Winter Tour: National Parks of Utah

*This post was written in one hour for the first #NatureWritingChallenge.

The most memorable travel moments I have tend to revolve around National Parks.  Winter in Utah’s National Parks is something I will never forget.  It was March of 2010 and my best bud and I were on our last leg of a ten day trip encompassing Death Valley, Arches, (what’s now) Bears Ears, Bryce Canyon, and Zion with Las Vegas as our home base.  We had just left Arches, found our hotel in Monticello, Utah for the night, and the snow started to blanket the ground.  We woke up, another foot of snow had fallen overnight, and our original plans of going to the Grand Canyon were looking dim due to closed roads and more snow for the south rim so we opted for a more clear route to Bryce Canyon.  The route to Bryce was paved with over a foot of snow and we apparently drove through one of the most dangerous roads in Utah which is now encompassed in Bears Ears on Utah 261 called the Moki Dugway.  At the time, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into as we didn’t really have smartphones or much information for the trip.

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It took all day to get to Bryce Canyon, but we arrived and checked in to the Bryce Canyon Lodge.  It was night, but we wanted to drive to the parts of the park that were open to do some stargazing.  The crisp snow and clear sky is something I’ll never forget.  We drove out to the parking lot at Inspiration Point and let our eyes adjust to the pure darkness of the park.  After some stargazing in one of the darkest skies in the country, we went back to the hotel to enjoy some time in the hot tub.  It was freezing, snow was blowing and drifting, but the hot tub was open and it was one of the most amazing feelings in the world.  We had a few drinks, watched the snow blow across the iced-over pool, and planned our attack for the next day.  After a good sleep, we went back to Inspiration Point and walked through the deep snow along the edge to Upper Inspiration Point.  This was our first time seeing Bryce Canyon in person and seeing the hoodoos covered in snow was magical.  When you look out and over the edge and see a vast valley of hoodoos with snowdrifts in between, you just lose yourself for a minute or two.  We got back to the rental car and drove up to Bryce Point to get another view of bright pinkish orange hoodoos poking through fresh snow.

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We didn’t spend a lot of time at Bryce Canyon, but it was one of the most memorable trips of my life to a National Park.  We had been to Death Valley and Arches earlier in the week and experienced new views and hikes at each of them, but nothing like snow covered hoodoos.  Our next stop was Zion which also had fresh snow and the hike there on the Emerald Pools Trail was nothing less than beautiful.  We hiked to Emerald Pools and the Upper Emerald Pool.  The waterfalls were unlike anything we’d seen, and the Upper Emerald Pool had fresh snow to add to the scenic beauty.  I had been camping on BLM land in the winter the year prior, and been to various national forest land in the winter but nothing compared to the beauty of Utah’s National parks with a blanket of snow.

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A quest to see the sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park

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The trip happened in late August, but the idea started months before.  The year 2017 started with a new challenge – hike every week for the entire year.  The hiking started locally in Dallas, Texas near home base and would branch out occasionally as variety was needed.  Some would call it a travel bug, others just an itch for adventure, either way a bigger, more spectacular trip was needed to satiate the outdoor cravings.  The search for flights began and included many great destinations such as Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and others cities near scenic public lands with great hiking.  The search for the perfect flight continued over the span of a few weeks and the destinations were whittled away as prices increased, departures didn’t work, or arrivals were too late.  Vacation days were thin, sick days needed to be saved just in case, and work was about to ramp up to the busy season anyway so the flight and timing had to be just right.  One day, it clicked and a flight to Salt Lake City was perfectly timed with an arrival on Friday night and a departure late on Sunday for a reasonable price from Dallas.  The flight was not purchased, but was tracked and discussed for another few weeks.  The price increased and it seemed hope for an adventure would be lost.  The disappointment was accepted and the promise of other, future trips was made internally as the tracking of the flight prices was canceled.  Fast forward about two weeks, the urge to adventure still burning, prices were checked again.  With much surprise, and delight, it was discovered that the price was back to what it was on the very first search.  Second guesses weren’t allowed, the flight was booked and it was written in permanent marker on the calendar in the office.  News was shared with a dear friend, and it was decided the spontaneity of this trip was to their liking and they also booked a flight from their airport to meet up for the ambitious weekend adventure.

