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Thursday 3 Oct 2013
Escalante, USA

A day of highs and lows

The Hanksville Inn, despite its initial impression, provided us with a warm room and comfortable beds.  Granted, the floor had a definite slope, the bathroom had seen better days and the curtains fell off the wall and landed on me when I tried to open them, but it wasn’t as bad as we’d first thought. It definitely had character and we left with grins on our faces. The hairy biker was very good-natured about the curtains.

The closure of the National Parks had spoiled some of our plans, but it also meant we discovered a number of State Parks that we wouldn’t have visited otherwise.  Our waitress, Sally, had recommended Goblin Valley State Park, so we headed north instead of west to check it out.  There were some rather ominous looking black clouds hanging over the horizon as we drove up – the first sign of rain since we arrived in the US – but we were assured Goblin Valley would still be ok.  It is the slot canyons that become perilous in bad weather due to the risk of flash flooding.   

Goblin Valley is like nowhere I have ever been before and is very difficult to describe accurately, but I’ll try.  It is a natural amphitheatre carved out of red rock and full of weird and wonderful rock formations.  The best description is to imagine the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon have been left in the sun too long and begun to melt.  These 'Goblins' look like big lumps of melted wax, or distorted mushrooms, sitting on small pillars.  The valley is full of them, creating a maze of pathways between each Goblin with lots of holes to peep through or shapes to climb under and between.  It is a children’s paradise.  Easy to see where the name came from!  We could have stayed there for hours walking among the Goblins and taking photos, but sadly the weather had other ideas for us.  The incoming storm pushed strong winds ahead of it, causing the sand in the valley to whip around and get in our eyes.  I managed little more than 10 minutes there before I had to bail out as I could barely keep my eyes open.  Sand and contact lenses don’t mix well.

Happy to have seen such a fun and interesting place, we drove back down to Hanksville keeping just ahead of the rain – driving that fine line between black clouds and brilliant sunshine most of the way to Capital Reef.  Highway 24 crosses right through Capital Reef National Park and therefore remained open despite the Shutdown.  However, all the toilet facilities, shops, etc. were closed. Last night’s long drive in the dark was justified right from the start, as smooth golden rock turned into huge jagged uplifts, cut diagonally by strata of pink, cream, grey and orange stone.  We wound our way through the valley and stopped to see ancient Petroglyphs carved into the cliff face.  After scratching our heads for a few minutes, we accepted neither of us could spot them, so carried on driving.  Towards the far side of the park, the land fell away to the south to reveal sweeping vistas while the cliffs on the north side of the road rose higher still.  One of the best-known sights, Castle Rock, stood high above us – a crop of spindly cream-coloured rocks jutting out of the red cliff face below it.  Next to that, we passed two enormous rounded boulders sitting side by side, known as Twin Rocks.  The elevation ranged from around 5500’ up to 9000’ at its peak.

We reached the small town of Torrey at around 2pm and stopped for lunch at Slacker’s, a small diner proudly boasting the best burgers in Utah.  It was All-American Kitsch heaven, with a chequered floor and the walls covered in old license plates from every state and some from around the world.  They had an assortment of tin signs with old adverts or slogans, too. (My personal favourite was: "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups" - should I mention politicians!?) We loved it.  The burgers were indeed excellent and served with delicious sweet potato fries.  While we ate, we swapped news with the owner and other customers.  They’d just driven up through Zion – another closed park with an open highway running through – and had heard rangers were actively ticketing people who had pulled over to take photographs!  We had stopped several times in Capital Reef with no problem, but it made us wary of what was to come. 

From Torrey, we followed Highway 12 down to Escalante.  This lead us up over another high mountain pass and out along the Hogsback, voted one of America's Best Places to Drive.  The land drops away sharply on either side of the road, leaving you driving out along the spine of a massive mesa, hence the name, before descending down a steep set of sharp switchbacks into the next valley.  I’m so glad we got to do this whole section in the daylight.  With a drive like this in between them, the National Park closures didn’t seem quite so important for a while. 

The Escalante/Grand Staircase National Park was also closed off to us, but we saw a sign for the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park.  It was already closed for the night, but looked interesting enough for us to change our plans and stay in Escalante instead of carrying on to Bryce.  Once again we did the motel shuffle – I waited in the car while Verity nipped in to find out the price, availability and recommendation for where to try next if they were full.  At the fourth motel, we paid extra for a suite as it was all they had left.  The Padre Motel was an improvement on the Hanksville Inn, but we got caught in an awkward discussion with the owners who were staunch Republicans and blamed Obama unequivocally for the park shutdowns.  We kept quiet and crept off to our room as soon as we could.  It was nice to have separate bedrooms, but the howling gale blowing under the door meant we both slept in thermals and shivered most of the night through.

In the early morning sunshine, but with a bitterly cold breeze biting through our coats, we set off up the steep climb to the Petrified Forest.  We’d been given a guide to the numbered markers on the trail, but we were so cold and watching our footing on the steep path, that we missed the first three before we realised.  Up on the plateau we had a lovely view out over the reservoir and surrounding valley.  For such a chance encounter, I was blown away by what we found.  The time scale is impossible to process.  The trail led us through an ancient Pygmy Forest – trees barely taller than me were actually 250-350 years old.  They conserve their energy for staying alive rather than growing tall.  Among the trees we found large chunks of petrified wood still half buried.  These trees were flattened by volcanic activity between 135-150 million years ago, buried in the ash and petrified by the passage of time.  After tectonic shifts pushed these buried layers skywards, the land began erode and eventually the petrified wood – now stone – revealed itself to the elements once more.  It then cracked into chunks and displayed its multicoloured, multifaceted surfaces to the evolutionary descendants of the creatures who may once have climbed its branches.  I’ve seen bits of petrified wood before, but never such large chunks in their undisturbed habitat.  The biggest piece was at least 3’ diameter and the shiny surface still clearly displayed its pattern of rings, showing that the tree had been several hundred years old even before it was petrified.  As I said, the time scale is just mind-boggling.

Mileage: 1640

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