Tom Ross: The desert heat is waiting
March 16, 2010
Steamboat Springs — When it's 47 degrees in Steamboat Springs on St. Patrick's Day, it's 60 degrees in Page, Ariz., 72 degrees on the edge of the Mojave Desert in St. George, Utah, and perhaps 55 degrees in the middle of nowhere on the Kaiparowits Plateau. I'd like to be just about anywhere in the middle of that sprawling sandstone wilderness right now.
I'm fixing to get lost in canyon country.
Let me rephrase that. I don't want to become permanently lost, but I wouldn't mind losing myself on the Colorado Plateau, a region that straddles Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and our home state.
If you've lived for several years in Colorado and have yet to explore beyond the state's southwestern corner into the Colorado Plateau, it's time to pack your camping gear and some extra water jugs. In particular, if you are a young adult planning to spend just a couple of winters skiing and riding the 'Boat, don't consider leaving the Rocky Mountains behind without taking advantage of the close proximity of canyon country.
Moab, Utah, is five hours away by car, and nearby Arches National Park is the closest thing to inter-planetary travel without the need for a passport or space shuttle. Steamboat's cold, sometimes muddy spring is the time to head for the Utah/Arizona border. If you wait until June, it will be too late. The temperatures in the desert southwest will be pushing above 100 degrees by then and the cold snowmelt that runs through the narrow canyons of the Escalante, Paria and Fremont rivers will be long gone. Once the summer heat sets in, the next best time to explore the canyons comes in September. And, of course, the Yampa Valley is impossibly beautiful in September, making it hard to leave the mountains.
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Although Moab has morphed from a dusty little uranium mining town into a full-blown tourist destination in the past 25 years, I always recommend that people new to the canyon country begin their exploration here. That's because the density of spectacular geologic formations in Arches is so great that people who are new to the area can take in a great deal of what the park has to offer without pushing their limits with long, dry hikes.
With its paved roads, close proximity to town and short hikes, Arches is very family friendly.
Two more great destinations that can be appreciated in one evening can be found south of Moab via U.S. Highway 191 on the way to Flagstaff, Sedona and Phoenix.
As you drive south of Moab, you'll find yourself distracted by the views of the snow-capped La Sal Mountains. Gradually, views of Colorado's San Juan Mountains will appear in the eastern haze, and if you pay attention, you'll spy New Mexico's Shiprock as you cruise beyond the little town of Blanding toward Bluff.
The familiar mitten-shaped buttes of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park will begin to appear on the horizon just beyond Mexican Hat and are easily viewed from an overlook in the parking lot. Daily fees are $5 per person. A camping permit is $10. Hours are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in April and expand to 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. in May.
However, it would be a shame to zoom past Valley of the Gods on your way to Monument Valley without stopping to explore. Some call Valley of the Gods "Little Monument Valley." There are no fees and the hours aren't limited. Soon after leaving U.S. 191 south and traveling on Utah Highway 163, begin looking for a right turn into Valley of the Gods 8 miles north of Mexican Hat. The unpaved road usually is in good condition and you'll begin seeing photographs in every direction as the sun begins to descend toward Cedar Mesa.
My favorite way to drive into Valley of the Gods is by descending Cedar Mesa on a precipitous dirt road with the unlikely name of Mokey Dugway.
My affection for the Mokey Dugway is due in part to the many canyons containing Puebloan architectural ruins that crease Cedar Mesa. The Dugway creates a dramatic link between all of the ancient human history on the mesa and the sandstone monoliths of Navajo land a breathtaking 1,000 feet below.
A great guidebook to hiking in the region roughly between Blanding and Lake Powell can be found in author Ron Adkison's book, "Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region." It was released by Falcon Publishing, of Helena, Mont., and I've found it to be reliable, with decent black-and-white photographs and very readable trail maps.
If you are adventurous and an experienced hiker, you can spend the rest of your lifetime expanding your knowledge of the Colorado Plateau. The time to begin is this April.