Follow the trip from the beginning here.
There was a whirl of activity outside our motel room when we woke up. We’d slept late and two girls were doing housekeeping, working their way towards our room. Out on the deck a kitten was holding court; he’d been abandoned at the motel the previous night. This is apparently par for the course in Utah; the campsite we’d stayed at in Moab also doubled as a kitty refuge, accepting unwanted cats and trying to find homes for them. We were planning on visiting Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab later that day, so Jill suggested we take the little guy along with us, but the girls doing the housekeeping assured us they would find a good home for him, like they had done with so many kittens before. Jill grabbed a can of tuna from the truck so he would have a hearty breakfast and then we hit the road.
We still had another 60 miles to go on Highway 12 and it didn’t disappoint. Great rocky plateaus in grey and yellow drifted by on either side of us as we wound our way out of Escalante. Out the back window I noticed an ominous-looking black cloud that seemed to be following us. Jill cheekily suggested that the reason we were being plagued by bad weather was because I was from Ireland and attracted the rain. I countered by saying the Seattlite should shoulder at least half of the blame.
Then the greys and yellows gave way to the palest of rosy pink as we neared Bryce Canyon. We were supposed to be in Kanab by the early afternoon to take a tour of Best Friends, so weren’t going to have enough time to visit Bryce.
I tried to suppress my disappointment as we whizzed by tantalising glimpses of blush canyons that I longed to see up close. The scenery was whipping by so quickly the best I could manage were a few photos of speeding trees on a blurry pink background. A rocky red arch spanned the highway and on the other side we stopped in Red Canyon for a quick look around. Butch Cassidy grew up not too far from here, in a little town called Circleville. The home and stables of his childhood still exist today and are open to the public. A trail called the Cassidy Trail starts at Red Rock Canyon and allegedly follows a route he once used to escape an angry posse. The canyon was almost empty; most visitors drive straight past and make a beeline for Bryce, so we had the place to ourselves. Towering rocks glowed reddish-orange in the early afternoon sun.
We needed to get going if we were going to reach Kanab by 2pm. Jill said we’d be pushing it to arrive in time and called to change our appointment with Best Friends to the following day. Truth be told, we could have made it in time, but I suspect Jill didn’t want me to miss out on seeing Bryce Canyon. She got off the phone and said “Hey, why don’t we go see Bryce after all?” So we got back in the pickup and travelled back the way we came, under the red archway towards Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Canyon was named after an early settler, Ebenezer Bryce. I can’t help wishing they’d used his first name for the canyon instead. It isn’t really a canyon, actually, but a series of ravines that are awash with marvellous and fragile stone structures in delicate hues of pink, yellow and white. There are numerous trails you can hike if you have time on your hands, but even if you’re on a tight schedule, a drive along the park’s main roadway is well worth the time. There are pullouts all along the way that afford you the most magnificent views of the hoodoos.
I’d never heard the term hoodoo until I visited Bryce Canyon but now it is one of my favourite words. It smacks irresistibly of magic, reminiscent of the word voodoo although unrelated in origin. A hoodoo, in geological terms, is to all intents and purposes a poorly formed pinnacle or spire, uneven in thickness from top to bottom. Other terms for them include fairy chimneys and, in French, ‘demoiselles coiffées’ – damsels with posh hairdos.
We stopped to look out over the Silent City, a vast expanse of densely packed hoodoos spreading out as far as the eye can see. Utah doesn’t seem to care too much for guard rails; the canyon edge was cheerfully barricade-free with just a diminutive sign that whispered in tiny letters ‘Don’t go any further’. The sign was so small I assume there wasn’t enough room for the ‘or you will die’ part.
Just as we reached the end of the road and Bryce’s highest elevation, Rainbow Point, the dark cloud that had been skulking behind us all morning finally caught up with us, and a great streak of lightning tore across the sky. A lone raven landed nearby and gazed disconcertingly at us until we moved. Apparently we were encroaching on its territory.
Heavy raindrops started to thud on the ground so we hopped in the pickup and drove back to Highway 12, stopping briefly to watch some adorable pronghorns grazing near the park entrance.
A small plane came in to land at Bryce Canyon Airport as we passed by. I watched as it touched down and wondered how on earth I had failed to notice the airport when we had passed by earlier. It was quite possibly the smallest airport I’ve ever seen; it was really just a concrete path and a wooden hut with the words ‘Bryce Canyon Airport’ emblazoned on top in massive bright yellow letters.
Mindful of the thunderstorm that was hot on our heels, we decided to head straight for our campground to get set up for the night, but our good intentions were thwarted when we spotted a Flintstonesque store called the Rock Stop just outside of Orderville. It was a big pink blob with a green dinosaur peering over the wall; how could we resist?
Inside, Jill went rooting through an array of rocks and glass while I explored the oddities that filled the grounds, birds made out of trowels and horseshoes, donkeys made of logs and of course, that strange green dinosaur.
Intrigued, I chatted to the owners, Mickey and Don, about the history of the place. The original owner was one Elbert H. Porter who had a thing for dinosaurs and sculpted “life-sized” dino statues out of fiberglass. 14 of his sculptures are now housed in the Utah Field House of Natural History; the little green dinosaur is all that remains of Porter’s dino legacy at the Rock Stop. Across the road was another rock store, equally eccentric, boasting a huge yellow alligator head, but we didn’t tarry long there.
We were now driving along Highway 89 which connects Bryce Canyon with Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. It is also the road for Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, which was where we were camping this evening. The drive along 89 was quick and painless, but we turned off onto a county road when we saw the sign for the dunes, and that seemed to go on for ever. Our progress was impeded even further by two stubborn cows blocking the roadway.
We waited patiently, but they hung around with no apparent desire to go anywhere else, so we went off-road a little and drove around them. They didn’t seem too impressed with our impatience, gazing balefully after us as we motored off into the distance.
Somewhere shortly after this point we considered turning around, convinced we had taken a wrong turn. We were miles into the desert brush with no sign of civilization, we hadn’t passed a single car since turning onto the road and now the light was fading fast. Just as we were debating whether to turn round or not, we saw another sign and ten minutes later found the Ranger Station and the entrance to the campsite.
Out the window, I could see the dunes glowing pink under the setting sun, deep shadows creeping across the sands, so when we found our site, I whipped the tent up in a matter of nanoseconds while Jill got started on dinner, then slipped away to catch a few photos of the dunes before the light was gone.
Chances are you’ve probably seen these dunes before. They are a go-to location for Hollywood when filming desert scenes. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was told right here, with the Coral Pink Sand Dunes masquerading as Egypt. It didn’t look much like ancient Egypt right now with all the dune buggy tracks streaked across the sands.
I stopped by the restrooms on my way back and when I was leaving, I felt a shot of air and my hair flew about like crazy for a moment. I couldn’t figure out where it came from, because the air was perfectly still. Then I spotted Jill sitting on a rock nearby, staring intently at something. I wandered over and asked what she was looking at. “Bats” she said and pointed. The bathroom lights were attracting moths and an ingenious bat had cottoned onto this. It was circling the facilities building continuously, picking off a moth each time it circled. That was what had whipped by me on the way out.
Back at the campsite, Jill rustled up a cracking good veggie chili while I got a fire started. We sat around the fire eating chili, sipping wine and listening to the crickets chirp. A massive thunderstorm was kicking off down south of where we were, so while Jill got out her laptop and worked some more on her resume, I took some video of the storm in the distance, and hoped it stayed very much in the distance.
I grabbed my shower bag and wandered over to take a shower before turning in for the night, completely forgetting about the bat. It nearly took my head off on the way in, sending me running for the door. Through the frosted glass window in the door, I could see it zip by at regular intervals, so when I was done showering, I stood in the doorway counting so that I could time my exit to avoid the bat. 1,2,3, bat 1,2,3, bat 1,2,3, bat and GO. I timed it perfectly, but the little bugger pulled a u-turn and came back in the other direction headed right for my face. It swerved up at the last minute, but not before I’d decided my only escape was to throw myself backwards onto the ground. I don’t know who got the bigger fright, but I made the most noise, first screaming in shock, then cursing as I picked sand and ants out of my hair.
On the positive side, the bat encounter had made me forget all about the rattlesnakes, cougars and scorpions that roam the Utah night. I snuggled into my sleeping bag just happy to be away from the bat, read another chapter of Travels with Charley as thunder rumbled away in the distance, and then drifted off to sleep.
Here’s a short video of today’s adventures, including the crazy storm: