On Thursday, we hooked up the trailer and headed off to Green River State Park, a 90-minute drive from home. We had five nights reserved at our favorite campsite with water and electric hookups. Our objective was to hike a couple of canyons on a Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) trip, then spend a couple of days exploring on our own.
Our original plan was to continue from Green River to Joshua Tree National Park and then on to Death Valley for a couple of weeks. Damage caused by Hurricane Hillary nixed those plans. Instead of a month on the road, we would have just five nights away, which was fine.
Dianne was having knee issues and could barely walk, so there wouldn’t be much hiking for her to do anyway. At Green River she could stay at camp and enjoy the day without needing to supervise her husband.
Friday morning, five of us from the CMC set off to hike Ding and Dang Canyons in the San Rafael Swell for a day of Type II Fun – difficult at the time but feels rewarding afterward. The BLM made sure we knew what we were getting ourselves into.
Our adventure began with a short, mile-long hike up a dry wash to the junction of the two neighboring defiles. We took the right fork to begin our walk up Ding Canyon.
Walls rose and we were soon passing through a narrow slot in the cliffs with the occasional obstacle to overcome. Let the fun begin.
It didn’t take long for us to find our first water hazard – a 50-foot-long, calf-deep strip of cold, muddy water.
Off came the hiking boots and on went the wet walking wear. For me, it was an old pair of tennie-runners, which I wore sans socks.
The route got more interesting as we progressed upward with boulder chockstones blocking the canyon…
…and more water hazards to negotiate.
About three miles from the start, the canyon opened, and we exited into a broad valley. There we got our first sighting of Ding Dang Dome, which we all agreed looked nothing like a “dome.” Whoever named it obviously opted for alliteration over accuracy.
From Ding Dang Dome, we turned down a shallow wash and soon entered Dang Canyon, the more technical of the two abysses.
In numerous spots, we had to use ropes to descend one drop…
There were deeper pools of cold, muddy water that, depending on one’s height, was crotch to waist deep.
Finally, the canyon opened, sunlight bounced off the rocks and I could finally get out of my tennies and put my hiking boots (and socks) back on.
That night, we headed to Ray’s Tavern for burgers and beer.
After a day like this, that glass of Wasatch Amber tasted swell.
Not to be confused with Little Wildhorse, which we hiked last spring, just plain old Wildhorse is a broad canyon with only a small section of narrows. It’s easy walking with no chockstones to climb nor descend and nary a drop of water to wade. It was a perfect follow up to Ding and Dang. This will be Type I fun.
A dozen of us started down the canyon from the trailhead, which also served as a campground for friendly ATV and dirt bikers. It was easy going with a dash of fall color to admire.
We passed the first…
…and second of the two arches/bridges and stopped for photographs.
A bit farther down the canyon, one of our eagle-eyed fellow hikers spotted some Fremont Indian pictographs high on the cliffs.
After passing through a shallow set of narrows, we stopped for lunch beneath a cottonwood tree, then retraced our steps, four miles back to our vehicles.
On the way back to Green River, Paul, our driver first stopped so we could check out the Temple Mountain Wash pictographs…
…and then took us on a short a detour off the interstate to see the Black Dragon pictographs.
Our Colorado Mountain Club friends departed on Sunday, but we had booked a pair of additional nights at Green River State Park, so we got to stay and enjoy two extra days of beautiful Utah weather without a fixed agenda.
Our first day was spent just enjoying the town. We drove out to where Dianne’s ancestors once owned a ranch at the base of Gunnison Butte.
Back in town, we learned about the Green River Lunch Site where Athena missiles like this were fired toward New Mexico.
At camp, we watched this little guy excavating a tunnel beneath the campground lawn.
On Monday, we topped up the truck’s tank and went for a drive out on backcountry roads, on which we had originally planned to take the Subaru.
Normally I’d be willing to disclose our route, but we encountered fewer than a half-dozen other vehicles out in this vast, empty landscape. We want to keep it that way.
