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Trip Report Five national parks in ten days -- during the government shutdown

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When I first planned our October trip to visit the national parks in Utah in July, it seemed like a really good idea. I asked questions here, and got some great advice. DH had always wanted to visit Zion and Bryce Canyon in southwestern Utah, so I figured I'd combine a trip to all five parks in 10 days, traveling in a loop from Salt Lake City, down to Arches and Canyonlands in Moab in the southeast, then across Capitol Reef via Escalante, and finally over to Zion and Bryce Canyon in the southwest before looping back up to SLC to return home to Chicago.

Then the government shut down on October 1, closing all of the national parks (and lots of other things). So I had 10 days to look for alternatives. They didn't close down the State of Utah, so there were still things to do. I had quite a list of alternatives: State parks. Scenic byways. Navajo Nation sites. Shopping. So I was prepared with a long list of activities when we left on the morning of Friday, October 11. Blessedly, however, the good governor of Utah, Governor Gary Herbert, self-funded the Utah national parks for 10 days as of October 11, and we were good to go for our whole time in Utah. When we landed midday in Salt Lake City we heard that the parks would be open by that evening. God is never early, but He's never late, either. And He was good to us.

So our Utah adventure officially began on the afternoon of October 11. We were on our way south from SLC by noontime, and we set off in the glorious sunshine toward the small town of Moab in southeast Utah. Rather than take the fastest and most direct route, we instead followed a tip that was posted here six or seven years ago, and we detoured through the San Rafael Swell, in Emery County, to the northwest of I-70 and Moab. I found a guide to the back roads of a Emery County online (http://www.emerycounty.com/travel/), and it led us down gravel roads for about 40 miles, through some amazing canyon country -- we don't see this kind of stuff in Indiana or Illinois! We were especially impressed with the Wedge, also billed as the "Little Grand Canyon of Utah" -- a deep gorge about six miles off of the "main" gravel road. It wasn't the Grand Canyon, but it was still pretty darned good. We passed through deep canyons, with rock walls towering hundreds of feet above us. We saw petroglyphs, ancient pictographs, streams ... but hardly any other people. Since this was not I-70, few people take the time (or know to take the time) to explore these back country roads. That meandering trip from SLC took most of the afternoon, and we arrived in Moab about 7:30 PM, passing Arches National Park in the dark. But there was a long line of cars waiting at the entry booth -- it had opened about 5:00 and people were anxious to get in! We settled into our cottage (one of the properties at the Creekside at Moab, quietly nestled behind the Moab Diner -- http://www.creeksideatmoab.com/) and were happily looking forward to the next day's activities at Arches National Park.

When planning this trip in July, I saw the Fiery Furnace walk advertised on the Arches website, a ranger-led hike (more of a rock climb than a walk) through this area of Arches. Some friends had also done this hike a couple of years ago and recommended it highly, so I bought tickets ($10 each). We stopped at the freshly reopened visitor center (thank you again, Gov. Herbert!) first thing and picked up our tickets for the 2:00 hike. It was a clear, sunny day, with temps in the low 60s, so it was perfect weather for it. We spent the morning touring the main sites and taking short hikes to the various arches (Balanced Rock, Windows, Double Arch, Turret Arch), sharing the road with lots and lots of bikers. We made our way to the end of the road, Devil's Garden, by midday and ate our picnic lunch, sharing space with an outfitter hosting about 30 folks on bicycles. They sure know how to put out a spread! We saw several outfitters setting out lunch breaks over the course of the following week and it was always a pretty elaborate affair.

Our walk through the Fiery Furnace, so named because of the way the rock glows red in the sunset, was limited to 25, but since the park had been closed for the previous 10 days, some people had apparently canceled their travel plans and there were only 13 of us. A nice, intimate group. Ranger Allison was an able leader, taking us down into the canyon, over rocks and through streams and over crevasses. There are several minor "acrobatic" parts of the walk (at least they seemed minorly acrobatic to this middle aged university administrator) including hopping over a three-foot wide void, crab-walking over a really narrow, deep slot, and creeping down some really steep rocks. Ranger Allison stopped in several places to discuss flora, fauna, and geology, and to point out especially interesting rock features. The hike/climb is only a couple of miles long, but it took about two hours to complete the circuit. It's a special place as the park allows only about 100 people per day in -- either with a ranger on a supervised walk, or with a special permit after an orientation session. So although as the raven flies it's not more than a mile from a paved park road, it seems quite remote. After the walk we hiked up to Delicate Arch, and stuck around for sunset. A really great day, made all the more special since we came within a few hours of missing it because of the government shutdown.

