Category Archives: Periodic Update

Arkansas Post and Poverty Point



I left Pine Bluff (stopping at the Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center (forlorn animals; gloomy; depressing)), intending to stop at two small national sites. I knew nothing about them, but I’d been following a map that I’d picked up early in my trip that highlighted the location of all the national parks, monuments, historic sites, and so on. I operated under the principle that if something was good enough to be a national site, it was good enough for me. And although parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are as crowded as Times Square, other places are beautiful, empty and interesting. You’d never pick them out otherwise. I’d seen that in Lava Beds, and Arkansas Post was a similar place. I wished there was camping there, because I’d love to have stayed.

Backwater of the Mississippi, viewed from Arkansas Post

Backwater of the Mississippi, viewed from Arkansas Post

Arkansas Post is was a naturally important location, the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. It’s one of those sites where history has accumulated, slowly and steadily, like silt accreting at the bend of a river. The first white settlement in the area was in 1686 – a distant French outpost on the Mississippi. It changed hands in 1763 – the Spanish took over. Built a little fort. Americans settled nearby, right after the revolution.

Armadillos are a source of leprosy

Armadillos are a source of leprosy

Far away, Napoleon concluded a treaty with Spain, was granted the land, then sold it 4 years later to the US as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The center of cultural gravity shifted away and Little Rock gained more prominence. The fort was occupied by Confederates, then Union forces as part of their campaign down the Mississippi. The river moved, and settlement with it.

The former town - now concrete memorial sidewalks

The former town – now concrete memorial sidewalks

That’s a lot of history, and not much remains. If there weren’t any plaques out, and the lawns weren’t mowed, you’d have difficulty spotting it. There’s some paths laying out the buildings of the settlement. There’s some trenches still visible, from the Civil War, and there’s an invisible fort submerged in the Mississippi.



There’s also some wildlife I hadn’t yet seen before on my trip. I saw my first-ever alligator in the wild, a small one swimming in a pond in the center of the park. And I saw not one, but two armadillos. They’re pretty cute, and they move by hopping.



The heat was pretty oppressive though, even at the end of September, and humidity stifling. No way did I want to stay in the sun.

There was a fort here in 1863, but the river changed course

There was a fort here in 1863, but the river changed course

I was pretty much on the border of Louisiana, and I’d dip into the state for my next stop: an even more obscure National Monument called Poverty Point.

Stairs up the main 'bird mound' at Poverty Point

Stairs up the main ‘bird mound’ at Poverty Point

In fact, it’s a quasi-National Monument. I’m not quite sure what it is. It was listed on my map, but the people in the visitor center weren’t aware that it was a National Monument. It’s administered as a state park (and, as of 2014, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – but I was there before it was cool).

This place was just way out in the middle of nowhere, in the far northeast corner of Louisiana. It’s a noticeably poor area, but a nice place to drive around, with calm windy empty roads, even if I felt out of place. I also encountered something bizarre. As I passed vans and cars along back roads, I saw them waving at me. “What’s wrong with my car?” I thought. Maybe I had a leaking tire? Or maybe one of my lights was out? Or were they laughing at my NY plates? But no, I figured it out eventually – that half-wave from the steering wheel – that was just people being friendly. So I started waving back, and I’ll be honest, it felt pretty good. It’s a beautiful little custom that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. Maybe it’s common elsewhere, but you certainly don’t see a lot of strangers waving at you on the coasts.

The van from the very top of the mound

The van from the very top of the mound

Anyway, Poverty Point is an archaeological site that was home to a unique Native American group which occupied the area between 2700 and 3700 years ago. They were mound builders, a type of culture that was pervasive throughout the Mississippi river valley, all the way up to Ohio. There was some village here, and they constructed huge concentric rings of earth and a big ceremonial mound in the shape of a bird. Afterwards, it was home to a plantation (named Poverty Point, hence the name). It was farmed and some of the mounds were smoothed away, but there’s still a lot of remnants. And the big, bird-shaped mound is still around. It’s gigantic.

There’s a small museum at the park, and you can drive around a bit and take a self-guided tour, but there’s not a whole lot to see. But that’s like saying there’s not a whole lot to see at the pyramids in Egypt. This little state park/national monument is a hidden treasure. I didn’t see anyone else while I was there, and these mounds are just enormous. And they were built quickly: the biggest one, in just three months.

Arkansas Swamp

Arkansas Swamp

It’s also mysterious because archaeologists have basically no idea what happened here. What was the function of the mounds, generally? And specific mounds? When were they built, and by whom? There’s vague outlines of a picture, but so much is unknown. Probably aliens.


Across the midwest to Arkansas


9/24/2013 – 9/25/2013

Leaving Wyoming, my plan was a mad rush across the midwest, Cannonball Run-style. It’s nice country, of course, but there’s not a whole lot of landmarks. And, I’d been traveling for two months, following a very aggressive schedule. I did want to get home. So, I covered the land between Cheyenne, Wyoming and Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in two days. It was pretty much straight driving. I mostly listened to Shelby Foote (with his amazing drawl) narrate the siege of Vicksburg, an audiobook I’d been listening to since Utah.

The rough cross-country route

The rough cross-country route

I spent the first night of this dash near Kansas City. I had dinner in a Fridays (I figured it was a fitting tribute to middle America) and watched the Broncos play the Raiders while I indulged in nachos. There were a lot of chain stores that looked reasonable as sleeping locations, but they were a little too mall-like for me to be comfortable.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning in some depth my accomodations. I always preferred campsites, when available, but in places where no campsites were available (either because I arrived too late, or because there was simply nothing nearby), I slept in parking lots. Which is free.

