House on Fire Hiking Tour with Ancient Wayves

House on Fire Hiking Tour with Ancient Wayves

Last year in early March our office held a ‘Be in the Know’ training for our local businesses and land managers to get geared up and get everyone on the same page for the upcoming tourism season. At the training we met Louis Williams, a local resident who was in the process of opening a guiding business called, ‘Ancient Wayves River and Hiking Adventures‘. Louis let us know that Ancient Wayves was a Navajo owned/operated guiding company, geared towards providing unique experiences through cultural sharing and storytelling.

I talked with Louis for quite a while, and was so excited to be able to start helping to get the word out about his new guiding business. Unfortunately COVID hit Utah a week later and our county pretty much shut down to visitation for a couple months, and, as we all know, the world hasn’t been the same since.

Louis and I have kept in touch since then, and just last week I had the opportunity to go out with him on a guided hike to House on Fire– a well known archaeological site in Bears Ears National Monument. As someone who has probably been to House on Fire at least ten times on my own, it’s a WHOLE different experience when you go with a guide!

House on Fire, located along Hwy 95 between Blanding, UT and Natural Bridges National Monument, has become a very popular site likely due to it’s proximity to Hwy 95 and the fact that it doesn’t require a 4WD or high clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead. It’s also less than a 3 mile round-trip hike to the site, so I’m sure the short hike helps too!

House on Fire is a popular stop for photographers because at certain times of the day when the lighting is just right, the coloration and patterns of the rock above the structure look like flames and smoke are coming out of the top. (I’ve heard people recommend both morning and evening for photographs, but I think as long as you aren’t there in the middle of the day with half sunlight and half shade on the structure, you’ll be able to get a good photo!)

Louis and I met at the trailhead at 8:00am and I was a little surprised to see that there was only one other vehicle at the trailhead- a Sprinter van that appeared to have camped there the previous night. Before we started Louis let me know that in regards to COVID, it’s Anceint Wayves’ standard procedure to do a temperature check before heading out on guided hikes, so he got out his infrared thermometer and took my temperature, which luckily was fine, so we were good to go!

As we started down the trail, Louis immediately started telling me about the rock layers in the canyon and describing how they were formed. He was extremely knowledgeable about geology and as he described things to me it really painted a picture in my mind of what this area might have looked like millions of years ago.

As we continued walking, he began pointing out different plants and telling me about some of the traditional uses for them in Navajo culture & medicine. I will admit, I’ve never been a person who has made much of an effort to learn the names of plants, but it was really interesting to hear about the different uses for each plant, for example he mentioned how sage is used in Navajo sweat lodges. I know that in the future when I see any of these plants, I’m going to remember what he told me they were used for… I might not remember all the names of everything, but I think I’ll remember the uses for them! He also told me that in the Navajo culture, there are specific songs you sing when you harvest different types of things such as Pinon Nuts and Prickly Pear fruit, which I thought was really interesting.

Louis Williams, owner of Ancient Wayves, at House on Fire in Bears Ears National Monument.
Louis Williams, owner of Ancient Wayves, describing the construction techniques of archaeological structures in Bears Ears National Monument.
Louis Williams, owner of Ancient Wayves, discussing archaeological sites in Bears Ears National Monument.

It seemed like no time at all had passed by the time we reached House on Fire, and we were both surprised to see that when we arrived, there was no one else there! We both took some photos, and Louis talked about the structures and how they were constructed, what they might have looked like when they were originally built, what they might have been used for, (granaries for storage, kivas for ceremonies or gatherings, etc.) and theories of why the Ancestral Puebloans left the area.

Even though I’ve visited many archaeological sites over the 12 years I’ve lived here, I’m by no means anything close to an expert on archaeology, geology, history, etc. I always appreciate the cultural & historical significance and the craftsmanship & artistry of the structures, petroglyphs, pictographs, pottery, tools, etc., but I’ve never felt compelled to study it to the point that I can recognize the time periods such as Basketmaker I, II, III, Pueblo I, II, III, IV, V, etc. So it’s always interesting to have the opportunity to hear about it from someone who knows more than I do, and Louis is definitely that person!

We probably spent about 25-30 minutes at House on Fire and we had the site to ourselves the entire time, which I really didn’t think was possible these days! As soon as we started heading back toward the trailhead, we began running into people on their way in to the site. I’d say we passed 6-7 couples, families, or individuals in the short hike back to the trailhead. So if you want to beat the crowds, 8:00am on a weekday worked for us!

Louis Williams, owner of Ancient Wayves, describing how to harvest Prickly Pear fruit.

