We left Bryce Canyon in a hail of swirling snow and wind – seeking a lower elevation for the night, but with no firm plans in mind. Checking the map, there’s a huge swath of green, indicating the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument about 160 miles down the road, so we get the bright idea that we’ll boondock and explore that area for a day or two.
Snow gives way to bright skies and 50ish temps. We zoom down into Kanab and head to the Visitor Center to check out camping scenarios. The Ranger that is not encouraging. On the board is posted the 5 day weather forecast, and it’s a mass of green (for rain). Most of the backcountry roads are already impassable, even for four-wheelers. Not only do we not have 4WD, we’re towing a trailer. She finally recommends one spot – 12 miles out of town, then 12 miles down a paved road to a gravel road beneath the white cliffs. We’re excited – we only hear ‘paved’, so we figure we’ve got it made. Not so fast…..
We pass through some gorgeous territory, including an old Mormon settlement, which is slowly sagging back into the ground. Finally, we get to the turnoff, and it’s sand and deep red clay. John pulls off the road slightly, and we get out to feel the surface and assess potential campsites. It’s a great place to camp, BUT there are some deep, worrisome ruts in the clay surface of the road. A local rancher pulls up and offers advice, using words like “tow”, “stuck”, “marooned”, and “isolated”. It doesn’t take too long for us to carefully back out and head back to Kanab to find a safe haven for the night. Good choice – it rained hard for ten hours, and I’m sure we’d still be spinning our wheels in red muck trying to get out of Grand Staircase.
So, Day 2 we head over to Navaho National Monument. This the site of the spectacular Betatakin settlement of the Ancestral Puebloens. There’s a small adjacent campground which is free. This is the best of all worlds. A great campsite is ours for the taking – complete with our own huge stone patio overlooking the canyon. The Visitor Center is terrific, and we’re camped in a significant historic site. We wander down to the pubelo overlook, check out the surrounding area a bit, and settle in for the night.I’m excited to make the drive through Monument Valley again on Day 3. This remote section of Utah highway passes some through some of the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine. Flat desert is broken up with massive red monuments. There’s no way I can capture the majesty and sheer grandeur of this setting – there’s nothing to use for scale. It is no wonder that this is sacred ground to Native Americans – it is a breathtaking and mystical experience to pass near these enormous mystical mountains.
John had read something about Goosenecks State Park in Utah, so that became the next stop for the day. Six miles of the San Juan River meander through a deep valley in a series of undulations, stretching horizontally over only about a mile and a half. It was well worth the $5 fee we paid to wander and admire for a half hour. The lighting at the time we were there was perfect – even the parking lot was photogenic.After checking weather reports and consulting our maps, we decide to press on to Mesa Verde National Park for two nights of camping and exploration of the magnificent pueblos there. Mesa Verde was one of the original twelve Unesco World Heritage Sites in 1976 – one of the twelve most significant sites in the world worthy of preservation. This relatively small area is home to over 5000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Having the privilege to see this well-preserved site, visit the gorgeous museum and take a Ranger-guided trip to Balcony House will certainly be two days I will remember for a long time. The Mesa Verde area was inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans from about 600-1300 AD, with a population that likely exceeded today’s number of inhabitants. Of course there’s a huge difference in the structures from the earliest to the most recent, but to see them all in such a small space is amazing. You review hundreds of years of history within a day.
Our tour of Balcony House was terrific. We headed down under the cliff, then up a worrisome 32′ ladder to reach the dwelling.Probably housed 30-50 people lived there in the 1200s with their domesticated turkeys and dogs. Our Ranger Paul was passionate about helping us understand the forces in play during the time of this settlement. It’s amazing what we do know about these early settlements, and how much we really don’t know about what caused their seemingly abrupt desertion of this area around 1300. All you can do is look, absorb, and try to understand. It’s an amazing opportunity.
We did have one low point when using the campground showers today, which had just opened for the season. Chalk it up to the joys of camping. Tomorrow (Friday), we’re moving on. Once again, we don’t really have a firm plan. The weather forecast is lousy for the higher elevations – snow. Rain in the lower regions. We’re thinking about just moving to nearby Durango for a few days. Perhaps we’ll ride the Durango steam train, although it’s too early in the season to take the classic trip to Silverton. Maybe we’ll just lie low and look for a bar where we can watch a baseball game. Funny how far removed we feel from simple pleasures like this.
Hard to believe we’re entering the last few weeks of this trip. We’ve seen so much, yet all I can focus on is what we’ve left undone, and what we overlooked through ignorance or laziness. There is hardly a place we’ve visited that I don’t want to revisit, yet I know that’s not going to be possible. Food for thought.