Playing, that’s where. Much as we’ve done every Thanksgiving since moving to California, we piled the truck full of gear and supplies for a week in the desert and hit the road the Friday before Thanksgiving, hoping to get away from the holiday crowds and traffic before they’d even started. Over the next nine days we climbed eight peaks, hiked in four different parks, camped out under the clear desert sky, saw gobs and gobs of petroglyphs, watched the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas while gnawing on an excellent steak au poivre, and shared a no-less-than incredible Thanksgiving feast with friends.
Rather than write 50 long posts detailing each and every hike, I’ll just write one, and point you towards the photos which already have a lot of details in the captions. If you want more info here’s what you can read (and see) all about:
Our weather luck was wearing out. We had hiked through a brief but annoying thunderstorm on our visit to Landscape Arch and the skies were not looking any better as we drove towards the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands has several ‘Districts’ and the Needles one was the most convenient for us, therefore we decided to head in and do a bit of sightseeing.
Along the way we made the short stop at Newspaper Rock, a large panel that holds over 2000 years worth of rock art. As native groups passed through the area they added to the panel and it’s interesting to see the evolving sophistication of the figures. We spent a while studying the panel – I think my favorite pieces were the elk hunter and the buffalo.
Slickrock Trail, Canyonlands National Park
Despite the threatening skies we wanted to get out on some kind of hike or drive. The 4WD roads were not tempting at all due to reports of much quicksand, and we wanted to avoid anything canyon-ey due to the rain, so we picked the Slickrock Trail, a ~3 mile interpretive loop with big views.
At the trailhead we were greeted by a local, then we took off with our rain gear and cameras in tow. We managed to avoid any rainfall on us, but we got to watch an impressive storm move through the buttes in the distance. It made for a great hike and we really enjoyed our visit into this tiny corner of Canyonlands. I’d love to come back and spend more time exploring this and the other districts.
Natural Bridges, Moki Dugway, and Valley of the Gods
After our Canyonlands visit we continued south and visited Natural Bridges National Monument. This is a really small park that features some rock formations and ancestral Pueblo ruins. As we approached the park the skies got darker and storms loomed overhead. We made the quick touristy drive with stops to catch the view points, then would retreat to the warm dry safety of the truck. In the midst of the drive we were treated to a gorgeous rainbow, a nice way to break up the storms!
From here we headed south on 261 through one of the scariest storms I’ve experienced. It wasn’t much bigger than mid-west thunderstorms I’ve been through but I felt like our truck was way too exposed compared to the flat mesa-top we were driving on. There was no where to go except FAST down 261 in the opposite direction of the storm’s movement. After a few scary storm moments we reached the edge of the mesa and began to drop to the valley below via Moki Dugway.
Moki Dugway is a steep, unpaved set of switchbacks that steeply go from the top of the mesa to the valley below, dropping 1100 feet in 3 miles. I was looking forward to this fun and scenic road when planning the trip, but approaching it in a pounding storm with flooding was not as exciting. Once on the descent I realized it wasn’t so bad compared to so many roads I’ve driven in the mountains and deserts of California, but the torrential rain introduced an element of excitement. Though wide and graded for passenger cars, running washouts kept us on our toes.
At the bottom of the Dugway we turned into Valley of the Gods, a beautiful piece of BLM land sometimes called the mini Monument Valley. We planned on camping somewhere in this area overnight but less than a mile down the dirt road we were stopped by washout. A really big running washout. So we went back to pavement and connected to 163 and the east entrance to Valley of the Gods. From here we were able to drive in and find a lovely campsite for the night.
The rain held just long enough for us to get settled in, get a fire going, and cook some dinner. Unfortunately the relentless rain started again and we curled up in the back of our truck under the lid to stay warm and dry. And I discovered something awful about this part of the country. The beautiful fine red dirt and rock turns to paste when it gets wet. It caked my shoes, the back of the truck, and anything else it could get on. It’s two months later and I’m still finding it everywhere.
Next up: Monument Valley and Navajo National Monument
Arches National Park Continued! (read Part 1 here)
For our afternoon at Arches National Park we had decided to sign up for the Ranger-led tour of the Fiery Furnace, a complex labyrinth of deep and narrow canyons, arches, pinnacles, and fins. Though small enough for dayhikes, people aren’t allowed to enter the Fiery Furnace unless on one of these guided hikes or by obtaining a permit from the park.
