Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Sue and Mo at Harris Beach
Sue and Mo at Harris Beach

Thursday, September 30, 2021

09-25-2021 Canyonlands National Park The Needles District

Below is a photo of the sign for the turn toward Canyonlands NP and the Needles District from Highway 191 about 35 miles north of Blanding and 40 Miles south of Moab.

For the past ten days, we have been traveling through a part of the world known as the Colorado Plateau.  The name has little to do with the state of Colorado other than the Great Colorado River that bisects the plateau originates in Colorado.  It is the distinct nature of this landscape that draws me back year after year to explore.  This is my sixteenth visit, and there is so much I haven’t seen. It is easy to hit the high points by simply driving, but seeing the depth and beauty of the area requires a level of commitment that I no longer can manage. No matter how many canyons, hoodoos, mesas, and pinnacles you might see, there are always more to explore.

From a book on regional geology I got this succinct description.

“The Colorado Plateau is actually a series of erosionally-dissected plateaus with elevation tops ranging from 5,000 to 11,000 feet. There are several small mountain ranges within the Colorado Plateau. The highest elevation of 12,700 feet is found in the La Sal Mountains of Utah. The lowest elevation is 2,000 feet in the Grand Canyon of Arizona. The Colorado River and its tributaries have carved many deep and narrow gorges across the region .”

“Nearly 200 named sedimentary rock formations of nearly all geologic ages crop out in canyons, escarpments, mesas, and buttes throughout the Colorado Plateau region. The physical properties of the different rock units give rise to the variety of colors, shapes, and erosional characteristics. Mountain ranges of volcanic origin across the region include the La Sal Mountains, Henry Mountains, Abajo Mountains, and Boulder Mountain in Utah. Mountains on the Colorado Plateau in Arizona include the Chuska Mountains and the San Francisco Mountains.”

Canyonlands National Park lies at the heart of the region.  Canyonlands has four distinct units that make up the park, each requiring a drive to a different area.  From the Island in the Sky area you can see two other units, the Needles District, and a bit of the Maze, but the fourth and most remote unit, Horseshoe Canyon, requires a long drive on dirt roads to access the amazing canyon with the Ghost Wall as the prize at the end of your long drive and 3 mile hike.

With two nights scheduled in Blanding, we had the perfect opportunity to drive north to visit the Needles District on Saturday the 25th. It did not matter that we would be passing by the same turnoff when we headed north to Moab the next day.  We wanted a leisurely exploration of this most southern section of Canyonlands NP

Just before the turnoff, there is a distinctive monolith rising from the surrounding plain that has no visible name.  It is a great landmark for knowing when you are approaching the turnoff toward the Needles District.

There is much to do and see in the Needles if you are a 4-wheeler or a biker.  There is even more to explore if you can do extensive backcountry hiking.  For us, the main trailheads were our destination, with a chance to experience just a little bit of what the Needles has to offer. 

The first stop on the way to the park is Newspaper Rock.  The collection of petroglyphs concentrated on this one sandstone wall is incredible. Ancient designs, images of animals, six toed footprints and six fingered handprints mingle with historic petroglyphs of hunters on horseback.

Mo, Chere, and Dan enjoying the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock

As we continued west toward the Needles District, we enjoyed great expansive views of Wingate Sandstone cliffs topped by thin layers of Kayenta sandstone below the characteristic white domes of Navajo Sandstone.  We stopped at the visitor center which was partially open with masks required. With the help of the ranger, I purchased a neck scarf depicting all the sandstone layers in order of high elevation to low elevation in relation to where they exist in the Colorado Plateau. I can simply whip off the scarf from around my neck to figure out in which formation we are hiking or driving.

Wingate cliffs along the road toward the Needles District

I wanted to check out the Squaw Flat Campground where I camped in 1997.  There are two loops in the campground, with loop A being first come first serve, and loop B requiring reservations.  Although the sign at the park entrance said the campground was full, we saw a few empty spots in Loop A.  There are no hookups at Squaw Flat in either loop, but the bathrooms are state of the art with hot water, a dishwashing sink and showers.

2021 Photo of red rock cliff in Squaw Flat Campground

I took the photo above from a spot in the Squaw Flat campground in Loop B.  Looking up from that spot I could see the slickrock shelf I climbed when my friend Shera and I were camped in Squaw Flat Campground Loop A in 1997. Below is the photo that I took in 1997 looking down on the campground from the same shelf I photographed from below on this 2021 trip. 

