Road Trip Day 30: Home, via Missouri and Western Illinois

Last day of traveling! We were up around quarter to 8 am, had a pretty decent breakfast compliments of the Days Inn, and were on the road by 9:30 am.

Very shortly after we got on I-70, we crossed the Kansas River into Kansas City, MO, which is where the downtown part of the city actually is. As was often the case on this trip, driving through downtown was crazy (involving roads going every which way, at extremely slow speed limits, with signs pointing us to exit here, merge there, etc), so I didn’t see much of the city. Dave pointed out Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals play, after I had mostly passed it. Oh well – we’ll be back.

Around 11:30 am, we left the interstate behind and turned off on to Route 63. We thought it would be a slow, tiny road, but it turned out to be a decent highway. This took us north, bringing us to the small town of Moberly about 30 minutes later. Here we turned off onto Route 24, which really was a tiny, slow road.

We arrived in Hannibal, MO just after 1 pm. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend here, because we really just wanted to get home at this point, but we plan to return at some point. It is most well-known for being the birthplace of Mark Twain, but it is also just generally charming and has a lot of fun historical stuff to explore.

We sent a text message to our friend Jeremy (who also hails from Hannibal) to get his recommendations on where we should eat lunch. We ended up at LulaBelle’s, one of the places he suggested. A former brothel, it is now a restaurant and B&B. We had some yummy catfish sandwiches and were back on the road by 2 pm.

Hannibal, being on the Mississippi River, is also on the edge of Missouri. We picked up I-72 here and crossed the river into Illinois, our new home state. We were promptly greeted by seeing several state troopers on either side of the freeway, and decided that it would be prudent not to continue going 80 mph as we had for so much of the trip. We arrived in Champaign, safe and sound (and without any speeding tickets) around 5 pm.

We got to our new house to find a beat up black Suburban parked in the driveway, with the driver’s side door wide open and the keys in the ignition. We thought this was terrifically sketchy. Our landlady, Vian, had left the backdoor open for us with the keys inside, so we cautiously entered the house to make sure everything was okay inside. There was nothing out of the ordinary there. Dave called Vian to ask if she knew anything about this truck. She laughed and said that the “rustbucket” (as she called it) was her husband’s. We breathed a sigh of relief and made sure to greet him when he came back for the truck.

Welcome home, right?

Road Trip Day 29: Kansas

We left Maryland four weeks ago today. What a journey it has been so far! Tomorrow we will be home in Champaign and then the new adventure begins.

Gregory Inn, DenverThis morning we were up at 8 am, and went upstairs around 9 am for the “breakfast” part of our B&B stay. It was DELICIOUS. The breakfast of the day was vanilla hazelnut pancakes (with the crunchy hazelnuts inside), apple sausage, eggs, fruit, and of course any beverage we wanted (juice, milk, tea, coffee). The space was perfect for serving a nice quiet breakfast. We were the only ones in the inside dining area, though there was a group outside on the patio, where the weather was perfectly sunny and warming up to the low 70s. What a beautiful day!

However, we could not spend the rest of our day lounging at the Gregory Inn. We left the hotel around 10:30 am, and drove around downtown Denver a bit just to get a feel for it. We took some photos of the State House and the surrounding area. As we headed out of town, I spotted another stimulus project sign. We stopped at Starbucks in Aurora off I-7, and were officially on the road around 11:15 am.

As we drove through Eastern Colorado, it was as though the mountains had never existed. The land was pure high prairie – flat grazing land, corn, etc, though still at around 5,000 feet in elevation.

Welcome to KansasWe crossed into Kansas around 1:30 pm and – as expected – the terrain didn’t change. The time did change a while later – for whatever reason, the time zone line is somewhat east of the CO-KS border, so we went from 2:20 pm (Mountain) to 3:30 pm (Central) a number of miles into the state of Kansas.

Other than a few unexpected oil rigs here and there – who knew Kansas was an oil producer? Not I – pretty much all we saw for several hours was corn fields and grazing lands. Around quarter to 6 pm, the land suddenly became rather hilly, and we passed a large windmill farm. The windmills were dotted all over the hills, and at one point the interstate was actually higher than the nearest windmill, allowing for an unusual view of the turbines rotating past our car.

At approximately Mile 342, I spotted a sign explaining that this stretch of I-70 was the first 8 miles of the Interstate Highway System to be completed. Interesting bit of trivia.

We drove through Topeka, and about ten minutes later we arrived at the toll road at 8 pm. Having managed to avoid toll roads through almost our entire trip (the Golden Gate Bridge was the exception), it took us a few minutes to figure out what the deal was. We managed to come up with exact change – $2.15 – when the toll road ended about 35 miles later.

We arrived at the Kansas City Speedway Days Inn around 8:30 pm, our destination for the evening. We got settled into our room, and found a brochure recommending local restaurants. We ended up eating dinner at a nearby townie bar called Sunset Bar & Grill, where I got a grilled chicken salad and Dave got a chicken marinara sandwich. It was the right amount of food for such a late evening. Such a shame that we missed out on one of Kansas City’s claims to fame, Kansas City BBQ – my favorite kind of barbecue.

