Returning To The ‘Beehive’ State…
During our 50 day road trip across the southwest, we spent the longest amount of time (around 3 weeks in total) exploring the state of Utah.
From trekking across the incredible sandstone fins at Arches National Park, to roaming through the hoodoo forest of stone in Bryce Canyon, to navigating through the endless nooks and crannies of the Canyonlands backcountry; there is just so much to see and do in Utah, it is without a doubt, an awesome place to visit!
Looking out across the vast Canyonlands from the ‘Island in the Sky’…
From our first visit in 2011, we soon discovered that there are endless opportunities for hiking, particularly in the backcountry, as Utah is home to five prominent National Parks (known as ‘The Big Five’), seven National Monuments, two National Recreation areas, as well as a National Historic Site. It’s not surprising then that we wanted to return for a second time and spent so long exploring the numerous natural wonders that the state has to offer.
If you just love to walk, there are endless hiking trails to venture upon in the state of Utah.
With its eye-catching red rock formations, expansive scenic vistas and huge range of outdoor activities, for us Utah certainly lives up to its new ‘Life Elevated’ moniker. Nowhere else represents this more than the bustling gateway town of Moab. Despite its quaint size, Moab presents a touch of ‘big city’ atmosphere serving as a hub for thousands of visitors seeking outdoor adventure activities.
After crossing the stateline from Colorado into Utah, we decided to make Moab our first port of call after enjoying a week there on our previous road trip. We had a campsite in mind and the idea that we’d do some more day hiking in Arches National Park. We discovered first hand Moab’s popularity and a drawback to minimal planning however as we arrived on the weekend of the ‘fall’ school holidays – so every single campsite within a five mile radius was full. Coincidentally, it was also the first weekend of ‘Hunting Season’, which compounded the race for campsites and other places to stay.
Our fantastic hide-away at Sand Flats Recreation Area in Moab.
Luckily for us, after enquiring at the Visitor Centre, we bagged ourselves the last ‘overflow’ campsite at the Moab KOA a few miles out of town. By then it didn’t matter to us where we stayed. We were just grateful to have got a spot so I wouldn’t have to continue driving as it was already getting dark. (We dismissed wary thoughts of us waking up to several guys high on testosterone wearing raccoon on their heads, merrily gutting elk. Please no!)
Having secured ourselves a pitch for a couple of nights at the KOA, we then moved our portable home to the Sand Flats Recreation Area in Moab, famous for the 10.5 mile ultimate ‘Slickrock Mountain Biking Trail’, after the weekend rush had died down. We then went back to our original plan and used this as our base to visit Arches National Park. With a 6-month advance reservation system, which means it is fully booked until the middle of next year, we knew there was no way we’d get a camp spot at the Devil’s Garden Campsite inside the national park, even though we were well in credit with ‘good karma’!
Arches National Park with its distinctive red rock formations has been used as the back-drop to several Hollywood movies.
Arches National Park contains the largest concentration of natural stone arches in the world – more than 2,000 at last count. ‘Delicate Arch’ is probably the best- known feature in the park. Standing at precarious attention on the edge of a slickrock bowl, the opening is 46 feet high and almost 32 feet wide. From this vantage point you can see mesas, canyons, the Colorado River canyon and the La Sal Mountains.
Posing in front of the famous ‘Delicate Arch’ at dusk.
Most visitors hike the one and a half miles to Delicate Arch at sunset. The range of light and changing colour of the rock is really striking to witness. But I wouldn’t say it’s a romantic, magical moment as you inevitably find yourself sharing it with a paparazzi of landscape photographers, and in our case, two coach loads of Chinese tourists as well.
Visitor’s flock to see ‘Delicate Arch’ at sunset because of the ever changing colour of the rock touched by the last rays of the sun.
Despite sunset being a great spectacle, it does have a ‘paparazzi’ feel about it! (And this was before the two coach loads of Chinese tourists arrived!)
The final rays of the sun give ‘Delicate Arch’ an intense red colour.
