Utah


I remember the first time I saw Bryce Canyon 20 years ago I was completely taken back by its scenery: it was different from anything I had seen before. I didn’t know anything about it at the time and was there with a few friends. If I had seen a picture or a drawing of it, I would have guessed it was a prank. Nothing in this world could have looked like this: orange columns and walls stood like soldiers, menacing and impregnable, filled the canyons. I have been back a few times since and was amazed each time I saw it. Hoodoos

Again, we could not resist its magic and charm; we planned our trip so we could visit it again. Kadia and Susan at Bryce CanyonThe orange columns, called Hoodoos and the rest of the formations are made of sandstone. Over millions of years, erosion sculpted the landscape to form its current glory. The erosion continuously alters the landscape every day. Every time we went, the scenery was slightly different. Queen’s Garden Trail
Some columns or walls might have collapsed and some new arches might have formed. This time, the Wall Street section of Navajo Loop trail collapsed just the day before we arrived. It was unfortunate as I remember it well from 13 years ago and was looking forward to hike in it again.

As we were unsure what route we could take on Navajo Loop trail, we started our hike from Queen’s Garden trailhead at the Sunrise point. We slowly descended down the canyon as the trail snaked through hoodoos and spires. The color was more than just orange, a spectrum of reds, oranges, yellows, purples and almost whites in some places. We had to go through a few archways as we walked along the narrow trail in the canyon. Bottom of Queen’s Garden TrailOn the bottom, we saw a sign pointing to a hoodoo that was supposedly resemble a queen’s head, thus the trail name. Even with the description, I had a difficult time recognize it. The trail could have been named many other things as each hoodoo can resemble different things to different people. We had our lunch there with a Steller’s jay eyeing our lunch the whole time.Queen’s Garden Trail

We hiked along the bottom of the canyon with a number of trees. It felt like an easy stroll through the park. Although we carried two backpacks, one for Bryden and one for Kadia, Kadia seemed to enjoy this hike, running back and forth from time to time and didn’t ask for a ride. Eventually we reached the Peek-a-boo junction where the Queen’s Garden trail joined the Navajo Loop trail. One section of the trail toward the Wall Street was closed so we followed the other section to the Sunset point. Navajo Trail

There was a steep section with many switchbacks up a wall (see left) and, when we finally emerged from it, we were treated to the famous Thor’s Hammer (see below), still proudly standing and seemingly sparkling, Navajo Trailand a canyon filled with a high concentration of spires and pinnacles. Along this final climb up to the Sunset point, we marveled at them all, every angle is a perfect shot. The picture on the right shown the Sentinel in the background. I hope it will still be there next time we visit. Finally when we reached the Sunset Point, we hiked back toward the Sunrise Point along the rim and continuously savior the fantastic views beneath us. We ran into a bunch of rangers walking excitedly and hurriedly toward the Sunset point so I asked them what was going on. One ranger told me that they were heading down to the Wall Street to look at the collapse. They were like excited kids going on a field trip. This was Kadia’s longest hike, 3 miles, a record that she would top many more times on the trip. We will be back.

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Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I had a sudden onset of acute stomach/flu virus which incapacitated me for the night. I was weak and achy as I felt powerless to do anything. This reminded me that how lucky we were on our trip: everyone was basically healthy; there were a couple of scares: Kadia complained about not feeling well near Canyonlands so we had to stay at a motel for a couple of days to observer her (and prepared to go to a hospital) and her complaint of a toothache in Toronto. And there was one other incident when we hiked to the Tanks in Capitol Reef National Park through the Capitol Gorge Trail.

The Capitol Gorge trail is at the end of the Capitol Reef Scenic drive. Hiking in the Capitol Gorge The trail leads through the gorge (part of them also known as Petroglyphs Narrows) into the Capitol Reef backcountry. A popular destination there was the Tanks. We thought the trail would be mostly flat and only 2 miles round trip so I carried Bryden on a backpack and expected Kadia to hike herself. Capitol Gorge RegisterThe 1st half of the trail was flat, snaked through the gorge on the dry river bed with many interesting features: petroglyphs, pioneer registers, rock holes on canyon walls, side canyons, etc. Here were Kadia and I looking at the pioneer register: amazing how historical they had become now where as if we were to do it now, we would get fined.

As we came out of the gorge, a spur trail on the left led up to the Tanks. Capitol Gorge Trail We scrambled through some of the rocks there as the trail became hard to follow with occasional cairns here and there. End of Capitol Gorge TrailIn some place, we had to carry Kadia up and across. Soon we were at the top and hiked on slickrocks. When we got to the Tanks, we felt a little disappointed. The tanks were just a few potholes filled with some water. The Tank, Capitol Gorge TrailI couldn’t get around one big pothole easily with Bryden on my back so Kadia, Bryden and I stayed behind while Susan went ahead to explore.

