Welcome to Innsbruck

The deliberations and discussions went on for weeks back home last holiday season. With our National Geographic Adventure map and Eurail map sprawled out on the kitchen table for nights on end we got to decide where this trip was going to take us. With the tickets purchased to Zurich, that began to narrow things down a bit. Do we go north to Bavaria? South to the Italian Alps? I believe France was mentioned. Maybe east to Austria? We ultimately decided on Innsbruck, Austria for the next 3 days of our trip.

Olde Towne, Innsbruck
Our trip from Konstanz to Innsbruck would take us back thru Zurich. We arrived in Innsbruck on a cool, damp winter evening. Any stereotypes of of getting off the train in a quaint little town with the Alps hovering above were erased immediately. Upon exiting the station we only had the map in our heads to lead us to the Olde Towne where we would be staying. I was a bit surprised by all the rush hour traffic. Commuters, students, buses, and taxis all lined up outside the station. We quickly had to get out bearings, so we wouldn’t look like tourists.

Like the experienced travelers we were we found the Brixner Strabe took it to Marie Theresa Strabe right into the Olde Towne. The idea of getting off a train in the middle of the night (it was like 7:00pm) in a new place and having pretty much no idea where to go was exhilarating. Yes it was Austria. Not Mongolia or Moroccan. But still, it was new. It was foreign. It was exotic. We were on our own in Europe. Only the maps and tour books in our bags, that we dare not expose on the streets. Those were reserved for the privacy of the room or maybe on the train when no one was looking.

We had booked a room for four nights at the Hotel Weisses Kreuss in the heart of Olde Towne in Innsbruck. Opened in 1465, yes 1465, it once lodged a young Mozart. This rustic, quaint, quiet, affordable, well-located hotel was a highlight of our time in Austria. The atmosphere and ambience of the place was enough to almost want you to stay there. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful. The room was basic, as expected, but clean and very comfortable. A hardy breakfast buffet greeted us every morning. Breakfast was an event all to itself. Guests had the option to eat in different themed rooms. We stuck with the Mozart dining hall, because it offered the best views of the Nord Kette, which overlooks the Olde Towne. 

View of the Nord Kette and the Golden Roof, Innsbruck
The Olde Towne as we would eventually figure out is very compact. But with its labyrinth-like maze of streets, it seemed much larger. It didn’t take long for us to get turned around (not lost) in the back cobblestone alley ways. The streets we very charming and entrancing. One could wander for hours, getting lost. Taking in the feel of the town. It’s an intangible thing that can’t be put into words. It cannot be described. Perhaps not even seen.

Wandering the back street of Olde Towne, Innsbruck
Once we had checked into the hotel, we immediately left to begin exploring and find some dinner. We immediately found ourselves down this back alley, lined with lanterns to lead our way. This was going to be an amazing city! Over the next few days we would aimlessly wander the city. Touring museums and church’s. We would take the gondola to the top of the Nord Kette. Traverse the city to the Olympic ski jump. And take the short train ride to southern Bavaria in Germany. We would treat ourselves to some local delicacies and decadent treats. Drink way too much coffee, discover the Caffe Latte, and drink beer with almost every meal. Welcome to Innsbruck!

Konstanz, Germany

So we had obtained our plane tickets to Zurich, one of the most expensive cities in the world, for under $500, from Orlando, which is about eight hours from home. I’m still a big supporter of this. Even after the drive, gas, parking, and extra hotel the savings from flying from our local airport was well over a thousand dollars. But now we were flying to Switzerland, where a hotel after an evening arrival was looking to be in excess of $300! No way! We had to get out of Switzerland that night in order continue the savings. We had landed around 8:00pm and didn’t want to travel that far. Our research had taken us about an hour north of the Zurich airport to the border town of Konstanz, Germany. Immediately we were finding quaint, cozy, historic hotels in the Olde Towne for less than $100.

  Old Towne of Konstanz, Germany

So if you’re noticing a pattern of taking more time to get somewhere in order to save money you’re right. We could of set our heads down after nearly 24 hours of traveling near the Zurich airport in some non descriptive chain hotel for $300 a night. It would of served the purpose, but it would not of created much on memories. That is why we jumped on the train to Konstanz. Upon our late night arrival in the German/Swiss town on the shore of Lake Constance (the lake and town are spelled differently) we were suddenly immersed in our first European town. It was exciting, exhilarating, a little nerve racking. Would we find the hotel ok? Would we be able to communicate? Would we stick out?

