Utah 2015

Tuesday 18 July – Leaving Marin
We spent a long time trying to leave Fairfax on Tuesday. It was such a strange amount of work to get the house, and ourselves, ready for the renters.

There were the usual five carloads of casually ‘extra’ stuff that Ralph took to the dump, clearing shelves and cupboards, replacing worn out stuff like towels and toasters, and ‘deep’ cleaning. Ralph by the pool, wielding his killer-leaf blower, enjoyed a brief sense of triumph, but the war against dirt is never won. Over the shrieks of the the leaf zombies screaming for mercy, I’m sure I could hear Sisyphus laughing.

And in any case we were heading for dust, the restorative healthy and beautiful dust of nature. We had a victory m and gs burger on our route out of town, the car surprisingly underloaded given the extreme impracticality of my and mila’s packing styles…to quote Mila the day before we headed out, part hope, part resignation – in the space between innocence and experience where she still lives: “I assume we’re not taking the sewing machine on the trip?”

I took four mini versions of us along for the ride
I took four mini versions of us along for the ride

I speak as if I observe only… But the (good natured?) wrangling between Ralph and I before every trip is almost always reducible to…

…me wanting to take more ‘let’s all learn the ukelele on this trip’

…Ralph wanting to take less ‘do we really need spoons?’

In this case we compromised on only one ukelele, and as it turns out Ralph brought four very small spoons which are quite difficult to eat cereal with, but we are both happy.

When you hit the road the little details of lifestyle are easily improvised, and the more fun for it. Full disclosure: multiple stops at Rei preceded the trip – one more tent, lightweight chopping board, smaller chairs, a gas cooker, fridge bag, bottles, big tog bag, medium tog bag, small tog bag and more – but we do aspire to camping in a basic way.

So on night two at Wildrose Camp, at 6000 ft in Death Valley – no washing up soap? Use sand. No drying up cloth – use paper towel. No paper towel -use toilet paper. No toilet paper left …. Uh oh. So one does learn the necessities: toilet paper, water, sunblock (and Pot Noodles. Oh, and celery. And kikois.)

So what would be the actual packing list for most people, was our list of what we’d forgotten to bring, compiled after a day of camping.

What we did not take


We could have gone on for days more without these things, but this is America, there is no need, even possibility, for such deprivation. As soon as we neared Las Vegas, Target loomed bright on the horizon and we got every single damn thing on that list in under 10 minutes.



Wednesday 19 July – Death Valley
At Death Valley we hoped to camp and stopped in at several Park visitor centers to find out our options. Sadly, all we discovered was that you shouldn’t expect most Park Rangers to know anything much. Between them we were given incomplete, inaccurate and just wrong information. Not an amazing feeling in the land of death.

One thing they all agreed on, was that it was practically unheard of to camp in Death Valley in the summer as the temperatures of 120* don’t go down at night.

Obligatory photo of the temperature in Death Valley

So we headed for Furnace Creek Ranch, an oasis in the middle of Death Valley, to swim and possibly stay the night.

The kind gent at reservations broke the news that there were no rooms, (filled to the brim with mad dogs and Frenchmen) but he also told us of the three campgrounds higher up in the park, that were open – and much cooler, and free. We were elated. After brewing in the French broth that was the ranch pool, we headed for Wildrose, 1.5 hours away.

Arriving in the cool dusk (glad to have brought our fleeces to Death valley!) we set up camp and ate pot noodles, made delicious with fresh diced celery and tomatoes. We’d been gone from home just over 24 hours.



Thursday 16 July – Death Valley to Red Rock Canyon, Vegas.
Woke up feeling happy and decided to climb the nearest mountain. It was only a few steps away and the sun had barely risen so we started to scramble up.

Despite Ralph’s back, my knees and Mila’s youthful disinclination to climb mountains before breakfast, we walked to the top for a gorgeous panorama. Ralph enjoyed the view, but with half an eye on the next peak along. How much better must be the view from that thar mountain top.

But democracy rules so Mila and I escorted the probably benevolent, definitely deposed dictator down the hill for breakfast.


On the way back to Furnace Creek we stopped at Eureka mine and ghost house, where a Frenchman had mined stoically (ie unsuccessfully) for gold for 40 years from 1905. He was described as a ‘hardy individualist‘ which has become a rallying cry for this trip. (Or ‘rough, tough, sporting, muscular and brave’ an excerpt from one of Ralph’s primary school textbooks).

