American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 6: Day-Trippers

On Wednesday morning, the morning after we conquered Angel’s Landing, we quickly made breakfast and then made tracks. Our destination for the day was Valley of Fire State Park near Overton, Nevada, just over two hours away (and one hour from Vegas, if we got the inkling!). I’d read good reviews about the place, with lots of incredible rock formations quite different from those in Zion or elsewhere in Utah.

I-15 in Arizona.

We drove through the scenic towns along Utah Highway 9 before picking up Interstate 15 in St. George, traveling southwest towards the Arizona border. And let me tell you, I-15 through Arizona into Nevada may be one of the coolest highways I’ve ever traveled on. Canyon walls rise up on every side as the road winds among them, the strata coming out of the earth at odd angles. And, going south, it’s a fairly decent decline.

Somebody planted some grass off the side of the road!

Coming out on the Nevada side, the terrain changes dramatically again. Green, wide-open plains are barriered by ridges of mountains. Somehow, it’s exactly how I pictured Nevada, at least this part.

And then we crossed the state line and saw the big casino. That was actually how we pictured Nevada.

After driving through several small, sunny Nevada communities, we arrived in Valley of Fire. I deposited our fee at the unmanned entrance and we drove in, not quite sure where to start.

Welcome to the Valley of Fire! Mwah-hah-hah-hah! (Not really; there’s nothing scary out here.)

We visited the visitor’s center (as visitors do) and were disappointed to find that park maps were only available for sale, and for more than we wanted to pay. So, we did what any twenty-first century tourists would do and took a picture of the map on display outside the gift shop, then headed back out to the truck. Along the way, a young German family held the door open for us as we exited. “Danke schön,” I said as we passed through. They laughed in surprise and looked at us. “Wir sprechen ein bisschen Deutsch,” I explained. We speak a little German. Always good to bolster our international relations.

That rock looked eerily like a skull. (Maybe that “mwah-hah-hah-hah” is indeed called for!)

Our first hike was called Mouse’s Tank, short and in-and-out. At fifty degrees and sunny, it felt great and we shed our unnecessary layers before starting out. The hike itself was all on sand between large rock formations on either side, and along the way we saw a fair amount of pictographs from times and people long gone. The trail terminated at a fairly large (for a desert) body of water, the Mouse’s Tank that gives the trail its namesake. We took some pictures and then hiked back, and I noticed one of the pictographs looked like ripples of the sea, perhaps an indicator to ancient passers-by that there was water nearby. It’s amazing how that sign has lasted so long, and how its meaning is still interpreted all these years later.

If you can’t tell by my hair, it’s windy.
Daniel puts his back to the wind! He’s barely able to keep his balance against the gusts.

After Mouse’s Tank, we drove around the park a bit, marveling at the different colors of rocks, extensive sand dunes, and the like. We made it to the White Domes hike, a loop trail just a mile or so long but promising some excellent views. It did not disappoint. We also passed the remains of a hacienda used in the film The Professionals with Burt Lancaster. I later learned that other movies have been filmed in the park, including Elvis’s Viva Las Vegas and the original Total Recall for all the Mars scenes. It is indeed like Mars; it’s also a lot like Tatooine.

The start of the White Domes Trail.
We had some really good, unplanned “album photos” like this one.

We still felt worn out after Angel’s Landing the previous day, so we took it easy in Valley of Fire and did more driving and observing than actual hiking. Plus, being that we had to drive over two hours to get back to our camp in Zion, we were limited on time. The park is definitely something to check out, if only for its otherworldly terrain, if you find yourself in Vegas or the surrounding area; Lake Mead is also close by.

La hacienda ya no existe.
The road back to the interstate.

When we got back to camp, we ate dinner and then cracked open the Uinta Golden Spike (to put an end to our delayed gratification) while roasting s’mores by the campfire. We sat out until we ran out of chocolate and marshmallows and the weather started getting chilly. I crawled into my sleeping bag and journaled while Daniel played “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver through his phone. Then it got too cold for us to sit up, so we nestled ourselves inside our cocoons and turned the lights out.

It rained that night with strong winds and the temperature dropped to 29º F, the lowest it had been during our stay. Listening to the wind and rain outside while you’re warm and dry inside a tent is a very cool thing.

The next morning, we ate quickly again and packed up our camping gear. We decided to leave a day early and hit Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park on the way out, then re-enter Zion from the now-open east entrance on Highway 9 if we had time.

Let me tell you, packing up wet camping gear at 32º F with a fair morning wind is not a very cool thing.

Thankfully (perhaps miraculously), we got the tent zipped up with no problems. I lost my patience trying to fit one sleeping bag into its storage bag, so I threw it in the back of the cab with all the other gear. “We’ll sort it out when we get home,” I said, somewhat breaking my rule of keeping a neat and tidy backseat. “Let’s go.”

