Road Trip to Utah

I’m back in the US from Australia. It was great to go back to Oz and see family and friends. Being away helps you to appreciate things that are so familiar but that you might take for granted. One of my signature strengths is the appreciation of beauty and I express that most in connection with the natural environment. So, I really noticed the vivid blue skies, the different green of Australian trees, the morning bird song and the crashing of waves on the amazing golden beaches.  I’m sure everyone reconnects with Australia in different ways when they return even from a short time away; but I feel I do glimpse an understanding of how the indigenous people deeply feel their connection with this remarkable and beautiful land called Australia. Despite all of that, I was excited to come back to Texas and continue our adventure.

Just a few weeks after getting back to Houston we had the opportunity to take a week holidaying in one of the most astonishing places I have ever been. I have wanted to go to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks since we visited the Grand Canyon about 6 years ago. In truth I didn’t know they existed before that. Anyway, Rob had a short window to have a week off, so I quickly made plans to get away.

It turned out to be one of the most relaxing and breathtaking holidays we have ever done. We flew into Las Vegas late on Friday night and picked up a car early Saturday morning. Of course, there has to be one mistake in my planning, I had actually booked the car for the Friday not Saturday (no big drama). As expected, we nearly fell over at the cost of rental insurance but that aside we headed off without a glance at the strip or even going near a casino- we’ve been to Las Vegas before. Our shuttle driver told us that the casinos are actually about third on the list of things that bring people to Las Vegas now; behind the shows and the retail outlets! Interesting fact Las Vegas means the meadows although our driver says you remember it by thinking of “the vegies”. It is a big flat space surrounded by enormous desert hills. On Saturday there was even snow on the distant mountains even though it was about 30C in Vegas itself.

The drive from Las Vegas (Nevada) to St George (Utah) was surprising. We wove between huge rock walls with fantastically twisted strata. My Dad would have loved it, he was a geography teacher (and so much more). Our kids will understand the reference. It made me wish I had done more geology in my science degree. However, it was clearly desert, barely any vegetation to be seen and no grass. The most predominant living thing, other than the people on the freeway, were strange looking trees like the ones in Dr Seuss books, these are Joshua trees. (There is a national park in California called Joshua Tree National Park.) We pulled over for lunch in the town of Mesquite and had a picnic on their beautiful grassy park. It was so lovely and such a contrast to the area around. Big tick to the council.  Its on my trip advisor list of reviews.

Anyway, we continued on increasing in altitude and still amazed at the scenery. My plan had been to go to the north part of Zion NP to a place called Kolob Canyon. The road winds through Taylor Canyon to the final stop overlooking the most stunning view of an area called the finger canyons. It was late in the afternoon to the color in the rocks was very dramatic. We were dumbstruck and wising we had thought to do some hiking here too. Maybe next time…

We stayed at Springdale that night, our evening view was of huge cliffs with eagles flying above them. The colors are incredible. I haven’t been to the Kimberley (guilty) but Rob has, and he thought that some of the colors we were seeing in these landforms were reminiscent of that area. Over about 270 million years the Virgin River (not kidding) has cut 2,000+ ft canyons through the rock. At first glance I thought the rock would be igneous, but it is a fine sandstone called Navajo sandstone. Apparently, the desert sand dunes were blown layer over layer forming red and white cross beds. That accounts for the mindboggling layering in every direction. Older layers underneath were laid down in ancient shallow seas, so contained lots of marine fossils. Younger strata have dinosaur bones from the Jurassic and Cretaceous. Then the river and winds continued to erode the sandstone until you stand nearly 700m (2200ft) down in the valley.

Many of the longer hiking tracks were still closed following a long winter but we did two day hikes and used the shuttle for little walks to the view points (known as lookouts in Australia).

The second hike we did was Angels Landing. It’s a famous hike in Zion. We started very early (about 7am) as we had heard that it was a very popular hike especially because some of the other longer hikes were unavailable and we had stayed at the lovely Zion Lodge overnight. Angels Landing rises from the bottom of the canyon to about 1500ft. It was so high that someone said, “only the angels would be able to land there”, hence the name. The walking trail was apparently the idea of one of the first national park superintendents who wanted people other than mountain climbers to be able to see the whole canyon from above. The 21 switchbacks are named after him, “Walters Wiggles”. It’s a dangerous hike with apparently 8 deaths since 2004. There are signs all over saying no children, don’t do it if you’re scared of heights, have a heart condition, are taking certain medication etc. The reason for the warning is not the switch backs but that the last 500ft is along a narrow ridge which at times is only a few feet wide. The drop offs on either side are very deep; some as deep as 1000ft. There is a chain to hold onto, but I must say it was still pretty scary. Mind you when you get to the top the view is amazing and breathtaking. An added bonus (for me) were the chipmunks. They were very bold, trying to get into people’s packs for food. I had not seen a chipmunk before so was very excited. As I sat on a rock to have a drink, they were running across my boots. (I did shoo them away, as they are rodents of course.) I’m very glad we went early; trying to pass people on the steep climb down, as it got busier going up, required a lot of patience. I’m sure many of the fatalities would be people trying to get around the queue. It was an exhilarating experience to do the climb and get back down in time for morning tea on the lovely grass at Zion lodge.

After Zion, we headed out along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway towards Bryce Canyon. Wow, what a stunning drive. As the canyons are so huge, a tunnel has been dug through them to make the highway. I know that we have lots of highway tunnels these days but this one was dug in the 1920’s and completed in 1930. It’s 1.1 miles long. Because it was made way back, large vehicles like buses and campers (RV’s) have to get right into the middle to get through so now the national parks has traffic control so that they can only go through one way. Cars can go through at any time but wide and tall traffic has to be regulated. It’s so cool.

We stayed in a little town halfway between Zion and Bryce Canyon NP called Duck Creek Village. Its off the main road and high up, around 8,850ft (much higher than Australia’s tallest, Mt Kosciusko). Anyway, I booked us in for three nights in a cabin in this little village. As we drove in, the altitude started taking affect and we both were dealing with headaches, especially Rob. The place has the feel of an alpine ski resort but is way too flat. We were perplexed. We checked into the Duck Creek Village Inn and the hosts Eddie and Shauna, had some relief for the headaches on hand. It turns out that Duck Creek Village is ATV heaven in summer and snowmobile central in winter. I don’t really get it but each to their own. It is a serene picturesque place and fortunately (for me) we were a week ahead of the opening of the ATV season.

Every evening we sat on the porch soaking up the noise of nature. The town church bells played How Great thou Art and Rock of Ages on the hour at 5 and 6 pm respectively; it was so quaint. While we were at Duck Creek, we were visited by Hummingbirds. I have never seen a hummingbird before. They are so pretty and tiny- just beautiful but too quick for a photo. We also saw a beaver two mornings as we set out on our drive to Bryce Canyon. He was in his little place next to the creek both days. It was a lovely place and I really recommend Duck Creek Inn.

We visited Bryce Canyon on quite a cold day. It was mostly sunny, but we did have some sleet at one point on our rim hike. What a surreal place Bryce is. The Hoodoos are like huge stalagmites made of red rock. Bryce Canyon is high up on the Paunsaugunt Plateau which was uplifted by the Colorado Plateau due to tectonic movement and subduction of the heavier Colorado Plateau. The cracking that occurred from the uplift allowed water to seep in and erode some of the softer rock such as the mudstone more rapidly while the limestone caps stayed put. Because Bryce is so high the water also freezes. Ice expands and causes cracking. It doesn’t rain most of the year because it’s a desert but apparently, when it rains at Bryce it is like a monsoon. The rain and gravity erode more, and you end up with these incredible structures. The mudstone is iron rich and as it washes down the spires it leaves a red plaster like coating on everything below. Amazing. We attended a ranger talk about the geology; it was fascinating. A similar story to inland central and South Australia: shallow sea, layering, iron rich layers and uplift. I wish I was better at geology.

The next part of our day was really phenomenal. Because the Colorado Plateau is so high, as the water from the plateau runs down through the various canyons such as Bryce to get to the Colorado River it picks up a lot of sediment. When is reaches lower areas such as Zion it has deposited these sediments in what are effectively three distinct layers over an area of 1.9 million acres into an incredible landform called the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. You should google the pictures of this area I cannot really describe it except to say this may have been the MOST wonderful part of our trip. After our visit to the information center at Kanab we were directed to a dirt road called Cottonwood Canyon Road. It follows the Paria River about 46 miles from US 89 to a little town called Cannonville in the Kodachrome Basin State Park, where it meets Scenic Byway 12. The whole drive is exhilarating, amazing and like another planet. We continued on to Escalante where we had an excellent dinner in a delightful and well patronized tavern. What a brilliant and unexpected day. I had not made any firm plans and it was remarkable. The scenic byways of Utah booklet is a really good start when trying to decide on where you could go.

Anyway, onward. We visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon the next day. We have been to the south rim a few years ago and hiked down and up the canyon from that side. The park only opened the day before and there was still quite a lot of snow on the plains as we drove into the park. There were bison crossing signs on the roadside. Sadly, we didn’t see any on that day, but it was pretty cool to see that they are around on these plains. It was blowing a gale on the North Rim so we wimped out on a long hike but we were glad we visited. I had forgotten how absolutely enormous the Grand Canyon is. It was nice to see something completely different for a day and re-calibrate.

Our last day of sightseeing and we decided to venture to Page in Arizona to go to Antelope Canyon. A friend in Houston had also told me about this marvelous place so we booked into the Navajo guided tour for 11.45 am. apparently, its best to try for as close to the middle of the day as possible because you want the sun directly overhead to avid shadows. The canyon is on Navajo land and they own the rights to the very popular tour. It was certainly not a disappointment. Our guide, was so helpful with photographing tips and even took some shots for us. The tour was about 45 minutes and moves pretty fast. The canyon is a deep slot canyon also formed by water moving through cracks in the sedimentary layers. The rock is very blonde but with the light shining into the canyon it forms wonderful colors. The minerals in the rocks bring out beautiful purples, pinks and orange. We did Lower Antelope Canyon just because that was the one we could get into at the right time but it turned out that it is the longer canyon and much steeper with more corkscrew shapes. The canyons are caused by flash flooding due heavy down pours in the summer. The water rushes through and causes these remarkable sweeping patterns.

Page is also home to the second largest lake in the US; Lake Powell. The Glen Canyon Dam is at Page and is quite impressive. Robert was transported by the huge boats. Some of them were so large that they were being delivered to the lake by semitrailer. The launching ramps were 8 lanes wide! It seems to be a very popular fishing and house boating spot. We took a cruise along the canyons towards Antelope Canyon. The coastline of the lake is actually longer than the combined coastline of mainland USA. It was very pretty and protected; perfect for house boating.

Finally, our holiday had come to an end. We reluctantly drove back to Las Vegas and flew back to Houston. Writing this feels a bit like a travelogue but I can honestly say I was completely amazed and in awe of the grandeur of South Western Utah and northern Arizona. What is more incredible is that there are still half a dozen other National Parks in that same region we did not even make it to. Each region had its own distinctive characteristics; it certainly did not feel like we were just seeing the same thing over again. What a wonderful restful and regenerating holiday. #UtahLifeElevated

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