THE ARCHES NATIONAL PARK & MONUMENT VALLEY, UTAH
Updated: Aug 16
It is nigh impossible to find fresh adjectives to describe what we have seen over the past couple of weeks. Stunning, unforgettable, beautiful, miraculous, dramatic - they are all overworked and fail at every level to capture the impact of seeing all these mammoth rocky hulks and freaks of nature for the very first time. But the right word did come to us completely unwittingly when we drove back up to the Arizona-Utah border and entered Monument Valley. As we drove north along Highway 163 and spotted the massive red stone statues looming large on the horizon like giant invaders from another planet, we involuntarily emitted exactly the same word - "RIDICULOUS" we both gasped, "this is now getting ridiculous". It was as if our trust and belief in what we were seeing with our own eyes was finally being tested to the absolute limit.
Driving towards Monument Valley
For here in the wasteland of the Navajo Tribal Park, where less than a thousand people live (virtually all Native American Indians), more of Mother Nature's wonders bedazzle the thousands of transfixed travelers who come here every year from around the world. Until the '30s, only the Navajo tribesmen were familiar with this desolate area but that changed forever when Hollywood and John Ford used this spot as the backdrop for the classic western movies, Stagecoach and Rio Grande. Immediately these 'ridiculous' rock idols, rising up to 1000ft above the valley floor, became stars in their own right as they lit up the big silver screens across the globe. Since then, Forrest Gump, National Lampoon and others have included vignettes of this extraordinary landscape. The isolated sandstone monuments which look like they have been placed indiscriminately around the vast desert, always seemed more Hollywood fantasy than natural reality but, believe us, it is all true even if it is, at times, unbelievable.
We stayed three nights at an RV park which was in fact just an acre of assigned Indian land in the heart of the wilderness. We were treated to three of the best, movie-moment sunsets we have ever experienced.
Twenty miles up the remarkably good road is the small town of Mexican Hat, population just 31 in the 2010 census, titled after the self-explained rock of the same name on the edge of town (below).
A few miles further on, you can visit the Gooseneck State Park, where the San Juan river tries to emulate the twisting antics of the Colorado at Horseshoe Bend, but turns out to look more like an old stone quarry.
A further 20 miles on brings you to curious Bluff City, population around 300, a town established by Mormon pioneer settlers 150 years ago. Now when you think of Utah you think 'Mormons', a word which is strangely absent around here as they prefer any reference to their religion to be to the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Well, we too are latter-day somethings, latter-day grown-ups, latter-day adventurers or latter-day dreamers perhaps. So we were naturally interested in the story of how 230 Mormons had heard their names 'volunteered' from the pulpit by a church elder telling them they had been 'called' to leave their comfortable homes and set out to colonize a tiny, uninviting bit of land on the side of the San Juan river, a tributary of the Colorado, 125 miles away. Some wag told them it would take just six weeks. It actually took them six cruel winter months, chiseling and blasting their way across the numerous and most cruelly inhospitable ridges and canyons imaginable, their children in tow in their rickety, horse-drawn wagons. When their names had been called for this 'mission', they were, we were told, given the chance to turn the offer down with a polite 'thank-you but no thank-you' but, of course, to do so would have been to defy the fact they had been 'chosen' from on high. Unsurprisingly, not one of the selected flock elected to stay at home.
So we were amused to visit the Bluff settlers museum where we sat through two movies depicting the courage of the pioneers. An over-attentive but kindly gentlemen effused to us about the early adventurers but showed less interest after we interjected at an early stage with a "Please don't try and convert us. If you knew us, you wouldn't want us'. To misquote Groucho Marx: ‘Any religion that would have us as members wouldn’t be worth joining’.
As you know, Mormons are well known for their 'plural marriages', a euphemism for polygamy. Here at the museum, they have reconstructed a small village of 16 wooden homes, built as they would have been all those years ago. On the wall of each house there was a grainy sepia photo of the proud male homesteader, with a photo of at least one wife on either side. Having been dragged from their nice homes to arrive six arduous months later in this desperate desert backwater seemed to explain the furious expressions on their faces.
This extraordinary stupa rock greets you just outside Moab and looks like it would be more at home in Nepal.
THE ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
Two hundred miles still further north is another ridiculous wonderland. Just outside Moab, a refreshingly lively and enjoyable town where we finally found some an acceptable restaurant, is The Arches National Park. And we had probably left the best till last. Whereas Monument Valley has a finite number of dramatic, isolated monoliths dotted around, The Arches Park is awash with them. It is famous for having the highest density of natural arches in the world. We did, of course, have to attempt the tortuous 3 mile round trip trek to see the most loved and photographed of them all, the Delicate Arch. The indelicate and brutal ordeal of this relentless climb took us on a steep hillside path, onto the side (or more appropriately slide) of a ginormous rock (the like of which I had not seen since climbing Ayers Rock in the 70s) and finally on to a narrow mountainside ledge at the summit, with a 500ft drop inviting you to make just one slip-up.
The reward was the denouement by this magnificent rocky sculpture. While hundreds of other arches can be found amongst the red sandstone cliffs and boulders in the 120 square mile park, only a few are readily accessible and this is the most iconic -and the most exhausting. Luckily our Florida mountain boots (flip-flops) carried us safely there and back, much to the amusement of the hundreds of fellow trekkers who had of course dressed 'properly' in tough footwear. These pics follow Sandie's trek to the top. For someone who is terrified of heights, she was amazing, even holding back tears of fright to pose for a photo on the final ledge.
The Skyline Arch
The Window Arch
The Courthouse Rock
The Balanced Rock
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
North west of Moab is another extraordinary rockfest. Canyonlands is, if anything, more terrifying in the vertigo stakes than the Grand Canyon. The aptly-named Island In The Sky road takes you up onto the top of this Mesa, a mountain plateau formed by the erosive forces of the Colorado on one side and the Green River on the other. It also has one of the scariest 'roads' we have ever seen. The Shafer Trail is a dirt track winding around on the top of a twisting embankment and is open to all vehicles. You have to be joking. It is completely terrifying, especially when a car comes in the opposite direction.
But the scenery is breath-taking, looking down into the miles of deep deep canyons far below. Walking along the trails that cling to the very side of the Mesa reminded us of our trip earlier this year to the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town with sheer drops of a couple of thousand feet on all sides. As I stepped to the edge of the precipice for that bravado picture in Canyonlands, we remembered the time I stupidly showed off to pose on the very edge of Table Mountain while Sandie stood back to take the photo. "Stop. Be careful" she screamed as I kept getting nearer to a fatal slip. A passer-by commented to her with a charmed smile that she must care and love me very much. "No, its not that" she said, "He has the car keys in his pocket".
The Shafer Trail
The Mesa Arch
Clearly, a lot of people react badly to vertigo by having to rush uncontrollably to the toilets - this is the sign in all the loos (the second and third look like they are praying at the same time):
Well, that is quite enough about rocks. You are probably rocked out with the past couple of blogs. But you may have learned one thing - if you don’t like rocks, don’t come to southern Utah. If you like trees and forests, don’t come to southern Utah. But if you do want to see some of the most amazing natural sights on Earth, book your flight and your RV and come to Utah.
We are finally leaving this desert land and its rich treasure chest of ridiculous sandstone freaks to head north towards Yellowstone Park. Next stop Provo.
But, before we move on, a quick mention for a couple of places of interest back in Arizona.
Sedona is a fabulous city south of Flagstaff and well with a visit. For us, it added its name to places we could imagine ourselves living. It is lush, prosperous and fascinating, surrounded by the bright red sandstone mountains in the Upper Sonoran Desert with mild winters and hot summers. Sedona has a touch of real class about it.
The other thing to explore is Route 66 as it passes through the old parts of Flagstaff and Williams. These two places have totally embraced the spirit of the famous, much sung-about road, and it is lined with 50's and 60's memorabilia. Elvis and fabulous old American cars are everywhere, along with shops and bars that have adopted the retro theme. There's even a Gas Station Museum. Great fun
If you are in this part of Arizona, don't miss Bearizona, a safari park where you drive through several miles of woodland and fields amongst curious bears, bison, elks and mountains goats. We don't like zoos, but this place managed to convince you that the rescued animals were actually enjoying their environment and regular meals.
Please take a look at these videos... and please forgive Sandie her alarmed expletive!