The travel from Bryce to the Arches National Park is in some respects among the most challenging of the Road Trip with at least three mountain ranges to cross with countless switch backs and hairpin curves, most without guard rails. It is also the most spectacular. We take Utah State Road 12, which is billed as one of the most scenic in the state, which takes us past three state parks, several national forests and one national monument. For the first 100 miles or so we can count the number of cars we see on two hands. We pass through only two towns—Boulder and Torrey—both old mining towns with current populations in the 100s. These tiny hamlets did not even get paved roads or electricity until the 1950s. You have to wonder how people get by—where kids go to school, where people do routine shopping, what they do all day.
We also pass through several ecosystems—bone dry desert, grass lands, thick mountain forests of Douglass Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Aspen, and several alpine meadows. The toughest climb is Mount Boulder. We finally cross the pass at 11,000 feet with temperatures in the 50s. An hour later when we reach the valley on the other side, the temperature is over 100.
Our destination, Arches National Park, is located just north of Moab, Utah, an old mining town, turned out-of- doors, adventure, tourist town. Since there are no overnight tourist accommodations in the national park, Embry has booked us in a “luxury tent camp,” called Moab Under Canvass. The only problem is that as we roll into Moab in search of the tent camp, the temperature on the dashboard reads 106 degrees. We are talking Death Valley temperatures here. In a tent? Are we serious? For a moment I think we may be saved by the bell, since we can not find the camp. It has all the aspects of a scam—inaccurate directions, limited information, etc.—but just as we are about to give up and head to a Motel 6, there it is, perched on a cliff overlooking the valley. Doomed.
It turns out that tent camping in these conditions could be worse. The tents are actually pretty nice, better than those in Yosemite; and ours has a wood burning stove (great for 106 degree temperatures) and even a shower and toilet. While there is no electricity, this gives the tent a cozy feel. My guess is that about 10 of the 40 tents are occupied. After checking in and getting help with the bags by a young woman riding in a golf cart, we head to the Arches after which we head out to find an air conditioned restaurant in Moab, activities which take several hours and get us back to the tent at nine p.m. when the temperature has dropped to 103. It’s still hot but could be hotter, and the temperature is going down. We pull out a couple of chairs and sit on the small porch, watch the evening sky as it turns pink and lavender and have a glass of wine and more water. By eleven we are still alive, so our plan is working. The night sky is now dark with few lights anywhere to obstruct the vision, giving Embry the opportunity to use her spotting scope. The Milky Way is overhead. We are spellbound by the beauty of the sky and the desert at night. By midnight the temperature is in the mid 90s, low enough to turn in, and by early morning will be in the mid 60s before it starts to soar again. Sleeping is not impossible—probably due to our exhaustion– and we manage to make it through the night. Victory!
We ended up spending a couple of hours driving through the park that evening. Like all the other parks we have seen, it is fabulous, similar in some ways and different in others. It is probably 2,000 feet above the valley where we are staying, a little cooler, and includes hundreds of rock formations, many with arches (hence the name) and many which are named due to their unique shapes. Best of all are the vistas of the vast valley below. Another treasure of southern Utah.
The stay in Moab Under Canvas and visit to Arches National Park will be our last in the desert. We have been zigzagging over mountains and across deserts ever since we entered the Mojave Desert on our way to Santa Barbara weeks earlier. I never understood how vast, rich and beautiful it is and how much variation exists from one desert location to another. Even more striking is how uninhabited the desert is.
We will miss it and doubt that at our age we will ever return—certainly not to an immersion experience like we have had. But how fortunate we have been! To have missed this experience would have been such a shame. If you have not experienced the American desert, put this on your bucket list.