South Park trip photos.
[ 18:00 Sep 23, 2004 More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]
South Park trip photos.
There's a terrific handout on the San Rafael swell area which shows up at some of the restaurants and motel racks in Green River, which includes a map of the swell's area and a geologic cross section of the exposed rocks, which confirmed our suspicion that the white sandstone exposed on the eastern side of the Reef is Navajo sandstone, just like the Slickrock Trail at Moab.
The highway has numerous pullouts marked "View Area", with fanciful names such as Spotted Wolf or Black Dragon, and fairly useful interpretive signs to go along with the views. We had to laugh at some of the "View Area" signs, with arrows pointing at spectacular rock formations, wondering: Could anyone drive by that and not view it?
After leaving the San Rafael Swell, the highway moves into the Fishlake National Forest -- fairly standard mountainous terrain -- then eventually south along the Sevier (pronounced "severe") river. Eventually we turned southwest on I-15 and headed down toward Vegas.
We did make a stop at our favorite Indian truck stop on the Moapa reservation in Nevada. In addition to a general store and fairly reasonable gas prices, they used to have a big sign advertising "Really Good Jerky", of both beef and buffalo. The jerky seller in the little trailer outside the general store gave samples (which he cut off with scissors), and it was indeed Really Good, so we've made a point of stopping for jerky every time we pass this way.
Alas, the jerky seller is no more, and we went jerkyless. The Moapa are now specializing in fireworks, and there was no sign of Really Good Jerky.
(Fortunately, the next day, Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, CA, saved me from a totally jerkyless trip. I'm not sure it's *quite* as good as the Moapa Really Good Jerky; but it's really quite good (they have buffalo, turkey, salmon and alligator as well as beef, but free samples only for the beef), and the store, heavily decorated in an alien motif, makes an excellent kitchy stopover. Plus you can check out the World's Tallest Thermometer while you're in Baker. Dave and I stayed at the Baker Bun Boy Motel on our first night of our first-ever trip together, so there's a bit of romance to stopping in Baker. Do we know how to have a good time, or what?)
We passed through Vegas without a backward glance, and instead of staying in Jean as we have before, decided to try Primm, a few miles farther south near the California border. Primm sports three casino/hotels: we picked Whisky Pete's because it was on the right side of the road and had a sign offering $5.95 prime rib, though it turns out they're all owned by the same person and all probably offer the same deals. (The room rates at Whiskey Pete's are very reasonable, the room is nice, and the prime rib was excellent. The only downside is that there's no wifi, phone calls aren't free, and it's not clear whether a Vegas access number would be a local call or not. So no internet connection tonight.)
Primm is a bit of an enigma. I'm typing this in a room high in a tower surrounded by crenellated turrets, each topped with a Disney- style party hat with a little flag, and surrounded by blinking white christmas lights. We're having trouble figuring out what a Disney Sleeping Beauty castle has to do with the "Whiskey Pete" theme embodied by the western mining motif in the casino downstairs. The pool twelve floors below our window has a neat looking mini waterslide that goes through a fake little mountain (Disneyesque again) on the way down, but it appears to be closed (maybe if I went down and asked, someone would open it; I didn't try).
There's a sign in the casino for "Monorail to Primm Valley Resort". The "monorail" is a bus with rubber tires which run on two concrete tracks. The tracks go high up over I-15, from which you get a nice view of the pass to the south and the surrounding desert, not to mention the lovely crescent moon setting over the hills. It's free. It runs fairly often. It's really pretty neat. But I still haven't figured out what's "mono" about it. Maybe no one would be willing to ride a "birail".
Primm Valley Resort Casino tries to look a bit more upscale than Pete's. The buffet restaurant is decorated like they're trying to be the Butterfly room at the Bellagio in Vegas, but failing. The staff at the coffee shop is a little more dressy. The security guards all look glum (where the ones at Pete's look officious). The dinner menus are very similar. We tried to take the "monorail" (two rails again) down to Buffalo Bill's, which has a rollercoaster (which we've never seen in motion), but got tired of waiting for it and headed back to the Whiskey Pete's tra^H^H^Hmonorail. (We didn't check out the outlet mall next door to the resort.)
On the way back over the freeway, the monorail operator asked us why we were back so soon. We said we decided we liked Whiskey Pete's better. He said he did, too -- it was more casual. We chatted a bit (he's originally from the Navajo reservation in Arizona) and when he asked where we'd been, we mentioned that we'd been visiting relatives in Colorado, and Dave added that they lived at about 10,000 feet. The operator said "Sounds like Fairplay." We were stunned -- that's the next town over from where Kerry & Pam live. Turns out he lived there for a year or so, ranching. It's a small world.
