Sunday, June 8, 2014

Utah's National Parks: The Grand Tour

The Colorado River from the base of The Grand Canyon, Bright Angel Trail

“So if you could only visit one, which would it be, Zion or Bryce?”  the man in front of me asked the ranger at the visitor center outside of Page, Arizona.

“Basically, that is like asking if you like apples or oranges.  They are totally different and impossible to compare!”  The Ranger answered.  The tourist was obviously on a tight schedule and didn’t know which park was more worthwhile to visit.  After visiting five of the parks on The Grand Tour in Southern Utah, even I can’t tell you which I like the most (and I didn’t spend more than a day or so in each).  Each park is completely different than the last varying with their rock formations, colors, and layout.

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon, as you can see from my earlier post is just “Legendary”.  It is huge, and rightly deserves the name “Grand” and always towering in the background.  Next to The Grand Canyon, you feel minute and unimportant, reminding you just how powerful Mother Nature actually is.  I’m glad I saw it first because it was the park with the most tourists and the choice of day hikes was more limited, meaning that everyone wanted to take the same trail attempting to make it to the bottom of the canyon in one day.  The first half of my hike was completely peaceful with few tourists around.  It wasn’t until halfway up The Bright Angel trail that I started running into others coming down, who had waited just a wee bit too long to attempt the hike in the heat of the afternoon sun.  No matter what angle you approach the canyon, it looks spectacular.  I enjoyed leaving through the east entrance because again, there were fewer tourists, and you had the added benefit of seeing the Little Colorado Gorge, another impressive canyon only 20 miles from the rim.  

Descending South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon

The Colorado River, Descending South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon
Page, Arizona (Not a national park, but worth a visit)
After The Grand Canyon, I went up to Paige, Arizona a great place to base yourself to see Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe bend.  Neither are national parks, but they are impressive sights to see.  There are two slot canyons to visit on the outskirts of Page, within about a half mile of each other, Upper and Lower Antelope.  The upper canyon is more popular among tourists because of the light beams that shine through.  I didn’t want to deal with the crowds, so I chose the lower canyon.  You can’t go through these slot canyons on your own.  You have to join a tour. The layered sandstone inside is gorgeous.  No two bends in the canyon look the same.  You can find every shade of red, pink, purple, orange, and beige in swirling stripes inside canyon walls.  New patterns appear around every turn, which blew me away.  I must have taken 300 photos on the 45 minute tour. 

Amazing to think all the beauty lies within this crevice

Lower Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona
Horseshoe bend was also a neat sight to visit in the area.  The Colorado river makes a 270 degree turn on itself.  The short hike to the cliff of the river doesn’t detour tourists, they were there in swarms.  To tell you the truth, I’m surprised there isn’t a chain or railing keeping people away from the edge of the river because the cliff drops straight off into the river some 1000 ft above the Colorado River. If you get too close, it’s over!  I got some great photos from the top.  I didn’t stay until sunset, but it is suppose to be a spectacular place to watch the sun go down.

Too close for comfort, way!

A panoramic view of Horseshoe Bend, PAge, Arizona

Zion National Park
From Northern Arizona, I crossed into Utah and went to Zion.  While The Grand Canyon is looming in the distance and the only way to really see it up close is to hike down, Zion National Park is shockingly “in your face”.  A scenic highway cuts right through the park connecting some major towns on the western side.  The park is constantly surrounding you and you can’t avoid but take it all in!  The colors are deep rich earthen reds and browns, and even the asphalt on the road has a red tone.  The scenery changes quite a bit from east to west on this main scenic byway, and especially on the road that follows the river up where the majority of the hiking trails are located.  Don’t get me wrong; there are tourists at this park, but not nearly as many as The Grand Canyon.  If you want to avoid them entirely, look for the hike in the guide labeled “strenuous” and over 5 miles.  That leaves you with Observation Point, which is where I headed to avoid the crowds at Angel’s Landing. Observation point went straight up for about 3 miles bringing you to an amazing lookout over the entire park, including Angel’s Landing. Yeah, it was steep, but after The Grand Canyon, it was a piece of cake!