Road Trip Day 28: Rocky Mountain National Park and Denver

It was awfully cold this morning. It had been cold all night, and when we came out of the tent we found that the ground was covered in frost. The tent area of the Elk Creek Campground (which is quite nice despite yesterday night’s experience; I would love to be able to recommend it) is surrounded by a creek, so you have to cross a little footbridge to get to the main building where the bathrooms are, and another little footbridge to get to where the tent campers park their cars. These bridges were quite white with frost – this is where I could see things getting dangerous in the dark, once the temperature drops. It was nice to have access to a nice warm bathroom. We got dressed and ready, quickly broke down our tent (with cold numb hands), and drove off around 8:15 am.

After I managed to get some tea at a little market in Grand Lake, we stopped just outside the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. We explained to the ranger that we were visiting for the first time, that we were only there for the day, and that we were looking for a nice, flat, 3-4 mile hike. She gave us several suggestions and a couple of maps, and sent us on our way.

Her first suggestion took us back through the town of Grand Lake to a trailhead called East Inlet. Before we hit the trail, we sat in the car and ate the yummy muffins we had bought yesterday at the Moab farmer’s market. We then walked 0.3 miles to see Adams Falls. As we hiked in, we saw a deer quite close the trail, having her breakfast. A few yards later was another one, though further away and harder to photograph.

Adams Falls were lovely. The loop trail took us to an overlook above a particularly steep part of the falls (where they take a sharp left turn into a very cool gorge), then up above where the falls are a bit calmer, then back to the trail out. We saw the same deer, still having breakfast, and headed back to the car.

We drove back to the park entrance and officially entered Rocky Mountain National Park. Not far along the road we noticed that a number of cars had congregated along the road, usually a sign that there is some wildlife to be seen. We stopped and it took a while to see what they had been looking at. There was a moose – and, as I noticed some moments later, her baby – grazing behind some low trees at the other end of the meadow. Most likely the moose had been out in the open just before we got there, because a lot of people drove away just as we arrived. We couldn’t see them clearly, but we spent some time watching them anyway, trying to get a better view.

Our next destination was the Holzwarth Trailhead. Before we turned in, Dave spotted some wildlife here as well. Just off the parking lot, we could see an elk. As we joined a gaggle of tourists at the edge of the parking lot, I noticed that the entire herd was in the meadow just behind this individual elk, and that the viewing was much better from the trail. Dave hurried over to the trail with his camera, while I gathered our water bottles, since we were planning to hike that direction anyway. As I came up the trail, I was able to see a dozen or so elk mamas and babies, which were starting to gallop away. A volunteer ranger passed me and chatted with me a for a few minutes. “Nice little herd,” he said.

The trail here is a flat lovely half-mile carriage road through the main meadow of the Kawuneeche Valley and across the Colorado River. The river here is charming – just a few miles from its source, it’s more like a stream than the vast body of water it later becomes. We walked half a mile in to a grove where we found a grouping of historical buildings – the Holzwarth Historical site. The ranger there gave us, and the family who arrived at the same time as us, a little tour of the main building (known as the Mama cabin) and told us the story of the Holzwarth family. The site had originally been founded as a ranch, but when that became impractical, the Holzwarths turned it into a fishing resort. It was very interesting. When we exited the cabin, the ranger encouraged me and Dave to put on the vintage garb that was hanging on the outside wall – Dave dressed in a heavy buffalo coat, and I dressed in an apron and bonnet. The ranger chuckled as he took our photo.

We then drove just a bit further to the Colorado River Trailhead. It was here that we began our “long” hike for the day. The ranger at the visitor center described a spot, about 2.3 miles up the trail to the former site of Lulu City, called Shipler’s Cabin. She said that recently she had seen, and heard numerous reports from others, about a herd of bighorn sheep and lambs hanging out in this area. So we aimed for that, hitting the trail right at noon. The first hundred yards from the trailhead were awful – straight up to the main trail – but thankfully that was the only real climb. Though the trail did go up and down a bit, for the most part it was flat, and followed the banks of the Colorado River. We saw lovely meadows, some beautiful views of the Never Summer Mountains, lots of different kinds of plants and trees, and of course the river. There were quite a few people on the trail, but it wasn’t so crowded as to be annoying.

We got to Shipler’s Cabin at 1 pm and saw nothing more than a broken-down cabin. We were expecting at least a sign designating the spot as such. There were no sheep in sight. As a destination, it was underwhelming.

There was a little trail off the main trail that led to the riverbank, and here we sat and enjoyed peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. It was very peaceful. I was hoping to see some river otters, but there didn’t seem to be any in this area.