There’s a few welcoming places to sleep: generally you can doze off for a while in rest areas without worrying. I did that on the drive out west. A lot of Wal-Marts are welcoming, but some are not. I didn’t have a smart phone, so I generally tried to borrow some Wi-Fi sitting in my car outside fast food joints, or inside coffeeshops. There were a few websites reporting on which Wal-Marts welcomed overnight campers and which did not.

If Wal-Marts weren’t available, I’d try (mostly) empty chain stores, malls or all-night McDonalds. And finally there’s hotel parking lots – it’s expected that people will park there, but it still felt somehow more wrong than parking elsewhere.

I got pretty nervous generally – more than I really ought to. I was only woken up once, in a Wal-Mart that didn’t allow overnight camping, but the friendly security guy directed me to a McDonald’s that allowed all-night parking. Mostly for truckers. I take this as a sign that I erred on the side of caution, but I dreaded being woken up in the middle of the night. And in a lot of places that I parked, malls mostly, where I could see security cars driving around. But hey, it’s a free place to spend the night.

The next official stop after Wyoming - George Washington Carver NM

The next official stop after Wyoming – George Washington Carver NM

My first official stop after all that driving was George Washington Carver National Monument, in western Missouri.

There’s a striking difference between the land in Missouri, compared to Wyoming, and especially Utah. To be honest, Missouri doesn’t look much different from NY. It’s still familiar. Similar trees, similar hills. It felt like I was finally reaching home. Which is strange – on a map, Missouri is midway between NY and Arizona. But it feels pretty similar to the northeast.

George Washington Carver National Monument is a small monument – a little museum, a walk around a field and into the woods, a little farmhouse and pond. It’s the kind of monument you can imagine local schoolkids being forced to endure for annual fieldtrips.

Statue of George Washington Carver

Statue of George Washington Carver

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about George Washington Carver before my visit, but he’s an interesting guy. Mostly a botanist, he’s widely known for his work with the peanut, but he was a polymath, and also one of the first in a generation of black leaders who was born into slavery, but grew up free and became a self-made man.

As for the peanut – well, he discovered over 300 uses for it. Among them: massage oil, hair oil, meat substitutes, paint, “evaporated peanut beverage,” fuel briquettes, laundry soap, insecticide, etc.

Typical view at Pea Ridge

Typical view at Pea Ridge

My next stop was Pea Ridge National Military Park, in Arkansas. This was the sight of an early Civil War battle, and one of the more influential early battles on the western front. By Civil War standards, it was a tiny affair – about 25,000 men, total, with 3,000 casualties. But it cemented Union control of Missouri.

This was the first battlefield I’d visited in something like 10 years, since a trip through Virginia with my father visiting Civil War sites. Maybe my imagination had suffered in the interim. It’s exceedingly difficult to imagine what these battlefields were like 150 years ago. Maybe impossible. Consider that, even for the battlefields which have been ‘preserved,’ there has usually been farming in the interim.

A rare surviving farmhouse from the 1860s

A rare surviving farmhouse from the 1860s

More than that – most trees don’t live 150 years. Forests that may have been thick brambles could have grown, their undergrowth thinned. Likewise, what looks impenetrable may have been easy to ride a horse through. About the only terrain you can trust is the ground itself: hills rarely move. But it’s a real struggle to imagine what things would have looked like.

As my goal in visiting the southeast was primarily to check out Civil War battlefields; I knew after visiting Pea Ridge that I’d have to develop some kind of system. It wouldn’t do to stop by the visitor center and then do a loop around each park in the van. I’d learn nothing. No – I had to really understand what took place, and be able to situate it in the landscape. I did figure out a system – subsequent visits to battlefields would be more fruitful.

Arkansas Aquaculture Facility

Arkansas Aquaculture Facility

Four hours from Pea Ridge, in the evening, I pulled into my final stop for the day: Pine Bluff. Shocking though it may be, I had a friend in Arkansas. I knew Justin from college; he and his wife were living in Pine Bluff while he studied aquaculture at a nearby university. I spent the night in the parking lot of their apartment, and the next morning I got a tour of an aquaculture facility. I’ve become increasingly interested in farming systems (particularly the automation of them), but I know nothing about aquaculture. Some of the things I heard were eye-opening.

Such effishient farm animals!

Such effishient farm animals!

For instance, the mass of calories consumed, compared to the mass of meat generated, is off-the-charts for fish compared to cows or chicken. This number, the feed conversion ratio, can be something like 5-20 for cattle, or 3-4 for pork. For fish, it can be as low as 1.2, and generally is in the area of 1.5. That means that something only 20%-50% of the food that a fish is fed is ‘lost’ as energy expenditure. This is attributable to the fact that fish expend little energy supporting their bodies, since water does most of the work. The only comparable animal is crickets, and I don’t see many people lining up to eat those.

Colorado National Monument


Well… nearly two years later and I’m gonna try to wrap up my cross-country trip!


If you’ll recall, we left off at Canyonlands, one of my favorite parks of my whole journey. This involved some backtracking, past Moab. I went past my old campground on the Colorado River, where there was construction that reduced traffic to a single lane. While sitting in traffic, I realized: I knew the area looked familiar! This little sideroad near Moab was the front of my regional guidebook.

AAA Utah Guidebook

AAA Colorado & Utah Guidebook

Just outside the Utah border is another park: Colorado National Monument. I didn’t know a whole lot about it – but it was right off the highway. I stopped for a hike, doing a loop through the monument.

