(09th – 16th January 2016)
“Life elevated” was written on the welcome sign to the State of Utah – and that was, in our opinion, not only because of the actual physical elevation of the state but also their general overall attitude towards life. In Utah awaited us one of the most spectacular landscapes that we have ever experienced and one where we could actually describe it all with a single word: WOW!!
We crossed the border to Utah in the early afternoon and drove slowly to the southeast under the most gorgeous winter blue sky. Similar to the 50 we pretty much had the road to ourselves and could enjoy the stunning natural beauty around us, which in this part of the state is open, vast and free. We drove over a giant high plateau (which never seemed to be below 2000 m) that was divided by several mountain ranges. The view was grandiose and vacant of almost all evidence of human settlement; and in the distance awaited the next mountain chain, and mountain pass. Followed by yet another broad plateau where everything lay open and empty ahead of us before reaching the next row of mountains. It continued on like that for hours and we felt light and free and in the truest sense of the word “elevated”. We stopped often to take loads of pictures and to take in all the “WOW”. Then before long one of my favorite childhood dreams came true: We saw wild horses! Although we had seen quite a few road signs and post cards of wild horses in Nevada, it is after all “Wild Horse Country”, we hadn’t see a single one while we were there. And now in the emptiness of Utah not expecting anything there they were, albeit in the distance, but I shouted “Stop!” anyway and jumped out into the ankle deep snow with binoculars in hand. For someone like me, who has been a dedicated horse person since childhood, to be able to see them in the wild like that was particularly fulfilling. Not far from where we stopped led a small snow covered gravel road in the direction of the horses and so we thought we could drive along the road to get just a bit closer to them without making them nervous. No sooner said than done we headed, however as soon as we started the turn something unexpected happened; the horses bolted. Even with the huge distance separating us the entire herd galloped away in fright to put even more distance between us. Through the binoculars we could see how they watched us vigilantly for any sudden moves. It took a long time before they finally got back to searching for the meager offerings under the snow. We were bewildered at the intensity of their reaction; we hadn’t experienced such from any wild animal on the trip so far and could only think of one thing: These horses may well be hunted in some fashion and have a very bad association to humans. What a shame, we thought, nevertheless we decided to respect their chosen distance and simply observed them a while through the binoculars.
After spending so much time watching the horses the need to find a camping spot before dark was became pressing. Luckily at the top of the very next pass we stumbled upon the ideal spot complete with covered picnic table, phenomenal vistas and even hiking trails! We quickly set up camp and then took an evening walk along one of the hiking trails. It was pretty cold way up at the top of the mountain and as soon as the sun disappeared it became even more so; though by then we had a bit of experience with winter camping so it had become almost normal for us to put on our thick winter clothing, cook with gloves on and retire into the Landy early. Despite the forced close quarters of our rather small living space we found the evenings relatively cozy. We spent most of the time with reading, listening to music, watching movies or writing our blog. Winter is a time where everything is clam and sedate and we found we began to adjust our travelling style to fit. We also enjoyed the feeling of peace, tranquility and oneness with nature that traveling in winter gave us.
The next morning we awoke to a thick dreary fog, a chilly -1C and light flurries. Of previous days beautiful panoramic view was nothing to be seen and by the look of things we believed that it would stay that way too. However, after just a few kilometers down from the pass we crossed into glorious sunshine and everything seemed suddenly so much better. Our route took us to Cedar City, where we did some grocery shopping and allowed ourselves a midday snack before continuing towards Midway summit, a huge snowy plateau, which rears upward to over 3000 m and is a favorite destination for snowmobilers.
