May 312010

An old abandoned granary at Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Today is Memorial Day, the day we commemorate U.S. soldiers who died in military service. Standing at this abandoned granary in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park I can’t help but think that there is not a day set aside to recognize the Native Americans who died during their own military service to defend the lands they called home. If we can have a Martin Luther King Jr day, then I think we can just as easily have a National Day of Recognition for the Native American.

Cryptobiotic soil in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

The earth I stand upon is actually a trail and the park service would prefer that I remain on this trail. All around me is cryptobiotic soil. This fragile habitat is what hold the surface together and makes life for many species possible in this arid environment. If you click the picture above to open the larger image you can see the detail of the cyanobacteria, mosses, and lichen – well I can only guess that is what you can see because I’m not a biologist but there is definitely some type of species making the soil its place of dwelling.

The trailhead of the Confluence Overlook Trail in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

We are on our way home today and only visiting the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park for a short time, figuring we we shouldn’t be getting home too late. These rocks are at the end of a road where a trail begins that takes visitors out to the confluence overlook of the Colorado and Green rivers. As we were about to leave we nod and say hello to two ladies who are donning hiking boots and are about to embark on the trail when we recognize them from our hike out to Horseshoe Canyon on Saturday. These ladies from Poland are easily in their mid-60’s if not just about 70 and are a grand inspiration in tackling this nearly 11 mile trail today.

Unidentified plant near Canyonlands National Park in Utah

The end of the road was our destination and turnaround point. On the way back out of Canyonlands the sun’s position in the sky allowed us to better appreciate the carpet of wildflowers stretching in all directions. So much for making good time up the road as we whipped out the macro lens and tried stopping for each species of flower we could spot – at 5 miles per hour. When what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arises that gives you the chance of witnessing something so spectacular you must take the time and disregard the potential discomfort or tiredness at a later time, lest you’d look back and feel foolish for hurrying along and missing out on greatness seldom seen.

Unidentified flower near Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Oh, more flowers, more than one could shake two sticks at. I could easily post 15 or more photos of the various types of blossoms that presented themselves roadside this beautiful day. It took close to an hour to travel the 10 miles between the park exit and Newspaper Rock. Down on our knee or sitting on our butts, we lingered amongst the flowers, taking in their scents and colors. In a week, would they still be here to dazzle those visitors?

Panorama of landscape near Canyonlands National Park in Utah

The scenery out here on a spring day wants to stop the car on its own accord and forces us from our seats to spend a quiet, intimate moment with nature. At this rate we’ll be home at midnight. When we were here four hours earlier it was beautiful then, too, but now the light is absolutely perfect. This is one more of those occasions of finding yet another perfect place on earth, one that makes you think, "hey, I could live here and then I’d know how the view changes with the day, the season, and the weather".

Stand of aspen trees near Monticello, Utah in the Manti-La Sal National Forest

We are not far from the main road when a paved road on the right appears to be a detour we haven’t taken before. County Road 136 says it leads to Monticello and so we take it. We begin to climb into the Manti-La Sal National Forest and mountain range. What a find, out of the desert and into the forest. The views from up here stretch for a hundred miles north. While the view was terrific to our eyes, the haze did nothing for the camera and the quality of images I shot. So instead I offer these aspen trees and more specifically I offer them to my daughter Jessica who long ago told me that she loves aspen and now when I see a stand of them I think of her.

Deer roadside on County Road 101 west of Monticello, Utah

The road was hardly long enough, we could have easily stayed all day on this twisting section of pavement. A couple of patches of snow dotted the hillsides soon to be gone with summer just around the next corner. More pullouts and some benches to sit for hours and gaze out over Canyonlands to the west, the La Sal mountains to the north and Ute Mountain to the east over in Colorado would have been welcomed. What was the next best thing? A deer gazing at us. Next to the road at the edge of the forest a staring contest was begun. Wait a minute, is that a lawn ornament? Silly place for one if it is, ok, it blinked and went back to foraging.

The Peace Tree Juice Cafe in Monticello, Utah

Out of the woods and into town. How is it that the little blip on the road of Monticello, Utah has this awesome place called The Peace Tree Juice Cafe serving up some great all-natural, organic, fresh, diverse foods and in Phoenix we get Applebee’s? There are Peace Tree locations in Moab and Blanding as well, how did we miss stopping in at the Moab location? Drats.

The trail to Sipapu natural bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah

A little further south we arrive at our last stop of this trip, Natural Bridges National Monument. Caroline grabs the Junior Ranger booklet and we scoot to the trail as quick as we can. This is our second visit to the park but this particular trail was new for the two of us. We only went as far as the big overhang to view Sipapu Bridge as time was closing in us. The next one, Kachina Bridge we gazed at from the main paved trail. But the third bridge had to be seen from below.

Underneath the Owachomo bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah

Years ago we took our picture under this very bridge, the Owachomo Bridge. Somehow we hadn’t recognized back then that the trail continued under the bridge to where this photo was taken. Look under Owachomo, Caroline is standing there in a yellow shirt. I also learned today that there is trail that loops for 8.6 miles from Sipapu to Kachina to Owachomo and back the parking area at Sipapu – it seems like there is always something to come back to in the National Park system.

An empty sales stall at Monument Valley in Utah at sunset

It’s late now and no longer really matters how much more time is taken because we will be home somewhere in the middle of the night. So why not stop once more at the Mexican Hat Lodge and grab dinner? We did, I could not resist another swinging steak. We wolfed down dinner trying to bask in the atmosphere for the brief visit and were once again going south. As on our trip up north a few days prior, we are passing through Monument Valley again at sunset. The shops have closed up, the natives have gone home, no more jewelry for sale today.

May 302010

Various plants, flowers, and dead old logs on the desert floor in Arches National Park in Utah

While traveling I shoot a lot of photos, too many to post. Often it is a chore trying to pick a few favorites that I will post with a short narrative about our journey. It can be too easy a choice to select those images with sweeping horizons, vast landscapes, and dramatic sunsets. But that can also give the impression that I miss the fine points. So today I am showing the fine details and skipping the grandiose.

Desert plant life in Arches National Park in Utah

At sunrise on a holiday weekend there is no waiting at the ranger booth to pay fees, two hours later and there will be over a hundred cars backed up with impatient families racing to collect an experience or two as they zoom over the road to a “hot” destination to snap a few photos and be on their way. Arches National Park this Memorial Day weekend will be plenty busy but right now it is all ours. The trail to Landscape Arch is quiet. All around us spring has delivered an abundance of flowers and greenery. During the late summer and early fall it is easy to look past the dead brush, crunchy weeds, and all of the other stuff that looks as though it was alive at the time the rocks that make up the park were still sand.

Flowering plant life in Arches National Park in Utah

To be distracted in thinking that Landscape Arch is ‘the’ thing to see is easy and if you want to view just what the big attraction is, you can Google that but I want to share with you what the average visitor appears to be missing. Look down at the ground, feel the fine, still cool, red sand, put your nose close to the flowers and try to find their fragrance. There is a world of ever changing desert life that fills in the spaces under the soaring skyline. First you have to come to your senses that what is between your car and your idea of a destination is just as integral a part of journey as the collection of trophies.

Flowers blooming in Arches National Park in Utah

A tiny flower is observed. How long will it live? What is its purpose? Should I have brought a book about the local flora so I might be wiser tomorrow for learning today the breadth of variety that exists in a landscape so many people might see as barren? All around me giant red sandstone rock begs for attention, I gladly give mine to those things below the radar screen.

A chipmunk eating breakfast in Arches National Park in Utah

Before leaving Arches we visit the now-open visitor center so Caroline can pick up a Junior Ranger guide. She whittles away like a chipmunk trying to finish the exercises to earn her badge and in no time she is being sworn in. With so many people swarming into the park we decide to leave early, this is not the first or second time we have visited Arches, and we drive over to the more subdued Dead Horse Point State Park.

A yellow Colorado Chipmunk posing at Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah

The rim trail is our hike of choice. The overlook of the Colorado river is truly stunning but so is this yellow Colorado chipmunk. I don’t know about you but I had never seen a chipmunk with yellow markings before – now that’s epic. For a couple of hours we amble along the cliff side taking our time to commune with lizards, study various cactus flowers, take in the intoxicating scent of cliff rose blossoms, and generally stay in amazement at the colorful state of the otherwise monochromatic desert.

Twisted bark of a tree at Canyonlands National Park Islands in the Sky sector in Utah

And now over to Canyonlands and the Islands in the Sky district. The focus of this hike could loosely be considered to be the Upheaval Dome and we sure are thrilled to see this natural anomaly about which scientists still aren’t sure how it was formed, but we are also just as happy to see how some terrific trail builders cut us a path over this difficult terrain so we can find our way over a primitive land with relative ease.

Little purple flowers in bloom at Canyonlands National Park in Utah

The day will end with dinner in Moab at Eddie McStiff’s and another visit to the local grocery for some fresh fruit and snacks for the next day. The town of Moab is stuffed to the gills with visitors on Memorial Day – the busiest day of the year for this mountain biking mecca. A torch red strip of flaming clouds cut a diagonal across the light clouds before the sun set. Tired from a busy day of looking at small details, we head to our room to digest the rich diet of a million things our eyes ate over the course of a beautiful day.

May 292010

The Colorado river at the head of Lake Powell in southern Utah

The sun rises after we do and we are on the road close to first light. My notes should have told us that our turn–off was just four miles north of Mexican Hat on road 261, instead we drove through Bluff and over road 95 adding a few too many miles to our morning drive. By the time we reach the top end of Lake Powell and the bridge that crosses the Colorado river the sun is just high enough in the sky to light the canyon below. The sun reflects hot white off the muddy brown water, the same river water that will carry us through the Grand Canyon in October.

Near the trailhead leading into Horseshoe Canyon at Canyonlands National Park in Utah

The real impact of our detour is that we don’t arrive at the trailhead at 9:00 am for a ranger-led tour through Horseshoe Canyon.  Resigned to our lack of punctuality we turn down the bumpy dirt road towards the trail head and finally make tracks down the trail shortly before 11:00 – so it goes. Our first adventure into this corner of Canyonlands National Park near the infamous Maze District is about to begin. We have lots of water, lunch, and fresh feet ready to tackle the six-and-a-half mile hike.

A Woodhouse Toad in Horseshoe Canyon at Canyonlands National Park in Utah

The canyon is beautifully bedecked in wildflowers and greenery set against the pink, red, and orangish landscape so common on the Colorado Plateau. We plod along slowly, well, no slower than usual for the two of us, as Caroline and I must inspect every detail and linger to observe the shadows, light, sway of the trees, and beat of the sun as they make their play on the pictures before us. Walking through the riverbed in the sand Caroline notices the movement of the last creature we expected to find in this arid environ, a Woodhouse toad.

Under a cliff overhang in Horseshoe Canyon at Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Canyon walls stretch high above, the sand makes for slow going and the temperature is starting to inch higher. Our destination at the end of the trail isn’t the only thing we are here to see as on the way down we pass rock art known as petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are etched into the rocks while pictographs are painted onto the rock. They are found at several locations in Horseshoe Canyon, and at times quite high upon those canyon walls. We stop and wonder what the symbols, peoples, and animals meant to the Native Americans who created them. Maybe these ancient billboards were meant to speak to other native peoples who traveled these lands in the past  or maybe they were meant to convey a message to future generations of Indians still able to interpret this wordless visual language. In this photo look to the right of the image under the overhang – just left of the shadow next to the green vegetation are two hikers – so you might appreciate the scale of the canyon we are traveling.

Pictograph rock art at the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon at Canyonlands National Park in Utah

The Great Gallery. Pictographs standing over six feet tall tower over us – and the other more than a dozen people who hiked out here with the park rangers earlier this morning. Overwhelming is the first impression these giants convey. Caroline and I have seen our fair share of Native American rock art, but it has never been of such magnitude. We stand below the ledge admiring the figures, trying to take in as many details as we can while at the same time trying to create some context for who they were and what they meant to the people who took the time to baffle and bedazzle us with their neolithic graffiti skills.

