3-28-2014 Boondock Sites and Camping in Mojave National Preserve

major mapThis post is specifically about what we found when wandering around the preserve this past few days.  If you aren’t interested in boondocking, just skip it.  I have included more detail than usual for some of the folks that I know who are definitely interested in boondocking. 

Link to live google map

First, I have embedded a live Google Map I created with labels for sites and intersections.  Hopefully if you click on the map, you will be redirected to Google and will have the ability to zoom in, mouse hover over the points to read the labels. Eventually I will figure out how to actually “embed” the map so that it shows rather than just the link, but this will have to do for now.

The rest of the maps are clipped images for each area.

When we first stopped off at the visitor center at the Depot in Kelso, the attendant was a bit vague about RV camping in the area.  The words in the brochure say “Roadside camping is permitted in areas that have been traditionally used for this purpose:  Sites with existing rock or metal fire rings should be considered suitable for roadside camping.”

overview mapHe pointed vaguely to a couple of areas on the preserve map, including the area near the cross, and the area at the dunes, but didn’t tell us about the other two sites, or have any indication of road conditions getting into any of the sites.  The only developed campground that is suitable for larger RV’s (even our size at 26 feet) is the Hole in the Wall Campground where we spent one night.

I do have to correct the last post.  It is Hole in the Wall, not Hole in the Rock, and I will edit the previous post accordingly, but anyone reading has probably already read the post and will not see the correction.

site 1 2 3The first site where we camped was actually a small developed campsite, with a picnic table provided by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and a fire ring, at the base of the white cross WW I memorial.  We attempted to enter via the eastern side of the road and found it rutted and too rocky for the rig, had to unhook and back out, and continue to the west side of the small loop to enter the site.The Mojave_063

Some folks with pickups had traveled from this spot to the other sites I have mentioned, but we wouldn’t take our rig back there from this direction.

Walking around checking roads the next day, we found the easternmost entrance to the camping area, and walked the road back to the pavement.  Here we found two great sites.dirt entry road to dry camp sites

Site number 2 on the list was the very best, with a dirt road access that we could easily handle in our rig. It was my favorite.left turn from dirt entry road to first campsite at the base of these rocks

Site number 3 is just west of site 2 on the same side road, however there is a bit of a rough patch that might be trouble for clearance for motorhomes.  We probably wouldn’t try it in the rig, but some might. I would highly suggest that before taking your motorhomes to these sites, that you check them out with your toad.second campsite on rougher road left of dirt entry road

We were exploring on foot, and there may be other sites on the road toward the mine north to discover if you have the time and a toad to do so. 

dunes and granite mountainThe Dunes road, as I mentioned, was incredibly rough, but after we turned around we discovered if we kept our speed to less than 5 mph, literally, we could have traveled the 3 miles to the campsite.  A previous commenter mentioned this site, so I included it in the map if you are willing to drive the road.

The Mojave_139The Granite Mountain sites are incredibly gorgeous, just incredible.  With any kind of small rig with high clearance you could probably get back in there and it would be worth it.

At the Hole in the Wall campground, there is a dump station and potable water with a hose to fill your water tanks.  We didn’t see anything requiring campground registration in order to use the dump or take on water.  It may have been there.  At half price for the senior pass, it would have been worth the $6. fee to dump and get water if we wanted to stay out longer in the area.

site 4 5The Wildhorse Canyon road that travels west and then north from just south of the Hole in the Wall visitor center is also good dirt road.  It isn’t nearly as rough as the Dunes road to sites 4 and 5 on the map. 

The Mojave_188These sites are big and flat and are close to the Ring Trail and some fascinating volcanic rock cliffs.  They could accommodate 2 or 3 rigs if you were friends.  There was only one fire pit at site 4, but plenty of space.The Mojave_186

The Mojave_187The road from this area north toward Mid Hills campground is also dirt, and rough and narrow.  We were in 4 wheel drive, but probably didn’t need it.  I wouldn’t take a motorhome that way.  A truck and camper could manage it OK.  Mid Hills wasn’t nearly as charming as the other areas of the park.  Once a juniper woodland, there was a devastating fire in recent years that has left the place feeling desolate and rather depressing.

The Mojave_212We did see the entrance to the Black Canyon Group Camp, near the main Hole in the Wall campground, and I would imagine this is where the rally that Carol spoke of will be held.  There is no camping anywhere around the Kelso Visitor Center or on any of the major paved roads in the preserve.

The Mojave National Preserve is a treasure land of wild desert space.  We visited in late March, which I would imagine would be the high season before summer heat.  There were some flowers blooming, the winds were extremely high, but that was case all over the southwest on the days that we were there.

