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By Brad Wright

4/27/2009 (5 years ago)

McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)

The Orange County Register (MCT) - It sounds more like something from "The Amazing Race" than a vacation. We'll visit southern Utah's five national parks, plus a national monument.

Highlights

By Brad Wright

McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)

4/27/2009 (5 years ago)

Published in Travel


In one week. With our dog.

Are we biting off more than we can chew?

Besides covering nearly 2,000 miles of road, our adventure will include a lot of hiking, whitewater rafting and four-wheel driving.

"Do we have to see all five of the parks?" my wife, Daysi, asks. "When, exactly, are we going to be able to relax?"

To complicate matters, we have a new passenger in tow for this trip, LADI, our almost-2-year-old slightly spoiled and highly active English springer spaniel. Her name stands for Los Angeles Doggie of Irvine. (She was named for the local baseball team; we call her by her acronym, LADI _ pronounced Lady. Simple enough, right?)

The National Parks are owned by the people, but when it comes to dogs, they are notoriously unfriendly. This is going to require a bit of ingenuity.

ZION ON THE HORIZON

Zion National Park is only a 6 œ-hour drive from our home in Orange County, Calif., and it's also one of the most convenient national parks to explore. The town of Springdale sits right outside the park, and a shuttle system ferries visitors into and out of the park. A separate shuttle inside the park goes to several trailheads and overlooks along the 6-mile-long Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which in high season is closed to most car traffic.

In Springdale, we see at least a half-dozen bed-and-breakfasts. Inside the park, there is the stately Zion Lodge, where we would have preferred to stay if we weren't traveling with our dog.

But with LADI, our choices came down to a chain motel or camping in the park at the Watchman Campground.

We dug out our tent.

After setting up camp, we take the Pa'rus Trail, the only trail where dogs are allowed inside Zion. It winds down to the Virgin River, where we let LADI splash around in the shallow water. That night we grill kebabs and sit around a campfire.

DOG GONE

The next morning we drop LADI off for day care at the Doggy Dude Ranch in Springdale, so we could explore the park freely.

Instead of trying to tackle one of Zion's famously long and difficult hikes, such as the switchbacks and ridges of the 5-mile Angels Landing Trail, we opt for three shorter hikes.

The Lower and Middle Emerald Pools (2 miles round trip), then the Weeping Rock (1 mile) and finally, the Riverside Walk (2 miles) trails. We eat packed sandwiches for lunch while watching rock climbers scale a cliff at the Temple of Sinawava. Riding on the shuttle in between hikes gives us time to rest, while gawking out the window at the natural wonders and listening to the tour information pour out of the bus loudspeaker.

We pick up LADI by mid-afternoon and hit the road, driving east.

THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

Highway 12, part of the Scenic Byway, feels like being on another planet. It's a land of massive rocks and desert canyons. For most of the drive there isn't another vehicle in sight.

The town of Boulder, in a wide green valley, takes pride in its remote location. It claims to be the last U.S. city to receive its mail by pack mule. Postcards say "Greetings from the Middle of Nowhere." There is a mini-mart, three restaurants and the comfortable Boulder Mountain Lodge, which will be our home for the next three nights.

Cows and horses graze in front of the lodge, and there is a bird sanctuary in the rear. Most importantly for us, there is also an award-winning restaurant on the property, the Hell's Backbone Grill, which draws foodies from the far corners of the state.

We can't dine in the restaurant with our dog and we can't risk leaving her in the lodge, but we brought our own wine from California and are gung-ho for takeout brought back to the room. A meal of free-range, grass-fed New York strip steak, roasted poblano crema, lemony mashed potatoes and early-spring vegetables is a perfect ending to a rather incredible day. LADI, though, has to be content with her kibble.

HOODOO YOU LOVE

Boulder sits on the northeast rim of the sprawling Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Unlike the national parks, it allows dogs on several of the trails.

