been in one of the caves at Lava Beds, my sneakers now smell ever so faintly of Lysol <g>.

The cave tour was cool, and not just because it was 50dF inside, while it was pushing 80dF outside. It was beautiful in there, from teeny-tiny soda straws (they’re long and skinny and hollow) to huge columns, elegant draperies and things called popcorn and shields. We walked through for an hour and a half, and every minute was interesting.

One of my better photos inside Lehman Caves.
One of my better photos inside Lehman Caves.
And another Lehman Caves shot.  I really  love this camera.
And another Lehman Caves shot. I really love this camera.

After the tour was over, I headed southeast across yet more lonely highway about 150 miles to the town of Cedar City, Utah (my fifth state of the trip), where I am tonight. One thing I did not expect was the acres and acres of the same desert globe mallow I saw in Oregon, in full bloom. It made the entire landscape orange in places, almost like the California poppies down in the Mojave Desert do, except the globe mallow is a darker orange. Just lovely.

Globe mallow carpeting the landscape in western Utah.
Globe mallow carpeting the landscape in western Utah.

Two weeks ago, Day 5

No sleep, and more mountains!

Well, that was the only night I camped on this trip. For some reason I could not get comfortable in my sleeping bag, and I finally gave up about four in the morning. So I pulled out my Kindle and read till it got light at about 5:30, packed up, and headed out.

Not very far at first — the Sunrise campground sits at the very top of the long, steep drop to Bear Lake, and a very nice viewpoint/visitor center, which was unlocked even at that gawdawful hour of the day (much to my pleasure, as the campground only had pit toilets and no running water), is practically next door to it. So I got cleaned up and then sat and watched the sun rise over Bear Lake. It was fairly spectacular.

Sunrise at Bear Lake, Utah.
Sunrise at Bear Lake, Utah.

I decided I deserved breakfast out after that, and after descending 2000 feet (7900 to 5900) to Bear Lake and the small town of Garden City, I started looking for somewhere that might feed me one.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, was open in Garden City at six a.m., though, so I went on, heading north along the shore of Bear Lake. Eventually I crossed the state line back into Idaho, and found the small town of Montpelier, which was just waking up for the day. The lady at the gas station where I filled the tank for the fourth time on the trip told me the truck stop just north of town was about the only place to go to get breakfast (I did mention that Montpelier is a small town, right?). So I went to find the truck stop.

It turned out to be a nice place, as such things go, and the waitress very helpfully warned me that I only wanted one pancake, not a short stack. Wow, was she right. That pancake was about twelve inches around and at least half an inch thick. It was good, though, especially with Bear Lake raspberry syrup (the berries are a local specialty). I ate a bit more than half of it before I gave up.

I headed north and east on U.S. 89, the same highway that I took all the way to Yellowstone. Up and over a pass and into Wyoming, where I noticed that I was not as alert at the wheel as I could be, so I stopped in a forest service campground, let my seat back all the way, grabbed my pillow and afghan, and crashed for a couple of hours.

Much refreshed, I arrived in the town of Afton an hour or so later, where I got stuck in a bathroom line with a bunch of French-speaking bus tourists, and saw what is purportedly the world’s largest antler arch across the main drag in town. I did not get a photo of it, but if you click here you can get a look at it.

My goal for the day was the ski resort of Jackson Hole (no, not Jackson’s Whole — that would be the wrong Nexus, thank goodness), where I was going to spend tonight, and Grand Teton National Park, where I would spend the rest of the day.

I’d spent about half an hour on my cell phone last night in the campground — I don’t know why I’m still astonished that I can talk on the phone in places that remote, but I am — making sure I had a place to sleep tonight at the hostel in Teton Village (at the base of the ski resort) and for the next two nights (they didn’t have space after that — last minute trip planning can be a bear) at the hostel in West Yellowstone.

I hadn’t spent any time to speak of in the Tetons since I was a kid. In 1999 on my Long Trip (see my book Cross-Country: Adventures Alone Across America and Back) I’d spent an evening on a dinner cruise on Jackson Lake with some friends, and in 2008 my friend Mary and I passed through, stopping for a few photos, on our way from Yellowstone to Denver for WorldCon, but that was pretty much the extent of it. In all the rest of my jaunts to Yellowstone, I hadn’t bothered to come south even that far. So I wanted to spend a little time here, at least.

The Teton Mountains, Grand Teton (13,776 feet -- almost as tall as Mt. Rainier) front and center.
The Teton Mountains, Grand Teton (13,776 feet — almost as tall as Mt. Rainier) front and center.

The Tetons are spectacular, I’ll give them that, but they strike me as a bit — aloof. It’s hard to get out in them without doing a lot more hiking than I’m capable of. I stopped along the roadside to take pictures and to look at wildflowers (which were everywhere), and then at the visitor center at Moose, which was fun. Then I drove out to Jenny Lake and decided on a whim to take a boat ride across the lake to a trailhead that led to a waterfall.

The Moose at Moose -- no real meece, alas, not on this trip.
The Moose at Moose — no real meece, alas, not on this trip.
Scarlet gilia, which I've always thought of as a California wildflower before.
Scarlet gilia, which I’ve always thought of as a California wildflower before.
Another view of the Tetons.
Another view of the Tetons.

The boat ride was fun. It was also a great way to cool off from the 80+ degree temperatures. And the hike to the waterfall, albeit with a boatload of my new close friends, was good, too. So that was worth it.

Jenny Lake.
Jenny Lake.
From the boat on Jenny Lake.
From the boat on Jenny Lake.
Hidden Falls, approximately 100 feet tall.
Hidden Falls, approximately 100 feet tall.
Waiting for the boat to go back across Jenny Lake.
Waiting for the boat to go back across Jenny Lake.

After the ride back, though, it was getting late, and I took what was supposed to be a short cut but turned out to be a goat trail back to Teton Village.

And I ended my day by scaring the bejeebies out of myself. There was this gondola, you see. It was free in the evenings. I thought it would be like the gondola at Crystal Mountain here in Washington state, which is a pleasant little ride. This was not a pleasant little ride. It turned out to be about three times as long and three times as steep, and by the time I got to the top, I was a gibbering idiot (I don’t do manmade heights, at least not ones like these). If you want to see what the view from the top looks like, click here. I left my camera in the car.

I almost couldn’t make myself ride it back down again, but a group with a baby(!) got in the gondola with me, and that happy little baby was a great distraction. Thank goodness. I’m not sure I’d have made it down sane without him!

And that was more than enough for one day.

Two weeks ago, Day 4

Across the wide open spaces to some rather strange places

Southern Idaho, as I’ve said before, is a desert except where it’s irrigated. I was traveling across the path taken by the Yellowstone hotspot in ancient times — if you look at a satellite view of the region, you’ll see this sort of U-shaped giant-sized ditch in the land where, over the last few million years, the hotspot made its way from northeastern Nevada/southeastern Oregon, across Idaho, and up to northwestern Wyoming, erupting periodically along the way. What it left behind was a vast trough full of volcanic rocks of various kinds.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With enough weathering and the addition of some water, it can be transformed into hellaciously fertile farmland. Think about where all those famous Idaho potatoes come from. Although Washington actually grows more potatoes than Idaho does these days — but they do it on the same types of volcanic soil. Different eruptions, though.

Anyway. I headed southeast on I-84 to the Utah state line. Once upon a time, I drove this stretch of highway in January, moving from Eugene, Oregon, to Fort Collins, Colorado, and the landscape didn’t actually look all that different from today except for the skim of dusty white snow swirling across the highway back then. This is true high desert — don’t let the signs for Salt Lake City fool you.

I left the highway at the exit labeled #26 after crossing the state line, where the sign said, rather ominously, “NO SERVICES.” But that’s where the directions for the Golden Spike National Historic Site said I was to get off, and it’s not the most isolated place on the planet I’ve ever been (see Stanley, Idaho, night before last, which doesn’t take that pride of place, either). The other sign at that exit said, rather mysteriously, “ATK.” I had no idea what ATK was, but maybe I’d get to find out.

After coming over a rise and crossing abruptly from desert to irritated farmland, then going around a few miles worth of bends in the road, I found out what ATK is. Apparently it’s where they build rockets for NASA and missiles for the Defense Department. And they’re proud of it, because out in front of this big cluster of 1960s-era-looking buildings out in the middle of absolutely nowhere was something I’ll call a sculpture garden for lack of a better term.

ATK -- a real surprise out in the Utah desert.
ATK — a real surprise out in the Utah desert.

Bemused, I parked the car and took a gander. Each one was mounted on a big metal pole, and each had its own label telling what it was.

A Minuteman missile in ATK's 'sculpture garden.'
A Minuteman missile in ATK’s ‘sculpture garden.’
A space shuttle booster rocket.
A space shuttle booster rocket.

After goggling for a bit in the windy heat (it was well into the 90s that day), I got back in the car, fired up the AC again, and headed for a much older form of transportation.

Golden Spike National Historic Site, like Pompey’s Pillar (a Lewis and Clark site I visited a couple of years ago) has always sort of been on my nonexistent bucket list. It’s where the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific met in 1869, to form the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S. The event was celebrated by a bunch of dignitaries coming to this place out in the middle of the Utah desert just north of the Great Salt Lake (you can see the salt flats from a viewpoint at the site) to hammer a golden spike into the last railroad tie and ceremonially join the two railroads together.

Looking out towards the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake from a viewpoint at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
Looking out towards the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake from a viewpoint at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

It’s an interesting place historically, and it’s also cool because the NPS keeps two replica steam locomotives on site, and runs one or the other of them daily at 1 pm for a short distance.

Steam locomotive at Golden Spike National Historic Site.
Steam locomotive at Golden Spike National Historic Site.
The engineer's cubby in the steam locomotive.
The engineer’s cubby in the steam locomotive.
Part of the authentic reproduction paint job.  This is a portrait of Johnny Appleseed.
Part of the authentic reproduction paint job. This is a portrait of Johnny Appleseed.

I ate a picnic lunch while waiting, after having been told by the ranger that I couldn’t bring my food indoors into the AC because they had a small mouse problem (I’m pretty sure it was the mice that were small, not the problem).

Then I got to see cutting edge transportation from the 19th century, smokestack, whistle (loud!) and all. Which was pretty damned cool (unlike the weather).

The locomotive in action.
The locomotive in action.

After the demonstration, I headed east again on a backroad that thought it was a roller coaster, back down, down, down to cross I-84 again and on to the city of Logan, Utah. I hadn’t checked email in a while, and I needed groceries and gas. What ended up happening is that I got really lost trying to find the library (for email — my netbook no longer being wifi capable), but I finally made it out of town after a stop at a ranger station to make sure I was on the right road (there wasn’t a sign to be seen), where the ranger gave me a wonderful pamphlet about Logan Canyon, which was where I was headed.

And that’s how I ended up camping at Sunrise Campground in Utah, overlooking Bear Lake, up in the aspens where it was lovely and cool and the wildflowers were everywhere.

Oh, and I sold a copy of Repeating History to a couple I struck up a conversation with at the campground. Which is the first time that’s happened. I’m glad I took the print copies with me.