Taking Kids on a 4WD Vacation:
|National Parks||National Forests||BLM|
|Scenery:||Unique geologic wonders, spectacular canyons, mountains, and lakes||Nice forests (some stumps), creeks, and lakes||Cows|
|Off road travel:||Absolutely forbidden||Highly regulated||Go for it!|
|Camping algorithm:||Ticketron reservations, precisely predetermined campsite||Both developed and primitive sites||Stop. Camp.|
|Water:||Piped to site||Might have water||Bring your own|
|Toilets:||Proper restrooms||Pits||One BIG toilet|
|Visitors||Jam-packed Winnebagos||Might have neighbors||Nobody else in 100 miles|
|Fees||Both entry and camping||Camping fee, no entry fee||No fees. It would cost too much to collect it.|
We arrived in Ely (pronounced EE-lee), Nevada in the morning and visited their outdoor railroad museum. We just passed 1000 miles on the trip, and Ely may have been the biggest city wed seen since leaving home. The rain continued to follow us, and completely soaked everything in the roof rack: tent, sleeping bags, suitcases, etc.
We arrived at Great Basin National Park, and headed up to the Wheeler Peak campground, whereupon the rain turned to hail. I figured I could avoid rain by going to the desert in the scorching summer. I figured wrong. We came back down the 6000 feet (remember those brakes?) and camped at the Baker Creek campground, and took the Lehman Caves tour.
The next day was the first we didnt move the camp. We drove back up to the top, and hiked off into the bristlecone forest. At 11,000 feet I met David Muench photographing bristlecone close-ups, and I talked with him for about 2 hours. He was just at the park for the day before heading home to prepare for his first trip to Alaska. Im sure his Alaska book will be out soon, if not already.
That night, we took the candlelight tour of Lehman Caves, which is supposed to simulated the cave light that the first discoverers and first tourists used in the 1880s and 90s.
The next day, I took the Spelunking tour of Little Muddy Cave, a small (!) cave nearby. The tour was conducted by a NPS ranger, and the tour size was limited to 6. Furthermore, with the helmet and light sources the park provided, you had to slither through a 10"x20" concrete box they had set up outside the visitor center. Im 6’-2", 230#, and had considerable difficulty jamming through that opening. In fact, I had to work on it for two days before I could make it. The box opening was designed to simulate the tightest part of the tour cave.
What it didnt simulate was the rest of the cave. When you cram yourself through the tight spot of the box, you can stand up, reexpand your compressed chest, and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Not so in the cave. The tight spot was only a little bit tighter than the whole rest of the cave. It was a 3 1/2 hour tour, all of which you spend on your belly. It was like crawling through a culvert for most of that time. Most of the cave is beyond the tight spot, so they want to make sure that nobody will get stuck there, with the rest of the party deeper in the cave. I could only move through the tight spot by exhaling first, inching forward, stopping to catch a compressed breath, and then repeating.
The 4 men and 2 women in the tour group were quickly pared down to 4 men by the mere sight of the opening crawl. The tour limit of 6 turned out to be generous, so it was fortunate to have fewer bodies crawling around that culvert. Actually there were a couple of rooms where the 4 of us could sit up, and another where I could stand up. Unfortunately, that standing room was just 8 feet long and 1 foot wide. I could stand up, yes, but I couldnt move! Also, I banged my head so much that I was sure glad for the helmet. Incidentally, it is bad form to fart in a tight cave shared with other people.
We then moved our camp up to the Wheeler peak campground where we stayed for the next 2 nights. I took the kids on 5 mile loop hike through the bristlecones and a past a couple of lakes. That sure cured them of hiking for a while.
On August 6 we left and headed east, did our shopping, and arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park. Unfortunately, the place was so absolutely packed with German and Japanese tourists that we couldnt get a campsite. We looked around a bit and then left to camp at a Forest Service campground outside.
The next day was laundry day, anyhow. Things definitely do take longer with children. Afterward, we decided to skip Bryce and head on to southeast Utah. I wanted to spend some time in Capitol Reef before our reservations in Canyonlands. The crowds in Bryce didnt encourage us to stay, either.
We got as far as the Calf Creek BLM campground just outside of Escalante. I walked the 6 mile round trip to the waterfall, and swam a bit in the chilly waters of the plunge pool at its base. This BLM spot is the exception that proves the rule. A visitor from Switzerland had brought along his 12-foot Alpenhorn, and was blowing away at dinnertime and listening to the echoes off the rocks. The campsites were crammed together in the bottom of the slickrock canyon, and we had to share a bend in the creek with a very large RV, whose occupants thought it just fine to run the gasoline-powered generator at 10:30 pm so they could watch taped cartoons on the TV. When I asked them to quiet down, they explained that they needed something [violence-laced cartoons in this case] to calm the kids down for bed. Why dont people read to their kids????
We sure didnt need the 4wd when we left Boulder the next day and drove over the Burr Trail--its paved all the way to the Capitol Reef boundary. But we did need it for the switchbacks down the cliff on the east face of the Reef. The recent summer rains had taken their toll on the road. It was washed out in spots, and had large boulders strewn about, one of which we barely squeezed past while avoiding rolling sideways down the hill. The Swiss fellow with the Alpenhorn was there in his RV, but wisely decided either to wait for the road to get cleared of the debris or to go back to Boulder and try a different route. We stayed the next three nights at Fruita campground near the park headquarters.
One of the days we took the park road south past its end. It became a rough jeep trail that climbed over a small pass to the west into Tantalus Flat and then on to Lower Bowns Reservoir. After lunch and a swim we headed back to Capitol Reef over the paved road through Torrey. On the jeep trail we met a group of mountain bikers and their sag wagon doing that same loop in the opposite direction.
We went on a couple of ranger walks during our stay, one of which led up Sulphur Creek about a mile. About all the ranger could talk about was the fact that Sulphur Creek had flash flooded with the rains a couple of days earlier, and that all the normal stopping-and-lecturing points were gone. And that includes some of the geologic stops. The normally tiny creek had washed huge boulders a half mile downstream, removed nearly all the tamarisk, and had carved a brand new plunge pool below a small waterfall at the end of the hike.
Other activities included a hike to the Pioneer Register (a rock panel of century-old graffiti), some tanks the likes of which give the Waterpocket Fold its name, and to Hickman [natural] Bridge. The kids collected their first of several Junior Ranger buttons.
On August 11 we left Fruita for the north end of the park and camped, entirely alone, at Cathedral campground. The map says the road out there is suitable for high clearance 2wd vehicles, but I wouldnt recommend it. The road starts out by fording the Fremont River. Then it climbs and crosses the Bentonite Hills. Just for the record, bentonite is an extremely fine-grained clay that turns into an excellent greasy lubricant when wet. Perfect place for long-term parking of even 4wd vehicles.
The approach to the river ford had become deep mud from the recent rains and flooding and had become a perfect jeep trap. Looking around, I found an approach 200 yards downstream from the official crossing, drove into the river there, and then drove upstream in the stony riverbed to reach the more-or-less official exit point. The water was up to the bottom of the doors, and of course it covered the exhaust pipe.
It rained pretty heavily again that night. Remembering the muddiness of the beginning of the jeep trail, we thought about the return part of the loop down through washes and through hills of bentonite. We then thought better of it and drove out the next day over Thousand Lake Mountain to avoid getting stuck in the rained out roads in the lonesome basin below.
