Warning: Before reading this, go to the bathroom and grab a snack. I’m breaking all of the blogging rules about post length (again). Sorry. Not sorry. This place is awesome.
Southern Utah, from the beginning, was one of our top three priorities for this trip. It came highly recommended, it has a wealth of national parks, and neither of us had ever been. We’ve been itching to get here, and I have to admit that I was getting a little apprehensive that we’d built up our expectations too much. I got even more worried when we met a family in Mesa Verde National Park (in southwest Colorado) who was on a whirlwind road trip from Oregon. They had just traveled through Grand Canyon and the five parks in Southern Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches), and as many folks do, they’d toured these parks pretty quickly and packed in a ton of stuff in a short period of time. They seemed to be having fun, but the daughter (tween age, maybe?) told us that red used to be her favorite color until she saw SO many red rocks; and, her parents openly teased her for complaining loudly the day before that they’d seen “SO MUCH SCENERY!!”
We got a good laugh, but it did make me nervous that we’d get tired of the scenery and have canyon- and red-rock-fatigue from trying to see five parks so close together in the same region. With this concern in mind, we’ve been intentional about spacing things out a bit, slowing down our pace, and breaking things up with rest days, errand/laundry days, and some biking here and there. We are incredibly lucky to have the luxury of time.
I’ve also realized my worry was for naught. Southern Utah’s beauty is striking. Every day. We’ve been here for just under three weeks (at the time of writing this post) and we’ve visited Canyonlands NP, Arches NP, Moab, and Zion NP – we also took time to visit two of Canyonland’s three districts (the third was virtually inaccessible to us without a boat or lots of backpacking gear, neither of which we have with us; no, we don’t have a boat, period) and all three of Zion’s districts – so, we’ve covered some serious ground and seen a LOT. And let me tell you, it is SO MUCH SCENERY but we’ve loved it all. Yes, there are a lot of canyons and a lot of red rocks, but even different districts within one park can be vastly different. Some of the same basic elements exist from place to place, but the diversity is striking in terms of terrain, climate, plant and animal life, and geologic features, with much of this changing according to elevation (we’re constantly going up and down between roughly 3,500’ and 8,000’) but also according to the presence of water and/or other natural forces. In short, it certainly hasn’t gotten old, and our appreciation for this place seems to grow daily. Wonders abound, and we’re so excited to keep exploring this awesome place! For now, we’ll share some snippets about our adventures.
Hiking in Southern Utah has upped the ante, both in terms of distance and technicality – and also, beauty. We’re now familiar with and (mostly) comfortable with ladders, basic/beginner canyoneering, hiking along narrow ledges with chains (I speak for myself here only, not for Jason), bouldering, clambering up large rocks, walking in deep sand, wading through water and/or walking along rock surfaces for miles, little shade, and of course following rock cairns (example pictured below) that mark the trails.
We were especially interested in spending some time in Moab, partly due to its proximity to Arches and the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands, but mostly because we’d heard it is a really cool town that attracts outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds and is especially well-known for its mountain biking. We found all of these things to be true. After stopping for some advice and maps at a great local bike shop, we tried a few mountain bike trails with high hopes. Let’s just say that I barely had any business riding many of the trails after only starting to “mountain” bike in Florida in March. Jason has much more experience but it’s many years old at this point (insert your own age-related joke here). Suffice it to say, I can handle “expert/advanced/technical” trails in Florida. I can barely handle “easy with intermediate sections” trails in Southern Utah. We had fun, enjoyed the challenge, and were slightly terrified all at the same time during our afternoon of mountain biking. We definitely learned why so many people ride with flat pedals (versus clipless pedals) around these parts – you just need the option to bail out quickly and probably frequently. I may have learned that lesson the hard way. We decided to stop after our single afternoon experience so as to avoid an inevitable trip to the hospital. We did, however, thoroughly enjoy some road cycling, including on Moab’s very nice bike path/greenway, part of which follows the scenic Colorado River.
We’d read that the campgrounds in Arches and in the Needles District of Canyonlands are some of the most unique and beautiful in the national park system. Although we didn’t camp in Arches (it’s reservation only, and reservations have to be made many, many months in advance), we wholeheartedly agree. In both places, campsites are nestled among awesome red rocks, and in Canyonlands, you get the added bonus of amazing distance views as well as campsites that are super spread out and private.