We drove into Springdale and intended to eat breakfast at Oscar’s Cafe, apparently one of the best places in town, but unfortunately they weren’t serving breakfast. We talked to the owner, a cool guy who recommended we try a place called MeMe’s across the street. We thanked him and told him we’d be sure to visit Oscar’s the next time we found ourselves in Springdale. (And, Lord willing, there will be a next time.)

MeMe’s turned out to be an excellent recommendation. We each ordered a breakfast crêpe with hollandaise sauce drizzled on top, and man was it good! For those who like a hearty, fancy, French-infused breakfast and gourmet coffee, this is the place. (Neither of us are coffee-drinkers, so I can’t speak to how great the coffee was. The water was, though!)

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park near Kanab, UT.

We said good-bye to Springdale, good-bye to Zion, and retraced our route to Highway 59 into Arizona. A couple hours later, we had driven completely around the large mass of rock that encapsulates Zion and the area around it, and found ourselves north of Kanab, UT on U.S. 89, looking for an entrance to Coral Pink Sand Dunes. The first one we came to was closed, but we drove on and found a second one further north, then drove many miles back south to actually get to the park.

“Someone was in the pod. The tracks go off in this direction.”

Coral Pink Sand Dunes is not a very big park, but it’s something to see. Due to the area’s geography, many grains of sand from the desert (remember, we are technically in a desert, even though there are trees and such) accumulate in this one place. The signs at the park explain how this works; I can’t remember it all, but I found the topographical views of the terrain and explanations of how the grains are moved fascinating.

Saltating sand. Bet you never learned about that in science class.

But, enough scientific stuff. We hiked out onto the sand and found ourselves again on Tatooine, or in a small Sahara. There weren’t too many other people out there, and it was incredibly quiet even despite the wind. We hiked up a dune, ran down (that was the easiest way to prevent our feet from sinking deep into the sand), and did it again. Daniel had me time him running to the top of a dune, and I think he misjudged how difficult it would be. For one thing, it was steep; for another, it required extra effort because sand moves and shifts when you stamp down on it with great force, like he was. If you want to get fit, start running up dunes.

“Yeah, runnin’ down a dune / I’ll be at the bottom soon” (alternate lyrics to Tom Petty’s classic)
All I can say about this picture is that I don’t remember who or what I was looking at. But I look pretty cool doing it, if I do say so myself.

After an hour or so, maybe even less (time becomes irrelevant in a desolate desert), we hiked back to Vader. It would have been more fun had we had some motorized vehicles with which to tear into the sand. Unfortunately, neither of us were old enough to rent them for a day (darn you, insurance!), so we merely talked about how great it would be to drive ATVs around in the sand. “Next time,” we said.

From there, we picked up Highway 9 again in the “town” of Mt. Carmel Junction and drove into Zion from the east side. This afforded a much different view of the park because, unlike the south entrance where you come in at the bottom of the canyon, the east entrance brings you in on top of everything, winding among the tall rocks.

Hiking underneath an overhang in Zion.

We drove through the two old, narrow tunnels for the heck of it before parking and hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail, our last one in Zion. It is accurately labeled as a moderate trail, and didn’t seem to take as long as we thought it would. At the end, we were treated to a breathtaking view down into the canyon, another different perspective on the park.

The terminus of the aptly-named Canyon Overlook Trail. Pictures do not do this view justice.

On the hike back, a fellow hiker pointed out a family of bighorn sheep on the rocks far above us. I pulled out my long-range camera lens and zoomed in to get some shots, then offered it to others so they could see the young sheep close-up.

A happy family outing on the rocks.

On the drive out of the park, we encountered something even better: bighorn sheep right alongside the road. We parked and Danger Dan jumped out with the camera to get all the best shots. And I would say that he did.

A young bighorn sheep. (Does that make it a littlehorn sheep?)
The thousand-dollar shot.

With one final stop for Daniel to play in the snow off the road, we left Zion for good and drove to Page, AZ for the night. We checked in at the Red Rock Inn, a wonderful, family-owned motel that more than exceeded our expectations: two separate rooms, each with a twin bed, for only $70. (I’m all about bang for my buck!) Our hostess provided us plenty of literature for things to do in and around Page; sadly, we would only be there overnight and wouldn’t have time to do much of anything. I didn’t realize there was as much to do there as there really is. Add this city to the list of places to return to!

Vader the truck parked outside the Red Rock Inn in Page, AZ.

We each showered—something we hadn’t done in five days—and, feeling cleaned up like cowboys might after many days on the trail, we moseyed on into town to rustle up some grub. We dined at the State 48 Tavern that night, a burger-and-beer kind of place that suited us just fine. We each ate the Cowboy Burger (because we’re cowboys, baby!—not really, but maybe), which more than sated us. Instead of drinking and hitting on the gals, we went back to our motel room and crashed for the night (because we’re Christian cowboys, baby!—yes, really, to that one).

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 5: Zion National Park

We checked in with the park ranger at the campsite and quickly found our spot, just near the entrance and a short walk from the restroom. Before setting up our tent, we looked around at the rock formations around us and marveled. “We get to camp here?!”

The little green Coleman. Just big enough—just.

We chose a (small) two-person Coleman tent that Daniel previously took to Big Bend National Park with some of his friends. On previous trips, we had used a Walrus tent that was at least twenty-five years old, and though it was a good tent, we found it was prone to leaking even after I resealed it. Since we expected rain and potentially snow during our stay, I decided we should use the newer, albeit smaller, tent that I hoped would keep us dry.

Our base station, complete with food and water.

After pitching the tent and positioning the truck to act as a wind block, we started on supper. We brought an abundance of canned goods, from soup to chowder to green beans to refried beans to spinach. I did most of the cooking, and my methodology was simple: open can, pour into pan, heat, and eat. Remember, I’m a Baker, not a Cook.

As evening approached and the air cooled down, we tried building a fire with some wood we brought from home. Daniel took charge and I gave tips as best I could, but we were unable to get a blaze going. I started bundling up in the cold evening air and thought of the Jack London short story “To Build a Fire”. Even the protagonist in that story had better success than we did! Did this bode ill for the rest of our trip?

Finally, dismayed but not distraught, we prepared for bed and quickly realized how small the tent was. There was enough room for each of us to lie stretched-out on either long end of the tent, and just enough room between us for our clothes bags. Otherwise, we were quite cramped.

Mule deer in our campsite.

That night was our first night sleeping in sub-freezing temperatures. We crawled into our mummy bags and zipped up. Daniel’s advice, since he’d done something similar in Big Bend, was to sleep in his day clothes. I’ll just say this: Don’t do that. Strip down completely, or do like I did and wear a base layer inside the mummy bag. You’ll stay much warmer and far more comfortable that way.

That first night’s sleep was rough. I slept like a rock, but also felt like I was sleeping on rocks. The old Therm-a-Rests we brought offered nil in the way of lower back support, and sleeping on the side wasn’t much better. I managed. Daniel didn’t.

At 5:30 AM the next morning, Daniel woke me up saying he had to go to the bathroom. I groaned as he climbed over me and outside to do his business. “Whoa!” he said in his half-wakened state as he exited the tent. “Look at the stars!”

I groggily leaned my head out of the tent and looked up. There were, indeed, innumerable stars in the early morning sky. We could even see part of the Milky Way.

So began our stay in Zion National Park. We camped four nights, three in the tent and one in my truck. The second night we decided to try truck-camping in the cab, since neither of us slept incredibly well the night before. It was warmer than the tent, for sure, but still not very comfortable. I think I slept a grand total of two hours that night; Daniel slept more like six because he’d been the one who slept two the night before.

Two hours of sleep on the Watchman Trail.

On our first morning in Zion, we woke up, made breakfast in the crisp, brisk morning air, and then geared up to go hiking. First, we visited the visitor’s center to grab maps and other park literature, as well as to speak to a ranger about trail conditions and recommended hikes. She steered us clear of the Archaeology Trail, the first trail we intended to hike, saying it was too easy and pretty boring. She also pointed us to some other nearby state parks we could check out during our four-day stay, and advised us on conditions on Angel’s Landing, which is possibly Zion’s most popular hike (for good reason, as you’ll soon see).

We were down there, once.

Our first hike was on the Watchman Trail, which wound up into the rocks overlooking the campgrounds and provided some great views of the valley and the town of Springdale to the south. It was not a hard hike, but did take about two hours to complete. The hardest part for us was having to gradually de-layer as we hiked; it was about forty-five Fahrenheit when we started and felt like sixty by the time we reached the overlook.

The view looking northwest.
The view looking southwest over the town of Springdale.

After completing the first hike, we decided to ride a shuttle bus around the park to see everything there was. This proved to be a good decision, because we learned quite a bit about the park from the pre-recorded narrations onboard the shuttle.

The waterfalls at the Lower Emerald Pools.

We stopped at Zion Lodge, which books up thirteen months in advance(!), too hike the Lower Emerald Pool trail, approximately one mile total, and paved the whole way. The trail keeps going, but due to winter weather and rockfall, the Upper Emerald Pool was off-limits. Still, Lower Emerald Pool was completely worth it.

We’re smiling because one of the prettiest girls in the world asked if we wanted our picture with the falls. Two of the handsomest guys in the world returned the favor a minute later.

We then decided to do the short Grotto Trail that walked along the bus route for about a mile from the Lodge at Stop #5 to Stop #6 [check numbers]. Daniel started getting bored during this hike, but that quickly changed once we saw two mule deer foraging just off the trail. I let him take the camera and get some close-ups, though I think the deer were a little annoyed because they showed him only their derrières.

Daniel and the deer. He’s a regular Jack Hanna.

We hopped back on the shuttle and rode the rest of the way around the park, stopping briefly at Stop #8, called Big Bend, to look around and take photos. We sat in the shadow of Angel’s Landing, looking up at the colossus that we intended to conquer the next day. As we snacked on trail mix, we heard a victorious whoop come from far above. “Someone made it to the top,” I said, explaining the trail to a couple from Pittsburgh nearby.

