Week 50: Mesa Verde & Hovenweep

After a week in Moab and visits to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, we continued on our roadtrip, heading southeast into southwestern Colorado.  We had originally planned to visit the famous Monument Valley at this point – it appeared in Forrest Gump, along with many, many westerns – but it didn’t work out.  The area around Monument Valley is incredibly remote, and with so few services, we had been planning to just park in the desert for free.  However, with triple-digit temperatures every day, no air conditioning, and a living space that heats up like a greenhouse, we decided to save Monument Valley for “next time” and head for cooler climates.

Well… air conditioned climates, anyway.  We stayed in Cortez, Colorado, just northeast of the Four Corners (which we did not visit because it is a horrible tourist trap).  From Cortez, it was a short but winding drive to visit Mesa Verde National Park, and a longer but much straighter drive to Hovenweep National Monument.

One exciting development, by the way: Cortez had real stores!  Safeway, CVS, a place to change the oil on our RV – all very welcome for your weary correspondents, who had spent the last month in small towns in the Utah desert.

Mesa Verde

We only had two days in Cortez, but we made them count.  We first visited Mesa Verde National Park, a little-known park set, like Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky, on top of a giant plateau.  Unlike Canyonlands, however, the scenery is not the draw here (although the views were gorgeous).

Unique among national parks, the main draw of Mesa Verde is the huge number of archaeological sites.  In particular, this is the finest place in the country to see Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, located along the edges of valleys like the one below.

The area around the park has been settled since approximately 7500 BCE, but most of the cliff dwellings were built between 750 and 1300 CE.  They are amazing in person, surprisingly large and in excellent condition due to the dry desert air.  (It’s worth noting that many were also restored from ruin by the park service.)  We previously saw cliff dwellings at two locations (one and two) in New Mexico, directly to the south, but the buildings at Mesa Verde blow the ones we saw out of the water.

Much of the park involves a self-guided driving tour, where we looked at various preserved archaeological sites.  This frankly wasn’t all that interesting, but periodically an overlook would provide a view down into a nearby canyon, and we would excitedly point out a visible cliff dwelling.  They’re well camouflaged, so we probably missed some – the park holds more than 600 cliff dwellings in total.

After the drive, we had tickets to take a ranger-guided tour through the Balcony House, one of Mesa Verde’s three largest ruins.  The tour group was huge, but we all fit inside the incredibly well-preserved main room.  In our photos, you can see different rooms – used for storage and sleeping – as well as the large central “kiva,” the round cut-out in the floor that served religious and ceremonial purposes.

The most important part about Balcony House is actually hidden.  In the back of the cave, there is a small, muddy pool of water, fed by a spring in the rock.  Access to drinkable water was hugely important in such an arid region, and all of the major cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde were built around such natural plumbing.

One other fun thing about Balcony House is that the Native Americans who used it did not use ladders or rope.  Instead, they climbed up and down the sheer cliff walls via tiny finger-holds carved into the rock.  Crazy!  Tours today are a little more forgiving, but we did still have to squeeze through a small tunnel in the rock near the exit.

If you ever decide to visit Mesa Verde, you might want to hit the gym first.

After escaping the crowds, we took one last stop to check out the Far View Sites, a short trail that links several ruins that are on the top of the mesa. These ruins are about 200 years older than the cliff dwellings, making them over one thousand years old (!). We were pretty much the only people here, other than a ranger stationed near the trail head. Ah, sweet solitude. Our favorite way to explore.


On our second day in Cortez, we stopped at the excellent Anasazi Heritage Center*, where the friendly volunteer staff answered all of our dumb questions and even gave us some chocolate bars.  (One thing that became clear to us on our trip: most of our nation’s parks and museums run on volunteers!)  The artifacts on display fascinated us, especially a seven-thousand-year-old basket, as well as the beautiful examples of modern-day basket weaving. And, of course, there was another archaeological site – ruins from the 12th century.

* The preferred word for these peoples now is Ancestral Pueblo; the term “Anasazi” comes from opposing Native American tribes, and was essentially a slur meaning “Ancient Enemy.” 

After having our fill, we decided on the advice of the locals to check out Hovenweep National Monument, a tiny, extremely remote park located on the border between Colorado and Utah on the Utah side.  It’s absolutely barren all around – we were frankly surprised to find that the visitor center had electricity.

But Hovenweep protects something very, very cool: the ruins of dozens of ancient brick towers, built hundreds of years ago by Native Americans – and then abandoned.

