On June 1st, after spending the entire Winter and Spring in California, we started our journey east. We were looking forward to seeing family and friends after a seemingly interminable time away, but, first, we had an entire country to cross.
First up, a night on government owned land right on the California/Nevada border. The landscape on either side of this divide can best be described as soul-sucking, but the border itself is teeming with activity – mostly cars and trucks limping out of California on fumes before gassing up in Nevada, or folks heading the other way topping off one last time. With their pocketful of realized savings, they can then hit one of the terrible casinos nearby.
Tucked behind all this commotion we found a large, nondescript patch of desert maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and open to free camping. We set up for the night and enjoyed the serenity/unease that comes with parking in a beautiful, barren desert hopefully occupied only by you.
Given the lack of other campers in the area (which surprised us), we decided to stay closer to the entrance, which, as an added bonus, offered these lovely views:
The next day we racked up a bunch of miles as we drove across portions of three states – Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. As we drove, the landscape changed from flat desert to brown/gray rock formations, to the rich layered reds that characterize Southern Utah.
St. George & Cedar City, Utah
I had booked a week at the Southern Utah RV Resort in St. George, expecting to use it as a base to explore Snow Canyon and Sand Hollow State Parks in Utah, and Valley of Fire State Park back in Nevada. Unfortunately, however, we showed up right in time for one of this Summer’s many western heat waves, which meant we spent the majority of the week holed up in the RV trying not to bake.
Luckily, our next stop made up for our disappointing stay in St. George. Cedar City is just 60 miles northeast, but its much higher elevation (5800 vs 2700 feet) resulted in temperatures in the upper 70’s and low 80’s. Much better!
The owners of our small, family run campground, Cedar Canyon Retreat, put together a nice guide for local sightseeing and hiking options, and we hit as many of their suggestions as we could.
Some were just small interesting local sights, like a natural ice cave, a forest of bristlecone pines up on a mountain, and a manmade waterfall along a creek.
Other suggestions were for the bigger parks and trails in the area. First up, was a return to one of our absolute favorite national parks.
The Quiet Side of Zion
Unless you’ve been hiding from the news recently, you know the national parks were positively overrun with visitors this Summer. Millions and millions of stir-crazy Americans upgraded their selfie sticks, grabbed their plastic bottles of Poland Spring, and headed for “America’s Best Ideas” – only to learn that, these days, you need tickets to get into many of “America’s Best Ideas,” and even with tickets, there aren’t enough parking spaces, shuttle busses, visitor centers, or other resources for all the guests. All of which, unsurprisingly, resulted in lots of disappointed and frustrated people.
But, as we’ve learned over the years, where there’s a will to avoid tourists, there’s a way to avoid tourists.
All of which brings me to the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park. The vast (vast) majority of Zion visitors head to the main entrance of the park which provides access to Zion Canyon.
And that makes sense, because Zion Canyon is ridiculously amazing. (Here’s my post about our visit there.)
However, the canyon is also very small, accessible only by park operated shuttle buses, and reached via the tiny town of Springdale – which backs up with traffic from sunrise to sunset every single day of the high season.
Kolob Canyons is a different section of Zion with its own entrance. It would take about an hour to drive from one entrance to the other but most tourists don’t bother. Which is pretty silly, because if they did, instead of dealing with this:
they’d be dealing with this:
Now, admittedly, Zion Canyon is incredible and should not be missed, and Kolob Canyons has a much more limited selection of trails and vistas, but it’s certainly worth a visit and if you’re trying to get a break from the people, and the lines, and the pandemonium, it’s a good option.
From Cedar City to the Kolob Canyons entrance is only about 20 minutes, so it was an easy trip for us. Once there, we drove the 10 mile scenic road:
and did the short hike out to the viewpoint at the end of the road.
All the scenery with none of the crowds. Perfect.
Cascade Falls Trail
Next up, we headed further into the Dixie National Forest to walk the Cascade Falls Trail, a short, but scenic path that offers dramatic views of the red rocks, hoodoos, and pine forests that characterize this region.
The trail’s namesake waterfall was barely a trickle, but the hike was still fun. If you happen to be here in late Spring, the waterfall is probably pretty impressive, and no matter when you visit, it’s almost guaranteed to not be crowded.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Cedar Breaks National Monument is yet another lightly visited park in Southern Utah.
Really lightly visited… Here’s what we saw as we walked up to the main overlook:
For a split second I even wondered to myself: “Is this place gonna be worth the trip?”
To which, upon reaching the railing and looking over the side, I responded: “Yes, dumbass. It is.”
Formed by limestone uplifted over millions of years, colored by oxidized iron and manganese, and eroded by rain, ice, and wind, this vibrant landscape, similar to Bryce National Park, is exceptionally dramatic. We hiked the 4 mile Spectra/Ramparts trail which slips in and out of the forest as it follows the rim of the amphitheater. There’s a lot of elevation change, so be prepared for a lengthy slog coming back, but the views and solitude were worth the effort.