The Big Bend along the Zion shuttle road.

Angel’s Landing is a four-hour, five-mile trail with a fifteen-hundred-foot ascent. The first half involves climbing up a steep trail that switchbacks up the side of the rock; the second half consists primarily of scrabbling along the “backbone” of the rock formation holding on to heavy-duty chains. Seven people have fallen to their deaths since 2004. And once you get started on the last half, there aren’t too many places where you can decide to go back.

Daniel enjoying Chef Bubba’s gourmet meal after day one of adventuring.

So, the next morning, we grabbed our crampons, just in case, and boarded the shuttle for Angel’s Landing in spite of the severe weather warnings posted at the shuttle stop. Clouds covered the park and it did look a little foreboding, but we (and others) went ahead anyway.

The switchbacks at the first part of Angel’s Landing.

The hike up was indeed intense. For the first time, I felt winded at the higher elevation than I was used to. We stopped frequently to catch our breath and let the burning in our legs subside, but the easiest thing was to simply keep hiking on. Stopping too long, we felt like staying stagnant. We had to keep pressing on.

Looking down the Angel’s Landing trail, just before another switchback carried us up to the chains. We had to put the camera up for that part.

The second half, with the chains, was even more intense. In certain areas, there was only a foot or two between us and empty space, and a thousand-foot drop. It was the equivalent of a one-lane road in that we had to stop and coordinate climbing up with the folks that were climbing down; there were only so many chains to go around. It was also made worse by the wet sand, which caused many slips as our boots lost their grip and became caked with dirt. In many cases, I found it easiest to hold onto the chain and use my upper-body strength to propel myself forward and upward.

Two hours of sleep and still trucking!
The view from 1500 feet up. Note the shuttles on the road.

Finally, we reached the end of the trail, and were rewarded with one of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life. We stopped for at least a half hour just to take it all in, snack, and talk to fellow hikers.

She’s braver than I am.

We encountered a group of Texas A&M Aggies (not to be confused with the Utah State Aggies, whom we also saw plenty of), and they were in the process of “impressing” some midwesterners with their Texas accents. “Do you guys really speak like that?” one girl laughed. “Why, yes ma’am, we do,” an Aggie replied.

“Boy, I tell you hwhat, Bubba,” Daniel said to me in his Big Tex impersonation. That elicited laughter from some other folks nearby.

Achievement unlocked: Angel’s Landing.

After taking pictures, having other people take our picture, and taking pictures of other people, we descended Angel’s Landing. In my opinion, the descent with chains was far tougher than the ascent. With gravity propelling your body forward, it’s tough to maintain your balance, and one misstep could send you dangerously close to the edge. Nevertheless, we made it, and lived to tell the tale.

The red rocks looking towards The Narrows Trail, which we did not hike due to extremely cold water.

Exhausted in a good way, we climbed back onto the shuttle to ride to our campsite. Behind us sat a family speaking in German. Daniel elbowed me: “You should say something to them in German.” So, I turned around, smiled, and did: “Kommen Sie aus Deutschland?” Do you come from Germany?

Their faces lit up and we began a conversation in a mix of German and English, before eventually defaulting to English (because Germans like to practice their English when traveling in English-speaking countries). They were taking an extended family vacation around the world, which was culminating in some RV-ing across the American Southwest. We told them we were from Texas and then learned that one of the ladies lived in San Antonio for a while during an internship in college, and she loved Texas. We talked about the differences in culture, travel, and work between our two countries and concluded that white-collar Germans have it better than we white-collar Americans do: Over a month of paid vacation every year, often with the ability to take more with job security. Man.

Clouds rolling in on us in the late afternoon. Storm’s a-comin’.

After hiking Angel’s Landing, we were tired and famished. We knew that sleeping in the truck again was not a good option, and we needed to do something to make sleeping in the tent more comfortable. We drove into Springdale and hit up one of the sporting goods stores for new Therm-a-Rests, which promised comfort and insulation for only $50 apiece. We then stopped at Sol Foods and bought a six-pack of Uinta Golden Spike to reward ourselves for conquering Angel’s Landing, and some real firewood, before heading back to our campsite.

I prepared dinner while Daniel got the fire roaring. We planned to eat, then sip beers and make s’mores. As we finished eating supper, we saw the German lady, Julia, we met on the shuttle walking with her young son. She waved and came over, then told us that her son, Jahale (whose name I hope I spelled correctly—pronounced ya-ha-la, Nordic in origin), wanted to help us build a fire. We gave him some small sticks and helped him throw them on the blaze. I asked him in German if he wanted some s’mores, but Julia told us that he didn’t like marshmallows. He then looked at his mother in surprise: “Mama, sie sprechen Deutsch?” Yes, she told him, they do speak German.

A campfire I dub “the Pard special,” even though I had a lot of input in architecting the thing.

