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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Bryce Canyon


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Panguitch wasn't any bigger than the other bland country burgs we'd passed through on our southward journey through Utah, but proximity to Bryce Canyon National Park meant they had a real Main Street with hotels, restaurants, and retail businesses. Our Airbnb was located above one of these, a colorful gift and supply shop called Thunder Horses Mercantile with an attached cafe. We arrived in town too early to check in and decided to press on ahead to the park, a half hour journey that took us through a beautiful area called Red Canyon that we didn't have time to explore.
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Bryce Canyon is set up similarly to the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly, with a main road that passes along the rim that provides access to several overlooks. The main difference with Bryce is that there's only one rim, which somewhat simplifies the task of getting the full experience. As with the other canyons we found Bryce to be busy but not unpleasantly crowded. For example, my guidebook had advised beginning the day at the furthest outlook in order to make turn-offs to the right on the way back, to avoid having to wait for pauses in traffic to make the turn-offs to the left. There weren't enough cars on the road to make turning left an issue but it was easy to imagine both lanes jam-packed due to visitors not having the foresight to do things that way.
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The first thing to understand about Bryce Canyon is that it is not a canyon, a term that only applies to a chasm formed by the erosive action of a river. There's no river at the bottom of Bryce Canyon, which is centered around a bowl-shaped depression which has become known as the Amphitheater. The Amphitheater is the main draw for visitors and it's a very difficult sight to describe. I had read about it and seen some pictures but I really didn't grasp the magnitude of what we would be seeing when we approached the rim. My research had indicated that the best spots to view the Amphitheater were Sunrise Point and Sunset Point, adjacent outlooks about a ten minute walk from each other along the rim. It was a little difficult to find parking at Sunset Point in the early afternoon but eventually something opened up and we proceeded to the rim where there was a wide viewing platform. We had already experienced a bounty of incredible views on this road trip but there was no doubt that this was the most amazing thing we had seen thus far. Irregular rows and clusters of rusty, white-capped hoodoos projected from the hillsides as far as the eye could see. Although on first glance they seemed uniform, closer inspection revealed variety in their rippled surfaces and the shapes of their caps and spires. Some almost appeared to have faces and it was easy to imagine having stumbled upon a stadium filled with attentive members of a gigantic alien race. It was an awe-inspiring and hypnotizing sight that kept us on the platform for a good fifteen minutes. What finally got us off the platform was our desire to get a closer look at a steep trail that a line of people were using to descend between two steep walls of hoodoos.
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The trail turned out to be the Navajo Loop and it was one of the coolest looking trailheads I could have imagined. The descent was a series of short switchbacks that had been carved out of the compressed sandstone dirt that formed the hillside between two cliffs. I wasn't really thinking about going down there because we hadn't come prepared with our hiking boots and the afternoon heat was fairly high. It was Mei Ling who convinced me that we could tackle the trail that afternoon and give ourselves more flexibility the next day. We began slowly picking our way down the switchbacks. The drop-offs weren't very high but I still kept myself between the kids and the edge of the path as best I could as the sandstone walls rose higher and higher around us. Despite being in sandals we didn't find ourselves slipping on the gently-graded dirt surfaces.
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At the bottom we had a completely different perspective on the hoodoos and spires that now towered above us. The next stage was a short passage through Wall Street, the park's only slot canyon, which soon passed us into the forested base of the depression.
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We continued on the Navajo Loop through the base of the Amphitheater among stately Ponderosa pines. This part of the hike was quite easy and enjoyable. There was some remarkable interplay between the trees and the sandstone formations, especially one enormous pine that had been nearly uprooted by a flood and prevented from falling by a cliff that it now embraced as it continued to grow.
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Of course what goes down must eventually come back up if it expects to return to its car, and we completed the loop with an exhausting ascent up another series of switchbacks without anywhere near as much protection from the sun. On the bright side we got a close look at a group of some of the most amazing goblet-shaped hoodoos in all of Bryce Canyon.
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Once we were done hiking we had a fairly stark choice. We could go back to Panguitch, settle into the Airbnb, have a leisurely dinner and get to bed early. Alternatively we could drive for an hour and a half to the Hell's Backbone Grill, one of the best-regarded restaurants in southern Utah, in the town of Boulder. The added benefit was that the second half of the drive along Highway 12 was reputed to be an breathtaking scenic drive through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The downside was that it meant an additional exhausting three hours of driving on top of the driving we'd already done that day. In the end we decided it would be better to get the drive done that day when we had the additional motivation of an excellent dinner, rather than leaving it until the next morning and then having to drive an additional two and a half hours to Lake Powell. There were dirt roads that would have shortened the distance between Boulder and Lake Powell but I had been advised that these were not safe to drive without a high clearance four wheel drive.

The first half of the drive was regular western countryside, pleasant enough but not particularly memorable. It wasn't until we passed Escalante that the landscape really began to open up around us. Colorfully stratified ridges and canyons began to appear around us and the road began to swivel between impressive formations. At one point the ground on either side of us dropped away completely and we found ourselves driving along a winding ridge with no guardrails and steep dropoffs that began at the shoulder of the road on either side. I later learned this stretch was called the Hogback. I was so focused on making sure I didn't drift from the center of the road that it was hard to enjoy the amazing views of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that we had from the ridge.
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Not long after this white knuckle section of the drive was completed we arrived at Hell's Backbone Grill. Based on the name and the location in the middle of nowhere I was expecting some rough-and-tumble barbeque joint and I was quite surprised to find an idyllic farmhouse with a covered wooden patio and an attached farm stand. The restaurant was quite busy as well and it was fortunate we were early or we might have had to return to Bryce empty-handed. We were seated after a half hour wait and had a very enjoyable meal of farm-to-table bistro type food. I'm not sure the food itself was worth the three hours of round trip driving but it was a suitable finale after the amazing views from the Hogback.
