Radavist Road Trips: Traversing the Escalante to Capitol Reef and Into Canyonlands

It had been a wild 48 hours at White Pocket in Northern Arizona. At one point, we turned to each other and expressed, rather reluctantly, that we didn’t think it could get any better on this trip. What we saw was a geologist’s dream site and as a photographer, I couldn’t have asked for a better backdrop for a full day’s worth of meandering and analysis. It seems the crescendo had come and gone. Or at least that was our perception. We made our way back to civilization, via a myriad of deep, sandy roads. In order to plan our next few legs of the trip, we needed strong coffee, food, and wifi.

In this zone, there’s only one place to go for such modern amenities; Kanab, Utah.

The Kanab Creek Bakery, while it lacks in wifi, has both strong coffee and absolutely delicious food. Don’t miss their burrito! After refueling our stomachs, we moved onward to the local library for wifi. We had an idea of where we wanted to go, but on this trip, we consciously made the effort to avoid larger highways, for lesser-traveled byways. Although, in many cases, you can’t help but take the paved road to your destination. Luckily, the 12 in Utah is one of the most scenic routes in the state, or at least we felt this way at the onset. We had a route and a rough agenda. While Kanab’s hospitality was welcoming, we had to hit the road.

Bryce

Highway 12 begins off the 89 in Southern Utah and it would be our vein on which we’d travel across the state, up to Canyonlands. The agenda was to poke our heads inside Bryce Canyon National Park, which Cari and I had never been to. Now, National Parks in this part of the country tend to be zoos. Zion is another example of a park that has seen an increase in attendance over the years, leaving the park scrambling trying to deal with this increased influx of Instagrammers and adventure seekers. All on a shrinking budget. While I love the idea and presence of National Parks, I can’t say they’re the first place I want to go, especially in Southern Utah. With that said, we headed into Bryce, not knowing what to expect.

That’s a lie. I knew a little about Bryce. I knew of the hoodoos, the inclusion in what is called the Grand Staircase, the history of the geology, the elevation of the park, which exceeds 10,000′. I knew of the juxtaposition of lush, green vegetation, framed by red rock formations. I knew Bryce was photogenic and beautiful, but I didn’t know much more than that.

We had planned on doing an afternoon hike but completely blanked on Max. Dogs aren’t allowed on many National Park hiking trails, and it was actually too warm to leave him in the truck for an afternoon, so instead, we drove the main road and did all the pull-outs, taking in the longest vistas in the US…

Soon, we were on our way to Highway 12.

Escalante

By the time we refueled, picked up more firewood, and hit the road, it was getting late. That’s the thing about road trips; driving eats up so much time! We began discussing camping possibilities while being aware that it was, after all, still a shoulder season and shoulder seasons at elevation, when bad weather is on the radar, can mean trouble. Case in point; Hell’s Backbone was an option for camping, but at over 9,000′, it was a crapshoot. Roads that high are usually very exposed, making camping in a rooftop tent, during a storm, an ordeal and driving down a mountain on a dirt road in the pouring rain is not fun. This trip was about fun, so we moved past Escalante towards Capitol Reef.

That’s where I saw a turnoff, on the side of the highway. The sun was already setting and I was tired, so we took a gamble and hooked off the winding asphalt onto the even windier dirt. Gambles pay off more often than not, on dirt roads. We careened around corners and kept pushing down the increasingly narrow road, in search of a campsite. The road deteriorated, we saw fewer and fewer cars camped out along its many secluded pull-outs. Turns out, this road ended at a giant slab, with very little wind and a great view; it was perfect. We promptly set up camp.

Then something odd happened. Max was on-guard all night. Acting very weird. Barking. On edge. It was not normal behavior for our otherwise very, very, chill dog. Max is our protector, a pack leader who knows what’s best, and at this moment, he was freaked out. If I walked away from camp to pee, he’d follow, groaning. Any rustling in the brush, he’d bark. It was wild! This part of Utah is big cat territory. My theory was Max sensed a mountain lion in the vicinity and was nervous for our group’s safety. Needless to say, we were all ok ending our evening at 9 pm, a good 7′ off the ground.

Capitol Reef

Remember what I said about squiggly lines? Well, they pay off. Our morning roll out was fast on that day because I really wanted to refuel in the town of Boulder before taking the Burr Trail down to Capitol Reef and witness the legendary Waterpocket Fold.

