Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Five Days in Moab

I’ve got bunches of stuff to write up.  The past month or so has been one my busiest in years in terms of outdoor adventure.   I’ve not exactly been slacking before the last month either.  So I’m going to have to be brief in the hopes of getting all of this out on paper without driving myself nuts.

My wife and I had our first wedding anniversary on April 13th.  Each spring, the past few years, we’ve taken a trip up to Southern Utah, visiting Page, Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef, among other places.  This year, we wanted to keep the streak going, and the natural choice was Moab.  I’d been there twice before, but briefly, and for my wife it was the one place in Southern Utah she had yet to lay eyes on.  So we planned a 5-day trip.

On the Friday before, we drove up out of Phoenix after work.  A quick dinner in Flagstaff and we continued up to Navajo National Monument.  This is quickly becoming a favorite transit point.  There aren’t many places to camp on the rez (legally), but Navajo National Monument has free campsites.  It’s pretty, and has great starlight views as well.  Its about 4 hours from Phoenix, so it’s a good spot to stop for the first night, and cut a long drive the next day in half.

In the morning, we headed on to Moab.  Shortly out of Navajo National Monument, we headed through Monument Valley.  We drove into the View hotel and paid the entrance fee.  The lady at the entrance station said we were free to drive the road through the valley.  The last time I visited (in 2011), I was left with the impression that in order to enter the valley, you had to go with a guide.  Whether I was wrong, or the rules had changed, we were excited to learn this.  We had breakfast at the Lodge and then drove into Monument Valley.

The setting is striking.  I’ve been all over the Southwest, and Monument Valley is on equal footing with any national park I’ve been to. 

 Like all of these places, seeing pictures doesn’t really prepare you for the real experience of being there.  We drove the full loop, shooting video and pictures.

On the way to Moab, we took a brief detour over to Goosenecks State Park.  This is WELL worth a detour in the area.  It overlooks a stretch of the San Juan River with deeply entrenched meanders.  Its like Horseshoe Bend (near Page) on steroids.

The next morning, we got up early to squeeze in a visit to Canyonlands National Park.  We did the car tourist thing at the Island in the Sky district, driving around to all the overlooks, and hiking out on the Upheaval Dome trail.  

 This is the third time I’ve visited the Island in the Sky, and each time, its just been a quick overview and dayhike.  It’s obvious from the views that this park features a massive backcountry, and I saw some of it on a 10-mile dayhike in the Needles district in 2013, but I want to do more.  Its time for a big backpacking trip in Canyonlands.  Given the layout, I think this would be a phenomenal location for a combination backpacking/packrafting type trip. 

We were back in Moab by 11 to hop on a bus for a guided whitewater trip down the Colorado River.  At my wife’s behest, I had chosen the easy Fisher Towers section.  The upside of it being an easy section is that they allowed us to run it in duckies (inflatable kayaks).  My wife and I ran the first half of the river in a ducky, before giving it up to some kids who asked.  

 This was a fun and scenic trip, if a little mellow by my tastes.  It seems like this section of the Colorado – known as the “Moab Daily” among river runners – would be an EXCELLENT one to run in a packraft, as its easily accessible, hitchable, and none of the rapids are higher than class II.  Once I get my packraft (planning to buy an Alpacka this year), this may be a good one to come up and try.

At the end of the day, Sarah and I drove out along the Potash Road, past all the rock climbers, to hike out to Bowtie and Corona Arch.  This was a really excellent hike.    

Even though it’s not part of Arches park, I would say that Corona Arch is one of the finest arches in the area.   The setting, in a massive slickrock bowl, is first-rate as well.  The setting sun lit up the arch and made for a great end to the day.

The next day, we drove into Arches National Park.  I’ve visited a few times before, but this was the first time for my wife.  So we visited all the major roadside attractions, like Wall Street, Balanced Rock, the Windows and Turret Arch, Double Arch, and Sand Dune Arch.  The mass profusion of arches at Arches is what makes the park great.  Pulling up to a single roadside arch, the initial reaction can be a bit ho-hum.  They’re a point of interest, but most of the time, they're not a sight that can blow you away like a spectacular overlook or waterfall.  Arches National Park counters this by piling on arch after arch after arch, overwhelming the senses until you give in to wonder.  

