I haven't seen too many westerns, but I have played through Red Dead Redemption on PlayStation 3 quite a few times so I have a pretty good idea of what life was like in the old west. Right? A solitary man, usually played by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, takes on the world in stunning semi-desert scenery. Usually there's an Indian or two, and a few prospectors with very bad teeth. We've seen our share of Indians in India, where people also had very bad teeth, and the chances of getting to meet with Clint Eastwood are almost as bad as meeting John Wayne, so we figured that we'd focus on the scenery of the Wild West instead of the people.
A scenic motorway
To achieve this we journeyed south from Salt Lake City, starting on the busy I-15 and later taking US-28 all the way to where it connects with the scenic I-70. We knew the interstate would be scenic because our AAA map told us so with little green dots on the side of the road. Among those dots were also some green triangles marking the positioning of rest areas which usually are spread out about forty miles apart. Here there were several spaced just a few miles from each other, which led us to believe that there might be some interesting things to see there. We were not wrong. I-70 travels through some pretty rough terrain almost devoid of human habitation, just before entering the motorway we saw a sign telling us that the services in Salina would be the last ones we would see in 110 miles. Shocked by this we filled our tank with the local regular, an 85 octane gasoline that may or may not contain up to 10% ethanol. And yes you good folks back home, it really is 85 octane as opposed to the minimum of 95 we have in Finland. I guess that explains some of the lousy mileage we get with our RV and also why gasoline is so cheap here. This particular brand made our car's engine spin 4000 rotations per minute at the speed of about 40 miles per hour when going up a hill. Not cool…
Anyway, the scenic viewpoints on I-70 really were quite stunning. We stopped in all of the ones that were on our side of the road and stood in awe watching massive canyons and wind shaped boulders. All of them had pit toilets and Native Americans selling handcrafted jewelry, but in every other aspect they were totally different from one another. We especially liked the one closest to Green River, near milestone 141, giving a view over Spotted Wolf Canyon. There was a long cliff protruding out to near nothingness with long drops on either side of the narrow formation. We even thought about stopping there for the night (there were no signs prohibiting this) and watching the sun go down from our secluded viewpoint at the end of the cliff. It was still early afternoon though, so we kept on going.
Canyonlands National Park
We turned off of I-70 at Crescent Junction and took 191 south towards the two national parks that lie near touristy Moab, the Canyonlands and the Arches National Parks. We chose to go to Canyonlands first mainly because the intersection to its Island in the Sky area came before the one to Arches, and also because we figured that we might have a better chance of getting a site at a campground in the less visited park. We turned to 313 and followed it through a blood red landscape with massive sandstone formation surrounding us most of the way. There were three campgrounds along the road, one of them not suitable for RV's, but we didn't end up checking if the other two had vacancy. After entering the national park we stopped at the visitor center to show off our annual pass, allowing us free entry where others paid $10 per vehicle. We also got a map and some suggestions of what to see and do and also where we might find a free spot to spend the night at. The campground in the park ($10 per night) was full and only one of the others we had passed still had spots left (Horsethief $15/night). We could either drive back there and secure a spot or take our chances with the free site. We chose the latter, of course, and went to see what there was to see in the park.
We started by driving all the way to Grand View Point Overlook where we were surprised to find a massive canyon beneath us. OK, sure, we were in Canyonlands National Park and this was the Grand View, but still. The canyon was immense, red, rugged and spectacular. Formed by the same Colorado River that has dug out the Grand Canyon in Arizona, this massive hole in the earth is clearly underrated. All of the parking lots in the park were tiny, none of them big enough to handle more than maybe a couple of dozens of cars. We were there in July, the prime time to visit American national parks, and we had the place almost to ourselves. There were short paths along the rims of the cliffs but no-one walking on them, and there were incredible things to see. We stood in awe watching the canyon, hoping for some way to get even some sort of a perspective of its size. With nothing in it and only desert surrounding it, the canyon might as well have been just a gigantic painting hanging in front of us. It's hard to explain in any other way, you just need to see it. Another thing that made us feel like we were in a museum of sorts was that it was completely quiet. There were no running cars, no birds, nothing but the silent sound of a gentle evening breeze. It was truly amazing.
