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Cruising (Safely) Through Southern Utah

I left my beautiful BLM campsite overlooking Clay Canyon in the morning, then I spent a few more days in southern Utah soaking up the sunshine.  Southern Utah is one of my favorite places in America and I visit there every few years.  Highlights of my trip after I left Clay Canyon included:


Here's another one of my favorite Western songs. This is Suzy Bogguss singing Someday Soon.

  • Driving on beautiful Utah Highway 95,

  • Visiting Natural Bridges National Monument, and

  • Stopping at deserted viewpoints throughout the area, each with unbelievable vistas

It was pretty hot with highs in the low 90s, but it didn't bother me and I enjoyed having the area pretty much to myself.  I cranked up my truck's stereo, rolled down the windows, and watched an amazing panorama rush past my windshield at 55 miles an hour.  Or maybe 60.


Or maybe even higher?  Now, I pride myself on being a careful and safe driver and, despite driving hundreds of thousands of miles around the country, I've never gotten a speeding ticket or any kind of moving violation, for that matter.  But this part of southern Utah was where I came the closest.  Back in 1995, during another solo trip around the country, I nearly got a speeding ticket here on Utah Highway 95.


Above:  Lake Powell and the Colorado River Bridge from Utah Highway 95.

I was paying more attention to the scenery than to my speedometer that afternoon and my speed had crept up to 65 in a 55-mph zone.  I normally don't drive more than about six miles an hour over highway speed limits, a rule-of-thumb that's kept me from ever getting ticketed.  Despite doing 65, though, a car had crept up behind me, wanting to go even faster.  He was really riding my bumper.  It was then that I saw a cop driving towards me in the opposite lane and, sure enough, as soon as he passed me, he flipped on his flashing lights.  I looked in my rear-view mirror and watched the cop quickly slow down and pull a quick U-turn on the two-lane highway and take off after me.  "I'm busted," was all I could think of. 


The driver who was riding my bumper must've been pretty dense, though, because instead of slowing down and backing off and avoiding a ticket, he stayed right on my bumper.  A minute later, the cop had caught up to both of us and instead of pulling me over, he pulled over the guy behind me.  I was saved by a stupid driver.


Speaking of stupid drivers, here's another story about driving across Utah.  Back in August 1983, I had finished working all summer on a trail crew with the BLM in southwestern Colorado and I was heading back to Portland.  I was driving my 1969 Mustang convertible on Interstate 70 near Green River, Utah one hot afternoon with the top down.  I saw a beautiful thunderstorm several miles off to the left, so I grabbed my camera and, with one hand still on the wheel, I framed the shot and focused it all while driving 60 miles an hour down I-70. 


Above:  I parked on the slickrock (i.e., sandstone) near Arch Canyon, a primitive BLM campsite a few miles from Natural Bridges.  This is one of my favorite campsites in the U.S.  It's BLM land so there are no facilities, but it's free.  There are hundreds of beautiful camping spots like this scattered throughout Utah.  You just have to find them.

Just as I snapped the picture, I heard a rumbling sound, so I immediately put down my camera and looked straight ahead.  While I had been looking through the camera off to my left, the Mustang had veered off to the right side of the freeway and onto the graveled shoulder.  Then I did another stupid thing:  I slammed on the brakes.  I lost control of the Mustang on the gravel and overcorrected, and the car fishtailed, then it headed way to the left and clear across both lanes of traffic (fortunately there were no cars) and onto the dirt median (fortunately there was a dirt median), where it spun around 360 degrees and came to a shuddering stop. 


I was very shaken.  It was the closest I've ever come to being in an accident and, had the convertible Mustang flipped over, I could've easily been killed.  I learned my lesson from that episode.  While I still shoot photos occasionally while driving and looking straight ahead out the windshield, I never shoot looking off to the side anymore.  That was one of the stupidest things I've ever done and I regret it.


With that in mind, cruising through southern Utah (if you drive safely) is an unforgettable experience.  Here are some photos of my drive:



Above left:  Lake Powell was formed in the 1960s when the Colorado River was dammed.  It's become a boater's paradise and is dotted with numerous marinas, including this one at Bullfrog.  With all of the dams, reservoirs, and marinas in this area, it's hard to imagine the one-armed Major John Wesley Powell floating down the turbulent, unexplored waters of the Colorado River in 1869, strapped in a chair to the deck of his wooden boat.

Above right:  The last discovered mountain range in the continental United States were the Henry Mountains in southeastern Utah.  They were discovered, named, and explored by the Powell boat expeditions down the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871.  



Left:  Roll down the window and let the wind blow through your hair as you cruise on Utah Highway 95.

This is one of my favorite drives in America.




Above left:   This is a small river in southern Utah that feeds into the Colorado River.  It was named by the Powell Expedition (the first group to travel down the Colorado) in 1869 because of its sulfurous smell.  It's hard to smell today because those dirty devils at the Bureau of Reclamation dammed up the Colorado River.

Above right:  Sipapu Bridge, one of three natural bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument.



Left:  The roadcut of Utah Highway 95 at Comb Ridge.




Above left:  Enjoying the incredible vista at Muley Point Overlook, which overlooks much of southern Utah and northern Arizona.  There was no one within miles but, honestly, I thought I heard faint Indian drumming and chanting here.  Maybe I had too many donuts for breakfast?

Above center:  The view from Muley Point.

Above right:  There are a lot of "interesting" roads in Utah including this one, graveled Highway 261, with switchbacks that climb a thousand feet above the desert floor.



Above left:  Graveled Highway 261.  As my dad would say, that first step's a killer

Above right:  The goosenecks of the San Juan River in southern Utah.  Geologists call this phenomena "incised meanders."  I think it's stuck in a rut.



Above left:  Anasazi (i.e., ancient Indian) ruins at Mule Canyon.

Above right:  Here's the historic district of Bluff, Utah.  In the late 1800s, Brigham Young ordered a group of Mormons to create an outpost in southeastern Utah.  Getting here was difficult, however, and the pioneers cut a hole in a sandstone cliff (which is still there) to lower wagons down by rope.  They settled here at Bluff because they were too exhausted to go any further.  Bluff today is pleasant little town with about 500 residents.



Left:  Fueling up (and getting a big Diet Pepsi) in Bluff.


Canyon de Chelly:  Beautiful, but Beware

Above:  The Visitor Center at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona. 

After spending several days in southern Utah, I crossed into Arizona one afternoon and camped for a night at Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "da Shay") National Monument in the northeastern part of the state.  Canyon de Chelly is an interesting park because it's interwoven with the Navajo Indian reservation which completely surrounds the park.  Best of all, it also has one of the few free national park campgrounds in the country.  I'm a pretty cheap guy, as you probably know, so I was happy.


For as long as I can remember, though, this place has been notorious for vehicle break-ins.  During my first visit here in 1981, a park ranger quietly told me that they were having problems in certain parts of the park, with thieves from the nearby Navajo reservation breaking into vehicles.  I've never had my truck broken into, but during my last visit here, back in 1993, I overheard a young Navajo guy in a parking lot trying to convince an older white couple in an RV to walk out to the viewpoint a half-mile away.  "It's beautiful, you really should go out there," he told them.  Of course, I think the reason he wanted them to leave was so that he could break into their RV. 


I don't want to imply that the place is filled with car thieves, because most of the nearby Navajos are friendly, law-abiding folks (and many of them sell great handmade jewelry at the park's pull-outs).  But if you visit Canyon de Chelly, just be careful.



Above left:  House Under the Rock overlook at Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Above center:  View from the north rim of the canyon.

Above right:  Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly.  Tourists aren't allowed to travel on the floor of the canyon except with guided Navajo tours.



Above left:  These are cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi Indians around 1200 A.D.  A hundred years later the Anasazi mysteriously disappeared from the Four Corners area, leaving their dwellings and relics behind.  No one knows why the Anasazi suddenly disappeared, but most scientists think it was because of drought.

Above right:  The Hubbell Trading Post is one of the oldest active trading posts in the U.S.  Navajos bring in blankets and art work and trade them for groceries, toys, and other goods.  The Navajo handicrafts are, in turn, sold to tourists like me and everybody's happy.



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