Monday, May 11, 2015

Southern Utah Trip- A Summary

We are back from our 14 day tour of the southern Utah. We saw and explored many new places, features and hikes which we could not include in our previous trip. And still, there are places remain to be visited. I agree, no amount of time is enough to explore it thoroughly and enjoy Colorado plateau's beauty which is so unique, awe-inspiring and heartwarming. It is remote, rugged, arid and labyrinthine. It is so paradoxical! The towering, hard rocks and its softer counterpart- sand which create such hostile environment for creatures to live or even pass-through them, suddenly, at your next turn metamorphose into such a sublime, delicate and touching form, revealing the power of forces of nature not just in gradual weathering and degradation but also in creating, designing artistic masterpieces. I have felt this many times while traversing long, strenuous, hiking trails to see a special hoodoo, an arch, a bridge and the Wave.

Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon Nat. Park, UT

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges Nat. Monument, UT

The Wave, it was the highlight of the trip. Actually, it was the reason this trip was planned at first place. Although, I have....we all have..seen it in photographs and been impressed by it so many times, I did not know where it was located. After strings of internet searches, I found out that the Wave is located in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ and requires permit from the Bureau of Land Management to visit it. I applied for one such lottery based permit for month of May and luckily got one in my first try. It was a golden chance and exciting opportunity which, I have read, many people get after multiple trials. My husband did not believe that it was a big deal, till he saw the wave and heard other visitors mentioning how difficult it is to get the permit.

The Wave, Vermilion Cliffs Nat. Monument, AZ

In our previous trips, whenever our trip included flying in and out of a major airport near our destination rather than driving there from home, we avoided camping. Taking all the camping and sleeping gears, cooking materials and utensils and other essential items for camping were too much to carry as checked luggage on flights. But this time, as we had given 2-3 days to each national park, we decided to do camping and staying near/within the parks. Southern Utah has so many national parks, state parks and Bureau of Land Management campsites (with walk-in availability) as well as private RV/campground parks that we believed we would not have trouble getting a campsite without reservation. So, taking additional baggage turned out to be a favorable plan. There was no much trouble getting a campsite, even in evening and night hours. And once in, we saved time by cooking all possible meals at our site rather than going out to finding a (vegetarian) restaurant, especially in remote areas.

I had done a lot of research to plan this trip- deciding the route, scenic roads to drive, hikes and possible backpacking opportunities. We are happy that we could do most of the things we had in our list. It was very cold, rainy weather that affected first two days of the trip. Additionally, it was my health. Due to a temporary health issue, I was not 100%. Due to nature of the treatment, it was expected that I will be easily fatigued, which i had been already experiencing while packing but however weak I feel, I was not going to cancel the trip. We decided that we will do less hiking, camping and more drive through sightseeing if I am not up to it. So, I was a bit upset and doubtful at my capacity to enjoy the trip in a way we usually do...roughing it out...our way.

Anyway, Bryce Canyon, our first stop, the highest elevation on Colorado plateau, still had below freezing temperatures (24° F/ -4.4° C) at night. So we stayed in a hotel and I rested more for the first two days. Afterwards, I do not know when and how fast I regain full capacity and energy that did all the hiking and camping we planed without any health issues...just like I expected.

Southern Utah's large, arid area beyond managed park facilities and beyond small, desperesed towns  is inaccessible, as there are no paved roads. From Bryce Canyon on the west of the Utah state to Glen Canyon on the east of the state only paved corridors are-
     a. I-70 - faster but way north, skips Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument (GSENM) & Capitol Reef National Park
     b. Highway 12 - a scenic byway with multiple interesting hiking, museums locations, visitor centers and small towns.  It passes through Grand Staircase- Escalate and connects to Capitol Reef. It is the best and only way to see GSENM without a high clearance, 4 Wheel Drive  (4WD) vehicle.
From highway 12- there are unpaved, gravel roads which branch out in north-south general direction. They pass through rugged areas and allow deeper exploration of the wilderness, and access to back-country, long hiking/ canyoneering trails. No doubt, these roads are scenic! Some of these connect to a town, some end at a point abruptly. All these unpaved roads, by the fact that covered by very fine sand which turn to clay when wet, become impassable (for any 4 wheel vehicle) after rain. Even when dry, some roads have so much fine sand on that 4 Wheel Drive, high clearance vehicle is required. For some other unpaved roads with have some gravel base, may be traversed by 2 WD vehicle when dry. Along with weather, getting updated road conditions for these backcountry roads is equally important if you are planning to drive on them. Lo and behold, if it rained and you are stuck, you will be far, far away from any help, possibly food/water and more importantly any phone networks. That is why it is better to have updated information, proper vehicle, additional food/water and someone who is informed of your travel plans.

We rented a Jeep Patriot from Las Vegas airport. We could not get a 4 WD vehicle from any rental company at that airport location. It was surprising! The Jeep was high clearance but 2 Wheel Drive. I was doubtful that we could drive on any such backcountry roads even on a dry day and we would miss most of the GSENM. However, rangers at visitor centers confidently advised us to drive on (even with 2 WD) when the weather was perfect and on other instances strongly urged not to drive if weather was playing up. We trusted and followed their advises. However, I would say, if you can't get a high clearance + 4WD and it is comes to choose between a low clearance + 4WD vs. high clearance + 2WD, it is better to have a vehicle with high clearance. My logic is, when wet, all these roads become impassable for any 4 wheeler anyway. When dry, 4WD is not needed much but high clearance at least will make one comfortable, secure driving over rough, bumpy roads which often pass through washes. We were happy with our rental. We drove on the Hole-in-the-rock road and burr trail road. One we could not go on due to weather was Cottonwood Canyon road, past Kodachrome Basin state park. We changed our route to accommodate it on our return travel but unfortunately, it was rainy again on second time too. One very good thing about travelling to Souther Utah's parks is, that they are situated within average 2 hours distance from each other (through highway 12). So, you can relatively easily change your route to revisit a place if you want.

All in all, our route changed considerably from a simple, straight forward loop to a bit complex back-forth, not-so loopy route.

After reading various geology presentations in visitor centers and attending a couple of ranger talks and video presentations, my brain was overloaded with names of rock formations, layers and which layer is responsible for which rock features in which national park. Although I love geology and I learned a lot through the presentations, I could not grasp the whole picture. So, on return, I searched online for any documentary or teaching video on formation of Colorado Plateau. This one I found most educational- titled Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau with Wayne Ranney from Universality of Utah- Humanities.

I hope to follow-up with detail travelogue!


Federal Lands visited
Bryce Canyon Nat. Park (#2 on map)
Capitol Reef Nat. Park (#6)
Arches Nat. Park (#11, #18)
Canyonlands Nat. Park (#10 Island in the sky district, #17 Needles district)
Zion Nat. Park (#23)
          Glen Canyon Nat. Recreation Area (#22)

          Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (#14)
          Antelope Canyon (#22)
Vermilion Cliff Nat. Monument (#20, #21)
Grand Staircase Escalante Nat. Monument (#8)
Natural Bridges Nat. Monument (#15)
State Park visited
Kodachrome Basin State Park (#3)
Goblin Valley State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park (#11)
Anasazi State Historic Site (#4)
Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument (#16)

Scenic Byway Traveled
Highway 12
Hole-in-the-Rock Road (#8 Escalante- starting point, #7 Hole-in-rock)
Burr Trail connecting Notom-Bullfrog Road (#4- road starting point, #9 road entering Capitol Reef)