The towers at Hovenweep were built between approximately 1200 and 1300 CE, mostly along the canyon edges, with some on the canyon floors.  Nobody really knows why the towers were built, or why they were abandoned.  The largest are three stories high, the precision-cut stone and mortar still holding strong in the desert air.

You can get right up close to many of the towers, with others only visible in the distance.  With so many unique and arresting shapes, it’s a photographer’s paradise.  It was also quiet and still, as only about 4 other people were around in the entire area.  For the first time, we broke out our zoom lens and tripod, trying to capture the somber, slightly awed feeling we felt at being among the ruins.

We probably still didn’t do it justice, but we hope you like the pictures.

Roadtrip Time Travel

Roadtrip Status

We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settled down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

Our trip to Mesa Verde and Hovenweep was June 10-11, 2016.

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Week 49.2: Canyonlands

Sorry, friends, it’s been a while since we posted one of these.  But now we’re back!

Let’s return to early June.  As our final day trip from Moab, we headed out to Canyonlands National Park, the final of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks.  Canyonlands is split into three districts, and we visited the most popular and well-developed district, “Island in the Sky.”  We had also planned to visit The Needles, another district to the south which focuses on hiking, but we ended up skipping out due to the constant 100+ degree temperatures.

Canyonlands’ third district is known as The Maze, and it is a natural preserve devoid of services, “one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the United States.”  We weren’t too keen on recreating the events of 127 Hours – which took place just to the west of Canyonlands – so we decided to stick to Island in the Sky.

We have no regrets.  Island in the Sky’s evocative title is fitting: this section of the park encompasses a massive, flat-topped mesa, and the district’s scenic drive took us around the rim of the plateau for stunning views in every direction.  The park reminded us of the Grand Canyon, and although the vistas may not be quite as spectacular, they are much more varied and weird.

And we like weird.

You Got Your Arches in My Canyonlands

We started things off with an incredible view – through an arch located on the edge of a cliff.  It was pretty early in the day, so we probably didn’t fully appreciate how cool this was at the time.  But that’s why we take photographs!

Awesome.  After the arch, we had fun climbing around on some giant, spherical mounds that arise out of the center of the plateau.  They connect to each other on each end, looking a bit like a giant stone caterpillar or snake.

We also hiked around Upheaval Crater, which scientists believe is either (1) a collapsed salt dome, or (2) the impact crater of a large meteorite.

To be honest, it wasn’t that thrilling in person, but the surrounding terrain was beautiful.

As you can see, we took a lot of nifty photos of each other standing on cliff edges at Canyonlands.  For the below shot, we wandered slightly off the trail to take some cool adventure shots.  Jake had everything lined up when a Swiss hiker saw what we were doing and decided to get his own photos.

He did this by walking directly into the frame, then up next to Heather – where he proceeded to stand and obliviously admire the view for about ten full minutes.  Seriously.

That’s fine, random Swiss guy, take your time.  We’re just standing around here, holding a camera and posing and glaring at you, for your own amusement.  At least the photos turned out pretty well, once he left.

I can see for miles and miles…

After the crater, we stopped for lunch at one of the prettiest picnic spots you will ever see, located right on the edge of the plateau.  The pictures don’t quite do it justice, unfortunately.

From there, it was just one stunning overlook after another.

If you need an awesome picture for your Facebook profile, we recommend Canyonlands.

Roads go ever ever on

On our way out, we stopped at an overlook we had skipped in the morning.  (As crafty national park veterans, we knew its east-facing view would be better once the sun had risen higher.)  There was a rather cool cliff to stand on here, and walking the narrow ledge to get there was only slightly gulp-inducing.

We love that shot, but we mostly wanted to draw your attention to the road you can see running down the canyon.

That’s White Rim Road, a crazy, 100-mile dirt road that you can drive with a 4×4 vehicle.  We actually saw someone driving it in a jeep.  It takes 2-3 days to drive the whole thing, at which point we assume you are helicoptered out because you had to saw off your own arm.

Here’s how you get down.

Dead Horse Point State Park

OK, so you’ve already gotten the cliffside arch, the stone caterpillar, the crater, the overlooks, and the crazy dirt road – but wait, there’s more!  Right next to Canyonlands is Dead Horse Point State Park, which was named after early settlers herded wild horses onto the plateau, tamed a few, built a wall to hold in the rest… and then inexplicably left all the horses to die of thirst.

Sorry, horses, that’s some pretty terrible stuff.  Today, the park exists as basically a single, $10-per-vehicle overlook, piggybacking off of the national park next door.  But man oh man – what an overlook!