What is the Waterpocket Fold? Well, the National Parks, while many can be zoos, have exceptional websites, explaining these geological phenomena:

“The Waterpocket Fold defines Capitol Reef National Park. A nearly 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust, the Waterpocket Fold is a classic monocline, a “step-up” in the rock layers. It formed between 50 and 70 million years ago when a major mountain building event in western North America, the Laramide Orogeny, reactivated an ancient buried fault in this region. Movement along the fault caused the west side to shift upwards relative to the east side. The overlying sedimentary layers were draped above the fault and formed a monocline. The rock layers on the west side of the fold have been lifted more than 7,000 feet (2,134 m) higher than the layers on the east.

More recent uplift of the entire Colorado Plateau and the resulting erosion has exposed this fold at the surface within the last 15 to 20 million years. The name “Waterpocket Fold” reflects this ongoing erosion of the rock layers. “Waterpockets” are small depressions that form in many of the sandstone layers as they are eroded by water, and are common throughout the fold at Capitol Reef. Erosion of the tilted rock layers continues today forming colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons, and graceful arches.”

Driving through this zone was slow-rollin’. We could not believe our eyes. I’ve heard Burr Trail is an exceptional road, but no photo will ever do it justice and then you get to the switchbacks, just after entering the park. Mind. Blown. Seriously, what a treat. My cogs were already spinning for a bike ride of epic proportions…

Canyonlands and the Great Gallery

It was around the town, err outpost, of Hanksville that we realized during our wonder and amazement of the ‘Reef, we hadn’t thought about – you guessed it – where to camp. Scouring maps and guidebooks, we weren’t sold on anything in the immediate vicinity. Then a friend dropped a pin on us, locating an ideal enclave, near the start of our next day’s agenda. I doubt you’re reading this, but if you are, thank you!

Here’s where the apparent theme of the remaining trip would make itself apparent and honestly, writing about this has caused me a bit of anxiety. Pictographs and petroglyphs are wondrous to behold in person, but always make me sad. Sad that the people who respected the land, lived symbiotically within its biome, hunted fauna, ate flora and were, in general, very content with their choices in life, were eradicated by white men and treated like animals. It’s something I hadn’t really come to grips with until seeing the Great Gallery.

People ogle the Grand Canyon, and while it’s a great experience, the Great Gallery sparked something within me. First, scientists aren’t entirely sure of all the “W’s” – the who, what, where, when and why. They can deduce their approximate age, of around 2,000 years old. They think these were painted upon scaffolding, to protect these intricate drawings and carvings from the weather, other humans, and animals. They can’t deduce one thing though; what they depict and why they were made. Some speculate these beautiful designs were shamanic, derived from ancient visions seen while under the control of psychotropic drugs. Hell, that sounds like a good time if you ask me!

Then you see the other etchings, added by modern man and it’s easy to get maddened by the scrawl, but I worked really hard to focus on the beauty and began asking myself all these “W’s…”

As Cari and I walked back, a breeding pair of Peregrine Falcons swooped around us, their calls echoing through the canyon walls. It caused me to tear up and I think the both of us felt an overwhelming sense of spirituality in that place. We are so very lucky to have experienced that morning’s hike to the Great Gallery and once again, we looked at each other and shrugged. We could go home now, completely sated from these past few days and the experiences we’d had together.

But just like before… it only got better.

  • Bryce Rinkenberger

    Wow! I love the desert. Is your bike rack mounted to a swing out tire carrier? Looks like a super rad set up.

  • Willy Don Gouda

    Amazing photo’s as always! I’m curious does max go on all these hikes with you guys? Does having a pup in these remote and natural lands present any probs?

    • Max couldn’t go into Canyonlands, so we left him in the car, in a shady spot. If it’s BLM or anything but a National Park, we take him.

  • B.A.R.27

    Rode all of HWY 12 as part of a bike tour back in 2015, this article really brings back some good memories :) Also cool to see some nice photos from escalante and canyonlands. We didnt get to venture into those places too much because we were limited to the pavement and chose to continued into colorado and mesa verde n.p. (another human zoo but really amazing!). I will be back one day…

  • James

    Time to rebrand this website as The Geologist?