Monument Canyon

Monument Canyon

This monument is mostly known for its large central canyon, ‘Monument Canyon’ which is mostly red rock and scrub – although there’s also striking rock pillars (I don’t know if they’re technically considered hoodoos). The valley opens up above Fruita, Colorado, a town in a sort of desert oasis – after this city, the landscape started to change more dramatically into the Rocky Mountains. The nearest city is Grand Junction, not far away.

Fruita, Colorado

Fruita, Colorado

I was just passing through and wanted to stop for my daily hike – though this was quite a nice little monument and I’d love to return.

The 'Kissing Couple'.

The ‘Kissing Couple’.

There’s a few major pillars within the monument: the ‘Kissing Couple,’ ‘Independence Monument’ and ‘Coke Ovens.’ I enjoyed the hike, down into the canyon, around a bend, and then up to an overlook above Fruita. However, the experience was marred by the dirt bike tracks visible in many places. The sand in these parks is delicate and composed of a lot of micro-organisms. It’s a living thing, in a way, and the dirt bike tracks last a very long time.

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

Nonetheless, I was excited to see another animal that I hadn’t gotten much of a look at on my trip: bighorn sheep. There was a herd of them at the end of the trail that proved to be a nice send off as I hopped back in the van.

The hiking trail

The trail – moderate intensity. But man was it hot!


The standard view from slickrock in Canyonlands.


Canyonlands is the largest National Park in Utah, and among the less visited. It’s formed at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, which cut the park into a ‘Y’ shape. The northernmost portion of the park – and the most accessible from Moab – is called ‘Island in the Sky.’ The South/Southeast portion is the ‘Needles District,’ and the Western portion is ‘The Maze.’

Moonrise and sunset, near the campground.

Island in the Sky is the most popular, while The Maze is inaccessible except by 4-wheel drive vehicles. Thus, I decided to visit the Needles district. (While at the Needles visitor center, I overheard a German lady asking the park ranger about visiting The Maze. “Oh, you can visit, but it’s a 5 hour drive from here,” the ranger said.) Needles is about 90 minutes from Moab, via state highway and then through a national forest.

View from rocks near my campsite.

The national forest section – it’s not really a forest – is really beautiful. Canyonlands is indeed a canyon, and this area, which is about a 30 mile drive, is nearly as wide as the main parts of the Grand Canyon. But the depth of the canyon is maybe 800-1000 feet, rather than 5200 feet. Thus the ‘floor’ of the canyon is a broad grassy plain dotted with cattle. It’s one of the more beautiful and serene places I visited.

This area of the national park itself is called ‘Needles’ because there are some distant spires which do have the appearance of needles. But much of this section is composed of so-called slickrock, and the hike I went on this first day, about 12 miles from the campground to ‘Peek-A-Boo Rock,’ was mostly on slickrock.

The trail goes across the tan sandstone here; this type of trail persists for 7-8 miles.

It’s unusual to hike so long on solid rock. I’d done a brief stretch at Capitol Reef and a little at Arches, but this was sustained hiking on bare rock, much of it at a 15-20 degree angle sloping left or right, which meant that there was always a slight element of danger. I enjoyed the experience, though, and this was among my favorite hikes.

Pictographs under a ledge.

That wasn’t just because of the slickrock hiking. The destination was a set of pictographs (that is, paint on rock), and some of these were 5 thousand years old! There were the normal geometric designs and human figures, but also quite a few hands. As this was in the middle of nowhere, it was possible to get close to the pictographs. Putting your hand right next to the tracings of a hand 2-3 thousand years old is a special experience.

Circled are further hand tracings.

There were further pictographs through the peek-a-boo hole, and these were high up on a cliff. I don’t know if some daring indian climbed up there, along the edge of a cliff wall, or if there was a more accessible route that broke off at some point, but these pictographs were cool as well.

Tracing of child’s hand.

At this far point on the hike I caught up with an older couple who were from the area. They mentioned that there were some indian granaries – small pueblo buildings built under some of the sandstone ledges – along the trail out. I hadn’t seen them, and made sure to keep my eyes open on the return journey.

One of the granaries, just a short walk from the trail.

There were indeed granaries, two and a half of them and many ruins besides, each about 4 feet across and 3 feet high. I looked inside them, and on the ground nearby I found a few pottery shards. These included a black-and-white shard – these zig-zag designs are very common in the area. I also found a large fragment of pottery that must have been used to line a basket, because there were indentations of vegetable fibers.

Potsherd with basket indentations. The largest fragment I found.

These granaries, unmentioned in any park literature, were great fun to explore, and holding some artifacts (they were lying open on the ground and easy to step on) was really unique.

Back in camp I relaxed and read for a while. This was the best campsite of the trip – well separated from other people, with a large climbable rock pile right behind the site, from which I could look at the stars and have a good view across the canyon. There was a full moon during my stay, and it arose well before sunset. Really a beautiful place.

Can you see the hidden pueblo? A door is just visible.

The next day I just stayed in the campground and relaxed, reading and staying out of the sun. I jogged around the campground and saw my only Hawai’i license plate (I saw all 50 states during my trip, but only saw Hawai’i once).

I really enjoyed my stay at Canyonlands and consider it a far better, and more interesting park than nearby Arches. There’s much less ‘highlight reel’ stuff but the isolation and one-of-a-kind hikes make a visit worth it.

