Six Weeks, Six National Parks

We’ve been focusing our trip principally around visiting national parks.  Since we made a beeline for Utah after visiting Elise in Albuquerque, we were able to visit a slew of parks relatively quickly.  Rather than write a separate blog about each one, I thought I’d just give a brief recap of our first six weeks and six parks.

  1. Zion. I wrote about Zion in our May 31 blog. Most visited of the parks we’ve passed through so far on this trip. Stunning and varied landscapes, well-designed hikes of all levels, impressive human herd management. You’re based in the canyon, along the river, craning your necks upward, with opportunities to ascend. Terrific modern visitor center and human history museum exploring native American and Mormon settlements of the area.  (Tangent: Mormons came to Utah in the mid-1800s from New York to escape vicious religious persecution and were the first European descendent settlers of the area. About 70% of Utah’s population are Mormons. The old photos and remains of early Mormon settlements depict a rough and difficult frontier existence.)  Great library in Springdale where you can hang out if you need an escape from the elements or are seeking wifi or other forms of civilization.  Amazing tunnel to drive in from the east, but now too small to manage two-way traffic. First-come/first-served camping report:  get in line by 8am in peak season and you stand a chance.  Stay in nearby Springdale the night before so you can pounce early.  With this we scored a beautiful tent site near the river with front-row views of the mountains. (woo hoo!)   Thanks to Crystal, Anyll, and Alex of Nederland, CO, for being such nice camp neighbors and sharing some great adventure tips.
  2. Bryce Canyon. Reverse of Zion in that the park infrastructure is on the canyon rim, looking down, instead of being in a river valley. More homogenous (albeit bizarre) geology. Showy from the rim drive—almost tediously so at times (“OK, yeah, yeah, I get it already.”) But fabulous, mysterious and fun down in the canyon trails. While erosion is a big part of the story in all of these parks, it is really obvious at Bryce because everything look like eroded mud walls of massive gullies. Nice rim-perched old lodge.  Can be 80 degrees F and snow during the same day. Huge rotating solar panel set-up but with no signage to satisfy the curious (When was it installed? How much of the park’s power needs are satisfied? What are the park’s power needs, compared to, say, say a small residential community?).  First-come, first-served camping report: arrive by 10am should work.  Night-before stay spot: Panguitch, boring but serviceable.
  3. Capitol Reef. How come most people don’t know about this park? Capitol Reef offers nearly all the excitement and strangeness of Bryce and Zion (and lots of weird geology not found in those more famous cousins) without the crowds. We liked it so much we stayed for 5 days. Extremely varied geology—a feast for eyes and mind.  Layers and layers laid down over billions of years, spread out right before you.  See if you can memorize the names of the sedimentary layers. (We tried and failed.) Everything around Capitol Reef is slanted, and after a while I felt like I was in a fun house, or that all the pictures around me needed to be straightened. It actually made me a bit queasy! (But not Bob.) Thanks to Tom, Laura, Jackson, and Ella of Park City, UT, for being super camp friends, sharing Ella’s birthday with us, and providing top-notch Arches-area camping secrets.  First-come, first-served camping report: arrive by 10am and you’ll probably get a site. Stay in nearby (free and awesome) forest service land just out of the park to set up for an early strike.
  4. Arches. The eponymous park. Small, weird, and crowded.  A shuttle system was rejected, so cars are omnipresent.  (Downer).  Nearby Moab is fun and funky with a great brewery. Must read:  Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a window (No pun intended) into being a solo ranger at Arches before it was infected with Industrial Tourism.  In the end, we were Arched Out and ready to move on. Park campground was closed, but Tom (our Capitol Reef neighbor) told us about forest service campgrounds right outside the park, along the Colorado River—wow, unbelievably wonderful!
  5. Canyonlands. Also near Moab. Sprawling, but uncrowded.  Three districts—Needles section is out of the way but less visited with lots of trails. We only did a brief visit to Island in the Sky (love that name) district, and didn’t camp there. (Tangent: Our visit to Needles was scuttled by potentially catastrophic tent zipper failure at the end of our Labyrinth Canyon canoe trip (see June 16 blog).  We beelined it to nearest REI (Grand Junction, CO) to buy a new 2-man backpacking tent and sent our old 3-man to Sierra Designs—they agreed to make good on a 20-year old warrantee to replace a failed zipper slide!  In the meantime, we’re now sleeping in our sexy little lightweight Nemo 2-man and LOVING IT.
  6. Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Another very worthy but relatively unknown national park. The long, steep, narrow canyon is another mind-boggler.  You just want to stare at it. I felt like I was looking right at Middle Earth.  (“Bilbo, are you there?”) The North Rim vista trail to Exclamation Point (Love the name) was spectacular. First-come, first-served camping report: we scored a site in the north campground late in the day.  Only 13 sites but apparently this place is a well-kept secret.

