After a month and a half of free-spirited travel across the US, through California and the Southwest, I found myself at a crossroads. I could start driving home and hit a few places on “my list” on the road east, or I could take a week to try and squeeze a few more places into the itinerary in the west. There are too many options when it comes to exploring (especially in the US Southwest), so I had to pick a route. I have a friend that grew up in Wyoming (Laramie, not too far from Colorado) and he highly recommended Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s less than 2 hours from Denver, so after I dropped Lily and her parents off at the Denver airport, I decided I had to head west before heading east.
I was exhausted from the previous week, so I filled up on supplies in Boulder and headed into the mountains on Route 7. I found a place to set up close to Rocky Mountain National Park in Roosevelt National Forest. I arrived at 3pm, but I wound up falling asleep especially early before the sun went down. Traveling can take its toll on you. I think I gradually went into a sleep deficit each night, only getting about 5-6 hours. We were waking up early and ending late on a lot of days. Plus I was staying up some nights to get night-time photos. I think I was overdoing it a little, and I paid for it on this day. My advice: if you have a day to recharge: take it! That’s exactly what I did on this day. Less than 2 hours of driving and a lot of sleep later in the day.
Rocky Mountain National Park
I think Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most famous national parks in the US. I would imagine it is quite popular too, since it’s a short drive from Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins. I arrived at the park early on Monday, and it was already packed. There was a line at the entrance gate, but luckily if you have any kind of park pass, you can drive up and actually scan your own card to get into the park; that’s how busy it gets! The only problem with this is that nobody is there to give you a park map (my souvenir), but I was able to locate a map at the visitor’s center.
I entered at the Beaver Meadows entrance. Shortly after the entrance, there is a left turn for Bear Lake Road and Moraine Park. Moraine Park contains a meadow and has excellent views of some of the tallest and most dramatic mountains in the park. It’s also a good place to view wildlife (so they tell me). As I drove toward the parking lot, there was a sign that said “Lot Full – Find Alternative Parking”. Yikes! It was only 9am, but in the summer the Moraine Park area fills up fast. I pulled over along the road to enjoy the view as much as I could, but after a few minutes I realized: this park is huge, there are great views all over the place! Time to move on to another one.
With everything there is to see in Rocky Mountain, there is way too much to see in one day so I decided I would take short hikes (nothing more than a mile at a time) to see as much as possible. I was full of energy from my previous day’s recharge, but I had also learned my lesson about trying to do too much. I would be more of a bus tourist than a backpacker. My first stop was at the Alluvial Fan, in the Endovalley. This is an area of heavy alluvium, or loose rocks and sediment, that has washed into one area. The Alluvial Fan is a wash of the Roaring River which drains many of the high peaks on the Eastern side of the park.
From the Alluvial Fan I took the Old Fall River Road, which is only open in the summer. It is a one-way, dirt road which most cars and motorcycles can climb, but four-wheel drive is suggested for the 9 mile venture. There are a lot of washed out parts of the road around the turns of the switchbacks, but the straight sections are remarkably smooth. The views climbing up the road get better and better with altitude. You can see the waterfalls and streams form the headwaters of some of the major rivers in North America.
Eventually the road tops out near Marmot Point, where I coincidentally saw, you guessed it, a marmot. I stopped and made the short hike up to Marmot Point (definitely recommended), where you get an excellent view of the snow-capped mountain peaks to the west (and some less-than healthy forest on the east side of the peak, I’m assuming due to forest fires or disease). Less than a mile drive farther, and I arrived at the Alpine Visitor Center at a modest 11,796 feet above sea level. From the Visitor Center, it is a short drive around Medicine Bow Curve and over Milner Pass where you cross the Continental Divide. From Milner Pass, it’s all downhill until you exit the park as you follow the headwaters of the Colorado River.
As you coast down the mountain, there are multiple pull-off spots along the road where you can see the Cache la Poudre and Colorado River forming out of the mountains, and view the Never Summer Mountains. I couldn’t stop making stops along the Kawuneeche Valley since there are several trails and photo opportunities.
