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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Great Colorado Countryside

The journey down from the mountain passes towards Great Sand Dunes National Park continued through the afternoon. We stopped where we could to take pictures of the marvelous countryside.

At last the passes opened up into a much bigger sort of plain, one which had flat land as far as the eye could see. The patchwork of giant squares formed by the intersection of straight country roads every few miles was divided evenly between empty barren spaces and large, dry-looking commercial farms. The mountains stretched out along the edges of the horizon to either side.


Ouray, the Million Dollar Highway, and the Marvels of Colorado

One of the highlights of our journey northward into Colorado was to be the San Juan Skyway, also known as the "Million Dollar Highway", which winds through the heart of the Rocky Mountains. During our time exploring Mesa Verde, though, we had to keep a wary eye on the horizon, where the clouds were gathering and darkening throughout the morning. By the time we were ready to leave, a sporadic light rain had begun to fall and we weren't sure if we'd be able to ride far at all.

Under those conditions, we left Mesa Verde and headed for Durango, CO. I really don't remember a whole lot of the ride because I was busy boring holes in the clouds ahead with my eyes, trying to discern their direction and intent. There were moments when there was nothing but blue skies above the crown of the mountains and two turns later we'd be heading directly into the darkened grey abyss. Luckily for us, the actual rain held off.


Four Corners and Mesa Verde National Park

I slept a solid 10 hours after the Grand Canyon hike and awoke feeling refreshed and ready for the next leg of our trip. My friend from Texas and I packed up our campsite and set off traveling east towards Colorado. Some of the journey backtracked across the same wide open desert we'd traversed a few days prior, but it was a pleasant ride and not terribly challenging. The desert transitioned eventually into a sort of scraggly shrubland.

We stopped off at the Four Corners monument, which is pretty much a tourist trap designed to sell Navajo crafts but a point of interest nonetheless.


The Grand Canyon: Rim to River and Back

The ride from Moab to the Grand Canyon was a long 350 mile day but took us through some of the most classically amazing western vistas I've seen yet.
Things started out fairly desolate but, by the time we stopped for brunch in Monticello, UT, we were surrounded by a huge forest and dozens of signs warning about deer accidents.

That reminder of geographic variability didn't last too long before the trees thinned out and we were again given a clear view to the horizon. After a time, the only features to break up the emptiness were the broken husks of ancient farms and the occasional high voltage transmission lines bringing power from the dirty coal units of the Four Corners area to clean-conscious California.


Canyonlands National Park

Tuesday morning I awoke bathed in sweat. We'd slept in after the full-moon photography of the night before and I'd bundled up pretty well to fight the evening chill. It didn't take long, though, before the mercury began to rise once the sun had risen above the horizon. I was left tired and uncomfortable to greet the new day.

Despite that inauspicious start, my temperament quickly improved once we hit the road and began to push towards Canyonlands National Park. The park isn't quite as close to Moab as Arches had been but it was still a very manageable hop to get there. The way began as a cross-desert trek through red dirt country and finished with long climbs among the layered cliffs and rounded domes and scraggly trees that make this part of the country unique.


Arches National Park

Moab is an off-roading town. The last curve of the highway emerges from between massive red cliffs that reach a thousand feet in the air and it is impossible not to notice all the jeeps and 4-wheelers parked along the street at the edge of town. There are outfitters on every corner offering to take you crawling or dirt biking or even on a stretched hummer off-roading tour. When I first pulled in, my cruiser seemed a bit out of place among all the dirt bikes that buzzed up and down the main strip.

I met my friend who had ridden in from Denver and we caught up over an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet downtown (and we definitely came out on top of that deal) before heading back to the campsite to set up. It was great catching up but we had a lot planned for the following day so we wanted to grab what rest we could. For the first evening in many, the threatening clouds didn't even produce any rain.


Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park was another complete wildcard in my book. I really had no idea what to expect. On the ride in the day before, I'd seen the thousand-foot ridge line stretching to the horizon and knew that it was another macro feature of the Grand Staircase. The cliff towers over the many smaller mesas and canyons nearby.

I followed the road along the ridge, stopping at whatever features looked interesting. I was particularly tickled to see the famous Chimney Rock, another remnant, I suppose, from all those years of learning about the pioneers in grade school. The road passed through the arid landscape of orange rock and dry washes and strangely shaped outcroppings until it eventually led to the park entrance.


The Road to Capitol Reef and the Most Beautiful Place Ever

Route 12 didn't start out looking like much. Maybe I was already getting biased after what I'd seen over the past few days, but I wasn't terribly impressed when I started heading north towards Capitol Reef National Park. I rode for miles alongside small canyons, short mesas and lightly forested countryside under a dreary sky.

I slowly began to notice the smells. Anyone who's been reading for a while knows how important it is to me for a place to have inviting smells. Utah, up until that point, had been almost strangely devoid of any particular odor. Perhaps all that time spent out among the desert sands had overwhelmed my olfactory senses, but I definitely noticed it when we started getting into a more agriculturally inclined patch of countryside. It washed over me like a refreshing warm rain and immediately made me feel more connected to the land around. Shortly thereafter, the ride improved markedly.


Bryce Canyon National Park

I left Zion amidst intermittent bursts of sun showers. There is a long tunnel at the eastern end of the park which is like a wormhole to a very different type of scenery. From the sheer sculpted cliffs of the canyons before, you emerge into a landscape of sloped and shifting sandstone shale dotted with the few trees hardy enough to find purchase.

Once the shale had been left behind, the 90 miles to Bryce Canyon passed through some surprisingly green countryside. Cliffs and mesas of reddish rock, however, loomed ever closer on the horizon. The road finally turned and it wasn't long before I'd rounded a bend and found myself surrounded by minarets the color of a blushed tangerine, called Red Canyon. I stopped and scrambled up the fractured rock and dirt hillside for a better view of the strange spires. It was a neat and surreal world, where the towers looked like they would crumble to the ground at the slightest provocation, leaving nothing behind but piles of rubble.


Zion National Park

Several years ago, when the seed of the idea for this kind of trip had just barely begun to germinate, I already knew that I had to find my way to Zion. It's long held this sort of mystique as a hidden and mystical gem that people are more apt to describe with a shake of the head and a sigh than any particular turn of phrase. I would have been jittery and excited even had I not drank a 1/3 cup of coffee the morning I went to visit the park (a whole lot for me).

I awoke before dawn and hit the road, trying to get into the park and on the first shuttle bus from the visitor's center at 7am. Zion rightly attracts millions of visitors a year. I'd pored over TripAdvisor looking for the best ways to experience it and one consistent piece of advice was to get there early to avoid the crowds.