From the Escalante River trailhead, hikers can go about 15 miles upstream or downstream. We flip a coin and hike downstream for about an hour, mostly in open sun that I imagine would be unbearable in the summer, before retracing our steps. LADI is overjoyed that this part of the trail includes several river crossings, and she gets to take a quick swim each time Daysi and I take off our shoes to wade across.

Back on the highway we're a little bummed that we're having to backtrack, but from the Escalante River trailhead it's only a little more than an hour drive to Bryce Canyon. We arrive at the park a little after noon and are surprised to see patches of snow on the ground in May.

Bryce is known for its hoodoos – natural columns of rocks that protrude from the canyon like giant bulbous spires, most of them over 100 feet tall. It's erosion and geology as a 65-million-year-old artwork.

Like most museums, no dogs allowed.

Since LADI is with us, we aren't able to hike down among the hoodoos. I'm reminded of a trek into the Grand Canyon. It looks easy enough hiking down the steep trails, but the walk out is long and all uphill. Maybe having LADI with us is a good thing this time. The hoodoos are best observed from above.

There are 13 overlooks along Bryce's 18-mile scenic road. We stop at the Natural Bridge and Black Birch Canyon overlooks before reaching the end of the road. We break out the jackets to picnic at 9,115-foot Rainbow Point. Daysi and I get a kick out of watching LADI carefully measure her steps as her paws sink into the snow.

On the way out of the park we get out and walk for a bit on the Rim Trail at Sunrise Point, Sunset Point and Bryce Point. Driving back from Fairyland Point, we see mule deer eating about 50 feet off the side of the road.

"Pull over," Daysi says. "I want LADI to see them."

I crack the window just enough for LADI to stick her head out, and she barks as if she had seen an army of mail carriers pushing vacuum cleaners. The deer take off and so do we.

Night two and we are back to pick up our to-go gourmet meal from Hell's Backbone Grill. Organic chicken breast with a dried-fruit and shallot compote served with pueblo quinoa and vegetables. Mmmm.

DESERT OASIS

We return the next morning to Grand Staircase for our biggest day of hiking. We're tackling the 6-mile round-trip Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail. Most of the trail is relatively flat, but it's very sandy in many places, so the walking is a bit strenuous, even for LADI, who huffs along

We hike alongside pinyon pines and Utah juniper trees and between mineral-streaked cliffs of Navajo Sandstone to the 120-foot-high Lower Calf Creek Falls.

The cascade reminds Daysi and me of some of the waterfalls and swimming holes that we've seen in Costa Rica and the "Fantasy Island" falls on Kauai. Those are lush, rainy worlds where waterfalls are expected. Here, the desert landscape gives all that thundering, tumbling water a surreal appearance.

The pool underneath the falls is too cool for us to brave, but LADI, with all those generations of breeding to hunt in the icy lakes of England, is in paradise. We let her off leash, and she joins two other dogs paddling away to their heart's content. While most of the dozen or so other hikers are sitting around having lunch, we play a long game of fetch the stick. LADI's tail never stops wagging.

We return to the lodge to rest for the afternoon. It's dinner time. Now, where to eat? How about Hell's Backbone Grill? This time the bags we bring back to the room are filled with skillet-fried trout encrusted with blue corn, molasses and pecans. Like us, LADI is eating from the same spot as the other three nights: her bag of Nature's Variety dog food.

HOME ON THE RANGE

We're up not long after the sun and head east through the Dixie National Forest and on to Capitol Reef National Park. The park, with its more remote inland location, is the often forgotten stepchild of Utah's national parks.

We drive to Panorama Point, then take the 1-mile dirt road out to Goosnecks Overlook. There are no other people in sight, so (cover your eyes, park rangers), LADI comes along with us on the short hike to Sunset Point. She keeps her nose to the trail, while we gaze out at the twisting canyons, the stark monoliths and the expansive desert sky.

Then we head out on the Scenic Drive, a 12-mile one-way paved road that follows the Fremont River through the heart of the park. We pass the historic farm town of Fruita, with its old one-room schoolhouse and many orchards.

