Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, and Navajo National Monument

Sunrise in Valley of the Gods
Sunrise in Valley of the Gods

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).

San Juan River Goosenecks
San Juan River Goosenecks

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.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley
Hiking around Mitten Butte
Hiking around Mitten Butte

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.

Reservation Dogs begging tourists for treats
Reservation Dogs begging tourists for treats
Vendors at a viewpoint
Vendors at a viewpoint

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.

Betatakin Ruins, Navajo National Monument
Betatakin Ruins, Navajo National Monument

The weather still was not cooperating. Once we got back into cell phone signal range I pulled up the radar. ┬áBig 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!

Links:

Monument Valley Wildcat Trail

Christmas in the Eastern Sierra

Shrouded Mono Lake
Shrouded Mono Lake

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.

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High Sierra Trail Day 7: Guitar Lake to Whitney

Sunrise from 13k
Sunrise from 13k

It’s Whitney Day! My watch alarm woke me at 4 am and remembering last night’s cold temperatures, I maneuvered myself to the door while staying inside my sleeping bag. I wanted to heat my breakfast and coffee water inside my vestibule and get as much packing done as possible while staying all warm and cozy inside my down cocoon. As I started moving around I realized it was warmer than the previous night – a check of the thermometer on my GPS revealed a temperature of 47, warmer than most mornings in the Sierra. I ridiculed myself for being a baby and finally got out of my bag.

Sunrise Reflection
Sunrise Reflection

We packed up quickly and were on the trail by 4:50 am. Hiking by headlamp is fun, but we didn’t need them for too long. My eyes adjusted and the starlight reflected off of the light colored granite enough to see the way. The only disappointing thing about ┬ástarting this earlier is the inability to photograph the scene around us.

I mentioned in the blog entry from the previous day that Backpacker Magazine had named Guitar Lake as the best place to watch a sunset, but I have to disagree. It’s the best place to watch a sunrise. As we climbed the switchbacks to Trail Crest we could see the predawn sky start to lighten, creating a strip of pastels above the Kaweahs. Sunrise was scheduled for 6:10 am, and at 6:11 we could see the first morning alpenglow sunlight begin to hit the distant peaks. As we climbed, the sun did too, exposing more and more peaks. Eventually the lower lakes like Guitar and Hitchcock caught the colorful reflection and started to glow orange. It’s a trail experience unlike any other, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed it twice.

Sky Pilot (polemonium)
Sky Pilot (polemonium)

We dropped our packs at the junction below Trail Crest and headed up to Whitney. After a week of hiking with the pack on my back it felt like I was flying that final couple of miles to the summit! This is another favorite stretch of trail in the Sierra – the views and structure of the trail are just out of this world. Additionally, the polemonium (sky pilot) was in full bloom and brought a burst of color to the desolate granite landscape. This is my favorite flower, mostly because I can only find it in my favorite of places – the very highest peaks and passes in the Sierra.

It was a lot colder up there at 14000 ft, the wind was blowing, and the sun hadn’t yet hit the back side of Whitney so we didn’t spend a lot of time on the summit. Enough time to snap pictures, sign the log, take in the views and revel in the feeling of a successful trip, and then it was back down to warmer temperatures to thaw our hands and faces. We found a Staples Easy button in the summit register and delighted in pushing it. “That was easy!” it told us. I don’t know if I’d call it easy, but we were blessed with a successful trip without any major mishaps or injuries.

Signing the Summit Register:

Me on Mt Whitney
Me on Mt Whitney

Once you turn around off the summit there is another motivating factor, especially after spending a week on the trail: real food. On the hike down I would recite with each footstep: “burger…beer…burger…beer…burger…beer.” I don’t know if it made things go any faster, but it sure made me hungry. I also tried counting the 97 switchbacks. I lost count at 88. Guess I’ll have to go back!

Many of the 97 switchbacks
Many of the 97 switchbacks

We made it down to Whitney Portal around 1:30 pm and headed to the Portal store for cheeseburgers, fries, and beer. David pulled up to meet us just as we sat down – great timing! Then a few others showed up to welcome us back to civilization. We had quite a little party there at the Portal store, and finally left to continue it in Lone Pine. As we spent the night celebrating Paige’s birthday and our successful High Sierra Trail trip in the town of Lone Pine, I kept glancing back up at Mt Whitney, wondering when I’d be up there again. I’m already jonesing for another entry in the log sheet.

Mount Whitney from Guitar Lake, exit to Portal at EveryTrail

Thanksgiving 2007: Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks

Bryce at Sunrise
Bryce at Sunrise

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).

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