Colorado plateau (Utah / Arizona) trip, April-May 2016, Part I

May 14, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

All the photos from this trip are here.

Anne's spring vacation - 7 days - we decided to spend in Utah, courtesy of Tamara's getting inexpensive tickets for a Delta flight to SLC. Unfortunately, the flight arrives at midnight. Also the return flight depart at midnight. Hmm. Now the planning part commences. Toma had a lot of info about places in Utah from her father, and has done a lot of research. The state appears to be filled with large and beautiful National Parks: Arches, Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands (which includes several large separate areas), Capitol Reef. We also plan to go to Monument Valley, which is not a National, but a Navajo Tribal Park, as well as Colorado's Mesa Verde and Arizona's Grand Canyon. Initial research showed that going for dinosaur fossils is out of question - too far out of our way north-east. Also it was clear that numerous ghost towns of Utah probably don't warrant excursions. However, as the planning progressed, we found that even without them we got too much - also added were Dead Horse Point State Park, Gooseneck State Park, Antelope Canyon (though it might be difficult to schedule a tour), Newspaper Rock and Horseshoe Bend. We decided that Grand Canyon is too far out of our way and should be put out for some other trip, so the itinerary looked like

  1. Salt Lake City - Arches - Dead Horse Point - Island in the Sky
  2. Mesa Verde - Natural Bridges - Newspaper Rock
  3. Gooseneck - Monument Valley - Antelope Canyon
  4. Zion
  5. Zion - Bryce
  6. Bryce - Capitol Reef
  7. Capitol Reef - Salt Lake City

By the way, a nice method to check the ideas turned out to be Google Photo Sphere, integrated into Maps which really helps planning.

I wanted to take a shot (pun intended) at photographing the night sky, which is supposed to be excellent in Utah. For that we decided that time when we arrive from the midnight on should not be wasted on some hotel, but instead spent driving from Salt Lake City to Arches National Park, near Moab, which is about 4 hours away. At that time we should even have a chance to see the Milky Way. Getting ahead I have to say that it turned out we have not had a clear night sky on this trip :(

A couple of days before the trip we found out that Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde is closed until the end of May. We decided that it's not worth going there without the main attraction but our first 2 days look busy enough without it. The weather forecast mentioned some precipitation on the 6th day of the trip but it's too soon to tell, so we leave it to chance.

We are aware of temperature changes in a continental climate and high elevation of Bryce Canyon, so we pack some layers and small down jackets, as well as some cool lightweight hiking pants that can turn into shorts. Seems like there is a need for a photo backpack! I've always been a fan of shoulder bags but carrying additional clothes around would not be convenient. I know that a lot of people do use photo backpacks but I just cannot imagine how to use a camera when just to get it out involves putting down the backpack and so forth... After some research I got a Mindshift Gear Horizon backpack and all I can say - it is simply excellent. A unique and very convenient photo gear access system that works well, good size, fits in a carry-on bin, enough space for a lot of non-photo things. The only complaints I've seen about it is the smallish size of the camera compartment, and I can see how it can be so, especially for telephoto lenses, but this is exactly where my M43 gear is for: travel - 5 lenses (7.5 fisheye, 9-18, 14-42, 20/1.7, 40-150) + small flash, polarizers, IR filter (should've used it but didn't) - fit actually pretty tightly but comfortable and there is enough space to squeeze in Anne's P&S. The non-photo compartments were large enough to fit 2 extra layers of warm clothes for 3 of us plus snacks, water etc.

For starry night photos (yeah right) and HDR I bought another unique photo accessory: 3Pod tripod. Made by the Adorama brand and available only there, it is unusually compact not only because of the 5 leg section but also because it folds flat. The legs are not folded around the center - it actually does become flat! Combine it with folded length of <35cm - it is really tiny when folded, and fit easily in the side of a small suitcase. Major complain is that it is not the sturdiest, but, again, it is fine for M43. My main dislike is, actually, the twist locks - not my favorite and there are 4 per leg! No free lunch as they say...