There's apple, peach, cherry, pear and apricot trees and visitors can pick and eat fruit free of charge when they are in season. None were. Next time. But nearby, we do get out and look at petroglyphs carved by the Fremont Indians some 1,000 years ago.

At the end of the paved scenic drive is an even more pleasant surprise. A dirt road leading into Capitol Gorge is a stunning drive into a narrow canyon with soaring sheer-wall rocks towering above us on both sides. It's almost like driving through a slot canyon. When the road ends, LADI leads the way through the wash until a light rain chases us back to the Jeep.

On the way out of the park, we begin to take another dirt road, but we see black clouds forming overhead. Fearing flash floods, we decide not to chance becoming an item on the evening news and head instead to Moab.

When we arrive in town, I take LADI for a run in a city park while Daysi hits the market. Our gourmet restaurant days are over. For the next three nights we cook and dine high-country style. Our cafe is our cabin at the Pack Creek Ranch, in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains about 10 miles outside of Moab.

Inside the log cabin, there's no TV, but a large picture window above the sofa overlooks a field of prairie dogs, with the ranch's horses in the distance. LADI spends hours staring out the window and barking to alert us when a large group of mule deer and a flock of wild turkeys visit the yard.

'LAND OF THE LOST'

LADI is in for another day of doggy day care, so we check her in at Karen's Canine Campground. We know that Arches National Park will be a lot more crowded than Grand Escalante and Capitol Reef, and while it's easy enough to see the natural sandstone arches by driving through the park and stopping at the overlooks, we want to be dog free to explore the trails.

It is a clear day, and at Park Avenue Viewpoint, we survey the skyscraper-like formation, with the golden-hued rocks framed by the bright blue sky. It reminds Daysi and me of the old "Land of the Lost" television series, where people seemed so puny and overwhelmed. As we take in more of the giant sculptures _ the Three Gossips, The Organ, Courthouse Towers, the Tower of Babel _ we imagine dinosaurs roaming among them.

Like Zion, we skip the longer hikes in favor of stopping to walk at several different spots. We take short hikes to Balanced Rock and Sand Dune Arch, and walk the 1-mile loop to North and South windows and Turret Arch.

We have some regret about not making the difficult three-mile hike to Delicate Arch, the unofficial symbol of Utah. After all, we've been staring at its picture all week on the Utah license plates. But we get a decent look at it from the top of a nearby ridge by climbing the rocky uphill Upper Viewpoint Trail.

Back to the cabin for a quiet evening _ nothing but night for LADI to see out the window.

ON THE RIVER AND OFF THE ROAD

Sunrise. Daysi and me have to be at Adrift Adventures by 8:15 to board the bus for our half-day rafting tour on the Colorado River. It doesn't give us enough time to take LADI back to Karen's Canine Campground before it opens, so today we drop her off at the Moab Veterinary Clinic. She won't have as much fun, but she'll be safe and well-cared for in a kennel.

The white-water rafting trip is a bit of a disappointment. We hit three Class II (moderate) rapids, but it's mostly a leisurely float down the river. There are seven passengers in the raft, but nobody gets to paddle. The guide, sitting in the middle, does all the work with two large oars. We're just along for the ride. The views of the canyon are nice, but we largely saw the same thing driving beside the river on Highway 128.

We feel a little cheated on the adventure front and since this is our last day of vacation, we're ready to take our Jeep for a long-overdue four-wheel drive. We pick up LADI and make for Canyonlands National Park. On the way, we take an off-road shortcut through Gemini Bridges.

We make the white-knuckle climb up the side of a mountain on the rocky and bumpy dirt road. With a high, sheer canyon wall on our right, and a 1,000-foot, then 2,000-foot drop-off to our left, the road isn't wide enough for a car to pass in the other direction. I pray that this is a one-way road.

Even LADI, in the backseat, is sitting upright at full attention as the car rocks from side to side with dust kicking up all around us. In six years of owning my Jeep, this is only the second time I'm using the four-wheel drive, and I begin to wonder what exactly I'd gotten us into.

