After spending time in Canyonlands NP, Arches NP, Moab, and Zion NP (all discussed in part one), we rounded out our time in Southern Utah with visits to Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), and Capitol Reef National Park. In an attempt to keep the length of this post somewhat reasonable, I’ll save GSENM for a separate post. For now, here are some of our musings and stories from Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef and places in between.
We continued to experience crazy, unseasonable weather. After temps near 100-degrees in Zion, our systems were shocked by nearly freezing temps in Bryce. We had no hook-ups, which meant we couldn’t plug in our electric oil heater. We used our propane heater in the RV for a couple of very short bursts because it burns through propane like you wouldn’t believe. Mostly, we stayed warm by going to bed early and staying there until the outdoor temps rose to the 40’s at least; we used our down comforter plus three other blankets, wore warm “pajamas” (more on that in a minute) and managed to stayed warm as toast. I showered infrequently because having wet hair wasn’t fun. I drank lots of hot tea and tried to warm up anything and everything I ate on the stove. I resorted to changing into my outfit for the next day (or at least the bottom layers of it) before going to bed at night because I couldn’t bear the thought of undressing in the morning cold.
We’ve now seen the temperature inside our RV as high as 100-degrees and as low as 40-degrees.
Like in Arches, we spent a lot of time at Bryce and Capitol Reef dodging weather. We were glad, once again, that our plans are flexible, which allowed us to stay an extra day or two in order to make up for some of our lost time. We got used to lots of short hikes between weather systems, which we often waited out while sitting in the truck. We kept snacks, lots of water, and some playing cards in the truck for these waiting-it-out times.
In a six day period, we got hailed on four times.
A park ranger at Capitol Reef told us that they got more rain a two-hour period than they typically get for the entire month of June (June, by the way, is supposed to be one of the driest and most pleasant and predictable weather months of the year). Coincidentally, we arrived at the park, dumped our tanks, looked for a campsite, and set-up camp within this two-hour period of heavy rain. Go us.
Capitol Reef, like Canyonlands and Zion, has three distinct regions or districts. While the “heart of the park”, Fruita, is lovely and historical, we think the true treasures of the park are in the other two regions – Strike Valley and Cathedral Valley. In a preservation effort, the park service makes these latter two regions harder to access (also true of some of the best regions/districts in Zion and Canyonlands); they are kept more as wilderness areas with unmaintained dirt roads and few semi-maintained hiking trails. Because of this, these areas are more remote and less-visited, which only adds to the appeal for us. We like escaping the crowds and enjoying nature as it was meant to be experienced – in relative solitude and quiet, away from “civilization”. However, making these areas harder to reach for the masses also means that they’re harder to reach for us. Because of all the unseasonable rain over the last two months, the roads into Cathedral Valley were completely impassable by multiple accounts, including those from some big-truck, tough-guy types, which was disappointing. The roads in Strike Valley were questionable, but we gave them a couple of days to dry out and drove into the valley full of determination and plans.
We were pleasantly surprised by the road conditions and had an easy drive without incident for over 25 miles. We passed through some beautiful farmland, as portions of the road pass through private lands.
Less than a mile from a major intersection (major in significance, not in size) where we needed to turn to access two roads that would take us to our planned hikes, we crested a small hill that preceded a big wash that crossed the road. And BAM! A big ‘ole white motorhome was stuck smack in the middle of the wash. So stuck that the rear bumper was almost completely dug into the side of the wash. A muddy, steep, sandy wash in a narrow part of the road. So narrow and steep that there was absolutely no way around it. And there was no way to access the intersection from another direction without driving roughly 100 miles.
