Canyons, Domes, and Western Night Skies – Vacation 2019

When I first started planning our trip west, I asked an open question on Facebook: Where else should we visit besides Arches and Mesa Verde?

One of my college friends quickly responded: Canyonlands.

I had never heard of Canyonlands even though it is within easy driving distance from Moab. Arches, which is actually geographically smaller than Canyonlands, gets all of the glory, few people outside of the region making Canyonlands their original destination when they visit Moab. Statistically, Arches sees a staggering one million visitors a year; Canyonlands, only 35 miles away, sees 400,000. The fact that Canyonlands was just an “add-on” in my trip planning put us in good company with most national park visitors.

I had a hard time getting the family moving on the morning after our second late night in Moab, but I still managed to get the family out of the campground by shortly after 9:00. We drove straight to the Arches Visitor Center so that we could get both kids sworn in as Junior Rangers and then we continued on the road towards the Canyonlands Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

Something was off. Our son, who is usually up for exploring and gets excited about earning more badges, was sulky and quick with the attitude. When we got to Canyonlands and they started working on their Junior Ranger books he almost fell apart while he and our daughter used a map of the park to answer several of the questions, arguing that map reading (something he was perfectly capable of figuring out) was too hard for him. When we went out to the overlook across the street, our son was nearing an early meltdown and Jeff and I helplessly looked at each other. If we were going to make the most of the day, we had to stay in the park, but could we really do that with a little boy who was falling apart?

Jeff sat down to talk to him and our son lamented the injustice of his sister getting the hiking stick that he wanted and he accused me of wanting to do too much, making me feel like the worst mom on the planet. Maybe I was trying to do too much on the vacation, but there we were. Jeff calmed him down enough to get into the truck and within minutes he was sobbing, “My ear!”

Suddenly everything made sense. He had several ear infections as a toddler (we were one ear infection away from tubes) and difficulties with his ears have always had an impact on his mood. This time, the changes in altitude was wreaking havoc on his eardrums and the pressure had finally popped. We rushed him ibuprofen, made sure he had water, and by the time we reached the Mesa Arch parking lot, he was in a completely different mood.

The Mesa Arch hike is only 0.5 miles round trip, but it is rocky and requires some climbing. The view from the arch is spectacular, the canyons below living up to the name of the park. When we all returned to the truck, everyone was in a positive mood, ready to hit at least one more major stop before saying we had seen the best parts of the Island in the Sky region that we could quickly hike to.

Next we headed to Upheaval Dome, making a quick stop to take pictures of Whale Rock. There are three different areas in Canyonlands, Island in the Sky being the closest to Moab. Our goal was to see as much as we could reasonably see in a couple hours, aware that we had expended a significant amount of energy the day before with the hikes in Arches. The temperatures in Canyonlands were considerably more comfortable, the extra 2,000 feet in elevation dropping the air temperature down to the high 80s from the high 90s we had experienced the day before. It made the 0.8 mile roundtrip hike to the first Upheaval Dome overlook do-able. This time, our daughter was struggling as we got to the top of the rocky climb, stopping in a small sliver of shade to work on her Junior Ranger book. I left her for a few minutes to see how Jeff and our son were doing and discovered them contentedly working on our son’s Junior Ranger book while sitting in a crater at the top of the overlook.

The crater itself is a spectacular sight, and considerably unusual when compared to other geologic sites in the park. According to the NPS website, “In an area approximately three miles (5 km) across, rock layers are dramatically deformed. In the center, the rocks are pushed up into a circular structure called a dome, or an anticline. Surrounding this dome is a downwarp in the rock layers called a syncline.” The explanation was a little above this English teacher’s paygrade, but it made for a unique view of our natural world. Our daughter finally joined us at the top so that she could work with her brother on their books, and we eventually convinced them to leave their natural workspace so we could get back on the road.

We had considered adding the Green River Overlook to our list of places to visit, but my sister-in-law was ready to head back to Moab and our daughter wanted to join her. Besides, Jeff had his own adventure dreams that he wanted to fulfill, and we had to do a kid switch to make those dreams happen.

Fifteen years ago, long before we had kids, Jeff and I took a trip out to Yellowstone. On the second to last night of the trip, Jeff’s sister joined us in Douglas, Wyoming, bringing with her a toddler who she frequently watched and who often stayed with her for short periods of time. That little girl is now a high school student who is spending much of her summer in Denver with my sister-in-law. The day before she proved her worthiness to our son when she voluntarily played football with him. This time, in Canyonlands, we offered her the chance to have an off-road adventure, allowing our daughter (who easily gets carsick) the chance to return to town with her aunt and uncle. K jumped at the opportunity to ride back with us.

We drove straight back to the visitor center, got the kids sworn in as Junior Rangers, and then Jeff, our son, K, and I headed towards Long Canyon to see just how well our F150 could handle off-roading down into the canyon.

The road starts out simply enough, just a gravel country road, but then it makes one turn after another, dropping in elevation and then finally dropping into the canyon. The road is rough, the decline steep, and then we reached Pucker Pass.

Jeff had shown me video of the trail, particularly Pucker Pass, people going through the seemingly impassible gap in the rocks only to prove that there really was plenty of room to get through once vehicles are right underneath the rock leaning up against the canyon wall. But the approach is terrifying, especially for someone who is risk averse, like me. Basically, everything up to our passage through Pucker Pass had me gripping the handle on the door next to me and wondering why I ever let Jeff talk me into it in the first place, while our son and K were in the backseat having the time of their lives.

Then we wove through the switchbacks, finally getting towards the bottom of the canyon, and while we slowly moved along the packed dirt road, the views opened up into something truly spectacular.

When we finally came out of the canyon, we were on a small highway taking us back to Moab, traveling along the swollen Colorado on our right with the red canyon walls towering over us on our left. We stopped at perfectly preserved petroglyphs high on the rocks overlooking the road and then stopped again further down for a close up of the river, so swollen that there are currently signs underwater.

I had been apprehensive about the excursion, but it was worth every moment. We all returned to Moab satisfied and ready to meet the rest of our group for some ice cream and then pool time back at the campground.

After a rushed dinner of leftovers, we all headed back into Arches National Park so that we could watch the sunset from underneath The Windows. Our daughter had seen our pictures from the night before and she wanted to climb rocks. We laid out blankets and watched the sunset beneath the afternoon clouds, and then watched the stars come out as the western sky slowly faded to black. Our son, ever the bat lover, noticed a small number of bats flying out of the rocks behind us and watched until he couldn’t see anymore.

As Jeff, our son, and I snuggled on the blanket, he asked if we could stay for just one more day. A day that had started with a meltdown accusing me of wanting to do too many things ended with an ardent plea to stay for just a little longer. His day had ended perfectly and it was a feeling that he wanted to hold on to. I felt the same way, but we just couldn’t do it. Our nearly perfect family vacation was coming to an end.

When I made the plans to stay in Moab, Utah, my only goal was seeing natural arches. I had no idea what else we would discover as we traveled around the entire region. What we found was natural wonders that none of us will soon forget. Now it was time to head home.