We then drove straight on in to Moab. Since this day marked our 13th wedding anniversary, we stayed in a motel suite with two rooms. ;-) Somebody has done a fantastic marketing job for that area of the country. We got one of the last 2 rooms in town. Middle of August and every place was full!
It was at this point I finally figured out that I needed to tie the tops of the car seats over to the side to keep them from falling over. My 7-year-old is quite congenial and hadnt even been complaining about the ignominious intrusion on his space being perpetrated by gravity, centrifugal force, and the two car seats. Tying the seats so that they remained vertical in spite of bumps and corners helped him out.
The closest thing resembling a professional photo lab in Moab is a photography studio that also processes film on the side. They had advertised in one of the tourist rags I had gotten ahead of time that they processed 4x5 E-6, so I looked them up. I wanted to carry around processed, rather than latent images, both to avoid heat damage in the desert summer sun, and to get feedback on my compositions while I was still in the area. As it turns out, the Polaroid ProChrome I use in the field for dust and darkroom reasons does not measure 4"x5", but 4+"x5+". Since this lab processes sheet film in a reel, rather than tray, roller, or dipndunk, they were unable to process my film. I even sacrificed an unexposed sheet to verify this.
I spent the rest of the trip worried about heat damage to the latent images and resigned to the lack of on-location compositional feedback. As it turned out, the extra cooler kept the film sufficiently unharmed, but I definitely could have used the feedback to improve my photographs. My technique with the cooler was to leave it open at night, and then close it during the day. I sure didnt want to put any ice in there with the film!
We headed up to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park on the morning of August 13, to stay in the Willow Flat campground. Willow Flat is the only campground in the Island accessible by 2wd vehicles. Because the town was so full, we got an early start to claim our spot. The campground did fill up that night, even though there is no water available. We forgot to fill up, and had to drive back to the well at Arches NP to get water. That evening, a German touron in large RV pulled into my campsite and announced that he and his family were staying there with us, since the other sites were taken. I tried to explain to him the method of camping limits used by the NPS, not to mention common etiquette, to no avail. They eventually picked an illegal spot away from the other campers, and let their generator run.
The thing the campground was really full of was bugs. As we stood around talking with our neighbors, who just happened also to be from the Bay area, everyone had a hand going, trying to swat the little peskies away. They were supposed to be gone by August, but apparently the recent rains had moistened their eggs enough for them to hatch into a feeding frenzy to reproduce and die. I wished they had skipped the former and moved on to the latter. At dusk the bats come out. At this point the bugs do have sense enough to make themselves scarce. Sunsets were really nice times of day for a billion reasons.
After setting up camp, we visited the various points of the Island, including the famous Green River overlook, which was quite close to the campground, Upheaval Dome, and Grandview Point. I also took a short 4wd side trip to Murphy point, but the views at the other spots were better.
We ran out of daylight, so we went to see Mesa Arch in the morning. That turned out to be exactly the right time of day, since you can see Washerwoman Arch and the La Sal mountains all backlit, framed by Mesa Arch. Although this made a wonderful view, there is no railing separating the kids from a 1500 foot drop. The German fellow who had tried to horn in on my campsite was there, trying to shout way about 20 tourists from blocking his rather poor photo of the arch.
After one night at Willow Flat, we had camping reservations for a week at several campgrounds on the White Rim jeep trail, a 100 mile route that circumnavigates the Island in the Sky. The White Rim Sandstone is a relatively thin layer of very hard and erosion resistant (white) rock found between the softer Moenkopi Formation above and the Organ Rock Shale below. The White Rim layer slopes north, or upstream relative to the Colorado and Green Rivers. It forms high cliffs at its edge, because the softer Organ Rock erodes away quickly when left unprotected by the White Rim. When individual White Rim boulders remain isolated, the underlying Organ Rock erodes back leaving a tall pinnacle of shale topped by a cap of white sandstone. Thus the edge is an army of spires, or organ pipes marching off and spreading out into the lower basins.
The road winds around on top of this layer, below the Wingate Sandstone cliffs of the Island. Because of the tall cliffs below the Rim, there is only one point where a spur trail leads down to a river before the White Rim itself dips to river level. Although the road is recommended for 4wd vehicles only, the whole east side of the Island can be accessed by high-clearance 2wd vehicles. We drove down the steep switchbacks of the Shafer trail to the level of the White Rim, and stopped at Musselman Arch. There we came across a few tours run by one-man tour companies, bringing tourists in an old VW microbus or even a converted school bus. Musselman Arch is a band of White Rim that has no Organ Rock remaining below it at all. I finally got up the courage (foolhardiness?) to walk out across the arch. It was as wide and flat as a sidewalk, but there was a 1000 foot drop off each side. My wife was sufficiently annoyed that she refused to take my picture out on the arch, so as not to encourage any further such shenanigans. On the other hand, after I had nervously survived my stroll (I had you wondering, huh?), all the time wondering whether I was the straw that would bring down the arch, all the passengers from the converted school bus walked across. The arch never even vibrated. I guess rock is sufficiently dense that a dozen people dont make any difference to it, percentage-wise. Still, you never know...
Our camping destination for the next two nights was the Colorado River at the outlet of Lathrop Canyon. This spur road is that one spot you can reach water before going all the way around. We had reserved the choice spot right next to the river, in the shade of the tamarisk trees.
I could shoot the jerk who in his infinitesimal wisdom introduced the exotic tamarisk to these deserts in an attempt to preserve the beaches from erosion. The pest preserves them all right, by completely taking them over and growing an impenetrable thicket clear out into the river. The NPS had bulldozed a path through them at Lathrop Canyon; otherwise, the river would have remained inaccessible.
The Colorado is opaque with sediment above Lake Powell. Its also quite warm in August. You walk out into it, and surprise! sink to your thighs into the mud on the river bottom. We had great fun coating each other with a mud treatment and letting it dry in the sun. SPF 160 sunblock, we called it. We were nude, of course, since no one else was there, until surprise again! this exact spot was used every day by a tour company that offers a combination jet boat/jeep tour of the Canyonlands. Every day, a large 4wd van carrying a half dozen tourists arrives at the river, where it meets a jet boat carrying a similar number of tourists down from Moab. They have lunch together (at our campsite, usually) and then switch passengers for the trip back.
Later on, a commercial rafting tour floated down this very calm section of the river, and camped just upstream from us. I watched them take a short hike and scramble up some rocks. When they had gone back to camp, I investigated their destination and found some Anasazi pictographs. Cool. There may have been a ruin nearby, but I didnt find any.
After 2 nights we packed up and headed to our next camp, at White Crack. This campground has exactly one site on the end of a 1 1/2 mile spur to the most southerly tip of the White Rim Sandstone. This is the closest you can get to the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers in a vehicle on the Island, sort of an extension to Grandview point to the south, but 1000 feet lower. Because there is only one site, the rest of our reservations had been made around the availability of this site. This is the highest point on the White Rim layer, about 1400 feet above the rivers.
Although the views at sunrise and sunset were incredible, the view from Grandview point was just as spectacular. You could see all the Needles and Maze rocks, and the La Sals to the east. But you couldnt see any river, only labyrinthine canyons snaking away in all directions.
I did see some Indian artifacts near the campsite: hundreds of chert flakes. There is no chert in the rocks anywhere in the area, so the mere presence of the chert flakes is itself an artifact. Some Anasazi sat here for a few hours carving arrow points or the like from chert brought from somewhere else, and left these flakes on the ground, chipped away from the real artifact. We wondered about the source for the chert, but we were not to find it until over 3 weeks later, outside Canyonlands NP. We left all the flakes there for the next visitor.
