Arizona Utah Trip Report

Well, it's been quite a bit of time since I made my last entry.  So long in fact, that I forgot the login for my website's FTP.  Ooops.  I've been very busy over the summer at my new job and taking exams for my architectural license.  Speaking of which, I'm officially a licensed architect in the state of New York!!  That's my excuse for not posting and I'm sticking to it.

So, with all of that happening, I could only scrape up a week of vacation this summer.  With that limited time, I decided to hit the southwest again in Arizona and Utah with my girlfriend.  Our goal was to do a lot of hiking in the National Parks.  My real goal was the slot canyons around Page, AZ.

As usual, here is the infographic of the trip:

I didn't take nearly as many photos as my trip last year.  In fact, outside of the slot canyons, I rarely took any photographs.  We just spent most of our time hiking.

Believe it or not, I'm still going through the photos I took six months later.  There never seems to be enough time.  But I can show this image of Lower Antelope Canyon.  I hope you can see why I wanted to visit.

The highlight of the trip was hiking for miles in the Virgin River Narrows at Zion NP.  Truly an amazing experience.  The low point was getting the rental car stuck in sand at Lone Rock near Lake Powell.  Truly a humbling experience.  Thankfully a good samaritan pulled it out.

On our return, we were greeted by Mia, my cat.  Either she was happy to see us, or she loved the smell of the southwest.

Canyonlands NP to the End

A short distance north of Moab is Canyonlands National Park, the next stop on my trip.  Canyonlands NP protects the junction of the Green River and Colorado River which divide the park into three districts; Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze.  I chose to stay within Island in the Sky due to its excellent accessibility and my lack of time.  This region is literally covered with thousand foot deep canyons, inside thousand foot deep canyons.  As generic as the name "Canyonlands" sounds, it is a perfect description.  I arrived during the afternoon which ruled out any morning locations such as Mesa Arch.  Instead, I hung out at one of the overlooks and waited for the sunset.  If you look closely you may be able to see the lone photographer on the ledge below the sun.

The following day I stopped for a ranger presentation and heard the same story about cryptobiotic soil that I heard repeatedly for the past week.  A combination of bacteria, algae and other living things will form a microscopic net in the sandy soil.  This prevents the soil from washing away and also provides basic nutrition for other plants and animals; it is the basis for life in the desert.  Since damaged cryptobiotic soil can take nearly a century to repair, there are signs everywhere urging you not to walk on it.  My final hike in Canyonlands NP was out to Upheaval Dome.  Once believed to be the result of an underground salt dome, it is now thought to be caused by a meteorite impact.  The size of the crater is hard to comprehend when you stand there, but is an amazing two miles across.

Deadhorse State Park is very near Canyonlands NP and has similar terrain and features.  One unique vantage point provides a view over the potash evaporation ponds, which supply the factory in Moab.  Water is pumped underground into the salt domes, returning to the surface as a brine slurry.  The slurry is left in open ponds, putting the brutal sun to good work.  Once the water evaporates, the salt is collected by big Caterpillar scrappers and hauled to the factory.  The blue ponds are a very nice contrast to the warm landscape.

My time in Utah was over as I drove east and crossed back into Colorado.  My destination was Colorado National Monument, the last Natural Park Service facility on this trip.  Colorado NM (confusing abbreviation, right?) is a series of canyons and spires originally explored by John Otto.  He lobbied the government to turn the area into a national monument, and later ran the park when they did.  The most interesting feature in the park is actually its perimeter road, Rim Rock Drive.  The road was built by the CCC, which provided work for the unemployed after the Great Depression.  It is a breathtaking road that hugs the canyon edges, with barely a guardrail between them.  One of the popular overlooks is Wedding Canyon where John Otto married his wife.  She was a city girl and couldn't handle the outdoor life; they divorced months later.  While I was taking these photos, a wedding ceremony was happening further into the canyon.  Hopefully their marriage turns out better than Otto's.

I hiked a few trails and listened to a few ranger presentations, but my trip was winding down.  From Colorado NM, I drove east on I-70 along the Colorado River.  I've been to this region of Colorado many times, so this was pure driving, no sightseeing.  However, I did allow myself a quick stop in Leadville to see the town and visit the Mining Hall of Fame.  This short detour resulted in me crossing Tennessee Pass, Fremont Pass and finally the Eisenhower Pass, all three over the continental divide.  Then it was a clear shot back to family and my first laundry day in nearly two weeks.

Well folks, that's the end of this trip.  It took me three months to write about a two week trip, which is something I need to work on.  In the end, I hope these stories were as enjoyable to read as they were to experience.  Probably not, but it seemed like a nice thing to close with.

