This one is gonna be a long one so grab a drink, get comfy, and enjoy the ride…read.
After the last roadtrip I headed back to Denver where I caught a flight to Dallas for a long weekend with some old college buddies. I won’t get too into that trip, other than it was a blast and it delayed the start of my next trip because I wasn’t able to pack quickly enough on the turnaround. That’s important because then we were hit with another 6” of snow that made us have to throw our plans out the window. So this was the ultimate go with the flow, little/last minute planning road-trip. Most of the time it worked out well, but there were definitely a few hiccups where some good buddies saved the day by bailing us out. But before I get too ahead of myself I’ll start at the beginning.
Because we were going to be backpacking in a few of the parks we first had to roll through Cortez, CO and visit the good people at Osprey Packs to get some TLC on both of our packs. Not to pitch it too hard, but I can’t say enough good things about Osprey. Their gear is top-notch and in the rare instance that it breaks on you, they will bend over backward to get you back on the trail. We showed up with 2 packs and the repair office had fixed both in about an hour. Now that we had our gear we hit the road south for the Land of Enchantment.
We pulled into the park just in time to hit both visitor centers, get the lay of the land, and get a free caving permit. Then we got a free campsite for a few nights so that we would have the chance to hike and explore the lava tubes in El Malpais and explore the trails in El Morro. I want to preface with the fact that I didn’t know anything about either monument upon arrival. With that said, I am so glad that I had the chance to explore both of them. I would consider them “sleeper parks” because they fly under the radar for most people. After talking with the ranger at the El Malpais Visitor Center, we decided to check out Big Skylight, Junction, and Giant Ice caves. It was like being transported to Hawaii. Dormant cinder cone, shield, splatter cone, etc. type volcanoes were everywhere. And if you have ever been to landscape that has had lava flows you know how rugged it is. But somehow life finds a way. Trees, shrubs, and flowers all grow directly out of the ‘a’a lava flows. The first cave we got to was Big Skylight Cave, which was very cool. It’s a giant lava tube that is slowly collapsing in on itself, forming lava skylights and bridges. We hiked all the way to the back of the cave and as we got further and further away from the entrance the light slowly faded until we were in complete darkness. After exploring that cave we hiked to Giant Ice Cave, and then Junction Cave. Junction cave was great for photography because it was a little smaller than either of the other two caves and was long and fairly straight. We had a few bats flying around inside the cave, also very cool.
Big Skylight Cave
Junction Cave and New Petzl Light
Lava Bridge Near Big Skylight Cave
The next day we packed up and hiked around in El Morro. There is only about 2.5 miles of trail in the monument but it is a very unique place. It is the only guaranteed water source in the area for miles and has attracted people for hundreds of years including ancestral puebloans, the Spanish, surveyors etc. indicated through sandstone inscriptions. It’s a very small monument but if you are in the area it’s definitely worth a stop.
Sunset at El Morro
Hiking on El Morro Trail
Overlooking the Canyon
Inscriptions on El Morro
Inscriptions on El Morro
After hiking the loop we got back on the road headed for Carlsbad.
So if you know me, you know that I used to work at Carlsbad back in ‘10-11 and caught the caving bug when I was there. I had been trying to get back for a while but never did, so this was the big reunion. I contacted some friends that still work for the park and they set up a couple caving trips into Hall of the White Giant and Spider Caves. Both caves are amazing and only about 500 people a year get to do them. I definitely lost my caving muscles. Man I was sore the next day after Hall. The following day we headed into Spider, then down the natural entrance, through the King’s Palace, and lastly the Big Room. It was a whirlwind of a day and it was great to be back.
The Witches Broom
The next day we headed to Guadalupe Mountains NP for a short visit to see some friends and hike McKittrick Canyon, because the wildflowers were peaking before heading to White Sands. First of all, if you have never been to White Sands, you gotta go. It is spectacularly photogenic. I have a 100% awesome sunset score in that park. My recommendation would be to camp out overnight in the backcountry because you basically get the park to yourself, get to watch the sunset, get deep into the untouched dunes, and then you get to be in the park at night. It’s a super beautiful place but the surrounding towns are starting to kill the dark night sky with all the light pollution.
Fresh Tracks in the Dunes
Pedestal in the Dunes
In Search of the Perfect Dune
Dune Sunset Panorama
Soft Light on the Dunes
Sunset From the Dunes
Camping Under the Milky Way in my trusty Kelty Tent
First Light on the Dunes
From there we headed to Santa Fe for the night to grab much-needed showers and then head up to Bandelier for a few nights.
Since being in the 4 corners area for the past year I have seen lots of cool Ancentral Puebloan archeology sites, but Bandelier was a refreshing and new experience. The site itself is totally different because of the type of rock that they were surrounded by. Instead of the typical sandstone, it’s a compressed volcanic ash that has lots of solution pockets that looks like Swiss cheese. In addition to building freestanding houses, they also took advantage of these naturally occurring caves/pockets in the rock and further dug into the hillsides. It is a very unique canyon and was well worth the trip. In addition to the dwellings, the park also has terrain above 10K feet. In fact, it has the southernmost population of pika in North America. We climbed Cerro Grande, 10,199 ft to look for them but were unsuccessful because we were unaware that we needed to go off trail in order to find them. The park is very beautiful but had recently been hammered by a flash flood in the canyon followed by a bad fire, so they are in the process of rebuilding areas of the park. Still, it’s worth a few-day visit if you like to hike.
Talus House Cliff Dwellings
Alcove House Kiva
Cerro Grande Summit 10,199 ft
El Rito de los Frijoles
Los Frijoles Canyon
White Breasted Nuthatch
The next on the list was to head to Grand Canyon but I had found out that we were close to a couple of small parks, Pecos National Historic Site and Petroglyph National Monument, so we decided to hit those parks as half-days, then crash somewhere on the way to the Grand Canyon.
Pecos is the crossroads for so many historical things its ridiculous. Ancestral Puebloan, Spanish, Missionaries, Santa Fe Trail, Civil War Battle and prospectors all made their way to Pecos at some point. If I got to do it all over again I would spend a full day there because there was so much to take in. They have great exhibits and a museum with lots of pieces found on site including in tact puebloan pots, Spanish swords, bullets from the Civil War battle etc.
Inside the Kiva
Mission Ruins and Kiva
After we hit the road we made it to Petroglyph with enough time to hike in Boca Negra Canyon where there are some really great petroglyphs. The thing that surprised me most about this monument is that it is basically in Albuquerque. When you are hiking through these great rock fields, you are essentially in someone’s backyard. The development backs right up to the monument. All the more reason that I really dig the NPS because they protect sites like this from going away forever.
Boca Negra Petroglyphs
As we started our drive to Grand Canyon we were planning on camping until we drove right into a dust storm. It was the first time that I checked the weather on my iPhone and it said “Dust.” So we pulled over and grabbed a hotel in Holbrook, AZ for the night. When we checked in I gave the guy my zip code for my credit card and it turns out that that he used to live right down the street from where I grew up in FL. Small world.
So I have been to the Grand Canyon briefly in the past but I have never been below the rim. I have a few friends that work there so I figured it was about time to see the park, for real. So I called my friend in the backcountry office and picked her brain. Because we had not made plans in advance, our only chance at getting a backcountry permit would be to show up at the office in the morning, wait in line, get a number, then wait in line with our number the following day so that we could get our permit for the following day. Everything worked out and we finally got our permit, but had a couple days to kill on the rim. It actually worked out nicely because we were there for the full moon rise. So we headed out to find a good spot and just as we figured where the moon would come over the horizon we noticed a faint GIANT moon coming up over the rim. What an awesome sight. As it rose the sunset and we were front row to a great sunset on the rim.
Full Moon Rise Near the Canyon
Full Moon Rise Sunset Panorama
Grand Canyon Sunset
Taking in the View
The following day we packed and then started down the South Kaibab trail for a night at Bright Angel Campground and Indian Gardens. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the trail but damn is that thing steep. As we made our way down, there were plenty of amazing views, but it was definitely a relief to see the campground. All the downhill with a heavy pack takes a toll on your joints. But once we made it down to Phantom Ranch we headed to the canteen for some lemonade and cheap beer.
South Kaibab Trail
Near Ohh Ahh Point
More Canyon Views
First View of the River
Prickly Pear in Bloom
Nearing the Bridge
The Black Bridge
My Vasque Boots at the Bottom of the Grand Canyon
Launching from Boat Beach
Bright Angel Creek Downstream
Bright Angel Creek Upstream
Sunset on the Colorado
Last Light from the Silver Bridge
The next day we got up early and headed to Indian Gardens. It was a pretty warm day down in the canyon so hiking up was warm. We rolled into Indian Gardens around 11am grabbed a nap, dinner, and then headed out to Plateau Point for the sunset. If you camp at Indian Gardens, the hike to Plateau Point is a MUST.
Yellow-backed Spiny Lizard
Evening Light at Plateau Point
Soft Evening Light at Plateau Point
Sunset at Plateau Point
Canyon Tree Frog
The day after was the final hike out. We had 3K more feet to climb in about 5 miles. It was an overcast day but I still was sweating like a beast. The hike out of the canyon isn’t terrible in the spring, but I can’t imagine doing it in the summer when it’s hot outside. We made it out just in time for the bad weather to roll in, grabbed some beers, and then grilled out at our friends place before crashing early.
Leaving Indian Gardens
If you read my last blog post you might have remembered that I went to Yellowstone to visit some friends from Moab that recently moved there. Well they had planned a river trip through Cataract Canyon and had extended an invite to us. The plans were mostly in place but every once in a while we would get the news that there was a minor change and we would have to adjust accordingly. Normally that wouldn’t be an issue, but we were getting these messages as we were coming out of the backcountry and into cell service. Then we would have a short amount of time to figure out how to solve the problem with conflicting information. Specifically, we didn’t have a ride to the put in other than ourselves and we were being told that the road was in bad condition. If you have ever been to UT you know that when someone says the road is in bad condition, it most likely is not a road that you want to take a low-clearance vehicle on. So we started calling everyone (3 people) that we knew in Moab to see if they would be willing to give us a ride. It turns out that our friends from AK were willing to help us out and get us to Mineral Bottom so that we could start our trip. So I want to say a big thanks to them!
The plan for the trip was for 6 of us to float through Stillwater Canyon with two rafts and a canoe. Then we would drop the canoe at the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers and float the remainder of the trip through Cataract Canyon and take out at Hite. The trip was planned for 6 days with a single layover day so that we could hike to the Doll House in the Maze District. As excited as I was to do this trip, I was also a little nervous because I have never been in a canoe that didn’t flip. Normally that isn’t a big deal but this time I had all my camera gear with me in the canoe. I had tried multiple times to figure out a system that I would be able to take my camera out for photos but ultimately decided that it was best to just wait until we were on shore or on a raft. As we floated through the canyon we were seeing lots of new birds, great views, and the occasional archaeological site. When we made it to camp each night we were treated to some of the best food I have eaten in a long time. One of the couples we were on the river with used to guide in the area in the past. It was really a treat to be able to float down the river with such great company who knew the area so well. It was a great learning experience.
Our First Camp
The Maze's Random Petroglyph Rock
Sunset at Camp #2
Camping under the Stars in my trusty Kelty Tent
Sunrise at Camp
Once we got to the confluence and dropped the canoe we got a sweet camp spot where we would have our layover day. We woke up with a spectacular sunrise, packed up, and started our hike up the “trail” and it turned out to be the most spectacular hike I have done in Canyonlands to date. The hike was challenging, there were flowers everywhere, spectacular views of the canyon and river, and the weather was perfect, warm in the sun and cool in the shade. Once we made it up the backside of the canyon we were greeted to the view of Surprise Valley which is a Hoarst and Gräben type valley. It was a lush valley that was basically hidden from view until you walked into it. From Surprise Valley we had to hike up another route towards the Doll House. On this route we went over more spectacular terrain, through some joints, and eventually popped out in the Cedar Mesa Formation. It was like being back over in the Needles. Once we made it to the top we had a spectacular view of the entire park. From the Maze we could see Chesler Park, iSky, the La Sals, and the Abajos. We hung out at the top for an hour or so, soaked in the views, then headed back down towards camp just in time for cocktail hour. It was by far my favorite day of the trip.
Great View From the Gunny
Sunrise and Field of Primrose
Boating Down Cataract Canyon
The Colorado River and Cataract Canyon
Hiking Up the "Trail"
Surprise Valley Hikers
Enjoying the Sun's Warmth
Hiking the Doll House
Hiking Back Down into Surprise Valley
The Last Leg of the Hike coming off the "Trail"
Rapid 5 Camp
Gunny in a Field of Primrose
The following day was The Rapid Day. We geared up to get wet and rigged the boats to flip. The first few rapids we went through were only class 2/3 and I was able to keep my camera out. Then I was told that I might want to put it away because we were about to go through our first big wave. As soon as I clipped my dry bag shut the river swallowed our boat momentarily. I was caught so off guard when the wave hit that I had my mouth open from laughing and got a mouth full of dirty-ass river water. Then we had a few more smaller rapids before we got out to scout Big Drop #2 and #3. Once the boatmen had their line we jumped in the boats and went for it. HOLY SHIT! Big wave train followed by a huge rapid that smashed our boat, almost throwing our boatman out into the water. If the other two of us hadn’t high-sided and kept the boat from getting too vertical, it might have been the case. At that point I knew that we were in some big water. After we made it through the rapid I looked upstream to watch the other boat go through and it was like a mirror image of our boat. They went through the wave train and then were thrashed as they hit Big Drop #2 spinning the boat and forcing the boatman to drop the oars and highside to keep the boat from flipping. Needless to say, once we made it through we were all happy and celebrated with a bottle of champagne.
Cataract Canyon Rapids
Scouting Big Drop #2
For the rest of the trip it was a smooth float with towering canyon walls, and a nice current. Now that the lake is so low, the river is taking over again and slowing washing all of the sediment further downstream.
The last day on the river was a cold one right from the start. We woke up to a windstorm rolling through the canyon and eventually the rain rolled in as well. We shared rowing duties to keep warm in the wind and rain and pulled into Hite around 11am. Overall, it was a great trip and it made me like Canyonlands even more than I already did. I think the next trip I want to do in Canyonlands will be the White Rim Road. Any takers?
Special thanks to:
Osprey for fixing our packs so quickly
Lee & Mandy for taking us caving
Jenn for putting us up for the night
Edna for putting us up in GUMO
Susan for the inside tips in Santa Fe
Addie for putting us up in Grand Canyon
Rick and Christy for the advice and BBQ
Janet for letting us borrow some river gear and putting us up
Clare and Ken for the ride to Mineral Bottom
Glenn for watching our car
And Neal, Jen, John, and Suzette for the awesome river trip
And Corrie for being a faithful travel companion.
It’s gonna be hard to beat this last trip, but rest assured I will certainly try. I move to Rocky Mountain this Weekend and will be there until September. If you are in the area be sure to hit me up! I hope you are all doing well! Happy Travels!