Monday, November 9, 2015

Utah National Parks Part II

Capitol Reef to Bryce

After narrowly missing getting a campsite in Moab, we opted to take the short way to Capitol Reef. We felt fairly confident that heading to possibly the least visited Utah park on the Thursday afternoon would get us one of the first come first serve campsites in the park. Little did we know that we were traveling on a Thursday that most school districts in the state had off for a four day weekend.

As we approached the park you could see what a geologic wonder it is. Capitol Reef is based around the Waterpocket Fold, a 100 mile long monocline, largest in the US. What looks like a mountain range coming from the east is really the Fold. Contrary to what we experienced in the Moab area, as we drove west on highway 24 was more lush terrain. This is because the highway actually follows the Fremont River into the fold/park. There were green cottonwoods all around and a very different feel than the other parks we had already visited. When we got to the western end of the park, we saw the dreaded "campground full" sign at the visitor's center. I had to press on, in case it was wrong. We talked a bit to one of the campground hosts who informed us of the Utah holiday. She also told us there would be about 11 spots opening the following morning and I could come back at 7:30am to try and get one. And possibly the most important thing she told us was where to find camping as she knew the commercial campgrounds in town were full.

So we made a brief stop in the visitor's center and then headed out to dispersed camping on national forest land just west of the park. This was very primitive camping with no toilets or running water. It was also free, so that was nice. The ground was rough and we had to be careful driving in our sedan. We finally located a patch where we were willing to throw down our tent. But because there was no water, I had to leave Jennifer and Mirabelle at camp while I drove back into the park to secure water for our night's dinner. I came back to discover Mirabelle playing with a large group of kids that were camping nearby. We let her play until dinner and then she sat at their campfire until well after her bed time. The goal was that I would wake up early (which I had been doing) and head into the park to wait for a camp site.

The next morning I woke up and headed right into the park, arriving at the campground just before 7am. I was fourth in line. Around 7:30 the ranger pulled up and the three vehicles ahead of me dispersed. I was now talking to the camp host and he was asking if I wanted sun or shade. I thought beggars couldn't be choosers? So I opted for shade and paid for two nights of camping. I then headed to the Gifford House to wait for cinnamon rolls to bring back for breakfast. I watched turkeys and deer waiting for it to open at eight. Then I rolled in and had to wait fifteen minutes for the baked goods to arrive before I could buy a few cinnamon rolls and a pie and go pick up my family.

After picking up Jennifer and Mirabelle we went back and claimed our campsite and set up our tent. Then we walked over to the Ripple Rock Nature Center for the Snakes Alive show. Mirabelle was pretty excited about it and pushed her way up front. She even got to hold a rosy boa! After the show, we went back to camp and drove out to our hike of the Grand Wash. This was a hike we needed to do this day as flash flood warnings were in effect for the following two days. It can be done as a 2.5 mile point to point, or a 5 mile round trip. The hike started off good, but grew increasing long. Mirabelle usually looses steam in the afternoon and at some point after the narrows, we stopped for lunch. It was looking toward the end we wouldn't even make the other trailhead and Jennifer and I discussed how we would accomplish this hike. That is when the reality of the math struck us. If I hiked back to the car, they would still wait an hour in the parking lot for me. So we figured we would see if someone would shuttle one of us back to the car. When we finished the hike we found a local family who was willing to transport all three of us back in their vehicle and they even had a car seat! This act of kindness really made the hike possible for us. After dinner we stayed up for the evening ranger program at the amphitheater before retiring for the night.

The next day we hiked to Hickman Natural Bridge. This was a fairly short hike that rose out of the parking area and eventually through the wash to the bridge. It was gray and misty, so we weren't too concerned about the short section of wash, but we were prepared to move if it seemed like the rain would pick up. The bridge was fun as you got to walk under it and hike a short loop before returning to the main trail and back to the car.

We then drove to the short hike to view petroglyphs. There were some nice examples, although we could not get as close to them as the one we views back in Moab. It was starting to rain a little harder at this point, so we took the park's scenic drive. This was a good thing to do in the wet, and to give Mirabelle some sitting time after two hikes. However, the road crossed several washes and even was a wash for a short distance before the pavement ends. I was a little spooked by this, so we didn't get out at any of the viewpoints or stay too long on the road. We had reservations at a restaurant in town, so we just headed that way, stopping at a few view points in the park on the way out. One of which was the Goosenecks Overlook which overlooks Sulphur Creek winding through a canyon. It was quite unexpected as some of these deep canyons are not noticeable until you are standing on the rim.

