I camped that night in the northern part of Zion National Park, an area that I'd never visited, and it was a very warm and
pleasant evening. The next morning I got in my truck and headed through Zion, then I drove 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.
Above: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in southwestern Utah.
I pulled into Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in the early afternoon. The dunes stretch for over 10 miles and are
incredibly beautiful, especially at sunset. The park is a bit off the beaten path but it's definitely worth a visit.
There's also a pleasant campground here with really nice showers which I savored (twice, in fact). I made the mistake, though,
of visiting the park on a Saturday afternoon when it seemed like every dune buggy and dirt bike in Utah was 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 sometimes got fed
up with their occasionally-arrogant and inconsiderate attitudes. Most of the dirt bikers I met in Colorado were pretty nice but
a few of them had an attitude problem.
As I sat there in the dunes watching the sunset, with Yamahas and Hondas zipping all around me, I figured there wasn't anything more
irritating than trying to enjoy a 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. It's a
situation that recreational sociologists call as "asymmetric antipathy," where one group (i.e. me) is greatly impacted by the
other but not vice-versa.
I don't want to sound like a cranky old dude, but I think the world would be a better place if all the jet skis and dirt bikes in the world
were dumped into a giant trench and covered with a thousand feet of wet cement. Or maybe I do want to sound like a cranky old dude!
Fortunately though, all the dirt bikers were asleep the next morning – with thoughts of Kawasakis dancing in their heads, I'm sure. Not
wanting to wake anyone and destroy the peace and quiet, I quietly 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. Lesson learned: if you visit the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, do it in the quiet morning
hours. Despite all loud ATVs and dirt bikes, though, I thought this state park was a real gem.
Above left: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is beautiful at sunset – but watch out for those dune buggies!
Above right: ATVs and dirt bikes zipped around the campground all afternoon and evening.
Above left: To find solace I snuck out to the dunes early the next morning and ate a breakfast of donuts and
Diet Pepsi (my normal traveling fare). I had the dunes all to myself. Afterwards, I hiked a mile to the top of the tallest dune, in the
background. Thankfully there wasn't a single dirt bike in sight.
Above right: After leaving the park, I headed north on U.S. 89. This is near Kanab, Utah.
In-spire-ing Bryce Canyon
After my donut breakfast at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, I packed up and drove a few hours north through red sandstone country to Bryce Canyon
National Park. Despite its name, Bryce isn't really a canyon but rather 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 American West. This is Willie Nelson with
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.
At 8,000 feet in elevation, Bryce Canyon is one of the highest national parks in southern Utah. Being 4,000 feet higher than
Zion National Park, Bryce is much cooler than Zion, which is great if you visit in the summer but not so great if you visit in the
winter. I learned this fact the hard way about 15 years ago when I was young and foolish (as opposed to now when I'm old and
foolish). Back in January of 1985, I stopped at empty Bryce Canyon National Park one frigid afternoon 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 5 degrees below zero and groggily emerged from my frosty truck the next morning with icicles hanging from my nose.
That was the last time I camped at Bryce.
In the summer, though, it's great.
Left: Sandstone tunnel in Red Canyon near Bryce.
Above left: Mob scene at Bryce Canyon National Park (well, whattya expect in June?)
Above right: The endless spires at Bryce Canyon.
"Picture Perfect" Kodachrome Basin
I spent a few hours at Bryce Canyon then dropped down to nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park, a few miles south of Cannonville,
and camped there that night. This park with the funny name is one of my favorite places to camp in southwestern Utah. In
fact, it's one of my 10 favorite state parks in America.
Above: This unique (and rather obscene-looking) rock formation is known as a "sand
pipe." Kodachrome Basin State Park 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 and hardened, then everything else eroded away.
Kodachrome Basin is a few miles off Utah Highway 12, so it's not usually too crowded. But it is incredibly
beautiful. Best of all, there are hot showers here to wash off all the red Utah dust. 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 called "Fred
The only bad thing about Kodachrome Basin State Park is the persistent no-see-ems and cedar gnats that congregate here from
April through October. These pesky little critters won't take "no" for an answer and I swatted at them in vain
while trying to chow down some Doritos and salsa at my campsite.
Oh, 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" in a nod to Kodak's new color film called Kodachrome. Soon afterwards the name
started to appear 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 right: Here's the campground at Kodachrome Basin. I've camped at this particular campsite in
the fall, winter, spring, and now in the summer – and it's always beautiful.
Rolling Along Route 12
Above: Calf Creek Falls, near Escalante, Utah. That's Chris,
the architect from Illinois 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.
I got back on Utah Highway 12 the next morning 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 these falls many times during
previous trips but never had time to hike to the waterfalls. I wasn't in any hurry this time and had 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, of course, my Canon camera.
It was 93 degrees when l headed out for the three-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 hiking for an hour,
I started to hear the falling water echo off the sandstone cliffs up ahead and a few minutes later, the spectacular waterfalls
suddenly appeared through the trees. It was a beautiful sight.
A few folks were splashing in the water under the falls and having a good time, enjoying this oasis in the middle
of the barren desert. I figured this was a good place to take off my boots and kick back for a while, so I did. 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 that had been 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 teenaged boys
with him on a two-week vacation to show them the west and they were all obviously having a great time. I told Chris about my
18-month trip and he applauded me, saying "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. This sign has been here for as long as I can remember.
I bumped into the owner, a pleasant man in his eighties, and we had a nice chat.
Above right: Utah Highway 12 near Boulder is an amazing road. It winds for several miles under, over, and
through the sandstone. Several television commercials have been filmed here because it's such a unique road.
Back on the Burr Trail
I left Calf Creek Falls early in the 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) but I'll try.
Above: Part of the fabulous 52-mile Burr Trail. It's actually not a trail but instead is a
dirt road extending from Boulder, Utah into Capitol Reef National Park.
Highway 12 is both fantastic and bizarre with its undulating white sandstone landscapes. You really
feel like you're driving on Mars or the moon. But if Highway 12 is bizarre, the Burr Trail is spectacular.
This "trail" is actually a road, 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 was 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 spots
in the U.S., with its thousand-foot sheer dropoff to the flat canyon bed far below. Time for more Nacho Doritos, salsa and
I relaxed on my folding chaise lounge, then I looked around and figured that I was probably the only person that evening within 100
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.
Above left: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created in 1996 by President Clinton.
Above right: The most incredible part of the Burr Trail is at the top of a mile-long stretch of switchbacks that
descend into Capitol Reef National Park. It's like driving down a corkscrew. The Burr Trail is a dirt road, but even two-wheel drive
vehicles like my truck can make it easily.
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 there are lots of small, biting flies,
which can be bothersome. They include cedar gnats (because they live in cedar trees) and even smaller – and even more irritating – flies
called no-see-ums (because you "no-see-um"). Nothing I've ever tried repels these pesky, biting 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.
Above: Looking for a campsite on BLM land in southern Utah. 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 meant to keep the cows IN, not to keep people OUT.
Winters are cold here and summers are hot, so weather-wise, May and September are the best times to visit southern Utah. However, even snowy
February can be pleasant if you have 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 camped every night, staying in state park campgrounds for two nights and camping on
primitive sites the other three. Primitive camping simply 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 for primitive camping – but of course, there aren't any facilities either, like showers, restrooms
or picnic tables. That's why I always carry a five-gallon jug of drinking water in my truck. I much 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.
Above left: Once in a while, I'll stumble across a fantastic campsite like
this one, which overlooks 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,
Pace salsa and a cold Pepsi. Beautiful, empty places like this are why I love southern Utah.