Over Christmas, my family and I headed to Las Vegas and then Death Valley. Afterwards, I stayed for an extra two days to camp and hit some trails with the rest of CanyonRats, who were joining me as my family was leaving.
Our plan had been to meet up in Baker and take Harry Wade Exit Route into Death Valley (back into Death Valley for me), where we would then stay for a night at a developed campground before visiting the Racetrack and camping on top of Hunter Mountain the next day.
I had stayed at Stovepipe Wells with family the night before I met up with my friends and had inquired to the hotel clerk about the condition of Hunter Mountain. The clerk shot me a quizzical glance and asked what I was driving.
“A Subaru Forester,” I naively said. (Yes, a Forester has replaced the Mazda 3 has my daily driver / do everything else not sports car related vehicle.)
“Oh I wouldn’t go up there with that,” he said. “There’s a lot of rocks and ruts. It’s probably torn up and hard to go through. If you get stuck it’s $5,000 to get towed out. The snow level is 3,000 feet and Hunter Mountains is at 6,000 feet so it’s very cold. It’s probably muddy and snowy.”
It was pretty obvious he was trying to convince me not to go. Okay then.
The next day, I met up with my friends and we were soon at the trailhead for Harry Wade Exit Route. The exit route would be our entry route into Death Valley.
Our group consisted of three vehicles. My Forester, Youn’s FJ Cruiser, and Hao’s brand new Crosstrek. In short, a lifted FJ Cruiser and two stock Subarus on stock tires.
Harry Wade Exit Route was honestly very easy. It was really nothing more than a smooth dirt road that would be passable by passenger vehicles. The views were okay and there was only one spot that, from a driving perspective, was a bit interesting.
Yup, a water splash.
Harry Wade Exit Route crosses the Amargosa River. Due to some recent rains, the river did actually have some water, despite California’s severe drought. Nothing that even a normal car couldn’t do, but still fun nonetheless. Past the river, we continued on the trail into Death Valley for some touristy spots.
The lowest point in North America.
And the weirdness that is Devil’s Golf Course. We stayed at Devil’s Golf Course until the sky was dark and then headed towards our campsite at Stovepipe Wells. If that location sounds familiar, it’s because I had stayed there the night before. Stovepipe Wells also includes a developed campground across the street from the lodge.
It was a slightly chilly night at a little above freezing, but it would be nothing compared to the next night on Hunter Mountain. We were dressed for the temperature and made some hot food to warm us up.
A highlight of the night was the moon rising. Yes that’s the moon in the picture, not the sun. When it first came up over the hills, it was just amazing. I had never seen anything like it before.
We ate and chatted for quite a long time around the campfire. I even got some work done, though the presence of a laptop at a campsite solicited some not so approving comments from the people next to us. We ended the night trying to roast marshmallows on coffee stirrer sticks. Spoiler alert: that’s not a great idea.
At around 10, we turned in to get some sleep. The next day, the Racetrack and Hunter Mountain awaited us.
One thing about camping that’s always a little bit amazing to me is how you just wake up naturally. I normally sleep in, but out there I get up shortly after dawn.
Doesn’t hurt to wake up to this though.
Packing up camp after breakfast. While everyone else slept in tents, I slept in my Forester. Note that this is standard practice for us as a group. While the others prefer the space and feeling of being in a tent, I prefer the warmth and security of being inside the car.
My current sleeping setup for those interested. I added some foam padding to level the transition between the cargo floor and the fold down seats and really that’s about it. While this setup is adequately comfortable, I probably would prefer a little more padding. A sleeping platform is in my future plans for the vehicle.
After packing up camp and we headed a grand total of 1 mile down the road to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, another touristy spot. Then, we split off for a little bit. While everyone else headed to Artist’s Drive, I hung out at Furnace Creek for the privilege of paying for slow WiFi to send some files off for work.
We met up again at 1 pm to head off to the north side of the park. Racetrack Rd. was a lonely drive of about an hour away.
Racetrack Rd. is paved all the way to Ubehebe Crater. Ubehebe Crater was formed when magma rose and contacted groundwater, resulting in steam and a pressure build up that then blew up, scattering earth over many miles. The crater is a giant hole in the ground, but the colors and size make it look very impressive in person. It’s also a little sobering to know that the crater is between 800 to 7,000 years old, which is not old at all in geological terms.
After Ubehebe Crater, Racetrack Rd. becomes a rather terrible washboard dirt road that feels like it’s shaking your car to pieces. The FJ Cruiser was equipped with 33″ tires and off road coilovers, so it went off ahead, leaving the two Subarus to convoy together. Those clouds look a little ominous don’t they?
Our plan was to take Racetrack Rd. to the Racetrack to see the famous sailing rocks before then tracking back and turning onto Hidden Valley Rd. to go up to our campsite. Racetrack Rd. intersects Hidden Valley Rd. at Teakettle Junction. The first time we hit Teakettle Junction, it was already 4 pm and the sun was hanging precariously low in the sky. We decided to press on with the original schedule nonetheless, but the decision meant that we were gonna be on the trails at night. I hadn’t planned on night trail driving until, at least, I had improved the lighting of my Forester. Oh well.
Another five miles of terrible washboard brought us to the almost unnaturally smooth Racetrack Playa. Over almost 3 miles, the elevation of the playa varies by only 1.5 inches!
A sailing stone. Weighing up to hundreds of pounds, these stone can nonetheless move on the playa. How they move is still currently debated.
With the sky almost dark, it was time to set off for camp. Once again, the FJ Cruiser went ahead and the two Subarus convoyed together. Five more terrible washboard miles and a right turn onto Hidden Valley Rd. finally brought some relief.
In fact, the first few miles of Hidden Valley Rd. was quite enjoyable. Smooth flowing corners made us all felt like we were competing in a rally special stage. The lights added to the effect, conjuring up images of night stages of rallies long ago.
While we had a great time on the road, maps.me unfortunately failed us. The app had mismarked a portion of the trail and so we ended up at a mine instead of on our route. Navigating by feel, we backtracked and found the proper turn off half a mile from where the app had marked it to be.
The trail then started gaining elevation pretty fast and rockier portions were soon mixed in. The two manual Subarus handled the section well, but we did go a little slowly. I didn’t want Hao to scratch up his beautiful new Crosstrek. I’m pretty sure in someone’s book, doing trails in manual crossovers that lack low-range is the wrong way.
It also started snowing (thanks clouds). At higher elevations, there was snow built up on the side of the road and my outside temperature display showed temperatures in the 20s. Camping was gonna be fun.
Due to our detour, we arrived at camp quite late. When we pulled in, a fire had already been started. However, as we arrived, Youn informed us that his wife wasn’t a fan of the cold and blowing snow and so he had to split. Considering how miserable it was at the time, I couldn’t say I blamed her. However, the FJ Cruiser was the most capable of our vehicles, and so we were now left with a bit less of a safety net.
Some of us also questioned whether we should stay, as the wind was blowing quite hard and the snow threatened to make the trail a bit tough for two crossovers with stock tires. While we were debating the decision though, I moved the Forester to form a wind block, the wind then stopped, and we were greeted by a gorgeous night sky. I guess that’s decision made.
It was still terribly cold. The fire would be our main source of warmth, though proper sticks for roosting marshmallow did make things better. With temperature likely to drop into the teens at night, the summer tents of my friends just would not suffice. The Subarus would become our lodging for the night.
We woke up to a clear, snow covered, and very cold morning.
Since we had three people, and the Forester was the larger vehicle, Pat and myself slept in the Forester while Hao slept in the Crosstrek. The Forester was long enough that it could fit the two of us comfortably, both with our legs straight. While the wind howled in the middle of the night, at least we were sheltered in the cars.
In the morning, another fire provided us with some much needed warmth to combat the freezing cold. Our vehicles’ temperature display was hovering in the low 20s!
In such conditions, we were quite sure we were the only ones stupid enough to have spent the night on the mountains. There was not a soul in sight and the realization that we were utterly alone, somewhere, on top of a mountain in the freezing cold, was a bit of a rush.
After a simple breakfast, we hit the road around 10 am, two stock Subarus going down a snowy trail. With the removal of our FJ safety net and with white stuff on the ground, we weren’t quite sure if we would make it down, but this was all part of the adventure.
We soon found out that the trail quickly dropped elevation and, with it, the snow also started to recede. The trail was slightly rougher in places, but nothing unmanageable. And the views! Million dollar views were what we were missing out on in the darkness the previous night.
When we stopped to snap some pictures, I remarked that it sounded like there was a plane nearby, but my friends quickly explained that the sound I was hearing was the wind in the trees. And mocked me for being a city slicker for good measure.