"It's a beautiful view up here," Daysi says. "But please try not to look at it."

Eventually, the road traverses inland into a vast canyon. At times, it seems we're basically driving on slick rock. We get out and walk around at the Gemini Bridges, a natural double sandstone "bridge" on the rim of Bull Canyon. The site is not all that well marked and for a moment we feel a little lost. Fortunately, we run into another couple, who point us in the direction of Highway 313, which will take us to Canyonlands.

LEAST FOR LAST

Canyonlands is divided into three sections: The Maze, The Needles and Island in the Sky, which are roughly split by the Green and Colorado rivers. Island in the Sky is the area closest to Moab and the place that we explore, though briefly. It's almost 4 p.m. when we arrive at the visitor center, and we spend less time here than at any of the national parks.

Perhaps it is because our visit is so short, but of Utah's five national parks, this is our least favorite. We drive from overlook to overlook _ Candlestick Tower, Buck Canyon, Grand View Point _ and each one is a short walk from the parking lot to the viewpoint. Even LADI seems unimpressed, wondering why we keep stopping the car to stand around and do nothing. Anyone who enjoys staring down into the Grand Canyon will appreciate the vistas here: deep sandstone craters that stretch for miles.

Driving out of the park, it starts to set in that our trip is coming to an end. LADI begins to fall asleep in the back seat. We are tired yet restless.

Lucinda Williams' "West" is in the CD player.

"I climb up on a rock

And stretch out in the sun

And close my eyes and let

My imagination run ..."

When we see the trailhead for Mesa Arch, we can't resist stopping to take one more short hike.

We have a long drive home. But that is tomorrow.

___

IF YOU GO:

WATCHMAN CAMPGROUND: Open year round in Zion National Park. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance at recreation.gov or 877-444-6777.

DOGGY DUDE RANCH:$18-$20 for day care; $23-$25 for overnight boarding. 800 E. Main St. (State Route 9), Springdale, Utah. 435-772-3105. doggyduderanch.com

BOULDER MOUNTAIN LODGE: High-season rates $99-$190, plus $15 nightly per dog. 20 N. Highway 12, Boulder, Utah. 1-800-556-3446. boulder-utah.com

HELL'S BACKBONE GRILL: Entrees $17-$32. 20 N. Highway 12, Boulder, Utah. 435-335-7464. hellsbackbonegrill.com

PACK CREEK RANCH: Cabins $95-$245, plus $10 nightly per pet. Pack Creek Ranch Road and La Sal Mountain Loop Road, Moab, Utah. 888-879-6622. packcreekranch.com

KAREN'S CANINE CAMPGROUND: Dog day care, $20. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Overnight boarding is extra. 2781 S. Roberts Road, Moab, Utah. 435-259-7922.

MOAB VETERINARY CLINIC: Dog boarding, $15 for the day. 4575 Spring Valley Drive, Moab, Utah. 435-259-8710. moabveterinaryclinic.com

ADRIFT ADVENTURES: Half-day rafting tour, $39-$41 for adults and $29-$31 for children. 378 N. Main St. Moab, Utah. 800-874-4483. adrift.net

NATIONAL PARKS: utah.com/nationalparks or nps.gov

GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT: ut.blm.gov/monument. Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail is off Highway 12, three miles south of Boulder Mountain Lodge. The trailhead is at Calf Creek State Park.

ALCOHOL: In Utah, you can't purchase wine, liquor or beer with more than 3.2 percent alcohol at the local market; you have to go to a state liquor store. In southern Utah, there are locations in St. George, Cedar City and Moab, but all stores are closed on Sundays and certain holidays.

TIP: If you plan on getting day care for your dog or boarding a pet overnight, it's best to make reservations before leaving. Also, check with the boarding or day-care facility to make sure your pet has all of the required vaccines and documentation.

___

Brad Wright: bwright@ocregister.com

___

© 2009, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).



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