Trip planning commenced, and there were 100 things to fit in to less than 48 full hours in Utah.  Having visited Utah in the past, there were things that were only enjoyed briefly that deserved a revisit.  Arches, an obvious attraction, had been thoroughly investigated so it was off the list.  Zion would be a bit too far south, as would Bears Ears for this trip.  So, a route was planned from Salt Lake City through Capitol Reef National Park to Devil’s Backbone and back out to Bryce Canyon National Park for the Saturday portion.  It was a lot of miles to cover in one day and proved to be a real challenge to visit everything.  The main objective of the trip was obviously to hike, with a side aspiration to see the sunset over Bryce Canyon and sunrise at Cedar Breaks.  Hiking in Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Cedar Breaks was determined to be the most important with any other hikes being a welcomed addition.  A short hike in Capitol Reef in the morning sun led to driving miles with scenic views of storms on the horizon to the arrival at Bryce Canyon in the late afternoon.  The road to Rainbow Point, the end of the park, was longer than anticipated with many necessary stops to admire the views.  Once to the point, a hike on the Bristlecone Loop was taken while the sun was still pretty high in the sky.  Making the drive back to the entrance, the plan was to hike at Inspiration Point for the sunset.  Stops at a few small loops such as Natural Bridge and Piracy Point along the way allowed the sun to sink down a bit more and the views to be taken in a bit longer.  The arrival at Bryce Point prompted a race to the edge to peer out at the darkening hoodoos, as the sun was suddenly almost gone.  A quick drive to Inspiration point led to a view of the cherry red sunset in the distant clouds as it faded away.  The mission was complete, the sunset was viewed in Bryce Canyon National Park and it added more magic to the hoodoo views than could have been expected.

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This post was written in one hour for the first #NatureWritingChallenge.

Friends for 26ish years.

My memory is always a little rusty… This is my general remembrance of times gone by.  I don’t know why I started thinking about all of this today, but it put a smile on my face anyway.

When I was a kid my best friend and I would walk around and plan our lives together.  I wanted to be an architect and she wanted to work with animals.  We would live together, have lots of land, and everything would be awesome.  We didn’t even think to complicate things with love, sex, or money – we may have been too young to fully grasp all of that or just didn’t care enough to factor it in.  The purity of a childhood fantasy is something I miss so dearly.  I had a computer program (before they were called apps) that I could design floor plans with and I created our sprawling home and work space.  I used JCPenney and Spiegel magazines to pick out decor and furnishings and we often discussed places to build this dream.  We would walk or ride our bikes down the road from my house, and we found this giant valley that would suit us just fine.  The valley had a pasture, a field for a garden, a forest, and a long driveway.  The spot couldn’t be seen from the road and would provide ample privacy from neighbors.  I worked through several plans for the house, consulting my best friend as often as possible (this was before internet and cell phones) and I even designed a separate building for office/work space.  Man, we were creative and ambitious back then.  I believe, but can’t be 100%, that we sneakily rode our bikes down there to get a better look one day which really cemented everything in place.

The year before my best friend moved, we came up with this wild idea to own a theme park/zoo type thing.  It would be called “The Wild” and we found an island in Hawaii, on Encarta Encyclopedia, to build on just off the mainland.  We designed hotels right down to the font on the sign, styles/themes, and prices.  We designed the wide open spaces and I think we even made it part of our art class project.  It was a crazy idea, but one we loved to work on – an escape perhaps?  I know we wanted animals, but I can’t recall if we wanted a giant free for all type of place with regions or if we wanted a zoo-like setting.  Either way, it was a big idea that two middle school kids dreamed up.  We made brochures, signs, informative sheets, and so much more.  What fun that was…

I can remember back to the beginning of my friendship with Kara, but I can’t remember everything exactly that first year.  Over the earlier years, I know we both wanted to live in Arizona at one point, used to be obsessed with Australia, and we always had affection for Disney movies.  We found our parents pot while ice fishing, and knew what it was because of DARE class, we filmed movies with no camera or script out at her grandparent’s beach house, and we had imaginations that made our less than perfect lives much better for a few minutes every time we hung out.  Over the years, our families were friends and thus we were able to spend a lot of time together.  I saw my first movie in theaters with them and had my first Taco Bell with them – both were big deals because those didn’t exist in our tiny town and her mom took us to the next big town.  Kara and I bowled together forever on the youth league and would get hyped up on Josta and Surge soda pop and annoy the hell out of the adults.  Our friendship was never 100% peaceful – we were both a little stubborn and we weren’t immune to fighting – but we made up.

