(17th – 30th January, 2016)
Utah didn’t fit in a single article as we originally thought. We had so many amazing experiences that we couldn’t possibly do it justice trying to pack it all into a single article, not to mention its length would challenge even our most devote readers’ attention span. So the planned one article turned into two…
We had seen a lot of fantastic pictures of the famous Glen Canyon and so thought that since we were in the neighborhood we should stop by for a visit. Though, when we arrived the little town of Bullfrog had a strange atmosphere, almost like a ghost town; and there was nothing to be seen of the amazing views that we saw in all the photos. Hundreds of houseboats were lined up along the shoreline, or on trailers in huge parking lots; we could only image what the lake would look like during the summer. It became clear to us that the beautiful parts of the canyon are apparently only accessible by boat. So, somewhat disappointed, we turned around and headed instead to Natural Bridges National Monument. Natural Bridges is a small park that, as the name implies, is comprised of a series of natural stone bridges. The bridges can mostly be viewed from a little loop road that runs through the park or via the many hiking trails. The campground, to our delight, was open and event better free of charge during winter. There was even a tap with drinking water at the visitor center that wasn’t frozen solid. We selected a nice spot for us and set up camp. That evening, with the full moon and its light reflecting off of the snow it was so bright that we had no need of our headlamps or flashlights to cook – a really cool experience that one can only have in winter! Also, since the park is so far away from everything it is an ideal place for stargazing, apparently it’s one of the darkest places in the USA – when not currently a full moon. Thankfully the moon set very early in the evening so we took advantage of the clear night sky to study the brilliant canopy of stars above us. We were so keen on learning more about the stars, by that time, that we bought a star chart to help us identify the constellations. With a little bit of practice and our binoculars we started to be able to identify some of the more interesting ones. It became our evening ritual to greet the constellations as they made their way across the night sky.
The next morning, we drove the little loop road; hiking was pretty difficult this time of year with all the ice and snow, but we got a good look at some of the bridges from the various lookouts along the way.
After our stopover at Natural Bridges our route led us over Blanding to Moab and then Arches National Park. We had, of course, also seen photos of Arches but as we arrived just before sundown we were almost once again at a loss for words as the panorama unfurled before us. The road led us through the park for almost 30 km before finally reaching the “Devil’s Garden” campground. The magnificent natural wonders that we saw from our auto alone are difficult to describe in words. The afternoon sun shone its golden rays on a sea of petrified dunes and a myriad of stone formations of orange-red sandstone unfolded before us as we drove to the campground. It was clear to the two of us that we would have to spend some time here. Although the price of 25 USD for camping (in winter) seemed a little over the top to us we did, however have an amazing panorama view from our camping spot which offset the steep price somewhat. The area may be called “Devil’s Garden” but we couldn’t find anything devilish about it, quite the opposite we found the entire park one big natural playground with countless formations that could be climbed, hidden crevices, and, as the name says, a whole lot of sandstone arches (which you aren’t allowed to climb). It was almost as though we had ended up in Gods own playground. Once again we were astounded and humbled by the incredible diverse natural beauty on our little planet.
Despite being the middle of winter we were not the only people camping and every day the park received hundreds, and hundreds of visitors. We could only imagine what it would be like in summer and understood why the maximum number of nights camping was 7 instead of the usual 14 in other parks. It made perfect sense for us: Every National Park that we visited in the USA and Canada so far were great but Arches was by far the most spectacular!
We were also happy to discover that despite the snow and ice all of the hiking trails were open and in Arches National Park there are some especially impressive trails. So we hiked everything that was in easy reach from our camping spot and saw many arches in various forms and shapes. We hiked through little canyons, and climbed over rock formations and felt like explorers visiting some unknown land. Around every curve along our route waited new arches, rock formations or fantastic views for us– it was a spiritually uplifting feeling being there.
