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Wed-Thurs: Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Wednesday


I drove an hour and a half from Kanab past Orderville and Alton. I pulled off at a German bakery and tugged at the closed doors. By 10:30 I'd weaved through the Dixie National Forest, in love with the two-lane bike path that flanked the highway, wanting to bike again despite my sore ass. At the Visitor Center of Bryce Canyon, I unfolded my park map and picked my hikes. Unlike Zion, the shuttle was free and somewhat vacant, but I opted to drive. I bypassed the totally full Sunrise and Sunset Loop lots & parked at Inspiration Point, then walked about a mile on the Rim Trail toward Sunset Point, where I descended another steep climb on the Navajo trail. I hopped on the 3.0 mile Peekaboo Loop Trail counterclockwise and hiked the next couple of hours in the belly of Bryce Amphitheater, a totally phenomenal natural wonder bursting with stories of wind, rain and snow.


I'd caught the end of a geology talk just before descending, where the park ranger held up time-stamped photos of the bewitching tall spires (appropriately named something spooky, Hoodoos), and showed how in a matter of just a few weeks they'd cracked and split from frost wedging--the ritual at Bryce where rain or melting snow seeps into rock crevices during the warm days and then freezes and expands at night. The ranger closed her lecture saying now we've all learned about how the rocks were formed (the basin served as an ancient floodplain system, meaning minerals that leeched from surrounding higher elevation were carried downstream and deposited overtime in the basin, forming all kinds of rocks over several millions of years) and we can predict what will happen next.


It won't be here forever, she clarified.


The Peekaboo trail ascended and descended through the Hoodoos, both shaded and sunned, with some snow still on the ground soft enough to ball and build snowmen--a hiker had built a miniature one on a log. I wondered how long it had been there, preserved by tree-shade and frost when the scorching sun falls.


I was exhausted after the loop and was wished Good Luck on the Navajo climb back to the parking lot by a pair of guys in front of me, who were once behind me. I watched them ascend higher and higher as I hobbled up, catching my breath. I walked the mile back from Sunset Point to Inspiration Point, hoping to hike some past the crowded lookout on the Rim Trail to Bryce Point, but the trail there was closed for unsafe winter conditions (as were several others). I veered off course on the way back, sticking to stone, and plopped down on the edge of the basin around 2:30 pm, feet dangling on the edge. I sucked the salt off my sharp Ruffles chips and tore into my crunchy PB&J: that morning, Keith had watched me smear a complimentary peanut butter packet from the hostel's front desk onto my Panera ciabatta and offered his giant tub of peanut butter instead. I would've preferred creamy, but like mushrooms on someone else's homemade pizza, everything tastes better when it's shared.


I stayed there a while, relishing, and then drove the rest of the park to mile 18 (more than 9,000 foot elevation) and hopped on the Bristlecone Loop trail, a mile-long hike through sub-alpine fir forests. I wrapped my sweater and vest tightly around my chest to protect myself from the BITTER COLD wind that nearly pushed me off a bench at the lookout. I didn't see any wildlife; the place, though there were a few other hikers around, felt cold and forgotten. Journeying through the West is mood exploration at its finest: the open, sun-splashed rock the closest thing to happiness after hiding in half-dead trees.


It was after 5 pm when I left the park, trying to decide how to fill time. It was too late for another big hike, and my feet were too sore, so I drove out of the park and headed back on Route 12 toward the Dixie National Forest Visitor Center, which was closed. I pulled my map back out and decided to try the Mossy Cave Trail, a 0.8 mile stream side four miles East of the junction to Bryce Canyon City. The stream was gorgeous with reddish-cream rocks like bites of layered cake. I saw only a few other hikers climbing around the small waterfall. I veered left up a steep sandy path and decided I seriously needed to get some better hiking shoes--not boots, shoes. In the distance, I watched a young couple ascend steep rock to a sandstone arch. They stood there some time, peering out.


Now it was nearly sunset, and after pulling into a too-crowded restaurant just after 7 and leaving, I decided to drive to Sunset Point, of course. I was surprised to find several parking spots, and lots of space between the couples and groups of people strolling the rim to catch the 8:09 end. I walked slowly on my callused feet, clutching my sweater & vest around me again, feeling the cold creep in, waiting for the whole place to burst on fire but the colors stayed muted. A tour bus full of young Mormon women sang what I assume were hymns on the edge of the Canyon: the singing was almost over by the time I realized what was happening. A young man shouted Encore! and clapped with his girlfriend from across the way.


I left at 8:10 and stopped at the Best Western restaurant in Bryce Canyon City on the way out. It was a BUFFET. A BUFFET RESTAURANT! I too eagerly piled my plate full of pot roast and mashed potatoes and rolls and cornbread and mixed veggies and salmon and broccoli casserole before realizing I was supposed to use a disposable glove. So I put one on quickly and pretended I'd had it on the whole time. I skipped the soft-service ice cream to repent for my gluttony and paid my $26 fine, then drove back to the hostel, packed most of my things and filled my water, poured sand out of my shoes and fell asleep.


