By Friday morning we knew we had to start working our way back home. But we didn’t want to leave Zion without at least one more hike! We chose Observation Point since it was one of the few canyon hikes that we hadn’t yet done.
The Observation Point trail starts at the Canyon bottom at the Weeping Rock trailhead. It climbs 2500 ft in a little under 4 miles to an outcropping on the rim of the canyon. A handful of switchbacks climb to the junction with the Hidden Canyon trail before continuing up to Echo Canyon. We had hiked this trail in the past, so everything beyond the junction would be new to us.
After our fantastic visit to the Great Gallery, we drove over to Capitol Reef and snagged a campsite in their campground. Considering that October is the busy season for the Southern Utah parks, I was pleasantly surprised by the peaceful and quiet nature of the half-occupied campground. Everyone wants to hit the ‘big boys’ like Zion and Bryce, and Capitol Reef is often overlooked.
The campground is in an area known as “Fruita”, an old mormon settlement that still has old buildings standing between the red rock walls, including the school and the blacksmith shop. There is even an old home where they bake and sell pies. Several orchards still grow among the buildings. A large herd of deer wandered through camp and we watched some males fight at sunset. Hello ladies.
Prior to the Columbia event we were asked to choose an activity for Saturday. Our options were yoga, mountain biking, or hiking of various difficulty levels. I had a moment of craziness where I thought of signing up for yoga or mountain biking (things I very much do not do), but then decided that I’d go with my gut and spend the time in Sedona doing what I love most: ‘Intense’ hiking. I had no idea what Intense meant, and I had visions of a 20 mile death march in the hot June Arizona sun. And I kind of liked it.
Having survived the rainy night we awoke to grey but dry skies and packed up the truck in between photos of the stunning terrain that surrounded us. Valley of the Gods is BLM land and a great place to experience the beauty of Southern Utah without all the restrictions and regulations of National Park Land. Driving out, we wound our way through the red rock buttes before hitting pavement, having to cross a small stream that hadn’t been there the evening before when we drove in.
As we headed south towards Monument Valley we made a couple of side trips. Only a few miles off the road is Goosenecks State Park, essentially a bluff-top parking area with a famous view of the goosenecks in the San Juan River. There was a whole tour bus that had camped there the previous night so suddenly the paste-like mud we had dealt with in Valley of the Gods didn’t seem so bad (Goosenecks was my backup spot).
A few photos later and we were back on the road, passing through the small town of Mexican Hat, UT (named for the nearby upside-down sombrero shaped rock) and shortly crossing into Navajo Territory. Along the way a familiar view came into sight – you may remember this from Forrest Gump and any number of other movies/car commercials.
After a breakfast stop at Gouldings (a hotel/giftshop/RV park and the *only* thing in the area) we drove into Monument Valley. $5 is the entry fee and National Park Passes are not accepted (it is a Navajo Tribal Park). The skies were a bit dull for photography so we decided to do the short hike (the Wildcat Trail) around the famous western Mitten Butte. It’s the only hiking trail in the park and the only place you are allowed to hike without a guide. We enjoyed our tour through the desert including our interactions with wild horses and reservation dogs.
Following the hike we drove a few miles in on the dirt park road to check the views from some different angles. Sprinkled among the turnouts are wild horses, more wandering reservation dogs, vendors selling jewelry, navajo tacos, and services like getting your photo taken on top of a horse. I enjoyed our visit to the park – seeing that classic view in person was great. I just wish the light was better for photography.
After the morning at Monument Valley we continued west and took a short side trip into Navajo National Monument. It was icy cold but we did the short hike to the viewpoint of the ruins in the canyon below. I would love to come back and do one of the guided tour hikes into the actual ruins – they looked incredible. There were tools and baskets, and from a distance it looked like they were abandoned yesterday. After a short visit we continued west towards our destination for the night – Paria Canyon/Grand Staircase Escalante.
The weather still was not cooperating. Once we got back into cell phone signal range I pulled up the radar. Big splotches of storms covered the area over our intended campsite for the night with no end in sight. I was still soaked and muddy from the previous night. We had planned on stopping for a shower in Page, AZ anyways, so that turned into “let’s just get a cheap hotel and dry out”. An hour later we were snug and dry in the Rodeway Inn, in the second to last available room in town (overheard the clerk on the phone with another hotel: “Just filled our last room, I think Motel 6 has one or two rooms left.”) We listened to some big storms roll through and were glad we weren’t out there. Normally I’ll just suck it up but we hadn’t had a shower since Denver – it was time to stop, dry out, warm up, and regroup. And also to have some BBQ and beer for dinner. Mmm.
Next Stop: Grand Staircase Escalante, Paria Canyon, and THE WAVE!
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!
This hike ranks up there with one of the best I’ve done in the desert. It has a bit of everything to offer – some mine ruins and tunnels, rockhounding, nice canyon narrows to wander through, a nice scrambly desert peak (class 2/3, depending on who is rating it), challenging route finding, and some beautiful red rock. The mileage and elevation gain is not difficult but the hike is not easy and requires cross-country travel with good route finding skills in canyon country. If you’re looking for something a bit less challenging the first half through the narrows is an excellent dayhike without that ‘uh oh’ factor.
Both the beginning and ending of this hike are on roads that would be passable in most vehicles, and definitely our truck, but in order to make a loop of it we left the truck at the junction where the roads meet (see track below). We hiked this in a counter-clockwise direction. If you want to just do the mine ruins and narrows this is the way to go. If you want to do the loop you can go either direction. I’ll describe the full loop in the counter-clockwise direction.
Leave your vehicle at the starting point below – any car should be able to make it here, but if it is washed out or in bad condition there is a giant shoulder parking area where the side road meets the pavement. It will add ~1/3 mile to the round trip hike if you park there – no biggie.
After our eventful day in Zion National Park we drove the short distance to Bryce Canyon National Park. Arriving after dark, we didn’t get to enjoy the scenery until the next morning. We got up early and were in the park just around sunrise, which we enjoyed from Sunset Point. Sunrise at Bryce is amazing, and I would recommend to any one who visits to get out of bed early to experience it.
Bryce Canyon (which isn’t a canyon, but there is no geologic name to describe exactly what it is), is an exposed feature of the red Utah landscape. It was once a sea floor and many processes combined to make the hoodoos what they are today. What’s left are spires and formations that look like they were taken straight out of a Dr Seuss book. Half of the fun of wandering among the hoodoos is to see figures and pictures in their shapes. In one day we saw kissing camels, the Swedish Chef, Queen Elizabeth, the Road Runner, and many others (I seemed to be seeing a lot of Muppets, but maybe that’s just me).