Letters From a Bus
April 2008: Springtime Desert
6th entry for April

Zion National Park

Hurricane, UT, Day Three at Sand Hollow State Park, Site: 35

Friday, April 18, 2008 — Eleven Months

Eleven months.  We’ve lived in our motor home coach/bus for eleven months.  On May sixteenth we will celebrate the end of our first year as “fulltimers”.  It’s a big marking point for us.  We are no longer neophytes. 

Wednesday morning, April 16, Sand Hollow State Park
Wind is the story here.  Strong winds.  Unceasing winds.  Noisy winds.  They started in LA and a few days later Las Vegas had big winds.  We had 60 to 70 mph gusts yesterday as we drove from Las Vegas through Nevada and Arizona to Utah.  We hoped the winds would be less as we traveled further to the northeast.  Nope.  If anything it got worse.

Winds make it difficult — even dangerous to open the car door or the bus door.  If I’m not careful and prepared, it pulls the bus door out of my hands and slams it open.  Or the wind reverses direction and unexpectedly pushes the bus door back towards me.  I am fearful for the dogs.  It’s a big heavy door and it could slam shut and mash them as they go up and down the steps.  I must remember to block the door with my body to protect them as they enter or exit. 

Shake, rattle and roll — our bus is big and heavy but the wind vibrates the entire structure.  It rattles the slides and whistles around every crevice.  I was tired after our drive here and crawled into bed early.  The bedroom slides shook and the airbed vibrated.  I had to turn up the volume while I watched TV .  When Dennis came to bed we decided to put in both bedroom slides.  This reduced the noise and the shaking so that we could sleep with some peace and quiet. 

However, it was not quiet.  The site immediately behind us has only a tent without an RV.  No car was parked there last night. They have a blue plastic tarp that came loose and flapped loudly all night.  It was tied around the legs of the picnic table shelter on three sides.  I thought it would be blown away by morning.  We guessed that the tenants gave up and found a motel.  This morning their car camping 6x6 tent was collapsed on the ground and the picnic tarp continued to flap.  Dennis says this gives new meaning to the Tiffin’s motto, “Roughing It Smoothly.”  Indeed.  I car camped when the kids were little — sometimes under very difficult circumstances.  It was a fun challenge at the time.  But no more, thank the good lord.

Culture shock is the second story.  We are situated off SR-9 between St. George and Hurricane, UT.  The joke is on us: Hurricane is named for the violent gusts that swirl off the surrounding hills.  We are in a large, spread out RV Park with sites set well away from each other.  The name says it all:  Sand Hollow State Park.  We sit in a wide, shallow valley.  Now if the park were named Windy Sand Hollow, it would be completely descriptive.  Our bus is on a small knoll with a view towards a resevoir and the surrounding valley.  The valley is a large depression between distant plateaus.  Traffic noise is not a problem.  I-15 is four miles west of here.  SR-9 is four miles north of here.  Our bus is parked three miles past the state park entrance.  This district is fondly known in Utah as Dixie because Brigham Young dreamed of a western Dixieland to provide cotton during the Civil War.

This is not a parking lot situation in which we parallel park next to each other with lanes fore and aft.  Here, the campground roads are a series of loops and the pull-thru sites are macadam half moons parallel to the park road — one ahead of the other.  We each have a path, and if required, there are concrete steps that lead to a picnic table set on a concrete pad with shade and shelter provided by four posts and a roof overhead.  Privacy is not an issue here.  At the Oasis we had to pull the front drapes or the bathroom sliding door for privacy when we showered.  Here, there is no one to see or care so we can enjoy our window view of this high plateau landscape.  Our elevation is 3,090 feet.

There is plenty of open country to explore but alas, it is a “look but don’t enter” situation.  As soon as we let the dogs out to walk on their leashes in the bushes and grasses surrounding our picnic area, they returned to the bus and spent hours gnawing on their paws.  They are besieged with stickers of a particularly sharp and hook-like nature.  They will have to be satisfied to walk and go potty on the gravel shoulder by the road.  In addition the park sells black (ultraviolet) lights, the better to see scorpion activity in their natural habitat at night.  I’m all for leaving them alone if they will leave me alone and that means me and my dogs are not going to be tromping around in the chaparral. 

We are here to witness the scenic beauties of the southern Utah parks.  This is the land of spectacular sandstone columns, canyons and arches. We want to see soaring monoliths and giant chasms.  Our first location, between St. George and Hurricane will allow us to make day trips to Zion National Park and Dixie National Forest and perhaps even the Pipe Spring National Monument in Arizona.  We would like to see Cedar Breaks National Monument but I believe it is closed through May due to snow.  We plan to see Snow Canyon State Park and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.  We hope to explore the Kolob Terrace and the path of the mighty Virgin River.

But meanwhile — it’s windy out there!  The wind obscures the horizon with what I assume is a murky density of blowing sand.  The wind died down at sunrise when the temperature was 44º but now at mid-morning, as it warms to 55º, the wind is working itself back into a tizzy.  We want to sightsee but we don’t want to go outside and get beaten up!

Speaking of getting beaten up, the tent couple next door returned about ten.  I felt badly for them but it was a comedy to watch.  They righted their tent and made their camp as shipshape and workable as possible.  It took a million steps back and forth from car to tent, back and forth from car to picnic table — just as I remembered doing.  Them were the days…  A few hours later they gave up and packed up to go home.  I talked to them briefly.  They say it was nice until yesterday. They did go to a motel last night.

Views of Sand Hollow RV Park looking out from our windshield. 4/16/08
Our closest neighbors got driven out by very strong winds. That's their car behind our bus. They are packing stuff in their trunk. 4/16/08 This beach is for swimmers only and no boats — also no dogs. With sand and lack of stickers we had hoped to walk the dogs here. 4/16/08
The reservoir is choppy from the big wind. The red sand and bright green bushes and blue water makes an amazing contrast. 4/16/08 The is the launch area for the reservoir. 4/24/08

Tuesday, April 16, Kolob Terrace Road
Today we drove east on SR-9 through the small town of Hurricane and the small hamlets of La Virken and Virgin where, at the behest of Reader’s Digest, “The Most Scenic Drives in America” we turned north on Kolob Terrace Road.  We were glad we did.  This is an 18-mile scenic detour that drifts in and out of the western fringes of Zion National Park.  The drive “…onto the Kolob Plateau is usually uncrowded, and it offers dramatic views of such red-walled mesas and bluffs as Tabernacle Dome and the two Guardian Angels.” 

This proved to be so.  We began from SR-9 at 3,500 feet elevation and we climbed 17 miles to an elevation of 7,400’ before we had to stop a mile short of the top because the road was covered with snow.  We saw only a few cars and the scenery became more and more spectacular as we gained in elevation.  We left the wind behind and entered a serene canyon cut by a fork of the Virgin River.  At the beginning we saw some land for sale and a small development by the river.  Above, we saw some farmland and rangeland.  At 4,400’ we followed the ridge of a plateau between black tree skeletons of cedars left over from a fire that must have swept through the uplands but skipped the river farmland below.  At 5,000’ we entered a land of green cedars and by then the sandstone mountains in the background made for spectacular scenery.  There was no wind and it was sunny but the temperature dropped from 55º to 42º.  We passed through the beautiful high elevation meadows of Cave Valley at about 6000’ and above that we entered stands of pine trees until finally we ended in a snow filled mountain canyon just below the terrace at the end of the road. 

This is my kind of country.  I absolutely love high elevation meadows.  That is why I loved to backpack so much.  The scenery at high elevations is so special.  After this drive we returned to our bus and we returned to the wind.  It was so strong when we left that we put in the four slides and took the dogs with us.  Why let the wind beat up the slides when we’re not in the bus? 

On our way east on SR-9 to Hurricane we cross a bridge over this river valley made by the Virgin River. 4/16/08 Continuing east we climb Hurricane Mesa and look back towards the town of Hurricane. 4/16/08
We pass the small town of La Verkin and the even smaller town of Virgin. This is a tourist gift shop attraction in Virgin. 4/16/08 We turn north onto Kolob Terrace Road at 3,552' el. Looking NW at Hurricane Mesa. 4/16/08
We have climbed to 3,900' el on a ridge called Lava Field. Below are remains of a farm in a pretty valley created by the Right Fork. 4/16/08 The remains of an old bridge crossing the Right Fork, which flows into the Virgin River.. 4/16/08
Dennis climbed a part of the lava field to take a look at the valley below. 4/16/08 While Dennis and I explore the dogs are very unhappy being left alone in the car. 4/16/08
We climb higher along the lava field ridge to about 4,430' el. and look at the river valley below. 4/16/08 The Kolob Terrace Rd. is on a narrow ridge that parallels other ridges with river valleys inbetween. 4/16/08
Between 4,000 and 5,000' el all the Cedar trees have been burned by a fire. 4/16/08 At 5,220' el. the Cedar trees escaped the fire. Everything in the river valley below escaped also. 4/16/08
Kolob Terrace Rd. runs in and out of the Zion National Park border. It enters, turns north and passes the roadside gates of Right Fork, Grapevine and Left Fork. 4/16/08 At about 5,000' el. near the Left Fork, Kolob Terrace Rd. runs north between Smith Mesa to the west and Lower Kolob Plateau to the east. We begin to see the typical sandstone Zion cliffs to the east. 4/16/08
As we approach Cave Valley, we see Tabernacle Dome to the east. It is 6,430' el at the top. Behind the dome the Great West Canyon stretches NE into the heart of Zion Park. 4/16/08 On the canyon's south side stands South Guardian Angel and on the north stands North Guardian Angel. We should be able to see the Guardian Angels — if we knew what to look for. 4/16/08
At about 5,860' el we run out of the park again and I see this old house. I can't tell if it is in use or not. 4/16/08 Is the white peak in the distance, one of the Guardian Angels? 4/16/08
What is this? Is it Lamb's Knoll? I love this high alpine valley meadow. 4/16/08 If we are looking west, this could be Smith Mesa. 4/16/08
What is this? Is it Cave Knoll at the north end of Cave Valley? 4/16/08 This might be Spendlove Knoll where Kolob Terrace Rd turns east back into the park. 4/16/08
Here where the road turns east at 6,500' el., there is a trailhead for the Hop Valley Trail which, climbs north to the canyon of La Verkin Creek. 4/16/08 We drive east and work our way around the back of Pine Valley Peak, el. 7,415. At a trailhead called Wildcat Canyon we turned north. 4/16/08
Going north we begin to climb Little Creek Valley towards Upper Kolob Plateau. At 7,400' el. we ran into snow across the road and had to stop. Our goal was Kolob Reservoir at 8,118' el. We missed the last 718' ascent and we were probably a mile short on the road. 4/16/08 Looking back down the road from where we came. Dennis says, "I told you we should get a 4-wheel drive jeep." We let the dogs run around for a few minutes but it was cold and I didn't stop to take a photo of them. 4/16/08
Thursday, April 17, We Visit Zion National Park
Once again we have views of sunrise and sunset.  The morning sun sits behind my left shoulder.  It helps to warm me up when I sit at my desk and write.  We have also gone back to winter-like weather.  In the morning I keep the heat running and this morning it was in the forties outside.  But, there was no wind. 

Last night the wind racketed around the bus just as it did the night before.  But it seemed to have periods of lulls when it would stop.  We didn’t put in the slides when we went to sleep.  It’s funny how quickly we become acclimated.  Although less unceasing, the wind was just as strong and as noisy as the night before.  However, I slept through it all.

This morning I noticed that more RVs have arrived so the plateau is dotted with trailers and motor homes.  I have seen small hares go skittering by.  White flowers cover the ground in-between the low chaparral bushes.  They look like a type of morning glory groundcover.  (If it were in your yard, it would be considered a pernicious weed.) 

Today we drove into Zion National Park for the first time.  It’s about 35 miles away and it takes us about 55 minutes to get to the entrance.  You have to drive through the small town of Hurricane, and the hamlets of La Virken,  and Virgin, and then past the Kolob Terrace Road, skirting the southern part of the park and driving east in the valley along the Virgin River.  You can drive into the park on SR-9 and drive through the southern edge and then out of the park.  But you can’t drive up into the main scenic canyon. We parked at the entrance and walked into the park to use the shuttle buses.  We got a late start and it was actually 2:00 PM by the time we arrived.  So we just did the ninety minute shuttle round trip and got oriented.  Next time we will use the shuttle to get on and off at stops to look around in each area.  We can take photos and do some of the hikes on our next visit.

This scenic shuttle ride inside Zion is up a long, narrow, V-shaped canyon hemmed in by very tall cliffs and promontories.  We got off at the top and took a break before the ride back down.  I took almost no photos.  It was all too overwhelming.  I didn't know where to point the camera first.  Everything is spectacular and large.  The road follows the North Fork of the Virgin River from the Visitor’s Center at about 3,000 el. up Zion Canyon about 14 miles through seven stops to the last called “Temple of Sinawava” at about 4,400 el.  Thousands of years ago there was a landslide that blocked the river and a lake formed.  Eventually, the river broke through leaving a flat valley on top of the lakebed.  The sandstone monoliths on either side of the canyon rise abruptly from the level valley floor like high-rise buildings.  Their sheer walls rise 2,500 feet over our heads.  No wonder they are styled as temples and towers. 

Due to crowds, we had to park on the street above the Visitor's Center. Below is a movie theater just outside of the park. 4/17/08 I couldn't resist taking a photo of the theater marquee. They have an I-MAX type of screen. What time does it start? How long does it play? 4/17/08
We walked into the park and from the Visitor's Center, we took a shuttle 14 miles up the canyon to the last stop. 4/17/08 The last shuttle stop, Temple of Sinawava, is where the cliffs squeeze off the canyon and cars can go no further. 4/17/08
Hard Navajo sandstone towers surround the Temple of Sinawava. 4/17/08 Here the Virgin River is forced to slice straight down, creating a tight, perpendicular gorge. This is the trailhead for the Riverside Walk that goes up the narrow canyon. 4/17/08

After our shuttle tour I spent time in the Visitor’s Center bookstore where I found some excellent topo and trail maps and I invested in a few books that explain the history and geology of Zion.  I also found a paperback by Wallace Stegner, one of my favorite authors.  Titled “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian; John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West” it is a biography of the ethnologist and geologist who began his exploration of this southwest area including the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon from Green River in May 1869 at the same time that the transcontinental rails came together a few hundred miles west in Promontory, Utah.  (He published “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons” in 1895 and I bought that paperback also.)

By the time we finished at the Visitor's Center, I had a very bad headache. On the way back, we stopped in Hurricane at JB’s Restaurant and Bakery for dinner.  I had a salmon dinner and Dennis had chicken quesadillas.  They were both terrible.  When the waitress asked us how it was I said in a very nice but regretful voice, “It was absolutely awful.”  She gave a sad smile and did not seem surprised.   I gave her my half finished plate and finished with an okay piece of carrot cake.  So much for JB’s.

Friday, April 18.  Hanging out at Sand Hollow
On Friday there was no wind and we had a beautiful sunny day.  The park was full.  For some reason, schoolchildren had a four-day weekend and we saw lots of families in Zion Park on Thursday.  At Sand Hollow, the raison d’être seemed to be recreation.  Most of the RV’s were towing trailers loaded with ATVs or boats.  They are towed away from the camp to launching ramp or trailhead parking lot, so we didn't hear any noise.  However, it sure looked like a lot of work to pack up all that stuff…

As for us, we took it easy.  We had a bacon and eggs breakfast and sat at our picnic table.  We stayed out there all morning.  It was warm in the sun with a cool breeze and shade from the picnic shelter.  The dogs would have liked to wander around but they had to be leashed and frequently got tangled up. I read my Powell book and studied maps.  I was glad to rest and go nowhere.

In the afternoon we walked the dogs around the parking lot by the launch ramp.  Rudi jumped up on the boulders, saw the reservoir and insisted on hopping boulders downward to get to the water.  Of course, Margot followed.  But their leash lines aren’t long enough so they couldn’t make it to the water and they got caught up on the rocks.  Dennis had to untangle them.

Breakfast is finished and the table is cleared. Dennis sits in the shade with the dogs. 4/18/08 Weird view of bus looking up from the picnic table area. 4/18/08
The area is covered with white flowers that look like a morning glory ground cover. They have stickers. 4/18/08 The dogs relax in the sun and are happy we are keeping them company — but they'd rather be free to roam around. 4/18/08
We walk the dogs down to the launch ramp parking lot where someone is flying a big kite. 4/18/08 Rudi and Margot are attracted to the big boulders by the reservoir. 4/18/08
Rudi jumps up on a boulder and next thing I know he's making like a mountain goat and hopping from rock to rock down towards the water — only the leash isn't long enough because I'm not a mountain goat.... 4/18/08 The leashes get caught on the edges of rocks so it's Dennis to the rescue. 4/18/08
Tomorrow we plan to get busy and really start to explore Zion National Park. I think we will drive on SR-9 through Zion Park and the famous park tunnel to the east side of the park and then around the northern perimeter. So we will make a big loop.
Elsa Walton, Sand Hollow State Park, Hurricane, UT, Friday, April 18, 2008