Utah: on the path of the eclipse

“It’s nice but it’s a lot of rocks”, dixit Caro after our first full day in Utah…and I had planned a full month in Utah with essentially ‘rocks’. Even though I knew that the variety of rocks, canyons, arches, bridges, hoodoos, etc. was almost endless in Utah, I must admit that I also had some doubts whether at some point we would not get a ‘rock bore out’. But I shouldn’t have worried because when we left the state over 4 weeks later it was with a bit of sadness and with a promise to come back one day (with a 4×4 vehicle). 

Building a route for visiting Utah was the most difficult so far. Usually we try to draw some lines on the map and visit what is in the neighborhood. Sometimes we add a side trip or loop if there are interesting things to do off our route. In Utah however, there is so much to see and a lot of the really cool stuff is far way from the main roads, so it was really not possible to draw a nice line through the state and take it from there. Moreover as many roads are not paved and are only passable in certain conditions (especially with our 2WD campervan).  So if we didn’t want to get stuck somewhere in the middle of the desert with nowhere to go, we’d better have a plan.

We studied the maps, looked at the routes of other travelers for hours and hours but finally came up with a ‘zig-zag + loop’ route for the month we had planned to be there.   

We drove into the Utah desert in a mix of pouring rain/snow and sunshine. So the first arch we saw, was probably the most colorful one of the whole trip. The first national park (first of the ‘Utah big 5’) was Arches NP. This is another park that has really exploded in popularity since Covid and has had some serious ‘growing pains’. It got so crowded that you now only get in if you book a time slot (half a year in advance) or get a ‘last minute ticket’ in a daily lottery. We did not have any of those. Luckily there is a 3rd option: getting in the park before they start checking the ‘time slots’ (at 6 am). So we set off at 5 am in the dark and got in without any problems (and we sure weren’t the only ones, using these tactics). Not only did we get a nice sunrise, but we also did our first hike to Delicate Arch while people were just getting ready to go the park. So we didn’t need to do the ‘half an hour queue’ to get a picture taken.

The next morning however there was no escaping the crowds in Canyonlands National Park . We wanted to see Mesa arch at sunrise, as the colors are supposed to be amazing. But this little arch has become a real Instagram hype and gets really crowded at sunrise. Another 5am departure from our camp spot only just got us the last available (legal) parking spot. I quickly did the hike and found out that
every available cm in front of the arch was packed with photographers.
There was pushing, shoving, arguments, people falling over tripods and all kind of materials that people had set up to ‘define’ their ‘turf’. I decided to walk a bit back to see the sun rise and then went back a couple of minutes later and was able to get some nice shots but not without some friction with some ‘influencer’ hotshot that was filming his ‘yoga exercises’ in front of the arch . After we had breakfast, Caro also went to have a look out and now there was hardly anybody there and the light was still amazing.

Somehow all these people disappeared from the park after sunrise because for the rest of the day the park was pretty empty. Actually we did find out that in the itineraries of many travelers, the sunrise at Mesa Arch is combined with a visit to Arches NP so they do not go beyond that one spot. And that is really a pity, because the canyons at Canyonland are second to none! Canyons within canyons within canyons. Some of the most impressive scenery we ever saw. We really wondered how the much more famous Grand Canyon could ever be better than this… The park deserves at least a full day. We even added a second day although it must be said that we had a special reason.

Mid October, there was a solar eclipse over parts of the USA and a part of Canyonlands NP was just within the ‘path of the eclipse’. The rangers told us they expected a lot of people, so that meant another 5am departure to the park. We secured a nice parking spot and got some protective eclipse glasses from a ranger and a ‘junior ranger’ activity book (also very interesting for the adults). So we were all set to observe this cool phenomenon. It was an annular eclipse meaning that it didn’t get really dark and that a small ring of the sun (the ‘ring of fire’) stayed visible at the peak of the eclipse. The actual eclipse lasted less than half a minute but it was amazing. And during a couple of hours before and after the eclipse, you could (if you had read the junior ranger book) still notice the effects of the eclipse in completely distorted shadows for example. This was another nice bonus on our trip. We only heard about it, a week earlier and were lucky to be close , so with a bit of planning we could fit it in our route. Our neighbors in the parking lot on the other hand, had driven 4000 km to witness this phenomenon lasting less than a minute.

After 3 days of getting up so early, we needed a little break, so we really took our time to drive South to one of the most iconic views of the South Western USA: Monument Valley. This valley was made famous by the many John Wayne (and other) westerns that were filmed there. It is a major tourist attraction but we also heard that it is a bit of tourist trap. RV’s (recreational vehicles – motorhomes) are not allowed, so if you wish to visit you need to book an expensive tour for just a drive through the valley. However, our small campervan, is usually not considered an RV in the USA (we are not allowed to use RV reserved parking spots for example). So we went for a drive in the valley and it was beautiful and also ‘interesting’. The road in the canyon is in really bad shape (some say it is done deliberately to ‘encourage’ people to take a tour) and there are some steep inclines, so we were able to practice some ‘off road’ driving that we would use a lot more in the next weeks.

From there we drove back north to the ‘Valley of the Gods’ also known as ‘mini Monument Valley’. And we actually liked the mini version a lot better. This huge swath of public desert land has plenty of places to free camp and all of them with the classic ‘Western USA desert views’. It is a hilly dirt road but we know by now that our Fiat camper handles these challenging roads pretty well.

And it gets even better when you drive up to Muley point for views of canyons as far as one can see. As we had been doing quite a bit of driving the last days, we parked our van right next to a cliff for a couple of days and enjoyed the views.

Well rested, we continued back north on yet another ‘scenic highway’. It brought us to ‘Natural Bridges’ National Monument. This site would be a major hit in any other place in the world, but here in Utah it is more of an ‘off the beaten path’ kind of place with hardly anybody around. From there we crossed the Colorado River again and drove towards Hanksville, where we hoped to find some of the ‘secret sites’ that we had heard about from other travelers.

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