In Devils Garden
One of the biggest highlights of our visit to Arches National park was the Devils Garden Trail that led us on a multi-hour hike starting from our campground. At that time of year, the park rangers suggested, because of the amount of ice and snow, that hikers use spikes, chains or similar equipment on their shoes. We didn’t have anything like that with us at the time and we hadn’t had any problems getting around without them. Though on the Devils Garden Trail we realized that it might have been a good idea to follow the rangers’ suggestions. After the well-maintained and relatively wide start of the trail ended, it immediately switched over to scrabbling over rock formations or sometimes heavily iced fins, across narrow paths or small crevices. The path is incredibly beautiful and leads through a breathtaking landscape of red rock formations. The snow also provided a stark contrast to the red-orange sandstone and the sunlight made the snow and ice glitter and glow. We felt overwhelmed being in such a place of beauty, however every now and then I broke out in a cold sweat when crossing one of iced over rock fins. More than once we had no other alternative but to slide down on our butts! We took a break at the appropriately named “Private Arch”, which is somewhat isolated from the main path, to have a picnic and enjoy the afternoon sun. It was still quite a way to go through a labyrinth of crevices and fins and then came the challenge of the day for me: Actually, I had thought that the path, up until this point, was challenging enough. But as it so happened I was sadly mistaken as directly in front of us on a completely iced up fin was a piece of rope tied around a rock. Apparently that piece of disintegrating rope was the only way forward and it went straight down! I had not expected anything like that to appear so not only did beads of sweat spring into existence on my forehead as though by magic I was literally paralyzed with fear. My fear of heights was defeated, so I had thought, after all that was the reason I started sport rock climbing in the first place and I had a lot of fun with the sport. But we hadn’t gone climbing in ages and just like that, apparently, and rather depressingly, I was back at the beginning – just like that I was transported back in time to10 years ago hiking in the Alps as I saw that old rope, no this was much, much worse as this time the rocks were covered with ice! For Gary, however, it wasn’t a problem as he deftly scrabbled up and down multiple times in an attempt to show me how easy it all was, though at that moment it didn’t help me in the least. My fear was faster and better; it had me completely under its control and let me only helplessly stare into the abyss before me…If I didn’t want to spend the night on this fin I was going to have to climb down somehow. ‘OMG Snap out of it!’ I yelled at myself internally, though my body didn’t listen. I was frozen in place clutching the rope like a lifeline unable to move a muscle and acting like a hysterical child – appalling! And embarrassing! Especially after another hiker came by and without a second thought slid down the iced wall hardly even using the rope. I would have turned myself invisible that moment if I could have, but that wouldn’t have help me climb down this damn wall either! It wasn’t even all that high, to be honest at most few meters or so, though at that moment it felt more like staring into a bottomless abyss. It took a number of tries to finally overcome my fear and slowly lower myself, shaking with fear, backwards down the icy wall. I was unbelievably relieved to finally reach the bottom and hoped that it was the last surprise of that kind on our hike. Gary laughingly suggested that I climb back up and do it all again until the fear was gone, which without a doubt was a good suggestion, but I only answered him with a withering look. After that ordeal I had absolutely no desire to do it again…
The rest of our hike passed without any new challenges and we arrived happy, satisfied, and hungry back at camp. What a day!
The King of the Arches
Our last hike led us to Delicate Arch – and as the name suggests – the arch is really beautifully delicate – no wonder that it’s the emblem for the Park.
The path to the amazing work of nature first led us past a collection of fascinating Petroglyphs, which we tried, somewhat successfully to photograph. The route then continued over a huge stone table where stone cairns marked the way onwards until we ended up on a completely ice-covered ledge; to our right a high rock wall and to our left a sheer drop-off. Again we regretted the fact that we hadn’t bought any chains for our shoes, or had anything else with us for that matter, since the path was really one big sheet of ice and the drop-off this time wasn’t just a few meters down- this time it really drops off – we certainly didn’t want to get too close to the edge. Luckily the path leans a bit inward towards the wall and so we slowly edged our way, with help of the wall, upwards and onwards. At one point the path narrowed quite dramatically and at the same time disappeared around a corner so we slowed down even more but the effort was rewarded: Beyond the bend opened up an amazing view, which couldn’t have been more impressive! We stood at the upper edge of a huge natural amphitheater – a huge bowl made of orange-red sand stone. Across from us, on a sort of pedestal, stood the delicate arch as though it was all by design to highlight its natural beauty. We sat along the ridge of the bowl directly across from the Delicate Arch on the sun-warmed stones and wondered at the magnificence of nature and this unique place. A pair of Ravens had occupied the apex of the arch declaring loudly that it was theirs and flew around the amphitheater and surrounding area occasionally as if on patrol. If the park is the playground of the Gods, then this is definitely their theatre and Nature the protagonist. Delicate Arch is a unique place on earth and we enjoyed every moment of our visit.