From above it looks relatively harmless, much like the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. However, unlike Bryce’s developed paths there are no formal trails through the formations. It is clearly easy to become disoriented and lost. Although not usually our style, since it was our first visit we decided to go along on one of the guided hikes. It sounded fun – three hours of interpretive hiking and scrambling with a small group of other people. We arrived at the trailhead about half an hour early where we had a picnic lunch and met our friendly and knowledgeable young ranger and fellow hikers.
When you sign up for the hike they warn of the uneven terrain and scrambling along the route. No young children are allowed and they show pictures of some of the moves required. I scoffed a bit at it but once in there I was suitably impressed – it was real scrambling and definitely a step beyond what a typical hiker might be comfortable with. The problem was that there were a couple of people on our hike who, from the beginning, were clearly going to have problems with it and the ranger did not require them to turn back when they had the chance. These people needed a lot of coaching and hand holding and while the ranger did an excellent job getting them through the obstacles, the rest of the group had to take on a lot of the effort as well which detracted from the experience for everyone.
Anyways, back to the tour. It was really interesting and fun to follow a guide and not have to think about our route. The ranger took us through the maze of formations with appropriate discussions about the geology, biology, and history. I really had fun and highly recommend it. Unfortunately, due to the slower folks the tour went on much longer than it should have and we had to rush to make our final and most exciting destination – Delicate Arch at sunset.
Ever since we had decided to visit Arches I wanted to make sure we got to Delicate Arch, the most well-known formation in the park, for sunset. Throughout the afternoon we had watched threatening looking clouds shroud the sky and I was doubtful that we’d get that famous orange-red glow, but that didn’t make me want to visit any less.
From the Fiery Furnace parking we made a beeline to the Delicate Arch trailhead. Sunset was at 6:30 and it is 1.5 miles with about 500 ft of elevation gain to the arch. We parked at 5:50. I grabbed my cameras, my pack, and a jacket and took off down the trail. Had I not been in such a hurry I would have taken my time to enjoy the walk but I had a goal. As I rounded the corner at the end of the trail I was greeted with the beautiful view of Delicate Arch as well as a large crowd of people waiting for the golden moment.
I found a spot and sat down. Only then did I look to the sky to see if we’d get the glow. There were heavy clouds to the west that were currently causing a rather dull light, but I was encouraged by a small gap of clear sky between the clouds and the horizon. Sure enough, in just a few minutes the sun started peeking through and the Arch took on a light glow. For the next ten minutes Delicate Arch went through the entire spectrum of oranges and reds, a stunning performance by Mother Nature.
Everyone was clicking away (as was I), but I kept putting my camera down to just bask in the moment. It really was a remarkable experience; it’s no wonder that people are drawn to this place.
Once the light faded we quickly packed up and quickly headed back to the car in the diminishing ambient light of dusk. From the trailhead it was a short drive to the park’s campground where we had booked a site. Gambling with the weather we slept in the back of the truck, and fortunately we stayed dry.
In the morning we packed up the truck and drove over to the Landscape Arch trailhead. The clouds were more imminently threatening this morning so I carried all my rain gear for the short, one mile hike to Landscape Arch. It is a good thing I did. Just as we reached the arch it began raining, and for a few moments rained pretty hard. I had to stash my camera away, but I’m glad we waited out the brief thundery squall because the sky on the return hike was glorious. Unfortunately we still moved pretty quickly because it was cold!
After Landscape Arch we headed into Moab for breakfast and gas. From there we’d head south to Canyonlands and lands beyond.
We only had 24 hours to spend in Arches National Park and I wanted to make the best of it. The first half of the day was spend exploring the southern half of the park, where we strolled Park Boulevard, 4×4′d to some dinosaur tracks, and wandered some enormous arches in the Windows Section.
After a brief stop at the Visitor Center to pick up our pre-reserved Fiery Furnace tickets for an afternoon tour, we headed to the Park Boulevard area for a short and scenic stroll among the towering red rock formations. The clouds were rolling in (forecasted rain later in the day) making for some nice contrast in the blue sky against the red rock.
The scenery wasn’t just in macro format. The patterns and erosion in the rock beneath our feet were just as fascinating.
