My first trip into Southern Utah - July, 1986
Written: December 2001

Since first putting up this website it has been my pleasure to help quite a few people plan their first trips into southern Utah. Many people have asked what my first trip was like. This page is in response to those inquires.

In the Beginning

Southern Utah is big. Since the first day that I visited here I have struggled with the correct words to describe it - vast, expansive, immense - nothing seems quite able to capture it. The rocks are big, the boulders are massive, the buttes are huge, the mesas are colossal, the mountains are immense, and the landscape is, frankly, overwhelming.

I grew up in the northeast section of the United States, by the Great Lakes. Those lakes were big, I thought. Water, as far as the eye could see. Even with binoculars you could only see water, until it rolled over the edge of the Earth. Now that was a lake - a Great Lake.

I traveled up and down the east coast of America, visiting all the great cities - New York, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Miami. They really are big cities - millions of people and lots of big buildings. It was fun exploring the "canyons" of New York, tilting my head back to see the tops of the skyscrapers, looking very much like the tourist that I was. Skyscrapers - now there's a word for you. Buildings so big they scraped the sky!

I grew up in a time of wonderful dreams. When I was a kid men wanted to go to the Moon. I would stare up at the sky at night, watching the moon slowly move across the sky. It was a big target, but an awfully long distance to travel. How could we get there? How would we survive the journey? How would we land? How would we get back? I had a lot of questions for a kid. I knew it would be a big project and require big machines. It captured my imagination.

The launch of STS-51i that I watched on August 28, 1985.

The launch of STS-51i that I
watched on August 28, 1985.
I learned everything that I could about space and astronomy. I loved following the early space program - Mercury and Gemini. When the Apollo program came along, it was almost too much to absorb. I dove into it and wound up with an Aerospace Engineering degree. I stood next to colossal moon rockets, stuck my head inside enormous rocket engines, and walked around inside a massive assembly building that was so huge clouds formed inside of it.

In August of 1985, while standing in a Florida swamp watching Space Shuttle Discovery leave the Earth, I decided that maybe, just maybe, I had seen it all. Not only did the force of that shuttle rip through my chest, but more importantly to me at that time, I actually understood how it all worked. It was a marvel, and a pretty big one at that.  Little did I know that within a year everything that I had previously experienced would become almost insignificant. Within a year I would visit southern Utah for the first time.

The Catalyst

Long before I ever even thought about visiting Utah, my friend David Klash spent over a month in Colorado and Utah in a Geology Field Camp, which was a required part of his college curriculum. Although the majority of his time was spent doing mapping and field studies, he did have some time to do a bit of sightseeing. Dave would send me weekly postcards describing his journey. I looked forward to each card, which bore images of places neither of us had seen before. His cards from Colorado were beautiful, but the cards that he sent from Utah contained pictures unlike any I had ever seen before. Dave and I are both explorers, although up until that point our joint explorations consisted mostly of urban journeys - seeking out bigger and bigger cities. We also shared a fascination with astronomy - which often led us to drive for hours at night trying to find the darkest possible locations for stargazing.
The original postcard that Dave sent me, dated June 4, 1983. It's now quite faded and yellowed.
One small sentence that would ultimately change the direction of my life.
Although the pictures on all of Dave's postcards were interesting, the one that portrayed the Goosenecks of the San Juan River really caught my eye. The picture was visually striking, and Dave's inscription on the back really caught my attention. "Last night I stepped out of the tent and the sky was plastered with stars! We have to come out here on a scenic trip sometime…" I'd never really considered exploring the western states, but Dave's series of postcards and first hand descriptions, made it sound pretty exciting.

Years passed. Dave and I were rather young and financial circumstances precluded a scenic tour of the "Great West" for quite some time. But things finally came together in the summer of 1986. We scraped together enough money to fly to Denver, Colorado, rent a car, and then drive though all of the National Parks of southern Utah.

The First Trip

Colorado is mountains. The largest mountains I had ever seen outside of Colorado were quite small - barely mountains by Colorado standards. The Appalachians in New York hardly attain heights of 5000 feet. In Colorado the snow-capped peaks soared to over 14,000 feet. I was awestruck - I had never seen anything so beautiful. Even Interstate 70, which is the main highway that crosses the state, contained scenery far superior to anything I had ever seen before. We kept pulling over to absorb the scenery - every turn seemed to hold something new - more mountains - waterfalls - beautiful trees - I was in Heaven! After driving across Colorado, crossing the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass, we headed toward the "Western Slope" of Colorado.

Just when I was getting used to looking up at the mountains, we stopped at the Black Canyon and gazed down 1000 feet to the Gunnison River. The river was so far away I couldn't even hear it. The canyon is actually 53 miles long, but only the most spectacular 12 miles are located within the boundaries of the National Monument.

The Black Canyon can be best described in one word - narrow. No other canyon that I had seen had such an impressive combination of narrowness, depth, and precipitous walls. I could look straight down for almost half a mile at many of the viewpoints! In some places the width of the gorge was barely over 1000 feet, yet its depth can reach well nearly half a mile. Because of the canyon's narrowness, sunlight only penetrates down to the river for a small part of the day. The dark gray walls of schist and gneiss spend most of the day in shadow, thus the name Black Canyon.

The steep walls of the canyon were barren, but up on the heavily forested rim the smell of pine trees permeated the air. At some overlooks, the sound of the river far below could be heard. White throated swifts soared over the edge at dizzying speeds and then plunged down into the canyon's depths. Swifts are tiny birds with very swept wings and resembled, at least to me, fighter jets. Swarming beneath the rim in a frenzied aerial ballet, they luxuriated in the majesty of their surroundings.

After leaving the Black Canyon we continued west. The landscape continued to become a bit more open, and mountains started to give way to mesas.  One thing that will always stick out in my mind from that first trip was my reluctance to continue our trip into Utah after I had seen Colorado. As Dave and I spent the night in the Grand Junction, I could see that the landscape was already starting to "dry up". The snow-capped peaks were gone - the lush mountain meadows were gone - the green was disappearing. Dave assured me that the best was yet to come, but I really found that hard to believe!

Into Utah

Dave dragged me into the car the next morning and we headed into Utah. As we drove across the state line I felt as if we were making a big mistake. "Man, Dave is pretty inflexible and unyielding with our plans", I thought as we sped into the rather bleak looking landscape of eastern Utah. The barren hills of eastern Utah are so dry and parched looking that my father-in-law, on his first visit to the section of Utah many years later, would ask me if there had been a fire. The was no doubt about it, we were heading into a desert.

I-70 is a straight line across the state of Utah. You could set your vehicle on cruise, lock the steering wheel straight ahead, and climb out of the driver's seat for an hour or two (only a slight exaggeration). However, it didn't take long until the rolling hills became back-dropped by giant, stately mesas. The landscape was primarily gray and tan, but it was developing a stark beauty. Buzz Aldrin, upon exploring the surface of the moon for the first time, remarked that it had, "…a stark beauty all its own. Much like the high deserts of the United States…"  This, I thought, is exactly what the moon is like. The gray rolling hills, completely devoid of vegetation, were the closest thing I could imagine to the lunar surface. That was cool. I had to stop the car and run around on them. It was fun! Those rolling hills, it turns out, are part of the Mancos Shale formation which is rich in marine fossils, including sharks teeth. Had I known that at the time, I would have found the hills to be even more fascinating. Although I didn't notice it at the time, as I ran around on those barren gray hills having an absolutely wonderful time, my fascination with the mountains of Colorado was already starting to fade. Utah was… different!

Our initial plan called for us to spend some time in southeastern Utah, see Arches and Canyonlands National Park, and then move west to see Bryce and Zion National Parks. As we pulled into the town of Moab, just outside Arches National Park, it was raining quite heavily. We checked the forecast and the rain wasn't expected to subside until the next day. It was, however, clear on the other side of the state. With only a week to spend we didn't have an extra day to wait for the rain to stop. We made an immediate change in plans and decided to see Bryce and Zion first, and then make our way back to Moab. That meant driving across the entire state of Utah on my first day in the state. Little did I know how much that would change my life.

Our route would take us back up to I-70, then down along the San Rafael Reef into central Utah, turn west through a completely unknown area, and finally head south into the Bryce Canyon area. I remember looking on a map at something called "Capitol Reef" and not having the vaguest notion what it was.

The drive from Hanksville to Capitol Reef National Park left me completely speechless. The gray mesas and unique rock formations near Hanksville are the most unearthly in all of Utah. As we continued to drive west, though a constantly changing landscape of mesas, buttes, bluffs, spires and monoliths, the landscape started to change color. The palette expanded to include rolling hills of purple, green, and brown. The soil started to change - from coarse abrasive pebbles - to fine textured, soft colored sand. The color continued to evolve into warm hues - salmon, pink, and light brown. The harsh lines and coarse erosional structure of the previous mesas started to evolve into smoother lines and finer patterns. The landscape seemed to become more inviting. Not only had I never seen anything like this before, I had never even dreamed of anything like this before. The landscape truly was, beautiful.