At mid-day, we hopped onto the Devil’s Garden trail.  We hiked past all the tourists at Landscape Arch to visit Navajo and Partition Arches.

From there, we climbed up a rock fin to get to Double O Arch.  This was a section of trail I remembered fondly from my previous visit, and it was just as fun this time hiking in over the fin.  Snow on the La Sals made the scenery even more dramatic.
At Double O, we got onto the primitive return trail.  While I had hiked out here before, I had not taken the primitive return.  It lived up to the advertising, weaving a complex path through the rock fins.  Several stretches of fun slickrock scrambling ensued.  

Near the end, the trail turns into a trudge-fest through deep sand, before delivering you back to Landscape Arch. 

That night, we camped at Devil’s Garden Campground.  If you are planning to camp here, first, reserve online, many months before you come.  It fills up fast, so advance planning is needed. Secondly, try to snap Campsite #1 if you can.  Its isolated from the other campsites entirely, so you’ll have no neighbors.

The final day, we left our tent set up at Devil’s Garden, and drove up out of the Moab Valley.  The plan was to check out the San Rafael Swell, an area that neither Sarah nor I had ever seen. 
Approaching the swell was just awesome.  It’s very scenic, and reminds me quite a bit of the view of the Waterpocket Fold as you descend from Highway 12 on Boulder Mountain.  It’s kind of shocking to me that an area this scenic is completely unprotected.  The scenery we’d see this day would be right at home in a National Park, or failing that, a wilderness area.  Its kind of baffling to me that it isn’t.

The plan for the day was a hike in Bell and Little Wild Horse Canyons.  These are two lovely slot canyons that cut right into the San Rafael Reef.  We hiked up Bell canyon through the narrows

From Bell, we hiked over the back of the Reef to get into Little Wild Horse to return to our car. We had awesome views of the reef on this transition.

Despite these being very well-known canyons with incredible scenery, we ran into very few people outside of the lower stretch of LWH.  The whole hike was excellent, but that lower stretch of LWH was first rate, with wiggly pink narrows that brought thoughts of pink frosting on a cake to mind.  We nicknamed it valentine’s cake canyon between the two of us.

Unfortunately, the wind was howling this day, with gusts up to 30-40 mph for much of the day.  We had hoped being in canyons would cut the wind down, and it did a little, but the wind was still bad.  And at points the canyon would act as a funnel for the wind, rather than blocking it.  My poor wife spent much of the day fussing with her contacts. 

After the hike, we took a brief detour to Goblin Valley State Park.  We didn’t linger long because of the wind, but stopped to take in the views.

On arriving back at Arches, we discovered the wind had destroyed our tent.  One of the poles had snapped, and everything in the tent was covered in sand.  We fixed it as best we could, but both of us were exhausted, and the tent pole was unfixable, so we just re-staked the tent and climbed in.  It flapped like crazy most of the night.  Despite the problems, both of us were giggling over the whole situation, and nicknamed the tent the Nylon Cyclone.

The last day was basically just a drive back to Phoenix.  We did make one detour.  In looking at various photographer’s groups on facebook, I had stumbled across a photo of a place called Coal Mine Canyon in northern Arizona, on the Navajo reservation.  I consider myself pretty damn well-informed about outdoor places in Arizona, but had somehow never heard of this one.  I did some research online and found it to be pretty off everyone’s radar.  My wife and I took a detour to the rim of the canyon from Tuba City, and discovered some incredible scenery that rivals anything I’ve seen in any national park in Utah or Arizona.  Coal Mine Canyon is a northern extension of the Painted Desert that features colorful cliff walls and hoodoos.  We stopped to snap a few pics, happy to have discovered this hidden gem.

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