Who would have thought a desert could be so beautiful?

The idea for our trip came in December, when we started itching to go hiking again, and realized that we'd go crazy if we had to wait for the mid-June Pacific Northwest mountain snowmelt. We'd both heard about the splendor of southern Utah from our families and friends who'd hiked there. On the basis of that (and the enthusiastic recommendations we got from many people we asked in the ensuing months), we planned the trip. We hit the road on May 4.

Charlie drove a bruising 900 miles from Portland, OR to Green River, UT in one day. We woke up to a redrock sunrise after a cramped night in a truck stop parking lot, and we were in Canyonlands NP by noon. We dropped camp two miles in, and then foolishly trooped off for a day-hike-turned-death-march during which we got lost, ran out of water, and didn't make it back to our camp until an hour after sunset.

But oh, the rocks! As a kid, I loved the craggy, tidepool rock formations found on Puget Sound and coastal beaches; climbing each one was a puzzle of where to put each foot and hand in order to get up quickly. Canyonlands is a rock-scrambling paradise -- instead of being on a precarious point fifty feet above the surf, you're on broad rock mini-plateaus, five hundred feet above thirsty desert valleys. Above you tower impossible stone "needles" that look like they were created with a god-sized Magic Sand kit. And it's all RED.

After Canyonlands, we spent three nights in Grand Gulch Primitive Area. The bare rock overhangs here sheltered dozens of Anasazi cliff dwellings, abandoned in the late 13th century for still undeciphered reasons. (Our reading on the trip included tales of the cowboys and farmers who "found" the sites and the exploration done in the last hundred years.) We were impressed to find that one could still be (almost) alone in the wilderness, ten miles from the nearest desert road, in the presence of ancient engineering and cultural marvels.

Did you know that corn cobs look basically the same, whether they're 700 years old or freshly chewed?

Our other major stop was Zion NP in the other southern corner of the state -- worlds away from Canyonlands in terms of rock and vegetation. Zion bears many similarities to Yosemite, in that almost all of the park activity is concentrated in a deep valley walled in by spectacular peaks and waterfalls. Follow the Virgin River out the north end of Zion Canyon, wade upstream in the water, and within a few hundred yards you'll find yourself in a tight narrow corridor, fifty feet wide, a thousand sheer feet tall, with no roof, and with a rushing river for a floor. The Narrows are hikeable for twelve miles in this manner. Ferns and orchids grow in the seep-cracks high up either wall.

We recommend US 50, the self-dubbed "loneliest highway in America" for the long drive home through Nevada. We cruised through the Shasta-Trinity Wilderness on a warm afternoon, passed the Tolkien-esque spring Siskiyous at sunset, and made the whole 1100 miles from Zion back to Portland in one day.

- nw

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