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Utah National Parks with Friends

Why and When: My lovely wife Karen gave me a National Parks (lifetime) Senior Pass for Christmas last year. I was very excited about this, as we both love going to our National Parks. This does not cover fees for camping and such, but it does cover vehicle entry (with as many people as fit) and entry of 4 pedestrians if on foot. It also covers entrance to a broad array of recreational sites, including national monuments, national seashores, historic sites, etc., managed by National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers.

We had both been to a number of National Parks while we were growing up, me on the West Coast and Karen mostly in other parts of the US. We took our daughter Allison to Yosemite several decades ago, which was great. Karen and I visited Sequoia in 2008; although there was a forest fire raging, we still had a great time.

Dave (at left) with siblings at Dorst Creek Campground, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, early 1960s

Karen and I had always planned on visiting lots of National Parks in the US. We both love to travel and visit parts of the US and the world. Traveling together is one of our favorite things to do, for many reasons.

Part of our overall strategy was to focus first on travel overseas; that can be more demanding physically and takes more organization, and we thought it best to do that more when we were younger and better able to cope and enjoy it.

In 2009, we watched the Ken Burns documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” on PBS. We loved the show, and it really got us thinking more about National Parks and visiting them. We were not alone.

When I was diagnosed with bladder cancer on my birthday in 2017 and was facing treatment and a more uncertain future, Karen asked me if I had a bucket list. My response was something like, “No. We’ve always been people who believed in seizing the day and smelling the roses. I’ve never thought I needed one.”

I did not take this as a negative, but she was certainly on target. Five years later, after treatment, I have graduated from being monitored regularly and consider myself cured. However, this experience did confirm my need to continue smelling the roses and encouraged me to get more organized about it. I put together a bucket list after conferring with Karen. There are things on my bucket list that she will never want to do (like attend a Men’s March Madness NCAA finals game or go to an overseas World Science Fiction Convention), but we really love to travel together and her thoughts and desires matter a lot to me.

We did not choose a particular year for visiting National Parks, but some candidate parks were on the list.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, we started thinking more about visiting National Parks. It seemed to be something that was perhaps more safe than some kinds of travel while still allowing us to travel together and do something we love doing without excessive risk. Although we never pulled the trigger on this, I did go so far as to start thinking of itineraries and how we might do it even during the pandemic.

I also had fantasies of staying in some of the historic lodges at some of the National Parks, some built by the Works Progress Administration. We had seen the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite, and the Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood. I know they are old, and perhaps out of date, but it looked like fun and just plain cool.

We had booked a trip to Russia on Viking River Cruises this fall, after being previously cancelled due to COVID. We were looking forward to this, as there are family ancestors from Russia and Ukraine. Mr. Putin cancelled that with his invasion of Ukraine, and we’ll probably never go to Russia now. Our personal impacts due to this are very minor and first world compared to the horrific impacts on the people of Ukraine. Regardless that I am not a religious person, I hope Putin rots in hell.

We are dog people. We love dogs. Except for periods after the death of a dog, we have had dog(s) for our adult, married lives. We purchased a house so we could have a dog. Part of our basic preparations for any travel is to engage a dog sitter; we don’t schedule travel without a dog sitter lined up.

This past winter, we were sitting there with a desire to travel (like always), we were vaccinated and boosted so it felt reasonably safe, we had not done any non-family related travel during the pandemic, we had a pet sitter lined up for October, and we had a National Parks pass. It just seemed like life was telling us to go see some National Parks.

We considered the weather also. While it can be warm or cool in October, it’s typically a good and popular time to see Utah National Parks. It’s probably too early for snow (in general) but also not with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This was very positive.

We had been seeing and hearing from friends about how great the National Parks are in Utah. We did a bit of research, and found that there are 7 National Parks and Monuments across the bottom of Utah. We talked to our friends John and Patsy Lindsay, who we had been talking to about traveling together, and confirmed that they were interested in seeing the National Parks in Utah in October. Game on!

Getting organized: Once we had a goal established, we started to plan and organize. I had looked at a number of online posts/blogs about visiting the parks in Utah, and we had a recent Utah guidebook also. We decided that visiting five Utah National Parks over nine days worked for us. These National Parks are called the “Mighty Five” by a Utah tourism campaign, and I don’t disagree. I saw itineraries where people visited seven parks in seven days, but that just seemed to be too rushed.

We decided early on to organize our own trip; there are tours to see some of this, but we felt it would be best if we could figure out what worked for us and do it. We would control the itinerary, the where, when, etc., at our own pace. We also decided that this would combine flying into and out of the ends of the trip, with a rental car in between. I am sure it is technically possible to use public transit to visit some of these parks, but even if possible it would have probably added a week or two of getting from here to there.

As a semi-retired civil engineer who likes to be organized and is very used to working with tables, schedules, and spreadsheets, and considering problems like a sparrow flying East and a train traveling West, I volunteered to produce a draft itinerary. I have done previously for other trips overseas, and have learned some things. I did that, attempting to address travel time between parks, things to do in each park, lodgings, and options for eating. Here is a link to the final itinerary. One final point is that this itinerary was there to help us, but it was not rigid when we got there – we could still do whatever we wanted to.

It was important to me to ensure the itinerary and possible activities were suitable and reasonably accessible to all of us. None of us are young; we are certainly “less young”. We all have different physical abilities to walk, hike and enjoy the experience. I wanted to be sure we had a good mix of great scenery and fun things to do while avoiding any “death marches”. I unintentionally walked my wife into the ground at Lake Louise years ago, and I vowed to avoid that.

It was also critical to decide on how we would approach this. We confirmed that we would not be camping out, due to physical and comfort issues. Hotels, motels and such were the choice.

Another factor was overall pacing. We have found that mixing up one night stays and multiple night stays is just more relaxing and enjoyable. You can cover more ground by doing “drive-by” visits and changing locales and lodging every day, but that is tiring and not fun to me. We did put two “one-night stands” in the middle near Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks, but we had three nights at the start in Springdale and at the end in Moab. This was partially a matter of how much we thought we would find to do at the various stops, and partly a matter of having a relaxed and enjoyable pace.

Once the draft itinerary was accepted with some minor modifications, we moved on to lodgings. I was disappointed to find out that both historic lodges in Zion and Bryce National Parks were booked up, even seven months out. Upon checking, both Bryce and Zion lodges open up reservations about 13 months out, with some differences:

  1. Zion lodge reservations note, “We are currently accepting reservations for stays up to 13 months in advance. On the first of each month, we will begin accepting online reservations for the entire month of the following year at midnight (12:00 am) Mountain time (Denver, CO time).”
  2. Bryce Canyon lodge reservations notes, “We typically accept reservations 13 months in advance. Once we finalize the following year’s availability, we will make the entire following season available for reservations.”

Obviously, if you want to stay in one of these lodges, you need to really be on top of this issue and execute carefully ahead of time, or book a tour. Either way, we were not staying in either of these historic lodges. I was disappointed, but not surprised in hindsight. I will definitely look at this issue closely for any future visits to historic lodges at National Parks.

Once we knew this, we looked at lodgings (motels and hotels) near the parks and reached consensus on them to get acceptable price, ratings, location, features (breakfast desired, bed size), etc.

I also researched restaurants for all of our stops, both near our lodgings and while traveling in between parks. This involved looking at Yelp, Tripadvisor, guidebooks, and restaurant websites. We didn’t always end up going to these restaurants, but having some ideas helped.

The distance from the Park Visitor Center/Park Entrance to the hotel/motel varied a lot here. Our closest spot was in Springdale, where the Bumbleberry Inn was about 1-1/2 miles from the park entrance. At the other end of the spectrum, our hotel in Moab was 5 miles from the Arches National Park Visitor Center/Entrance, and about 32 miles from that of the Canyonlands National Park. This was always a tradeoff.

Visiting the “Mighty Five” includes Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks. It appears that the term “Mighty Five” is a fairly recent Utah Tourism coinage, circa 2018. We visited them not because the phrase sold us on the idea, but because these were the ones we wanted to visit. Here is a map of our itinerary, from Las Vegas (flew into) to Salt Lake City (flew out of).

As you can see, you could have driven this route in 14 hours if you never stopped. I did not check, but our mileage including side trips was probably over 900 miles for the trip. Our longest drive was from Moab to Salt Lake City to fly out, at almost 4 hours. The other days had less than 3 hours of driving each, which was great for our aging infrastructure and allowed for more time enjoying the parks and the scenery in between them.

There is a somewhat faster route from Bryce to Capitol Reef, but the recommended route via Utah Route 12 (a Utah Scenic Byway) was not that much slower, and it was definitely very, very scenic. We were glad we chose that route. The route from Zion to Bryce was via the Utah Scenic Byway (Route 9); there is not really a choice on this part, but it is darn scenic and a pleasure also.

Having worked for the government, I did wonder what it took to be recognized as a scenic byway – was this just a Chamber of Commerce thing, or more? Official and with responsibilities, or just a sign? According to the Utah Office of Tourism (part of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity), the scenic byways in Utah are an official, real thing. I’ll need to look for more of these as we travel the USA.

The Actual Trip: Day One – Getting to Zion National Park – We started the trip by flying into Las Vegas.

View from Bumbleberry Inn balcony

We soon encountered a problem; our rental car was not at the airport rental car location, but the rental paperwork had not been clear that the airport shuttle did not serve that location. This probably delayed us by about 1-1/2 hours. This was a little aggravating, and not something I have encountered before. I guess this is something that we just need to be more careful about.

Our destination that day was Springdale, Utah, right outside of the entrance to Zion National Park, and about 2-1/2 hours from Las Vegas. We drove through Nevada, a bit of Arizona and then Utah to get there. It was getting dark as we approached Springdale, but we could already see how spectacular the scenery was.

We stayed at the Bumbleberry Inn, which proved to be a great, family run Springdale institution at a reasonable price with great service, location and a beautiful view from our balcony. Breakfast was included at the Bumbleberry owned adjacent Porters Restaurant, which worked out very well.