Did I mention that the view was really nice? Oh I did? Well, moments after I took that picture, a F/A-18 popped up over the ridge, did a barrel roll, and dropped down into the valley below. Which was just about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. The unexpected surprise of it really contributed to the awe. (And I’m not that much of a city slicker after all. It was a plane!)
In the center of the panoramic picture, you could make out a three way intersection of sorts. That was where Hidden Valley Rd. met Saline Valley Rd. Our plan was to take the South Pass of Saline Valley Rd. back out to civilization.
The Subaru ad like nature of our convoy was not lost on us. Neither was the utter filthiness of the cars.
Upon reaching South Pass, road conditions improved and, suddenly, after traveling a few miles, we were in a vast forest of Joshua trees. There seemed to be more Joshua trees here than Joshua Tree National Park!
At this point, we all needed a shower and a shave and so we made good time down South Pass. That didn’t prevent us from detouring to check out an abandoned mine though.
More Subaru ad pictures? Sure why not. The entire time down the mountain, we had not encountered a single other car. However, our friend in the F/A-18 must’ve flown something like 6-7 laps above us.
That’s not a UFO, that’s just my best shot at capturing the plane!
The mine had some interesting things to see. It’s funny how trash, once rusted, becomes objects of curiosity in our travels. I guess everything is a little cooler with some patina.
Not sure how old that drawing is.
Pretty sure those are bullet holes.
The mine had a guestbook. We left a message! By this point, I’ve had so much fun that I’ve totally planned to go back in the future to see how many others leave a message after us.
The mine took us very close to CA-190 and so, after our visit, we headed straight to the end of the trail.
And with that, we aired up at the trailhead, bid adieu to a wonderful Death Valley experience, and headed out on the long drive back to LA. Until next time.
Rang in the new year with a chill drive in the canyons. Great way to start a new year! Link to the video here.
And a gratuitous picture of the Elise at Streets of Willow as a bonus:
The sun rising over Death Valley found us at the Stovepipe Wells Campground, camping in our cars. Overall, the Mazda 3 made a decently comfy car to sleep in, though a bit more room would have been appreciated.
Still, that isn’t too bad of a setup. A little lumpy, but I slept pretty well anyway. I guess I was a little tired after having spent so much time on the road though. Apologies for the mess, but when you’ve been on the road for a solid week, it happens.
We had three compact cars into one camping spot and, truth be told, there was plenty of space left for more cars. Everyone had slept in their cars and while Stanley seemed to be fine, John apparently didn’t have a great night. Here he is recovering in the morning.
Our first stop of the day was the Mesquite sand dunes, which were only a mile from camp. I had never seen actual sand dunes before in California, so this was definitely fresh to me. Images of the Dakar Rally danced in my head, but, alas, no driving on the dunes is allowed. (Probably for the better.)
After playing on the dunes for a bit, we headed to Titus Canyon. We took a two way dirt road to the mouth of the canyon, which was as far as we could go. The view from the mouth of Titus Canyon was gorgeous and very different from anything else we had seen on this trip. It must have been a little bit amazing to wind through a tight canyon before suddenly being faced with a desert valley.
After Titus Canyon, John decided to bid us good bye. The car camping seemed to have taken just a bit too much out of him and so he and Eunice decided to set off early for the Bay Area. Replacing them was Youn and his sister. We rendezvous’d with Youn and his sister at the Emigrant campground. Truth be told, we were supposed to have camped at the Emigrant campground the previous night, but had pulled in to find every spot filled. Stovepipe Wells was the backup site, though it was by no means bad. Emigrant was a bit more remote than Stovepipe Wells though. I mean Stovepipe Wells even has a shower facility across the street! Not exactly rough and tumble!
After lunch, it was off to Badwater Basin, the lowest point of North America.
Badwater is one giant salt flat, though there seemed to be a patch of water on the flats. I wonder if it’s drinkable… Badwater was a very touristy spot and the flat was filled with people walking and taking pictures. Then again, it is one of the most accessible spots in Death Valley and probably what Death Valley is most famous for. Afterwards, it was off to Natural Bridge, which as far as I can figure out, is a hiking trail to an arch.
Natural Bridge is accessed by a dirt road. While messing around on the dirt road, Stanley suddenly couldn’t find third gear. Or any gear. I had been riding shotgun in Stanley’s car and so we both found ourselves stuck on the side of a dirt road in Death Valley. Did I mention it was about 90 degrees? Images of dying in Death Valley suddenly danced in my head.
A look under the hood pointed us to the culprit: a clip for the shifter cable seemed to have detached itself. We scrambled to figure out our options, took in what items we had to jury rig a fix, and decided that the “best” option was to look for the clip that had freed itself from the car that was out there somewhere in the desert. Basically searching for a needle in the haystack.
And somehow, we managed to find the needle after about an hour of searching. We were absolutely thrilled, but also dusty, sweaty, and generally unpleasant.
With the clip in and the car functional again, we decided to make the best use of the remaining daylight hours. So, it was off to Devil’s Golf Course with its alien salt crystal formations. Seriously, it felt like another planet!
We also toured Artist’s Drive, which featured some truly colorful naturally occurring hillsides. Those colors are pretty stunning in the tan desert.
And then, with daylight fading, we ended up back at Stovepipe Wells for dinner around a campfire. In truth, this had been my first camping experience of any kind and I really enjoyed “camping” out in Death Valley. I was hooked.
After dinner, we said our good byes to Youn and his sister and drove the long slog back to my house. We arrived very late in the night, extremely tired and absolutely ready to just turn in. I had spent a week on the road and the trip was everything I thought it would be. What a blast.
Once again, we awoke to a cold morning. So cold in fact, that when I went to clean my windshield this happened:
That’s right, the water used to wipe my windshield became ice pretty much the instant it touched my windshield. Luckily, I had bought some more washer fluid in Colorado and Colorado’s washer fluids are also de-icing fluids. A few squirts and the ice melted.
We set off to the other side of Zion for a good breakfast. The pancakes and coffee was delicious, though being next to Zion, it was a little bit overpriced. After breakfast, all of us headed into Zion Canyon National Park. Stanley, who had joined us the night before, went off to do his own thing, while John, Eunice, and I stuck together for the full National Park experience.
The first stop was to the mouth of The Narrows. Zion is a a red rock canyon that’s been cut by the Virgin River. While visitors could hike into The Narrows, such a trip is not advisable without a dry suit. We just stayed around the mouth and took in the sights before visiting all the rest of the easily accessible locations within the park.
The river runs through the center of Zion and allows for many outdoorsy activities.
It also made some amazing sheer wall cuts. Moving around the park really hammers home the awe that is geography. If geography classes included a field trip to Zion, I bet a lot more kids would grow up wanting to be geologists. It’s like someone just took a sushi knife and made a slice into the earth.
Pictures can’t really capture the sheer sense of scale upwards. The walls of the canyon towers hundreds of feet above you and really makes you feel insignificant.
Zion is famous for its ephemeral waterfalls. The falls further contribute to the magical national park quality of Zion and makes it obvious why it’s such a hit with tourists.
The views aren’t half bad either. Zion, in a way, is like national park Disneyland. Getting to places within the park is very convenient and when you get there, it’s gorgeous.
A tightly packaged national park experience, so to speak. With crowds to match.
Towards the late afternoon, we decided to head to Vegas for dinner. Unfortunately, we ran into a heavy Vegas traffic and didn’t have time to get a buffet dinner on The Strip as we had originally planned since, after dinner, a long drive to Death Valley beckoned and we were running out of time.
So it was off to an off strip Chinese restaurant for the first Chinese meal of the trip, and then a trip to REI afterwards. Despite our best efforts, we still ended up leaving Vegas rather late and got to our campsite in the middle of the night.
So I have to apologize for the long delay between posts. This trip happened during a time between jobs and since I started my new job, finding time to update the blog between the new job and the myriad of other projects has been difficult. I’ll try to update more going forward.
Anyway, after lunch, we turned onto Highway 12, which is a heavenly piece of road. Mostly 50 mph and faster corners connected by short straights and beautiful views. The first portion of Highway 12 after Capitol Reef gains elevation rapidly and we were soon on a twisty road through a snow covered mountain. The road then dropped elevation just as quickly as it gained it and traveled through scenic foothills before once again gaining elevation and ending up at the bottom of a canyon. (It’s weird typing that.)
The canyon portion was a rhythmic back and forth road that was spirited, but still comfortable, at around 50 mph. There was a river called Cafe Creek to the left (going south) until the road and Calf Creek suddenly switched sides right where it meets the Escalante River and rapidly climbed out of the canyon. At the top of the canyon, we then settled into another section of high plains. The high plains was similar to the other plains of Utah.
