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June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah) < Previous News  |  Next News >



Donuts on the Dunes

I spent a pleasant night camping in the northern part of Zion National Park then headed east through the slickrock sandstone country of southern Utah.  Each time I drive through southern Utah, I try to visit a few new places, and this time I visited a couple of places that I'd highly recommend: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park near Kanab, and Calf Creek Falls near Boulder.  


The Coral Pink Sand Dunes stretch for over 10 miles and they're incredibly beautiful, especially at sunset.  The park is a little off the beaten path, but it's definitely worth a visit.  There's also a pleasant campground there with really nice showers which I savored... twice, in fact.  I made the mistake, though, of visiting the park during a Saturday afternoon when it seemed like every dune buggy and dirt bike in Utah was there, tearing through both the dunes and the campground.  I used to deal with dirt bikers when I was a ranger in the Colorado Rockies and I really got fed up with their sometimes-arrogant and inconsiderate attitudes.  Many of the dirt bikers I met in Colorado were nice, but some of them had a real attitude problem. 


As I sat there in the dunes watching the sunset with Yamahas zipping all around me, I figured there wasn't anything more irritating than trying to enjoy the beautiful desert while listening to the annoying sound of a noisy dirt bike.  Well, yes there was, come to think of it:  trying to enjoy a beautiful lake while listening the annoying sound of a whining jet ski.  The world would be a much better place, I think, if all the jet skis and dirt bikes in the world were dumped in a giant trench somewhere in New Jersey and covered with a thousand feet of wet cement.


Fortunately, all the dirt bikers were asleep the next morning, with thoughts of Kawasakis dancing in their heads, I'm sure, when I snuck out to the silent dunes, took off my shoes and felt the cold sand squish between my toes.  After a delicious breakfast of jelly donuts and Diet Pepsi (it tasted better than it sounds), I hiked up to the highest peak in the dunes where the view was absolutely stunning.



Above left:  Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is beautiful at sunset... but watch out for those dune buggies!  

Above center:  The next morning, I snuck out to the dunes and ate a picnic breakfast of donuts and Diet Pepsi (normal fare), and I had the dunes all to myself.  After breakfast, I hiked a mile to the top of the tallest dune in the background... with not one dirt bike in sight!

Above right:  Heading north on U.S. 89 near Kanab.  


In-spire-ing Bryce Canyon

After my donut breakfast at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, I drove a few hours north through red sandstone country to Bryce Canyon National Park.  Despite its name, Bryce really isn't really a canyon but rather it's a large amphitheatre that's etched into the side of a long plateau.  As one early pioneer mused after seeing the thousands of eroded rock spires here, "That's a hell of a place to lose a cow."  


Here's one of my favorite songs about the West.  This is Willie Nelson singing My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.

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At 8,000 feet in elevation, Bryce Canyon is one of the highest National Parks in southern Utah.  It's about 4,000 feet higher than Zion Canyon, so Bryce is a lot cooler than Zion, which is great if you visit in the summer but not so great if you visit in the winter, a fact that I once learned the hard way.  About 15 years ago, when I was young and foolish (as opposed to now when I'm old and foolish), I stopped at empty Bryce Canyon one frigid afternoon in January and decided to sleep in my Toyota truck in the campground there.  Big mistake.  


The three feet of snow in the campground should've been a warning.  Or the fact that the campground was deserted.  Nope... I went ahead and pulled into the empty campground, cooked up a quick dinner, then hopped into the back of my truck as the sun went down.  As it got dark, it got really cold... then it got REALLY cold...  and then it kept getting colder -- definitely a Three Dog Night, and maybe a Four Dog Night.  I shivered in my thin sleeping bag as the temperature that evening dipped to a brisk 5 degrees below zero, and groggily emerged from my frosty truck the next morning with icicles hanging from my nose.  Yep, that's the last time I ever camped at Bryce.


In the summer, though, it's great.


Above left:  Sandstone tunnel in Red Canyon.  

Above center:  Mob scene at Bryce (well, whattya expect in June?)

Above right:  Spires at Bryce Canyon.