1997 Photo of Squaw Flat Campground from the cliff looking down 

After driving around the campground, we continued toward the end of the paved road to the trailhead for the ten mile Overlook trail.  Permits are required to hike this trail to a place where you can see the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers in the heart of Canyonlands.

Chere and Dan at the Confluence Trailhead

Sue climbing slickrock near the Confluence Trailhead

Walking a bit around the beginning of the trail was enough for us and we enjoyed a light snack sitting on the rocks watching the parking lot fill up with cars, campers, travelers, and kids. Chere was amazed at how cool the sandstone felt even in the hot sun.

After our relaxing break at the end of the road, we returned to the trailhead for the Potholes Trail.  The day was heating up and the parking lot here was thinning out.  By the time we started up on the trail we had the area almost to ourselves.

Mo, Chere, and Dan starting up the only steep part of the Potholes Trail

The trail is just a bit over half a mile with very little elevation gain.  It offers great views in all directions of Canyonlands.

View of the Needles to the south from the Potholes Trail

The trail that goes close to the base of the Needles and Chessler park meadows is at the end of a 6 mile round trip moderately difficult trail. We didn't attempt that trail on this trip.

We saw the distant Island in the Sky to the north where we planned to visit when we camped in Moab later in the week.

1993 photo of the Dollhouse in the Maze district taken when I hiked up to this spot from the river

We could see a tiny bit of the Dollhouse, in the Maze district, basically inaccessible unless you are willing to do some extensive high clearance 4 wheel drive roads or hike up from the Colorado River at the confluence as I did in 1993 when I rafted Cataract Canyon.

The potholes are interesting, but more so at a different time of year when there is still water in them and the little shrimps that lie dormant waiting for rain have hatched.

It was a lovely hike for the four of us.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

09-24-2021 Torrey to Blanding via Highway 95

It was chilly enough Thursday morning that we were happy to wear jeans and sweatshirts to breakfast.  At last the Capitol Reef Inn and Cafe was open for business. 

I have been coming to this restaurant since 1996, and it felt only a little bit tattered.  The beautiful gardens were a bit unkept, but the interior of the restaurant was as charming as ever.  I asked our waiter where the sand was, and he pointed to a closed area of the restaurant where the vials of colored sand from all over Canyon Country languished alone on the wall of an unused room.  No matter, at least they were still there.


We ordered breakfast, with eggs benedict for Dan and chicken fried steak for Chere, and a shared chicken fried steak for us.  Yum.  Nothing like country gravy on a cold morning.  I was so tickled to be in the restaurant once again, and bought one more tee shirt that had a petroglyph on the back and the name of the iconic restaurant on the front.  Who knows how much longer it will be in operation.

We were on the road before ten, thinking our day traveling to Blanding, Utah via Highway 95 would be uneventful.  We estimated a 3 PM arrival time.  I knew we would want to stop at the crossing at the Colorado River, and might decide to take a short loop drive around Natural Bridges National Monument along the way.

Traveling east from Capitol Reef on Highway 24 along the Fremont River is an experience in dramatic change.  The red cliffs of Wingate sandstone give way to the huge white domes of Navajo sandstone for which the park is named. 

Within a very few miles the road enters the bleak gray landscape created by the highly eroded gray hills of the Morrison Formation. Formed in volcanic ash deposits that have weathered to bentonite clay, the hills support no vegetation. 

Near Factory Butte we saw several groups of RVs boondocking with their 4-wheelers and trailers.  The Factory Butte area is perfect for ATV’s, with crazy landscapes, fun roads, and no vegetation to get in the way.  To the south, over the hills, I could see the high peak of Mt Ellen once again.  I can only imagine what a great landmark that mountain was to the people living in this part of the world before GPS, or even before paper maps.

Both rigs were well fueled, so we had no need to stop in Hanksville, and we turned south toward Lake Powell and Blanding.  Just as we left Hanksville a large blinking sign warned of a road closure at Milepost 115, at Cottonwood Wash.  Oh No!  Worst thing was that we had no phone signal, no reception to make a call to Dan to try to figure out what to do. 

If the road was closed, the only way to reach Blanding was to return to Hanksville, return to Highway 24 and I-70, and then to Highway 191, going south past Moab to Blanding.  The re routing would take hours, and more than 150 miles of extra travel.  I couldn’t reach Dan, and there was no turn around.   We drove quite a few miles before finding a place big enough for both rigs to pull over.