Caroline Wise and Ranger Nate on the ledge of the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon at Canyonlands National Park in Utah

After stepping back to have some lunch and sit amongst the other visitors, we inquire with one of the rangers if Caroline’s Junior Ranger kit that I had arranged to have brought along had made it down the trail into the canyon, sure enough it had. Ranger Lilly had it although she had tried to pawn it off on anyone else but found no takers – lucky Caroline. With pen in hand Caroline got to work, furiously she ran through the exercises until there was just one more task, a ranger program. Ranger Nate jumped to the rescue, he guided a group of us up to the ledge to speak in detail about the pictographs and allow us a closer inspection. After signing off in her Junior Ranger booklet, Ranger Nate swore Caroline in as a new Canyonlands Junior Ranger right up under those giant beings standing as witness.

A lone wildflower in the red sands of Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

The hike back was a slog through the sand. Our feet began to tire before we were to start the ascent up the canyon wall. We still stopped to admire the random wildflower or lizard baking in the mid-afternoon sun. The steep canyon walls vied for attention as did the song of the random birds nesting in the crags and trees above. We hiked on and on and up the trail until off in the distance we could spot our car at the trailhead. Almost finished we pause for a drink of water sharing a beaming smile that we finally made it deep into one small but significant corner of Canyonlands National Park and could now brag between ourselves that we had personally seen the Great Gallery with our own eyes.

May 282010

Sunset north of Kayenta, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation

It’s getting late in the day by the time we are passing through the Navajo Reservation. Tuba City is the first town that in a few moments is a distant memory seen in the rear view mirror. Wide open dusty desert turns those magenta and golden hues that are commonplace up here. Shadows of the mountains and dim outlines of the landscape will soon blur against the darkening sky but for now we are being treated to a sunset that is as monumental as the land around us.

Sunset at Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona

Change is dramatic in the few minutes before the sun bids adieu and retires for another night. The colors of sky rapidly morph from golden warmth to hot pink and burning orange casting the towers of Monument Valley into stark relief before they shrink into the darkness below the horizon. The stars await their emergence to remind the people of their tiny place in this vast universe.

The local band knocking out some tunes for the visitors of Mexican Hat Lodge and the Home of the Swinging Steak in Mexican Hat, Utah

The ritual of nature over her sacred lands soon leaves our attention for the more tenebrous carnal pleasures taken from the lubricous merriment brought on by music, drink, and stuffing of the gullet at the Mexican Hat Lodge in the aptly named Valley of the Gods here in Mexican Hat, Utah. Couples take to the dance floor, beers are sallied forth for the next round and another steak is thrown on the grill as visitors continue to wander in to this tiny enclave next to the San Juan river.

A bottle of Polygamy Porter beer with the swinging grill from the Mexican Hat Lodge in the background

Blending in with the vibe Caroline opts for a bottle of Polygamy Porter beer while I cast my vote for the biggest steak on the menu. My hunk of flesh will sway on the swinging grill over a roaring mesquite fire for the next 20 minutes. Mexican Hat Lodge is the world famous home of the “Swinging Steak” – probably one of the best kept secrets of the travel world. The band plays on, more folks find their way to the dance floor and others are yet to show up as the festivities will continue into the middle of the early summer night. For us, the Dionysian spirit is quickly put to sleep in the lone teepee room of the lodge, happy and contended after the feast for eyes, ears, taste, and spirit.

Aug 112007

Standing in the middle of the road in Zion National Park in Utah looking at the red and white rock against the blue sky

Coming back to Zion National Park is a reminder that Caroline and I haven’t done enough local travelling in the past year and a half. Last time we were in the area was in July when we drove by Zion on our way to and from Yellowstone National Park. Just north of Zion is Bryce Canyon National Park and just the same, it too beckons for a return visit. Short weekend trips to monuments of the Southwest have been made more difficult with Caroline studying for her degree and fact is we have been to all National Parks and Monuments within a 500 mile radius so its not like we are deprived of anything. But when you pay a return visit to these natural beauties, you ask yourself, why did I stay away for so long?