As mentioned in my last post, we planned a stop at Bryce Canyon National Park for the wrap-up of our southern Utah adventure. And what a wrap-up it was. Everyone has seen pictures of the natural wonders that are on display in this eroded landscape, but even the best photography can’t duplicate the experience of actually being there.
We knew we’d find crowds of people like we experienced at Zion, but there’s more room at Bryce so it didn’t feel as suffocating. With about 4 hours to spend there, we picked the most popular hike, a 3-mile circuit that descends into the canyon at Sunset Point, winds through some of the formations and then ascends through a narrow slot canyon back up to the rim at Sunrise Point. After the hike, we completed the remainder of the scenic drive, stopping at several of the viewpoints along the way.
As I said, we have all seen pictures of Bryce so it’s understandable if you don’t want to take the time to page through photos that I took. But I couldn’t resist putting some online, anyway.
Rather than upload the pictures here, they are available in a Google photos album that you can access by clicking on the photo below that was taken at one of the overlooks.
We have wrapped up southern Utah for now, but it is such beautiful country and there were many places we didn’t have time to see, so I’m hoping we will make another trip there soon.
Our southern Utah adventure started with a couple of days spent in the southeastern part of the state. Probably the most well known place to visit there is Monument Valley but, given our time constraints, we had to save that for another time. I had seen pictures of the twisting, entrenched river meander visible from an overlook at Goosenecks State Park and that was an easily accessible stop to make after our day of driving from Albuquerque.
We also had enough time to drive down the road to Mexican Hat and then take the side road to a good view of the formation that gives the town its name.
Friday was the day set aside for hiking. With all of the options available it wasn’t easy to select one, knowing what we would have to pass up. The weather helped us make a decision. Deserts and mesas would be too hot so we headed to the mountains.
Not far from Blanding, several access roads lead into the Manti-La Sal National Forest, close to the controversial Bears Ears formation. We thought we had picked an isolated area for our hike, but after driving a winding dirt road up the mountains to the trailhead we were surprised to find a large group of people setting up booths and tents. We had stumbled upon the Annual Summer Gathering of the Native peoples who have ancestral ties to the Bears Ears region. It was interesting to talk to them and get an understanding of the issues involved.
The first hike we attempted was on a trail so overgrown that, even after several times backtracking, we never found what we thought would be a trail into Kigalia Canyon. We drove further up the road and had better luck finding a couple of other trails that lead into Hammond Canyon. But by then we didn’t have enough time to go too far into the canyon.
As we left Blanding on Friday, heading to Cedar City in southwestern Utah, we drove the loop road through Natural Bridges National Monument. At the stop for the last of the three Bridges we walked the trail that led under the impressive stone structure.
By lunchtime we were driving through Capital Reefs National Park. We ate at the picnic area near the Visitors Center and stopped for a couple of scenic viewpoints but then it was time to get back on the road.
The main attraction for our week in Utah awaited us in Cedar City. We had five days to spend enjoying hiking (me and Lee) and biking (Aaron and Ruth) trails. Not to mention just the fun of being together for the week.
We found time to visit Cedar Breaks National Monument, Zion National Park, and several areas in the Dixie National Forest.
Today as we head back to New Mexico we will make one more stop at another of the southern Utah wonders we have always wanted to visit–Bryce Canyon National Park.
A week ago we were at the tail end of our two-week road trip to Ohio and Michigan. The last day of driving was only a couple of hundred miles from Tucumcari to Albuquerque. We took some time to stop and visit two New Mexico destinations that we hadn’t yet seen-Ute Lake State Park and Conchas Lake State Park.
Both lakes are reservoirs on the Canadian River, in relatively flat terrain, where hiking trails are pretty much non-existent. Ute Lake had a nature trail along the lake that provided an enjoyable short walk, but mostly we were just sightseeing from the car. Today it was time to get out for some real hiking.
Lee wasn’t too thrilled with my suggestion that we hike the La Luz Trail. But, being the good sport that he is, he agreed with the plan. If you start at the trailhead, hike the 7 1/2 miles up to the tram, and then take the tram down, it’s another 2 miles of hiking to get from the tram back to your car. There wasn’t anyone we could impose upon to give us a ride and I wasn’t anxious to hike the extra distance. My solution was to use Uber to get back to our car after the hike.
Some might say that La Luz Trail is an expensive hike by the time that you buy tram tickets and pay Uber. But to me, it’s more than worth it. Couples wouldn’t think anything of paying an amount more than that for a dinner and movie date. And I enjoy that hike much more than any movie or concert or dinner date. There’s such variety on the trail. The views are awesome, especially the towering granite cliffs when you get closer to the top.
When you know it’s going to be high 90’s down in Albuquerque you start hiking early enough so that the first couple of miles before the tree line is done before the heat of the day. Then the trail begins to weave in and out of nice shady spots as it winds up the mountain. The section that goes multiple times across the big rock slide starts to get tiresome, but just when you think you can’t take any more, you come to the intersection with the side trail up to the Crest House and you know the worst is over. After a refreshing lunch break it’s an easy mile or so to the tram. And I enjoy that section because it parallels the tram line and you can hear the humming of the wires and watch the tram cars as they go up and down.
As much as we enjoy our trips to other places, it’s still good to be back in New Mexico.
Driving west through Amarillo on Interstate 40, just as we made it past the city traffic, there was the billboard I’d seen many times over the years at various points along the interstate–Tucumcari Tonight! And today that was actually going to be our stop for the night.
