Saturday, July 13, 2013

Camping in the Southwest Desert: Part I


My wife and I have done variations of this trip many times. This one was different because of the pregnancy. No overnight backcountry camping, nothing too strenuous, and a few more nights in hotels than what we're used to. As usual, we started early in the morning in Los Angeles and drove north on I-15, heading to Zion National Park. We passed through Las Vegas without stopping. I eyed the casinos longingly, and then looked at my wife's belly. Can't take a pregnant woman to Vegas. Just can't do it. Can't lose money gambling when you've got a child on the way. It felt good to do the mature thing. Sort of. It was also sort of depressing. I like losing money in Vegas. Anyway, we got to Zion and planted ourselves at the site we reserved in the Watchman campground. I first camped there 22 years earlier, and it's one of the few remaining campgrounds with tent-only loops, where you won't hear any RV generators.
 



Frozen dishwater with sunrise
 
FYI: From spring break through the end of the summer you will probably not have much luck camping without a reservation. The South campground is first come first served, so if you get to the park early you might get a site. However, being a site vulture can be stressful, time consuming, and annoying. If you can't find a spot, camp in one of the private campgrounds in Springdale. They're not very nice, but do serve their purpose. Outside Springdale there are some free at- large camping areas as well. Just look for tent clusters on the side of the road and get ready to pee in public, and don't count on your tent site not being someone else's bathroom from the night before.

Zion, as usual, was glorious. It's my favorite of all the National Parks and the one I've been to the most. We took a short walk along the river and then drove into Springdale for dinner at the Bit and Spur, a Mexican restaurant with a large bar area and decent food. The cheese stuffed jalapeno appetizer was outstanding. Even though the place was packed, a nice couple gave up their seats when they saw my wife was pregnant. Totally unnecessary, but very cool.

 
 
The next day we enjoyed a leisurely morning (and early afternoon) at the campsite. We drank coffee, read, ate, drank coffee, and looked at hiking maps. At a certain point we were the only ones left lounging in the camp, which was fine. You don't need to do anything in Zion to appreciate the colors, the air, and the mule deer. Eventually we took the shuttle to Weeping Rock and started up the Observation Point Trail. We've been on every trail in the park, and picked this one because it gets you up and out of the main canyon quickly (after a tough uphill slog), so you can see other aspects of the geology and ecosystem. The crowds on the switch-backing trail made it tough for my wife to sneak in pee-breaks, but she managed alright and only got caught with her pants down once. We ate two killer sandwiches about two miles up the trail, and turned around. We took the shuttle to the Lodge, to get some ice cream and beer. But crowds and logistical incompetence won the day and we returned to our campsite sweaty and sober. We built a fire, cooked dinner, read a book, and went to sleep.

 

IMHO: The best three hikes in the park: 1. Observation Point. A long and strenuous full-day adventure. The scenery and geology constantly change and you get amazing views at the end. 2. Angel's Landing. Shorter than the OP hike, but much more intense. Go all the way to the top. It's a long way down. 3. The Narrows. This offers a very unique hiking experience. You can walk in the river, and the further back you go, the more impressive the slot canyon walls become. Great hike for a hot day. If their are thunderstorms forecast, bring your surfboard.

In the morning we packed up and drove east out of the park, through the Mt. Carmel tunnel. We stopped for a short hike to the canyon overlook, and sat at the view point for  a long time watching people and their young kids. Some parents were paranoid fanatics about their kids not getting too close to the edge, while others simply ignored their kids and took pictures of themselves.


We continued on, through the small towns along the main park route between Zion and Bryce Canyon. Was there some government program in the 70's where everyone just got an RV, whether they needed it or not? And maybe an extra car too, with no wheels? Every house, ranch, shack, and barn along this route has a rusted out RV somewhere in close proximity. It sounds like an awfully obvious remark to make about road tripping through rural America, the RVs and cars on blocks, but that doesn't make the enigma any less fascinating. I want answers.


Off the Thunder Mountain Trail
 
There's a lot of anticipation as you get close to Bryce Canyon. If you've never been there, then the unfathomably cool pictures you've seen of the place need immediate authentication. And if you have been there, a sort of anxiety builds ups, like it does when you get close to the Grand Canyon. You just suddenly need to see a damn hoodoo, and nothing else will do. So you might be temped to speed through Red Canyon, about 10 miles before the Bryce turnoff, without giving it its proper attention. So STOP! Especially if you don't have a campsite reserved in Bryce. We pulled off at the Thunder Mountain trailhead in the Red Canyon area. The scenery here is clearly the inspiration for the Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland. We hiked a mile along the easy graded trail, which seemed ideal for mountain biking. Then we turned up a random side canyon and did a little off-trail exploring. We found a shinbone next to a mound that looked suspiciously like a shallow grave. This is why you have to get off the trail when you can, to see stuff like that. Plus, we saw nobody (alive) the entire hike.




We skipped Bryce Canyon this time around and continued to the town of Escalante. Something about the scenery and the remoteness of this part of Utah inspires a fascination with the human history and mythology of the region, from the pre-Anasazi to the Mormons, to the prospectors, outlaws, and outcasts. It's an area where human activity has always been dwarfed by the land. So much of what happens here is simply unobserved and unrecorded. We spent the night at the Prospector Inn, which was fine for the money. I have no memory of eating dinner that night. It's freaking me out.

The next morning we got up early and went to Escalante Outfitters, one of my favorite shops/restaurants in the world. The food is great (so why didn't I eat there the night before? Or did I? Crap.) They also have a fascinating bookstore. You can camp there too. We got coffee and some pastries and hit the road. About 6 miles past Escalante, you come around a bend in the road and get one of those Big Western Views. There's a nice view point turnoff here to pull over and finish your coffee and put your eyeballs back in your head.


If you want to camp in the immediate area, there is a dirt road just past this turn-off, that leads south. There is free camping all along this road, and some of the sites sit atop a cliff overlooking the canyons of the Escalante River. Maybe some of the best free camping on earth. We opted instead to drive a few miles further along to see if we could get a campsite at the Calf Creek Campground, which is located at the trailhead for our next hike. We lucked out and got a spot along the creek. We made camp and took a hike. The Calf Creek Falls hike is about as perfect a day hike as you can imagine. It's a good distance (about 6 miles roundtrip, mostly flat). The scenery is beautiful (obviously). Plus you see a lot of random things, like ancient pictographs and beavers and desert swampland. And there's a big beautiful waterfall at the end of the hike, plus a small beach and a pool to swim in.


Not going to spoil the fun by showing a picture of the falls
 
On the return hike, we were lucky enough to see a bulbous of snakes just on the side of the trail. I think they were rattlesnakes. At least that's what I'm telling everyone. There were at least fifty of them all wrapped up in a big knot. Some were tiny, others over two feet long. When we stopped to take a video they slithered apart and disappeared into the grass. Scary and awesome. At the beginning of the video below you can hear my wife warn me to be careful because "you don't have life insurance."




When I got home I did an internet search for snakes along the Calf Creek Falls hike and discovered this amusing Tripadvisor post. The original post and comments are worth reading, but I especially love the guy who wrote, "I've been hiking and racing in the desert for 30+ years and I can count on one hand the number of snakes I have seen. Yes be careful, but no need to be overly paranoid about it."



Click here for Part II



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