Road Trips

National Park Excursion Part 2

COVID 19 kept us off the airplanes in 2020. So, we took off on a second road trip to visit the national parks in the western US. Our mission was to see the arid high desert areas of Utah and Colorado with their vibrant blue skies, red canyons and their vividly contrasting mountain snowcaps, then head to the parks in California. Due to COVID and the fires burning all over the state we stuck to southern California and saw the spectacular Joshua Tree National Park located in the Mojave desert.

Our first stop was South Fork and Creede, Colorado. Creede is a historic mining town which retains much of its vintage character. There are plenty of choices for food alongside unique shopping in this area. We also enjoyed Silver Thread Byway 149, which has plenty of scenic stops, and the Batchelor Historic Loop, a 17-mile drive which explores the historic mining district above Creede. In Creede, the mining museum, which is completely underground, is chilly in the fall but a great deal of fun. Unique historic places to eat near or close by Creede are the Creede Hotel & Restaurant and the Windsor Hotel in Del Norte. There are plenty of other restaurants in downtown Creede and Del Norte that serve great food.

In Cortez, Colorado, we stayed in a beautiful home set up against Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, a large archeological site which contains a huge array of relics of native cultures, primarily Ancestral Puebloan ruins and a winery (see a room with a view) close by. In Durango we had lunch in the Diamond Belle Saloon in the beautifully restored historic Strater Hotel, built in 1887. A balcony table affords a nice view of the restaurant. Then we were off for a ride on the mighty Silverton historic steam train, completed in 1882. It originally hauled gold and silver and mine ores from the San Juan Mountains, but is now a scenic passenger train. This is an absolutely dazzling ride in an open railcar. On a clear November day, a good portion of the ride boasts foliage of changing colors alongside a clear rolling river. Another interesting and highly recommended site nearby is the Mesa Verde National Park, a UNESCO world Heritage Site. The Cliff Dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home between 600 to 1300 AD are a scenic and easy hike, and a must see if you are in this area. It is one the best preserved sites of its type in the United States. It is closed during the winter and early spring.

We had planned to spend Halloween night in the shadow of the monuments in Monument Valley, but it was closed due to COVID. We were anxious to see the sites and inspiration for such movies as “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers” filmed here by legendary director John Ford. Instead, we drove to Kayenta, then through the Valley on Highway 163 to Mexican Hat and onto Boulder (Utah, not Colorado, via Highways 261 to 95 to 24, then to 12). The views along the way are spectacular and at least we could see the monuments of the valley in the distance. This was an unforgettable full day drive full of imposing stone monuments and impressive canyonlands. The best day of driving during the entire trip. We unexpectedly ended up on a crazy dirt road known as Moki Dugway a  five kilometer off road experience loaded with switchbacks and narrow steeply sloping grade. The views from here are staggering but it is a route which should be cautiously driven and I would not attempt it in the high season of traveling when there a many other travelers unless it is early morning or late afternoon. It is also not a good road during a rain storm.

By the time we reached Boulder, Utah we were enveloped in steeply walled canyons and red rock cliff faces and surrounded with large spherical boulders. Utah has some of the most spectacular rock landscapes on the planet and some of the most memorable national parks. Two were mentioned in my last national parks road trips, Canyonlands and Arches National Park. It is a land of contrasts with mountain snowcaps and arid desert landscapes. All of the major geological periods are exposed in Utah through its rocks and fossils. This time around we were interested in seeing Capitol Reef National Park and the Grand Staircase in Escalante. Tiny Boulder (population 240) allowed proximity to both. We drove up to Boulder via Scenic Byway 12, a dramatically scenic road. There is an amazingly secluded cabin in a lush juniper pinion forest which had great views toward the Escalante Staircase (see a room with a view).

Because of the deep sand drifts on the backroads and the high cost of extracting your vehicle if you get stuck, we hired a jeep and a driver to see the more remote areas of the Capitol Reef Park. Back Country Safaris was our host. There are plenty of paved sections of the park but we really wanted an off road experience. Mason was our wonderfully informed driver and guide. We had a blast touring this area and learning its geology, biology, culture and history. I was able to take many more photos not being behind the wheel. From shape-shifting Native Americans to the Mormon faith there seemed to be no query on any subject that Mason could not answer—and we asked him a lot! It was definitely money well spent. Perhaps, the highlight was driving through a briskly running creek! Some of the best sights in the park are Hickman Natural Bridge, Fruita Historic District, Cathedral Valley, where you will see The Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. We really appreciated that this park was much less traveled  than  the others. Another Park Goblin Valley State Park is also in the area nearby it is full of mystically shaped spires and formations for which it gets its name. There are so many parks and not enough time to see them all. After all Utah has the third largest concentration of parks in the US. Only Alaska and California have more.

