Zion and Chaco Trip
April 23 to May 15, 2014

This was my wife Nora's summer vacation trip, so I tried to balance my panographic agenda with what she wanted to do, which meant more walks, bicycle riding, relaxed camping, and fewer long driving days. I think it worked well for both of us, despite two weather surprises and one major unexpected problem.

The "problem" arose when we stopped for groceries in the tiny town of Escalante, Utah, on the edge of the vast slickrock desert. I checked my phone messages and found several urgent pleas to call my colleagues at the International VR Photography Association (IVRPA). It turned out that due to changes of officers and board members, I was the only person with signing authority for the association's bank account. With the annual conference (in Las Vegas) only three weeks away, this was nearing a crisis because the Tropicana Hotel needed a deposit to hold our block of rooms. I could authorize new signatories, but needed to do it in person - and the nearest branch of the Bank of America was in Flagstaff, Arizona, 450 miles away on the other side of the Grand Canyon. It was Friday so we had the weekend to get there. On Monday we took care of the bank business and re-started our trip.

We were on the road for 22 days and I made 192 panoramas. We camped all but three nights and were extremely comfortable, even through two snow storms.

(Click any picture to open a larger version.)

April 23, 2014

This was the easiest start to any trip we have ever had. No hitting the road before sunrise, no last minute panics and delays and recriminations. We just took our time and were ready for a perfectly calm departure at noon. Then an easy afternoon drive down I-5 to San Luis Recreation Area west of Los Banos.

The Basalt Campground is in a little valley off to the side of the reservoir. In the morning we rode our bicycles around the campground loop and out to a viewpoint above the drawn-down lake.

April 24, 2014

An easy driving day down the San Joaquin, over Tehachapi Pass, and across the Mojave Desert to Barstow. The weather was perfect.

Owl Canyon Campground, I always choose the same campsite.

On our drive down the San Joaquin we had stopped at Harris Ranch and bought a couple of superb filet mignon steaks, strawberries, and asparagus. An excellent dinner ensued.

April 25, 2014

We had a short drive then a leisurely hike to the top of Teutonia Peak on Cima Dome, overlooking the largest forest of Joshua trees anywhere. A wind came up as we reached the ridge top, and by the time we got to camp at Hole-in-the-Wall it was blowing a gale.

Hole-in-the-Wall Campground in Mojave National Preserve, cold and windy, and it got worse over night.

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Panoramas of Teutonia Peak in Mojave National Reserve

April 26, 2014

It was dramatically stormy all night and by morning there was snow at the higher elevations. We drove up to Mid Hills to see what it was like there.

We decided to drop down to the Colorado River and camped at Park Moabi near Needles, where it was sunny but still cool. Nice easy bike riding around the park and along the river.

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Panoramas of Hole-in-the-Wall in Mojave National Preserve

Panoramas of the Providence Mountains

April 27

We crossed the Colorado River and drove north to Willow Beach on Lake Mojave, then crossed the river again on the new bridge at Hoover Dam. It is 886 feet (270 meters) high, the highest road bridge in the country and the highest concrete arch bridge in the world. Unfortunately, because of the wind barriers, there wasn't much of a view when driving across.

We followed the west side of the lake north through Lake Mead National Recreation Area, beautiful desert scenery. The lake itself was drawn down far below the road - and also below most of the marinas.

A pleasant camp among subtropical vegetation, and almost deserted because the adjacent marina has been left high and dry.

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Panoramas of Lake Mohave

Panoramas of the Boulder Canyon Bridge at Hoover Dam

Panoramas of Hoover Dam

Panoramas of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area

April 28, 2014

Our camp was on the Virgin Arm of Lake Mead, the drowned lower course of the river that has its headwaters in the canyons and plateaus of Zion. We followed the Virgin River upstream through its gorge and all the way to Zion National Park.

We were taking a risk by not reserving a campsite at such a popular park as Zion, but luckily we got a superb site at Watchman Campground for two nights.