We headed back the way we came and were back to the car around 2:30 pm. As we arrived at the parking lot, a couple of different families asked if this was the Colorado River trail. We gave each of them some information, but we were slow to realize that what these folks were trying to do was play in the river. This isn’t really the easiest way to get to the river, actually. One of the families was actually deterred by my description of the initial ascent (I overstated it a bit by using the word “brutal”, though that word probably was appropriate considering they had three small children, one of which was already complaining that her sandals was hurting her feet). I redirected them to the Holzwarth site, where the trail is flat, you can see the river much easier, and the rangers can entertain the children with historical stories. They were grateful.

We continued along the Trail Ridge Road, and at this point it started to climb into the heights of the Rockies. After an initial climb part-way up the mountains where there was a series of five crazy switchbacks, we stopped at Farview Curve, where there was a magnificent view of the Kawuneeche Valley below, as well as a 360-degree view of the various mountain ranges in the neighborhood, particularly the Never Summer Mountains to the west. It was also a good spot to take note of the damage done by mountain pine beetles – perhaps 50% of the lodgepole pines in sight had turned brown due to these destructive little creatures.

Up and up, passing a sign informing us that we were now 2 miles high, and then continuing to climb. We arrived at Milner Pass and stopped in the parking lot here, took a photo of the sign for the Continental Divide, and also briefly admired Poudre Lake.

We continued along, stopping just before the Alpine Visitor Center at Medicine Bow Curve. Here is a breathtaking view of the Cache la Poudre River winding along the valley thousands of feet below, and the beautiful ridges that surround the valley.

We almost didn’t stop at the Alpine Visitor Center, but I managed to get a parking spot, so we got out and looked at the view a bit. There is also a hike from here to a point where you can see the entire valley. We didn’t want to take the time, nor did we feel like hiking at that altitude and in the 54 degree weather. By now it was 3:30 pm, and we needed to continue on.

It was not much further that Trail Ridge Road peaked at 12,183 feet, though there was no sign marking the occasion. We were now at the highest point in the highest continuous freeway in the United States. We stopped once or twice more for photo opps, but mostly continued along the road, now dropping inexorably in elevation. At one point, while we were still very high up, the road took us along the very top of a ridge, where there was no mountain wall on either side. I thought whoever designed this road must have been crazy. *smile*

We got to the valley on the east side of the park around 4:30 pm. We were pretty tired and ready to leave by this point. But we took a quick side trip to the Endovalley, driving past the Alluvial Fan, which actually looked a lot cooler from up above. Then we headed out of the park, spotting a couple of male mule deer on our way out.

As we approached Estes Park, I spotted another stimulus project. Unfortunately I’ve lost count of how many we’ve seen across the country, but rest assured that there were lots.

In Estes Park we drove past the Stanley Hotel, which was the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. By 6 pm we were driving through Boulder, passing the University of Colorado. A bit later we drove through Broomfield, passing the Sun Microsystems campus there, which had not yet been changed to say “Oracle”.

The mountains were shadowy in the near distance. Just past Broomfield on Highway 36, there were a couple of prairie dog colonies along the side of the freeway, which I found very entertaining.

We arrived in Denver by 6:30 pm and found our hotel, a cute bed & breakfast in Lower Downtown Denver (LoDo) called the Gregory Inn. We got ourselves settled into our cozy room, enjoyed nice hot showers, and called a car around 8 pm.

Dave’s choice for dinner was the Wynkoop Brewing Company in downtown. He had been there before while at a Sun Microsystems conference, and was eager to return. We had drinks and a good dinner – buffalo taco salad for me and a buffalo burrito for Dave. (Note that in this part of the country, buffalo means meat from buffalos, not spicy sauce.)

We checked out the 16th Street Mall by riding the free shuttle up the middle of it, then walked from there back to our B&B, making it to bed by 11:30 pm.

Road Trip Day 27: Utah to Colorado

Sign for Arches National ParkThis morning we got up around 7 am and availed ourselves of the lovely showers at the campground. (If you’re ever considering tent camping in Moab, I highly recommend the Up the Creek Campground.) The music from the Relay for Life was still going, though by the time I got back to the tent, they were wrapping things up with “I Had the Time of My Life”.

We made bacon and eggs for breakfast, and then Dave and I packed up all our stuff. Michelle and Eric decided to stay at this campground for another night, since they were planning to spend the entire day at Arches and leave the next morning to continue visiting Southern Utah’s other national parks. We said farewell, and Dave and I were off by 10 am.

We stopped briefly at the farmer’s market at Moab’s City Park. There wasn’t much produce to speak of, and no meat at all that I could see, so we bought some muffins to eat for tomorrow’s breakfast and then headed on our way.

Arches National Park is just up the road from Moab (only about 5 miles), so Dave and I figured we would breeze through, take some photos of some arches, and then hit the road. Somehow we ended up spending a lot more time there than we expected.

We stopped by the visitors center for a bit to buy some postcards and get a sense of what we should spend our time on. By 10:30 am we finally were driving up the scenic road that is the backbone of Arches National Park. The road is about 18 miles long, one way. There are many lovely views from the road itself, and there are also a number of spur roads off the main road that allow for views of some of the park’s most popular arches, as well as trails to get up close to those arches, and/or to view arches that aren’t visible from the road.