Jahale was one of the cutest, most well-behaved three-year-olds I’d ever seen. He had light blond hair, blue eyes, and high German cheekbones. He stood safely away from the fire and was very careful when pitching sticks into the blaze. He noticed me and Daniel standing with our hands in our jean pockets (as Texans do), and he wanted to stand with his hands in his pockets, too—so Julia showed him how. I told Julia he’d be walking with a little cowboy swagger if he hung around us too long. When she told him it was time to go, he didn’t want to, and insisted on staying. “Bis fünf Minuten?” Julia asked him. Five more minutes? “Nein!” he replied in his high-pitched voice, wearing a contagious smile. “Bis hundert!” One hundred minutes!

Finally, he did get tired and wanted to go back to their RV. We wished them a good night and safe travels—they were heading down to the Grand Canyon, then on to Las Vegas—and hoped we’d see them later on. The fire was reduced to ashes by this point, and the air began to get chillier. We still hadn’t popped open the beer. “We’ll drink ’em tomorrow,” I told Daniel. “I’m ready to bed down for the night.” He agreed. We put the last of the cookware away and hit the hay. Nothing like delayed gratification.

Lying on the new Therm-a-Rest, I could already tell that it was going to be a much better night’s sleep. I replayed the hike of Angel’s Landing and the other events of the day before drifting into dreamland, only occasionally interrupted by the wind and rain that battered our tent as I stayed snug inside the mummy bag.

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 4: Time Travel, Dam Tourists, and Zion

At some point Sunday morning, as we dozed comfortably in our motel room at Goulding’s, we lost an hour to Daylight Savings Time. I had accounted for this by keeping us on Central Standard Time, so the lost hour would be a wash. That meant my watch was finally accurate for Mountain Daylight Time, and I didn’t have to keep subtracting an hour to figure out what time it really was.

Let’s talk a moment about time, relativity, and how Daylight Savings Time really screws things up. Traveling one time zone west when DST begins isn’t a big deal. People who stay in their time zone, however, lose an hour of sleep and have to get used to the sun rising and setting a whole hour later. We get that hour back later in the year, when most people either take advantage of an extra hour of sleep or an opportunity to watch a couple more episodes of The Office for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, then people have to get used to an earlier sunrise and an evening that gets darker much earlier.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the state of Arizona does not observe DST. That’s right—the state is more or less in Mountain Standard during five months of the year and in Pacific Daylight the other seven.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, the Navajo Nation does observe DST. That means that, if you’re in the state of Arizona, but you’re within the Navajo Nation, you’re in DST.

Confused yet?

Fortunately for us, this timey-wimey stuff didn’t throw us off too much or impact us too significantly. We woke up when we intended to and headed to the restaurant at Goulding’s for a continental breakfast: pancakes, eggs, sausage and bacon, fruit, and grits. I ordered us a side of frybread, a traditional Navajo dish, for the sake of trying something more cultural. (It tasted a lot like a funnel cake to me.)

We watched as the sun slowly rose over the eastern horizon, getting our first views of the monuments before us. They were purely incredible.

That’s what I call a monumental view.

Our plan for the day was to do a driving tour through Monument Valley and then drive to Zion National Park immediately after. Like Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley is on tribal land and therefore belongs to the Navajo people. Also like Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley requires (rather expensive) tour guides for certain areas, but the self-guided driving tour costs only $20 per vehicle.

We crossed back into Arizona (but not into a different time zone) and rolled up to the ticket booth. An older, stoic Navajo man in sunglasses and a ball cap sat in the booth and was listening to Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar”. I nodded my head in agreement with his music choice as he took our money, handed us a map, and told us not to leave the marked trail. We thanked him and drove in.

The self-guided route through Monument Valley. Use four-wheel drive in wet or muddy conditions.

For $20, the self-guided trail is worth every penny. The road is unpaved, so it’s best to have a higher-clearance vehicle, or at least not a low-clearance one, and four-wheel drive is a must if it’s rained. I only engaged 4WD High for one brief ascent over some slick rock, but I probably didn’t even need to there. (We saw people driving the trail in all manner of sedans and crossovers that were likely not even all-wheel drive.)

The views are spectacular. The trail winds through the monuments and provides ample photo opportunities. Seeing the monuments from different angles is really incredible, too. This is what a lot of people think of when they think of the American West—John Wayne riding a horse through the towering formations. And for good reason: Monument Valley has been the site for dozens, if not hundreds, of movies. (Side note: Goulding’s does offer a “John Wayne” tour of the valley, but it is an all-day affair and costs a little money. If you’re a fan of The Duke, though, it might be worth it.)

Daniel contemplates the sand dunes, wishing he could hike out to them.

We drove up to Artists’ Point, part of the trail where native artists sell their wares. A lone, elderly Navajo woman sat bundled in a blanket at a table with jewelry before her. We got out of the truck to take pictures of the view and wished her good morning.