The driver of the RV was a friendly, lone gentleman from Utah who certainly should have known better than to drive his heavy RV into the wash. Judgment aside, I felt bad for him. He’d been stuck for two hours with no cell phone signal or way to call for help, and we were the first people he’d seen on the road in all that time. Luckily, a park ranger arrived to the scene (and it was quite a scene!) shortly after us, which was sheer luck, as they monitor those roads every few days at best. About three hours later, a tow truck arrived and pulled him out (yes, that’s how remote it is – the closest, fastest tow truck is that far away). So, instead of one of the hikes we had planned, my entertainment for part of the day was watching Jason try to dig the guy out with our small portable shovel, having a roadside picnic, taking way too many pictures with our camera (at least it was a gorgeous place to be stuck), and then watching “the show” of the tow truck pulling out the RV with two other families who, by now, were also waiting to continue down the road.
We ended up crossing the wash no problem but were reassured by the presence of a pick-up truck larger than us who could have pulled us out if we’d gotten stuck.
As if that wasn’t enough excitement for the day, we drove a little over six miles roundtrip on a “road” for high-clearance, 4-wheeldrive vehicles in order to access a trailhead for a short hike we really wanted to do. As we were starting the drive, we talked to two couples who had hiked the road earlier in the day (they had obviously accessed the area from a different direction and weren’t delayed 3+ hours by the stuck RV). One of them said, “Oh, after this first section, you won’t have any trouble.” Another said, “It’s not exactly a road or a trail. It’s more like a dry riverbed that’s still filled with rocks.” Guess who was right? It was challenging, fun, and a little frightening at the same time. I admit that I closed my eyes a few times, like that was supposed to help. Jason did a great job driving it, and the truck earned its true strips that day. The pictures below don’t really do it justice, as I was too shaken up (literally and figuratively) to take pictures during the roughest parts.
One of our favorite things about the Fruita area in Capitol Reef, besides it being green and lovely with awesome views of the rock formations, was the Gifford House, which was part of an old Mormon settlement. The house now serves as a museum and store that sells all kinds of goodies like locally produced canned goods (jams, jellies, salsa, etc.), homemade ice cream in perfectly sized containers, fresh-picked fruit from the orchards in the park, and fresh baked goods including bread, small pies, and large, delicious, still-warm-at-opening-time cinnamon rolls (pictured below). We were running low on groceries and without a true grocery store anywhere nearby (and by nearby, I mean within several hours drive), we were eternally grateful and spoiled by this little store. The prices were fairly reasonable and help support the historical Fruita area, so we really had no choice but to indulge a little.
The other really neat thing about Fruita in Capitol Reef is that park visitors can pick fruit directly from the orchards. How cool is that?! There is no charge for whatever you pick and eat while in the orchard, and there is a small charge for whatever you pick and bring out with you. They grow cherries, apricots, peaches, and apples. Only the cherries were in season during our visit, and they’re so dispersed around the park that the park service doesn’t open them up for picking like they do with the other fruits. We did, of course, buy some at the Gifford House and they were so very good. I’d love to go back when the peaches or apples are at their prime.
Besides the weather, we had a great time at Bryce Canyon NP. The geology is amazing, and I didn’t tire of seeing hoodoos. We marveled at how much their appearance changed as we saw them from different perspectives on our hikes (e.g., above, below, to the side).
Bryce also had the highest elevation we’ve seen yet, ranging up to just over 9,000 feet (and that’s just at the end of the park drive), which is why they get so much snow, freezing, and re-freezing that create the awesome hoodoos.
The area between Bryce and Capitol Reef is remote, vast, scenic, and largely undeveloped. Much of the land is federally protected as a national forest, monument, or recreation area. Opportunities for exploration and outdoor adventure are seemingly endless. I think we could have happily spent another month in southern Utah exploring these areas, but onward we went because there are so many awesome places to see elsewhere, too. Also, we needed groceries.
We’ve finally edited and culled all our photos from Southern Utah, and we’ll be posting them in albums periodically on our Facebook page (RVgapyear; link on the right, or bottom if you’re viewing on your phone) over the next couple of weeks. Enjoy! It’s one beautiful place.