North America Odyssey - Part 1
Dateline: April to June 2014
Picture Above: Track to hole-in-the-Rock with thunderstorm brewing.
ONE Continent, THREE countries, THIRTEEN months (over four years) & 42,000 miles. Ron and Viv Moon's pilgrimage around the continent takes in the best and some of the little known hidden gems of the USA, Canada and Mexico.
Part 1 - Roaming the Wild West
So different to Outback Australia, Ron and Viv Moon love wandering the wilder places of the Southwest of the USA and you can do it too! Here's a great way to start.
Thunder crashed about us, reverberating of the great cliffs of Fifty Mile Mountain away to our south and bouncing of the natural rock amphitheatre of Dance Hall Rock just behind us. Lightening flashed in a coruscation of blinding light and pulsating natural power as the leading edge of the thunderstorm rolled over the cliffs and rocky hills around us. A splattering of raindrops followed, but the storm was more a light and sound show than any real drenching, the few drops hardly settling the dust and only occasionally gathering in small pools on the sea of rock that surrounded us.
That rolling sea of rock that swept away from us in all directions was, in fact, 'petrified dunes' that were once mobile sand dunes that over the eons of time have fused together in a much more stationary form, but are now even more impressive in their harsh bare starkness. The 4WD trail we were following dipped and climbed, curled and wandered amongst these low rock swells, the waves of rock becoming more pronounced and dominant the further we progressed along the trail.
We were following in the footsteps of one of the most incredible endeavours of the settlement of America's Wild West. In the late 1870s a group of Mormon pioneers set off to establish a community in the southeast of Utah. Their wagon train of 80 odd wagons, 250 people and hundreds of livestock blazed the trail from the small community of Escalante eastward, and when they came to the 600-metre sheer cliffs that bordered the Colorado River in an area we call Glen Canyon, they simply pushed on. They set about the task of widening a crack in the defile they discovered – now known as Hole-in-the Rock – suspended a road out from the edge of the cliff in places, and lowered their wagons, livestock and people down the scary, near sheer slope. Once at the bottom, they built a ferry to get themselves across the raging river and then their hardships really began as they climbed and tried to find a route up the other side. Talk about pioneer grit and fortitude, backed up no doubt, by a big dose of religious fervour.
Still, until you stand on the edge of that high cliff at Hole-in-the-Rock and look down to the waters of what was the Colorado River, and is now the backwaters of the man-made Lake Powell, the full enormity of what they did is impossible to comprehend. Even then most people are in complete and utter awe of what the pioneers achieved and that is reflected in the Visitors Book that is found nearby; 'unbelievable' ......'crazy' ........'stupendous' ..... 'stupid' .... 'awesome' .... 'terrifying' ..... were just some of the single word comments listed.
We wandered the cliff edge and climbed a short distance down the defile, shaking our heads in wonderment all the time. Then, with nobody around – we had only seen a couple of vehicles all day – we set up camp nearby, our surrounds and view being identical to what those early, hardy and resourceful pioneers had experienced.
Our travels in the southwest of America had started a few weeks previously when we had bought a second-hand Dodge Ram and fitted it with a Four Wheel Camper slide-on, some ARB protection equipment, a set of IPF driving lights, an Aluminess rear step and swing away carriers and a full set of Cooper ST Maxx tyres; then we headed for the more remote parts of the country.
In a country roughly the same size as Australia but with a population of over 300 million it's a little harder to get 'remote' than it may be in Australia, but it is still possible. While our Hole-in-the-Rock camp is one example, another far better known spot, on everyone's bucket list, is the Grand Canyon. This incredible place sees over four and half million visitors each year and while the popular viewpoints on the South Rim are crowded much of the time, the North Rim is far less so. Then, if you head either west of east from Grand Canyon Lodge, that is the heart of the North Rim, you will end up on a series of forest trails that take you to the very lip of the canyon. Here, you can find a spot to camp all to yourself on the very edge of the canyon ... near unbelievable, but true!
From the North Rim we had headed to Page where the mighty Colorado River has carved another canyon, where amongst an incredible range of vistas there is Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon, the latter only spoilt by the sheer number of people that wander through it.
From Page we had travelled west and crossed the State Line into what has become our favourite state in the Union – Utah! Slipping off the blacktop, or 'pavement' as the Yanks are want to call it, we entered the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast area that links many of the Nation’s finest national parks and national recreational areas into a contiguous 1.4 million hectares of protected lands ... and that doesn't include the huge areas of national forest that border these parks and reserves.
Our route through the national monument took us along the Cottonwood Canyon Trail and some isolated camps along Cottonwood Creek before coming to the rock formation of Grosvenor Arch and then the multi-hued Kodachrome Basin State Park. Nearby is the popular and impressive Bryce Canyon National Park and while we took in some of the views and wandered the walking trails for a short distance it was way too crowded and we headed for the adjoining Dixie National Forest and picked up the Great Western Trail. This trail runs from the Mexico border in Arizona to the Canadian border in Montana and passes mainly through national forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land for the whole way. It would make a great trip and one we are planning to do on a future trip.
That night we camped in a the heart of a small verdant meadow at an altitude of 2500 metres below a great white and red bluff dotted with pine and fir trees. A spring babbled from the ground just a few metres from our camp, while deer eyed us warily from the surrounding cover of trees and scrub. It was a magical spot!
Next day we rolled into the small hamlet of Escalante and then after finding out about the endeavours of the early pioneers took to the Hole-in-the-Rock track, which took us again to the edge of the mighty Glen Canyon. Being of weaker mind and aptitude to the early Mormons we turned back on this dead-end track and wound our way up into the higher country to the west of Escalante.
One of the things we love about touring the West of America is the incredible variety you can witness in just an hour or so drive. One minute we were in raw, red-rock country more akin to our desert country; next we were travelling through verdant pine covered mountains dotted with lakes and cut by cool trickling streams. Again we found a choice of campsites – the Forestry Service providing some fabulous camping areas while, with just a bit more flexibility and effort, we could find a more isolated spot on a pine fringed meadow, all to ourselves.
From our mountain top camp we headed east along Hells Backbone and then onto the Burr Trail leaving the Grand Staircase-Escalante NM and passing through the bottom section of the Capitol Reef NP in an impressive series of switchbacks as the trail dropped over the edge of the Waterpocket Fold: the dominating 150-kilometre long feature of the national park.
For the next few days we wandered the back roads, mainly through BLM land, leading to Moab and the mind blowing vistas of Canyonlands NP and the gravity defying rock formations of Arches NP. We had been to both parks previously and while there were always a few people around, these two parks and the surrounding country offer some of the best scenery, walks and four wheel drive trails in all of the US.
From Moab itself you can partake in any choice of adventures from hiring a rock crawler or ATV, to going rafting on the Colorado, climbing or abseiling some of the many sheer rock faces in the surrounding area, or horse riding or mountain biking on some of the high desert country trails that radiate from the town.
After a somewhat disjointed wander through this four-wheel drive and adventure mecca we slipped into Colorado and headed into some fabulously rugged mountain country. Trouble was, while the main roads and highways were open, we were too early to travel the high mountain trails, which were still closed under many feet of snow (this was early June). We contented ourselves wandering the more beaten paths as we made our way south into New Mexico, then once more we took to rarely used trails in the wake of some of the Wild West's most famous characters – Billy the Kid and Kit Carson to name just two .... but that's another story to be told in the future.
A Favourite 3 to 4 week Loop
Head out of LA on I-10. You can stop at Las Vegas if you want, but whatever you do head for the south rim of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. From there dodge around to Page (don't miss Horseshoe Bend at sunset) and then head back west for a remote camp on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (note: this area only opens in mid-May).
From the North Rim head into Utah and check out Zion and Bryce National Parks before heading to one of our favourite towns, Escalante. You can get lost around here in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for a few days or much longer, before heading over to Moab and its incredible parks and red rock country.
From Moab mosey on into southern Colorado - Telluride and the Million Dollar Highway before swinging north to the Great Sand Dune National Park and more. Then swing back west through Utah and Capitol Reef National Park.
Pick up I-50 – 'the loneliest road in America' – and head across Nevada poking around the old deserted mining areas close to Eureka and Austin (both old towns are worth an explore).Back in California you'll cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains through any of a number of high passes, before heading into Yosemite National Park (see: www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm). Hopefully you'll get a campsite in the valley (it pays to book), stay a few days and take in the views and giant Sequoia trees (or head a little north to see the more impressive Redwoods) before heading south to LA and a flight home.
Numerous airlines fly from Australia direct to Los Angeles in the USA and if you keep an eye on their websites you can get some great bargains.
Getting some Wheels
Hire or buy? For hiring a fully set-up RV start with Cruise America (www.cruiseamerica.com), but there are plenty of others, including Tonto Trails (www.tontotrails.com) who hire fully set up 4WD pick-ups with slide-on campers fitted or fully set-up 4WD Sportsmobile rigs.
If you are planning on touring for longer than couple of months buying a second hand rig is definitely a good choice. You'll be surprised at what you can get for US$10,000 t0 $20,000.
You do need a USA address and the easiest is to use the address of an RV Park you use as a base.
Spring (April-May) is good for touring the desert country of the SW and is less crowded than later. Summer comes late in a lot of the high country, so access can be restricted due to deep snow off the main roads & highways, so it's best to be flexible.
The busiest timea, especially for the major national parks, is the summer school holiday break - June/July/August. You may need to book ahead for a camp site, especially if you need power.
Australians, at the time of writing, are eligible to obtain a Visa Waiver to enter the USA and which will allow you to stay in the USA for 3 months only. This includes any time spent in Canada and Mexico.
If you’d like to spend up to 6 months in North America, then you’ll need to apply for a full visa. Give yourself plenty of time to obtain this. (https://au.usembassy.gov/visas/).
All the parks, reserves and forests have great websites where you'll find a heap of info. For the national parks/monuments, start at: www.nps.gov,
or for the national forests visit: www.fs.fed.us.
In addition the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls nearly 107 million hectares of land in the West and much of this is available for touring and recreation - see: www.blm.gov.
We always buy a state atlas of each new state we visit in the west - with their detail on tracks and reserves it will open up a new world to the US traveller.