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As we finished our desserts the sun had already commenced a rapid descent and we realized that the last thing on Earth we wanted to deal with was driving back across the Hogback in darkness. We peeled back onto Route 12 with every intention of getting back to Bryce in record time but the views of the Grand Staircase under the setting sun were so incredible that we couldn't resist pulling over a couple of times to admire them. We completed the stretch just as my visibility was starting to suffer and then had a boring hour long trip through darkness between Escalante and Panguitch. Getting into the Airbnb was a confusing and tortuous process that required locating an unmarked door in pitch darkness and then utilizing two different pass codes, but the apartment itself was very modern and spacious. There was no time to enjoy it as we still had to unpack and get the kids ready for bed, knowing that we'd be checking out in just nine or ten hours.
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The Thunder Horses Mercantile had a pretty decent cafe along with some fascinating hunting goods on display. Between some slow service at breakfast and dawdling in the store we got a later start on our second visit to Bryce Canyon than I had hoped. As recommended by the guidebook we drove to Yovimpa Point at the end of the road and then worked our way backwards through the various viewpoints. Along the way we saw incredible natural formations such as a giant goblet hoodoo and the Natural Bridge.
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As advertised, the best views of the Amphitheater came at Inspiration Point. From here we had a sideways view of the basin filled with endless rows of hoodoos, a dizzying canvas of wavering lines and bands of color. The location lived up to its name in every way.
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Eventually we ended up at Sunrise Point where we planned to descend to the base for the second time, this time via the Queen's Garden Trail. We were all kitted out now in our hiking outfits and better prepared to tackle the trail than we had been the day before. The trail had beautiful views over the park and got us close to some amazing formations, but it also had some frightening drop-offs that we hadn't needed to worry about on the Navajo Loop the previous day. It's pretty difficult to enjoy a hike when I'm completely focused on spotting upcoming threats to life and limb and trying to herd three kids away from them. Once we reached a particularly uncomfortable series of drops which appeared on alternating sides of the trail I had had enough and we decided it was best to head back to the trailhead. At this point we'd already seen Bryce from every possible angle and another hour of walking through the basin probably wasn't going to add very much, so we returned to the car and got ourselves on the road to Lake Powell.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:23 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog panguitch boulder_utah Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Central Utah


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We had accomplished an amazing amount in our one full day in Salt Lake City, especially considering that the temperature had been hovering around a hundred degrees most of the afternoon. The one thing on my list we hadn't done was the hike to Donut Falls in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest to the east of the city. It was reportedly an easy hike but we had to get it done early ahead of the three-digit temperatures that were once again being projected by early afternoon. We did a good job of slamming cereal into the kids and sweeping our belongings into the car and were on the road by eight. Big Cottonwood Canyon Road was a scenic drive through lush hillsides carpeted with aspen and maple trees in every shade of green.
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The legal parking around the trailhead was full when we arrived. Rather than turning around and parking a quarter mile away we parked just outside the marker and hoped for the best. We weren't obstructing the flow of cars at least. There was a healthy stream of people heading towards the beginning of the trail, and some already returning, but it wasn't crowded or noisy. The first part of the walk was along a dirt and gravel path though a forested area that eventually ended in a short clamber down to a stream. Here we had to pick our way along the rocks that lay in the stream bed to avoid soaking our hiking boots. Fairly soon we came upon the waterfall, which wasn't very impressive from ground level. The adventurous part of the hike is the scramble up the boulders to the top of the falls where the water passes through a circular hole in a stone cave, which is the reason for the name of Donut Falls. I knew from my research that the locals sometimes said the name of the waterfall should be "Do Not Falls" because of the slippery, movable boulders and there had been more than one fatality among climbers in the past. Cleo wanted to try the climb but I vetoed the idea and we returned to the car, which was thankfully unticketed and untowed.
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More than 80% of Utah's three million people live in the Wasatch Front corridor that includes Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo. Provo had been along our route from Moab and I had originally considered spending a night there, an idea that I eventually rejected after I was unable to find a single distinctive sight in the city. There was a hike to Bridal Veil Falls, a soap-making workshop for kids, and that was about it. We decided to have an early lunch at Provo's solitary food hall, which turned out to be a pretty basic place with fast food type items like burgers and fried chicken. The kids were fine with the chicken while Mei Ling and I had some pretty good Mexican food from Jurassic Taco so it wasn't really a disappointment.
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From downtown Provo the mountains to the east looked close enough to touch, which fascinated us since our home state of Florida is flat as a pancake. We decided to drive eastward along the residential streets as far as we could to see what happened when we reached the mountains. Sure enough the orderly blocks ended abruptly and a winding road ascended the hillside past some impressive mansions. Eventually this road ended at a blind loop from which we could see over much of the city.
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We could easily have left Provo at this point without seeing anything further but good luck took us through the center of town where we could see that a major road had been closed off and beyond that was what appeared to be a street festival. We found a place to park and walked past the barriers into a huge and energetic party which covered several city blocks. There were tons of food trucks, frozen drinks, crafts, live music, and even an axe throwing competition. Mei Ling was brave enough to try the axes but she couldn't figure out how to get them to stick in the target.
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Our walk through the festival brought us to the center of downtown Provo where there were some beautiful and classical buildings like the Provo Historic Courthouse and the Provo City Center Utah Temple. The temple is a Gothic Revival rebuild of the 19th century Provo Tabernacle which was destroyed by fire in 2010. Next to the temple is a sleek black modern skyscraper that is the headquarters of the Nu Skin cosmetics company.
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By now we were just a block away from the Soap Factory so we decided to let the kids give it a shot. We walked up a narrow staircase to a rather stale office suite which ironically had rather dirty white walls. A teenaged attendant took us through the process of selecting molds and then helped the kids mix their colors and scents into melted soap. They picked the most overpowering, unpleasant scents that seemed to be available and dutifully completed the activity. It seemed like the kids were having fun but for us it was a rather painful experience enduring the heavy air and the noxious aromas. Eventually we were handed a paper bag with the completed soap bars which joined the petrified wood in the spare tire compartment as soon as we got back to the SUV.
