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Sunday, 20 October 2013

Utah rocks (!)

Utah is widely known for its natural beauty and is thus a very popular destination for many tourists seeking the thrill and uniqueness of the countless national parks of the US west. We have also answered the calling of this stunning and unforgiving nature and made (will still make) many trips to this state. Most people will know or have even visited some of the most visited parks in the US including Arches, Zion or Bryce Canyon National Parks. Some might have traveled here in the winter to try out what is often advertised as "the best snow in the world" on the many ski slopes near Salt Lake City, which was home of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. But, there is so much more in Utah than most of us will realize at first. I will attempt to describe this wondrous place in the following article.

Sunrise over Monument Valley, UT.

I decided to give this article this "cheesy" name that comes up on pretty much half of the touristy T-shirts sold everywhere in Utah. But the thing is, it is true, Utah rocks! I mean it does rock and also there are many rocks there :D Loots of rocks of various colours and shapes. In fact, anything you can imagine a rock could look like and most things you would not believe rocks can be like, you will find in Utah.

Alta Ski resort near Salt Lake City, UT.

Utah has been continuously settled by various peoples for over 8000 years, southern Utah has been a home to the ancient Pueblo (also often referred to by the Navajo work Anasazi), predominantly in the Four Corners area. There are numerous ruins and archeological sites left by this wonderful ancient culture. Currently the descendants of the Pueblo cultures have moved south, but the are still has a significant Native American population presence in the area mainly by the Navajo, Ute, Shoshoe, Goshute, Paiute and previously also the Fremont tribes. European explorers first entered Utah during the 1500s when the Spanish explorers lead by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado looking for the mythical golden cities of Cíbola. Catholic monks traveled to Utah with the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition that left Santa Fe in 1776. Various trappers and pioneers crossed through the Utah territory in the 19th century, but it was not until the arrival of the Mormons in 1846, when Utah saw its first permanent settlement by the Europeans.

Old Mormon village in Capitol Reef National Park, UT.

It was the Mormons who cultivated the lands and changed the face of Utah forever. The evidence of their presence and rule over the state is ever present. All of the road signs carry the image of a bee-hive, which is one of the main symbols of the Mormon society. If one travels in many of the more remote areas, most businesses will be closed on Sunday. The Mormons have brought lots of little curiosities and interesting things to Utah. For example swedish pancakes to Moab, which came with Swedish Mormon expeditions targeted at southern Utah territories. Although Mormon culture still somehow dominates some parts of Utah, it is not the only thing here. In fact, Utah is home to some of the best beer I tried in the US! (a very high praise coming from a Czech) Mining for heavy metals, including Uranium is still a big deal in Utah, which is the home to the world's largest copper mine in the world.

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, UT.
Landscape Arch, Arches national Park, UT.
Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, UT.

Our trips to Utah were mostly targeted at local stunning nature, mainly in southern Utah. For those, I recommend  going in the spring or autumn, summers are way too hot in these areas. First time, we headed towards Moab and Lake Powell. During our four day loop from Santa Fe we managed to see the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, visited the Natural Bridges National Monument, and did some kayaking at Lake Powell. First, we camped right outside the Arches National Park by the bank of the Colorado River, which was one of the nicest campsites we have ever stayed at. The best part was sitting by the river watching the sunset, which was immediately followed by the most spectacular moonrise, that words cannot describe and no camera is good enough to photograph! Our second campsite at Halls Crossing was by no means more spectacular. The lake views and sunsets and sunrises there were simply unbelievable, just like a scene from a cheesy sci-fi novel or movie.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, UT.
Canyonlands National Park, UT.
Colorado River from our campsite, Moab, UT.
Bose making delicious breakfast burritos at our cambsite, Moab, UT.

In general, Moab is famous as one of the US top 4-wheeleing destinations. This is a true paradise for all lovers of Jeeps, ATV's and any other off-road vehicles. You will be rewarded with stunning views, side range of trails of different levels of difficulty, mostly old mining roads left by the past days, when this was a mining town, and some good thrill.
If you wish to try some off-roading, there are many places in Moab where one can rent a Jeep or ATV, many agencies even organize day trips to some of the popular trails. We mostly focused on hiking and sights on this trip. We hiked pretty much all trails in Arches that did not require registration, but we did not manage to go into the Fiery Furnace, which is apparently also something amazing, so next time! This is a great park, but very busy, one of those with houndreds of buses full of tourists in pink flipflops and RVs everywhere, which really too away from the experience. The true highlight was however the Canyonlands National Park, which still remains one of our most favourite national parks in the US! The Island in the Sky loop is literally across the street from Arches, yet there is no one there! There is an easy access road that any car can go on leading up to you and the views are indescribable. If you plan to go to the Southwest to see deep red canyons and huge landscape views, this is the place to be! Also, Canyonlands are the home to some of the best 4-wheeling trails. 

Natural Bridges National Monument, UT.
Ancient Pueblo Ruins, Natural Bridges National Monument, UT.

For the following two days we traveled south to visit the Natural Bridges National Monument and Lake Powell recreation area. Natural Bridges is a small, but very cute park well worth visiting, especially if you are interested in history as well as some stunning nature. These rocky bridges are quite different from the Arches, formed by a different geological process. There is a lovely hike through the canyon that takes you to many of the ancient ruins. If one is interested to see more of the Ancient Pueblo (Anasazi) history, I recommend following the Trail of the Ancients scenic route that goes through this area and takes you by several wonderful historical sites. However, Lake Powell, this place is something once again hard to describe by plain words. One really only sees two colours there: red and blue ... but sometimes, red and blue is more than enough! We took a ferry from Halls Crossing to Bullfrog on the other side of the lake, where we rented a kayak. Although typically, people take boats on the lake, kayaking is one of the more exciting ways to explore this once deep canyon, now flooded by clear blue waters of the Colorado river. This kayaing trip felt very artistic since our kayak was orange, surrounded by perfect blue water, orange rocks with brilliant blue sky stretching above us! One can even kayak to various petroglyph sites and hidden bays/canyons.

