I exited New Mexico heading northward, with my destination for the evening being Durango, CO. The journey there took me into a very snowy San Juan National Forest, which was very pretty. Again, even with the snow on the ground it had warmed up enough to have the top down, so I had the fun experience of driving through snow covered pine forests completely al fresco.
I didn’t really have a good reason to pick Durango as a destination, other than knowing that I was starting to get into the west of old time Westerns, and Durango sounded like a real outlaw town. It turned out that it was actually really pretty nice—there are a lot of ski areas around town, they’ve got a really cool narrow gauge steam railroad that runs all up in the mountains, and the downtown area is full of shops and art galleries and very good restaurants. I’d selected the Strater Hotel, which was an old 1887 hotel that had actually been around when Durango was a western frontier town. The place had a saloon and everything. I was kind of expecting to get into a gunfight, seeing as I was the stranger that drifted into town. If I stuck to the script, I’d have to take over as sheriff when the local bad guy gunned down the local constable, and in the mean time I’d take up relations with the madame with a heart of gold who runs the local brothel. There’d probably be a sheep rancher getting beat up by rustlers in there at some point, too.
True to the script, I got in right around sunset, got my room, tied up my horse (or Datsun, whatever) outside, then headed down to the saloon for a little dinner. Sadly, I didn’t get into a gunfight or anything, but I did have a really good burger. The description of the burger had an entire page to itself in the menu, so I figured any burger worth that much menu space deserved a try, and it did definitely live up to its billing. I hung out with the saloon girls and the bartender for a little while, helped a fellow patron compose a text message to tell a guy she’d dated once that she didn’t want to see him again, had a couple of beers, then headed up to bed.
I did a little bit of a walking tour of Durango the next day, checking out the railroad (where I’d arrived a little bit too late to catch the last train), and a lot of the old downtown buildings. I also stopped into a couple of the local photo galleries to see what kinds of pictures people were selling, as a lot of people had been telling me here on the blog that they liked a lot of the photos from the trip, so I thought it’d be interesting to see how they stacked up. One thing is for sure, a 35,000 mile trip definitely gives you a lot of photo opportunities.
I spent the rest of the afternoon doing some life and trip maintenance. I cleaned up the trunk of the car, got rid of some trash, updated the blog, paid some bills, and generally knocked a bunch of stuff off of my to-do list. I dined that evening at one of the trendier downtown Durango restaurants, which was very good. Most of the people there were locals, and the people I chatted with at the bar all thought that I should move to Durango, because it is “perfect.” It’s actual kind of tempting, and it’d definitely make the top 10 list of places I’ve visited so far as potential homes, but I’m certainly not ready to just park the car there and set up a homestead.
I was heading westward the next day, as well as visiting a couple of national parks, so I got an early start and rode off into the general direction of the sunset. My first stop was Mesa Verde, where there were several areas of ancient cliff houses. These were not quite as old as the cliff dwellings I’d seen at Bandelier in New Mexico, and they were in considerably better shape. Some of that was due to some restoration efforts, but for the most part they were just better preserved. Hiking close to the areas of the houses was prohibited, and many of the trails were closed for the winter, so my visit ended up being a bit shorter than anticipated, but it was still pretty neat to see these fairly complex structures nestled right into the cliff sides and alcoves.
From Mesa Verde, I headed sort of southwest to Four Corners, the spot where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah all come together. Ironically, Four Corners is actually on a Navajo Indian reservation, and the marker and tourist site is administered by the Navajo. As an exercise in surveying, it’s a pretty impressive spot, but other than that it’s mostly just a novel roadside attraction, sort of like the World’s Largest Ball of String (which, incidentally, I never did find.) Some rather noisy fellow roadtrippers were playing a game of catch with a football in the actual area of the marker, where they’ve got the flags of the four states (and the Navajo Nation) surrounding a small courtyard where the four state lines come together. I didn’t get a lot of photos of the area itself due to the ongoing game, but then again there wasn’t that much to photograph. It was still kind of cool to be able to stand with your feet simultaneously in four states, but once that novelty wore off, I continued on to my next stop, Monument Valley.
Monument Valley has been featured in numerous Western movies, as well as films like “Easy Rider”, “Back to the Future III”, and “Forrest Gump”, among hundreds of others. (Unlike Forrest Gump, I opted not to stop there, even though I did drive the same stretch of road he ran on in the film.) Like Four Corners, Monument Valley is on the Navajo reservation, and it’s administered by the Navajo Nation. I had planned to camp there that night, but unfortunately they had torn up the camping area for off-season service and renovations, and they didn’t have any place else they’d let me set up. It actually turned out to be for the best, as it got really cold that night, probably colder than my camping gear could handle. I backtracked to Mexican Hat, UT, where I found a great little motel stuck in between the San Juan River and a giant red rock cliff face, and got a room there for the night. I also had a “Navajo Taco” at their little restaurant before it closed, which is a big piece of Navajo fry bread topped with a bunch of taco stuff, in this case chili con carne, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and chili peppers. It’s not what you’d call a traditional Navajo dish, at least if your definition of “traditional” is “before the white folks showed up.” Fry bread was made by the Navajo and other tribes from the flour, lard, sugar, and salt passed out to them by the US government and military when they were in the process of being “relocated”, so while it’s been traditional for over 100 years, it doesn’t exactly have heartwarming connotations. The “taco” part is just from proximity to Mexican cuisine, and is a fairly recent development. In any case, it was pretty good, and way more than I could eat.
I had a nice night at the motel along the river, and spent a little time outside stargazing, as it was a super-clear night, and we had for-real dark skies, being in the middle of nowhere. I took a little walk along the river in the morning, where there were numerous mountain goat and deer tracks, so it was obviously a pretty popular spot. As the sun really started coming up, I scraped the mud off my boots and got back on the road.
My plan for the day was basically more of the same. You’re probably going to get tired of seeing pictures of gigantic red rocks and mesa and canyons, but that’s really what the countryside here was like. It’s definitely what Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers was trying to represent in the Roadrunner and Coyote Looney Tunes cartoons of the ‘50s, and it was breathtaking. This was probably the longest continuous stretch of simply magnificent scenery since I did the drive through the Rockies up in British Columbia—it’s just hundreds of miles of awesome, and well worth the visit. (It’s Utah Route 95 from Blanding, UT to the intersection of Route 24, then 24 from there to Koosharem, UT for you trip planners.) One of the better drives was a “shortcut” to Natural Bridges that went up and over a huge mesa at Moki Dugway, which included some pretty awesome dirt road action and really steep and tight switchbacks all the way up. Naturally, the car did great, and even got in a little rally fun here and there.
The first stop for the day was Natural Bridges National Monument, where I learned the obvious-in-retrospect lesson of the difference between a bridge and an arch. Earlier in the trip, I had visited Arches National Park, which was only a couple hundred miles north of where I was now. The formations there looked a lot like the ones here at Natural Bridges, but they’re formed in different ways. The arches are formed by erosion of a soft layer out from below an upper hard layer—the softer stuff erodes and dissolves out from beneath the top stone layer, and self-supporting arches are left in the spots where that happens in an area where the upper stone has been deposited in linear formations. Bridges, on the other hand, are formed when a river doubles back on itself in what’s known as a “gooseneck”, and then starts to erode the same chunk of rock from both sides, where it initially encounters the river flow, and then again where it doubles back on itself. Once it’s eroded all the way through, the river passes through it and then erodes the resulting hole out to a “bridge” relatively quickly. So, basically: Arches are just arches on land, bridges go over water.
There were three “main” bridges at Natural Bridges: Kachina, Sipapu, and Owachomo. The Owachomo bridge was the easiest to hike to, and it’s about 180 feet wide and 106 feet to the inside of the arch. The other two are longer hikes, and I hiked to Sipapu and Owachomo, opting to just view Kachina from the viewpoint near the road. Kachina is 204 feet wide and 210 feet to the inside of the span, and Sipapu is 268 feet wide and 220 feet high. These things are huge; Sipapu would be about the size and height of the field of a football stadium. The remnants of the old trail down to Sipapu were visible along the way—early visitors had nailed a few pinyon pine logs from a large rock across to a nearby tree, where they’d scramble across and then climb down the tree to get to the trail down to the bridge. Since then, the park service has thoughtfully provided stairs there. The rest of the hike goes down into White Canyon, where the river there has made the bridge. It’s very impressive up close, and it’s always amazing to see evidence the huge range of water flow in these desert areas, from a tiny trickle when it’s dry to a giant torrent capable of sculpting football field-sized bridges from rock when there are floods.
My next stop was at a national park that I’d never even heard of before then: Capitol Reef National Park. This was another amazing collection of rock formations, cliffs, canyons, domes, petroglyphs, and other crazy desert scenery. (While it may be a little odd to name a desert park a “reef”, the name actually comes from a large line of white cliffs along the Waterpocket Fold that have eroded into features that look like the rotunda of the Capitol building in DC.) This was my kind of national park—the only road in (and the only road for hundreds of miles, for that matter) was lonely old Route 24, and once you got there, the only way to really see the whole park was to hike it. No scenic loops, no groomed and paved pathways, none of that. I did not have time before nightfall to do much serious hiking, although I’d definitely like to come back here and get into the backcountry a bit more. I stopped to check out the Castle formation, see a few of the petroglyphs that were relatively close to the road, and hang my toes over the side of 800’ deep Sulphur Creek Canyon, but that was it. This one is on my short list of return trips.
The sun was setting as I left Capitol Reef, and I was still a long way from the town where I’d arranged a hotel room, Kanab, UT. I was a little upside down on the travel route at this point; if I had camped at Monument Valley, I would have continued northwest to Kanab, then north to Bryce Canyon, but my unexpected (and awesome) re-route through Natural Bridges, Capitol Reef, and Wile E. Coyote country meant I’d be hitting Kanab from the north, then backtracking back up to Bryce the next day. I briefly contemplated just camping at Bryce that night and abandoning my reservation, but I wanted to do a little photo editing and a hotel room is better for that. Earlier in the day, I had figured I’d hit Utah Route 12 south toward Bryce and Kanab, as it looked like that went through some beautiful mountainous country, but since it was getting dark, I figured a) there wouldn’t be much to see now, and b) I’d be safer sticking to some more developed roads, even though “developed” is a bit of a relative term out here. That meant I’d head north on 24 over the mountains to Koosharem, then down rural Route 62 in a farming valley between the mountains to Route 89, and that road was a four lane divided highway and it’d get me into Kanab quickly and without much drama.
As it turned out, all of the drama happened prior to Route 89. While my ad hoc route planning seemed pretty prudent, I hadn’t counted on the local deer population being really big fans of that big, flat farmland area in the valley. A couple miles south of Koosharem a little after twilight, a group of five big mule deer sprinted out in front of the car and into the road right in front of the car. (I’ll never understand why deer run toward the road when startled rather than away from it.) I braked hard and swerved to avoid them, but I wasn’t able to get around the whole group and clipped the last one in line hard in its right haunch. That flipped the deer around into the side of the car, then dead into the middle of the road. The car itself had taken a pretty good hit—the right headlight was shattered, and the entire side of the right front fender was crushed inward. There was a streak in the middle of the hood where the deer’s head had whipped around and skimmed that as well. It was drivable, but not really in great shape anymore. I pulled over to the side of the road and got out with a flashlight to check the damage. There were bits of deer all over the car, from the point of impact on the fender, all over the windshield, and even up on the roof and down to the trunk lid. I walked back to where the deer was lying in the road, obviously dead.
I grabbed the deer by the forelegs and dragged it off the road so some other unsuspecting motorist wouldn’t hit it. The smell was awful…I don’t know if it was the contents of its stomach, or if I’d hit some sort of scent or musk gland, or if that’s just what deer smell like up close, but it was pretty horrendous. Once I got it off the road, I walked back to the car and started the drive down to Kanab, which was still about 2-1/2 hours away. It must have been animal night on Route 62, because I had no fewer than two more instances where I had to stand on the brakes to avoid hitting other deer wandering into the road, and a couple more where I had to avoid jackrabbits (one of which was unsuccessful, mostly for the jackrabbit.) It was probably the most stressful period of driving since the icy conditions in Texas, and I was very happy to finally get out of that valley.
In checking out the damage, I had found that the tire would rub on the inside front part of the fender if I tried a hard left turn. I was OK to the right, but if I needed to do any tight turning to left (like for a u-turn or something), it would rub pretty bad. I stopped at a gas station in Panguitch, UT to fill up and to spend a little time doing a bit of impromptu bodywork. With a spectating crowd of gas station attendants and Subway sandwich artists, I pounded part of the fender a bit closer to where it used to be and then bent out the inside edge enough to clear the tire when it was turned all the way to the left, all of which took about a half hour. I grabbed a sandwich from Subway guys, then kept heading south. On the way out of town, I came across one of those coin operated self-service car washes, so I stopped and used the pressure washer to hose the gore off the car, which also went a long way toward removing the deer stench. With a clean (but rumpled) car, I tiredly finished off the couple of hours down to Kanab, got to my hotel, and hit the sack.
I felt a little better after a good night’s sleep, although seeing the damage in the morning daylight was a little depressing. Still, it could have been a lot worse. It could have happened much earlier in the trip. I could have center-punched the deer and had it come through the windshield rather than just clipping it and damaging the fender. It could have hit hard enough to disable the car. All things considered, if you’ve got to hit a 200 pound mule deer, this was a pretty good way to do it. With those sunny thoughts in mind, I headed back up Route 89 to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Bryce is famous for its “hoodoos”, which are vertical pillars of rock left by erosion. That sounds like a pretty simple thing, but the results are anything but simple. There are entire valleys full of columns of white, red, yellow, and orange sandstone, and the character of the whole place changes as the day progresses and the sunlight hits new angles. There are a few really amazing hikes down into and among the hoodoos, with the best probably being xxx, roughly a three mile hike down and back up. It had recently snowed and then warmed back up a bit, so the trails were alternately snowy, icy, and muddy. Luckily, I had some grips for my boots with me, and those were the difference between being on my way and on my butt on a pretty large portion of the trail. Highly recommended if you’re doing any winter hiking, or even just spending a lot of time negotiating icy sidewalks.
I did a couple of the hikes through the park, then headed to the North campground to get set up for the night around sunset. I got the tent up and a fire started, then discovered that I was surrounded by friendly Canadians on both sides; a couple traveling from Calgary, and another couple from Victoria. We shared some stories and some dinner, then all retired to our respective campsites as the night.
The fire was very nice, but it got a bit colder that night than I expected, dropping down to around 16 degrees. I have what’s vaguely referred to as “three season” equipment for both my tent and my sleeping bag, and this was firmly in “fourth season” territory. I layered up with my warmest thermals and got entirely inside the sleeping bag, and that turned out to be pretty cozy. However, somewhere along the trip I must have damaged my sleeping pad. That’s basically a thin inflatable mattress that rolls up into a small package when you’re not using it, but provides both some comfort and some insulation from the ground when it’s blown up. Mine now had a small leak, which I found out about roughly four hours later when I woke up lying pretty much directly on the very cold and hard ground under the tent. I had to re-inflate the thing a couple of times during the night to stay warm and comfortable, but otherwise it was a good camping evening.
My deflated pad provided a cold and early wake-up call in the morning, so I took advantage of that to do a little sunrise sightseeing amongst the hoodoos in a couple of the areas that I hadn’t seen the day before. The rocks and towers were especially beautiful in the morning light, and I got to visit a couple of pretty much deserted areas of the park before I packed it up and continued with the drive.
The destination of the day was probably the most famous rock feature in the entire western US—the Grand Canyon. Living in Las Vegas for the past 20+ years, I’d been located only about a five or six hour drive from the canyon that whole time, but I’d never visited it. (For that matter, this had also been my first time to Bryce, Arches, and Natural Bridges, so I obviously should have been getting out a lot more in the past.) Like the previous couple of days, this was a really pretty drive through some classic western scenery, taking me back through Kanab and into Vermillion Cliffs National Park. The road south to the North Rim of the canyon was “Closed for Winter”, which was a little sad as it was sunny and in the mid-60s, so I didn’t make it too far down that road before I was turned back by a locked gate. I backtracked and continued around toward the south rim, stopping in a Navajo Bridge (spanning the Colorado at the impressive Marble Canyon) and generally having a good time checking out all the mesas. The character of the landscape had changed quite a bit since Utah. The red rocks and features were still everywhere, but where in Utah the formations were highly detailed and intricate, here in Arizona things were much more enormous and blocky, like somebody had switched from painting with a tiny brush to painting the same thing, but with a roller instead.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the Grand Canyon, other than it being really big. Since I didn’t relish the thought of having to re-inflate my bed several times during the night again, I had gotten a hotel in nearby Tusayan. I thought the drive there would be straight to it, but instead it went through the National Park, which gave me the opportunity to see the Grand Canyon that day, and right at sunset. It definitely lived up to its name—it’s enormous. I hadn’t really contemplated how the canyon was formed before; why it’s so wide and so deep. Basically, the Colorado acts (or at least acted) as a big runoff cleaner. It cut down through the rock like a regular canyon, but it also carried off all of the erosion from the surrounding landscape, which allowed that landscape to erode even more. The vast bulk of the width of the canyon isn’t directly from the action of the Colorado, but from the effects of normal erosion due to rain and flooding carrying all that down to the river, and then the river being big and powerful enough to carry all of that away without silting up. Over several million years, that gets you a really wide canyon.
Sunset was pretty, and since it was President’s Day weekend, the park was also pretty busy, with busloads of tourists wandering around everywhere. Like Yosemite and Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon is one of the parks that attracts the big crowds, and in a lot of ways that sort of makes it like a theme park with rangers. Still, considering they get over five million visitors a year, they do a pretty good job of keeping things together.
The next day, I went back into the park and did the hike down from the south rim on the South Kaibab Trail to a spot called “Skeleton Point”. It was a pretty long hike at about six miles round trip, with a vertical elevation change of about 2000 feet along the way. This still got me nowhere near the bottom of the canyon, which was a little daunting, but it was very scenic. The sheer size of the canyon sort of made it feel like you were always far away from everything, as opposed to places like Bryce and Zion where it feels like you’re practically inside of the rocks. Still, it was all pretty majestic, as advertised. I think if I had to pick, I’d probably take a more remote park like Capitol Reef to visit rather than the Grand Canyon, but it was definitely an awesome thing to visit, especially after living within a day’s drive of it for years.