Spring Break – Zion & Bryce

IMG_8411Thank you, Dory, for making it possible to have a do over on this beautiful national park! Long, long, ago, Richard left our house in California on his bicycle and set out to ride the national parks of southern Utah. He rode over a hundred miles a day. He climbed the Sierras. He weathered unusually strong winds, and lots and lots of rain. It was grueling, but he finally made it to Zion. He knew then that the hard part was over and he was going to be able to witness some of the most stunning geology in our country. But something was not right. He rode the canyon road in Zion, and though he was able to appreciate the majesty, it felt off. Then he went to the Visitor Center and saw people with their families and it hit him that he wasn’t going to be able to enjoy this place by himself. The final straw was when he walked back to his tent, only to find one of the poles had snapped in the wind, and squirrels had chewed through the front door. He called me and was on a shuttle to Vegas, and a plane back home the next morning. This was our do-over.

We left Friday morning and got out by 9. I took the day off but Richard got himself set up with a mobile office. We just rode down I5 where we knew there would be solid cell service and he was able to do everything he normally does when working from home, except flying down the highway at 55 mph. Our first night’s target location was the Barstow KOA because, a) we knew there would probably be a site available, and b) that location is a good stopping point after covering lots of miles. Dinner that night was a Trader Joe’s heat and serve bag of Chinese Fried Rice. Those meals are real winners in my book after a long day. They only take about 5 minutes to reheat in a nonstick pan and there is very little clean up. Works for me!

 

Saturday we made tracks to Zion. Besides noticing flowers along the highway, which I deemed ample evidence of having witnessed a super bloom, it was a pretty long and uneventful shlep. We zoomed past Vegas, not the least bit tempted to stop. And later we noticed a lovely canyon section of Arizona, which ended up leading us to a great campsite for the return trip. It was a long day, but we arrived in Zion around 5 and got set up in our site in the South Campground. We originally had reserved Watchman, but the A Loop got closed for renovations and they honored our cancellations with a reserved place in the South Campground. All campgrounds were showing as No Vacancy, so we were pleased just to have a place to stay. The South Campground is nice. It’s shady and the sites were pretty level. There isn’t much room between sites, but it was fine. Bathrooms were ok, but it appears there are no showers in either campground. Non issue for us, but I mention it for others. The one downside is that generators are allowed and the huge RV/bus beside us made full use of the allowable generator time. We went out to dinner from 6-8, so win-win there. The first dinner was at a place called the Whiptail Grill. Richard had gone there on his bike trip, so this was also a do-over type thing.

 

Sunday we hit the road on our bikes. First though, we had to stop at the Visitor Center to have our “moment.” Then we rode the canyon all the way to the end. Early on, the road is closed to car traffic and only shuttle buses or Lodge visitors can use it. This is about the best way I can imagine to experience this park. I can’t begin to capture any of this with words, so I’m not going to try. I also can’t capture it with pictures, but I took 17 million. I have culled them down to my 2 million favorites. You’re welcome. We did some serious thinking about which of the many Hiking Trails we wanted to try. The “Narrows” hike was closed due to high waters and I could see why. This is something I’d like to do one day though. Richard is not too sure about that, so he wasn’t disappointed that it was not an option. We did, however, go on the “Riverside Walk” all the way to the entrance to the Narrows, and that was a gorgeous, “must do” kind of thing. Then we biked back, taking the “Pa’rus” multi-use trail, and went to the Zion Human History Museum. Dinner that night was at the Spotted Dog cafe. I had a delicious grilled salmon and Richard had whiskey BBQ ribs. Yum!