In the afternoon we turned onto highway 12 where from afar we saw something quite fascinating: “Did you see that?” we said almost in stereo. The red-orange of Red Canyon was glowing in the distance, neither of us had seen anything like that before and so were quite excited to get our first close-up look at the canyon. We didn’t really know what we were about to see or what lay in store for us along the 12, so we stopped at the earliest possible moment to take some photos only to discover that it got better around the next bend, and the next and the next! We were almost speechless at the scenery around us and were excited when we discovered a hiking trail that lead through the rock formations. The “Photo Trail”, as it was appropriately named and as it so happened we could not possibly have been there at a better time. The red ochre made a fantastic contrast to the white snow covered ground and the yellow of the late afternoon sun put the finishing touches on an almost magical landscape. We followed the trail in and around the rock formations jumping from rock to rock like we were kids all the while grinning from ear to ear. As our overnight spot we chose the Red Canyon visitor center, which was closed for the season. Naturally, the parking lot had not been plowed so we first tested the depth before committing to driving onto it. Then we trampled the area flat around the vehicle to make things a bit easier for us. The night was once again very cold – something that we would from then on have to get used to. Despite the cold, or perhaps because of it, we were once again rewarded with a most spectacular clear starry night sky and the absolute quiet that comes with winter.
As it turned out there were some trails starting directly from the Visitor Center that wound through the surrounding cliffs, which we didn’t want to pass up. The morning fog and flurries that greeted us as we awoke had, by the time we headed off on our hike, abated. The sun had come out to transform everything into a sparkling, glittering landscape with bizarre orange-red rock formations looming above us. As luck would have it we weren’t the only people to have trudged through the snow to enjoy what Red Canyon had to offer so we didn’t have to look too long to find the start of the trail. Following the tracks we soon lost ourselves in the fantastic world of the canyons and could only stare in wonder at what nature is capable of.
Grand Staircase Escalante
Red Canyon is located at the beginning of the so-called “Grand Staircase”, which at first we had no idea why this huge piece of land had earned that name – until we saw it with our own eyes that is. Starting from a high plateau it drops literally step-like down into numerous canyons and cliffs. The number 12 highway runs along the top of the “Stairs” through a landscape so incredibly extraordinary that we were repeatedly left speechless.
The first attraction along the way was Bryce Canyon National Park and we had actually wanted to visit. However, we found the daily entrance fee for this time of year simply too expensive, especially since the camping was snowed in and they hadn’t bothered to clear it. Also the little town of Bryce Canyon City was rather unappealingly touristy. What we also didn’t know at the time was that there is a yearly park pass ($80 USD) which gives you access to all the National Parks in the USA; no one bothered to inform us about the pass at the entrance either, because, if they had we definitely wouldn’t have passed on a visit. So, unfortunately and unsuspecting of what we were missing out on, we turned around to enjoy the gratis beauty of the 12 instead.
The road snaked along countless canyons and rock formations in the most varied colors and forms. Continuously changing from exciting passes to broad magnificent vistas and back again; we simply couldn’t find another word to describe it other than “WOW!!” By the afternoon we were truly exhausted and overstimulated – by Nature! We had the feeling that we just couldn’t take in any more WOW for the day and decided to camp at the nearby Petrified Forest State Park. Naturally, we were the only guests and had the pick of the spots. We had also hoped that we might be able to have a shower, though unfortunately, as we found out, the showers were closed for winter. The ranger did feel sorry for us however, and gave us a small discount to make up for the fact. With the freezing temperatures the fire that we had started didn’t quite seem capable of warding off the cold. So we ended up abandoning it and fled into the Landy – though not before getting our fill of the grandiose canopy of stars above us. Almost every night we enjoyed an amazing night sky; we stared upward in awestruck wonder until the cold drove us “indoors”. Even when we had to get up in the middle of the night to go pee our reluctance to leaving the warm bed was somehow diminished by the enthusiasm of seeing the wondrous night sky. That night however, was exceptionally cold (definitely below -18 C) and so – quite unlike us – we turned the heater on because despite our thick blankets and winter pajamas we had begun to shiver.
The next day we decided to head out into the Petrified Forest in search of some, well, petrified wood. A hiking trail started directly from the park onto a plateau above the campground, where supposedly we would find the most petrified wood. However with all the snow lying on the ground our hike turned out to be more of a scavenger hunt than anything else. Yet we did indeed discover some relics of the prehistoric forest that once grew in the area.
No Shower in Sight
The next and only somewhat larger town along the 12 was Escalante, where we hoped to be able to finally have a shower. Wrong! It may well have been possible in summer, we were told, but in winter everything was closed. We asked at the only open Motel, but they insisted that we rent a room if we wanted to shower, which of course we didn’t want to do. At least there was a shop, however odd, where we could buy a few groceries along with a gas station and a Subway, which seemed to be the meeting place for the entire town. And so we took advantage of available toilets to quickly wash the important parts before continuing.
Our route took us towards Boulder and our need for a shower was momentarily forgotten as our breath was, once again, taken away by the awesome landscape. The road turned into a type of high mountain way and lead us through petrified sand dunes and wonderful rock formations were to our left and right. In the evening we noticed how the cold and constant bombardment of WOW were taking its toll on us as we were suddenly dead tired. And since the idea of looking around for a nice camping spot at that moment was low on our priority list we parked at a type of pullout, which looked like it would have been a parking spot for hiking. With all the snow around and our weariness we didn’t bother finding out exactly where we were and simply crawled under our blankets as fast as possible.
Somewhat refreshed and rested from the previous day we started a little adventure tour a little off the beaten track from the 12 along the Burr Trail. There are quite a few roads that lead directly into Grand Staircase though most of those are not paved and with the cold nights and warm days we were warned that we could run the risk of getting stuck. The Burr Trail, however, is paved for quite a good portion of the way so we decided the chances of getting stuck were pretty slim and, well to be honest, it looked pretty interesting on the map. However, we had no idea what awaited us and so were pleasantly surprised as we found out that the trail lead down into a canyon! Awesome! That was just what we had been hoping for the whole time when we first saw the Red Canyon. Gigantic red cliff walls reared directly upwards to our left and right and around every corner the scenery produced more photo opportunities than we knew what to do with. The Burr Trail led us two “steps” downward before changing over into a gravel road on a broad plateau. Despite the warnings we risked driving on one of the snow covered side roads, which turned out to be quite the adventure. At the beginning there were 4×4 tracks, which we could follow, however those ended suddenly after a few kilometers. Never the less we continued along for quite some time before coming to the conclusion that if we got stuck way out here it would be spring before someone found us. That night we camped under huge ponderosa pine next to a petrified sand dune and once again simply couldn’t believe that we were actually there; having the one-of-a-kind experience in nature that we were having.
The desire for a shower had finally reached its tipping point. All the excitement and awesomeness of the landscapes we experienced may have damped the need for a shower but we simply couldn’t put it off any longer. It had been a week since our last shower and with having ski underwear and multiple layers of clothing on at all times we felt quite uncomfortable. However, it didn’t proved to be any easier than it was in Escalante – everything was closed and there didn’t seem to be anything available anywhere. Luckily we met a nice lady at the tourist information in Torrey, which was also apparently closed for the season, she told us, though, to head over to Bicknell where we supposedly could get a shower at the Motel. Sure enough it actually worked! The Motel, and its strange owner gave us a bit of the heebie jeebies however. While in the shower “Bates Motel” and other scary shower scenes kept popping into our heads, it was that kind of place. Though admittedly we were pretty thankful to be able to finally have a long hot shower and be clean again. They also had laundry facilities on site, which we used to wash a week worth dirty clothes, but we both agreed that we would be long gone before dusk.
By the way washing clothing in winter came with its own challenges as we learned. Since most of our base layer clothing is made from merino wool we couldn’t just throw it all in the dryer. Also air-drying in our available space proved to be quite tedious and usually took about 3 days. During the day we would spread our damp clothes over every available surface in the back and in the evening we would move everything to the front and hang our clothes over every available surface there. Then in the morning move everything to the back again – travelling definitely demands resourcefulness!
Capitol Reef National Park
We left the 12 behind at Torrey and drove along the edge of the Grand Staircase toward Capitol Reef National Park. We settled ourselves in at the Fruita Campground, which as the name suggests used to be an orchard. The first settlers who came through the area took advantage of the abundant water to create something quite extraordinary given the surrounding inhospitable landscape. The campground at the National Park may not be the prettiest though the inquisitive neighbors we had, in the form of Mule deer, provided some entertainment value. They came every evening to bed down in the leaves and twigs under the fruit trees and sometimes came almost to the car to see what we were up to. Whatever it was we were doing they seemed to follow our every move. We almost felt like we were the main characters in some kind of theatre piece and they were our audience.
We didn’t have to pay the usual park entrance fee at that time of the year though of course we did have to pay for camping and the “scenic drive”, which we certainly didn’t want to miss out on. Once again we drove through huge cliff walls and narrow passes to the Capitol Gorge. We parked the car and for the first time hiked through a small slot canyon – something we had been looking forward to since arriving in Utah. It was relatively warm in the sun though once in the narrow shadowed canyon a cold wind whistled through. With our winter jackets zipped all the way up we hiked into the maw of the canyon and into a different world surrounded by high-striated multicolored sandstone walls and narrow winding passes. The naturally carved walls fascinated us and when we finally emerged again into sunlight we sat in a sunny spot protected from the wind and warmed ourselves while enjoying our surrounding. We climbed up into the hills and looked for the “famous” water pocket (a rare natural tub that collects water) but it was frozen solid and so we sat on a spot high in the cliffs to rest and enjoy the phenomenal scenery that lay before us. It was difficult for us to leave this awesome beauty behind.
The next day was a special day: Gary’s Birthday! And so we started the day, despite the icy cold, with a proper birthday breakfast of pancakes. After the delicious meal we wanted to go on another hike through the canyons and so this time we chose Grand Wash Canyon. Along the way we passed a wall filled with impressive Petroglyps. Grand Wash proved to be as impressive as its name suggests and equally as impressive as our hike was the day before.
That afternoon we entered into something completely foreign, something almost otherworldly. The 50 km drive towards Hanksville felt more like a drive through an alien landscape; Mars or maybe the Moon and it wouldn’t have surprised us in the least to see a little green man pop up behind a boulder. The landscape was so completely different than anything we had ever seen before, almost incomprehensibly so. We were simply astounded at the sheer variety that the world has to offer and even more so at how absolutely varied it had been since leaving Carson City. The stone was much more brittle and so the peaks became more like huge gravel dunes capped by disintegrating cliff walls – all in the most varied of reds, oranges, grays and brown tones. And then mixed in with all of that were completely alien colors like dark purple, pink and even green! It was really fascinating but also a little daunting to be in such a strange and seemingly hostile landscape.
We finally reached Hanksville in the hopes of finding an open Restaurant – to celebrate Gary’s Birthday and a nice meal in the warm indoors would be just great. Unfortunately just about everything in the entire town was closed and other than noodles we didn’t have anything interesting left to cook. Just as we were heading out of town we saw that Stans Burger Shak was open! It was less a restaurant than the shop attached to the gas station but never the less it was warm inside, the burgers were excellent and to celebrate Gary’s birthday we even splurged on a proper dessert. With comfortably full bellies we headed towards Glen Canyon, it was time we found a place to camp for the night. After taking the turn off toward Lake Powell we were lucky enough to find a spot within a few minutes. Directly next to the road was a huge red rock, that we nicknamed “Ayers Rock”, which had a dirt road that circled around it – perfect, we could park behind the rock and be practically invisible from the road – we thought and so ended the day with a nice warming glass of Whiskey.
More Photos on Flickr: Utah – Life Elevated