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By the time we were finished having fun in Provo the idea of going to Bridal Veil Falls had lost most of its appeal. We'd already done one waterfall hike that day and it was getting on into the afternoon. Instead I decided we'd get back on the southern route and spend some time on a section of highway called the Nebo Loop which had the reputation of being one of the most scenic roads in Utah. The mistake I made was assuming that the Nebo Loop was a loop, meaning that it would start and finish at the same point. With that assumption in mind I plugged it into Google Maps and drove forty minutes from Provo to Nephi along the most boring stretch of interstate one could imagine. It wasn't until I took a closer look at the map in Nephi that I realized the "loop" was a winding north-south road from Payson to Nephi through the Wasatch Forest. We'd missed it entirely and taken the highway to the southern end. That was extremely frustrating but I had no one to blame except myself and whoever had made the decision to call the road a loop when it was certainly not a loop. We decided to make the best of it and drive back north along the Nebo Loop until we grew tired of it, knowing we would eventually have to return the same way we had come. The first part of the drive along the single lane road was a pleasant change from the interstate with colorful landscape features such as grey fins protruding from the hillsides.
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After about ten minutes we began a steep, winding ascent into the mountains which soon brought us up to about seven thousand feet. The views over the greenery and the mountain peaks were so stunning we had to pull over at every turn-off to admire them. Some mountains still had patches of snow at the upper reaches.
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We decided to end our drive at Devil's Kitchen, a steep hillside with a cluster of sandstone hoodoos that would be a preview for the amazing vistas we would later experience at Bryce Canyon. A short paved trail from the parking area led to a viewing platform from which we could closely evaluate nature's excellent handiwork. Afterwards we undertook the ear-popping descent back to Nephi.
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I'm pretty sure we didn't miss anything between Nephi and Joseph, the town where we were staying. This was serious small town America, just a string of tiny burgs along the interstate none of which held more than a few thousand people. I had a short list of restaurants to stop at for dinner but none of them turned out to be open on the Independence Day holiday, even the ones that had Monday hours. We had to overshoot Joseph and drive another twenty minutes to Marysvale just to eat at a motel diner that had predictably awful fast food. The only thing memorable about that meal was when a teenaged waitress came over to our table to inform Mei Ling that she was "absolutely the most beautiful woman I've ever seen". All of us froze with forks halfway lifted to our mouths before Mei Ling could summon her wits and thank the girl. I'm not going to disagree with her assessment but Mei Ling hasn't gotten attention on that level since we participated in Carnival in Trinidad. I'm guessing that not many Asian women pass through Marysvale, Utah but I could be wrong.
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Joseph made Marysvale seem like a booming metropolis. There was a three by five grid of residential blocks with houses scattered sparsely among fields and empty lots. Our Airbnb was deserving of its high rating as it was spacious and renovated with modern appliances. The only bummer was the absence of central air on the upper floor, which I partially remediated with a floor fan. There were no grocery stores in either Marysvale or Joseph, so we had to do a little research and came upon one in the town of Monroe a few miles to the east. This town had a more upscale residential section but didn't seem much less boring than the other two. The supermarket was thankfully open and we were able to stock up on snacks and breakfast food for the next morning. When we got back to the Airbnb the porch light was on across the street and we could see some people sitting in rocking chairs watching us. As we piled out of the car their low conversation stopped and I wondered if the most interesting thing that ever happened on that block was the comings and goings of travelers who stayed at the Airbnb.
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I didn't decide to stay in Joseph for the exciting nightlife. The next morning we fed the kids in the house and then drove back south to a place called Big Rock Candy Mountain, where I had arranged another rafting trip. The colorful mountain doesn't look much like rock candy and originally was named as a joke after a popular song in the 1920's. This would be a slightly more adventurous experience than the float we had done in Moab, but still just class II at its roughest. We would also have our own oars to paddle with. Our cheerful rafting guide told us that one of the goals of the trip was to avoid getting "summer teeth". Summer teeth are the result of forgetting to keep one hand on the pommel of the oar at all times, resulting in the hard pommel crashing into the rower's mouth during rough waters. After that, sum'yer teeth will still be in your mouth and some will be in the raft. The kids thought that was hilarious. We had a good two hour trip with some swimming, and the rapids were just strong enough to toss the kids around the raft without ever putting us in any real danger. They all kept their teeth but Cleo did draw blood from her lip at one point after falling on her face in the raft. She wasn't too happy about it but I told her the blood in her mouth was "the taste of adventure" and she could tell all her friends about getting summer lips.
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Close by the rafting spot was a gravel lot with a colorful assortment of decommissioned train cars that seemed to have been converted into housing. We found out that it's a lodging called Caboose Village that I hadn't come across at all while researching accommodation in the area. Perhaps they get booked up well in advance in the summer. I think if one of the larger ones had been available it probably would have been a better choice than the house in Joseph.
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We had a scenic drive down to Panguitch along a one lane highway surrounded by open fields that were often filled with grazing cows. About halfway to our destination we stopped at the wood cabin which was the childhood home of Robert Parker, later to become known as the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy. It was a pretty basic place and not worth going out of the way for, but still probably the most important historical site in that part of Utah. We had a typically crummy rural Utah lunch in a cow town called Circleville and began the final push to Panguitch in the early afternoon.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 03:37 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip family_travel marysvale provo tony_friedman family_travel_blog donut_falls big_rock_candy_mountain nebo_loop Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Salt Lake City


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The only stop we made between Moab and Salt Lake City was the small town of Price, which was the setting for the Great Brain books. This was one of my favorite series as a child and I bought them anew for Cleo and Ian who loved them as much as I did. The books tell the story of an early twentieth century family in Utah whose middle son is a prodigal if unethical mastermind. The books were popular but never to the extent that there would have been a museum or some tourist attraction in the author's home town to commemorate them. The modern town of Price was pleasant enough, surrounded on every side by low mountains that could be seen from every intersection, but bore no resemblance whatsoever to the bucolic frontier town described by Fitzgerald. We drove around for a little while to get the feel of a typical Utah town and then got back onto the highway.

