Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Utah! Round every corner there’s something amazing!

One of the less interesting roads, disappearing into the distance
Utah is a fabulous place, perhaps not round every corner, but certainly within an hour or so’s drive there is something different and amazing, literally too much to do! We made a plan not to try to do too much and we thought our plan was fairly modest, but we’re finding we can only do the most amazing things and are having to miss out slightly less amazing things, that anywhere else would be fabulous. 

Stunning semi-desert scenery on the SR-24
We can’t do all the hikes and scenic drives and rock climbing is coming in a dismal third! There are some great looking single and multi day hikes into really remote but wonderful back country with slot canyons and gorges to explore and there would be four wheel drive adventures and river rafting if only time and money would allow. A year in this state alone would not be enough, so how do we decide what to do?

Capitol Reef NP
Well, we left Moab after Arches and Canyonlands NP and an evening of climbing feeling we’d barely touched the surface of what was there, took a 2.5 hour drive along the I-70 freeway, then down towards our destination of Bicknell on the SR-24 which, after turning East turned out to be a fabulous scenic drive (there aren’t enough adjectives to describe the scenery!) which led through the top of Capitol Reef NP and eventually on to Bicknell and our destination for three nights, the Aquarius Inn. Bicknell is a town of 300 people with one adequate restaurant and about 12 miles from Torrey, the next nearest with a few more adequate restaurants.

This is known as The Chimney, a big boulder perched atop a crumbly sandstone column
Two suspect characters peer through holes in the rock
Capitol Reef NP is not a No. 1 destination, but is still a stunning place. It’s a National Park 100mile long (N-S) but quite narrow, that protects the ‘Waterpocket Fold’, which was a ripple of the earth’s crust, like a ruck in a carpet, that has since eroded to reveal sandstone layers that span 200 million years of history and is the largest exposed monocline in N. America. Not only is it dramatic to look at, containing canyons, cliffs, towers, domes and arches, it’s also a geologists dream, as we found out when we went on a walking geology talk with Sophie, a young female Ranger, who had a huge knowledge of geology and, despite the rain, made it a very interesting and worthwhile outing to the Hickman Natural Stone bridge. 
On our geology walking lecture
The Hickman Natural Stone Bridge
With her we learnt about rock layers from the Permian period (270 million years and the time of the ‘great extinction’ where 96% of life on earth disappeared) through to the very thick layer of Navajo sandstone, laid down when the area was a dry desert and little life existed here. It’s possible to see diagonal stripes in this layer, which is where sand was blown and deposited on the leeward side of a dune, allowing geologists to even work out which way the wind was blowing at the time. On top are round black rocks with lots of holes, which are volcanic rocks ejected by old nearby volcanos and probably transported here by glaciers during the last ice age, although there is some disagreement on this theory.

A different view of the natural bridge from underneath
The original school house (seats up to 30 students)
Anyway, enough of geology, the fertile area in the middle, at the junction of two small rivers is called Fruita and was (is) a small village, then very isolated, settled by Mormon pioneers who planted fruit trees and developed their own community, occupied until 1969. The trees and old buildings are now managed by the park authority and we took an interesting history tour round the original buildings and orchards, the fruit trees of which anyone can visit and eat the fruit for free on site, only paying a nominal amount if fruit is taken away.

Into the first canyon
Erosion of the land has created a number of accessible and inaccessible canyons, one with several side slot canyons. We drove the scenic road into the park, entered a couple of canyons in the car on gravel roads, crossing several watercourses and parking beneath massive canyon walls and then walking along the watercourse bed to narrowing, sheer canyon walls. Don’t get stuck in here in a flash flood! Signs at the entrance tell you not to enter if a storm threatens, the dry watercourse can change to a raging torrent within a matter of minutes, with few places to climb to safety! 

Group photo time, camera balanced on a rock shelf
Driving along these twisting dirt roads between high cliff walls wondering where it leads and whether it will be possible to turn round is bad enough in a car, but we saw quite large campervans (RV’s) with worried looking drivers negotiating them, trying to squeeze past cars coming in the other direction!

