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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)

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