A few minutes later, a white Chevy drove up and a middle-aged man got out. His name was Preston, and we learned that he had driven up to the point that morning to visit the woman, his mother. We introduced ourselves and told him where we were from, and then he proceeded to tell us more about Monument Valley and the Navajo way of life.

“See that metal tank down there?” he asked, pointing at a shiny object out in the distance. “I used to live there. Used to run to the road up there to catch the bus to go to school in the morning, then run back home in the evening.” He pointed farther off to the right. “Now I live out there.”

Blue Mountain as viewed through my long-range lens, at least seventy miles away as the crow files.

“See that mountain out there?” We nodded; Daniel had been wondering what mountain it was all morning. “That’s Blue Mountain. That’s up near Moab.”

He then explained some of the monuments and their names to us. “See that one over there? That’s a sleeping man—there’s his head at the left end, his feet at the right end, and his big belly in the middle!” We could see it—but we wouldn’t have without him pointing it out to us, just like with the other monuments.

After a bit more conversation, we bid Preston and his mother farewell, then hopped back into the truck and wrapped up our driving tour. It was another person we met, another interaction, that made the trip special.

Before hitting the road, we stopped to use the bathroom at The View, a resort inside the park with a view (go figure) of Monument Valley beyond. While there, we met a young Italian couple trying to take a selfie of themselves with a GoPro. This younger couple did speak English, so I offered to take their photo. Daniel pulled out his extraordinarily fake Texas accent when they asked where we were from, as if that would somehow impress them. Maybe it did, I don’t know. All I know is that they laughed. I think they thought it was funny, probably because he sounded like Joe Don Baker’s character from Tomorrow Never Dies.

I let Daniel take the reins as we drove out of Monument Valley back through Kayenta, and then picked up Arizona 98 towards Page. The route to Page is another example of how roads have to be built around the terrain in this part of the country, taking you way out of the way in order to get where you need to go. We did pass some interesting stuff to make the ride interesting, including what appeared to be an abandoned electric train and a granary of some kind with a chute that shot over the highway.

Me with Navajo Mountain in the background.

The landscape started changing again as we approached Page: fewer plants and rocks that showed greater signs of water erosion. We drove past tours in Antelope Canyon, one of the largest tourist attractions for the area. I had debated us taking a tour, but since we were trying to keep to our schedule and keep costs down (yeah, I know, nothing like road-tripping in a gas-guzzling truck!), we decided against it.

We stopped for gas at a Shell station just within the city limits. Still no cell service, and I had no idea what time zone we were supposed to be in because I didn’t know whether we were still on tribal land or not. Instead of a hidden bathroom, this gas station didn’t even have one: It was under construction, so port-a-potties sat outside instead. I won’t go into that experience, but I laughed at some of the funniest bathroom wall writing I’ve ever seen. Something written in Japanese was posted inside (don’t ask me why) and below that someone had written, “Oh no, Godzilla!”

The only thing wrong with this shot is that Daniel didn’t bring his desert camo.

We stopped to view the Glen Canyon Dam from a scenic overlook, then hiked out on the rocks to get even closer. I’d never seen any landscape quite like this: no flora around, just red rocks. It felt like a different planet.

Daniel was (morbidly!) curious about how far down the bottom was.

We drove up to the dam, parked and walked across the bridge to get a good look up close, and then drove across and over into Utah, where I could finally be certain what time zone we were in. Shortly thereafter, we entered The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which I later learned is not only some of the most remote land in the continental U.S., but the last to be mapped as well. If only we’d had more time to stop and explore, but I guess that’s what the next trip is for…

The promised land?

My phone buzzed. So did Daniel’s. “Service!” he declared, and immediately began updating his Instagram, or Snapchat, or whatever the heck he uses.

I, trying to be the good son, called Mom and assured her that we were still alive. We talked for a bit before we lost service again in a more mountainous area, but we knew we’d pick it up again before too long.

You can’t exactly blast through this to build a road, so you have to build the road around.

Due to winter weather, the east entrance into Zion via State Highway 9 was closed, so we had to take a more indirect, circuitous route south from Kanab into Fredonia, AZ, and then back up towards Hurricane. Daniel nodded off and I pressed on behind a city truck from Cortez, CO. The sky was overcast, the road was smooth, and all was well.

I soon saw signs indicating a steep descent, and suddenly I was driving a switchback downhill overlooking the town of Hurricane, with a snow-capped peak in the distance. It was gorgeous. I woke Daniel up with an elbow and he gasped at the sight.

Winding roads, steep grades, fallen rocks… what’s not to like?

We continued our drive through the quaint little towns of Hurricane, La Verkin, and Rockville—oohing and aahing the whole way—until we arrived in Springdale, the town just outside Zion. Springdale serves tourists, no doubt about it; it has a unique small-town charm and a certain hipster vibe—but in a good way.