Picture-Perfect Kodachrome Basin

After spending a few hours at Bryce, I dropped down to nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park and camped there that night.  This park with the funny name is one of my favorite places to camp in southwestern Utah.  It's a few miles off Highway 12 so it's not usually crowded, but it is incredibly beautiful.  Best of all, there are hot showers here to wash off all that red Utah dust that cakes up on your skin, giving you a temporary tan.


Kodachrome Basin is a quirky park with lots of surprises, like chukar partridges that strut through the campground looking for a handout, and a tall rock that bears a striking resemblance to Fred Flintstone (which, not surprisingly, is officially called "Fred Flintstone Rock").  The only bad thing about Kodachrome Basin are the no-see-ems and cedar gnats that congregate here during certain times of the year, which I swatted in vain while trying to chow down some Doritos and salsa at my campsite.  


In case you're wondering about the name, a group of visitors came through here in the 1940s and, stunned by the colors, decided to name it Kodachrome Basin.  Soon the name started appearing on local maps.  The Kodak company, though, got huffy about the trademark infringement and demanded that the name be changed, which it was.  Then Kodak changed its mind and decided the name would be good publicity, so the name was changed back to Kodachrome Basin. 


Believe me, you can shoot a lot of Kodachrome -- or in my case, Fujichrome -- in this park.



Above left:  The entrance to Kodachrome Basin State Park, near Bryce Canyon.  This place is really interesting and it's one of my Top 10 State Parks in the U.S.

Above center:  Here's the campground at Kodachrome Basin.  I've camped at this particular campsite in the fall, winter, spring, and summer, and it's always beautiful.

Above right:  This rather perverted-looking rock formation is a "sand pipe."  Kodachrome Basin is the only place in the world where these rock formations are found.  Geologists think they were ancient natural wells that gradually filled with silt.


Rolling Along Route 12

I got back on Utah Highway 12 the next day heading east and drove through some spectacular sandstone landscapes, then around noon I approached the parking area for Calf Creek Falls.  I've driven by the falls many times during previous trips but never had the time to hike to the waterfalls.  What the heck, I figured, I wasn't in any hurry and I'd heard good things about the falls, so I pulled into the parking lot, put on my hiking boots, and stuffed my daypack with a few quarts of water, some peaches, and my camera.


The temperature was 93 degrees when l headed out for the 3-mile hike, but the air was dry so it wasn't unpleasant and the hike along the sandy trail through the meandering red sandstone canyon was peaceful and relaxing.  After an hour of hiking, I started to hear the falling water echo off the sandstone cliffs and a few minutes later, the spectacular waterfalls suddenly appeared through the trees.  It was a beautiful sight.


There were a few folks here splashing in the water under the falls and having a good time, enjoying this oasis in the middle of the barren desert.  Yep, I figured this was a good place to take off my shoes and kick back for a while.  In fact, I relaxed for over an hour at the bottom of the Calf Creek Falls, wading in the pond and sitting on the sand, watching the water cascade down the sandstone chute, smoothened over the eons to a glistening sheen. 


After a while, I started talking to one of the folks who was here.  He was an architect about my age named Chris who spoke with an English accent and lived, interestingly enough, in Illinois.  Chris had brought his two teen-aged boys with him on a two-week vacation to show them around the West, and they were all obviously having a great time.  Chris applauded my 18-month trip and told me, "Life is too short not to enjoy it.  You have to take advantage of every minute."  As I gazed up at the falls, I told Chris that I couldn't agree with him more.



Above left:  A tired gas pump in Cannonville, Utah.  I laugh at this "Too Pooped To Pump" sign every time I drive through Cannonville.  This time I bumped into the owner, a pleasant man in his eighties, and we had a nice chat.

Above center:  Utah Highway 12 is an amazing road, winding for several miles under, over, and through the sandstone.  A lot of television commercials have been filmed here... perhaps because it looks like Mars.

Above right:  Calf Creek Falls, near Escalante, Utah.  That's Chris, the architect from Illinois that I met, on the right taking a swim.  Calf Creek is one of the few perennial streams in southern Utah, and the pool here is a great place to cool off after the hot, three-mile hike.


