Scenic Utah Backroads

Sunday we headed home from Page via Cottonwood Canyon Road to Utah Scenic Byway 12. I was a little nervous knowing we'd have no cell coverage, but it was just fine. In wetter weather, these roads become impassable. But the kiosk at the Big Water Visitor Center said the road was okay for 2WD cars today.

Entering Cottonwood Canyon (click image to enlarge)

In the beauty of the morning light, we saw our first Northern Shrike! A good omen. Cottonwood Canyon Road goes along a massive formation called the Cockscomb, and there are many other interesting geological features along the way as well. Unfortunately, high power lines run the length of the road, somewhat spoiling the rugged wilderness scenery.

Yellow Rock formation in Cottonwood Canyon


Almost to Highway 24, we stopped at Grosvenor Arch. This beautiful arch was originally called Butler Arch but was later renamed for Gilbert Grosvenor, the first full-time editor of National Geographic Magazine.

Grosvenor Arch

Shortly after Cottonwood Canyon Road became paved again, we detoured into Kodachrome Basin State Park which was fantastic, even in the mid-day light. Definitely a place we'll want to visit again and do more hiking. Who can resist a park named for one of the most beloved Kodak film brands?!

Nature Trail at Kodachrome Basin State Park

Canyon in Kodachrome Basin State Park

At Highway 24, we stopped at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Cannonville.  It was tempting to head west to nearby Bryce Canyon, but, constrained by time, we decided to stay on our easterly course. The road between Escalante and Boulder was pretty, but once again we were disappointed to see all the high power wires.

Viewpoint along SB12
Henry Mountains, just after sunset as viewed from SB12

With so much to gawk at along the way, we only made it as far as Torrey, UT just outside of Capitol Reef National Park. We stayed at the Best Western there, where we enjoyed a great view from our balcony. In the morning I heard new bird noises, and I think they must have been Chukars.

Panorama Point in Capital Reef

Monday we drove through Capitol Reef, stopping first at Panorama Point and the Gooseneck. We then did the Scenic Road in Capitol Reef, and drove about halfway out to the Grand Wash.

Along the Scenic Road in Capitol Reef

There is a lot more to see in Capitol Reef, but our Traverse may not be the car to see it in. We took in the visitor center's excellent movie and looked at some more petroglyphs before leaving the area.

Fremont Indian Petroglyph panel in Capitol Reef, circa 700-1200CE

The scenic drives with crazy landscapes were behind us now, with the exception of Goblin Valley State Park. We spent an hour or so walking around the odd "goblin" sandstone formations before heading back up to get on I-70.

Sandstone formations in Goblin Valley State Park, Utah

Goblin Valley State Park

Even though it was getting late and we'd been on the go all day, we couldn't resist stopping in Breckenridge to see Steve & Lauren in their new place. (It's so cute!) After a quick dinner and a delicious CoCoNut Porter at Empire Burger, we said our goodbyes and were on our way home.

Here's a map of this part of the trip:

We'll be back to the southwest again soon!

Page, Arizona

Upon arriving in Page, AZ we stopped at the John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum and Visitor Information Center to book a tour in Upper Antelope Canyon, the main reason we were here. After hearing about so many interesting activities from the very helpful Laura, we immediately extended the three nights we had planned to five.

Wahweap Marina at Lake Powell

After an early dinner at the Lake Powell Resort we watched the sun set over the Lake at the Wahweap Overlook.

Evening light on the canyons of Lake Powell

Another major attraction in the area was Horseshoe Bend, a gooseneck in the Colorado River downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam. So, first thing Wednesday morning, we drove the 4 miles to the parking lot and took a pleasant half mile hike to the edge of the cliffs looking a thousand feet down to the river. The view was incredible and we were happy we had an ultra-wide angle lens to capture the panoramic view.

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River

After Horseshoe Bend, we toured Upper Antelope Canyon. The only way to see it is on a guided tour operated by the Navajo Nation. We piled into the back of a truck, two people to a seat belt, and headed out of town and onto the wide bumpy dry wash that led to the canyon. The stories we'd heard of crowds were not exaggerated, and it was the off season! Still, the canyon was well worth the effort, and our guide, Rob, of Antelope Slot Canyon Tours, did a great job of herding our group, keeping distance from other groups, and pointing out the most photogenic formations, and how to capture them. The shades of reddish light in the curvy canyon walls made for gorgeous eye-candy. We will go back between April and October to try to capture light beams.

Upper Antelope Canyon

Swirls of color


After a delicious lunch at Big John's BBQ, we drove down to Navajo Bridges, then on past Vermillion Cliffs to the California Condor Release site on House Rock Valley Road.

Navajo Bridges

We lingered, watching at least four Condors circling the cliffs, while visiting with two Peregrine Fund observers. We'll have to watch for the announcement of their public release date in September 2012. By the time we got back to Marble Canyon, it was getting dark so we did not drive out to Lee's Ferry, but instead watched the sun set around Vermillion Cliffs.

Sunset sky over Vermillion Cliffs

Happy Thanksgiving! Our plan to visit Lower Antelope Canyon was postponed until Friday due to cloudy weather. Instead we drove out Hwy 89 north of Page to the Paria Canyon Homesite, and hiked around a little. We had read about a western movie set at this spot, but apparently it burned down (arson) in 2006.

Paria Canyon view

On the way back we turned south at the northern end of House Rock Valley Road for 8.5 miles on another bumpy dirt road to get to the Wire Pass trailhead. This hike, partly in a slot canyon, was not quite as beautiful as Antelope, but the hiking experience was awesome. Normally this hike is a wet one, and there are even warnings about quicksand at the trailhead, but we didn't even see a puddle (although Susan did step in some mud). When we got to the junction of the Wire Pass trail and the Buckskin Canyon trail, we walked a bit into the canyons in each direction before heading back. The total round trip hike was about 5 miles of mostly flat hiking, but with the occasional scrambling maneuver in the narrow slot canyons.

Susan in the Wire Pass slot canyon

Thanksgiving dinner was great at the Dam Bar & Grill back in Page. This was probably the best Thanksgiving buffet we've ever had and we earned our feast this year!

Susan looking up at an enormous alcove in Wire Pass canyon

Friday we toured Lower Antelope Canyon. Like Upper Antelope, a permit and fee is required, but we did not have to be with a guide. We had two full hours and hiked all the way through the multi-level canyon and back. It was so fun!

Lower Antelope Canyon

In the afternoon we toured the Glen Canyon Dam, and took in all the movies at the visitor center. Mike's favorite factoid about the dam is that because of the way concrete cures, once pouring began, it had to be done continuously -- a 24 ton bucket of concrete was poured every 5 minutes, 24x7x365 for 3 years and 3 months!

Glen Canyon Dam

Our attempt to find Stud Horse Point to watch sunset failed, mostly due to uncertainty with extreme 4WD roads, but we returned to Page and consoled ourselves with Big John's takeout.

Saturday morning we found ourselves at the Wahweap Marina again, this time checking in for a Lake Powell boat tour to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world's largest known natural bridge. I guess we could've hiked there, but we were somehow put off by the 17 mile trek (each way). And the boat seemed like a relaxing way to take in the beauty of the canyons of Lake Powell. 

Pleasure boat on Lake Powell

After two hours we reached Rainbow Bridge and got to spend about an hour taking it in and photographing it. Then we reboarded our boat and headed back to the marina.

Rainbow Bridge (290' ft high, 234' span)

After the boat trip we decided to drive back down to Marble Canyon, and this time we went down to Lee's Ferry and the Lonely Dell Ranch, where the Lee family lived while operating the ferry.

Cabin on the Lonely Dell Ranch

Wagon wheel in the evening light
Susan posed for this obligatory shot at the balanced rocks on the way to Lee's Ferry

After walking through the Ranch buildings, we headed back up to Page, stopping to take in the sunset lighting up the mountains to the east.

Final light on the mountains east of Marble Canyon

We decided to have dinner at Dam Bar & Grill again since we knew the food was good from our Thanksgiving dinner experience. We then headed back to the room to pack up and get ready to head north in the morning.

Canyon de Chelly

On a lark, we packed up the Friday before Thanksgiving and left mid-afternoon for Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced canyon d'shay) We made one quick stop for dinner in Grand Junction and only made it as far as Moab for the night. But this worked out great, because we were close enough to see the Needles Overlook of Canyonlands in early morning light, which proved to be worth setting the alarm for 5:30AM!

Needles Overlook

After the main overlook area, we also drove the 15 extra miles (one way) out to the Anticline Overlook, stopping at the Dave Minor overlook which is a cool road because it encircles a large butte. The Anticline view was fantastic, with rays of light breaking through the clouds like spotlights!

Anticline Overlook with Potash Plant and light beams (click picture for larger view)

Heading south again, we stopped at the town visitor center in Bluff. We had lunch out of our cooler at Sand Island Recreation Area, after viewing nearby petroglyphs. The drive was pretty all day, although the terrain flattened out and was less interesting as we approached Chinle. It was sad to see excessive amounts of roadside trash once we entered the Navajo Nation.

Petroglyphs at Sand Island

Spider Rock (832' high)
We checked into our room at the Holiday Inn Chinle, just a stone's throw from the CdC Visitor Center. After we got some basic info from a ranger, we headed out along South Rim Drive, stopping only once at the Junction viewpoint, where a local persistently peddled his art. Two original paintings on Whitehouse Sandstone rock later, we were on our way again.

We'd hoped to make it to Spider Rock for sunset, but we were a little too late at 4PM. We'll need to recalibrate the "golden hour" times in winter, plus sometimes late in the day some canyon features are in shadow. On the way back, we stopped at a couple of other viewpoints then enjoyed the evening light on the canyon walls.

It is different here than other National Parks and Monuments because people live in and around the canyon, which is very wide at the bottom, almost park like. Besides the pull-offs and lookout points on the rim roads, there is only one hike to the canyon floor because the Navajo Nation people don't want tourists wandering all around where they live. Seems reasonable.

Sunlight beginning to illuminate Antelope House ruin
Antelope House ruin detail

Sunday was a busy day! Early in the morning we drove out to view all the North Rim Overlooks. Back at the visitor center, the ranger recommended that we start the hike down to the White House Ruins immediately to beat the high winds. Mike happened to see a tour operator in the Visitor Center parking lot, and was able to set up a jeep tour of the canyon for that afternoon. The hike was 2.5 miles round trip and dropped about 600 feet to the canyon floor. The trail negotiated red rock canyon wall switchbacks and was an easy and enjoyable hike, though neither of us can imagine wanting to do it in summer heat. We finished the hike just in time to get to the visitor center to meet our tour guide.

White House ruin
View from White House hike

Since there are no roads to the canyon floor, the jeep tour was a must. Plus, even if you have a 4WD you can't go into the canyon without a licensed Navajo guide and permit. Our tour was private and we joined Lee Staley of de Chelly Tours in his 4WD vehicle and headed into the canyon. The way into the canyon is just driving up the wash, often through several inches of water and/or deep sand. Because Lee knew we had hiked down to the White House ruin earlier that day, at the canyon junction, he took us to the north canyon, Canyon del Muerto.

We got to see several ruins and points of interest from the canyon floor that we had seen from the north rim overlooks the previous day. All through the trip Lee stopped at various points of interest and explained the history and culture of the Canyon and its people, and patiently answered our curious questions. He and his family had lived in and around the canyon for several generations. It was a very enjoyable and informative tour and we highly recommend it.

After the tour, we returned to the Junction Overlook for sunset.

Evening light at Junction Overlook

It rained our last day, so we slept in until 7AM, then made our way to Window Rock, AZ, the administrative hub of the Navajo Nation. The elevation on Hwy 264 got up to 7700 feet and we hit snow and saw one nasty accident, but it didn't accumulate elsewhere. We spent an hour checking out the exhibits at the Navajo Nation Museum and Visitors Center before lunch at a local Mexican Restaurant.

Navajo Tribal Park and Veterans Memorial at Window Rock

Then we visited the Window Rock formation located at the Navajo Tribal Park and Veterans Memorial. This was a very nice park and memorial, with a lot of historical tributes to veterans of all wars, but especially the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.

Then we left Window Rock driving back the scenic back road along the Arizona/NM border. Mike did a late afternoon photo shot at Spider Rock, but the light was poor due to cloud cover and he got hailed on!

Then we watched as a magnificent rainbow developed. It was fun to see the ends of it going down into the canyon. We finished off the day with another sunset at Junction Overlook, our last night in Chinle.

Evening light on the canyon

In the very chilly morning air, we drove to Page, AZ via the Hopi Villages. Our Photographing the Southwest book recommended a stop at the Shungopovi Village on the Second Mesa. No photographs are allowed anywhere on the Hopi Reservation.

We were much happier with our stop at Coal Mine Canyon, another Photographing the Southwest book recommendation. Hidden just a mile or two off the highway along a dirt road, just past the windmill, within easy walking distance was a colorful canyon full of hoodoos. And we had the place totally to ourselves! But soon we were on the road again, heading for Page, AZ.

Mike at Coal Mine Canyon