Monthly Archives: February 2016

Exploring Canyonlands and More

With a surfeit of red rock buttes, mesas, and canyons around Arches National Park and Moab, Utah, you may be tempted to skip Canyonlands National Park. Resist that urge. It’s actually the largest of the four national parks in Utah and the entrance to the Island in the Sky section of the park is just 35 miles from Moab. Four hundred thousand visitors come here each year but we didn’t fight hordes of tourists at the scenic overlooks or on the trails. The day we visited in late September, we had the place nearly to ourselves.

Utah State Route 313, Dead Horse Scenic Byway, to Canyonlands is an enjoyable drive with hairpin curves and splendid views including the Merrimac and Monitor Buttes, named for   Civil War ironclads.


Merrimac and Monitor Buttes from Hwy 313  

We stopped for photos and the rest area came in handy, too. Get used to pit toilets, however, because flush toilets were few and far between. This photo also illustrates why Jim is not often in charge of our camera.


Rest stop on Hwy 313 outside Canyonlands National Park

Our first stop inside Canyonlands was at the visitor center which is always the best place to get your bearings and a good introduction. We always make it a point to see the video program for background information and ask friendly rangers any questions we have.


Nearby Shafer Canyon Overlook provided the first of many magnificient views.


Shafer Canyon Overlook panorama, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Then we embarked on a moderately difficult hike out to Upheaval Dome. Watch out for the slickrock (smooth, polished rock that can be slippery) and some steep dropoffs along the way. Where the path is not readily apparent, you will see cairns (stacked stones) to mark the trail. I would have gotten lost several times without the cairns.



Trail to Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands NP



Cairns marking the trail to Upheaval Dome


Trail to Unheaval Dome, Canyonlands NP


Jim climbing the trail to Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands NP

When we reached the overlook, we struck up a conversation with a young woman who told us she was an aerial acrobat. Her goal was to have her picture taken doing a bridge at the edge of the abyss. I felt very brave standing further from the edge for my photo.



Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands NP




Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands NP


On the hike back from Upheaval Dome, Jim spotted this desert horned lizard, a prime example of apatetic coloration.


Desert Horned Lizard

After a light lunch at the picnic facilities when we returned from our hike, we drove on to Green River Overlook and finally to Grand View Point Overlook. The amazing, awe-inspiring views prompted me to remark that I believed Canyonlands was every bit as spectacular as the Grand Canyon, just on a smaller scale. More on that later when I post about our stop at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.


Lunch at Canyonlands NP


Green River Overlook, Canyonlands NP


Green River Overlook, Canyonlands NP



Grand View Point Overlook, Canyonlands NP




Grand View Point Overlook, Canyonlands NP

After seeing so much, we were tempted to skip Dead Horse Point State Park on our way back to Moab. This is one of those not-to-be-missed sights so stop there to avoid future regret. The entrance fee is only $10. Honestly, I hadn’t heard of this park before our visit but judging by the number of tour buses lined up, I’m in the minority. It’s definitely part of the tour circuit and you’ll understand why when you see it. The legend behind the name of the park is that wild mustangs were corraled on the point and for whatever reason, they were left without water and perished within sight of the Colorado River which they couldn’t access. The white rock in the canyon that looks like a horse is symbolic of the story.


Dead Horse Point panorama, Utah


I circled the symbolic horse on this photo. Can you see it?


The dead horse enlarged. If you still can’t see it, cock your head to the left a bit.

The other claim to fame of this canyon is the final scene in Thelma and Louise was filmed here. The car containing the dummies of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis went much farther than anticipated, landed in the Colorado River, and required a crane to remove it. But guides will tell you all signs of the movie set were removed. “Leave no trace.”

This very full day had one more treat in store for us. The Moab area has a Rock Art Auto Tour with many examples of Indian petroglyphs and pictographs. Pictographs are painted or drawn on the rock and petroglyphs are scratched or engraved into the rock. Our tour on Utah Scenic Byway 279 included examples of petroglyphs.



Utah Scenic Byway 279 along the Colorado River




Native American Petroglyphs along Scenic Byway 279 in Utah




Petroglyph Rock Art on the rock wall along Scenic Byway 279 in Utah



Petroglyph Rock Art along Scenic Byway 279 in Utah




Wildflowers along Utah Scenic Byway 279

We found lodging in Moab that evening by calling early in the day for a reservation. Dinner consisting of BBQ and scrumptious sweet potatoes at the Blu Pig capped off another perfect day in Utah.


Based on events in September 2015.

