Days 32-46: The Big 5 in Southern Utah

Sorry for the delay on this post. I’ve been out of Utah for a whole week now, but what a whirlwind it was. In all honesty, I’ve started to lose track of how many days I’ve been on the road at this point. Days 32 and 46 for this date range are pretty reasonable guesses…they were busy!

There is a common theme that runs through the five National Parks in southern Utah. The Colorado Plateau is a land mass I had never heard of before, but it really should get a little more press since it’s the main provocateur of what makes this region so unique. Along with the Grand Canyon, all five of these parks have been carved from this single protrusion of land. Like an expert stone mason, water has cut the land into sculptures and landscapes that some did not believe existed when they first saw the paintings coming back from the west.

Zion National Park found its name thanks to the mormon homesteaders who originally settled the region. The most imposing features of the park have names taken from religious symbols; The Court of The Patriarchs, for example, are three massive white peaks named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It truly felt like a sacred temple, or sanctuary. But this sanctuary is not for the people, we are only guests. The flora and fauna that inhabit the canyon have adapted to its ins-and-outs and it is truly their territory. 

It was sometimes tough to take pictures in Zion, the scale is hard to capture. The cliff faces are so tall and so close that a wide angle lens is a near necessity, it was immersive.

A look down into Zion canyon from Angel’s Landing

Bryce Canyon was the next stop. Though technically not a canyon, walking the Queens Garden Trail and Navajo Loop trail certainly made Bryce feel cavernous. The bright colors of the Pink, Gray, White, and Vermillion Cliffs almost gave me sun blindness given that I had accidentally left my sunglasses inside my tent when I packed it up that morning. These brightly colored formations are what made up the seemingly endless number of hoodoos that gather on the floor of the park. It’s easy to see why the Paiute thought these hoodoos were ancient peoples that had been cursed into stone.

After Zion, Capitol Reef was my favorite. It had the deepest, most intense shade of brick red out of all the parks. The geologic features of the park are due to The Water Pocket fold. The park featured colorful layers that could stretch for as long as 100 miles. Capitol Reef was just a quick stop however, since the goal was to get to Moab where two parks sit conveniently near each other.

Ah, Moab…where the most comfortable time of day was at 4:30 in the m0rning, which was around the time the temperature dropped to the mid 70’s. Each day consisted of getting as much hiking as possible done before noon and then trying to find as many ways as possible to stay cool until the sun went down, even though the sunset brought little relief. Due to Arches National Park proximity to Moab I was able to explore a large portion of the park. Believe it or not, I was really hoping to see Landscape arch just come tumbling down so I could capture it. They no longer allow park visitors underneath this thin, 100 yard long arch.

Landscape Arch

Canyonlands National Park was unlike any other park I’ve been to. In The Needles district, one could easily lose themselves and end up down a canyon with no way out. The hike I did took me 3.7 miles down one canyon with a steep, narrow “gully” of sorts to crawl out from. Then, after scrambling over a few canyon walls, the trail took me down into another canyon to bring me back.

Canyonlands: Needles District
The way out of Big Spring Canyon

Have to give a big shout out to Borie for helping me escape the southern Utah heat, Vail was a very nice change of climate. Discs were thrown and good times were had by all! Thanks, Borie!

Tomorrow, I leave Colorado and head back into the southwest. I’m heading towards Big Bend National Park via Santa Fe. The summer is winding down incredibly fast and I’ll be back in the northeast in no time at all! On to Texas.


Day 31: Yellowstone and The Tetons Deliver!

The last week was split between Yellowstone and The Grand Tetons. This is one of those things where the pictures speak louder than the words (and they still can’t do it justice…) As much as I’d like to describe it all in words, I wouldn’t know if I should start with the geysers…

Steamboat Geyser, tallest active geyser

 the hot springs…

Grand Prismatic from ground level

the bison that practically litter Yellowstone…

or the sharp peaks of the Teets!

Taggert Lake trail head

The Tetons were incredible! I had heard from many people who said they preferred this park over Yellowstone, which surprised me at first. After visiting both parks I understand why. The Tetons are much more of a playground than Yellowstone is. The marina at Colter Bay was the first indicator of this for me.

Colter Bay Marina

The park also offered some great wildlife viewing. Here’s my favorite shot, a western taninger…

Thanks Jordan for the hike on the west side of the Tetons, my knee just about exploded but it was worth it!

Taylor Mountain

I’m about halfway through my time on the road and some of the best is yet to come. I’ll shortly end up in Denver, one of my favorite cities! The next ten days, however, are a long stretch of camping where I’ll be traveling through the Big 5 in southern Utah; Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. I take off for Zion this morning, can’t wait!

Day 26: Jack of All Trades; Master of One

Three long years with three outrageous summer excursions in MT have resulted in a Master’s degree. The experience was life changing. On top of everything I learned, the greatest part of the program was all the incredible people I met. When I think back on all the sardine packed SUVs that we took all over southern Montana, I think immediately of the friends that were made over those 3 to 5 hour rides. It’s incredible how quick the bonding process works when you stick a bunch of science teachers in a car and drive them through the mountains for days at a time!

To all the friends I’ve made and the people I’ve met through the course of this program and in Bozeman, thanks for making it the best experience of my life. Let’s get that reunion going!