Highway 24 just happens to pass through the heart of Capitol Reef National Park. The human heart is a warm, somewhat vulnerable place from which true joy seems to emanate. The heart of Capitol Reef is much the same. The Fremont River passes through this section of the park, along the highway in many sections. In a desert, a river can mean an oasis, and in Capitol Reef that oasis is a lush green river of the life that passes through the center of the park. Not only do tall cottonwood trees line the banks, but it the center of the park there are a series of fruit orchards that produce quite a healthy harvest of fruit every year! Mule deer wander beneath the trees, birds fill the air - it was like a dream in the center of the desert. The line between dream and reality was starting to fade.

It seemed that all of a sudden the reds literally exploded around us. Unearthly monoliths, pillars, and massive domes towered overhead. I felt as if I had left the planet. Giant plateaus, tilted strata, twisted canyons, unbelievable color, and lush dashes of green wherever water flowed. Junipers, cottonwoods, willows, and dashes of wildflowers created streams of life which flowed throughout the park. For my entire life I had never imaged that such a landscape existed on the entire planet, let alone in my own country! Awestruck does not even come close to expressing how I felt. I found myself becoming very quiet. For the first time I was discovering that I lacked adequate words to describe what I was experiencing, something which torments me to this day. It was as if I wasn't the one in control. I wanted to simply visually embrace the land, yet instead it reached out and emotionally grabbed me. My pulse quickened, my breathing deepened, and it touched me, it touched my soul. It pulled out emotions I did not know that I had inside of me. It was in total control.

When we first arrived in Capitol Reef it was still heavily overcast. Of course, overcast illumination can actually enhance some of the landscapes in southern Utah, and Capitol Reef was no exception. It's soft colors are enhanced with the delicate light of an overcast day. As the day wore on, the sun would occasionally break through the clouds providing dramatic illumination for the varicolored landscape. We made several stops, did a few hikes, and by mid afternoon the sky began to clear. It turned into a beautiful day and I found myself immersed within a landscape that, prior to that day, I had never even imagined existed. The boundaries of my world were expanding by the minute.

After leaving Capitol Reef, we turned south onto Highway 12 to continue our journey to Bryce Canyon. When I made that turn I was less than two miles from the home of Ward Roylance, the man who would later be instrumental in the future direction of my life. I wouldn't meet Ward for another six years. Back in 1986, it just wasn't yet meant to be.

Highway 12 passes through, what is today, Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument. A jumble of convoluted canyons and contorted rock formations, the Escalante area presented yet another face of southern Utah. Here, white and light colored sandstone dominated the view. The red rock scenery surrounding Capitol Reef yielded to more subdued hues, however, the landscape became infinitely more complex. There seemed to be no straight lines in this region, the road twisted and turned as it made its way southwest toward our destination. There was no easy way through that country. Switchbacks, tight turns, and harrowing hogbacks defined much of that stretch of road. Every turn, however, held something new.

Some scenes along Highway 12 in Southern Utah - a diverse, geological wonderland.

Upon our arrival at Bryce Canyon, which occurred near sunset, we couldn't resist a quick look at the canyon before dark. Once again I was overpowered by the landscape. I had seen many photographs of it but nothing prepared me for my first glimpse. My senses were completely saturated.  The visual impact of this canyon, particularly after an entire day of traveling through southern Utah, actually made me weak at the knees.  To this day I remember Dave's first words when we arrived at the edge...

"...Now there's something you don't see everyday..."

Man, what an understatement!  Bryce was a glorious sandstone landscape eroded into an unimaginable fantasyland of pure color and form.  This, I thought, was pure Heaven.
We camped near the Red Canyon (not too far from Bryce) in an area surrounded by a grove of trees that obscured our view of the night sky. After setting up our tents in the dark, we grabbed our flashlights and headed up a neighboring slope to a ridge about 100 feet above our camp site. Knowing that the sky was crystal clear that night we took one final look at each other, turned off our flashlights and looked up. Everything that Dave had told me about the night sky was true. The Milky Way arced high overhead. Dark dust lanes stood out in stunning relief. There were so many stars visible that even recognizing the major constellations was difficult. The beautiful Lagoon and Triffid Nebulae were visible to the naked eye, something I never thought would be possible. The stars somehow felt closer. I didn't feel like I was looking at the Universe, I felt as if I was part of it.

The following day we explored the rim of Bryce Canyon, and then hiked down to the bottom. Everyone visiting southern Utah should experience Bryce Canyon - there is simply no other place quite like it.

Scenes from Bryce Canyon National Park.  There are 2 ways to experience this park - from above and from below.  Both are equally spectacular, and well worth doing!