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Arches, Arches, and More Arches

We didn’t see nearly all of the more than 2000 arches in Arches National Park, but we saw many. Arches National Park has the largest concentration of arches anywhere in the world so this is the place to visit if you want to see these spectacular red rock formations carved by erosion. We also saw pinnacles, balanced rocks, and spires as well as fins and monoliths.


Entrance to Arches National Park

With over one million visitors each year, I was hopeful the crowds would thin somewhat in time for our visit in late September. To allow maximum flexibility to spend as much or as little time as we wanted in each place, we didn’t reserve lodging in advance. When we had difficulty finding lodging for the night in and around Moab, I asked a local about tourist traffic in September. She told me that they have two busy seasons, summer and tour bus season, that is, September. So if you want to be sure of a place to stay, make reservations in advance. We had to drive 48 miles to Green River for a room.

I understand why this area is so popular. Arches National Park is a treasure to be sure. But nearby there’s also Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point, and Indian pictographs which I’ll cover in future posts.  There are plenty of opportunities for adventure, too, including biking, four wheeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, river rafting, and more. In fact, Moab, Utah calls itself the adventure capital of the U.S.

Arches NP is very accessible. If you have physical limitations, you can see a lot from your auto in as little as 2 hours. But pull over only in the designated parking areas; no stopping is allowed on the roadway. There are also many short and easy walking trails. And for hardier hikers, there are longer, more rugged trails. The visitor guide contains a map showing the trails with a description and the length of each. We stopped at a majority of the viewpoints along the roadway and hiked a number of the shorter trails.


Panorama view of the Three Gossips and Park Avenue rock formations near the entrance to the park

The Three Gossips looked like the three wise men to me and I still want to call them that but you decide for yourself.


Three Gossips

Park Avenue is so named because early visitors believed these monoliths resembled the buildings in a big city. What do you think?


Park Avenue, Arches NP


Balanced Rock, Arches NP


North Window and South Window at Arches NP


Jim sitting in North Window checking his shoe


Turret Arch


North Window, Arches NP


South Window, Arches NP

Along this same trail, you can see the Parade of Elephants. It does look like a rear view of the herd, doesn’t it? By the way, did you know a herd of elephants is truly called a parade?


Parade of Elephants, Arches NP

Then there are the petrified sand dunes which are composed of sand that has been cemented into rock and later uncovered by erosion.


Petrified sand dunes

The most iconic arch is undoubtedly Delicate Arch. It is so revered it’s even featured on Utah license plates. My photo was from a distance and not as impressive as the 65-foot tall arch deserves.


Delicate Arch, Arches NP


North Window and Turret Arch in the distance

I think my favorite area was Sand Dune Arch at the north end of the park. We especially enjoyed the trail through a slot canyon to get to the arch.


Trail to Sand Dune Canyon through a slot canyon


Trail to Sand Dune Arch


Trail to Sand Dune Arch through a slot canyon


Trail to Sand Dune Arch

We waited with a small group of other tourists while a couple who were just married at Sand Dune Arch took their wedding photos before we could take pictures. They mentioned that somehow between the parking lot and this arch, the wedding ring had been lost. All of us looked for it but with all that sand, it was hopeless. If you ever visit, keep your eyes peeled.


Sand Dune Arch, Arches NP

This glorious nature reserve amazed and inspired us. I definitely understand why it’s one of the most popular national parks in the United States. Arches National Park set a high bar for the other four national parks in Utah.


Based on events in September 2015.






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Colorado National Monument and More

Although the distance through Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake is just 48 miles, it took us the better part of the day. When we exited the park at Grand Lake we continued on two-lane roads until we returned to Interstate 70 at Silverthorne, then drove 263 miles further to Grand Junction, Colorado for the night. The total miles logged for the day was just over 300 but we saw plenty of scenic beauty at a fairly leisurely pace.

Dinner at the Ale House was a real treat for Jim featuring elk and a treat for me featuring outdoor seating plus fish tacos and sweet potato fries. The place was busy– a good sign– and the food was well-presented and tasty.

We were up and out of our hotel early the following morning and made straight for the east entrance to Colorado National Monument. Rim Rock Drive is a 23-mile paved road through the park from Grand Junction in the east to Fruita at the west entrance with many stops along the way to enjoy majestic awe-inspiring canyon views.

Immediately inside the east entrance, we stopped to hike a portion of historic Serpent’s Trail, dubbed the crookedest road in the world when it was completed in 1921. With 16 switchbacks, it was part of the main road until it was replaced in 1950 by Rim Rock Drive. Today it’s strictly a hiking trail, but I bet in its day the drive struck fear in many a heart.


