Road Trip XI, Days 43-49: Red Rock Country–No Bugs, No Wind, No Rain…But No Reservation

What camping enthusiast wouldn’t enthuse to camp near this?

Meet Canyonlands National Park!

That’s exactly the problem, as The Mate and I began to learn a few years ago, and now, in the post-COVID travel boom, multiplied by ever more active Boomers actively booming around the same places we like, we’ve discovered a basic flaw with our mode of road trippin’: it doesn’t work any more.

But let me back up to where I left off a week ago. Knowing we were in for some dangerous winds, we veered south from the Black Hills and holed up in one of our favorite mountain towns, Estes Park, CO.

I took this photo entering town because I knew the Rockies would soon disappear in the winter storm. They did.

Estes Park is uber-cute, and probably a complete zoo in high season, which we vowed always to miss.

Riverwalk, with a lil’ snow still…but hardly any people. Score!

EP is so cool, it has its own elk herd!

I biked right past; they never stopped grazing.

While the trails of Rocky Mt. National Park (just up the road) remained inaccessible to folks without snowshoes, we were able to traipse up to my favorite Gem Lake with only a little bit of scary ice & blow-you-down wind.

a gem indeed

After two days in Estes–which included watching our beloved Carolina Tarheels come within inches and seconds of winning a national championship they were never supposed to be in the running for, taking the game down to the wire and giving it their full hearts and ankles (so proud of those guys, can you tell?)–we decided to move our trip a little further on, while still waiting one more day for the winds to abate before crossing the Rockies.

Luckily for us, we have friends in Denver (one of whom had just returned from watching the Final Four in New Orleans!). They invited us to stay. We enjoyed them nearly as much as we enjoyed their charismatic dogs.

Meet Sherlock.

Thursday, when it finally felt safe, we joined the semis crossing the 11,000-foot pass on I-70, marveling as ever at the peaks and wishing that downhill skiing had less of an impact on them. [Not pictured: marvelous Rocky peaks]

After dropping down, down, down, down, we aimed for Colorado National Monument, a gorgeous hunk of sculpted rock erupting above the town of Grand Junction. Knowing we had no reservation for a campsite, I kept my fingers crossed: Please let there be one! Please let there be one!

There was.

We got lucky that time–thanks to having a tent, not an RV, and arriving on a Thursday, and, oh yeah–it’s the Colorado National Monument, NOT National Park. Huge difference.

Still completely stunning–especially riding the Rim Road, which goes right along this cliff. I adore cliffs.

It’s always hard to stop taking pictures of rock formations; bear with me.

They call these “The Coke Ovens.”

Of course you can’t put railings around an entire canyon, but this particular railing seemed designed just for me…because OF COURSE all I wanted to do was crawl out onto that ledge, a.k.a. that flat-topped, nearly free-standing pillar of red stone.

Did I mention that I love cliffs? It’s not an entirely healthy affection, I’m afraid.

After a happy camping night–first time since early March that we’ve been able to camp on this trip!–we continued on down toward the town of Moab. Again: no reservations, so we had no hope of camping in either Arches or Canyonlands N.P. BUT we knew there were several BLM campgrounds strung along the Colorado River, which operate on a first-come, first-served basis. It was Friday; we didn’t love our chances. But once more…

SCORE!!!

We got the very last one, at 10:45 in the morning. (Then we spent the afternoon & evening hours watching disappointed would-be campers like ourselves drive by, turn around, and move sadly on. We felt for them; we were them. There are so many of us now!) [Not pictured: dust from cars of disappointed would-be campers.]

Because who doesn’t want to cuddle up to this???

Since we only had a half-day to recreate, we opted for Moab’s famous bike trails, saving the hiking for next day.

I imagine this is what the Ten Commandments would have looked like had God given Thirty instead of Ten.

We celebrated our special spot that night by sharing an enormous microbrew from the Black Hills.

First come, first served all right!

We could have opted to stay another night. One of the curses of the BLM system is also its blessing: once you’ve pitched your tent, you can stay up to two weeks, $20/night or $10 for seniors with passes. (Two more years till I get mine!) No wonder there are never any spots during high season.