On the hike back, Louis pointed out countless other plants and even brought to my attention that there are a few different varieties of Prickly Pear cactus in the area. Years ago when we first moved to Monticello, I had a Prickly Pear flavored drink at an area restaurant, and ever since then I’ve been curious about harvesting the fruit myself, but have never done it. Louis had a lot of great tips for harvesting the fruit, such as to burn the spines off to avoid getting them in your hands or, worse yet, in your mouth! I’m going to give it a try this year… After hearing Louis’s tips I feel confident that I can do it! (So if you see me out hiking with tongs later this summer, that’s what I’m doing!)

Not too far down the trail, we made a quick stop on a side-trail and spotted a couple small pieces of purple glass, which led us not only into a discussion about how old purple glass became purple, (Manganese dioxide was used as a decolorizer in the glass making process, but when exposed to UV rays for prolonged periods, it turns purple or pinkish.) but also into a discussion about the protection of historic artifacts.

I think it’s much more well known that you are not allowed to take any prehistoric artifacts such as pottery sherds, points, etc., that you find at archaeological sites, but I think far fewer people know that historic artifacts, which are defined as items that are 50 years old or older, are also protected by federal law. Friends of Cedar Mesa have a great video about this in their ‘Visit With Respect’ video series:

As always, when we share information about visiting archaeological sites, we also like to share a video on archaeological site etiquette. In the excitement of visiting an archaeological site, it can be easy to forget how fragile these structures are and how easily they can be damaged by people. This video is a good reminder to always make sure to refrain from touching, leaning, standing or climbing on any structures, no matter how solid they look. The ‘Visit With Respect’ video series offers helpful tips on how to ensure that our amazing archaeological sites like House on Fire, can be enjoyed by future generations.  If you’d like to view the rest of the videos in the series, please click HERE.

I had a wonderful morning visiting House on Fire with Louis and although I’ve been there many times on my own, this was definitely the most educational visit I’ve ever had! I’ve already shared some of the things I learned from Louis with my husband and son on our most recent outing over the weekend! (Thank you Louis, for helping me sound like I know what I’m talking about when I tell my 8.5 yr old son the things you taught me!)

I would definitely recommend a guided tour with Ancient Wayves to anyone who wants to learn more about the history, archaeology, geology, botany, and culture of Bears Ears National Monument and the surrounding region.

For more information on the wide range of guided trips that are available in San Juan County, be sure to check out the Guides & Outfitters page on our website. Some of the guided activities available include; hiking, backpacking, jeep tours, rafting & kayaking, ATV/OHV, bikepacking, climbing, canyoneering, photography, shuttle services, and more!

For more information or to request travel brochures, please call Utah’s Canyon Country at: 800-574-4386

Or e-mail us at: info@utahscanyoncountry.com

COVID-19 Travel Restrictions, Updates, and Alerts for San Juan County, Utah can be found HERE

Posted in Bears Ears National Monument, Cedar Mesa, Dog-friendly, Hiking, National Monuments, National Parks & Monuments, Ruins, Social Distancing-friendly, Things to do with kids, Tours/Guided Trips, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lower White Canyon

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

I’m pretty sure that in the future anytime anyone mentions the year 2020, we’re all going to instantly think of COVID-19, social distancing, quarantining, face masks, Zoom meetings and calls with our families, altered or canceled travel plans, etc.  While I will definitely think of all of these things first, I hope it will be quickly followed with the memory of the year that my family stayed close to home and really, really dug in deep and explored San Juan County, UT.

My husband and I are closing in on 12 years since we moved to Monticello, and during that time we’ve definitely done more than our fair share of exploring this area, the rest of Utah, and the Four Corners region.  But this year with COVID we’ve spent the past 9 months seeing some parts of San Juan County that we’ve never seen before.  We took a houseboat out on Lake Powell for the first time- something I’ve always wanted to do but felt that it was too expensive.  Funny how your perspective changes when worldwide travel has all but shut down!

In the spring, with social distancing on our minds, we did several new hikes we’d never done before in White Canyon. (You can read about our hike to Big Arrowhead Arch and The Grotto HERE) At the end of October we went on our last camping trip of the year out near Hite and did maybe my favorite section of White Canyon we’ve done so far- Lower White Canyon.  One thing I want to note is that none of the ‘hikes’ in White Canyon that I’m mentioning are designated hiking trails, they’re basically just walking up or down the canyon, so the chances of encountering other people are much lower than if we had headed to a designated hiking trail, which is perfect for COVID-era outings!

Dispersed Camping in San Juan County- Utah’s Canyon Country

After nearly a year without seeing my in-laws who live in Flagstaff, we decided that this would be a good opportunity for a socially distant camping weekend together.  We met up with them at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and caravanned out to the area my husband had his eye on for dispersed camping, and found a great spot with awesome views and plenty of space for both of our set-ups.  It was a different kind of camping experience than normal- we made all our food separately, rode in separate vehicles, didn’t enter each other’s campers, etc., but I’m glad we were able to find a way to meet up in a safe way that we were all comfortable with.