To visit Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion we stayed in Hatch which is very convenient to both parks. Bryce Canyon is an ever-changing environment. Temperatures easily vary 40° or more in a single day; so it is best to layer your clothes. An early morning chill is followed by warmer daytime temperatures. The light shifts from dawn to dusk with slowly evolving shades of color and fluctuating shadows, then at dusk the cool temperatures return and the dark skies are filled with illuminating stars. The purity of the air and little light pollution create the perfect atmosphere for world class star gazing. The high elevations create the setting that weathers the cliffs and columns and spires. Erosional forces of frost wedging and rainwater have created unique landscapes which include slot canyons, thin walls of rock called fins, and “windows” which are the holes in the rock. There are also natural amphitheaters, and spires known as hoodoos. Limber pines cling dramatically to the rocky slopes in hopes of getting a bit of sun. Most visitors use the scenic drive to 13 viewpoints over the amphitheaters. There are also 50 miles of hiking trails through the park. One hike down to Wall Street past the amphitheater to the Queens Garden Path is sublime. This park is particularly beautiful in the early morning light and at sunset as the sun sets the rocks ablaze with color.

 Like Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park is an ever changing environment. The movements of air and water have created spectacular red cliffs and canyons. The landscape shifts from wooded highlands to lowland deserts. Zion’s very name means “Promised Land.” The variation in elevations, from 3,600 to 8,700 feet, creates different ecosystems. The higher reaches include ponderosa pine, fir and aspens while the lower desert regions have pinon cliffrose and mesquite. 

Zion was the home of the Ancestral Pueblo, followed by the Southern Paiute. In in the 1860s came early Mormon Pioneers.  Popular artist Thomas Moran captured the essence of the Zion Canyon in one of his paintings which put it on the path to being a National Park and prime travel destination.

The Zion Canyon Shuttle is the best way to see the park it is a hop on and off bus that will take you to important trailheads. But—for those who arrive by car—finding a place to park to catch the shuttle can be challenging. Early morning or later in the day may be the best choice for finding a spot There is also the six mile scenic drive which you can drive yourself if your time is limited or if you cannot find a space. From the shuttle you will be dropped off at trailheads to see the scenic overlooks or start your hiking adventure. One of the best hikes is the Canyon Overlook, which includes some of the finest photographic shots of the park. Only 100 feet separate the parking lot to the overlook. The Emerald Pool lower hike is 1.4 miles and is good for all skill levels of hikers. The path leads to shimmering waterfalls and glowing pools of water. The Zion Narrows is one of the best short hikes, but involves wading through some shallow parts of the Virgin River. Flash floods are possible for this trek. Weeping Rock is another easy short hike and is striking, especially in the cold months when the dripping rock forms icicles.(  it has been closed indefinitely because of falling rock debris hopefully they will get it ready for next season after it has been checked for safety)  One of the more challenging hikes is Angels Landing, a portion of the trail cut into steeply rising solid rock. It is a strenuous climb with sharp drop-offs and narrow paths. Staggering views await those who brave the challenges (but if you are afraid of heights it might not be for you). There have been accidents on this particular trek.

There is something for every hiker at all skill levels at Zion, and you will not forget the colorful cliffs, the sound of the flowing water and the ever changing display of color and light on the water and rocks from sunrise to dusk.

From Hatch, we drove to Pioneer Town, California, near Joshua Tree National Park which was a six hour drive. We stayed in Olive Adobe, an interesting vacation rental filled with its owner’s vintage western memorabilia. (see a room with a view) We were hoping to have dinner at Pappy and Harriet’s restaurant when we arrived but it was simply too crowded. It is definitely on the agenda next time and it is right next to the old film studio built for filming vintage 1940s and 50s westerns with a Main Street which  includes a saloon, bank, bath house and livery stables. Quite a unique spot in the middle of the Mojave.

Joshua Tree National Park contains two different desert environments, the Mojave and the Colorado. This is an arid low desert and a shrubby high desert ecosystem. It is full of its namesake tree—the crooked, bushy trees that look like something out of a science fiction movie. The rocky formations and the trees, which are a member of the Agave family, create an out-of-this-world landscape that is ruggedly beautiful. This area supports a variety of wildlife including coyotes, jackrabbits, bobcats and the endangered Mojave desert tortoise. There are plenty of tails to hike along with biking , horseback riding, and because of the unique rocks formations it is a great area for rock climbing.

Legend has it that it was named by Mormon immigrants that came across the Colorado River from Utah for the biblical figure Joshua. The Joshua trees are said to embody him with his hands upstretched in prayer. It is absolutely a one of a kind park with spectacular vistas – spend one night under the dark skies and  shimmering stars of this desert, and you will be hooked.


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