As I was standing there looking at the big pothole, I felt something wet around my nose and wiped it with my hand. It was blood. I get bloody nose from time to time, especially when weather is dry so I didn’t think too much at the time. But this time was different, the blood kept coming and soon the blood was all over both of my hands and was dripping down on my boots and on the rock. Kadia stood motionless and was shocked as she watched me, drenched with blood. I had a difficult time getting down on the floor as I was still carrying Bryden, I didn’t have anything with me at the time to wipe the blood off or keep the blood from flowing and the backpack was making things difficult for me to do anything. Blood at the Tank I finally asked a couple of people who just came to help but they turned and walked away, didn’t want to look at me. I didn’t understand; perhaps they were scared to see that much blood. Finally Susan reappeared on the top of a rock and saw me; she rushed down and helped me to take off the backpack and lie down. She had some napkins so I used them to stop further bleeding and clean up. It was a mess.

At that time, I worried about how to get back and what happened if we were many more miles from our trailhead with two kids we had to carry. All of a sudden, it dawned on me the responsibility of carrying two kids: how difficult it could be if something were to happen to one of us, like spraining an ankle. We had to be extra cautious. Luckily we didn’t have another incident like this on the trip. Susan had to carry Bryden on the return trip as we slowly made out of the gorge and fortunately my nose bleed had stopped and we were able to do another beautiful hike that afternoon.
Kadia on Capitol Gorge Trail

A few years ago when we were at Arches National Park, we paid a day visit to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. Needles, CanyonlandsAlthough we were impressed with what we saw there, it was the Needles, a wall of sandstone spires like an obstacle loomed menacingly and impregnably over the far horizon that took our imagination. They seemed to be protecting some hidden treasures; however, it also invitingly begged to be explored and discovered. Unfortunately the drive to the Needles was 4 hours away where we were. But the sight of the Needles burned into my memory, like some old friends awaiting a visit.

We planned 3 days trip to visit the Needles this time. Needles MapThe campground at Squaw Flat was small therefore we knew that we had to get there early to get a campsite. Luckily it was the day after the Memorial Day so we got a great campsite with a big rock behind us and looking over at the Needles. The next day, we drove to the Elephant Hill trailhead for our much-anticipated hike to Chesler Park. Actually we were thinking of hiking the Chesler Park Loop/Joint trail but weren’t sure if we were up to the 11 miles hikes as it would be the first time we each had to carry a baby and we hadn’t any serious exercises for a year. 4WD MapWe decided that we would make the final decision when we got to the Chesler Park Viewpoint (the pink trail shown on the map to the right). Also I didn’t know how well I can hike as I had painful bloody cracks on both heels of my feet from perhaps wearing sandals too often.

Canyonlands is a great place for 4-wheel driving into the back country. There are many 4-wheel drive trails. Maze District is the most remote and requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle to navigate. There are a few in the Needles district as well. At the trailhead, there was the famous Elephant Hill 4WD trailhead. We saw the sign (click on the picture on the left to read description) and walked up the trail a little bit. Oh my god. Even if I had a 4WD, I wouldn’t attempt it: it was steep and narrow, filled with hairpin turns and large rocks. Experienced drivers were definitely needed to tackle this drive. While we were getting ready to hike, we saw a jeep with a few people–yelling and screaming–headed up the 4WD trail but, within 15 minutes, the jeep backed down the trail with people subdued. They probably gave up.

This would be Kadia’s first serious hike, 6 to 7 miles if she hiked to the Chesler Park Viewpoint and back. Hiking at the beginning of Elephant Hill trail She had done a few hikes that were a couple of miles long before but this would be equivalent of us hiking 30 miles, I estimated. She seemed to be in good spirits and carried her cereal, not knowing what was ahead for her and my intention of not carrying her for as long as possible. Mushroom RocksThe hike started off with some steep climb. After about 300 yards, it luckily leveled off. The trail then winded through some open areas with shrubs and micro crusts. The view was great with many rock formations: spires, mushrooms, and hoodoos. The hike had varieties: sometimes we walked on the famous Utah slick rocks with cairns guiding our way; sometimes we squeezed our way through narrow canyons that could only let one person through at a time; one time the trail seemed to disappear then we discovered we had to climbed down a steep cliff; Toward the Needlesthere were also times we hiked along a narrow footpath half way up a canyon wall with steep drop-offs.

