I’ve always been enthralled with trees that cling to life in harsh environments. Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah is one of those environments with cold windy winters and blazing hot summers that are occasionally interrupted with lightening, strong winds and short torrential downpours. It is here these extreme elements converge and shape the twists and turns of these trees.
Raeski chooses to eat healthy and she has somehow managed to get Wooly on the bandwagon. While Wooly has always been onboard the low salt train, he begrudgingly eats more green stuff than he wants. But sometimes unintended consequences accompany our choices.
Driving into Canyonlands National Park we found the desert flowers bursting with color. Spring has a late finish in the high desert and we were fortunate enough to catch it. It’s a good time for hiking. The extreme heat and summer monsoon rains with accompanying flash floods haven’t arrived. However, it can still get quite warm.
We were riding top down in Miss Mini and as usual she attracted attention. This time her suitor was a rather bold raven who audaciously strutted his stuff on Miss Mini. Either that or he was hoping to snatch away some food or a bright shiny object. Ravens are highly intelligent birds that play the role of a trickster in the lore of many Native American tribes. Other cultures consider them harbingers of ill omen.
We were here to hike, so ignoring ancient raven legends and fully loaded with lunch, snacks, camera gear, and three gallons of water we set off on our six mile journey to the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. It was late morning and a little warm. Had we know how hot it would become we would have started earlier in the morning. This was the first of a series of life threatening mistakes.
In hindsight, taking four camera lenses also added way too much weight in the backpack. This became one of those painful lessons and was miscue number two. Why does it seem that every extra ounce ends up feeling like pounds later in the day?
Steep canyon walls, towering magnificent rock formations and stunning views accompanied our every step. Canyonlands was once an ancient seabed that was uplifted thousands of feet and subsequently eroded into the awe inspiring shapes which we’ve bestowed with names and sacred status. We followed the trail as it dropped into ravines and scrambled over ridges. Each ridge crest unveiled a new view as the trail dipped and rose like a roller coaster.
With the sun beating down on us and reflecting heat from sandstone blackened from hundreds of years of weathering we sought refuge in what little shade the twisted junipers could provide. Small puffy clouds gave fleeting respite from the heat. As if to punish those who dare to enter its realm, the desert begrudgingly gives up shade.
After hiking four miles we encountered a 10’ slick-rock drop. Slidingdown the steep drop was our only option. On the way down my pack snagged and knocked me off balance. Dropping the last 6 feet my heel struck a rock. OUCH! That really hurt! With only two miles to go I decided to ‘walk off’ the injury and continue. That was a terrible idea.
After limping another mile I gave up hoping my denial would magically erase the pain. My painful heel wasn’t getting better. With only a mile to go we made the difficult choice to turn back and walk the five mile trek back to the car. While climbing back up that devilish 10’ slick-rock obstacle my legs started cramping. No big deal, I thought. It’s only because I’m tired and need a little rest. No problem, right? Well, maybe not.
Remember the healthy low salt diet? That diet isn’t a great idea when spending extended time exercising in the heat. Like most people, I didn’t know heat exhaustion has two primary causes. Not drinking enough water to stay hydrated is the first. Profuse sweating sometimes accompanied with nausea are symptoms as the body tries to cool itself. However, Wooly, never willing to go half-way unwittingly went the extra mile for heat exhaustion version two (HE-v1.2).
HE-v1.2 comes with a couple more symptoms along with a different cause. Low levels of salt and electrolytes in your body places you at risk for this less popular version. The ‘bonus’ symptoms are cramps along with dizziness. And to think I used to joke with Raeski about how our healthy diet was killing me. Kind of ironic isn’t it.
Coping with cramps and dizziness I trudged along as the day became hotter and hotter while the backpack seemed to get heavier and heavier. With two miles to go we ran out of water. As our thirst grew we desperately sucked on dried cranberries for what little moisture they contained. Soon my only thoughts were, “Just a little farther.” Step by torturous step, nausea, cramps, dizziness and thirst beckoned me to quit. Soon a few hundred yards was all I could muster without having to rest. With a mile to go Raeski took the backpack so I could keep going.
The day’s best view greeted us when we crested a ridge and could see the parking lot and Miss Mini patiently awaiting our return to reward us with her precious cargo of water. All we had to do was follow the roller coaster trail into a ravine, climb a ridge, drop into another ravine and finally claw our way to the top. Maybe it wasn’t the best scenario but it still energized us.
Exhausted we trudged on. At the bottom of the last ravine I sent Raeski ahead so she could get water. I followed behind at the only pace I could manage – very slowly. Finally at the end I was a caricature of the desperate thirst driven cowboy in old western movies – scratching, crawling and using every last ounce of energy to survive.
Important lessons learned were start EARLY on long hikes, take lots of water, put the backpack on a diet, and dump the low-salt diet about a month before we go on any long hikes. I tested and stretched my limits and hope to never do it again.