Other non-park highlights so far:

  • Meeting up with Tim, Jill, Dave, and Theresa who Bob met in Italy 10-years ago. Bob did an awesome bike ride up and around Colorado National Monument with them outside Grand Junction, CO.
  • Lovely downtown Grand Junction. Pablo’s Pizza (“every slice a work of art”) was the best we’ve had so far on the trip, but NOT EVEN CLOSE to Two Amy’s. ?
  • Seeing so many smiling, blissed-out hikers (“how you doin’?” “fabulous!”). What if everyone could hike?
  • Driving across the Grand Mesa between Grand Junction and Black Canyon. Beautiful lakes, and our first sight of snow.
  • Fantasizing about paddling the Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs of the Gunnison upriver from Black Canyon. I hope to do it someday.
  • Our $5 national forest campsite in Ouray, Colorado, “the Switzerland of America”. Maybe our best campsite yet, and totally awesome hiking.
  • An overnight visit to Telluride—“stupid beautiful,” to quote Elise.

Most challenging moments:

  • Hiking the Frying Pan Trail in Capitol Reef. Now we know why they call it that: I fried.
  • While going about 0 mph, I fell on my bum and my clothes got dusty because I couldn’t clip my bike shoes out of my pedal. A breakfast burrito helped me recover.
  • When the air is cold when we take our “sun shower”, or when the sun shower delivers a cold shower after being placed in a spot that turned out to be not as sunny as it originally appeared early in the day.
  • Someone didn’t close the cheese Ziploc bag completely. The cheese got wet in the cooler, but it was still somewhat edible.
  • The truck is very dusty. Bob doesn’t believe cars should be washed, so I will need to do it clandestinely, even though I have almost no time to myself. This is a challenge I must overcome. (Stay tuned.)

Our next 3 parks are all in Colorado:  Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, and Rocky Mountain. We hope to visit Durango, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Boulder seeing some friends along the way.  Having a wonderful time.

6 thoughts on “Six Weeks, Six National Parks”

  1. Love from MOM: Today is Sunday, July 23, and being Sunday I am chief care taker for 12 hours, 8 AM to 8 PM, and since I saw that Dad was snoozing in the living room I decided to take some time for myself and read of your wonderful trip. Just BE CAREFUL as you know the old Ma worries and thinks of you guys often. We saw so many of the parks that you mentioned only we were one of the cars that did a loop, or we parked for a short hike, no walk. Enjoy everyday, with oodles of kisses and hugs, MOM (Dad would say “hi” if he heard your voice).

  2. You two are an inspiration. I mean that literally, as I would love to do at least part of what you’re doing someday soon. Carry on with gusto and curiosity!

  3. You are having a unique experience visiting the breathtaking parks in the American west. Betty and I saw some of them years ago on one of our guided tours when we were still young enough not to get exhausted.
    We are not with you but are sharing your excitement.
    Dylan and Stephanie are wonderful neighbors but we still think of you both.
    Love from both of us, Betty and Norman

    1. We think of you too! Today we’re on the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge railway. I’ll upload a picture of Lorrie on our website.

  4. So many great ideas for future trips! Looking forward to seeing you as you move westward to California!

    1. It’s been a fabulous adventure so far and a real privilege to explore and learn about the American west.

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