By “high season” I mean spring. June-August, this place is WAY too hot.

But the winds were picking up again, and we wanted wifi & showers (BLM sites are pit-toilet only, and BYO water). So we reserved ourselves a basic cabin in town, and took ourselves to Canyonlands–the 30-miles-distant part, not the 85-miles-distant; Canyonlands is VERY spread out!–for a day of hiking.

Because there are too many types of rock to choose from, we opted for several shorter hikes. First up: Aztez Mesa. Yep–right up to the tippy-top…

…looks easy-peasy from here…

I love cliffs, remember? And ledges? Turns out I DON’T love ledges that look like they could crumble beneath your feet. This trail sent me scrambling to the left.

Seriously??!!

Next up: smooth red slickrock.

They call this one The Whale.

How many blowholes does a whale need? And shouldn’t they be up top?

From the up-close to the faraway, this view of the Green River’s work, etching itself through layers of time:

Same theme, different view:

Totally happy to stand on that cliff! (Just don’t ask me to CLIMB it. I’m unhealthy, not completely nuts.)

One last look…just not quite believing it’s real:

The Mate would not hear of me hopping onto those flat, tempting red tower-tops. Can’t blame him; I actually don’t care to look at OTHER people on cliffs, even while I enjoy being there myself. Weird.

And just to throw one other rock formation into the mix, here’s Upheaval Dome, a mysterious , rainbow-colored pile inside a crater that geologists are still arguing over.

Slow uprising, or meteor crater? I like the latter hypothesis. Wish the colors had come out better; some of that sand is actually GREEN. Much of it, we learned, is salt.

Need a break from all the red rock? How about some red Paintbrush?

Go guys, go–you can do it!

We left Moab feeling both grateful and a bit deflated. Now we know that, if we want to nestle into that amazing habitat anywhere closer than a commercial room, we’re going to have to do the P-word: PLAN. Plan WAY ahead, like 6 months at least. One of the best parts of our road-trippin’ is its haphazardness, but that luxury seems to be evaporating.

But we found a silver lining.

Next morning, hopping back onto Interstate 70 West, The Mate & I were treated to three and a half hours of almost nonstop geological wonder. Starting with…

Wait–who put THESE here?

We kept turning to each other in confusion: Hold on. Have we not driven this stretch before? Wouldn’t we remember this if we had?

Yes. Yes we would.

The above photo I took at a viewpoint, where we parked. All the following, I simply snapped as we drove past.

Not a park. Just a bunch of roadside rocks.

The colors changed with every curve or hill.

Raspberry mint? What would you call this?

I think we saw every color except blue. Even black got into the mix.

Not my fault the black rock was on The Mate’s side! So yep, that’s his schnozz.

The colors and formations simply Did. Not. Stop…till eventually we bumped into I-15, and that, my friends, is where I-70 ends (after starting in Baltimore; we looked it up).

Mint raspberry? Give yourself a hand, I-70. I’m sorry I ever dissed you as boring!

So my takeaway from the past week is this: if you find yourself one of those disappointed, non-planning-ahead would-be campers…don’t whine; find your blessings where you can. Take a hike, and then go drive the interstate! #silverlinings #redrocks #istilladorecliffs

4 thoughts on “Road Trip XI, Days 43-49: Red Rock Country–No Bugs, No Wind, No Rain…But No Reservation

  1. I do the same thing Gretchen, no plan, no reservations. But I had some wonderful experiences from the Navajo reservation in NE Arizona, and the southern drive thru Utah, Page and Kanab. The scenery was always spectacular, just on the roadside. Didn’t have to go into the NPs.

  2. Sigh. Weren’t those days grand when we could just roll into a campground and get a fantastic site with no reservations? Of course, that was at least 20 years ago. Too many people is a big reason we haven’t spent much time in the wonderful and overly popular national parks in Utah in the last decade. You certainly took the scenic route back to Lopez! Love all of your gorgeous rock photos.

  3. Yeah, I guess I’m a janey-come-lately to the no-reservations situation! And yeah…scenic route is right. Since this last post, we’ve had to detour AGAIN due to wind…but hope to finally be home Monday! Thanks for ridin’ along…

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