Since Tucumcari is less than 200 miles from Albuquerque, it has never made sense in previous travels to stay overnight there. But with some extra time built in this week on our drive from Michigan to New Mexico, Lee planned a Texas side trip to explore Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. From Elk City, Oklahoma, where we had spent the night, the lake was a 2-hour drive west and then north. It wasn’t too far out of our way, since after visiting the lake, it was less than 40 miles to drop down to Amarillo and get back on the interstate. And then it’s just 100 miles to Tucumcari, leaving plenty of time for a hike at the lake.
We found a nice trail that went through a canyon and along a mesa. There were good views of the lake, which is a large reservoir on the Canadian River. When Lee suggested the visit to Lake Meredith I had imagined that it would be a flat, featureless landscape like the other parts of the Texas Panhandle. I was pleasantly surprised at the interesting geologic features and the lush greenery along the trail.
Tomorrow we will have time to check out either or both Ute Lake State Park and Conchas Lake State Park in New Mexico. Even if put together, those two lakes would be a fraction of the size of Lake Meredith. I don’t think there will be trails to hike but we haven’t been to either one so as long as we are in the area we might as well drive by. Who knows if we’ll ever get another chance to visit Tucumcari. There doesn’t seem to be much here except a whole lot of motels. No wonder there are so many Tucumcari Tonight billboards.
A significant landmark on our summer road trips was a glimpse of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis towering over the downtown as we zipped by on the interstate. It is right next to the bridge as you cross the Mississippi River but I would be so nervous about navigating through the city traffic that I wouldn’t be able to do more than give it a quick glance. I’d always wanted to stop and get a closer look but with so many miles left to drive we never wanted to take the extra time.
Now in our retirement years our road trips can take a more leisurely pace and we have time to make unplanned stops. We found ourselves today passing through St. Louis on a sunny Sunday afternoon so we decided to make a stop to visit the Arch. Trying to get a photo that captures the immensity of this 630-foot monument is next to impossible. But we tried. Most of our time there was spent walking the park grounds that surround the Arch taking pictures from every possible angle. It was a beautiful day to be outside, though, so no complaints.
Built as a tribute to our nation’s history of westward expansion, it is referred to as the “Gateway to the West.” In my visits over the years from New Mexico to Michigan I always thought of crossing the Mississippi River at St. Louis as the boundary marker for being in the East versus getting back to the West. It was wonderful to visit family in Michigan and to enjoy the abundance of green grass and trees. But I always looked forward to getting back out West in the wide open spaces under sunny, blue skies. Though our time in the East this summer hasn’t been as long as what the kids and I used to do in the summers, I’m still feeling today that by crossing the Mississippi we have entered the gateway back to the West.
It was the summer of 1979 and I had just finished my first year of teaching high school math for the Alamogordo Public Schools. Ruth was almost 3 and Mike was 1-1/2. We had an old beat up station wagon that we hoped would make the 1700 mile trip from New Mexico to the family farm in Michigan. I hadn’t been back to see my folks since before the kids were born. Spending summer on the farm would be a wonderful experience for everyone.
Now here I am 40 years later driving once again from New Mexico to Michigan. All these hours in the car today have given me lots of time to reminisce and reflect on the paths life has taken. Who would have imagined 40 years ago that the 1-1/2 year old kid going to his grandparents farm then would today be a seasoned long haul truck driver who just happened to have a route crossing ours as we went through Oklahoma?
Mike was taking a load from Dallas to St. James, Missouri, traveling north on Highway 69. We had spent the night just east of Oklahoma City and would be traveling east on Interstate 40, passing by St. James later in the day. By Mike’s calculation we could meet up at Big Cabin, OK, where the highways come together. I think he had to squeeze his schedule a bit and get an extra early start, but, amazingly enough it all came together and Lee and I were there just a few minutes before that good-looking Celadon truck turned the corner into the travel plaza.
Mike with his usual busy schedule didn’t have much time to spare. But this was an interesting spot that he picked for our meet up. The travel plaza features a 50-foot statue of an Indian Chief. After all, the highway is going through the Cherokee Nation. The statue wouldn’t have been here in the days I traveled the route so I appreciated the chance for the close-up view. He’s so big that I’m barely visible in the photo!
If you’re interested in the rest of the story of taking the old station wagon on that long trip (or some of the other years taking those trips to Michigan) you’ll have to wait until another day when I get motivated to work some more on my “memoir.”
After viewing hundreds of photos last night from Mike Richie’s “San Juan Basin Badlands” presentation at the Native Plant Society meeting, it was obvious that today’s hike should be an exploration of one of the areas discussed in the presentation. Shortly after moving to Albuquerque, I went on a hike with the hiking club to Ceja Pelon, one of the 5 Nacimiento Badlands west of Cuba. Lee and I have considered exploring out there before on our own but without any established trails we didn’t know if we should attempt it.
Just recently, however, I discovered a phone app that allows me to load a GPX track on to a map and then follow the track–exactly the functionality that a handheld GPS device provides but no need for an extra gadget. The hiking club publishes their GPX tracks on their website so now we can use their tracks to guide us to new destinations.
For today’s hike we selected Mesa Penistaja, a 6.6-mile loop hike that promised interesting rock formations and lots of petrified wood. It certainly delivered on the petrified wood. Pieces of all shapes, sizes and colors were scattered throughout the arroyos and on top of the hillsides. The dominant flower in the grassy areas was the Mariposa Lily. I have never seen them in such abundance. Many were growing together in clusters, whereas usually they are just a single isolated plant.
The GPX track gave us a place to start the hike and a reassurance that we could find our way back through the maze of arroyos. We ended up only doing about half of the published hike before we veered off and created our own track. With so many things to look at we weren’t hiking very fast and, given how hot it was, we felt that 5 miles was enough to call it a day.