Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge

There are four wildlife refuges in southern Nevada that are managed as part of a complex: Desert, Ash Meadows, Moapa Valley, and Pahranagat. While we were volunteering at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, we visited Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge. It is a tiny place (116 acres) about an hour’s drive southeast of Pahranagat. We drove down one day and got a fantastic tour from David and Vi.

Every National Wildlife Refuge protects an ecosystem for particular species. Moapa Valley restores and conserves the habitat of the Moapa dace. It was the first wildlife refuge established to protect an endangered fish species, in 1979. The Moapa dace is a small fish (about 3 inches long) with a black spot on its tail. It likes warm water and is only found in the Muddy River spring system, an area less than 10 square kilometers.

The area that is now the refuge used to be resorts. The refuge’s visitor parking lot was an olympic sized pool. There was a snack bar and a water slide, and all the springs were diverted into pipes and used for pools. There was even a nude pool that was featured in a playboy shoot. It was probably a nice place to hang out under the palm trees that were planted there, but it wasn’t great for the fish that relied on the springs, which had been diverted, capped off, or clorinated.

By the 1980’s the Moapa dace were almost entirely gone. Amazingly, a small number were found in an irrigation ditch. Since then, the land in the area is being purchased and the springs are being restored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partner agencies, including the Southern Nevada Water Authority that runs the Warm Springs Natural Area across the road from the refuge.

One of the coolest parts of the refuge is the small outdoor visitor pavilion. There are windows built directly into the springs, basically turning it into a natural outdoor aquarium. The dace like very specific spring conditions (fast moving water), so it’s easy to find them hanging out right near the windows.

We also saw Moapa White River Springfish, which are even smaller fish that have two dark lines who coexist with the Moapa dace, and Moapa pebblesnails which are a tiny green snail that we could see through the windows into the spring. These species are also endemic to Moapa Valley (which means they are only found there). Introduced fish species like tilapia, mosquitofish, and mollies compete with the dace and springfish and also prey on them. This is one of the biggest challenges that the refuge faces in conserving the Moapa dace.

There is a beautiful picnic area with murals and the Moapa mascot.

We hiked up the hill to an overlook where we could see the whole refuge.

We learned about the plague of the palm trees. They were planted by settlers and the locals like them. But, they aren’t a native species and they suck up hundreds of gallons of water each day. The inside is actually like a bunch of straws. When they do get removed, they take them to the burn pile and have to let them dry out for about three years before they are dry enough to burn! Even though they are full of water, they produce dry shaggy beards that are a fire hazard. In 1994 there was a fire that reduced the dace population in the refuge from 500 to 34! When the entire population of a species lives in such a small area, it is pretty vulnerable.

Another interesting plant we learned about is the screwbean mesquite. They have interesting corkscrew seed pods, and the seeds inside rattle when they are shaken. They were a traditional food for some Native Americans, who ground the seeds into meal. Moapa Valley has been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous people, who farmed as well as hunted and gathered. When the Old Spanish Trail trading route opened in 1830 it brought conflict and disease. The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians now live on a reservation nearby.

Moapa gets hotter than Pahranagat, I believe I heard it referred to as the ‘devil’s butthole’. In the summertime they aren’t even open to visitors. That’s when they capture and band songbirds. They start at sunrise and stop when it hits 100 degrees. Some days they stop by 10 am! So, I doubt we will ever be around to witness this.

It is great habitat for birds, in addition to the endemic fish. The desert mistletoe berries are enjoyed by phainopepla, and we were able to see both males and females. Male phainopepla are glossy black, and females are a beautiful gray, both have red eyes. I think the females are even more striking than the males. We also saw Anna’s hummingbirds, and cedar waxwings, which were gorgeous but unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of them.

Since we got a behind the scenes tour, we were able to see a few things that are closed to the public. We learned that on public land, anything human-made over 50 years old is considered an artifact. That sounds like a long time, until you realize that means anything after 1970! The archeologists have visited twice to document this old crap, I mean artifacts. It was actually pretty neat to see.

Brian had a few opportunities to volunteer at Moapa, first to help install a water fountain and another time to pound in a bunch of new boundary signs when the boundary changed to include a small new piece of land that was purchased. He says the ground is very very hard there! I passed on the signpost pounding project, so I didn’t have an opportunity to volunteer there until February when we cleaned cattails out of the springs. It helps the springs to keep flowing to provide good habitat for the dace, and it also facilitates the dace count. Twice a year they do a snorkel survey of the dace in the river to figure out if the population is growing or shrinking.

We wore waders and got into the spring. Brian and David went ahead cutting (very spikey) palm fronds, and Becky and I followed pulling cattails. The cattails grow from risomes that spread under the earth, and sometimes they would pull up easily, and other times they absolutely refused to budge. David and Traver have pulled cattails from the spring every year for the last several years, which has made it much easier. The young ones pulled out but some of the older ones we couldn’t pull and had to cut. 

I made it less than half an hour in the spring before I punctured holes in both legs of my waders somehow and took on a lot of water. Fortunately, the spring is very warm, about 90 degrees. 

Being in the warm spring, surrounded by palm fronds and cattails, it felt like a tropical destination. It was easy to forget that the desert was only a few feet away. The plants are so thick near the spring that we could barely even see the desert. 

We spent two days clearing the springs, and learned the skill of launching the insanely spikey palm fronds out of the spring through the plants nearby. It was hard work, but it was such a cool experience to wade in the spring and see this aspect of the refuge, and to help with habitat restoration for an endangered species. The February snorkel survey was very successful, with over 2,000 dace counted!

February 19, 2021

Cathedral Gorge and Kershaw-Ryan State Parks

On the way to Great Basin National Park, we drove right past Cathedral Gorge State Park. We were excited to get to Great Basin so we weren’t planning to stop, but we saw a sign for Miller Point and we figured we had a few minutes to see an overlook. 