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By the time we rolled into Salt Lake City our stomachs were growling and it was clear our first stop had to be dinner. Salt Lake City had one food hall and since we didn't want to call around to find an open table on a Saturday evening that seemed to be our best bet. The HallPass food hall was located in a vibrant open-air mall called The Gateway and fortunately for us we emerged from the parking garage on the opposite side from our destination. That took us through the center of the mall underneath a beautiful installation of colorful umbrellas suspended overhead, where we passed a Japanese hot pot called Mr. Shabu. We spontaneously decided this would be a better bet than anything we were likely to find at the food hall. There was some whispered discussion regarding our lack of a reservation before we were shown to one of the few open tables in the large restaurant. We loaded up at the well-stocked food station and gorged ourselves for the next hour. We hadn't realized how much we'd missed authentic Asian food over the last three weeks. On the way out there was a long line for tables, so clearly we'd made it just under the wire. We did check out HallPass and it seemed to be a rather weak version of a food hall, with a layout resembling a sports bar and mostly generic greasy food. Afterwards we went to the upper level which had some recreational spots and nice views of the surroundings.
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Our Airbnb was in a quiet residential neighborhood south of the city center. There was a surprising number of rainbow flags displayed on front porches, including our own. I later learned that despite its conservative reputation, Salt Lake City has one of the highest percentage of gay residents among major US cities. Perhaps that's because gay people throughout Utah gravitate towards the largest city. Our place was the basement of a rather generic-looking home with an attractive garden and a private entry. Despite the subterranean location our space was bright and cheerful and the kids made themselves at home promptly.
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On Sunday morning, which also happened to be Independence Day, we went straight to the Wheeler Sunday Market at Wheeler Farm in the southern part of town. The farmers market section was pretty good, on a par with the markets in Flagstaff and Santa Fe we'd visited the previous two weeks, and there was an excellent crafts market and an enormous play structure. The kids climbed around in the playground and occasionally wandered over to us for bites of the food we'd collected from the various booths and trucks. Afterwards we checked out some creative artwork which included a potter throwing vessels right at his booth.
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The centerpiece of Salt Lake City is Temple Square, a ten acre rectangle that was selected by Mormon prophet Brigham Young upon the group's arrival in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Within the site are the majestic Salt Lake Temple and numerous other architecturally impressive buildings that are central to the processes of the Mormon church. The area is somewhat reminiscent of the Vatican City on a smaller scale. On the day of our visit virtually everything worked against us being able to see the interiors of these buildings. It was a Sunday, many activities were still curtailed because of the COVID epidemic, and the square was in the midst of an enormous renovation project that had begun in 2019 and is not projected to be complete until 2025. We still had an enjoyable walk through the square and could appreciate the beautiful grey stone and white spires of the Assembly Hall and the glistening aluminum roof of the remarkable Mormon Tabernacle. Unfortunately the Temple itself was covered in scaffolding and surrounded by a dirty Plexiglas barrier, so that the only decent view could be obtained from across the street.
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The Utah State Capitol, a few blocks north of Temple Square, is a typical American Neoclassical capitol building in the model of the United States Capitol. We'd already visited similar buildings in Wisconsin and Colorado and chose to just drive by as we only had one day in Salt Lake City. We then fortuitously stumbled onto the single road that leads up to Ensign Downs, a small residential enclave filled with large, stately homes that look down over the city. A hiking trail leads from the hillside to the summit of Ensign Peak, one of the highest points in the area and the site at which Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders laid out their vision of the city they planned to build. We were already flirting with triple digit temperatures and it was an easy decision to forgo the twenty minute scramble to the top.
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Just east of downtown the Gilgal Sculpture Garden is hidden in the interior of a relatively nondescript mixed residential and commercial block. If we hadn't known it was there we would have walked right past the innocuous concrete path that led to the entrance. The garden represents the work of one devoted individual who built the eccentric and religious sculptures in his own backyard. After his death the property was eventually turned over to the city and made into a public park. Among the more notable works are a sphinx with the head of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and a stone archway that threatens to drop an enormous boulder onto the head of anyone who dares to stand beneath it.
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We were working our way through my list of things to see in Salt Lake City faster than I expected. I had to choose between the Red Butte botanical garden and the Tracy Aviary and went with the latter because we'd been to the botanical garden in Santa Fe just a week earlier. The aviary is located within Liberty Park just a few blocks south of the sculpture garden. It was a nice enough place but a little sleepy and quite hot in the peak sun of early afternoon. The highlights were some stunning black crowned cranes that welcomed us with a symphony of honks and the opportunity to hand feed Australian rainbow lorikeets. Despite the keeper's repeated warnings that the birds didn't like to be touched, the colorful animals had no reservations about perching on Cleo's head. Oddly enough I have quite a collection of videos with birds landing on Cleo's head, although I think this was the first that took place outside of China.
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We couldn't take more than an hour and a half under the sun in the aviary, so it was still mid-afternoon when we found ourselves back on the sidewalk trying to decide what to do. I knew I wanted to check out the Great Salt Lake, even though my research indicated it was foul-smelling and full of bugs. The most interesting part of the lake seemed to be Antelope Island, but it was a full hour's drive just to get there. Eventually we decided to go for it since the kids were probably better off having a nap anyway. The island is by far the largest in the lake and appears deceptively close to the city, but the only access is via the causeway that leads from the eastern shore of the lake to the northern tip of the island. The drive over the causeway is one of the best ways to see the unbroken expanse of the lake, a bizarre-appearing mixture of open water and salt flats with blue-grey mountains visible on distant shorelines.
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Soon after we passed the park entrance booth we found a wide sandy beach with practically no one else around. As we walked towards the lake we found ourselves sinking through a layer of salt into sulphurous mud. We walked out as far as we dared until the mud was sucking our footwear to the extent that our feet were coming out of them. It seemed a lot of other people had had the same problem. There were deep footprints in the mud around us and on close inspection a few of them had abandoned sneakers at the bottom. Apparently some folks had panicked at the thought of sinking further into the mud and had sacrificed their footwear to make it back to the safety of the sand. Even more ominous were dozens of bird carcasses that became more frequent as we got closer to the shoreline. Apparently the salt water prevents them from decomposing so even birds that died months ago will wash up along the shore fairly intact.
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One of the attractions of Antelope Island is the herd of some seven hundred bison, the descendants of a small population brought there in 1893 by the owner of the land to protect the species from overhunting and extermination. Bison are often confusingly referred to as American buffalo, although this is a misnomer as bison and buffalo belong to different genuses within the bovine family. True buffalo are native to Africa and Asia, but early European settlers mistook the bison for buffalo despite there being numerous substantial differences between the species. The park ranger at the booth had told me the best place to see bison was along the eastern shore of the island. We set off down the road in hopes of spotting one or maybe two of the animals, and were shocked when after just a quarter of a mile we came across the entire herd grazing along the area between the road and the shoreline. We pulled over along with a few other cars and got out for a better look, of course maintaining a respectful distance from the potentially dangerous animals. A little bit further down the road we had to stop because a group of bison was crossing in front of us. It wasn't as spectacular as the experiences one is prone to have on rural highways in Wyoming or the Dakotas where enormous herds can congregate around cars for hours, but I have no doubt that experiences like that lie somewhere in our future as well.
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We kept driving until the highway turned into a dirt road after the Fielding Garr Ranch but didn't see anything else remarkable and elected to return the way we came. Before we reached the bison again we turned onto a promising side road which turned out to be the access to the Frary Peak Trailhead. It was far too late to be considering any real hiking but we had just a short walk to a rocky promontory with great views over the lake.
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We drove back across the causeway immensely grateful that we had found the time and the motivation to visit Antelope Island, which had turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of our trip. As usual the decision to push a little harder and further rather than take the easier path had provided us with invaluable memories. We wiped and scrubbed as much of the stinking Salt Lake mud off our shoes and drove straight back to the city center for dinner. We had a little trouble finding a restaurant that was open on July Fourth but eventually located the Copper Onion, a decent New American bistro. They only had an outdoor table available which we gladly accepted despite the blanket of hot air that enveloped us, as we were still afraid that some of the odor of the lake might still be clinging to us.
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The original plan was to head to a park downtown to see a fireworks show, but by the time we got back home to change we were so wiped out that we couldn't summon the motivation. I felt a pang of guilt when we began hearing the explosions and the kids ran outside in excitement, but we were still able to see some of the display from the driveway. There will be countless more firework shows but it could be awhile before we have another chance to get up close to a herd of bison.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:44 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip utah travel_blog antelope_island temple_square tony_friedman family_travel_blog tracy_aviary donut_falls Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Moab


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Just fifteen minutes past the Forrest Gump overlook we reached the turn-off for Goosenecks State Park. I hadn't even had this place on my itinerary but our down time at the hogan had given me the time to do a little extra research about our route. Goosenecks only has one sight but it is a knockout. Just steps from the parking area is the viewpoint for a geologic masterpiece where the San Juan river has cut a thousand foot deep serpentine pattern into the sedimentary rock forming what is known as an entrenched meander. As usual the river at the bottom of the canyon was rather unassuming while the walls formed vast layered peninsulas that narrowed to ridges at their highest points. The polypoid peninsulas interlocked perfectly like the teeth of a zipper at a scale that was breathtaking. The other fortuitous thing about stopping at the park was that I was able to buy Cleo an authentic Navajo turquoise necklace from a vendor at the parking lot. I hadn't found what I wanted anywhere we'd looked over the last two days in Navajo Nation and now I had finally found the perfect item at a very reasonable price. Cleo was thrilled and I can only hope she still loves it as much when she's older as she does now.
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Just a couple of miles from Goosenecks was the west entrance to Valley of the Gods, a site owned and administered by the Bureau of Land Management whose name makes it hard to resist. Since we had been denied a drive through Monument Valley it was great to have a chance to see some magnificent rock formations up close. The loop drive through the valley is seventeen miles but the bumpy dirt road made it feel much longer. The monoliths here were smaller than the spectacular Monuments but no less fascinating and the opportunity to see them up close was unforgettable.
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We stopped for lunch in the town of Bluff, a tiny burg that seemed to have progressed past sleepy into comatose. Our first two restaurant choices were closed but that proved fortuitous as our third and final option was quite an amazing place. The Twin Rocks Cafe was nothing special when it came to food but the setting at the base of a cliff topped with jaw-dropping rock formations was unbeatable. The twin pillars of layered sandstone topped by limestone boulders that gave the restaurant its name were particular impressive. Indoors we restored the union of body and soul with the typical utilitarian southwestern fare. I had a craving for a beer after the dusty drive through Valley of the Gods but our Navajo server told me he had to find someone else to take an order for alcohol. I wasn't sure if that was because of his age or some other ordinance, but after some time had elapsed no one else had shown up at our table. I had to flag him down again to request an audience with the "beer sommelier" before I could get my drink. A friend had recommended we visit the Bluff Fort, the main tourist attraction in town, but the midday sun was blazing hot and we decided to push onward to Moab.
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By now we should have been oblivious to rocks and cliffs but the truth is that every scenic location we had visited had its own unique look. Sedona had its red rocks, the Petrified Forest had painted mesas, Navajo Nation had layered sandstone, and now Moab was something altogether different. As we entered the region the landscape transitioned from a relatively flat expanse into outcroppings and rounded bluffs of pinkish sandstone. The harbinger of this was Church Rock, a magnificently striated and colorful chunk of weathered rock that looked to me more like a surfacing submarine than a church. Fifteen minutes later we were shocked to see an enormous sandstone arch right by the side of the road, with people clambering up to its base. We were expecting to see arches in the Arches National Park, but had no idea that one could be accessed so easily from the highway. This was Wilson's Arch, a spot that I'd missed completely in my research.
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Our Airbnb in Spanish Valley was so unobtrusive that we drove past it three times before we finally identified it. It looked more like an outbuilding at a construction site than a residence, but inside it was surprisingly comfortable and spacious. The backdrop of mountains and cliffs eased the minor annoyance of being located right next to the highway.
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The first order of business was getting showered and changed. There hadn't been any showering facility at the hogan which made me feel like I was only half awake during the day. The hot air and hours in the car hadn't helped, so the cool water streaming into my hair felt blissful. The past few days in Navajo country had been fairly rough from a culinary perspective as well, and thankfully we had reservations for Moab's top spot for fine dining. Desert Bistro was a beautiful restaurant that also felt amicable and laid-back, much like Moab itself. We had a very satisfying dinner and began to soak in the atmosphere of this legendary adventure town.

