This year started with a few goal-dreams and one was to get my butt to the Grand Canyon. In an act of self initiated defiance of cubicle life, I requested a week off of work and got it approved. I then picked some national parks that were near the Grand Canyon, combed through some old Backpacker magazines for ideas which eventually turned into the beginnings of an itinerary. I couldn’t believe I just planned a road trip, just like that! Great, now I just needed some adventurous camping friends to join me so I invited them and like a holy saint, I had a few followers. It. Was. Happening. Dreams coming true!
Day 1-2, Grand Canyon North Rim, AZ
On the last day of August, Lila, Lindsey and I picked up our “4WD” SUV rental and headed out to that great big hole in the ground. It was the tail end of monsoon season in Utah and Arizona so this trip was forecast to get wet and muddy. We put every positive vibe we had on getting into our campground at the north rim – dry, which didn’t look possible judging from Megan’s texts, who was already there and the dark, rainy skies. Like magic, we arrived at Demotte Campground just after sunset with clear skies! We set up camp, had beer o’clock, lit a fire and waited for John and Megan to arrive. They were out in the storm for most of the day and decided to book a room at the lodge next door, rather than chance it. They stopped by, had a beer with us and we retired early to our tent for the next day of hopeful hiking.
We woke up to clear skies! and cooked breakfast with everyone and then went on our first north rim hike on a trail called Cape Final. It was the perfect length for 70% thunderstorm warnings and had plenty of look-outs to see into the canyon. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it for the first time. Exactly like the pictures but even more endlessly massive. Just this unfathomable depth stretched out forever under clear blue skies… We lingered for a while on the rim and headed back to our car so we could get the back country road conditions for our next destination: Crazy Jug Point.
I was set up for disappointment as I watched the weather reports all week so I didn’t expect us to be able to make it out there. The ranger said that we might hit some major holes and mud because of the two inches of rain they got slammed with in the past week. But there was only one way to find out and that was to just go. She gave us a map with two ways into the area we’d camp, one was shorter but riskier and the other was longer and slightly smoother. Somehow we ended up on the later since these roads have very small markings with subtle turn-outs and the way in was relatively without a hitch until we reached the final 1/8 of mile. We had to drive through this big hole of muddy water and we went first, followed by John. We all made it and looked proudly on at all the mud that covered our car. We staked out our campsite and in less than 15 feet away, we were on the rim of the north side of the Grand FUGGIN Canyon! It was unbelievable. We made it and were going to spend the night there. Alone in the back country, despite all weather and road odds. Miracle.
It was a magical night as we watched the sun go down, perched on these rocks inside the rim of the canyon. We could hear birds fly by but other than that, not a sound. It was so vast that you couldn’t even hear your own echo. Just us, and the gaping, never ending hole. We sat out there on the rim, marveling until it was time for dinner and fire. The stars were out again and we had a clear and beautiful night all to ourselves. It was amazing and I knew it would be hard to top. Lila, Lindsey and I decided to get up for sunrise and we watched it’s glow climb out of the side of the canyon. On the other side, the shadow crept down into the canyon as the sun grew higher in the sky. It was incredible to watch and hard to avoid staring at the sun. I spent a considerable amount of time on the rim by myself drinking coffee, observing nature, watching the birds… there was this chipmunk that would make this chirping sound and every time he did, his little tail would convulse in rhythm to the chirps. There were so many different kinds of birds everywhere and I pretended that I knew how to distinguish them. We took our time de-camping, chatting with a few fellow back country travelers and made our way out, the way we thought we came in.
But the road was bumpier than before and narrower and scarier and suddenly we were in this pool of mud, as Lila swerved and maneuvered our car to avoid running into a tree. I was in the backseat trying to not have a heart attack. With both cars through, we pulled next to John, looked at our map and decided that we took a wrong turn and were probably on the other road the ranger told us about. We didn’t want to drive back through that giant hole so we kept on going, taking our chances. We passed though more rough ground and deep holes until we had some light at the end of the tunnel. Our surroundings started to look familiar and the road was opening up. There was signage! We were almost out onto the gravel road- home stretch! We finally made it out of the back country and onto the main road. We shared some ‘holy shits’ and hugs and said goodbye to Megan and John, then the three of us drove north to our next destination, Buckskin Gulch!!!
Day 3, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, UT
This was our intention, at least, to camp at Stateline Campground, just outside Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness – and hike into Buckskin Gulch, a crazy gorgeous and dangerous slot canyon just on the border of Arizona and Utah. After some wrong turns, we found the BLM ranger station and got the stats on the area. Again, lots of rain and more on the way. We had to cross this wash and drive on more bumpy roads to the campground near the slot canyon trail head, which was mostly flooded anyways. We got going and came to the wash and decided that we might be able to make it but Todd, who was meeting us, wouldn’t in his regular car so we needed a plan B. Our wrong turn earlier lead us to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park and we decided to camp out there, skip the slot canyon and hike the Toadstools nearby before heading back up to the campground. The Toadstools were insanely hot and random rock formations, just sitting out there in the middle of the desert…
The dunes were more rusty colored than pink but that’s okay, we were glamping! Our site was pristine looking and came with FREE unlimited showers! The restrooms even had a soap dispenser! We immediately set up camp and went to the dunes to play in the sand. The dunes were slightly depressing because they shared their turf with OTV drivers so they were covered in tracks winding all over. We climbed the two tallest ones and were able to find a bunch of tiny beetle tracks in the sand. It was beautiful and quite a change from the canyon.