Eventually, and unfortunately, it was time to turn around and head back down the path which, I was not looking forward to as the icy path now went downhill. Though interestingly enough the route down ended up being a lot easier than I thought: We held close to the rock wall and slid, or walked, slowly inch by inch down the ledge. Safe and sound back at the parking lot we felt really satisfied with the day’s activities.
When travelling with an old car…
…it can happen that, at some point or another, things start to fall apart or rust away. And so that happened with us once again: After the installation of our new exhaust it seemed as though part of the rear cross-member was rusting away. One of the bolts holding the rear step, which we use to enter and exit the rear of the Landy, suddenly gave way, and the other was hanging on by a thin strip of metal. The step is pretty important since without it entering and exiting would become quite “athletic”, and since we were sleeping primarily in our auto it was quite an important piece of equipment. We decided to get it fixed immediately and were told about Moab 4×4 Outpost that should be able to fix it for us. The shop created a customized piece of thick metal and welded it onto the cross-member and re-installed our step as good as new. $170 USD later we had a fully functional rear step, and although it cost quite a bit more than we expected we are sure that if the Landy slowly falls apart that part of the cross-member will be the last to go.
We took advantage of the showers at the Moab sports center; it’s not all that often that you get a private shower with as much hot water as you want for 4 USD. Clean and with new provisions we headed off north towards Canyonlands National Park. As the name suggests the park consists of a number of impressive canyons, which are divided into various sections. We drove to “island in the sky” and it wasn’t until we actually got there that we understood what the name meant. The island is just that an island in the sky, surrounded by a sea of air, and where at the edge it drops several hundred meters straight down. We hiked to Mesa Arch where, despite all the arches we saw at Arches National Park, we sat and admired the it at its spectacular view before finally driving to Grand Viewpoint Overlook where the road ended. Ahead, to the left and right of us the plateau ended abruptly in a sheer cliff that fell a startlingly 700 meters straight down. The panorama was absolutely gigantic and the cloud packed sky we had didn’t diminish its impact on us in the least.
We picnicked at a spot protected from the wind before heading on a small hike to “Upheaval Dome”, a gigantic crater. Apparently the scientists can’t agree on how it was formed and have settled on two possibilities: An asteroid impact, or through the collapse of a so-called “salt dome.” Whatever caused it to form we were nevertheless quite impressed with the results. We followed the trail to two different viewpoints, which led us along a huge stone slab next to the edge of the abyss, and enjoyed the feeling of being, once again, in such grandiose nature. A highlight of the park is the Shafer Trail and the approximately 100 km White Rim Road – a gravel road that leads down on to the canyon floor and around the Island in the Sky. We would have loved to have driven the trail but unfortunately the trail was closed and with good reason. But as we have said before winter does have its benefits: We didn’t have to pay an entrance fee to the park or pay for camping. We set up our camp at the well-maintained Willow Flats campground and were surprised to find that despite being the middle of winter, and free, the vault toilets (modern out-houses) were spotless and stocked with toilet paper! A second surprise came in the form of a VW Bus with Swiss number plates containing Ingo (German), Elvira (Swiss) and Perla (10-year-old Labrador Retriever). Apparently we weren’t the only ‘Over landers’ that were brave or dumb enough to travel around the USA in the dead of winter. Most of the long-term travelers we met had long since crossed the border into Mexico to sip margaritas on the beach and work on their tans. Not to mention they all decided we were crazy to actually choose to traipse around in our ski suits. We were pleased to meet some like-minded people after so long. The next morning, not knowing that it would not, by far, be the last time that we met we bid each other good travels and a safe journey before going our separate ways.
After our side-trip north of Moab we headed in a southerly direction once again. We decided to spend another night at Natural Bridges before following the suggestion of the nice lady at the park information and making our way to the Moki Dugway – an exciting canyon pass that hugs the sheer cliff as it winds its way down into Monument Valley – it was a small compensation for us missing out on the Shafer Trail.