Having recovered of the first shock effect of the great canyon we continued to the next two overlooks at Orange Cliffs and Buck Canyon. Both offered similar canyon views as the first place, as did the Green River Overlook a little later on. It was getting somewhat late so we didn't do any longer hikes, but we did walk to see the Mesa Arch, a stunning stone arch at the edge of a high cliff with almost no connecting points to anything around it. Water and temperature changes had formed this seemingly impossible structure, doomed to fall apart due to the unfair laws of gravity. Again we had it to ourselves for most of our visit, which made the experience that much more special.
Night was falling fast so we thought it best to start searching for a place to spend the night. Following the instructions we got from the park ranger at the visitor center we drove out of the park and took the first right towards Dead Horse Point State Park. A few miles later we turned on a dirt road and followed it to its end where it turned into a four-wheel-drive road towards Long Canyon. There was a good size flat area apparently used for horsing around in 4X4's that we figured must have been the place the ranger had meant. We parked our RV there and spent a very peaceful night. If anyone should try to do this after us let it be said that the road was in acceptable condition as we were there, but it looked as if it could be turned into mud by even a small amount of rain. Also, our RV is only 19 feet long, so it maneuvers almost like a normal car.
Arches National Park
The next morning we drove back to the 191 and headed south for a few miles before turning left to see the second national park in the area, the much more visited Arches NP. Again we gained entry by showing our $80 annual pass, supposedly others paid $10 per vehicle. National parks in the United States are made for cars, not people, you can see it clearly in all of them. This is not a bad thing though, because most people visiting them don't want to upset their vehicles by leaving the alone for too long. Hence it is extremely easy to escape the crowds by simply walking a little further than most do.
We started our tour of the park by driving up to Devils Garden Trailhead and walking to see the Landscape Arch. Set high and far from the viewpoint below the long stone arch again seemed to defy at least a few key laws of physics. The trail there was packed with tourists from all over, making it easy to believe that almost a million people visit the park annually. Many of them were young and fit, but incredibly just those were the ones that turned around at the sign pointing to a primitive trail ahead. It was the families with small children, the old, and us, that continued on, a group substantially smaller than the one that left the parking lot. We climbed up a steep hill of sheer rock, at times going by all fours. This led us to a higher trail which we followed to Navajo and Partition arches, which once again were great stone formations offering views of the surroundings from high above. Surprisingly few made it this far, even though it was only a short way away from the rocky hill. We didn't do the longer loop trail to more arches to save some time, but we did see the Pine Tree and Tunnel arches on the way back to the parking lot. Once again, since they were at least a hundred meters off the main trail, there was hardly anyone there.
Next we drove back to an intersection where we turned towards the Delicate Arch, set high atop a hill. We thought about doing the two hour trail there but since we had plans for the rest of the day we thought better off it and just walked to the upper viewpoint. This was a bit of a disappointment since we were way too far away to appreciate the thing properly. To others I would either recommend doing the trek or skipping the arch completely. We had better luck at the Windows Section, where parking was a nightmare. This popular area loses points for the masses but gains substantial amounts from the views. We started with the Double Arch, which ended up being our favorite thing in the park. As the name implies, there were two separate stone arches that had a common base at one end and a whole bunch of people under them. This didn't matter so much though, since we did what only a few others were doing and climbed up the common base of the arches. I'm not sure if this was allowed, but it was not prohibited either. The more important question is "was it dangerous?". Probably yes. I climbed a little higher than Sini did and coming back I had to have her spot for good stepping stones. The potential fall was quite substantial and there was nothing but hard rock beneath us. The view was worth it though, at least since I didn't fall. I can't say that I would recommend it, but I enjoyed it very much.