Dave w/Polygamy Porter
Patsy and John

Our first choice for dinner that night was at the Zion Brewery, right outside the entrance to Zion National Park. Several of us really needed a beer after a longer day than expected of travel. Unfortunately, due to staffing issues, the wait to be seated for dinner would have been one hour. We shifted to our second choice, which was the Spotted Dog. We had an amazing dinner there, with two of us having great draft beer from Utah. I had the Polygamy Porter from Wasatch Brewing, and loved it. My friend John had the Spotted Dog Amber Ale, brewed for the Spotted Dog also by Wasatch Brewery, and loved it. I had considered the Red Trout for dinner, but the Wild Game Meatloaf was irresistible to me.

One observation about Springdale, Utah, is that it is a small town, with population about 530. However, when you consider the tourist amenities like hotels/motels, restaurants and shops, there are a lot of options. It’s clearly a pretty big tourist stop. We found this a plus, but some might not.

Day Two – Zion Canyon in Zion National Park – Zion Canyon was our first destination in Zion National Park. It is beautiful and very, very popular. Auto entry to Zion Canyon is very limited for most of the year due to traffic. It is less limited from December to February. Visitors staying overnight at the Zion Lodge are allowed to drive to the lodge to park there. Almost all others are required to use the free Zion Canyon Line Shuttle. Bicycles are an option also.

After breakfast, we took the Springdale Shuttle Line (also free) to the terminus right outside of the Zion National Park entrance. We walked over the Virgin River pedestrian bridge, I showed my Senior Pass, and we walked past the Visitor Center to the nearby Zion Canyon Line Shuttle.

The shuttle is often standing room only, but we enjoyed the view up and down the canyon. Here is a map and trail description of Zion Canyon.

Wildlife near Grotto trail
Patsy at the Grotto

Our first stop was at the Zion Lodge. We looked at it and walked up the very easy 1/2 mile trail to the Grotto. We took the shuttle to the far end of the road in Zion Canyon and enjoyed the roundtrip 2.2 mile Riverside Walk to the start of the Narrows. This is a pretty flat walk with a good trail, and one of the more accessible we saw. We loved what we saw; be prepared for a lot of people, as this is beautiful and accessible and easy.

Blue Heron in Virgin River
Start of the Narrows

We saw a lot of people coming back from and embarking on the Narrows hike from this point up the canyon. It looked fun, but at up to 9 miles roundtrip wading “up” and back “down” the Narrows (and up to 8 hours!), on very wet and submerged surfaces, we knew we’d be skipping it. Also, although not a problem the day we were there, people have died in the Narrows from flashfloods, most often tourists who don’t pay attention to the weather or the signs.

Waterfall at Lower Emerald Pool

We had enjoyed our introduction to Zion Canyon, but we were ready for some lunch. We hopped back on the shuttle back to the Zion Lodge. Unfortunately, there was a big wait for my first choice, the Red Rock Grill, perhaps a tour group was eating? We moved on to the Castle Dome Cafe at the Lodge. The food was adequate but not great and the wait could be substantial. Still, we were refueled and refreshed. With perfect hindsight, we might have planned a picnic lunch and done better.

After lunch, we had a nice walk on the Lower Emerald Pool trail, 1.2 mile roundtrip. It was fun to see the pool and the waterfalls.

On the way out of Zion Canyon, we stopped and enjoyed the informative Zion Human History Museum with exhibits about history, cultures, geology, flora and fauna, etc. I especially enjoyed the exhibits on the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and the Cable Mountain Draw Works. This was closed during parts of the pandemic, so checking ahead of time would be helpful.

A couple of observations about our day:

  1. Although you can climb out of it (see the Angels Landing trail), this day was all in Zion Canyon for us. It was beautiful, but you do spend a lot of time looking at canyon walls.
  2. There are high quality (for a park) restrooms at a lot of the shuttle stops here in the canyon. Potable water and food is only available at the lodge, so plan accordingly.
  3. If you wanted to skip the shuttle, a bicycle might be your best bet, or coming in the winter.
  4. Although Zion is not particularly dangerous, people do die at all of these National Parks. Flashfloods, falls, heat, lack of water, the Western rattlesnake, poison ivy, etc. The Park Service staff are great, but you do need to plan and pay attention. Good shoes, sun screen, a hat, water, etc. are all important.
  5. If you want to do any of the more demanding or popular hikes, such as Angels Landing or the Narrows, it does take some planning and preparation. Angels Landing does require a permit, and there is generally a lottery with a non-refundable deposit for a permit. I believe there is an added fee if you “win” the lottery for a permit. For the Narrows, you definitely need to watch the weather and avoid flash floods!
Karen and Dave at MeMe’s Cafe

At the end, we reversed our shuttle journey by getting off the Zion Canyon Line Shuttle, walking across the pedestrian bridge and taking the Springdale Shuttle line back to the Bumbleberry Inn.

