Arches and Canyonlands

During the western leg of our road trip in the fall of 2016 we spent our time in Utah exploring the Wasatch Mountains and Zion National Park. We really wanted to make sure we made it back to see Arches and Canyonlands National Park in Moab, and our spring Colorado/Utah Loop Tour seemed like the perfect time.  From Dinosaur National Monument it was only about a 3 and 1/2 hour drive down to Moab.

Our first order of business was to find a campsite and get set up. I turned to the trusty Campendium website to see what our options were.  I came across Horsethief campground on route 313, about a 20 minute drive from Moab and basically right in between Arches and Canyonlands.  The campground had mountain bike trails weaving through and around it.  It really reminded me of the Flintstones and I expected Fred or Barney to come flying around a corner in their foot powered cars.  For $15 a night the location was perfect.  We selected a site with a big bush in an attempt to get a bit of a break from the sun and heat. A slight downfall was the only bathroom option was a pit/vault toilet and there were no showers.  I desperately needed one after Dinosaur not having one either and several warm days of hiking. I sorely missed the Cramper at that moment.  I bravely walked over to the pit toilet and opened the door already terrified of what smell might greet me, and was surprised to find a pine tree.  You know the little green car air-freshener kind.  And it was spotless inside.  Whoever was in charge of keeping up the bathroom at the campground should get a gold star! One predicament down. Next, how and where to shower? We brought our solar shower along and it was definitely hot enough to use it but there really wasn’t anywhere private enough.  I had looked online and discovered we could use the showers at the aquatic center in Moab for $5.  We needed to grab some groceries and wanted to check out the town anyway so into Moab we went.  I had a shower and while it was good I opted to let Ryan rig up the solar shower at camp the next time.  It’s amazing what can be done with a tall truck, the rain cover for your tent, and truck doors that open backwards.  Privacy issue solved.

Moab is a really cool town.  Lots of funky shops and restaurants sprinkled with the typical McDonald’s and grocery store chains.  The scenery is gorgeous red rocks and everyone is really tan.  We spent our first full day exploring Arches National Park.  Arches is called Arches because it is home to over 2,000 natural stone arches.  Some of these arches are insanely huge and some are really tiny, but they all count.  As far as National Parks go, Arches is on the smaller side and can easily be seen in a day, especially if you want to do small hikes.  There are lots of great long hikes too if your prepared with lots of water for the high desert climate.  We drove to the end of the scenic drive and then worked our way back stopping to hike the Broken Arch Trail, the Double Arch Trail, the Garden of Eden, and other famous Arches.  Mother Nature really did some fabulous work here! All day I felt like I was in some massive sculpture garden.  It amazed me all the different ways the wind and time have carved not only the arches but the pillars and giant balancing rocks too.

After a full day at Arches we went back to our camp and did a couple loops on our bikes around the trails there. Once the sun started to set the temperature really started to cool down and was perfect for an evening bike ride.  As I was sitting around the camp I was treated to the sight of a huge jack rabbit bounding out of a bush.  It was so big I thought it was a baby deer at first and then saw the back legs were definitely rabbit legs.  That night we awoke in our tent to the sound of rustling outside.  I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I had verified nothing was trying to eat me, so I popped out of the tent with a flashlight looking for the intruder.  It ended up being just the wind but I’m so grateful it woke us at 3:30am because the night sky was the most amazing one I have ever seen in my life!  There was no light pollution and the stars were so bright and plentiful they covered every inch of the sky. I could see the Milky Way with such depth and clarity like never before, it was truly mesmerizing.  I told Ryan to come out and we just stared up at the night sky.

The next morning we set out for Island in the Sky Visitor Center. Canyonlands is divided into four areas: Island in the Sky, the Needles, The Rivers, and the Maze. The canyons and rivers make it really difficult to visit all four areas in a single trip so we picked the area closest to our campsite to explore.  The Island in the Sky area is a primitive high desert climate and has some daunting trails and overlooks on the edges of the canyons.  We hiked along the Great Rim Overlook trail.  The canyon views go on forever.  Even though it was a shorter trail, there was no shade and the heat from the sun was pretty intense. We found ourselves rationing our water and stopping frequently for breaks on the way back.  My sunscreen was a distant memory for my skin by the time we reached the parking lot again and I earned a nice sunburn on my shoulders.  It’s always a good reminder to be really prepared when you set out on any trail no matter how short it is or how good of shape you are in. The elements can easily wear you down.  The most amazing thing to me, besides the beauty of the canyons, was the vegetation that grows there.  Small trees and shrubs and vibrant cactus flowers dot the landscape.  Mother Nature always finds a way to cut through the rock and beautify the landscape.  If we make it back to Canyonlands again I really want to do a back country 4-wheel drive trip on White Rim Road.  It is this crazy road that goes down into the wilderness of the canyon.  It would be awesome with a group of people to really get away from civilization and into the desolation of the canyon.  It’s popular for mountain bikers too, but the thought of climbing out of the canyon by bike makes me think I don’t need that particular adventure on my bucket list.