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Panoramas of the Virgin River Canyon

Panoramas of Lower Zion Canyon

April 29, 2014

In the early morning we rode our bicycles up and down the paved trail in the lower part of Zion Canyon, then took the shuttle bus up to the lodge. From there we hiked up the dramatic Angels Landing Trail, parts of it blasted from a cliff face. One stretch is a flight of tight switchbacks called Walter's Wiggles, named after an early park superintendent

We ate lunch at Scout Lookout then turned back. The trail continues to Angels Landing along a knife-edge of rock with a thousand foot drop, in some places on both sides. I would love to go there, and shoot some panoramas, but my chronic vertigo rules that out.

Even with such a great hike we still had time to enjoy the afternoon sun in our campsite.

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Panoramas of Zion Park Lodge

Panoramas of the Trail to Scout Lookout

April 30, 2014

In the morning, after another bike ride, we explored the Kolob Terrace Road on Zion's western boundary.

In the afternoon we had a thorough look at Pipe Spring National Monument. The ranger there told us about a small campground nearby, which turned out to be excellent.

Ponderosa Campground in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.

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Panoramas of the Kolob Terrace Road

Panoramas of Pipe Spring National Monument

Panoramas southeast of Zion Canyon

May 1, 2014

We had a short hike in the coral pink sand dunes in the morning and a longer hike at Kodachrome Basin in the afternoon. Late in the day we revisited Grosvenor Arch, and camped nearby. The arch is within the huge and virtually undeveloped Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Camping without a campground, near Grosvenor Arch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Biting flies are a nuisance in this area, but we have screens on our windows, vents, and back door.

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Panoramas of Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah

Panoramas of Grosvenor Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

May 2, 2014

We stopped for lunch and groceries in Escalante - and got the news from the IVRPA - about the "problem". We agreed to be in Flagstaff first thing Monday morning to take care of the bank business, even though it entailed a 900 mile (1450 km) detour from our planned route. We continued north a short distance and camped in the pine forest high on the shoulder of Boulder Mountain.

While waiting for calls from the iVRPA we had a picnic lunch in the little park in Escalante - choosing our table carefully.

We enjoyed riding our bikes around the circular campground drive, but the highway on Boulder Mountain beyond the gate was too steep for us.

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Panoramas of Escalante, Utah

Panoramas of Utah Highway 12

Panoramas of Boulder Mountain

May 3, 2014

We dutifully changed direction here, and headed more or less towards Flagstaff - there is no direct route. First we took the backcountry route known as the Burr Trail, with its famous swithchbacks through the Waterpocket Fold. In the afternoon we had a superb slot-canyon hike up Headquarters Canyon. The last stretch took us down to the shore of Lake Powell at Bullfrog Marina, where there is (usually) a ferry across the lake.

Evening primrose blanketed the pink sand at Bullfrog, the best display I have ever seen.

A warm evening in the campground at Bullfrog, perfect for sitting out after dark.

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Panoramas of the Burr Trail

Panoramas of the Burr Trail Switchbacks

Panoramas of Headquarters Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park

Panoramas of the Notom-Bullfrog Road

Panoramas of Halls Crossing on Lake Powell

May 4-5, 2014

The Bullfrog Ferry was not running, waiting for replacement parts from Germany. So we backtracked up the east side of the Henry Mountains and crossed the Colorado River at Hite. From there it was a long drive, first through the scenic White Canyon area, then across the dusty barren Navajo Reservation to Flagstaff.

We actually enjoyed our unplanned two-night motel stay, having dinner at restaurants and catching up on laundry.

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May 6, 2014

We took care of the banking business first thing Monday morning, but it took us two days to get back on schedule with our trip. First a brief stop at Walnut Canyon National Monument, but the trail was closed for repairs. Then east on Interstate 40 to just past Gallup, New Mexico.