After a bit of downtime, we had a lovely dinner at MeMe’s Cafe, almost next door to the Bumbleberry Inn. It was good to have dinner at a more normal time, after our late dinner the night before. I enjoyed my Silver Reef Agua del Diablo Golden Lager. Another favorite at dinner was the mango “MeMosa”.

Day Three – Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park – Kolob Canyons is a very interesting and beautiful but much less popular area of Zion National Park. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Springdale to the Visitor Center at the entrance. There are no public roads within Zion National Park from the Zion Canyon area to Kolub Canyons, so you have to drive around. Because it is much less popular, you get to drive within on the Kolob Canyons Road and don’t have to use a shuttle.

Kolob Canyons Viewpoint
South towards Grand Canyon

We stopped at the Visitor Center, showed our pass, and headed on out. We stopped at several turnouts on the Kolob Canyons Road (also known as the Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway) to take photos. At the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint at the end of the road, we had a very nice hike out the 1 mile round trip Timber Creek Overlook Trail. The view of the surrounding area of the National Park were amazing. There were people out here, but nothing like Zion Canyon.

At the Timber Creek Overlook

There are trails from the Kolob Canyons area into the adjacent Zion Wilderness, and also you can connect with trails from the Zion Canyon area. I did not look into this in any detail. Upon checking Google Maps, this is at least a 14 hour walk, or several days for most people, so not a day hike, but serious backpacking. Water, camp sites, a wilderness permit, food, etc. would need to be dealt with. In 2009, President Obama established the Zion Wilderness within Zion National Park. This is 124,000 acres, or 84% of Zion National Park.

We returned to Springdale and had a late lunch at the Zion Brewery. It was rather nice to have a more relaxed day with less people after the prior day in Zion Canyon.

After some downtime, we ate dinner at Oscar’s Cafe, almost across the street from the Bumbleberry Inn. The Mexican/fusion/whatever food was great, but the portions were more than I could handle. I suspect the late lunch was a factor. I regretted this, but free will.

Day Four – Travel to and enjoyment of Bryce Canyon National Park – We were looking forward to both the trip to and exploring Bryce Canyon National Park. Our route from Springdale to Bryce Canyon National Park was all on Scenic Byways, and we were not disappointed with the scenery.

Utah State Route (SR) 9 is designated as the Zion Park Scenic Byway, from the intersection with SR 17 in La Verkin at the west end to the intersection with US 89 at the east end. US 89 is designated as the Mount Carmel Scenic Byway in this area, from Kanab in the south to near Panguitch in the north. Finally, the All American Road: Scenic Byway 12 runs from Panguitch at the west end to Torrey at the east end.

Canyon before tunnel

Canyon before tunnel

We started on the Zion Park Scenic Byway right outside the Bumbleberry Inn in Springdale. This section of the Byway travels through Zion National Park, so we had to wait a few minutes to present my Senior Pass at the park entrance. After a very beautiful 15 minute drive up a narrow canyon with a number of switchbacks, we reached the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. As a water resources civil engineer with experience on projects involving tunnels, I found this 1.1 mile tunnel very exciting.

Waiting to enter tunnel

The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel was built between 1927 and 1930 as part of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which is currently part of the Zion Park Scenic Byway. The tunnel was apparently originally configured for two way traffic, but accidents and other safety issues prompted a switch to one way traffic when oversize vehicles are involved. Oversize vehicles must also pay a permit fee.

When we went through the tunnel, we had to wait about 15 minutes for opposing traffic to pass and the rangers let our direction through. It was not clear to me if it was being operated with two way traffic, with a pause for an oversize vehicle, or one way traffic all the time in alternating directions.

View through a tunnel portal

Regardless, it was a brief and fun drive through the tunnel. There are several portals or cutouts in the side of the tunnel to the adjacent canyon, that are very cool. You can no longer stop in the tunnel to look out these portals; I have heard from a friend that this was possible when they were growing up. I was not driving, so I attempted to take photos of the portals as we drove past, with partial success.

The rest of the drive from Springdale to Bryce National Park was very pretty on the the Zion Park, Mount Carmel and the All American Road: Scenic Byways. We enjoyed it a lot and were glad we had chosen this route, both the fastest and prettiest way to get to Bryce Canyon National Park. Maybe we were just too awestruck by the beauty to take any photos, as we did not take any photos from the tunnel to Bryce National Park.

After stopping at the Visitor Center in Bryce, we parked near the Lodge at Bryce Canyon. There is a park shuttle that is available but not required.

Lodge at Bryce Canyon

We decided not to eat lunch at the Lodge; the dinning room was almost empty and the menu did not look appealing to some of us. We did enjoy seeing the historic Lodge at Bryce Canyon, which does look somewhat more historic than the Zion Lodge to me. We also walked by the adjacent Lodge cabins, which looked to be an attractive option for staying in the park when available!

Wandering about and considering what to do, we glimpsed the “Bryce Amphitheater” by accident and ended up taking a perhaps 1/2 mile walk along a small portion of the Rim Trail, which overlooks it and its hoodoos and other scenery. This was our first real glimpse of why Bryce is so special; unlike our prior day in Zion Canyon looking up at canyon walls, Bryce National Park is generally more of being on top of a high plateau with views down onto surrounding hoodoos and canyons. It was spectacular! We also found out that the “fairy castles” (a tourism term, I’m sure) in Cappadocia in Turkey were the same as these hoodoos. Bryce Canyon National Park is known for the hoodoos, and it did not disappoint.

