Laguna Seca Trip: Day 2 – Bryce Canyon

It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow. — Ebenezer Bryce, 1875

Sunday, July 10

I woke up about 6:15. I’m surprised I managed to sleep that long, being my first time sleeping on the ground in living memory. I had an apple and a protein bar for breakfast and went back to the park to hike.

I’ve been having intermittent problems with the SLR and managed to charge one battery yesterday while writing up my notes. With the freshly charged battery, the camera still refused to work. I played around with the battery pack, swapping positions of the batteries, even tried to use it without the pack. No joy. Eventually, I somehow invoked the proper magic spell for it began working again. It doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. For much of the day, I supplemented the SLR with the cell phone.

The turnoff for the Fairyland Canyon parking lot is before you get to the entrance station. Amusingly, it is only signed for people exiting the park. So I missed the turn and had to flip a u-turn just before the entrance station.

The parking lot holds about 15 cars. I arrived a bit after 8 and was on the trail by 8:15. The trail descends through a few layers of hoodoos then makes its way around the prominence that is called Boat Mesa.

On the way down, the faces of the hoodoos in front of me are in shadow. It’s common that these hoodoos are like giant fins, long and thin. In places, some of the hoodoos seem to be glowing. In fact, the shaded face of one hoodoo is illuminated by the sunny face of the one next to it, giving it an unusual glow.


Translucent hoodoos

There are quite a few ground squirrels along the rim. I saw one family, a mother and three children, cross the path in front of me. I don’t recall seeing a group like that before. As you descend, the squirrels disappear and are replaced by lizards. One of the birds in these parts is a familiar friend from RMNP – Steller’s Jay. I also saw a small dark blue bird, but she didn’t sit still long enough for me to get a picture.

This is a dry hike. I saw no flowing or standing water. Most of the erosion is due to the freeze/thaw cycle. Water gets in the cracks and when it freezes acts as a wedge. About 200 days a year are both above and below the freezing point. The ground is limestone which is normally white. Here it is tinted different colors by various minerals.

After descending about six hundred feet we get to the bottom of Fairyland Canyon and the base of Boat Mesa. Although water doesn’t normally flow anywhere around here, it clearly does on occasion with enough force to carry a fair amount of material out of the canyon. The ground is like an un-cohesive concrete with too much gravel, seemingly held in place by gravity and friction. Flowing water undercuts it easily.

Dozens of ridges radiate away from the base of Boat Mesa and the trail works its way past a number of them. Here, the trail is visible for a fair distance both ahead and behind. The trail alternates between rising and falling, but looking at the trail from the adjacent ridge, it seems they’ve made it as level as feasible.

I can’t help but notice that, traveling the loop clockwise, I can see more of the trail behind me than I can ahead of me. In that way, it’s like real life: we know our past better than we know our future. It must be interesting taking the trail the opposite way, having a clear view of a significant portion of trail ahead.

I met three couples hiking the opposite direction. The first looked to be in a hurry; we just exchanged greetings. A few minutes later, I chatted briefly with a second couple. They said they’d left the parking lot at about the same time I did. I failed to think to ask which parking lot. The ranger suggested I start at Fairyland Canyon and go clockwise, so I was thinking it was the “normal” way. You can start there and go counter-clockwise. Or, you could start at Sunrise Point and go either clockwise or counterclockwise. You could also take advantage of the shuttle and skip the 2.5 miles of Rim Trail that connects the two parking lots.


Spur pano

I found myself at a point where there’s a spur on the ridge. A line of rocks discourages hikers from following the trail to the point, but clearly it’s often visited. This point gives a beautiful panoramic view of the curving canyon below. I could also see the trail drop steeply below, to what is perhaps the low point of the trail below Sunrise Point. At the bottom there’s a group of signs. Tower Bridge is 200 yards downhill and Sunrise Point is 1.7 miles above.


Tower Bridge (right)

I went down to a spot with a nice view the Tower Bridge and took a short break here. Munched my tail mix and meant to slather on a second coat of SPF. I got distracted by the view and made my way a quarter-mile up the trail before I remembered to apply more sunscreen.

This truly is a fantastic landscape. It’s only human nature to see things in these formations. There’s the Queen, of course. But I saw a Buddha on an altar, a fat chef with a big floppy hat, busts of forgotten ancient Roman senators. There are castles and cathedrals, too, if you care to see them.


China Wall

Near here I ran into four twenty-somethings coming down. “Are you starting or finishing?” they asked. I told them I’d started at Fairyland Canyon. They said that’s where they were headed. They wanted to get an earlier start, but one of them works in the park and had to work late yesterday; “So it goes,” they said. When I started this morning it was sunny and cool with brilliant cloudless blue skies. Now, it was sunny and on the hot side, the sun relentless and sky still cloudless. At least we had a nice breeze to take the edge off. I’m glad I got an early start.


Rim view

On the section of Rim Trail between the two parking lots I ran into the couples from earlier. The first, the ones I didn’t chat with, I asked, “Didn’t we pass each other down below?” “Yeah, we remember you. We’re doing the loop, too.” When I came upon the second couple, they laughed as soon as they saw me. Some time ago they realized neither of us had asked where the other had started. They assumed I’d started where they did; I assumed they’d started where I did. The two couples were still only a few minutes apart – although not together, they managed to keep up almost identical paces.

The Rim Trail isn’t that spectacular, compared to the rest of the hike. This trail gives a few views much like many of the places you can drive to but much of the trail has a view to the west instead. Campgrounds instead of hoodoos.

I arrived back at my starting point at 12:30, having covered 8 miles and 2,309′ gross elevation change in four and a quarter hours. Net elevation change looks to be more like 900′, with a 400′ climb between the two lowest points and the usual ups and downs. I felt like I was taking my time; didn’t feel rushed to have kept that pace. I made it a point to pause often to take a good look around, enjoy the moment.

I stopped here for a rest, snacked on some more trail mix and drank plenty of water. Two liters turned out to be plenty; I’d barely had more than one, which matched the ranger’s prediction. The third couple I met down below came by when I was resting. I said “Hello again” but they didn’t seem to recognize me.

I was back in the car by 1:00. I decided to enter the park, take the road to the very end, then stop at each of the overlooks on the way back. By now, many of the views were beginning to look the same. Inspiration Point stands out, though. It is above perhaps the densest collection of hoodoos in the Park. On the west side of the road is a short stretch of area burned by recent forest fires. Research tells me this fire was in 2009.


Natural Bridge

This survey of all the scenic overlooks took me until about 3pm. About this time I decided that instead of eating my camp food, I’d grab a bite in one of the restaurants. A bit early for dinner, but I’ll have the remainder of the day’s trail mix ration for a late snack.

We had a bit of high cloud cover last night. The moon will set even later tonight, so no Milky Way (unless I decide to set an alarm in the middle of the night) but perhaps things will be marginally better without clouds. As of 5:15, still not a cloud in the sky.

I’m a bit concerned about navigation on tomorrow’s drive. Yesterday, when I wanted to see if I’d missed the junction with UT 12, I had no cell service and thus had no maps. I suspect a similar fate may befall me tomorrow, so I’ve downloaded that section of maps to the phone. We’ll see how off-line navigation works.

Took a shower just before dark, then sat watching the sky change. Listened to Dhafer Youssef while the sun set, Phillip Glass as the stars lit up. Saw a satellite pass over, even saw a shooting star. Hit the sack by 10:40. Campsites on my row faced the highway, maybe forty yards away. You’d be surprised how many motorists hit those rumble strips.

Bryce Canyon National Park is an interesting place, but it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s all about the hoodoos, and although you see a few hoodoos in other places, Bryce has the fantastic concentration of them. That’s all BCNP is about and this concentration is not vast, so the park is pretty compact. From the entrance station to the southernmost overlook, the road is only 17 miles long. The Park isn’t very wide; just some of the plateau above and not far below the hoodoos. I think you could hike every mile of trail here in two or three visits. It’s not a place I would want to visit often, but I’d certainly come back here again. I’d hike Navajo trail again with pleasure. I’d like to spend some time in the other parks in the area, so passing through here again is fairly likely.

Laguna Seca Trip: Day 1 – Denver to Bryce Canyon

Back in December I was working in San Francisco. I reached out to a few Golden Gate Lotus Club members in an attempt to get together for dinner or adult beverages. For one reason or another I was never able to visit with anybody. In the course of these emails and phone calls I learned GGLC would be having a track day at Laguna Seca in July.

I started planning almost immediately. The plans changed many times, but the central idea of the trip was lapping at Laguna Seca. In its final form, the trip would include several National Parks, three race tracks, visits to six states, and driving something like 3,500 miles.

Saturday, July 9

It’s here, it’s finally time to hit the road. I will be covering a lot of ground, literally, in the next two weeks. We start off with a big mileage day, and we start by violating Rule #1: No Interstate Highways. I’m on I-70 westbound until some miles after Green River, UT.

If you’re going to drive on the interstate, I-70 west of Denver is as good a place as any to do it. It’s quite scenic, as interstates go, what with the climb to the Eisenhower Tunnel, Vail Pass, and Glenwood Canyon. I left the house at 5:40, so it was still quite cool at high elevations. I wanted to run Glenwood Canyon topless but I waited until Avon to pull over and take the top off. It only took a few minutes for me to turn the heat on full blast. I kept thinking, as I was shivering, that this chill would be a fond memory in the heat I expected later in the trip. I didn’t complain about the cold.

The short canyon between Debeque and Palisade is a preview of what the Colorado River does a few hundred miles down stream.  Here the canyon is not deep but it has a bit of the character of the Grand Canyon and what I might see when I cross it again in a couple of weeks near Page, Arizona. This canyon section is only a few miles long and dumps us in Palisade where the almost otherworldly cliffs on the north side of the road contrast with the precise grid of the peach orchards on the south.

I gassed up in Fruita, last gas in Colorado. Most of the exits between the state line and Green River offered no services. At Green River there’s a sign that said “No services on I-70 next 106 miles.” I only had to go a short distance longer before exiting, but even on UT 24 there was nothing until Hanksville where I stopped for lunch. Utah has long stretches of desolation. Between I-70 and Hanksville I saw one small red outcropping of hoodoos, a foreshadowing of things to come.

It was now the heat of the day in the high desert – I put the top back on at my lunch break.

At Hanksville the character of the road changes from high desert to mesa and canyon. The road goes along the Fremont River; the bottom of the canyon is green and the canyon walls vary from nearly white to dun to red. There’s even a layer of green that almost matches the color of the sage brush. This is iconic old-Western landscape, the stuff John Ford movies are made of.

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When planning the route, I was so focused on Bryce Canyon I didn’t notice that I’d be passing through Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. There are no entrance stations for these parks, just drive right through. I didn’t even know I was in Grand Staircase-Escalante until I met a ranger who gave me a map after I answered questions about my car.

Capital Reef is red sandstone, carved by water. It supported the Fremont people as much as two thousand years ago. They lived in pit houses (dug into the ground, with thatch roofs) and natural rock shelters. Several petroglyphs can be viewed just a few yards from the road. The park is much bigger north-to-south than east-to-west; the road passes through only a few miles of the park and certainly gives only a brief glimpse of what’s to offer.

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Chimney Rock (extreme right)

A few miles after leaving Capital Reef we arrive at the junction with UT 12. Here we turn south and enter Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. When I was eating lunch back in Hanksville, I overheard a couple at the next table talking about this road – they didn’t like the drop offs. A bad road for an RV might be a good road for a Lotus. The road starts off quite pleasant, running through a section of the Dixie National Forest, with scenic overlooks every few miles.

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Grand Staircase-Escalante

After a while I get to the stretch of road the couple was talking about. The road goes along the spine of a narrow ridge, just a bit wider than the road itself, with steep drops off both sides. I stop here to take the top back off; it has cooled down a bit. We’ve climbed to over 9,000’ above sea level.


Lotus road!

Utah is a bit of a geological marvel. Pretty much the whole place is interesting. I always joke that Wyoming is only interesting around the edges, and that about half of Colorado is interesting. In the last few miles I’ve passed through two National Parks and a National Monument. What isn’t park or monument is Indian Nation or Bureau of Land Management land. Just about all of southern Utah is federal land in one form or another, and it contains many wonderful views.

I get to Bryce Canyon Pines by 5:30, get checked in, assemble the tent, empty the car by 6:00. Then I head into the park to scout it for tomorrow. It’s a short drive from the campground. In the visitor center, I chat with a ranger about which trails he recommends from my list.

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Hiking in the hoodoos

He says I have plenty of time to do Queen’s Garden and directs me to Sunset Point (not to be confused with Sunrise Point). I have a couple of hours of sunlight left so I head down the Queen’s Garden trail. It’s a fun little trail. Queen’s Garden, it turns out, has a hoodoo that looks, in silhouette, like a famous statue of Queen Victoria. Near here the trail connects with a trail to the Navajo Loop. This was recommended by the ranger, so rather than return the way I came, I follow the Navajo Loop trail. I could have gone left or right at the junction; my choice to go left turns out to be the correct choice.

It’s 1.4 miles back to Sunset Point. The trail is very narrow in places, squeezing through the hoodoos. Before long I find myself standing at the foot of dozens of switchbacks heading up, up, up. I was back to the top and in the car by 8:15.

There are some high clouds; not sure what sort of sky we’ll have tonight. In any event, I won’t try any astrophotography.

Plan tomorrow is to hike the Fairyland Loop – 8 miles, 2300’ elevation change. That shouldn’t take more than 5 hours, I’m guessing. I’ll need to ask at the visitor center for another short hike now that I’ve already done the one that was suggested.

Back at the tent, it was quite late and I didn’t want to bother with trying to figure out the camp stove in the dark, so my first camp meal will have to wait. I did mix a batch of trail mix for the morning and had a small sample of it as a late snack. The sun doesn’t fully set until after 9:30, and with the waxing crescent moon the Milky Way was not visible. I hit the hay a bit after 10:30. One problem – I neglected to scout the bathroom situation before it got dark. They’re porta-potties, not actual bathrooms. I made a half-hearted search for one in the dark. It wasn’t until morning that I found out the map has the one nearest to me on the wrong side of the road.


The camp site