Day 1

Delta flight, in a usual friendly Delta fashion :( did not let us assign the seats until 24 hours before and then all we got are singles. It's amazing how badly some people want to keep the window and the isle seats with an empty middle, but we finally negotiated in the plane to sit together and off we fly!

Getting a car from Hertz - Nissan Rogue - takes a very short time. We have a GPS in the car, I read it can prove quite useful when the cell service is spotty (which is almost everywhere we're gonna go). It's midnight, we'll see Salt Lake City on our last day. 

Driving south I can sometimes see a silhouette of the mountain chain on the left. There is almost a full moon. Toma and Anne are taking a nap... After getting off the interstate the road soon becomes more curvy, and, clearly, more scenic, although I only see glimpses of the beauty occasionally, when they're better lighted by rest areas. A lot of hills around, probably green... 2 deer are walking away from the road, illuminated by the headlights, it's good that they decided not to cross. The drive to Moab is about 4 hours. Getting closer the landscape becomes more arid, also the clouds are getting thicker spelling trouble for my starry sky photo intentions. Oh well :(. We do have a backup plan, which is a 24-hour Denny's nearby where we have an early 4:30AM breakfast.

Arches National Park

We get to the park before dawn and approach it a little puzzled. I imagined Arches to be basically flat with natural arches here and there but in front of us is a black wall! Do we have to drive over it? Turned out yes, we do. A serpentine road leads up the hill and - voila - we are in Arches National Park illuminated by the moon and occasional cars (no, we are not the only ones here at this hour).

_4230664_4230664Arches National Park

The sunrise promises to be unimpressive and we decide to tackle (no pun intended) the only strenuous hike planned: Delicate Arch. The light is just waking up when we start the hike uphill with Mars-like landscape around. The hills have bands and patches of different colors: yellow, red, greenish, brown, off-white. Anne can't stop taking photos of the surreal landscape. I take some too though suspect it's a little dark for Anne's camera to get good shots...

_4230667_4230667Arches National Park

This one looks very good though. Aren't we on Mars yet? Where did we park our rental rover?

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Walking the Delicate Arch trail takes 2-3 hours roundtrip but not because it is going up (the hike is not steep except maybe one place) but also because we stop frequently to admire the surroundings. The trip is about 1.5 miles one way with about 500 ft elevation.

The arch itself appears suddenly, and it really is a grandiose view. It is very beautiful and very large, much larger than expected (about 20m), with red hills and snowy mountains on the background.

_4230722_stitch_4230722_stitchArches National Park

Judging by the pictures I saw on the internet one can just take photos everywhere around it, but in fact the approach is a slope that feels steeper than it looks and I see clearly that 1) I should not be changing lenses while walking near the arch and 2) a filter or lens cap, or anything or anybody sliding down that slope beyond the arch will be flying down for some time. That fact is exacerbated by a very strong wind...

_4230745_4230745Arches National Park

We stay on the top for awhile (saw a chipmunk running about) and go back. The way back is easier. Anne notices cacti and 2 rabbits

_4230785_4230785Arches National Park

It took us almost 3 hours for the roundtrip and we are back to our car and only here I'm noticing that the tripod I carried on my hand is not here anymore :((( I must have forgotten it on the ground while making some picture! Alas, looking for it would take a lot of time and effort, and we proceed... If we get to Antelope Canyon it would have to do without a tripod...

Next stop is Fiery Furnace. An amazing formation consisting of tall thin walls and I would love to take a couple of pictures inside, even just from the edge. It is however prohibited to hike in (there are no trails) and the signs threatening us with fines are there to be more impressive. Toma doesn't want to spoil the vacation plus we don't really have too much time to spend. OK, we proceed.

_4230796_stitch_4230796_stitchArches National Park

Next stop is The Windows - a two arches in one large wall, also featuring a lot of interesting formations nearby. We take a hike around them, the wind is raging, which spoils the effect a bit for Toma and, especially, Anne. I mean, sometimes it really makes it difficult for her to stay on the trail. Toma says, "Now I really understand how these stones got eroded so much. A little more and we ourselves are going to start eroding."