 

Monday rained off and on all day. We set out anyway and hiked the “Kayenta Trail” to the “Upper Emerald Pools.” The Lower Pools trail had been closed due to rock slides and I believe we were able to see some of the slides from our trail. What started out as a gentle pitter patter and some sludgy spots on the trail, eventually turned into nonstop light rain that thoroughly transformed the landscape. The trail became a thick soup of clay and mud, threatening to take our shoes right off our feet at times. Waterfalls appeared where there had been none, and river crossings that were easy on the way out, became daunting on the way back. The only really nervous spot for me was right at the end where you have to choose your approach across a couple of big rocks very carefully, lest you end up in the water. We made it (obviously), but I had also discovered that the water resistance duration of my jacket was about two hours. That time had passed, and I was now feeling wet and cold and ready to head back. By the time we got to the bottom, it looked like we had different shoes on than when we left. We took the shuttle bus to the Lodge for hot chocolate and a hot pretzel. That was awesome. Back to Dory to dry out and then we drove to Zion Pizza and Noodle and were quite happy with that. I also ordered a new jacket and rain hat.

 

Tuesday was site moving day. Our original plan was to head to Bryce, but temperatures were below freezing at night and we did not want to dump all the water out of Dory in order to protect the pipes. So I was luckily able to snag a cancellation in Watchman for the next two nights. That was lucky indeed! Watchman is my favorite of the two campgrounds. The sites are more generously spaced and the views just cannot be beat. The bathrooms are nice and new, and you are so close to the shuttles and Visitor Center, you feel you are getting the full Zion experience. I liken the South Campground as staying at the Disneyland Hotel, while Watchman is the Grand Californian. We saw the work they are doing in the A Loop, and it is going to be very nice when completed. After moving, we drove up the ziggy zaggy road to the Zion Tunnel. This a mile long tunnel cut through the canyon rock, high above the valley. That was good to check out because I got to gauge whether I thought Dory would be able to get up and through it. Once at the top, we found a whole new level of spectacular and hiked the “Canyon Overlook” trail. I have to say, this trail challenged my fear of heights in a serious way. There are a couple of places where the trail is very narrow, and the drop to the bottom is extreme. There is also one place where a bridge has been constructed to go around a corner and Richard about lost it there. I was fine, because there were hand rails. Along the way, we met a mountain goat whose picture came out looking down right demonic. He was nice enough, and kindly did not head butt me off the cliff to my death. As for whether I ever, EVER, in my life will do the “Angel’s Landing” trail, just no. Why?? No. Not ever. No. That night we went to a market and got sausages and veggies to grill at our site. I am very pleased with my grilling set up at this point and we enjoyed that dinner a lot.

 

Wednesday we took a road trip to Kolob Canyons. Richard had ridden this on his previous trip, so he rode it again while I sagged him in the car. This canyon is a deep red kind of rock and is stunning all on its own. Once we met up at the top, we put his bike in the back of the car and drove back to the valley. Then we had to plan out the next couple of days. The problem with planning this section of the trip was that we were starting to approach the point where we were forced to think about coming home. I think we both just wanted to keep going and going, so there was a tension around any plan we came up with. There was also a lot of worry over elevation. After the experience I had in Lake Tahoe, I had been concerned that I was going to have a bad reaction to elevations over 5,000 ft. Reading up on Bryce, we soon found out that there are places where it gets over 9,000 ft. So that had us tense. And we weren’t sure we were going to be able to get a campground site in Bryce because they are first come, first served, with most of the loops still closed for the season. And we still weren’t sure what route we were going to try to take heading back. Ultimately, we reserved a place at the junction of Highway 9 and 89 at around 5,000 ft, thinking at least we’d have a safe place to bail if I did feel bad. It took us a while to unwind all the conflicting feelings, but we also just decided that for every trip, there needs to be one day of tension. So we’ll just plan for that in the future, allowing about four hours to work through it, hopefully in time for dinner. By the way, dinner that night was at a Thai place, Thai Sapa, and that was delicious! I highly recommend the spring rolls and the house specialty red curry.

 

Bryce day started with an early departure and a trip for Dory through the famous tunnel! Dory got measured when we entered the park and we were told she is “Undersized” and would be allowed to go through as a normal car, with 2-way traffic. After our trip the day before, I decided that it would be well worth the $15 fee to be considered “Oversized” and wait for one way traffic. Best $15 ever spent. The tunnel is narrow, very narrow for 2 way traffic, and while I think it probably would have been fine, it ended up being more enjoyable to just not have to worry about it and be able to take the middle of the road. Once through, we got to enjoy the most beautiful road in the world. Nuf said there. We dropped Dory at her site on the way up to Bryce. This was the kind of place that indicates we can be flexible and rational, even when we don’t want to be. The drive to Bryce was about another hour. We did check out the campgrounds on our way in and they didn’t really look like anything special. Of the two, I guess I’d prefer Sunset, but it was closed anyway. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to camp outside of Bryce, but I’d maybe try for Red Canyon State Park, when it’s open. We had plenty of time in the day to drive the 18 mile road out to the lookout point at the end, saving the vista points for the way back. Bryce Canyon is just insane. It really does not look at all real. You can explain to me how it formed this way all you want, but I can’t get my head around how anything like this ever came to be. We hiked a 1 mile loop trail called the “Bristlecone Loop,” and sure enough, we were able to see a few Bristlecone Pines out there. The trail was mostly under snow still, but we were rewarded with another spectacular view out at the end of the canyon. On the way back, we stopped at every single view point and I took a bazillion pictures. Because, you know, no one has ever photographed this area. A high point (literally) of the day, was that I really did not feel any ill effects from the altitude. I did feel it, like my face felt a little tense and tingly now and then, but nothing more. No eyes bugging out or exploding head, like in “Total Recall,” which was what I had been expecting. I drank water like crazy and stayed away from alcohol for 48 hours. I think that may have helped. On our way back, we stopped at a little place in Hatch called Cafe Adobe. Nice place, nice people. Then back to Dory, who was patiently waiting for us in the weird little RV park. Curtains closed, doesn’t matter where you are.

 

Friday we had to settle into the reality of starting back home. I knew I didn’t want to do two super long days, but landing anywhere south of Zion for the night would cut off miles on the return trip. We just headed out, no plans. Our one goal was to find a fellow Altoiste who had helped us so much with route planning. She and her husband were going to be in the park that day and we tentatively targeted lunch time for a meet up. Richard rode the world’s most beautiful road while I followed with Dory, taking yet more pictures as I went. Right before the tunnel, a blue car seemed to be taking the very same turnouts I was taking and I kept politely pulling out and moving on so they could have room. Turns out this was my Facebook friend, trying to catch up with me. At the third turnout, I got out to pick up Richard before the tunnel, and she pulled up behind me. What a nice couple they are! They also snapped some excellent shots of Dory on the road.IMG_8583 Hooray for Stalking Dory! We chatted a bit and then went our separate ways. Richard finished by riding up, and then back down, the ziggy zaggy part so that he could say he’d done the whole road (minus the tunnel). We met up again in town and had lunch at a Mexican restaurant before heading out of the park for good. We were both a bit emotional leaving this place. It had been an amazing trip and we really did not want it to end. Plus, we were looking at some long slog driving and boring places before calling this trip a wrap, so we definitely lingered over lunch. Heading south, Richard got on the internet and browsed possible places to stay. I must say, internet service all along this route was pretty darn good. One or the other of us was sure to have LTE most of the time and this really helps with finding places to camp. For example, he was able to look up the pretty canyon place he remembered from Arizona and locate a BLM site right in the middle of it. We haven’t done BLM sites, but this seemed like a good time to try. It turned out pretty spectacularly well. The sites are self registering and only $8 per night. There were places available and we got a breathtaking view of a little mini Zion, plus a perfect little walk down to the river. Flowers were blooming and the weather was perfect, though windy. This was an excellent way to just relax in nature. No plans, no “must see” hikes or throngs of people. We just sat on the river beach and I dug my hands in the soft sand for the longest time. I think that may replace months of professional therapy right there. The place is called the Virgin River Canyon Recreation Area. It is right off Highway 15, about 80 miles south of Zion, and we just loved it. The only thing I’ll note is that the water tasted weird. But it was potable and the bathrooms were clean.

 

Saturday was the day of endless wind. My goal was to get closer to home than Barstow, but that would prove to be challenging. As soon as we headed out, we could feel Bruce getting pounded by headwinds. They were actually pretty scary strong. Richard started looking up weather reports and there was indeed a high wind advisory in effect. Then he started scanning the route further south to try to figure out when we’d be out of it. Keep going, keep going ….. every single place he looked up had reported gusts of between 30-70 mph and were advising extreme caution, particularly for trailers. Nice. My hands remained firmly clenched onto the steering wheel for around 8 hours over the next 400 miles. I will say that at least Dory did not sway even a single bit through all of this. *I* swayed plenty any time we stopped for a break. This was really not a fun day at all.IMG_8613 Every time a truck passed, there would be a huge change in wind and I would have to constantly correct. I could handle keeping my speed between 50 and 55, but anything over that and it was way too nerve wracking. I was thankful it was full daylight and I was pretty sure people could see me and avoid me. I put blinkers on for a while, but having a steady tick tick go off in the car was in opposition to the relaxation techniques I was in emergency mode trying to employ. In Vegas, traffic slowed a little and that may be the one time I’ve been thankful for city traffic. We were hopeful that coming out of Barstow and over the base of the foothills might bring some lessening, but it really did not. Somehow, Richard managed to find the weirdest place we have ever stayed right in the heart of the California central valley. We’d sort of assumed we were heading toward the Visalia KOA as a stopping place, but they were booked up. So he found a place in the middle of nowhere called the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. And by golly, they have campsites. It sounded so unlikely and so strange, but here’s the weird thing: as soon as we got about ten miles away, the wind just magically stopped. Like by the time we pulled in, the sun was setting and we found ourselves in a restored historical community with a backdrop of miles and miles of farmland. And it was completely calm. It’s possible we entered another dimension and the day of wind was just some kind of test. Well I passed, dammit! I am now an expert at dangerous wind level towing and we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset and an improvised dinner of sausages and eggs, with english muffins and nectarine preserves on the side. Pretty good for an improvisation, right?

 

Sunday, we took the time we had earned the day before by exploring the historical community of Allensworth. This is a fascinating place, and even if you don’t camp there (a train goes through every few hours, just so you know), it is worth a detour if you are going across the bottom of California. Colonel Allen Allensworth founded this community in the early 1900s with the hope of building a self sustaining sanctuary city for African Americans. Its history is fraught with struggle, but filled with hope and determination. It has a ghost town feel now, but the preserved and rebuilt structures give you a peek into a time gone by. It is certainly a more interesting stop over than the Visalia KOA, that’s for sure. One note: the water there is not currently potable. Lucky we had enough of our own, but it’s something to know. They say the sites never fill up and there were only three or four other campers there when we went through. All in all, this was a nice way to wrap up the trip. It was an easy drive home with no wind and we pulled in around 5. This was a trip filled with indescribable beauty and it carried a special poignancy and sense of completion. We absolutely loved it and we really do have Dory to thank for making it not only possible, but perfect, to get out there and do life.

 

Trip info:

  • Home to Barstow – 404.3 miles, 8 hours 7 min, 19.6 mpg
  • Barstow to Zion – 305.1 miles, 6 hours 29 min, 15.6 mpg
  • Zion to Bryce – about 89 miles and 2 hours (I forgot to get data)
  • Highway 89/9 to Virgin River Canyon BLM – 85.7 miles, 3 hours 1 minute, 17.9 mpg
  • Virgin River Canyon to Colonel Allensworth SHP – 426.8 miles, 8 hours 44 min, 13.3 mpg
  • Allensworth to home – 232.6 miles, 4 hours 50 min, 16.6 mpg

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