Great Basin Gopher Snake- Lower White Canyon, UT

The next morning we headed out for our hike in Lower White Canyon.  Our destination for the day was to hike up the canyon until we reached the bridge on Hwy 95 that crosses the canyon, which was about a 5 mile round trip hike.  We started hiking and were immediately greeted by a huge Great Basin Gopher Snake! I wish I had put something next to it for size reference, but just know that this snake was huge!

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

The walls of White Canyon can be pretty steep, but we found an easy access point and climbed down into the canyon with no problem.  As soon as we got down there, we found some really cool little ‘rooms’ to explore in the cliff walls.  I don’t care how old you are, when you’re exploring canyons and you come across things like this, you revert right back to childhood and are completely in awe of how amazing nature is!

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

I mentioned in my last post about White Canyon, what a beautiful canyon it is, and this section did not disappoint!  We entered the canyon at a shallower part, so the walls got higher and higher as we walked up the canyon toward the bridge.  I always feel like time goes by fast on canyon hikes- I think part of it is the ever changing width of the canyon, height of the canyon walls, and the variety of obstacles to maneuver around on the canyon floor.

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

One of my favorite sections of the canyon was somewhere in the middle of the hike where the floor of the canyon turned into kind of a maze of sandstone with lots of rounded holes and channels worn away by water, sand, and rocks. I know this hike can have sections of water with wading and even short swims, but it was about as dry as it probably ever gets when we were there, which I’m sure made it a faster hike for us than it would be if there was water to maneuver through.

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

There was just one section that was a little tricky to get past.  There were quite a few big boulders in the middle of the canyon, which had logs jams and other debris around them.  This spot required a little bit of climbing and scrambling, but it wouldn’t have been bad at all if we hadn’t had our dog with us.  It took us a little bit of extra time to find a route that she would be able to do, which we found on the way up the canyon toward the bridge, but on the way back we missed it and ended up having to pick her up and lift her over a huge log jam, (In the photo above) which she didn’t love, but it was fine.

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Having looked down over the edge as we’ve driven over the bridge many times in the past, I knew the canyon was really deep and narrow under the bridge, so as we continued to walk up the canyon, I could tell when we were getting close.  We heard it before we saw it- the sound of tires driving over the place where the bridge and the road meet- and although I knew we were close, it still surprised me.  It’s kind of jarring sometimes to feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere, and then to suddenly see or hear signs of civilization!

(When I backpacked with my dad as a kid, I was always worried that something would happen to him and then I’d be stuck out there unable to help him, so I LOVED signs of civilization! I never would have described them as ‘jarring’, more like ‘comforting’!  It’s so funny to think about how my perspective has changed over the years!)

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

Lower White Canyon- San Juan County, UT

We stopped for a snack break once we made it to the bridge, then turned around and headed back out.  I don’t know if it’s because the position of the sun really affects the lighting in narrow canyons so the look of the canyon changes a lot from one time of the day to another, but even though we had just hiked in, it almost didn’t seem like it was the same canyon on the hike out, which made the second half of the hike go by much faster than I was expecting.

My son did great on this hike, I think partially because ‘Nana’ and grandpa were there and he’s always on his best behavior in front of grandparents, and really anyone except his parents!  Aside from the Gopher Snake we saw just after we left our vehicles, we didn’t see anyone else on this hike or on the road after we turned off of Hwy 95, so it’s a perfect place to go if you’re looking for an easily accessible, dog-friendly hike away from the crowds that you will often find at more well-known places like the national parks and monuments.

And just like with the last White Canyon hike that I posted on, my husband and I kept asking each other why we hadn’t done this hike before?!  (I can actually answer this… there is just THAT much to do here that there’s no way you can do everything!)

If you’re driving along Hwy 95 between Natural Bridges National Monument and Hite, I highly recommend taking some time to explore White Canyon, I promise you’ll be glad you did!

For more information or to request travel brochures, please call Utah’s Canyon Country at: 800-574-4386

Or e-mail us at: info@utahscanyoncountry.com

COVID-19 Travel Restrictions, Updates, and Alerts for San Juan County, Utah can be found HERE

Posted in Dog-friendly, Hiking, Off the Beaten Path, Social Distancing-friendly, Things to do for FREE!, Things to do with kids, Travel, Utah | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Beyond the Park’ Tour of Monument Valley with Goulding’s Lodge

Teardrop Arch in Monument Valley- Goulding’s Tours

For the past 7 months since COVID-19 hit Utah in March, hands down, the single most asked question I’ve recieved on our office’s visitor information line is, ‘Is Monument Valley open?’.  This is closely followed by, ‘When is Monument Valley going to re-open?’ and ‘Is there anything to do in Monument Valley if I can’t visit the park?’

Well, for anyone who doesn’t already know, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is currently closed through January 1, 2021 as of an October 2nd press release issued by the Navajo Nation.  (So that answers questions #1 & #2)  As for the 3rd question- Yes, there are other ways to experience Monument Valley even though the park is closed!

Over the past 7 months I’ve heard a lot of confusion from callers about what exactly is closed at this time.  Many of the people who have called our office have heard that ‘Monument Valley is closed’, and many of them think that because of this closure, they are unable to drive through the area on the highway, for example from Moab to Flagstaff.  While Monument Valley Tribal Park is currently CLOSED, Highway 163 passing through the community of Monument Valley remains OPEN and services (lodging, dining, groceries, gas, etc.) are still available to residents and visitors.

While there definitely are places along Highway 163 where you can get good views of the rock formations of Monument Valley without entering the park, one of the best ways to experience Monument Valley while the park is closed, is to go on a tour with Goulding’s Lodge. While they can not currently run tours in the park, they are running a new ‘Beyond the Park’ tour that takes guests to all the best locations to view the landscape of Monument Valley without entering the park.

On a sidenote, Goulding’s Lodge has remained open and maintained operations of their lodge, restaurant, RV park, grocery store, convenience store, laundromat, gas station, etc. throughout COVID.  They have worked hard to keep their employees who still wanted/needed to work during COVID, employed during this time.  And they have instituted some of the strictest protocol for sanitaion, social distancing, and mask requirements that we have seen in San Juan County!

Goulding’s Lodge- Monument Valley

Knowing about their strict sanitation and social distancing protocols, and knowing the number of people who are calling our visitor information line asking about Monument Valley Tribal Park, I thought I should experience this tour for myself so that I could better provide information to callers on the activities that are currently available in Monument Valley while the park is closed.

I called down to Goulding’s to get the scoop on this tour, since it’s new (Started since COVID) and not one of the tours they have traditionally offered.  I found out that the tour visits the following locations:

  • A traditional Navajo hogan (dwelling) for a rug weaving demonstration.
  • Various pullouts and scenic points along Hwy 163 including the Redlands Viewpoint and Forrest Gump Hill.
  • Back to Goulding’s for a quick bathroom stop at the RV Park
  • Onto the mesa behind Goulding’s with stops at a couple different scenic overlooks as well as an archaeolgical site and Teardrop Arch- a place I’ve wanted to visit for YEARS!

After I got information on the tour route, times, prices, etc., I asked what types of precautions they were taking on tours in relation to COVID, and I was really impressed to hear all the extra steps they’re taking to ensure the safety of their employees and guests.  Here’s what I learned:

  • Goulding’s is limiting the number of people allowed on each tour.  Their vehicles seat 20, but they are currently capping each tour at 8 people to allow space for social distancing.
  • Masks are required at all times on tours.
  • Each vehicle is throuroughly cleaned before and after each tour.
  • Guides are providing hand sanitizer to guests after each stop.
  • Tour vehicles are open-air vehicles, so already perfectly suited for COVID-era tours.

As someone who is social distancing pretty seriously, and still only going to the grocery store, post office, etc. once/week and always, ALWAYS with a mask, hearing the precautions Goulding’s is taking was enough to make me feel that going on a tour with them at this time is safe.  So I went ahead and booked my tour and made the 1 hr 40 minute trip from Monticello to Monument Valley to see what this new tour was all about.

Open-air tour vehicle- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

Upon the recommendation of one of the staff at Goulding’s, I booked the afternoon tour so that I would be able to enjoy the beginning of sunset while still on the tour.  When I arrived, checked in, and boarded the waiting open-air tour vehicle, our guide for the day, Dennis, reminded us to spread out on the vehicle to allow for social distancing, and also reminded us that masks are required at all times on the tour.  I was glad to see that the precautions I had been told about were being followed and taken seriously.

There was just one other couple on the tour, so it was very easy for us to spread out on the vehicle.  They were from Florida and were on a trip that they had planned before COVID, and had to delay for quite a few months until most of the locations they had planned to visit had re-opened.  (This couple, like many other people who have been calling our office asking about Monument valley, had reservations that they’d booked a year or more in advance, and Monument Valley was just one of the stops they’d planned on making as they visited the Mighty 5 or various locations around the Grand Circle.)

Open-air tour vehicles- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

We got started on the tour, and had great views immediately.  If you’ve never been to Goulding’s Lodge, although it’s located outside of Monument Valley Tribal Park and is a few miles from the actual park boundaries, it’s set in a very dramatic location with a tall, redrock mesa directly behind it and a view of the rock formations of Monument Valley from almost eveywhere on the property.

