“Unexpected” is the word that comes to mind when I remember our visit to the Grand Canyon’s north rim. We left hot, dry Springdale in the morning, drove through a tunnel under a mountain on our way out of Zion Canyon, and wound our way through patterned mesas of Navajo sandstone to a flatter, high desert landscape. It began to rain, and the rest of our drive became progressively less and less hot and dry. Heading into Arizona, this is the opposite of what we expected. We entered the Kaibab National Forest and were soon cruising through endless misty groves of fir and spruce, broken only by barren, ghostly patches that fire had consumed, broken stumps scarred dark with soot and char. As we approached the border of the park, the temperature dropped into the 40s and stands of aspen lined wide green meadows alongside the road. This was so not where we pictured the Grand Canyon being.
As the alpine landscape continued, signs telling us to watch for buffalo in the road were amusing and surprising (we were very disappointed not to see any). By the time we reached the park, we were over 8000 feet above sea level. No wonder it was so cold. The rain let up when we walked along the rim, and we even saw a rainbow. The delicate flora lining the canyon captivated my eye and the immense void before us was magnetic. Words really fail to describe what my pictures cannot even do justice. All we could do was laugh at the absurdity of this chasm and the unlikelihood of it being so deep in the cold, rainy forest.
Springdale, Utah is aptly named. Entering Zion Canyon and seeing the Virgin River, clear and blue with cottonwoods lining its banks, was a sight for sore eyes after spending two days in Moab and driving over the San Rafael Swell and across the Wasatch Plateau. Although we fueled up before beginning the climb, we nearly ran out of gas in the mountains. I remember coasting down every hill and using our flashers a LOT, and distracting ourselves with downloaded episodes of Criminal, our favorite podcast–there was no cell service. We rolled into Salina with approximately 10 more miles of gas in our tank. I practically had to pry my fingers from the wheel.
I later found out that this 110 mile stretch of road is the longest in the Interstate system without any motorist services, which somewhat explained our dilemma. It more than makes up for the lack of human landmarks by providing a multitude of natural ones. The rock formations are colossal and unlike anything we had seen so far–the former geology student in me was drooling. This was one of the most spectacular sections of driving, but it was a little eerie feeling so small in the landscape and knowing if we had trouble with the car, we would be stranded. As we approached Springdale, the landscape opened up. Zion Canyon was like an oasis after all this desert. It was still oppressively hot and dry, but dipping into the Virgin River was the ultimate thirst quencher. It helped that we hadn’t showered since we left Colorado.
Driving into Utah from western Colorado was pretty unimpressive. Steep canyons and rocky mesas gave way to flat, barren land devoid of life. But as we drove further, huge buttes rose up in the distance, and as we turned south, we traveled through more canyons into Moab. A dusty brown and red palette was the backdrop to this hub of rangy, leathery people, adrenaline-pumping tour companies, and too many outdoor outfitters to choose from.
We drove up highway 313 that afternoon towards Dead Horse Point State Park and made camp at a jump-off point for a network of mountain bike trails, on the edge of a mesa. This was one of my favorite boondocking spots, and the heat lightning storm we got to see in wide-screen that evening was otherworldly. Also otherworldly was the drive through Arches National Park the next day to our campsite in the Devil’s Garden. It felt like we were on Mars. As bizarre as this setting was, I can’t wait to go back.