So glad we decided to visit Utah again, it’s such a beautiful and diverse state. There are still some areas I would like to explore there and I really want to get back to Zion sometime.  One day was not enough there.  If you head to Moab make the time to see both Arches and Canyonlands.  Pack your sunscreen and plenty of water and enjoy the adventure and beauty of the high desert!

Dinosaur National Monument

Right after Memorial Day this year we decided to embark on a tent camping adventure around Colorado and Utah. We had just received our new National Park Pass in the mail and were eager to put it to use.  Our mission was to visit five National Parks in ten days: Dinosaur National Monument, Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison.  It would create a perfect loop from our starting point in Fraser and allow us to really explore parts of Colorado and Utah we had never seen.  We loaded our cooler, camping equipment, and our bikes into the truck and set off towards our first destination, Green River Campground on the Utah side of Dinosaur National Monument.

The campground was only four and half hours away so we decided to stop and see a waterfall in Steamboat Springs on our way and have a picnic lunch. We are so glad we did!  Practically located in town is Fish Creek Falls, a 280 foot waterfall that cascades over Fish Creek Canyon.  We parked and then walked an easy 3/4 of a mile to the falls.  It was in full splendor from the spring runoff and the sound was so loud we had to practically shout at each other to talk.  The trails are set up so visitors can get an up-close and personal view of the falls and also a distant view from above.  We enjoyed both before heading back to the truck for a quick tailgate lunch of ham sandwiches and veggies before hitting the road to our campsite.

We had plenty of time to get to camp and get set up before dark, or so we thought. As we started making our way toward the Utah/Colorado Boarder, heavy flumes of smoke began rising in the air.  When we arrived at the boarder we found it closed off by state troopers due to a forest fire that had erupted near the highway unexpectedly.  The troopers thought it might be controlled enough in a few hours to pass through, or we could take a long route around to reach our destination that would also take a few hours.  Dinosaur is located partially in Colorado and partially in Utah and we had only planned on seeing the Utah side.  We thought this seemed like a good opportunity to visit the Colorado side for a few hours and hoped the road would be open later so we could make it to camp for the night.  The Colorado side of the park had some really cool rock formations, and lots of fields with deer grazing.  We enjoyed a nice drive and then headed to the boarder to find it open.  As we drove to camp we could see lots of brush smoldering off the highway and many firefighters working to ensure the blaze was fully contained.

When we entered the Utah side of Dinosaur I felt like we had just entered Jurassic Park! The rock formations were incredible geological structures jutting out of the earth and the Green River flowed through areas with low formed trees and greenery.  It felt like a dinosaur might show up at any moment!  We made our way to camp and got our tent pitched just as darkness was falling.  Our campground was right on the river with towering rocks as a backdrop.  We crawled into our tent and crashed for the night excited to see big fossils the next day.

The next morning we drove to the visitor center and took a shuttle bus to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. The Quarry Exhibit Hall was built around a large cliff that has over 1500 exposed fossils embedded in it from many different dinosaurs. We spent the morning marveling at fossils of the Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and many others. We also found out that there were several complete skeletons that had been excavated in the area and moved to big museums so more people could see them.  We were excited to learn that one was in Denver and another at the Smithsonian Museum of Science and History in Washington D.C., both places we planned on visiting soon.  It would be really cool to see the fossils in person and also know what the land looked like where they came from.

After a morning of fossils we decided to continue our history tour and hike to some places we could see ancient Petroglyphs and Pictographs carved and painted into the rocks by the Fremont People about 1,000 years ago. It is kind of awe inspiring and mindboggling to stand in front of a rock and look at artwork on stone and know other people in ancient times had stood in the same spot and created it.  It’s interesting to think about what their lives were like and how they compare to ours now.  It is one thing to read about Petroglyphs in history books, but to see them in person is truly spectacular.  That’s why it is so important to support our National Parks, they protect not just lands and wildlife, but they preserve history.

We concluded our day by watching sunset from a perch high above the Green River with a cold beer. Dinosaur was a wonderful first stop on our loop tour.  Happy and tired we climbed into our tent and fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing by, thinking about dinosaurs and ancient people, anticipating our next adventure into Arches and Canyonlands.