From Little Hollywood to Hoodoos

We’ve been camped out on BLM lands near Kanab for the past three nights, and have been enjoying every minute there out among the dunes. During the day we explore, at night we build a fire and watch the stars come out.

This small rustic (pit toilets, no hook-ups) campground (10 sites), is first-come, first-served and is simply idyllic. It charges $5 a night ($2.50 for seniors), and the sites are spacious and private.

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We chose Kanab as a base from which to explore southern Utah’s parks and landscapes and our initial plan was to boondock for a few days then come into town and set up in an RV park for the usual water/ sani dump/shower refresh. Today is a rainy day and perfect for catching up on emails, grabbing some groceries and doing some last-minute planning. We thought to reserve a spot at one of the RV parks in town, but our heart sank when we saw how crowded they were, so we’ve moved to Plan B.  We will stay at our lovely campground for another couple of days – just hitch up to use the dump and water facilities at a campground further down the road, then return to our little slice of nature.

Kanab is well-situated within an hour’s drive of two national parks, several state parks, and a number of other attractions and amenities.  Kanab has a rich cinematic history; it has long been called “Little Hollywood”. Since 1924, over 100 movies and TV shows (mainly Westerns) have been shot here and in the surrounding areas.  From 1924’s Tom Mix movie Deadwood Coach to such notables as The Lone Ranger, Stagecoach,The Misfits,  The Rainmaker, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and more recently, The Planet of the Apes.

As westerns have become a less popular genre,  filmmaking in the area has fallen off.

The Little Hollywood museum offers a peek into the backlot and peels the curtain back on the mystique of set design.

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This “adobe” structure used in the critical last scene of “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is actually made of styrofoam blocks.

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The building to the right is simply a facade; last used in a Kenny Loggins video.

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During its heyday, Kanab hosted a huge number of A-list stars, including John Wayne, Glen Ford, Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and this fellow:

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Parry Lodge was in the centre of much of the action in those days. It opened in 1931 to help attract, house and feed the movie industry who had just discovered the area and were arriving in droves. Most of the film companies stayed here, and the lobby is filled with photos of the stars who made this their temporary home.

By today’s movie star standards, Parry Lodge seems homey and quaint, but at the time it offered an oasis in the desert.

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The town of Kanab offers a lot for tourists in terms of lodging and restaurants. We had a terrific lunch at Rocking V Cafe – very cool spot. We did pause for a minute when we realized our US$15 burgers were actually CA$22, but that has been the inescapable equation throughout our trip. Most restaurants in the U.S. have the same (or higher) prices as Canada, but then we have to add another one-third to that price.  We mainly ignore that depressing reality. If we waited for our Canadian dollar to be less dismal before travelling to the U.S., we could be waiting a long time.

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The understated simplicity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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Even Kanab wrestles with this unknowable question.

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We took a drive up the Johnson Canyon Road, an area where a lot of outdoor shots and action shots were filmed. It was a pretty drive, but you had to really stretch your imagination to see where the old “cowboys and Indians”  scenes might have happened.

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The original set from Gunsmoke. Much like the popularity of the westerns, it has fallen onto hard times.  It ran for 20 years from 1955 to 1975 – how many people have even heard of it?

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I don’t know anything about this little building and windmill, but I thought they added to the atmosphere.

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After we left Zion, we thought our chance to see Bryce National Park was gone, as they had received such a dump of spring snow that several trails had to be closed due to avalanche risk. It was disappointing, but we just added Bryce to our list of “next-times”.

Well, luckily for us, we had a brief window yesterday to make the 1 1/2 hour drive up to Bryce. The roads were clear, weather was good and today they are expecting another big snowfall, so it was now or never. We hopped in the truck and headed north.

Good grief – every day-tripper in southern Utah had the same bright idea – it was madness. As we were about 15 miles from the park’s entrance, the scenery began to change and become the dramatic backdrop we all wanted to capture. Cars pulling off the road, veering onto shoulders and spilling out their various occupants, armed with cameras and tablets and cellphones. It was a race to the finish, with dozens of people crouching, climbing, standing in the road; you would have thought we all had 30 seconds before the images in front of us erased. (We were no better, by the way).

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When did we stop simply looking and admiring what is in front of us? It was a bit embarrassing and disconcerting, and I asked Stephen, “Do we want to do this?”  Well, yes, we did, so we carried on.

We drove through a couple of arches along the way.