The second canyon walk
The rainy start to the geology walking lecture
Our Sunday morning geology walk was done in the rain (they only get about 10 inches of rain a year we were told, well, 5 or 10% of that must have fallen on Sunday!), fortunately it was not in a canyon! That took a couple of hours, we got rained on intermittently, but saw sun on surrounding peaks set against a black sky, rainbows, lightning flashes and swelling rivers, all very atmospheric! The low cloud and rain afterwards made us return to our inn, but we went out again in late afternoon when the sky cleared to walk the high and less prone to flood Cohab Canyon, which had quite an ascent up, but then a gradual descent, with several side slot canyons to explore. 
Look at this sunlit peak against a dark sky
We did three slot canyons, one just about wide enough to squeeze through sideways that Pauline decided wasn’t for her. It was fabulous (lacking better adjectives again), had amazing canyon walls eroded into fantastic shapes and colours and was very worthwhile. We ended up back on the SR-24 road (that only made this area accessible in 1962) and walked back to look at the ancient civilization rock art (Petroglyphs). Their drawings look like men in space suits to me – are they trying to tell us something?

The uphill walk to the Cohab canyon
Looking back down to the Fruita village
Jackie checks out a slot canyon

And we have a go at this one - come back Jackie!

Pauline decides she's gone far enough and backs off carrying our rucksack
A rest out of the afternoon sun in Cohab canyon

In one of the slot canyons
Jackie gets eaten by a rock dinosaurs head!

Look at these amazing rock colours
A lizard basks in the sun

Ancient Indian rock art. Do they look like spacemen to you?
Buffalo, we finally saw buffalo (or are they Bison?)
This morning was nice and sunny for our scenic drive along highway 12 through the Grand Staircase NP, another and huge National Park. This place is so remote that only highway 12 crosses it. There are a few four wheel drive tracks that follow early pioneer routes, but other than those it’s pristine. All hikes in this area are remote with no established tracks and some of them, like ones to a slot canyon area sound great, maybe we’ll come back later! 
Grand Staircase NP, a remote pristine wilderness. The road you see is the only crossing
Navajo sandstone. The diagonal lines mark the sand dune layers
Eventually we came through the top of Bryce Canyon, which is another amazing place of strikingly red sandstone sculptures that we’ll be visiting later and on through Red Canyon, another bright red canyon that is considered an ‘also ran’, but is fabulous. We stopped at the visitors centre and chatted to a volunteer ranger who told us all about the fantastic sights in Bryce Canyon, then told us about his Red Canyon, which also sounds fabulous. 
Entering the top of Bryce Canyon
Go to Bryce he told us, it will be busy, but afterwards come here, where it’s almost as good, but we’ll probably be walking on our own! Then he told us about the other nearby NP, Zion, which has some stunning walks.  Bryce and Zion are going to need at least two days a piece, Red Canyon at least one day and nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument another day.

A viewpoint over Cedar Breaks National Monument
Our apartment at Brian Head
We’re in Brian Head now for seven days, it’s a ski resort at 9800ft, but sadly not at the moment, the ski season starts here on 20th November, but we’re in a luxurious ski apartment with high mountains and ski lifts all around us. The grass is green, but the aspen trees have turned to red, orange and yellow leaves and the scenery is stunning! At 9800ft its cool and fresh here, low 60’s F (16 C), but bright and sunny, so pretty good to walk around in. It’ll be colder tonight, but not freezing, so we’re happy with that.

From the other direction. Pauline's starting a jigsaw, Jackies on the computer
The view from our terrace and a ski lift going uphill
Tomorrow it’s into Cedar City for shopping and sightseeing, taking a round mountain trip of scenic roads and then hit the National Parks on Wednesday. When we booked Brian Head for a week before we left the UK we thought we’d be able to have at least one day of relaxation, but now we’re thinking a week isn’t enough. There is too much to do and not enough time!!
The view a little bit further round


  1. Thank you for the fantastic photographs, great colours too.
    I wonder who did the paintings of our alien friends. They look different to the Dogon tribe cave paintings of aliens who landed there hundreds of years ago.

    Miaow, miaow, miaow, and love from John too