Dave fakes hiking up the trail
Hoodoos from the Rim Trail

We had takeout sandwiches and other food items from the General Store for lunch. While not fancy, the food was good and reasonably priced.

Dave & Karen at Rainbow Point
Patsy & John at Rainbow Point

We drove to the far end of the scenic Park Road, stopping at some but not all of the View Points to take photos and soaked in the scenery. We stopped at the far, south end and enjoyed the amazing views at Rainbow Point. Not unlike the other National Parks we visited in Utah, there are also restrooms (typically vault toilets, so a step up from a portapotty) at some of these viewpoints. This was positive.

We took a one mile (classified “easy”) hike around the Bristlecone Loop trail. There is a modest elevation change on this loop, of 159 feet. However, especially on the uphill section, the average trail elevation of about 9,000 feet does get your attention. I am in pretty good shape for hiking, but I did have to work on slowing down a bit on the uphill part.

We passed one small, unmarked concrete structure near the south end of Bristlecone Loop. My guess is a weather station or canyon cam for the park, but who knows?

We spent one afternoon in Bryce Canyon National Park. If we had been able to get reservations at the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, I might have wanted to spend two nights. I would have loved to have taken a bike ride on the Shared Use path within the park or done a more substantial hike.

After a leisurely drive back out of the park, stopping at several more View Points, we arrived at the most upscale lodging of our trip, the Stone Canyon Inn right outside Tropic, Utah, which is also just outside the boundary of Bryce Canyon National Park. About a 20 minute drive from the Bryce Canyon park entrance, I’m guessing it is 3 or 4 miles from the Rainbow Overlook as the crow files over a lot of very up and down topography!

Dinner at the Stone Hearth Grille

After my disappointment at not being able to stay at either the Zion Lodge or the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, my party was nice enough to agree to staying at this fairly upscale inn. Most if not all of the rooms are in a number of separate cabins spread through the site. Our room was wonderful. We had an amazing dinner at their restaurant, the Stone Hearth Grille. We enjoyed a lovely bottle of wine (perhaps an Argentinian Malbec?), and I loved my Roasted Pobleno “Relleno”. Reservations are strongly recommended for the Stone Hearth Grille.

My only regret is not getting up and going outside in the middle of the night to see the stars. This location is far enough out of town that it probably had very little light pollution, but I was too lazy and it was very cold at night.

Day 5 – Travel to and Enjoyment of Capitol Reef National Park – The Stone Canyon Inn/Stone Hearth Grille does not offer breakfast, so we stopped at the nearby Bryce Canyon Coffee Company in downtown Tropic for breakfast. The breakfast muffin was basic yet good, and the coffee and tea were good.

One observation about Tropic is that it is a very small town; it is about the same as Springdale for population, but clearly not such a tourism center. While we were happy with how everything came out, there are not very many choices for dinning. I knew this in advance.

Million Dollar Road
Million Dollar Road

Our drive from Tropic to Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park was almost completely on All American Road: Scenic Byway 12, and it is quite something. It’s about 2-1/2 hours plus stops. One part was originally called the Lower Boulder Road, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and nicknamed the “Million-Dollar Road” for what a pain in the ass it was to build. The twisted layers, geology and windy road are just amazing.

Shortly after this, there is an astounding segment of highway perched on top of a very, very, very narrow ridge, called “The Hogback“. This definitely gets your attention while driving! One description notes it as “a ridge road with severe drop-offs on each side” and another adds “a narrow ridge with no guardrails or shoulders”! See an amazing video (not mine); this segment of road is not to be believed until you’ve driven on it. It is beautiful and yet rather scary.

Somewhere out here, one of our party asked why Utah had so much beautiful scenery? My flippant response was something like, “They took it from Kansas and New Jersey.” I don’t think that is fair, but there is some truth to it.

Farther along on Route 12 we went over a fairly large ridge, and saw these amazing clonal colonies of male quaking aspens, where different colonies turn colors at different times. I don’t think I had ever seen this before.

We had lunch in Torrey, and then drove on into Capitol Reef National Park. We stopped at the Visitor Center near the entrance; I was a bit outraged that no one checked my National Parks Senior Pass.

At the Capitol Reef Visitor Center
Capitol Gorge

After the Visitor Center, we drove out the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive out to the end of the pavement. It’s about 8 miles, but don’t be in a hurry. Between the amazing geology of the scenery and the sometimes one lane road and the occasionally poor sightlines, you need to take your time on this one. We hung out a bit at the end of the paved road, at the entrance to Capitol Gorge, and enjoyed the scenery. While it’s stunningly beautiful, this road is narrow enough and with poor enough sightlines that I would not want to bicycle on it.