Once we got hungry we went back to camp, started to make homemade chili and waited for Todd to arrive…. and he did past dark and on foot. His car rental got stuck in the sand on a road that he thought we’d be down. We were going to try to get him out with our car but just as we were about to embark, the ranger drove by and we flagged him down. He was making one more round through the campground before leaving, which he wasn’t going to do but something told him to! More magic and luck! Todd, Ranger Steven and me got in his truck and drove to the stuck car. He hooked up a rope and pulled the car out of the sand like a boss. It was cool to watch and nerve-racking. He even waived the extra vehicle fee for Todd’s trouble! Saint Steven! We helped Todd set up camp and drank and showered and hunted for scorpions with Lila’s UV light. We found several – glowing green under the light, hiding in the rocks. They looked fake! We even found a huge Orb Weaver spider which looked terrifying, waiting in the middle of it’s web for food. There was this massive storm brewing in the Grand Canyon that we could see all the way from our campground. I never saw so much ligtening – flash after flash after flash. Then we noticed that the flashes were getting closer to our campground and the sky was growing increasingly unclear and windy…. we went to bed just in time and were safe inside our tent when the rain started to come down. It was a wildly windy night with coyotes howling but I didn’t hear any of it under the obliviously wonderful earplugs.
The next morning we made the best breakfast ever! Chiliques! from the left over chili we had. Packed it all up and drove onto our next destination, Zion!!!
Day 4-5, Zion, UT
Driving into the park was absolutely gorgeous and I didn’t know where to look, I was surrounded on all sides by these beautiful rock formations. There were wildlife jams a plenty as tourists pulled their cars over to take photos of big horn sheep, buffalo and deer. We passed through this huge tunnel that was carved into the mountain and emerged into more beauty! We eventually made it to the other side of the park at South Campground to pick out our site before the crowds came. We re-supplied and geared up to do our first hike at the Emerald Pools. Zion runs on a shuttle system so you don’t have to drive anywhere, which is great to protect the park. We picked up the shuttle at the visitor center which was right next to our campground. The Emerald Pools consisted of 3 pools – lower, middle and high – on a trail that was being maintained. It was crowded but beautiful with natural waterfalls and steps that kept going up the trail. We got some ice cream after that and gift shopped before heading back to camp to get one more hike in before it got dark.
We did the Watchman Trail which backed up to our campground for easy access. It was supposed to be a modest 3mi trail but felt a lot longer and steeper. We wanted to watch the sunset but the tall formations all around made it difficult. We barely lingered at the top before heading back down before it got too dark, which it did – mid-trail. I relied on my night vision to make it back down, since I forgot my flashlight and made it back unscathed, in the dark. I narrowly missed a collision with a big bat who blindly was flying in and out of the trail. Starved, we made dinner and watched another storm brewing in the distance.
The next day Todd left us around 11 and we discussed with the ranger the best hike to do with more thunderstorms and flash floods forecast for the day. We decided to do The Narrows, the most popular hike in the park because the trail is the Virgin River and tapers off into a slot canyon that has potential to flash flood. This was the craziest hike I have ever done. Some people were barefoot, which I couldn’t comprehend since there were tons of slippery rocks you had to maneuver over. You criss-cross over the river the entire time, ankle to just past the knees in depth. We found these great walking sticks that others before had left which were very much needed. It was so fun and so gorgeous to be enclosed by these rock formations while wading through the water. I couldn’t stop smiling and taking photos! We made it pretty far down until the sky started to turn gray and we heard thunder in the distance. The breeze picked up and one passing hiker said that the water was deeper than before when he crossed, a symptom of a flash flood. So reluctantly, we turned back, just when it was starting to get very narrow, and made it out safely before the rain came that we somehow seemed to avoid again. There were these giant squirrels that were congregating at the trail head and they would come right up to you looking for handouts. There was a $100 fine for feeding the wildlife and these squirrels were clearly getting handouts from somewhere.
Back on the shuttle, we regrouped at camp and eventually set out to do one more hike to Weeping Rock before the sun went down. It was a very short trail but we got to see a tarantula! When we told other hikers that it was there, they shrugged and said they had already seen one. Confirmed, the weeping rock surely wept and we headed back down and on the shuttle – A longer ride than the hike we just did. Already, I wanted to come back to Zion and I hadn’t even left yet. I want do canyoneering and The Subway hike… why can’t we (I?) ever be content with what we have, always more, always what else… if not material things, places and experiences. It’s all the same difference. Sometimes I gross myself out.