We stopped at the classic El Rancho Hotel in Gallup and Nora studied all the old movie star photos. This was at one time a major location for shooting cowboy and desert movies, and the stars all stayed at El Rancho.

We camped at a state park on a lake east of Gallup. The sky had clouded up and we wondered if it was another front, or just afternoon thunderstorms.

May 6-7, 2014

There were several "trading post" souvenir shops where we turned off the highway, and Nora bought presents for her colleagues. This was actually right on the Continental Divide, the drainage division between the Colorado River running to the Gulf of California (Pacific Ocean) and the Rio Grande running to the Gulf of Mexico (Atlantic Ocean).

From there it was a long back-roads drive north across the Navajo Indian Reservation, ending with an unpaved road that is not on most maps. We pulled into Chaco Culture National Historical Park late in the afternoon with heavy clouds and light rain.

The small campground at Chaco.

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May 8, 2014

We spent the morning at amazing Pueblo Bonito, the largest of Chaco's Puebloan ruins. Chaco really deserved a second day, there are dozens of sites and several good trails. But with our delay and detour, we were feeling a bit pressed, so we continued onwards.

In the afternoon I shot a comprehensive tour of Aztec Ruins National Monument, with its impressive restored great kiva. I think this is my favorite of the Anasazi ruin sites.

A beautiful campground in the cottonwoods along the San Juan River below Navajo Dam

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Panoramas of Pueblo Bonito

Panoramas of Aztec Ruins National Monument

Panoramas of Aztec Dam and Lake on the San Juan River

May 9, 2014

Back roads through small towns took us into Colorado, and eventually to Mesa Verde National Park. There are first a set of long switchbacks climbing onto the mesa, then a mountain-top observation area with views over the entire Four Corners area.

We drove the two loop roads and I shot panoramas from the cliff tops showing each of the main ruins in context. We didn't have time to take any of the guided tours (the only way to get close to or inside most of the ruins), nor to take the trail to Spruce Tree House. I will be back.

The campground at Mesa Verde was green and lovely, but cold at night since it is at almost 8000 feet elevation.

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Panoramas of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Panoramas of the Mesa Top Loop Drive at Mesa Verde

Panoramas of the Cliff Palace Loop at Mesa Verde

May 10, 2014

In my quest to visit all western national park sites I have found one strangely elusive - Yucca House, near Mesa Verde. It is on the National Park map, but not on many others, and is not mentioned in most guidebooks. I have failed to find it on several previous visits to this area, but this time, with advice and a map from the information center in Cortez, we made it.

Yucca House doesn't have the magnificence of Chaco, or the drama of Mesa Verde, the interest of Aztec, or the human element of Taos Pueblo. There is no visitor center, map, guidebook, or interpretive sign. You enter through a ranch house's front yard and wander around over unexcavated humps of collapsed masonry and pits that may or may not have been kivas. Only an expert can imagine what it might have looked like when it was inhabited, there is only one low wall still standing. We loved it.

Late in the day we reached Canyon Rims Recreation Area, an uncrowded buffer zone on the east side of Canyonlands National Park, where we had an unexpected wildlife encounter.

Normally when one sees pronghorn antelope they are off in the distance, looking around nervously, or if they are closer, usually running swiftly away from you. But here a small group ran right up to us, as if they expected to be fed. We stopped the truck and I started taking pictures. Then they ran away.

Our destination was tiny Hatch Point Campground, six primitive sites perched on a slickrock slope above a grassy valley.

Here I am trying to look intellectual.

The weather changed as we watched, a solid shelf of cloud moving in from the southwest until it covered the sky. As darkness fell the lightning began, lots of it, both near and far, and eventually wind and rain. It was a wild night.

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Panoramas of Yucca House National Monument

May 11, 2014

The next morning the clouds were low and dark.

We drove out to Anticline Overlook but didn't get out of the truck - it was a white-out snow squall. Fresh snow at the Needles Overlook made it pretty, but a bitter wind made it hard to enjoy.