Capitol Gorge

Fruta Historic District

On the way back to the park entrance, we stopped at Fruta Historic District and enjoyed the historic Gifford House. The historical aspects were interesting, but unfortunately they were out of their famous pies.

View from Goosenecks Overlook of Sulpher Creek canyon.

We took a side trip to the Goosenecks Overlook on our way back to Torrey. After a bit of a bouncy trip on an unpaved side road, a 600 foot trail leads to an amazing overlook of Sulphur Creek. Standing on this overlook, with a nice concrete pad and barrier, the edge of the concrete pad is probably one foot from many hundred feet straight down. I sure hope they had a good safety plan for the construction! I would have wanted to be tied off with a backup safety line before even thinking about it.

At least one member of our party emphatically thought Capitol Reef was the most beautiful and best of any of the Utah National Parks we visited, bringing her a “real wow moment”! We had a spirited, continuing discussion on this point. I am not prepared to say that, but I did find it really amazing, with unparalleled geologic features very visible, featuring colors and layers and folding, and I would not have missed it for anything. Stunning beauty is not an exaggeration!

Dinner at Chak Balum

Back at the Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse, we encountered a fairly large group of German Harley Davidson enthusiasts who were enjoying a ride through the West. They seemed friendly; I regret I was thinking about other things and did not take the chance to talk to them. We had a good dinner at Chak Balum Mexican Restaurant in Torrey. The Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse had character, but our room was old and forgettable.

Like Tropic, Torrey is a rather small town. There were motels and hotels and restaurants, but the choice of restaurants was rather limited compared to Springdale or Moab.

Day 6 – Travel to Moab – The drive from Torrey to either Arches or Canyonlands National Parks is about 2 to 2-1/2 hours. There is no lodging in either park, or food services. Accordingly, we decided to drive straight to our motel in nearby Moab to check in, get rid of our luggage, get some lunch, and consider our next move.

We left Torrey after having a basic but good breakfast at the Broken Spur. The view of Torrey and the surrounding area from the Broken Spur parking lot was impressive.

We took the Capitol Reef Scenic Byway (State Route 24) from Torrey to Hanksville, State Route 24 up to US Interstate 70, and then drove to Green River. There was some amazing scenery here as well, including where the Capitol Reef Scenic Byway goes through the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park.

We attempted to visit the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River. I am a fan of his after having read the rather weighty but outstanding “A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell” by Donald Worster (2001). Along with being a Civil War veteran with only one arm left, and with being the first person to lead a documented expedition down the Colorado River and survive, he was also the second head of the US Geological Service and was an early and outspoken critic of overly optimistic water resource projections favored by Western developers which haunt us today.

Unfortunately, we found that the John Wesley Powell River History Museum was closed on Sunday. There is conflicting information online. We were not going to change our itinerary to see this, but it was disappointing. I would check this out carefully if you wanted to see it.

After fueling up and having a comfort stop, we got back on I70 and traveled east until connecting up to the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway National Scenic Byway (US 191 in this area) and driving south on 191 to Moab.

We arrived in Moab in early afternoon. We were very pleased that the Bowen Motel let us check in and take possession of our rooms early. Although I would not call it fancy, the Bowen had a nice location on the main drag, the service was good and our room was nice. After a late lunch, we decided that it was best to wait for tomorrow to head to Arches. We enjoyed the downtime with reading, walking around town and shopping, and such.

One surprise for me was to find out that I had no cell phone coverage in Moab. I had had coverage in Springdale. I had expected no coverage in Torrey, Tropic, or any of the National Parks. However, Moab is a larger town (over 5,000 residents) and a year-round tourist destination, and I had expected coverage. I was further surprised to not have any coverage at the Salt Lake International Airport. I do call MetroPCS “the world’s cheapest cellphone service”, and I don’t expect coverage outside of major urban areas. Upon calling MetroPCS when I returned home, I was told they do not have coverage in Salt Lake City or most of Utah. I was a bit surprised at this, as I found MetroPCS store locations in Salt Lake City. This was not the worst thing in the world, but it was a bit annoying. We did have access to the internet on wifi at all of our hotels. Luckily the Lindsay’s had phone coverage for Moab and Salt Lake City.

We had a wonderful dinner at Antica Forma pizza.

Day 7 – Arches National Park – The Bowen Motel does not serve breakfast, perhaps because they are near several good breakfast places. We had a good breakfast (me with a wonderful breakfast burrito) and coffee, etc, at the Love Muffin Cafe next door to the Bowen Motel.

Arches National Park’s website says, “From March through October, visitors should expect long wait times and busy parking lots. Parking lots at trailheads often fill before 9 am, which can cause the park to temporarily restrict access until congestion lessens. Periods of restricted access can last 3-5 hours.” Congestion is clearly an issue due to increased park use, but I did not find explicit identification of a permanent solution. With all of that, we had decided that it would be good to get there fairly early to maximize our chances of getting in and enjoying the day at Arches. Here is a link to the park map.

Dave & John at Park Avenue Viewpoint

After happily presenting my Senior Pass, we reached the first, and very very impressive, Park Avenue Viewpoint right before 8:30 am. It was a very awe inspiring way to start the visit.

Dave at North Window arch
Patsy & John At North Window arch
South Window arch

We took a 2-1/2 mile side road to the Windows Section, and had a lovely walk out to and around the Turret Arch and the North and South Windows. While it’s not a surprise to see natural rock arches in the Arches National Park, it was very, very cool. It was good to get here fairly early; there was parking, but you could tell it was filling up. After seeing these natural arches and walking under some of them, I could not help but mention that “There is a non-zero chance that these natural arches will fail anytime.” I don’t think I ruined anyone’s day, but they might have wished I had not shared that thought.

Lower Delicate Arch

We followed this by another side road excursion, to the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint.

Heading out from Devils Garden Trailhead

Our last full stop was out at the Devil’s Garden Trailhead, at the far end of the paved park road from the entrance. We had hoped to find an open table in the picnic area; all the tables were full, and we only found a parking spot as we circled the fairly large loop the second time. We had a picnic snack/lunch sitting on a low retaining wall near our parking place.

Landscape Arch

We had a lovely 2-1/2 mile round trip hike out to the Landscape Arch, the longest (natural) arch in North America. We also took side trips to Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches. The sign and website for the Landscape Arch notes that “large segments of the arch came crashing down in the 1990s”, and ask visitors not to walk underneath it. I agreed and complied.

John & Patsy at Tunnel Arch
Pine Tree Arch
A great day at Arches

Heading back out of the Park, we saw but did not pause for the Moab Fault Viewpoint right up the slope from the Visitor Center. I now know that the Moab Fault crosses the vicinity at the base of the opposing hill next to the highway. If I were to do this again, I’d stop at that Moab Fault Viewpoint. We stopped at the Visitor Center. Among other things, I found out that the Park Service has a database to track the arches, as there are over 2,000 of them and it gets hard to keep them straight. After stopping at the Visitor Center, we headed back to Moab.

We had a good dinner and a beer at the Moab Brewery. We stopped by an official liquor store for a bottle of red wine, and enjoyed a rousing game of gin rummy back at the Bowen Motel.

Day 8 – Canyonlands National Park – We had a leisurely start to the morning at Love Muffin Cafe, as we knew that Canyonlands National Park is lot less crowded and less popular than Arches National Park. There is no shuttle, and no throttling of park entry that I know of.

Canyonlands is the largest National Park in Utah, and has four districts that are created by and divided by the rivers, with Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. For all practical purposes, visitors will not be able to travel from district to district without using a separate entrance to the park. Here is a link to the map.

We chose Islands in the Sky, as it’s closest to Moab and allows for visiting and enjoyment without relatively arduous or dangerous hiking or other means of travel. Vehicle access to Island in the Sky involves driving down the mesa on a well paved road, with view points and amazing views of the surrounding canyons and Colorado and Green Rivers. Here is a link to a map of the park.

I think that is the Green River center left
View towards Colorado River from near Visitor Center
Candlestick Tower

We headed out to the Island in the Sky entrance to Canyonlands, turning left off the highway onto the Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway, which takes us about 2/3 of the way to the park entrance, where I presented my Senior Pass. After that, the park road took us to the Visitor Center. We stopped there briefly and then headed out towards the Grand View Point Overlook.

Almost straight down from end of Grand View Point trail
Grand View Point trail follows the top of this cliff for portions of the hike
Dave standing perhaps 10 feet from the cliff edge

We stopped at a few places here, but the Grand View Point Overlook and the adjacent Grand View Point trail were just jaw dropping. The overlook has rails to help keep people safe with the adjacent drop-off. We enjoyed the trail hike of about 2 miles round trip; although it’s not that far, the trail definitely took real attention, with a lot of irregularities. Also, there are spots where the trail is along the inner edge of a fairly wide rock ledge with a vertical drop-off. Not inherently unsafe, but there are no railings or barriers along the trail, so real attention is needed. I maintain a healthy respect and situational awareness when faced with a many hundred feet drop before you would even bounce while standing or hiking on an irregular natural surface.

After that, we stopped at a picnic area. All the tables were full, but two nice gentlemen from Austria (?) let us share their table for our lunch of leftovers.

We did drive out the road to the Whale Rock/Upheaval Dome area, but it was just a drive-by. Maybe we’d just seen enough and were jaded?

On the way out, we stopped at the Shafer Canyon Overlook. Looking down, we were right over a huge drop-off and saw the Shafer Trail below us. The Shafer Trail has 1500 feet of elevation change with very tight switchbacks on an unpaved, challenging backcountry road, from the top of the mesa down. Past users included Native Americans, sheep herders and uranium ore trucks. I would have been very reluctant to do this trail, even with a 4 wheeler; the hairpins were very, very tight and the road narrow. We looked and saw a white SUV heading down the trail very, very slowly, as one does. We saw a black vehicle heading up the trail. They met, and negotiated who would stop at a slightly wider spot and let the other pass. I believe I saw somewhere that the car heading uphill has the right of way. It seemed amicable, but we were a long way away from them. Wow.