If you want a true desert boondocking experience, and like to be alone in the wild open space, this a a perfect place to be.

03-27-2014 Mojave Wild

Current Location: Mojave National Preserve 41 F

morning at Hole in the Wall campgroundIt isn’t yet 6AM and I am watching the waning crescent moon rise through long black clouds to the east.  There is just enough light to see the outline of Mesa Mountain, east of the Hole in the Rock where we are camped.  Venus is brilliant nearby, and I wish I had the will to dig out the telephoto, dig out the tripod, hook it all up and see if I could actually create an image that would remind me of this moment. Instead I’ll write of it, and know that it would take a better photographer than I am to catch the feeling. 

We will be home on April 1st.  This may be our last night in the wild darkness of the desert, and a wild rocking night it was!  After spending such magical time near Virgin, and wanting more, we initially planned to travel north through Cedar City and then take another back road to the Great Basin National Park.

The Mojave_072One of the blessings of boondocking in our sweet spot, was the perfect Verizon signal for our JetPack and the ability to check on the weather.  For the first time in the entire three months of winter travel, we had to shift our plans completely to accommodate the weather gods and our common sense.  Predictions for the next few days included high wind warnings, snow and temperatures in the 20’s at the lowest elevations near Great Basin near Baker, and unknown snow and wind over the entire western side of Nevada.  No way home.

We studied maps and weather and more maps and checking our calendar, came up with a simple plan.  Head south on I-15 toward Barstow on the gorgeous sunny non windy day we had left, and then hunker down at Edwards AFB Family Camp and wait the three days of harsh weather with hookups and a place to do laundry.  Then, once the snow warnings lifted over the Tehachapi 58 route, we could get over the pass to the I-5 route north and home.  Sigh.  I-5 again?  Not even 395?

Mojave mound cactus echinocereus triglochidiatusWith predictions for snow at home in Rocky Point around the time of our arrival, we may decide to go to Grants Pass instead.  We will see.  Weather predictions are often a lot worse than the actuality.  Then again, sometimes they are spot on.  Predictions for our westward direction included wind, and last night was possibly the windiest we have ever experienced on the road.  I was glad we were in the west, where tornadoes are extremely rare, but there were a few times last night when I thought surely we were going to be blown over.

We pulled in the slides not long after camping, but during an especially dramatic gust, I even picked up the levelers. It somehow seemed a bit safer to me to have the MoHo settled solidly on all six tires, even if a bit less than level.

The Mojave_057Driving west from Las Vegas on I-15 was fast and smooth.  Vegas from the high vantage point of the freeway looks different, even bigger somehow that the view along the strip.  Traffic was heavy but moving steadily on a Tuesday afternoon.  Just past the state line, we were suddenly shocked by the brightest artificial light I think I have ever seen.  Huge towers were beaming intense white light and below them something that looked like a strange lake was reflecting the sunlight. 

Sometimes it is fun to have the iPad along with a great signal.  Searching “bright lights near the Nevada California border” I came up with this.  We were passing the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, which just came online on February 13.  Mirrors concentrate light and then somehow the light heats water for power generation.  Sounds like science fiction, and it certainly looked like it.  Funny, with all the hoopla about Solara, neither of us had ever heard a word of this successful solar power generating project.

I-15 Mojave Rest AreaNear the state line in California is a rest area, and it was time for an Abby walk.  What a great surprise.  Many states in the south have beautiful state of the art visitor centers, and we love to visit them.  Here, however, a simple rest area was gorgeous, and rich with information about this part of California, including the nearby Mojave National Preserve, spanning 1.6 million acres between I-15 and I-40 and east to the Nevada border.

I-15 Mojave Rest AreaThe rest area was artfully designed, with outdoor displays that told the story of the area in a way that could be enjoyed without entering a building or requiring staff to disperse brochures.  It was beautifully kept, and even the bathrooms were tiled with images and stories. 

Even before reaching the rest area, though, Mo and I had decided to stop in Baker to fill the tanks so we could boondock another night.  The excitement of camping at the AFB wasn’t all that alluring, and we thought, what the heck, let’s slip into the preserve, boondock for another night and then we can continue west to Edwards.

The Mojave National PreserveMo had visited the preserve in the past, not only in this decade with the baby MoHo, but in the 60’s when she was teaching at China Lake, California.  Our first stop was at Kelso, where the visitor center is located in the beautifully restored Kelso Depot.  Anyone reading this blog for any length of time, knows how much we love desert, but often the Mojave experience is filled with development and dotted with desert garbage. 

Not here.  I am so incredibly grateful for this space.  Unlike Joshua Tree, which we also love, it is farther from most of the big cities of Southern California and so far, is blessedly empty.  Incredibly empty, and at first it seems like what my daughter calls a lot of “white hot nothing”.  With just a little time and a bit more effort, the fascinating diversity of the Mojave becomes clear in a space that feels more remote than either Joshua Tree or Death Valley, if not quite as dramatic.

The Mojave National PreserveThe roads through the preserve, even the paved roads, can be a bit rough and bumpy, and are two lane narrow routes without shoulders.  There are only two developed campgrounds, but after visiting with the staff at the beautifully restored Kelso Depot Visitor Center, we learned that “roadside” camping is allowed in places where there has been a fire ring and previous use. 

Depot at Kelso at The Mojave National PreserveThe Visitor Center is wonderful, with beautiful photographic displays on the walls of the restored Craftsman style rooms.  There is a gift shop, interpretive exhibits, three excellent movies to view in the small theater, and art exhibits.  I especially enjoyed the recordings of the “booming sands” of the Kelso Dunes

Traveling back toward the northern part of the preserve toward Cima, we turned northwest again to find the World War I memorial.  There is a white cross on the hill, which after some lengthy controversy, remains. Mo camped here in back on her solo desert trip back in 2009.

The Mojave_059Just behind the cross is a small campsite, with a fire ring and a table provided by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and before dark we were settled in for our first gorgeous, if wildly windy night.  The winds didn’t come up until midnight or so, but with the associated cold front, by morning we felt a huge difference in the desert air.

There are several boondock sites that we found in that vicinity, and in other parts of the preserve as well, and I decided to do a separate post about boondocking in the preserve.  That post will come later.

The Mojave_110The morning was dramatic with wildly speeding clouds flying by and the winds never let up as the day progressed.  We headed south back toward Cima and Kelso, with plans to see the magnificent Kelso Dunes, some of the highest in the country.  The Kelso Depot Visitor Center is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, but there is an open restroom with a jug friendly spigot.  Our water was low, and we filled our extra jugs, just in case we decided to boondock another night at the dunes.  Still couldn’t quite get our heads around giving up the wild desert for the luxuries of camping at the base. After several nights being out, we weren’t really as well prepared for more boondocking as we could have been, but we had turned off the water pump, to be sure we didn’t run the tank dry.The Mojave_099

Seven miles south of Kelso is the ‘2 wheel drive unpaved’ road leading west to the Dunes and another possible campsite.  Within the first few hundred yards, however, we were badmouthing the folks that think roads should be surfaced with gravel.  The washboards were so very bad that Mo decided it was too much for the rig and we found a place to unhook and turn around.  With the winds at 40 plus mph, the dunes looked less and less inviting.  One of the reasons I most wanted to see them was to hear the booming singing sound that the sand makes at times.  I figured that with the high winds I wouldn’t hear it anyway.

The Mojave_151With a bit of disappointment, we once again decided on going to Edwards, with hookups and WiFi, to wait out the winds and the weather.  Continuing south just a short distance, we found another dirt road leading back into the Granite Hills, and couldn’t resist unhooking once again and taking the Tracker for a little spin around the hidden campsites tucked away in the boulders.  Mo camped here in the 60’s with some of her students from China Lake and had fond memories of climbing around on the boulders. These sites could make us want to get the tent out again if we had it with us!

The Mojave_137Back to the rig, and looking at the map, we saw the road to the Hole in the Rock developed campground was about 50 miles to the east and north.  Even after the fill up in Baker, fuel was getting low.  If we wanted to see that part of the preserve, we needed gas.  We could travel some miles out of our way to find a new wild world, or we could travel west and do the common sense thing and camp at Edwards. 

Once again, the desert won, and we finally found a gas station just off I-40, 7 miles west of the Essex Road leading north in the preserve toward the Hole in the Wall area, where there would be a dump station, and potable water to fill our tank.  We paid 4.99 per gallon for 87 octane gas, and laughed about how our free boondocking had turned expensive.  It is funny how you can figure anything out, and messing with the numbers, we decided our average cost for the two nights in the desert was about $20 per night, factoring in the half price $6. fee we paid for our second night at Hole in the Rock.The Mojave_161

The gas station, by the way, is located right on the famous unnamed Route that we visited previously in the unnamed T city in New Mexico.  I decided to NOT take photos or even mention the place because I would rather not create another firestorm with all the folks who probably love it.  It was rather interesting, with lots of memorabilia, a cute little nook for hamburgers, and a lot of interesting people around.  I felt much of the famous route culture at the spot, so if you are a lover of that route, search it out.

dust storms near Mid Hills campgroundThe winds had never let up, and by the time we were on I-40, the sandstorms were everywhere, reducing visibility dramatically.  We could barely see the mountains, even as we approached the campground.  We dumped, filled the water tank, and settled into a nice site in the upper area of the camp.  It was a luxury to turn on the water pump, for sure!  We weren’t technically boondocking on this night, but it felt as big and dark and empty as if we were.  Only a few campers have braved the winds and sand storms to camp here.

