Almost nearly half a year ago I had planned with some of my backpacking friends to go out and show them some of my favorite places. My friend's wife had never seen Utah, so it seemed unfair that she hasn't experienced it while I'd made so many great memories there over the years. With school finally completed, August rolled around and the time had come. The time for the epic trip through the Southwest had come.
With three people and camping gear none of the cars I own would make it, so it was time to rent a larger vehicle. Why fly when you can drive? The forecast looked hot so I decided I needed some "training" and stopped off for some hiking in the Arizona Strip district. The 115 degree heat got a bit oppressive after an hour of tromping around and taking pictures, but it was the best introduction I could have hoped for. After that mid 90s felt like air conditioning for our entire trip! I made good time to Utah so also took an evening jaunt through Snow Canyon right by St. George where I was to meet my friends. It really is a wonderful little park. It's got some great formations and wonderful trails, like a little mini Zion.
After driving out to the airport to meet my friends (and seeing that the "road ends" sign means, literally, the road ends and turns into ungraded dirt!) we headed on off on a backpacking trip in the Kolob Canyons along La Verkin Creek to go see the big arch. What a wonderful start to the trip; in front of us was a string of thunderstorms, but seemingly hiking in front of us they kept moving away, keeping the sky looking angry and beautiful but not spitting on us at all. After setting up camp at a majestic campsite right next to a great swimming hole, my friend and I did the remainder of the trail up to go see the big arch. The little spur was tricky and almost scrambling, but at the end it was great to see the huge arch on the horizon. Amazingly, at first she didn't see it! My friend started walking around on various paths through the forest. At first I thought she was looking for a better vantage point to photograph Kolob Arch, but it seemed things were getting yet more overgrown everywhere she walked. Eventually we met back at the sign and I asked "did you see it?" "No." So I pointed up. A few seconds pass by..."no, look up there." "Holy shit!" What a great response to such a massive arch!
Of course Zion couldn't stop there, so we went along to visit the valley. Finally my friends motivated me and we hiked up the Angel's Landing trail. What gorgeous views from the valley floor all the way up! After all the vertical from the previous day's hike out I was in no mood to deal with the vertical going up to the final point, much less the crowds, but the views going up were great regardless. I thought I found a great view of the wiggles to try out a new fisheye lens. Amazing how popular that trail was; must have been waiting for 20 minutes to try and get a shot without any people on the trail and even then didn't make it! At least I gave it the good old college try.
After that it was a fun drive through the slickrock, a brief stopoff at Bryce Canyon (which is stunning even if only visiting in passing), and onto the Escalante. I had never been hiking in the Escalante canyons and my friend had forwarded along a suggestion from USA Today (a.k.a. baby's first newspaper) that, regardless of the source, turned out to be wonderful. Calf Creek had a nice car campground right at the head of a trail that wound through a great carved sandstone canyon, rolling up and down the ridges. All the way at the end after a few hours of hiking was a stunning 120 foot high waterfall that had created a gorgeous deep swimming hole! What a beautiful area. Too bad I got to the end too late so only got to dip my shirt in the pool before heading back and almost getting lost in the dark. At least I did manage to bring along a headlamp, but I wish I had brought along ninja tracking skills instead.
Next up was Arches. We visited the common popular "must-see" places, but the temperature had gotten hot. Although the park had finally been open to backcountry camping, being over 100 degrees in the shade made us rethink our plans. Without much convincing my friends were open to camping along the Colorado instead. I always loved the canyons along the 128, and I hadn't realized there were all kiinds of small little river camps just winding along the side of the highway. Although there were a lot of moths, it was very nice to be able to relax for a bit in the river and to see the red fire of the sunset bounce off the canyon walls. The stars there were phenomenal too, and you could still see the Milky Way even underneath the gaze of a bright moon.