I love candid shots taken by tourists!  (The road matches my tan color or vice versa)

The view from Observation Point, well worth the hard work!

Red is definitely the color in Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park
From Zion, I rode over to Bryce Canyon.  I didn’t know much about Bryce except that there were these tower-like rocks jetting out everywhere.  My intention was to arrive early and hike that afternoon, but I was too mesmerized by Red Rock Canyon National Park which is you ride through coming from the west in order to get to Bryce.  I found myself stopping every 5 minutes to take pictures, fascinated by the rich red-colored rocks and canyon walls.  When I finally arrived at Bryce, I got lucky and met John, a nice man traveling solo, who let me share his campground site with him. I left all my stuff there, changed into my running clothes, and went to run the rim.  The rim, in my mind, was flat,….an easy run, despite being at 8,500 ft (2,500m).  At first I thought I could do the whole rim from north to south, an 8-mile run, but between the ups and downs and high altitude, I struggled to run continuously for an hour.  It was the most pleasant surprise running on the rim trail because I had no idea what sort of scenery to expect.

Named appropriately, The Red Rock Canyon

Fairyland Trail, Bryce Canyon

The view from above the rim

Bryce Canyon is filled with these pinnacles or towers that look like they’re made out of wet sand that has come dripping down to form a tiny little “hoodoo” as they call them.  To me, the little towers looked more like fairy chimneys, something similar to what I saw in Cappadocia, Turkey.  Hoodoos are everywhere!  There are skinny tall ones, shorter squat ones, they come in clumps almost piled on top of each other or they can be more spread out.  It looks like a fairy just got out of control with a wand and said “Abracadabra” one too many times!    The hoodoos are more densely clustered around the sunset and sunrise viewpoints.  Up where I ran and hiked the next morning, on the Fairland Trail, they become more spread out.  I purposely chose the Fairyland trail because again, it was on the list of more strenuous hikes and longer than the rest, hence I was just about alone on the entire 8 miles circuit. The pinnacles and rock changed color after every bend in the trail, it was fascinating.  The colors vary from a beige pink color to a deep earthen red, almost violet, and look as though they have horizontal stripes. Of all the hikes I did in Utah’s parks, I encountered the fewest tourists on the trail in Bryce.  Everyone seems to hover around the rim and few descend into the canyon to walk alongside the hoodoos.  Therefore, I had a real intimate experience with Bryce Canyon.

Up close and personal with the "hoodoos" on the Fairland Trail
A concentrated cluster of Hoodoos

Capitol Reef National Park
From Bryce I basically had two days of climbing that were pretty tough.  One day I rode over the tallest pass in Utah, which was actually an easier climb than the previous day, which led me into Escalante.  Needless to say, after so much uphill, I had about 150 miles of downhill riding, part of which took me through Capitol Reef National Park.  A scenic byway also goes directly through the park.  In Capitol Reef I decided not to take the scenic detour going into the park deeper as it was a bit of a descent and I wasn’t feeling like climbing out afterwards.  Besides, the view from the byway was impressive enough to keep me in awe for the entire ride.  The only “downside” to downhill riding is that I didn’t stop to take pictures because I didn’t want to loose my momentum.  Capitol Reef is really unusual with its scenery.  The colors carry over both from Bryce and Red Rock Canyon, but here, the rocks come protruding out from the ground in dense think clumps leaving behind what appears to be loose debris.  The tops of lots of these rocks are somewhat jagged but there are also racks that are completely flat on top, characteristic of a Mesa.  The loose stuff debris is actually quite compressed and creates undulating formations, what I like to call “pillowlike” structures that entice you to sit or sleep on them, even though you can’t get up close to them without a decent hike.  Although the park boundaries last for about 20 miles along the byway, the incredible formations continue along this road for a good 50 miles.  The color of the rocks change drastically the longer you ride, from a deep rich earthen red to a light beige color picking up some grays and even greens along the way.  Again you can see a lot of the layers to the rocks making for fascinating stripe patterns.  Once the grade of the descent tapered off, I was able to snap a few more pictures. It’s a fascinating park to visit and not as famous as others, therefore the number of tourists dwindles away. 