    • James

      …or maybe Geoloveloist

    • Ha! I’m never rebranding again. I just want the Radavist to be a well-rounded cycling website, with an emphasis on the outdoors. ;-)

      • James

        Of course! Just joshin’. I’m seriously liking the little geological info in recent posts in any case – gotta understand the terrain we’re riding on!

        • Yeah and it’s the time of year when desert exploration is coming to a close, so I’m trying to cram it all in while I can. :-)

    • auton0my

      Bbbut, there’s a bike in the pictures! Not over the line!

      • Hah! Even if there isn’t one. Trips like this ultimately influence cycling-related projects here on the site and if this post encourages someone to plan a tour or a similar road trip and spreads proper stewardship / principals, that’s a good thing.

  • auton0my

    Awesome photos, looks like an amazing trip. Do you shoot in raw format – and if not, you must use custom/preset white balance settings? Some of these colors would wreak havoc on many cameras’ auto-white balance calculation…

    • These were all shot on my Leica M10, which shoots like slide film. Vibrant colors, but a lot of hot spots / presence of white. I have a pre-set that tries to calibrate my Canon system with the Leica to give my photos a consistent feel. Problem is, some of that means desaturating certain colors, to increase the presence of others and in a place like this, almost all colors are present. These sets took forever to post-process. Thankfully, I did each day’s shots at the end of the day, usually around the camp fire or in the tent. It sucks to have to do that, but that’s work!

  • I always chuckle when you take jabs at ”tourists”. I think its cute you think you’re above everyone else visiting the same place you are at.

    • I don’t think I’m better than anyone, nor am I downplaying other’s interest. I’m just pointing out that crowds aren’t a part of my preferred experience. Sorry you feel like I’m being dismissive and/or negative towards other humans. It’s the narcissism of small differences. Yes, we’re all at the same park / place, but I prefer to be away from people, not in crowds.

      • I typed tourists into your own search bar and several articles came up expressing your disdain for other people. Just suggesting to dial it back a bit and maybe you’ll enjoy the outdoors a little more. Maybe try interacting with other people around you in these areas that are sharing the same experience. You discovered Death Valley and Alabama hills last year and I’m stoked for you, but there have been crowds in these areas for over a century.

        • I should also point out that I’ve been reading your site for years even back in the Prolly days, but I’ve noticed a sudden spike in hate for other people in areas you’re visiting. Maybe you’re going through some personal shit I don’t know.

          • big Al

            edit

          • I think you’re misreading hate of disrespecting the land (toilet paper, cutting vegetation for fire, littering) as hate of “people.” Sure, I dislike it when people mistreat the land, but that doesn’t mean I hate people. I always, wave, always smile and always strike up conversations when appropriate. I usually don’t document those moments, because I don’t want people to think I’m talking to them only to get a photo.

            Shooting photos of trips like this is a lot easier than writing about them, for me anyway, and writing about these sorts of trips is hard because you’re putting yourself out there and things like noting behaviors at a NP gets misconstrued and become the topic of conversation, leaving out the other moments in this piece that are – at least ATMO – more worth while.

          • Patrick Pardy

            Not to enter into any confrontational situation John, but there is a palpable element of scorn in he text. Yes the people didn’the behave correctly but they weren’t to know. The majority of the readers of this website are in the privileged position of having experience with nature and the outdoors. We are usually fortunate enough to have had some tutoring. In my case it was my father, a keen hillwalker

          • Again, it was not my intent but clearly if people see it that way then I need to adjust my language. Thanks for the note! This is all a learning process. 😘

  • Koyote1

    John, you should backpack down Grand Gulch at some point…More remote, and some really wild pictographs and petroglyphs, if you know where to look for them.

  • Austin Taylor

    I rode Scenic Byway 12 last summer with my wife and brought my sister for her first tour! It was my favorite yet. It was absolutely beautiful; so much to see! Very little shade, though.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/db0d853897fbb07c581b01efedef37e0ac3b3f785f80430bb7cf5741862b0f13.jpg

  • Definitely on the bucket list now. Great post and photos as always John. Cheers!