Arches & Moab

Delicate Arch


I visited a lot of national parks as a kid, and my recollection was always that Arches was my favorite, so I anticipated seeing it again throughout this trip. After visiting, I determined that specific memories were quite accurate, but the park as a whole was different than I remembered.

Just a few miles outside Arches is Moab, one of the biggest tourist destinations in Utah. I knew this, but was taken aback by just how touristy it had become. The target audience here is ‘adventure tourists,’ that is, people who want to pay for guided rafting, 4×4, helicopter, ziplining, parachuting, and so on. As well as your normal tourists: the accessibility of the town, and Arches as a manageable national park less than a mile from a major interstate mean that there are some luxury hotels as well.

I’d figured September would see a drop-off in tourists as kids went back to school, but unfortunately most of the parks were just as crowded as those I saw during summer; the campgrounds of every park I stayed at in Utah filled up every night, and Arches was worst of all! I got in mid-morning and the campground was already full; it operates on a reservation system and I knew I had no hope of getting a site. I tried calling around to a bunch of budget hotels and all were completely booked up! This was on a Monday in September!

Finally I had to settle on a Motel 6, which priced out at a whopping $100/night – twice what I’d spent elsewhere. I stopped at the Arches visitor center and talked with a ranger for a while. He said that there’s BLM land abutting the park – not an official national forest, but it contains a variety of campgrounds along the Colorado river. I’d already reserved a hotel (I believe by the time I talked to him the campgrounds were already full anyway), but he showed me where they were on a map. He named each of the campgrounds (there were 4) and visibly winced when he got to the second: “Negro Bill,” which is actually an honest-to-god campground name. You’d think they could find something more suitable.

I spent the rest of the day relaxing at my pricey Motel 6, planning on grabbing a campground early the following morning and then spending the day in the park.

The town of Moab itself is about 1/4 restaurants, 1/4 hotels, 1/4 travel & adventure stores, and 1/4 actual stores. It has a vibe very similar to Jackson Hole, but the town is actually pretty ugly. Both Jackson Hole and Sedona are far more appealing.

View from my campsite at ‘Negro Bill;’ in the other direction was the Colorado river

Early the following morning I grabbed a campsite (as luck would have it, at “Negro Bill”), and then headed into Arches. It’s pretty small, a 15 mile road to the campground, with 2-3 side roads. One striking memory, of the huge looping climb from the highway and visitor center up to the main plateau, was surprisingly accurate after 15 years.

As you might expect with such a layout, the park was incredibly crowded. This was the single most overcrowded park I encountered; September is still the heart of tourist season here, and October there’s a chance of snow. I don’t know if there’s any good time to visit anymore.

Delicate Arch, see the queue to get your photo taken underneath. A tiny person under the arch itself. Rain advancing across the valley.

The most famous attraction in Arches is Delicate Arch, which is commonly seen on postcards, and which is featured on Utah license plates. And it’s deservedly famous. After a 1.5 mile climb you round a corner and are confronted with this arch. First off, it’s far larger than you’d expect: 65 feet tall. It really dwarfed the people who stood under it – there was a line of people patiently waiting to get their picture taken.

Petroglyphs on the Delicate Arch trail. The figures are on horses, so they are post-Columbian.

It’s also simply a peculiar spectacle. The arch is next to a steep cliff on one side, and a huge stone funnel on the other, and there’s no other rocks around it. It just stands there, alone. What geological process could have created it? How much stronger must the stone of the arch have been, compared to that which surrounded it?

The rain continued its pursuit of me here, and soon after arriving at Delicate Arch, clouds were rolling in. It was too far to get back to the car in time, so I simply put on my coat and pulled the cover over my backpack. The direction in which the clouds approached meant that I could watch the border of the rain as it progressed over the open ground nearby.

Large rock fins, prevalent in Devil’s Garden.

After the Delicate Arch, my next stop would be the ‘Devil’s Garden,’ at the far end of the park road. This area I also remembered from when I was younger; the campground was right next door. Here the crowds were at their most appalling. There’s a loop at the end of the road, probably about 2 miles in circumference, including a parking lot. It was completely full! There must have been at least 300-400 cars around this loop. I was able to find a spot, thankfully, but I talked to one guy who had to circle a few times before something opened up. I simply could not believe the crowds.

Double O arch – there’s a smaller arch visible underneath, about 9 feet high, which you can climb through.

The trail itself, which is comprised of a “finished” section – heavily worn and well-maintained – and a ‘primitive’ section, has a few loops and totals about 8 miles. It winds through a variety of fins and arches, and shows many of the most well-known landscape formations. But the sheer volume of people meant that the finished trail was quite congested. At times I felt I was walking on the High Line in NYC.

Landscape arch spans an entire football field

There are many arches here, the most famous being the Landscape Arch, which is 300 feet across. It’s a monumental spectacle, and this arch really defies belief. After seeing this, I continued on the primitive trail, which was probably the most technically challenging hiking I’ve done. That’s not to say it was difficult – it’s not – but it was not simply walking along, either. This primitive trail culminated in the ‘Double O’ arch, which was very impressive, as well as a spur trail to an isolated monolith, the Dark Angel.

Dark Angel monolith

The crowds weren’t as bad here and I enjoyed the hiking; scrambles that require you to use your hands are more fun than regular hiking, anyway. On the return trail there were some tough sections. The sheer rock, compounded by the layer of sand on your shoes mean that getting a grip on the rocks can be tough; some of these sections had drop-offs of 20 feet before you hit level ground.