The following day we explored parts of Zion National Park, which presented yet another face of southern Utah. Zion National Park contained nearly 300 square miles of cliff and canyon studded wilderness. Lofty monolithic sandstone formations towered high overhead and dominated the view from just about anywhere in the park. The imposing size of these colossal formations have inspired such godly names as Temple of Sinawava, Angels Landing and The Great White Throne.

Upon entering the park from the east entrance, we were immediately surrounded by contorted forms of very light colored, nearly white in fact, sandstone. The delicate red sandstone that dominated much of southern Utah could often be crumbled with your bare hands. However the white sandstone of Zion, called Navajo Sandstone, was very solid and strong, somewhat like concrete. The hardness and strength of this rock seemed to contradict the twisted contours of the formations. But surprisingly, those misshapen rocks were not caused by tremendously violent geologic forces. Navajo sandstone is mostly petrified sand dunes from millions of years ago. The dunes were compressed from the weight of sediments deposited above them, sediments which were subsequently eroded away due to changing conditions in the environment. So in reality, the twisted contours are the result of relatively gentle deposition and compression. Beautiful streaks of slightly varying direction in the sandstone, called crossbedding, is caused by changing wind currents eons ago.

One doesn't have to drive far in Zion to notice that all of the roads were dark red in color. Red sandstone, which was abundant in portions of the park, had been used as part of the pavement. The appearance of the road seemed to accent the natural beauty of the surroundings.

Shortly after entering the park  we came upon "The Tunnel". The Tunnel, 1.1 miles long, had been blasted through solid rock cliffs to make the park easily accessible to vehicles. As we entered the tunnel we were still surrounded by the white sandstone formations that I spoke of. However when we exited, the surroundings had been transformed into the vividly colored mighty cliff walls of Zion Canyon.

The Virgin River runs through the heart of Zion, creating the same type of "river of life" along its banks that we had noticed in Capitol Reef.  Zion was another lush green oasis in the midst of the desert.

Dipping Down into Arizona

After visiting Zion we headed into Arizona to see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  My initial impression of the Grand Canyon was, simply, that it was big.  Now, don't get me wrong - "big" things are what got me started on all of this.  The canyon's dimensions once again exceeded my expectations.  To this day, when I'm asked about the Grand Canyon, my typical response is "it's big".  I certainly enjoyed seeing the Grand Canyon - it was yet another experience to add to an incredible week of exploration.  However, I did feel as if the colors were subdued compared with the canyons of southern Utah.  Although the Grand Canyon is definitely a true wonder of the world, I find the canyons of southern Utah to be more esthetically diverse and pleasing.  However, I will say that after visiting the south Rim of the Grand Canyon several times during the following decade and I have come to appreciate the views, and lack of crowds, on the North Rim.

Our next destination was Meteor Crater in northeastern Arizona.  The aerospace portion of me felt that I had to see this.  The area surrounding the crater was rather desolate and quite flat. As we approached the crater the only vertical relief visible was the ejecta rim, which from ground level actually looked like nothing more than a small mesa. There were several other similar features in the area, of about the same height, which made Meteor Crater blend in perfectly to the local topography. Before we actually ascended to the lip of the crater, we would never have guessed that it was a crater. How many people from long ago passed right through this area without giving it a second thought? Since there were no tall hills or mountains nearby, the only way to get a look at the crater would have been to actually climb it and look inside. I would guess that most folks would have had no inclination to climb up top and take a look.

The crater was caused by a house sized meteor impacting about 50,000 years ago and the numbers are mind boggling. The iron-nickel meteorite was traveling at 40,000 - 50,000 mph when it impacted. The explosive force was greater than 20 million tons of TNT and the explosion generated intense shock waves in both the ground and in the atmosphere. Trees were leveled for miles around. Tons of rock experienced limited vaporization and extensive melting. In less than a few seconds a crater 700 feet deep and nearly a mile across was carved into the rocky plain. A 60 story building could sit within the crater and not extend over the rim. Over 175 million tons of debris were ejected from the crater. Most of the meteorite disintegrated during impact due to fragmentation, vaporization, and melting. It's an interesting fact of physics that even if a projectile impacts the ground at an extreme angle, it still results in a circular crater. Most of the fragments of the meteorite that were recovered were imbedded way up on the south wall of the crater. If you look carefully you can see streaks of red material running down the south side of the crater where core samples were dug to retrieve samples of the meteorite.

Meteor Crater, and one of its residents, in northeastern Arizona.

The crater looked absolutely huge from the rim. Even a wide angle lens couldn't capture it all in one picture. The remarkably smooth bowl of the crater was very impressive and I'd never come across anything quite so symmetrical in my travels. The fact that it was caused by an object from outer space seemed to increase the impact.

Back to Utah

Although the crater was impressive from a scientific standpoint, it didn't do much for me artistically.  However, my esthetic senses were once again ignited as we headed back into Utah.  The weather had been remarkably clear for several days.  Wide open, crystal clear blue skies were the norm after the storms of the initial days had subsided.  As we headed through northern Arizona we spotted a distant thunderstorm slowly moving across the horizon.  The storm system was completely visible - from the top of the thunderhead to the ground underneath, which was being impacted by lightning bolts.  While this type of phenomenon is common in the southwestern deserts, it was unlike anything I had ever seen back east.  When it rained in New York it just got hazy and started to rain.  I couldn't remember ever being able to see 50-100 transparent miles away (i.e. no haze or smog) to see an approaching storm.

Monument Valley

The Goosenecks of the San Juan River - I made it!
Finally, on July 10, 1986, I visited the exact spot that was on the postcard that started this whole journey - The Goosenecks of the San Juan River.  We passed through Monument Valley on the way, which was very impressive.  However, the satisfaction of reaching a goal made the Goosenecks even more impressive for me.  I felt as if I had come home.  Little did I know...I actually had.

After setting up camp atop a mesa not too far from the Goosenecks, I went on a solitary hike about an hour before sunset. The silence that surrounded me was deafening. The only sound to occasionally break this profound silence was that of tiny lizards scurrying about as I walked atop the mesa. The captivating smell of Junipers and Pinion Pines permeated the air. Mammoth house-sized boulders covered with beautiful streaks of desert varnish and multicolored lichen teetered on the edge of the mesa. As I explored the mesa top I thought about how very special the life forms were that were all around me. I found them special because life has to struggle so much harder to survive out there. The simple act of living is somehow intensified for the plants and animals of the high desert.

I made my way over to the edge of the mesa and sat on the edge. I looked out upon the bizarre, unimaginable landscape that lie before me, and there wasn't even the slightest sound or hint of movement. As the Sun got lower the sky seemed to ignite with an exquisite shade of red. A small bird flew overhead and I heard its wings cutting through the air. I looked out upon the land, upon all of that twisted and contorted rock, and pondered the great forces that created it all. It was very clear that there are powers in this land far beyond anything that mankind could ever imagine. The physical and spiritual manifestations of this power are undeniable when you are immersed within it. Here was a scientifically trained analytical person with a technical explanation for just about anything, confronted with one of the most profound mysteries of his entire life. My scientific training was telling me that there was nothing mystical about this land, yet there was no denying that I was experiencing something very mystical and very real. My entire world was turned upside down.

I reflected back upon all the remarkable things that I had seen since entering southern Utah. The immense and beautifully colored buttes, mesas, monoliths, and spires. The deep canyons, magnificent mountain ranges, vast open spaces and the unbelievable solitude. Then I then looked around and considered the lack of water, blistering temperatures, and the remoteness of my location and I realized that in spite of that I had no fear of this land. I had let go of all my fears. In spite of the stark desolation there is an intense feeling of immense peace and contentment there. It is an overwhelming feeling that not only comes from within, it seems to emanate from the land itself. It completely envelops you, penetrating your soul and never leaving it. From that day on, it has been a part of me. A day does not go by when I am not back there in spirit, drawing strength from it. I made my way back up to the campsite and began the rest of my life, which would never be the same.

Late afternoon lighting made for some nice photos of Marble Canyon...

This beautiful arch is located right by the side of Highway 191!Where does one go after a life changing experience? Moab of course!  Actually, on the next day Dave and I did a bit of exploration in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park but our wild week of exploration was beginning to take its toll.  We were quite tired, and a bit worn out.  An infestation of red ants at our Needles campground made us decide to pack up and spend our last night in Utah up in Moab.  It was a wise choice because we had nearly 500 miles of driving to get in the next day.  We slept well!

Looking Back

If I had it all to do over again there are very few things that I would change.  Given that we only had 8 days to take all of this in, I probably would cut out the Arizona portion of this trip.  Although Arizona has a lot to offer, the canyons of southern Utah are unmatched for their red rock beauty.  I still feel that the views from the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park exceed those of the Grand Canyon, primarily for the variety and intensity of color.  Eight days in southern Utah is barely enough time to get a taste of what it has to offer, however, it is more than enough time to change the course of a person's life forever.  Twelve years after my first trip into Southern Utah, I finally came home.  I love it here.


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