The Corona Arch Trail was comprised of lengths of worn pathways and cairn-marked slickrock meant to be traversed with the aid of steel ropes. The arch is impressive unto itself, but its primitive trailway and proximity to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks leaves it far less congested than Utah’s other natural wonders. Signs at the trailhead alternately gave a comically extensive set of directions for finding the arch and warned to respect the desert bighorn sheep lambing grounds surrounding it.
We scaled a series of steep switchbacks, past a BLM register box, through a barbed wire gate and over a railway. The track forged directly through the red mesa, determination and dynamite having created cliffs on either side. One more pass through a barbed gate and we were at the trailhead. A dusty path scrambled up the cliffside, ending at the opening to a canyon. We scanned the landscape, the occasional sight of a hiker aiding the cairns in directing us.
The valley meandered in sloping steps until culminating in a field of cairns. A steep slope behind it was outfitted with the first of our steel cables. Though the tilt was intimidating, the crossing wasn’t difficult, and we followed the curved slope around to face Corona Arch. We sat quietly looking on for a while before adding our own contribution to the bevy of balanced-rock beacons.
After breaking down camp we headed off to see the Corona Arch. Along the way, we marveled at the freewheeling climbers, kayakers and bikers in America’s Playground. Our walk was truncated, ending at a sort of flashmob cairn party about a half mile from the proper arch. The wind was rolling in the cut of the rock, and the cairns begged for a new playmate. We were happy to oblige with a four-headed monster of a trail marker before walking back out of the secluded pass. While we had a few loose plans and sites for the rest of the day, road conditions and natural wonder fatigue (which is as much a thing as restless leg syndrome) won out and we headed to Torrey.
A few dozen miles surrounded by nothingness (racing by at 100mph) was enough to convince us onto the scenic route through the Petrified Forest and Goblin Valley. We arrived at the Aquarius Inn, eager for the chance to revel in a hot shower and wash the red dust from our clothes. The season was mostly over, and many of the motels and restaurants dotting Bicknell’s Main Street had already shuttered for the winter. The parking lot was empty, and cold wind dramatically whipped us as though playing out a scene in a ghost town as we crossed to our room. It was enormous, and though its furnishings were stranded fifty years in time, it had been lovingly cared for. We grew more thankful for its warm comforts with each beat of the wind against the door that night.
After driving a brief but hellishly desolate and frighteningly fast stretch of I-70, we opted for the back route and were handsomely rewarded by another pantheon of breathtaking scenery, clipping through Goblin Valley, among other untamed wilds. After a much-needed shower and some dinner in town, we returned to the motel, wistfully washing the campfire out of our clothes, but excited to cook by the fireside again the following day. As we folded clothes, I lamented that my family had not clearly understood my requests that I be given regular and thorough updates regarding Moose, and was more than a little het up. Just as I was reaching peak churlish, my Pops sent me a picture of Moose clearly in “rub my fucking underbelly, two-legs” position in the family room. I was overjoyed, and it was only the stern gaze of Y that kept me from sharing my excitement and affection with the cat who had been singing in the parking lot for the last half hour.
We left the Aquarius Inn (so named for the Aquarius Plateau, a sub-plateau of the larger Colorado) bound for Capitol Reef National Park. The day prior we had breezed through it en route to our hotel and were looking forward to exploring. We chose the Hickman Natural Bridge trail, enjoying a refreshing morning walk, something we have become accustomed to on the trip and grown to immensely enjoy and value.
The hike took us partially through a flood wash, and as we walked we discussed the immense scale of time, generally speaking, comparing the clearly ancient volcanic rocks strewn about to the equally weather-beaten sandstone cliffs. The natural bridge, we were informed by a well-meaning father, was a toll bridge. His chuckles rang off the canyon walls even as his wife’s and daughter’s eye rolls were deafening. We had unfortunately left our EZPass in the car, but we managed to make it through without the Law of Nature coming down too hard on us. They had likely already made quota for the month.
We ascended a hill which let out into the dry creek bed of Capitol Reef’s Hickman Bridge Trail. Large sandstone formations were peppered with black lava rocks, seemingly splayed by some great, ancient force. Now ubiquitous juniper trees grew in the arid crevasses, hiding chipmunks and lizards from nosy tourists and the day’s rapidly intensifying sun. We strolled the trail, stripping down to t-shirts as we leisurely climbed the terrain to the natural bridge. A few photos and some generous humoring of dad jokes later (for the sake of the children), and we were headed toward Bryce Canyon.
We emerged energized and ready for the drive along Utah 12. Along the way, we stopped at Hell’s Backbone Grill, a surprising gem nestled in tiny Boulder, UT. The food was wonderful, and it was only mildly shocking to learn that we had just dined at a 2017 James Beard Semifinalist. Shortly after leaving Boulder, we had arrived on the section of road known as The Million Dollar Highway. Thankfully, Y was minding the road as it slithered over the ridgeback, bracketed by the expanse of Gran Escalante. I felt like a rich man. Utah persists in raising its own standards of grandeur, all the while shuffling through color schemes like an anxious teenager trying outfits for the big dance. Belle of the Ball.
