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Published: January 30th 2015
Canyonlands National Park
The phone rings loudly in the dark room. It’s a little disorienting at first. The noisy heater cycled too often during the night and we really never went all the way out. We just pick the phone up and put it back in the cradle without saying anything. It must be the wake-up call we ask for last night. Nobody else would be calling this early. It’s 2 ½ hours before sunrise and we have to get going if we’re going to make it.
Luckily the night desk clerk has made coffee for himself. We grab a cup without asking, we don’t want to take a chance that he’ll say no. It’s off season and he seems a little startled that anyone is up this early. Outdoor recreation is what Moab, Utah is known for and it’s 17 degrees outside and not many people are up early this time of year.
It’s foggy and the window washers are frozen so our wipers don’t work well. Thank goodness the roads are empty. You lean forward as you drive and curse the poor headlights on your car. Visibility is limited to a short distance of road ahead
and the many roadsigns that warn of deer and cows that could be crossing the road. This is open range country, but it’s not visible this morning. It’s an hour drive to where you’re heading and you have to stay on the accelerator if you’re going to make it on time. You can see spots of ice on the road, perhaps real or perhaps imagined. Either way it makes your heart beat a little faster.
After an hour, you pass the entrance shack of the park but no rangers are on duty this early. It’s more than an hour before sunrise and there are probably less than five people in the entire park. No overnight campers this time of year. It would be helpful to have a map. You’ll have to rely on the fog shrouded signs to find your way. You see a deer wandering just off the road, mostly hidden by the mist.
You see the red brake lights on the solitary car before you see the sign for the parking area. It’s the first car you’ve seen in the park and this must be the place. Maybe you are not alone
in your quest today. You’ve read that in summer there might already be 50 people here. The driver is eating a bowl of hot oatmeal and uses his headlamp to brightly light the inside of his car. For a second you are jealous of his luxuries. You only have what’s left of your motel coffee and a wind up emergency flashlight that occasionally sounds an alarm when you turn the crank.
Another car pulls in with 4 people. They are a little louder. You hear southern accents. The trail is still dark and you don’t know how difficult it will be. The snow from last week has mostly frozen into sheets of ice. It melts during the day and puddles on the red sandstone and freezes at night when the sun goes down.
The Southerners are the first to head up the trail. They have headlamps and you watch them as they move quickly uphill on the trail. It turns to the right as they move away into the fog. Just as they begin to fade they disappear rapidly, indicating that they must have reached the top of the hill.
Oatmeal Guy leaves next. His equipment is neatly arranged in a pack. He appears to be a pro and you suppose he must have been here before by the way he confidently moves up the hill into the fog. He has nice boots and makes good time. His headlamp doesn’t go back and forth as much as the Southerners.
It’s time to go. The cold is a bit of a shock as you step from the warmth of the car. The parking lot sign that has a map of the trail. It generally follows the path you watched the others take. Cranking the light as you go, you make your way up the hill. The trail is steeper than it appeared and is covered with frozen snow. It’s easier to go up than it will be to come down. At least it will be light on the way back.
As you get to the top of the hill, the path ends and you realize you will have to make your way down the slippery sandstone slope partly covered with ice. The sky is starting to take on its first sampling of light. The early
light confirms that there are drop-offs that will need to be avoided. You can see the headlamps flickering in the distance, but if you go straight to them you will surely drop to a certain death. Slow and careful is the best way.
As you carefully make your way down the hill, you get your first glimpse of the arch as a silhouette against the dimly lit sky. It looks so much smaller than it appeared in all the photos you saw of it. It’s exciting as you begin to set up. The light of the sky is turning slightly orange now, so it won’t be much longer.
Some late arrivers can be heard hurrying down the trail. They know they are nearly out of time and are running down the hill. You hear slipping and muffled swearing as they make their way. They set up tightly around you as the sky continues to lighten. It’s a small area about 20 feet across. It’s quite crowded with just 10 people today. I can’t imagine if there were 50 or more as there are in summer.
The sky is very bright now.
The sun is ready to break the horizon. It is this ten minute window that everyone has come here for. Everyone is leaned in to their equipment and making last minute adjustments. You’re literally shoulder to shoulder with the next guy. No one is talking. Everyone’s breathing gets noticeably louder and more rapid. Everyone is nervous with anticipation. We have all come to Canyonlands National Park this morning to get our shot of the famous sunrise at Mesa Arch and it’s happening right now.
There is about a 10 minute period each day when the rising sun is visible between the horizon and the top of the arch. At first, just the horizon is visible, but soon the entire canyon floor begins changing color from blue to pink to orange. The rims of the arch turn a brilliant red color as the sun rises and quickly warms the day. Thousands of pictures are taken every day of this incredible scene. It is one of the amazing views that photographers, both amateur and professional , spend lots of money and time attempting to capture each day all over the Southwestern United States. For the last month we have
Arches National Park
been one of them.
In just minutes it’s over. Everyone is smiling. For the first time you clearly see everyone’s face. The Southerners are friendly and amazed when you tell your story of travelling for 3 ½ years straight. The Oatmeal Guy is a professional and gives you his card. He is especially interested in our stories of Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat that we quickly share with the Southerners as places we especially enjoyed in our travels. 15 minutes later we are back at our car and ready to start our day.
For the last month we have been based in Cedar City, Utah and travelling out almost daily to take photographs in the area. The area is called the Grand Staircase. It is basically a series of raised tablelands starting from the north rim of the Grand Canyon and heading north into Southern Utah. The series of plateaus take on different colors as they move north. First chocolate, then vermillion, white, gray, and finally pink. The Grand Staircase encompasses Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef National Parks.
Zion is a green, canyon oasis fed by the year-round Virgin River and
surrounded by 2000 foot red sandstone cliffs. Bryce Canyon is actually one face of a plateau that is slowly eroding away, leaving behind thousands of delicate red-gold rock spires and minarets, called hoodoos.
Trails abound in each park and despite some icy conditions we did our best to hike and photograph many of them over our multiple visits to each.
Before Zion and Bryce we visited the internationally famous Grand Canyon. The weather seemed to change from fall to winter in the course of one day. As we toured the south rim, the day started with clear blue skies and warm temperatures and ended with cloudy skies and temperatures in the teens. Snow began falling as we left the park.
Later in the month we made our way across the state to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Water, ice, extreme temperatures and underground salt movements combined to create some of the most unique terrain on the planet. Arches National Park has over 2000 arches and 6 of the 10 largest in the world. Canyonlands has vast views as impressive as the Grand Canyon. The raw beauty of the terrain looks almost
Zion National Park
Canyon Overlook Trail
prehistoric as you look across the landscape from one of the beautiful vista points.
We did take one brief break from all the natural beauty that this area offers. We made our way a couple of hours south to witness the “un-natural“ beauty that is Las Vegas. We have been many times in the past, but each time we visit, Las Vegas seems to have outdone itself with more outlandish venues than before. I doubt you can find Venetian Canals, Eiffel Towers, New York skylines and replicas of the boulevards of Paris in one place anywhere else in the world.
We have spent the last 7 months visiting the Southwestern United States, an area of our country that we have seen little of in the past. We have taken pictures of beautiful landscapes and created memories that will last a long time. We have seen more canyons, rivers, mountains and valleys than we knew existed. We have witnessed countless sunrises and sunsets over some of the most beautiful places on earth. We have lived without plans and pretty much made things up as we went.
At the end of the week
we will be heading home to California to drop off our car and head off to a new continent. We have enjoyed this part of our journey and are excited to continue on. Thanks for following along on our road trip and we will see you soon.
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