There is only one rational time to hike in Utah in July, and that is early. I slept in this morning until 6:30, made coffee, grabbed two Cliff bars and the cameras and took off. It’s an hour drive to the end of The Scenic Drive, where I had decided to walk the Pleasant Creek Road. Looking at all the other hikes in the park, I thought they might be crowded, but this one would probably be quiet.
You can’t drive The Scenic Drive without taking pictures. You see something different, or the light looks different. It is always pretty and amazing to think that millions of years ago, this just pushed out of the Earth, folding over the fault that created it. Imagine driving through here and these plates decide to slide again. Even a little rumble would send a lot of rocks rolling. “Civilization exists by geological consent,” wrote the American historian Will Durant, “subject to change without notice.”
By the time I got to Pleasant Creek and collected my stuff, it was 8:15. I figured I’d walk an hour out and an hour back on this dirt road perfectly suited for a Jeep Wrangler. A sign said no ATV’s allowed. I thought the road would follow Pleasant Creek, but it did not. I think there is a trail that follows the creek in both directions. I saw it going downstream, but I didn’t want to go that way. Besides, I was only going for an hour out and an hour back, and it looked pretty easy.
As I began to leave, I grabbed my big knife and put it on my belt. After all I was going by myself and there are cougars in the park. If I had had a backward-facing mask, I would have put it on. Cougars always attack from behind. As I crossed the creek and walked up the dusty road, the sun was on my left and the moon on my right.
There were bluffs close to the road, a perfect place for a cougar to wait. This place has tons of rabbits, so they could surely live off those, as well as the many deer, bighorn sheep, and occasional elk. Why eat a tough, old human? Nevertheless, I kept looking behind, scanning the bluffs and looking for tracks, but I never saw any. I planned my strategy though. If I had time, I would use my backpack as a shield, then pull the knife and get him while he was in the air.
It was a nice hike with pretty views and an interesting landscape. I walked a bit further than I anticipated – about an hour and half out before turning around. I thought there was a campground up here, but maybe I just didn’t get that far. When I turned around at 9:45, it was starting to get hot.
I thought I heard something behind me and stopped to listen. After a few minutes three ATV’s came down the road, waving as they passed. I was surprised how quiet they were. Most of the ones I’ve seen are terribly noisy. These made this road look easy.
About 20 minutes later I caught up with them resting in the shade. They hadn’t seen a campground and had come from the other side of the mountain, in Boulder, Utah. It was three couples, who were very nice. They talked about the places they had ridden in the last few days. Utah is a great place for this, and I could see how this would be a great way to explore a lot of tough roads.
As I walked back down the road, I was getting hot and tired, and I became lax about watching my back. I was easy pickings now. I was getting pretty tired when I finally came to Pleasant Creek. It is a perfect name in this hostile environment. I soaked my sweat towel in the cold water and wrapped it around my head. I’m pretty sure that water would be fine to drink, but I had plenty in the truck.
A car was parked on the other side of the lot. Now I could see there was a trail going up the creek, but not really marked or very definitive. Next time I will go that way.
Tomorrow I will leave, driving north to Twin Falls, Idaho. I wanted to go to Great Basin National Park on Rt. 50, but I enjoyed myself here too long. I really like this park. I like Sandcreek RV Park, where I can watch Grit TV at night. I love those old westerns, back when there were arguments about television being a bad influence. All of these westerns had a moral. I like Harry, who owns Sandcreek RV. The WIFI is as good as home. It’s nice to have the cute, little town of Torrey a few blocks down the street with everything I needed and more. There are a number of restaurants, motels and more. Capital Reef is a very cool park. I only saw parts of it, each day discovering something more. I could easily come back for another week.
I also enjoyed The Loneliest Road. It took me to some wonderful places, cute towns, beautiful countryside and a road to drive and relax, like days of the past. I will drive it again. But today will be more harried, driving north through Salt Lake City. I did not want to do that, but it would be 10 hours to go around, but 7 going through. One harried day, then on to Stanley where things are slower and absolutely gorgeous.