Back on the Burr Trail

I left Calf Creek Falls that afternoon and headed east following two of my favorite routes in America:  Utah Highway 12 and the Burr Trail.  Words can't describe either road -- especially my words -- so I'll just post some photos.  Highway 12 is fantastic but the Burr Trail is absolutely phenomenal, even though the last 20 miles are unpaved.  The dirt stretch is a little bumpy, but it's graded and my two-wheel drive Toyota pickup didn't have any trouble.  Few people know about the Burr Trail but it's an amazing drive, and I've spent many evenings in rainy Portland during the past few years wishing I were back on the dusty Burr Trail again. 


As the sun started to lower on the horizon, I pulled off the empty road just south of Capitol Reef National Park, drove a hundred yards down a dirt track, and stopped my truck at the edge of spectacular Clay Canyon, one of my favorite camping sites in the U.S.  Time for more Nacho Doritos, Pace salsa, and Diet Pepsi. 


Relaxing on my folding chaise lounge, I looked around and figured that I was probably the only person that evening within 200 square miles.  I can't imagine a better place to eat chips and salsa than at the edge of desolate yet oh-so-beautiful Clay Canyon.


Camping Tips in Southern Utah

As much as I like driving through southern Utah, there are some drawbacks to traveling through here in the summer.  First, it gets pretty hot, with summer high temperatures often reaching 90 to 95 degrees.  Another problem is that small, biting flies called cedar gnats (because they live in cedar trees) and even smaller -- and even more irritating -- biting flies called no-see-ums (because you "no-see-um") can be pretty bothersome, as they were during this trip.  Nothing that I've ever tried repels these pesky critters, including Off, Cutters, and 100% DEET, so I usually give up and put a bandanna around my head to cover my ears.  Yeah, I look like a dork but it works.  


Winters are cold here and summers are hot, so I think May and September are the best times to visit southern Utah.  However, even snowy February can be pleasant if you've got warm clothing, as I discovered a few years ago.  Plus, you don't have to deal with the pesky bugs then (because they're all frozen solid).


Altogether on this trip, I stayed in Utah for five nights and I camped every night, staying in State Park campgrounds for two nights and camping on primitive sites the other three.  Primitive camping just involves finding a pretty place on public land (National Forest Service or BLM land -- primitive camping isn't allowed in National Parks) and setting up your campsite.  You don't have to pay a fee but, of course, there aren't any facilities, which is why I always carry a 5-gallon jug of drinking water in my truck.  I prefer primitive camping to staying in State Parks or motels because I like the freedom and remoteness.  Of course, that's one reason I love the West.


For more tips, see my page on Camping in the U.S.



Above left:  Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created in 1996 by President Clinton.  Too bad, because now everyone knows about this beautiful part of Utah.  

Above center:  The fabulous 52-mile Burr Trail, which is actually a two-lane (well, one-and-a-half lane) road from Boulder, Utah, to Capitol Reef National Park.  

Above right:  The most incredible part of the Burr Trail is at the top of a mile-long stretch of switchbacks.  This is like driving down a corkscrew and it's a real thrill.  It's a dirt road, but even two-wheel drive vehicles like my truck can make it.



Above left:  Looking for another campsite.  Don't worry about entering gates unless they're specifically marked "No Trespassing" -- just make sure you close them after you pass through.  Fences on public land are to keep cattle in, not to keep visitors out. 

Above center:  Once in a while, I'll stumble across a fantastic campsite like this one, overlooking 1,000-foot deep Clay Canyon near Lake Powell.  Those are the Henry Mountains in the background, the last explored mountain range in the lower 48 states.  This is one of the most remote areas in the U.S.

Above right:  After driving on the Burr Trail, nothing tastes better than Doritos, salsa and a cold Diet Pepsi.  Beautiful, empty places like this are why I love Utah.




Next News

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)



Previous News

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)


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Home > Travels (2001-02) > U.S. Trip > June 18, 2001