We walked along a buckled mining railway line to the ruined house. A coyote walked out of a side door and then watched us from up the hill. We felt quite transported to a bygone age.

Hot hot hot outside, as we left Death Valley, heading for Red Rock canyon campground just outside Las Vegas. A good waiting perch for Bea, but did I mention that a national park ranger had advised us to camp there. Suffice it to say, the campsite was closed, as it is every summer.

Still, we did the 13 mile scenic drive round the park at dusk and ate supper in a special spot beside the Toyota Highlander, by now the hero of the trip. What she lacks in any kind of aesthetic appeal, she makes up for in reliability. A true hardy individualist.



Friday 17 July – Las Vegas
We stayed at Bonnie springs, a half heartedly themed motel just outside Las Vegas. We felt quite trapped in this area and at a bit of a loss as to where to spend the following night waiting for our little Bea. All we wanted was some basic camping ‘in the bush’…

Entering Red Rock Canyon, and Bonnie Springs Hotel
Entering Red Rock Canyon sans Bea, and Bonnie Springs Hotel

Our one lead was from a photocopied sheet naming a dispersed camping spot, given to us by a begrudging park ranger the night before (‘it’s just dirt’). Yay, dirt!

Dispersed camping is called back country camping in California, land that’s designated as permissible to camp on – usually run by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). It seems to be a refreshingly unbureaucratic organization. You sometimes need a permit and quite often should stay in a spot that others have previously camped at with an improvised fire ring, the whole point is to minimize environmental impact. This particular option was more or less just rough land, not BLM, ie not managed by anyone, a detail which will become relevant shortly.

So we decided to get a bit of food, just the basics (ie tomatoes) for supper. But hang on. Forget valleys that promised Death and camping that offered all the amenities of a Furnace…our biggest challenge was yet to come:

…finding a fresh tomato within a 30 mile radius of Las Vegas.

Not a tomato-themed hotel, an actual tomato. But for the existence of Target, aaah… and so, tomatoes in cooler, we headed for the camping area.

This hidden off-road camping area was incredibly beautiful, and we felt triumphant as we drew up to an elevated camping spot with a jaw dropping vista of the wild lands all around. Our moment of glory lasted until we got out of the car. The ground was littered with spent bullet carriages and shells, and broken glass and litter.

Usually Mila will co-opt any remotely interesting debris into her treasure collection, but she rejected the golden bullet shells, (really quite beautiful outside their purpose of killing living things) disgusted by them and disgusted by humans.

Ammunition shell litter
Ammunition shell litter

Instead we headed into Las Vegas and stayed at a hotel with a swimming pool, tennis court, and, that most alluring of human accomplishments, Putt Putt. Sometimes you just got to go with the flow, especially if the flow is caused by a wave machine.

On way to fetch Bea
On way to fetch Bea



Sat 18 July – Las Vegas and getting Bea
Collected Bea from the airport in the evening and headed for Mesquite in Arizona, a town on the way to Zion (in Utah). Was a delight to see her although her head, heart, and group text settings were still at Lac du Bois, her French camp. We checked in to a nondescript hotel (full because of a huge Jehovah’s Witness convention nearby) and wondered if we’d ever hit our stride on what was supposed to be an adventure into the wild interior of Utah.



Sunday 19 July – To Zion

We started the morning with a swim in the quite secret swimming hole at Little Jamaica. A short walk to a bucolic spot (under a strangely-non-intrusive motorway).


As part of my preparation for the road trip, I had looked up ‘secret’ swimming holes along the way, and tried to plot the itinerary according to these stops. As the trip has progressed, we have skipped most for various reasons (bad weather, lack of water, too out of the way, a gradual dawning that there are few secrets on the Internet).

We arrived at Springdale, outside the western gate of Zion national park. It is a lovely enough tourist town, but heaving with visitors. The scenic route into the park was closed to private cars, and we’d have to take a shuttle into the park – for which there were queues. The Narrows were to be avoided because of rain and the risk of flash floods.

So we went for a walk just outside the park, in the late afternoon – trying to get just the right level of difficulty and distance to suit our different ‘tastes’ – Bea and Mila at zero miles and us starting the bidding at ten, we tended to settle somewhere around 5 miles round trip.


