Arches & Canyonlands, Utah

Following our adventure in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks we headed south towards Utah for a change in scenery. We were excited to finally experience the legendary American deserts, something way different than we have seen in our expedition so far. From tall mountains with snow powdered peaks, spruce and pine trees we were about to change to canyons, deserts, dramatic rocks and sandstone formations! Utah is blessed with a selection of natural wonders which we were about to explore. We planned a little national parks and monuments marathon, including: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Escalante, Bryce and Zion before crossing to Nevada.

Surprised by a flying balloon in Utah's deserts
Surprised by a flying balloon in Utah's deserts

Arches National Park

We drove down from Wyoming on Road 89, crossing to Idaho and entered Utah on Road 30. These are back country roads where we enjoyed some of America’s rural landscape. We crossed through South Lake City, which we found beautiful, clean and organized and continued until we reached a small charming little town called Provo. We had some admin to do, JP needed a haircut and I went for some groceries. At night the temperature went downhill, reaching -6C! We knew then we were finally in the desert. When the sun came out the temperature went up fast and we were soon on t-shirts heading to Arches National Park.

As we got closer we experienced the real change of scenery we expected for so long. The red desert landscape, the rocks, and the canyons. As it would be too late to explore Arches in the afternoon we decided to camp outside park limits on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands. These are federal lands where travelers can camp for free, although there is no infrastructure whatsoever. The ‘campground’ was a huge desert valley surrounded by tall red rock formations. It was such a vast place that there was plenty of space for everyone. We soon understood the area is very popular within the locals who come here for mountain biking, motorbiking, dirt biking and to challenge their ATVs.

Desert camping, next to Arches National Park
Desert camping, next to Arches National Park

As soon we arrived our truck attracted attention and some people came by curious about the truck and to hear our story. Our camper ‘neighbors’ invited us over for a beer right away. Very soon other couple approached us and in half an hour we ended up by the fireplace surrounded by locals, drinking beer and listening to music. We felt welcomed.

Welcoming to Utah desert camping
Welcoming to Utah desert camping

The first night we felt still a bit unease as we were just adjusting to something new we couldn’t name it yet. Out of the blue we were camping in a different environment, in the open desert. It was a good feeling of learning something new.

After a night full of stars when we witnessed the Milky Way in all its splendor we woke up at 5:30am energized to see the beautiful sunrise in the desert. It was one of those special moments of the trip. We could see the whole valley with its rocks, bushes, cactus and small trees. It was beautiful, quiet and the air had a special calm.

When we went out we observed that one of our neighbors, Victor, slept on top of a rock in the open air just in his sleeping bag. During the night it was 0 degrees outside. We were cold inside the truck with the heater on so am not sure how he managed just inside a sleeping bag. I guess he exercised a lot 🙂

Sunrise in the desert, Utah
Sunrise in the desert, Utah

After half an hour the sun was out and soon shining on the valley like sent by God. Its reflection on the red rocks in contrast with the blue skies was something we never seen before. It was special, unique and pure energy.

After breakfast we departed to Arches National Park to see the impressive naturally formed rock arch formations and to learn about how they were formed. Our first step was at the visitor center to get more information about the geology, the flora and the fauna of the park. There we soon learned that the park lies on top of an underground salt bed formed by 29 ocean advances over 300 million years on the Colorado Plateau. The salt layers explain how the arches are formed, as the salt bed layer underneath the rock is unstable and erodes underneath the rocks, forming the arches. As the weaker rock underneath breaks out and while the strong rock remains on top the magic, beautiful arches are formed.

Road Arches National Park
Road Arches National Park

We decided for the classic driving route of the park which is about 40km from beginning to end.

As we progressed we stopped at the various viewpoints to enjoy the scenery and the beautiful valley, including the famous “Three Gossips” and the “Balanced Rock” formations.

We continued towards our first hike of almost 5km to the Delicate Arch. Very easy and pleasant trail and at the end we saw a splendid rock having exactly the shape of a delicate arch overlooking the valley. It was one of those wow moments if it wasn’t for the tourist posing in front of the arch for pictures.

The Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
The Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

When we returned we headed to the Devil Garden stopping on our way to the Skyline Arch, which was not so busy as the previous trailheads. We enjoyed a moment of solitude and silence here. We could listen to the desert. It was beautiful. Peace.

Skyline Arch, Aches National Park
Skyline Arch, Aches National Park

The trail through the Devil Garden was more charming than the previous ones. Resembled a bit of Petra landscape in Jordan. It had a particularly mystic and solitude attached to it. The trail has 11km, one can do through the whole garden which can include rock climbing. At 6pm we had to leave the trailhead since the park was closing, so we rushed out back to our truck.

Landscape Arch, Devil Garden, Arches NP
Landscape Arch, Devil Garden, Arches NP

It was a beautiful day, very different of everything we have experienced that far in our journey. We were impressed with the colors, the beautiful rocks, the naturally sculptured formations, the silence of the nature and the peacefulness of the desert. We were finally wearing shorts, t-shirts and a had bit of sun and that was a good feeling!

We were the last ones to leave the park and headed to our next camping destination on BLM lands on our way to our next adventure: Canyonlands. Night came fast and when we least expected we were driving in complete darkness. We found a camping spot which seemed to be in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere. We always try to arrive early in our campgrounds, so we can have a better picture of the surroundings; however today was a full day and, hey, things not always happen as we plan. We had something to eat and went to rest.    

Canyonlands

It was a beautiful day, and after breakfast I went for a morning shower in the truck while JP was checking his emails. At some point I start hearing JP speaking and laughing, something was going on and I could not understand what it was. Then out of nowhere JP starts to shout:

“Honey guess who was here? His voice sounded so happy as he just saw very familiar faces. I was truly wondering who came here, nobody really knew where we were, we even didn’t know exactly where we were. We were in the middle of the desert... I thought it could be the Germans with their Unimog we just met a week ago in Teton National Park. I answered: “The Germans?”

He was shouting “Hello, Hello” to people and I thought they might come towards our truck to park next to us. I was thinking… God no, not now… I just wanted to take my shower.

When I got out of the shower I saw the surprise: It was an air balloon flying low just next to our truck, full of people. JP said they were so close he thought could come our way and collide with the truck. I think they just wanted to come closer to take a look at the truck. Probably this picture was one of the happiest pictures we ever took of our truck, with the super colorful flying balloon in the air. It was one of those unique and spontaneous moments that only happen when you least expect. JP was cheerful like a child.

Morning surprise in the desert, Utah
Morning surprise in the desert, Utah

If Arches NP was about unique shapes of rocks, balanced rocks and arches, Canyonlands was about a large territory of land with canyons. In millions of years, the gravity and water cut flat layers of sedimentary rocks into hundreds of canyons and mesas. It was impressive.

Canyonlands Grand View
Canyonlands Grand View

We entered the park through the “Island in the Sky” route and our favorite stop was at the Grand View point overlook where we indeed encountered a gracious overlook over hundreds of canyons, layers of rock formations and salt. Absolutely spectacular! One of the most beautiful views of our entire trip. And there was the silence, and the peace next to this naturally desolated picture.

We admired for a whole morning the vast territory of canyons and hiked the trials around it.

We continued with the Whale Rock, Upheaval Dome which were beautiful but not as spectacular as the Grand View.

JP challenged by the Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands :)
JP challenged by the Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands 🙂

By 5pm we decided to hit the road towards Capitol Reef National Park. It was dusk and the best time of the day to encounter wildlife. We soon came across with deers that stopped to a pond to drink water. It’s always delightful to see deers.

Always lovely to see deers, Canyonlands NP
Always lovely to see deers, Canyonlands NP

Not too far from where we were we found a spot next to the Green River to overnight. We arrived late, it was already dark and considering that we were the only ones in this deserted area we felt a bit like the mountains lions, into the wild. It was a bit scary and desolated, but we appreciated the silence up to a point. About 2am a car came and was flashing with the lights for at least half an hour. We couldn’t see what it was, they could only see us. We didn’t know how to take this: in between dreams and reality we saw flashes on and off from this car, going around in circles. We didn’t feel conformable at all, we were afraid for a bad experience similar with the one we had in Alaska to happen. At some point half awake, half dreaming I was thinking maybe they are aliens :))) They didn’t stop turning off the lights for a while and I decided to wake up JP. He soon understood they were fellow travelers trying to organize themselves before going to bed. I felt relieved, but that ruined the whole night sleep. When you are sleeping in the middle of nowhere in your camper, the least you want is not to know what's going on around you, to hear weird noises or see unrecognizable lights. It can be frightening. As soon as the sun was up, there was a new beautiful day out there we were ready to enjoy. We headed towards Capitol Reef.

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