Sunset at our Halls Crossing Cambground, Lake Powell, UT.
Kayaking at Lake Powell, UT.
Kayaking at Lake Powell, UT.

Second time we traveled to Utah, we went for a simple weekend trip to the world famous Monument Valley. This place is famous for a good reason, these rock formations are like nowhere else, however the experience was once again spoiled by traffic jams of RV's, tour buses and tourists in silly clothes. I would recommend camping, also the local lodge serves great fry bread/Navajo Taco. The best time is to see the monument at sunrise, well worth getting up early! We also stopped by the Goosenecks State Park at the San Juan river, which is a must see if one is in the area. There are other exciting places in the San Juan County like the famous Valley of the Gods, Newspaper rock, Beef Basin, Comb Wash/Ridge, Grand Gulch, etc., but most of those can only be accessed with 4x4 vehicle and we were forced to skip those this time. This trip was improved when we continued down to Arizona to see Canyon de Chelly, which I will write about in the next article about Arizona.

Goosenecks State Park, UT.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, UT.
Sunrise at the Monument Valley, UT.
Moon setting over the Monument Valley, UT.

Monument Valley, UT.
Boneville Salt Flats, UT.
Visiting friends and enjoying delicious Czech food at the Bohemian Brewery in Salt Lake City, UT.

We also passed through Utah on our way back from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This time, we decided to see more of the northern part of the state and visit some friends in Salt Lake City. Our friend Karolina was a wonderful guide, who showed us the city with a very knowledgeable narrative. The Salt Lake are is very surreal. Below majestic Rocky Mountains, that attract ski enthusiasts from all over the world during the winter and surrounded by vast salt desert and huge Salt Lake. One must visit the Boneville Salt Flats for one of the most bizzare experience and view that challenges your depth perception. One can definitely take lots of silly photos, posing on top of bottles and other objects - much recommended for the cheer fun of it! This is also the place where high speed vehicles go to break the speed records, another fun thing to do here! Karolina also recommended many wonderful trails up in the mountains, which we did not have time to check out on this trip. In particular, she was excited about the High Uintas, which is highest peaks of the Rockies which peaks stretch East-to-West instead of the usual North-South direction and offer some marvelous backpacking opportunities. On the way back down to New Mexico, we stopped by Moab again and visited the Goblin Valley State Park. This place is fun and these rock formations truly do remind one of lots of Orange Goblins - ever since then, I wonder if this is the origin of the name for the stoner rock band :D

High Uintas, UT. (photo: Karolina Walters)
Pronghorns/antelopes, Goblin Valley State Park, UT.
Goblin Valley State Park, UT.

We returned to Utah few weeks later to explore parts we previously did not manage to see. This time our destination for the next 4-day trip was further west around Capitol Reef National Park, Escalante, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. We drove there through the scenic route on the northern side of Lake Powell, which was just amazing and I would suggest to anyone to go this way, it's stunning. Bryce and Zion are among the most famous parks in the US and do not require much introduction or description. I have to say that Bryce was just amazing and I would recommend going down on the countless trails through the canyon, because this place is the best up close, view from the rim is great, but it does not do the park full justice. Zion was beautiful, but oh boy! so crowded! They have a good bus system, you cannot drive in through out the busy season (we went in September). The hike up to Angel's landing was like a rush hour at Victoria Station in London, even though we started the hike at 8 am. If you want to enjoy this park without staring and million pairs pink shorts and silly hats, then I would recommend to follow the trail further along the West Rim above the Angel's Landing. Another great way to see this part is to go for a proper backpacking tour. Also, the Narrows hike is very cool, but one has to be careful about the flush floods, which are common during the monsoon season (July-early September). Probably the best time to do this hike would be spring time after the snow has melted in the mountains - May.

Picking fruits at old Mormon farms in Capitol Reef National Park, UT.
Capitol Reef national Park, UT.

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT.
Hiking in the Bryce Canyon National Park, UT.

Zion National Park, UT.
West Rim Trail, Zion National Park, UT.
Red Sand Dunes State Park, UT.

There are just too many beautiful places in Utah! One could spend lifetime exploring all those great red rocks and canyons. We have found out that especially Escalante is a serious return bussiness. There are many wonderful spots around including Ancient Pueblo ruin, Anasazi State Park Museum, Escalante Petrified Forest State Park or the Kodachrome Basin State Park. The Scenic Byway UT-12 itself is just stunning to drive through. One should really have a 4x4 drive here in order to explore most of the are around Escalante and Grand Staircase National Park, such as the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Burr trail, Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Backway, and stunning places like Spooky and Peekaboo slot canyons, the Neon Canyon/Golden Cathedral, Coyote Gulch, Devil's Garden and many others. I think this is the place, we might keep on coming back, over and over again!

We made a little friend in Arches NP, UT :)

There is still too much of Utah to explore. Here, one never gets tired of rocks :)

So, we shall keep on rockin' and adding more stuff to this article, so stay tuned in!

Katja & Bose Falk

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