Oregon into Utah, September-October 2018:
We left the small Oregon ranching town of Enterprise in the beautiful Wallowa Valley on September 21st. We had reservations in an RV park outside of Albuquerque New Mexico on October 15th. So, we had almost three and half weeks to get from Oregon to New Mexico. Sounds like a road trip to me.
We planned our first stop at Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in southeastern Idaho for a couple nights. But, as sometimes happens, we took a “short cut” that ended up being hours longer than we planned and then missed our turnoff to the conservation area to boot. We ended up spending our first night in an interstate rest stop instead.
No matter, our next stop wasn’t too far away; City of Rocks National Reserve along the Idaho/Nevada border. But, we had violated our cardinal rule; never travel on weekends, and now it was Saturday. Since City of Rocks is pretty remote, we weren’t too worried about finding a camping spot. Wrong!
City of Rocks is a major rock-climbing area and all the camping areas were full of rock jocks from Salt Lake City and Boise and the weather in southern Idaho in late September was perfect. There is RV camping at nearby Castle Rock State Park, but it was full too and expensive at $30/night. As luck would have it, the rangers at the visitors’ center in tiny Almo Idaho had a place for us; Juniper Camp, a dispersed group camping area far out in the desert near the southern entrance to the area. With my senior America the Beautiful pass we paid $20 for three nights. We soon found out that the group camp at Juniper was about the only place in the park we could set up our 28 foot-long fifth wheel trailer anyway. Like most National Monuments, there’s no entrance fee for City of Rocks, but all the other campsites in the park are dry and small; no water (haul in your own), no power, no cellular signal, but clean pit-toilets and trash pick-up. If you’re towing anything larger than twenty feet, go to the state park.
We spent our time in City of Rocks hiking around Circle Creek, a spectacular canyon surrounded by towering granite pinnacles even made more beautiful with the aspen trees turning golden in the late September sun. Watching the rock climbers scaling the vertical cliffs reminding me of my rock-climbing days and, though I’m glad I climbed before, I wasn’t tempted to harness-up and go for it again. The hike around the area was just fine.
After that, it was southward to our first Utah destination; Bryce Canyon. But, Bryce is a long haul from City of Rocks. So, we picked a U.S. Forest Service campground as a mid-way stop between Idaho and Bryce Canyon and glad that we did. Maple Grove Campground outside of Scipio Utah on scenic highway 50 is an old forest service campground built in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s a spectacular place set in a shady forest of maple and pine hugging a massive red rock cliff with a bubbling trout stream running through it all.
Maple Grove Is a dry camp; no power, no dump station, very weak cellular signal (Verizon), and no trash pickup (pack it in, pack it out). But it has clean pit toilets and a few community water spigots (water still on in late September). The camp sites are well separated and many are capable of handling the biggest rigs. When we arrived in late September, there were more wild turkeys and deer than people there. A trail leads into Rock Canyon from the top end of the camp, but we found it to be a steep slog through loose rock into a non-descript canyon. Still, Maple Grove was nice and a bargain at $15/night (half price for us with my senior pass). In fact, so nice that we stayed an extra day. Fill up with fuel and groceries before coming here – it’s a long way from anything.
From Maple Grove it’s an easy 2 1/2-hour drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce costs $35/car to enter with camping an additional $30/night for RVs, $20/night for tents. With my senior pass the entry fee was waived and we paid half price for camping. There are two campgrounds; North Campground and Sunset Campground. Both are first come, first served (with a few reservable sites). The campground was half full when we arrived at noon, and full by late afternoon. Many of the sites in both campgrounds are small, about half of them large enough to handle larger RVs. Both campgrounds have flush bathrooms without showers, water at a community spigot, trash pickup and recycling, but no power. Cellular signal was weak to non-existent depending where you stand. There is a free dump station in the park near the North Campground or at the Sinclair gas station in nearby Bryce Canyon City for $10. We chose Sunset for the next two nights.
We quickly set up and then jumped onto the free shuttle; a bus that takes you to the major overlooks around the park. It was nice not having to drive and the shuttle comes by every ten minutes or so. We jumped off the shuttle at Bryce Point to hike along the rim of the canyon back to Sunset Point. Even though we’d been to Bryce before, the views across the armies of orange, pink and white rock pinnacles with the gigantic white and red cliffs of the Grand Staircase of the Escalante far off in the distance was astounding. At over 8,000 feet elevation we expected Bryce to be cold in late September, but the weather was perfect with cool nights and sunny warm days.