Inside a hogan- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

Looking east out the hogan door- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

We made our first stop at a hogan, which is a traditional Navajo dwelling structure.  Dennis explained the different types of hogans to us- male and female, and told us how the door must always face east towards the morning sun.  He also told us about the construction process which does not involve any nails!  The logs are cut, the bark is removed, and they are all wedged together tightly and covered with mud.

View of Monument Valley from Hwy 163- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

View of Monument Valley from Hwy 163- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

View of Monument Valley from Hwy 163- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

View of Monument Valley from Hwy 163- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

View of Monument Valley from Hwy 163- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

View of Monument Valley from Hwy 163- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

After leaving the hogan, we headed north on Hwy 163 to go to several of the best viewpoints that are located along the road.  I’m constantly asked on the phone if you can see any of Monument Valley without entering the park.  The 6 photos above show you some of the best views you can get from along Hwy 163 between Monument Valley and Mexican Hat.

We went as far north as Forrest Gump Hill, the straight stretch of highway where Forrest ended his cross-country run in the movie.  This part of the road has become a popular photo stop for visitors, and paved turnouts have been added in recent years to allow cars to pull over more safely, but I cringe every time I see people standing in the middle of the road trying to recreate the famous scene from the Forrest Gump, when there are cars and trucks coming.  If you’re going to take a photo here, please, please make sure there are no cars coming.

Dennis was extremely knowledgeable, and at each stop he would point out the rock formations, mountain ranges, etc, that were in view and tell us about them and also tell us about the movies that had been filmed at or near each location.  It was really nice to be on a smaller tour because we had a lot of time to talk with Dennis about his experiences, family, and hear about his previous job of being the Fire Chief in Monument Valley.  Each tour varies quite a bit depending on the tour guide and their areas of expertise, and Dennis was among the best I’ve experienced- so kind and knowledgeable and willing to answer any questions we had.

Teardrop Arch- Goulding’s Tour- Monument Valley

After we stopped at probably 4-5 locations along Hwy 163, we headed back towards Goulding’s and made a quick bathroom stop at the RV park before continuing on to Horse Pasture Canyon, which is the part of the tour that I was most excited about.  I’ve been wanting to visit Teardrop Arch for YEARS, but as far as I know, it wasn’t on any of the regular tour routes since it’s not within the park itself.

Goulding’s Tour- Monument Valley

Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

Archaeological site- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

Goulding’s Tour- Monument Valley

The tour makes several stops in Horse Pasture Canyon- at a couple scenic overlooks that give you awesome, panoramic views of Monument Valley, and at a stop where a short hike takes you to an archaeological site and Teardrop Arch.  If it wasn’t for the uneven ground and the fact that Monument Valley is at about 5,000 ft, I would call this a ‘walk’.  But as the couple from Florida reminded us, not everyone is used to this elevation like Dennis and I are!  Although I’m used to the elevation since I live in Monticello, which is at just over 7,000 ft, this was my first experience hiking in a mask and I could definitely feel it!

Teardrop Arch- Goulding’s Tour- Monument Valley

Teardrop Arch- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

The other side of Teardrop Arch- Goulding’s Tours- Monument Valley

Teardrop Arch did not disappoint!  I’d waited so long to see it, I was hoping it wasn’t going to be one of those things where you’ve built it up so much in your mind that the reality can’t possibily live up to your expectations.  But finally seeing it for the first time as the sun was starting to set and the shadows were getting long was nothing short of magical!  Definitely worth the wait!

**I’ll note here that the ONLY times any of us took our masks off during this tour were when we were posing for a photo and were away from the rest of the group.  And even then, we’d pass our camera/phone off to someone else, walk away from the group before taking our masks off, then put them back on before walking back to join the rest of the group.  I felt like it was done in a very safe way and have no issues being around other people without masks if we’re outdoors and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between us.

The 3.5 hour tour seemed to fly by, and before we knew it, we were heading back towards Goulding’s as the sun was setting.  I think this was my 5th tour of Monument Valley I’ve taken over the years, and although at no point in the tour did we enter the park itself, this tour ranked right up there among my favorites!

The day was perfectly capped off with a quick stop for a Navajo Taco at Goulding’s Stagecoach Restaurant.  Anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) knows that I never go to Monument Valley without stopping for a Navajo Taco at Goulding’s, and this trip was no exception!  The amazing scenery continuted on the drive home as well- it just so happened that there was a full moon that night so I got to enjoy watching the moon rise over the desert as I drove back to Monticello.  Perfect ending to an amazing day ‘Beyond the Park’ in Monument Valley!