UT-12 is known as the Million Dollar Highway. It is a breathtaking drive, not only for the beauty of its vistas but for a curving stretch punctuated by steep drop-offs on either side of its slim width. We rose past ponderosa pines up the 9600 ft gradient of Mt. Boulder. The treeline thinned and snow lightly covered the ground. The sign for the Larb Hollow Overlook proved irresistible, due in no part to its racy name, and we were awarded a view stretching from the Aquarius Plateau to the Colorado River. This land, harsh and rugged, was the last to be charted in the continental United States, and the stunning panorama still felt as if it was untouched and raw.
Grand Staircase National Monument is a series of cliffs running downward from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon. The composition of each step gives it a unique color, as erosion wears away at the more recent rock layer above it. We ascended back and forth through multi-colored cliffs of pink limestone and shades of sandstone in chocolate, grey, and iron-rich vermilion – the awesome levels an ever-changing palette. We rose steeply above the surrounding country and the road narrowed to a sliver, curving back and forth along the summit with sheer drops on either side. Its dangerous reputation is well-earned, and I hugged the ribbon of road, afraid to distract myself with the spectacular view unfolding around me.
Our removal from the ‘real-world’ was tangible; the only civilization small hamlets dozens of miles apart, nestled in ranch or park land as far as the eye could see. Cell reception was silently making dial-up noises. Even in the remote parts of New York and Pennsylvania, even Ohio, that great barometer of civilization, the golden arches, would never seem to be any further than a half hour at most. Here in Utah, there was nothing but the muscular curvatures of rock and their cycloptic, subjective visions.
In between villages, we saw a real live cowboy, on the clock and clad in denim and stubble, working a few dozen head of cattle down and off the road with four eager-to-please dogs bringing up the rear. We gladly watched the show and waited for the road to clear, enjoying the procession as one would any other parade. I suspect the locals in nearby Tropic, our last bit of civilization before Bryce Canyon, view such an event as one would being stuck behind an especially slow and smoggy bus.
We paused at a market outside Bryce Canyon to replenish our firewood store. J exited with two bundles, relaying how the surly clerk had humorously recommended purchasing twice that, threatening it would drop below freezing that night. We drove off commending his dedication to the sale, if his pitch was a bit heavy-handed.
In any case, both grizzled charm and caustic country wisdom were part of the exchange in obtaining firewood in the strangely named Tropic. We arrived at our campsite, set up both the bones of a fire and the tent before heading off to Sunset Point to see Bryce Canyon (which is in actuality an amphitheater) glow pink and white in the light of your regularly scheduled falling star. The sight was incredible, on a trip filled with places unlike any other on Earth, it was captivating in its paradoxical power and fragility. The permutations of interplay in light and shadow are infinite, the stories the rocks hold endless, the shape of it all different with every passing day.
A First Nation myth ascribed the countless hoodoos to those punished by Coyote for misdeeds, in a strange parallel to the ‘civilized’ version of another spiteful and/or capricious deity. We returned to camp, happily lit our fire and dined on one of Y’s fantastic desert sandwiches, washing it down with some Old Heaven Hill Bonded. I had forgotten the taste of it, as it had been discontinued, but I had squirreled away a bottle for a rainy day. Having to liquidate an extensive liquor cabinet has been a fun diversion these past months. Whiskey, like any other spirit, wine or beer, is meant for drinking, not collecting, and anything worth enjoying is worth sharing.
The Sunset Campground was a mass of spots almost on top of one another, with little foliage for privacy in between. Still, we were happy to set up camp with plenty of time to watch the sun light up the Pink Cliffs of the amphitheater from the lookout at Sunset Point. The altitude and the late hour had allowed the temperature to drop to 50 degrees, and we added a few layers to tide us over until we could be back in front of a fire.
We descended a bit down the rocky trail into the canyon, debating on whether or not it was smart to venture further without our hiking boots. Almost immediately, a woman near us lost her footing and skid to a halt beside J’s ankles. He gallantly helped right her, our question answered. We watched the Sun cast the hoodoos in a vibrant coral and eventually concede its territory. Its absence had instant negative effects on the temperature, and we laughed at the fortitude of a Pittsburgh couple, ambling and unfazed in just Steelers t-shirts, as we hurried to get back beside a fire.
We fashioned a simple meal of sandwiches and whiskey, adding another layer to our ensembles to keep out the cold. Bryce Canyon National Park is a leader in dark sky protection, and on clear nights up to 10,000 stars can be seen from as far as the Andromeda Galaxy. We surveyed the Milky Way, stretched out over the horizon, our view unimpeded by our campfire. The campsites that had earlier felt so close, now barely visible, their fires satellites, piercing the darkness.