On a sad note, one week later, the desert heat claimed the lives of two hikers in a nearby area called “The Wave”. When hiking know your limits and turn back when you are in trouble. No great view is worth your life.
The road into the southern part on Canyonlands National Park (the Needles section) is very photogenic and not nearly as busy as the more heavily frequented northern part. Wooly likes taking pictures of these seemingly deserted roads
One of the stops on this road is Newspaper Rock which I wrote about previously. Along the way we started getting hints of what the Needles section was all about.
Springtime is a great time to visit our National Parks. The late spring bloom was very evident at the entrances of Canyonlands.
This was the most colorful park entrance we encountered on this trip. One of the reasons I love desert climates is because it only takes a little rain to make the ground come alive with color.
When they fly they seem as though they are having fun. With one of the largest brains of all birds they are known to work out problems. They are noisy, mischievous, can recognize and remember faces, and above all are opportunists.
They are loyal and mate for life. They protect their territory and young vigorously. When used to humans they are somewhat fearless. While you may see their cousins (crows and grackles) in the city, ravens prefer the wide open spaces.
In different cultures, superstitions, and mythologies, ravens have known as a trickster (one I can believe), a bad omen, or a god. Wooly just thinks they are opportunists.
When Wooly and Raeski arrived at a trailhead in Canyonlands National Park we were greeted by a Raven. He? was bold and vocal. As Wooly pulled out the camera Mr. Raven took a liking to Miss Mini and flew onto her. Now Wooly knew enough to make sure there wasn’t anything handy for Mr. Raven to make off with. Raeski on the other hand was more concerned with Mr. Raven scratching Miss Mini’s sensitive paint. And this wasn’t Miss Mini’s first encounter with ravens. Apparently her shiny chrome is irresistible!
However Wooly happens to enjoy the decidedly uncommon Common Raven of the Southwest. When I spoke to this one I got a very vocal CAW CAW back. My guess is he was telling me, “I know you have food and shiny bobbles in this car, now hand them over!”
While on our way to the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park we stopped at a small roadside attraction called Newspaper Rock. The Navajos call it “Tse Hone” which means “rock that tells a story”. It’s a site where ancient petroglyphs were first carved about 2,000 years ago. I have never seen this many petroglyphs in one place before in my life. It is simply amazing.
The rock itself is sandstone whose iron and manganese content has oxidized through the ages. There is also a specific bacterial element also involved in the process. Thousands of years are required for sandstone to turn black.
There are over 600 figures carved into the ‘desert varnish’ by Native Americans dating back to both prehistoric and historic times at Newspaper Rock. The oldest figures are fading by the same process that turned the sandstone black in the first place. Nobody really knows why this site has so many figures and why it was used throughout the ages.
Currently this site is open to the public and access is not restricted. Sadly the site is also plagued by vandals who have no respect for antiquities and preservation of a remarkable site. What concerns me is the ‘what if’. What if vandals destroy an undiscovered ancient Anasazi equivalent to the Rosetta Stone? So much could be lost and possible many mysteries would remain unsolved forever.
More is unknown about the ancient Anasazi that inhabited the Southwest than what is known. They built cities, cultivated the land and had an evolved societal structure for close to a thousand years. Yet they completely disappeared sometime around the 13th century and nobody knows why. How tragic would it be to lose the answer due to a despicable act of vandalism?
Now I know my readers would never commit such an act. But come on people, show a little respect.
The timing was perfect. We planned the visit to coincide with one of the driest months of the year and the new moon. The plan was for Wooly to photograph the Milky Way in some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S. But there was one thing we had no control over. If you guessed Mother Nature you are right. Mother Nature can be a real ‘Mother’ sometimes which may be part of the reason for the term.
In the Southwest U.S. there is a summer phenomenon called the ‘monsoon’ season. By definition a monsoon is characterized by a southerly flow of moist air marking a change in season. In late June through early September weather patterns change and moist air is pumped up from Mexico into Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and sometimes reaching to Southern California and Nevada.
As luck would have it, the monsoonal flow started the day we arrived at Natural Bridges National Monument. While it was not enough to rain, it was enough for clouds to gather over the tops of mesas which of course Natural Bridges is on. With our plans in danger of being washed out we made the best of it and hiked down to one of the bridges just after sunset in the hopes that the clouds would clear after sunset.
As the bats started coming out we thought we would be treated to a nice show of the bats flying after bugs in the air. However there was one bat who was more interested in us than bugs. After several persistent dives at us we figured it may be prudent to leave just in case there was something wrong (rabies?) with the bat. So much for planning… again…
After a stop at Utah’s Goosenecks State Park, Raeski and I continued driving up route UT-261 to reach Natural Bridges National Monument. I didn’t know if we would be able to go this route because of an obstacle called the Moki Dugway. This is a portion of the highway that goes from pavement to dirt and our topless Miss Mini Cooper much prefers the nice paved roads she was built to drive on instead of rough dirt roads.