Arches NP

My first order of business after waking up was to find a campsite.  Staying in the hotel was a nice treat, but too expensive to do every night.  The campsites at Arches National Park were still full, so I drove a few miles north to a campsite run by the Bureau of Land Management in the Colorado River canyon.  The nice thing about my annual park pass is it grants me access to all National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation facilities.  I hoped the river would keep the area cooler than the top of the mesa.

Once my campsite was secure I drove back to Arches NP.  Since the park exists to protect the thousands of natural arches, I should explain their creation.  And yes, I did say thousands.  Geologically, the area is entrada sandstone on top of navajo sandstone on top of salt.  With the weight of the rock above it, the salt behaved like a fluid, causing the top rock layers to buckle and form narrow ridges or fins.  Slightly acidic rain soaked into the entrada sandstone working its way down until blocked by the navajo sandstone.  This blocked water dissolved the calcium in the entrada sandstone causing it to weaken and crumble, thus forming an arch.  Whereas natural bridges are formed by erosion, natural arches are formed by chemical reaction.  To be given a name, an arch must be at least three feet wide.  The first arches you will run into at the park are The Windows, large side by side arches.

I explored the park until the sun started setting and hiked the 1.5 mile path out to Delicate Arch, the most famous arch in the park.  I would become very familiar with this hike over the next few days.  I anticipated there may be a handful of people out there trying to photograph the arch and the sunset.  Imagine my surprise when I came around the final bend and found a natural amphitheater-like bowl crowded with over a hundred people.  Most famous natural arch of all time?  I found a spot to set up my camera to get the arch with the sunset and waited for the sun to move into position.  People, couples generally, were posing under the arch getting their touristy pictures taken.  Then a women walked over and stood under the arch taking abstract photos.  Close ups of the rocks, top of the arch against the sky, etc.  For several minutes.  You could hear the crowd grow restless.  Finally, the photographer sitting next to me stood up and yelled out "ARE YOU DONE YET?!?!!"  The women sheepishly walked away while the entire crowd applauded.  Or to use an SAT analogy, mother bear:cub::photographer:sunset photo.

I treated myself to an actual dinner in Moab, with pecan pie dessert, and then tried to get some sleep.  The key word being "tried".  Remember my idea about the river keeping the campsite cooler?  Well, I didn't take into account the sun hitting the canyon walls all day long.  Thermal mass for the win.  Or loss, in this case.  After sunset, the rocks gave off the heat they had absorbed during the day.  I was laying nude, on top of my sleeping bag, in an open tent with no air flow for three hours.  And then finally around two in the morning the temperature dropped and I was out like a light.  By far the most miserable and uncomfortable night of sleep during my trip.  In fact, it ranks up there in my life too.

The next day I decided to explore the area outside the park.  The first thing that caught my eye was the giant excavation project surrounded be fences marked with radiation warning signs.  I mean, how could you not be curious?  We don't have that type of stuff on the east coast.  From what I could observe, the entire operation was divided into a dirty side and a clean side.  The dirty trucks brought containers filled with contaminated soil from the excavation to a transfer station were the containers were lifted onto the clean trucks and hauled up to railroad tracks to be loaded onto a train.  And the process was reversed for empty containers.    I did a little research later and found out this is part of the Department of Energy's UMTRA Project.

Beyond UMTRA, the road follows the Colorado River downstream and dead ends at a large potash plant.  The salt beneath the sandstone is very rich in potassium, which is used in fertilizer.  After being brought to the surface the salt is processed and shipped out by rail.  Also along this road is the trail out to Corona Arch.  Someone mentioned Corona Arch to me earlier and it stuck in my mind for some reason, like I had heard it before.  As it turns out, I knew of the arch through a popular rope swing video.  The arch is the same color as the rock wall it is attached to, so it just seemingly appears out of nowhere, like one of those Magic Eye puzzles.  Those are people sitting beneath it to give it a sense of scale.  It's a pretty big arch.  Much bigger than Delicate Arch.

After exploring and dinner it was time to head back out to get more night sky photos.  Again, I made the hike out to Delicate Arch, but it was a different story this time.  Following trails marked with rock cairns is easy enough during the day, but is nearly impossible at night.  I used my GPS to follow the trail, but as you can see, I wasn't doing very well.  The red line is my track and the dashed line is the actual trail.  At one point I was over 500 feet off the trail.

While hiking I was slightly concerned that I would be alone at the arch.  Having the run of the place would be nice, but let's face it, being out in the middle of a desert, alone, at night, is a bit scary.  I guess I really didn't have anything to worry about; it wasn't going to be cold and it was extremely unlikely I would run into a mountain lion.  But there was still that uneasy feeling in the back of my mind.  Well, once again I underestimated the popularity of the arch because there were two other photographers out there.  I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but I was still surprised.  One photographer soon left and the final photographer started doing light painting photos of the arch.  For those unfamiliar with the technique, you shine a light on a key subject during a long exposure at night.  In this case he was using a flashlight with a red filter to illuminate the arch.  I "stole" some of his light painting for my photos and thought they turned out great.  Until I saw them hours later on my larger laptop screen and realized I had accidentally bumped my tilt-shift lens, adding a few degrees of tilt.  With the lens tilted, the image quickly goes out of focus on the left and right sides, ruining the stars.  Ugh, so close to another great photograph.

