Finding Adventure (Without the Crowds) in Utah

Avoid the masses but not the epic adventures at these breathtaking under-the-radar desert landscapes around Moab

From Jurassic-era dunes and prehistoric petroglyphs to amber-tinted cliffs and spires, Moab is an adventure traveler’s dream. Located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, this small city in southeast Utah is one of North America’s greatest outdoor recreation hubs and a gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  

Millions of years of erosion by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown dunes shaped this region’s 2,400 square miles of sandstone arches, picturesque mountain peaks, Martian-like rock formations, and colorful mesas and canyons. 

Along the Colorado River near Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain bikers, hikers, campers, climbers, paddlers, and off-road drivers arrive in droves to explore this red rock playground in jaw-dropping numbers—more than 3 million visitors annually.

With increasing use come big problems! Overcrowding and overuse of trails, campgrounds, and recreation facilities led Arches to institute a timed entry reservation system between April and October. Other popular national parks have implemented similar measures encouraging people to come during off-peak times or explore other nearby recreation areas. 

But here’s the good news: The National Park Service (NPS) manages other parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic areas within a day’s drive from Moab including Aztec Ruins National MonumentGlen Canyon National Recreation AreaHovenweep National MonumentMesa Verde National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. About 94 percent of the land surrounding Moab is public meaning there are also plenty of lesser-visited state parks and federal recreation areas extending into the Greater Moab region to discover. 

For adventurers and nature lovers who want to see more of the great outdoors—and less of each other—here are five tips to beat the crowds and explore the elements in Moab this spring.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Get crafty about campsites

Many of the private RV parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and state and federally owned campgrounds demand ample planning time. Campgrounds closer to U.S. Route 191 and Utah Routes 128 and 279 along the Colorado River (The Riverway) usually fill up by mid-morning. 

Getting one of the 51 campsites at Devils Garden Campground—the only developed campsite in Arches—can be challenging without some pre-trip planning. During the high season (March 1-October 31), sites are reservable up to six months in advance. But from November 1 to February 28 when temperatures are cooler, the campground is first-come, first-served.

For fewer crowds, venture to Canyon Rims Recreation Area, an hour’s drive south of Moab on Route 191. It has two campgrounds to stage your hiking, biking, and driving adventures—Hatch Point in the north and Windwhistle in the south which rarely fills up and don’t require reservations. Be sure to stop at one of the park’s visitor centers and ranger stations to get the scoop on current park conditions and for other trail and campground suggestions.  

Camping at Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore public lands south of Moab

Parks closer to downtown Moab (just five miles from Arches National Park) are usually slammed with eager outdoor enthusiasts, especially during summer months. While spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October) still have crowds, they are some of the best times to score prime campsites and experience uncrowded trails, climbing routes, and iconic arches around the city.

During the busy seasons, visiting Moab can be kind of overwhelming but the public lands around Moab offer remarkable remote experiences.

With breathtaking views into Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below, Dead Horse Point State Park, a 40-minute drive south of Moab is a highlight for hikers and photographers exploring canyon country. The park, named for an era when cowboys corralled wild mustang herds on the high mesa is also a terrific first outing for bikers new to the area. The 16-mile Intrepid Trail System offers a variety of single-track loops and slickrock (Moab’s weathered sandstone) sections that allow all ages and abilities to experience incomparable cliff-top and canyon vistas. 

Drive further south to Canyon Rims, a 100,000-acre BLM-maintained land between Moab and Monticello to peer over one of three spectacular overlooks—Anticline, Minor, and Needles. Each offers unique views of Canyonlands’ Islands in the Sky and Needles Districts and Bears Ears National Monument’s Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin sections. These sites are comparable to those seen from the rim of the Grand Canyon but without the shoulder-to-shoulder visitor experience.   