On the way to White Crack, you pass one of the scenic highlights of the White Rim trail, Monument Basin. This, to clarify, is not the same as Monument Valley in northern Arizona. Here the White Rim Sandstone breaks up and spreads out over the basin, thinning to just a few boulders out in the center. The thing is, all the boulders cap columns of Organ Rock shale, and the bottom of the basin is 500 feet below the rim, while all the loose boulders are at the same height, lifted by a reddish shale column. The White Rim trail skirts the inside of the basin, and a spur road leads around to the outside. I spent quite a bit of time gazing at these monuments upside down on my ground glass.
The next morning we packed up and headed up the Green River side of the Island. All the White Rim road so far is accessible to high-clearance 2wd vehicles, with the exception of the spur roads, all of which required 4wd. The Lathrop Canyon trail was steep and covered with loose cobbles at the upper end, and deep sand at the lower end. The trail out to White Crack had similar sandy spots guaranteed to trap 2wd. On the Green River side, though, there are a number of ridges to cross going from one canyon system to the next. Each of these trails over the ridges was steep, windy, and covered with loose cobbles. 4wd and really high clearance required.
Just past Soda Springs Basin, I stopped to explore a tiny slot canyon carved down through the White Rim. Part way down I stepped into the mud caught in one of the plunge pools. I had just unwittingly sealed my doom, for that mud acts as an outstanding lubricant. I had no friction to climb back out the canyon! Luckily my wife was able to hear me calling, and came down the slot to save me. Even more luckily, she had not driven on down the trail a ways to wait for me, as she had planned. That would have been one long afternoon!
We had reserved a site at Potato Bottom. We stopped there and went for a swim in the Green. That $(&^%* tamarisk formed an impenetrable barrier. Somebody had hacked a way through the thick growth, but the tamarisk extended out into the water a considerable distance. Far from the perfect spot! We drove on, hoping to find space available at Hardscrabble Bottom.
At the crest of the rough road scaling the intervening ridge, we stopped to take a 1-mile hike. The trail led to an Anasazi fortification at the top of the hill in the middle of the river loop called Fort Bottom in honor of the ruin. At dusk, we found ourselves alone at Hardscrabble camp.
We relaxed here the next full day and night. The access to the Green was much easier. It was 78 degrees, and again opaque with sediment. I waded out to a sand island in the middle of the river, and to the tamarisk on the opposite bank. At one point, some German tourists in a rented Jeep investigated our camp site for its access to the river, so rare so far. I later hitched a ride with them a mile and a half to Upheaval Bottom camp and floated back down the river to Hardscrabble in an inner tube. I should have ridden with them farther upstream, both to make a longer river run, and because Upheaval Bottom has poor access to the river again thanks to the tamarisk.
Wildlife around this camp: ANTS! There were several anthills in the immediate vicinity that were a foot high and 3 feet in diameter. Also, I came within inches of stepping on a rattlesnake in my bare feet on the way to the river. I froze, and the snake slithered away. Anything else would have ruined my day for sure!
After two nights we headed out of the park and dropped our permit off at the box at the entrance sign. We had been assured that the rangers check the permits regularly and go looking for people who had become lost, but when I checked the box, I found a dozen used permits, some dating back a month! We drove up the Green past Mineral Bottom to Hellroaring Canyon, and played in the water one more time. Here we met some canoers floating down from Green River. They were startled to see us, as we were the first people they had seen in 5 days.
I had originally planned to stay a night in Taylor Canyon at the foot of Zeus and Moses, but my wife had had enough camping without a break, and we were nearly out of gas. So we skipped it, and headed up the switchbacks through the Wingate and took the Mineral Road back to Moab. We found a motel room, again with difficulty.
We left early on the morning of August 20 to snag a campsite in Arches National Park. We were there at 9:00 and managed to get a choice site surrounded by stone fins, and even had a tree for shade. Within an hour, the campground was filled. We ended up staying in Arches for 5 nights.
We did all the usual Arches things. A hike through the Devils Garden, another through the Fiery Furnace, a ranger walk for kids where we were the only customers, and two hikes up to Delicate Arch, both of which ended in walking down the slickrock after dark. We wandered around the Balanced Rock and the Windows area as well.
We also used the Arches campground as a base from which to take day trips out to 4wd trails. The trips were all listed in Fran Barness inexpensive guide books to the area. One trip led out to Tower Arch, and the Marching Men, and then south to Eye of the Whale Arch and back to Balanced Rock. Barness book talks about this route in the opposite direction, but the Trails Illustrated map recommends the direction we took because of one section of steep and deep sand. They were quite correct. We nearly skied down that hill, slipping and sliding to the side. Id really hate trying to go up in anything but a dune buggy with balloon tires. Also, we left Tower Arch near dusk, and it was well after dark before we got back to any paved road. This is not recommended.
Another day we went into Moab to raid the BLM office for maps. When I came out, the Blazer wouldnt start: the starter motor was dead! I was sure glad this happened in town rather than in the boonies, since I had to have it towed to a service station. When we got to the station, it started up perfectly. Great. It wouldnt do it for the mechanic. He said that sometimes a normal starter motor gets stuck halfway between two magnetic poles and wont start. The remedy is to vibrate it either with whacks from a stick or (in this case), a tow around town. Anybody else heard of this?
We took a trip out the Willow Flat road to the west of Balanced Rock. If you have 4wd, its possible to get in the park by this route without paying. This was the original entrance road when Edward Abbey was a ranger here in the late 50s, chronicled in his book Desert Solitaire. We continued that day with a stop at Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, which is a BLM experiment in an unattended outdoor exhibit of a dense repository of dinosaur bone fossils. In my opinion the experiment failed, because each item the guide pamphlet mentioned had been badly vandalized, and some had even been completely taken away by souvenir hunters. My 7-year old was really into dinosaurs, and the degree of vandalism greatly disappointed him. We drove on that day past the Gooney Bird rock to the Gemini Bridges, which are two adjacent arches. By now my wife was convinced I was nuts, but since the jeep trail looped out over one of the arches, I proved her right and drove over it. Looping through Arths Pasture, we joined the paved road to the Island in the Sky. We came back down off the mesa via the jeep trail through Long Canyon, and then followed the Colorado River back upstream, stopping once at a secluded sand bar to swim in the 80 degree water.
We took a couple of trips up Mill Creek, looking for the waterfall in Barness book, but never did find it. I did find a nicer one though, and swam in the cool pool for a while, and jumped off the rocks. We went back there a second day, just for a picnic. Unfortunately, as I was walking across some sand in my bare feet, I stepped on a slightly buried thorn or snag that tore a half-dollar size chunk of the thickest skin off the bottom of my heel. It bled pretty well. Ouch. That ended the fun for a while.
At this point, we had an appointment to meet up with my wifes mother in Blanding. My wife drove us down there while I moaned and nursed my foot. We spent the night in a motel.
My mother-in-law is quite knowledgeable in Indian archeology, and visits rock art sites all over the Southwest and into Baja. She has written a paper on the so-called Indian Bathtubs of the Sierra Nevada, and has served as President of the Fresno Archeological Society. Impressed? Good. She had brought her Jeep Cherokee; together we would have the confidence to go a little farther away from civilization, in search of Anasazi ruins and rock art.
We do have a basic difference in opinion, though. Im out there for the photography first, swimming holes second, and other sightseeing third. Photography only happens from dawn for about 2 hours, and then again for the two hours prior to and including sunset. That leaves the warmest part of the day for sightseeing with a stop at a swimming hole. But you have to be out at the scenery at dawn and dusk. In her opinion, and therefore my wifes, this time is for eating breakfast and eating dinner, back at the motel. Except for her general disinterest in swimming holes, we get along fine the rest of the day.
We manage to get along during the other parts of the day by not always going everywhere together. We spend a few days on my schedule, a few days on hers, and a few days apart. Also, I dont make everybody leave camp at dawn while Im out hunting photons. I generally take a morning constitutional before breakfast alone, then return to pack everything up, if we are leaving. The major conflict is at dinner time. When I win, everybody eats dinner in the dark. When they win, I dont take photos. With that explained:
We had just spent the night of August 22 in a motel in Blanding, Utah. We split up at this point. I went to Natural Bridges NM for 2 nights alone, while my wife and kids stayed with their grandmother at the Blanding motel. We were to meet at Natural Bridges for a subsequent tour into Beef Basin.
Camping in the Utah desert gets you used to the idea of bringing your own water. Just like the campsites in the Island in the Sky, there is no water available in the campground at Natural Bridges. I hadnt explained previously that the recommended water intake is 1 gallon per person per day, a bit less for small kids. Times say 4 full people for 6 days (our Island circumnavigation) is 24 gallons. I had carried 27 gallons, enough for a small contingency, on that sortie and had loaded up again for this one. My mother-in-law was going to bring a few gallons, too, for good measure. We were planning a two-day circle of Beef Basin, and then a couple of days in the Needles District, entering by the back door. All that water on the roof rack makes for interesting cornering characteristics of my vehicle.
While I was in Natural Bridges alone, I was able to concentrate full time to photography. I gingerly took hikes to each of the bridges and studied them from all angles. Somehow that foot wound wasnt bothering me too bad if I kept all weight off my heel. The streams were flowing from recent rains, so there were a few clod pools in the bottoms of the canyons.
I made some great photos of an Anasazi cliff dwelling and associated granaries. Another site had moderately well preserved granaries, considering the visitor traffic it receives, but its nearby pictographs had been scratched off.
On one of the trails was an immense pile of guano, with considerable freshness to its scent. But there was no obvious roosting place where pigeons might be seen standing as around the facade of a city building. I looked closely, and there was a vertical crack in the rock wall under and separating an overhang from the wall itself. In and out of this 2" crack were swarming hundreds of swallows. The incoming birds would fly from the outside and fly up vertically to disappear inside the crack without slowing down, and the departing birds would fall out and gain their composure before reaching the ground. There must have been a huge cave back in behind that crack, judging from the aerial activity and the mountain of smelliness on the ground.
To keep myself company I bought Edward Abbeys Desert Solitaire at the visitors center. Wow, that was great, reading the master iconoclasts words in the middle of the country he describes. The book came in handy the second day, when it rained heavily and I was confined to the tent.
Everybody came to meet me right on schedule and we headed up the Elk Ridge road through the Bears Ears to spend the next few days in Beef Basin and the Needles. The Bears Ears are two buttes, remnants of the Wingate Sandstone, that have been lifted high on a hill. The road goes between them. Several rangers at Natural Bridges had warned against using this road, especially after a rain, because of its slickness and roughness.
Well, that simply wasnt the case. It was smooth and dry except for a couple of puddles. The rain had just kept the dust down. It was as smooth a gravel road as I had been on.
The road winds up and up to get on top of Dark Canyon Plateau on the shoulder of the Abajo Mountains. At this elevation there was enough precipitation to support a pine forest rather than the usual Utah junipers. The Forest Service responded, naturally, by logging the area. At least there is some effort to replant, as several FS roadside displays took pains to point out.
North of the Abajos is the sculptured slickrock country of the Needles. I drove out a rough, rocky spur trail to the Big Pocket overlook, out on the end of a 2-mile peninsula into the upper basin of Salt Creek. The view was spectacular, of course. Nothing but a panorama camera could take it in. There were also the obvious remains of a partyers campsite, surrounded by vertical cliffs on all sides but one. The wind blew strongly here; I wonder how many partyers have slipped over the side in the night?
We continued on down toward Beef Basin, and camped near a the remains of a cliff dwelling. The walls of the ruin looked about to fall down, and the whole area under the cliff overhang had previously been thoroughly pothunted. Sign posts from the BLM reminding visitors that it is a crime to disturb archeological sites had been lovingly shot up, then uprooted, and tossed to the side. On the other hand, it was still interesting to see 800-year-old construction still unaided by well-meaning stabilization efforts such as at Mesa Verde and Hovenweep. You can still see the detailed fingerprints of the stonemasons who had constructed this building and had lived and farmed here 800 years ago.
Beef Basin was named for the major use of the area, cattle grazing. The cattle have really done a number on the local ecology: all the microbiotic (cryptogamic) crust was gone, the grass was gone, and the cactus had grown up to replace it. When the microbiotic crust goes, the soil quickly blows away in the wind, taking with it the regions ability to grow anything but cactus and sagebrush.
The next morning we began a circumnavigation of Beef Basin looking for ruins and other sights. The older ruins we saw had just foundations left. How did I know they were older? Current archeological theory suggests that prior to 1000 AD or so, the people lived and farmed on the flat areas in communities relatively free from marauding attackers. By 1200 AD raiders had increased to the point that surviving farmers moved to inaccessible cliff areas as a defensive measure. Increased invasions coupled with a possible drought led to the eventual abandonment of all the permanent settlements. So... on the flat: 900 or more years old; in a cliff alcove: 900 years old or younger. Thats for residences, anyway. Im not sure about cliff alcove granaries.
So there were a few foundations out on the flat, and a couple of granaries in the cliff sides of the side canyons. We saw a few chert flakes, but still no chert source. There was one cliff dwelling marked on the map that was quite high in a cliff high up in the hills surrounding the Basin. We scoured the site with our binoculars, but were not convinced that the alcove actually had anything worth the long bushwhack up there. We went on.
One of the Beef Basin outlets drains through Gypsum Canyon toward the Colorado. I took a 1 mile hike down the dry creekbed to find a bit of water flow accumulating. Suddenly I came to a 100’ waterfall. OK, so it was just flowing at a high drip rate. It should look plenty impressive in a flood! Just above the precipice the tiny creek twisted around in some sculptured stone, forming pools up to bath tub size wherein I cooled off. I thought the rock scrambling to the waterfalls plunge pool too time-consuming and dangerous to be worth it.
I drove several miles up one of the side canyons to find a wonderful ruined cliff dwelling. This was a two-story residence, one of whose roofs was still intact. The single door was at the first floor, but immediately stairs led up to the second. It was like the second floor was the main living area, while the first floor was a storage basement, even though it had the front door, and even though the whole arrangement was high in a slickrock alcove. Although the soil around it had been clearly pothunted, the walls were in the best shape of any of the ruins I saw on the trip. It was exciting again to see the masons fingerprints in the mud mortar. A bit of personal connection across most of a millennium.
This canyon was recently flash flooded, so much that much of the jeep trail had washed away; I followed the creekbed most of the way. I bounced across a pavement of basketball-sized stones left in the creekbed, three to five feet below the former level of the jeep trail. At one point, climbing out of the creekbed to regain the next segment of vehicle tracks, I got stuck on my front wheels in sand and on my trailer hitch in back, with my rear wheels off the ground. Fortunately I was able to power backwards using only the front tires, or that would have been one long walk out. Where there was still a fragment of jeep trail uneroded, the brush on the sides had grown in so far as to severely modify my Blazers finish. It now definitely has that brushed look. Dont try this at home, kids.