50 degrees in the morning. 92 degrees in afternoon, sunny all day
At 6:00 AM I drove The Scenic Drive to take pictures. I stopped for coffee at a place whose name I can’t remember not, but It’s east of the Phillips 66 station, and they have meat pies. I was too early for the meat pies, but the coffee was excellent.
At the end The Scenic Drive, there is a dirt and gravel road called Pleasant Creek Road, and I took it. There are some great views on this road. One road goes off to a farm, while another goes to an impressive-looking ranger station sitting on a bluff.
Around the turn was the remains of an old farm. Rabbits scattered everywhere. Driving further, I came to a parking area with a bathroom. High clearance vehicles were required to go further. Although my truck has 4-wheel drive, its clearance is 9”. I parked and walked across the creek with an appropriate name – Pleasant Creek. Yes, it is cold enough for trout. I didn’t walk far, but it would be an interesting drive. It was 10:30 and getting into the heat of the day, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake as my previous hike. The truck would have made it on this part of the road, but who knows what’s ahead.
From this spot, it’s about an hour drive back to the little town of Torrey. I stopped at what was now becoming my favorite store. I just needed bread, some fruit and coffee. It’s so nice and convenient to have this on the way to the campground. The Chuckwagon General Store. The people are very nice. There is a deli, where they make a variety of sandwiches. They bake breads, donuts, cookies and brownies every day. Yesterday’s go on sale every day. They have a small, but nice produce section, and pretty much everything you need in a small store. Yesterday, when I bought a whole list of things, Beth helped me carry them to the car. Now when does that happen?
My afternoon plan was to drive to Cathedral Valley in Capital Reef National Park. It’s an hour and a half drive from this side of the park to Cathedral Valley overlook, then a winding gravel road down the mountain to Cathedral Valley Road. I knew I needed to be prepared for a long afternoon in the high desert. Little did I know what an expedition it would be.
Sand Creek RV Resort has an ice freezer on the front porch that works on the honor system. I got two bags of block ice and put them in the cooler along with Gatorade, water and a couple of sandwiches. I saw Harry watering the grass and asked him for advice on the trip. He looked at my truck and said I should be OK. He said it’s 40 minutes to the gravel road, then 13 miles on a washboard, gravel road up the mountain. “Don’t miss the overlook at the top. There is a tiny sign that is easily missed, and you can’t turn around. There are two roads in the valley, and the only issue is how much water is in the stream, but you should be fine. I’ve not heard any reports of anyone getting stuck.” As he talked, Harry pointed to the mesa or mountain right behind us, and in fact, that’s right where it is. As Dan said, “In Virginia, you drive over mountains. In Utah, we drive around them.”
I waited until 3:00, setting the Garmin GPS to Cathedral Valley Overlook. One wrong turn and my day would be shot. I took Rt. 24 north to Lyman, then 72 to Fremont. It’s a pretty drive with beautiful hay fields on both sides of the road. In order to get hay, every field is watered with those huge, rolling pipes. One wonders how long the water will last. It is so dry here (16% humidity), the water will seep into the ground or quickly evaporate.
Then I took a right on Polk Creek Road, the gravel, washboard road going up the mountain. A sign recommended 4-wheel drive to help preserve the road. Pickup trucks are light in the back, and just using 2-wheel, rear drive the vehicle bumps up and down making ruts. Even in 4-wheel drive, I was doing plenty of bouncing. I passed Elkhorn Campground, which was very nice, but no one was there. I thought it would be a bad idea to pull the Airstream up this road, although I have done two roads similar to this, and they were both worth it. .
As the road finally leveled out, there were trees, birches, grass and cows. People with big campers were parked in designated areas of the National Forest. I won’t say they were everywhere, and they were very spread far apart, but there were a lot of them. I mean big campers with slide-outs. I think the attractions are to get away, into the mountains where it is cool and to ride 4-wheelers all over the place. Elevation was 9-10,000’. There were a few lakes; Fish Lake, Raft Lake and another, even a mountain called called Thousand Lake Mountain . There were some very pretty areas to camp, obviously well-managed. Rocks were expertly arranged for fires, and it looked like someone patrols and cleans up. Some were marked with numbers, but some were not. This is a narrow, winding gravel road. I was happy to not have passed anyone, but the landscape is very pretty with trees, grass and rolling hills on top of these big mountains.