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike away from the crowds

With its seven new non-motorized trails, updated signage, and fresh markings on existing trails plus stunning views of the Salt Valley and Arches National Park, Klondike Bluffs should be on every biker’s list. Just a 30-minute drive north of Moab, this 58-mile single-track trail on dirt and slickrock includes 26 named paths from beginner to advanced which can be combined into loops of any length. It’s the first trail that visitors pass on the way to Moab from I-70 in the north making it the most accessible for cyclists coming from Denver or Salt Lake City. 

Further into the park is the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds hiking trail which features several dinosaur trackways and individual dinosaur prints. Paleontologists believe Utah was part of an island landmass called Laramidia where a wide range of dinosaur species roamed more than 75 million years ago. 

Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan a desert road trip

Recreation areas south of Moab such as Canyon Rims and Bear Ears National Monument are usually less crowded due to fewer developed trail systems. Take a scenic drive through Utah’s vibrant vermillion canyons, over plateaus of mesas and buttes, and around the region’s open plains of grass and shrubland.

In Canyon Rims, travelers may spot pronghorn antelope near Hatch Point and can cruise to remote overlooks with breathtaking views of Canyonlands and the Colorado River.

Rather than endure the hours-long wait to see Delicate Arch in Arches, drive an hour south of Moab to reach Bear Ears’ Indian Creek Scenic Byway. This 40-mile-long route takes travelers through flat-top buttes and colossal sandstone towers. Along the way, make a pitstop at Newspaper Rock, one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the world.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in solitude

A hike around Moab’s natural spaces reveals deep red canyons, buttes, and pinnacles. Summer brings high temperatures and midday crowds around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. To get around that, experienced adventurers plan their hikes and bike rides in the morning and evening, bringing the best sunlight for photography. To help photographers, the NPS has created a table of the park’s notable landscape features and the best time to photograph them. 

For a quieter trek outside the national parks head three miles from the Hatch Point campground in Canyon Rims to Trough Springs Canyon trail a relatively easy five-mile roundtrip hike. It starts at the top of the plateau and descends 2.5 miles into the canyon where a creek flows year-round. The path continues through the waterway’s riparian zone, riddled with tamarisk, cottonwoods, and willow. Follow the stream into the larger Kane Creek Canyon where a popular but difficult 4×4 off-road trail of the same name invites adventurers to explore. 

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downstream, where Kane Creek approaches the Colorado River, travelers find several ancient rock art sites, including Moonflower Canyon Panel, Elephant Panel, and False Kiva. The drawings resembling bighorn sheep and hunters with spears along with crescent moons, lightning bolts, and snakes tell the story of the nomadic Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi) who briefly farmed and built dwellings and granaries—used to store squash, maize, and beans—around the region.

Even today, potsherds (or pottery fragments) can be found poking out of the sand near surviving granaries but visitors should be careful to leave these artifacts untouched.

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

A Hiker’s Paradise: White Tank Mountain Regional Park

A top notch location in the greater Phoenix area for a hike in the desert with thirty miles of trails that range anywhere from as short as a mile to several of them exceeding five miles or more

Nearly 30,000 acres makes White Tank Mountain the largest regional park in Maricopa County. Most of the park is made up of the rugged and beautiful White Tank Mountains on the Valleys west side. The range, deeply serrated with ridges and canyons rises sharply from its base to peak at over 4,000 feet. Infrequent heavy rains cause flash floodwaters to plunge through the canyons and pour onto the plain. These torrential flows pouring down chutes and dropping off ledges have scoured out a series of depressions, or tanks, in the white granite rock below, thus giving the mountains their name.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain History