After 2 nights we were going to go into Canyonlands NP by the back door. For those of you in the know, this route is called Bobbys Hole. For those of you not in the know, forget this route. That is, except on foot or in a tracked vehicle. I exaggerate only slightly. There were 2 sets of tracks going down the trail since the last rain, both were huge tires. If the vehicles also had comically tall lift kits, they might have made it without damage. I had been expecting a rotten section of road, so I stopped at the top, and walked the length of the bad section. It is extremely steep and highly eroded, leaving huge outcroppings of gas-tank ripping rock between deep axle-breaking holes. There was an 18" culvert across the steepest section; the down hill side was completely exposed. That is, there is an additional 18" unavoidable cliff to fall off of. I really wanted to go through, but the women thought I was nuts to even consider it. After a long period of soul-searching I eventually chickened out. Later, the ranger at Needles told me of a tourist in a rental 2wd import had gone down that trail. He bent all the rims, flattened the tires, and punched holes in the oil pan and gas tank. After a loooooooong walk out, he had to pay for the tow out of there ($1200-$1500) plus had to buy the wreckage from the rental company. We joked that the tow was just to avoid a littering conviction.
So we spent one more night in Beef Basin. We found many more ruins, most of which again were just foundations. We camped by a two story ruin, and there was one large ruin that originally was as large as two modern suburban houses. The sign nearby said that this area was once (prior to 1000 AD) a large farming community. The sheer number of sites proves that this area was once heavily populated. Archeologists believe that SE Utah had three times the population 1000 years ago that it has now.
We finally found the chert mine that had supplied the other Indians in the area. The chert outcrop lay at the foot of a gentle hillside, and there were Anasazi buildings around the area. Gobs and gobs of fabrication flakes for a considerable distance around. Others before us had found a half dozen pot fragments and had left them on the wall of one of the structures, out on display. Although youre technically not supposed to remove pot fragments from the exact spot where you find them, I was glad they put them out on display so that I could see them. I was also glad they didnt take them home. We left them there, too.
We found the ruins of an old cowboys or miners cabin near a seep spring. I figured that this would have been an ideal spot to find an Indian site, too, so I hunted around till I found it. It was directly underneath the cabin. The cabin builder had used some of the Indian foundations for his own. We found one tiny pot fragment nearby.
At one other site we found a very tiny ruin, 5 square, and a 1 1/2 x 3" pot fragment. It was decorated in black and white with a zigzag pattern. Very careful painting work. These fragments are both still there, if you care to see them.
At our campsite by the two-story ruin we again found the BLM sign posts admonishing against disturbing archeological sites. They also had been lovingly shot up, ripped out of the ground, and thrown aside.
I trust that you will excuse my purposely vague descriptions of the exact locations of these archeological sites. Beef Basin is some ten miles in diameter, counting the various flats, feeder canyons, and ridges in the middle. These directions shouldnt get you any closer than 5 miles to any of these sites. With the rampant, uncontrollable vandalism that has happened to many archeological treasures, most authorities believe that only continued secrecy, like that practiced by the caving community, will delay further loss to vandals. Even caves can be gated; the ruins cannot. During our stay in Utah, somebody painted obscenities across the Butler Wash Pictographs on the San Juan River, thereby destroying a 2000 year old panel. The BLM has uselessly offered a reward for the vandals capture. The concern and the crimes are real. One thing the government cannot control is pothunting on private land by the land owner. The BLM agent in Monticello sadly described to me how he helplessly watched a landowner dig up an archeological site with a backhoe looking for potsherds.
We drove back to Blanding by a different route over the Abajos. We met a hunter already scouting the area for elk, even though the season wasnt going to open for another 6 weeks. At about 9000 foot elevation, I saw a cliff dwelling high in the hillside. This one was truly inaccessible without a ladder. Believe me, I tried. I dont think it was original, but there was half of an Indian ladder (just one of the poles) going 20+ up an overhung face toward the ruin, and after a few attempts I decided not to climb it. I did see the ancient pocks in the rock where the two poles of a proper ladder would fit. Although these residents would never thirst, farming might have been a bit tough here.
The next four nights we stayed in Blanding. I was beginning to see the womens point: getting up late, not breaking camp, sleeping in a bed... It can become habit forming. I didnt get any photos taken though. In fact, the first day was spent sitting by the motel pool and down at the laudromat getting all the filthy clothes clean. I suppose we should have had to pay a pollution fine at the laundromat, too...
While in Blanding we took day trips to various Anasazi sites in the area. The Westwater ruin is practically right in town, so it gets a lot of party trash. It has been stabilized, and is used for archeology students to practice their excavation techniques. We drove out to Hovenweep NM and crawled all through the stabilized ruins there. My boys collected Junior Ranger Buttons here, too. Another day we drove out to see the ruins in Montezuma Creek. These ruins are either fenced off, or have been stabilized. Three Kiva Ruin has had one of the Kivas restored, so you can walk down the ladder inside. That day I had somehow managed to snag a twig with an auxiliary gas tank I had mounted to the roof rack. The branch punched a hole in the plastic container, rendering it somewhat useless.
On September 4 we split up again, my wife and kids went along with my mother-in law for a trip to Mesa Verde NM and stayed in a nearby motel. They then went on a day rafting trip on the San Juan River. I headed to the Needles District to camp at the Devils Kitchen campground for three nights.
Getting to Devils kitchen involves some serious four-wheeling over the Elephant Hill jeep trail, which is left over from when the area wasnt yet a park. The trail is very roughly blasted out of the rock, just barely enough to get a jeep by the hardest spots. The trail surface is mostly bare rock, but the Park Service has applied dollops of concrete to some of the deeper holes to prevent too much damage to visitors 4x4s. The ranger told me that when they did this, some of the old-timer purist four-wheelers complained that they had taken all of the challenge out of the trail. Wrong. This is some of the wildest jeeping Ive ever done. Even with the occasional concrete patches the trail is exceedingly rough; my trailer hitch is somewhat the worse for wear. The switchbacks over the Hill are so tight that in one point you have to go beyond the turn, turn around, and try again. Another steep switchback you have to negotiate in reverse. I have no idea how you could ever handle oncoming traffic. Down on the other side, you drive through a slot that folded both my side mirrors back. Driving down the Silver Stairs was an indescribable bounce over undulating slickrock. Later on, the trails get more normal, but there is quite a purgatory to get through, first!
Devils Kitchen has 4 very private campsites, each site in its own miniature slot canyon tucked into cracked and settled layer of Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Some even have a rock overhang to keep you out of the rain. They would be comfortably cool during the heat of the summer, and the interconnecting maze of tiny passageways formed by the settling cracks leads back deep into the rock. Deep in one passage somebody had set up an informal display of pottery fragments. I assume they had been found nearby. Jimson weed (Datura) was everywhere; this is nearly always an indication of Anasazi presence.
Three of the four sites were occupied the first night, two the second, and I had the area to myself the third night. One of my neighbors the first night was a commercial tour with 4 passengers, two men from Germany and a couple from the US. That tour driver really earned his money: driving, cooking, cleaning up, hauling wood, building a fire, as well as filling all tour guide duties.
One of the days there I drove through the Grabens and visited the overlook over the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Grabens are straight, flat bottomed canyons with vertical sides. There are several parallel Grabens between the Needles and the Colorado. On that day, the Colorado was greenish, and the Green was reddish. I guess nobody told them. The Park Service has set up a couple of picnic areas along this section of road, which I think is pretty nice. I also took a hike into Red Lake Canyon toward the Colorado River, but only made it a third of the way there before deciding to turn around.
Another day I continued out Devils Lane to the south, through the notch at S.O.B. Hill, to see Bobbys Hole from the bottom. I was really glad at that point that we didnt go down it. The bottom part was even rougher than the part I chickened out on. S.O.B. Hill is no piece of cake, either. You have to back up across a switchback into a cleft in the rock just wide enough for your vehicle. Although that switchback took me a couple of tries in each direction, there really isnt any more to it.
While in the south end of the Needles district I visited Horsehoof Arch, so named because it looks just like the lower leg of a horse. I stopped at a picnic/parking area that serves as the trailhead into Chesler Park when it began to sprinkle. Then it began to rain. Four guys had driven up before me in a CJ-5 with the top down. They came down the trail completely soaked and had to put up the top before they could have any escape from the rain. If you dont know the CJ-5, it is tiny when you start packing 4 hefty men into one, and the top is extremely awkward to put up or down. It is simply not made for inclement weather. When they left, it really began to pour.
While I was sitting in the Blazer waiting for the rain to quit, I finished up Desert Solitaire. Thunderstorms are usually over in 20 minutes, but this one rained heavily for an hour. While I was reading, I heard a wham on the side of the truck. I got out to investigate, and found that the whole parking area was a foot and a half under water. The area didnt look like it before, but in the midst of a flash flood, you could see that a minor wash went through the parking lot. Well, it was no longer minor! Brown water was swirling around my rear axle, so I pulled forward as far as I could without removing any trees, and just barely got my wheels out of the torrent.
When the rain abated, I walked a mile or so up the jeep trail beyond the trail head, which is now closed by the Park Service. The surface was so muddy that I was either slipping all over or had inches of gunk adhering to my soles. I found that I was surrounded by several flash flooding washes, and would just have to wait awhile yet for any chance to drove back to camp. After about another hour, the floods abated enough that I could cross one of the tributaries. I then hiked up the Joint Trail toward Chesler Park. After about a half mile, the Joint Trail follows the bottom of some deep cracks in the Cedar Mesa Sandstone for another half mile into Chesler Park. Its similar to the campsites at Devils Kitchen. But right after the rain, bottoms of the slots were flooded with water. I slogged through for about a quarter mile after it became ankle deep, but I quit and turned back when it got over my knees. It was kind of cold the way I was dressed, and still drizzling, too. So I still havent seen Chesler Park. No disaster; Ill be back.
Now it was starting to get dark, so I very carefully drove back toward camp. The trail was soft and muddy, and where it crossed bare rock, it was slippery. Slickrock. Just after wedging through the notch one more time at the top of S.O.B. Hill, I found the same CJ-5 I had seen at the Chesler Park trailhead now stuck in middle of the road. The rain had softened the dirt in the wheel ruts, and now they were high-centered and going nowhere. They had been stuck there trying to dig themselves out for at least 2-1/2 hours in the rain, wind, and drizzle. Just not comfy when youre wearing a T-shirt. The road is two feet below the natural grade, so they had few options. I stopped some distance away from them to avoid the same fate for myself, and walked up to see how they were doing. The oldest fellow had had enough of this. Without saying a word, he blew past me as I was walking up, got into my truck, and turned on the heater!
Forgive me, Park Service, but I climbed up out of the roadway and went around them to pull them through. I dropped back to the road level, but promptly got myself high-centered! Fortunately, I was able to back up and out of the ruts again. The old fellow, still in my truck, exclaimed, when I get one of these [4wd vehicles], Im getting a Chevy! I fastened my chain to their CJ-5 and pulled them out and along far enough that it was safe to return to the official track. Only then did the old fellow in my Blazer get out and go back. They then proceeded to drive down the Silver Stairs and over Elephant Hill in the dark.
It turns out I had left a pot all day on the picnic table at my campsite. I measured 1-1/4" of rain in that hour. For some silly reason, I had stacked suitcases, stove, and other water-susceptible stuff on top of the ice chest back in camp. The whole thing was under a rock overhang that kept the rain off the top. That smooth move saved them from a thorough soaking, since the campsite crack in the rock flash flooded too. There was 6" of sand piled up against the upstream side of that ice chest, and a huge new lake had formed between it and my tent. The tent had collapsed slightly under the strain of the wind and the weight of the rainwater accumulation on it, but nothing catastrophic. So I actually spent a mostly dry night.
The next morning, I packed up and returned to the visitors center, where I met up with my family right on time. We were going to go camping together in the Salt Creek are of the Needles District. On the way to the visitors center, I did notice that the CJ-5 had made it out OK.
On September 7 I reemerged from Elephant Hill, and met up with my family and mother-in-law at the Needles visitors center. We were planning to camp in the Salt Creek district of Canyonlands National Park. The weather was threatening, the wind was blowing a bit, and you could feel drizzle.
The ranger issuing the backcountry permit told us a story about a BLM ranger in the early 60s (before Parkhood) who was patrolling the Salt Creek canyon. It had been raining in the upper reaches of the creek, and the creek began to rise. He turned around and headed out, but the water rose faster, and the jeep got stuck in the mud. Somehow he was able to get out of the vehicle and up to higher ground, out of the way of the real flash flood, which quickly became a raging torrent. After a couple of hours the ranger was able to walk back out. But the jeep has never been found.
We put off the excursion for another day. Instead, we visited some Needles sights visible from paved roads, such as Cave Spring and Big Spring Canyon overlook. Almost immediately after making an irrevocable decision to delay the Salt Creek expedition, the weather began to clear up. By late afternoon, the clouds were gone, so we took a 4wd side trip to the Lower Jump of Salt Creek, a 300 foot waterfall.
[soapbox on] The jeep trail out to it went right by a beautiful patch of microbiotic crust. Sadly, some bicyclist had chosen to cut and swerve right through it. Listen, people, STAY OFF THE MICROBIOTIC CRUST! It is really fragile, and takes many decades to recover when disturbed, and even then only if the soil doesnt blow away first. The microbiotic crust is essential for the animal and plant life of the desert. In Beef Basin, the desert grasses were being replaced by cactus since the microbiotic crust was destroyed by cattle. Now Beef Basin is useless for cattle as well. If you dont know what it is, stay on established trails or roads. Walking on slickrock is also acceptable, but do not just wander out across the soil. [soapbox off]
The rain threatened again, so we stayed at a motel in Monticello. Nobody wanted to camp in the rain. It turned cold that night, and I was glad for the change. The indoor swimming pool and hot tub at the motel wasnt bad, either.
The next day, the weather cleared up beautifully, so we headed into Salt Creek. The ranger who gave us the permits said, Now, about 2 miles up the canyon, the road will end. At that point, DRIVE INTO THE WATER and turn right. Youll eventually see where you come out.
Sure. Right after telling us about the jeep that was never found, they tell us to drive right into the water and hope it ends somewhere. Theres good gravel underneath. Youll be fine. Fine, right.
Well, sure enough, after a little more than two miles the road ends on a pile of river rock, with nowhere to go but into the water. We drove through one at a time in case the report was rosier than the reality. I was volunteered to drive through first. The water was deep and seeped through the base of the doors, yet the ground was solid underneath. We had been warned to keep moving through this area; you dont want to stall and have your exhaust pipe flood! I built up a bit of a bow wave as I plowed through. Later on, the warm weather dried out the wet carpet in a hurry.
We set up camp at the Angel Arch campground, and had it to ourselves. The other upper Salt Creek campsite wasnt equipped with a toilet. Along the way, we stopped to investigate an old mine hacked into the hard Cedar Mesa Sandstone. It looks like all that was mined was sand. Hopefully the miner got his money out by selling the claim sight unseen to some city-slickin nitwit. :-) Thats how the mining business works sometimes. We saw several examples of rock art, mainly pictographs, with an occasional petroglyph. Some of these were quite ancient, judging from the patina.
In the afternoon and in the morning we hiked up to Angel Arch. Early morning is the best. There is some steep slickrock to negotiate to get up to the arch, and it was hairy trying to get my view camera up and down the pitch. After that we felt too lazy to walk up the canyon farther to see the All American Man. That was too bad, but Im sure Ill be back there. After lunch, we moved camp downstream to Peek-a-Boo Spring camp. While my wife and her mother relaxed, I took the kids to see Paul Bunyans Potty and Tower Ruin in adjacent Horse Canyon. True to its name, Paul Bunyans Potty is a huge rock formation shaped like a giant toilet. Its a cave that got too big for the cliff and hillside its in. The back of the cave pokes up through the top, leaving a rock arch in front and a huge toilet seat on top. You get a plumbings-eye-view of the bowl and the underside of the seat. Tower Ruin is photogenic in the morning. The Park Service has removed all the access paths to it, so you see it from down below, also.
On the way back to camp, my 3-year-old daughter spotted an Anasazi granary, but nobody else did. She insisted that it was true, but had forgotten the exact spot, so we cruised back and forth and inspected the cliffs carefully several times. We finally found it, but not before we had passed the spot 3 times without finding it. Powers of observance help, or at least have a 3-year-old along!
This day was my mother-in-laws 65th birthday. I cooked up a camping meal worthy of the occasion, though I cant remember now what it was. My jobs were the driving and the cooking. The meals now all seem to run together.
We stayed at Peek-a-Boo Spring camp two nights. In the middle day, we explored Horse canyon more thoroughly, but not as much as we could. Strange as it seems for a map freak like myself, I never consulted a map or a guide book to the Horse Canyon area. We saw several major arches, including Fortress Arch and Castle Arch, but missed the 13 Faces rock art. After I got home, I noticed it on the map. One more reason to head back there. There was probably much more rock art or ruins that I missed because of low powers of observation.
For most of this Salt Creek/Horse Canyon area, the jeep roads simply follow the sandy wash bottoms of the canyons. At one point, the trail left the wash, but I missed it and kept going. When the wash got narrower than my Blazer, I knew something was wrong. While backing up, I managed to hit a dirt blob in such a way that I ran over my own exhaust pipe. That Ill leave as an exercise to your imagination. However you imagine it, the result was that it bent the hell out of the exhaust pipe. I limped back to camp with the pipe scraping the tire, where with the other vehicle and my tow chain we roughly straightened the pipe out again.
At another point in Horse Canyon, wash sediment had built up from flooding so that the trail was higher than normal. At one point, the trail goes under a rock overhang as it hugs the side of the canyon. My roof and roof rack got quite a whack from that. With the finish work done in Beef Basin, and the engine braking ability, does anybody want to buy a Blazer? Only used on one off-road trip!
In the afternoon I took a hike across the slickrock to a tributary of Salt Creek called Lost Canyon. That canyon itself wasnt that great, but the trail across the bare rock was spectacular in itself, and the views of more sculptured rocks made the time well spent. Also found a small pictograph well off the trail.
The next day we headed out of the park and back to Moab. We stopped to climb all around Wilson Arch, which is right next to the highway. Must be something about highway access that causes people. This place was packed! Must have had 60 or more people on the slickrock at once. Even in the park along the designated jeep trails you see one or at most two other parties per day. Hike off a ways and youre by yourself. Wilson Arch was a day at the zoo.
In Moab, we had pizza for dinner. You dont get that when camping. Everyone was so excited about going to the pizza parlor that the motel room door was left standing open and my mother-in-laws roof storage compartment was left standing open, with all her camping equipment, sleeping bag, tent, etc. left out, while everyone was eating dinner. The rain thought that was an excellent moment to cloudburst also. Somehow nothing was stolen. Maybe sopping wet camping gear is not attractive to the normal thief.
The next morning, September 11, was a parting of ways. My mother-in-law was meeting a friend in the northwest corner of Nevada to look at wagon wheel tracks along the Oregon Trail, while my wife and I were headed to the Grand Canyon and home. My oldest son went along with his grandma, and that left us with two kids. He was really pleased to get away from his siblings. The other two must cause most of the trouble in the back seat, since it didnt go down much without him. Before we split up, we did the last couple of items to let the kids earn their Junior Ranger buttons at Arches. Junior Ranger curricula vary wildly from one park to another; Arches program was comparatively at the post-doc level. We also stopped to see the remains of the Courthouse Wash petroglyphs and pictographs. At one time, this rock art panel was absolutely magnificent. But about 5 years ago, somebody went up in the middle of the night and tried to scrub them off the rock with wire brushes. They largely succeeded, but you can still see the faint remnants of the images. Nobody can figure out what the vandals were trying to prove.
We then headed south toward Grand Canyon, taking the slow route, as usual. The Monticello BLM office had told me there were many Anasazi sites in Comb Wash, so we traveled its length, scouring the cliffs with our binoculars. We never saw anything. Im going to ask them for more specific directions the next time Im there, if theyre willing to give them to me. We camped along the creek at somebody elses campsite: There was a homemade privy in the bushes nearby a flat tent site near a miniature waterfall and pool in the creek. We never saw anybody else when we were away from the pavement.
Coming out of Comb Wash the next morning, we stopped by the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. I was surprised that the river really moves along right there. We not able to safely swim there at all. As a side trip, we went to the Goosenecks overlook, and then drove up the switchbacks another 1200 feet to Muley Point for another vantage. At the top, right near the cliff edge, are several large catch basins brimming with water. The water was clear, and obviously deep enough to cover your head if you were to get in. I was again surprised to find them on a point rather than in the folds of a wash. Since desert wildlife depends on such tanks, we left the water alone. From the top you get a good view across the Goosenecks to Monument Valley.
Which is where we stayed that night. Monument Valley is an Indian site, all right: it carries a $5 admission charge plus a $10 camping fee. There is only one place for Whitey to camp; the Valley itself is closed from evening to late morning. Furthermore, they dont allow any departure from the set loop road without a guide. Hiking is out of the question. Nearly all the famous photographs you have seen of Monument Valley have been taken from the road. A small number of other shots were arranged with private guides at considerable expense. It is, after all, entirely private property. I wasnt that impressed with the experience; the scenery is just more Wingate Sandstone, and the restrictions more onerous than even the National Parks. And compared with the solitude wed had so far, this was getting more like California. It was to be a harbinger for the rest of the trip.
Like the next day, after we had gone around the loop once more, we drove to Page to visit the narrow slot canyon on Antelope Creek. Antelope Canyon is a short (100 yards or so) slot cut though an arm of sandstone that would otherwise block the Antelope Creek wash. The wash is wide, flat, and sandy both above and below the sandstone arm; its a bit of an oddity of nature that the sandstone was there at all to block the wash. And then to have a 3 to 6 foot wide canyon cut through it to a depth of 150 feet or more is definitely out of the ordinary. The inside of the slot swirls with the centuries of cutting flash floods, both in the typically meandering plan view, and also as you look up. Only one spot in the slot did the sun actually shine on the floor, and even there only briefly. The canyon is on Navajo land; you buy a permit to trespass for $7 at the trading post just east of Page whose name now escapes me.
I had seen many gorgeous abstract photographs of the slot canyon, and had even recognized my favorite one. But now visitation is high. Graffiti is deeply carved into many places on the walls, campfire smoke has stained many others, and litter lines the floor. Many tourists were there with us, all disappointed in the vandalism. Maybe theres another canyon somewhere I can see before its destroyed?
Im not sure what difference it makes out at Lake Powell, but this was Saturday. We camped at the Lone Rock campground west of Wahweap on the waters edge. The campground is a long beach, but was packed bumper to bumper with various types of RVs from one end of the beach to the other. There are no marked camping sites, so the people kept on coming in. There was no shortage of company.
Even with 4wd, we almost got stuck in the fluffy sand. Plenty of 2wd vehicles did bury themselves when they left the packed sand at the waters edge. The weather was getting away from summer. The water temperature had fallen below 70F and that night the wind literally whistled though there. Our tent has some adjustment holes drilled in the support poles, and I had to get up just past midnight to tape them over to keep the wind from loudly playing its newfound flute. Several neighbors on both sides were still up partying.
After another visit to Antelope Canyon in the morning, we headed to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and ended up camping at the forest service campground at Indian Hollow just outside the Park for one night and inside the Park for another. The North Rim lies just above 8000 feet. At Indian Hollow, which is the trailhead to Thunder River and the Colorado and lies near 6000 feet, the nighttime temperature fell to 37F. Fall comes early to those elevations.
Youve seen the pictures looking down into the canyon. Words of mine wont help much. I shot up a box of sheet film adding to the worlds collection of Grand Canyon photos. Early morning and late afternoon are fantastic.
We went on a couple of ranger-led walks near Bright Angel Point, enough so that our kids were able to collect their Junior Ranger buttons. We also enjoyed the view from Point Sublime, and climbed up an abandoned fire lookout tower of the type described by Abbey. Definite lightning target.
For the next (Tuesday) night, we left the park, and reentered at the Toroweap overlook area. You follow over 50 miles of washboard road to get there, but that is where the famous photos that show a good view of the river are taken. Vulcans Throne volcano is nearby, and Lava Falls is directly below. It was pretty late when we got there, but there was still sunlight on the river. By the time I got my camera set up, the river was in shadow. Boring pictures.
There were surprisingly a half dozen camping parties at Toroweap. Both of the campsites right on the edge were taken, of course, and the rest of the sites were about a mile away. But anyway Im not sure Id want to camp in a place that all other park visitors had to walk through to see the view, and with children running around, Id prefer to have some distance between a campsite and disaster.
The weather was definitely continuing to warm up, as the mercury only fell to 64F. We decided to skip the chore of setting up the tent, and slept under the stars. I mean, bugs. That was a mistake. The mosquitoes were out in force all night. The REI Jungle Juice, 100% DEET, kept them at bay for me, but not for my poor daughter! I thought my wife had DEETd her, and my wife thought that I had done it. The mosquitoes ravaged her, and her face puffed up grotesquely. The swelling didnt subside for a week.
In the morning, we retraced the 50 miles of washboard, and then turned west to St. George, Utah. The laundry backlog was getting unbearable, so we spent the next 3 hours at a RV parks laundromat. We all showered while the clothes were spinning. Cleanliness was an odd feeling after all those days of heat, dust, and no swimming.
Today we took the last 4WD excursion of the trip. We found the longest 4WD-only road down to the north shore of Lake Mead on the map. It was just 4 miles long. I had previously experienced plenty of crowds at the ends of the shorter roads, so I picked a long one in an effort to have the place to ourselves. I almost succeeded. The road follows a wash for the last mile or so to a little cove that somebody in a boat was using to get away from all the other boaters. The terrain is sufficiently rugged that we were unable to just move over to the next cove, for example. It became obvious that we had no other options and were not going to turn around and leave, so the boaters left, presumably to find another private cove. After that, we saw nobody else on land or sea, and were able to stay nude the entire time.
The water was 82F, and thus a delight to swim in. On the other hand, the water level had presumably recently risen, and the shore and the shallow parts of the bottom were choked with tumbleweeds. The stickers are not comfortable on bare feet! But with the warm air and warm water, we were in and out of the water all the time.
There were some other things I thought were a bit unusual: There were may gourd plants growing all around, some rattle dry, others just springing up. I wonder if somebody dropped a gourd or squash there a few years back, and the seeds eventually grew into this gourd forest, watered by the rising and falling lake level. There were also clams in the sandy areas at the water line, an bazillions of clam shells in the dry area outside. Ive never heard of fresh water clams, but they obviously exist. I wonder how they got there?
We had skimped on staking the tent. Usually its OK to put in just 4 of the required 12 stakes. But a breeze came up that night and blew the tent over, with us inside. Not hard, really, since we were camped on sand. It pulled 2 of those stakes out of the sand and over it went. I groped my way out and reset the tent with more stakes in the wee hours of the morning.
After that, we more or less headed home. We got as far as Lancaster, California the next night, and started looking around the Angeles National Forest for a place to camp. Without a map, we stumbled around and finally just set up primitively away from anything else, dispersed camping, they call it. We found out the next day that we were surrounded by campgrounds; had we taken any of the turns we did in another direction, we would have hit one.
Friday night we stayed with friends in Santa Barbara, and went to the Concours dElegance car show there the next day, spent some time at the beach, and visited the Danish tourist trap of Solvang just over the hill. Topping that day off with a soak in Las Cruces Hot Spring, we didnt make much mileage on Saturday. We got as far as Morro Bay, where there was miraculously some space left in the State Park there on the beach. Maybe because the weather was so cold and windy.
Ah, Wilderness! You get assigned a piece of asphalt large enough to park 2 cars, which backs up to a ten or twelve foot strip of dirt, where you get to set up your tent. Of course, this dirt strip is shared with the camping site just like yours on the other side of the same strip. Thus, if you park in the middle, you get enough room to walk around your vehicle and just barely enough dirt to pitch a family tent on. The sites went on and on for many hundreds. This campground also carried the highest fee of anyplace we camped at. Welcome to California!
The next day, our last, we stopped at San Simeon to see if we could view the Hearst Castle. Again, the place was mobbed. The earliest tour we could take required a 3 hour wait. We just left, and drove up Highway 1 back home, stopping for a picnic in Big Sur.
End of report. Some additional hints to make travel with kids easier: We brought a large bag of small wrapped presents to give out when behavior warrants. If this is sufficiently random, yet connected with specific behavior, then the general tolerability level improves. It doesnt work to say, If you do this, you will get a prize. You say, Do this, and sometimes carry out the or else clause. When the whining, biting, screaming, kicking, he touched me!, spitting, and punching frequencies are low enough, you can then (sometimes) hand out gifts. Letting them bring along a number of their own toys, especially paper and crayons, helps keep them occupied for the travel periods. Keeping these periods short, with frequent breaks where they can get out and run around helps, too.
Quiz question: When and where did we use the inflatable boat?
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This page last modified on 14-Feb-2004