Astronaut Neil Armstrong attributed that quote to geologists, who understand so well that rocks carry the stories of the planet – history, geography, weather events, flora, fauna and human activity – all contained within their solid, immoveable forms.
We have spent the past five days camped at Bluff, Utah; a perfect base from which to travel to a number of state and national parks. Rocks are the thing in southern Utah – the landscape is a variation on a theme of canyons, washes, mountains, spires, hoodoos, and formations.
They are all different, all jaw-droppingly gorgeous and all between 250 and 350 million years old. Three hundred and fifty million years worth of stories to tell – that’s a lot of history to remember and it is also an impossible number to understand.
As we were pulling into a parking spot at one of the parks, we noticed a vintage truck camper – an ’85 Palomino in mint condition. “Wow! 35-years-old – can you imagine where that camper has been?”
Bluff, Utah is the site of far more recent history. In April, 1880, Bluff became the final destination after a gruelling six-month journey by 250 Mormon pioneers who travelled the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail to set up the San Juan Mission. They averaged 1.7 miles a day as they had to dig and cut their way through the rock to build a wagon path large enough to allow passage. Their intent was to establish a mission that would establish better relations with the two Indian nations in the area and to provide a supply link to other Utah settlements.
We visited the Bluff Fort Historic site to learn more. This is one of the original wagons that made that passage.
One of the original cabins built by the settlers.
A little background on their story.
We spoke to a charming gentleman who lives four months of the year in central Utah, but volunteers at the Fort an incredible eight months each year. When I remarked on that, he smiled and spoke of “being of service” ; offering his time at a mission is part of his faith. The majority of Utah’s residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, although those numbers are declining; in Salt Lake City membership sits at about 50%. The use of “Mormon” is no longer accurate and the diminutive “LDS” is discouraged.
As we travelled around these past few days, we noticed an unusual sight (for 2019) – young couples with very large families ( five, six and seven children). While large families were imperative at one time, it is no longer a religious edict to “be fruitful and multiply” and is now considered to be a private matter “between couples and their Lord”. Still – the couples we saw were so young – in their 30’s – calm, relaxed and in control; their children well-behaved, well-dressed and well-adjusted. I was captivated by them. We have had our eyes opened to the “normalcy” of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There have been no overt attempts at indoctrination and the extreme fundamentalist polygamous sects that make the news were outlawed over a century ago. These have been welcoming and illuminating encounters.
Our campground has been fun – we’re at the Cadillac Ranch RV Park, overlooking a cottonwood creek and bluffs beyond. As you can tell from the sign, the Ranch has seen better days. While our sites are spacious and it is quiet and peaceful, there is a pontoon and a couple of old trailers parked at the back of the lot. But the young couple who have taken over are working hard to improve everything.
Back to the rocks…
Our first drive out was to Valley of the Gods – a 17-mile drive on a dirt road. We left the highway, turned down the road, and the landscape transformed at every bend of the road.
We are so lucky – winter in Utah has been like Arizona – longer and wetter and colder. We weren’t sure we could even come to Utah to camp. This road has only been passable in the past couple of weeks, and in spots there was still a bit of water and mud to get through.
We ended that drive with a spin up the Moki Dugway – a steep road with switchbacks to get to the overview. It was a bit hairy, very narrow in spots but perfectly doable. We encountered just a few other drivers and they were also obeying the 5mph signs.
View from the top. Every time we find ourselves on roads like this, we say the same thing, ” We drove way worse roads in Mexico.” Whether it is true or not, it is a great calming statement.
The next day, we drove an hour and a half north to Arches National Park. Even the drive up to Arches was a scenic treat – Utah is a state that we want to return to at some point.
We heard that most of the national parks are packed this time of year and Arches was no exception. We turned the corner to see a discouragingly long lineup of vehicles waiting to get to the kiosk. We inched along for a half-hour, (long enough for me to get in a stew about what lay ahead in terms of crowds on the trails, parking, etc. ), but it all worked out just fine. The crowds dispersed and there was room for everyone.
The linear road is 35-miles in total, with a couple of side roads, and plenty of trails, pullouts and picnic areas. The ranger assured us we could see the park in one day.
While Arches National Park is best-known for its arches, there are plenty of other fabulous formations to stop and admire.
A number of trails led off to varied landscapes – some past solid rock walls.
Other trails led into wide open spaces.
One of the notable arches.
Another much larger arch.
With all this rock precariously balanced and hanging in mid-air, we began to wonder how often these structures collapsed.
Much of this arch fell in 1991. Hikers heard a thunderous crack, and managed to get out of the way before tons of rock came crashing down. This is the delicate arch that remains and the path is now closed to hikers.
We ended our day with an ice cream in Moab – the small town just south of the park that caters extensively to mountain biking adventures. It was a charming stop and a reminder of an ill-fated couple we met on one of the hiking paths. She had her arm in a sling and he was limping. They had come to Moab to bike, but just a couple of days after their arrival, she fell off her bike and broke her shoulder and her husband pulled his hamstring. They were making the best of it – switching from biking to hiking.
Gooseneck State Park offers a close look at one of the most striking examples of an “entrenched river meander” in North America. We didn’t know that was a geological term, but again, another example of 300-million-year-old activity.
The river does not appear to be more than a shallow stream of silt and water.
We wished we had known about the camping – rustic, no amenities, but just $10 a night. This would have been a stunning place to watch sunrises and sunsets.
Last stop – Natural Bridges National Monument. By now, we had reached our rock limit. Just as there is an inevitable tipping point of ABC (another bloody church) when traveling in Latin countries, we did not have it in us to keep hiking through rock formations. So we drove and stopped at viewpoints to take photos.
It can be a challenge to see and appreciate the parks in northern Arizona and southern Utah in a compressed period of time, as they are all different, but still variations of a similar landscape. It seems blasé to write off anything in this area as being “just more rocks”, especially since we are on our way to “more rocks” – Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon. We’re not losing sight of how special this landscape is, nor of how lucky we are to be here. See you again in a few days.