The diciest stretch of trail in my travels. Doesn’t look bad, but the trail is in green. The red line is about 6 feet. To the left was a further drop of 20 feet into a ravine. The rock was coated in sand.

On one section, which I consider the most difficult stretch of my trip, I encountered another guy from New Jersey. He was on a business trip to Denver and had decided to stop at the park on his free day. That’s quite a commitment, as it’s a 5-hour drive to Denver! We talked for a while as we looked at the daunting stretch of trail ahead.

The primitive trail rejoins the main trail, and here I was stopped by a couple in their fifties. The woman clearly wanted to turn around, and she asked me “is there anything worth seeing down there?” I responded that there was another arch. “Is there anything special about it compared to the rest?” Yes, I responded, it’s much bigger (I was referring to Landscape Arch). With a groan she continued walking.

A short trail brings you to this pair of arches.

The fact is, Arches really has only 3 hikes: the 3-miles of Delicate Arch, the 8-miles of Devil’s Garden, and a stretch called the Fiery Furnace, which requires reservations and a ranger guide. So, if hiking at a reasonable pace, it’s possible to cover most of the park in a morning; if stopping at viewpoints you’ll take a few hours more, but there’s only a day’s worth of things to see at the park. Arches would be the perfect park to spend a relaxing few days in, but the crowds simply make that impossible.

Capitol Reef

The eponymous capitol formation


Capitol Reef is reputed to be the least visited of the Utah national parks. The name comes from one of the rock formations, which looks like the Capitol building, and the fact that the settlers were originally sailors who called anything impassable a ‘reef.’ It’s in the middle of the state, far from either the Grand Canyon area parks of Zion and Bryce, and the Moab-area parks of Arches and Canyonlands. Although it’s remote, the tourism in Utah is such that here, too, the campground filled up.

The parks of Utah

Just like the other parks in the Southwest, rain was at work and the entire park’s road system was essentially closed. Of all the parks, Capitol Reef seemed most at risk for flash flooding. During my stay, it was cloudy and threatening the whole time, but never actually rained, so I guess that counts for something.

Hopefully this conveys the scale. The squared off box is in the corner; circled are three people sitting and having a snack. And this is just a tiny part of the landscape!

With Capitol Reef, the operative word is ‘vast.’ All the landscape features collude, like a propaganda campaign designed to make you feel tiny, in a way unlike any of the other parks I visited. Basically the park is separated into two sections: one of rolling rock formations, and the other of low green sparsely forested hills. Between the two is a sheer cliff 800 feet high.

The rolling hills, viewed over the cliff edge

I did the one big loop I could assemble out of smaller trails which remained open, a total of about 14 miles. It started with these rolling ‘reef’ sections; as you hike and look to one side, they seem to continue forever; as you turn a corner new vistas open up.

My goal, as a landmark, was Cassidy Arch, about which I knew nothing. After passing through semi-conventional trails for about 6 miles, I entered a slickrock portion – basically walking on a giant boulder. The trail here disappears and is marked completely with cairns – small stacks of stones.

Cassidy Arch

The trail finally ended at the edge of the sheer cliff that divides the park. The view here was the best in Utah, in my opinion – although of course that depends upon what you like. Inching forward to look over the edge, the main (closed) road of the park was visible, along with dirt road to Grand Wash. To one side are the weird domes and peaks of rock; to the other, the trail, forward the low hills and behind the reef itself. I stayed for about half an hour, just relaxing.

Panorama of the typical landscape.

The arch was completely hidden – since I was in the area for a while, I was able to observe a family of Bavarians struggling to find the arch among distant formations. I talked with them a bit and showed them that it really was just 50 feet away.

There are in fact two people walking on the road in this picture of the Grand Wash…

I decided to make the trip a loop and incorporate a segment of the closed road, which proved to be a great idea. The descent from the reef was quick, and I found myself in a vast canyon. This was Grand Wash, rumored to once have sheltered Butch Cassidy (after whom the arch is named). Of course, objectively it was smaller than the Grand Canyon, being only about a thousand feet deep. But because the walls are absolutely sheer it’s far more imposing. It felt like a sandstone Manhattan, with streets two football fields wide.

The road here was almost completely washed away; the path of water cut across the road in places and caused drops of two feet. It would have been impassable even to vehicles with four wheel drive.

Probably best to stay away from mutant bats.

Walking out of the canyon there’s two mines drilled into the side of one wall. These date back to the 1930s, and were used to mine uranium! Turns out uranium was a health fad back then, and people would mix it into their water, wear it in a bracelet around their wrist, and so forth. Sound familiar?

The open road

I returned to the main park via the road, which was quite a bit of fun: I could walk right in the middle of the road, since it was closed; this in itself was unusual.

Petroglyphs of human figures

The main section of the park, which includes the campground and visitor center, was settled originally by Mormons, and the orchards they planted are open to the public to pick fruit. There’s also some old buildings, and Indian petroglyphs, which I looked at before leaving the following morning.

I understand why Zion and Bryce are more popular parks than Capitol Reef – the views are easier to take in, more accessible; they’re closer to the Grand Canyon. But I think I preferred Capitol Reef; I’d really suggest checking it out if you’re in Utah.

Bryce National Park

The hoodoos and fins of Bryce Canyon


When I visited Bryce as a kid, it was during the early spring, and it ended up being snowed out. There wasn’t much to see. This time, it was rained out – both days I was there it was raining sporadically, but at least I could see something. More than any other park, it was different than I remembered. I’d pictured a small, deep canyon with lots of hoodoos. And between the hoodoos (which are the tall stone towers), the sort of slot canyons you’d see elsewhere.