We continued into Torrey to the Cafe Diablo. We probably didn't need reservations for the 5:30pm time we had made, but when we were leaving they had to open the outdoor seating to accommodate people who were arriving without reservations. It was nice to eat inside on the first rainy evening of our trip. While the empanadas appetizer was great, and I enjoyed the pomegranate chipotle ribs, Jennifer wasn't bowled over with her pecan chicken and we felt the restaurant was maybe a bit overhyped. The great thing is that instead of the typical placemat and crayons that restaurants give kids, they let Mirabelle borrow an Etch-a-Sketch. Which made us vow to purchase one for the longer road trip segments as soon as we got back to civilization.

Because of our early meal time we were once again able to attend the Ranger talk at the Amphitheater before turning in for the night.

I awoke early in the damp morning and was planning our travel day in the car when I decided I had enough time for a bit of a hike. So I grabbed the camera and headed up the Cohab Canyon trail which leaves across the street from the campground. The hike up was short and steep and in no time I was at the head of the canyon. I hiked in a bit poking around, but wanted to get back for when Jennifer and Mirabelle woke up so I wouldn't delay our travel day. When I got back to the mouth of the canyon, the sun was shining a bit, and there was a rainbow beyond the campground. After snapping some pics I headed down and we once again had pie at the Gifford House for breakfast. We packed up the tent, and then Mirabelle played with some other kids for an hour or so before we finally got on our way.

We got underway and headed out to Scenic Highway 12. Our goal was somewhere in the Grand Staircase Escalante area but it would be determined by weather. It was raining lightly for the most part and when we climbed through Dixie National Forest, it was really foggy and going was a bit slow. We stopped for lunch at Hell's Backbone Grill, easily the best food we had on the trip. Jennifer had some pumpkin pinon enchiladas and I had posole. The meal was so good we fantasized about returning this way on the way home to eat there again. Then we continued on to the monument.

There was some wild terrain, and some creative highway engineering that went into the scenic highway. At one point the road occupies the top of a ridgecrest called the Hogsback. We drove through the monument before actually reaching the town of Escalante, where we stopped in the monument visitor's center. After talking with the ranger, it was determined that we couldn't do anything in the monument because of the rain. All roads in the monument are unpaved and become streams or sandpits. So we hung out at the visitor's center and checked out the displays which included a dinosaur skull and microscopes for looking at cryptobiotic soil crusts. We decided to continue on to Bryce, which had a similar weather forecast. But being farther west, we hoped it would get out of the rain sooner.

When we arrived at Bryce we checked on the camping situation. There were sites available. I guess not a whole lot of people like to camp when it is raining and in the forties. We contemplated getting a hotel room and drove into town to check prices at Ruby's. (We checked for a room, a cabin and a tee pee.) Then we decided all of that was too much to spend and we should set up the tent. We drove back into the park during a break in the rain and hoped to get our wet tent set up before it started raining again. But by the time we picked out a site it was raining. We made the decision there it was time to get a room, dry off our tent and get some showers. We drove back to the hotel in sheets of rain, streams running down the street and lightning lighting up the sky. We picked the right time to have our hotel night after a run of twelve nights camping.

We immediately took the tent out to dry and then made a choice for food. We opted not to go to the restaurant located inside Ruby's and head down the road a short distance to Cowboy Ranch House. It wasn't worth the trip out in the rain, but it wasn't horrible. Then we went back to the hotel and Jennifer and Mirabelle went swimming in the pool before bed. In the morning it was still raining and we got some laundry done while we ate breakfast at the Cowboy's Buffet and Steak Room located within the hotel. I had a surprisingly delicious breakfast burrito, and I would say the food was a touch better than down the street. After the laundry was done we checked out and headed into the park.

Reminder: Pics are here

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Utah National Parks 10.06-27.15 Part I

Seattle to Moab

We took some time off to visit the Utah National Parks; Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion. We had rough plans to spend a certain amount of time in each park with select itineraries for each. The plan was to head from north to south and return from the southern end of the state.