One of the prettiest views we’ve seen.  If you’re curious, the bright blue water in the last few photos is from a potash factory.  Obviously unnatural, but kind of beautiful anyway.

That’s the end of this blog post, and as it turns out, the end of our stay in Utah.  Stay tuned for a quick diversion to Colorado before we get to the biggest, baddest parks of them all.

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We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’ve settled down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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Week 49.1: Arches National Park

As a day trip from Moab, we headed in early June to the fourth of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, Arches.  Actually, we did this several times!  Arches is just a few minutes from Moab, and since it was insanely hot, we decided to do multiple, shorter trips in the mornings and evenings.  (National parks: the only good reason to wake up early.)

Arches is a desert park chock full of huge, stunning rock formations.  The most famous formations are the natural rock arches, but there’s quite a lot more, sprinkled seemingly at random throughout the otherwise empty landscape.  For example, near the entrance is a formation called Park Avenue, a massive – but thin – rock wall which evokes Manhattan skyscrapers.

Another famous landmark is called Balanced Rock, visible throughout much of the park’s scenic drive.  The eponymous rock is the size of three school buses, and it somehow sits on an impossibly small pedestal, 128 feet above the desert floor.  Someday it will fall – but hopefully not while any tourists are nearby.

Arches Square

Park Avenue and Balanced Rock were cool, but we came to Arches for one thing: arches!  The park is well named, with over fourteen billion natural arches present inside its boundaries (approximately).  Beautiful arches were found practically everywhere we looked.  Our favorite of these was the magnificent Double Arch – note how small the person in the photo appears:

There were a lot more arches to be seen, all with unique names that we have since forgotten.  Arches is definitely more fun to show than tell, so check out a few of our favorite arch photos below.

Most of the arches were found along the Devil’s Garden trail, an extremely cool hike which took us through, around, and over tall rock formations that looked much like shark fins.  Well… maybe not entirely “cool,” since it was 100 degrees by noon, but we endured for the sake of adventure.

A Utah Delicacy

After roasting on our Devil’s Garden hike, we took a break from the heat for a couple days before returning to Arches one evening near sunset.  Our aim was to visit the most famous landmark in all of Utah: Delicate Arch.

You may not have heard of it, but this iconic arch shows up everywhere in the state.  It’s even on their license plates!  And although we were prepared to be disappointed by the hype, we found that Delicate Arch more than lived up to its reputation.

The arch is gorgeous in person.  It really is a perfect arch, tall, thin, and gracefully proportioned, and we were lucky enough to capture it during an incredible sunset.  We took a lot of photos on our trip, but our Delicate Arch pictures are some of the best.

One thing you don’t see in our photos are people, but trust us, it was crowded.  Arches is a pretty busy park in general, and Delicate Arch particularly so.  We had to snap our pictures during the brief windows between selfie-takers, which isn’t that unusual but does add a degree of difficulty.  There was quite a crowd sitting in the amphitheater-like area overlooking the arch, just watching and enjoying the sunset.  It made for quite a silhouette.

Twinkle Twinkle

It was dark as we headed back from Delicate Arch, so we decided to try something we’d been meaning to do for a while: night photos!  We stopped near Park Ave., got out our tripod, set up the camera, and… realized we had no idea how to take night photos.

Luckily for us, a young man on a motorcycle stopped to take his own photos, and he noticed us peering at the buttons on the camera and Googling things like “night photo how” on our phones.  He was kind enough to give us a quick tutorial and help us get set up, something we’re eternally grateful for.   And with a little help from our new friend, the night photos we took at Arches turned out pretty well!  They’re a little blurry and digitally “noisy,” but we’re still happy with how they came out.

It doesn’t look it in the photo, but it was almost pitch-black outside.  However, the camera collects enough starlight over thirty seconds to light the entire shot.

By the way, after our photographer friend left to go further down the path, there was silence for a moment.  But he must have found another group, because we soon heard him patiently give the same tutorial to another group of clueless newbies.

Something tells us there’s a business opportunity there.

Roadtrip Time Travel

Roadtrip Status

We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settling down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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Week 49: Moab, Utah

After a long day of slot-canyon hiking and goblin hoodoo appreciating, we arrived in Moab late on Memorial Day.  We stayed for a glorious 10 days, an eternity in Heather-and-Jake-roadtrip-world, in part because Moab is just so damn cool.  It’s probably the most EXTREME place in the country, activity-wise, with world-famous mountain biking we were far too terrified to try, along with rock climbing, whitewater rafting, desert backpacking, hot air ballooning – you name it.  It’s exactly the place you should go if you feel like tempting death on your vacation.