Mesa Verde was the next stop and the start of yet another ruins vacation slash obsession for me. My friends and I went on a new trail, the Petroglyph Trail, and then to some of the ruin tours that I'd been on before. Although still very fresh it was great as now I had a better idea of what I might want to bring to take pictures and how to arrange my gear ahead of time to crawl through the tunnel in Balcony House! Though the car camping was expensive, it was our last night out as friends and, unlike Utah, the campfire resttrictions were lifted. And that meant a feast. Elk sausages. Fire roasted potatoes and vegetables. Smores. So much for losing weight on this trip! My friends were getting dropped off in Crested Butte for a wedding, so we next visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison together and did the Oak Flat trail from the visitor center, apparently a mainstay of mine. Though we had all agreed to go left, apparently they went counter clockwise on the trail. After a leisurely stroll shooting some pictures, suddenly I opened up onto an exposed ridge and wouldn't you know it, there hundreds of feet below me were my friends waving up to me! After a bit of garbled arm waving I got the message to "go the other way" and so I did. Eventually we'd meet again, but nto before I found another dozen people and a ranger before my friends! Still, the canyon was beautiful and the play of the light off of it was just gorgeous. I enjoyed being able to finally try and photograph somewhere that is so special, grand, and challenging.
After dropping my friends off I had scheduled a half-day indulgence and went back to Mesa Verde. I had been able to get a ticket for the Friday Mug House tour and figured that I'd go ahead and take it. I didn't realize that this was only the third year they had offered the tour! We were only in a group of 10. Early in the morning grey clouds and rain were moving through the Wetherhill Mesa, but as we set off everything cleared and we had a wonderful time. I loved seeing the original plaster and masonry; how rare and special to be able to see those sacred decorations. Of all of the other ruins I've seen never before have I seen nary plaster nor color on the walls; quite special.
Around this point of the trip I had originally been planning on meeting my sister and showing her some of the beautiful canyons and skies of Utah. Unfortunately weather did not cooperate and I wound up being alone right on the Colorado border. Well, not alone, for there was a rental truck. So...dirt roads and long distance traveling ho!
I had been through the area and seen Hovenweep before, but a low clearance Camaro doesn't even like minor potholes, much less roads that are not in the best of conditions. So with the rental truck I pulled out the map and found all of the roads going to places I couldn't visit before but could now. In a single day I went to a coalesce bevy of ruins including Yucca House, Lowry Pueblo, Painted Hand, Cutthroat Castle, Horseshoe, and Hackberry...along with a great drive and some rock shelves that decided to scratch up the bumper on the truck. Who knows that would have happened on the "high clearance" roads I didn't take!
After getting the off-pavement bug out of my system I checked out the weather and decided to visit some out of the way places I'd always wanted to see. I drove on out to the Gila Cliff Dwellings which always seemed a bit out of the way and never on a travel path. What an amazing place. The cliff dwellings are cool, but the real beauty lies in the Gila Wilderness. The roads just snaked around through the ridges and trees, reminding me of some wonderful California highways, and all around were great fishing creeks, campgrounds, trailheads. The dwellings are almost secondary to the amazing places around them, including one great vacation tackle store that still had cold drinks. A wonderful area that I'll need to research more and revisit again for sure.
Driving back Wes5t to visit my uncle, I pulled out the atlas and noticed that the VLA was close by. How could I not resist seeing one of the great scientific instruments of our time! Originally I had planned on camping out in the mountains. Running late, I pulled into a ranger station after it was closed and, for the first time ever, I encountered...a padlocked water spigot! The potable water was completely locked and unattainable!! Plans foiled. Adding up the remaining water in the truck yielded only half a liter, so camping was out of the question. It was the middle of nowhere, Quemodo, time to head back and check out the "new" motel, the only one around for miles. What a great little place that turned out to be! Between hearing a wonderful banter in the town's only grocery store resulting in the cost being put on a tab (wow, that still happens!) to excellent chili burgers the brief stay there was quite unique. Ironically there was even satellite TV, the first real TV I'd seen in over a week! The next day was a great drive out to the VLA and spending some time photographing the majestic dishes and plains.
After visiting my uncle in Arizona for the afternoon it was time to drive back to California, euphoria in tow looking forward to the slog of work yet to come. Phenomenal how many different things filled such a whirlwind tour, reinforcing not only places I've loved but places I should go back to again. I hope I never am forced to leave the beauty of the Southwest.
This was my first longer trip where I only used the a900 system. The 24-70 zoom lens and some of the enlargements from Chaco Canyon had made me a fan, so from that time I went "all in". I fleshed out the body with a 16-35 wide angle lens and an older Russian circular fisheye (as useless company claimed they had a Sigma mount but instead it was a Nikon...). I definitely shoot a lot more pictures with the digital system and I have a lot to learn about how it responds. I'll learn but it definitely will take some time to adjust.
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Some fun shots from my trip from the Lytro are available here.