After the Double Arch we walked up to see the Windows, three separate stone arches of massive size. These ones dwarfed all the others we'd seen and not surprisingly there were a lot of people enjoying them with us. However, once again we escaped the crowds by taking a path less traveled by at the back of the South Window. There was another primitive trail there that went around the two biggest arches where there were almost no-one at all. The views were somewhat better from the other side though, so this wasn't that big of a victory for us… Having looked through all of the Windows we headed back the road and stopped shortly at Garden of Eden which actually looked better from the road. There didn't seem to be any trails so we moved on pretty quickly to our last destination inside the park, the Balanced Rock. Once again parking was difficult, but in the end we got rid of the car and could walk to the high stone pillar supporting an egg shaped boulder at its top. It looked pretty cool, but we had driven past it about three times already on the way to other things, so the awe-effect was somewhat diminished.
So which park was better: the Canyonlands or the Arches? I have absolutely no clue. The best singular sight was the Double Arch in Arches, but I really enjoyed the tranquility and the solitude at Canyonlands. I might still have to go with the Arches, to my shame since I would like to root for the little guy. Arches National Park gets more visitors and for a good reason, there is just more in it to see.
I'd thought about putting Monument Valley on a separate post, but I don't have that much to say about it so I'll cover it here. Also, I did start this one with the babble about the westerns. Monument Valley has been the background in numerous westerns, none of which I can name, but I hear it is so. A park ranger in Arches NP told us about a free movie museum nearby but we were in a bit of a hurry so we skipped it. We were hoping to make it all the way to Page in Arizona and to see the famous valley on the way. To this end we took to the 191 once more and followed it through countless miles, passing such treasures as Hole 'n the Rock, a complex of rooms excavated into a huge red boulder with an attached zoo. We did stop at Moab to empty our waste tanks and fill up on fresh water at Slickrock Campground ($5, a site with hookups may have been as little as $30). Eventually we turned to 163, marked scenic on our AAA map though for the beginning part it wasn't particularly so. There was a cool looking stone formation in Mexican Hat, which looked like an upside down Mexican hat.
It wasn't until we reached the Navajo reservation that things started to get interesting. Not least because the weather was clearly turning for the worse. We were now heading straight towards the famous monuments, huge rock formations with vertical cliffs surrounded by epic desert views. The sky was somewhat clear in that direction and to the right of it, but everywhere else there were dark clouds that seemed to take turns in striking thunder. The sun was shining from the exposed section of the sky, but we were not hopeful. It seemed evident that we would arrive in horrid weather, complete with rain and thunder. We kept pushing anyway and were awarded with the most perfect views one could hope for. Not only was it not raining, the late hour gave us sunset coloring on the rock cliffs, creating a perfect western movie moment. We stopped on every pullout to take pictures and found one with the added bonus of some animal bones organized neatly on the gravel. The dry bones on the foreground, the highway in the middle, and the Monuments bathing in the light of the setting sun were the perfect symbol of our own modern western story.
We didn't visit the reservation run Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park where we could have gotten a closer look at the towering stone formations. Instead we drove on and crossed the border to Arizona where we got a little rain but also a far better road to speed our way. We followed 163 to Kayenta where the day gave us one more surprise by awarding us with one of the most perfect sunsets we've ever seen. The western sky turned from yellow to orange and finally to a blazing pink that seemed to last forever. We were heading west and got to enjoy the colors for a good while longer than we otherwise would have. The road 160 from Kayenta took us eventually to road 98 in deepening darkness. Following 98 we eventually made our way to Page, which we had selected as our goal because there was a Walmart Superstore there that allowed free overnight parking. You can take out a map and guess our next destination, but I'm not giving it out here. Instead I'll mention the day's last surprise, which we found out when we checked the time from our phones. They showed an hour less than our car's clock. We asked about it at a register in Walmart and found out that even though Arizona is in the same time zone as Utah, they don't do daylight savings time and thus we had arrived not at 10.30 p.m., but at 9.30. With that working for us we got an hour more of sleep, courtesy of Walmart and the peculiar set of mixed laws and rules that is the United States of America.