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.