For more information or to request travel brochures, please call Utah’s Canyon Country at: 800-574-4386

Or e-mail us at: info@utahscanyoncountry.com

Distance from Monument Valley to lodging in San Juan County, Utah:

Posted in Monument Valley, Off the Beaten Path, Social Distancing-friendly, Things to do with kids, Tours/Guided Trips, Travel, Utah | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Big Arrowhead Arch & The Grotto- White Canyon

Big Arrowhead Arch- White Canyon, UT


We’re used to social distancing here in San Juan County, Utah.  With an area of 7,933 sq. miles (larger than Rhode Island, Delaware, or Connecticut) San Juan County is nearly the size of the state of New Jersey!  But while New Jersey has a population of around 9 million, here in San Juan County we have to round up to claim 15,000 residents!  That’s less than 2 people/square mile!  As my coworker says, ‘San Juan County isn’t rural, it’s frontier!’

While living in such a rural place can be inconvenient at times, (it’s 5 hrs to the nearest major airport, overnight shipping isn’t an option here, the nearest Costco is 4 hrs north in Spanish Fork, etc.) access to outdoor recreational opportunities is a huge draw that brings and keeps many of us here.  And when a worldwide pandemic like COVID-19 hits, I think most residents will agree that there’s no other place we’d rather be.

Back in March and April when COVID-19 first hit and people were being asked to stay home and to recreate near their homes, we felt extremely fortunate to live in an area with so much public land for us to safely enjoy without having to leave our county.  There is just so much to do here, that anyone who knows this area well will tell you that you’ll never be able to do it all, and it’s true.  My husband and I have lived here for over 11 years now, and although we feel like we’ve done and seen a lot in San Juan County, there’s always more.  When COVID-19 hit and we were staying closer to home, we were exploring new areas almost every single weekend and I kept saying to my husband, ‘This place is awesome!  Why haven’t we been here before!?’

This is exactly how I felt when we spent several weekends in a row exploring different parts of White Canyon.  I’ve always loved White Canyon- it’s the canyon that passes through Natural Bridges National Monument, and it actually has special meaning to us because my husband proposed to me in the bottom of the canyon while we were doing the loop hike at Natural Bridges not long after we moved here!  But there’s a lot more of White Canyon beyond the boundaries of the monument, and we’ve always had it on our list to explore, we just hadn’t got to it yet.

With social distancing on our minds, we decided that we’d stay away from designated hiking trails since there was a higher chance that there would be other people on the trail, and we decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to explore some different parts of White Canyon.

Ducket Crossing Underpass to Access White Canyon

There are several good access points along Hwy 95 between Natural Bridges National Monument and Hite, and we started with the access point at Ducket Crossing, which is 30 miles (35 min) past the turn for Natural Bridges.  There is a decent sized pull-out on the south/west side of the road, and then you walk under 95 through a cement underpass to access White Canyon, which is on the north/east side of the road.  We were interested in checking out this area because there were several points of interest within a mile from where you park; Ducket Arch, Big Arrowhead Arch, and something called, ‘The Grotto’.

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t a designated trail of any sort- it’s just a walk/hike along the bottom of White Canyon, which is perfect when you’re trying to social distance.  It’s also nice because, since it isn’t an actual hiking trail, dogs can be off-leash.

Big Arrowhead Arch- White Canyon, UT

Big Arrowhead Arch- White Canyon, UT

Big Arrowhead Arch- White Canyon, UT

Ducket Arch is the first of the 3 points of interest that you come to, and is about .5 miles from the trailhead.  Looking back I realized that I didn’t even take a picture of this arch- I don’t remember it being very easy to capture in a photo, (if you can’t get sky behind an arch, they usually just look like a bunch of rocks) so I think that’s why I skipped it.  Big Arrowhead Arch however, was extremely easy to photograph, so we took way too many pictures of it! (Approximately .3 miles past Ducket Arch)

The Grotto- White Canyon, UT

The Grotto- White Canyon, UT

The Grotto is located just a few hundred feet past Big Arrowhead Arch.  I really wasn’t sure what ‘The Grotto’ was going to be or how we would know when we came to it, but you will definitely know!  It’s an area where the canyon wall have all kinds of cool holes and caves.  We spent some time climbing around checking them out, which was fun.  My husband was definitely more adventurous and climbed up into several while my son and I explored on the floor of the canyon.

White Canyon, UT

White Canyon- Utah

White Canyon, UT

White Canyon, UT

There are countless canyons in this area (San Juan County IS Utah’s Canyon Country after all!) but I’ve always felt that White Canyon is an especially beautiful canyon.  I’m not sure what it is… maybe the colors and patterns on the rock walls?  I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that makes it stand out from the others, but it does.  And I find that any time we’re hiking in any canyon, it’s very hard to stop and turn around.  I always wonder if there’s something cool around the next turn that I’m going to miss if I don’t at least peek around the bend.  And then when you get to the bend, you see that it’s not too far to the next bend.  You can imagine how this could go on and on and suddenly you’ve hiked much farther than you planned, and you still need to turn around and hike out!

Since it was such a short distance to The Grotto, (only .8 miles) we kept walking down the canyon just to check it out.  It was early April when we went, so the weather was finally warming up and my son was begging the whole time for us to take a break so he could play in the sand.  Up the canyon a few minutes from The Grotto, we finally got to a sandy area that not only looked perfect for my son to play in, but there was a nice, steep canyon wall right beside it, which means shade for the rest of us.  Perfect!

White Canyon, UT

One thing that always amazes me in any canyon we’re in, is to see sticks and logs and debris that have been deposited up much higher than you’d ever expect the water level could reach.  Even in a wide canyon like White Canyon, as you can see in the photo above, the sticks are on top of a boulder that’s got to be at least 12 or 13 feet high.  It’s always a good reminder that flash floods are a reality out here in the desert, and of how dangerous it can be to be in these areas if there is rain in the forecast.  We definitely don’t ever go out without checking the forecast first.

White Canyon, UT

White Canyon, UT

White Canyon, UT

One of our favorite parts of the hike was actually an area between Ducket Arch and Big Arrowhead Arch with really cool patterns in the slickrock and lots of holes you could climb around on.  We stopped there both on the way in, and on the way out just to climb around and take some pictures.  Even my 7 year old son wanted to take some pictures and took the picture (above) of my husband and I with our dog… Pretty good framing- I didn’t have to crop it or anything!

All through our hike and definitely after we returned to our truck, the conversation of, ‘Why haven’t we been here before?!’ came up repeatedly!  It’s such an easily accessible, short hike with non-stop cool scenery along the way, and it’s perfect for kids, dogs, and social distancing.  If you’re driving along Hwy 95 between Natural Bridges National Monument and Hite, I highly recommend taking some time to explore this area.

For more information or to request travel brochures, please call Utah’s Canyon Country at: 800-574-4386

Or e-mail us at: info@utahscanyoncountry.com

COVID-19 Travel Restrictions, Updates, and Alerts for San Juan County, Utah can be found HERE

Posted in Dog-friendly, Geology, Hiking, Off the Beaten Path, Social Distancing-friendly, Things to do for FREE!, Things to do with kids, Travel, Utah | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Chelser Park Backpacking- Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

Chesler Park- Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

As we’re all at home social distancing and trying to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19, I felt like this would be a good time to reflect back on one of my favorite trips in the past year, and also provide some inspiration to others who are at home, to use this time to research and plan your Utah trips and adventures once everything is back open and it’s deemed safe for us to get back out there!

Every spring (about this time of year) my husband and I start planning our adventures for the year.  Last year we had an ambitious list, and we knew we’d have to hit it hard and plan things out well (including making advance reservations for permits- something I tend to shy away from because I don’t like to feel ‘locked-in’ to things.) if we wanted to make it through our list.

Our list included nearby things like our annual weekend camping trip in the Abajos with friends and an overnight river trip on the San Juan River, to things around the state like a long weekend camping trip along the Burr Trail/Capitol Reef/Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and a weekend in Kanab, to much more distant places like Buffalo, NY for my husband’s family reunion.

I think we made a pretty good dent in our list, and we loved every place we visited in different ways and for different reasons, but our favorite trip of the year was in our own ‘backyard’, just an hour from Monticello in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

If you’re a hiker or backpacker and haven’t visited the Needles District, you’re missing out!  The Island in the Sky District, closer to Moab, gets much more visitation, but it has nothing on the Needles District as far as hiking and backpacking go!  When we first moved to Monticello, my husband and I were down in the Needles about once/month and we hiked almost every trail down there.  The only hikes we haven’t done are Devil’s Kitchen, Cyclone Canyon, Lower Red Lake, and Salt Creek.  We actually had a permit for Salt Creek, the summer my son was due, but as the date of our permit approached, I realized that I was in no condition to be hiking 20+ miles with a heavy pack, so unfortunately we had to let our permit go.  But as much as we hiked down in Needles, we never backpacked.  (Salt Creek would have been our first overnight trip.)

Last year, after lots of hiking with our son in the spring, we felt like he was finally ready for a backpacking trip, so I bit the bullet and put in for a backcountry camping permit, and we got the dates we wanted- mid-September, my favorite time of year in the desert!

The permit process for Overnight Backcountry Permits is pretty simple.  You can apply for your permit no more than 4 months in advance, and no less than 2 days before the permit start date.  Some sites are more popular than others and are more competitive  Chesler Park is one of my favorite places in the whole world, so we knew we wanted to take our son there for his first backpacking experience.  I put in for Chesler Park #1 and got the date I wanted on my first try.  Off to a good start!

The reason I chose Chesler Park #1 is because it’s the first backcountry site you come to once you’ve made it to Chesler Park, and it’s almost exactly a 3 mile hike from the Elephant Hill trailhead, and 3 miles was just about the max length our son could/would (happily) hike.