The Garmin GPS put me right on the mark for South Desert Overlook, or South Cathedral Valley Overlook. A trail led over a hill and down to a picnic table on a flat area overlooking one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. Before me lay Cathedral Valley, and it is appropriately named. It was 4:45, and the sun was still high in the sky, not a great time to get the best pictures, but still impressive.
Driving back up the road, I came to the crest of the mountain before the road wound its way down. Calling it a pullover is a stretch. There was a wide spot in the one-lane gravel road. There were some big rocks defining the edge of the cliff. I pulled over and took more pictures before making the descent.
It’s amazing the gear I bring as it is…..just in case; the kayak and stuff that go with it, cook gear, tools, cooler, clothes for every possibility, stuff for the Middle Fork trip, camera gear and backpacks. I don’t suppose one or two night’s camping gear would add a lot more, but it’s amazing how full my truck is. I do think it is worth bringing camping gear though, and this is the perfect example. This is not an easy place to get to, and as you will see, not an easy place to get out of, so if you are going, prepare to stay a night or two in a tent.
Having read about this road descending the escarpment, I went very slowly. I stopped at a “pullover” on the edge of the cliff to take another picture of these cathedrals surrounded by green, grassy plains. I had seen two vehicles in front of me, but no one behind. You must go slowly, one because of the road and two, because of the views before you. One turn was so sharp, I had to back up to make it. with a sigh of relief, I made it to the bottom, where the road became sunken and feathery-light dust and sand. As the pictures, it isn’t so bad.
With the sun still very high and very hot, it is an unforgiving environment – not a place you want a flat tire or overheated radiator. I thought the trip across the valley might take an hour, then a half hour back to camp, but I was wrong. The sights are spectacular. Such features on such a forbidding landscape are unimaginable. One side valley looked like Petra in Jordan. I would need a horse to get there though, which begs the question; to journey into this valley on horseback years ago is beyond imagination.
One of the vehicles, a van, returned up the road, passing me as I was taking pictures. I had left the windows open, but too late, he passed with a wave and a cloud of dust. Why was he going back up that road? As I drove on, I got the answer – sand! Like driving on the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, places of deep sand took me by surprise. I thought the valley floor would be a nice, flat gravel road. Wrong. It gets windy here, and it can blow very hard. If it blew like that in Virginia, there would be a big storm coming, but here it can nearly blow you over and then just stop. Like snow blowing across the plains, very light sand blows here, piling up in the road. I put it in 4-wheel drive. Some areas were hidden though. I was too busy looking at the sights and I would be in the middle of deep sand. I was impressed with the torque of the diesel engine to push through the sand, but wondered if I would need to let air out.
At 7:30 I began to worry a little. How far is it? How long would it take to get back? Would I get stuck? The road kept crossing stream beds. Some were washes, but some were for a stream, which I think is the Fremont River, but there was no water on any of the crossings. That would be another problem. There was a crossroad with a sign pointing to “sinkhole”. I did not consider taking that one.
I could have taken thousands of pictures here. It is so varied: red rocks, cathedrals, fortresses, black mounds, the land littered with black boulders like someone sprinkled huge pepper grains on the landscape. There were white rocks, temple-shaped structures, domes, sentinels, parapets, just so much variety!
But I must get on. Now 8:00 and I was winding up and around huge structures of landscape. I stopped and entered the campground in the GPS. Thankfully, it showed my road, the valley and the route home; an hour and a half! With that I passed the road leading to The Sun and The Moon. I had heard of these, but I did not want to be driving this “road” in the dark. The sun was amazingly still high in the sky.
I drove on, trying to make some time, but the best I could do was 20 mph on this road, and then slow down for a deep sand area or a big dip or a stream bed. But then around the corner would be another dramatic change in the structures and I would have to stop and look. I would come back to see more, coming in the opposite direction. But would I?
They talk of Capital Reef as a 100 mile long barrier to travel. Like a reef in the ocean, it limits where you can go and the speed you go. There is no straight course to anything. I looked ahead of me and walls and mountains surrounded me. How does this road get through this? Thankfully, it did. I finally came out on Rt. 24 north of the park entrance.