As you approach the dugway the first road sign the state of Utah deems to warn the casual driver of is impending doom and destruction if you are in something they consider oversize or overweight. I guess they are leaving it up to you to decide if you fall in that category. In the photo you can see the next sign warns you about 5mph switchbacks and 10% grades which means you’re in for a steep road that gains 10 feet in elevation for every 100 feet you travel.
Upon reaching the dusty dirt portion of the road we find it is in very good condition and not rough at all but with some rain it could be a very different story. Wooly loves roads that are like spaghetti. The switchbacks reminded us of our trip between Santiago Chile and Mendoza Argentina. However the Moki doesn’t have 29 switchbacks like that road. As you climb the views are impressive and fortunately there are wide spots in the road where you can stop and sneak in a photo or two.
There is one vista where you can pull completely off the road and are greeted with a view of the road below and some of the switchbacks and the plateau below. It was a bit of fortune that I was able to shoot a photo of a truck pulling a horse trailer up the road that gives size perspective. This seems to be a popular stopping point because if you look online you will find many photos taken from this spot and now I’m adding mine to the mix.
While it’s not Mt. Everest, when you get to the top the views makes it
seem like you are on top of the world. Looking east you see a portion of Monument Valley and to the south you see the twisted canyon of the San Juan River. To the north you enter a forest of Juniper trees, open range, and cattle standing in the middle of the road. Yes, we literally had to make our way around a cow standing in the middle of the road.
Okay, so how in the world did ‘they’ (the ever present unidentified corporate they) come up with the name Moki Dugway?
In deference to our Spanish speaking friends, it should really be spelled Moqui which was
a term the Spanish explorers used to describe the Pueblo Indians they met in the area. Of course Americans being Americans have to change the word to something more pronounceable to their tongue instead of learning the rules of Spanish pronunciation. So you get the new name of Moki. But wouldn’t Mokee have served that purpose better? Maybe they were just lazy and didn’t want to use an extra vowel.
And a dugway is a road or path excavated from a high land form for means of transport. From this you get the name Moki Dugway as the road cuts through roughly 1,100 feet of the sheer walls of Cedar Mesa.
At 7:30am, Wooly and Raeski left Phoenix and started their journey through the state and national parks in Southern Utah with a couple of national monuments tossed into the mix. Getting up early and beating the heat allowed us to start our trip topless. With the occasional pit stop along the way and a few photos of Monument Valley, the trip to Goosenecks State Park, Utah took almost 7 hours.
The Goosenecks are an out of the way, I mean you really have to go out of your way to find it, state park without much to offer except a single exceptional viewpoint. After turning off the main road and then turning off to an even narrower road and driving a few miles you reach the end of the road and the park. You can keep going if your names are Thelma and Louise and care to go ‘car diving’.
While on this drive you are treated to views of earth that has been uplifted and twisted. Wooly thinks this is cool because there is a bit of a geology bug in him. At the end of the road you reach the park and find a couple of picnic tables, an outhouse and nary a tree. And yes, it’s a hot 100 degrees or about 38C.
However what you do find is a spectacular view of the San Juan River meandering and cutting its way through 1,000 feet of sandstone. We were even able to watch a couple of rafters running the river. Capturing them gives a sense of perspective of what Wooly saw while teetering on the edge of the cliff.
We hope you enjoy the photos. But I have one question. Can a goose really bend its neck that much and live to see another day?
We’re going topless! Why? Because it’s more fun!
Raeski found this seat removal kit for Minis online and ordered it. Wow, what a difference it makes. After installing it the choice was simple. There’s an amazing amount of room in that little car once the back seats are gone.
Tomorrow we take off for a three week adventure. The first day will be a long one as we will be driving over 500 miles. I’m looking forward to it because we are escaping the heat. Today it reached 109F or for those living in most of the world, 43C.
Our first side trip tomorrow will be a side trip to Goosenecks State Park to catch an outstanding view of the San Juan River a few miles upstream before it flows into the Colorado River. It’s 10 miles of dirt road that’s going to really mess up a clean car. I’m curious to see if we get much dirt in the car while driving with the top down. My guess is we might end up having to put the top up. In the past when on dirt roads the back of the car got quite dusty.
After the Goosenecks we head to the Moki Dugway which has a couple of great viewpoints overlooking the Valley of the Gods. From what I have seen and read the valley is like a miniature Monument Valley. After that we head to Blanding to check into our hotel.
But we’re not done yet. Tomorrow night we are going to Natural Bridges National Monument. Why at night? Because they have some of the darkest skies in the lower 48 and Wooly wants to try to photograph the Milky Way.