Death Valley, Cathedral Valley, and Dinosaur Trip
April 11 to 25, 2013
This was a crazy trip , driving all over the west - I really should call it the Kings River-Burro Schmidt-Panamint Valley-Death Valley-Kolob Canyons-Cathedral Valley-Goblin Valley-Dinosaur-petroglyphs-Boulder Canyon Trip. I also think of it as the campsite #50 trip - read on.
The timing was perfect for the Sierra foothills, and the plateaus of Utah, but almost too late for Death Valley where things were closing down for the heat of summer.
Fifteen days on the road, 149 panoramas.
(Click any picture to open a larger version.)
I had never ventured into the foothills canyon of the Kings River before, and it was lovely. A long stretch is of course drowned by Pine Flat Reservoir, but above that there is a reach, administered by the Forest Service, that gets increasingly wild as one goes upstream. I was especially interested in photographing it because there have been recurrent proposals for a series of dams that would obliterate this stretch of wild river.
To the north there are some major hydro-electric developments, the road to which was an adventure in itself - in particular a quarter mile stretch that was one-lane, no railing, cliffs above and below.
I got a slow start down through the foothills, followed by a long drive in the San Joaquin Valley, then up the Kern River into the Sierra foothills again.
After crossing the Sierra at Walker Pass I took a serious 4WD road out to the Burro Schmidt Tunnel in the El Paso Mountains of the Mojave Desert. Lots of off-road enthusiasts, but the road was no real challenge.
From there I moved eastward over a few more ranges to Panamint Valley. The casual campground at the semi-ghost town of Ballarat was lively, radios blaring, generators roaring, people driving around aimlessly, shooting off guns. I left promptly and drove north up the rocky road into Surprise Canyon. It has water and vegetation, a tiny oasis, but the otherwise promising campsite was already occupied by three men chugging beer and firing various firearms at the ruins of the old mill.
I chose a spot out on the flats of Panamint Valley, a traditional camping site on desert pavement. It was still 99° when the sun went behind the mountains, but comfortable because of the low humidity. I enjoyed the vast open space and watched as night fell. It was one of my best camps ever.
I explored the surprising wetlands in Panamint Valley, then drove up Wildrose Canyon to the Charcoal Kilns and beyond. It would have been cool and comfortable for camping up there, but I was restless and wanted to move on. I camped once again at Stovepipe Wells, sea level in Death Valley. It was extremely hot, 105°, but cold drinks and ice from the convenience store helped a lot.
In the relatively cool morning I hiked up Mosaic Canyon. Next I grabbed a few panoramas at the ruins of Harmony Borax Works, and the adjacent Cottonball Marsh and Mustard Canyon. To avoid the worst of the heat in the afternoon I loitered around the visitor center and the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn, enjoying once again the exotic beauty of the Palm Garden. I shot Artist's Drive in late afternoon, and ended the day with a hike up Golden Canyon.
I left Death Valley with a sudden gale-force tail-wind and plummeting temperatures, a dramatic change in the weather. Just at sunset I rolled into Tecopa Hot Springs County Park, and enjoyed a good soak before bed.
Before leaving Tecopa I indulged myself with another dip in the hot spring bath, then drove right through Las Vegas and on towards Zion. The sky was clear but it was still windy.
The weather changed overnight, and by morning there were heavy gray clouds and gusty winds. By the time I got to Cedar City there were flurries of snow. I took a brief side trip to the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park, where the pink cliffs were adorned with fresh snow.
I carried on north on I-15, then east over the mountains on Interstate 70. I turned south on a scenic road over the Limestone Cliffs, where the temperature dropped to 22° at 9000 feet, then down to Capitol Reef National Park.
The beautiful campground in the pioneer fruit orchard at Capitol Reef is very popular, so I have seldom been able to get a site there. Just as it was getting dark I drove in and circled around the first loop, all the campsites full, people sitting around campfires. Then the other loop. To my amazement the very last site was empty. By coincidence it was campsite #50.
For years I have been wanting to see Cathedral Valley in the remote northern section of Capitol Reef National Park. There are two routes, one begins with a ford which I could probably have done with my 4WD truck, but I didn't want to risk it, being alone.
The other route starts up Caineville Wash through badlands and slickrock, a wonderful backroad experience. The first sights are the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Moon, and the gypsum Crystal Mountain. I also encountered a genuine cattle drive, men and boys on horseback moving several hundred cattle to waiting trucks for transportation to summer pasture in the mountains.
At the north end of this loop the road passes another set of huge fang-like hoodoos, then climbs onto a mesa top. The cold wind threatened to blow me off the cliff top, so I decided not to camp up there and retraced my route to Capitol Reef.
Incredibly, I pulled right into site #50 again, didn't even go around the loop.
From Capitol Reef I went north through Hanksville, stopping at the amazing hoo-doos in Goblin Valley. Near Green River I made a short side trip to the Crystal Geyser on the banks of the Green River. A long stretch of freeway took me rapidly to Grand Junction and I camped on the cliff tops above the valley at Colorado National Monument.
I took a two-lane road through the mountains north from the Grand Valley, under threatening skies and with snow on the ground, through oil fields full of activity, to the tiny town of Dinosaur, Colorado. I did some grocery shopping and was relieved to arrive in camp early in the afternoon. It is a lovely campground, in a cottonwood grove on the banks of the Green River.
This was a very productive day. I began with the famous dinosaur quarry after which the monument was named. It had been closed for several years while being rebuilt, so I had never experienced it before. The back wall of the one huge room is bedrock, with ongoing excavation of fossils, numerous skeletons protruding from the stone.
I drove into Vernal to see the dinosaur museum, only to find that it was closed. I continued west to the private McConkie Ranch where there is an amazing series of pictographs and petroglyphs. Back in Dinosaur Monument I drove the Cub Creek Road leading upriver to the Josie Morris Cabin and some more petroglyphs.
First I had a good look around the excellent Utah Field House of Natural History - the dinosaur museum in Vernal. Then a long dull drive through oil fields and past coal mines to Helper, where I found that the railroad museum was closed. After that I just kept driving and driving, 450 miles, until I ended up at Cedar Pocket on the Virgin River again.
The day got off to an interesting start. The wind was still blowing very hard, but steadily, no killer gusts like the night before. When I dropped the pop-up top down, the wind blowing in the back door of the camper promptly popped it up again. I tried again, same problem - and even when it was briefly down the fabric was billowing outside, not tucked inside the way it should be. So I drove the camper out and turned it around, parked it facing into the wind. No more problem.
It wasn't really on my route, but I wanted to see the new bridge at Hoover Dam. I drove around Las Vegas to Henderson, then to Boulder Canyon. There is a special parking lot just for people who want to walk across the bridge. Homeland Security asked to check inside my camper, though neither of the huge burly guys could fit through the door. The view of the dam from the bridge is stunning, and the view down scary, 886 feet (270 meters) to the Colorado River.
This detour put me on the lower Colorado River, so I continued on south to Moabi near Needles, where it was warm and sunny.
I could have made it home in one day, 560 miles, but I decided to take it easy and split it into two.