We had one adventure planned for each day in Moab. For our full day I had scheduled a rafting trip, intentionally booking the gentlest option that still had some rapids. I was pretty sure the older kids could handle class II rapids but Spenser had just turned six and I thought it would be wise to ease into the whitewater thing gradually. I needn't have worried because the rapids were so minimal that it was more like a float trip. We didn't even have our own oars. The kids had plenty of fun getting bounced around a little and they had a chance to try rowing the raft and swimming in the murky water. The current was surprisingly strong and I felt a rush of anxiety when the kids floated a couple hundred feet downstream from the raft. My rational side told me the guides would never expose us to any real danger but my parental instincts induced me to strike out as fast as I could swim to catch up with them. By the time I finally caught up I was completely out of breath. The red sandstone cliffs around the river looked like they had been carelessly shellacked with a black substance everywhere they were exposed to the sun. Our guide told us that this was "desert varnish", manganese oxide produced by the metabolic activity of bacterial colonies on the rock surface. It's an incredibly slow process and is useful to geologists in that the thickness of the layer allows a determination of how long the surface has been exposed. We could pick out the most recent rockfalls by spotting the bared areas of the cliff which invariably had piles of boulders beneath them that were varnished on just one side.
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We had an early dinner at a serviceable Thai restaurant and then killed the time until sunset at the small city park. The kids were having so much fun making new friends that we eventually abandoned our plan to drive up the hill adjoining the main road to watch the sun go down.
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We had saved the main event in Moab for our last day. Arches was the first of three national parks in Utah that we would be visiting over the next week. Utah actually has five but it would have been obsessive for us to try and visit all of them. Arches National Park is of course named for more than two thousand natural sandstone arches that are distributed within, although only a few of these are considered worthy of being destinations unto themselves. I had made the decision to buy a personal half day tour for the family via jeep, considering the limited time we had available to see the park. We met our guide fairly early in the morning and drove into the park via a back entrance that wasn't open to the general public, bypassing the line of vehicles that had already formed at the main entrance. The first place he stopped the jeep was an open area with dinosaur tracks, where we had a chance to educate the kids about the different impressions left by sauropods and therapods.
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We soon found our way to Arches Scenic Drive, the main road that snaked through the park. This brought us right up to one of the park's iconic formations, Balanced Rock. The fact that the mushroom cap boulder at the top is attached to its seventy foot pedestal, rather than balanced on it, does nothing to detract from the stunning beauty of the formation. No matter how many geologic masterpieces we had encountered during this journey through the Southwest, it seemed like Mother Earth always had more to give.
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The single defining formation of Arches National Park is Delicate Arch. This fifty foot freestanding arch is by far the most popular site in the park and is featured on the Utah license plate. The only catch is that seeing Delicate Arch up close requires a three mile round trip hike on rock that is completely exposed to sun. On sunny days many people underestimate the hike or fail to bring enough water and have to turn back before the goal. While all the pictures of Delicate Arch show it in magnificent solitude against the backdrop of the La Sal mountains, what you don't see is the line of people waiting for up to an hour to get their chance for their individual picture. Knowing all this I had decided that for this trip we would forgo Delicate Arch in favor of less popular locations inside the park. Fortunately our guide knew a vantage point from which we could get a decent picture of the arch from ground level. As I expected, when we passed the Delicate Arch trailhead there was a long line of hikers snaking up the rock surface towards the arch despite the blazing sun overhead. I was very glad we were not attempting to join them.
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Now that we had seen these iconic features of Arches it was time to have a little adventure of our own. Our guide brought us off road to a spot where there were no other visitors at all. Our guide took us on a short hike to an arch where we could scramble across a smooth rock slope and get right underneath an arch. He explained the process of arch formation which begins with an uplifted section of sandstone called a dome. The same process of lifting creates numerous vertical fractures in the rock which are gradually enlarged by freezing and thawing of water that collects in the cracks. Eventually the domes cleave along the fracture lines to form freestanding rock walls called fins. The way in which fins become arches is less clearly understood, but one theory is that as the fin itself erodes away the most stable remnant is the part that forms the arch and thereby supports itself. It's the same principle that led the Romans to utilize the arch so successfully in their construction of enormous aqueducts and colosseums.
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After the hike the boys fell asleep in the jeep but Cleo and I were able to take one more short walk on our own to another popular area of arches and fins. I think that for us the guided tour was probably the right decision mainly because we were able to have that one arch completely to ourselves, but I can't say that it's really necessary even for a short visit. The scenic drive makes it very easy to get to Balanced Rock, the Delicate Arch trailhead, and most of the other popular areas of the park. There are a lot of amazing hikes in Arches that we didn't have the time nor inclination to attempt and many people stay in the area for a week or more. It's a National Park that I would definitely return to in order to see Delicate Arch up close some time in the future when the kids are older.
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At this point we were all packed up at the northern end of Moab in perfect position to resume the northward drive to Salt Lake City. However, I felt a distinct sensation that we had unfinished business in the area and I knew it would continue to bother me even after we had returned home. We had lunch in town and then got back on the main road south towards Wilson Arch. When we had passed it the first time on the way into Moab it had just looked too interesting to pass up. It was further south than I remembered, a full half hour's drive from where we'd met our Arches guide. As soon as we found the turnoff I knew we were in for a challenging climb. The arch was a lot further from ground level than it appeared from the highway. It still seemed doable, although once we got started I regretted having changed out of our hiking boots into sandals. As we moved upward there was less gravel and dust on the sandstone and it became harder to get a grip on the smooth surface. Fortunately the slope was never that steep so even if one of us had slipped completely we wouldn't have slid down very far. There was one final scramble across a slick surface and then we were under a magnificent arch, much larger than the one we had climbed up to in the park. There was a beautiful view through the window to an idyllic landscape of a tree-dotted valley and a majestic butte, but I wouldn't let the kids close because of the drop on the other side. We spent a few minutes up there savoring our achievement and enjoying our closeness to this magnificent natural creation.