You can see more natural arches and windows if you hike the Devil’s Garden Trail. This was our second time hiking this trail, so we opted to hike anticlockwise against the flow of day walkers on their pilgrimage to ‘Landscape Arch’, heading off instead on the ‘primitive trail’ to see the ‘Dark Angel’.
The giant red fins that Arches National Park is also famous for.
The trail takes you along the top of the fins at one section.
Heading down into the canyon between the fins.
A detour to the Dark Angel, which admittedly looks like a giant penis!
Partition Arch, just one of the many incredible stone arches along the Devil’s Garden Trail.
To qualify as an official stone ‘arch’, a hole must have an opening at least three feet long (1m) in any one direction.
Standing inside Double O Arch to try and give you a real sense of scale.
Taking a breather with Double O Arch in the background.
The precarious ‘Landscape Arch’ at dusk.
Panorama shot looking across Arches National Park as we hiked up to ‘Delicate Arch’.
Another famous tourist spot in the park is ‘Balancing Rock’, which starred in the 1988 movie “Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade”. You might also recognise other arches and backdrops, as numerous other movies have been filmed in Arches National Park, including “Thelma and Louise” in 1991.
‘Balancing Rock’ is an iconic image in a number of movies including “Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade”.
From Moab, we moved down the road driving 30 miles north to the most accessible area of Canyonlands National Park – known as the ‘Island in the Sky’. This National Park is the largest and most rugged of all of Utah’s parks, preserving 337,598 acres of colourful canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches and spires in the heart of southeast Utah’s high desert. Water and gravity have been the prime architects, sculpting layers of sedimentary rock into the rugged landscape seen today.
Canyonlands National Park is just a 30 mile drive north out of Moab.
Both the Green River and Colorado River have helped to shape this primitive landscape.
The park is divided into four districts by the Green and Colorado Rivers: the Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Needles and the rivers themselves. While the districts share a primitive desert atmosphere, each retains its own character and offers different opportunities for exploration and adventure.
With the school holidays over and people back to work, we hoped securing a campsite this time would be hassle free. The Willow Flat campground has around 15 sites and operates on a first-come, first-served basis, so we set off early morning from Moab to ensure we would get a spot. Arriving around 11am, we were fortunate to get the last remaining vacant site. At $10 a night it’s great value and we were pleasantly surprised by the addition of a shelter at each pitch, along with the standard picnic table and fire-pit. (This is classed as a basic campsite. There are two vault toilets but water is only available at the Visitor Centre).
Thankfully we arrived in time to procure the last camp spot at Willow Flat Campground.
After setting up camp, we took a leisurely walk along the canyon rim to the ‘Grand View Lookout’, where we posed for a few photos on ‘dangerous’ looking rocks and ate lunch with a spectacular view.
You’ve really got to have a head for heights!
Wayne’s effort at getting ‘close to the edge’!
A spectacular picnic spot to sit and enjoy lunch with a view…
Mesa or butte? I think this classifies as a mesa for now. But please correct me if I’m wrong!
The following day we also took an early morning walk to Mesa Arch for the classic sunrise shot. The arch is not as big as I was expecting and there’s certainly not as much viewing space as that of Delicate Arch. Despite our attempts at being ‘early’, Wayne found himself shoulder to shoulder with around 10 other hardcore photographers and their tripods, all jostling to get that ‘perfect composition’ ready for the light rays to shine through the arch. By the time the sun actually rose, I counted 30 people eagerly crowding round to get that ‘money shot’!
After an early alarm call, the sun finally makes an appearance through Mesa Arch. Simply beautiful!
The shot every photographer was hoping for that morning!
An incredible view through Mesa Arch appears with the early morning light.
Considering we’re not very good at getting up for ‘sunrise’ shots, today was definitely worth setting the alarm for!
From here, we drove back through Moab on our way to ‘The Needles’, another vast section of Canyonlands National Park. There’s no bridge across or easy way round from the ‘Island in the Sky’. It’s approximately a hundred mile trip from one side of the park to the other. (So be prepared! Stock up on food and petrol in Moab as there’s not much else around!)