Once we stopped, we realized Miller Point is much more than just an overlook. There is a trail descending right into the gorge.

We often talk about the advantages of developed vs. natural trails. Developed, accessible trails are important to ensure as many people as possible can enjoy the outdoors. We also like the undeveloped/less developed trails because it feels more like being in nature. In this instance, it was really cool that they developed the trail (including building stairways), because it created a safe way to get from the rim to the bottom of the gorge, and it was so cool to see how the landscape changed as we descended. It’s still not accessible for many people, but it does help.

We could see why it is called Cathedral Gorge because the rock formations and spires are so ornate, it felt like being in a church. It was once volcanic ash deposits which were covered by an ancient lake, and exposed again by erosion.

We didn’t do the entire trail, because we were being spontaneous and didn’t bring any water or sunscreen. Once we got to the bottom, we went a little further before turning back and heading up to the truck. The state park has a campground, picnic area, and more hiking trails too.

To celebrate my birthday in early January, we drove about an hour northeast of Pahranagat NWR to Kershaw-Ryan State Park outside the town of Caliente, Nevada.

Caliente has an old Union Pacific train depot built in 1923 in the Missions Revival style. It was used as a train depot until 1993, and is now used for city offices and a library.

Kershaw-Ryan State Park is the northern end of Rainbow Canyon, which had been ranched since the late 1800s by ranchers named Kershaw and then Ryan. James Ryan donated the land to the state for a park in 1926. It was one of Nevada’s original four state parks, and the Civilian Conservation Corp built visitor facilities in the 1930’s. Unfortunately, in 1984 there were flash floods that destroyed all the original infrastructure except for one small building.

The state park contains natural springs which create an oasis. There are wild grapevines, roses, and gamble oaks, and an orchard that was planted by the original ranchers. Since we visited in the winter, we missed out on this perspective of the canyon. Instead we had snow! Caliente is at about 4,300 feet elevation, which is 1,000 feet higher than Pahranagat, so it is about 10 degrees colder. The snow hung around in the areas that get less sunshine.

There’s a 15-site campground, a small playground, and a spring-fed wading pool (which was closed). There are also three hiking trails, which really make up one trail that climbs up into the canyon to an overlook. We hiked the 3 mile Canyon View Trail, it was a nice hike and we had the place to ourselves.

As we drove to Caliente, we noticed the Joshua trees becoming scarcer, and being replaced with Juniper trees. On the trail there was a big Juniper tree right in front of a bench. Brian plopped down on it and said “what a view”.

Our only complaint was that we could’ve used a better trail map. We thought there was just one trail. so we didn’t pay much attention after we made it to the viewpoint, until we realized that we were heading deeper into the canyon and not descending… whoops. Given our stellar sense of direction it was a huge shock to find ourselves lost. We backtracked to the viewpoint, figured out where our trail diverged, and considered it some bonus hiking.

It was fun to explore a couple of Nevada’s state parks. Nevada is often overlooked for tourism, but there are a lot of really beautiful and interesting places to visit. We left many unseen, so we’ll have a lot more to explore when we return to Nevada!

October 6, 2020 & January 13, 2021

Great Basin National Park

We took our first break from our volunteer job at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge to drive 3 hours north to Great Basin National Park, the only National Park in Nevada.

The Great Basin is a large area of the western U.S. containing almost all of Nevada, half of Utah, and some of Oregon and California. It is an endorheic basin, which means it doesn’t drain out to any ocean. There is too little water in the region to form rivers large enough to break out and reach an ocean. Water is mainly lost from the area by evaporation.

This park has two main attractions, Wheeler Peak and Lehman Caves. Lehman Caves is a very decorated cave system that has been a National Monument since 1922, and was incorporated into Great Basin National Park when it was created in 1986. Wheeler Peak is a mountain over 7,500 feet tall with the summit reaching over 13,000 feet of elevation. It’s the second-tallest mountain in Nevada, with the only glacier in Nevada.

Last year when we visited Utah, we planned to pop over to Great Basin. There was a lot of snowpack in 2019 though, and the road to the top of Wheeler Peak was still closed from snow in the middle of the summer! So, we decided to wait to visit until the peak was open. This year, due to Covid, Lehman Caves are closed. I guess we will have to visit again to see what we missed this time.

We left the trailer at Pahranagat and drove to Great Basin with our backpacking supplies. The campgrounds there are all first-come first-served no reservation campsites, but since we were tent-camping we could access the more remote sites along Snake Creek. As we drove up the creek it started out dry but eventually we made it to a point where the creek was running. The Aspen trees were yellow and it was a beautiful place to camp.

A ranger warned us that it was rustic (there was no water), but we had a pit toilet and garbage cans nearby, so it didn’t feel remote. We camped for two nights and the first night we were the only ones there. The second night the other two campsites next to ours were occupied.

Many of the hikes in Great Basin are long and strenuous, but we picked a couple shorter, less-intense ones. They still felt challenging because of the high elevation, and also probably because we haven’t done any hiking lately.

We woke up early to drive up Wheeler Peak before the wildfire smoke blocked the view. We stopped at the viewpoints to admire the scenery.

When we got to the top, we combined the Alpine Lakes Loop with the Bristlecone Pine Trail for about a 5 mile hike. The Alpine Lakes Loop passes two lakes, Stella Lake and Teresa Lake. They are lovely lakes, but with the drought they have experienced lately, both lakes were much smaller than usual. Teresa Lake in particular looked like a little puddle.

The Bristlecone Pine grove near the top of Wheeler Peak is really the gem of Great Basin National Park.

Bristlecone pines are some of the oldest single living organisms on Earth. One Bristlecone Pine in the park is named Methuselah and is 4,852 years old (they keep the location of this tree a secret to protect it).

Bristlecones live in harsh conditions that other trees often can’t survive in (high elevation, cold, windy, and dry), so they have less competition. When they do grow in easier conditions, they don’t live nearly as long. The trunks are often twisted and gnarled, and have dead wood next to living branches. Because their wood is so dense and they live in dry areas, even after they die their trunks can stay standing (or fall but not rot), for another thousand years!