The next day, Sunday, we decided to take a little break from all that hiking and we did some of the alternatives to national parks that I had researched. We focused on several "scenic byways" that the Moab Chamber of Commerce advertises. We first did Utah 128, following the Colorado River almost all the way up to I-70. It is, indeed, a scenic drive -- following the River gorge past Negro Bill's Canyon (which we would have hiked to the natural bridge if Arches had been closed), Castle Valley, Fisher Towers, and all the way up to Cisco, the "ghost town" (don't bother). Along the way we passed Red Cliffs Lodge, which offers cabins along the Colorado River, the Castle Valley Winery, the Cowboy Grill restaurant, and this really kitschy but fun "Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission" museum with lots of memorabilia and photos of movies, television shows and commercials filmed in southern Utah over the years. There's even a nice, life-sized cutout of John Wayne to take your picture with. Half way down this drive, a couple of miles past the Lodge, is the turnoff to Castle Valley and the La Sal Mountain loop road. This drive is also gorgeous, especially as it loops up up up the mountains, affording wonderful overlooks into Castle Valley. It was cold but clear -- we took probably 30 photos from the overlooks. This road loops and joins Utah 191 south of Moab, so you don't have to retrace your steps. These two drives, with photos all along the way, plus a stop at the Red Cliffs Lodge and a picnic lunch on the banks of the Colorado took most of the day and was a great way to see a lot of Utah.

Monday was Canyonlands. Another clear but chilly day -- great for hiking. We stopped at Dead Horse Point State Park on the way, one of the alternatives I had in mind when looking for non-national park things to do. It's right next to Canyonlands, although much smaller. But what there is, is pretty dramatic. The story of the name is of course pretty romantic, but the overlooks are great, and there's a loop trail around the edge of the point that provides about 300 degrees of overlooks -- the Colorado River and gorge. Really worth a stop on the way to or from Canyonlands. Canyonlands, on the other hand, is just vast. We went to the Island in the Sky part of the park. and it's huge. Vast canyons. Deep and wide. Ranger Jan was doing a geology talk at Grand View Point Overlook, the end of the paved road, and she had a magnificent backdrop as she talked about erosion and the rivers. She mentioned at the end of her talk that everyone should go to their favorite parks as soon as possible, because although the media was reporting that Governor Herbert had self-funded the parks for 10 days, it might be as few as seven, depending on how long the money lasted. So, that gave us something to worry over ... There are a number of scenic views and turnouts in Canyonlands -- Green river Overlook, Mesa Arch, Orange Cliffs -- and a lot of hikes available, too. One of the most fun hikes is a relatively short one up to the edge of the "Upheaval Dome," a crater that they are now thinking was caused by a meteor strike. It's pretty much straight up, but once you get there you have a good, close-up view down into this huge hole. There are a great many off-road trails in Canyonlands, and it's fun to stand up top at places like the Shafer Canyon Overlook and look down and watch vehicles navigate the switchbacks down to the canyon floor. It all looks so simple from 2000 feet up!