By the time we did, my offline maps were working, and I could see that while Highway 95 was closed, there was an alternate route at the intersection of Highway 95 and Highway 261 at marker 100 or so.  It looked open.  I knew I had driven 261 but couldn’t remember for sure if the Moki Dugway was on that part of the road or farther south.  We stopped and discussed the options and Dan was happy that he didn’t have to backtrack all the way to I-70 and then travel south from Moab.

We continued southeast on Highway 95, encouraged at our good luck finding an alternate route, but the Highway 261 route was worrying me.  I just couldn’t remember.

After driving through tall canyons of pink and salmon slickrock, we started going down in elevation toward Hite Crossing and the Colorado River.  We drove up to the large scenic viewpoint and the river canyon opened up to us below in a truly breathtaking view.

Lake Powell at Hite 2021

Lake Powell at Hite 2010

I have been reading enough about Lake Powell and how the drought has affected lake levels that I wasn’t horribly surprised to see the empty pool with boat launches high above the narrow channel of the Colorado River. 

Lake Powell north of Hite in 1993 first view of Mt Ellen from Cataract Canyon

When I rafted the river in 1993 the water level was very close to the bottom of Hite Bridge.  Not so now.  The lake is emptying much more quickly than it can refill in this extended western drought.  What was once under water was barren and exposed in the hot sun.  I walked out as far as I could for a more expansive view and knew I was seeing climate change up front and close.

We entered the highway once again, traveling  across the Dirty Devil River and then down to Hite Crossing and the Colorado.  Hite used to be the main take-out for raft trips through Cataract Canyon.  I am not sure how far downstream rafters must travel to exit the river now.

After crossing the Colorado we rose in elevation gently as we continued east toward Natural Bridges and our alternate route at Highway 261.  The landscape is expansive, so immense it defies description and photos cannot begin to capture the sheer expanse of red rock and wild canyons.

Along the route we entered the shifting boundary of the Bears Ears National Monument.  There is a rock formation called Jacob’s Chair, which I remembered from recent trips.  Another formation that I remembered showed up in the distance and I laughed with Mo and tried to remember if it was the Coffeepot or the Teapot.  I laughed a lot when I saw the sign pointing to the Cheesebox.  Good thing I wouldn’t have to remember the man made name to navigate the landscape by the location of this formation. 

In the distance, the Bears Ears mark the northern edge of the monument and Cedar Mesa, riddled with complex canyon systems and the location of the most concentrated occurrence of ancient dwellings, including kivas, lodges, and granaries.  Many are named and mapped and many more are waiting to be discovered in nooks and crannies of the mesa by adventurous hikers.  The one time I hiked a Cedar Mesa canyon I was rewarded with amazing dwellings, still containing pottery shards and dried corn cobs, and no sign of human disturbance.

We skipped an earlier plan to possibly visit Natural Bridges because we knew our detour would add time and miles to the journey.  When we arrived at the intersection, sure enough there were big barriers across the road, closed at Cottonwood Creek, just 15 miles distant.  We turned south and within minutes a large sign warned us that vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds were prohibited.

We were trapped.  I got sick to my stomach and my heart was pounding.  I had no clue how this was going to turn out.  I knew that Mo and I could do the cliff in our motorhome because we had done it before, even though we weigh about 14,000 pounds. I had no idea how Dan would manage the infamous narrow road that descends more than 1,000 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods in just four miles.

There are few pullouts along Cedar Mesa that have enough room for both rigs, but after a few miles we found a spot and pulled over.  Dan said his GPS unit was screaming at him….turn around…turn around….not for rv’s…no more than 5 tons….turn around!.  We talked a bit about our options and once again Dan decided that he would go for it.  I couldn’t remember for sure if there was a place to move over and unhook at the top of the dugway.  I was wrong.  We had to stop right in the middle of the road, put on our flashers, and unhook both cars to prepare for our descent.  Lucky for us, only one car passed us.  Pretty sure it was a government vehicle from the Department of the Interior, but he just slowed and went past us.  We decided he probably didn’t want to deal with the whole thing with Highway 95 being closed.