_4230864_4230864Arches National Park

This one I think is a hockey team.

_4230850_4230850Arches National Park

My hat is trying hard to get away to the prairie, and several times almost succeeds. That's it, from now on it shall stay in the car, I decide after another chase. Fortunately I convinced Tamara to purchase a nice hiking hat before the trip. The sun so far is very forgiving and so she graciously makes it mine. Another interesting feature of the landscape is a very fine sand. I don't think we've seen such a fine sand as this red powder. We wouldn't mind it at all if we didn't feel it by now on our teeth :) 

Double Arch is huge - pictures don't do it justice, but you can see the tiny figures of people climbing the slope...

_4230904_4230904Arches National Park

Balancing Stone

_4230914_4230914Arches National Park

The wind is not letting up, we also see a small cloud with rain coming out it nearby and we feel a couple of drops while Anne is conversing with a park ranger. After taking in the panoramas for a bit more we are heading back to the beginning of the park. The surroundings are... surreal...

_4230886_4230886Arches National Park

We have not seen the structures near the entrance in daylight, and they are very impressive! Photographs do not convey just how large all these figures really are.

_4230927_4230927Arches National Park

The trees in this photo of Sheep Rock are not large, but they're trees - maybe 10-15 feet high?

_4230926_4230926Arches National Park

Driving up to the trail head of Park Avenue. The view is classic - truly majestic!

_4230946_4230946Arches National Park

We suspect the view from the Park Avenue trail is not as impressive. Plus the rain starts to drip and it's almost 2PM - time for lunch, considering that we had a breakfast at 4:30AM and got very little sleep. I only slept for an hour or so on the plane. 

Moab is located a very short drive off Arches. Going through the town we see that the traffic lights are not working on the main street, though traffic is not that bad. Choosing a restaurant for awhile, we finally stop at a diner. "Three people please," - we say. "Sorry, we can't seat you, our power is out," - we hear - "We can only sell you ice-cream." Well, let's go to another restaurant. "Oh, by the way, the whole town is out of power!"

Just great! Subway wouldn't sell us sandwiches either - not allowed :( We decide to just get some food at 711 and eat it in our hotel room. When did you lose the power, we ask the 711 guy? - About 15-20min ago. Just our luck! Toma picks up some turkey and bread, I - water and a veggie dip. We are at the hotel. "I'm sorry, but I can't check you in" - we hear - "The computers are down. Also our check-in time is 3PM and it is only 2:40." He did offer the hotel breakfast area to guests to sit down and have a bite. There are also restrooms on the 1st floor, but the light in them doesn't work. Fortunately I brought a nice compact head light to use in the dark... while photographing stars... so there is an occasion to use it after all :) Afterwards we talked with several people in Utah trying to figure out whether the wind blowing out the power is just an everyday occurrence or an exception, but they are a little elusive on the point, something like, - "No, it almost never happens." - "When do you think they can fix it?" - "Oh, it usually takes 3-4 hours to come back."

We have some sandwiches and think what to do next. The plan was to visit Dead Horse Point State Park today but the fuel level is questionable and, of course, all gas stations are helpless. The repairs are projected to be done by 5:30PM but who knows... We decide to have faith in the electrical company and wait. Toma and Anne are talking, I'm checking the photos in-camera. And then - behold - there is light! They turned it on shortly after 3PM, so the total outage must have been, maybe, 1.5 hours max. Hurrah! We fill the gas tank and proceed to 

Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse Point State Park is located just off Canyonlands National Park, and, basically, is a part of the same group of canyons. The only reason I see that it's separate is that, in fact, it was established 5 years before Canyonlands. The Point is separated from the wider area by a narrow neck (30 yards, though it seems smaller) and said to have been used by cowboys to capture mustangs. 