They are so interesting and beautiful to see. Each one is different and they seem to have their own personalities.

They often live near limber pines, and it can be hard to tell them apart. The needles on the bristlecone pine are shorter, but the part of the branch that has needles is longer, so they look like a foot long bottle brush. The cones have a claw-like bristle on the end of each scale, which is where the name Bristlecone comes from.

We hiked with face masks in our pockets, and put them on before passing anyone on the trail. That seemed to be the common practice. The only place it felt a little crowded was in the Bristlecone Pine grove.

The only thing that would’ve made our camping experience better would have been a toasty campfire, especially since it got into the 30s at night. Nevada was in a drought, with a record period since the last rain, so absolutely no campfires were allowed. In fact, there was wildfire smoke in the air affecting the views.

We consoled ourselves with a couple of fantastic dinners that Brian made, and enjoyed how calm and quiet it was at the campsite. One night we stayed up to see the stars, and we could see and hear mice scurrying under the picnic table while we laid on the benches. The desert is so full of mice!

On our second (last) morning in the park, we drove to the end of Snake Creek Road and hiked the Snake Creek Overlook. It was a nice hike through the woods, but the views never really got better than they were from the parking lot. It was a short hike, and a nice stretch for our legs before we drove the 3 hours back to Pahranagat.

The town outside of the park is Baker, NV, and it was looking a little rough when we went through. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, but the only general store in town appeared to have recently closed. We were happy that we brought everything we needed. We passed some interesting art on our way through town.

Day 886 | Mile 93,823

October 6 – 8, 2020

Getting Back Out There

When we put the trailer in storage we had no idea it would stay there for a year. During the second half of 2019 we took some trips with family and friends (but without our trailer), and we helped our families with some projects. Brian even remodeled an entire home! The months flew by until we found ourselves wondering what we should do next. Brian wanted to keep traveling, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted. I love traveling, but was hoping for a little more purpose and routine. We looked into some different options, and landed on volunteering on public lands.

We browsed Volunteer.gov and found a couple of opportunities that interested us. We applied and interviewed for one that ended up not being what we hoped it would, and then we got turned down via form email. I can now describe my employment prospects by saying we were rejected for a job cleaning toilets for free.

Fortunately, the other opportunity seemed perfect! We talked to the enthusiastic folks at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and were all set to join them volunteering in their visitor center for the summer.

We had started to prepare by bringing the trailer to the Airstream factory for a front end repair. The front storage compartment hadn’t been opening and it turned out that the front end was coming disconnected from the rest of the trailer. I guess we went down a few too many bumpy roads…

We also bought a new truck! We loved our old truck (Trucky), and had so many good memories with it, so it was sad to see it go… but we also did a ton of repairs on it and were pushing it to its limits, so we were nervous about driving it to Alaska (again). The new truck is a diesel F250. We are thinking of calling it Babe, after Brian asked me whether the sporty blue color went with his lumberjack persona.

Immediately after making these preparations… the coronavirus pandemic exploded in America, and all our plans, and lives, were put on hold. After the Canadian/U.S. border closed, and then the closure was extended, our volunteer job was cancelled for summer 2020. We hope to be able to do it in 2021 instead.

We spent the next several months hunkered down and not knowing what to do. Nothing really felt like the right plan. Things were weird everywhere, so we just stayed near our families (but not too near), and worked hard on things like finding groceries and worrying.

When we finally made a new travel plan, we scrambled to get ready. We had the new truck, but had never pulled the trailer and had to buy a new hitch drop since the F250 has a bigger hitch receiver than the F150. Brian also installed a vent in the truck cap and sealed up the truck bed. Then he built a bed extender box from scratch on the tailgate, and installed a beefier tailgate shock to handle the extra weight. We also fixed the trailer’s backup camera, which had the seal malfunction and was letting moisture in.

In our old truck, Brian had dreamed of getting a bed slide and decking it out with organizational structure to have a nook and/or cranny for all our stuff. Since the F250 truck bed is longer than the F150, he thought a bed slide was even more necessary.

Once he got that though, he started dreaming of built in racks for all his stuff. He said “I don’t want to have to move anything to get to anything else.” Seemed a bit ambitious/excessive to me, but Brian’s not known for restraint. He reminded me that I’m rarely the one to get things out of the back of the truck, and that I too don’t like moving things to get to other things.

So he measured all our belongings and designed a series of racks, and ordered extruded aluminum in various lengths, with holes drilled in various places, and various fasteners. He called it “an erector set for adults”. Shipping was delayed (because, of course it was), so we ended up driving to Ohio to meet the shipment there. It came in a wooden box about the size of a coffin.

He enlisted his dad’s help, and made a big mess of his parents’ garage/workshop, and busted his butt (figuratively). It may be one of the more “maximum Brian” things he’s done, but the final result looks and functions great!

While Brian was occupying himself with truck and trailer modifications, I cleaned a year’s worth of grime out of the inside of the trailer, and sewed cute new curtains for the dining room. I also packed and organized and panicked about the move back into the trailer.

Once we left, we drove straight through for 3.5 days, sleeping in parking lots of a casino, a rest area, and a Walmart. We encountered some wildfire smoke in Colorado and Utah, but nothing too bad. Brian and I took turns driving. It turns out he likes when I drive because then he can nap. We were happy and relieved when we pulled into Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, our temporary new home.

We will be campground hosts at the 15 site free no-hookup campground through the end of October, and are looking forward to volunteering!

Day 865 | Mile 93,044

September 14 – 17, 2020

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado contains the tallest sand dunes in North America. A huge lake once covered the valley floor, and when it receded, it left sediments behind. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range traps the dunes, that are pushed into it by the strong southwesterly winds. The pattern of the winds causes the dunes to grow to be so tall.