Thursday

I was out of the hostel around 8 am with double copies of BookPage Keith gave me from the library. He'd asked me what I liked to read, beside the Bible, and told me he tried to convert to Catholicism for his ex-wife but couldn't do it.


"Where are you off to today?" he asked as I smeared my cream cheese bagel, wishing I had an apple to chop. In just a few days, my answer would be nowhere.


I slipped out of the hostel and headed an hour and a half past Bryce Canyon on Highway 12 into Escalante, a region bursting with frontier: the pamphlet for Escalante Area hikes warns: "Very few routes are marked or maintained. Keep yourself oriented." I chose the least threatening hike, Chriss Lake, which promised a paved route to the trailhead (turns out it was right off the highway), a bathroom, and only two miles roundtrip. But when I got there, I was the only one at the trailhead, the wooden sign said 1.5 miles to Chriss Lake (not 1) and, of course, the bulletin warned of black bears in the area. I stupidly left my water in the car, thinking a mile and a half wouldn't be so bad (I decided I'd book it to reduce the amount of time a black bear could find me), but soon realized the thinner elevation and my palpable fear of bears was causing me to lose my breath quickly. AND IT STARTED FLURRYING. I picked up a couple rocks and banged them together for the next hour and a half, trying to shout whenever I approached West Deer Creek: BEARS, THERE'S A HUMAN HERE!

I almost turned around thirty minutes in thinking I should have reached the lake by then; my rocks had lost some substance. But then I remembered the blue GPS dot even without cell service and estimated the water feature was probably another 15-20 minutes out. So I trudged on, my eyes flitting frequently between the aspen stands, wishing it was warmer and didn't all look so dead.


More than an hour into the hike, I arrived at Chriss Lake, which looked like a winter pond, and not the storybook kind. I of course chose to focus on the mostly dried scat, so I shoved my hand obligingly into the aspen pond’s snow and promptly turned back, relieved to pass familiar features and see the thread of Route 12 in the distance. I dropped my stones when I could see the car.


After chugging water, I drove an hour further on Route 24 to Capitol Reef National Park. I arrived around 3:30 and hiked the Fremont River Trail, a one-mile, 480-foot climb to STUNNING panoramas. Easily one of my top three hikes, the other two being Spencer Trail in Glen Canyon Recreation Area and Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone National Park. I crawled to the steepest slabs and absorbed the views for almost two hours--completely alone. I walked barefoot over the rocks and didn't need a sweater. It was one of those views that suspends you in gratitude and warmth the entire duration, where you have to rely on ration ("I should leave soon, because I have a long drive to Moab still") rather than emotion ("I feel like I could exist here for eternity") to pull you away.


On the way back to the car, I passed the campground and envied peoples' fires and food. It was a place I could return to, tucked at the base of the mountains, everyone spaced out properly with lots of green and the narrow Fremont River (the size of a creek) nearby. I saw mule deer and a whole field of yellow-footed marmots, strange groundhog-esque creatures that scampered like ground squirrels.

I still didn't have cell service, but I knew where I was headed: Route 70. Along the way I stopped for dinner in a tiny little town, Hanksville, after 8 pm. I bought $13 slow-smoked brisket nachos at Duke's Slickrock Grill and nervously tapped my foot, realizing I was so tired and still had two more hours, much of it on a pitch-black highway, to Moab. I asked the long-necked waitress about nearby lodging options, and she wrinkled her face and squinted her big eyes and said there were only two places she'd stay around here (excluding the partially vacant motel across the road, I realized), both which were booked.


So I got my nachos to-go and headed north, balancing heavy, stacked tortilla chips from the passenger's seat to the driver's, turning on the cabin light to see where my hand was diving next. One of the few radio stations that came in was the local NPR playing Irish music, and I realized I‘d entered one of life's perfect moments, driving on a sleepy Utah highway with greasy cheesy spicy fingers and the flute and fiddle. But soon enough the tunes weathered away to white noise, and I was so fixated on high-beams and wide eyes that I nearly forgot to flick off my headlights and glance at the stars.


By 10 pm, I arrived in Green River and pulled over at a squat bed and breakfast tucked behind a string-lighted fence. It looked friendly and warm, so I walked up just as the young man was closing up for the night. He gave me a "Howdy!", with misplaced morning cheer and led me through a very cozy dining room to announce the $130+ room price. I declined and drove just over to the Sleepy Hollow Motel, whose half-cursive neon sign shone prominently like the Las Vegas strip. The lobby was cozy-hot and the man gave me keys to Room 11, just through the breezeway. The king-sized bed and not wearing sandals in the shower was luxury. I turned the heat up to 75. My chapped skin drank the moisture of my cocoa oil and I slipped into the sheets.


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