When she moved, we didn’t really keep in too close of contact through Jr-Sr high school, but once college hit communication started flowing a lot more.  Eventually we’d talk on the phone forever, have random visits and hang outs, and instant messaging.  Our favorite thing to do though, I must speak for both of us on this, was visiting Aunt Mary in Cleveland.  We would get in the car, listen to stupid music, make signs to flash at other cars, and drive through the night to get to Ohio.  We’d get our favorite smoothies, visit toy stores and other niche stores, and enjoy a weekend with someone who is one of the most genuine people I know to this day.

These days, we don’t see much of each other, but we’re in touch at least weekly.  Looking back on these moments and analyzing our time together has really made me realize she is the only person that may know almost everything about me.  Thinking back to our big ideas and wild spirits, I’m sort of mildly invigorated.  I know that old me is still in there, under the bills, jobs, adult responsibilities, and general bullshit of life.  Here’s to hoping we can all find a little spark within to keep fighting the big fight.

 

Bonus, I just remembered we were the junior bridesmaid and groomsman at my aunt’s totally 90s wedding in 1995.  Big poofy pink dresses/tuxes with cumber buns, white limos, and we had to leave the reception by 8pm to a babysitter named Rachel? I don’t even remember.

Seeing can mean believing.

**Seeing can mean believing… more of my opinions on inclusiveness in the parks.**

I know some people who have gone to National Parks.  They have seen the majestic beauty, right along side me, and have proclaimed how beautiful it was aloud.  These same friends, they don’t really go to National Parks that often or at all anymore which is okay.  These people saw the beauty, believe in the beauty, and will remember the beauty of these wonderful places forever.  THIS IS IMPORTANT.

A National Park may not be their family vacation destination every time, but they may return someday.  These people understand the importance, value, and impact these places have on the general population.  They get it – because they’ve been there.  Because these people have been there, they get why it’s important to protect and fund these places.  These people then connect National Parks and the preservation ideals to other natural areas that need preservation.  It can build.

Visiting a National Park, once or twice, has left an impression on these people.  Will they return? Maybe.  Will they remember the good times there and what those parks stand for? Definitely.  It just takes one time, even if nature isn’t their thing, for someone to fall in love with the idea of National Parks, Monuments, Forests, etc.

Plant the seed and see what grows.  We need to continue to get people of all areas of life/status/etc to these place to see for themselves – maybe only once.  Maybe it isn’t their thing, but maybe it is.  Even if it isn’t their thing, they’ll remember the trip and could see how important these places are for our country.

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Vivid Memories.

It’s amazing to me that I can remember so much from such a brief visit to a National Park.  I was thinking back to my first trip to Death Valley National Park today and I can remember it all like we drove through yesterday.  I remember the Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater Basin, and Stovepipe Wells.  I remember hugging my first redwood just days prior up in Redwood National Park.  A year later, I was camping in Arches National Park after an edge-of-your-seat drive through a blizzard in the Rockies on the way there.  I remember the trails we hiked to go see the various arches and landscape views as well as the campsite and the view from the tent.  I remember it being something like 11 degrees and very windy with some icy spots on the trails – and a funny sign warning of falling on ice.  I remember the BLM land on the Loneliest Road in America – US 50 – and the campsite there with snow.  We pitched the tent, dug a trench to divert any melting snow, and made a fire.  That night, the sky was so clear and full of stars.  You could see US 50 for miles, and in that one night I only remember seeing two cars in the distance.

I remember something from each visit to Redwood National Park and I remember our brief drive through Olympic National Park.  I remember the moss growing on the old wood – making everything pop with green.  I can’t recall a more worthwhile hike than the one Delicate Arch, despite not really knowing much about where we were going.  I can still picture Bryce Canyon, covered in snow, from Inspiration Point.  The hoodoos poking through massive snow drifts below is a sight forever burned into my brain.  Snow melting, muddy trails, and the spray of waterfalls in Zion in the early spring only make me want to return.

I could go on, and on, about things I remember without even a picture to trigger it.  I have so many memories from trips to National Parks.  I’ve experienced visits as brief as a drive through with stops at scenic lookouts to camping overnight.  The experience doesn’t matter, as long as it happens.  If we get people that may not be able to or people that don’t really know too much about the parks to the parks, they may have these little memories to hold on to and may be more inclined to help preserve them.  If people can develop memories or find meaning in these places, they may be more willing to join the fight to fund, protect, and expand them.  We must continue to fight to get EVERYONE out to the parks.  We must continue to fight the current administration and their desire to shrink, drill in, and/or eliminate these places.  Together, through collective thoughts and actions we can make these parks accessible to all people and create new ones for the future while securing proper funding.  I believe it is possible, do you?

I fell in love with public lands in 2009.

**Disclaimer: This is a blog entry I’ve put together describing how I fell in love with our public lands and where I think we need to go with them.  I don’t claim to be an expert and this blog entry is strictly my opinion.  My ideas are my own and are subject to change with conversations, education, and experience.  Thank you.**

Late Bloomer.

If we go back to my first National Park, it would be Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore or Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  I am almost sure I went to both as a teenager, with my grandparents, because my parents never took us anywhere out of the county – because of work, money, and time.  I grew up far away from the beauty that was Rainier, Yosemite, Yellowstone, or Rocky Mountain.  I knew not of these places until high school, but really not until college and beyond.  I’ve always had nature, just not public nature.  We had a couple hundred acres to roam, ample state land in Michigan, and plenty of friends with land.  I never really grasped the concept of National Parks, designated wilderness, or the like until college.  I took a course in wildlife management, learned a lot, and within the next few years visited some national parks.  I had student loan money, so I was invincible.  Not really, but it paid the tuition/rent and I had a few bucks left over for a spring break road trip.  I don’t advise on having a few bucks left over – borrow only what is necessary.  I do, however, advise saving hard-earned money for a spring break road trip that isn’t to some beach somewhere.  Traditional spring breaks did not appeal to me – but a road trip with my buds to places people weren’t going sounded amazing.

In 2007, my two friends and I, set out on that spring break road trip driving from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Denver and through the Rockies and beyond.  We went right past Rocky Mountain National Park and visited a friend in Grand Junction, Colorado.  We drove down through Utah, right past the Arches and Canyonlands, and onward to Texas.  We drove past EVERYTHING because we didn’t know much about it and one of us wasn’t into the outdoors.  The next year, my outdoor friend and I insisted on a better, more thoughtful trip that included national parks.  We went from Grand Rapids to Seattle, down to Redwoods NP, and onward to Death Valley.  We saw two parks the entire trip – which was better than nothing for us;  we had to compromise for time and interest of the parties involved.  I mean, forget that we drove right by Badlands, North Cascades, Olympic, Crater Lake, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Petrified Forest.  If 2017 me went back to 2008, I’d punch myself in the face for being so dumb.  Anyway…

In 2009, my buddy and I drove out to Arches and camped – determined to see more of our public lands this year.  We traveled onward to some BLM land in Nevada and then over to the Redwoods.  Up the coast, we went to the Olympic Peninsula – which was pure magic.  Saw more, stopped more, spent more time on public lands – really understanding what they were now and what they meant to me.  This trip was the one that really cemented how important these places were.  When 2010 came around, and we were half in college, half not sure what life was all about, half employed, we naturally decided to go to Vegas in the spring.  Sin City was exciting, but I feel the real excitement was about the road trip to various national parks.  We hiked in Death Valley, saw the sights from high to low, and I saw how big that place really was.  From there, we went to Capitol Reef, Arches, and Zion before flying back to Michigan.  If 2009 cemented it, 2010 sealed that cement.  I was in love with our national parks.

In 2011, after moving to Texas I met a new friend and we went to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in October.  It is hard to put into words how I felt about the views, the yellow leaves, and the crisp air.  In love?  Probably.  2012 brought a revival of the random road trip with my outdoor buddy (since he moved to Texas) and we ended up in Tucson at Saguaro NP.  2013 Included Carlsbad Caverns, Arches again, and the Grand Canyon South Rim.  In 2014, we went to Big Bend in January and Rocky Mountain NP in August.  In 2015, my other half and I took our friend on a road trip to Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, and Zion.  Later in 2015, we went to the Arch in St. Louis.  In 2016 I made my return to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with visits to Redwoods, Oregon Caves, Point Reyes, and Golden Gate.  This year, we’ve visited Kenai Fjords, Redwoods again, and Sequoia/Kings Canyon.  It’s true love.

In the past few years, I’ve spent more time exploring public lands than I had my whole entire previous existence.  I’ve hiked in national forests, visited the parks mentioned above, and have plans for so visiting so many more public lands.  I was lucky to find the parks in 2008 and luckier now because I can afford to visit more frequently.  The more I visit, the more I love these places and value their existence.  The more I visit, the more I want to fight to keep them public.  The more I visit, the more I see that they may be all of ours, but they’re really not available to everyone.  The more I visit, the more I want to use my privilege to open these parks to those who have never visited or can’t visit due to distance, cost, or any combination of reasons.  I can’t imagine the level of passion and devotion I’d have if I’d been visiting these parks since I was a kid.  It is absolutely VITAL that youth of all backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, and age groups be exposed to (and educated about) these places.  Maybe these lands are not for everyone, but maybe a few of them will grow up to protect, love, and fight for them.  We need to work to include everyone in the outdoor world.  We need to diversify the DOI and hire people from all walks of life.  We need to designate more parks/monuments/etc in more places representing the spectrum of Americans that exist.

I’m not sure quite how to accomplish the tasks at hand, but I’ve decided a vital step is to find a way to get more people involved and interested in our public lands.  I need to immerse myself in projects, organizations, and maybe even a career shift to building a diverse following for our public lands.  It may be a new love, but it’s a true love.  I feel as though I’ve finally found my place in this fight to make sure our public lands are open to all and I’m determined to make a difference.

You can always find somewhere to hike.

Earlier this week, one of my favorite people that I’ve never met based solely on photos and brief interactions, posted a lovely photo and some words on Twitter basically saying that despite not being able to get to the mountains due to life being busy at times, he was thankful to have local trails and preserves to enjoy between mountain visits.  And damn, if that doesn’t speak to my life goal, I don’t know what does.  Never stop exploring, appreciate what is around you, make the best of every situation, and learn to love where you live.

Where I live in Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth metro area) isn’t the prettiest, to me, in terms of natural landscapes but it does have a few redeeming qualities.  First, I’m thankful for local parks in the DFW metro area – they serve the purpose of partially escaping and disconnecting.  Second, I’m fortunate enough to have several worthwhile places that are within a few hours of the metro area by car – within Texas, up to Oklahoma, and up and over to Arkansas.  Third, If I’m feeling adventurous, I am lucky to have an array of majestic places within 12 hours by car that include mountains, forests, desert landscapes, and flowing water.  DFW is a hub for American, which gets me across this great nation at a reasonable rate with many nonstop options.  Dallas is a hub for Southwest, which includes two checked bags for gear, and they’re always offering reasonable rates to many of my favorite destinations.  I feel lucky.  While Texas isn’t my favorite place (and hopefully not my final destination), I am going to continue to embrace the positive aspects and make the most of it while I’m here.

My journey on 52 Hikes With Mike has been about embracing where I live and taking as much of it in as I can.  By participating in the hiking challenge, I managed to branch out and actually learn about the outdoor culture in my area and beyond.  It has awakened a part of me that went dormant years ago and connected me with many like-minded people in just the nine short months so far.  Here’s to many more miles and seeing more trees than people!