This is the visual to go along with the protruding rock and debris description

Flat top Mesa-like rock

Love the stripe patterns showing hte layers of rock

Arches National Park 
The last park I saw on the grand circuit was Arches just outside of Moab.  I had the choice of cutting through Canyonlands National Park or visiting Arches, and I chose the later in order to visit Moab as well, a neat outdoorsy town a few miles south of Arches. Arches is considerably spread out and in order to get in to the park you have to climb…. A LOT!  I had all my bags on my bike and the rangers wouldn’t let me store them anywhere around their visitor center so I decided to hitch hike.  I would try to find a ride all the way to the end of the park, and ride back to the entrance, thinking this would be mostly downhill and a good way to see the park.  My legs were pretty shot as the previous day I had done 130 miles (206km).  In Zion I had to hop in a pick-up truck to go through a tunnel that cyclists aren’t allowed to ride through.  There, the park ranger helped me out to hitch a ride.  Here, I was on my own, but I got pretty lucky.  I look back now and laugh, because I frantically hailed down the first pickup truck I saw.  In fact the man in it put his arms up and gave me a peculiar look, like “What in the world do you want girl?”  I wasn’t going to take no for an answer from this man.  I told him my idea, he agreed to taking me, and he pulled over into the visitor parking and we loaded up my bike.  His name was Newt. He was retired with his 5th wheel motor home back at an RV park, traveling around Utah and Colorado solo until his partner joined him later on in July.  He had been to arches several years ago and attempted the Double Arch hike, but hadn’t reached the arches.  This time he was determined to complete the hike.  For some reason, I wanted to go see the delicate arch, the most popular among tourists, but as soon as I saw just how hilly the terrain was inside the park, I opted for sticking with Newt and accompanying him on his hike. 

Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, it looks like a dinosaur egg to me!

Landscape Arch, most tourists turn back here on the hike

But the double arch is well worth the extra miles

He was the most pleasant older man and we stopped at several of the sights on the way out to Double Arch.  It was a warm morning, hotter than I had encountered for days, and there wasn’t an inch of shade in Arches.  I was so thankful to be in Newt’s air-conditioned cab!  Arches looks like it could be the backdrop to a movie featuring dinosaurs.  The rock formations are massive, in clumps spread out, far to reach on bike or foot, but they would have been within a few footsteps from one another during prehistoric times when Dinosaurs ruled the world.  When we started out hike, there were several people on the trail.  However, once the trail hits The Landscape Arch, crowds taper off, and rightly so because the trail becomes a lot more technical climbing over slick rock.  I hadn’t even changed my clothes from my morning ride, so I was hiking in my bike gear with my front handlebar bag over my shoulder and a huge liter water bottle under my arm.  I know I looked a little odd, but the outfit worked for me.  Newt kept a really good pace and had a great sense of direction, making it easy to just follow in his footsteps and not have to think too much.  It was a neat arch to hike to because you come to two arches stacked on top of another and you can hike right through the lower one. 

Newt and I were exhausted after the first arch and settled for seeing the Delicate Arch from a distance
On our way back to the car, I noticed there was absolutely no one around, probably due to the 100-degree weather.  We were exhausted to say the least and I no longer had the desire to hike to the delicate arch. We did however drive to the lookout and hike up a short distance to a viewpoint.  Arches is a neat park, fascinating to see how the wind and weather have shaped the rocks and created these natural arches and bridges.  They are constantly changing shape with the weather and you can see where new arches are forming and how older ones have changed shape and lost parts of their rock.

My circuit through these five parks gave me a good overall feel for each park, although I missed out on Canyonlands and Monument Valley.  If or when I come back, I would like to see these two and choose a few to explore each in more depth.  It’s fascinating that the parks are so close in distance, yet they are each so unique and unusual, equally picturesque and interesting to explore.  Utah, has got to be my favorite place scenery wise within The United States, I’ve visited so far!

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