Currently, I’m sitting in a small camping cabin west of Yellowstone. I’ve spent the past two days with the parents cruising the world’s first national park. The rain has doused our parade a little bit. It would be nice to sit outside around a fire ring, but it will be nice out tomorrow…fingers crossed.

That’s all for now, Tetons on Thursday.

Day 8: Billings -> Bozeman via US 212 “The Beartooth Highway”

The drive from Billings to Bozeman can be done in two and a half hours flat when taking I-90 straight west. But, there is a much more appealing detour that passes through the Beartooth Mountains. The Beartooth Highway is a section of US 212 that crosses the border of Montana and Wyoming just northeast of Yellowstone. The route begins with a series of sharp hairpin switchbacks that wind up the mountain side, something akin to what I’ve seen when James Bond chases the villain du jour through the Swiss Alps.

The highway as it winds up the mountain side

the soobie worked hard that day, and so did those bikers!

The road eventually leveled off into a plateau that sits at approximately 10,947 feet. I read that it’s prone to snow at any time of the year and I don’t doubt it based on the chilling temperature and high winds that I experienced there. Another appropriate analogy, the best way I can describe it is that I was plopped right into the middle of a slightly more rugged version of the backdrop for The Sound of Music except this was much colder than it ever seemed to be in the movie, there was no singing (because my FM transmitter broke. See Days 6 & 7 post), and there were no Nazis. Other than that…Sound of Music all the way.

After driving through the meadows of the summit for some time, the descent down the other side began. It was full of deep blue lakes and more hairpin turns

As for why this mountain range is called the Beartooth’s, the imposing peak as exiting through the west end offered a sound explanation…

The Bear’s Tooth

It’s hard to not share another 20 photos that were all breathtaking through the 69 mile stretch. It was essentially impossible to take a poor photograph, except for when asking a stranger to take one for you…
Note to self: don’t talk to strangers

Fortunately, I used mad camera skillz to get a pretty decent one all on my own!

I arrived in Bozeman on Friday, where I will stay for the next two weeks while I take a few classes and put a pretty bow on my master’s degree. I’ll provide updates when/if something interesting happens. For now, the nomadic lifestyle gets put to rest.

Days 6 & 7: Sioux Falls -> Badlands -> Billings

Tragedy struck on the way to the badlands. My FM transmitter stopped working, seemingly while trying to snap a shot of a roadside billboard for the Corn Palace. This is a disaster because it meant that all podcasts immediately stopped. Audiobooks still seem to have some value while blasting through my phone speakers, maybe because the audiobook can just persistently run for extended periods. Here is the excellent photo that ruined a good portion of my entertainment for the trip (it was for you, Leo…):

An interesting phenomena that took place with the death of the FM transmitter was that it instantly induced its own moment of silence. It will be replaced.

Badlands National Park was slightly intimidating.  Not because of the spectacle, but because of how well it seemed to occupy a vast and empty space. The open hiking policy at the park granted freedom to wander far off the designated trails. Just be mindful of the rattlesnakes and you’ll be fine. 

Large buttes stood their ground as the surrounding areas eroded away more quickly. They seemed to pop up out of nowhere, yet some chunks could easily be ripped off by hand. As beautiful as it was, and I recommend that everybody visit for a day or two, it provided a unique juxtaposition of peaceful eeriness. 

Spending the night in Billings is needed. A shower, shave, and hotel bar have provided a nice reset before tomorrow’s drive, one of the stints that I am looking forward to the most…The Beartooth Highway

Day 5: Chicago, IL -> Sioux Falls, SD

Nothing interesting today, just a few anecdotes:

1) Was not aware how many wind farms existed in southern Minnesota, many square miles

2) I did not know how large of a splat some insects were capable of making. Pics available upon request if you can handle the grave yard that is my front bumper

3) Here’s an updated list of the podcasts from today…

RadioLab: The Rhino Hunter
Hidden Brain: Encore of Episode 16: Misbehaving
Stuff You Should Know: How Space Stations Work
The Moth Podcast: Sherman Powell & Richie Disalvo
The Sporkful: Burgers Of The Future (Cow Not Included)

The complete list can be seen in the sidebar at right or at bottom of page if on mobile

That’s all for today

Day 4: Fair Lawn, NJ -> Chicago, IL

I don’t think I realized it until after I moved out of the area, but the ease at which one can get from place-to-place is definitely something I took for granted while growing up in northeastern, NJ.  Less than 15 minutes from my hometown is the junction of routes 80 and 95, or what I like to think of as, “The Crossroads of America” (even though the city of Indianapolis has more formally claimed that title).  In less than 15 minutes I could be on a road that would take me straight north to Canada or straight south to Miami.  Route 80 winds through the west all the way to San Francisco, if I opted to go that far.  Today, I rode it through Indiana until a quick change over to route 90 took me up to Chicago.

I could not have selected a better date for what I expect to be the longest day of travel for the whole trip, the summer solstice. On top of the approximate 15 hours of day light afforded to me today, I was able to add one extra hour thanks to the time change. If Indiana had not supplied me with the thickest sheets of rain and fog I’d ever experienced (rain so thick and wind so strong I thought I was driving through a hurricane in the Midwest), it would have taken about 11.5 hours. But I was happy with the 12.5 that it took me. A couple of beers and a deep dish and Lou Malnati’s was a great way to unwind after the long day. Off to Sioux Falls in the morning as I press on towards Bozeman for the end of the week!