But Bryce is not like that at all. To start with, Bryce Canyon is not a canyon, but rather the edge of a plateau. Second, the rock is very crumbly, and between the hoodoos is quite a bit of fine sand, small shrubs, and so forth.

Rain much?

Like Zion, the park was feeling the ill-effects of too much rain. In this case, a few trails were shut down due to rockslides and hazardous conditions. The trails that were open and not puddled, had sand which congealed together to become a rubbery and bouncy. It was a lot of fun to hike on, actually. The parts that were puddles had a rainbow of sand: orange & red, of course, but also white, purple and pink – quite vibrant when wet, like an oil spill.

I began by hiking the ‘Fairyland Loop,’ an 8 mile trail with some really spectacular views. Although this trail is part of Bryce Canyon, it’s technically a geologically separate section of the park. As with the Grand Canyon, you go downhill first and then have to climb back out. With the weather fluctuating as it was, the sun appeared sporadically and lit up some of the landscape features, then disappeared. By the time I’d reached the rim again, it was mostly gone.

Tree near the canyon rim

After this hike I headed back to my campsite, was driven out by someone running a generator (which is really obnoxious, like camping next to a lawnmower), and went to do some reading near the rim. But the rain was really pouring, so after pulling into the parking lot I watched people running around trying to get to their cars, which if anything was even more fun than hiking.

Among the hoodoos along the Queen’s Garden trail

Nonetheless, after the showers passed I went for another hike, this time a 6 mile loop including several trails: Queen’s Garden and Peek-A-Boo; I’d wanted to incorporate Navajo, but unfortunately it was closed. The dark black clouds on the horizon and the relative quiet in the canyon made for a unique experience. The Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loops are advertised as the ‘best 3 mile hike in the world,’ in the park newsletter, and for once I think it might not be an exaggeration. It really is a spectacular trail, as you wind, twist and turn between different hoodoos. The settler Bryce, after which the canyon is named, remarked that it would be a ‘hell of a place to lose cattle,’ and that’s for sure. With tons of weird rocks and twisted trees, it felt like walking in one of Gaudi’s buildings. My only regret is that by this point I was racing against rainclouds and approaching night.

The Under the Rim trail headed away from the main canyon

That night it rained again, and the following day I woke up early to do what I hoped would be a long-distance hike. The weather threatened the whole hike, of which I only ended up doing about 10 miles. This was along the backcountry ‘Under the Rim’ trail, which I discovered hikes away from the main canyon. It was nice enough, but a far cry from the splendor of the hoodoos.

The hat shop, different from the rest of the canyon

There was one section with perhaps the most bizarre geological sight I’ve seen on the trip. This was the ‘Hat Shop,’ which was a sort of mockery of the rest of the canyon. Basically boulders had been sitting on a ridge, which eroded. Because of the nature of the rock and sand underneath, the boulders provided shelter from rain and remained stranded on these pinnacles. I don’t think they’re technically hoodoos, but either way, seeing dozens of these standing next to the trail, which remained on the ridge, was pretty funny.

When it’s not raining, the clouds in Utah can be quite striking

Although I love visiting these parks – the Utah parks in particular are spectacular – the fact is that there’s not a whole lot to do in them. You can hike, sometimes raft or kayak, and visit the visitor center and gift shop. However, there’s not a whole lot of hiking trails, if you move at a decent rate. I exhausted the bulk of the non-closed trails in two days, covering all the major trails in really the first day – a day that was filled with rain. If you just want to relax and camp out for a while, of course, you can easily do that. But that in itself can be a challenge when you’re alone: reading is really one of the only options.

Each night I was at Bryce, the campground completely filled up; there were cars eagerly circling during the whole afternoon, looking for an open site. Leaving early the next day I headed for Capitol Reef, which I hoped would be quieter.

New Route

The new route home

A month ago I began considering a new route home. I had originally planned to head straight east from Cheyenne, Wyoming all the way back to New Jersey. But I started thinking about traveling through the deep south. I’ve never visited Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama. And there’s some sites that are interesting to me – mostly Civil War battlefields. So, I’m now planning on cutting south, and checking out Vicksburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga. I’ve visited a lot of battlefields, but these are all new to me. Then I’m planning on heading in the direction of DC, and maybe revisiting Antietam and Gettysburg on the way back to NY. There’s some other smaller sites I plan on visiting in between, but this is the rough outline of my route home from Wyoming.

The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon from the rim


Like many of the parks I’ve been to on this trip, I had visited the Grand Canyon as a kid, and I remember I wasn’t particularly impressed.

On this visit I changed my mind: the Grand Canyon really is spectacular. I’d consider it one of the three AAA parks in the country, in terms of size and visitors (the other two being Yosemite and Yellowstone). There’s the normal multiple parking lots, shuttle service, etc. The funny thing is that there’s not a whole lot to do in the park – a few overlooks, a small museum, a few videos, and the famous lodges. The hiking along the rim is minimal, and extensive hiking below the rim is discouraged. The park is particularly popular with German tourists: I think 1/3 of the visitors were German!

Another view – crowds on the rim

The canyon is quite a shock. To start with, the area around the canyon is exceedingly dull, so you’re lulled into complacency. It’s the highlands (7,000 feet elevation) and flat, it’s relatively temperate and covered in low ponderosa forests. There’s no indication of anything like the canyon until you’re right at the very rim. The canyon is 10 miles across at parts, 6000 feet deep, 250 miles long.