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What do you do in the park with the tallest dunes in America? Most people play in the sand and the cold meltwater of Medano Creek. Anytime water touches sand, people make a beach out of it! There were kids with sand toys splashing and playing in the frigid water. They looked like they were having fun, though I don’t know how, my feet could barely stand the cold water!

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Brian had the bright idea to climb the tallest dune in the park, 755 foot tall Star Dune. There is a much closer dune that is nearly as high called High Dune, that many people climb instead. Brian wouldn’t settle for climbing the second-tallest dune in North America. Since I had dashed his short-lived dream of climbing down into Black Canyon of the Gunnison, I (grudgingly) agreed to this one. We were the only ones that day who walked along the creek about two miles before heading into the dune field to get to Star Dune.

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The wind was insane on the dunes, and it whipped sand around. It was amazing to watch the sand dance around on the wind. We were worried about the sun and heat (mid-eighties), but the wind kept us cool.

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We sat on the dunes a few times to dump the sand out of our shoes, and got hit in the face by sand! One time when the wind wouldn’t let up and sand was getting in my eyes and stinging my face I let out a few expletives and a couple tears. Brian (repeatedly) tried to pump me up by shouting “woooo, Star Dune!”

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It was hard to tell which dune was the tallest from up close, but thankfully Star Dune was marked on Google Maps, ridge lines were visible on satellite view, and we had cell service on the dunes. Brian still wanted to climb the tallest dune close to the edge of the field “just to get a good view of the dunes”. I tried very hard, unsuccessfully, to talk him out of this. We ended up climbing about 4 really tall dunes. The one just before Star Dune really seemed like it might be the tallest dune, but at the top we could see that the next dune over was taller. So, we definitely didn’t take the most efficient route! Making it to the top felt like a great accomplishment!

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Once we were on the top of Star Dune, the views were fantastic! The whole dunefield was beautiful, it looked like a painting.

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The back side of the dunes is the steeper side, and made me a little nervous. We got down it by switchbacking. Brian got way ahead of me and I was starting to feel annoyed about it, when he took off running. When I eventually caught up, he told me that he sat down near some grass to wait for me and he was chased off by bees! After that we avoided any vegetation.

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It was a fun hike, but it was long and hard! I could see why we were the only idiots doing it that day.  Just as we arrived back to the crowded area near the parking lot, it started to rain and hail.

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Unfortunately, it seemed like many flip flops, sand toys, and other stuff floated away from the owners, and we gathered a pretty big collection of stuff during our hike. We ended up with six sandals, a hat, a lighter, a few water bottles, and six sand toys. We had a debate going on whether we would find more sandals or more sand toys, but it ended up a tie.

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We spent two nights boondocking outside the park. When we were looking for a spot to camp, we passed up the big level sites that already had a few trailers in them in search of a more private spot. We went up the hill, where there were only cars and tents, and found a lovely site. When we were trying to level and unhitch for what would be the last time on the trip out before returning to Michigan, the trailer slipped off the couple blocks we’d put under the jack, and bent the jack. Whoops. I guess we learned the limit of how unlevel we can be. This will be the fourth jack we will put on the trailer in three years, but the first one that we may have contributed to by asking  it to do too much. In the seven weeks we spent driving to Utah and back we saw some amazing things, but we had way too many broken things and repairs.

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The drive home from Colorado to Michigan was kind of a disaster! We did have a nice short stop in Nebraska to see our friends, the Fritzes, but aside from that there was a miserable heat wave. Driving during the day the trailer got to be over 100 degrees! We could barely sleep in the trailer at night, and resorted to staying in a hotel outside of Chicago. By the time we rolled into Michigan, after a few days of trying to cover as many miles as we could, we were happy to be home.

Day 850| Mile 90,418

June 26 – July 1, 2019

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park protects a section of the Gunnison River in western Colorado, and the sheer 2,000 foot deep canyon it has created. The National Park is the deepest and narrowest part of the canyon, with Curecanti National Recreation Area to the east and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area to the west. At the narrowest point in the canyon, it is only 40 feet wide at the river.

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The Gunnison River is the largest tributary of the Colorado River. It was called various things before the 1850s, but its current English name is for John W. Gunnison, an army captain and topographic engineer that was involved with  mapping the area in the 1850s.

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It is called “Black Canyon” because the steep cliff walls prevent sunlight from getting into the canyon, and most of the day it is dark with shadows.

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Before we visited, Brian looked into hiking to the bottom of the canyon. The National Park Service website is rather discouraging of attempts to climb to the bottom. There are no trails into the canyon, but there are what they refer to as “unmarked scrambles”. Some of the hazards that hikers may encounter include black bears, difficult way finding, extremely steep descents, and high swift river water.

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Needless to say, I was not enthusiastic about the idea of climbing/hiking to the bottom of the canyon. The two sentences on the National Park Service website that sealed the deal for me are: “Many individuals have been swept to their death in the Gunnison River” and “Poison ivy is nearly impossible to avoid, and can be found growing 5 feet tall along the river”.

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I won this one, and our visit was a leisurely day of driving to various viewpoints and getting out of the truck to enjoy the view. Brian occasionally would try to point out a possible path into the canyon and look longingly at it.

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The South Rim is more accessible than the North Rim. There is a visitor center and a 7 mile scenic rim road with 12 beautiful overlooks. The most impressive view is called Painted Wall, which shows off the interesting geology of the canyon. The dark rock is volcanic and has light streaks throughout, made of a pinkish granite called pegmatite. The walls are so sheer because the land uplifted as the river carved the canyon, and the rock walls are sturdy enough to hold their shape.

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To get to the North Rim, it’s a 2-3 hour drive on gravel winding roads. Since we didn’t hike to the bottom of the canyon, we drove to the North Rim to feel like we had experienced the canyon. It ended up not being all that different than the South Rim, and we got back to the canyon just in time to see the sun set behind the canyon wall.