The weather today was breezy (though not as windy as yesterday) and the high was predicted to be around 85 degrees – thankfully not blazing hot as it normally would be in August.

At our first couple of stops along the road we were surrounded by French people, who were part of a tour group that we kept leap-frogging. Thankfully we managed to breeze past them before long – it would have been annoying to deal with all day long.

Courthouse Towers, Arches National ParkWe stopped first at the Courthouse Towers, which are a couple of very large towers (apparently resembling a courthouse to the original explorers). Then we stopped at Balanced Rock and walked all the way around it. I tried not to get annoyed at the numerous tourists who disregarded the multiple prominent signs exhorting visitors to stay on the trails and be careful not to tread on the delicate desert foliage.

Jenn and Dave at the Turret ArchAfter this we took one of the spur roads off the main road and drove over to The Windows Section. Here we parked the car and walked a very short trail to see the North Window, South Window, and the Turret Arch. These were pretty cool, and any visitor could easily walk right up and under the arches. It’s a spot where you could easily spend several hours just hanging out among the rocks and poking around the trails. It’s also adjacent to another set of rocks that feature the “Cove of Caves” and the “Double Arch”, which we didn’t have time to explore.

We got back in the car, stopped briefly to take photos of the “Garden of Eden” formations, then continued along the road, admiring the amazingly varied scenery.

Delicate ArchA bit later we turned off the main road again and drove to the parking lot below the Delicate Arch. There is a trail from Wolfe Ranch that allows visitors to hike all the way up to the arch, but we chose to hike a much shorter, quarter-mile trail to a viewpoint from which you can take better photos. I found the one bit of shade at the top of the viewpoint and tried to stay out of the sun while Dave took pictures of the arch.

After this, we went back to the main road and pretty much drove straight through to the end, stopping only once or twice to take photos from the car. The rock formations at the end of the scenic road were pretty cool. Here are trailheads to some other hikes, including the “Devil’s Garden”, which seemed pretty cool. However, we needed to get going.

We returned to the visitor’s center and filled our water bottles, and left Arches National Park about quarter after 2 pm. We went back to Moab, fueled up the car, grabbed a quick meal at Wendy’s, and were on the road before 3 pm. It was much later than we had planned to leave, and with a 6 hour drive ahead of us, we were a little anxious.

We chose to take Highway 128 back to I-70, to enjoy the “second most scenic drive in America” from our car. It really was beautiful, driving along the Colorado River, and enjoying the towers and canyons one last time. It was about 40-50 miles, and took about an hour. At approximately mile 35, the scenery completely changed, and we found ourselves on a nondescript open range – no canyons, towers, or arches in sight. It’s amazing how fast the terrain changes.

View along Highway 128

We were on I-70 by 4 pm, and pretty much stayed focused on driving for several hours straight, out of Utah and across Colorado. The interstate follows the Colorado River for the most part, cleverly winding through the river valleys of successively higher mountain ranges. It’s a beautiful drive, especially as you climb higher and higher into the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

My favorite section, where we didn’t get to stop and to which I hope we can return, was Glenwood Springs. This is also the exit for Aspen. The river here had some great whitewater. This was near the beginning of a section of White River National Forest. If the view from the interstate was gorgeous, I can only imagine what the backcountry must look like. The only bad part here was that the speed limit was ridiculously low here, which was nerve-wracking considering the number of miles we needed to cover today. Here the highway was divided so that the westbound traffic was higher than and in some places actually on top of the eastbound traffic – the only way they could squeeze four lanes of traffic into such a narrow canyon and still allow room for the river to flow alongside it.

The highway continued to climb higher, along with the mountains, as we continued to drive eastward. We drove through Vail, where I saw another American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sign, but the only construction I saw was the creation of a new resort. Hopefully that is not our tax dollars at work! I actually saw three stimulus signs along this drive in Colorado, but no construction work that seemed to be related. Hmm.

After Vail, we climbed a pass over 10,000 feet high. Then we wound around Copper Mountain, and passed the exit for Breckenridge.

Eisenhower-Johnson TunnelThere had been a couple of spots where the interstate drove through tunnels in the mountain, but the most significant was the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel not far beyond Vail. It was here that we crossed the Continental Divide, but we didn’t get a photo because we weren’t expecting it. At approximately 1.7 miles long, the tunnel is the longest mountain tunnel in the Interstate highway system.

We finally stopped for dinner after 7:30 pm in a tiny former mining town called Georgetown, CO. We had a light dinner at a pub called The Raven Inn. Our waitress, Amy, was very friendly. After dinner, we put more gas in the car, and were on the road by 8:30 pm for the last leg of today’s drive.

Here we left the interstate and took Highway 40 north along the mountains. The sun had completely set by now, and it was VERY dark, and a little scary because the road is very curvy here. It had also apparently just rained in this area, and we were thankful that at least we didn’t have to be driving in the rain.

Thankfully, as we turned off Highway 40 onto Highway 34, the road flattened out a bit, and there was a lot more civilization (and therefore light). It was still pretty dark, though, since to our right were dark mountains and even darker lakes that we couldn’t even see. We got some great views of the mountains, as the storm had crossed the ridge but remained on the other side, with the lightning giving us a spectacular show. We were glad to be enjoying it from this side of the ridge. =)

We drove through the town of Granby, skirted the edge of Lake Granby and then Shadow Lake, and finally found ourselves at the town of Grand Lake, just outside the southwestern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

I had made a pre-paid reservation at the Elk Creek Campground, which is just a mile or so from the park entrance, knowing that we wouldn’t get there early enough (especially for a Saturday) to get one of the Park Service’s first-come, first-serve campsites. What I didn’t know is that we would get a hassle at this campground. We pulled up to the campground office just before 10 pm and found a “Late Check In” envelope on the door. This is standard – what is not standard is the note we found inside. It informed us that if we were arriving after dark, “for the sake of your own safety please do not go to your assigned site”. It suggested that we “find an alternative” or spend the night in the parking lot. Dave thought this was ridiculous so we set up our tent anyway. With our headlamps, the full moon, and the campfire of the neighboring campers, we weren’t really in any danger. All we needed to do was sleep, and we were leaving early the next morning anyway.

Road Trip Day 26: Expeditions from Moab

Jenn holds up a boulder outside Canyonlands National ParkWe got up early this morning (6 am), had a couple of quick muffins for breakfast, and were driving away from the campground at 7 am. We got to Tag-A-Long Expeditions by 7:15 am as we had been instructed, ready to begin the first of our two scheduled half-day excursions.

However, when we checked in, the woman behind the desk looked at Michelle as though she had two heads. “We left you a message,” she said. Well, of course they left a message on Michelle’s answering machine at home in Kingsburg, so we had no idea what the message said. The woman explained that they switched our excursion schedule, so we didn’t have to be there until 8:45 am. This made us all a little grumpy, because we could have used another hour and a half of sleep.

To kill time, we went to a nearby cafe called Eklecticafe, and had a little pick-me-up. The patio was surrounded with lovely flowers and there were hummingbirds coming and going; it almost blocked out the noise of the cars going by on the main road just a few feet away.

That didn’t take as long as we expected, so we walked around the main street of Moab a bit. There are one or two blocks of cute local shops – bookstores and art shops, along with a few requisite cheesy tourist stores – and we poked our heads into a couple of them.

We were back to Tag-A-Long before 8:45 am as instructed, paid up, and got our gear for the first excursion. We had been expecting to go on a 4X4 excursion in the morning and then rafting the Colorado River in the afternoon. This made the most sense to us – save the wet part for the hot part of the day, and not have wet clothing all day. However, with the switch, we were now going rafting first.

There were 30-40 people on the excursion, and they piled us all into an old schoolbus for the 35 minute drive to the put-in. We drove along State Route 128, which the lead guide informed us is the second most scenic drive in the United States. (Highway 1 in California, aka Pacific Coast Highway, is supposedly #1.) The road winds alongside the Colorado River, which is of course scenic enough. Additionally, there is a spot where the canyon wall looks like an alligator (no joke, but hard to photograph). We also passed a blue heron rookery, a couple of resort ranches, and of course some pretty cool rock formations towering above the adjacent valley.

We got on the river and found ourselves in a boat with a family of 3 adults and 3 pre- and early-teenaged boys. Our guide was the lead guide for today’s trip, a guy in his mid-20s named Will from Connecticut. He confessed to the ten of us that he had chosen us because we’re all English speakers. We had noticed that the majority of the people on the trip were French, and that indeed a large percentage of the people in Moab that day were French-speaking. It’s not so much fun for the guides, because it makes it hard to chat and share information. Not to mention that it’s not very safe in an emergency situation.

What was odd to us is that none of us had paddles. The excursion was called “Scenic Splash”, not whitewater rafting, although we did see a few Class 1 and 2 rapids. It’s common in this part of the river for the guides to row the tourists all the way down the river. There were a few other excursion companies on the river today, and very few boats had non-guides doing any paddling at all.

This was very unfortunately for Will – and for the other guides – because it was EXTREMELY windy today. The wind was blowing upstream at perhaps 30-35 mph, causing whitecaps on the water, and it would have probably blown all the rafts upstream if the guides weren’t rowing so hard. We felt really bad that Will was working so hard, and we were doing nothing. It also made it harder for him to be a tour guide, since he was having to put so much effort into the physical aspects of the job. Apparently, on most days, they can let the river do most of the work.

Besides that, it was a very pleasant float down the river. The scenery was beautiful, and the views from the river are really special. We were able to go in for a swim fairly early on, which was a bit cold at first, but enjoyable. Later, we were invited to body surf a set of (very minor) rapids. Eric chose to do so, but the rest of us stayed in the boat. The few other rapids we encountered weren’t much to talk about – fun, but nothing serious. The wind was a favorable factor for those of us who weren’t rowing – it wasn’t nearly as blazing hot as it might otherwise have been.

We were probably on the river for 2-3 hours. At the end of it, all the guides were completely wiped out. Unfortunately for them, they had to continue along the river with the folks who were on the afternoon excursion. Will told us that he was thinking about cancelling it, because it wasn’t necessarily safe for them to be paddling in those winds, as tired as they all were at that point. But, based on conversations with the guides from the other excursion companies, they apparently decided to continue, because they were already on the river as we drove away in the bus.

Because of the wind, we got to the take-out somewhat later than normal, so we were worried that we might have missed our connection to our 4X4 excursion. As it turned out, we didn’t have to be concerned. As soon as I got off the bus, a guide was asking the bus driver if he knew who was scheduled to be on the 4X4 excursion. I said, “That’s us!” It turned out that we were the only ones on the excursion – hooray for a private tour!

After we gathered ourselves a bit, we all hopped into the vehicle (somewhat ironically, it was a Ford Excursion), and he took us first to the park for lunch. As we ate our sandwiches, we learned a bit about our guide Mike. He was fascinating, and an endless fount of knowledge and opinions about the desert, as well as numerous other topics.

Mike started off by taking us along Highway 313, the road we took yesterday to get to Corona Arch, passing the mysterious Department of Energy site as we turned off Highway 199. He told us the whole story, about how Moab was originally founded as a uranium mining company. The site we now see is one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites, to clean up the uranium and prevent it from getting it into the Colorado River (which, by the way, supplies a great percentage of Southern California’s drinking water – you can draw your own conclusions about that).

Panoramic view of potash drying field

The paved road basically ended when we got to the potash processing plant. Mike shared his fascination with the potash mining process, and we quickly became equally intrigued. A few miles up the road (after nearly being nailed by one or two semis on the gravel road) we were treated to views of the potash drying fields, which were a spectacular crystal blue. Mike explained that on a windless day, the ponds are mirrors of the surrounding canyons, which gave us yet another reason to regret the wind.

Mike explained the geology of our surroundings in great detail as we drove through beautiful canyons and vistas. We stopped at one vista called “Thelma and Louise Point”. Indeed it was the site of the final scene in “Thelma and Louise”. Just above us was Dead Horse Point, which we had decided to skip yesterday. The story behind the name is really troubling.

Canyonlands National ParkWe continued along the gravel road, crossing a couple of dry creeks that Mike explained are very, very dangerous when there are flash flood conditions. He had a lot of really great search-and-rescue stories, which he was happy to share with us as we drove. We entered Canyonlands National Park about midway through the trek, though there was little change to mark our change in status, other than the fact that there was a small privy there. We continued along and soon came to a high cliff and then proceeded to climb it – the road becoming a series of narrow, steep switchbacks to bring us to the ridge.

We stopped about halfway up the cliff so Mike could show us some dinosaur artifacts. In a recent avalanche, this boulder came loose and came to rest here along the road. Embedded in the boulder were very clear dinosaur fossils, including a chunk of legbone that was at least a foot long, and 3-4 inches in diameter. We were able to touch them and examine them closely – how often do you get to do that? Mike told us that at this spot, as well as some other nearby spots he could take us to, it would be easy for us to poke around and find dinosaur fossils within 15-20 minutes. On top of an adjacent rock, previous visitors had left a few other small fossils they had found nearby. Pretty cool. (Though I couldn’t help remembering the line from Friends, when Phoebe is arguing with Ross about dinosaurs, and she says, “Now the real question is, who put them there, and why?”)

We finished climbing the crazy cliff, and drove along the canyon rim for a bit. We then exited Canyonlands National Park at the Islands in the Sky entrance, where we should have been asked to pay (though it would have been free for me and Dave, Michelle and Eric still had to buy their own park pass), but the fee station was unmanned. At this point we were back on pavement for a bit, until Mike suddenly and without warning swerved to the left onto another gravel road.

Driving through Pucker PassHe stopped to show us a vista that he considers to be one of the most breathtaking anywhere, at the top of Long Canyon. It was truly a diverse and expansive view. It also happened to be the spot where Michael Jordan shot one of his Air Jordan commercials. He then drove down a road called Pucker Pass, so named because you feel you have to pucker in order to get your vehicle to fit through the canyon. It was a tight fit, but with Mike’s expert driving, we made it easily. (It would probably be a lot more challenging in inclement weather, though.)

Petroglyphs in MoabWe made our way down to river level, and stopped briefly to photograph the Jughandle Arch. We continued on and found ourselves back on Highway 313, heading back the way we had originally come. We stopped to examine the petroglyphs on the canyon wall (not far from where we saw the dinosaur tracks yesterday), and Mike did a good job of pointing out the numerous different drawings in various spots along the wall. There really were quite a bit – it would be really interesting to know what thoughts were behind them.

We got back to Moab around 6 pm, having had a relaxing morning on the river and an intellectually stimulating (though orthopedically jarring) afternoon. We returned to camp and had chicken, rice, and veggies for dinner around 8 pm.

Our campsite at Up the Creek CampgroundFrom the time we returned to the campground, we heard loud music drifting over from the high school campus on the other side of the creek from the campground. It sounded like some kind of dance party, and we figured it would end shortly. As it continued to go on, we became more and more curious. After dinner, Michelle and I walked over to see what it was all about. We found that it was a Relay for Life walk around the high school track, to raise funds for cancer research. We overheard the DJ say that it would be going on until 8 am the next morning. We groaned – what were the odds that we would be staying at a campground right next to an all-night cancer walk?!?

It was too early for bed, but too breezy and june-buggy to hang out, so the four of us went to get ice cream at the Moab Diner. It wasn’t the greatest service, but I had some really tasty cherry pie, and in any case it was good to experience a bit of the town. It was only a couple of blocks away, so it was a quick walk back to our campground, and we were in bed by 10:30 pm, listening to the generic DJ music motivating the all-night walkers.

Road Trip Day 25: Utah

San Rafael SwellWe got to sleep in a bit today – got up at 8 am, had some muffins for breakfast, and were on the road by 9:30 am. We decided to mix things up a bit – Michelle rode in our Ford Escape while I drove, and Dave rode with Eric in his Suburban.

The morning was pretty focused on driving, so we could get to Moab by early afternoon. We took I-15 to I-70 and headed east. We stopped in Richfield, UT around 11 am to get gas, and forged ahead.

A little after noon, we spotted a “scenic overlook”, which turned out to be the San Rafael Swell. It was quite an interesting panoramic scene, with a variety of interesting geological features. Another amusing aspect was the sign that said, “No vendors”, under which there were a number of people selling jewelry, pottery, and other tchotchkes on spread-out blankets.

Michelle and I also stopped sometime later at the Spotted Wolf Canyon overlook – lured by the name, thinking we would see wolves, but of course it was just a clever name. It was an interesting spot, though, explaining how the road below had been tightly squeezed through the narrow canyon below. Dave and Eric, separately, also stopped at each overlook to take photos of the views.

Finally we got off the interstate at Highway 199 and headed south toward Moab. When we got to the turnoff to Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park, Michelle and I stopped to look over the information posted there on a kiosk. Our tentative plan had been to do some scenic driving and/or hiking in Dead Horse, but we decided against it (primarily because we didn’t feel like paying $10 per vehicle when we can get into national parks for free). When Eric and Dave caught up to us, we discussed it, and decided to proceed into Moab, and to set up our camp site.

We arrived in Moab at 2 pm, at the Up the Creek campground. First order of business was to eat lunch – it was late and we were starving. We wolfed down some sandwiches, and then set up our tents. The camp sites were very well organized and managed: the campground instructions were explicit that tents be set up to the left of the picnic bench, and not on the grass. In the allotted space, we managed to fit our two tents side-by-side just perfectly. (Actually we had to move the picnic bench slightly.) The campground is set up so that you can’t drive up to your site, which is actually really nice, because then people can’t drive up next to your head while you’re sleeping. Instead, the parking is at the entrance from the street, and carts are provided to schlep your gear to your camp site.

Once the camp site was all set up, we decided to go for a hike. Consulting Michelle’s printouts from discovermoab.com, we chose a hike nearby called the Corona Arch trail. It only took us about 20 minutes to get there, crossing the Colorado River and following it along a canyon.

First view of Bow Tie Arch & Corona ArchWe started the hike at around 4:45 pm. From the parking lot, there is a very short trail that goes straight up the side of the hill for just a bit, to get to the trailhead. From there, the trail is relatively flat. It’s a quick hike – only about a mile. We went along a narrow canyon, over an open rocky area, around another wall and then down a bit. Then, we had to negotiate a somewhat vertical 25′ rock, using an anchored cable and some carved footholds, and then a ladder to get up and over the next rock. This was where we started to get our first views of the attractions we came to see – the Bow Tie Arch and the Corona Arch. From this spot, the Bow Tie Arch was particularly lovely, because below it are a few different levels of spots where the water lands coming out of the arch’s hole, allowing plants to grow and causing some green streaks on the rocks below.

Sun peeks through Corona ArchWe hiked around, beneath the Bow Tie Arch (which is created by a horizontal hole in the ridge, and surrounds a hollow in the rock below it) and over to the Corona Arch. It was great to be so close to the arch, getting a sense of the scale. It is X’ tall and x’ wide, and the rock width is X’ in thickness. We spent quite a bit of time just chillin’ and taking photos of the arch and the surroundings. Eric also found that the rock wall created a great spot for an echo, and he experimented with getting the canyon to talk back to him.

A very satisfying hike. We were lucky, because the weather was somewhat overcast when we were hiking, and for a few minutes we wondered if we would get rained on. A few drops came down, but then it blew away. As we hiked back to the car, the sky was completely clear and the sun beat down – we were thankful that it hadn’t been as hot and sunny at the beginning of the hike. The hike took about an hour and a half – we were back to the car around 5:45 pm.

Colorado River at Gold Bar picnic areaWe went across the street to play with the river a bit, but there wasn’t a good place to do that. There was a very muddy boat launch, but the rest of the park (Gold Bar picnic area) was low cliffs. We sat on a couple of rocks with our feet in the water, but the current was too swift to do much else.

As we drove back out the canyon, we stopped briefly where there was a sign indicating “Dinosaur Tracks”. A sign explained that there was a viewing pipe by the side of the road. We looked and finally found it hidden inside a bush, but it did point us in the right direction. Using Michelle’s binoculars, we were able to see two dinosaur tracks a few dozen yards up the opposite hill – one quite clear, and the other somewhat fainter.

We continued along the road and noted all the rock climbers along the side of the road, narrowly managing to avoid running over the dog accompanying one group – he was not on a leash, and had decided to sit down in the middle of the road and lick himself. Dave and I were not impressed with their dog guardian etiquette.

Getting back to Highway 199 to turn back into Moab, we were fascinated by a construction project there between the railroad tracks and the river, at the junction of the two highways. We pulled over to look at the signs posted and were even more fascinated by the one with the radioactive sign. The signs indicated that it was a US Department of Energy project. Another sign around the corner said “UMTRA”. Interesting!

We stopped in Moab to poke around in a bookstore, and then went back to our campground for the rest of the evening.

None of the camp sites had fire pits or grills. Instead, the campground provided two gas grills for the campers to use to cook food. Dave grilled up some hot dogs, while Michelle cooked beans on our camp stove and cut up some fruit salad. There was a nice patch of grass behind our tents, where we set up our camp chairs and relaxed while we ate dinner. After dinner, I washed all the dishes in the utility sink provided at the campground (complete with eco-friendly dish soap) and we settled in for the night.

We started a game of Quiddler, but didn’t finish, because the june bugs were getting a little too friendly, and the wind was blowing so hard that the draw pile was disappearing before we could draw cards. Even though it was only 9:30 pm, we decided to call it a night.

Road Trip Day 24: California to Utah

Road through the desertThis morning we got up at 5:15 am, got all of our stuff ready, and were out of the house by 6:30 am. We drove to Kingsburg, a little less than half an hour away, to meet up with my best friend Michelle and her husband Eric. They are joining us on our travels through Utah.

We left Kingsburg around 7:30 pm, driving south on Highway 99 through the Central Valley, then heading east from Bakersfield on Highway 58. Dave and I stopped briefly at Murray Farms, a large farm stand just before climbing Tehachapi Pass. When we were entering, a guy started talking to us. “Do you believe this place?” he said. “This was just a couple of tents three years ago!” It was hard to believe – it was now a full farm store, petting zoo (including some quite noisy peacocks), and miscellaneous other attractions. We were really only interested in the indoor plumbing.

We got to Barstow at 10:30 am and rendezvous’d with Michelle and Eric. It was, as expected, hot and dry.

Welcome to NevadaFrom there we took I-15 to Las Vegas. Daytime isn’t the most interesting time to approach or pass through Las Vegas. Even so, the city is gaudy and glitzy, even from the freeway. It was lunchtime, and we chose to bypass the craziness of The Strip. We drove through to North Las Vegas and stopped to eat at Subway.

Driving through ArizonaWe were back on the road around 2:30 pm, crossing the Arizona border not much after that. It’s only 30 miles through Arizona to Utah, so we didn’t see much there. We did drive through the Virgin River Gorge, which was pretty interesting – there are spots where the gorge seems very narrow, and the rock walls hug the freeway.

When we crossed the Utah border, we lost an hour by crossing into Mountain Time. We continued along I-15, passing the entrance for Zion National Park (which we visited on our first cross-country trip in 2001). The highway took us through a valley dotted with juniper and pinyon pine, typical of the Utah desert.

Cedar Breaks National MonumentWe exited the highway after 5:30 pm at Cedar City and met up again with Michelle and Eric. We stopped at Lin’s Supermarket to buy a rotisserie chicken for dinner (to save the hassle of cooking at our campsite, since it was getting late), and then headed up a windy highway to Cedar Breaks National Monument. We arrived there at 7 pm and admired the view of the canyon just below the visitor’s center, which at that point was closed.

Rainbow at Cedar Breaks National MonumentThe campground was just around the bend from the visitor’s center. There were plenty of spots, and after some discussion, we chose a nice large spot at the edge of the campground that overlooked the meadow below. It fit both tents with plenty of room. As we set up camp, it started to sprinkle. This happened a few times, but it never turned into real rain. We were relieved when the dark clouds blew away.

Cedar Breaks National Monument at nightWe ate our dinner of rotisserie chicken, pasta salad, and french bread, as the sun was going down. We had heard there was a ranger talk at 9 pm, but there was some confusion about whether it was at the visitor’s center or at the campground amphitheater. As the sky grew darker and darker, and the full moon began to rise, we hiked over to the visitor’s center and found it completely empty and dark. We hung out for a while, taking pictures of the canyon in the moonlight, and admiring the stars (which were abundant despite the brightness of the moon). We hiked back to the campground and were in bed by 10:30 pm.