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We reached the Visitor Centre, where I had an urgent pit stop; NO available parking, so Stephen just circled and finally found a spot at the entrance.

Bryce has had a few issues lately – high snowfalls, construction in campgrounds, only one campground open, many trails closed due to unsafe conditions and the unstoppable flow of tourists putting great demand on the infrastructure.

We did have a very enjoyable visit, but we don’t feel as though we experienced the park as we might have. We didn’t hike (other than a couple of 1-mile hikes to overlooks), we didn’t stay in or near the park for a couple of days and we didn’t have the chance to get away from the crowds. We were all crammed in together, grabbing the good weather and all wanting the same thing.  It is worrisome to consider how our national parks will cope going forward.

The geology of Bryce Canyon is simply stunning.  The tall bulbous formations, called hoodoos vary. Some are ridged into walls, others  have created holes or windows, and others are spindly stand-alones.  They’re all awesome and it is difficult to take in this landscape and really appreciate what you’re seeing – it looks like nothing else you’ve seen before.  Much of the canyon is viewed from the trails along the rim, which provides tremendous aerial views. The recent snow lent a dramatic contrast.

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It is possible to walk right along the rim; there are few fences or guardrails. There are signs to “Watch your Children”  but I would be a very nervous mother (or grandmother.)

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Stephen wanted to see the contrast between the white birch, the white snow and the white hair.

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On our drive up to Bryce, we drove through a number of towns with great  signs – old neon, or intriguing business concepts. There was one sign in particular…

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Home of the Ho-Made Pie? How could we resist? And of course, our server would look just like this buxom French maid.

Our server was Steven,  a friendly and garrulous fellow who was full of local gossip and history. A history of the restaurant was printed and propped on our table, so we spared ourselves having to ask the obvious question – “Ho-made? Typo or bakers with an interesting sideline?”

The Thunderbird Restaurant is located in Mount Carmel  and was built in 1940, in response to the traffic that developed after the building of the tunnel linking this town to Zion National Park. When the owner Fern was widowed in 1961, she overcame a series of obstacles to not only stay in business but create a small empire – a restaurant, inn and golf course. But always, the pies were the draw – Fern’s skills as a baker were legendary. When they had the sign made, it wasn’t possible to fit “Homemade” neatly into the design, so they shortened it to “Ho-made” – a term that was still innocent in the early ’60s.

It has turned out to be a marketing dream – it is what brought us off the road and through the door.  Are the pies as good as they say? They were excellent, although I’m sure a lot of home bakers could outdo that pastry.  I had apple pie with warm butter rum sauce and Stephen had Thunderberry (4 berry) with ice cream. When was the last time we stopped anywhere for a piece of pie? It was so much fun.

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The other sign we couldn’t resist was this one. We just loved the versatility of a skilled tradesman – caskets or gun cabinets.  According to our new friend at the Thunderbird, this man does a ripping business.

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Next time we talk, we will have peered over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Zion!

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Zion is our favourite National Park so far; so filled with contrast and unimaginable beauty that adjectives are inadequate and our conversation on the trails was often reduced to “Wow”, “Beautiful“, and “Look at That.”

Before we arrived we were warned by fellow travellers in rather ominous tones that, “Zion will be crazy.”  We were a little nervous about having to cope with long line-ups, parking nightmares and conveyor belt trails, but none of that came to pass.

Yes, Zion was busier than other parks we have visited so far, but it is also the beginning of the high season and weather right now is ideal. The real crowds don’t start until the summer.

We were also warned we would not get a campsite in the park; they are reserved months in advance. Also true, except Stephen kept checking online and managed to get us a total of five nights from cancellations, with just one move.

This is the view from one end of our campsite:

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When the first Mormon settlers arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, they called this area Little Zion or “a place of refuge”. The original Paiute name was Mukuntuweap, meaning “straight-up land.”  It officially became Zion National Park in 1919 and has become one of America’s most-visited parks.

Zion has a number of trails closed this year due to rockfall and road washouts, including a chunk of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway that heads east out of the park. Very luckily for us, we arrived on the last day that portion of road was open before they closed it to begin road repair. The ranger urged us to hop in our car and drive the  nine-mile stretch – we are so happy we had the chance. The masterpiece of this road is the one-mile tunnel that was blasted through the rock; opening the Park from the east side of the state.

Normally we would have entered the Park from the east and come in on this road, but with the washout, they were only allowing vehicles of a certain size and weight through.