As road trips with a preschooler go, we left late on the sixth. Our intended destination was somewhere in Idaho, hopefully as far as Boise. During longer summer days, and pre-kid we could have easily made Salt Lake by the end of the day. The drive out was uneventful and we even got to stop at a taco truck we had wanted to try in Yakima. We were benighted before Idaho but pressed on to Martin Landing a nice (and free) campground at the confluence of the Boise and Snake rivers. We slept and headed out the next morning hoping to make it to Moab. Along the way we stopped at the Buffalo Cafe in Twin Falls for lunch (of breakfast items.) We continued on and stopped for dinner at the Red Rock Brew Pub in Downtown Salt Lake City. After our nice al fresco dining experience, we were benighted again on our way to a camp site at Lake Utah State Park. The $30 a night camping was the highest we paid the whole trip, and was as least offset by the previous night's free camping. On the way out of town, we stopped for kolaches at Hruska's in Provo. Although we had to make an extra stop for coffee as they don't serve coffee until the first snow.

We took a nice scenic ride down to Moab and were poised to arrive in the mid afternoon. We opted to skip some hikes we planned earlier in the day to make sure we could secure a campsite. This proved fruitful as when we entered the visitor's center in Moab, we were told there was little camping left but we found a great site on BLM land up Sand Flats Road, just walking distance from the Slickrock trail head. We set up camp for what would be the next seven days. Since we had a free but short afternoon, we went into town so I could secure a rental bike at Poison Spider. Lucky to be an XL frame size, I was able to get a Kona Process 134 for my next days adventure. We went back to camp and had dinner and explored the slickrock around our camp before retiring for the evening.

The next morning was a little lazy and we got down to the bike shop before 10am to pick up my ride. I had to wait a bit before I could catch a lift to the trail head and start my ride. The woman who drove the shuttle said her favorite trail was porcupine and I considered telling her to drive me there, but I stuck with the original plan. The funny thing about the slickrock trail. The practice loop is not easier than the full loop, only less committing. I knew that, but really struggled with the practice loop. Mostly on the climbs. Part of this was the saddle on the bike being set too low. Another part of it was I had a difficult time gauging the steepness of the climbs and usually found myself in too low of a gear. The riding was fun, and I stopped at a canyon overlook before finishing the practice loop. I raised the saddle at the end of the practice (but still not enough) and wondered if it was a good idea to continue on.

With the saddle raised a bit the climbing was a little easier but I still wasn't finding my groove. Many climbs had awkward starts (from sand pits) or even more awkward 90° turns at the start. And I was still finding myself in too low a gear. Then around three miles in I adjusted the saddle upward again. Around this same time I finally attempted to use the larger front chain ring and climbing got easier. The benefit of "discovering" the outer chain ring was now I descending faster as well. I was really enjoying myself, and spent little time walking the bike except for a few sand pits. Later in the ride, I was getting tired as I did not pack enough food and it was getting hotter. The climbing got difficult again, and some climbs I didn't even bother trying as I knew I would expend 10 times the energy of walking the bike and not really go faster. Of course, my descent speeds increased and at the final descent before reconnecting with the practice loop I was able to hold off a couple of motor bikes. Me on a dual suspension bike is point and hold on. Lots of fun.

The slickrock was like nothing I had ridden before. Other than the occasional sand pits all the riding was on rock, and usually smooth. There was little shade, but I did stop to rest a few times under junipers or behind rock outcrops. It was also fun to watch the rock crawlers do their thing on the Hell's Revenge trail as well as a few guys on trials motos doing what ever they could. The uphills were technical in the sense you needed some skills with body position to get up them, but overall the riding is not very technical. I had a some fun riding down the road back into town to meet Jennifer and Mirabelle at the bike shop.

We ate at Milts for lunch (perfect way to end the slickrock.) Then we headed to the civic center to swim in the pool for an hour before buying some groceries and heading back to camp.

