We left Burr Trail Road, land of switchbacks and slot canyons and really nice pit toilets, and headed north through Capitol Reef National Park on Notom-Bullfrog Road. There were no gates; I guess if you can make it in the back way, they figure you’ve earned that $10 entrance fee. We followed a dirt path no wider than a driveway - or as Jim called it, a “no-lane road.” The earth’s layers were bent and folded in a monocline, a one-sided uplift of its crust. To the left of this rutted road was an escarpment that dropped to a valley of shrubs and rough, tumbled rocks. To the right was an undulating mass of granite that looked like a giant had dragged a paintbrush dipped in burnt sienna along its comparatively smooth surface.
Nearly three hours after we’d left Deer Creek Campground we came to a dead end at UT-24. Across the beautiful paved two-lane were restrooms and a large stone sign for the park. On our way out of the facilities we passed a couple of gentlemen who were traveling in a pickup truck.
“Mornin’,” the tall one said.
“Morning! How are you?”
“If I was any better I’d have to be twins.”
Those little interactions with strangers are the candy-coated sprinkling of travel. We laughed, tipped our hats, and then took the obligatory picture with the Capitol Reef National Park sign before getting back into Mae and heading east on the asphalt. After driving on a former cattle path and a washboard-rutted dirt road the pavement felt smooth as glass.
As we drove away from the waterfold the landscape became more subtle, changing from ivory and red and green to a matte gray. The valley opened up and we quickly covered the miles, stopping for a quick break at a gas station built into the rocks. You cannot not stop at a gas station that’s built into the rocks. By that time we were back in the land of red sandstone, and we continued driving until we approached one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever seen.
Entering Goblin Valley was like stepping onto Mars, if the red planet had oxygen and a $15 entrance fee. There was a teaser before entering the park: the Three Sisters formation stood in the valley like abandoned chess pieces, but nothing could prepare us for the sight of the valley itself, even though I had been there nearly a decade before. I could not wait for Jim to experience the same amazed and shocked reaction that I’d had.
We parked Mae and gazed at a basin of goblins frozen in time as if they’d looked askance at Medusa. Some think the oddly-eroded hoodoos resemble mushrooms, like a red clay version of the fungi from Fantasia interrupted in between animations. The science behind the scene is less entertaining than a mythical being or an abandoned claymation project. It’s simple erosion: soft sandstone is crowned by hard rock, and water and time gradually chiseled away until what was left was this freakish landscape.
We scrambled down to the valley floor and wandered among the hoodoos. All told we were probably only there for an hour, but this was a place that stuck in our minds.
On the way out we stopped at the entrance and gift store to ask about potential campgrounds. Just like the day before, a ranger pulled out a map to point us in the right direction; this gent suggested we stay at one of the many BLM sites in the area.
We’d met BLM back in the Alabama Hills near Bishop, California. BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management. This organization, an amalgamation of the former General Land Office and the Grazing Service, is responsible for more than a quarter of a billion acres of public lands in the United States - one eighth of the country’s land mass. The agency manages national monuments and wilderness areas and its mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations." Basically, that land is our land.
While there are a few sites east of the Mississippi, they only encompass about 15,000 acres. By contrast, the BLM manages almost 23 million acres of public land in Utah. That’s nearly 42 percent of the state. That translates into lots of open places that we the people can enjoy any time we want. Some of these places, like Deer Creek Campground, have fees, but they’re not much. We paid just $10 for our campsite. Others are free. The difference is usually due to whether or not they have any facilities. And by any, I mean any facilities. Dispersed camping, as it’s called, is just you, Mother Nature, and whatever you can carry.
Our friendly ranger directed us to one of those dispersed camping sites just north of Moab. He didn’t say “dispersed camping,” and even if he did we wouldn’t have known what it meant. He just gave directions very similar to Ranger Mike’s (the road’s going to wind and then straighten out and then you’ll look for a lone pinyon pine next to a rotting sign post and there it’ll be - those kind of directions). We followed them and ended up in a beautiful and completely facility-free campground. That would have been OK. We’ve peed in the woods. We’ve gone days without showering. We had our Coleman stove and a full canister of propane. We didn’t need a pit toilet (even a really nice one) or a fire pit. But what we didn’t have was a portable toilet, and the sign said that you had to have a portable toilet. When you camp on BLM land, at least this BLM land, you bring out what you brought in - every bit of it. The area around Moab and Arches National Park is so popular that the sheer quantity of human feces that’s produced by campers is a legitimate health issue for both the people and the land itself.
The things we learned on this trip...
March in Moab is high season. We drove down one back road and another and followed the Colorado River in search of a campsite. All of them were full. Horse Thief Hollow. Granstaff. Drinks Canyon. Cowboy Camp. It was six in the evening and we were getting hungry and tired. Did we need to drive to Monticello and get a hotel? We couldn’t get one in Moab - we couldn’t afford it. Jim drove south and I continued to search Google maps until I finally said “turn left here.”
“Here” was Ken’s Lake Campground. Just ten miles south of Moab, it was serene and sparsely populated, with only five of its thirty-one campsites occupied. We had a spacious site with a table and a fire ring just a short walk to the pit toilets. The sun set behind red rocks and rose over the snow-capped La Sal peaks. The lake was a manmade reservoir in the Spanish Valley created by diverting nearby Mill Creek. I walked a short distance in the morning to see its shimmering surface, nodding to my fellow early-risers. It was quiet, peaceful.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but it was our last night of camping on this journey. It was a good last night.
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