Monument Valley spans a part of the Colorado Plateau that stretches across Utah and Arizona and sits in the middle of the huge Navajo Nations reserve. In contrast to other reserves this one has a highway running through it, which you are also allowed to drive through without special permission. Though if you want to see more of the area you need to pay a fee and can then drive the Navajo Tribal Park or pay a guide to lead you deeper into their territory. We were quite curious about the reserve though it gave us a similar feeling as some of the other reservations we had visited… reserved and somewhat cool towards outsiders. As soon as we crossed into the reservation we once again witnessed the change immediately in that there was suddenly a lot of garbage along the sides of the road. We drove through an incredible landscape where huge stone monuments reared straight up from the valley floor only to be distracted by the collection of beer cans, chip bags, paper cups and all manner of other garbage that lined and filled the sides of the road. Although, we didn’t take the time to learn about the culture of the people who lived on the reservation and so can’t really form an opinion either way, however the atmosphere we experienced nonetheless came across as unwelcoming. We decided then to spend as little time as necessary on the reserve and drove through all the way to Page.
Once again we, took a detour to Glen Canyon, though this time on the other side, but our impression of the place didn’t improve with the change in location. A strange place, perhaps it had to do with the time of year or perhaps it just didn’t appeal to us. Whatever the case it was too late to drive any farther for the day so we ended up spending the night on a really strange campground called “Lone Rock Campground”. Actually we couldn’t really figure out where the campground started and ended and all the vault toilets that we did see were padlocked. We finally parked on a gravel parking lot that was somewhat level. Since we didn’t see anyone we at least camped for free – though I wouldn’t exactly call it nice.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
The next morning, we left the inhospitable place early and set off in the direction of the next attraction: The Grand Canyon. We had been looking forward for some time to visiting one of the Natural Wonders of the world, though after weeks of travel through a nearly continuous stream of incredible natural wonders we asked ourselves how the world renowned and probably touristy place would appear to us. Unfortunately, the less touristy North Rim of the Grand Canyon was closed for winter so we could only visit the South Rim and the heavily visited Grand Canyon Village. As expected we met all manner of tourists and the main parking lot, even in the middle of winter, was filled with cars and tourist busses. We could once again only imagine what it would be like in the high season. Nevertheless, an impressive view waited for us just over the edge. Over 1000 meters straight down to the Colorado River, and at some spots it drops 1800m! The scale is gigantic and we couldn’t do anything but stare awestruck at the majestic view before us. Though being weeks almost completely alone in the incredible nature we felt somewhat out of place. It was all very organized and modern with hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and even its own train station. Naturally everything was pricey, which didn’t surprise us and we had also prepared ourselves for expensive camping. We were all the more surprised when we saw the $15 winter camping prices, however you can’t expect too much for that price: Not a single spot was cleared of snow, only the single open loop road was plowed and we had to also shovel or tramp a path through the snow to the fire pit and table. While there was a self-registration station payment was only possible using a credit card. There were still the old familiar envelopes in order to pay with cash but you had to deliver it to the main warden station at the other end of the park, so we ended up having to dig our credit cards out. Coincidentally we were at the Grand Canyon for my 35th birthday, which in some way may sound grand, however the village and all its fancy hotels and restaurants just didn’t appeal to us. The Canyon may be one of the Natural Wonders of the world, but after all the incredible nature we experienced in the weeks past it was rather anticlimactic. Certainly it had something to do with the entire atmosphere and perhaps it may have been different if we could have taken a hike down into the canyon, which we originally had planned to do. Since all the paths were covered with ice we bought snow chains for our shoes, an absolute must, though they remained unused, as we just weren’t in the mood to hike.
A change in the weather, a change in mood
The weather changed suddenly. From icy cold it soared upwards to over 15 C accompanied by a warm wind, which seemed almost too hot to us. Being so used to the cold temperatures it all seemed incredibly stuffy and hot and the idea of hiking anywhere had no appeal. Though at night the temperatures dropped again and we froze even more than normal because of the unusually warm days. We made do with a walk along the edge of the canyon, which led us to a few spectacular views.
Almost simultaneously with the change in weather our mood changed too. For a few days now things weren’t running so smoothly between us. For some unknown reason we simply weren’t in harmony and butted heads over nothing and in the truest sense of the word simply didn’t understand each other, which of course neither of us wanted; most likely no partnership is spared from it – especially on such a trip, which brings its own challenges. Everything is in constant flux, nothing stays the same. It’s a truth that one must accept. You can’t hold onto the happy moments, and since we had recently experienced a period of extreme highs it was almost to be expected that it would be followed by a low, which we currently found ourselves in…
Exactly the reason why we felt a change of scenery and lifestyle was in order, actually the perfect time: Las Vegas was waiting for us!
More photos on Flickr: Utah – More Life Elevated