I’m in love with Utah. After a fortnight of days exploring National Parks and nights sleeping under the stars in plentiful BLM lands, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect place to be. Utah’s landscape is breathtaking, and the major National Parks are like gems encircling the crown of the Colorado Plateau. We visited Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, each vastly different from one another, and time and again we were agape with wonder at the sheer, vast beauty of their geologic formations. Between them lay miles and miles of open land and rugged landscape, offering plenty of time to contemplate how very, very much space there really is in the west.
Arches National Park was our first stop amongst them, famous for its iconic stone arches and natural bridges (the difference between them, by the way, is that natural bridges span water in the canyons, while stone arches form on cliff walls). We drove through the park and stopped at all the pull-overs with the buses of tourists, the fifth-wheelers and RV-ers, and families in rented camper vans. The weather was a little chill and overcast, so Katie, not allowed on the paths, stayed in the cool, insulated little trailer while we did some short exploring up to the arches.
We stayed for two days, camping up the river canyon and into national forest. On the second night we decided to treat ourselves to dinner in Moab. We found a log cabin of a restaurant, with a good menu and easy parking for the truck and little red trailer. We settled Katie with her dinner and her bed, and went inside. Despite being on the edge of town, the place was crowded – it turns out Moab’s season begins early, and in fact, according our waitress, we were lucky to miss – by just a few days – “Moab’s busiest week of all with the US tourists, before Euro season begins in late summer. They take six weeks, you know. So smart.” Dinner was delicious but took 2.5 hours. The experience added to our developing aversion toward crowds and busy spaces.
According to an article featured in Sunset Magazine a few years ago, National Parks like the Tetons and Grand Canyon see several million people a year. (editor’s note: No wonder dogs are restricted – not for the sake of the wildlife; there’s just no more room for more feet.) The article from August 2011, entitled “All Yours” gave strategies on outsmarting the high season:
1) Find the hidden gems
2) Use the back door to the Big Guns
3) Explore Canada’s National Parks
Black Canyon of the Gunnison had been an example of a hidden gem indeed, and we were ready for another one. Taking Sunset’s advice, and that of friends who had travelled these roads before us, we decided on Capitol Reef National Park as our next stop.
Capitol Reef National Park, between Arches and Bryce, is truly an emerald oasis in a land of arid red-tan mountains. Early Mormon pioneers settled in the valley to plant orchards and grow a small community, enjoying the advantages of a more temperate microclimate in the shadow and protection of the cliffs that rise up all around. This park is as much historical and archaeological as geological, and we looked forward to exploring.
Opting to beeline at once for the campgrounds, and by good chance scoring a spot (be there by noon-ish if you want any hope of a site), we unloaded our bikes, put the running booties on Katie, and toured the area en plein aire: the Behunin cabin with its single room for a family of 15, a small one-room school house (serving as the community’s church on Sundays), historic orchards with well-kept trees and many deer, and ancient petroglyphs that could be glimpsed from boardwalks built against the cliffside. To all of these we were allowed to bring Katie, and she happily ran alongside for a few miles before settling in for a rest into her bike-mounted bed behind me.
Returning to the campsite, we stopped in just up the road at the historic Gifford House, and learned that luck was indeed upon us. This quaint little spot was a tiny museum, where a Gifford pioneer herself was telling stories of growing up there,
while in the next room one could buy fresh fruit pies and a dollop of homemade ice cream, with the promise of fresh cinnamon buns each morning for those who arrived before 10am (they go fast). Sitting outside, people came by to pet Katie and to share stories, or ask about the little red trailer which they had seen come to the campground. We met a family on vacation from Sweden who showed photos of their own pop-out creation back home (here they’d rented an RV) and a German guy who was on his bike for a year. Nibbling on flaky pie crust and chatting with a global neighbors in our temporary campground community, we decided that perhaps being in society wasn’t so bad after all, at least for a little while.