Of course, those of you familiar with the area may recognize this cabin, which we drove near the start of our adventure.
The first part of our journey took us across some open, grassy lands, home to herds of wild horses.
The scenery changed a few miles later.
We passed several previously owned vehicles, this one perforated with more bullet holes than Bonnie & Clyde’s ’34 Ford.
This is not a road. Notice the windsock? This is actually an airfield runway near an old uranium mine site.
It’s still in use today, we’ve been told. Instead of the TSA, I suspect flights into here are more likely to be greeted by the DEA.
Backtracking, we came to a fork in the road and took it. We soon encountered a golden touch of autumn color…
…with a lofty, natural arch for a backdrop.
We passed the rusty remains of an old uranium mine…
…and plenty of towering natural splendor to admire and photograph.
With Dianne unable to hike, our backcountry drive proved to be a swell way to spend our last full day in the San Rafael Swell.
On our January trip to Zion in 2022, we passed a collection of railcars parked along the Sevier River not far from Richfield, Utah.
Called Caboose Village, it’s part of the Big Rock Candy Mountain Resort complex that also includes motel rooms, a restaurant, convenience store, cabins and a gas station. It looked intriguing, so this year, we and longtime friends from Gridlock City booked a pair of cabooses for a three-night getaway.
We loaded bikes onto the back of Obie and headed off to Utah, with a lunch stop at Ray’s Tavern in Green River.
After burgers and a beer, we continued on to Caboose Village. Our unit, the Northern Pacific, featured walls finished in rustic, beetle-kill pine. There was a bathroom with shower, satellite TV, a microwave for popping popcorn and a small refrigerator for chilling the beer.
Outside was a massive deck overlooking the Sevier River with picnic tables, grills and firepits in the lawn below.
A paved, rails-to-trails bike path from Caboose Village leads downstream along the river and into Richfield. Our plan was to bike one day and hike the second. The rain gods (and hurricane Hillary) had other plans for us, however.
Instead of pedaling in a downpour, we drove south to Marysvale for breakfast, then backtracked up to Fremont Indian State Park where during a dry spell, we walked their paved nature trail past walls of Fremont rock art.
That night we dined on delicious $30 filet mignon steaks at the Big Rock Candy Restaurant, which we downed with an excellent, $45 bottle of 19 Crimes Australian wine.
The next morning dawned clear. We unloaded our bikes and pedaled ten miles into the small farm town of Joseph where we devoured cooked-to-order breakfast sandwiches and burritos at a gas station-convenience store.
The rain returned on our departure day, so we were once again treated to stormy skies and wet pavement as we motored the interstate back to Colorado.
Our springtime trip to Utah’s canyon country began Saturday with a two-night stay at James M. Robb Colorado River State Park Fruita Section where we dewinterized the trailer and sanitized the freshwater tank. These are jobs that I would have been done at home when we lived back in Gridlock City. Can’t do that at our Village in Fruita.
After taking care of a few errands on Monday morning, we hooked up the trailer and drove across the street to the Strayhorn Grill for lunch. Then it was off on our 90-mile journey to Green River State Park in Green River, Utah. There we had an excellent site with an excellent view of water line construction workers digging holes with their excavators.
Tuesday, we headed off for the San Rafael Swell. Our first objective was the Black Dragon Pictographs – rock art panels painted centuries ago by the Fremont Indians.
The guidebook said it required a hike of somewhere between one-half and seven miles to reach. That might be true if we were driving the family Buick. In Tighty, our 4×4 Nissan truck, we drove right up to them.
Our next targets were the Head of Sinbad pictographs and an old log cabin built by the Swasey boys. The route to the Head of Sinbad (which is named for a geologic formation, not the content of the artwork) took us up a sandy track across the flats. No problem for the Titan, but that family Buick would never make it up here and still have a muffler attached.
Several side-tracks intersected our track and we didn’t know which to take. We finally stopped and hiked up the road a half-mile or so in search of the artwork. We found incredibly beautiful geology and Dutchman Arch, but no pictographs.
Giving up, we turned back and headed up the well-signed route to Swasey’s Cabin.
It was there that I had a Eureka moment. I pulled out my phone and surprisingly found here in the wilderness, I had one bar of precious Verizon coverage. I checked my Gaia app, found the location for the Sinbad pictographs, plotted out a route and we were on our way.
Keeping with the rock art theme, Wednesday would be a driving day through Nine Mile Canyon, which offers numerous rock art sites, mostly petroglyphs, scattered along its length. The route begins near Price, about an hour’s drive northwest of Green River.
We had a hand-out map of the canyon, which had a few rock art sites marked. Nine Mile Ranch, site of the only campground in the canyon, displayed a sign saying they had canyon guidebooks and maps available. We stopped to check it out.
The elderly owner handed us one, admitting that at $30, it was “kinda expensive.” The one inch-thick, spiral-bound book had descriptions, photos, GPS coordinates interspersed with pages of local history. We bought it.
We didn’t need the guide to get us to the first site, and had no trouble finding it since there was a roadside sign with an arrow pointing to “First Site.” We walked around, shooting photos of the rock-pecked artwork.
Using the guide we had purchased, we found numerous unsigned rock art locations along with the big ones that had roadside arrows. Moving from site to site, we shot a few million megapixels of images of this ancient art, the meaning of which can only be guessed.
Of course, this image clearly was a Fremont Indian ad for a prehistoric Hooters.
There were also old ranches and buildings to explore along the way.
Most of the Nine Mile Canyon art was petroglyphic. One notable exception was a deer painted on the back wall of an alcove known as Rasmussen Cave. The site is on private land and when the owner got fed up with people entering his property, he supposedly hired some Boy Scouts to paint a “No Trespassing” warning on the back wall of the alcove. Their spelling was about as poor as the Scouts’ choice of location.
Fortunately, the Boy Scouts never got to the Great Hunt petroglyph panel farther up the canyon. This was perhaps the highlight of the canyon gallery.
On Thursday, we made the long 52-mile journey to Goblin Valley State Park where we were treated to an afternoon breeze that rocked the trailer and slid our solar panels around. It was a night for dining indoors.
Under calm conditions on Friday, we loaded our packs and set off to hike the eight-mile loop up Little Wild Horse Canyon and down Bell Canyon. This is a popular slot canyon hike with souvenir t-shirts available for purchase at the Goblin State Park Visitor Center.
I expected flat, easy hiking the whole way, which most of it was. There were, however, a few obstacles to crawl over or under. A couple required that we take off our packs.
We have hiking friends back in Fruita, transplants from the Midwest, who had never been to Utah before. On their first trip into 3.2 country, we drove them down along the Colorado River towards Moab. While they marveled at the beauty of the canyon walls, we assured them that while attractive, this was not the beautiful part of Utah. For me, the hike up Little Wild Horse and down Bell exposed a far more attractive, intimate piece of Utah.
We went from sandy wash bottoms to deep slots so narrow one could touch both sides simultaneously in places, sometimes with just elbows extended.
Canyon walls made faces at us with layers of swirling color and patterns.
In the wider spots, we could look up at cliffs, dolloped with greenery and radiating nuggets of golden rock against a sapphire sky.
We met dozens of youngsters (anyone under age 50 is a “youngster”) along the way. The only AARP-aged citizens we encountered were a pair of not yet retired, old coots who went part way up before turning back. As far as we know, we became the only geezers doing the complete eight-mile loop that day.
Back at camp, we downed brews while sitting trailer-side in the late afternoon sun. Yesterday’s wind was gone, replaced by just a gentle, cooling breeze. We watched the setting sun paint the buttes out to the east. For other folks, this place would be a vacation destination.
For us, canyons like these lie just a 2½-hour drive from home.
On Sunday, we finally made a hike I’ve long wanted to do. We would hike up Barrier Creek in Horseshoe Canyon to the Great Gallery, which displays some of the finest rock art to be found.
Horseshoe Canyon occupies its own, detached section of Canyonlands National Park, and getting to the trailhead requires driving 30.6 miles on a graded road of moderate quality. We got up before the sun, made coffee/tea, downed cereal and took off. After an hour of bouncing down the dirt, we arrived at the trailhead, just minutes after Ranger Bryce of the National Park Service, who was there to give a free tour.
Along with the young ranger and one other couple, we took off down the trail toward the canyon bottom. Ranger Bryce explained that the road had been constructed in the ‘20s to access an oil well. The well never produced, so the oil company departed, and a local rancher started maintaining the road into the ‘50s. Today, the abandoned route makes a nice hiking path.
It’s a 1½ mile hike, mostly on slickrock, from the rim to canyon bottom. Along the way, we passed a dinosaur footprint, learned a bit about the geology of the area and examined old photos of the road that Ranger Bryce brought along.
Shortly after reaching the canyon floor, we encountered our first panel of pictographs. They were painted high on a sandstone wall, so the Park Service imaginatively named this the High Gallery. Ranger Bryce said that experts believe the prehistoric painters must have used scaffolding to reach this lofty canvas.
Next stop a short distance away was the Horseshoe Shelter Gallery.
The figures with their trapezoid bodies are examples of the Barrier Canyon style, named for Horseshoe Canyon’s original name. Range Bryce explains that nobody knows their meaning, and their age, whether measured in centuries or millennia, is open for debate.
While beautiful, the 2½-mile hike along the canyon floor was mostly a slog through loose sand. Fortunately, Barrier Creek flowed in places, and the damp ground beside the stream provided welcome sections of hard-packed ground. Then it was back to the sand.
About half-way up the canyon, we came to the Alcove Site, which surprisingly featured pictographs painted in an alcove.
After more slogging up the canyon, we finally reached the grand prize – the Great Gallery. It featured a long wall of pictographs, some of which Ranger Bryce said were over eight feet high. (Chains keep visitors away from the base of the pictographs, so we couldn’t measure the eight ourselves.)
We sat on rocks in the shade of a cottonwood along with a few other hikers who preceded us to the site, pondering what message those early inhabitants were trying to convey. Ranger Bryce does not believe that it was a depiction of a visit by extraterrestrial aliens, but he’s never been to Roswell.
Ranger Bryce needed to depart early to attend to paperwork before he set out on a three-day patrol of Canyonland’s Maze District. We stayed. When another hiker with a big camera appeared, we departed for the hot, sandy slog back to Tighty.
Finally approaching the trailhead, feeling sunbeaten and fatigued, my only regret was that I hadn’t had the foresight to stash a cooler of cold brews in the truck.
“This country is geology by day and astronomy by night,” observed English writer, J.B. Priestley.
While he may have been talking about the Arizona desert, it’s a perfect description of Goblin Valley and the rest of Utah’s canyon country.
Dianne and I have been to Goblin Valley several times in the past, so on this trip, we felt no rush to leave our campsite and go out to look at the hoodoos.
It wasn’t until Monday afternoon, the anniversary of my wife’s 29th birthday, that we hiked up the Entrada Trail from the campground to the valley of the goblins.
As we’ve done on previous occasions, we walked around the valley floor, examining the formations and using our imagination to suggest what they looked like.
On previous trips out here, I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night, driven out to the tourist parking lot and wandered down on the valley floor to photograph the goblins silhouetted against the Milky Way.
But not on this trip. Tonight, under a hazy, moonlit sky, we celebrated my wife’s birthday with grilled New York steaks and a stellar bottle of 2016 Plum Creek Cabernet Franc.