Part 5 — The Rockies

This is part 5 in a series documenting my grand tour across the US.

This is the fifth and final installment of my series on our road trip across the US. Here I cover the high desert of Utah and the Southwest, part of what the National Park Service refers to as “The Rockies”. To me, I know it as the most photogenic area in all of the US and where possible, I’ll try to let the photos do the talking.

This area has one of the highest concentrations of public lands of anywhere in the world. In the two states we visited on this trip there are eight National Parks: Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Great Sand Dunes in Colorado and Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands in Utah.

We actually hit up Utah twice — once on the way out East and then again on our way back. But overall, our route looked something like the following:

Colorado

One of the main ways to navigate the park system in Colorado is to take the Colorado Scenic Byway of San Juan Skyway. There’s several iconic drives in the US. This is one of them. Several times you’re required to cross 11,000 feet passes with spectacular views and drop-offs.

There’s something magical about driving through the old cowboy towns found within the mountains of Colorado. Just North of Alamosa, was our first stop — Great Sand Dunes. This was the fourth sand dune that we visited and no less spectacular.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO
Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO

After this was the wonderfully named Black Canyons of the Gunnison. In contrast to the gradually rising views of the Great Sand Dunes, here you witness jagged, unforgiving rocks and harsh drop offs. I spoke to a ranger who admitted that this was the best place for fishing, hiking, climbing and outdoor activities in all the US. He released this information only after being pressed, torn between pride in this beautiful area and not wanting his secret to be spread too far for fear of it being overrun with visitors.

Black Canyons of the Gunnison, CO

Utah

If ever I’ve had the feeling of “returning home”, it’s in the public lands of Utah. Here I feel an almost inexplicable sense of peace and completeness. The canyons, rocks and deserts speak to me to a depth that I have experienced in few other places.

When we arrived in Utah, we were almost immediately met by a Southern Utah winter storm. We were staying in Kanab at the time, attempting to obtain a permit to “The Wave” in Coyote Buttes North. In snow storms, my first instinct is to head out somewhere with open, expansive views. Fortunately we were only an hour’s drive from the Coral Pink Sand Dunes.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, UT

I was here two years ago in similar weather conditions but quite different circumstances. It was the winter of 2015, just a few months after we had lost our dog Rio of 10 years. We’d wanted to adopt a brother to our blind dog Sora on that trip, visiting rescues along the way. Unfortunately, we’d failed to find a good match for him and the evening I realized our hopes had been dashed, we drove out to this same park under a similar blanket of snow. With a heavy heart, I found the beauty of this place to be healing and I took this photo. It has served as a treasured memory ever since.

This time I was able to return to the exact same place, but with very different emotions. Not long after we returned from our 2015 Utah trip, we’d met and adopted Momo, who has been a wonderful dog and companion to both us and Sora ever since. A smile crept across my face as I was able to recreate the moment from two years previous, this time with one more family member.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, UT

After failing to win a permit for The Wave, we chose to head out to White Pocket, a remote location of Paria Canyon. This is a 2 hour (each way) drive down an isolated dirt / sand track. Recent snow made the drive especially treacherous but with an equal measure of persistence and luck, we white-knuckled it out to the location. Right at the end of the road, adrenaline and poor judgement got the better of me and I grounded my car on a deep section of snow and sand. It was 10 miles from the nearest house or a cell phone signal. Fortunately, we met a wonderful couple driving a military style jeep who helped me back out. I didn’t make the same mistake twice and managed to get up and out of the section, slightly older and wiser for the experience.

Photos don’t really do justice to White Pocket. It’s an eerily beautiful area that feels a million miles from civilization and the regular worries of the world.

White Pocket, UT
White Pocket, UT

From here we were in more familiar territory. We stopped by Arches National Park, with its incomparable rock formations:

Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, UT

Also Canyonlands. It’s exceptionally hard to pick a favorite National Park, but this place is probably it for me. It has the same breathtaking visual impact of Grand Canyon with perhaps 1% of the number of visitors in Winter. Some of my fondest memories of my time in the US have been within this park’s vast boundaries.

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, UT

We also made it back to Capital Reef, hiking up to a view of Chimney Rock at sunset:

Capitol Reef National Park, UT

As our trip through Utah started to come to an end, we stopped by Goblin Valley State Park for the first time. This area, once at sea level but now at 5,000 feet elevation has left a legacy of rocks that look better suited on Mars than Earth.

Goblin Valley State Park, UT

Fittingly, we saw someone who had taken the Mars reference to its logical conclusion.

Goblin Valley State Park, UT

Our final stop in Utah and on this trip was Bryce Canyon, the highest ledge of the Grand Staircase that runs through Utah. He we watched the sunset, reflected on 7 weeks of travel on the road and I took my last photo of the trip.

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

And so, at 7,000 feet above sea level, looking out on the famous landscape of Bryce Canyon, our grand tour of the US came to a close. I’ve lived and worked on three continents, but never had the chance to travel like this before — with such space and freedom. Through those 50 days of the open road, we learned so much about this country, but more importantly learned about ourselves. I’m still processing the parts of me which feel permanently altered from the experience.

If you made it this far in following my photos and words of our journey, I thank you deeply for your attention. Your quiet presence has been an important motivator for me to put my own thoughts down on paper.

A few months ago, I started my journey with a quote from John Muir. It seems only fitting to close this chapter with another one.

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
John Muir
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