Mo went first in the MoHo and I followed next in the Tracker.  As Dan came along behind me I moved over so I wouldn’t interfere with whatever speed he needed to go to manage his gears and brakes to the best advantage.  Chere followed me in their tow car.  I tried to take some photos and got a couple of shots with the phone, but it wasn’t a particularly great thing to be doing while negotiatiating the road.

Moki Dugway in Utah Travel Guide This website about the Dugway is interesting, with lots of photographs and discussions about driving it.  In reality it isn’t that bad, and the website says that it can be easily negotiated by truck campers and small RV’s.  At 36 feet, Dan’s rig was not a small RV.  Check out the website for some great history, great photos, and best of all a video of the trip down the hill.

Once Dan rounded the first couple of switchbacks I could see that his 36 foot rig could easily make the turns and I finally relaxed. 

I even tried to enjoy the view a bit in between trying to see how far down Mo was and take photos.  When we reached the bottom there was a wide place to pull over and hook up the tow cars.  We all breathed a huge sigh of relief, and when Chere got out of the car she said some words I have never heard her say before.

We were all elated and grateful that we had managed to negotiate the scary switchbacks and had avoided backtracking hundreds of miles because of the closed Highway.

Our route along 261 intercepted route 163 going north toward Bluff, Utah.  There were some gorgeous bluffs surrounding the small town and a few things to see but none of us were thinking of dawdling. 

Our campground in Blanding was just another hour north and we landed in the warm afternoon sun in time to settle in and have a relaxing glass of wine before we put supper on the table.  I pulled out a meat loaf from home, some broccoli to steam with melted cheese, and Chere made some garlic mashed potatoes and toasted garlic bread.  We have certainly been eating well on this entire trip and this evening was no exception after our exciting day.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

09-23-2021 Scenic Byway Highway 12, Torrey to Bryce

When we left camp on this Thursday morning, our last day in Torrey, we planned to drive south to Boulder and then west on the Burr Trail.  I wanted to share the iconic road with the famous switchbacks with Dan and Chere.  I have been there many times, and love everything about that section of Capitol Reef. 

Photos above from our 2019 road trip on the Burr Trail

The Waterpocket Fold is the geologic hallmark of Capitol Reef National Park, a 100 mile long uplift with magnificent views from the high points.  It was simply a “must-see” for anyone visiting Capitol Reef in my mind.  Another purpose of the trip south, was to have dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill

The restaurant is only open for dinner after 4 PM because of limited staffing.  We would have to schedule our timing to get back to the grill by 4, meaning that we would have to backtrack up the Burr Trail rather than taking the round trip road back to Torrey via the No-Tom Road that parallels the eastern boundary of Capitol Reef.

I also wanted to travel far enough south on Highway 12 from the Burr Trail intersection to take Dan and Chere on the Devil’s Backbone. We also had to consider that we would be leaving our dogs in the rigs back at camp for the entire day.  Mattie does fine with ten hours but Dan and Chere’s dogs might have a bit of trouble with such a long time cooped up inside with no breaks. Trying to manage the timing and logistics was getting to be a bit stressful.

While Dan drove toward the summit of Boulder Mountain on Highway 12, my mind was busy trying to figure things out.  By the time we reached the overlook at one of the highest points, I had an “ah-ha” moment.  I didn’t have to be so attached to showing them the Burr Trail Switchbacks, and could simply relax into traveling on Highway 12.  A quick check of Google Maps showed that we could easily make it to Bryce Canyon and back to Hell’s Backbone Grill by 4 PM, in time to get a patio table for dinner.

Highway 12 is listed as one of the most scenic byways in the United States, on a par with famous Highway 1 along the Big Sur Coast of California.  The northern part of the route crosses Boulder Mountain. 

Boulder Mountain, also known as Utah’s Aquarius plateau, is part of the High Plateaus section of the Colorado Plateau. Ranging over 11,000 feet in elevation, Boulder Mountain is roughly 90 miles long, north to south, and forms what looks like an S in reverse. The plateau covers more than 900 square miles, and is the largest and highest plateau in Canyon Country. Eighty lakes are found across the mountain that is covered in aspen, fir, spruce , sub-alpine grasslands and meadows. Along the middle elevations you’ll find ponderosa pine, while pinyon and juniper trees are found in the lower elevations.

From the northern end of Boulder Mountain you can see down on communities such as Torrey, Bicknell, and Teasdale, and you can see Thousand Lakes mountain. The Aquarius Plateau is said to be the highest timbered plateau in North America. The highest point is Bluebell Knoll 11,328 feet.