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After our short visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, our trailer brakes sounded bad, so we found an RV repair shop in Montrose that would take us right away. Complete RV Repair inspected our brakes, and told us they weren’t adjusted correctly (probably from the factory), so two of the four brakes were taking all the wear, and desperately needed replaced. They ended up replacing three of the four brakes, since one of the two unworn brakes wouldn’t adjust. They were very accommodating and easy to work with. Brian also found a barber he liked in Montrose and a great Indian Buffet, so our short time there was pretty nice.

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Day 844| Mile 88,266

June 24 – 25, 2019

Revisiting Moab, Utah

To flee the heat, and start our journey back to Michigan, we headed to Moab, Utah on the east side of the state. It was still in the 90s the first day we were there, but the forecast showed a cool down coming.

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We visited Moab two years ago, and really enjoyed boondocking on Klondike Bluffs Road, within site of the airport where we could see people skydiving. We found the same site we used last time! Along with the familiar campsite, we also revisited a few of our favorite Moab places, and added a couple of things we weren’t able to do on our first visit.

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Moab is home to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.  In addition to these gorgeous spots, there is also plenty of land for off-roading, and a State Park.

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Deadhorse State Park is about 30 miles from Moab, and features a plateau overlooking a gooseneck in the Colorado River. Legends say that the skinny strip of land out to the point was used as a corral for wild horses, and some were left to die of thirst there, giving the park its strange name.

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We skipped visiting it the last time we were in Moab because we saw the gooseneck in the river from Schafer Road which is on the canyon level below the overlook, and enjoyed this view, too wide for my camera to capture!

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We bought a Utah State Parks Pass this time around, so we popped in to take a look. The scenery is beautiful, and though it is similar to Canyonlands National Park, the gooseneck is even more impressive from the cliffs 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. It was fun to see the road that we had driven on our last trip, from way up above.

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On our last visit to Arches National Park, part of the park was not accessible due to road construction. I thought that might’ve been why the place was so crowded, but it was even more crowded this time. The line to enter the park was so long! The only way to avoid it was to go early. We came back for the Devil’s Garden Loop trail, which was closed in 2017.

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It’s a 7.5 mile loop that shows off 8 arches through spur trails. The most famous arch on the trail (and one of the most famous in the park) is Landscape Arch, which is the fifth longest arch in the world, and the longest outside of China.

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Some people just hike out to Landscape arch and back, which is about a mile and a half. We had the time and were determined to see everything we could on the trail, so we did the whole loop and every spur trail.

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We knew there was a chance of rain and a cool down in the temperature, so we packed a couple layers, but we still felt a bit unprepared for how cold and drizzly wet it was! The previous day had been in the 90s, and it dropped into the 40s-50s. We were occasionally cursing the weather, but we couldn’t believe that there were people out hiking in flip-flops and shorts!

The beginning of the hike had a spur trail to Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch.

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The next arch is Landscape Arch. It is so skinny, and after hearing about car-sized chunks falling off in the 1990’s, it’s easy to picture this arch not lasting forever. The trail no longer allows hikers to go under the arch. Who wants to be hit with car-sized boulders?

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After Landscape Arch the trail goes sharply up a sandstone ramp, to the top of some of the sandstone fins that are everywhere in this part of the park.

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The next arches are Navajo and Partition Arches. It took forever to get a photo of Navajo arch without anyone in it, since a couple were taking glamour shots under it for awhile, and then an entire scout troop came into the area to eat their lunches! The arch leads to a kind of dead end, so it feels like a cave inside (though it is open to the sky).

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Partition Arch shows a window to the rest of Arches National Park.

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A ways further is Double O Arch. On the way the trail climbs up a long thin sandstone fin, and along the top. The views were amazing up here, but it was so exposed to the cold and the rain, that we didn’t stop to enjoy it or take any photos.

Double O Arch is the second longest arch on the hike, after Landscape Arch. It is two arches stacked on each other.

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After this, the trail goes to “primitive”, and the route finding got much harder. We lost the trail a couple times, but somehow managed to find it again each time.

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We took the spur trail to Dark Angel, and when we got there found out that it isn’t an arch, it’s a 150 foot sandstone pillar. Interesting enough, but frankly not worth the 0.8 mile detour for us.

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The last detour was to Private Arch, and involved walking up along sandstone fins. It was a bit hard to tell which one to be on. There were some steep ramps and tricky parts along the primitive trail, but that made it more fun.

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The sandstone fins were the most interesting and fun part of this hike. They are also a key part of the geology of Arches National Park, since most arches start as fins, that get eroded by wind and water to create windows, and eventually arches.

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After this hike, we were starving, so we repeated our favorite meal in Moab, steak and eggs at the Moab Diner. The next day Brian had to talk me out of returning again.

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Canyonlands is one of our favorite parks, so we didn’t pass up a chance to visit again and drive the White Rim Road, we got a pretty day to do it too!

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We weren’t sure if it would be as impressive the second time, but it was. We didn’t make it as far as we did the last time, but we also didn’t blow any tires, and that was a plus!

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The treacherous path down to the river was closed due to flooding, so we didn’t have that option, but we did find a beautiful river overlook that I don’t remember seeing on our first drive on the White Rim Road.

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I took a turn driving this time! Unfortunately for Brian, I enjoyed it, so he may need to start to share. I went slow, so there wasn’t any chance of falling off a cliff into the canyon.

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We loved our second time to Moab, and were so glad to be able to explore some new things while we were there.

Day 842 | Mile 87,940

June 19 – 23, 2019

Zion National Park and Snow Canyon State Park

The Virgin River carved Zion Canyon out of the same rock layers as the rest of southern Utah, creating a gorgeous red canyon. The steep 2,000 foot tall cliff walls support vertical gardens, spotting the red rock with green plants and trees.

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It became a national monument, called Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 and became Zion National Park in 1919, using the Mormon settlers name for the area.

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The beautiful scene is not a secret. Zion is the most visited and famous National Park in Utah, and the fourth most visited National Park in America. Park visitation has increased so much in the last decade that the park infrastructure and resources are strained. Similar to Yosemite National Park, most of the park’s attractions are in the valley, so the visitors are confined to a relatively small area. It definitely feels crowded.

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Since we were visiting in June, we knew it would be hot. The forecast was in the 90s everyday, with the hottest day reaching 97 degrees. Even though we had been enjoying boondocking, we definitely wanted to plug in so the trailer didn’t bake. We used the Wandering Labs reservation tool made by Tim Watson to check for reservation cancellations to get a last minute reservation at the Watchman campground within Zion National Park. Just a few days before we planned to visit, I snagged a reservation for 4 nights, and felt very lucky!

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The day we planned to drive to Zion National Park, I looked up our route and noticed some dramatic switchbacks in the road to take us from Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, on the east side of Zion, to the campground on the southwest side of the park. Looking into it more, I learned there is a narrow 1.1 mile tunnel built in 1930 right through the canyon wall.

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While I think the trailer would’ve fit, they require a $15 permit to take a trailer through the tunnel and we thought it might be a hassle, so we routed around the south side to the other entrance. When we got to the campground we were impressed to find our site was a huge pull-through right on the Virgin River. Thanks, whoever cancelled their reservation!

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The park implemented a free shuttle system in 2000, when parking and traffic in the canyon got to be too bad. During the peak season, the shuttles are the only vehicles allowed in the canyon. Taking a shuttle instead of driving takes more effort and planning, but it’s really nice that the canyon isn’t so clogged. It’s much better for the wildlife, too. We saw mule deer, turkeys, hummingbirds, lizards, chipmunks, squirrels, stink bugs, and vultures. The buses run on propane, so it keeps air pollution down.

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We used the same strategy to fight the crowds and the heat, which was getting out by 6 am. The first day we explored Zion Canyon by shuttle, starting at the back of the canyon and working out way back to the campground.  At the last shuttle stop, the Riverside Walk meanders along the river until it disappears into a narrow slot canyon.

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Even though it was 60 degrees in the campground when we left, it was cool and breezy under the canyon walls. Of course I didn’t bring a jacket, so I wrapped myself in the only thing we had, a backpacking picnic blanket. Made sense to me, and much more comfortable than being cold. We took our time through here, and noticed the hanging gardens from the seeps in the stone.

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By the time we left this area, the park was getting busier, but we did a couple more popular easy hikes, to Weeping Rock and Lower Emerald Pools. Both of these featured seeps and hanging gardens. There were Yellow Columbine flowers hanging off the walls.

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Because the sandstone is porous, water filters through the stone for a thousand years, until it hits a layer of rock that isn’t porous and the water runs sideways out to seeps, which create gardens. The hikes led to alcoves in the rock under the dripping water.

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The most popular hike in Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing, a five mile hike climbing 1,500 in elevation, to a skinny ridge where chains have been installed to help people not fall to their deaths, which still occasionally (though rarely) happens. I didn’t want to do this hike because I wasn’t sure I could handle the heights aspect of it, and I didn’t want to find out the hard way. Brian went back and forth on wanting to do it, but decided not to because of the crowds. Pretty much everyone we talked to or heard talking, had climbed or was planning to climb Angel’s Landing. It’s so crowded that at most times of day people are waiting on the skinny ridge more than they are hiking. And, that skinny ridge also needs to accommodate two way traffic, since the way up is also the only way down!

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The second most popular hike in Zion is called the Narrows, which is basically wading in the Virgin River through a narrow canyon. We wanted to do this hike, but the river was running too fast and high, so this was closed to hikers. It’s usually open by this time of year, but this year had unusually high snowfall in the mountains and late melt. There were also several rock falls on trails, which meant that many other trails were closed as well, including the trail from the bottom of the canyon to Observation Point. We were a little disappointed at all the trail closures, but still found plenty to do.

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Rangers weren’t actively suggesting it, but I remembered that Laura had written about an alternate hiking route to Observation Point which just so happened to be much easier than the trail from the bottom of the canyon, and also happened to be open. So we drove out to the east side of the park and headed to Observation Point on the East Mesa Trail. This hike was about 6.5 miles round trip, but pretty flat, with an occasional interesting view.

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The view from Observation Point was amazing, overlooking Zion Canyon, much higher even than Angel’s Landing.

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We ended up staying at the top for 3 hours, watching the light enter the valley, and only encountered 7 other people. Two of these people were Michiganders, and we chatted for awhile. They took a much harder hike to Observation Point. Fortunately, we didn’t know this one existed, or Brian may have insisted we take it too. They decided to take the easier way back, and we gave them a ride back to their car at the other trailhead. We also had them over for dinner the next day, which was really nice.

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Brian noticed a couple pieces of litter caught a bit down the cliffside and insisted on going down to get them. I tried to convince him not to, so I felt validated when he had some trouble getting back up.

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Just on the other side of the switchbacks and tunnel on Zion-Mt. Carmel highway there are two tiny parking lots for the Canyon Overlook hike. We got there by 7 am and found a spot. The hike was pretty short (a mile and a half), but very fun, going over rocks, slick rock and a skinny bridge and under a huge rock overhang. At the end there is a beautiful view of the canyon. By the time we finished the hike and got back to our truck, there were cars parked everywhere, some of them not really in spots.

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The only hike we did that we didn’t love was the Watchman Trail. It started near the visitor center and was three miles round trip and climbed 300 feet. The views were beautiful, but it wasn’t doing it for us that day, after the climb in the heat, with a billion other people. We started it around 10 am, and it was already crowded and getting hot. We thought if we were out of the sun by noon we would be okay, but 11 am was our cutoff that day.

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The night before we were set to leave, we were able to get two more nights in a different site, which gave us time to explore areas of Zion National Park outside on Zion Canyon. The middle of the park goes over the Kolob Plateau.