Stuck with each other for better or worse
Stuck with each other for better or worse

Anyway part of the motivation for this little hike, was to exorcise the demon who had been inhabiting Bea (entering her body through her iPhone, we’re pretty sure) since we’d got her from the airport. To be fair, we had ripped her from the idyll of new friends and independence at a lakeside French camp, to the prospect of two weeks with her frankly annoying family in the back seat of a Toyota Highlander. We budgeted for three to five days before we’d get her back in the fold.

But as we hiked along the bum end of Zion (like, literally, an ugly boring bum hike in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet) Mila and Bea slowly began to chat rather than fight, and we had a juniper berry fight and a picnic in the middle of nowhere – and we slowly we all returned to our best selves. Hooray Bea!



Monday 20 July – Zion to Escalante via Brice Canyon
It was pouring so we decided to bypass Kanab and drive all the way to Escalante, about 5 hours, with a brief stop in drizzly Brice Canyon.

Rainy Zion, no views
Rainy Zion, no views

I’d hoped that the Escalante National Monument area would provide the best dispersed camping and it proved to be true. The BLM usually manage land use, ie mineral extraction, forestry, water – but uniquely Escalante has to be conserved by the BLM – no ‘extraction’ is allowed, much to the local Utahpians distrust and upset.

Jeff, an usually knowledgable ranger at the visitor center, told us about the extraordinary composition of the crusty microbiotic soil in this area. The combination of minerals, moss and soily stuff, traps nitrogen in it which allows plants (with drilling rather than spreading roots) to grow, and retains water, and stops erosion. To break the crust is to critically compromise this balance and the crust can take decades to restore, like a choral reef.

Jeff clearly loved the land deeply and personified the ethos of its preservation – to have people discover its wonders on their own. To this end he refused to tell us anything. Hm. After some cajoling he gave us the name of a road along which we would find dispersed camping opportunities – Burr Trail rd.

It was indeed one of the most beautiful roads we’d ever seen, pinyon pine/Utah juniper dotting the multi colored landscape, and we pulled in by the side of a small round red mountain to camp. Wilderness at last!



Tues 21 July – Burr Trail Rd camping, Escalante

We spent the day doing ‘nothing’ at what we called ‘Red Mountain base camp’. I was so busy doing nothing I didn’t even brush my teeth till midday. Although I did have an urgent compulsion to organize all the stuff in the car. We collected together a big bag of things to post back to our house, the girls spent hours building ant dungeons for the local population, Ralph and Bea chatted in French, I strummed a bit o’ gittar, we broke a hammock under the stars, cooked a Mozambique inspired lunch (with the barest ingredients of onion-tomato-garlic-pasta and cabbage) -all read books, sat by the fire.

At sunset we scrambled up the small red mountain (koppie really) that had shaded us that morning, and had an astounding 360• view of Escalante. The landscapes are awe inspiring, although as you sit on top of a mountain and look down on the vegetation covered plains, there is not a movement. Barely an insect, let alone bird or mammal. We wished for some giraffe but…Luckily we had not yet had our fill of awesome desolate empty landscapes and all felt totally amazing and decided to camp up there on Thursday night.




Weds 22 July – Slot Canyons, Escalante
Kiva koffeehouse was a blessed oasis in the desert, on our way to the Slot canyons hike about 28 miles down a dirt road into escalante national park.

The hike was hot, (although this summer has been mild by usual standards) and marked mainly by cairns – small piles of rocks to show the way. The slots were underwhelming although to be fair we did not venture deep into them – they go to 10″ wide in parts. Towards the end of the hike back to the car we overtook an elderly couple from New Jersey – they looked on their last legs – as they’d taken a wrong turn out of the slots and hiked 2 hrs extra in the desert with little water. We helped them back. Close call for them.

Riding on the Highlander
Refreshing ride on the Highlander roof after the hike

That night we camped near a very sweet town called Boulder at bucolic Calf creek Falls campsite. We swam in the delicious creek, beside our home for the night.



Thurs 23 July – Calf Creek Falls
It’s been hard to get up early – combination of late sunsets, late nights by the fire, lack of sleep – so once again set off around 10am (rather than the hoped for 6am) to hike the 6 mile round trip to Calf Creek Falls. Gorgeous flat hike in a verdant red canyon. We swam in the icy pool below the waterfall and hung out and played on small sandy beaches alongside the creek.

After the swim
After the cold cold swim

That evening we returned to sleep at Red Mountain Summit Camp. The girls wrote joint stories, Ralph and I spoke in Italian accents. We forgot our cooking pots at the car so boiled water in a tin can for our pot noodle supper.This counts as a full evening’s entertainment in the middle of the desert!