We stopped at the official scenic overlooks to see the views, but the skies were still a bit murky in the distance due to the smoke from fires in California.  No matter, there was a photo of what we were supposed to be seeing up to 100 miles distant.

We made a quick stop in Boulder to make sure the Grill hours were as posted on the internet, and continued south toward the Devil’s Backbone.  Throughout our time in Utah, Dan has often noticed the lack of roadside shoulders on secondary roads.  I laughed and told him I had a place to show him that might be the most dramatic example of narrow roads with almost nonexistent shoulders.

The view from the Devil’s Backbone is expansive, with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument landscape stretching for miles to the west, south, and east. 

Driving south on curvy Highway 12 toward Escalante we dropped toward Calf Creek, and the very over crowded Calf Creek Falls trailhead and campground.  Parked cars were lined up almost to the highway.  Just a bit farther south below the falls trail, Calf Creek runs into the Escalante River, where cars were parked all along the highway for the Escalante River and Canyon trailheads.  No matter, we had no time to dawdle with Bryce Canyon as our destination and a 4 PM dinner on the agenda.

I tried to write to Gaelyn, using email and text messages.  As many readers know, Gaelyn the Geogypsy is a ranger for the National Park Service who has been at Bryce this year.  I laughed when I wrote to her, saying, “We have two hours, what should we do?”.  If you have read her blog, you know she often mentions how often people ask this question of her at the Visitor Center.  It is hard to understand why someone would only spend two hours at such a magnificent destination.  Of course, our reasons made sense to us.  It was better to see the park for 2 hours than not at all.  Dan and Chere had never been there, and Mo couldn’t remember if she had.  I have hiked the Bryce trails in days past, but was delighted to get a opportunity to see the fairyland hoodoos once again.

As we entered the park, we were delighted that there were no waiting lines at the entrance kiosk. Skipping the visitor center, which we read was not open, we headed for Inspiration Point, the most distant viewpoint we felt we could manage with our time frame. 

The walk up to the overlooks was steep, but wide and fairly short.  The view of the canyon below opened up to a fascinating complex of hoodoos and cliffs with the trails far below. 

We returned to the parking area for Sunset Point, and again walked to the viewpoints.  There were many more people at Sunset Point, and it is from here that the infamous Navajo Loop Trail descends into the canyon. I remember hiking the Navajo Loop trail with Shera, and the more distant Peekaboo Loop which was visible across the canyon from our viewpoint.

We didn’t stay long at Bryce, but every one of us was happy for the long drive and the gorgeous reward of Bryce Canyon.  I was sorry to have missed Gaelyn, and felt a bit sad as we passed another ranger giving the geology talk at Sunset Point.  Later Gaelyn wrote saying she was in the middle of her move and was also sorry to have missed us.

It was close to 3 or so when we left the park to return north on Highway 12 to Boulder.  This time we didn’t stop at any of the overlooks or gawk at the views while Dan did his best to get us there in time for dinner.  Sure ehough, we arrived around 4:20 and seating on the patio was already filling up.  Lucky us, we got a table without a wait.  The restaurant is only serving dinner now due to Covid, and they are only serving outdoors on the patio.

Our dinner was as wonderful as we expected, with a perfect table, a charming and efficient waiter, and all natural, locally sourced, slow food movement meals. 

Chere had posole with a blue corn muffin. 

Dan enjoyed local red trout and vegetables from the restaurant farm.

Mo and I shared a grass fed pork chop, smothered on fresh local plum chipotle bbq sauce and farm vegetables. 

Dessert was perfect for a southwest meal, a rich chocolate creme thick pudding, flavored with chile, topped with whipped cream and locally grown flowers.  Best chocolate I ever tasted, with the chile provided a subtle kick. 

It was a perfect end to what turned out to be a perfect day.  Although Dan and Chere never saw the Burr Trail road, they saw extensive areas of the Grand Staircase, Bryce Canyon National Park, and enjoyed every bite of their supper and the world renown restaurant.

The drive home over the mountain was punctuated by a few raindrops and some dark clouds hanging over Thousand Lakes Mountain.  As we rounded a curve, the western sunlight illuminated a distant ridge of Capitol Reef red rocks. We made it home before dark, with some time to relax outside and chat with a neighbor for a few minutes before heading for bed and a great night’s sleep.