With my semester finished in Missoula, MT, I roadtripped to my home in Northern California. Instead of spending one night halfway, or just making the entire 20-plus hour drive in one leg, I spent three nights exploring the rocky deserts of southern Utah. Improvising as I went, I ended up visiting three National Parks—Arches, Canyon Lands, and Zion. It was quite a jam, no doubt, one perhaps my youth allowed me to pull off.
Beauty wasn’t confined to the parks, but was roadside, along the interstates and highways, as well. Day one took me through Southwestern Montana and Idaho into Salt Lake City, UT, where I spent my first night. Skipping town early the following morning, I headed south to Moab for another night’s stay before turning west towards Zion National Park the following evening, where I spent a night and drove home the following day, snaking my way through dry towering mountains in a sliver of northwestern Arizona to start, and on through southern Nevada, closing in on a metallic Las Vegas Strip in the distance, alit by a pink sky and sun falling behind mountains stringing the horizon. Dark from there on, I pulled into my home in Santa Cruz, CA, early the following morning.
But enough about my caffeine/nicotine-ridden time spent in my modern car gliding over poured asphalt. The biggest highlights of my trip were the three solitary hikes I managed to pull off in three different parks in a blink of time amid winter solstice.
Arches National Park
Day 2: Spending my first night ever in a stateside hostel, I somehow managed to pull myself out of bed by 6 to get out of Salt Lake City. Before doing so, I drove through its downtown to glimpse the Mormon temples and ceremonial sights, which didn’t disappoint in their magnitude. A massive cathedral overlooks a square of statues and fountains. Several other imposing administrative buildings are nearby. The state’s capital building is across the street, unnerving in its immediate presence. Mansions dotting the nearby mountainside cast their shadows over it all. The area simultaneously screams indoctrination, power, and money.
After taking it all in for no longer than fifteen minutes, I sped out for Moab. The drive took around five hours. Closing in on town at near-noon, I had to decide between Arches and Canyon Lands National Parks to spend my afternoon. Strapped by time, I decided on Arches out of convenience. Accessibility was a big reason, as a road conveniently shows much of what the park has to offer. I didn’t know if I’d only be staying around Moab for only that afternoon.
With more than 2,000 natural arches, the park is known for having the densest concentration of such formations in the world, according to the free visitor guide a Ranger handed me. Many factors have allowed have allowed for such an abundant collection to occur. In short, the sandstone is a kind that is very porous, and its collective weight has squeezed a layer of salt deep beneath it upwards, cracking lines parallel to each other on its surface. Erosion, brought on by weather, has dug out these cracks deeper and deeper over the course of time, allowing water to settle in and eat away at the stone. Give this process an unfathomable length of time, enough for over a mile’s deep worth of stone to dissolve away, and you get arches.
I decided to explore Devils Garden, an area at the park’s northern end, at the 24-mile long paved road’s extremity. Driving to the trailhead made for a lofty experience, as the road starts by snaking its way up and over sandstone cliffs, then winding through odd rock formations of an array of color and sizes jutting from every direction.
At the trailhead I hastened to change into my gear, but was startled at finding the water spigot dry. I had none and knew I couldn’t go without for long. Luckily, a middle-aged man saw my defeated expression at the pump and offered me help. We walked to the back of his pickup, where his family was gathered, and he handed me five water bottles and wished me luck.
It was half-past one when I set off. The day happened to be winter’s solstice, so I was already running thin on daylight. I knew I needed four hours to explore the area, and I had exactly that to spare.
The trail started off very congested, which surprised me considering Christmas was at week’s end, let alone that the trail, along with the all the northern faces of rocks and hills, was underneath several inches of snow.
Right away, signs signaled arches down side trails spurring in different directions. The first one I wandered to was Pine Tree Arch, a sight impressive in both its size and formation. Approaching its opening at an angle, I saw a man standing inside of it on its base, which swept out and away from below him, rising high above his head, performing a full circle until settling back beneath his feet. Though I knew I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it in solidarity, the man’s shape offered perspective for the formation’s impressive size. I walked beneath the towering orange walls and ceiling speechless. The man introduced himself as Bjorg and said he was from Lyon, France.
Back on the main trail, I quickly closed in on Landscape Arch, one as famous as it is startling. The long, narrow bridge spans a length of cliff that’s given way from under it. The trail was crowded with spectators, most of whom would now turn around and head back to the parking lot as the path becomes less conspicuous and more dangerous, weaving its way through crevices and climbing up and over boulders, fin formations, and down icy slants of stone; cairns mark the way.
I had a mile until I would reach the Double-O Arch located at the trail’s end, where I would turn back, not staying on the loop. Darkness was settling into a sky shrouded by overcast; and being much lonelier in these parts than near the trailhead, I wasn’t in a hurry to strand myself looking for a damned kicked over cairn in the pitched black in no-man’s-land.
Double-O Arch didn’t disappoint. After not taking to the obvious hint in its name, I was surprised at rounding a corner of stone to see two arches stacked upon each other, the upper much larger than the lower. I decided to sit inside the lower to eat and ponder over my trip’s next move. Rain/Snow was forecasted for the next day, so I thought maybe I would just hang at the hostel in Moab and drive onto Zion. But I knew I had to start moving quickly to make it out of Devil’s Garden with any daylight to spare.
On my way back to the trailhead, I met two sorority girls from Salt Lake City. They told me I had to see Delicate Arch, which is down the road a ways and up another trail.
“It’s like really famous,” one of them said, “so you have to see it.”
Convinced by their trite logic, I started off faster than before.
It was pitch dark when I pulled into the trailhead for Delicate Arch, but I needed to see this damned thing even though it’s stamped onto every one of the state’s vehicle license plates. I was working with only my cell phone for light, and I wasn’t having the best of time in the freezing cold under the clouds. Delicate Arch makes great for nighttime photos underneath stars and a glowing Milky Way spanning the sky above. But when shrouded by clouds, limiting light, your best bet for a discernible photo is to click the flash button. So as soon as I saw its outline high on a cliff in the distance, I turned around. My photos of it are worthless, but I saw it.
Moab is just seven miles down the highway from the park entrance. I pulled into town and realized that it is a happening place, with some money and plenty of nice spots to eat and sleep. Lots of tour and off road vehicle rental companies make you realize you’re in a pretty unique spot, one that’s sparked up invasive industry, but special nonetheless.
After asking around for its location, I pulled into the Lazy Lizard Hostel. Located on the edge of town behind a personal storage facility, it’s modest but convenient. I walked in at ten and reserved a dorm bed for ten bucks. I sat down in the common room. Suddenly, I realized the place was infested with middle-to-latter-aged hippies, all who had be squatting for at least several months. One popped in a war movie for us all to watch. We sat and watched, but it was in French, with no sub-titles. The man couldn’t understand a lick of what was said, but still offered plenty of nonsensical commentary over the torments of war. “All these young men,” he kept saying, “so many lives wasted.”
I stood up bewildered and headed into town for food and a few beers. 3.2% beers that is, as intoxication is further regulated in Utah than in other states. After enjoying one of them, I bought a few cans to go, as those weren’t required to be watered-down, and I learned that Moab does in fact have good beer.
Arriving back to the hostel, I walked by the common room to see the hippies had restarted the same movie–I shit you not. I walked up stairs to my dorm to read and drink my beer.
Eventually, a young man walked in to the room, about my age, and asked what I was reading. I told him Desert Solitaire by Ed… “Yes,” he interrupted, “great book!” Adding, “I’ve read all the so-called ‘nature books,’ and that one’s the best.”
We went on to trash Walden, and talk about other stuff. His name was KC and he’s a travelling nurse from Ohio, a job that affords him plenty of time to hit the backcountry. Another kid walked in, Brian, whose from Bozeman, MT, but has lived in Alaska for the past ten years; and then another, Calvin, who’s from Louisiana—a “shithole” he’s never going back to again. All three were traveling solo, and they had just seen Star Wars together. The new company was comforting, and I was bummed I didn’t have enough beer to share.
They started talking about their latest adventures, and they kept dwelling on their time in the ‘Needles’ section of Canyon Lands. They were showing me photos, telling me it’s a must. I was sold by its isolation. Both Brian and KC had backpacked through it solo, a fact both cited as a highlight.
“You just explore,” said KC with a smile, “high on life.”
Canyon Lands National Park
Day 3: I left the Lazy Lizard hostel early Tuesday morning for a 100-mile drive to Elephant Hill in the Needles District of Canyon Lands National Park. The park’s other districts are Island in the Sky, a more accessible and touristy area; and the Maze, a labyrinth where James Franco lost an arm.
‘Needles’ gets its name from the countless protruding spires that span its landscape, sporadically filling its canyons’ floors and aligning their walls. Some look like mushrooms, others like water silos, and some just like big rounded lumps of stone.
They formed similar to the arches: First, sandstone was fractured in perpendicular patterns by a moving salt bed far beneath the surface; then erosion from wind and other elements dug these cracks into areas where water could pool and further dissolve the stone. Again, you must give this process an incomprehensible length of time.
A multitude of narrow halls and caves have burrowed themselves throughout the area, creating a labyrinth ripe for exploring. One can get lost in a hurry, however, and I planned on sticking within sight of whichever blazed trail I was on, as I knew I was the only one within many miles, judging from the empty parking lot at the trailhead.
I was more enthusiastic at the start of my hike than for any other one I could remember. The dusty sandstone I was walking over was marked by way of cairns, and the experience was new and invigorating. Right away, I was finding vista points to climb to, to see the different surreal Candy Land-esque landscapes. The cliffs were plenty sheer, but un-jagged. Aside from the wavy patterns protruding from some of the oozing slopes, they were seamless, rounding their way throughout their formations. The most pervasive color was blood-orange, but which was often accentuated by creamy swirls and occasional black shading. There were also red, yellow and gray rocks, along with green desert shrubbery and, in some large exposed areas, glistening white powder.
I was shouting at the top of my lungs to hear my echo ricochet throughout the canyons and halls connecting them. I was gliding over boulders, winding my way through crevices that would spit me into view of a broad alien lands. I was climbing into random trailside caves and summiting freestanding boulders, all while constantly reminding myself to remain aware, to enjoy it all while it lasted.
Not that my attention wasn’t in constant demand, as I would get to one cairn and immediately search for the next to walk to, all of which I would find, usually without any scare. Knowing I was alone on those trails that day was empowering in and of itself, but thinking of how the Rangers stacked each and every one of those rocks for only my usage on that very day amused me as well.
I had been hiking for over two hours when I reached Chesler Park, my destination. I was walking through a smooth landscape dotted with patches of snow, staring ahead at the massive liver-colored cliffs shallowly horseshoeing themselves towards me, looking like hell’s front stoop. I stepped up the trail to a ledge on its cliffside, overlooking the most vast landscape I’d see that day. It started snowing while I sat, leaned against the cliff, eating my lunch.
I hadn’t slept in that morning, but due to my late start, brought on from all of the roadside photos I snapped on my way in, I didn’t have time to continue on a different route back to my car. Though I had plenty of daylight, I wanted to spare some of it for my drive out of canyon country.
The sun set as I made my way along the forty miles worth of road before the highway. It was like driving inside of an old western film. Massive mesas lined the horizons, their sheer red cliffs giving way to their piled shavings.
The drive west to Zion was dark. I could discern only the shapes of the roadside mountains, mesas, and valleys along the way. Cigarettes and coffee, along with Miles Davis and a slew of podcasts powered me across to Southwestern Utah, where I would find a Holiday Inn, whose front desk kindly recommended, upon seeing my reaction to their rates, their parking lot for a night’s sleep. It was half-past twelve when I closed my eyes.
Zion National Park
Day 4: I awoke at 7:30 and headed straight for the park entrance to beat the park fees, as no Ranger would be on the clock. I hadn’t had to pay entrance fees at Arches nor Canyon Lands.
Upon entering, I went to the Information Center for a map and advice on a day hike to pursue. A short bespectacled Ranger stood behind a counter and talked to me as if I were a fool for considering a hike garbed in the basketball shorts and t-shirt I was wearing. The sleeping pill from the night prior was only beginning to wear thin, leaving me in no mood for snarky comments from a man who looked like he hadn’t seen any more of the trails he was recommending than from the map itself. He turned around at one point to answer a phone, which is when I saw a small braid of hair hanging from the back of his head–a full-blown rat-tail–and he’s lucky, being in the form I was in, I didn’t snatch him by it.
Lucky for me, I exercised that moment’s smidgen of self-control I contained and was able to make my way into the park. With the shuttle road open to all vehicles during the winter, I could pull right up to many of park’s best trails.
Driving along, I was suddenly aghast by the sheer cliffs rising from either side of me as I drove through Zion Canyon. How had I never known of this place? I did, but I never knew what I was missing out on. A few weeks prior, a professor at my school had told me that this is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I didn’t think much of his word, but the cliffs of orange, red, pink and yellow hue, bowing from high above, rectified his words; it may actually be the most heavenly place I’ve ever been.
I stopped by the park’s lodge on my way to the trailhead to check and see if any of my former co-workers at Glacier National Park were working. I went straight to the dining room and was floored at seeing Nancy, who was hosting. A self-proclaimed Mother of mine, she almost fainted.
“Oh, my son!” were her first words.
Nancy wasn’t happy to hear how fast I’d been moving over the past few days, or the fact I’d just spent the night in my car, and she hastened a lunch for me from her dining hall and insisted that I eat something. We said our goodbyes. It was a great surprise for the both of us. I hopped back on the road, headed for the Overlook trail.
The Overlook Trail’s start is constructed from a cliff side, with paved switchbacks taking you upward in a hurry.
The skies were cloudy, but visibility was clear enough to see the surrounding cliffs across the valley come more alive the higher I got. I kept stopping to take it all in and snap photos. Snow and ice covered the trail, cautioning me, as one slip could have brought on detrimental consequence. Several other hikers were on the trail, along with a few families and couples enjoying their time, and what better possible way could there be to spend the holidays?
After the switchbacks, the trail cut into a narrow canyon between two mountains disjointing from each other high in the sky. The trail made its way through caves and straddled a creek on its way through the narrow passage.
Out of here, the trail turned left up one of the mountainsides and switched back, rising back over the top of the crevice it just crawled through, making its way back around to the face it zigzags up earlier.
This is when I met Won, who I caught at about an hour’s time from the summit. Like me, he was in the midst of a solo National Park road-trip. But unlike mine, his would last for several weeks, affording him more time to spend in the parks he visited. We talked about the different parks we had seen, and he spoke very highly of Denali in Alaska, which made me want to work there this summer even more.
Won would be spending Christmas alone on the road, stopping in a city to pass the time. I made a few Vegas and L.A. recommendations, as he was visiting either of those for the first time, but I bet he ended up going to Death Valley instead (I had no problem encouraging this more so than the other options).
It snowed during our hike back down the mountain, making us glad we weren’t on our way up. Won veered off on another trail to see an arch, and we split ways, exchanging information in the process.
I wanted a chance to drive the park’s road before nightfall. The sun was starting to come out again, glistening the colored cliffs. Though small, the park offers plenty to shock. Its slim size and outrageous beauty sort of give off a super-model impression (in the context of National Parks that is). I was pulling over at every turnout to snap photos. The road wasn’t thronged with traffic, allowing me to drive its length twice fairly quickly before I headed home.
Still light out, the roadside views to start were imposing, as cliffs and barren rocky mountains were in constant view. Their size was as impressive as those I’d just seen in Zion, but their dry, gray and sandy brown colors un-familiarized them.
All I could think about was In-In-Out Burger, where I would stop at on the Vegas strip, and from where on all I could think of was my sore back and the impending hours of night-time driving ahead. I started making phone calls to my friends to pass time. I arrived at my home at 2 that morning and awoke to spend Christmas Eve with my family.