Mid Hills Road in the dust stormAfter making such an effort to get here, we thought in spite of the dingy skies, we should try to see a bit of the area.  The Hole in the Wall visitor center at this location is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but they did have some trail brochures outside that gave a general idea of the local routes. 

Another two wheel drive unpaved road took us north toward the one other developed campground in the preserve, Mid Hills Campground.  This is definitely not a place for RV’s, mostly because of the rough road access, and with a recent fire leaving behind the skeletons of old junipers, it wasn’t very inviting.  I can imagine it once was a lovely place to tent camp, cooler than the surrounding desert.

The Mojave_190Home to the rig before dark, I made a good taco soup for supper and turned the generator on long enough to make corn muffins to go with it.  Tasty. 

Now, as I write, the winds are almost completely still and the dust has settled from the skies.  To the west, everything is crystal clear.  To the east I can see a low brown cloud of dust obscuring the distant hills.  Once again, we will head for Edwards AFB, with only one night instead of three. With WiFi again available, I will post the blog, read others, write about boondock sites in Mojave Preserve, and check weather sites and snow predictions as we decide which route to take home Friday morning.

 morgning at Hole in the Wall Campground

3-24-2014 Zion roads and Coral dunes

Zion_195As I said in an earlier post, we thought perhaps we could slip into Zion proper on a Monday morning without the crowds for which this park is famous.  Silly us.  In spite of the crowds, however, the road through the tunnel to the east side of the park is something I didn’t want to miss.  It is spectacular.

it will be pretty once we get thereWe were camped much too close to the iconic National Park to miss seeing its wonders, crowds or not.  Hiking was not on the agenda for the day, or at least nothing much beyond a short walk or two.  With only one day, we decided to play “drive through tourist”. You know, you see them at most every National Park or Monument.  The ones in the car driving slowly along, gawking at the sights that they can see from their windows, never emerging from the vehicle to actually experience the magic in more depth.

see zion on the giant screen?? beat the trafficYou know us well enough by now to know that we don’t do that all the time.  Just sometimes.  Still, in spite of our plans, we couldn’t manage to stay in the car entirely.  I did jump out now and then for a photo, and yes, we did manage a short hike/walk before the day was finished.

Hiking is what you ‘do’ in Zion Canyon.  This part was as I remembered, it is all about UP.  Everything is up, up, up, and trying to take photos is a test of framing skill.  I would shoot those magnificently colored eroded cliffs, carved by the innocent looking Virgin River, and then think, “Geez, everything just looks the same”.  Up, and Red and White, and more UP, with a tiny bit of fresh new green in the canyon bottom from the spring explosion of box elder, Fremont cottonwoods, and willow.

road down from the tunnel in ZionIt was early in the day when we drove east on Highway 9, through Virgin, through the sweet little town of Rockville, and into the gentrified, once Mormon pioneer community of Springdale, gateway to the park.  Springdale was glitzy, with some rather ostentatious homes that looked incredibly out of place, a lovely paved bike trail, and all the associated restaurants, B and B’s, hotels, motels, shops and “fun stuff” associated with many National Parks.

outside displays make for a lot less crowding at the visitor centerVisitation to Zion is incredible, 7th on the list of the ten most visited national parks in the US, with 2,807,387 visits in 2013.  That is an average of nearly 8,000 visits per day, and I would imagine that some of the worst winter days don’t see a lot of people, although winter is Zion isn’t daunting.  Looking up these statistics, I was happy we weren’t visiting the Great Smoky Mountains NP, first on the list with 9,354,695 visits in 2013.  Something tells me that as a nation, we love our national parks, so why are we not funding them properly?

The soil survey program in the National Parks has been headed by a good friend of mine for several years.  He just retired, and just before his retirement, all funding for soil survey was ended except for projects already funded and in progress.  It isn’t just scientific programs like soil survey that are ending, it is all sorts of other support needed for these parks to function well that are being cut. 

lovely visitor center with outdoor displaysOn this morning, I saw a great example of how the Park Service is dealing with reduced funding in incredibly creative ways.  The stunning Visitor Center had most of its displays outside the main lobby.  The signs were beautifully done, easily understood and arranged in a way that visitors could learn about the park without even entering the small bookstore.  Fewer people to interpret, but interpretive displays that made personal interaction a lesser requirement.  Good for the parks. 

