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