The inhabitants of Moab are mostly badass adventurer types, and they drive pickup trucks to match.  Moab is located in the for-real desert, and there are a lot of options for off-roading, in the sense that you can just drive wherever the hell you want because there’s nothing else there.  It’s the only place we haven’t been angry to see crazily jacked-up pickup trucks at the grocery store. (Looking at you, Houston!)  And although it can be touristy, Moab isn’t so bad compared to most, and there’s even a brewery serving real, full-strength beer.  Take that, Utah!

Us in most of Utah.

A Land of Ice and Fire

So Moab is certainly cool, but also, dear God it was hot.  Triple digits were not uncommon, and it felt much hotter than that.  The desert sun is unrelenting (and rarely bothered by clouds), and the ground heats up over the course of the day until it just feels like you’re standing in a furnace.  The locals were unfazed, but we found the sensation of slow-roasting ourselves to be unpleasant.  For that reason, our adventuring options were mostly limited to the hours of 6 am to noon, by which we of course mean 10 am to noon, or after sunset.

Because of the heat, we ended up missing out on a few things we wanted to try.  However, we still got some quality visits in to Moab’s two famous national parks, Canyonlands and Arches, which will be coming in individual blog posts due to their “awesomeness” and our “crippling number of photos.”  We also visited a few of Moab’s other sites, which we’ll detail below.

One amusing aspect of our stay?  The campground we stayed in had several cottonwood trees, which are large pretty trees that release their seeds for a few weeks in the spring.  It happened to be that time of the year, and we found out that “release their seeds” means “release their seeds ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE CONTINUOUSLY FOREVER.”  It looked like snow, notwithstanding the scorching heat, and it accumulated like it, too: the maintenance crew cleaned it up with snow shovels.

We took a video; it’s kind of relaxing.


Right outside of Moab, there is a miles-long stretch where dozens of people practice rock-climbing, which means parking along the road and setting up mats on a random rock wall to try their hand (or their toddlers’ hands).  Just past that, we parked in a lot near some railroad tracks to visit a TripAdvisor-recommended area favorite: Corona Arch.

Now, Arches National Park is nearby, and we’ll have many, many more natural arches to show you, but Corona Arch is just too cool not to share.  It’s utterly massive, unlike many of the arches at Arches, and when we visited, almost nobody was around.  (Which is definitely unlike Arches.)

By the way, once upon a time, the “world’s largest rope swing” hung from Corona Arch, allowing a 100+ foot pendulum freefall (here’s a video).  Sadly, a few years ago someone died from a rope set too long, and another become critically injured.  So: no more rope swing, but Corona Arch is pretty great anyway, and the hike to get there was absolutely beautiful.

Jurassic High-Five

One of us (*cough*Heather*cough*) has an unreasonable obsession with dinosaurs, and that person forces the other, more handsome person to stop at anything with a dinosaur statue (e.g., Oregon).  Well, Moab and the area to the north are some of the country’s most fertile ground for finding fossils, and a huge replica dinosaur park was recently erected just outside of town.  We saw it while driving in, so… that was that.  We were going to visit the Moab Giants.

OK, so even the skeptics among us have to admit that the life-sized statues were pretty impressive.  There was quite a variety of dinosaurs, all set in the slightly surreal environment of the Moab desert.  We also liked that there was a real effort at scientific accuracy, as long as we ignored the weird, crotchless humans on the accompanying display panels.  Some of the dinosaurs even had feathers!

Of course, we mostly just took goofy pictures with them.

Home Sweet Hole

Who doesn’t love weird roadside attractions?  We obviously do, and the Hole N” The Rock house definitely qualifies.  The house is aptly named – nearly a century ago, the house was excavated out of a giant rock wall by a former miner.  More specifically, it was painstakingly blasted out with dynamite, because apparently that was something you could just do back in the day.

Albert Christenson, the man responsible for the house, spent 12 years removing 50,000 cubic feet of rock, doing the work with just the help of his trusty mule.  Albert and his wife, Gladys, then lived in the home for decades.  She passed away in 1957, and it has been preserved ever since.  (Or something like that. We didn’t fact-check this.)

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but here’s some from their website.  It was surprisingly normal inside, quite spacious, and keeps a constant temperature.  If it didn’t take twelve years of backbreaking labor, we’d certainly see the appeal.

A man of many talents, Albert eventually turned his house into a roadside restaurant, and then a tourist attraction in its own right.  The house is filled with his own art, some quite good, some… less so, and there’s an enormous bust of FDR on the outside.  Along with a lot of other weird crap.

For some reason, Albert also got into taxidermy (a sentence that never ends well), and his first project was preserving his trusty mule for all eternity.  Today, it stands proudly in the living room, facing out the window.  We love the thought!  However, it may have been a little ambitious of a first project – the final product landed somewhere between “imperfect” and “nightmare made real.”

Hey, just like the 2016 presidential election, am I right?

Internet Pen-pals

A final reason we liked Moab is that we actually talked to some humans here!  There aren’t a ton of young people roaming the country in an RV, but all the ones who are use Instagram, so we’re online-friendly with quite a few couples like us.

In Moab, we met up with one such couple, Anna (@annamnic) and John, who are from England and were in the US for a year.  They were friendly and fun, and we swapped RVing stories – basically, “here are all the times we made a horrible mistake.”  We learned, for example, that it takes a shockingly long time to actually buy an RV in the US if you are normally from England.  In addition, if you’re abroad living off your savings, and your country bizarrely decides to leave the European Union and tank its currency, life gets… interesting.

In any event, it was great meeting up with them, especially since it came during a two-month stretch in which we saw literally nobody else we knew.  Pretty daunting, which is why we’re really grateful to all the people that followed along with us online during our trip.  It was like having hundreds of internet pen-pals!   We never really felt like we were alone.  And if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those people, so – thanks!

Now bring it in for a hug.

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We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settling down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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Week 48.2: Wild Horses & Goblins

We last left off at Capitol Reef National Park, in the terrifically tiny town of Torrey (say that five times fast).  We headed northeast from there, through a part of Utah you might call “lightly settled.”  One town marked on Google Maps appeared to contain a total of six houses…

After about an hour and a half, we pulled off the highway in an area known as the San Rafael Swell.  Even in a state with crazy geology, the Swell is an area known for its crazy geology.

Things are going to get weird.

Into the Crevasse

If the previous area was lightly settled, the place we stopped was downright empty.  There were no signs of civilization aside from the long, straight roads cutting through the southern Utah desert.  But when we pulled off, we found something cool: the government has established a number of free campsites here. There’s no hookups, but there are vault toilets (read: permanent port-a-potties) and trash cans, and you can park in one of several dirt lots for as long as you like. As it was Memorial Day, there were quite a few RVs.

We parked our RV in one of these lots and drove our car about 10 miles towards – into? – the Swell. This area is almost completely unknown, but it is incredibly cool, full of towering rock formations banded with bright colors. Far back near the hills, we spotted many RVs and tent campsites – it struck us as the kind of place you could go and live undisturbed for a decade.

We nervously followed our directions deeper and deeper into the Swell, concerned that we might be lost, until finally we stumbled onto… a completely full parking lot.  Oh right – Memorial Day.

Well, it’s the desert, so we just kind of found some dirt and left our car there. Then we headed into Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon.

Walking through a tight slot canyon is a thrilling and unique experience.  It’s also pretty rare, and something we otherwise only really got to do at the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks in New Mexico. Little Wild Horse is much tighter and much longer, however, and at times we had to literally climb the walls to pass over obstacles – or, more commonly, to get around people who walked in part-way before turning back.

At times, we had to haul ourselves up onto rock ledges, or pick a trail over fallen boulders. Occasionally, the slot canyon opened up into hugely wide areas, still bounded on both sides by rock walls. Then, just as mysteriously, it would compress itself back into a tiny crack.

This is not a good place for the claustrophobic.  Similarly, as this incredible story attests, it is not a good place to be when it rains.  Luckily for us, the skies stayed clear.

After about two extraordinarily slow miles, we reached the end of the slot canyon. We could have headed back, but in the spirit of adventure, we took the opportunity to walk through some Utah back-country and return through a different slot canyon.

It was pretty, although the images don’t completely capture the fact that it was 90-plus degrees out and the baking desert sun was now directly overhead.  Fortunately, we had learned well from our dehydrating visit to Big Bend National Park, and we brought plenty of water. Still, it was shocking how tiring it was to hike under that sun, even over mostly flat terrain.

Friends, do not get lost in the desert! We actually almost did, until we noticed the large rock arrow pointing towards the trail we had nearly missed.

Eventually we did reach the other canyon, named Bell Canyon, and things got much cooler once we were back in the shade.  This canyon wasn’t as tight, and so it was relatively quick work to get back to our car – and its sweet, sweet air conditioning.

The Power of the Voodoo Hoodoo

Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon was sweet, but we have been burying the lede here a bit, since that’s not really why we stopped. The main draw for us was something else entirely: Goblin Valley State Park.  It is strange in the best possible way.

We talked a lot about hoodoos in our post about Bryce Canyon National Park, and Goblin Valley has a lot of them too.  Unlike the tall, beautiful spires at Bryce Canyon, however, the hoodoos at Goblin Valley are short, squat, and kinda… melted.

There is a near-endless sea of these weird little formations, so-named because early settlers imagined them as goblins. Having canvassed much of the United States, we can say confidently that Goblin Valley is one of the strangest places we have ever been.

The goblins are a lot of fun to photograph, but due to the crushing heat, we didn’t stay long.  We would have loved the chance to see them at twilight, but Moab awaited.

By the way, you may remember the story a few years ago about a Boy Scout troop leader who pushed over a natural rock formation. Well, that was at Goblin Valley.  Incidentally, the man’s claim that he did a good thing because the rock was going to fall over soon is just preposterous.  The rocks here took millions of years to form into these crazy formations, and we sincerely hope that future visitors leave the goblins alone to fend for themselves.

Roadtrip Time Travel

Roadtrip Status

We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settling down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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Week 48.1: Capitol Reef National Park

Howdy, friends!  We’re back with another blog post, after an unexplained, 10-day downtime for our website caused by our hosting provider.  It wasn’t fixed until we tweeted at them, marking the first time Twitter has actually been useful.  That said, we can’t lay the blame entirely at our host’s digital feet.  We’ve been updating slowly for a couple of reasons of our own, the first being that we took a LOT of pictures at these national parks.  Heather has been doing heroic work in identifying the good photos and making them look pretty, but it’s a slow process.

The second reason is that we have been traveling once again.  We’ve just finished our most recent cross-country trek, from New York all the way to Denver!  This time there’s no follow-up, since we’ve reached the end of our roadtrip at last.  We’re in it to win it in Colorado, and we’re looking forward to its friendly people, sunny days, and apartments that don’t require “emptying the tanks” (especially that!).

Not to fear, we’re still committed to finishing these blog posts, even if they’re sadly falling further and further behind.  We hope you still enjoy reading about our untimely adventures as much as we enjoy sharing them.  So without further ado, let’s start our stationary life off by relating one of our biggest driving blunders.

Scenic Deathway

We last left off at the stunning Bryce Canyon, and from there it was a relatively short drive to our next destination, Capitol Reef National Park.  After reading about it online, we decided to get there via Utah’s Scenic Byway 12.  Now, if we weren’t piloting an RV, we would have loved this drive.  The terrain was rugged and beautiful; according to some informational plaques, this was the last uncharted region in the continental United States. In other words: this place is truly remote. An Army explorer surveyed it in 1871, and the road follows their route exactly, since there really is only one way through these mountains.

Wait, mountains?  Oh yes.  The road goes up and down constantly, through twisting canyons and along the long, exposed spine of a mountain ridge – a section called, fittingly, the Hogback. Imagine an elevated roadway with cliffs on either side; we were a little busy for photos, but here’s an awesome picture we found on the Internets.

In other places, just to keep things interesting, the stone alongside the road was Utah slickrock, which looks and feels exactly like it sounds.  The views were awesome, but this was a very bad drive to make a mistake.

The online discussions we read said that this road was fine for RVs, but good lord, it was not. We soon found ourselves in a nightmare drive, the road twisting and turning while ascending and descending steeply.  This is bad news if you’re in a 12,000 pound vehicle pulling a car behind it, and although our motorhome is a total beast, we had to pull over several times to let its brakes and engine cool down.

Finally, we reached the highest point on the drive, well over 10,000 feet.  This high up, a light drizzle had turned into a fierce hail storm.  At least it cooled the engine!  We stopped at an overlook for a quick photo of the view, and since the entrance was narrow, Heather hopped outside to check for oncoming vehicles before we returned to the highway.  Given the all-clear, Jake drove up to Heather and stopped the RV to let her back in.

That’s when a sheet of slushy ice slid off the roof directly onto Heather.

Luckily, we were nearly to our destination, because the atmosphere for the rest of the drive was a little… chilly.

Capitol Reef

At last, we made it to the tiny town of Torrey, Utah, population about 300. There were a few restaurants, but unfortunately for your hungry correspondents ,there was no grocery store.  So, we walked across the street to a gas station convenience store to see what we could find, and came away with some sliced turkey, ice cream, and Combos: the dinner of champions.

OK, on to the park, which we had frankly never heard of.  Capitol Reef is the least visited of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks, by far, and apparently it’s normally pretty empty.  But unfortunately for us it was Memorial Day weekend, so the crowds were out in full force. We had to skip a few of the more popular spots because there was no parking left – and woe be to the poor few rangers in the visitor center, at times literally surrounded by questioning visitors.

Capitol Reef is cool, but perhaps not quite as eye-popping as Zion or Bryce Canyon.  Nonetheless, it has plenty of charm.  The park covers the most scenic part of the “Waterpocket Fold,” which is basically a 100 mile long uplifted rock wall. It’s unclear whether the Fold has played any part in keeping out wildlings, but it does make for some interesting terrain.

The most well-known feature here is a large rock dome that early settlers thought looked like the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. “Capitol Reef” is a combination of that, plus the ocean reef-like Waterpocket Fold.  Unfortunately, our photo of the Capitol Dome doesn’t capture the most “capitol” angle of the rock, but you can see its pointy peak in the background – along with a fairly ominous sky.

On our first day, we took a hike up over the aforementioned slickrock.  There’s no real “trail” to speak of here, just occasional rock cairns (piles) suggesting a route over the dusty stone.

We got lost about 15 times in 20 minutes.

It was worth it, though, as we got a really cool view of the valley.

You can see how shockingly green it is in that valley below.  The river that carved that canyon still flows, and early pioneers took full advantage by planting numerous fruit trees, orchards of which still exist today.  We’ll get to them later.

You can also see an oncoming thunderstorm, and so could we, which is why this particular hike ended a bit early.

Into the Fold

The next day, we explored some of the area’s many natural canyons. The first one we visited was actually a former road, and once the only way through the Waterpocket Fold. We got there by driving through a slot canyon, an experience as epic as the Hogback but without the risk of falling off a cliff.

Early pioneers spent untold numbers of back-breaking hours removing boulders from this canyon to ease wagon travel. It’s a good reminder of how insanely difficult it was to settle Utah, and the incredible obstacles that early settlers somehow overcame… sometimes literally.

Speaking of early settlers, one feature of this canyon is a large number of pictograms drawn on the rock walls by Native American inhabitants. Later, Mormon pioneers created their own “graffiti wall,” tagging their name and the date. Our favorite was the person who signed their name using bullets, a method of which cartoon 1920s gangsters would surely approve.

Next, we headed to the Grand Wash, a huge slot canyon carved away by rushing floods. It’s absolutely stunning in person, just these gigantic rock walls on either side with almost nobody else around.  We recommend taking a look for the people in these pictures to get a sense of how massive this canyon really was.  Few things have made us feel more awed or insignificant.

Our last stop was equally exciting, but very different.  We mentioned that the orchards in this area still bear fruit, but it doesn’t go to waste. You can pick it yourself (although we were out of season), and the National Park Service actually harvests the rest for use in baked goods, sold in an adorable little house on-site.

Pie proved to be a southern Utah obsession – we had just had some in Kanab (lackluster) Bryce Canyon (amazing) – and we are happy to report that the pie and cinnamon rolls we got here were delicious.

We saw a lot of great stuff on our road trip, but seriously: a pie stand in a national park!! Life just doesn’t get any better than that.

Roadtrip Time Travel

Roadtrip Status

We’ve reached the end of our roadtrip!  We’re settling down in Denver, but we’re going to keep making blog posts and posting our favorite photos from the trip, so stay tuned for more.

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Week 48: Bryce Canyon National Park

We stayed for a while (for us) in Kanab, Utah – visiting the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park – but eventually, it was time to move on.  Our next destination was Bryce Canyon National Park.  It was only about 80 miles away, but it felt like another world.

Hold the Door

Bryce Canyon National Park really is otherworldly, and it was one of our top-3 favorite places from the entire trip.  It has some really unusual geology – Bryce Canyon sits at the top of Utah’s “Grand Staircase” of brightly layered rock formations (described in our Zion post).  The rock at Bryce is a beautiful pinkish-orange color, and it is very soft, which causes it to weather in a unique way.  Essentially, the region’s wild temperature swings cause overnight snows that melt during the day, cutting away a tiny bit of rock each time.

The end result is an eroded rock pillar, narrow and very tall, called a hoodoo (although we usually called them hodors).  The astonishing thing is that they form in massive formations as entire sections of mountain are cut away, creating row upon row of pillars.  These formations are often mind-bendingly uniform, like soldiers standing at attention.

They are especially pretty when a formation is banded with rock layers.

Although hoodoos can be found in many places in the desert, Bryce Canyon has more hoodoos than anywhere else in the world.  In addition, the formation process results in the mountain being carved out into a curved shape, like an amphitheater.  The most famous of these is Bryce Amphitheater, where the view from the rim is as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Walkie Talking

Many people just view Bryce Amphitheater and the short scenic drive, but the entire area is amazing.  We actually overheard a young man in a gigantic pick-up truck bragging that he was going to see the entire national park in “under twenty minutes.”  To each their own – *coughdbagcough* – but personally, we were head over heels for hoodoos, so we took a different approach, hiking everywhere and trying to see everything.

Bryce Canyon is relatively small, so unlike Zion, we were able to do every major hike in just a few days.  It is also much, much less crowded than Zion, and venturing down the trails even a quarter-mile often left us in complete solitude.  This was national park heaven, and we hiked in quiet amazement for miles past hundreds of fantastic rock formations – not just hoodoos, but rock curtain walls, windows and archways, even something that looked like a sinking ship.

Some of the hikes were tough, but we were basically mountain goats at this point.  In fact, the night we got in, we planned to do one short, 3 mile hike, starting around 5:30 p.m. (the best lighting for photos at Bryce is at dawn and dusk).  Once we started, though, we couldn’t bear to stop, and we decided to tack on another 5 miles as the sun began to set.

One the one hand, it might not have been the smartest idea to hike 8 miles at sunset in a place known for its freezing temperatures at night.  But on the other hand… hoodoos.

Game Changers

The next day, we hiked another 8 miles, this time through the area known as Fairyland.  There were a lot of cool sights, but unfortunately Tinkerbell was nowhere to be found.  We did have an amusing encounter at the end, however, when Jake spotted a woman with what looked like a large iced coffee and wandered over to ask her where she got it.

“Oh, this isn’t coffee, it’s just soda,” she said, and told us where to find the store.  Then, she leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially, “but the soda does have caffeine in it.  It’s a game changer!”

Oh, right.  We were in Utah, and many Mormons consider caffeine to be forbidden.

“We’ll just keep it between us,” Jake said, and winked.

And then we left to get some god-damned caffeine.

Religious taboos aside, friends, if you ever come to Bryce Canyon (and you should try), please, please, please try a hike down among the hoodoos.  The views from the top are great, but once you get down to the hoodoos’ level, you realize how incredible they really are.

Plus, you never know when you might encounter two other tourists attempting to cram themselves into a single rock window for a photo.

You might even get to take a picture of them while pretending not to notice.

Gnarls Barkley

Aside from the hoodoos and the generally beautiful landscape, there is one more awesome thing about Bryce Canyon.  It contains a few bristlecone pines, one of the world’s longest-lived trees.  They are quite rare, and we attempted to see some (without success) at Great Basin National Park. The only place we actually saw any bristlecone pines was at Bryce.  While the Great Basin pines can be up to 5,000 years old, these are only (!) about 1,800 years old.

Stunted, twisted, and with weird bottle-brush needles, they are… not the world’s best-looking tree.  To be fair, we’d all probably look a bit worse for wear if we were nearing the end of our second millennia.

Notes from Bryce Canyon City

We didn’t realize it at first, but Bryce Canyon is very high – the elevation is over 7,500 feet.  The days were sunny and warm, but true to form, it snowed every night.  After spending an entire winter above freezing, we had to get out our winter hat and gloves.  In late May.

The owners of the combination campground / gas station we were staying at also own a restaurant, and based on internet reviews, we stopped for some pie.  At first, we were distracted by the fact that every worker at the busy restaurant appeared to be directly related.  Then we tried the pies, and we have to say: they really were incredible!  Some of the best we’ve ever had.  They really put the ho-made pies at the Thunderbird to shame.

As a final note, the town of Bryce Canyon City itself was only incorporated in 2007, and the population is only 198 people, making it possibly the smallest town we ever stayed in.

But it does have an airport…

Roadtrip Status

Roadtrip Time Travel

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Upstate New York.

Next location?  Heading westward one last time, towards Colorado.  Time to have jobs again!

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