Kadia was amazing. She hiked and hiked without many complaints except she asked and drank a lot though. She constantly asked for water. I knew she liked to drink through the hose of our camel pack. The day was in the mid 80’s and there were few shades. After a while, I realized that she might be drinking for the fun instead of the need; we had to limit her drinking to every 15 minutes to regulate our supply and also her intake. She was always eager to take a few more steps quickly when it was about the end of 15 minutes interval. We did a lot of counting as I told her that she could take a drink once we counted together to 100. At Chesler Park Maybe her counting prowess started from that day.

It was a steep climb the last 150 yards to the viewpoint. Some steps were as tall as Kadia. When we got to the top, I was actually disappointed with the view on the other side as the view had been great all along the hike. We hiked down into the area known as Chesler Park and found a wimpy tree for a little shade and stopped there for lunch. Coming back dwon from Chesler Park ViewpointAfter lunch, I took Bryden into the Chesler Park a little more to check out the place (see above) as we had determined we didn’t have enough water to go on anymore and we might not have time as we were going at a very slow pace and it took us 3 hours to get to the Chesler Park viewpoint. After exploring for about 10 minutes, I think the place looked promising. The area was big and there seemed to be many interesting things far away. We reluctantly turned back.

Kadia had great fun going back down from the Chesler Park Viewpoint (see above). Kadia sleepingShe slid down many rocks on her butt and called it slide-rock (滑石 in Chinese) as if she was sliding down rock-made slide. Eventually she was really pooped so I carried her the rest of way with her sleeping in the backpack. In total she hiked about 4 miles and she was only 39 months old. I doubted that I could do that when I was her age. We also learned a lot about ourselves, what pace we could expect if Kadia were to hike and how much water we needed. It proved useful in many of our other hikes later on the trip. There were a lot of other great hiking trails there: Joint Trail, Druid Arch, Angel Arch, Devils Kitchen. We will be back, with or without a 4WD. Bryden scouting his routeHere was Bryden studying the map where he may want to hike the next time he comes.

There were only a couple of more weeks to go before the start of our trip and we were getting anxious. We were still debating on which day to leave as our 1st couple of stops at Great Basin NP and Cedar Break NM might still be snowbound before Memorial weekends; but we didn’t want to wait too long as Utah could get very hot in June. We adjusted our itinerary countless number of times but, with the help of Microsoft Streets and Trips, it was easy.

As a part of our planning, we joined the AAA so we could get all the paper maps we needed for the trip and roadside emergency service if necessary. Even with the two GPS devices we were bringing and a laptop with digital maps, we still felt safer and more comfortable with paper maps. We also tried AAA’s trip planner online (triptik) but didn’t find it to be useful for such a long trip. However we brought our itinerary from Microsoft S/T into an AAA office for them to prepare the triptik for us and, to our delightful surprised, within a few days we received a heavy box from the AAA. In it, it had of 8 spiral-bound triptik books with our itinerary, direction, regional maps, and some brief descriptions of towns near our route. It also had tourbooks and maps for all the states/provinces we would be visiting. I especially appreciated that someone manually with a highlighting pen, traced our route and stops on an United States map. We made a duplicate of it and gave them to our parents so they would know where we would be going. That was great.

We didn’t actually use the triptik books much as sometimes they were buried in the van and we couldn’t find them. We also didn’t use the directions from Microsoft Streets and Trip as we liked the challenge and adventure of finding our own ways. We mainly used paper maps to figure out where we would like to go and kept the Garmin GPSMap 60C on to keep track of our position and for detailed maps when our paper maps weren’t sufficient. That worked out well. The tourbooks were helpful to locate campgrounds a couple of times at the beginning but as we got used to finding places (by signs on roads, by symbols on maps or just by asking) to stay, we didn’t use them much anymore.

Also we were struggling with the idea of taking a toddler and a baby on this long trip ourselves, not to mention our parents were not encouraging us either. We have never even taken such a long trip ourselves as adults. The longest trip we had taken so far was our two-month-long honeymoon around the world. Then when Kadia was a baby, we took her on trips to Banff, Caribbean, and Greece. Now with two, the responsibility doubled. What happened if they were sick? Were they too young to be traveling so far? Would they be able to enjoy the trip? Would Susan’s parents need us because Susan’s dad had a heart attack a couple of years back? Should we wait for a few years? Would I lose my job even though FMLA was supposed to have job protection? There were many reasons not to go. So should we?

Another thing we worried about was the financial burden of the trip on us. Three months without pay would not be easy. The California FMLA would be of some help with 6 weeks of money equivalent to unemployment pay. However, for this to work, we would need to keep our budget to a reasonable amount. We knew that in order to stick to our budget of $100 per day, we would have to camp and cook a lot ourselves. Luckily we had a lot of experiences with camping and have done a couple of 10+ days camping trips to Southwest and Northwest with Kadia and we enjoyed the trips. We might be able to do it.

