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Baking in the Utah Desert

I left Lake City, my home for the past 10 days, on a warm morning.  That in itself was unusual because Lake City, at over 8,600 feet in elevation, is one of the coolest places in the country during the summer months.  I remember many frosty mornings here during my ranger days, even in July, so I wondered what the rest of day’s weather had in store for me as I'd descend into the desert.


Above:  The Colorado River upstream from Moab, Utah.  When I drove through here two weeks earlier, it was 113 degrees.  On this day, though, it was "only" 112.  And no, my truck doesn't have air conditioning.

From Lake City I drove down to Montrose, about 2,000 feet lower, than continued dropping until I reached the Colorado River inside the Utah border in the early afternoon.  By now it had gone way past warm and was downright hot.  I spent a few minutes at the historic Dewey Bridge, which has spanned the Colorado River since it was built in 1916, then continued following the river downstream until I reached Moab, where I pulled into a gas station to fill my tank and grab a 44-ounce Big Gulp in a cup that I filled almost entirely with ice.  My Toyota truck has no air conditioning, as you may recall, so driving in extreme heat like this is always a challenge and frequent stops for large cups of ice are mandatory.


According to the thermometer in Moab, the temperature was a blistering 112 degrees, one degree shy of the uber-blistering 113 mark two weeks ago when I came through here while heading east.  Now, Moab is usually hot in the summer months – at only 4,000 feet in elevation, it's often the hottest place in eastern Utah – but this was crazy, crazy hot.  In fact, I think these were perhaps the hottest temperatures I’ve ever experienced.  During my college days I spent a summer in the desert in Riverside, California when the daily high temperature never dropped below 100 degrees for 30 straight days, setting a local record. But this 110-plus heat, day after day, was something else entirely.  I got back in the truck and, with both windows rolled down, of course, drove north for a few miles past the turnoff for Arches National Park, then I pulled off the highway heading west towards Canyonlands National Park.


Above:  After fueling up in Moab (and getting lots of ice), I headed up to Long Canyon, one of my favorite BLM camping spots.  I've camped here several times over the past 15 years and have never seen another person.

It was late in the day and I was in search of a campsite. But not any campsite.  My destination that evening was a special campsite, on BLM land just outside of Dead Horse Point State Park at a place called Long Canyon. 


I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a mental map of about a dozen wonderful campsites on BLM land scattered throughout southern Utah, including two places where I had camped on this particular trip:  Arch Canyon near Natural Bridges National Monument and Looking Glass Rock south of Moab.  No, these aren’t campgrounds with facilities like restrooms, picnic tables and running water.  Instead, they’re undeveloped (but extremely scenic) campsites that I’ve stumbled across during my many trips across southern Utah.  And I keep a map of all of them in my head – one of many reasons I have such a fat head.


I’ve stayed at Long Canyon many times over the past 15 years and, other than Looking Glass Rock, it’s about the prettiest place I’ve ever camped.  And best of all, I’ve never seen another person camping here, so I've always had the whole place to myself.  That partly because this campsite, like every other one in my mental map, is far from the nearest paved road.


Above:  By late in the afternoon the temperature had dropped down to 110 degrees – gee, almost chilly.  But not a bad campsite, huh?

My heart always pounds a bit faster as I approach Long Canyon, or any of my favorite primitive campsites, because I hope not to see anyone else there when I pull in.  And sure enough, as I pulled into the Long Canyon campsite, it was totally empty.  Of course, the 112-degree temperature probably had something to do with that!  Either way, my spirits soared and it was wonderful to camp there that night, with its amazing view of the canyon descending towards the southeast with the gorgeous La Sal Mountains off in the distance.  As I sat there alone in the desert silence while savoring the incredible vista, I figured that maybe the heat wasn't so bad after all.


I packed up the next morning and headed back up the dirt road, then pulled into Dead Horse Point State Park, which is perched on the southern lip of a massive sandstone plateau that stretches west for several miles into nearby Canyonlands National Park.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but for all the times I’ve driven past this park on my way to Canyonlands over the past 20 years I’ve never once stopped to see it.  I regret it now because, as I discovered, Dead Horse Point State Park has one of the most incredible views of the Colorado River that I've seen.  Why haven’t I stopped here before, I wondered?  That name itself should’ve pulled me it.  I could only imagine the story behind a place called “Dead Horse Point," conjuring up more than a few colorful images of the wild, wild west.


Above:  The spectacular view from Dead Horse Point State Park.  This is the Green River shortly before it joins the Colorado.

After spending a half-hour at Dead Horse Point on this very warm morning, I got back in my truck and continued west and, a few minutes later, entered Canyonlands National Park.  Canyonlands, established in 1964, is a massive national park with three large sections, known as districts:  Needles, the Maze, and this one called Island in the Sky.  Each district is accessible by a single primary road, two of which are paved and one of which (in the Maze District) is an unpaved four-wheel drive road.  The park thus offers visitors a variety of experiences.


I first visited Canyonlands back in 1982 during a spring break camping trip with my then-girlfriend Katy, when the park was barely known.  The only structure in the park at that time was a weathered Quonset hut that served as the Island in the Sky district’s crude Visitor Center and there were maybe six visitors in the entire park, including Katy and me.  This, of course, was long before hoards of mountain bikers started descending on the park in the early 1990s and long before ATVers discovered the rest of southern Utah.


Above:  This is the entrance to Canyonlands in 1982 during my first visit.  All the roads were dirt and there were few visitors.  The park feels so different today with the paved roads and masses of weekend crowds.

The desert naturalist, notable curmudgeon and famous author, Edward Abbey, wrote a wonderful book about this area called, “Desert Solitaire” many years ago, in which he described his experience working as a park ranger at nearby Arches National Park in the early 1960s.  This was long before the park was discovered and a time when you could count the number of visitors each day with the fingers on one hand – even if you were missing two fingers.  I loved his book but he groused about how “overrun” the park had become in later years.  I first visited Arches in 1982 and was probably one of those folks who was “overrunning” the park (or "his" park, I should say), at least from Abbey’s perspective.


I find that perspective interesting because now, with my memory of how wonderfully empty Canyonlands and Arches National Parks were back when I first visited in the early 1980s, I grouse about all the visitors to this area today, when over a million people visit those parks each year.  Of course, first-time visitors to Canyonlands and Arches today will probably, 20 years from now, grouse about how the parks have become overrun with visitors.  It all depends on your perspective and your memories of what it was like when you first experienced it, I suppose.  It's sort of like comparing all the people you've ever dated to your first love – it's just not quite the same.


Visiting Canyonlands and Arches was such a different experience back then before they were "discovered" compared to now with all the paved roads and throngs of people.  But I can't get too upset about the overcrowding today or feel possessive about these places ("Get out of my park!") like Abbey was, because that's not productive.  It's a free country and everyone is welcome to visit and enjoy these special places, so I'm sure even more visitors will be flocking here in the coming years.  Instead of getting upset about the increasing visitation, I simply try to cherish the memories I have of how wonderful these places once were.



Above left:  I reached Utah a few hours after leaving Lake City.  This is the historic Dewey Bridge over the Colorado River.  When the bridge was completed in 1916, it was the second longest suspension bridge in the U.S. west of the Mississippi River. 

Above center:  Here's the other side of the Dewey Bridge.  It's been replaced by a modern bridge nearby so it's now closed to vehicles, but you can still walk across it. 

Above right:  And here's the Dewey Bridge during my visit back in 1985 when it was still open to vehicle traffic.  A car is barely squeezing its way across.  I drove my Toyota truck across it, an experience I'll never forget.



Above left:  Despite the crowds today, Canyonlands is still one of my favorite national parks.  This is the John Wesley Powell overlook above the Green River. 

Above right:  A closer view of the Green River.  The smoke from fires in the Rocky Mountains was pretty thick.



Above left:  Here's another shot of Canyonlands National Park from 1982.  This is the Shafer Trail, one of the more interesting four-wheel drive roads in Canyonlands.  This was years before the massive influx of mountain bikers in southern Utah.  The park was deserted back then – and wonderful!

Above right:  And the Shafer Trail in 2002.  The bushes are a little larger now.



Above left:  This is Buck Point overlook at Canyonlands.  Now, imagine this view without the smoke.

Above right:  Dorky tourist at the Buck Point overlook.  Hey wait – that's my camera, so how did I shoot that picture?

The Final Leg

I spent a few hours at Canyonlands and enjoyed each vista point – and believe me, I hit every one of them – then I hopped in the truck and headed north.  An hour later I approached the town of Green River, Utah, which is perched on the banks of the (you guessed it) Green River.  The first person to successfully travel down the Colorado River and navigate the treacherous Grand Canyon, a one-armed former Civil War major named John Wesley Powell, passed through Green River while leading a flotilla of four wooden boats back in 1869.  Then he came down the Green River and traversed the Grand Canyon again two years later – truly a remarkable man.


