Travel Tips - Colorado Plateau
The following is simply a description of a tour we made around the Colorado Plateau in Autumn 1998. We travelled in a GMC 4WD and most of the time we camped in a small tent, but two nights we slept in the car, having arrived late in bad weather. For anyone travelling on a budget, I would recommend a similar vehicle but no tent. Just set yourself up to sleep in the car and there would be far less to drag along and more room in the car for sleeping. I have included a few photos from our trip in the photo gallery.
We were under way for two weeks from Breckenridge to Breckenridge, but we would like to have had more time for the same trip plus a few days more to see at least three more sights that we had to leave out of our schedule.
We picked up our car at Denver and travelled West via Frisco and Leadville towards Salida, then turned West through Gunnison and spent our first overnight at Curacanti National Recreation Area. Early the next morning we continued on to see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This is a very deep but not so colourful canyon and one can also drive down to the river level at the start of the canyon. From there we continued on via Montrose and delta to arrive at the Colorado National Monument late in the afternoon. We drove around the rim before finding a camping place in the dark. The next morning, after another look at Independence Rock, we continued on Route 70 but turned off after a while to follow the Colorado River via the back route to Arches National Park. We found a very nice camp ground just across the river at Moab and made a short visit to Arches before sunset. The next day we spent a full day exploring this fascinating park before returning to our camp ground. We had seen a mountain lion cross the road in front of our car on the way to the park, which made us a little more cautious when camping out later on.
The next day we headed off early to explore Canyonlands National Park, but stopped to see Dead Horse Point National Monument on the way and shared breakfast with the chipmunks. Canyonlands was very interesting with fantastic views over the Colorado and the Green River and we also were fascinated by the Upheval Dome. Even the experts can't agree on what has caused the incredible formation. We stopped in at Arches on the way home, to watch the sun set at Balancing Rock. The next day we continued South towards Monticello, but made a detour to see Newspaper Rock. This is an amazing rock covered with drawings from the Indians. We then continued South and turned West after Blanding on Route 95 to see Natural Bridges National Monument. This was again a very interesting area and we would like to have had more time for hiking. Our trip then continued on the 95, crossing the small end of Lake Powell and then on through Hanksville and Capitol Reef National Park, to over-night in a very cold campground at Torrey. The next day we headed South on Route 12 to see the Anasazi Village and Museum at Boulder and the Petrified Forest near Escalante.
We arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park late in the afternoon in time to set up the tent in a lovely campground, then to go to watch the sun set on Bryce Amphitheatre. It was fantastic! We spent the next day hiking through the canyon floor and then drove the full length of the rim. We departed the next morning, but only after we had watched the morning light play with the colours of the canyon. It is really very beautiful.
We joined Route 89 South and as the weather was so clear, we decided to go direct to Kanab to organise a flight over the Grand Canyon. The flight was a real eye opener as to the magnitude of the grand canyon. I think if I had the chance again, I would have done a round flight over the Grand Canyon then Lake Powell and Bryce Canyon. It would not have cost a lot more. After the flight we made a dash to try to see Zion National Park, but did not really have enough time to see it all. Zion is also different to most of the other canyons in that you drive up the canyon floor and not around the rim. That means that you are in the shade quite early in the afternoon. We departed Zion as the sun was setting and drove to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes National Recreation Area. This was a nice camp ground and we had sufficient time in the morning to go for a walk on the dunes, before the dune buggies were allowed to drive. Our next destination was the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and we did some walking there near the Lodge followed by a tour with the car out to Walhalla Plateau. It is very impressive, but so large that it is difficult to capture the effect in photographs.
We departed North Rim and spent a very cold evening at a campground at Jocob lake before turning East on to the 89a. We travelled parallel to the southern side of the Paria Plateau and before crossing the Colorado River, we made an excursion to see the site of the old Lees Ferry. This was the only crossing on the Colorado for many years. It operated for 55 years until 1928. From the old ferry site we watched a few river rafting groups preparing to depart on a trip down through the Grand Canyon, then we continued on up to lake Powell. This is a huge man made lake in the middle of the desert, with a shoreline of over 3000 km. One can take a boat trip up into the various canyons or rent a houseboat for a leisurely holiday in spectacular surroundings. We managed to fit in a boat trip to Antelope Canyon and Elisabeth even went for a swim before dinner, but it was not too warm. After leaving Lake Powell, we travelled through a Navajo Indian Reservation and stopped to see our first Anasazi cliff dwelling at the Navajo National Monument. It was very impressive. Our route then took us up through Monument Valley and past Mexican Hat, then we made a diversion to see Hovenweep, another Anasazi Indian village which was built around the top edges of a cliff. We decided not to overnight there due to the remoteness of the place, but continued on via Cortez to Mesa Verde.
Mesa Verde is the most amazing archaeological find in the area. There are many villages built into ledges in the cliffs all around the area. The area was inhabited by the Anasazi for about 750 years, but by about A.D.1300 the villages were deserted. The reason is not really known, but it is presumed that due to a change of climate or a particularly bad drought the crops failed, so the people packed up and headed South to New Mexico and Arizona to settle with kin already there. In a recent bush fire, many more previously undiscovered ruins were exposed. We spent a day exploring the amazing area, then headed East again on Route 160 and crossed the Rockies to spend the night at a campground at South Fork.
From South Fork we first followed the valley of the Rio Grande then drove to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. These are huge sand dunes formed by sand from the valley which is picked and carried by the wind, but when the wind slows to rise over the nearby mountains, the sand is dropped at this spot. The dunes rise to almost 250 metres above the surrounding ground. The highest dunes are almost 2650 metres above sea level. It snowed as we climbed to the top.
We left the Great Sand Dunes and headed North to join Route 285 which we then followed to Fairplay and then on 9 back to Brecken Ridge. You could stay on Route 285 through to Denver. From the road near Buena Vista there is a great view to the West looking over the Collegiate Mountains.
The trip as described above is as we experienced it, but we would like to have had more time for the same route. The attractions that we missed were the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest National Park and Canyon De Chelley National Monument all of which are very interesting.