Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Geezer's hike back into deep time
MOAB, Utah – A “moderate difficulty” hike, they call the half-mile round-trip foot trail to Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park, but for me it was like climbing an Alp – in reverse.
I had little trouble scrambling up to the rocky viewpoint overlooking the spectacular geologic oddity three miles wide and 1,200 feet deep that some geologists think is a collapsed salt dome and others a massive meteorite crater in the sandstone cliffs of southeastern Utah.
Coming back, however, severely tested my bad knees and terrible sense of balance, and only a dead slow pace and the help of two stout trekking poles allowed me to get back down without tumbling keister over teakettle on the steep, stony and mud-slicked trail.
This was, by God, an accomplishment, even if I do say so myself.
The trek to Upheaval Dome was the high point of my four-day stay at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, a rugged twin desert wonderland of tall spires, soaring stone arches, gingerly balanced rocks and deep box canyons. Mini-lessons in elementary geology abound everywhere, carrying the awed visitor into a land where time is measured not in seconds and minutes but epochs and eons.
The place turned out to be a perfect week's vacation for two aging train lovers from Illinois who'd rather take Amtrak to their destination than fly – and its glorious sights were more than negotiable even for a gimpy geezer like me.
In both places paved roads lead to short and level trails designed to take even the lame and halt to vistas overlooking the eroded rock layers carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers thousands of feet down through high mesas that were once sea beds hundreds of million years old.
To reach the parks, the Lady Friend and I rode Amtrak's California Zephyr from Chicago to Grand Junction, Colo., stayed overnight at the Hampton Inn a few walkable blocks from the station, then rented a car for the drive to Moab, headquarters village for the parks.
Moab is 114 miles west of Grand Junction by way of Interstate 70 and U.S. 191, a 1 3/4-hour drive, but we chose to take the breathtaking “back way” from I-70 down Utah 128 along the Colorado River. That took an extra two hours because we stopped numerous times to photograph the striking rock formations rising high above the river.
The narrow road is full of steep hairpin turns, and I wouldn't want to drive it during either the traffic-choked high season (mid-March through October) or in a winter snowstorm. But in early March Route 128 was high, dry and nearly deserted.
(The Amtrak stop at Green River, Utah, is closer to Moab – only 52 miles, less than an hour away – but no car rental agency keeps shop there.)
Moab is a typical kitschy-touristy Western resort town, its main drag chockablock with fast-food joints, adventuring shops and downmarket chain motels, but it also has a number of cozy and reasonably priced bed-and-breakfasts as well as upscale resorts outside town.
We stayed at the Cali Cochitta in town, a charming and comfortable B&B that had come well recommended on TripAdvisor, and were delighted with it. Its proprietors, Kim and David Boger, are friendly folk and David, the chef, does a first-rate eggs Benedict as well as a heavenly quiche.
For lunches and dinners we liked both the Moab Brewery and Rockslide Cafe, both of which feature enormous servings. One entree easily fuels two senior citizens.
I should mention that both parks are also naturals for youthful and athletic backpackers who want to escape civilization in the back country. The particularly adventurous can go river rafting, hang gliding and even ballooning, and the more sedentary can enjoy sedate boat cruises on the Colorado.
I recommend going during the off season (high season runs from April to October) to avoid the crowds that choke traffic on the roadways as well as the scorching desert heat of summer. The first week of March was perfect for us; most of the snow had melted, and the temperatures rose into the low 50s. We practically had the place to ourselves.
Arches and Canyonlands are also an amateur photographer's dream, as you'll see in the selection of pictures to follow on the other blog in the next week or so.
One can use a car to reach almost all the sights in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks that are worth seeing.