The next morning we packed a lunch and drove past the park entrance gate to the Fairyland Trail, an eight-mile loop through the Bryce Canyon Wilderness Area. We hiked down into the canyon lands and spent the whole day wandering through a surreal landscape of standing rock interspersed with ponderosa pine forests. The Fairyland Trail is somewhat strenuous and there’s no water, so go in prepared. Even in late September we drank all four liters of water that we brought with us. But what a day and a fitting end to our brief stay at Bryce.
We moved eastward, following amazing highway 12 through the Grand Staircase National Monument to Capitol Reef National Park and another one of our favorite camping spots; Sunglow, a small U.S. Forest Service campground near tiny Bicknell, Utah about fifteen miles west of Capitol Reef. It’s a rustic camp set against red rock cliffs with a community water spigot, a flush bathroom with sinks, and trash pickup at dumpsters. No power, very weak cellular (Verizon), and $12/night ($6/night for us with my senior pass). There are four or five sites large enough for our 28-foot long fifth wheel trailer, but once again we had violated our rule not to travel on weekends (it was Friday) and once again lucked out arriving at noon and getting the last camp site available. A steady stream of small RVs came rumbling through for the rest of the day into the evening, probably looking for camping spots after finding the campground at Capitol Reef full. Now at the end of September the day was warm, in the mid-eighties, and we changed into shorts for the first time in months.
We spent out time in Capitol Reef hiking up Grand Wash, a massive canyon and an easy walk; the canyon bottom so wide and flat it was used by early Mormon pioneers as a wagon road. Still, the canyon is impressive with water sculpted rocks and the walls closing in to a wagon-width apart at “the narrows.” Before we returned to camp we stopped a Fruita, the park’s visitors’ center and hub of the old pioneer community. There we bought a few of their small, but famous, pies made from apples harvested from the 140-year old orchards planted by the original pioneers.
From Capitol Reef we drove scenic highway 12 to interstate 70 and then south to Moab to visit Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Along the way we stopped to hike around another of our favorite spots in Southern Utah; Goblin Valley State Park. Even having been here before, the shallow valley full of fantastically shaped sandstone “goblins” awed us as it had the first time we visited this special place and we wandered for hours through the labyrinth of weird formations.
We arrived outside of Moab in early afternoon and made a bee-line to one of our favorite camping spots in the area; Horsethief, a Bureau of Land Management campground situated high on a juniper-covered ridge just a few miles outside of the entrance to Canyonlands National Park. Typical of BLM desert campgrounds, there’s no water, no power, no dump station, but clean pit toilets. NOTE: The nearest place to refill drinking water bottles is the visitors’ center in Canyonlands National Park. Nearest place to fill RV water tanks is the Maverick station in Moab. The Verizon cellular signal was too weak to use, but with our signal booster we could amplify it to the point we could get online.
There’s plenty of space for RVs of any size at Horsethief, the camp sites are well spaced apart, and its location near Canyonlands, Arches, and Dead Horse Point State Park make it a perfect base from which to explore the area. It’s $15/night ($7.50/night for us with my senior pass). NOTE: In October camping fees at Horsethief rise to $20/night).
We drove into Canyonlands National Park to road’s end. There’s a $30 entrance fee into Canyonlands plus $15/night if you choose to camp in the small, 1st come 1st served campground there (dry camp by the spectacular Green River Overlook). From road’s end we made the easy one-mile walk out to Grand View Point where you can see both the Colorado and Green River canyons. Just a few miles south the two rivers meet to form the great canyons of the Colorado River. It’s a spectacular place.
We took other short hikes around Canyonlands, like mysterious Upheaval Dome and well named Whale Rock. The views were astounding in every direction including things close by; the twisted junipers, the bright orange and green lichens, the ancient pinyon pines. And then, the rains came in earnest and I fell sick; food poisoning from a local restaurant.
Even sick, we spent the next day in Arches National Park. Like Canyonlands, there’s a $30/car entrance fee (entrance fee waived for us with my senior pass). There’s a small, crowded campground at the Devil’s Garden, but it’s almost always full. We made the 3-mile round trip hike to Delicate Arch, the iconic red rock arch featured on Utah’s license plates and tourist magazines. The hike was crowded, and just mildly strenuous, but I barely made it, still fighting off the food sickness that would keep me in bed for the next two days. Still, it was well worth the effort with the arch so strangely standing alone on a smooth rib of slick rock.