Eleven archeological sites occupied during the time period A.D. 500-1100 were located within the boundaries of White Tank Mountain Regional Park. All of these sites can be attributed to the Hohokam Indians. The White Tanks were apparently abandoned by the Hohokam about A.D. 1100. There is no further indication of human occupation until the historic period when the Western Yavapai controlled the area.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ruggedness of terrain and scarcity of water restricted the sites to large canyons leading out of the mountains. In these canyons, the sites include seven villages varying from 1 to 75 acres in area, a rock shelter in the face of a steep cliff overlooking the white tanks, and several shard areas. Several of the villages appear to have been occupied for long periods by sizeable populations while the shard areas may represent temporary camps of hunters and gatherers.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the sites in the area are concentrated around the White Tanks themselves. The Tanks probably held water the year-round and thereby drew people to the region. Petroglyphs on rocks indicate the Indians were more than transients. Pottery shards along the Agua Fria and Hassayampa signify the presence of villages and the likelihood that an Indian trail connected the streams with the White Tank long before Europeans came into the area. The discovery of possible agricultural terraces or check dams indicates that farming may have been carried on in the various canyons of the White Tank Mountains by utilizing seasonal runoff and rain water.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About the Petroglyphs

Ancient Arizonans pecked hundreds of figures and symbols on the rock faces of the White Tank Mountains. Some may approach 10,000 years old. All have withstood sun, rain, and vandals for 700 or 800 years or more.

The Black Rock Trail circles through a Hohokam village site though the pit houses and trash mounds are hidden to all but the trained eye of an archeologist. The largest group of rock-art panels is along the Waterfall Canyon Trail at “Petroglyph Plaza”. Another big group is near the entrance to the box canyon that gives the trail its name.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A rock drawing was serious business to its maker. While no one can say precisely what most of them “mean”, we know they had important functions in the lives of their makers. They were not simply stone-age graffiti. The symbols recorded events and marked locations. They were a magical way to control nature so rain would fall or mountain sheep would let themselves be caught. Some served as trail markers and maps. Others represented religious concepts.

Do not try to make “tombstone rubbings” of the petroglyphs. It does not work and you will erode the dark areas making the petroglyph dimmer. Look at and photograph these figures and symbols of history but do not touch the petroglyphs as skin oils can also damage them. 

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Hiking Trails

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers approximately 30 miles of excellent shared-use trails ranging in length from 0.9 mile to 7.9 miles and difficulty from easy to strenuous. Overnight backpacking with a permit is allowed in established backcountry campsites. Day hikes can provide some breathtaking views of the mountains and panoramas of the Valley below. Horseback and mountain bike riders are welcome although caution is stressed as some of the trails may be extremely difficult.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition, there are 2.5 miles of pedestrian-only trails. These include two short trails that are hard-surfaced and barrier free. Waterfall Trail is barrier-free for 5/10 of a mile. The handicap accessible portion now ends about 1/10 of a mile past Petroglyph Plaza. The short loop of Black Rock Trail which is about ½ mile long begins at Ramada 4.

All trails are multi-use unless otherwise designated. All trail users are encouraged to practice proper trail etiquette. Always remember to carry plenty of water and let someone know where you are going.​ Heavy sole shoes are a must as well as sunscreen, and a large-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley hat).

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Picnic Areas

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 240 picnic tables with grills, 80 of which have a small cover. Eleven Group Picnic Sites are available for large groups. These ramadas can be reserved for a fee in four-hour increments. If not marked as reserved, they are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Camping

White Tank Mountain Regional Park offers 40 individual sites for RV camping. Most sites have a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV and offer water and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, a fire ring, and nearby dump station. All restrooms offer flush toilets and showers. All sites in the campground may be reserved online at maricopacountyparks.org.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Directions: White Tank Mountain Regional Park is located at the very west end of Olive Ave about 15 miles west of the 101 (Agua Fria Highway).

NORTH: Take Highway 303 south and exit at PEORIA AVE. Turn right from the off-ramp and travel west for 1 mile on Peoria Ave to Cotton Lane. Turn left (south) onto Cotton Lane until you get to Olive Ave. Turn right (west) on Olive Ave and continue 4 miles to the park gate.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

SOUTH: Take Highway 303 north and exit at NORTHERN AVE. Turn left (west) at the light and off-ramp onto Northern Ave, traveling west for 1 mile to Cotton Lane. Turn right (north) onto Cotton lane and travel 1 mile to Olive Ave. Turn left (west) onto Olive Ave and continue for 4 miles to the park gate.

Admission: $7 per vehicle.

White Tank Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

A petroglyph is an image on stone, created by removing part of the surface of the rock by pecking, carving, etching, or abrading with a tool or harder stone

Greetings on day 1,999 of lockdown! Oh, wait, that’s not correct. It just feels that way.

Just remember, this isn’t forever, but you have to know what’s out there before you can step back into the world of RV travel. Today we keep the fire going as we head to the Land of Enchantment.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Standing amid a jumble of basalt boulders, I paused after pulling myself up a steep climb of coffee-colored rock. We’re hiking appropriately named Boca Negra Canyon of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, and so far the rock art hasn’t exactly been jumping out at me. But as I pause to rest and finally consider the beauty of the canyon, petroglyphs begin to emerge before me.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Round faces, turtles and birds, brands and crosses, and lightning bolt-like patterns appear plain as day where I was looking on the fly just moments before. Sometimes you cover more ground and observe more beauty when standing still.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These images are inseparable from the greater cultural landscape, from the spirits of the people who created them, and from all who appreciate them today.

While it may be tempting to reach out your hand, don’t touch! Oils from your skin can permanently damage the petroglyphs.

Petroglyph National Monument and Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jointly managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument comprises 7,236 acres of a volcanic basalt escarpment created by ancient lava flows along 17 miles of Albuquerque’s west escarpment, known as the West Mesa. The monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources, including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved into these dark rock outcroppings.

Petroglyph National Monument and Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 150,000 year ago lava seeped from an enormous fissure here, covering the landscape like a prehistoric parking lot. Over time, cooling and erosion cracked the hardened lava. In many areas the ripples of once-hot lava can be seen in rock fragments.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By pecking the flat basalt, ancient artists found they could chisel away the dark desert varnish that had coated the rock and expose lighter rock beneath, creating a contrast that is still striking today. Basalt has a high iron content, and the rocks’ dark interior is basically rust. Creating a petroglyph was no small undertaking, as it took considerable time to etch the rock.

The National Park Service Las Imagenes Visitor Center and book store is located off Unser Boulevard at Western Trail. We began our visit here with a brief orientation to the monument and checked the schedule for ranger guided tours and special events before lacing up our hiking boots and hitting the trail at Boca Negra Canyon, a 70-acre section of the monument. Each trail offers a diverse view of the cultural and natural landscape within the monument.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located two miles north of the visitor center on Unser Boulevard, Boca Negra Canyon provides quick and easy access to three partly paved self-guiding trails where you can view 200 petroglyphs.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is the most popular section of the monument, and is the only fully-developed area with restroom facilities, shade, and a drinking fountain. A nominal parking fee is charged by the City of Albuquerque.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mostly, the national monument’s expanse of open space is undeveloped save for interpretative signs and facilities along the few developed trails at Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon, and the volcano’s trails. Otherwise, silence and isolation are yours just minutes from New Mexico’s largest city.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located one mile south of the visitor center on Unser Boulevard, Rinconada Canyon is one of the few places, where at the end of the trail you can be out of sight of the city.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 2½-mile round-trip sandy trail follows the base of the escarpment where you can view more than 800 petroglyphs. This trail area has no water, so bring your own. You are advised to stop at the visitor center for an orientation and map before hiking this trail.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The northernmost area of the monument, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, means “canyon of marked rocks”. Piedras Marcadas is home to the densest concentration of petroglyphs along the monument’s 17-mile escarpment, with an estimated 5,000 images. This area may be entered from a small parking lot west of Golf Course Road.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This trail area has no water, so bring your own. You are advised to stop at the visitor center for an orientation and map before hiking this trail.

Worth Pondering…

Each of these rocks is alive, keeper of a message left by the ancestors…There are spirits, guardians; there is medicine…

—William F. Weahkee, Pueblo Elder

Place of the Great Rock: El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument is a fascinating mixture of both human and natural history

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country.

At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone, are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This massive mesa point forms a striking landmark. In fact, El Morro means “the headland.” From its summit, rain and melted snow drain into a natural basin at the foot of the cliff, creating a constant and dependable supply of water. The pool also attracts birds, coyotes, deer, and other wild creatures.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A pre-Columbian route from Acoma and the Rio Grande valley to the Zuni pueblos led directly past El Morro, probably marking it as a favored camping site for prehistoric travelers.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beginning in the late 1500s Spanish, and later, Americans passed by El Morro. While they rested in its shade and drank from the pool, many carved their signatures, dates, and messages. Before the Spanish, petroglyphs were inscribed by Ancestral Puebloans living on top of the bluff over 700 years ago.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The softness of the light-colored sandstone made it easy to carve pictures, names, dates, and messages. Ironically, that is also the reason that the famous inscriptions are slowly disappearing.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, El Morro is one of New Mexico’s smaller national monuments, hidden away in forested, high elevation (7,219 feet), little-traveled land towards the northwest of the state. Some of the surroundings are volcanic, including nearby El Malpais National Monument on the far side of the continental divide, and other parts are featureless grassy plains.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The oldest Spanish carving found on El Morro reads, “Paso por aqui, el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Translated, the inscription proclaims: “Passed by here, the expedition leader Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South the 16th of April of 1605.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not the first Spaniard to see the mesa, Diego Pérez de Luxan, chronicler of an exploring expedition led by Antonio de Espejo, recorded in his journal that the party had camped in March 1583 at a location he called El Estanque de Peñol (The Place at the Great Rock). However, no record of the expedition’s passing has been found on the mesa.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Spanish reigned in New Mexico for nearly 200 years. After being driven out by the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, they took back control twelve years later and ruled for generations.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General de Vargas recorded his victory in this way: “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The final inscription in Spanish was dated 1774. The Spanish lost control of their North American territories to the Mexicans who in turn lost them to the United States during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. At the close of the Mexican War in 1848, New Mexico became a U.S. territory, and the arrival of the Americans opened a new chapter in El Moro’s long history.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1849, Lt. James Simpson, an Army topographical engineer, and Richard Kern, an artist, were the first Americans to carve their names on El Morro. More significantly, however, Kern sketched many of the inscriptions and brought them to national attention.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Simpson and Kern, many American wagon trains carrying emigrants to California passed and, as the Anasaziand Spaniards did before them, they left a record of their presence.

The main thing to see is Inscription Loop Trail, a half mile walk past numerous Spanish and Anglo inscriptions, as well as pre–historic petroglyphs.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before venturing out be sure to view the short informative film in the visitor center and pick up a copy of the trail guide to assist you in spotting and understanding the various inscriptions.

You can continue your walk up to the top of the mesa for some great views and to see the partially-excavated ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although all can be seen in just a couple of hours, El Morro is an unusual and evocative place, well worth a detour to visit.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges

Even considering Utah’s many impressive national parks it is difficult to rival Capitol Reef’s sense of expansiveness, of broad, sweeping vistas, of a tortured, twisted, seemingly endless landscape or of limitless sky and desert rock.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Bryce and Zion are like enveloped fantasy lands of colored stone and soaring cliffs, the less-visited Capitol Reef is almost like a planet unto itself. Here you get a real feel for what the earth might have been like millions of years before life appeared, when nothing existed but earth and sky.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park is an expressive world of spectacular colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes, and deep canyons. It’s a place that includes the finest elements of Bryce and Zion in a less crowded park that offers a more relaxing experience than either of those more-traveled Utah attractions.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park preserves the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold, a mammoth buckling of the earth’s surface with colorful canyons, tortured desert, and numerous bridges and arches (“waterpocket” refers to the potholes that dot the sandstone and fill with rainwater). The park’s name combines the popular term for an uplifted landmass, “reef,” with a visual resemblance of the park’s many white Navajo Sandstone domes to that of the nation’s Capitol Building.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In some parks you really need to get away from the road to find the best scenery, but in Capitol Reef there is a plentitude of beauty that can be accessed by vehicle. Views in Capitol Reef are considerably more “open” than those in Zion, which is rather confined by the narrow canyons.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A logical place to start is the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, a 25-mile round trip paved road that is lined with pullouts that allow you to stop and take it all in. One highly recommended stop is the Panorama Point/ Goosenecks view area on the park’s west end.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From this scenic drive several short side drives on well-maintained dirt/gravel roads can be negotiated in virtually any vehicle. The first of these, Grand Wash, is sort of like taking a Disneyland ride in your own car. The hike through the Narrows, from the trailhead at the end of the Grand Wash drive is recommended.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can take the entire 2.5-mile walk which ends at Highway 24, or just go about 0.25 mile to a cutback trail (somewhat steep) on the left to visit Cassidy Arch, where Butch is said to have hung out.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You should definitely drive out to the end of the unpaved but well-maintained 2.2-mile Capitol Gorge spur, a few miles farther along the scenic drive. It is hard to imagine a more unusual driving experience: The gorge ends in a narrow channel carved between sheer cliffs.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a visit to Capitol Reef’s rocky wilderness, the green groves and fruit orchards around the intersection of Highway 24 and the park scenic drive are a cool and welcome sight. Just after the turn of the century, the Mormon community of Fruita, nestled in the shaded canyon formed by the Fremont River, was a lively, vibrant town of nearly 50. Though most of Fruita’s residents gradually moved away after Capitol Reef’s establishment as a national monument, the fields and orchards remained.

Visitors may even pick small quantities of fruit: cherries in June, apricots in July, pears in August, and apples in September. Look for U-Pick signs and be prepared to pay a small donation for any fruit you take with you. The money, collected on an honor system, goes to maintain the orchards—a very worthy cause.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While in the Fruita area check out other historic attractions including the Fruita Schoolhouse, old Blacksmith Shop, the Fremont petroglyphs, and the Gifford Homestead, which in addition to offering a snapshot of pioneer life, bakes the harvest of the season into incredible pies. The one-room schoolhouse built in 1896 remained in use until 1941.

Past the old schoolhouse the petroglyph trail continues for a mile to to Hickman Natural Bridge. This is perhaps one of the best park walks in all of Utah with scenic views and glimpses of Fremont Culture ruins. In this lightly traveled part of the world you will probably have this highly recommended walk mostly to yourself.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Rock That Tells a Story: Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock features a rock panel carved with one of the largest, best preserved, and easily accessible collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest

Extra, extra, read all about it! The reviews are in: You can see all the news you can’t actually read at one of the West’s most famous rock art sites. And there’s no fake news here!

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Native American Indians have been engraving and drawing on Newspaper Rock for more than 2,000 years. Their markings in these ruins tell the stories, hunting patterns, crop cycles, and mythologies of their lives. But what exactly these petroglyphs are communicating, we’ll never know for there is no actual translation available at this remarkable Utah attraction.
Newspaper Rock is located 15 miles west of U.S. 191 along the 41-mile Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (S.R. 211) in Bears Ears National Monument, now part of the 71,896-acre Indian Creek unit designated December 4, 2017 by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument includes red rock, juniper forests, high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts. The Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Nation, and other tribes are tied to this land.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A petroglyph panel of such renown, Newspaper Rock was listed on the National Register of Historic Places long before either Bears Ears National Monument or Indian Creek added prominence to the remote corner of Utah. The landmark is covered with images of animals, people, ancient symbols, and depictions of the natural world etched into the rock by peoples from the Fremont, Ute, and Ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Native American tribes. It’s surmised that the perennial natural spring attracted ancients to this distinctive area of Utah.