Here's Creedence Clearwater Revival singing about Green River.


Green River was also the name of a memorable song by the 1960s rock group, Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), though I'm not sure if John Fogerty and crew were referring to this particular little town in the proverbial middle-of-nowhere.  Admittedly, I've never seen a "barefoot girl dancing in the moonlight" anywhere near Green River, Utah, but nevertheless, I’ve driven through this town a dozen times over the past many years and each time as I approach it, I play CCR's catchy song, “Green River.”  It's tradition. 


Back in the 1980s, I would pop a cassette tape (remember those?) into the cassette player of my convertible Ford Mustang.  But this time, I popped an MP3 disc into my Kenwood receiver and cranked up the stereo of my Toyota truck – with the windows rolled down, given that it was 108 degrees here.  After listening to "Green River" while driving down the main street, I pulled over at a mini-mart and, of course, got another 44-ounce Big Gulp with lots of ice.  In fact, I seem to do that (along with listening to the CCR song) every time I visit Green River.  Like I say, it's tradition.


Later that afternoon I crossed into southeastern Idaho and a few hours later, I pulled into Craters of the Moon National Monument, a huge park with massive lava flows that spewed from cracks in the ground relatively recently, at least in geologic terms.  With its endless seas of razor-sharp lava rock that will slice up a pair of thick-soled boots in a matter of hours, this park is so inaccessible that there are some portions of it that have likely never been explored.  I stayed mostly on the paved footpaths the next morning, though, as I explored the numerous lava caves here, flashlight firmly in hand. 


From Craters of the Moon, I continued heading northwest and camped in western Idaho that evening.  I continued my homeward trek the next day, past the Dry Falls of central Washington, the many dams on the Columbia River and up into the beautiful North Cascades National Park, where I took my first overnight backpacking trip when I was seven years old.  That was a memorable trip:  a challenging three-day voyage with my parents, two brothers, an uncle and a cousin, as we headed up from Lake Chelan, crossed over snow-covered Park Creek Pass and then dropped down into Thunder Creek.  I only had time on this trip to reminisce, however, as I continued my way west.


Finally, after a month on the road, I pulled into my dad’s driveway in Bellingham around 6 p.m. (and conveniently just in time for dinner!)  It had been a great trip, down the Oregon coast and back to the Colorado Rockies, but it was also great to be back and, of course, to see my dad and my sister Doti again.



Above left:  Getting a bag of ice in Green River, Utah.  A big bag.  According to that sign it was only 108 degrees here.  Gee, time to put on some long pants and a sweater, huh?

Above right:  Later that day I pulled into Craters of the Moon National Monument in southern Idaho.  It's a huge park that's filled with bizarre lava landscapes from relatively-recent eruptions.



Left:  Camping at Craters of the Moon.  I've always liked this unique campground. 

Nope, not many trees here, just lava rock!



Above left:  The Devils Orchard Trail is one of many "Devils" sites I've visited in national parks (see News: June 25, 2002).

Above right:  Descending into a lava cave at Craters of the Moon National Monument.  Um, where's my flashlight?



Above left:  Here's the view inside a lava cave.

Above center:  View from the top of a dormant volcano at Craters of the Moon.

Above right:  The lava flows here occurred between 2,000 and 15,000 years ago so, geologically-speaking, they were very recent.  This solidified lava still looks fresh, doesn't it?



Above left:  The next day I visited Dry Falls in central Washington.  The falls here are now dry but during the Ice Age 15,000 years ago, they were inundated with water from the Missoula Floods when ice dams hundreds of miles away broke, sending huge torrents of water downstream into the Columbia River.

Above right:  This is what Dry Falls looked like during the Ice Age.  When the ice dams upstream broke, which they did numerous times over thousands of years, Dry Falls was the largest waterfall in the world.



Above left:  And here's a dam that I hope doesn't break.  This is Chief Joseph Dam, one of a dozen dams that have turned the once-wild Columbia River into a series of placid reservoirs.

Above right:  The Okanogan Valley and Columbia River in central Washington. 



Above left:  This is the spectacular North Cascades National Park near Bellingham.  This highway is closed for several months during the winter because of the massive snowfalls here.

Above right:  Back home in Bellingham, having dinner with my dad and sister Doti.  It's good to be home.



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