Another beautiful night by the fire. There was a bat going bat shit crazy by the bathroom light, catching bugs to eat – I suppose. I expected it to run straight into someone but it never did. There were a few toads that came to visit too. I love them so much and wanted to pick ’em up but Lila, being an entomologist, told me that I would contaminate their skin so I reluctantly refrained. Except when I was turning the fire, I noticed something in the fire pit move and upon closer inspection, saw that same toad was inches away from the fire! He was trying to burn himself to death. I tried to guide him out but his jumps just weren’t high enough to make it over the side. So I picked him up and we chased him away to safety in the grass. How stressful. I thought he would jump right into the fire, but we saved him.
The next day we wanted to do another hike so badly but after discussions, decided to head straight over to Bryce Canyon so we could get a campsite in time before they filled, which they did. We left the park in good spirits and sang along to The Kinks as Lila waved her British flag out the window. There was a wildlife jam and as we slowed the car to see what the fuss was about, we caught the tail end of a big horn sheep leaving the small peak. It was amazing! We spent a considerable amount of time in the gas station gift shop and off we went through gorgeous Utah country.
Day 6-7, Bryce Canyon, UT
Bryce is ridiculous. My eyes wanted to just fly out of my head at first sight of the hoodoos. Just over the hill at our North Campground campsite, the canyon just sat there, looking like another planet. So orange and strangely beautiful with these protruding rock formations, each it’s own unique shape. All perfectly contrasted against the bluest sky. Totally ridiculous. I was in awe of Bryce.
We set up camp and immediately got to hiking the Peek-a-Boo trail. There really is no such thing as an easy hike in Utah and just because Bryce is considerably small for a National Park (55 square miles), does not make it an exception. This hike started with about 20 small switch backs that went straight down into this cavernous orangeness and then magically out into the canyon. It was other-worldly and wonderful seeing the canyon from all these different elevations and viewpoints. I didn’t even mind how hard the hike was at first and we all decided that Bryce will cure any depression. We twisted and turned and went up and down and I felt like Alice in Rock Wonderland, it was surreal. There were tons of cute little chipmunks everywhere and some birds but that was about it for wildlife. Then at the end of 4 miles, we climbed back up the 20 switch backs and several ramps that we went down to get into the canyon. I wanted to punch every tourist that stood in my way. It was brutal coming out of there.
We learned that there was an interpretive program on the stars that night so we decided to go to it after dinner and showering. I called it a ‘star party’ and it was the equivalent to a night out with the girls, only camping style. After sitting through an almost too long presentation, we headed out into the parking lot of the visitor center to look through these huge telescopes and binoculars. They sky was crystal clear and what they said about Bryce rang true, the best stars of your life were seen there. I saw the milky way stretch across the sky from beginning to end. There were so many constellations, I was in disbelief that anyone could distinguish just one from all the clusters. The clusters looked unimpressive in the telescopes though, just a cloud of stars enclosed in a small view finder. I’d much rather just look at them plain sight. Sick of all the lines, we went back to our campsite for our own star party and camp fire.
The next day we ate breakfast and headed out on the Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8mi hike that began and ended conveniently at our campsite. Much more of the same scenery but it made no difference, I just could not get enough of these hoodoos. The canyon seemed strangely quiet that day though. I wanted to count the chipmunks as I went along, but there weren’t any. Just after we started hiking, I was already excited for beer o’clock. Our legs were very tired from the day before. A storm was thinking about brewing on our hike but we narrowly missed it – once again, luck on our side.
After the hike, resting, beering and snacking, we went to the visitor center to get our prize for taking the hoodoo challenge (a shinny gold pin) and found out where all the prairie dogs were hiding. We drove up the road to this innocent looking field and already saw some people taking photos of them. I immediately started screaming. They were out in the field, popping their cute little heads up every now and then, running across, fighting with each other…. thankfully Lila had binoculars so I can see all this cuteness up close because you weren’t allowed to walk into the meadow and disturb their colony. I proclaimed I could sit on that fence and watch them all day but no one else wanted to. We drove on to a few scenic overlooks and I sat in awe on Inspiration Point, looking out into the canyon with the binoculars, trying in vain to see a fellow hiker down below or a bird or a bat in a cave. But nothing.
We had our last meal and packed and got very sad about our trip coming to an end. We finished off all the alcohol and broken beers we had left and wished there was more. I said goodnight to the stars and our last fire and felt like crying but didn’t.
Since Hertz is a giant racket, we had to have our rental back early the next day to avoid paying fees so we went to bed early to be up at 3am for our 8 hour drive back to LA. Ugh. Those were the darkest hours. It seemed the sun would never come back up. Our car was covered in mud and the rental dude asked us if we’d been off roading. We gave him the answer we’d been rehearsing, no sir, just a lot of rain where we were camping.
I don’t need to concluded that this trip was like a gateway drug because it’s implied. I bought a National Parks Pass, my next road trip is already being planned for October, the remaining CA National Parks I have yet to see are on the goal-dream list for next year… I love America! It’s no wonder why all these Europeans were at our parks, they are extraordinary places that we all need to experience. I joke that I’m going to buy a VW van and live out of it, with my bunnies but I don’t think I’m that joking. There is just too much to see and getting 2 weeks paid vacation a year is just not enough time. It was endearing seeing these older, retired couples visiting the parks, some with insanely equipped vehicles and all the way from South Africa. I want to be them when I grow up. But I also want to be them now.