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A curious fact: Thelma and Louise jumping off Grand Canyon in the film were actually jumping off Dead Horse Point (into the same Colorado River). That was one of the reason we decided to postpone our Grand Canyon visit: if Dead Horse Point was good enough for the movie it should be good enough for us. A view is very impressive indeed.

_4230960_4230960Dead Horse Point, UT

It also offers a great view of La Sal Mountains (provided you've a telephoto lens lying around). We saw them from Arches but that time the sun was behind the mountains. This time they're nicely lit. Photo by A. Barshay

_4230998_4230998Dead Horse Point, UT

Someone made of stone "lurking" around. We spend some time finding more shapes...

_4231006_4231006Dead Horse Point, UT

We end our sightseeing day and drive to Moab. One of the slopes at the road side near the town has an area, maybe 100ft high and about as wide, of this fine red sand. Some people are climbing up with a clear intention to do some sledding! And on that sand they can do it.

A sushi place with nice reviews in Moad is packed :( and we end up to have a dinner at that diner (not very good). The long day is over, we go to sleep early.

Day 2

Island in the Sky

Island in the Sky is the northern part of Canyonlands National Park and includes canyons of Colorado and Green Rivers that join together in a middle of Canyonlands. The most impressive spot of Island in the Sky is, probably, Mesa Arch, a natural arch overlooking a great panorama of canyons and mountains.

_4241094_4241094Island in the sky, Canyonlands, UT

_4241100_4241100Island in the sky, Canyonlands, UT

There are many overlook stops and, although I guess they are not as graceful as the Dead Horse Point, beautiful and majestic nonetheless.

The weather today is very nice and sunny and the wind, though quite noticeable, is not as strong as yesterday.

_4241039_4241039Island in the sky, Canyonlands, UT

Toma discovers a strong interest in geology, and there is plenty of information in the paper guides and on multiple tableau in the park. This tendency will continue throughout the trip, so now we have an official geologist of the family. Toma also tries to get Anne and me to research the multiple layers of stone that are clearly visible in vertical slopes. She has some success though I'm much distracted by the abundant photo opportunities.

_4241074_4241074Island in the sky, Canyonlands, UT

_4241105_4241105Island in the sky, Canyonlands, UT

The view of La Sal Mountains is as good, since we are, after all, about 5 miles away from Deal Horse Point if measured straight...

_4241121_4241121Island in the sky, Canyonlands, UT

Somebody stepped into the dirt :)

_4241114_4241114Island in the sky, Canyonlands, UT

This time the lunch will be in Subway (one of Anne's favorites and our junk food preference).

Now we are turning south, towards Newspaper Rock and Natural Bridges but make brief stops on the way to looks at some interesting stones, such as this curious "creature"

_4241125_stitch_4241125_stitchOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument

Newspaper Rock is, well, a rather large rock with A LOT of petroglyphs on it. It's basically, covered in pertroglyphs, apparently made over a large period of time.

_4241135_4241135Newspaper Rock, UT

after enjoying it we continue our journey to

Natural Bridges National Monument

It's rather close to sunset time. We initially thought, and that how it looked like on the maps, that the bridges are just there to see, but Natural Bridges visit actually involves significant amount of hiking and we decide to go on one of the trails. I suspect a part of it for Toma and Anne was curiosity: it involves climbing ladders! All those rocky slopes worry me, as they did in a couple of places in Arches. Definitely looks like one wrong step will send one flying down. I know Toma is also concerned about Anne judging by her frequent warnings. Of course we were just being overprotective because neither of us 3 is used to this kind of hikes, Anne did just fine.

The weather is still great though getting a bit chilly. The views are very nice. Here is what appears to be an enormous stone hot dog

_4241140_4241140Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, UT

The bridges are very interesting but the view from above in this case is not the best direction, they would look better looming over the sky. Alas, the hikes to the bottom are challenging and would take a long time. We walk the trail until a nice observation point 

_4241159_4241159Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, UT

_4241161_4241161Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, UT

At another site there are ruins of Ancestral Puebloan houses in the cliff, that's worth a hike

_4241169_4241169Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, UT _4241170_4241170Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, UT

By the time we finish Anne is pretty tired. Tonight we'll drive to the town of Bluff and have dinner at a hotel restaurant, all planned ahead.