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We did the 4 mile round trip Northgate Peaks trail, out to a nice view. The hike itself was not that interesting or challenging, through the woods with the mosquitos. The plateau is higher elevation than the canyon, so it was cooler out, and we did the hike in the evening. It’s amazing how much the temperature affects our mood, because we really enjoyed this hike. At the end there were piles of volcanic rocks that we climbed on to see the canyon.

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At the north end of the park is Kolob Canyon. This area is beautiful, but gets many fewer visitors than Zion Canyon. It’s amazing how many other beautiful areas are overshadowed by Zion Canyon. In 1937 it was made into a National Monument, and in 1956 it was added to Zion National Park. Until the road through the area was built in 1968 it was inaccessible, but since the road was built right off the main freeway, it’s one of the more accessible park areas, with gorgeous views right from the road.

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We drove to the end of the road and did the short (1 mile round trip) Timber Creek Overlook hike to get above the trees. We saw lizards all over Zion and the whole region, but a couple of the lizards here volunteered for photo shoots.

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The last night of our stay there was a thunderstorm over Zion. We didn’t get too much rain in the campground, but the river was gushing red water, sweeping new sediments out. We were happy to see it subside pretty quickly before it breached the bank and swept our trailer away.

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Our 6 days in Zion were busy, with a weird schedule to try to avoid the summer heat and crowds. We were nervous to visit such a busy popular park during its peak season, but considering all the closures in the park during our visit, we packed in everything we wanted to do, and were amazed at the beauty of Zion National Park.

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After Zion, we were planning to visit Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada, but half of the park road was still closed due to snow, so mount Wheeler and the bristlecone pine groves were inaccessible. We decided to skip visiting for now. We went to Snow Canyon State Park for a couple days instead. Just about an hour outside of Zion National Park, it feels like worlds away, because the crowds weren’t there. There were walk-up campsites available in their small campground.

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Snow Canyon is starting to be Mojave desert, and we went walking at night to see if we could find any desert tortoises or gila monsters. Sadly, we didn’t find any, but we saw a couple red-spotted toads and three scorpions! Scorpions glow under black light, but are nearly impossible to see without it. They were all tiny, under an inch long, and very well camouflaged. We also saw a rabbit and a lizard with bright red stripes.

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The canyon is beautiful, with red and white sandstone, meeting in the middle. We did the white rocks trail, which was fun because we could climb up on the sandstone for great views.

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We ended our hike at a big white stone basin. Since we did this hike a little later in the day than we should’ve, it was hot. The days we were there were in the mid-nineties which is too hot for us! We hiked back along the road, because it was more direct and a quicker path to the shade and air conditioning of our trailer.

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We popped into Jenny’s Canyon for a quick look, which is a very short slot canyon.

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Snow Canyon also has lava tubes, which we didn’t explore this time. Maybe we should’ve gone underground to beat the heat!

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After a few days we decided to flee southern Utah in search of cooler temperatures.

Day 838 | Mile 87,323

June 11 – June 19, 2019

 

Grand Canyon North Rim and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

While we were in Bryce Canyon National Park, we went to a ranger talk on geology, and he casually mentioned that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is just over three hours away. After the talk, Brian said, “Let’s go to the Grand Canyon, on our way to Zion”.

“On our way” is slightly inaccurate, but when Brian helps with trip planning adding 4 hours of driving is pretty standard.

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We moved the trailer an hour south, just outside Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and then kept driving south until we reached the Grand Canyon.

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The North Rim is much more remote than the South Rim, and over 1,000 feet higher. Only about 10% of Grand Canyon visitors come to the North Rim, so it’s a lot less crowded. It felt much more relaxed and quiet. This is the Grand Canyon’s centennial birthday as a National Park. We did the short but steep walk out to Bright Angel Point over a skinny ridge out into the canyon.

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There are three overlooks near the visitor center and lodge, and they are all out into the canyon with a panoramic view. We were lucky enough to have one of the viewpoints to ourselves for a few minutes, and it was really an incredible view.

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We drove out to Point Imperial, the highest point in the park at 8,803 feet. The Colorado River is over a mile below, 10 Washington Monuments could fit stacked up between the river and the rim. Since the North Rim is so much higher than the South Rim, we could see right over the canyon to the vast flat plateau beyond it.

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Unfortunately, the other three or so overlooks on Cape Royal Road were inaccessible because the road washed out and needed repair. We headed back to the viewpoints near the visitor center for sunset.

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We tried to have a late dinner at the lodge, but they made us wait half an hour past our reservation, and were rude about it too, so we left. We rubbed Brighty’s nose for luck on our way out.

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The next day, we spent a couple hours in Coral Pink Sand Dunes. The dune field covers 7 miles, trapped by nearby mountains, and is made of sand eroded from the pinkish Navajo Sandstone cliffs. The sand is definitely a distinct color, but we visited mid-day in bright sun, and it looked more like Salmon Orange Sand Dunes than Coral Pink. It was hard to capture the color just right in photos, but it was really interesting and unlike any sand we had seen before.

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Most of the dunes are mixed use, for four wheelers and hikers. We were worried we might not be too safe, but we only saw about 6 four wheelers out, spread over the whole dune area. We walked out to the overlook, picked out the tallest dune, and headed out there.

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We learned from our visit to White Sands National Monument that fine sand fills up the fabric of tennis shoes so we thought we were being smart by wearing flip flops instead. But unlike White Sands (which is gypsum sand), this sand gets hot in the sun! So our feet were burning as we trudged to the dune.

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It was a little windy, and the wind blew the sand right off the top of the dune. Fortunately at the top, we discovered that we could burrow our feet down just about a foot to cool sand!

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Back at the visitor center they had a great exhibit displaying sands from around the world! They even had sand from Silver Lake Sand Dunes in Michigan, where Brian used to ride four wheelers with his family.