After shopping in Moab, we didn’t arrive at ‘The Needles’ area of Canyonlands until mid-afternoon where we found all the campsites at the Squaw Flat Campground to be full. It must have been down to all the good weather we were still experiencing despite it being late Autumn. Americans were coming out in droves to stay in the national parks as a kind of vacation in their RVs because it’s so cheap. (Unlike in England where you usually pay per person, in the USA the price is per pitch. Many national parks allow 2 vehicles per site, 2-3 tents and up to 10 people. That’s an incredibly cheap weekend with a bunch of friends! Even better if you’re old – seniors pay half price for campsites). No wonder we were struggling to get a spot. Most of the people we had seen certainly wouldn’t have been hiking anywhere! And there lies our one little gripe about the USA National Park Service. Everything is geared up for RVers. Campers and walk-in hikers really seem to get the raw end of the deal, despite having much less impact on the environment.
As all of the campsites were full, were drove back out of the park, hoping for a spot down the road as we had spied a little Bureau of Land Management Campground just a few miles from the entrance. Aptly named ‘Hamburger Rock Campground’ as the red rock formations look like hamburgers, the campground is located north off the Needles Highway (accessed from Highway 211), approximately 3 miles southeast of Canyonlands National Park.
Our unexpected gem of a campsite, ‘Hamburger Rock’, 3 miles out of Canyonlands National Park.
The ‘Hamburger Rock’ Campground is situated in what is known as the Indian Creek Corridor. This 26 mile stretch of spectacular scenic country is the gateway to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. The campground is classed as the only developed site in the corridor, but has only basic facilities. There is one set of pit toilets but there is NO water available, so if you need to top up your supplies you will have to drive back into the national park and get it from the Visitor Centre.
There are only 10 campsites, but they do have picnic tables and fire grates, and at $6 a night we think it’s a real bargain! The campground is also open year round, so if like us, you can’t get a spot at ‘The Needles’, it’s a great second choice as you are still close to the park for access to walking trails.
Sat on top of ‘Hamburger Rock’ enjoying the view as the sun goes down.
From the campsite we set off early morning, driving to the the ‘Squaw Flat’ Campground where we parked up at the trailhead and ventured out on a day walk to Druid Arch, one of the most popular destinations in the Needles District. It was a 14.9 mile return trip back to the car, which was strenuous in places, but this trail is well worth it as it offers one of the most spectacular views in the Needles. It follows the Chesler Park access trail to Elephant Canyon, then travels along the canyon bottom across a mixture of deep sand and loose rock all the way to its upper end. The last quarter of a mile is a steep climb involving one ladder and some scrambling. Our one piece of advice is to make sure you take enough water with you. Despite setting off early, we were still hiking during the hottest parts of the day and could have done with extra water supplies as we drank much more than usual.
Fantastic views across the canyons in the ‘Needles District’.
There are several sections where you need to use your scrambling skills, but as you cross between canyons there are some ladders to help!
Walking on sand across the bottom of the canyon.
Druid Arch in all its glory! Showing a sense of scale with Wayne stood in the foreground.
Druid Arch is the main spectacle, but doesn’t wholly come into view until you scramble up the side of the canyon and look at it straight on. It reminds many people of the massive stone slabs at Stonehenge in England, which are popularly associated with the druids. Having never visited Stonehenge ourselves we can’t really make comparisons with size and scale, but Stonehenge will definitely be on our list of future places to visit when we return home. We stopped to enjoy the view of Druid Arch and had a picnic lunch, before heading back the same route as we came. It was a Saturday, but again we only passed a handful of hikers on the trail.
Posing for a fun photo in the canyon!
Peek-a-boo! Now is this classed as a stone arch?
By the time we got back to the car, we were thankful to have access to water at the trailhead as we were feeling rather parched! After having a good drink, we then filled up four 5 litre bottles that we had brought with us in the car ready to take back with us to Hamburger Rock.
As it was so cheap, we decided to stay at Hamburger Rock for 3 nights. We were more than ready for a shower and a flushing toilet after that!
Our next stop in Utah was heading southwest to Bryce Canyon National Park. Read more about our time visiting ‘The Big 5’ in our next road trip update!