We arrive at Bryce Canyon National Park towards the later part of the day. Thus, another hurried dash through a national park ensued. Bryce had some good views, but if I’m being honest, it wasn’t my favorite national park. It also seemed a bit light on visitors.
However, Bryce was quite convenient for car touring. Most of the overlooks were connected by road and allowed easy access to lazy tourists. We just hoped from one vantage point to the next, taking in the views. These crows were sitting at one overlook and were quite popular with people taking pictures. I took my very first selfie with them (and no I won’t publish said selfie).
At one of the overlooks, we saw a group of students trying to arrange their identical Chevy Cruzes to try to take a photo. Unfortunately, their efforts were thwarted when a lady zoomed into the spot the second of the two Cruzes was trying to back into and then berated them for being inconsiderate. Okaaaaaaaaay… The students were a bit upset and left the overlook, but at the next overlook we ran into them again. We offered to take their pictures and I took one with them for good measure. They were actually a lot of fun, and it was very obvious that they were excited to be traveling. Roadtrips are the best.
Despite it not being my favorite park, sunset at Bryce was still quite pretty.
We left Bryce before sundown and headed to our hotel for the night. We had reservations at the Thunderbird Lodge outside of Zion National Park. The Thunderbird Lodge is, apparently, the Home of the Ho Made Pies. We didn’t try the Ho Made Pies, but we did travel to the other side of Zion for a very nice dinner. After dinner, coming back to the Thunderbird Lodge, we stopped for a bit in Zion and turned off the lights. The stars were brilliant (and unfortunately, couldn’t be captured by my iPhone).
The morning of Day 4 found us back again in Arches National Park, in a deviation from our plan that called for a straight trek through Utah to Bryce Canyon National Park. The deviation was very enjoyable though, as Arches is a truly great park. Even the entrance of the park is lovely. The entrance climbs up before descending into the park itself. At the top of the climb into Arches, you can see the Moab Valley. Very beautiful.
Of course, it’s still much better inside the park. Arches is an amazing park and totally worth the visit. The rock formations are wondrous, interesting, and have a good amount of variation. This is the Balanced Rock and it really does look like it is balanced on top of the base. The picture doesn’t really convey how big the rock is. When it falls (and it will), I don’t want to be at the bottom.
Of course, Arches is known for its arches. And it certainly does have arches. We arrived at the park with the sun still a bit low in the sky and allowed for some interesting views of the sun through the arches.
This is the view on the other side of that rock pile leading into the arch. Yes, this is indeed mesa mania.
That arch is actually one of two arches in a single rock formation. The formation is, perhaps unsurprisingly, called Windows (no not the operating system).
In addition to just arches, Arches National Park also has a very interesting collection of other rock formations. This formation is called the Garden of Eden and is really quite lovely.
Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit the iconic arch in Arches, the Delicate Arch. Delicate Arch requires a bit of a hike to reach, and we just didn’t have the time considering our schedule. What a shame as the moving clouds overhead really produced some great shifting scenery.
Exiting Arches, it was a rather boring trek through Highway 191 and I-70. Turning onto Highway 24 brought some relief, but for the first hour plus, it was mainly extremely straight, not a soul in sight, middle of the mesa strewn plains type driving. Yes, this is exactly what I wanted to experience, but it didn’t make for the best pictures since all I had to take pictures of was an iPhone.
Soon enough though, the road turned twisty and picked up a back and forth, constant 70-80 mph turn rhythm. The road was very fun and allowed us to run at a good pace while enjoying some nice twisties. A very predictable road, never once did we get caught out by a surprising corner. And then we found ourselves in another national park.
While planning the trip, it never even registered on me that we would be going through Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef isn’t a park that is on everyone’s minds and I can see why. While we drove through some interesting rock formations, the park itself seemed to be fairly inaccessible without some serious hiking and/or camping. So much so, that Google Maps actually marks Capitol Reef about 10 miles north of Highway 24. That’s probably why I missed it.
What rock formations we did see was quite beautiful though. Unlike the sandstone of Arches, Capitol Reef’s canyons seemed to be rock of an almost glassy texture. And they were really canyons. Driving through Capitol Reef really gave us the feeling of carving through canyons.
We had lunch outside of Capitol Reef in a little cafe called Castlerock next to a gas station that was smack dab on the T junction of Highway 24 and Highway 12. Much to our surprise, their food, and coffee, was really good!
Their chocolate was really good too. So good I bought a nice collection. Still, while it was nice to have an enjoyable lunch, we still had places to be and roads to drive. And so, after lunch, we went south on the T junction onto Highway 12.
Previously, we had just realized that we had a chance to make it to Arches National Park before sundown. It would be close, but it was possible. So onward we drove, through sporadic but heavy rainstorms, sunlight from a sun getting ever lower in the sky, and lots and lots of empty highways. Apparently, there aren’t too many people in the state of Utah.
At a bit before 6 pm, we were greeted at the outskirts of Moab by a hole in the rock. Literally. Also greeting us was traffic in the form of campers and tourists, all undoubtedly heading to Arches. We soon passed through the town of Moab, right outside of Arches and spotted our hotel for the night. However, we didn’t stop as there was about 45 minutes of sunlight left in the day and instead headed straight into Arches National Park.
To drive to the end of the road in Arches National Park takes about 30 minutes, perhaps a little more, assuming you follow the park speed limit. Chasing daylight, I may have driven through the park a little faster than normally recommended (though truth be told, this trip could probably be renamed the “Speeding in National Parks Trip”).
The interior of the park is truly stunning. Red rock canyons and interesting rock formations. And then, while going quickly through the park, chasing daylight and red rock formations, I spotted a rainbow off in the distance, the cherry on top. Wow. (I swear it’s a lot more vivid in person than in pictures…)
We couldn’t really admire the view from the road though, we had maybe half an hour of sunlight left and arches to view. We actually weren’t sure which arch was the truly iconic arch, so instead we just drove to the end of the park. From the parking lot, off in the distance, we could see the Broken Arch. It was 0.6 miles away with the sun perilously low in the sky. So, despite the fact that I hadn’t ran in about 10 years, I ran the entire 0.6 miles through the sandy trail, leaving Eunice trailing and John in the parking lot.
At the end, I was completely winded and sweating, but I had made it before the sun had set. Up close, the arch is a lot bigger and more impressive than I can show in photographs.
A popular activity to do in Arches is to take pictures of yourself on top of the arches. I looked for a way up the Broken Arch and found it. The view from the top was magnificent.
Here is the view of the other side on top of the arch. Yes the land around here is very red. It was also a bit windy up top and I was afraid of dropping my phone.
And then, with the sun well and truly below the horizon, I climbed down and headed back to the parking lot, to our cars, and to Moab.
Moab, despite being a small town, was rather cool. It was lively with some really nice food choices and a good amount of shops. We ate dinner at the Moab Diner and Ice Cream Shoppe. Being Moab, the diner’s decor was, well, a bit 4×4 themed.
Despite having a large dinner, complete with “the best green chili in Utah,” I was curious to try the ice cream. It is an ice cream shoppe after all, so obviously I couldn’t leave without trying the the ice cream. Well, a single scoop might not sound like much, but this was seriously the biggest single scoop of ice cream I’ve ever seen. The ice cream was delicious, but the volume of food was overwhelming and was great at inducing food coma.
And so, suffering from an acute case of food coma, we headed back to the hotel for the night. We determined that because our time in Arches was rather brief, we would visit again the next morning, pushing back our Day 4 schedule a little bit.
Morning came and I awoke to this view in front of my motel room. We stayed in the town of Cortez right outside of Mesa Verde. Cortez was kind of a depressed feeling town, but it was close to Mesa Verde and so cut down on our morning “commute” for Day 3.
Right after another (much less crowded) continental breakfast, we headed out to Mesa Verde. (By the way, why is it called a “continental breakfast?” There’s nothing continental about it.) Mesa Verde is known for its cliff dwellings, but for me, the road getting to the dwellings was just as fun as the exhibits. The road was a combination of switchbacks, sweepers, esses, great views, and beautiful pavement. Best of all, since we were there so early, there was almost nobody on the road. The road felt like an alpine racetrack, but I kept it a little bit calmer since I was inside a national park.
The cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde were interesting. However, we were limited on time, parts of the park were not yet open for the season, and a couple of the other dwellings required paid guided tours. Thus, we only visited one set of dwellings up close.
The dwelling we did see was kind of small, but still interesting. The stone and adobe houses were built in natural alcoves within the canyon walls. The alcoves provided some protection from the cold Colorado winter. Funny thing is, all the illustrations within the park showing the lives of the natives had the natives wearing, well, pretty much nothing. Considering the weather, I’m not sure that was actually the case…
We did manage to see another, much bigger, dwelling from afar. That one would have been cool to visit. Maybe next time.
Mesa Verde, and the area around it, is full of nice views. Taking in those views left us a bit chilly. Being mid-March, the overcast and cold (to a Californian) weather was not unexpected.
Yes there is a lot of snow still on the mountains. We’ll get a much closer view of that later in the day.
First though, we stopped for lunch in the town of Durango.
Durango is a cool college town. It’s got a bit of a small town vibe, but it was definitely livelier and more interesting than, oh, Cortez.
After that, it was onto U.S. Highway 550, a.k.a. the Million Dollar Highway. The Million Dollar Highway is a part of the San Juan Expressway, which is famous for its great views. There are multiple legends as to why it’s named the Million Dollar Highway, including that the mountainous portion of the road cost a million dollars to build and that there is a million dollars of gold dust within the asphalt of the highway. Whatever it is, I have to say it’s a million dollars well spent!
Snow capped mountains? Yup. Gorgeous scenery that induces people to go crazy on the panoramic photos? Yes!
Cold bracing wind in March that stings you when you get out of your car? Yeah that too. Comes with the territory; you gotta take the bad with the good.
Did I mention snow capped mountains and panoramic pictures? I did? Okay!
The Million Dollar Highway has a fearsome reputation. It features steep cliffs, narrow lanes, tight switchbacks, and a lack of guardrail in places. Combined with hazardous weather, it can be pretty obvious why regular people might not enjoy the road itself. To a CanyonRat though, this is heaven. Even, and perhaps especially, in March when there is snow falling on a sopping wet road. It allowed me to pretend that I was Sebastien Loeb on the Monte Carlo Rally.
The “scary” part of the Million Dollar Highway is from the town of Silverton past the town of Ouray and past the summit of the Red Mountain Pass. The approach into Ouray from the south is magnificent. You see the town off to the side, impossibly far down, before plunging down into the valley below. I imagine Swiss Alps towns are like that. Here, you can see the town of Ouray from the Highway, taken from my car while I was stopped for snow that fell on the road to be cleared.
Being March, with temperatures above freezing, snow was melting and parts of the road were experiencing mini avalanches. When that happened, the road maintenance crews would come to clean the snow off while we stopped and waited on the road. We had to stop twice for the road to be cleared, and one of those stops took over half an hour, putting our schedule for the day in jeopardy.
At the end of the Million Dollar Highway, we stopped in the city of Ridgway (no “e”), another small town with a Main St. that probably lives off of business from highway traffic. Driving the Million Dollar Highway made our cars really dirty. So dirty in fact that I ran out of washer fluid on the highway.
We continued our journey on Highway 62 and then Highway 145. Highway 62 was rather boring and felt very long. Highway 145 was much more exciting as the highway followed a river at the bottom of the canyon, meandering back and forth in fast corners before dramatically rising up the canyon walls onto the plateau above. The road was definitely fun.
Afterwards, we went onto Highway 141 and Highway 90/46. Highway 90 started on the plateau, before gaining elevation into a mesa/canyon. Fun switchbacks and almost no traffic. Still, it was getting later in the day, and when we pulled over to take some pictures, we conceded that we wouldn’t meet our schedule for the day. There was almost no way we could get to Arches National Park in time.
More great views here. We stopped for quite awhile to take in the scenery and stretch, before getting back on our way.
As Colorado turned into Utah, Highway 90 also turned into Highway 46. The sky looked immense, filled with ominous clouds. We drove through sporadic rainstorms, but the deserted highway allowed us to make good time. Suddenly, it dawned on us that we actually could make it to Arches before sundown, if we hurry. As the saying goes, YOLO.
To be continued…
As mentioned previously, Day 2 was likely going to be the longest day of the trip. So of course my room in Tusayan had some sort of angry flying bug trapped in one of its drawers. I never found out what type of bug it was, since I didn’t want to release it into my room, but it’s periodic struggles against being trapped in a wooden cage all night meant I had a less than perfectly restful sleep.
Still, we had a schedule to keep, so I woke up at 7:00 am and found the most crowded continental breakfast I’ve ever seen. It was so surprising I had to take a picture. Even the people staring back at me couldn’t stop me from doing so. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all, and I just had to document just how seriously Grand Canyon visitors took their breakfast.
The first stop of the day was, of course, the Grand Canyon. Specifically, the South Rim.
Which meant a nonstop deluge of panoramic picture taking. The Grand Canyon is so vast, it’s really hard to do it justice in pictures.