There are basically two ways in: via a dirt road coming off highway Utah 24 from Green River, or via a dirt road coming from from near Hite marina at the northern end of Lake Powell. The Green River end looks a bit more accessible, so we chose that option.
One advantage of the U-24 option is that it passes right by Goblin Valley state park, said by everyone to be worth seeing. And indeed it is. "Goblins", also known as hoodoos or "stone babies", are vertical pillars with a harder capstone on top, which protects the softer stone of the pillar from erosion. In the case of Goblin Valley, the two components are made from two different members of the Entrada formation, the same sandstone which comprises the arches and walls of Arches national park. So both parts of the goblins are deep, dark red, and the capstones erode into rounded shapes which do look like heads. (They might also evoke other shapes to some eyes, but we won't discuss that too much on a family-rated blog.)
Attitudes are relaxed at Goblin Valley. We paid the entry fee ($5) and the ranger apologized for not having maps -- they're printing a new set -- but told us to go to the end of the road, park, and "just walk anywhere. There aren't any trails, go anywhere you want." And so we did, spending a happy hour or so wandering among the goblins and enjoying the nearby scenery (including the spectacular San Rafael Reef, a many mile long spine of uptilted sandstone -- Navajo? -- at the edge of the peculiar San Rafael Swell).
But eventually we had to leave, and continue our Maze quest. We turned onto the dirt road a mile or so down highway 24 and proceeded on our way.
This was the RAV4's first long dirt outing (though we've had it on nontechnical dirt roads before) and it did fine on the dirt road, which wasn't bad as such roads go. There are signs at all important intersections, not too much washboard, and only a few rocky or sandy sections. It took maybe an hour and a half to get to Hans Flat, which was the least flat place we'd seen since leaving Goblin Valley. Was Hans a joker, or did he get a flat once when driving there?
The ranger at Hans Flat was very friendly and helpful, but unfortunately discouraging about the roads. We'd already been warned by the ranger at Island in the Sky that the roads are very technical and aren't suitable for many street SUVs; we had hoped to be able to get to Panorama Point for a view of the Maze, but the Hans Flat ranger told us that yesterday someone in a Grand Cherokee had tried for several hours to get up that trail, and had finally given up. The issue is mostly ground clearance, though the rangers at both locations stressed the importance of having a low-range gearbox. (We remain somewhat skeptical about that, based on our admittedly scant off-roading experience in the 4Runner, which did have a 4-low; the RAV4 has quite a low first gear, and we both suspect that any road which requires lower gearing than that would stop us for other reasons, like ground clearance or traction, before gearing became an issue.)
The ranger did make her point, though, asking whether we'd been to Needles (yes) and seen the road called Elephant Hill (yes, and hadn't been willing to try it in the 4Runner). "All our roads have sections worse than that. We recommend that people drive around Needles a bit first, then come here if you decide that isn't challenging enough." Point made.
So she suggested we try driving out to the first switchback of the Flint Trail and check out the view from there, and get an idea what the Flint (a steep descent down a mesa wall, rather like the Shafer Trail which descends from Island in the Sky to the White Rim, or the Horsethief Trail we'd taken to get down to the bottom of Upheaval Dome) was like. Her opinion was that our RAV4 could probably drive down the Flint, though our brakes would be fairly hot by the bottom, but that we wouldn't be able to drive back up it and would have to go out via Hite.
The road out to the Flint was fun driving -- rocky and occasionally sandy, mildly technical, but nothing the RAV had any trouble handling. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints, but found them disappointing: really all we could see was the Nevada-like scrubland below the Orange Cliffs, and the scrubland of the Elaterite Basin below that, plus a few buttes. Nothing nearly as interesting as the view from paved highway 24 before we turned onto the dirt, let alone the panoramic vistas of Island or Needles.
The Flint Trail itself was interesting to see, though. We could immediately see why she'd said it was more difficult than the Shafer or Horsethief: it's a bit narrower (only one car width through a lot of its descent), a lot steeper at least in some places, more technical (rocks and ruts), and the traction was quite poor. We hiked from the first switchback halfway down to the second, and our hiking shoes kept slipping in the dust when we tried to stop and take pictures. The dropoff isn't quite as scary in itself as the other two trails (most turns have sizeable berms on the outsides) but sliding down a steep slope over rocks and deep dust could change the scariness in a hurry.
And the view? Well, alas, it isn't really any better from there. We still couldn't see much of the Maze, or much else besides scrubland and a few buttes.
We're left wondering: what does the Maze look like if you can actually get inside? Is its attraction simply its inaccessibility (we saw only one other couple the whole time we were there -- you're not going to get overwhelmed with crowds here) or is there stuff hidden in the Maze that compares with Island and Needles? Do we care enough to find a way to set up a multi-day biking or backpacking trip?
A disappointment. But at least we saw the Goblins.
The better known Barringer Crater in Arizona is an excellent example of a simple crater, while Upheaval has multiple shock rings and the apparent remnants of a central peak, perhaps even a central ring mountain. It's comparable to large lunar impact structures such as Tycho, Copernicus, or even Mare Nectaris or Mare Orientale, while its Arizona sibling is more like a small crater such as Linne.
So why is it called Upheaval Dome, you ask? Well, originally it was thought to be a huge collapsed salt dome: a pocket of subterranean salt swells from the effects of water, warping the rocks around it, then the salt leaks out and the dome collapses under its own weight. There are lots of salt valleys in the Canyonlands area, and the mophology of impact craters wasn't understood until fairly recently, so this explanation made some sense at one time. However, it turns out that there isn't any salt under Upheaval, and there are traces of shattercones and other heat-shocked rock, as well as chemical traces consistent with an impacting body. Gene Shoemaker and others have studied Upheaval extensively, and the results all point fairly convincingly to an impact. The national park service, however, hasn't quite come around, and still presents the salt-dome theory alongside the impact crater theory, and the name remains "Upheaval Dome". Sigh.
Dave and I have visited Upheaval several times -- it's one of the places we keep coming back to, and it's spectacular every time. We've been inside once, when we hiked up from the Green River on our honeymoon, and have walked the short trail to the two overlooks on top several times. The last time, however, we noted that the overlook trail continues (though no park documents mention this -- they all show the trail stopping at the second overlook), and this time we wanted to see how far it goes.
We didn't find out. It continues for miles past the overlooks, marked by cairns (ever notice how park brochures and signs never mention cairns? Do they figure that anyone silly enough to want to go for a hike in a national park already knows they're trail markers?), giving one spectacular view after another, of Upheaval, or its runoff canyon leading to the Green River, or the Navajo sandstone domes comprising the southern end of Upheaval's second shock ring. We puttered around for several hours, hunting cairns up and down steep slickrock surfaces and along sandy washes, trying to scope out connections between this upper trail and the "Syncline Loop" trail, which circumnavigates Upheaval farther out, beyond the first shock ring, and connects with the lower trail that goes into its center.
But all good things must come to an end, so eventually we found our way back (via the Syncline Loop), paid a quick visit to the Green River Overlook and the spectacular Grandview Point (perhaps the most scenic spot in any national park), watched a minivan essay the torturous turns of the Schaefer trail (riding the brakes the whole way; understandable, when you look at the several thousand foot sheer dropoff on the outer edge of this narrow dirt road) then headed north to the town of Green River to set up for our assault on the Maze. Green River may not have a list of dining establishments to rival Moab, but it has a central location under the scenic Book Cliffs, plus one thing Moab lacks: cheap motels with wi-fi access.
Getting to the trailhead turns out to be easier said than done. Our hosts had assured us the exit was marked, but the exit for Hanging Lake has since been closed. It turns out you now have to go two exits farther, turn around and get back on the freeway going the other direction, and remember the exit number to get off at the right place. Don't get off early, or you can't get back on and have to cycle all the way around again.
Once there, you walk a quarter mile along the river on a paved bike path, and then the real trail begins, climbing steeply along rock stairsteps. The steepness of the climb doesn't ever let up significantly. Groups of people (this is a popular trail) rest by the trailside. Groups coming down mutter encouraging words to tired climbers. We asked one descender, "Is it worth it?" His answer: "Oh, god, yes."
And indeed it was. The hanging lake is spectacular and beautiful, a shallow pond of clear azure waters. And fish. How did the fish get there? Interpretive signs discuss black swifts (nowhere to be seen) and oil shale columbine (which I'm sure are lovely if you're there in season, which we weren't) but nothing about the fish.
Every descending hiker, as well as the trail description down at the trailhead, urged us not to miss the short side trip to Spouting Rock, so of course we checked it out. A stream of water gushes mysteriously out of a hole in the otherwise solid rock of the cliff face, becoming a waterfall which feeds the lake. Fabulous!
I've driven through Glenwood Canyon several times before, always impressed at the beauty of the canyon (I-70 through eastern Utah and western Colorado has got to be the prettiest interstate highway anywhere) but I had no idea I had been missing the best part. It's well worth the couple of hours' stopover when travelling through that area.
The only disappointment was that they sported the same thumb-push-button throttles as snowmobiles and jet-skis use, which makes my thumb ache after only a few minutes of riding. I knew Kerry & Pam had been motorcyclists, so I jumped at the chance to ask: why thumb throttles, rather than a twist throttle like a motorcycle?
Kerry's answer was prompt (it was obvious he had thought about this before): because they're awful, everybody hates them, and that way everyone will spend more money buying an upgrade kit (which costs another $100 or so) from the manufacturer since nobody makes aftermarket kits.
I'm not sure I believe that. If it's true that everybody hates thumb throttles, then wouldn't a company which bucked the trend and offered an ATV or snowmobile with a twist throttle have an instant market advantage? And why hasn't some enterprising aftermarket company come out with a kit if they're in such demand?
But I don't have an alternate explanation. It's some consolation, at least, to hear that I'm not the only one who hates thumb throttles, and that it is possible to buy a twist-throttle kit (perhaps it's even possible to fabricate one out of motorcycle parts).
The terrain visible from the highway up to the pass was typical Colorado mountain scenery, in fine form: rocky cliffs, aspens just starting to turn, a river meandering beside the highway (which proved to be the North Fork of the South Platte -- I guess they were running out of names for rivers), pines. So when we crossed the pass, we weren't prepared for the sight on the other side: a huge flat grassy plain stretching for dozens of miles, pocked with ranches. A huge plain at 9500 feet. It was like Colorado's answer to the Altiplano of the Andes!
We later learned that this feature is known as a "park", and that this one is called "South Park". Yes, that South Park -- supposedly the animated TV show is named after this plain, or the ghost town on the western edge of it.
We found the dirt road leading to K&P's place, and we were there. They sit on the edge of the altiplano -- er, park -- at the foot of a couple of spectacular "fourteener" mountain peaks astride the continental divide, surrounded by aspens ablaze, with two creeks running through the property, horses and cows, ATVs, several parrots, and a cheerful red merle Australian shepherd puppy named Ben. Plus elk (invisible on this trip -- it's hunting season, so they're hiding), pronghorns, mountain bluebirds, coyotes, and a host of other wild animals.
In other words, paradise. At least if you don't mind fairly harsh winter weather, and can function at over 9000 feet of altitude, which not everyone can. The couple of days we spent there wasn't really long enough to adapt.
One of the two creeks is actually a culvert, and a constant source of problems. It seems that beavers have been damming up the culvert, creating lakes that overflow the driveway and make it impossible to leave the house. We went along on one walk of the culvert and see the latest beaver dams (and, of course, try to catch a glimpse of the beavers themselves, but we never got a definitive look).
We passed two idyllic days hiking the property, riding ATVs, playing with Ben, listening to the parrots practice whistles and phrases, looking for beavers, watching blue herons and bluebirds, and just gaping at the amazing views. On the way out, we saw a pronghorn wandering right next to the road.
The eastern end of Dinosaur National Monument seemed a bit of a let-down, at first. The road stretches about 30 miles from highway 50, and along most of that length there's very little to see, as the road winds along the scrubby mesa top. Only the last six miles are in the park, and those include a sparse handful of viewpoint pullouts, none of which give much of a chance to see the rivers. So our hopes rested on North's Rule of National Parks: The end of the road is where the Good Stuff is.
We got to the end of the road, parked ... and still couldn't see much. The parking lot is surrounded by trees and doesn't come very close to the edge of the mesa on either side. You really have to walk the one mile trail to the end of the mesa in order to see anything.
And at first, it seems like the trail isn't any better, and the trail guide (25 cents at the trailhead) is full of the usual mind-numbing Park Service platitudes (Look around you ... even though there's a river down at the bottom of the canyon, it's dry up here. So the trees have to survive on not much water). But hang in there, for a fairly spectacular view at trail's end of the tilted, twisted Mitten fault, as well as the joining of the Yampa and Green rivers (the confluence itself isn't visible, hidden by a formation known as Steamboat Rock). The fault cuts across the river (or, rather, the river sliced through the already-formed fault when the Uinta uplift raised this area above its surroundings) and you can trace it back along the terrain to the cliff on which you stand. Downstream, Whirlpool Canyon (so named by John Wesley Powell) cuts through sediment of a very different nature from the sandstone cliffs upstream of the fault. The park's trail map offers a diagram showing this, making up for the smarmy nature-trail points earlier in the hike.
After leaving the park, we headed east, across Rabbit Ears Pass. Dave had been there once as a young child, and said I'd understand the name when I got there ... and indeed I did. But which two of the three projections are the rabbit's ears? We passed lovely high meadow scenery most of the way, with the aspens just beginning to turn, and eventually arrived in Golden to meet Dave's family.