Arriving at the park my first priority was to find a campsite: tough in a park this large, on the weekend. I asked in the visitor center and got a very confused volunteer who seemed to think they were full, but I decided to head to the campsite anyway, and they thankfully had plenty of spaces.

Then I took a shuttle to the rim and walked along. Like all these parks, the major overlooks were full but the rest of the trails were empty. At one point I had to edge past a grazing doe elk. These are really lawn mowers, the amount of grass it consumed, and the speed at which it consumed it, was astonishing.

Switchbacks in the canyon

The crazy thing about this (and other parks, like Crater Lake) is that the trails are right next to the rim, and for the most part there are no railings. Generally there’s 5 feet or so between the trail and the rim, so you won’t accidentally fall off or anything. But the parks basically trust you not to be stupid. And although I saw people doing stuff that turned my stomach (standing or sitting right above 200+ foot drops), the park service is right. There’s a book in the visitor center, “Death at the Grand Canyon,” and apparently only about 2 people per year fall off. Usually a guy in his early twenties “jumping from ledge to ledge for a photo op” and some elderly person who gets bewildered. I would have thought it would be much worse.

Elk near my site: bigger than a car!

The next day I was woken up early by some door slams, and also by what sounded like a really creaky restroom door. But when I left my tent and began to pack my bags and brush my teeth, I was shocked to look up and see a buck elk in the campsite adjacent to me. I never realized just how big some of these elk can be. When he ambled past on the road he dwarfed the car in a nearby campsite. The sound elk make is totally ridiculous, like a cross between a creaking door and a tuba (it’s known as a ‘bugle’). I saw some other people watching the elk and cracking up every time it bugled.

Afterwards I packed up for my big hike of the day (actually one of the big hikes of the trip). I wanted to hike from the rim, down to the Colorado river, and back. 15 miles down and up; a vertical mile of elevation gain from the Colorado river to the rim. There are plenty of signs about this hike, warning that it is dangerous. There’s even a sign saying “can you run a marathon?” about someone who ran in the Boston Marathon a few years ago and died on the hike. But reading the details, I was more impressed by her poor preparation than the difficulty of the hike.

The trail down

I packed a ton of water, (running out and suffering from dehydration is the biggest risk), bringing 1 and a half gallons. I was able to set out early, leaving at 6:55. This was the first hike where I started by going down and had to head back up at the end, and as I proceeded further and further down, I grew more and more nervous about the amount I’d have to ascend. Digging myself a proverbial hole! It looked as though it would be a rough return trip. A vertical mile is quite a bit: I was going down switchbacks for 6 miles, 2 and a half hours. It can be tough on the feet and knees.

These guys are used to move supplies and sometimes people

At the bottom I ran into a guy from Seattle and we talked and hiked for about an hour, had some snacks, took some pictures. He went to the ranch, near the river, for a beer, while I started my return trip. There are two bridges across the river, and it’s funny that they’re right next to each other. The reason is that when the park service formed the park, a private owner fought back via lawsuit and wouldn’t sell their trail into the canyon, so the park service constructed their own. Now both impressive suspension bridges are part of the park.

The plain towards the base of the canyon

At the base of the canyon it’s impossible to even see the rim. The reason: the top layers of the canyon are sandstone, which eroded quickly and broadly. When lower layers (the so-called ‘basement layer’) were hit, they were much tougher and eroded narrowly. So you only see this steep lower layer from down below. This also yields a sort of flat, grassy plain about 3/4 of the way down the canyon.

The Indian Garden, deep in the canyon

I started the hike up with some trepidation. It began flat and sandy, meandering along the river and then slowly ascending near a small tributary before hitting switchbacks. At one point you pass through what’s known as the ‘Indian Garden,’ a flat area with plenty of water that features incongruously green trees and dense growth. It’s a beautiful, calm location with the canyon walls rising far above.

There are strange spotted squirrels; those at the north and south rim are colored differently

It turned out that this was probably the best hike I’ve done, in terms of how I felt. The trip up was 9 miles (compared to 6 on the way down), and grew more strenuous as I went. For 8 of those mile I cruised smoothly, passing through a brief rainshower, but never feeling out of breath. This was the second hike where I felt so good, the first being Rainier. After 5 sedentary years I finally felt like my body was operating like it should.


I didn’t want to stop hiking and took few pictures; I didn’t even need much water. Everything was just incredibly smooth. I want to be clear, it was comparatively cool and the clouds obscured the sun for half the hike. The hike is no joke and was the most strenuous I’ve done on the trip. I wouldn’t take it lightly. But everything seemed to come together. When I looked at my watch I found I’d reached the rim in a mere 3 and a half hours – to cover 9 miles and a 5000 feet of elevation gain! My rate of ascent was the same as my rate of descent. I was incredibly proud of the hike and made myself sick with a half gallon of milk, ice cream sandwich, and box of candy as a reward.

Bright Angel Bridge across the river

The rest of the day I relaxed and read, and the following morning I headed south to Sedona.

Through the Desert on Route 66

The famous Joshua Tree, deep in the Mojave


I left Sequoia with the intention of traveling only for an hour or two, but ended up cutting south and then east across the desert to the very border of Joshua Tree National Park, a drive of 7-8 hours. The driving was easy and the roads straight and in good repair.

Hit a milestone!

Route 66 no longer exists, but there are dozens of chunks scattered across the desert. You see signs for these on some of the modern highways, and parts of the route have been co-opted into other roads. What I saw was not all that different from other highways, with the exception that there were a lot more traffic lights.

