Driving the Grand Circle – 2005

The Trip

These are some old photos I found while cleaning out Lightroom. So I decided to relive this great trip by writing a 10 year overdue trip report. Back in the days we would get time off during Christmas to actually do something fun. Having nothing better to do and just having bought a brand new car, I decided to set out to drive and hike through the national parks along the Grand Circle. It was a memorable trip of 11 days along some of the most beautiful sights this country has to offer.

The Grand Circle includes the National Parks of Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches and the Grand Canyon. I decided to extend that a bit by including Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley to the circle. The whole trip is on the map below.

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Zion National Park

After a very long drive through Las Vegas, I arrived in Springdale, UT, the goto place to start a hike through Zion. The next morning was Christmas Eve and I set out very early to hike my way up to Angels Landing. The hike is almost vertically up, sometimes along the wall with nothing to hold you back other than a chain bolted to the wall. Not the side with the drop, mind you. The first photo below is from the bottom, the third from the top. It is awe inspiring hike. Normally buzzing with people, this day was quiet and I had the trail to myself. The serenity of the moment sitting atop Angel’s Landing still brings a smile to my face.

Bryce Canyon National Park

After hiking down the mountain, I continued on to Bryce Canyon National Park. I was planning to camp out, but the park rangers told me that the showers were turn off for the season. I figured that 3 days without a shower and lots of hiking is a bit too much, so I went to Ruby’s Inn just outside the park. On Christmas day I packed all the gear and set out to hike some of the upper parts of the park. Again, I had the park almost entirely to myself. I was hoping for some more snow, but had to make due with a light dusting. I would get my wish for snow later on. The weather did cooperate and provide for a beautiful hike with amazing views. Along the way I decided that the hike was way too nice and continued on to hike the entire length of the park. The next day was another long driving day, so I got an early Christmas dinner and hoped that my legs would forgive me for the much longer than planned hike.

Grand Staircase – Escalante and Capitol Reef National Park

Getting up early, I started to make my way through the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. After having a nice breakfast in Escalante, UT, I continued on and up. And in so doing, I got my wish for snow. Lots and lots of it with no snow service in sight (or any sight for that mater). Somehow I made it through in one piece and got to Capitol Reef National Park. There I then pitched my tent. I did not get to see much of Capitol Reef National Park as the next day was another long driving day. Also, I am not sure there is a lot to see. The next day, I went on to go to Moab, UT. Along the way I found a sign for Goblin Valley State Park and just had to see those Goblins. Turns out that was a great little detour. The little valley is indeed full of natural stone statues that could pass for a goblin reunion. Rather than going back to the highway, I drove through unpaved mountain roads looking at old Uranium mines and almost running out of gas. The mines are unsecured except for a big sign stating that the Radon concentrations are lethal. Since I forgot my hazmat suit and geiger counter at home, I didn’t venture in.

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Moab, UT is a somewhat drab little city that seems to consist of hotels, restaurants and Jeep rentals. It is after all catering to the two national parks and all the off-road and other outdoor activities. That said, the people are very friendly and it is perfectly located. The first day I went to Arches National Park. There are a couple great hikes in Arches. By far my favorite (and unfortunately not just mine) was the hike up to Delicate Arch. It is a long way up the side of a hill. Not difficult or dangerous, but a long way up and no shadow. The view on the arch makes it well worth it, though. After coming back down, I was in for a longer and more deserted hike and found it. The path to Double-O Arch is flat and at the end of the road. Not a lot of people make it out there and so you get a good sense of that the landscape is. One of the interesting things about Arches is that they teach you not to step out of the path because of the soil. I forgot what exactly lives there, but stepping on it will destroy it. So take only photos, leave no steps behind.

On my second day in Moab, I went to Canyonlands. I have seen a lot of photos of the canyons and really wanted to see that. Turns out you really need a Jeep to do that. And while my car is quite capable, it was not good enough. I still had a really nice hike down a rock wall and to the Island in the Sky, which provides gorgeous overview of the park. Next time I will rent that Jeep in Moab.

Mesa Verde National Park and Monument Valley

Originally, I wanted to go to Monument Valley and camp there. However, once there, I really didn’t like it all that much. The locals were not all that friendly and the sights are nice, but you can do it in 2-3 hrs. So I took a closer look at the map and realized that Mesa Verde National Park is nearby. Off to Cortez, CO I went. Lucky me found a hotel with WiFi (not that common back in 2005) because when I looked up details for Mesa Verde, I saw that in the winter you can only visit one site and only twice a day with a ranger. I drove up there right when the park opened to have some time to drive around before the hike. It is a small park, but very interesting. The hike was an easy one, but well worth it. You get to walk around one of the site and see it really up close. Those natives where incredibly good engineers. Multistory houses build in the most unlikely locations.

History has it that those tribes were looked down upon by other tribes because their spiritual culture was under-developed. In reality they didn’t need a lot of gods and spirits to explain things as they had great technical skills and knew about seasons. Once you have knowledge, you don’t need deities. Seems not much has changed since then.

Grand Canyon National Park

After Mesa Verde National Park, I drove through the four corners to get to Grand Canyon. It was a very, very long drive and I got there quite late with a huge storm barreling down on me. It was December 31, 2005 and I was planing to go to the rim at midnight and look over the magnificent Grand Canyon for New Year’s Eve. With all the wind, I decided to not get anywhere close to the rim, though. The hotel room was good enough and much warmer. Early morning I packed mu hiking gear and started my way down the South Kaibab Trail. Going down is easy enough and I reached the point where you can see the Colorado river, which is about as far as I wanted to go (about half way down). While I was eating my lunch I saw a dark shadow pass overhead and when I looked up, there were condors flying around me. I only had my wide-angle lens on the camera and so the photo does not do these enormous birds justice. It is still one of the most memorable moments in my life to have seen them so close. Great first day of the year. After taking that in, I began the slow and arduous trek back up. The next day had another long drive back home to LA.

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