It turns out my bad luck for the night wasn't over.  I was walking back to the other photographer when the lens, my brand new tilt-shift lens, bumped into a rock outcropping and the lens cap popped off.  I immediately lost sight of the cap in the pitch black as I heard it slide down the bowl-like rock formation.  The sliding got fainter and stopped, just long enough for me to think "Man, it's a good thing it didn't go over the edge" and then I heard a hard bounce, and more hard bounces and finally silence.  I figured there was a way to the bottom of the bowl, but the other photographer discouraged me from making a rescue attempt in the dark.  I reluctantly gave up and walked back to the parking lot with the photographer.  Which was just as much fun as the hike out to the arch.

The next day I immediately went to the visitor center and had a ranger confirm there was indeed a way to the bottom of the bowl.  Before attempting a rescue I wanted to take advantage of the late morning light and see Landscape Arch, the park's most impressive arch in my opinion.  Given it's proportions, I understand why it was given the name, but I think this arch should really be called Delicate Arch.  It's span is 290 feet, nearly a football field, and at one point is only six feet thick.  Pieces have also fallen or collapsed within the past twenty years, which sounds pretty delicate to me.

It was finally the moment to attempt my lens cap rescue and hike out to Delicate Arch, for the third time.  Of course it was almost noon, the hottest, and least photogenic, part of the day.  The hike was sweaty and the bowl was already crowded with people, which I expected given my earlier experiences.  In the daylight I quickly found a way down to the bottom and began looking.  The black lens cap was clearly not on any of the exposed rocks, so the only place it could be was the sandy clump of brush in the center.  After a few minutes of searching I saw a round black plastic object.  I started getting excited.  Could it be?  My missing lens cap?  Nope.  It was just an old, dirty, 52mm Canon lens cap.  Not.  Even.  Close.  Unfortunately, there was no happy ending to this story.  The lens cap was lost for good and I had to buy a new one when I got home.

Dejected, I returned to my campsite to pack my things.  The relentless sun had caused the tent to get so hot that insects refused to crawl or land on it.  The first for this entire trip.  Then it was a relatively short drive to Canyonlands National Park, my next destination.

Scenic Utah and Mother Nature

This was another long driving day, so I apologize in advance if this post is picture heavy and drags on.  After leaving Natural Bridges National Monument, I finally got a chance to see the scenic beauty I missed by driving in at night.  And also how vast and desolate it was.  Perhaps one car every ten or fifteen minutes drove by.  But the road was very well maintained; a strip of black through a colorful landscape.

I crossed the Colorado River for the first time this trip at Lake Powell.  Or, I should say what is normally Lake Powell.  At full capacity the reservoir continues under the bridge and into the canyon to the left, but recent droughts have taken their toll.

One of the nice things about driving in the middle of nowhere is you can go fast, very fast.  So it didn't take me long to reach Hanksville.  From there I initially planned to head north to Goblin State Park and onward to Arches National Park.  Instead I followed the advice of a fellow traveller and headed west to Capitol Reef National Park.  The park protects a long and narrow ridge of mountains formed by tectonic plate collision.  I thought it was named reef because of the colorful rocks, but it actually refers to it being a barrier to travel.  Even though the park received sporadic thunderstorms the rocks were still lit with warm light.

Getting into the valley required yet another long drive.  At several points the road crossed through washes, temporary rivers that form after storms.  Of course, as I left a thunderstorm rolled through.  I came to the last wash crossing, one that was dry less then ten minutes before, and found myself blocked by a small flash flood.  I played it safe and waited with several other cars.

The water was only a foot deep, but moving very fast.  A fording car would most likely be washed away.  Just like in Oregon Trail.  As quickly as the water rose, it receded.  No more than thirty minutes start to finish.  A park ranger was the first to cross, welcoming us to "flash flood season at Capitol Reef" with a smile.

I backtracked to Hanksville and drove north to Goblin State Park, like I initially planned.  My former roommate recommended Goblin as a smaller and closer version of Bryce Canyon National Park.  Bryce is famous for its hoodoos, tall spires balancing larger rocks.  Just imagine elongated mushrooms or, something else.  Goblin is the miniature version.

The hoodoos are more human in scale, short enough to be climbed.  Which I saw a bunch of kids doing.  About a month after my visit some fools knocked over one of the hoodoos.  While the act was most certainly stupid and ignorant, given the number of visitors, it was only a matter of time.

As if to reinforce the playground idea, a group of teenagers went into the hoodoos for a game of manhunt.  Best idea ever!!!  The distant hillsides were lit up by the headlights of people leaving.  The lights in the hoodoos are the group playing manhunt.

I went back down into the hoodoos to try Milky Way photos and was immediately grateful that I brought GPS.  Once the sun goes down it gets dark.  Like, really dark.  I timed this trip to take advantage of the new moon for night sky photography.  The only way to orient myself were the car headlights in the parking lot.  Once they left, I was on my own.  I could still hear the teenagers' voices in the distance and sometimes I got lucky with a glimpse of cigarettes on the hillside.  No doubt about it, GPS got me back to my rental car that night.  As it would do again at Arches NP.

After Goblin I drove two hours to Arches NP.  But, just to crush my spirit at the end of a long day, all campsites were full.  I gave up and got a hotel room in Moab.  My first real bed in five days.

Natural Bridges NM

After my horrible night of sleep in the rental car, I wanted to get an early start.  I prepared a quick healthy breakfast, also known as ramen noodles.  Then onward along the nine mile loop road on top of the mesa that encompasses Natural Bridges National Monument and connects the three bridges.

First an explanation about natural bridges.  I'm sure most people have seen aerial images of the Mississippi River where it has eroded a shortcut through a gooseneck bend.  Natural bridges are formed by the same process, except instead of just eroding the river bank, it erodes the rock wall.  This obviously takes an extremely long time, especially since the area gets maybe eight or nine inches of rain per year.  Natural arches, while similar looking are formed by a different method.  If it was formed by erosion from a river, it's considered a natural bridge.

The first stop along the loop road is Sipapu Bridge, the second largest natural bridge in the world.  There is a trail that follows the canyon connecting all three bridges within the park.  I was tempted to hike it, but the end of the trail is on the opposite side of the loop and I had no desire to retrace my steps just to return to my car.  As it turns out, that was probably a good decision.

Next along the loop road was the trail to Horsecollar Ruins overlook.  While walking out to the overlook along the cliff, I could hear voices in the canyon hiking the trail I decided not to take.  Horsecollar Ruins are a well preserved ancient Puebloan granary and kiva.  I set up with an equivalent 630mm lens and took a few photos from across the canyon.  The voices caught up with me and I got to observe the elusive outdoor enthusiast in their natural habitat.

Beyond the ruins a small side canyon joins the main canyon.  Here I found some interesting eroded features, but the side canyon blocked further exploration.  Next along the loop was Kachina Bridge, the second bridge.  I took the hiking trail nearly a mile down into the canyon.  I saw evidence of previous flash floods as I walked through the dry riverbed.  Grass was clumped together leaning downstream and debris was stuck in the trees.  Once in the canyon, it was a quick walk to the bridge.  The bridges continuously erode; the opening gets larger and the span becomes thinner until it collapses.  Kachina is the youngest bridge in the park as you can tell by the thickness of the span.

I hiked past the bridge to try a different view and ran into my first mishap.  The normally dry riverbed had a few feet of standing water which I went around on a small ledge.  I found what I thought was a three foot drop to the riverbed with footholds, short enough to drop down and climb back out.  Well, my judgement of vertical distances was way off.  It was closer to five feet.  Those extra two feet meant I couldn't get my foot anywhere close to the first hold.  I always had the option of sloshing through the standing water, but who wants soggy boots?  The ledge continued along the river so I went further into the canyon until a found a steeply sloped patch of slick rock back up to the ledge.  It took me a few minutes, but I was able to find holds and scramble up.  Mishap averted!!

I returned to camp for lunch and to get out of the sun.  This was the worst part of the day, too hot to do anything.  I ended up sitting in the shade of the car catching up with my travel journal.  The storm that had been approaching for the past few hours finally arrived.  I added a few extra stakes to the tent, just in case, and retreated back to the car.  Cars are still the best place to be in a lightning storm.  The lightning strikes got very close, much less than a mile, but the storm passed quickly.  And did nothing about the heat.

I went back to Kachina Bridge because the storm was bound to cause flooding in the canyon.  Going back to that good decision from earlier; the hiking trail that connects the bridges was now dangerously close to the flood as you can see in the before and after picture.  I may have been able to hike the entire path and get out of the canyon before the storm, but I couldn't have made it back to the car.  I chose wisely.

The next day before I left the park I drove out to Owachomo, the third and final bridge.  Owachomo is generally considered to be the oldest bridge in the park because its span is only nine feet thick.  It's a bit unnerving to walk beneath it since chunks occasionally do fall off, but I think it's the most impressive of the three.

I left the park for another long day of driving.  And an unexpected run in with Mother Nature.  Dun dun dun.