We found our hotel very easily. We always new it was right across from the train station. For our first nights lodging we had reserved a room at the Hotel Halm. As we wearily stumbled into the hotel lobby I thought we were on some movie set. None of this seemed real. The lobby was lit by large pillar candles throughout. The front desk was adorned by candles as well. Once again this wasn’t real! We were greeted by a very polite front desk clerk who spoke excellent English, a bit relief this was, even though we knew basic greetings and phrases. When the gentlemen saw our address he told us he just returned from his own holiday from our area! Really?! We checked in and made our way thru the lobby to notice the spiral staircase was, yes, more candles. Candles were placed on the steps to light your way to the the rooms.
Our room at the Hotel Halm was very nice. Nothing out of the ordinary. Not fancy. Practical and clean. And all of this for under $100! We had been traveling for nearly 24 hours, my luggage was lost (a topic for another blog), we were exhausted, but so excited to be starting this adventure. It should be noted that our stay at the Hotel Halm was just an overnighter. This was just to escape the prices of Switzerland and experience a little bit of Germany right off the bat.
Dining Room of the Hotel Halm, Konstanz, Germany

The next morning we ventured down to the Moroccan themed restaurant attached to the hotel for breakfast. The best we could figure is that the original owner of the hotel had an interest in Moroccan architecture and culture. It was a quiet, delicious breakfast in the large sparsely populated dining room. It would be great start to our day before we explored the city for a bit before hopping on the train, heading to Innsbruck, Austria. For the next few hours we would explore the streets and lakefront of the city. It was a grey, cool Monday morning in February but the streets we quickly filling up with shopkeepers placing there merchandise on the streets. We wandered (secretly wandered) the alley ways, back streets, and pedestrian zones all morning. We found the local mall, which apparently along with the rest of Konstanz was a very popular with Swiss residents looking to escape their own high prices and taxes. It was a typical mall, but none the less another experience. The Olde Towne is very close to lake, which I’m sure in the warm season is very popular with locals and tourists. Several restaurants and bars appeared to have outdoor seating, but on this cold February day that wasn’t happening. The town docks offer ferry service to nearby German and Swiss town across the lake. But once again all was quiet on this winters morning.
Lake Constance, Konstanz, Germany

Our quick money savings stop over in Konstanz had come to an end. We returned to the hotel to pick up our bags from storage and headed over to the train station. The days journey would take us to the main Zurich station and then to Innsbruck. Our home for the next few days.

Getting to Europe on a Budget

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Just like for many of you out there, money can be an issue when planning your trip. We were fresh off first trip together in Utah when we started planning this trip in the wee hours of the morning in the Dallas airport. Europe for under $500/person round trip? This was possible! And possible in the very near future. But with a catch. As mentioned in the previous blog we were stuck on Iceland for several weeks. But, after deciding we wanted a more all encompassing experience we decided to put our dreams of Iceland on hold for now.

So what was the catch? Well, the trip was going to take place in the winter. Austria in February? No problem. That wasn’t the catch at all. See, we live in a town with a small airport that only flies to the regional hubs. The next closest airport is just a little bigger. And both of these airports are not cheap! There was no way we would get to Europe for under $500 from our neighborhood airports. So we broadened the search to include places like Washington, DC, Orlando, and Atlanta. These large east coast international airports would be the ticket to savings. We had narrowed are destinations to Central Europe. Places like Zurich, Munich, Prague, Vienna would lead us where our interests lied. If we wanted to save money-and lots of money-we couldn’t be picky and we would need to drive. We also knew this trip had to happen in the off-peak seasons. Summer airfare and hotel rates would be budget busters. Plus we wanted to avoid the crowds.

We found our savings flying from Orlando (we also wanted to avoid any northeast winter weather), nearly 8 hours from home, with a great fare to Zurich. I know this sounds like a pain. After calculating the fuel, parking and additional nights lodging in Orlando the saving were astronomical compared to flying from our home airport which is about 3 miles away. We saved about $600 per person using this method. Thru our research, places like Munich are Zurich were the least expensive European destinations at the time. A flexible schedule is a must to do it that way. It involved two extra days of travel. Two days that weren’t in Europe and 16 hours in a car. But the savings were worth it.

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We got on the plane in Orlando and went straight to Dublin. No layovers in the United States! Straight to Europe. After a stop in London, we were on our way to Zurich and the adventures were about to begin!

Where to?

It goes without saying that the Utah trip was a great success. We saw some amazing sites and beautiful vistas, ate some awesome meals, and took some challenging hikes. On a personal level, it was the beginning of our relationship. Pearl and I forged a bond that continues to grow as I type this. It was our first adventure and we would just be getting started. The prospect of future travels and explorations together excites us both to this day.

Our Utah trip wasn’t even over as we began tossing around ideas on the way home. Sitting in the Dallas airport during something like a 15-hour overnight layover we started “Kayaking” plane tickets for the next trip. But where? Was it time to go big? Time to take it to the next level and just maybe leave the country?

Our attention that night quickly took us to Europe. Iceland specifically. Iceland was a country that always interested us both and, with a little late night airport research and googling, we were finding affordable airfare to Reykjavik. The next morning we took our next trip idea and jumped on our plane back to the east coast.

Over the next couple of months during the busy holiday season we started getting very serious about the whole Iceland trip. Airfare was remaining affordable. We bought guidebooks, language guides, and even a National Geographic Adventure map of the country. Things appeared to be coming together. But…what usually happens…we began thinking and talking. Iceland is such a beautiful, enchanting place with fjords, wilderness, coastlines, seaside villages, the northern lights. It was a great idea. But we wanted to see as much as possible during our two weeks. We wanted to take in different cultures, cities, languages, foods. We wanted to experience as much as possible. Be immersed in as much as we could take in during our time off. Iceland’s location was just a little too limiting. It was just one place. An amazing place. A place we want to visit in the future. But for our first trip to Europe together, we wanted to see and experience it. And with all due respect to Iceland, we weren’t sure it would be accomplished there. So Iceland was out! (For now). Our research was taking us on that traditional Alps route of Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Italy.

Airfares were looking great for a mid-winter trip to Europe. The guide books were arriving and yes even another National Geographic Adventure map. This one of Central Europe. As we entered the busy holiday season and entered the new year we started checking things off of our list. We found great tickets to Zurich. Check! Our Eurail Passes were purchased. Check! Our route was finalized. Check! We made all our lodging reservations. Check! We were ready to go! Our route would take us to Zurich via Aire Lingus with layovers in Dublin and London. From Zurich we would travel to Konstanz, Germany. Then on to Innsbruck, Austria. Ljubljana, Slovenia and Trieste, Italy, before returning to Zurich.

So there it is, the beginning of our next adventure. We look forward to sharing all of our experiences and tips we learned. It was a true learning experience for the both of us. Over the next several weeks we will take you along on what was, for us, an epic trip.

Capitol Reef, Torrey, & fireside pie

Capitol Reef National Park and the surrounding area are a collection of contrasts. From the peak of Boulder Mountain – rising over 11,000 feet high with groves of birch and aspen  – to the depths of Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash with folded rock formations and dry bed trails. From the desolation and solitude of Cathedral Valley to the history and comfort of Fruita. And from the barren, seemingly lifeless isolation of the Bentonite Hills to the conveniences and civilization of Torrey, Utah. The area has a little of everything and, at the same time, a whole lot of nothing.

 

The popular, accessible areas like the Capitol Gorge and the Grand Wash are an absolute must and very easy hikes that lead you deep into the two most prominent canyons of the park. They allow you to feel all alone even when only hiking these few miles. The low visitation of this park allows one to escape the “crowds” quite easily.

 

The Fruita orchards, originally planted by the Mormon settlers and now maintained by the National Park Service, are a perfect oasis from the hot, sweltering desert sun. The orchards are all along the Fremont river. Apple, cherry, peach, pear and others are fenced off to protect the fruit from the deer herd. During the harvest season the fence gates are open and for a fee visitors can pick their own fruit.

Adjacent to the Fruita campground is a small Mormon museum and gift shop where fresh pies are baked and sold everyday. They are amazing. A treat after a long day on the trail. We personally recommend heating the pie up over the fire.

 

To really get away from the crowds of Capitol Reef (and I use the word “crowds” very lightly) you can make the the drive out to Cathedral Valley. The Cathedral Valley Loop road is only accessible by a dirt road of varying conditions. Starting from the west, one must have a high clearance vehicle with four wheel drive to ford the Fremont River. The river is usually passable, but in a rental car with only All Wheel Drive we were not brave enough to take the risk. It didn’t look bad, but one wrong move and not only our day and trip would be ruined, but potentially the next several years of our lives. The other option, and one that we chose, was to travel down highway 12 another 10 miles or so and get on the Cainesville Rd. This is the eastern access point of the loop. We would not be able to do the entire loop due to the river, but we did get in plenty of gorgeous stopping points and expansive views. We toured the Bentonite Hills, Valley of the Moon and Sun, and up to the Cathedral Valley campground. This is when the road became just too rocky and rutted and steep for our little rental SUV. The whole trip takes about 8 hours with stops and lunch and is highly recommended if you have the appropriate vehicle. CAUTION: Use extreme caution when thinking about this when it has rained, is raining, or is forecasted to rain. In any vehicle it can become impossible. The surface mud turns to “ice” in its slickness and roads can become impassable.


After a long day of hiking and exploring, and after several days of camping, we were ready for a bed and something not cooked in our camp pot. The small town of Torrey is just outside of the park and is an oasis for the weary hiker. Torrey has a nice little selection of clean hotels and its small selection of restaurants is impressive. The Rim Rock restaurant with its view of the park overlooking the canyons at sunset will quickly become a highlight of your Capitol Reef Trip.

Capitol Reef National Park Camping

We left Arches and the Moab area around midday and made the short but desolate drive towards Capitol Reef National Park and Torrey, UT. The drive would take us along a remote stretch of Interstate 70, then an even more remote stretch of Highway 24 thru central Utah. This is not somewhere to breakdown. There is not much of anything for miles. It’s wonderful! I am always amazed to still find these places in the United States. Whether it’s traveling across Wyoming, thru the northern plains of Montana and North Dakota, or the deserts of southern Utah. It always impresses me when I find vast expanses of nothing in this country.

We rolled thru the canyons with the Fremont River on our left as we approached Capitol Reef from the east. The steep canyon walls shielded the sunlight, making it feel later than it was. We entered the park passing the historic Mormon orchards and the few Mormon historical sites before going to the Visitor Center. The very first thing we noticed was a sign saying “campground full!”. Ok. No problem. We can handle this. We didn’t want to hotel it. We didn’t want to stay in the RV park in town. We weren’t outfitted to backpack. So it was time to get out our handy National Geographic Adventure Map and check out our options. We found there was plenty of BLM land in the area where camping is free and dispersed (camp just about anywhere). This was an option. But. a bathroom might be nice.

About 20 miles from the park was a collection of campgrounds in the Dixie National Forest. This is where we would head. So we would leave the National Park for the night and head east to what we would quickly realize was a different world. We left the desert floor and started to climb Boulder Mountain on Highway 12. The environment changed from the red rocks and sand of the lower elevations to the birch and aspen forests of the 11,000 foot mountain. Halfway up the mountain there are three different campgrounds – all offering something different. After scouting them we settled on Singletree Campground. It was a mixture of RV’s and tents in a beautiful wooded setting. We were lucky enough to get a site along a little brook. All of the sudden it felt like we were in the Pacific Northwest. The campground of maybe 20 sites would eventually fill up, but it was a quiet respectful group of campers.

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Just outside of the campground was a small unmarked trail that led thru an idyllic mountain meadow (sunset hike was beautiful), then to the bottom of the canyon to a “secret waterfall”. It was getting dark, and we were all alone, so it was secret. Upon our return to the campsite the sun had set and we built our fire, cracked open the beverages, and began to reminisce of the day’s events and plan the future day’s events.

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The plan had always been to camp in the Fruita campground in the national park among the orchards and along the river. It is a very nice looking campground. Much larger. Many more people. More developed of course. Not as natural of a setting. No “secret waterfalls”. Not to take anything away from it. I would stay there, but I’m also very thankful it was full and allowed us to discover the National Forest where we would stay the subsequent nights.

When going to National Parks, also research nearby public lands. Local state parks, National Forests, and BLM lands offer amazing camping experiences that can sometimes be overlooked by others and give you an unforgettable experience.

So with the camping dilemma resolved, it would be time to explore Capitol Reef National Park the next morning.

A Private Island Experience

Bulls Island, Cape Romain NWR

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We’re going to take a break today from the Utah adventures of months past. We will occasionally be taking breaks from the big trips to talk about our day and weekend trips closer to home. We live very near the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina, but had never visited. It is only accessible by personal boat or by Coastal Expeditions. The boat trip leaves from Garris Landing near the small community of Awendaw. The trip only takes about 30 minutes and the boat only carries 45 passengers. Coastal Expeditions is a small environmental education-focused company that ferries visitors to the refuge. They also lead kayak tours, hikes, and they also run the small Inn on the island.

The ferry travels through a maze of estuaries on its way to Bulls Island. We were greeted by nobody. It was great! As we exited the boat and made our way on shore, we quickly separated ourselves from the other 43 passengers. Most of them stopped at the bathroom and the rest we were able to over take on the trail. It didn’t take long for it to seem like we were on our own private island.

From the boat dock it is a 1.5 mile hike through the coastal forest and marshes to the beach. We were the first on the beach for the day. Not only were there no other people within sight, but no footprints. No evidence of people. It was wonderful.

We decided earlier that we would head north to an area called Boneyard Beach and walk, hike, or wade around the northern tip of the island. High tide was at 12:30, so it was important to get around the point before the wading became swimming and we would have to retreat into the dense forest. We walked among, over, under, and around the dead driftwood remains of oaks and pines that lay upright and on their sides as they get pounded by the surf. A few times the “bones” get thick and the surf a little rough so we had to find our way into the forest, only to quickly return to the beach.  A pod of dolphins were our only other companions as we waded.

As we got to the northern point of Bulls Island we were greeted by a large, broad beach with a few of our companions from the ferry in the distance (there is an expansive trail system on the island leading you to several points of interest). This section of the island was teeming with life. Conch shells everywhere. Blue crabs, hermit crabs, sand dollars, jellyfish and dolphins. The refuge is also a bird lovers paradise. During our visit we saw bald eagles, osprey, coots, buffleheads, oyster catchers, flycatchers, turnstones, herons, egrets and many many others.

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We explored this section of beach studying the marine life and collecting a few shells (all empty, of course) when it was time to slowly make our way back to the dock. The plan was to take a series of trails through the forest and marshland. We were a little uncertain of our location on the map, but we soon oriented ourselves, left the beach and entered the marsh and woods, which is home to gnats, mosquitoes, and biting flies. The swarms became so unbearable that I had to cover my legs with my rain pants on a perfectly sunny and pleasant day. We fought through the bugs with the occasional respite courtesy of a breeze. I can only assume that in the heat of the summer this section of the island being worse.

We made it back to the dock with plenty of time to spare. So much time in fact that we walked back out to the beach for a bit. It had gotten much more crowded than it was earlier in the day. There were about 4 people within sight! Accessibility limits the number of visitors who can visit the area and this is what makes it so special. If you’re looking for that deserted island without having to travel halfway around the world, check out Bulls Island within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

A great night in Moab & a visit to Arches National Park

Deciding where to go is always a challenge. This is what is considered a “first world problem.” We were fortunate to have the time and resources to go on these trips, so now where and how do we spend the time? After spending a few days in Canyonlands National Park and all of our adventures in Shafer Canyon and the Syncline Trail it was time to move on. We decided to make a quick stop in Moab, Utah for the night and then visit Arches National Park the next day before moving on. Moab is your typical “gateway” town to a National Park. This is the unofficial term given to towns that border the entrances to National Parks (West Yellowstone, MT- Yellowstone, Gatlinburg, TN- Smokey Mountains, Estes Park, CO- Rocky Mountain, and so on). For the most part I’m not a big fan of these towns. Streets full of fast food, chain hotels, t-shirt shops, and souvenir stores. Does Moab have all of these things? Absolutely! But Moab has this intangeable feeling that’s hard to explain. They are able to balance their small town feel with all the conveniences and comforts the tourist and the outdoor enthusiast is looking for. Did we partake in a chain hotel? Absolutely! A pizza shop? Yes! Both were wonderful luxuries after being in the park, dusty and sweaty for 3 days. We also loved strolling the town. Browsing bookstores and galleries. Finding hidden city parks in evening. The large variety of unique and interesting culinary options was a surprise also. Moab is definitely a town to check out when you’re in between your National Parks and you need a break from the tent and picnic table.

