We spent the end of September in a comfortable camp outside of Moab Utah straddled between Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. It was spectacular, but now we were ready for the more remote deserts, canyons and high plains of southeastern Utah. So, on October 3rd we packed up and moved south, into the outback and The Trail of the Ancients.
We dropped down from the high plateaus around Moab into the warmer deserts around Monticello along quirky highway 191. We passed Wilson’s Arch, my namesake, before turning off at highway 211 towards the southeastern entrance of Canyonlands National Park stopping at Newspaper Rock, a slab of sandstone covered in ancient petroglyphs.
Driving on towards Canyonlands, we stopped at some primitive BLM campsites, just $10/night with no water or services, but they were windblown and crowded. Finally, we drove down Lockhart Road, a gravel ranch road, to a dispersed camping area, Indian Creek, just a few miles from the southeastern entrance into Canyonlands National Park and found our home for the next five days.
Dispersed camping; “boondocking”, “glamping” (glamorous camping). This means setting up on public lands in the outback with no water, no power, no bathrooms, no fire pits or picnic tables, and no garbage cans; collect your trash and pack it out. There’s often no cellular signal either, but the cost is free. Since we were self-contained with water, food, propane, a bathroom, and electrical power from our solar panel and generator, we didn’t need any campground services. And, since we were now at 1,200 feet lower elevation than Moab, it was distinctly warmer.
We found a roomy, level camp area overlooking a canyon of hamburger-shaped rocks. With just a few other campers far away and out of sight, it was perfect. We set up our generator, outdoor kitchen, outdoor shower, outdoor lounging area and dug an outdoor latrine (extends the capacity of our black water waste tank). Then we relaxed, watching a bright, full moon rise over the canyons and mesas all around us, bathing the whole valley in a pale light almost bright enough to read by. It was dead quiet and spectacular.
The next morning we explored Lockhart Road, a four-wheel drive track leading from Indian Creek far out into the desert. It was beautiful, but by mid-afternoon, twenty miles of bouncing and grinding over slick rock and through wash outs in low range four-wheel drive took its toll on us and we returned to the trailer. I spent the afternoon hiking through the canyons just outside of our camp. It was all worth the effort.
The next day arrived cool, clear and sunny. Time to see The Needles, an area of sandstone pinnacles inside Canyonlands National Park. This part of Canyonlands is much more remote than the northern side near Moab. Even the entrance station here was closed and we signed into the park at the small visitors’ center inside the park ($28 entry, but free for us with my senior pass).
As you cross the park boundary you’ll see Needles Outpost, a small, privately operated RV park with a few dry-camp sites for $21/night, a basic store, and gasoline at $5/gallon (no diesel). But, they have a waste dump station for $10; a good thing to know since there aren’t any dump sites gasoline for fifty miles in any direction. In fact, there’s no place with RV hookups (electricity and sewer) anywhere near the southeastern entrance of Canyonlands, and many camping areas don’t have water either. You have to be prepared to “dry camp” when you come here, and we were.
We drove into Canyonlands to the small Squaw Flat campground to fill up our water jugs at the community water spigot there. Set in a pretty valley of juniper trees, meadows and squat rock formations, camping here is $15/night with no power, water at community spigots, and flush bathrooms with sinks. Only one site was large enough to accommodate our twenty eight foot-long trailer. It was nice a enough area, but we liked our spacious, private camp site at Indian Creek much better.
We drove out of the campground to Elephant Hill and the trailhead for Chesler Park, a fairly strenuous, six-mile round trip hike to a particularly striking section of The Needles. With temperatures in the seventies it was a perfect day for a long hike and loaded with water and a lunch we set off through the slick rock and across the desert.
The first two miles were an easy stroll through open valleys of strange rock formations and scrambles through narrow rock passages. The last mile into Chesler Park was considerably tougher; steep and rocky. But it was worth the effort when we passed through a narrow pass between two massive sandstone towers and saw Chesler Park spread out below us.
With a pair of ravens croaking at us from the rock towers above, the landscape opened to an extensive flat valley with a massive canyon of round, red and white rocks in the middle of it all. These canyons were surrounded by a seemingly endless badlands of red, needle-shaped towers hundreds of feet tall. A huge meadow of grass and sage brush separated the two. It looked like a gigantic manicured park, ten miles across, and it was magnificent. We spent the afternoon just watching the sun form shadows and patterns across the towers, canyons, and sage lands before us.
By mid-afternoon we started back, taking our time, marveling at the strange rocks all around us, and reached the truck by late afternoon, thirsty and tired. We drove out of the park to our quiet camp at Indian Creek, ate a dinner of lentil soup and pork chops, played a few games of dominoes, and watched the full moon light up the canyons around us. We turned in early. We were tired. Tomorrow we’d take it easy, but that night we slept like rocks.
The following morning we drove back into Canyonlands and took a few short hikes overlooking The Needles. By noon we returned to camp and decided to drive into Monticello, forty miles away, to do laundry and buy diesel fuel and groceries. We took a short cut to Monticello on a paved BLM road, # B101, through the Abajo Mountains. We didn’t realize what an amazing drive this would be.
As we drove up into the mountains we left the rusty red rock and somber green junipers of the lowlands behind and climbed up into a wonderland of pine, fir and aspen turning gold in the early October sun. A pair of bear cubs trotted across the road as we approached, looking back at us while we photographed them. A flock of wild turkeys crossed the road, not in any particular hurry. Cowboys on horseback rode by herding cattle down the road; fall roundup. At the top of the mountains we could see all the way across Canyonlands National Park to where we’d camped the week before above Moab.
We dropped down into dusty, sleepy Monticello, did our laundry, grocery shopped, fueled up, and drove back over the golden mountains to our camp at Indian Creek. Our little side trip had turned into quite a day.
The next day we relaxed in camp, doing minor repairs and maintenance, or just lounging around. We were getting ready to move on, but it was Saturday and we had learned not to travel on Fridays or Saturdays to increase our chances of getting better campsites.
On Sunday morning we left. Indian Creek had been great, but time to move on. We drove out of Canyonlands, south through Monticello and Blanding, and into the desert along “The Trail of the Ancients,” a series of small roads leading to the twin national monuments of Hovenweep and Canyon of the Ancients adjoining each other along the Utah/Colorado border.
Along with the more famous Mesa Verde National Monument further east in Colorado, Hovenweep and Canyon of the Ancients preserve the ruins of stone buildings built over a thousand years ago by the Pueblo culture. In fact, Hovenweep means “deserted valley” in Ute language.
There’s no fee to enter either Hovenweep or Canyon of the Ancients, but the only campground in the whole area is the small one at Hovenweep, (dispersed camping or boondocking is allowed in Canyon of the Ancients). We found a campsite large enough to park our twenty eight foot long trailer. There’s no water or power, but flush bathrooms with sinks and a strong Verizon cellular signal. It’s a bargain at $10/night (we paid $5 with my America the Beautiful senior pass). That night I walked out to the ruins along the rim of a small canyon near the campground, quite a sight in the moonlight. Then a strong, cold wind started blowing, shaking our trailer all night long.
By the following afternoon the wind hadn’t stopped and campground cleared out – we had it to ourselves. Bundled up against the cold wind we hiked the two-mile loop around the Hovenweep ruins, and they were impressive. Hand cut sandstone blocks had been fitted together to form three story towers perched precariously on the rim of a small canyon. One ancient house had been built inside of a gigantic hollow boulder, another on top of an inaccessible rock, others were hanging on to the edge of a cliff. No one knows why they were built, or why they were abandoned.
The next day the wind finally stopped and we drove into Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. First, we stopped at surprisingly hip Cortez, Colorado (yoga studios, marijuana dispensaries, organic foods). But, the ruins in Canyons of the Ancients were mostly rubble, not the impressive towers of Hovenweep. We returned to Hovenweep and took short hikes to Painted Hands and Cutthroat Tower ruins on the way back to camp, and those were worth the effort.
Hovenweep was worth the extra drive to see. But, it was mid-October and time to move on to the national parks and monuments of southwestern Utah. So, as coyotes serenaded us under a spectacular sunrise, we packed up and headed west. The first stop; Natural Bridges National Monument.