Adventures in Colorado and around the World

Desert Wanderings, A Roadtrip Diary: Part 1

Friday, November 1: We started our drive after wrapping up work for the day and dropping the pup off at his daycare/boarding facility. We don’t seem capable of driving into the desert without a stop in Moab, so we headed north along the Colorado-Utah border until we reached Moab. Usually we would have stopped at Milt’s Stop and Eat for the best burgers, fries, and milkshakes in the four corners, but the Moab Marathon was that weekend all it was crowded with runners and crews. Instead we made a quick stop at Wendy’s and continued north along highway 191 and the west along I-70.

We were headed for Capitol Reef National Park to camp amongst the remnants of orchards planted by Mormon settlers in the late 1800s. We had tried to camp at Capitol Reef National Park to start our Year of the Parks roadtrip in 2014, but the campground was closed and we ended up sleeping in the car in a pullout outside Zion National Park, 200 miles to the south-west. I guess we’re not meant to camp in Capitol Reef National Park.

This time we saw the sign for Goblin Valley State Park and decided to detour off the highway, hoping the visitor center would be unmanned and we could sneak in for a quick sunset hike and then continue on our drive. The visitor center was manned and we had the option to a) turn around and continue on to Capitol Reef, b) pay the $15 day pass to watch the last of sunset from the goblins, or c) pay $30 to camp in the campground and explore the goblins during sunrise the next morning. We paid the $30 and camped in one of the nicest campgrounds we’ve seen. It had running water in the bathrooms, showers, fire pits, and the tent sites were tucked in the wrinkles of the mesa. It didn’t hurt that it’s in the middle of the desert and I could see thousands and thousands of stars when I took a mid-night trip to the bathrooms.

Saturday, November 2: It was really cold overnight and our 3-season tent didn’t keep any of our heat in. Needless to say we woke up before sunrise shivering in our sleeping bags. It was perfect timing to make the quick 5-minute drive over to the goblin valley as the sun rose. There are no trails in the actual valley with the goblins so we explored, clamoring up hoodoos and wandering along washes. I started to get really thirsty so we headed back to the car for some water and then continued on to the Goblin’s Lair (an established trail). The lair was dark and spooky, with an imposing looking entrance. We both decided it was a better location for Scar’s lair (from Lion King) then the one used in the movie.

After packing up our camping gear and making breakfast burritos and coffee on our camp stove on the tailgate of our truck, we headed southwest into Capitol Reef. It’s been a point of contention between us whether we should count our late-night drive through Capitol Reef in 2014 as an official National Park visit. As we drove into the park, it became obvious that the first visit doesn’t count because we couldn’t see anything (I was right). The road winds along the river bottom amongst soaring sandstone mesas.

We stopped in the visitor center to learn about the waterpocket fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in central Utah, and get ideas for hikes. Most of the hikes we want to do will have to occur on another trip, since they require a long drive on rough 4×4 desert roads, but the visitor center did convince us to take the 10-mile scenic drive and hike to Cassidy Arch. The hike to Cassidy Arch exposed some of the best canyon-country sites like multi-colored mesas, towering cliffs, and an arch big enough for intrepid explorers to rappel through. All that in only 3 miles round trip!

After our hike we continued on to Escalante Utah. We thought the drive would be easy and uneventful and were confused when Google said it would take 2 hours to drive 73 miles. It turns out the road is spectacular! We left canyon country to climb up through Dixie National Forest to a mountain pass complete with an overlook over the waterpocket fold. Then the road entered Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The speed limit dropped to 30 mph as the side of the road dropped away in 1000 foot cliffs. The road wound along the top of the mesas before plunging down into the Escalante River basin. The walls tightened and trails led to hidden slot canyons and waterfalls. Eventually the road leveled out and we headed into town. I was expecting something similar to Moab, but Escalante is much smaller. We tried to find a lighter for our camp stove and to start a fire (we both thought we had one in the truck and it turns out we didn’t), but all they had were matches. While we had cell service I checked the weather, which said the low was 19, only 1 degree warmer than the previous night in Goblin Valley. Hotel rooms were cheap and it was an easy decision to forgo camping that night. We had big adventures the next day and we both needed to catch up on sleep.