Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

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Sunrise in Goblin Valley

Sunrise over Goblin Valley I woke up before sunrise. This gave me time to pack up, drive the short distance from the campground into Goblin Valley, and still be ready for the first rays of the sun to touch the rock formations in the valley.

I hiked across the entire valley and set up the tripod so it pointed towards the goblins and mesa behind. The sun appeared shortly before 7am, and I started shooting. After about ten or fifteen minutes, the sun disappeared behind a cloud, and I was almost prepared to leave, thinking okay, so that was the sunrise. Fortunately, the cloud cover cleared up again, and I found myself in the middle of the goblins, which were coloured a strong red brown colour and casting long shadows.

I took more pictures and panoramas, and was back on the road before 8am.

Driving White Rim Drive in Canyonlands National Park

My next destination was Canyonlands National Park. I had been harbouring the idea of driving the White Rim Drive for over three years - since first seeing it from the canyon rim high above, in fact. Having the Blazer finally afforded me the opportunity to drive this rough 70 mile dirt road.

On the highway to the park, I stopped a few times on the road, but essentially wasted no time in getting towards my main goal for the day. Timing was important - while there's camping spots along the White Rim Drive, one needs permits for that, and I didn't particularly feel like going to the Visitor Center to get one. Which meant that I would have to complete the entire road in one day. [Which looks mighty stupid when put in writing now, but made sense to me back then.]

Shafer Switchbacks descending from the upper rim in Canyonlands Canyonlands is really on three elevation levels - the rim, a plateau, and the rivers. The start of the White Rim Drive is a number of switchbacks that quickly lead you from the canyon rim down to the plateau below. The Shafer Switchbacks - a former cattle trail - were bumpy, but not all that challenging... there were a couple of holes and rocks, but the high clearance of the Blazer made that no issue whatsoever.

The temperature increased as I dropped in elevation, and the day progressed. It would reach over 100°F throughout the day.

After the switchbacks, the road leveled out. I stopped to download pictures from my camera, and look back at the imposing walls of the rim, above. It was hard to imagine there was any road going down, and it brought back memories of hiking down into the Grand Canyon, except that doing it by car was much less strenuous.

My first real stop was at Mussleman Arch. This is an impressive arch formed by erosion - its top is level with the plateau, and forms a small bridge over the canyon below. Even though it's sturdy - people who have the nerve can easily walk over it - it will inevitably tumble in the depths below, but whether that's in ten or ten thousand years is difficult to say.

This part of the road was still mildly popular - there were two other 4WD vehicles at the Arch, and during the first hour on the road I also met several Jeep Wranglers (probably rented in Moab). However, it seems that most people only did the first 10 to 20 miles of the road... I would only meet two other groups on the remaining fifty miles.

Driving over a little rock, and lots of air on the White Rim Drive in Canyonlands The road hugs the rim of the plateau a lot of the time, so there's spectacular views to be head both below, and to the rim above. At times, the road is just rock on the edge of the rim, and when you get out and look at it you see that you've been driving on maybe ten or fifteen feet of rock, and below that there's air, since the rock is arched.

As the odometer slowly but steadily increased, I was making notes of how long the White Rim Drive had taken to drive so far, and calculating how long it would still take. I wanted to make sure that I would get through it before sunset, and there was a near-constant threat of obstacles on the road or weather changes that might force me to backtrack.

I could have stopped every few hundred feet to take in new views, and take pictures - and often enough I did. The scenery probably offers the starkest possible contrast to my home country, so everything is just strange, and novel to me. When I watched the Coyote and Road Runner race around on TV as a child, I didn't expect there would be a place that would resemble those sceneries so much.

I made slow, but steady progress; and counted off one mile after the other. The ride was bumpy, but not all that challenging. More than once though, I'd look in my mirror and see my suitcase bounce around in the trunk - the Blazer was sure taking a beating.

At half past two, I reached what I believe was Murphy Hogback. I had read about it before my trip, and the description had slightly intimidated me. One of my worries all the way up to here had been that it would be too challenging for my rental car and driving capabilities, and that I would need to turn back. Fortunately, this turned out not to be the case.

I turned on low gears, moved forward in my seat so I would have a better view, and slowly drove up the steep incline. I would be in trouble if anybody wanted to drive down at the same time I drove up - there were no turnouts whatsoever, and I didn't particularly wanted to use reverse on a road that was challenging me just when going forward. In the end, I needn't have worried - I made it to the top without any trouble.

I continued driving, still stopping for pictures quite often, and encountered a few more spots that were challenging, but that got gradually less upsetting as my esteem of the Blazer's capabilities, and my own driving increased.

Gradually, the sky had lost a lot of its blue, and rain clouds had started accumulating. I was hoping they would only strike once I reached roads that were improved.

White Rim Drive close to Green River As I got closer to Green River, the road changed from mostly open terrain to hugging the rim. Once again, I was looking at few if any turn-outs, and a one-lane road that was built into a steep incline.

Near the end of the drive, which was also close to the National Park boundary, I encountered one last challenge - the road turned sandy, and at one point crossed a small wash. I got out to look at it, deemed the drop and subsequent climb up to be manageable by the Blazer, and drove through it. I touched ground (that is, loose sand), and gave it full throttle so as not to get stuck. I got out without a scratch, but the thrill got my heart rate up enough to forget taking a picture of it all.

[In retrospect, it's funny re-living those experiences. Often enough, I'll wonder, "was that a dangerous situation, or do I just have a tendency to over-estimate any possible threat?". Either way, I could have gotten stuck here, and there could have been a thunderstorm and flash flood to damage the Blazer. Or an experienced driver in the same situation would have looked at the obstacle, sneered, and deemed it to be little more than a bump in the road. Hard to tell.]

There was one final climb, up some switchbacks and away from Green River. I had regained the upper plateau, and was on the way back to Moab. It started raining heavily, and I was glad that I was on a wide, smooth (even if still unpaved) road back to civilisation. I celebrated by having a nice, tasty Whopper at a Burger King in Moab.

Low fuel frights

The day wasn't over, however. As night approached, I was on my way into Colorado. I had neglected to fuel up in Moab, and suddenly realized that I had under-estimated the distance to the next gas station. The low-fuel light had come on, and I still had a long way to go.

After an agonizing drive over the interstate, I successfully made it to the first gas station in Colorado. It was closed. I was already imagining what it would look like if I ran out of fuel... the pulling off the road, coming to a stop on the narrow strip next to the road... would I just get out and walk to the next gas station? Or would I be better off just sleeping in the car and hitching a ride first thing in the morning? It was pitch-black night already, and I kept on worrying as I wondered what the most fuel-effective speed was.

I ended up finding a gas station that was open a few miles down the road, and headed up to Colorado National Monument, my destination for the night. I pulled up into the campground, got out again to pay for one night, and then drifted off to sleep.

Miles driven: 330mi (531km)

Campground Accommodation: Camp site 3 (Colorado National Monument): $10

Written May 17, 2005 in Luxembourg