At the park entrance, I pulled up behind a guy in a Dodge truck with Nevada plates and we sat, waiting, for five minutes while he discoursed with the ranger at the fee booth. Meanwhile, cars in the other lane breezed through. Finally, we pulled up and I produced my credit card. “I’ve got a reservation, I just need a weekly pass,” I said.

The park ranger smiled and rang me up. “Thanks, buddy. You were easy to deal with,” he said, handing my card back. “The guy in front of you was a real hardball. You guys go have a great time, you hear?”

“Yes, sir!” We intended to obey those instructions.

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 1: Preparation

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

One month prior to spring break, Daniel and I sat down with our calendars and an atlas. We put our heads together and figured out where we could go for a week on the cheap.

The beach was an obvious choice. Unfortunately, the beach was an obvious choice. Everyone goes to the beach during spring break.

Going abroad wasn’t an option, because Daniel doesn’t have a passport (yet). Plus, the cost to get out of the United States is typically high, even though things might be cheaper once you do get out of the country.

We really didn’t want to take a “traditional” spring break trip, and we really wanted to go somewhere we’d never been before and do something we’d never done before. For both of us, that meant visiting a state we’d not yet crossed off the list.

I’m fond of the American West, so I started looking at places out that way that we could get to in two days or less on the road. Of course, they also needed to be interesting enough for me and entertaining enough for Daniel.

After a little research, I pointed at a spot in southwest Utah. “How about Zion National Park?”

We looked at pictures online and I looked at the trail reports on the National Park Service’s website. It didn’t take much convincing once Daniel saw the beauty of the area and how much there was to do there.

Little did we know how much there is to do out there.

With a location decided upon, we began to research transportation and lodging. Camping was an obvious choice due to how cheap it is to camp in a national park. Driving in my truck meant that we could go where we wanted and carry all the gear we needed, rather than try to stuff it into carry-ons and check bags on an airplane. (Plus, neither of us are old enough to affordably rent a car if we ever fly anywhere.)

One thing most people don’t know is that there are tons of places where it is free to camp across the United States. Much of the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) is free to camp on with a fourteen-day maximum stay. For RVers, Wal-Marts and other large retailers tend to accommodate overnight “boondocking” in their parking lots. The website FreeCampsites.net has an interactive map with thousands of such free locations documented across the U.S.

With this in mind, our plan was to free-camp our way to Zion rather than stay in hotels. I picked out places for every night, including in Cibola National Forest outside Albuquerque and Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, UT.

Our initial itinerary was to leave DFW early on Friday the 8th and drive to Albuquerque, and then drive to Zion on the 9th. We would stay in Zion until the 13th, when we would then drive to Monument Valley for a couple days before reversing our route and coming back home. We would be back on Saturday the 16th, which would give us one day to rest up before re-entering the “real world” (or a day of cushion in case something happened on the way back).

Then Mom and Dad stepped in and basically demanded that we get “real” lodging on our way.

And then one of Daniel’s professors moved an exam forward from after spring break to the day we were supposed to leave, which meant we wouldn’t get to leave until 11AM at the earliest.

At first, I felt like these two setbacks wrecked the plan, but strangely they helped solidify the itinerary. I decided to reverse the trip: we would drive to Monument Valley first since it was closer, then to Zion, and then back home. We could still travel a good distance on half of Friday and all of Saturday. And, blessedly, Daniel’s professor agreed to let him take the exam earlier that Friday the morning, meaning we could leave sooner than we otherwise could have.

Instead of staying in Albuquerque the first night, I booked a room at the Best Western in Santa Rosa, NM, and then a room at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley for the next night. We then booked the South Campground for five nights in Zion (booking for the South Campground opens up only fourteen days in advance), and an AirBNB casita in Albuquerque for the trip back.

Whew! Everything did indeed fall into place.

Next, we had to get our gear together. We had most of the camping gear already: tent, Therm-A-Rests, mummy-style sleeping bags. We opted for a newer but smaller Coleman tent that Daniel used on a recent trip to Big Bend National Park, because the older Walrus tent that we had used in Missouri during the Great American Eclipse leaked in a great deluge even though I waterproofed it. Otherwise, we took the obvious camping and survival items: hiking boots, knives, many ways to start a fire, mylar blankets, rain ponchos, and the like.

I’ll pause the narrative a minute and note that I will occasionally hyperlink to Amazon pages for products that we used on this trip. These are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy the product through the link on this page, I get a small kickback from your purchase. Don’t feel obligated to buy anything at all, but if there’s something I write about that you would like to buy, I’d appreciate it if you did so through my link.

And with that PSA out of the way, back to the story.

Our camping in Zion would be primitive in the sense that there was no electric hookup or shower. A camp restroom and a spigot were thirty or so yards from our reserved campsite in the South Campground. We would be cooking our own meals, something we’d never really done before. And, we’d be doing it in what was likely to be cold, potentially wet weather.

Two weeks before we left, we drove to the closest Wal-Mart Supercenter and loaded up on canned goods: Campbell’s soups, green beans, spinach, tuna, you name it. We bought some of the cured “mystery meat” sausage, as well as crackers, trail mix, and cups of mandarin oranges and peaches.

For breakfast, we decided on grits, since neither of us like oatmeal. To prepare it all, I bought a Stanley cooking kit to complement a one-person cooking kit I already had.

We were going to eat and we were going to eat well.

For water, I purchased two Aqua-Tainers in anticipation of free-camping. It turns out that I didn’t need two (and probably not even one), but I went with the old rule of thumb that every person needs a gallon of water per day. With two people and at least seven days of travel, that would be fourteen gallons, exactly two Aqua-Tainers.

Due to concerns about the weather, I also bought us each a base layer and crampons for our hiking boots. For cleanliness, I bought some body wipes and dry shampoo (since manly men with flowing manes need to keep oil at bay, too), since we wouldn’t have access to a shower unless we paid $5 for four minutes in the nearby town of Springdale.

The day before we left, I got Vader the truck washed and waxed (so he would cut through the air better on the open road), then came home and loaded up what I could. I stored all the food in the two Plano containers that I carry around in Vader’s bed, and loaded the sleeping bags, cookware, and other miscellaneous things into the extended cab.

For campfire-building, Dad helped me pack some old wood that had been covered up in the backyard into a Rubbermaid container. All the camping gear was already stored in an old Action Packer container. I simply loaded these into the bed and pulled the tonneau cover shut. I also took the old Coleman camp stove and three cans of propane just in case.

And with that, we were pretty much ready. All that remained was for Daniel to take his exam, load up the last few things, and then hit the road the next day.

The big day: Loaded for bear and ready to roll!

Bro-Trip Report: Zion National Park and the American Southwest

The view from the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. Very strenuous, 4 miles long, and an elevation change to 1,500 feet, but completely worth it!

With spring break around the corner and no plans, Daniel and I put our heads together. Where could we go that would be exciting, affordable, and something that we’d never done before?

The beach was an option, but everyone does that over spring break. So was skiing, but that’s expensive.

Looking at the map and using my rudimentary knowledge of the American West and National Parks, I put together an itinerary and proposed a trip.

With approximately a week and a day to work with, I determined that we could drive to Zion National Park (near Springdale, UT), camp there, and use that as a base from which to explore the park and the surrounding area. Both on the way there and coming back we would be able to stop and do things along the way to break up long stretches of driving.

I ran the plan by Dan the Man, and he liked it. We would spend spring break in the American Southwest, specifically in Zion National Park.

Daniel enjoying a dinner of beef ravioli, green beans, and Ritz crackers in the South Campground.

It would be a trip unlike any we’d ever done before. We’d be camping five nights in Zion, cooking our own meals every morning and evening, and over a thousand miles away from our family, or really anyone who could help us if something went awry.

Initially, the plan was to drive about eight hours a day to get to Zion and camp every night during the whole trip to save money. Mom and Dad (thankfully) steered us away from that option due to the sheer amount of time and effort required to set up and break camp. It would quickly get old. Instead, we opted to stay at motels and AirBNBs along the way, and set up camp only once when we arrived in Zion.

We left DFW on Friday the 8th and drove to Santa Rosa, NM, and then from Santa Rosa to Monument Valley, UT on the 9th. On the 10th, we drove to Zion, and then stayed there through the morning of the 14th. From there, we started back home, stopping overnight in Page, AZ and then in Albuquerque, NM. We arrived back home on Saturday the 16th.

Sunrise in Monument Valley, viewed from our motel balcony at Goulding’s Lodge.

During our trip, we did the following:

  • Ate steaks at The Big Texan in Amarillo (no, we didn’t try the 72 oz. steak challenge)
  • Visited Walter White’s (Breaking Bad) house in Albuquerque
  • Hiked the White House Ruins trail in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, AZ
  • Drove through Monument Valley, AZ/UT
  • Took lots of dam photos in Page, AZ
  • Tent-camped four nights in Zion National Park and weathered wind, rain, and frost
  • Conquered Angel’s Landing (1500 foot ascent with chains)
  • Walked through Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, NV
  • Climbed dunes in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Kanab, UT
  • Saw mule deer and bighorn sheep in Zion
  • Checked out Horseshoe Bend outside Page, AZ
  • Walked around the rim of Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ
  • Took the obligatory “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” photos
  • Successfully resolved a check engine light in Albuquerque on the way back
  • Built three campfires
  • Made numerous s’mores
  • Drove almost 3,000 miles in Vader the truck
  • Made memories we’ll never forget!
Looking out over Canyon de Chelly (Chinle, AZ).

Every evening before bed, I journaled the day’s events. Over the coming weeks, I’ll use that journal to help retell this epic trip, day by day, and all our escapades along the way. I’ll share the adventures (and some misadventures) that we got ourselves into, what we learned, and travel tips for those who wish to visit the amazing places that we did. I’ll also share plenty of the amazing photos that Daniel and I took along the way, because we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words (and, in some cases, ten-thousand words).

Stay tuned!