Dinosaurs and National Parks (S)

Dinosaurs on Mars

We woke up fairly early at our campsite outside Moab, ate breakfast, packed up our tent, and hit the road. Our next planned stop was Capitol Reef National Park, but we ended up making a few spontaneous detours along the way. We first stopped intending to get me a new chair. Leo generously left out that mine ripped the night before as we were roasting s’mores (I may have had one too many!) The store did not have any chairs, but did have a sign on the door advertising free Burpees tours?? The cashier told us that these tours are for a dinosaur dig site not far out of town. A group from “out East” comes every May to dig for bones at a large dinosaur quarry there. We later found out that the excavators were from the Burpee Museum of Natural History, which is located in Rockford, IL, which is east of Utah.

We decided to check it out, but didn’t pay too much attention to the directions so it took a few tries. The drive was a bit rocky to say the least. The turn off from the highway had a sign that said approximately 8 miles or 30 minutes to the dig site.

Along the drive, we saw something else totally unexpected. About halfway to the dig site, there was the Mars Research Station, which is partially funded by Elon Musk according to a sign we saw. Apparently, this part of Utah is the most similar place in the US to the surface of mars. It was a little other-worldly for sure. The research station appeared unoccupied, but we later learned that some medical students were there doing tests earlier in the week and the mars rover competition, where engineering students test their best rover designs, was an upcoming huge annual event at the station. Hotel rooms are sold out for a two hour radius.

Finally, we made it to the dinosaur quarry. Dan and Lauren, two of the staffers, walked up to us as we were reading the sign and offered a tour. It was super interesting. Apparently, this spot was a river wash at some point millions of years ago, and tons (literally) of dinosaur bones were buried under the rock. All of the dinosaur bones found at the site belonged to juveniles so Dan said the working theory was that there was a big flood and the children got swept away while the adults survived. Even though they were young dinosaurs, the bones were huge. It was amazing how densely packed the bones were. The group has been coming to this site every May for thirteen years and really are just scratching the surface. They rely heavily on groups of volunteers to help with digs. Apparently, you pay tuition and then can volunteer. Sounds like a pretty cool educational experience to me! After the group leaves each May, they have to recover all that they have found so people don’t try to come and dig up the bones. Dan gave a piece of petrified wood and a couple of bookmarks as souvenirs, and we got back on the bumpy road in our now much dirtier car.

Capitol Reef and Lakeside Camping

Our next stop was Capitol Reef National Park. We didn’t do too much in the park. I was hoping we could go pick fruit in their orchards – originally planted by Mormon settlers to the area – but nothing was in season. Leo did eat a few very small, very sour plums. We did a short river walk, petted some horses, and then kept on moving.

As we drove towards Bryce Canyon National Park, we stopped to get gas and asked for a camping recommendation. She said there were some good spots down by a lake about twenty miles away. We took her advice and it was one of our best campsites so far.

When we arrived, Leo went on a bit of a birding walkabout while I started setting up camp. I was pretty proud that I managed to set up the tent solo. I guess I’m becoming a camping pro. We made ourselves a strawberry and feta salad and built a fire to roast s’mores on. This is also where I realized that the 3 dollar camping chair I bought from a dollar general earlier in the day was actually a child’s chair. It’s surprising comfortable and takes up very little space in the car so it turned out to be a good thing!

Bryce Canyon and Creek Side Camping

I’m much happier than I appear here!

The next morning, we headed to Bryce Canyon National Park, but before we did, we decided to get some breakfast. We went to a diner in a motel called Bryce Canyon Pines. We had a delicious breakfast and decided to finish it off with some “world famous” pie.

Since we got a late start and it was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the national park was pretty packed when we arrived. We drove to the visitor center to get some advice and then had to head back to outside the park to catch the shuttle since all the parking inside the park was completely full.

When we got on the shuttle, it was standing room only except for one seat at the very front, which I let Leo have since he was carrying our backpack. I made my way to stand at the back of the bus. This is important to note because 15-20 minutes later when we came to our stop, I got off the bus, and Leo did not! He had fallen asleep. Luckily, he woke up at the next stop to a series of more frustrated voicemails from me. After 45 minutes, he had backtracked to me and we were able to start our walk around the rim of Bryce Canyon.

We started at Bryce Point and walked three miles along the rim. The views were stunning. Bryce Canyon is known for a rock structure called hoodoos. They are these bulbous rock towers formed from years of erosion.  The Native American legend is that they were an ancient, evil people who were tricked by the Coyote and turned into rocks.

The walk along the rim was nice for multiple reasons. We got some great views and we got a bit away from the mobs of people stationed at each overlook. At one of the last overlooks, we stopped for a ranger talk about the geology of Bryce Canyon.

Can you spot my husband in this photo?

After our walk, we were ready to get away from the crowds a bit and drove towards Zion National Park. We stopped outside the park in Virgin, Utah and set up camp near a creek.

Hiking Angel’s Landing in Zion

Happy camper at the start of the hike.

The next day we got up early hoping to beat some of the crowds at Zion National Park. We got to the visitor center around 8:30AM, talked with some rangers, and hopped on a shuttle to go the Grotto trailhead. Our goal was to tackle Angel’s Landing. Well, Leo was going all the way to top. I was planning to stop at Scout’s Lookout, which is .5 miles shy of Angel’s Landing. However, that last .5 mile involves holding on to chains as your scramble on rock with sharp drop-offs on either side. With my fear of heights and lack of gracefulness, I wasn’t about to try it.

The dreaded switchbacks

The hike up to Scout’s Landing was pretty strenuous in its own right. It was steep all the way up and right before you get to the top, there are a series of switchbacks that really get your heart rate up.

It took Leo about an hour to finish the last .5 miles of the hike and return. I waited at the bottom with lots of other people. There were a number of us who didn’t try at all and even more who started and then turned around midway. I watched the people hike up and down the chains and was able to get some shots of Leo as he descended. When he got down, people started asking if he had seen their loved ones. The only one he was certain of was a guy were a cardinals hat. Leo told the guy, “Go Cards,” and the guy responded “Let’s Go Blues.” Leo was obviously delighted.

Here is Leo’s perspective on the hike to Angel’s Landing since I cannot describe it. IT WAS MY FAVORITE HIKE I’VE EVER BEEN ON!!! First you scale up tilted sandstone rocks jetting up. Scared tourists are trying too cautiously to work their way down. Then, you follow a series of chains up about 200 feet while the ridge you’re walking narrows to about 5 feet wide, pausing to let others going the other way through. The last third or so is a set of slightly wider switchbacks, maybe 10-15 feet crawling all the way up to the peak. If you look down at any point you see 100+ flights of imaginary stairs separating you from your next life!!! As if the journey wasn’t fun enough, the views at the top were absolutely breathtaking.

Overall, Zion was my favorite of Utah’s national parks. I like the balance between the massive rock structures and green, lush spaces.

Turning the Page

Having accomplished our goals in Utah, we headed to Arizona. Our first stop was Page, Arizona right on the border and next to Navajo land. After we checked into America’s Best Value Inn and showered, we headed out to dinner and to watch the first game of the Stanley Cup finals.

We went to 48th State Restaurant, which happened to be playing the game on the big screen. We watched the first period there (there was also a table of Bruin fans), but then we headed back to the hotel to finish our laundry. I was too tired to go back out, but Leo went to a local bar to finish watching the game and chat with some locals, including a guy who turned out to be the owner of our hotel! We both got a good night sleep on mattresses for a change and were well-rested our next adventure!

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