Just outside the park boundary are some dinosaur tracks. The Willow Flats road is rough dirt and rock but the Tundra had no problems. It’s neat to see the footprints as the critter ran across the land 165 million years ago. This side trip was definitely worth it, even though it was mostly just hopping out of the car to take some pictures. A nice place to get away from the typical national park crowds.
The Windows Section: Double Arch, Window Arches, Turret Arch
Back in the main part of the park we joined the crowds again in the Windows Section. This is an area with trails winding through clusters of rock formations and arches. We wandered and scrambled through them snapping photos and enjoying the beautiful day. As we hiked around the backside of Window Arches I noticed some neat smooth rock in the distance. Later, a close inspection of the photo I took revealed a distant Delicate Arch, our sunset destination that night. Cool!
For the first seven years I lived in California I always flew back to Michigan to visit my family at Christmas. Each year I would inevitably face midwest snowstorms, holiday travel crowds, cancelled flights, etc. But it was always worth it to visit my family.
Last year was the first year I skipped the holiday travel – the overwhelming aggravation of it, combined with ticket prices that were 3x the previous year’s cost made me switch my family visit to summer, and it was a great decision. I sure do miss the Christmas traditions, but trading it for less annoying travel and time on the beach in the summer is a compromise I’m willing to make. So I made the same decision this year.
Since we don’t have any family out here, we found ourselves with a second year of a non-committed Christmas. And what do we do when we find a free day in our calendar? We hit the road, of course. At the last minute we decided to spend the holiday in our favorite place in the world – in a tent in the Eastern Sierra.
From the moment the passes close each fall, I have serious Eastern Sierra withdrawals. Getting from the Bay Area to the “East Side” in the winter involves a long and circuitous route, undoable in a weekend. Even when the passes are open, I expect a minimum of a five hour drive just to get over the mountains to the other side. The East Side is my favorite place in California and every time I visit I am in awe at the beauty, history, and opportunity for adventure that surrounds me. The 395 corridor from Bridgeport to Ridgecrest offers enough activities to keep a curious explorer and outdoor nut busy for ten lifetimes.
The Eastern Sierra is the best point of access to my favorite backpacking terrain – trail heads that start at 9000+ feet and spit you straight into the granite wilderness of the High Sierra. The western slope of the Sierra is gradual and forest covered, but the east slope is steep and dramatic, with sharp granite peaks over 14,000 feet with high desert terrain at their feet. While I’ve always been in awe of the scenery around me when driving through, and dabbled around some of the famous rock climbing areas, it was really last year that I startedexploring with the help of some 4×4 geocaching friends. Those two trips really opened my eyes to all of the unique things to do along the east slopes of the Sierra.
Back in August I had a really fun long weekend playing in the Eastern Sierra with the GBA (Geocachers of the Bay Area) 4×4 group. There is a lot more to do over there than we could fit into the three days we had at the time, so last week we drove out for a follow up trip. Our targets were Laurel Lakes (which we did in August, but couldn’t resist a second run), the crash site of Flight 802 in the mountains just east of Bishop, the Champion Mine/Black Eagle camp on the flanks of White Mountain, Reward Mine, and the Whitney Arch in the Alabama Hills.
Our initial plan was to make this trip primarily focused on fall color photography, and we’d just join in on a couple of runs with the 4×4 group. But an early season snowfall and cold temperatures pretty much fast-tracked the trees to brown, leaving us with little to photograph. I was really looking forward to the Friday afternoon run into Laurel Lakes since it passes through an enormous aspen grove, but it turns out they were all brown or bare. Disappointing, but it can’t be a perfect show every year.
On Friday evening we headed up into the hills east of Bishop to visit the crash site of Convair 340/440 Flight 802. This plane, carrying 36 people, crashed into the mountainside soon after taking off from Bishop Airport in 1974. (crash report) (another detailed description). Though not a far walk, the crash site isn’t easy to get to, either requiring a very steep hike up a canyon or a treacherous contour walk across a rocky slope.
From the crash site we watched an incredible sunset while exploring the remains of the plane and personal belongings. I’ve visited crash sites before, but mostly of military aircraft where crew were able to eject safely. This site was different – shoes, razors, and souvenirs from Mammoth were just a few things that reminded us that almost 40 people died here. A cross, made from parts of the destroyed plane, sits on top of the hill as a memorial. (Flight 802 photos)