Capitol Reef National Park
After a week in Cedar City, we packed up and drove further east to Torrey, Utah, home of Capitol Reef National Park.
Utah has five national parks, all of which are hugely popular, but Capitol Reef offers comparatively lower visitation numbers, cooler temperatures, and a neat little town nearby, all of which made it super appealing to us this Summer.
Unfortunately, the “cooler temperatures” part of the equation didn’t quite work out for us. Once again, we managed to find ourselves in the midst of a record breaking heat wave. However, we counted ourselves as lucky – if we were seeing temperatures in the mid 90’s in Torrey, we knew places like St. George were seeing temperatures in the high triple digits. Eventually, clouds brought relief from the heat, but they also brought rainstorms, and much of CRNP is a no-go for hiking when it’s raining because???
That’s right! Flash floods. Just one more way America’s Best Idea will send your ass home in a body bag if you’re not paying attention.
All of which meant, we did a lot of scenic drives.
If you’re wondering why several of these pictures look cockeyed – like the rock formations are collapsing backwards, it’s because they are. This area is known as the “Waterpocket Fold.” It’s basically a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust caused by a combination of geography and climate changes over hundreds of millions of years.
The short version is that 280 million years ago, 10,000 feet of sedimentary rock, composed of limestone, sandstone and shale, collected here. 50-70 million years ago, tectonic activity along a fault beneath all that rock caused one side to lift 7,000 feet above the other side. And since then, erosion – from wind, rain, and freeze/thaw cycles, has worn away the rock, creating the canyons, cliffs, and interesting formations we see today.
Capitol Reef was the third national park we’ve visited in Utah and I really can’t say one was better than the others. They are all spectacular. I really wish we’d been able to hike more, but I’m glad we visited when it wasn’t overly crowded. My guess is this park will be overrun like all the others in a couple years, so if you’re thinking about visiting, I wouldn’t wait too long.
Torrey: Nom, Nom, Nom.
Luckily, crappy weather doesn’t ruin plans to eat delicious food, because, let me tell you, we had plans!
Back when we were in California, we met up with Brenda and Wally from Our 38 Foot Life (they spend half the year in a 38 foot motorhome and half on a 38 foot boat). We’d been following each other’s blogs forever, but had never crossed paths. Finally, on a pitstop in Riverside, we met up for lunch and had a great conversation. A few weeks later, they headed to Capitol Reef which she wrote about here. Included in that post was a tip about what’s become one of the most unique restaurants we’ve visited: Curry Pizza. Turns out, though, it wasn’t just Brenda who was impressed:
Curry Pizza is a combination Indian/Pizza place. You can order regular Indian dishes and regular pizza, but if you’re living life right, you’ll order one of their specialty pizzas – a pie made with a traditional curry sauce in place of the tomato sauce. It may sound weird, but it totally works and makes for some standout pizza.
Another terrific spot we ran across was the Capitol Burger truck which turns out big flavors despite its small size.
Finally, inside Capitol Reef NP, in a fertile, verdant region once populated by Mormon settlers, orchards planted 140 years ago still produce all kinds of fruit. Apple, cherry, peach, apricot, plum, and almond trees still grow in perfect rows, and park guests are invited to pick ripe fruit to enjoy on premises. Additionally, the historic Gifford House is known for its homemade, individual sized fruit pies. Crucially, their seasonal offerings include strawberry/rhubarb, which, as everyone knows, is the best kind of fruit pie. (Don’t argue with me. And yes, this is a hill on which I am willing to die.) The staff only bakes a limited number each day and they sell out quickly, but if you complete your mission, you’re in for a serious treat!
And with that, we packed up Barney and headed east, and then north (because we didn’t feel like driving over the Rockies), and then east again. We stopped for one night at James Robb State Park near Grand Junction, Colorado – a gorgeous state park we’ve stayed at before, followed by a night up in Rawlins, Wyoming, followed by single night stays in Sidney, Nebraska, and Elm Creek, Nebraska. The stop in Sidney was notable because we stayed on the grounds of Cabela’s corporate headquarters. Cabela’s is known for being friendly to RVers, and their HQ, located right off I-80, offers a full service campground which was quite welcome after many, many miles on the road. Thanks, Cabela’s!
Finally, after 4 days of nonstop driving, we arrived in Ashland, Nebraska, where we would begin a three week tour of four surprisingly (at least, to us) awesome Midwest cities.
More on all that soon.
Where we stayed:
I didn’t write individual campground reviews for most of these because I am way behind and everything now runs together, so these are the Campendium links for the campgrounds we stayed at.
Ivanpah West Dry Lake, Nipton, California
Southern Utah RV Resort, St. George, Utah
Cedar Canyon Retreat, Cedar City, Utah
Wonderland RV Park, Torrey, Utah
James Robb State Park, Fruita, Colorado
Western Hills Campground, Rawlins, Wyoming
Cabela’s, Sidney, Nebraska
4 Seasons Campground, Elm Creek, Nebraska