Hiking Serpent’s Trail, Colorado National Monument


View from Serpent’s Trail


View from Serpent’s Trail

We encountered few vehicles on Rim Rock Drive and even fewer people on the trails. If you seek a spiritual experience without human interruption or just want to get “far from the madding crowd,” this place is for you. Each scenic overlook and trail offered inspiring views of red rock canyons, towering rock formations, and contrasting colorful vegetation that soothed and fed the soul.


Parking at Red Canyon Overlook


View from Red Canyon Overlook



Panorama View of Ute Canyon



View from Artist’s Point


Independence Monument


Window Rock

A herd of about 40 desert bighorn sheep live within the confines of Colorado National Monument. Seeing them is a rare experience because they avoid human contact. We were surprised and gratified to spot this group on the side of the road. Jim believes they didn’t hear the Prius because the electric engine was engaged so the vehicle was silent.


Desert bighorn sheep on Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument


Desert Bighorn sheep


Autumn Aster wildflowers in Colorado National Monument

As we left Colorado National Monument, we had a conversation with a ranger that changed our entire trip through Utah. The result was a sublime experience. She suggested we get off I-70 and take Utah State Route 128 on the east side of Arches National Park rather than SR 191 on the west side of the park. That began our adventure along the back roads of Utah that were far more scenic and interesting than the interstate highways. We didn’t take another freeway until we reached Kansas on our way back to Iowa.

Jim was doubtful when we first exited I70 and saw this. He feared I’d misguided him but we were indeed on the right road.


I assured him we had taken the correct road and we soon saw the Colorado River.


The Colorado River along Utah SR 128


Utah SR 128


Driving SR 128 in Utah

Many of the old western movies from the 40’s and 50’s used these canyonlands as a film location. SR 128’s designation as the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway is definitely deserved.

Based on events of September 2015.


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Rocky Mountain High

Our 10th national park in the United States was created on January 26, 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Rocky Mountain National Park Act. While the Utah national parks were our planned destination, how could we possibly miss Rocky Mountain National Park when it was on the way and it was their 100th anniversary? Well, we couldn’t.


Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park

One of the world’s longest ranges, the Rocky Mountains extend more than 3000 miles from Alaska to New Mexico and some of the highest peaks in the United States are found in this range.  Rocky Mountain National Park comprises just 415 square miles of this remarkable range but it is one of the most visited national parks in the country and contains some of the most spectacular scenery. RMNP is the highest national park in the U.S. with elevations from 7860 to 14,259 feet and 77 peaks above 12,000 feet. Thus, the popular slogan “Rocky Mountain high” refers to the elevation, not the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado.

Entering the park from Estes Park, we followed Trail Ridge Road, the “highway to the sky.” I was immediately entranced by the fall color.  I especially love autumn and the aspens expressed it beautifully with a nimiety of yellow. Seeing them, we understood how Aspenglen Campground got its name. I took way too many photos but here’s just one. You get the idea.


Aspens in full fall color

And here’s one looking back at Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved road in the U.S.


Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

We decided not to hike any of the 350 miles of trails in the park but we stopped often to take photos of the breathtaking views.



Rocky Mountain National Park



Rocky Mountain National Park


Rocky Mountain National Park

When we reached the tundra, we were above 11,000 feet in elevation and the temperature dipped to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Our car, like our bodies, had to work harder at the higher elevation with less oxygen. Thankfully, the electric motor on the Prius came to the rescue as we climbed and we were surprised that our gas mileage didn’t suffer.

One-third of RMNP is alpine tundra, a harsh, windy biome where only the hardiest plants and wildlife survive. It’s a fragile environment that is easily damaged and requires care and management to ensure its survival.


Rocky Mountain National Park


Donning the jackets for windy cool temps in the tundra


Tundra is a delicate and vulnerable biome

Then we headed to a lower elevation at 10,759 feet and stopped at Milner Pass where the Continental Divide passes through.


The Continental Divide at Milner Pass

We stopped for a throw together picnic lunch on the west side of the park at one of the many picnic areas. What better way to enjoy our surroundings than to spend some time feeding our bodies and souls simultaneously?



Picnic lunch featuring baby carrots, cherry tomatoes from our garden, grapes, and bananas


As we neared the end of our drive through Rocky Mountain National Park, we were treated to yet one more delight, Shadow Mountain Lake, in the southwest corner of the park. This man-made reservoir is a major recreation area, allowing boating, fishing, jetskiing, camping, hiking, and other activities with a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.



Shadow Mountain Lake


If you have a day, a week, or more, a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park is worth your time. Check it out.


Based on events of September 2015.

Categories: Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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