Entering Bluff the road goes through really beautiful weathered red cliffs. Right after is a restaurant surrounded by red natural figurines, the ones on the left are Twin Rocks.

_4241173_HDR_4241173_HDRBluff.UT

Hotel Desert Rose as well the room itself is in "rustic" style but polished at the same time, with numerous decorative pillows on the bed. I'm building a wall out of them :) The restaurant on premises is also very nice.

Day 3

Our room faces the back of the new hotel building with the cliff view. In the morning we discover, to the endless excitement of Anne, that the area to the back is a grazing ground for a lot of cows. We watch them from our terrace.

_4251180_4251180Bluff.UT

After breakfast we start driving towards Monument Valley, with a stop on the way.  

Passing a beautiful area called simply "Valley of the Gods". The landscape in south-east Utah is amazing - looks like there could be a beautiful hike at every mile. The GPS we got from Hertz is funny. Instead of just tell us the road numbers (which are on the road signs by the way) it tells us in a mysterious voice: "Make a right turn to the Trail of the Ancients." There seems to be many roads in Utah that have this sort of names too. We fully expected our GPS to start some shaman singing at some point...

_4251189_stitch_4251189_stitchValley of the Gods, UT

Gooseneck State Park

The park is just a view point to the beautiful curves of San Juan River. It is absolutely worth stopping by though. I'm trying to get all 3 curves into a picture - it's very hard and what makes it harder is... the wind!!! I didn't know it could be stronger than on the 1st day but it definitely seems to be, this time not only Anne but Toma and me both are trying to keep steady... This is the best I could do :(

_4251210_4251210Gooseneck State Park, UT

Nearby place is called Mexican Hat. Arguments about the origin of this name stop when we see this along the road

_4251223_4251223Mexican Hat, Valley of the Gods, UT

And now - onward to

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

which is located on the border of Utah and Arizona. Officially, turns out, Monument Valley is a large area around the park, and deservingly so, since we start seeing interesting natural monuments long before we arrive. Thanks to the flat landscape we see our destination from afar.

_4251229_4251229Monument Valley, AZ

The nice thing about the park is that there is a dirt road to drive around, so long hikes are not necessary to see the panoramic views from different angles. The wind is very strong and once again we're trying to keep sand out of our mouths and eyes. By now we know we'll get it in our shoes and socks.

_4251254_HDR_4251254_HDRMonument Valley, AZ

A Navajo guy offers a photo op on a horse, $5 to pose of the edge of the nearby cliff! Anne had an eye on this horse since we passed it in the car. Sitting on it - even better! I can't miss taking this picture either. I'm a bit uneasy about very close proximity of the stallion to the cliff edge, but the horse keeps very very still.

_4251268_4251268Monument Valley, AZ

We try Navajo fried bread, it pretty nice, tastes like a cheburek without meat. We continue on, with wide views in front of us.

_4251300_4251300Monument Valley, AZ _4251290_stitch_4251290_stitchMonument Valley, AZ

Back at Visitor Center, another look at the famous mittens

_4251312_4251312Monument Valley, AZ

The wind is picking up. Literally, it is picking up sand!

_4251314_4251314Monument Valley, AZ

We have a lunch at the only restaurant (rather terrible). I decide to call and try to book a tour at Antelope Canyon, which is on our way, but I read that it may get crowded and tours do get sold out. A convenient place to get a tour of Upper Canyon is Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours. My call this morning wasn't picked up but now a lady answers. "Have you notice the wind today?" - she says. "Why yes I have". "There is lot of sand coming down into the canyon from above. We can take you on a tour but you have to be, basically, covered from head to toe except the eyes, sort of like a ninja." I'm trying to imagine Anne and Toma dressed like ninjas going into Antelope Canyon... I'm not sure... "I'll call you back." Whatever will be, will be, we'll come to that place and see what the situation is, maybe it's going to be better there. The sandstorm here is getting worse though and the views from the road are murky.