View down Shafer Trail – if you look carefully, you can see the tiny white and black cars

After that, we returned to Moab for a nice afternoon and pleasant dinner at the Spitfire Smokehouse. Our only challenge there was that there had been some kind of big event in Moab the weekend before, and they were out of a number of Utah brewed draft beers I wanted to try. I made do.

We had also confirmed that liquor laws in Utah are very different than California, which was not a surprise. We were generally able to get what we wanted, but there are things you need to pay attention to. For instance, we had learned that mixed drinks cannot contain more than 1.5 ounces of alcohol. However, at least at the Spitfire Smokehouse, we discovered that you could order a mixed drink and a shot separately, and then combine them on your own. This is updated regularly by the state legislature, and those serving or consuming alcohol do need to pay attention.

Day 9 – Returning home – We started the day with a great breakfast at the nearby Jailhouse Cafe (Love Muffin Cafe is closed on Wednesday and Thursdays).

We got off to a fairly early start and did not stop much other than gas and comfort breaks, or to change drivers. It’s almost 4 hours drive from Moab to Salt Lake City, and we needed to be generous with time dropping off the rental car, checking our luggage, getting through security, etc.

Our route included: part of the Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway National Scenic Byway (on US 191, I70, US 191 again, from Moab to Helper); US 6 from Helper to Spanish Fork, including part of the Energy Loop: Huntington & Eccles Canyons Ntl. Scenic Byway; I15 from Spanish Fork to Salt Lake City; and then a few miles on I80 to Salt Lake International Airport.

Parts of this drive were very scenic and enjoyable. It did end up taking about 4 hours after gas and comfort stops and changing drivers. Although parts of it were lovely, we did not take any photos; perhaps we felt we had enough. We got to the airport to return the car in a timely fashion with no hiccups on flying home.

Some Lessons and Conclusions: Ken Burns subtitled his National Parks miniseries as “America’s Best Idea”. Many credit Wallace Stegner for the phrase. After reading an interesting and academically rigorous approach to the question, the answer may be more nuanced. Beyond all of that, there is a substantial disagreement on what America’s “best idea” is, or if it’s ever been achieved. Regardless, we loved going to these National Parks, with a joy approaching spiritual at times. We’ll continue to visit them as long as we are able.

We did have a great time. It was really wonderful that Karen and I and John and Patsy Lindsay were able to enjoy our time together doing something like this. We sure hoped it would work out, but there is no guarantee. We’ll travel together again, perhaps to France?

Planning and having a fairly detailed yet flexible itinerary did work for us.

For the future, historic lodge stays need to be reserved when they become available. If important, this might influence what year you decide to go.

We need to pay a little more attention to rental car arrangement details, especially when picking up. We rented a fairly large SUV to comfortably fit all of us and our luggage. The mileage was about what you would expect, which was OK.

The biggest surprise for me is that it is a lot harder to park a vehicle of that size (very large SUV) than my Prius. You really had to pay attention and sometimes I would have to make multiple attempts to park in the middle of a parking space without hitting the next cars or not leaving enough space on one side.

We needed some means of keeping food cold for lunches and the like. We were not about to fly in with an ice chest, but we needed something. Not having that made it much harder for good lunches at reasonable prices that worked for us. Blue ice is definitely an option; this needs more thought for any of our future trips to National Parks.

As we expected and hoped for, there are a lot of big empty spaces in rural Utah between and near National Parks. Some of the roads out there don’t get that much traffic. You definitely want to be careful about filling your gas tank regularly and having a well maintained car. There were certainly gas stations along all of these roads, but not always very close together. Many and perhaps all of us will not have any cell phone coverage in these parks and rural areas. If you break down or run out of gas, at best you might be out there for some time. It probably makes sense, but the gas is cheaper in Utah than California.

Paying attention to your surroundings and not doing stupid shit is important in all National Parks. There are signs about this, sometimes many signs. Apparently, many people are heading to the outdoors after the pandemic that are not experienced and used to thinking about these risks. The National Parks staff would like us (the public) to be more careful. There are all kinds of potential risks out there, including flashfloods, falls, heat, lack of water, the Western rattlesnake, poison ivy, etc. Although we did not go there, there are certainly areas in all of these parks that are less traveled, probably dirt roads needing four wheel drive, no services, so no regular park ranger visits, no water, etc., where you could easily die. These warnings were rather explicit especially for some of the back country of Capitol Reef National Park, for instance.

Politics are also interesting for visiting Utah. Utah is a majority Mormon state, and quite a bit more conservative than California. At the same time, Donald Trump is not popular there. We did not notice any Donald Trump or MAGA signs, posters, etc. There were plenty of signs for various local political races, as we visited less than a month from the 2020 midterm elections. We chose not to talk politics with the people we encountered, whether tourists or locals. They chose not to discuss politics with us. People were very polite and friendly. I was not surprised at this from people in the hospitality and tourism business, as there is often little to be gained and a lot to lose by getting into contentious issues such as religion, politics, etc. Springdale and Moab both felt a less conservative, but we did not go around kicking the tires to find out. This worked out well for all of us.


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