So, we had made Arches and Canyonlands. Tuesday was time to move westward; it was a cloudy and gloomy day, the only one on our trip. It rained a couple of times, and was chilly. The GPS suggested we go up to I-70 and then over to Utah 24 bisecting the top edge of Capitol Reef National Park, and then down on Utah Highway 12. Instead we decided to take a more southerly route, down Utah 191, south from Moab, to just past Blanding, and then over on Utah 95. the plan was to continue on Utah 276 to the Glen Canyon Visitor Center and take the ferry across -- but the National Recreation Area wasn't funded by the state, and the ferry wasn't running. So we just stayed on Utah 95 eventually connecting with Utah 24 and then Utah 12. This route took us past some more really striking rock formations, river gorges, and canyons. The gloomy weather added to the rugged scenery -- some really dramatic clouds. Today's picnic lunch was at the Hite Overlook at the north end of Lake Powell, near the confluence of the Colorado and Dirty Devil Rivers. Very dark and gloomy -- spectacular. We arrived at Capitol Reef on Utah 24 took the scenic drive south through the park, passing the petroglyphs and fruit orchards. We then connected with Utah 12, heading toward our evening's stop in Escalante. Highway 12 starts out rather modestly from Torrey, climbing to nearly 10,000 feet. The temperature dropped to 30 degrees and it began to snow as we ascended, and some of the scenic lookouts were blurred by the weather. The aspens were lovely yellow ... but it seemed to be just a "nice" mountain drive. Until we reached the Calf Creek area, and then whoa! -- the road, aptly named Hell's Backbone, became a narrow strip bisecting vast canyons on either side. It was literally jaw-dropping. One overlook included interpretive signs describing the construction of the road in the early 20th century -- I was nervous driving it; I can't imagine building it! As we descended into Escalante the temperatures warmed slightly into the 40s, but it was a chilly night. The Slot Canyons Inn (http://www.slotcanyonsinn.com/), just west of Escalante on Highway 12 , was a welcoming oasis, and the fireplace was welcome that night! We also had the best meal of our trip in their restaurant -- cooked over a wood fired grill, just excellent.

The next morning, Wednesday, it was on to Zion -- we were bypassing Bryce Canyon for reasons that will become apparent later in this report. Zion was so-named by Mormon settlers who found sanctuary and respite within the canyon walls -- thus its name. We continued on 12, connecting with Utah 89 and then with Utah 9 heading west. We went through the east entry gate about 11 AM, and as we neared the tunnel the traffic got horrendous -- it was an absolute zoo. We had perhaps thought to take the Canyon Overlook Trail, just to the east of the tunnel, but it was impossible to park anywhere. For some reason the tunnel was one-lane traffic, so we sat for some minutes until we got to go through. On the other side the traffic was still at a standstill. We finally wound our way to the Human History Museum, and spent a nice hour looking at the well-done exhibits and the 22-minute film. Gave us a good introduction to the park. We continued on to the Visitor Center and the parking lots -- circled fruitlessly for a few minutes -- and then continued on to Springdale. We headed straight through town and up to the Kolob Canyons section of the park just to get away from the crowds. That was lovely, with a short (5-mile) but stunning drive through the canyons. By the time we got back to Springdale it was late enough to check in to the Desert Pearl (wonderful inn -- can't say enough good things about it -- http://www.desertpearl.com/welcome/) and then we took the town shuttle into the park. This time we made it to the in-park shuttle and went up as far as the Zion Lodge. We got off there and took the short lower trail to the Emerald Pools (the Virgin River was lovely in the golden twilight) and then we crossed back over to the Lodge and took the short hike up to the Grotto. On the way we ran into a small clutch of mule deer, about 10 of them who didn't seem to mind that we were interrupting their dinner. We got back on the shuttle at the Grotto and returned to town -- had been a long day. But by the end of the day Washington had settled and the government was open. Yippee, the rest of our trip was assured to have open national parks!

Thursday was our hiking day in Zion. We took the park shuttle all the way to the end, to the Temple of Sinawava, and then hiked (well, walked) the Riverside walk. It was a clear, sunny day so the views were good, and if we had more time and had been prepared with the right gear we would have hiked the Narrows. A number of people were doing that -- some in only pants and tennis shoes -- good luck to them on that chilly day. On the way back down we got off the shuttle at the Lodge and hiked the Sand Bench trail down to the Court of the Patriarchs. That was a lot of fun -- saw wild turkeys and mule deer again. We then hiked the Watchman Trail -- the trailhead is at the Visitors Center -- and our picnic was up at the top, overlooking the town of Springdale and the rest of the canyon floor. Spectacular views, and only a few scary drop-offs. Highly recommended in a clear day. By the time we hiked back down it was nearing 2:30, and we had hoped to get in the Canyon Overlook Trail at the east end of the tunnel before we left. There was blessedly no traffic, and the tunnel was open both ways -- apparently all of the mess the day before was due to road construction. But, still no place to park near the trailhead ... So that will have to wait for another trip. On the way east we did encounter several mountain goats -- most unusual to see them calmly wandering near the road. This caused a mini traffic jam as people stopped cars to get photos; DH had me get out to take pictures while he drove to the next turnout and parked so he could walk back and join me to look.