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Our final stop in the Moab area was The Hole N"The Rock, a classic American roadside tourist trap that is actually quite an interesting spot. The hole is a five thousand square foot home that was dynamited out of the base of a sandstone bluff by a local settler in the 1940's. The interior is quite comfortable and well-ventilated, and also fairly modern from a 1950's perspective. There's plenty of fascinating period kitsch and artwork inside, although how much of it was really there when the home was inhabited is questionable. No pictures were allowed inside so we had to be content with capturing the exterior of the bluff, which was still very memorable with an enormous bust of FDR chiseled into the sandstone. I never did ask why there's a solitary quotation mark after the N instead of an apostrophe before it, but I probably wouldn't have gotten a very good answer. We skipped the petting zoo and some other little cash grabs at the site and got back on the road to Salt Lake City.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:26 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip arches family_travel travel_blog arches_national_park goosenecks tony_friedman family_travel_blog valley_of_the_gods wilson_arch hole_n_the_rock Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Navajo Nation


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The most surprising thing about arriving on the Navajo Reservation was that we were even there at all. All my research about Navajo Nation before the trip advised me that it was "closed" due to COVID, but after that the situation became very murky. The Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley parks were closed, but did that mean it was impossible to see any of the famous stone formations? Were the roads blocked, like the one to Taos Pueblo? No one seemed to know for sure. In the end I decided the best solution would be to leave those two days open just in case the Nation opened during the first half of our trip, and hope that an alternate path to Moab through Colorado would still have accommodation available at the last minute. Not long before we left I spoke to an old friend who had stayed in a traditional hogan near Monument Valley in the summer of 2020, when the epidemic was at its worst in Navajo country. He said he hadn't had any problem at all and that it had been a great experience. I looked up the hogan on Airbnb and it was available, so that took care of the second night. That left Canyon de Chelley where there were no Airbnb's. I checked the Navajo Nation website regularly but there was no hint of reopening. Eventually with two days to go I called the reception desk of the hotel by the canyon that my guidebook recommended. They advised me that the hotel was open and although the park itself was closed, it was still possible to see the canyon and the most famous formation, Spider Rock, from overlooks along the road. That was enough for me to commit to a night there, which is why we found ourselves driving into Chinle on a Tuesday afternoon.

Chinle was a quiet, dusty town that didn't bear much resemblance to Zuni, the other reservation town we had stayed at. The two highways that passed through the town became long, bland commercial stretches that intersected at a T. Side streets led to clusters of prefab housing without any of the interesting touches of Zuni, such as the outdoor bread ovens. There was clearly nothing to do here except visit the canyon. The only game in town for Native American food was the Junction Restaurant at the Best Western. I learned that lamb is a Navajo specialty and the roast lamb sandwich at Junction was one of the most satisfying things I'd eaten in a while. We also had our introduction to fry bread, a sweet deep-fried staple of the local diet that doesn't do the human metabolism any favors.
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It was still light outside and way to early to retire to our boring motel. We'd already visited the only crafts store in town and found it to have overpriced, inauthentic merchandise geared mainly towards casual tourists. That just left the canyon, which we had expected to see the following morning. Canyon de Chelly is the ancestral home of the Navajo since the early 18th century and was the origin of the ill-conceived and tragic Long Walk that exiled the tribe to New Mexico. Chelly is pronounced "shay" and is the Spanish version of the Navajo word Tséyi' which means "rock canyon". Right outside our motel the road out of Chinle split in two, with Route 7 passing along the south rim of the canyon and Route 64 hugging the north rim. We had actually been driving along the edge of the canyon when we drove into Chinle on Route 64 without realizing it. We chose to explore the south rim in order to see Spider Rock, a 750 foot sandstone spire that arises from the canyon floor in magnificent solitude. According to legend an important deity named Spider Woman lives at the top of the rock making it one of the most important sites in Navajo theology. The Spider Rock overlook is the final one along the south rim, a twenty minute drive from Chinle. When we arrived we encountered the coldest air we experienced for the entire trip, thanks to the overcast sky and a brisk wind coming over the canyon. The kids only had light jackets but they hardly complained as we walked along the trail at the rim. It was our first look at the canyon and it was absolutely magnificent. The pattern of erosion made the richly textured walls of sedimentary rock look as though they were melting into the bottom of the canyon, a pristine and tantalizing wonderland of greenery in a dry riverbed. I felt a pang of longing knowing that on this visit at least we would be denied the experience of standing on the floor of that beautiful canyon.
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Towards the end of the path we finally got our look at Spider Rock. It was a dominant feature of the canyon even from the rim and we could only imagine how imposing it must look from the base. The double tower of fissured sandstone looked like the incisors of a gargantuan beast that lay buried underground. I could have happily contemplated the canyon for an hour but the icy wind was making short work of our light clothing and forced us to return to the car.
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On the drive back to the motel we stopped at Tsegi Overlook for a different perspective and immediately became aware of a majestic double rainbow over the canyon, the first that I had ever seen. Not only were the individual bands of the primary rainbow as bright and clear as any I could remember, but we could follow it all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. It was like a CGI scene from a movie with the only thing missing being the pot of gold. We admired it for a while and as we were driving off we encountered a group of grazing horses by the roadside. Mei Ling began filming them from the car and then turned the camera around to catch the rainbow as we drove away from it, and ended up with one of the most spectacular travel videos that either of us has ever created.
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In the morning we went back to Junction for breakfast and to my delight the lamb sandwich was already on the menu. I could probably have eaten a couple of those every day for the rest of the trip. There was plenty of time to kill so we drove back along the south rim almost as far as Spider Rock to visit a Native American gallery which had been closed the previous evening. We didn't see anything we wanted to buy but it was cool to see the inside of a hogan and we had an interesting conversation with the owner, who had also done most of the weaving and knitting that was on display.
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From the north rim the canyon was less dramatic but just as beautiful. Fingers of sandstone extended from the walls towards the center where there was a thin, muddy river that might or might not have been flowing. We could see some small buildings at the bottom as well. Piles of rock had accumulated at the base of the walls in some areas where the friable rock had crumbled under the onslaught of the elements.
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Except for the canyon the terrain around Chinle was as dry and monotonous as any we had seen. That all began to change as we made our way down the one lane highways through Navajo nation to Kayenta. Majestic and colorful formations of both volcanic and sedimentary rock began to appear on either side of the road. Anywhere in the eastern half of the United States these would have been famous attractions but here they were probably only familiar to the locals. These occasional behemoths made our drive pass by very quickly as we admired the landscape.
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The was one formation near Kayenta significant enough to rate individual mention in my research. Agathla Peak is a volcanic plug, formed by solidification of magma within the vent of a volcano millions of years ago. It is a geologic cousin of Shiprock, a diatreme formed by solidification of the central column of the volcano. The approach from the south along Highway 163 was remarkable in that there was an amazing sandstone formation diametrically opposite from Agathla that I was certain had to be a sculpture until we were close enough to see that it only resembled a woman's figure from that one perspective. Agathla was smaller than Shiprock but similarly imposing and mysterious, and there were no obstacles to a close approach and inspection of the formation. We still felt like interlopers as we gingerly traversed the dirt road that led from the highway to the rock, and when a pick-up came towards us from the opposite direction we half expected to be harshly directed back from whence we came.
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It was still early afternoon when we arrived at the hogan. This was going to be our most unusual accommodation of the trip and a calculated risk, since the small hut had no air conditioning and no bathroom. An old friend of mine had stayed there with his kids one year earlier and told me in was one of his family's best travel experiences. One of my goals for the trip was to introduce our kids to Native American history and culture so I had decided the experience would be worth whatever temporary discomforts presented themselves. I was grateful for the relatively cool and dry weather as the environment was my most pressing concern. We turned off the highway where we had been directed and drove uphill through a confusing labyrinth of dirt roads until we arrived at a small complex of buildings and spotted the sign for the hogan. Even though I knew what to expect from pictures, I was still somewhat shocked by the mound of brown earth that would be our shelter for the night. There were some swarms of brown ants on the outside and it wasn't hard to imagine at they had been the ones that had built this little hill. When we opened the door we were surprised by how spacious and attractive the interior was. Beautiful Navajo rugs were spread on the chairs and beds and the log roof was a miracle of craftsmanship. We had a large container of water over a sink to wash up with and a decent-sized fan to keep the air circulating. It seemed the major downsides would be the absence of a shower and having to use a Porta Potty, an appliance for which I have a deep and abiding distaste.
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From the hillside we had a fantastic view of the some of the most famous monoliths of Monument Valley such as the Mittens and Merrick Butte. Behind us another enormous sandstone butte arose from the ground and towered over the little homestead. There was no one there to meet us on our arrival but we didn't mind the opportunity to explore the locale on our own. When our host Rosalyn eventually returned from a shopping trip she found us completely stupefied by the majesty of our surroundings. She told us that everyone says the same thing when they arrive, but she couldn't see it herself since it's just been home to her ever since she was born.
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If the loop road in Monument Valley had been open this would have been a perfect time to drive it but as it were we just hung around the outdoor common area and watched our kids play with Rosalyn's grandkids until it was time to eat. There was a mischievous band of sheep that seemed to have free rein of the property during the day and they wandered in circles around us foraging for any dropped food and occasionally nudging the kids.
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We had chosen the option to have a home-cooked meal at the hogan in the hope that Mei Ling would be able to pick up some Navajo cooking techniques but unfortunately the only thing on the menu that evening was frybread and chopped salad, also known as Navajo tacos. Mei Ling did get to have some fun hand-kneading and frying the dough but since she doesn't eat starch there wasn't much for her to eat there except sliced tomatoes and beans.
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I'd already had enough frybread for one day that morning in Chinle and the kids had already decided they didn't care much for it so it was clear we would need to find another dinner nearby. We made the excuse that we wanted to get an early spot at the overlook near Forrest Gump Point for sunset over the valley and then sped off to find some meat. Some quick research brought us to Goulding's Lodge, a hundred year old accommodation with restaurant that was located at the foot of another monstrous block of weathered sandstone.
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Despite the awe-inspiring setting the food was quite pedestrian and took so long to arrive that sunset was halfway over by the time we had finally managed to pay our bill. We got back onto Highway 164 and raced north to the overlook as the sun rapidly descended. We crossed the border into Utah and soon approached the base of a steep hill where we saw several people standing in the middle of the highway taking photographs of each other. Some were even lying prone in the road shooting pictures from ground level. These were the folks determined to recreate the famous scene from Forrest Gump when he abruptly ends his marathon run with Monument Valley as a backdrop. They didn't seem eager to get out of the way of our approaching car either, only leaving the middle of the road when we were a couple of hundred feet away. At the top of the hill we reached the turnoff for the overlook which did provide an awesome perspective for a picture with Monument Valley's finest specimens.
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Although the outside temperatures were only in the seventies,. it felt somewhat stuffy inside the hogan. We elected to keep the door closed for fear of a coyote or some other desert beast entering our abode while we were sleeping, and put the fan on at full blast. We fell asleep fairly quickly after another exhausting and complicated day but I awoke just a few hours later feeling like I was trapped under a blanket of warm air. I threw caution to the winds and opened the door which did alleviate the mugginess somewhat but I only slept another hour or so. This time when I awakened I knew there would be no returning to sleep, even though the sky was still pitch black. I was conscious of every little sound that penetrated the stillness on the hill. Fortunately there was a little plastic chair outside the hogan and just enough light from a small spotlight to read by. As the first light started to break over the horizon Mei Ling joined me outside and together we watched the sun slowly turn Monument Valley from a jagged silhouette into the beautiful and stately natural sculptures that we had already become familiar with. Once we were in full daylight we roamed the grounds one more time, infuriating the corralled sheep by ignoring their pleas to be fed.
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We returned to Goulding's for a basic breakfast and hurriedly got back on the highway north into Utah. Before we reached the Forrest Gump outlook we encountered another turn-off that led to a small clear area with an even better perspective than we'd had the previous evening. Sunset behind the monuments may be amazing but my preference was for the deep palette of colors formed by the sky, the monuments, and the dusty terrain. We paused for ten minutes or so to absorb this majestic spectacle one final time before pressing forward into the fourth and final state of our road trip.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 22:35 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip navajo family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog kayenta chinle Comments (0)

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