  • Great stuff as always. While I know this was a “desert trip”, just 15 minutes north of Boulder on HWY 12 is the summit of Boulder Mountain and it has some pretty stunning terrain and vistas on it. 80 little lakes full of trout, Aspen groves, and cooler temps (even in the summer) when the canyons are just to warm to be in. Worth a visit sometime. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/217f9a3b2a19f5f5d670949b202a547299a2879438998e6d6b7d027e4f406bb7.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f94fb6abaa59d4a21ea7670f4a1af3209a94722f95237d53183c501a154421b3.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7d7d85c2f5944ae00bbdad6cf02a0e83985deb7b5a22a3283616a8a04b9787a8.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b606d18e5c042a4d7281375a866cc61cd53be8bb6f961454b8496c9767079e5f.jpg

    • Wow!

      • Yeah, my hope is to retire to our acre of land there and put a little “community” bike shop right next to Hills and Hollows….

  • Jake Riehle

    Rad trip! You like your beadlock wheels @johnprolly:disqus? What make/model?

    • Nah, just fake beadlocks. It’s all they had in this design. Method Race Wheels 307 Hole

  • Pat Shearer

    #53 is such a great depiction of Southern Utah, particularly Horseshoe Canyon area. Red dirt, flat sagebrush land, ridiculously blue sky, but adventure filled canyons lurking all around, great shot!

  • Ace Metric Cycles

    S O D O P E. I’m trying to do a big road trip out this way next year. …I meant to suggest earlier, i’ve pulled out big body panel dents with a suction cup, wondered if you tried. obv you’d still wanna get the work done proper. OK, I didn’t use fancy body work suction cups, I used a plunger, yeah a toilet plunger. Cool party trick for friends’ dented vehicles too.

    • Yeah I used a plunger on my tacoma’s door once. Worked great! This dent has cracked / seamed the door. I’m leaving it along until the insurance adjuster sees it.

  • Aidan Hopkins

    Shame you didn’t enjoy Bryce, or could fully get out there. I loved it for a day trip. But there weren’t too many tourists and we hotfooted it around the longest loop we could in the time we had. snow dappled over the red rocks with killer views – great place to spend a few hours.

    • Yeah, it was really busy and we couldn’t get away from the cars and into the trails with Max being with us. Thunder Mountain is on my list – a MTB trail in the state park!

  • Mike Kimbro

    Who? I’m not sayin’ it was aliens….but it was definitely aliens.

    • Ya know, I thought so too – before I visited – but then I read a report that said there was evidence of shamanic drug use and hallucinations. So yeah, those aliens brought them druggggs! (J/k)

  • Alan

    John, it’s really funny to me that people are giving you shit for using a word like tourists. Everyone is so sensitive these days. So, I’ll call it like it is. People who cause a car accident and don’t resolve the situation are idiots. People who mistreat National Parks are idiots. And people who throw their trash on the street in cities are idiots!

    • I mean, I get it. I’m trying to push a positive outlook here on the site and sometimes it comes across as cynicism, which is not my intent. I think the more and more I spend my free time in zones like this, the more and more I get bummed out on how shitty people can be in the wilderness. What I try to do is turn that energy into something positive by cleaning up after those who might not have the proper education on how to behave in the outdoors. FWIW, I’ve been on “press camps” where people don’t know to pack out their toilet paper… I edited this post to remove my feeble attempt at documenting various “scenes” in Bryce, because, they were right, it did come across as negative, even though it wasn’t my intention.

      Sensitivity is a good thing, it ignites social change and for me, it’s a good education process. I know I’ve said this 100000000000000x before, but writing isn’t my strong suit, so this dialog is important to becoming a better writer.

      xo

      • Alan

        Keep up the good work John. And people should have enough common sense to protect the outdoor environment.

      • Pascal K

        I enjoyed the writing on this one a LOT. Also english is not my first language so I don’t really pay attention to grammar etc. But I think it was beautiful to read and very interesting.

  • Ian Connelly

    John, have you read John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World? Incredible book about geology but also everything else in the Western US (history, Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, hydrology). If you haven’t already, my hunch from these previous really-great posts is that you’d love it. It’s not a short read and includes other book-length content like Basin & Range or Assembling California, which on their own are wildly good.

    • Thanks! I’ll add it to the rapidly-growing list, Ian!

  • Ian Reiman

    I am going to be down at Capitol Reef in a couple weeks and I plan on driving Burr Trail. From my understanding it is pretty well maintained and would be doable in an AWD, would you agree?

  • Scott Sattler

    I came hear to say: damn – gorgeous photos. Best ever.