We spent some time reviewing the hikes we might take in the future, looking at the plants, animals, geology, and layout of the park, reading a bit about the history of the area before we got back in the car to drive through the famous tunnel.

on our way to the tunnelCurrently the tunnel is open to RV’s, with an extra $15.00 fee required in addition to the regular $25.00 fee for simply driving through the park.  This is one place where the senior pass saved us a bunch of cash, even without the rig along.  Here is a link to questions about driving an RV on the Zion to Mt Carmel highway through the tunnel.

The story of the road and the building of the tunnel is fascinating, an engineering feat that was once considered impossible.  Once the tunnel was completed in 1930, roads between the national parks on the Colorado Plateau were connected in a way to make travel between them much easier, and park visitation grew exponentially during the heyday of family car vacations from the 30’s forward.

waitingWe enjoyed the drive, patiently waiting for traffic here and there, and laughing about how this was the “experience’ of traveling in a national park any more.  Many parks now have shuttles available to manage the worst of the traffic, and in Zion, after March 31, cars are not allowed in Zion Canyon.  From April 1 through October in 2014, access to the canyon will be by shuttle only.  A large number of the most famous hikes in Zion are from trailheads in the canyon, so hiking will require some planning ahead.

The Zion-Mt Carmel Highway connects Springdale with Kanab, Utah.  West of Kanab, a side road leads to the Coral Pink Dunes State Park.  The scenery between Zion and the Dunes is a bit less spectacular than some, with high juniper covered plateaus punctuated by distant mesas and mountains.  I had been to the dunes in the past, only long enough to step on the sand and try to avoid the wild ATV’s screaming around having a great time.  When I visited, the state park was filled with campers and 4 wheelers, and the noise was deafening.

Zion_073Lots of fun for some folks, but not such a great place to wander sand dunes on foot.  On this beautiful March morning, however, we practically had the dunes to ourselves, and the state park campground was nearly empty.  What a treat!!  The sand is soft soft grains of eroded Navajo sandstone, the same soft pink coral color found in the Navajo slickrock near Lake Powell. The sand was softer and silkier than any I have ever felt, except maybe that little bit that we walked through in Antelope Canyon. Zion_067

Making our way back west, and re entering Zion NP, we were momentarily stopped by the typical wildlife jam found in most places where big critters hang out along the road.  Joining the jam, we turned around and watched the baby goats dance along the slickrock. 

goats on the slickrock at ZionOne young woman was parked right in the middle of the road, and kept waving us to go around.  Nope.  Not on your life.  It was a blind curve and we weren’t about to pass her!  As cars piled up behind us, I finally got out and said, “Sorry, we aren’t going to pass on a blind curve, could you maybe move forward and pull over a bit?”  She replied, “No, I am just waiting for my family” and didn’t move.  Finally, after some time, she figured out that she was going to have to do something and drove the 400 feet or so ahead where a turnout gave her some space and all the rest of us managed to get around her.  Ahh the joys of traveling a national park in a car!

mama and babies on the slickrock in ZionOnce back through the tunnel, we came to the turn toward the canyon and decided, what the heck, we won’t be back here soon.  Knowing that it would be bumper to bumper, we didn’t even think about hiking. 

At each trailhead, the lots were jammed and the cars were lined up on both sides of the road for some distance.  People were everywhere!  We could see the trails with lines and lines of people walking along, much like that line of ants that you see on Half Dome in Yosemite if you look closely. 

trailhead areas all jammed in Zion CanyonAt the end of the canyon is the famous view of The Great White Throne, iconic image of Zion, restrooms, and the trailhead for the Riverside Trail Walk, a short 2.2 mile round trip hike if you don’t attempt to cross the Virgin River into the Narrows.  Again, the parking lot was jammed, people were everywhere, and we had no plans to hike.  The Canyon knew better, however, and a parking slot opened up within a few feet of the trailhead.

Ok then.  Maybe we can brave the crowds for a simple walk, get out of the car at least once?  Ya think? 

Zion_175I can’t believe in the ability of the canyon to absorb all that humanity and still feel as wonderful as it did.  Within minutes of walking north into the canyon on the wide paved trail, the humanity thinned out and the beauty of the canyon and river was ours.  Sure, there were people, but it was totally worth it to experience the canyon in that late afternoon light.

Zion_201We took our time, enjoying the views, the light and shadow, watching the rock climbers a bit, listening to the birds and the water dripping on the canyon walls in the hanging gardens.  Two miles on a level trail doesn’t qualify as a “hike”, but at least we did get out of the car.