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The next day we were planning to make the four hour drive to Capital Reef National Park. But first we would spend part of the day exploring Arches National Park. This would just be a quick visit. Not big, epic hikes. Mostly auto touring and doing short hikes to popular destinations. The park is located just a few miles outside of Moab, making it very convenient and much more popular than Canyonlands. After passing through the admissions and visitor center complex the road quickly ascends to this large open plane. We are quickly greeted by the Courthouse Towers, Park Avenues, Sheep Rock, and the Tower of Babel before continuing to Windows Sections, the Devils Garden, or Delicate Arches. Many of the popular Arches are just a quick and easy walk from the parking lot. It should be noted many of these can be very crowded, even during the off season. So be prepared and don’t expect any type of wilderness experience. Delicate Arch, Skyline, and Landscape are all very famous and worth the short walk. If you want a more challenging hike then you want to continue past Landscape Arch towards Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Navajo Arch, Partition Arch, Private Arch, and others. These are accessed by a more primitive network of trails that require some scrambling and climbing, traversing a fin, and some minor route finding. With the heavier use of this area getting lost shouldn’t be an issue, but one could get turned around pretty easily.

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Our trip to Arches was exactly what we were looking for. All in all I think we spent about six hours driving around and taking short hikes. There were plenty of people around, but that was okay. We were excited to be entering a new section of our trip. Capital Reef National Park was on our horizon and we would be spending the night in the park campground. We were anticipating staying in the Fruita Campground along the Fremont River among the remains of the orchards planted by the early Mormon settlers. We were ready to get there, set up camp, and start exploring.

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The Syncline Loop Trail

imageI consider both of us fairly fit people. Even though we live on the beach at sea level in a very humid climate, we both have made several trips out west and to the mountains throughout the years. So when we were making a decision on what trails to take in Canyonlands National Park, we liked to consider ourselves above average hikers, with high levels of competency, who can make smart decisions. Just like with our decision to make the trek down into Shafer Canyon we like to find challenging out of the way hikes that are not full of tourists. We had read about a place called the Upheaval Dome. It is a large crater that is believed to have been created by a meteor impact. Sounded interesting enough. Little did we know it was one of the most popular and accessible trails in the park. Not what we were looking for. But we were there and decided to check it out anyway. Then shortly up the trail we found what we thought we were looking for. A sign indicating a small side trail: The Syncline Loop. The sign read: “…very strenuous, hard to follow, route finding skills necessary”. This was the start of the days adventure!

imageThe trail was advertised 8.5 miles long. I had remembered seeing it on the National Geographic Adventure map and had filed it somewhere in the back of my mind with all my other Utah knowledge. It wasn’t an overly hot day. Maybe 85 degrees and sunny. We had plenty of food and what we thought was plenty of water; 4 standard Nalgene bottles. Like I said earlier, Pearl and I live on the beach. The biggest climbs we have are the stairs up and over the dunes to get to the beach. So needless to say we needed to get reacquainted with our mountain legs.

The first half of the trail was rather harmless. It was flat, traveling thru dried up river beds and broad valleys. A typical Canyonlands environment. We hiked thru broad canyons, oasis like groves of cottonwoods, and more importantly had only seen one other hiker. At about mile 3 or 4 (it should be noted we thought we had gone much further) the trail deteriorated and the sign that had excited us in the beginning proved every bit true. The hike became a series of climbs and rock scrambles with only the occasional distant cairn to lead the way. We descended deep into an area that led to the Syncline Camp and the Green River. The steep sketchy descent, meant that the ascent wasn’t going to be easy.

IMG_0245We really never thought during the day that we needed to ration our water. We had enough? Every book, brochure, sign says to carry extra water. We thought our supplies were sufficient. We began the climb back up out of the canyon in the late afternoon with the westward setting sun to our right. For the first time that day the sun was baking us. We were both exhausted and breaks became frequent. There was no shade in sight and we were completely exposed to the sun’s setting heat. The water consumption quickly increased. It was a steady, constant climb up to ridge top after ridge top. We would reach what we were hoping was the top only to see another ridge that needed to be surmounted. The water continued to be consumed. Even as the sun was about to set behind the canyon wall it continued to bake us until it set for the day. All day we had underestimated our distances traveled. We had to start backing off the water as the sun set. Yes…the sun set. As we climbed the last ridge we heard our first voices since earlier in the day. We were hopeful we were approaching the parking area. Our water was gone, we had drunk the juice from our canned oranges and it was dark. Soaked in the days sweat and out of supplies the voices of sunset and star gazers increased and our arrival to the crowded parking lot just 10 hours earlier was imminent.

imageWhen we got back to the car, the lot that had been filled with tourists and RV’s earlier in the day was practically empty. We had dropped our bags and each of us grabbed a gallon of water (we always travel well prepared) and chugged. We were exhausted. Covered in dust, soaked in sweat, baked by the desert sun we had conquered the Syncline Loop Trail. Next time we will carry 6 Nalgene bottles.

Shafer Canyon

 

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I remember the night like it was yesterday, even though it was last summer. Pearl and me sitting in my apartment eating pizza and drinking beer. The National Geographic Adventure map for Canyonlands National Park in Utah had just arrived. We had it unfolded on the table, with beers and pizza flattening it. The difficult, yet exciting task of deciding where to, how to get there, how long to spend, and what to see was underway. We decided on a flight to Durango, Colorado in the southwest corner of the state. It was the closest commercial airport to the region we wanted to focus on. We would make the three hour drive from Durango to the Canyonlands/ Moab, Utah area. Having never visited Canyonlands there was a lot of research ahead of us. Of the “big 5” parks in Utah (Zion, Bryce, Capital Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands) it is the least visited and has the best opportunities for seclusion, where one can isolate themselves. That really attracted us. On this trip we decided to spend the extra money and check an extra bag and haul all of the camping stuff out west. We wanted to sleep under the Milky Way in canyons, deserts, and mountain tops. We wanted to be alone. We wanted experience national parks the way they were meant to be visited. Plus we didn’t want to spend the money on substandard, only adequate lodging. This proved to be a wise choice. Camping had been an important part of life, but it had escaped me over the years and I was looking forward to being reacquainted with it.

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That night studying our map we noticed there was only one campground in the entire northern section of the park. It should be noted that Canyonlands is divided into two regions: Island in the Sky and the Needles. These two regions of the park are also not connected by road through the park and one must travel about 90 minutes to reach the other. This makes the trek not convenient or quick at all. Willow Flats campground is a small campground in the Island of the Sky District. It sounded very small, quiet, and just what we were looking for. But I really wanted to get away from it all. No RV’s. No neighbors. We wanted to sleep in a canyon with no other visitors. We weren’t going to be outfitted for backpacking, so what were our options?

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It was the White Rim Road! The White Rim Road is over 100 miles. It is accessed by special permit and fee only and is accessible by four wheel drive. It has reservable campsites scattered all along the route that surely would provide the private the experience we were looking for. We would not have time to make the whole journey and from recent advisories the road deteriorated the further you traveled making it not the smartest or the most responsible decision to drive it in a rental car. We did however find the first campsite along the route open and it was relatively easy to drive to. After descending from the main park road through a series of switchbacks we entered Shafer Canyon. The scenery would make you believe you were in a western movie or an Indian Jones scene. Plus it didn’t hurt that it was sunset upon our arrival. Not long after we reached the bottom of the canyon we drove on a long sandy straight away through the broad desert valley. Not a soul around or sound to be heard. We reached a small side road that our map indicated would take us to our campsite for the night. This smaller road was narrower with deeper ruts and softer sand, but we shortly arrived at the Shafer Canyon campsite.

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Immediately Pearl and I knew we were in a special place. The red rock walls around us were magnified by the setting sun. We felt enclosed and private as the campsite was in a narrower section of the canyon. The setting sun dipping behind the canyon walls only expedited the sunset. As the sun disappeared we had only the silhouettes of the rock formations until the night sky opened up. It was a sight like I had never seen. The constellations, the Milky Way, shooting star after shooting star. The night sky of Canyonlands was a worthy competitor for the northern lights of Canada and Alaska. The silence. The scenery. The loneliness. Feeling like we were the only two people for miles. It was exciting. It was special. We had come so far from that night in my apartment studying the map, drinking beer and eating pizza. The trip had come together. This proved to be the most amazing start to what would end up being an awesome trip.

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