Advice for seeing wildlife
While I was returning from my third short hike of the day on the Colorado River Trail, a Colorado State Fish and Wildlife employee was walking on the trail and asked if I saw the moose near the trail. “Moose!? What moose?” He was an experienced outdoorsman (35 years working for Fish and Wildlife) and he gave me some advice for viewing wildlife.
Apparently you should be near the river and basically let the animals come to you. The noise from the river essentially covers the sounds of your footsteps and the animals will not hear you moving. He was fishing in the river so it was easy for him to do. But he showed me a picture of the moose he saw, and I must have hiked right past it since we were in the same area. He stated that if you don’t know how to spot them, you could hike “forever” and never see anything. Maybe this was why I was having difficulty spotting any wildlife. I appreciated the tip and I hoped I could use it before the end of the day.
After a few more stops heading downhill on Route 34, I exited the park at the Grand Lake Entrance Station. As soon as I went through the gate, there was the wildlife I had scarcely been able to see throughout the day. A red fox ran in front of my car, literally as I was passing through the gate and then a few squirrels. I was disappointed I still hadn’t seen any elk or moose, but after less than a mile, there were dozens of cars parked along a section of the road. I figured that I should stop to see what they were looking at, and it turns out it was a moose!
It was a big moose too. He was just 50 feet or so from the road, and people were standing too close to be considered safe (at least for me). Everyone was taking pictures, and it was a great opportunity. The moose didn’t seem too agitated, despite approximately 100 people gathered around him. I put the zoom lens on the camera so that I didn’t have to stand too close. I guess the moose is accustomed to the attention with all of the tourists, but it’s still a wild animal.
After some moose pictures I returned to my car, and headed farther down the mountain. I was going to drive through the night, but I opted to stay about an hour outside of the park on a BLM site near Hot Sulphur Springs. I was hoping to find some free hot springs, but there is a charge (I think) to use them, so I continued down the road a little and stopped for the night right next to the Colorado River.
Dinosaur National Monument
The following day I made a long drive across Western Colorado through the high-elevation towns of Kremmling, Steamboat Springs, Hayden, and Craig. To the west of Craig, the towns become increasingly smaller and farther apart. I followed US Route 40 for the entire day, stopping in some of the towns for coffee and souvenirs. I eventually made one major tourist stop for the day when I made it into Utah, at Dinosaur National Monument. There are a few entrances to the park. I stopped first at the Canyon Visitor Center in Colorado (the park is located in Colorado and Utah) for a map and saw that many of the fossil locations are near the main entrance near Jensen, UT. Therefore I headed toward the Jensen entrance.
I felt a little awkward as there were so many children around the exhibits to see the dinosaurs. It was going to be a short visit in the park so I just walked the Dinosaur Quarry Trail near the Visitor Center. There are fossilized shells and other ancient marine organisms in the rocks and hillsides from millions of years ago when apparently, the American Southwest was under the ocean. The trail ends near the Quarry Exhibit Hall where you can see fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. It’s definitely a park to take children (assuming they are in to dinosaurs).
Pictographs and Petroglyphs
I hopped back in my car and drove a little farther into the park to make one final stop before I departed the park. I drove about 1 mile to see the pictographs (patterns painted on rocks) and petroglyphs (patterns carved into rock). Now I know the difference between the two! These patterns were made, according to the park, by the Fremont people, who lived in the area thousands of years ago. It was cool to see, but a little anticlimactic. The site was only a few hundred feet off of the road, so it didn’t feel like much of an exploration. After the photo opportunity at the pictograph/petroglyph site, I continued on US 40 deep into Utah until finally stopping west of the Strawberry Reservoir for the night.
Bryce Canyon and Dixie
Dixie National Forest
I woke up early the next morning to get on the road toward Bryce Canyon National Park. It was a 4 hour drive mostly on Interstate 15. The landscape the entire day was pale green and tan, but 20 minutes before getting to Bryce Canyon, the soil suddenly turned bright red and there were trees growing on top of the hills. I had entered the aptly named Red Canyon of Dixie National Forest. I had to keep stopping to ponder the landscape. My 4 hour drive turned into a 5 hour drive as the Red Canyon was an unexpected site to stop and take pictures of the landscape.
Along the road to Bryce Canyon, there is also a bike trail that runs along Route 12. I wish I had my bike! This looks like one of the most scenic bike trails (and challenging climbs) in the country. The National Park also has an extensive bike trail network around the canyon.
I finally got to the Bryce Canyon entrance at noon. Bryce Canyon is a pretty simple park to navigate. There is one road (Route 63) that runs along the western edge of the canyon, and there are overlooks every mile or so. The formation in the canyon are illogical. They reminded me of stalagmites, but they were not formed from a cave. As I understand it, the rock formations sticking out of the canyon have had the earth eroded from around them over time. As I explored Utah more and more, I wish I had more of a geology background.
After a short drive from the entrance, I took a hike starting at Inspiration Point and along the rim to Bryce Point. The trail is mostly flat much like the Grand Canyon since you are walking along the rim. This made for a good medium-length hike of about 3 miles. It was hot, and since the rim of Bryce Canyon ranges between 7,900 and 9,200 feet in elevation, the UV is pretty intense too. I brought 2 liters of water with me and I had to drink most of it to stay hydrated.
When I returned to Inspiration Point from my hike, I decided to drive to the end of the road (Route 63) which ends after 18 miles. At mile 18 you end up at Rainbow Point and over 9,000 feet in elevation at the southern end of the park. I also took a short hike around the Bristlecone Loop Trail and ended up at Yovimpa Point, where the landscape shifts dramatically and colors change from bright red to green and white beyond Bryce Canyon. In my opinion, Inspiration Point has the best view, but you be the judge:
That evening I set up camp just outside of the entrance to Bryce in what is technically Dixie National Forest. There are some great dispersed camping spots not too far off of the road. Free camping in the National Forest is always a good deal! I highly recommend checking out the National Forest sites for camping if you are at Bryce Canyon. Just bring your water (and toilet paper).
More Pictures from Bryce Canyon
On The Road to Zion
Someone call Damian Marley! The drive from Bryce Canyon to Zion National Park is less than 2 hours. I hit some road construction on the way out of Dixie National Forest, but other than that, I was able to arrive at Zion nice and early. And again, it was packed! The drive from Bryce to Zion is really nice as you coast mostly downhill along US Route 89.
I entered at the East Entrance, shortly after which I was greeted by the Checkerboard Mesa. For me, it was puzzling trying to figure out how it came to have its pattern. Again, I wish I was more of a geologist.
Where do you hike when there are so many options?
I had been to Zion National Park once before with a friend the first time I ever flew out west. That was almost 8 years ago. I was in Las Vegas for a week, but my friend and I took a day to explore Zion. I think it was the best part of our trip. I say this because we didn’t really know where to go in the park when we visited. We wound up hiking around The Watchman, one of the iconic peaks easily seen from the South Entrance.
That was a great hike, but shortly after our visit, I researched what else is in the park. After all, my friend and I explored less than 1% of the park. There had to be all sorts of stuff that we missed. After a little research I discovered The Narrows: a section of Zion Canyon where you can hike upstream through the river.
I was determined to hike The Narrows on this visit. I had so many hiking options, but taking a lesson from some of the other parks I visitied, I decided I would make my hike of The Narrows my priority for the day. If I had time after that, I would try another hike.
The hiking decision
After a traffic jam getting through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and a scenic drive into the canyon, I arrived at the turn for Floor of the Valley Road. Of course the road is closed to car traffic and you are forced to take the shuttle up the canyon. That meant I had to find a place to park. Easier said than done. After entering through the East Entrance, I wound up driving out of the park by accident at the South Entrance in search of a parking space. The park was very busy. Luckily it wasn’t the weekend yet. I eventually took the shuttle, which has a total of 9 stops. The trail for The Narrows is the very last stop on the shuttle: The Temple of Sinawava.
From the shuttle stop, there is a place to fill up on water (highly recommended). On the shuttle ride, there is a recording playing that tells you what you should bring when hiking the narrows. I thought it was a moot point since I was already on the shuttle and anything that I didn’t bring was a 45 minute ride back down the canyon to my car. Anyway, they recommend you bring a jacket despite it being 100 degrees, lots of water, good water shoes (not sandals), and a walking stick.
They recommend a jacket because the canyon is very narrow (hence the name) and therefore does not receive much sun. The water running through the canyon also cools you down. Even though it was around 100 degrees in the sun outside The Narrows, it was more like 80 inside. Add some wind and wet clothes, and it can get chilly. I had a good amount of water, plus I packed my filter so I could just filter the river water (which was exceptionally clean to begin with). I did come prepared with footwear as was wearing my Keen hiking Sandals (highly recommended). Despite having trekking poles, I neglected to bring them. I am happy to say that I never completely lost my balance while hiking in The Narrows, but if I were to do it again, I would certainly bring a walking stick or trekking poles.
Hiking The Narrows
The Narrows is the most unique hike that I have taken. The “trail” is inside of a very deep canyon, where the width of the canyon can be just a few dozen feet, and you are hiking through a river! The river is generally only knee deep, but it can get deeper for small sections. I never had to go deeper than my waist. Any time you get hot you can simply take a swim too. If you have a filter or other water treatment, you can have a drink of water directly from the source. After about a mile in the river, the river forks. It is at this point where the hiking “crowd” thins significantly. Most people reverse course (if they made it this far at all), and the remainding hikers are divided in half based on the direction they choose.
I opted to hike the right fork first; Orderville Canyon according to the map. I went roughly a mile before hitting an obstacle large enough to deter me from proceeding farther up the river: a waterfall. I’m not sure if the waterfall has a name, but it was about 6 feet high and I figured it was a good point to turn around and head back to the fork. Later I looked at the map and it looks like you are not supposed to hike past this point anyway. There weren’t any signs.
After returning to the fork, I headed to the left; Imlay Canyon, according to the map. The left fork appears similar to the downstream section I had already hiked. The riverbed was full of stones; of many different colors. The right fork however, was much shallower and sandy. I suppose the right fork is simply a tributary and therefore does not carry enough water to wash away the sediment. Anyway, I hiked up the left fork for one more mile. The water level gradually appeared to rise. I eventually had to get out of the river and climb over boulders to avoid swimming through the water. Once the water level got too high for me to get across with a backpack, I decided to call it a day and make my way back to the trailhead. At least I would be going downstream now!
Pictures from The Narrows
In total, I hiked approximately 8 miles over the course of about 5 hours. What a day! Hiking through water wears you down. Luckily the temperature was almost perfect in the canyon and hiking sandals work wonders for this specialized type of hike.
Headed back East…for now
I took the shuttle back to the Visitor Center as the sun was setting. The Visitor Center is near the Southern entrance to the park, where The Watchman stands to the East. This is just one of the many formations that look like they were carved purposely to their current shape.
I had a plane to catch early in the morning from Las Vegas and it was time to get on the road. The sky is amazing after sunset in Southern Utah, and I was fortunate enough to be driving Southwest so that I could view the after-sunset colors as I drove out of Zion.
Once it got dark, I started getting sleepy. I was exhausted from my day in The Narrows. It was about 10pm when I got to the Virgin River Gorge on I-15. After getting through Mesquite, I pulled over on a dirt road about a mile off of the interstate. I was able to set up the tent under a full moon so I didn’t even have to take out a light. The desert was so eerily quiet. The temperature was still in the upper 90s, but I didn’t care. I was able to get about 5 hours of sleep before my travel day. That was good enough for me.