The Needles District of Canyonlands is easily in our top three favorite places visited so far. It is remote, beautiful, varied, breathtaking, and truly a wilderness with lots of superb long hikes that climb in and out of canyons, wind through diverse terrain, provide amazing views from start to finish, and take hikers to natural wonders like slot canyons and rock arches (totally different than the arches found in the rest of Southern Utah).
If we take up a new hobby, we’d like it to be canyoneering.
We’ve had to work hard and employ creativity, problem-solving, and planning (advance and last-minute) to find good camping, dodge the crowds, plan around the weather, scout out good deals on some rental gear, and string together a route that’s working for us – one that’s allowed us to spend quality time in some places, meet up with a friend, and avoid travel/sight-seeing fatigue, especially in this land of red rocks and canyons.
We questioned, pleaded, scrambled (in a figurative sense), bargained, biked, and hitchhiked to make it to a pre-paid ranger-guided hike only one minute late after the Highway Patrol single-handedly closed the entrance to Arches National Park. It was totally worth it. On a related note, we recommend doing the Fiery Furnace hike in Arches. It’s worth the money and whatever effort it takes.
We’ve experienced all kinds of weather during our relatively short time here: snow, sleet, hail, thunder and lightning storms, driving rain, dark skies for hours with no rain, high humidity, super low humidity, heat, cold, arid desert days and nights, and brilliant blue desert skies. Our down comforter has been a life-saver. So has the Virgin River and higher elevation regions of Zion.
We had a great visit with our friend Troy from NC, who camped with us for two nights in Zion after attending a conference and visiting with some family in this part of the country. I was reminded of one of life’s greatest gifts: the best friendships grow and grow over time. It was also wonderful to see a face from home and to have the company of someone other than each other.
The arid climate has been an adjustment. I fight most days to stay hydrated, but I’ve finally developed a good system for drinking enough water. I apply lotion and/or sunscreen at multiple random intervals throughout the day; once or twice, I’ve experienced the most unpleasant sensation of my skin feeling so tight and dry that it just might crack open. But, there are lots of benefits of low humidity that we’re quite enjoying. Dishes and line-dry clothes dry exponentially faster. We rarely experience nuisance bugs like mosquitoes, flies, or gnats; it’s so nice to sit outside around dawn or dusk and not get eaten alive. Campfires are significantly easier to start because the wood is so dry. And obviously, we don’t sweat nearly as much. Even when it was almost 100-degrees in Zion for a couple of days, we could sit completely still in the shade and with time, the heat became tolerable and we perspired relatively little, even during the hottest part of the day – it was amazing! That’s just not possible in the southeast; whoever said southern women “glisten” instead of sweat was full of it and had clearly never spent any time in the south during summer.
Despite being a desert, there are water features aplenty. We’ve loved being near (or in) rivers, streams, creeks, and lakes. They have a way of immediately cleansing your soul and renewing your spirit.
We’ve learned that if you want to camp inside a national park around here (most are first-come, first-served except for Arches), then you better arrive at the campground the evening prior to the day you actually want to start camping in order to scout out sites. And by “scout out”, I mean you better figure out who’s actually leaving the next day, find an unclaimed site among these choices, and go ahead and tag it and pay for it. Otherwise, you may have no options come the next morning. We’ve seen campgrounds fill up by 8:00 AM.
The process described above entails obnoxiously asking the current inhabitants of a site, “Um, excuse me – sorry to bother you – are you guys actually leaving tomorrow like your campsite tag says or are you going to add a day? (yeah, you can pay day-to-day and have until checkout time, usually 11ish, to decide, which makes the whole thing that much more complicated and time consuming). If so, has anyone else already claimed this site? If not, can we claim it? Do you mind if we add a tag behind yours and leave one of our camp chairs here so that no one steals the site in the morning? Ok, great! Thanks so much! And again, sorry to bother you. You pretty much have to be a vulture to get a site around here. Oh yeah, you had the same experience? Glad you understand.”
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end. I did warn you, didn’t I?
Stay tuned for more on our Southern Utah adventures (maybe a shorter post next time, but no promises). We’re slowly getting more pictures posted to our Facebook page, so keep checking there to see more!