Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence (from crowds) Day

We are parked at the Creek Pasture primitive BLM campground along Indian Creek, just outside the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park (map).

This area consists of about ten unnumbered sites, with stone fire rings and picnic tables, and one site even has a BBQ grill. There is no water, no trash collection, no rest room, and no fee. There are also no other campers -- we are the only ones here, other than the song dogs and the lizards. There is evidence of cattle, as well, but we have seen none thus far. It is very much like dispersed camping, just with picnic tables added.

This morning we decided to move along from our cozy digs at Goose Island, across the river from Arches, mostly because we were done with the park, done with Moab, and the forecast said it would climb into the upper 90s today, getting hotter still in the next couple of days. We figured to be somewhere close to or in Cortez, Colorado this evening where the forecast only called for 86° or so.

So we emptied the hot tub, stowed the scooters and chairs, and generally got Odyssey ready to roll by just after the noon check-out time. By then it was at least 90°, and I was pretty heated up from working outside packing up the tub and loading the gear, and the river started to look very inviting. Knowing that the place generally has not filled up or even gotten very busy until sometime after 6pm each night, I figured an extra half hour for a swim would not be an imposition. I stuck close to the bank -- the current gets faster than I can swim just a few feet out -- but fortunately the bottom drops off rapidly and I was able to get fully immersed without being swept away.

We were on the road by just after 1:00, rolling casually through downtown Moab and south on 191. In between scenic vistas and bites of lunch, Louise pored over our extensive collection of guide books looking for overnight options in the middle of a holiday weekend, with the Cortez Elks lodge being our fall-back option.

It's a steady climb south out of Moab, from around 4,200' to over 6,000', and pushing a 24-ton bus up 5%-7% grades in the summer heat is hard work, and slow going. One need keep an eye on the coolant temperature the whole time, downshifting to keep the fan speeds up, and generally slowing down into the 40-mph range for the hard parts. The reward, though, was a several-degree drop in outside temperatures, back into the 80s, as we got further up.

And so it was that, as we spotted the sign for the turnoff to this part of Canyonlands, that we decided to pull off the highway and see what our options might be along the entrance road (not wanting to risk Squaw Flat Campground, inside the park, being full). Had we really thought about it earlier, we might have looked up the BLM options ahead of time on the Internet, but we really were just not thinking along those lines. Fortunately, there was a paper sign in the information kiosk at the turn-off, indicating several options on the way to the park:

There was also a separate display discussing Newspaper Rock, about half way to the park, which indicated that some free primitive camping was available there. We decided to head down 211 towards the park, in the hopes that one of these might be the perfect spot to wait out the holiday weekend.

One of the other consequences of not having thought this through ahead of time is that we soon realized we were giving up a good deal of our hard-won elevation gain as we headed west, prompting us to wonder if we wouldn't end up right back down in the heat at the ~4,000' level, only to have to chug back up the same grade when we were done. Fortunately, we were still up at 5,400' when we pulled in to the parking area for the Newspaper Rock. The road had been empty, as was the parking lot for the petroglyphs, which gave us hope that we would find a nice site at this elevation, and without having to drive another dozen or two miles towards the National Park.

Those hopes were dashed when I walked the quarter mile further down the road to what looked like the camping turn-off. The road was blocked by sandstone boulders, and a small sign was posted saying the area was closed due to flash-flooding in 2003 and ongoing flooding risk and riparian restoration. Harumph -- if they were going to close this all off, the least they could have done would have been to update the sign back at the turn-off from 191. I blame inter-agency coordination, or lack thereof -- the rock is a state park, but the camping area was BLM, and it is this latter agency that mandated the closure.

While we were still in the parking area, I used my handy DeLorme Topo USA program to check the elevation profile of the rest of the route -- it would descend back down to 4,900' before ending up at the NPS campground back at 5,200'. We did drive very slowly for the next mile, in the futile hope that there might be a site or two on the other side of the roadway from the river, but no dice (and, of course, I had not yet seen the notice I linked above). In for a penny, in for a pound, and, having come this far, we decided to press on, all the way to the park if need be.

We did turn off at Bridger Jack Mesa, which was a closer stop as well as a higher elevation, to see how bad it might be -- the posted Park Service flyer said it was "high-clearance 2wd," but our Benchmark atlas showed it as normal clearance, and it looked well-graded to us. Besides, the flyer also said it would be a right turn off 211, yet it was actually a left, and we also know the NPS is ultra-conservative about such things -- witness the untruthfully low campground length "limits" and the anxiety-signage on some of their paved roads.

The road was actually in great shape, but, true to the flyer, it crosses a running creek. Notwithstanding our impressive puddle-jumping track record, we decided it was not worth the risk without knowing what we'd find two miles in. We managed to get turned back around, and continued on, landing here, at what happens to be the lowest spot (4,800') on the whole route. Go figure. We later learned that there were plenty of available sites at Squaw Flat, up at 5,200', but we are just as happy to be here all alone, and as a bonus we don't have to haul 24 tons back up, then down the extra 400' and 15 miles. Plus, it's free, whereas the NPS wants $15 per night for dry camping -- although they have great rest rooms (which we, of course, don't need).

After we got settled in and on-line, and pulled the scooters out, we had an early dinner and then headed up to the park to catch the formations in late-afternoon sunlight, often the best time for viewing. Unfortunately, as we arrived at the park, dark clouds and rain started moving in from the west, depriving us of the very light we hoped for as well as getting us a bit wet in the process.

Nevertheless, we rode all the paved roads in this section of the park, including around the campground loops. Once again we found that Odyssey would have no trouble with perhaps 80% of the camp sites, despite a nominal 28' limit. Even on this holiday weekend, the campground was only about half full, which speaks volumes about how remote this park really is.

At one point, we chose to sit under a big rock to avoid the rain.

The weather cleared up completely just as we were leaving, so we at least got to see some of the more easterly formations nicely illuminated. On our way out we took the small turn-off for the "Needles Outpost," a private campground/store/gas station just outside the park boundary, which claimed to serve food as well. When we rolled up at 7:30ish, the place was closed, and, frankly, I couldn't tell if that was for the day, for the season, or forever (well, OK, we saw merchandise through the window, so they're probably open sometime, but with no hours posted, we couldn't tell when). We're glad we did not roll up there hoping for dinner.

We hope you all had a wonderful Fourth -- ours was dark and quiet, not a firework in sight or earshot. And as we rest here peacefully tonight on America's public lands, we can reflect on how blessed we are to live in this place of freedom and, yes, Independence.

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