The next day we headed to Arches. The road makes quite the entrance into the park. We went on a short ranger led hike and saw Balanced Rock before having a picnic lunch. Then we went over to Park Ave for an "art crawl" at Mirabelle's insistence. This involved hanging out with a Moab artist who gave us colored pencils and paper to draw what we saw. We sat in the shade for an hour or so drawing before we finally started our hike down Park Ave. This was a nice hike through a wash, but late in the day Mirabelle could not make the return trip. I had to hike back and do the car shuttle by picking them up at the courthouse towers parking lot.  That concluded our first day at the park.

The following day we headed up the road to check out dinosaur prints. This involved a longish drive up the highway to a dirt road leading to a small parking area. There happened to be a stage mountain bike race going on, so the small parking area was a bit more full as there was a water station set up there. We took the 500 foot hike to see some cool tracks left in a river bed millions of years ago. We left that location (Copper Ridge) and headed to another location Mill Canyon where the tracks were only recently unearthed or discovered. There was a boardwalk and at least a half dozen different dinosaur tracks including some crocodile tracks as well. A short and quite sandy drive further up the road revealed fossilized dinosaur bones in the rock near a wash. It also happened to be a great place to view pack rat middens. after carefully driving out of the sand we headed back to camp. After that we managed a hike to double arch in Arches. Although perhaps a little ambitious for late day with a preschooler.

The day after that we spent making the long (for a preschooler) hike to Delicate Arch. While it is a fun hike, it is not so much when you are in a conga line with all the other tourists. The trail starts at an old homestead and crosses a stream (with frogs!) before going up slickrock slabs for a quarter mile then winding around a while until taking a blasted into the cliff route to the arch. Mirabelle was perhaps feeling tired on this hike and we were doing it close to midday so it was real slow going on the way up. She was pretty chipper on the way down. This arch is the one on the Utah license plates. It is nice, and you can walk under it. But there was so many people there all I wanted to do was turn back to the car. After the hike we drove Potash Road to look at petroglyphs.

We decided to change things up a bit and head to Canyonlands. Partially to start Mirabelle on her second Junior Ranger badge of the trip, but also to avoid crowds at Arches. (Entry times into Arches for us were about 30 minutes. We were never more than the third car at Canyonlands.) Our first stop was Mesa Arch and the short hike to it. This was a fun arch you could get up close to and looking through it gave you a good view of the canyon as well. Interesting thing about this hike is that it is a loop, but when we were there over 90% of the tourists took the same (southern) trail back instead of the northern leg. We had it all to ourselves on our hike back.

We then headed out to do a hike at Whale Rock. Before we did, we had a picnic lunch at the Upheaval Dome picnic area. Then drove to and started out on our hike up Whale Rock. This was a fun hike with scrambling involved that kept Mirabelle engaged. The views from up top were nice, and it was also not a very populated trail. After finishing that hike we did a little poking around at the Shafer Canyon overlook before returning to camp.

We were back in Arches the following day and did a morning hike on the windows loop. While the main trail in was mobbed, the return "primitive" trail was more quiet and much fewer people which made it a nicer hike. We had a picnic lunch at the shady Devils Garden picnic area, and then proceeded to hike to Landscape Arch. Landscape Arch is possibly the longest known natural arch in the world. But what makes it dramatic is the how thin it is for the length of span. Much more deserving of the name "delicate." On the way in we saw a few other arches and then made our hike out. Right near the start of the trail is a sand slope that Mirabelle and other kids played on before we returned to the car and went back to camp.

The following day it was time to say goodbye to Moab. We had planned to do one hike in Canyonlands before leaving for Capitol Reef because entry into Canyonlands was quicker in previous days. So we packed up camp and headed for Canyonlands and our last hike in the Moab area. For the hike we opted for the Grand View Trail which is at the southern end of the mesa that makes up the Island in the Sky District. We started with a ranger talk and then headed out on the trail. This trail runs along the cliffs for most of its duration. At some point you can see the Green River, but the Colorado remains elusive. The views are expansive and really made me want to explore the other districts in the park as well as the White Rim Trail. In a funny sort of thing, when we got to the southern tip of the mesa and had snacks, I heard a woman calling "Gilbert." I asked if that was in fact what she was calling and she said yes. But not only was her husband named Gilbert, so was another guy that was on the trail. After some joking around, we headed back to the car and the drive to Captiol Reef.

Photos can be seen here