Our plan was to explore the Island in the Sky unit of Canyonlands National Park next. But the savage overnight storm had lashed the entire region, bringing snow to the mesas and mountains, heavy rain to Moab, and record low temperatures (for the date). We got a very pessimistic weather report from the visitor center in Moab, and decided to bail out and move on.

It was a remarkable journey for mid-May - horizontal rain from Moab past Green River, then snow flurries and high winds on the San Rafael Swell and over the mountains beyond. There was fresh snow on the ground until we were south of Cedar City.

We reached safe haven at the Virgin River campsite in Cedar Pocket just at dusk and took my traditional campsite #50. By morning it was cloudless and warm.

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Panoramas of Canyon Rims Recreation Area

Panoramas of Anticline Overlook

Panoramas of Needles Overlook

Panoramas of the San Rafael Swell

May 12, 2014

We were headed home now, but still had a big desert and a major mountain range to cross. I had heard that Tule Spring in Las Vegas was being considered for National Monument designation, so we took a look. What we found was an urban park with some nice duck ponds at what had been a famous "divorce ranch". The park service's interest is in the barren area to the north (not yet open to the public), which contains fossils and was potentially threatened by development or misuse.

Between Las Vegas and Death Valley we stopped at the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, so I could show Nora the pupfish habitat and the amazing color of the springs.

We camped that night at the best-appointed campground in Death Valley, Furnace Creek, 196 feet below sea level. It is a short walk (or bike ride) to the Visitor Center, and to the Furnace Creek Resort facilities including showers, a pool, a restaurant, a saloon, and a store. Also the Borax Museum, a golf course, and an airstrip.

It was very hot when we arrived, but the ranger said 98° was nothing, usually it would be 115° by that date. The sun was low and it was pleasant enough in the shadow of the camper, and by the time we went to sleep the temperature was perfect.

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Panoramas of Tule Spring, Las Vegas, Nevada

Panoramas of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

May 13, 2014

We rode our bicycles around the Furnace Creek area in the cool of the morning, then drove east out of the valley so we could re-enter it via an especially dramatic route - Titus Canyon.

The Titus Canyon road climbs steadily from Rhyolite over two passes, then descends past the ghost town of Leadville. It is a narrow one-way graded road, but was in good condition and posed no problem for us.

Eventually the funnel-shaped valley drops into a narrow gorge. The last few miles are between vertical stone walls hundreds of feet high (with mountains rising thousands above that), and as little as twenty feet apart.

We went back to Mesquite Springs campground at the northern end of Death Valley, where we had been literally blown out by a dust-storm two years before. It was windless, not overly hot (elevation 1800 feet), and almost empty.

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Panoramas of the Titus Canyon Road

Panoramas of Titus Canyon

May 14, 2014

In the morning I hiked all the way around Ubehebe Crater and up to Little Hebe, something I have been meaning to do for years. We chose to take the highway through Nevada instead of the unpaved Death Valley Road directly to Owens Valley, so I had a chance to get a few panoramas of the semi-ghost town of Goldfield.

From Tonopah we called ahead and arranged dinner in Bishop with old friend Phil Pister. Phil gave inspirational talks on wildlife and environmental ethics to the Berkeley Geography field class, beginning when I took it in 1971, and continuing when I was teaching the same class in the 1990's. He holds the unique distinction of having personally saved a vertebrate species from extinction - the Owens Valley pupfish, carried in two buckets.

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Panoramas of Ubehebe Crater

Panoramas of Goldfield, Nevada

Panoramas of Tonopah, Nevada

May 15, 2014

I have a strong tendency to rush heedlessly past even the most amazing places when I am on the home stretch. True to form, we drove non-stop from Bishop to Mono Lake, over Tioga Pass, and through Yosemite, without stopping, and were home for dinner.

Don Bain at Google+