I was tired as I drove back to camp. It was dark now at 9:30, and it had been a long day. Tomorrow I will rest, maybe do some laundry and sort through the hundreds of pictures I have taken today. The truck needs a wash and so did I.
I took a shower, poured a glass of wine and ate a salad. Now the campground was full, every spot taken. It’s Thursday, approaching the weekend, but I wondered if there was some event. Many of these had 4-wheelers, or ATV’s. One group of 10 sat around a fire laughing, but I was quickly asleep.
I had about 5 1/2 hours to get to River’s End Campground across the Columbia River. Three days would have been better. At first I was in the mode of hitting the road and making time, but the road is more windy, up and down with one gorgeous overlook after another. It’s more like driving the Skyline Drive, but with more traffic and a little bigger road. Towns dot the coast, and then Newport is a big city. The picture of Hecta Lighthouse is not mine, but that was the view. I tried to stop, but I just couldn’t get it done. Then there was nowhere I could turn around. What a beautiful spot. My mind took the photograph, and it will forever be in there. This is a beautiful part of the Oregon coast, and I would love to drive it again with more time. Oh yea, and then there is the whole Washington coast I will miss, unless Martha and I come back this way.
Stopping at one beautiful overlook, I talked with a guy who is a landscaper and has lived in Oregon all his life. Looking down on a plateau, there was a high-end housing development overlooking the ocean. He said he takes care of those. Only when it frosts over is he out of work, but it doesn’t come often and doesn’t stay long. He surprised me when he said traffic is light right now, but wait till this weekend. Eclipse watchers are going to be swarming in.
This is a hard road to drive for a long time. The road is hard enough, along with the traffic, but you want to look at all the sites, and so do all the other drivers. I thought one car was going to run into the trailer as they were obviously distracted. They couldn’t have missed by much. I wanted to stop at every overlook, walk the beaches, explore the towns. I did go into a sporting goods store that had some great fishing gear. Talking to a nice kid about rods and reels for steelhead. It is unlikely I would use it, but Martha does want some fresh fish when she comes, and that will be when the salmon and steelhead will be running the rivers.
Finally I get to the great Columbia River. Sitting in traffic, I see the Astoria-Megler Bridge and about had a heart attack. Fortunately, there was construction on the bridge, so traffic was slow. It is 4.1 miles long, the highest part being 196’ at high tide. I will have to cross it two more times as I want to see Ft. Clatsop, Astoria and the Maritime Museum tomorrow.
On the other side, I pulled into River’s End Campground and RV Park at about 6:30. Cocktail hour was going on next to the office. Jean Sundet came over to greet me. She walked ahead and guided me into my campsite, then told me to get settled and come for a drink. I have never been greeted at a campground like this before. It is a beautiful, grassy area, with scattered big pine trees. People were laughing and telling stories, so I grabbed a glass of wine and went over. There were 20 or so people gathered around a huge tree stump that had been polished and smoothed into a perfect outdoor table. There were snacks and goodies, but I never got past the first five guys. Introducing myself to Mitch, Buzz, Dave, Tony and a couple of others whose names I can’t recall now. They have been coming here for 20 years or more. They come in April and leave in October. Well, they used to go back and forth to work, but now they just stay. I asked what they did. “Fish” they said in unison. Some fish in the ocean, mostly for salmon, while a couple of guys fish in the river for salmon. There was a discussion about which is easier, most saying the ocean is easier, but they also said the two guys who fish the river know how to get it done. They said to check out the river tomorrow, saying you can walk across on the boats. I marveled at how there are any salmon left, but they all said there are plenty. I asked about the health of sardines and anchovies. They said their lines are constantly twitching from all the sardines running. Whales come here to fill up. Mitch seemed sad to not be going out tomorrow, but he is meeting a commercial Tuna fisherman. He is going to buy 200 pounds of tuna. He will take it to a processor who will clean them. Then he will bring them back home and cut them up and can (glass really) them. Half of the 200 pounds is waste. Then he is splitting with a friend. Still, 50 pounds of Tuna is a lot! He buys it at $3.00/pound, but He said, “It’s not like that crap you buy in the store”.