I plan to go back and read Mark’s accounts of the many hikes he and Bobbie have done in Zion and the time of year that they did them.  We enjoyed camping at Virgin so much, and I have a feeling that we will return to this area again, hopefully during late fall, and maybe actually manage at least some of the gorgeous hikes in Zion National Park.  For sure we can do the hikes that are accessible from the Kolob Canyon area that we explored yesterday. Zion_216Zion_214


3-24-2014 Boondock Heaven near Virgin, Utah

Clear and 70 degrees F just after sunset

Page to Virgin_008For veteran boondockers out west, three days is but a blink of an eye, but for us, as we travel home toward Oregon after nearly three months on the road, it is a great luxury. Our route is a new one for us, with points on the map chosen more for distance from the previous stop than anything in particular we might want to see.  In spite of that spontaneous movement north and west, great stuff just keeps showing up.

Page to Virgin_020Leaving behind the vast salmon colored sands of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the infamous Lake Powell, we entered the southwestern section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  I don’t do politics on this blog, but love him or hate him, the Grand Staircase, in my opinion, is the very best accomplishment of President Clinton.  One of those last minute deals that presidents sometimes do, the monument designation created a bunch of controversy.  Too bad. It covers 1.7 million acres of wild country, administered by the BLM for multiple use, and has protected some of the most magnificent wild places in the western US.

Page to Virgin_045It feels like home to me, having traveled the northwestern parts for years, both before and after the monument designation. Our little piece of Highway 89 toward Kanab yielded up stories of dinosaurs at the closed BLM visitor center, and a beautiful hike along a wash to the Toadstools, colorful formations in stone that look exactly like toadstools, or whatever else imagination can conceive. 

Page to Virgin_047It was hot enough that we let Abby rest in the MoHo while we hiked just a couple of miles along the wash and up eroded hills toward the toadstool plateau.  Wind and water once again worked their magic on the landscape, and the stormy skies to the west added just enough drama to make it fun.

Page to Virgin_049The prediction was for 0 percent chance of precipitation, and I was reminded of that as big fat drops hit the windshield when we got back in the rig to continue north. After our hike, we were both ready for ice cream, and the town of Kanab wasn’t too far off.

Sure enough, as soon as the internet came up on the phone, I searched for ice cream and found Three Bears Creamery Cottage.  This is the kind of restaurant you always hope to find out on the road and rarely actually do. The menu was creative, the bread was homemade from their own ground wheat, the soup smelled great and I wished we were in the mood for eating more than ice cream!  Instead we bought two single scoops in cones, for $2.50 each, and such cones you have never seen.  They were huge, and the ice cream was from a company called Russels, that I never heard of before, but was probably the best ice cream I have ever eaten.

Page to Virgin_061Our destination was Hurricane, Utah, a small town east of St George that I visited once a couple of decades ago.  We thought it would be nice to boondock somewhere in the Utah desert, and a quick email to Mark Johnson, veteran of years of camping in this part of the world, yielded a quick response.

Sure enough, we followed his suggestion, parked at the head of the road, unhooked to find a spot and were rewarded with utter perfection.  We are on a high point along a dirt road, just a couple of miles from the pavement, and we are utterly and completely alone.  The only activity is an occasional car traveling east or west, and a few mountain bikers peddling along just out of sight of our campsite until they are beyond us.

Page to Virgin_065The first night here, we had some wild winds, and a few raindrops, but by the next morning it was crystal clear and has stayed that way the entire time. Running the generator a bit in the morning and evening gives us power to charge up batteries and computers and check in on  emails and write a bit.  Otherwise our small single solar panel keeps the batteries fully charged for running the furnace at night when the temps get down to 40 or so by morning.

look really close and you can see the MoHo under the XThe MoHo is just below the x in this photo.  Look close.

With two full days to wander, we decided to take the dirt road up to Hurricane Mesa, what the locals call Monkey Mesa.  Another suggestion from Mark, and what a great one! I actually linked to Mark’s blog about the place because I think his information is more reliable than most.

Monkey Mesa_005I still can’t quite imagine anyone riding a bike up that road, certainly not me!  Once up on top the mesas opened up to fantastic views of mountains and canyons.  We read about why the place is called Monkey Mesa, although currently there are no chimps being ejected from test ejection seats on the 12,000 foot site.  There are still high fences and security all around, but no matter, we weren’t interested anyway.

Monkey Mesa_015The views were beyond magnificent.  The climb up the mesa is a bit thrilling as well, especially as a passenger on the outside edge.  Explain to me why the outside edge of a cliff is always on the passenger side?! Once on top we were treated to vistas of the west side of Zion and the Kolob Canyons on the northern edge of the National Park.

Monkey Mesa_045The mesas were lush and the road was excellent, even unpaved.  I had no map, but had researched the route a bit before we left, so knew that we could make a long loop and travel back down on the east side of the canyon through Virgin.  The route was easy to track, and except for one other car, we were completely alone.  It was so refreshing.

Monkey Mesa_065Coming down the road toward Virgin, we came to a sharp left turn with a sign that said we were entering Zion National Park.  Not a fee booth in sight, so we just ambled up the road and followed the signs to the Kolob Plateau area of the park and toward the Kolob Reservoir.  At more than 8,000 feet elevation, the aspens had yet to leaf out and there was ice on the edges of the very low reservoir.  With all our travels through red rock canyons, the brown trees and brown hills were a bit tiresome.  I can imagine it might be lovely when the aspens are leafed out, but we were happy to get back down to canyon country and red rock again.

Monkey Mesa_086Even on a Sunday afternoon, this section of Zion wasn’t terribly crowded, except for the trailheads.  As we passed, most of them were completely full of cars.  What I loved most about this drive was seeing Zion from a completely different perspective.  Instead of all the looking up and up and up, from here we could get a glimpse of the magnificent canyons from the top down, and see them in relation to the mesas that surrounded them.  The views were just wonderful.

Monkey Mesa_081Our red dirt road led us back to pavement, and then down to the small village of Virgin.  There isn’t a lot of shopping in Virgin, but there is a crazy place called Fort Zion, a souvenir shop with a restaurant and petting zoo for kids.  Lucky for us, tired and hungry from our day trip, they did have ice cream, good ice cream, and we happily bought a couple of cones to get us back to the rig and the waiting animals.

The evening was beautiful, and after supper we went for a walkabout along the plateau and through a nearby canyon before settling in for the night.  In all our years, I don’t think I have ever experienced nights as silent and dark as this place.  We leave all the shades open, and fall asleep to only starlight coming through the windows.  The moon is rising after 3 am now, so the darkness of the night is total.Page to Virgin_069

I love it here.  Love it.  Today we left early to explore the more popular parts of Zion, thinking that perhaps being a Monday, traffic wouldn’t be too bad.  But that is a story for the next blog.


3-21-2014 Advice From A Canyon

Lower Antelope C_144In spite of temperatures in the high 60’s, the sun is high and if not sheltered by some shade, feels white and hot as only high desert sun can feel.  The surrounding landscape reflects shades of salmon, not that bright red sockeye, but the pink Chinook slabs on ice in the fish case, pale and soft.  We are settled in for our last afternoon at the Page Lake Powell Campground, on the main road into the town of Page. 

It has been a good location and a good park for us to regroup a bit, pick up another month’s worth of mail sent by overnight express USPS general delivery.  “Overnight Delivery” in remote locations like this one often mean two overnights, but in our case it was three.  We planned for that possibility with a three day stay, and with delivery not as promised, will get our $19.99 refunded in full.  Good for us, too bad for the USPS.

It is amazing to me, that in all my years traveling around the Colorado Plateau, I never came to Page.  I did know that the Antelope Canyons, once called the Crack and the Corkscrew, were in the vicinity of Page.  I hiked slots all over Utah, and looked at photos of Antelope, but somehow the trip never happened.  It was a bucket list trip for me, one I knew I would have to someday experience.

I can’t help wishing I had done it prior to the 1997 tragic death of 11 canyon hikers in a flash flood.  A Navajo permit was always a requirement, but now non native folks are not allowed in the canyons without a Navajo guide.  Our decision to travel through Page was Mo’s suggestion, and took my breath away.  Yes.  Lower Antelope C_161

The minute we arrived, the young man at the campground desk called their favorite tour group for me, Antelope Canyon Tours.  All photographic tours for the next several days fully booked.  All prime tours for the next several days fully booked.  “Prime” means a tour during the magical light hours of 11AM and 2PM, when the sun shines into the canyon forming the famous light beam that folks come from all over the world to photograph.

DSC_0036With a bit more conversation, after he realized that I was a party of one, (Mo declined this part of the canyon), he called the company again and they found room for me on an 11:30 AM tour for Upper Antelope Canyon.

Visiting Lower Antelope Canyon is completely different.  Entrance to this part of Antelope is administered by a single family, and no reservation is needed at the current time.  You simply show up, pay the $26.00 fee (including the 6.00 tribal fee) and wait for a guide to take your group through the canyon.

I was so excited, and actually nervous on the morning before my Upper Canyon tour.  I knew that it would be crowded, and that the lighting conditions were challenging.  I thought that even though I wasn’t on the photographic tour that I could still take my tripod and read extensively the night before about tips for shooting the famous colors and light in the canyon.

Antelope Canyon Tours uses open 4 wheel drive jeep type wagons that hold 12 people in the back.  They picked me  up at the campground, a free service, and took me back to town where I joined the several dozen people waiting to leave on the 11:30 tour.  I was told then, that without being part of the official photographic tour, I could not take my tripod. 

CaptureWith f8 and f11 being the sweet spot and shutter speeds of more than a minute in some cases, I knew I was doomed.  I thought well, ok, it doesn’t matter really.  I am not coming to this canyon because I want to take pictures, I am coming to this canyon to be IN this canyon, so took off the tripod and accepted that my photos would be personal reminders and not technical perfection.  I set the ISO really high and went for it.

DSC_0067All the photos in the world, no matter how many times you see them, will not give you a clue of what it is like to be here.  All the crowds, all the rushing through of group after group, the clicking shutters, the calls of the guides trying to get people out of the way as the next group comes through, not one bit of this interferes with the amazing visual experience of walking through these canyons.

I found myself slipping into a meditative state, trying to be in the moment as much as possible while I also tried to change camera settings and frame and shoot.  It was a test, a spiritual test, I am sure. Of course I would love to walk alone at my own pace through this sacred space created by time and wind and water.  Me and a whole lot of other people, I am sure. Some precious places in the world simply require humans to accept that there are other humans around who want to experience them as well.

The trip from town to the canyons takes about 20 minutes or so, with much of it in Antelope Wash on thick soft sand.  It is dusty.  It is rough.  Of all the people on the tour with me, not one spoke English.  I was treated to the sounds of German, French, Japanese, something I am pretty sure was Czech, and several languages I didn’t recognize.  This is a very popular place and people from all over the world make the journey to Page, Arizona, to experience these magical slot canyons.

DSC_0076We were in the canyon just a little over an hour before we were herded back into the trucks and I was dropped off at my campground on the way to town.  I think my hair was stiff with dust and my face streaked from the dust and the happy tears that kept falling as I walked through the canyon.  Dumb.  The place just made my eyes water.

I was so happy that the next day I had another chance to be in an Antelope slot.  Mo and I woke early, and were on the road toward Lower Antelope Canyon a little after 8.  With tours beginning at 8:30, when we arrived there were already many people waiting.  We paid our money and within a minute were in line with our Navajo tour guide. 

Photos I had seen of this canyon showed people entering through the narrow slit in the earth from above, but our entry was on the south side of the canyon down many flights of steep stairs, but wasn’t difficult at all.  The narrow entrance shown in many images of Lower Antelope Canyon is now the exit, or at least for this day it was.

Entering once again into the reflected light of Navajo sandstone was thrilling, and this time Mo got to see it as well. Mo is a bit less excitable than I am, so I was happy to see her eyes widen in delight as we descended into the canyon.  Our tour group once again had people from all over the world, and included several small children, and even folks packing babies in carriers.  I was glad that all I had to carry was my camera!Lower Antelope C_001

Once again, the canyon light was breathtaking.  The morning sun was in the perfect position to reflect and bounce light around the swirling walls in ways that direct lighting could not do.  Our young guide was great, managing all the people gently, and yet still taking my camera for some shots that he didn’t want me to miss. 

Lower Antelope C_154Lower Antelope C_015Lower Antelope Canyon is a completely different experience than the Upper Canyon.  The floor of the Lower canyon is more narrow and the upper part is wider, allowing more light to enter and more bounce.  While orange and shades of salmon are common, in the lower canyon the purples and golden shades seemed to show up in the images more dramatically.  Looking at the sandstone up close, it is all the same soft pale salmon color, but all the color in the imagery is about the light and how it is reflected and bounced around the complex walls of the canyon.

As with any kind of photography, settings make all the difference, with the camera seeing things the eye cannot.  The eye and the soul however, working together in the canyons, can see and feel things the camera will never capture.  All the techniques and tripods and equipment and time in the world can’t capture what it feels like to walk in either canyon.  It is a life time, don’t miss it if you can help it, kind of experience.  Lower Antelope C_060

This afternoon, sifting through the hundreds of images of swirling color, I thought of Erin a lot. Her photos of icebergs in Greenland must have been similar.  Frame after frame of shape and color and light and shadow are so incredibly seductive.  Blue water frozen in place and reflecting light and pale sand frozen in time and sculpted by water, reflecting light, somehow the same. Lower Antelope C_188

I could happily drown in this frozen sand filled with light.

If you want to get lost in the pictures as well, the Jpegs will be posted to a google album in the next few days. Check the link on the upper left side of this blog.  Finer resolution photos will be waiting till I get back home.Lower Antelope C_041

I will close with the “Advice from a Canyon”, from a sweat shirt I bought at Chaco Canyon:

Carve Out a Place for Yourself

Aspire to New Plateaus

Listen to the Voice of the Wind

Don’t get Boxed In

Stand the Test of Time

It’s OK to be a Little Off the Wall

Reach Deep!