The road to California – Part 3: Desert.

(continued from Part 2: Mountains)

Heading south from Montana, mountains give way to plains, plains give way to canyons, and finally the canyons give way to desert.  Elevation drops, temperature rises, and RVs start to fill up the campgrounds everywhere.

Desert edge at sunrise.

After spending a while in the mountains, the desert sunrise was a happy surprise.  Big skies here, just like on the prairies.

Runaway truck ramp. 1/2 mile.

Continuing south past Salt Lake City, Utah, we were surprised by the long steep grades on the highways. Every few miles were runaway truck ramps – emergency exits so that trucks that ran into brake problems could run themselves into a large pile of sand, stopping a little more gracefully than the alternative of reaching mach speeds as they continued downwards on the never-ending road.

Ground opens to canyons.

Then, all of a sudden the ground opened up into canyons carved by ancient rivers. It was amazing how quickly the landscape changed throughout Utah; every hour of driving, completely different scenery.

"New" luggage at Scipio Merc.

“New” luggage at Scipio Merc.  A random stop at the only shop in Scipio (population: 80) yielded new luggage for me.  One of them would eventually necessitate a reupholstery project, but otherwise these relics were in great shape.  “Ms. Pierson” of Salt Lake City (the old luggage tag still had her address on it) took good care of them in their previous lives.

Summer is for family road trips.

A boy takes a photo of the meandering road that now slips through Spotted Wolf Canyon.  For years, this edge of the San Rafael Reef blocked explorers, the railroad, pretty much everyone except the few who were able to navigate its slot canyons.  A massive undertaking n the 1970s made this 8-mile stretch of road a reality.  Engineers and surveyors used harnesses and ropes to work as much as 400 feet off the canyon floor during the three year excavation.

Entering Arches National Park.

Entering Arches National Park, Utah.

Varied desert landscape.

Again, I never expected the desert landscape to be so varied.

Late light, driving through the desert.

In reality, driving distances often are much longer than they appear on the map, especially when taking scenic routes.  As the sun set, we were unable to find anywhere to pitch our tent – the campground was full of RVs.

Desert portrait against stone.

Trying not to worry too much about where we’d spend the night, we still took advantage of the beautiful waning light.  Arches is set up to be a great place to see from your car, with short hikes off the road to various attractions.  Normally these would be packed, but since it was late in the day, people were few and far between.  There is something very humbling about walking through this extreme landscape.

Emerging from slot canyon at sunset.

Emerging from a sandstone slot canyon at sunset, we decided to roll into Moab, a small town a few minutes from Arches.  With its bright lights blazing through our dusty windshield, we were hopeful in finding a hotel room for the night.  Stumbling into the closest Super 8, the manager gave us last room in the place, at a late night discount.  And what a suite: with a living room, internet, air conditioning, a bathtub to clean our weary feet (and do our laundry too!), and a bed, it felt like a palace after weeks on the road.

Wilson Arch at noon.

Wilson Arch at noon.  That’s right, we slept in.

Hog Spring oasis.

This spot of green is Hog Spring Oasis, Utah.  It is amazing how so much life can survive on just a little water.  I would have loved to explore this area more, but it was very remote and not well marked.  Best to come back with a map one day.


Ancient petroglyphs.

Forest above the desert.

Approaching Bryce Canyon, Utah, we were again surprised by a lush forest: in gaining just a little bit of elevation, the climate changed dramatically.

Caution: stay left.

Caution: stay left.

Desert, sky, and a winding road.

Desert, sky, and a winding road.

Bryce Canyon at night.

After a late night camp setup, our first glimpse of Bryce Canyon was well after dark.  We headed over to Sunset Point with our headlamps to see what we could see.  To the human eye, it was nothing but black.  But with a long exposure on my camera we were able to glimpse what lay beyond the edge of the canyon on the back of the little LCD screen.

Bryce Canyon, night and day.

Bryce Canyon, night and day.

Bryce Amphitheater.

Looking up along the Wall Street section of the Navajo Trail.

Douglas fir tree in slot canyon.

A Douglas fir tree reaches for sunlight high above the slot canyon.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel window.

Next stop: Zion National Park, Utah, and its towering canyon walls that can be glimpsed through a window in the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.

Zion National Park road.

This road is incredible.

Choose your walking stick.

If you take a shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava, the furthest stop in Zion’s vehicle restriction area, you will find a nicely groomed trail along the riverside.  After a couple miles, a set of stairs leads into the river and a sign warns you of the flash flood forecast.  This is the bottom of The Narrows, and the point where you choose a walking stick to help you ford your way up the slot canyon from here.

Walking The Narrows.

Happy to be out of the car and on our feet.  After days in the desert, the cool water was much appreciated.

Hiking The Narrows.

Being late in the day, and with the light fading quickly, we had The Narrows almost completely to ourselves.

Deer approaches in The Narrows.

On our way out we stopped for a quiet moment as a deer approached us.

Deer in The Narrows.

The ardent hiker came quite close as he passed by.

The road to Death Valley.

Onward to Death Valley, California.

Car temperature rising.

Death Valley was experiencing record temperatures, and we crossed through during the high heat of the day.  Combined with the daunting warning sign of no services over the next 200 miles of extremity, or some ridiculous number like that, we drove very carefully and kept a close watch on the car gauges.  Here, the outside temperature maxed out at 48 Celsius.

Badwater Basin.

After hours of driving and seeing only two other vehicles, we were relieved to come upon people at Badwater Basin.  This salt flat is the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, wide.

Given the heat, we didn’t stop and get out of the car much in Death Valley.  Even in the car the heat was near unbearable since we couldn’t drive with the air conditioning on or risk overheating the motor.  This is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the only stop we made for a short hike.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, footprints.

I have heard motorcyclists describe a hot wind before, but here was the first place I experienced it.  The idea is that when the temperature rises past a certain point, the effect of the wind switches from being cooling to heating.  At 48 Celsius and with an 80 km/h wind, it felt like we were in a convection oven.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, abstract.

But beauty tends to go hand in hand with extremity.  One day I will have to go back and spend a longer time in this National Park.  Besides the two main roads, much of this place is inaccessible unless you have a 4×4 with a few spare tires, or the will to hike it on foot (night hikes may be the solution).

Tony's Tacos.

Out of Death Valley and into the California’s Central Valley, a random intersection stop amidst seemingly endless fruit orchards yielded the best burritos that have ever graced our lips.  Tony’s Tacos: eating with the Mexican field workers was definitely one of the best roadside stops of the entire trip.  Oddly, the name tag on the fellow working the truck read “Rick”.  It will forever be a mystery who really served us.

Previous: Part 2: Mountains.
Next: Part 4: Land of the giants.