With a workable budget, we listed out our reasons to go:

  • It is a great opportunity to spend quality and quantity time as a family.
  • Kids are too young to complain or said “are we there yet?”
  • Kids still think spending time with their parents is cool.
  • We may not have another opportunity to go again.
  • We want to do it before kids may not want to spend time with us and before we are too old to travel.
  • We are a little crazy sometimes

Finally, we decided to go for it and what a great decision that was. We had such a wonderful time that we are already planning for our next long trip to Alaska maybe in another couple of years. Kadia still often mention about THE trip and want to go again. If you find yourself debating on going off to a trip like ours, I would highly recommend it. We had a dream and we fulfilled it; we will never have regrets. Send me questions if you don’t find what you are looking for in my blog yet. I have a lot of other things I want to write but I may not get to your topics, if ever, for a while.

A few pointers for now:

  • Don’t over-plan. We only had a rough schedule just to gauge the amount of time we need. We never intended our itinerary to be our bible.
  • Keep a flexible schedule and be open-minded. Something unexpected will always come up on a long trip. Welcome them and adjust your plan.
  • Don’t drive at night in unfamiliar places. We didn’t go to cities much but out in remote areas, we avoided driving at night as animals can be deadly as a light pole in the dark.
  • Always carry paper maps; don’t depend on electronic maps completely
  • Enjoy yourself and let the trip to take you places you have never heard of before.
  • Finally and most importantly, bring your common sense with you. Safety always comes first. Trust your gut feeling and err on the safe side.

Capitol Reef MapNotom-Bullforg RoadAnother goal of the trip was to scout places for next time to visit. While we were at Capitol Reef, we decided to check out a remote part of the park: Mulley Twist Canyon. The canyon was about 35 miles via an unpaved road south of the highway 24 that run through the center of the park. We drove along the unpaved road, Notom-Bullfrog, for an hour to reach the Cedar Mesa Campground. It was a bumpy dirt road (see picture above right) so the going was slow. We didn’t see anyone else until we got to the Cedar Mesa campground (5 primitive campsites only). We pulled in the last available campsite so Susan could nurse Bryden.

Notom-Bullforg RoadWhile we were there, another group of campers came in and was disappointed that there wasn’t any available site. I told them that we would be leaving soon and asked them about the road condition going forward. They just came from the Burr Trail Road and told us that we shouldn’t have a problem even we didn’t have a 4-wheel drive. We pressed on and arrived at the turnoff to Burr Trial Road in 30 minutes then headed west up the Burr Trail Switchback. The switchback reminded me of the switchbacks on the way up to Angels Landing in Zion but this was for car. We took a picture from near the top of the switchback as shown here on the near top right. It wasn’t a hair-raising experience as the road was quite safe during the dry season but it was definitely fun and unforgettable.

It took too long to get up to where the turnoff to Mulley Twist Canyon which required a 4-wheel drive vehicle anyway. Also, it was getting late and we didn’t want to drive in the dark as it would take another 2 hours to get back to our Fruita campsite where we set camp in the morning. We would have to come back another day. While we were on the Notom-Bullfrog road, I was a little worry about being in a remote place with 2 kids and didn’t want to get stuck somewhere. Our cell phones could not get any reception, totally defeating the major reason why we brought them: for safety in a remote place. This leads to the next post, the Cell Phone Debate.

Goblin ValleyUtah is a colorful place, so many National Parks and natural wonders: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion, Rainbow and Natural Bridges, just to name a few. But we found this one relatively unknown place charming and creepy: Goblin Valley. We first discovered Goblin Valley in the winter of 2001 when we did a quick tour of Utah national parks with our friends, Udin and Nancy. We were driving from Capitol Reef to Arches and decided to take a detour to check it out. We got there late in the afternoon and it was getting dark; true to its name, we felt spooky by the goblin shaped rocks, especially with the light fading and darkness creeping in. But we felt that it was a special place so we decided to come back another time in better light.

Goblin ValleyWe went again but this time was at noon. This time the place had a different feel: charming. All the stone gnomes begged you to join them in a hide and seek game. Kadia rushed out to join them (see left). Goblin Valley was discovered in the late 1920s and was originally named Mushroom Valley. It became a state park in 1964. The goblins are made of Entrada sandstone and were shaped from millions of years of erosion. We had a grand time of playing hide and seek among the goblins for a couple of hours. There are a few hiking trails around the goblins playground as well but the urge of exploring among the goblins were just too great to stick to the hiking trail on this day. But we will be back again to explore different areas of the park.

Goblin Valley

Three goblins greet you as you enter Goblin Valley