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

The hike to Chelser Park has always been my favorite mid-length hike in Canyonlands because of the diversity of the trail.  You have some stairs, some scrambling on steep uphills & downhills, some open slickrock with views, some sandy sections, and some cool narrow sections before finally reaching the open, grassy expanse of Chelser Park.  My son especially liked the narrow sections, and found the possibility of my husband and I getting stuck (we had wider items such as the tent and my backpacking cot strapped to our packs) nothing short of hysterical!  (Hey, if we have to be the butt of the joke to keep spirits up on a hike, we’ll take it!  Happy kid = happy parents!)

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Spirits were still high when we reached Elephant Canyon, just over 2/3 of the way to Chesler Park.  There’s actually is a backcountry campsite (EC#1) just off the main trail in Elephant Canyon, so we could have camped there and made it a little shorter of a hike, but I’ve always wanted to see sunset and sunrise in Chesler Park, so if we were coming this far, of course we had to make it all the way!

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

The final stretch into Chesler Park is my favorite part of the trail.  While you’ve been able to see the Needles rock formations throughout most of the hike, approaching the spires and fins surrounding Chesler Park is pretty spectacular!  As you reach the top of your last climb, pass through the rocks that line the periphery, and get your first look at Chesler Park… I promise you, it’s something you’ll never forget!

By the time we reached Chesler Park, my son was at the, ‘Are we almost there?’ and ‘How much farther?’ point in the hike.  (Not my favorite part!) And unfortunately, since I’d never camped there, I really didn’t know how much farther it would be, but I can’t imagine it was more than .2 miles from where you reach Chesler Park.  But with a kid asking, ‘How much longer?’ every couple minutes, this felt like THE LONGEST part of the hike!  (At least the views were amazing though, right?)

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

I was so happy when we reached our campsite.  It was immaculately clean (In fact, the whole trail was!) and had I not known, I never would have guessed that the site was used pretty much every night.  Kudos to the campers, rangers, and volunteers who are keeping the backcountry clean!

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

We set up our tent and rested for a little while, then left our campsite to explore a little further into Chesler Park.  We started hiking in around noon, and while we saw quite a few people hiking out, we didn’t encounter anyone else after we arrived at Chesler Park that afternoon, and in fact, we didn’t see anyone else until campers at the other Chesler Park sites started hiking out in the morning.  It really felt like we had the place to our selves.

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

After exploring a little, my son was DONE, so we headed back to camp to make dinner and just hang out.  It’s so funny to me how at home my son is always saying he’s bored even though he has tons of toys, games, books, a big backyard, etc.  But when we take him somewhere outdoors, he is so good at keeping himself entertained.  Give him a couple rocks and sticks (or even better, some sand or water!) and he’s good to go!  When we got back to our camp, my son climbed up on a big rock and kept himself busy making ‘landslides’ with sand through a crack for pretty much the rest of the evening until it got dark.  He was enjoying himself so much, he wouldn’t even come down for dinner, he just ate on top of the rock so he could keep playing.

We watched the sunset which was even more amazing than I’d imagined it would be, and then we got in our tent and played cards for a while waiting for it to get darker so we could check out the stars before we went to bed.  While I had been most excited about seeing sunset and sunrise in Chesler Park, the view of the night sky ended up being my favorite part of camping out there.  We live in a rural area where we can see the Milky Way from our backyards on pretty much any clear night, but I’ve never seen the Milky Way as bright as it was from Chesler Park.  It completely blew my mind… I’ll never forget it.  It was so, so beautiful!

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

Chesler Park- Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

I can’t remember if I set my alarm to make sure we woke up to get to see the sunrise, but likely I just knew that our 7 year old would wake us up as he does every other morning!  Either way, we were awake with plenty of time to boil water so I could sit and drink my tea while watching the sunlight slowly creep down the rock formations and across the desert floor… it was nothing short of spectacular!

Finally!  Over 10 years since our first visit, our Chesler Park experience was complete!  Gorgeous sunset- check.  AMAZING night sky- check.  Peaceful, relaxing sunrise- check.  Now for the hike back to the car!

Needles District- Canyonlands National Park

My son was a trooper throughout the whole trip, and we were really impressed with how well he did, and I think Chesler Park was the perfect introduction to backpacking.  My husband and I came away from the experience excited that our son had enjoyed it so much and looking forward to more backcountry experiences with him in the future!

For more information or to request travel brochures, please call Utah’s Canyon Country at: 800-574-4386

Or e-mail us at: info@utahscanyoncountry.com

Posted in Camping, Canyonlands, Canyonlands National Park, Monticello, National Parks, National Parks & Monuments, Things to do with kids, Travel, Utah | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments