Where was the tent? Only a few hours before we'd left it atop a southern Utah plateau covered in fantastic sandstone fins with views stretching all the way to the Sierra La Sal. Now all we saw were just a few scattered, lonely tent stakes. An English couple informed us that they had seen it blow past like a tumble weed. We later found it running with a herd of wild sagebrush and it took some effort to lasso the wild beast and haul it back to camp.
With all the fantastic beauty around us it had been all too easy to forget to properly stake the tent down and be reminded of how wild this land truly is.
My dreams of the canyon country of Utah began in the heart of winter. My dreams took shape over the course of the long, rainy months, like a natural arch worn of the sandstone by the rain and ice. Time shapes the canyons, as it shapes plans — and mine changed as dramatically as any work of nature. With maps and travel guides I had investigated every road, route and byway — but by the time my plans had settled (about three days before our departure) there were no reservations to be had at the park campgrounds, except one I had managed to procure in Bryce National Park.
My last-minute traveling companion was my uncle — an Okie with a degree in geology, and I could not have asked for a better tour guide for Utah than a certified rock hound. His stories helped to ease the agony of the 16-hour drive, and without him I would never have been able to rise at 4 or 5 in the morning every day to catch the sunrise!
So here we were, driving out before the dawn to a glorious sunrise over the canyon country, passing one awesome rock formation after another to beat the rush and grab whatever campsite remained in Arches National Park. Luckily, forecasts of bad weather had led to cancellations that would keep us in campsites for the next two days. This was unheard of for the Devils Garden Campground in Arches, which fills its fewer than 40 campsites sometime in January. For good reason, too — the campground is possibly one of the best in the entire national park system, with its secluded campsites tucked in and among the arches and the weird and wonderful rock formations the park is famous for.
We ventured deep into the Fiery Furnace, a group of narrow canyons, watched the clouds move upon the desert from the Windows arches and saw the red rock canyon called Park Avenue blaze a fiery red in the setting sun. We visited Arches during some of the wettest days of the wettest week on one of the wettest years in the recorded history of the park. Many explorations were curtailed by threatening thunder and often we were caught in a miniature typhoon. On our second day, torrential rains turned half the campground into a temporary lake and flash floods closed one of the park roads.
With a limitation on time, we had to leave the glories of Arches on the third day in the canyons. We started off with a pre-dawn rising to catch the sunrise on Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. Mesa Arch had been one of my goals ever since I had seen a photo of it glowing red with the rising sun and the spires of the canyonlands beyond framing the distant Sierra La Sal. It was every bit as spectacular in person.
Leaving Arches, we drove Highway 24 towards Capitol Reef, passing through ghost towns and painted hills, crossing canyons and weaving through valleys filled with hoodoos that looked like twisted goblins. Looming on the horizon were the sandstone spires of Capitol Reef — a gigantic 300-mile-long fold in the earth's crust.
With no time to linger, we drove on over the Boulder Mountains and, ears popping, descended back into the canyons — the aspens giving way once again to juniper and sage as we entered the vast expanse of Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Here is a wilderness one could spend a lifetime in and not explore every canyon, climb every sandstone dome or find every hidden arch and alcove. Little towns and farms sequestered in among the glowing white Navajo sandstone only make the vast emptiness seem larger.
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Like driving to another planet
Coming to Bryce was like driving to another planet, with alpine meadows and ponderosa pines replacing sagebrush. Precious minutes were spent finding our one reserved campsite in the maze that is the road system in Bryce. But finally we made it to the rim to see the hoodoos. That's what Bryce is all about: Hoodoos, towering spires of rock carved by wind and water. The freezing and thawing of ice has created an otherworldly realm through which the sighing of the wind and the lonely call of ravens can be heard. Reserving a campsite in Bryce is vital, since it has one of the best displays of stars in America, and to see the hoodoos under the stars is a fantastic experience. Bryce faces east, so dawn is also a special affair. The hoodoos seem to be translucent in the early morning hours and glow with many colors.
At Zion National Park, we were greeted by bighorn sheep that posed nicely on the sandstone towers that seem to flow with wave-like patterns. Zion was formed millions of years ago when some of the world's largest sand dunes were caught up in the mountain-building process. Now their cemented remains and mysterious side canyons disappear into a 3-mile-long tunnel lined with windows that give you tantalizing glimpses of the glory that awaits you. The tunnel was built back when cars were about half their current size, and the once two-lane road is now only a rather thin one-lane road. Large vehicles require an escort and long waits are common.
The crowds at Zion are legion, and our trip put us there on Memorial Day weekend. As one park bus driver said that Thursday: "If you thought today was bad, tomorrow will be worse, Saturday will be awful, and Sunday will be indescribable".
No room was left in the campground, but many hotels throng the town of Virgin, and the park buses will pick you up right from your doorstep. Personal vehicles are no longer allowed in the park from May to October and buses now rule the roads, which helps to make Zion a true refuge from the normal noise of other national parks.
On our final day in the canyon country, we watched the sunrise on the Towers of the Virgin and the Altar of Sacrifice before taking the bus to the end of the road. We hiked from there to the mouth of the Virgin River Narrows — a world-class slot canyon when the river is low.
Finally, fewer crowds
We left the crowds of Zion, and as an afterthought, struck out for Northern Nevada, its few towns populated by miners and ghosts. The desert here is normally brown, but the torrential rain had poured and the desert glowed green, dry lakes were filled, and the air positively hummed with life. We were bound for Great Basin National Park. Remote and little visited, Great Basin contains a wealth of towering peaks and deep caverns, sparkling alpine lakes, glaciers and 3,000-year-old bristlecone pines. We didn't stay long. Tours of the caves where booked (it was Memorial day after all), but we walked through a forest of dwarf mahogany in full bloom, and drove to the base of 13,000-foot Wheeler peak, where the snow still lay in drifts that dwarfed our minivan.
What have I learned from this trip? For one thing, a week is not possibly enough to see such rare sights as exist in Southern Utah. Spontaneous traveling is exciting, but making reservations at some of the best campgrounds early in the year would be a good idea. If you can't plan ahead, make friends with the campground hosts. They will often be able to help you find a space. Otherwise, there are good campgrounds outside the parks, as well. Always have your camera ready for something unexpected, and early risers get the best shots. And I found that the best places were worth spending a long time contemplating, as the changing light of a desert day can bring out different personalities in the rock. But no matter how breathtaking and enticing the scenery is, always remember peg down your tent.