I wonder how it must have been like to unknowingly stumble upon the Grand Canyon for the first time. One minute you’re hiking through a plateau and the next… HOLY SHIT THAT’S A GIANT HOLE IN THE GROUND!
In many of the photos, you can just make out the Colorado River as a thin brown line.
Did I mention the Grand Canyon is vast?
Still, it’s pretty breathtaking in its beauty. A definite must visit. What took me so long?
We had a schedule to keep though, so we left the Grand Canyon at 11:30 am. The drive down from Desert View, next to the Grand Canyon, into Cameron was spectacular in its scenery. Cameron is a small one street “town” with a trading post.
As the day went along, I would learn that “trading post” was Native American speak for “souvenir shop.” The state highways were dotted with “trading posts” selling souvenirs, trinkets, and odd items.
We ate lunch at the Cameron Trading Post. I ordered the chili and it came with fried bread. The chef obviously decided to go full YOLO on the honey, but the bread was good with or without the honey. The chili however, it was just meh.
After lunch, a quick 1+ hour drive through mesa covered terrain led us to Antelope Canyon.
Antelope Canyon is renowned for the rock formations in its slot canyon. And well… I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.
Readers should know by now that I am definitely not the picture fiend of CanyonRats. Even so, I took a ton of pictures in Antelope Canyon.
Yup it lives up to its billing too. The only hiccup was that I scratched a frame rail exiting Antelope Canyon’s dirt parking lot, but I won’t hold that against the canyon.
We left Antelope Canyon a little later than expected so we knew our chances of making it to Four Corners was slim. Still we had to try, which meant driving through more mesa covered desert.
Red mesas, browns mesas, even snow covered mesas!
The road through the desert stretched seemingly forever into the distance. Even passing almost everyone else on the roads, we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. What did happen was I came to the realization that there was a small vibration with the car at 55 and ~75 mph. And the vibration, combined with the endless straight roads, started driving me a little batty. I’m not sure how I’ll deal with that for the rest of the trip.
In the end, we couldn’t make it to Four Corners before sundown and the closing of the national monument. Instead, as a special bonus, I’ve decided to show a row of Porta-Potties. A friend told me that basically sums up the experience of Four Corners.
And that’s Day 2 done and dusted. Rest will be crucial for Day 3, the serious driving day of the trip.
9:30 am Monday morning: While the rest of the greater Los Angeles population was stuck in traffic for the first work day of the week, John, his wife Eunice, and myself were headed out of town in two Mazda 3s. Not that we had it easy as the day’s schedule called for us to cover over 520 miles.
Our first stop was Joshua Tree National Park. The rock formations and Joshua trees really give the terrain an alien feel. Unfortunately, due to our schedule, we barely stopped at all and didn’t get any pictures of the really cool places. Expect a follow up visit in the future.
After Joshua Tree was over 100 miles of nothingness on Highway 62. I have to admit, it was pretty cool to be out in the desolate desert landscape, but since I hadn’t even eaten breakfast and the road seemed to stretch on and on while the clock ceaselessly advanced towards 2 o’clock, I wasn’t much motivated to stop.
We finally ate lunch in Parker, AZ, and then followed Arizona Highway 95 along the Colorado River towards Lake Havasu. Lake Havasu was disappointing as it seemed to just be a launching pad for people to float their boats into a body of water.
The painted desert around the Lake Havasu was quite beautiful though. I mentally added that as a destination for the follow up trip, but once again we couldn’t stop as we had many more miles to cover still.
Past Lake Havasu was a short 40 mile stretch of I-40. We got off of I-40 in the town of Kingman and turned onto Historic Route 66. The mother road. Possibly the most romantic road in American history.
Driving Route 66 really drives home the point that America is very very big. And quite beautiful. It was very calming, almost soothing, clicking off the miles on a deserted two lane, with mesas on one side and impossibly long passing trains on the other side. I guess if you’re going to drive a straight road, this is probably the way to do it.
This being America, someone will find a way to try to profit from the Americana. While Route 66 is grand, it’s also full of kitsch in places. These days though, that’s just part of the flavor of the road.
With daylight rapidly fading, we headed towards the town of Williams for some dinner.
The verdict: Good steak, but not great steak. Still, the opportunity to take an hour off from driving and just chat was greatly appreciated. However, another hour still remained for us to travel before we could reach our destination for the day: the town of Tusayan right at the gates of the Grand Canyon.