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Day 830| Mile 86,792

June 10 – June 11, 2019

Bryce Canyon National Park

The first thing we discovered when we visited Bryce Canyon National Park is that it isn’t a canyon. A canyon is a deep gorge created by erosion from a river. Bryce Canyon is actually the side of a plateau, with about a dozen amphitheaters carved into it. We felt duped by the name and we were relieved when the park video validated our observation.

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It was named Bryce Canyon after Ebenezer Bryce, who lived at the edge of the plateau in 1875, after Mormon settlers displaced the Paiutes. He grazed cattle, and famously described the canyon as a “helluva place to lose a cow”. It was made into a National Monument in 1923 and a National Park in 1928, the second national park in Utah (after Zion). The Rim Road was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, and is still in use today.

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Bryce Canyon formed through three steps: depositing of minerals, uplifting of land, and erosion. Layers of rock deposited in an ancient lake at sea level 50 million years ago. The Colorado Plateau uplifted with Bryce Canyon reaching 9,000 feet elevation. Because of the high elevation, there are many quick cycles of freezing (overnight) and thawing (daytime), which turns the water trapped in the rocks into ice, and breaks them apart (kind of like the roads in Michigan). The plateau turns to a fin, then forms a window, and finally a hoodoo. The top layer of dolomite is harder than the softer limestone below, and forms cap rocks. We enjoyed a ranger talk on the geology of the area.

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The red, pink, cream, and white rock layers make up weird, interesting, unexpected shapes. It all looks fragile, and up close can look even more impossible. Some of the rock formations look like piles of mud, like they could wash away in a strong rain. Every viewpoint looks different, with countless impressive hoodoos.

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We learned at the visitor center that the best views are in the first 3 miles of the park, in Bryce Amphitheater. These viewpoints are so busy that there is a free shuttle since the parking lots are generally full. In the remaining 15 miles of the park, the viewpoints are not quite as breathtaking, but less busy, so we started there.

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At the end of the road is Rainbow Point, the highest point in the park at 9,115 feet. We stopped here and did the 1 mile Bristlecone Loop. It was an uneventful hike through mostly burned out forest. Towards the end of the loop is a bristlecone pine. They are amazing trees, because they grow where nothing else can, and can live to be thousands of years old. New trees can form from branches when the trunks die, so they can be a combination of dead and living tree.

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We made our way back to the popular area of the park, stopping at each viewpoint. The most interesting one was Natural Bridge, which had a pedantic sign about how it’s actually not a natural bridge, it’s an arch. Because natural bridges are formed by flowing water, and arches are formed by wind and rain erosion.

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Once we made it to the popular viewpoints, we stopped feeling so smug that we had the time to see the whole park, and a lot of visitors don’t, because they really are the more impressive views.

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We woke up early (before the shuttles started) and parked at Bryce Point and started off on the Peek-a-boo Loop Trail. It switchbacked below the rim and through a tunnel until we were at hoodoo level.

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The Peek-a-boo Loop trail is a mixed use horse and hiking trail. I didn’t really expect it to have as much horse poop on it as it did! It was still a beautiful trail, though a bit challenging since there were some climbs and descents, and at the high elevation it felt extra tough.

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It was totally worth the effort to see the hoodoos up close. From afar they are beautiful and startling, up close they are weird looking. We walked next to the wall of windows, and tried to identify the shapes we saw in the rocks.

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We only did half the loop, and then used a connector trail to come up on the Queen’s Garden trail. Queen’s Garden is the most popular trail below the rim, (especially since the Navajo Loop trail was closed) so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. It is a pretty trail, and has a more gradual slope than the Peek-a-boo trail (so our ascent was a bit easier), but it was so crowded. The connector trail wasn’t particularly pretty either, so I wish we had done the full Peek-a-boo Loop trail instead. They call the combination we did the Bryce Amphitheater Traverse trail, it was about 5 miles long. It ended at Sunrise Point, and we took the shuttle back to our car. It was a really fun hike!

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We made a side trip to Cedar City, the “big city” in this area and the only UPS Store for miles around, to pick up a delivery. While we were there we had some unexpectedly adventurous Peruvian food for lunch at a restaurant called Pisco. Of course Brian had to order the cow heart. It was on the lunch specials menu, after all. It had the texture of chewy steak crossed with mushrooms. It was a little spicy for me but Brian ate it up.

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On the way home we stopped at Cedar Breaks National Monument. It is an area with similar formations as Bryce Canyon, but at an even higher elevation.

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The monument is at over 10,000 feet elevation.  This was a year with higher than average snowfall, so it took longer to open the road through the monument to traffic. In fact, we visited on the first day the road was open, on June 4th. The snow was still piled up 10 feet in some places!

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None of the trails or visitor center were open yet, so we drove through the park and got out at each overlook. Brian went slightly off trail onto some snow to take a picture, in spite of my warnings, so I felt justified when he sank into the snow up to his thighs! Unfortunately he freed himself before I could get a picture. The views were extra pretty with the snow.

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To avoid weekend crowds in Bryce Canyon, we went to the nearby Red Canyon area in Dixie National Forest, where there are more red rock formations similar to Bryce Canyon.

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We hiked about 2 miles on the hoodoo trail, and the birdseye trail, and returned on the bicycle trail. The trail was rocky, and climbed up and down the sides of the pink cliffs above Highway 12.

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We did lose the trail once, and floundered around before finding it again. We enjoyed the few hours we spent in the ponderosa pines without the crowds of Bryce Canyon National Park.

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We boondocked on forest land just outside the park entrance, not far from the only campground in town (that is about as overpriced as you’d expect). The tall ponderosa pines can block the solar panel, but also the shade keeps the trailer cool. We saw pronghorn on our way to and from our boondocking site. Camping in the trees is cozy.

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The colorful scenery in Bryce Canyon and the surrounding area are unlike anything we’ve seen before, and is even more beautiful than pictures convey.

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Day 829| Mile 86,483

June 3 – June 10, 2019