Fri 24 July – Drive to Moab
We were going to head south to a place called Mexican Hat, in pure appreciation of the name, but it’d be a few hours more driving on an already long day of driving, and we were gatvol of beautiful landscapes (Bea has recorded herself saying ‘wow, cool!’ into her phone, which she plays whenever we point out a new geological wonder) and so we decided to go straight to Moab.

Time on the road goes fast-slow.
Loud singing, hysteria, story games, eye spy in Afrikaans accents, Mila reading book after book on her kindle, incredible landscapes through Capital Reef and Glen Canyon parks, great excitement when there is phone reception and Spotify works and email can be checked. Charging of gadgets. Singing along to the red songbook, discussing the future, hunger, boredom, chocolate, cramps, concentrated studying of maps. Between the girls’ seats, enough materials accumulating to start a new country.

Mila brought two cans of wand varnish. Ralph and Bea looking for...can't remember what....
Mila brought two cans of wand varnish. Ralph and Bea looking for…can’t remember what….

We got a last minute booking at the Red Cliff Lodge near Moab. ‘Rustic elegance’ is how this fabulous old ranch describe themselves. We got a discounted huge room right beside the Colorado river and red canyons. Another perfect location, once again the juxtaposition of civilization and wilderness forcing a true appreciation of both.




Sat 25 July – Moab

Day in Moab. A drive to Arches National Park at the slightly wrong time of day – pre the magical dusk – and the wrong time of our trip, weary as we were of desolate awesomeness. In any case we have felt much more connected to the land and each other, outside the official park circuits.

But we seem to not tire of camping and we camped beside the Colorado river, at Hal Canyon campsite. Red cliffs across the river, such beauty. So massively impressed with the low impact tourist development in Utah.

Camping by the Colorado Rive, Moab
Camping by the Colorado Rive, Moab

To cook on a campfire, go to sleep and wake up and make a new fire to sit by in the cool of the morning, and the family slowly emerging, a bit sleepy and grumpy, and each crawling into a camping chair, and unfolding into the day…this is happiness.

This is happiness



Sunday 26 July – Moab – Canyonlands

We booked a kayaking trip down the small Rapids of the Colorado. It was super fun. Some time about then, or maybe a little while before, we all had the ‘let’s go home sooner rather than later’ urge, that besets us each and every trip.

And so we drove off in the late afternoon to our last camping of the trip, in Canyonlands.

Just outside the park we entered Cowboy Campsite, 7 cleared out spaces with fire pits and the canyons deep in the distance, and camped at number 5, possibly the most insanely purple-orange tinged, gorgeous spot yet. It was blowing a gale and once again no one slept well but in the dim light of daybreak by a fire, no one minded at all.

Beautiful camping
Unexpectedly beautiful camping at Cowboy Camp
Nerds op vakansie, Lyle, Trusty Coleman Cooker, happy



Monday 27 July – Road to Salt Lake City.
A kind of blissful lethargy and dreariness of a day spent in the car. I love it. I love Ralph Bea and Mila and I love our trusty Highlander, hero without a name.

Sleeping anywhere but in a tent
Sleeping anywhere but in a tent



Tues 28 July – Road to Kings Beach, Tahoe
We drove all the way to Tahoe, to rest here for a day before dropping Bea off at Sarah and Abi at their cabin on the American River.

Leaving Utah - the salt flats at Wendover
Leaving Utah – the salt flats at Wendover

Ah, Tahoe. Last day of the road trip we have landed at the Ferrari Crown family motel on the North shore of Lake Tahoe. We recline, we eat sushi, we swim in crystal clear waters – at last – a holiday!

The girls had graciously drawn our attention to the fact that we, for all our travels, never actually go On Holiday like normal people. Sure we’ve done lots of swimming, reading, singing, eating and laughing this trip but I think the only moment of true relaxation we’ve had, was on the new hammock at Red Mountain Basecamp – and it broke after ten minutes.

About 10 seconds before the hammock broke, Red Mountain Basecamp, Escalante
About 10 seconds before the hammock broke, Red Mountain Basecamp, Escalante

So here, as I tap into my phone for the last time this trip, we are oh so ready to get home tomorrow. Inevitably to start writing my never-ending lists of things to do again – that literally fill every moment of our busy days back home – but knowing that one of the first things on that list will be ‘plan next trip’…