As one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the country, Utah’s Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument is like a living museum. However, thankfully, you don’t have to peer at the pristine rock art through glass at this site.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rock is called Tse’ Hane in Navajo, or “rock that tells a story.” There are over 650 rock art designs here that feature a mixture of forms, including pictures resembling humans, animals, tools, and more esoteric, abstract things. The 200-square-foot rock site is a part of the cliffs along the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indian Creek Canyon is a popular Utah destination for rock climbers who flock to the Wingate sandstone for its pristine cracks, which are scaled with traditional climbing aids. However,  nature lovers will still get much out of the scenic drive; better still, the road leads to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, which offers a number of great hiking trails ranging from family-friendly walks through historically significant places to overnight backpacking trips.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Standing at the base of the 200-square-foot rock and trying to decipher what the ancients were trying to communicate, craning your neck to count all of the artwork, sketching and replicating some of the petroglyphs in your own notepad, losing count when you try to see who can count the most antelope, driving the awe-inspiring byway and looking at all of the massive, perfectly-red Wingate sandstone cliffs.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just across the highway from the petroglyphs there is a picnic area and campground, which is free and is first-come, first-serve. The area is open year-round, and the best times to visit are March through late-May and September through October.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No fees or permits are required to visit Newspaper Rock or to drive the Indian Creek Scenic Byway. There are fees to enter Canyonlands National Park.

Driving Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

The Sixth Wonder of Alberta

A wide green valley, steep sandstone cliffs, strange rock formations called hoodoos, and rock art—all of these things make Writing-on-Stone a special place

You’re driving through the prairie and suddenly it drops away into a beautiful river valley. Alberta has many beautiful places to explore during the summer but there’s only one place that has rock paintings from the local indigenous population that can be dated back 2,000 years ago.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That very special place is the Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi Provincial Park and is located near the U.S. border in southeastern Alberta. It is a place of extreme cultural importance to the Blackfoot people and has the greatest concentration of Indigenous rock art anywhere on the plains. The rock art was likely created by the Blackfoot tribe whose territory traditionally includes the area. At least some of the art was likely being made by the Shoshone tribe which passed through the region.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs, and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos, Indigenous peoples have created rock art for millennia. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle critical phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans. In fact, the arrival of horses, trade items, and even the first automobile in the region are creatively recorded.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a combination of culturally significant landforms, rock art, archaeological heritage, and dramatic views, Áísínai’pi (“it is pictured/written”) is a sacred place for the Blackfoot people. In Blackfoot traditions, Sacred Beings dwell among the cliffs and hoodoos, and the voices of the ancestors can be heard among the canyons and cliffs. To this day the Blackfoot feel the energy of the Sacred Beings at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi and their oral histories and ongoing ceremonial use attest to the living traditions of the Blackfoot people.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following more than a decade of advocacy by Indigenous groups and the provincial government, Writing-on Stone was recently (July 6) declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nomination was prepared by the provincial government in partnership with the Blackfoot Confederacy and with ongoing support from the Government of Canada.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to more petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) than any other place on the Great Plains in North America.

“Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi is the site of many natural wonders and a testament to the remarkable ingenuity and creativity of the Blackfoot people,” Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks, said in a news release. “It’s easy to see why the site is seen by many as an expression of the confluence of the spirit and human worlds. I hope all Albertans will take the time to explore this extraordinary part of the province and all it has to offer.”

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The designation of Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site provides the Blackfoot Confederacy a basis for its future generations as to the strength and truth of our continuing relationship to this land and to our traditions, ceremonies, and cultural practices,” Martin Heavy Head, an elder with the Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Society, said in a news release.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone is about 4,400 acres and offers unique hiking and birding opportunities, plus a modestly-sized campground. The province estimates about 60,000 people visit the site each year.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1.3-mile Hoodoo Trail winds through various landscapes—hoodoos, sandstone cliffs, and rock art, upland prairie grasslands, the Milk River valley, and coulees. Most rock art sites are only accessible by guided tour. Park interpreters lead tours into the Archeological Preserve daily from mid-May to early September. Tour schedules and ticket prices are available by contacting the park’s visitor center.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone is Alberta’s sixth world heritage site. The other five are Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (1981), Dinosaur Provincial Park (1979), Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (1995), The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (1984, 1990), and the Wood Buffalo National Park (1983).

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So if you’re a fan of exploration these are the six must see sites within Alberta.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes