Saturday, May 19, 2012

From the Bookcliffs to the Hoodoos

May 16-19, Grand Junction, Colorado to Bryce and Zion National Parks, Utah

This leg of our adventure takes us from Breckenridge, Colorado to Grand Junction, Colorado, from Grand Junction to Bryce Canyon National Park and from Bryce to Zion National Park. We have only planned an overnight and day trip to each of the parks as we are closing in on summer plans in California and Oregon.

The three and a half hour trip from Breckenridge to Grand Junction took us through some gorgeous country on I-70. I-70 itself is quite an impressive feat of highway construction requiring several tunnels (the Eisenhower is the most famous) that carve through narrow canyons. I was a little worried about traveling on this interstate with the tunnels and steep grades, but the coach, and most importantly its driver, did great. Thank goodness we bought a diesel pusher. Luckily we did not have much wind or traffic to deal with, so we just trekked along appreciating the views from our giant windshield.

I-70 West to Grand Junction

Our choice for an overnight stay in Grand Junction was to dry camp at a Harvest Host winery called Grand River Vineyards. They were very accommodating offering us any place to stay the night (or longer if we wished) in a large gravel parking lot with a view of the Bookcliffs to the north and vineyards to the south. The winery was actually in the small town of Palisades about twelve miles east of Grand Junction. We learned that this area is a well-known fertile valley due to the protection of the cliffs and the presence of a major river, the Colorado, for irrigation. They started to grow grapes here early in the twentieth century, then changed to fruit orchards when liquor was banned during Prohibition, so now it has both—over twenty wineries and several major orchards.

The Bookcliffs just east of Grand Junction

We enjoyed a wine tasting at our host’s winery and discovered two varietals that were quite yummy: their Reserve Cab-Franc (the most popular grape in this valley) and their Petite Verdot, a sophisticated-tasting grape with notes of violet and juniper. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day to make the rounds at other wineries in the area, but we were happy to give our business to Grand River, one of the oldest wineries in the region.

On Thursday, we took off for our next destination, Bryce Canyon National Park. We found a Passport America park for $12.50 that was about thirty miles from the park and decided the price was worth the distance as the much closer park we considered was $50 for full hook-ups. We found some state parks in the area but access and site length were possible challenges, so we did not pursue these options. My smart phone GPS calculated our drive to be about five hours, but it ended up taking us almost eight hours, a long day for us. We took I-70 to State Highway 89 South, a designated scenic drive. The road was fine but the wind kicked up to 35 mph gusts, making for a stressful passage on a two lane road for about 60 miles. The Passport America campground, Lutherwood, ended up being a big mistake as the entry road was two miles on one narrow land of dirt (they said it was gravel) with hairpin curves and a steep grade. We both looked at each other after about a half a mile and said, “This is nuts.” Now came the challenge of turning around. A private driveway veering off a big hill offered the only possibility. Vic had to unhitch the Jeep on this hill (he remembered to set the emergency brake this time—another story—and then I had to guide him in backing the motorhome around a curve uphill into the driveway. It had been a long day for us by this point, but we both kept calm and successfully made the turn around. I decided to just drive the Jeep back to another campground we had seen about twenty miles back up the road (and closer to Bryce). By now both the Jeep and the motorhome were absolutely covered in red dust. We had to clean the windshields just to find our way out of there. Needless to say we do not recommend Camp Lutherwood for big rigs or anyone who would like to avoid going down a steeply curving one lane dirt road with their RV and tow vehicle. Our second choice was a  Good Sam Park called Riverside RV Resort, about twenty miles from Bryce and only two blocks from the highway with a nightly rate of $35. The view of the backside of Bryce Canyon from our motorhome was quite stunning and there were large fields where we let the dogs run and play; we felt grateful to find this peaceful oasis.
The view from our motorhome at Riverside RV Resort

Rather than stay two nights at this park, we decided to get up early, see Bryce in one morning, then drive to Zion for our second day of viewing these amazing parks. With the plan to checkout of our park by noon, we were able to spend about three hours touring the main viewpoints at Bryce with time to hike some of the upper rim trails from point to point. We decided to concentrate mostly on seeing what is known as the natural amphitheater area which includes Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration, and Bryce points. The weather was about 65 degrees, clear but windy, and a big storm was moving in so our timing ended up being perfect for what we wanted to see. Each viewpoint had its own spectacular grandeur and unique blend of vibrant pink colors. The views were so stunning that it was almost too much to take in with your eyes. Staring into these canyons, you cannot help but feel humble realizing the vast sweep of geologic time it took to create this spectacle of nature. We both wished we had planned more time to take some of the hiking trails down into the canyons as it would be an incredible feeling to be dwarfed by these imposing free standing columns of rock.

Look closely in the draw to see the person walking here
There's a tiny figure on the trail in the middle of photo
It was also fun to imagine faces in the tall craggy spires and pinnacle called hoodoos. According to Native American Paiute legend, the area that is now called Bryce Canyon was once populated by Legend People, shapeshifters who posed as lizards, birds, and other animals. Because of their trickery, they were punished by Coyote and turned to stone. The legend people were also known for wearing red painted faces which are believed to be the explanation for the vibrant colors of the rock formations frozen in time. A more comical historical perspective comes from the namesake of the canyon: Ebenezer Bryce. His summation of this holy place was, "It's a hell of a place to lose a cow." 
A watercolor artist capturing his impressions of the canyon
Close-up of the spires called hoodoos

Our last day in Utah we planned a short tour of Zion National Park in the morning with a departure for Vegas in the afternoon (about a 2 ½ hour drive on I-15 South).  The main road for viewing the most popular sights in Zion is closed to the public spring through fall. You have to take a shuttle or you can tour by bicycle or foot. We learned that you can bring your bike and put it on the shuttle, then ride down which would be fun to do another time.  Zion is quite different than Bryce first because you are viewing it from the river level up.  The mountains still have the beautiful red hues that you see in Bryce, but the colors are less intense.  The geology is also quite different; Zion does not have the spires and pinnacles; the landscape is one of giant looming rock monoliths with sheer vertical faces. The Virgin River cuts its swath through narrow passages cut between these imposing formations. There are a wide variety of hiking trails with many a surprising number rated easy to moderate--considering the extreme vertical drops. Rock climbing is also popular here but we did not see anyone hanging on the face of the rock walls.  There is a big risk of flash floods in these narrow canyons, so the whole park could be evacuated when significant rainfall is expected. We, however, had a perfectly clear spring day with no clouds in the sky, little wind, and temps in the high 60s.
South entrance to Zion via the charming town of Rockville

Vic standing by the Virgin River at the bottom of a huge vertical granite wall of rock that you can't see

We were happy to have the chance to see Zion but it was a bit of a letdown compared to the breathtaking beauty of Bryce Canyon.  Both parks evoke a spiritual response, but Zion made me feel more aware of God’s omnipotence and even wrathful nature, while Bryce made me feel more in touch with God’s grace and generosity toward mankind. So there you have it. We are off to Vegas, a God forsaken place, except maybe for Elvis’ Chapel of Love. J

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