_4251330_4251330

This is how the road looked sometimes

_4251360_4251360Monument Valley, AZ

We are driving west with the intention of getting to Springdale (near Zion National Park) for the night. However, the way lies close to several interesting spots that we'd like to visit. The road is long and somewhat boring, Toma and Anne are napping. Some passing clouds bring rain, which is good, since the car is covered in fine sand. Another passing cloud bring a little snow, which is wholly unexpected and does not fit my preconception of Arizona!

Several miles before Page, AZ lies

Upper Antelope Canyon

There are 2 Antelope canyons: Upper and Lower, both slot canyons. Upper Antelope is a famous photo location, although many people claim that Lower one is actually more interesting. Partially what makes Upper Canyon famous is the rays of light that can be photographed during certain hours. It is now about 4:30PM and, unfortunately, we have no chance of seeing them, but it's too late to change our plans and look for other tour locations. When we arrive to the place the dress code is still on, a rain is starting to drip, the wind is rather strong, and I'm told it's actually very cold inside the canyon. The time for the last tour is about now so we need to make a decision. Toma says: just go by yourself, we are ok to wait in the car. Thank you, sweetie, for suggesting it and agreeing to wait for projected 1.5 hours so I can visit the wonder! I spend $2 on a mandatory bandana, put on another layer and a hat and go. Turns out I'm the only person on the tour.

The canyon turned out to be shorter than I expected, it's basically a crack across a narrow hill. Inside however... let's just say the place met my expectations. The curves and the colors! Amazingly, the wind quieted down and there was only a couple times when we got sprinkled by sand from above.

_4251444_4251444Upper Antelope Canyon _4251471_4251471Upper Antelope Canyon _4251427_4251427Upper Antelope Canyon _4251387_4251387Upper Antelope Canyon _4251470_4251470Upper Antelope Canyon _4251451_4251451Upper Antelope Canyon

Looks like a head of a dog. 

_4251447_4251447Upper Antelope Canyon

An owl nest at the entrance, with a baby in it

_4251377_4251377Upper Antelope Canyon

The tour took a little less than an hour, shorter than expected, probably because I was the only one and didn't have a tripod to fiddle with (wish I did :( )

On the way back the driver notices a roadrunner. Looks like he (the roadrunner) got the dinner question solved.

_4251475_4251475Roadrunner, Upper Antelope Canyon

All excited about the tour, I make my way to the car. Next stop is a place a little south of Page called

Horseshoe Bend

which is a bend of Colorado River. Judging by google maps it should be right near the highway, but it turns out that, while it is not very far from it, we have to walk over a rather steep hill to get there. That does not fit in Anne's plans and she let's the world know... so getting over that hill proves longer than it could have been, but in the end the view is gorgeous. A perfect shape and a perfect color. A rather famous view too...

_4251482_4251482Horseshoe bend, Page, AZ

Upstream on the other side of Page is Glen Canyon Dam, the one that created Lake Powell. There is a point with a view of the dam and a nice view of the river.

_4251491_4251491Glen Canyon Dam, Page, AZ _4251494_4251494Glen Canyon Dam, Page, AZ

Driving towards Zion National Park the landscape changes - no more patchy grass that makes ground look like cheetah's fur from afar, the trees become more frequent and more, well, tree-like :) The forecast today is rainy but tomorrow should be nice. The day after tomorrow, however, looks rainy after lunch, so we intend to really go over the places we're interested in at Zion tomorrow and maybe get to Bryce the morning after. While driving through Kanab we see a real snow, fur trees are standing in white... Temperature outside is 37F, which makes us a bit worried, but getting down to the bottom of Zion Canyon the snow turns to rain and 37 degrees to 45. The road is beautiful and winding, also very wet and slippery, which makes us slow down a lot.

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By the time we're in Springdale it's late, wet and cold, and we're glad to get to the hotel at last.

The second part of our trip is here

 

 


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