I ended up sleeping at a Wal-Mart in Yucca Valley, right outside Joshua Tree, and then heading into the park early the next morning.

A common desert lizard.

Joshua Tree is famous for two things: the eponymous trees and its distinctive piles of large boulders. It’s situated where the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado – they each have distinct ecologies. There are four deserts in the United States, the hottest being the Mojave; surprising to me is that most of the southwest is not considered desert at all.

The Joshua Tree is neither a Joshua nor a tree. It is a yucca. These bizarre trees form widely-spaced ‘forests’ that look like something from a Doctor Seuss book. It’s really an awkward plant and can grow up to 25 feet high. The bark, which is formed from old leaves, is tough and fibrous. It was used by native americans for a variety of purposes, including the production of rope.

“Here is where Worth Bagley bit the dust at the hand of W.F. Keys, May 11 1943”

After entering the park I grabbed a campsite at Jumbo Rocks and headed towards Ryan Mountain – but just before I set out on my hike I turned back to check my car was locked… and found it hissing. Bad sign – there was a leak in one tire, presumably caused by the gravel all over the roads (a result of flash floods).

So I had to head back out to town to get the tire patched. Luckily, there are three fairly large towns near Joshua Tree (Yucca Valley, 29 Palms and Joshua Tree). After an hour waiting around, the job was done (for $20… I won’t complain).

View from Ryan Mountain

Then it was back to the mountain, although by this time it was after 10am and getting hot. Actually it was never as hot as I anticipated – although the thermometer hit 105 degrees the temperature could be cool in the shade. It was the intense sun that could prove grueling on some hikes. However, this 4 mile round trip, with an elevation gain of 1300 feet wasn’t that bad. And the views were nice – all around the desert and many of the rock piles were visible. Here on the summit it was actually comfortable – a slight breeze was enough to keep the temperature tolerable.

Lost Horse Mine – perhaps the stereotypical gold mine.

After finishing that hike, I went on another – a 6 mile loop to an abandoned mine. There’s a lot of enduring evidence of people in the desert here. A mile in, a rock shack. And then the mine itself – an operation which produced 9000 ounces of gold and at one point employed 30 people, it looked exactly like an old west mine. Its elderly owner, alone at the mine, was found dead in 1926 and it’s been abandoned ever since.

Jackrabbits are an occasional sight. They’re tolerant of people and use their ears to regulate heat.

It was neat to traipse around here. There were a lot of smashed, contemporary beer bottles, nails, cans, and other artifacts. The mine itself was neat, but unfortunately it was fenced in and impossible to look inside.

The results of a desert wildfire. Absolute desolation.

During the rest of the hike I really began to appreciate the power of the sun – it was draining in the same way as altitude sickness, though more subtle: you simply moved slower than normal. Thankfully, deep cloud cover provided me some shelter – but the 6 mile hike felt like 9. Along the way there were a ton of Joshua trees to look at. The cliches in the visitor’s center are that the desert is full of life, and that is true in a way. Most of the ground is covered with some sort of brush, there are joshua trees and yucca, birds and hundreds of small, lightning-fast lizards.

The gorgeous Jumbo Rocks campground

That night I stayed out of my tent and climbed some rocks near my site, where I was able to watch the stars come out. It was quite a show: about an hour after sundown the Milky Way was visible, and there were several shooting stars, many planes flying to LAX, satellites, and of course the stars. Many, many times more stars than are visible on the East Coast (the dry desert air makes a huge difference in visibility – and of course the distance from people). The lack of stars is one of the most disappointing things, for me, about NYC. Only perhaps 10 (!) are visible through all the streetlights. Here there were thousands and thousands.

There was still water behind the dam in the beginning of September.

The next morning I wanted to check out a few shorter trails: Barker’s Dam and Wall Street Mill. In addition to mining, there were people ranching out here (in the desert!) the climate grew drier at the start of 20th century and the ranches began to disappear. The dam remained a small oasis: there were willows and other trees, hundreds of tiny spotted toads; desert mountain goats are reputed to be in the area, though I saw none. It was a beautiful area and a natural oasis even before the dam: there are ancient indian petroglyphs. These so-called ‘Disney Petroglyphs’ were painted over to make them more visible for the production of an early film.

Abandoned car near the Wall Street Mill

From the same parking lot, a trail leads to part of another mining operation, the ‘Wall Street Mine’ – named in 1929 before the crash. There’s a ton of abandoned stuff out there: a pueblo, multiple trucks, a windmill, and a mining mill for separating ore. It’s crazy seeing these old cars in the middle of nowhere – just pure desolation. They’re in pretty good condition, considering.

The mill, and rock piles.

After this hike I headed into town, having found the heat of a sunny day simply too much to be outside. The clouds returned again and I went and climbed around around some of the rock piles. These look pretty simple to climb from a distance, but the rocks are much larger than they look, the gaps broad or deep. It would easy to get wedged in or fall 20+ feet. I enjoyed wandering around, using my very basic climbing techniques. But I found that in many cases it was possible to easily climb up some section but very tough to get back down… it’s easy to get trapped.

An iguana, pretty rare in the park

I got stuck for a while and was slow getting back to the campground, which I found rained out. I’d unfortunately set up my tent right in the path of flooding and found everything soaked. No problem, it just smelled like gym clothes.

Climbed this pile of rocks, which is about 50 feet high.

The following morning I left extremely early to head to the Grand Canyon, in Arizona.