We were leaving Zion in the middle of the afternoon after only one night (and it was very hard to leave!) because when I was planning this vacation, I had read about a full moon hike at Bryce Canyon on the evenings of October 17 and 18 (the date of the full moon). They limit the participants in these hikes to 30 people, and the only way to join is to wait at the Visitors Center the morning of the hike to get one of the 30 free tickets. So, in order to do the hike (and I really wanted to do the full moon hike), we had to be in line at the Bryce Canyon Visitors Center by 7 AM the next morning (they open at 8:00, but people start lining up early). So we bypassed Bryce to go on to Zion so we could spend a couple of days there and still be at Bryce at 7 AM on Friday, October 18. Since we didn't get to do the Canyon View Hike in Zion we arrived at Bryce in time to check into the Bryce Lodge and get to the overlooks for sunset. The rock formations ("hoodoos") at Bryce are particularly stunning at sunset and sunrise, so this was great. We stayed in the Lodge within the park for the location ... location, location, location. I had read complaints that it was "tired" and "plain," but we found it rather charming and rustic. No, there are no televisions, and the wifi is only in the Lodge lobby, and the rooms aren't luxurious. And they are as pricey as fancier lodging in other locations. But they're clean and warm and quiet. And, the location can't be beat. That evening a ranger was doing a talk about lunacy in the Lodge auditorium, and that was fun. All in all I have no complaints, and would certainly stay there again.

We were up early the next morning and in line at the Visitors Center for the full moon walk by 7:15. There were already 10 or 12 people in line ahead of us. It was chilly, in the 30s, but we kept warm with some coffee we had brought and the conversations with the other waiters kept things interesting. We scored our full moon walk tickets by 8:15 (yippee!) and then took a little time to shop, look at the exhibits and view the 20 minute film. It was still pretty cold at 9 AM so we went to breakfast and then drove the park drive to the end, Rainbow Point, which at over 9,000 feet has a pretty dramatic view. We then drove back, stopping at all of the viewpoints along the way and taking pictures, as you would expect. By midday it was warm enough for a hike -- we did the Queen's Garden combined with the Navajo Loop, up through Wall Street, which is billed as the "most spectacular three mile hike in the world." I don't know about that, but it was pretty good. We were to meet up with Ranger Kevin at 6:30 for the full moon walk -- and all 30 of us were there. Ranger Kevin was excellent -- we got to the rim of the Bryce Amphitheater just as the moon was rising (he's done this before... ) and his talks for the night were about night wildlife -- owls, bats, cats, bears. He also threw in some astronomy. We'd hike for a bit and then we'd stop and hear about the habits of the various animals ... hiking amongst the hoodoos in the moonlight was both spooky and way cool. Ranger Kevin was informed, funny, interesting, and it was just an excellent couple of hours.

The next morning we were up early again to catch sunrise -- the previous morning at sunrise we had been waiting in line at the Visitors Center. Sunrise was as lovely as sunset had been, but different. The light is always changing. We found that the Paria View was best for sunset and Bryce Point was best for sunrise. Others will have differing opinions, I am sure. After breakfast it was time to leave our southern Utah adventure and head on back to SLC for one last night before our return flight home to Chicago. We took Utah 89 for most of the way, passing by the Big Rock Candy Mountain (which sounded more fun than it turned out to be) and some really nice scenery. Less rocky, less mountainous -- more what I would consider to be "western" in my imagination. ranches, tumbleweeds, the lovely Sevier River along the road. Once in SLC we had time to visit Temple Square and the Utah State Capitol (and if Gov. Herbert had been there I would have happily thanked him in person). That evening we attended a concert by the Orchestra at Temple Square -- held in the Tabernacle (as in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). As non-Mormons we were not allowed in the Temple, but the Tabernacle is open to all. Now when I watch Christmas specials on television and see the Choir, I'll know where they sing! We stayed at the Hotel Monaco in SLC (http://www.monaco-saltlakecity.com/), part of the Kimpton chain. If you've ever stayed at one of the Kimpton hotels, then you know there's nothing bad and a lot of good things to say about them. Including the zebra-striped bathrobes!

We returned home to Chicago on Sunday, 10 days after we left. Chicago was warmer than Utah, in the 60s, but was overcast and dreary -- and today it's turned cold and windy. But, it's home. Utah was lovely and I am pretty sure we will return -- most likely to Zion, the place of safety and respite. It is something special.

Thanks again to everyone for the great trip planning advice!

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