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A view from the lower level – that hole is one of a number of portals blasted out for ventilation and views and it will give you an idea of the magnitude of the project.

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We weren’t the only ones enjoying the rush of this switchback mountain road.

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The Checkerboard Mesa was one of the notable landmarks along this road.

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The sandstone mountains in Zion present in a stunning array of colours; from the deepest pink to the palest grey.

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Zion has set up an excellent and efficient people-moving system – they provide free shuttles that lead up and down the canyon and into the nearby town of Springdale, where most of the hotels and inns are located.

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Cars are not allowed in the main part of the canyon; drivers must attempt to snag a free parking spot in the Park (usually gone by 10:00 a.m.) or pay $20 a day in town. This system works like a charm – visitors hop on and off as the shuttles move up and down the canyon road.

There is never more than a couple of minutes wait and zero congestion on the road, making it a joy for the numerous cyclists who travel the route.

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There are dozens of hikes in Zion, from half-hour strolls to multi-day hikes. Due to the extra precipitation and rockfall this winter, many of the longer and more difficult trails are closed. This didn’t impact on us, as our idea of a long hike is five or six hours.

One of the most popular hikes in Zion is The Narrows. We began by hiking The Riverside Walk; a 2.2 mile hike along the Virgin River – The Narrows hike extends at the end of this walk. The Riverside Walk was one of our favourites, and we were in good company that day. Because it is described as “Easy”, there was a bit of crowd on the paths. But somehow it all worked out well and never became annoyingly congested.

This little Virgin River is responsible for the creation of the Zion Canyon. Over the centuries, it cut through the walls  and carved out the formations we see today.

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Slightly different perspectives along this trail

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One of a number of waterfalls in Zion

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And finally – the entrance to The Narrows. This is a hike that is done entirely by wading in the Virgin River and probably best done in summer, as the water is always cold. The hike takes two days, requires overnight camping and at times is done in chest-deep water, with one’s pack hoisted overhead. We laughed just trying to imagine ourselves as two senior voyageurs with our freeze-dried stew and our wicking shirts tumbling into the river and floating away.

Normally this river is running a lot slower; due to rockfall and other obstacles upstream, it is currently closed as the river is not safe. This is where one would normally begin The Narrows hike.

It is also possible jut to hike in as far as you want and then return back. That would have been a lot of fun and we’re regretful we missed out on that experience.

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The other big iconic Zion hike is called Angel’s Landing. We encountered two young women who had just completed it and they were pretty shaken. Going with the adage that one must do what one fears, I was considering it, but for the fact that I’m not good with heights and people have plunged to their death.

This legendary hike goes for 5.4 miles, climbs 1488 feet, and has a series of chain-assisted narrow switchbacks, with 1000 foot drop-offs on either side. You pull yourself up over the ridge to claim victory, and then you have to make your way down again.  I’m sorry to have to admit it, but we took a pass.

Heights aren’t an issue for these big-horned sheep, although we didn’t have the chance to see them in action. They were quite contentedly munching away on the side of a trail.

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Climbing is very popular in Zion, and we saw a number of climbers from our shuttle rides up and down the canyon. This is definitely not an area for beginner climbers – take a look and see if you can pick out the climber on this rock face.

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We might not have been scaling mountains or hanging onto chains, but Zion still left us with lots of hiking and fabulous views.

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A short but lovely hike was to an area called Weeping Rock. It was possible to climb up under the ledge behind a waterfall.  This was one of the views from the ledge.

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Look to the wall on the left of the waterfall – it is a hanging garden of ferns and other plants created by the constant moisture.

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We were going to take a day and drive up to Bryce Canyon. That park is at a much higher elevation and two days ago, a storm front went through. We got high winds and a bit of rain – they got several inches of snow. Sadly we will not have a chance to see Bryce this time – it means a return trip to Utah for sure.

We leave tomorrow to hit a few more spots before we arrive at The Grand Canyon. It’s hard to imagine, our trip is winding down.

 

 

“Rocks Remember”

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.

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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.

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One of the original cabins built by the settlers.

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A little background on their story.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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While Arches National Park is best-known for its arches, there are plenty of other fabulous formations to stop and admire.

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A number of trails led off to varied landscapes – some past solid rock walls.

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Other trails  led into wide open spaces.

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One of the notable arches.

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Another much larger arch.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.