The drive into Zion National Park from the east was in itself pretty amazing. We saw bighorn sheep and a really really long tunnel that popped us out about midway up the side of a cliff, from which we had many switchbacks to navigate before we were safely on the valley floor. After the near-solitude of Bryce, this place was a real zoo. It was approaching sunset and there were dozens of vehicles vying for places to park along the road to take photographs. Not at all what we were hoping for. We later found out that we had picked one of the most popular weekends to visit the park, during fall colors they have a free entry weekend and invite many famous artists to explore the park. The weekend culminates with an auction of the artwork. After so much solitude it was a bit of a downer to be around people again.
Nonetheless our mood soon picked up as we embarked on the Angels landing hike. It started mellow enough. We were in good hiking condition so the initial switchbacks were standard enough. I ought to add that they were carved out of the side of the cliff which is pretty cool. Angels landing is a 5.5 mile round trip hike with some 1400 feet of elevation gain. As we reached the top of the main trail Bek spotted a big bird. I was hoping for another golden eagle. Alas it turned out to be some kind of vulture. Strange that it was marked with a number. Why would they track vultures??? Only because this was actually a California Condor. This vulture was in serious trouble in the early '80s due to hunting and DDT. A controversial decision was made to capture the remaining 20 or so from the wild and try a captive breeding program. Thankfully the story since has been a happy one. There are now some 100 wild birds and maybe another 100 in captivity. Much better odds for the survival of these massive birds. Wing spans up to 9 feet. Wow. We actually checked out the stats on our bird, #69. We also spotted him soaring later in the day and even from the bottom of the canyon he looked impressive. He roosted in a small cave in the cliff face about 1000 feet up. Anyway back to the hike...
So the next section of the hike turned out to be pretty sketchy. A sign informed us that six people had died on this section in the previous eight years. Real confidence booster hey...  The drop off was at least 1000 feet on either side, vertical straight down no stops til you reach the ground floor. Made me realize there are a couple ways to interpret the name 'Angel's landing'. The path was as narrow as a bodywidth in places. I shook and trembled and crawled my way up to the top. Exhilerating. By and far the most hard core section of trail I have ever encountered.  It felt very satisfying to sit at the top and  look out at the spectacular view of Zion valley below. Just as long as one didn't think ahead to the walk back down...
And then the weather caught up...
After an amazing window of perfect hiking weather it is hard to be cooped up in our hotel room while the snow falls outside and the wind howls. We woke up yesterday morning on a ridgeline in Capitol Reef, broke camp and hiked out to drive down to Bryce Canyon for the evening. We got so excited when we saw Bryce Amphitheatre that we strapped on our boots and started hiking. Five miles of weaving through Queens Garden amongst the spires and castle walls of red rock craning our heads to see the top. Wonderful. We finally had to call it a day as the sun set.
Today a storm front is supposed to move into the area so we are hanging out at the hotel. Of course mid-way through the day we look out and see blue skies... awww c'mon! It's snowing right now and we are hoping to get a little break in the weather tomorrow to get a hike in. So far what we have seen of Bryce has been ridiculously impressive. Its hard not to feel a little restless.

We woke up to see snow on the ground. Although the high for the day only reached maybe 27F it was hard to contain our excitement as we piled on every layer of clothing we owned and set out on the trails.
We did an 8-mile figure eight loop linking a number of the more popular hikes in the amphitheatre. The snow capped spires were really really cool, and there were some very funky pines trees that were all twisted and gnarled, perhaps due to the wind. Very few others braved the cold so we spent the day in near isolation, which is amazing for one of the more popular national parks in the US that would normally see thousands upon thousands of visitors a day. It was a real winter wonderland. Every direction we turned was a photo begging to be taken. We came in utterly exhausted but decided to push on to Zion National Park that evening as it was only 75 miles down the road.

So arriving at Capitol Reef we learned that what we had been fearing all along was going to eventuate - the first really cold snap of our trip.  A big storm was scheduled to arrive within a few days of our getting to Cap Reef, so we had better hit the highlights and be decisive about what we wanted to achieve while we were there. First decision was to hit the outdoor hot tub at the Best Western and enjoy a cold brew while the sun set golden on the mountain cliffs surrounding us. BTW its an interesting experience buying liquor in Utah - need to find a state run facility which just feels weird to walk in to. Does Uncle Sam pay attention to whether I prefer an ale or a lager? After four nights of camping and roughing it it was blissful to be able to ponder over these questions while eagerly anticipating a real bed for the night and the ham steak and egg breakfast that was to follow.
Next day we checked out the local scene. Awesome valley with the Fremont River flowing through it. The sound of rushing water seemed so foreign. Not sure why the river was up but it was running red. Rained somewhere. They also had what was the best petroglyphs of the trip (as opposed to pictographs which are painted onto the rock). Lots of bighorn sheep and people camping carved into the rock face 1000 years ago by Fremont Indians who also irrigated the valley. Unfortunately a rockfall took out some of them at some unknown moment lost in history - but lots of good ones still exist. The consistent flow of the Fremont also attracted many early settlers to this part of the valley, mostly Mormon. They found it suitable to all sorts of stone fruit as still evidenced today by apricots, pears and apples. Turns out when they are in season it is free to pick as many as you can eat on the spot. Another trip to the area is starting to write itself. The fall colors were really prevalent in the area as well.
We got off the beaten track on a 30-odd mile dirt road headed to the trail head we had picked for an overnight out-and-back. Pretty cool to go through some cattle farms and see the locals working the stock on horseback. Ollie handled the road admirably despite the lack of experience by the driver. We followed the waterfold, which is one of the big draw cards of the national park and a major reason why the park exists today. It runs something like 90 miles north to south and is really hard to describe. Its not so much that the earth has folded over itself. More that all of the layers are very evident. My impression is that it was a really big fold in the earth (think bump) in the center of a techtonic plate that was then eroded over time to expose layers in shades of red, green, orange, white and purples.
Our hike was a 15-miler with the out trip being to a narrows, and the return trip along a ridge overlooking the waterfold. Unfortunately for our feet six miles of the 15 were along a 4wd road that doubled as a dry creekbed. On the tail end of 50 miles in 5 days this was brutal. It improved once we left the 4WD trail. Highlights were the unmarked petroglyphs we stumbled upon on the canyon wall, the yellow agate spearhead that seemed really out of place amongst the sedimentary stones around it, a few arches (after Arches NP... yawn) and the narrows, which was a pretty cool scramble through some 3-4 wide sections of the river that were maybe 20 feet to 50 feet high before they opened up into the 400 foot high canyon we had been following. We had a hard scramble up some unstable cliff to reach our camping site, but it was worth it. 400 foot view on one side into the canyon, 1000+ feet on the other looking down onto the waterfold. Very neat. Another evening of spotting a multitude of planes and the odd shooting star or constellation. Next day we had a tough hike out. Major highlight was our snack break when we spotted a golden eagle soaring just 50 feet away from us. We watched this thing for maybe 10 minutes as it worked its way along the canyon hunting. It flapped its wings possibly a half dozen times. Awesome. Very happy to mark down this sighting. When we finally reached the car we opted to
Just completed one of the most challenging yet satisfying hikes we've done to date.
Day One we dropped into Taylor Canyon - and I mean what I say when I say dropped -. Awesome section of switchbacks engraved into the side of the canyon wall. Would have been a thousand foot drop at least.
We learned that the Arches and Caves in the region are typically formed by water seeping into the Mesa top, hitting a layer of impermeable rock (the whole Colorado Plateau is made of sedimentary rock apparently left behind by an ancient sea - if the fossils are to be believed) and eroding the rock face at a spring. Most of the day was spent walking a dry creek bed to avoid the bio-crust. This was enjoyable but a little more challenging on our feet negotiating the sand. We set up camp in an awesome side gulley about a half mile up from a rock spire formation called Moses & Zeus and spent the evening star gazing. We were a little surprised at the number of planes we could spot. Turns out southern Utah is underneath a major flight path. We had fun picking out different shapes in the canyon walls. Among the best were 'King Kong drinking a beer while watching TV' and 'Angry Bird with mohawk'. The  following day we linked up with a 4WD trail (note that next journey into the park will be for offroad camping in a 4X4) and followed it to the Green River. We may have hummed the odd verse of the CCR song of the same name when we arrived at our lunch destination on the river. Naturally this was where the wildlife was so we caught a few glimpses of a hawk hunting water birds, some water birds hunting fish, and a fish hunting little fish. We camped the night just down from an area they call 'The Upheaval'. A side note at this point - compliments to the chef for putting together a killer menu for this hike. Highlights were the Mango Curry and the bottomless trail mix w/ Choc-covered pretzels. I'll only briefly mention the hike out of the canyon. The hidden valley was awesome. The place was flush with vegetation. Very out-of-place in such an arid area. The rest of the hike out was brutal, with steep inclines, rock hopping and a few miles that stretched on forever. We made it. Enough said.
Arches in 200 words or less... can it be done? Are you counting?
Roll on in to the Lizard Lounge in Moab late in the evening after another big day on the road. Man this place needs a face lift. But it does what needs to be done. This is home base for a few days.
Did the seven mile Devils Loop hike to check out the many arches and crazy looking fins. At each turn in the trail we were greeted with another amazing arch or vista. Our favorite arch was Navajo. Also of interest were the pinyon pines & utah jupiter. Very little vegetation otherwise and only saw a lizard and a crow the entire hike. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to navigate, or even map this crazy topo.
It seems quite the under-sight that there is amazing layers of green and blue soil that are barely mentioned in the brochures. The day was disappearing way to quickly and we hadn't even seen the stalwart of the arches tourism - Delicate Arch - the place to be at sunset. A quick 1.5 miles scramble up into the ridges and cliffs racing the sun. Got there just as the sun emerged from the clouds for a brilliant blast of color on the cliffs and of course the arch. Definitely a highlight.We were surprised at the number of people about even in the low season but I suppose it is blistering hot here in the summer. Caught a brief glimpse of a fox in the headlights as we drove out of the park that night. Guess that's when most of the animals do their business.

After a restless night in the Great Basin Mountains, NV we found ourselves awake well before the sun looked to be coming up.  We dropped our tent in the cold pre-dawn darkness and hot-tailed it across Utah to Cortez, Co.  After such an immense day on the road we were relieved to check ourselves into the Best Western in Cortez for a few hours of R&R. Next morning we drove the windy road up into Mesa Verde Nat. Park. We found out later in the day from a ranger that they had seen a lot of bears in the area that summer, possibly more active due to the drought making them go further for water. As I consider the bears we had seen in the Rocky Mountains of Canada and compare that to the arid, dry terrain we are in at present, I am still amazed at the idea that bears can live in such a dramatic range of environments.
We did a tour of the Cliff Palace and checked out Spruce Tree House and the Balcony. Fascinating to think that this civilization was so much more advanced than anything else in North America at this time (circa 12th and 13th centuries). Perhaps even more incredible was how difficult it is to access these communities. They are way up high in the canyon walls, with death-defying access paths on the vertical cliff faces. Wow. Adding to the amazement was the mystery of why everyone just up and left after only a couple hundred years living in these cliff dwellings. They put so much work into establishing these places, then over what was apparently only a few decades they all left. Huh? It was also cool to see how the civilization developed on the mesa tops prior to moving to the cliffs. They have archeological digs of various settlements ranging in date from 700 AD to 1100 AD, around they time they starting moving to the cliffs. I can't imagine spending a long bitter winter trapped on the side of the cliff, let along raising a small child or children in such a small space. Certainly a vastly difference experience to the modern world.