After a week at Horsethief I’d healed enough to travel, so we hitched up and headed south to our last stop in Utah; Goosenecks State Park, a remote small park along the Arizona border overlooking the deep canyons of the San Juan River. We dumped our waste tanks and filled our water tank and drinking water jugs at Maverick station on the south side of Moab (free dump station). We were preparing for another week of remote camping in waterless camps – dry camping as RVers call it.
Not sure what to expect, we drove the two plus hours south of Moab through tiny Bluff Utah and out to Goosenecks State Park; a small, basic place with a pit toilet, and that’s all. For $10/night there’s no water, no power, no dump station, no cellular signal, and not it’s near anything else. But, it’s located on the rim of a 1,000-foot deep canyon overlooking the S bends (goosenecks) of the San Juan River far below. And, the magnificent spires of Monument Valley and the ruins of Canyon de Chelly and Navajo National Monument are all day trips out of Goosenecks. There are a few campsites with picnic tables and a fire ring, but most of the camping is dispersed along the rough, half-mile rim road snaking away to the south of the park entrance. That’s where we set up, fifty feet away from the edge of the canyon. Any size rig that can handle the rough, rocky road along the rim can fit in here. But, it’s a boondocking place, so fill up on water, food, beer and fuel before coming out here. (NOTE: fuel, including diesel, and basic supplies available in Bluff and surprisingly pleasant Mexican Hat).
We spent a day driving to Kayenta Arizona and then 20-miles out to Navajo National Monument; a small, remote area the well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan ruins of Betatakin tucked away in a massive rock alcove in beautiful Tsegi Canyon. There’s no entrance fee for Navajo National Monument. Tours to the ruins were cancelled due to recent rains making the trails impassible, but we could walk to the overlooks and short trails around the canyons. We thoroughly enjoyed the peace of this remote park.
For future reference, we checked out the two, free campgrounds in the park; Canyonview, the more primitive campground with unpaved roads, but with some spaces large enough to squeeze our trailer into and set on the canyon rim. Sunset campground has paved roads, but smaller camp sites set closer together. Both campgrounds are dry, no water, no power, but with surprisingly good cellular signals and immaculate pit toilets. There is a water bottle fill station in the monument visitors’ center, otherwise bring your own. The day at Navajo National Monument was very pleasant.
The next day we drove the twenty-five miles to Monument Valley Tribal Park on the Utah/Arizona border, operated by the Navajo Nation. For $20 we received a permit to drive the 17-mile loop through Monument Valley on a very rough and rocky road. Here are the iconic views of standing pinnacles as seen in hundreds of western movies. It was impressive, but crowded and, typical of tribal areas, no hiking allowed.
From there we drove back on highway 163 towards Bluff and turned off onto the signed, road to the Valley of the Gods (actually the northern end of Monument Valley). This 17-mile long backcountry loop was more to our liking. Just a sandy BLM road through isolated valleys of standing rocks and few people. There’re no developed campgrounds, water, or anything else out here and, halfway through, we had to put the truck in 4-wheel drive to get through a deep, dry wash. But, you can camp and hike wherever you want. We decided we’d be back to boondock there with our trailer, probably next spring. The place was magnificent. NOTE: To haul a trailer into the Valley of the Gods you have to enter from the east on highway 163 below Bluff Utah and can get about ten miles in before deep washes prevent hauling a trailer any further.
The Valley of the Gods loop comes out on the west side at Utah highway 261, just below the infamous Moki Dugway switchbacks leading down from a high canyon rim. We drove up highway 261 to see if we could haul our trailer down the switchbacks in the future. The answer was a resounding, “no way!” The views fantastic, but the grade was narrow and unpaved with rubble washed across the roadway and hairpin tight curves. Also, the road through the Valley of the Gods from highway 261 is considerably rougher than the other end of the road coming in from highway 163 to the east.
Goosenecks was a spectacular ending of our trip through southern Utah. From here we will travel through Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde National Park before dropping into New Mexico. But we’ll be back to camp in the Valley of the Gods or Goosenecks again. There’s nowhere like southern Utah.