Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Montrose, Co

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I have to give a quick shout-out to one of my favorite blogs – Explore All 50. Written by a single mother of three, Alisa Abecassis details trips she has taken to show her children every state. I’ve looked at it to get trip ideas and I wouldn’t have ever known about this national park had it not been for her website.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP is an easy park to explore in a few hours. Starting at the visitor center, we watched the 12-minute movie and drove the 7-mile South Rim Road. With the multiple overlooks of the steep 2,000-foot canyon walls, you don’t have to do any hiking to get a feel for this awesome, little-known park.

At one of the overlooks

At one of the overlooks

Carved by the Gunnison River, the steep cliffs are mesmerizing. The ranger suggested stopping at Pulpit Rock, Painted Wall, Sunset View and High Point overlooks. We hit those and a few more on the way. The steep canyon is a dark, almost black color hence the name. The misnomer is that it is closer to Montrose than the town of Gunnison.

The Painted Wall

The Painted Wall

At the end of the drive is High Point overlook with a 1.5-mile, round-trip, Warner Point Trail. Although we all started the hike, only two of us got to the end. The sweeping vistas were beautiful and worth the hike.

Warner Point Trail

Warner Point Trail

The park’s gravel, North Rim Drive lies on the other side of the river, but it is remote and closed during the winter. Other activities include camping, climbing and kayaking. Learn more at the park’s website here.


Dead Horse Point State Park – Moab, Utah

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It doesn’t get much better than this. Surprising Dead Horse Point State Park is not a national park, but a state park. It’s no less beautiful than nearby Canyonlands and Arches. In fact, it’s located just off Utah 313 about ten miles before the Island of the Sky entrance at Canyonlands NP. Don’t miss this spectacular park. After paying $9 entrance fee per car (it is valid for 3 days), drive to the Dead Horse Point Overlook. If you think it looks similar to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, you’re not alone. This was the site of the final scene in the early 1990s movie, “Thelma & Louise.”

Although the state park offers five hiking trails, it is most known for it’s 17-mile intrepid mountain biking trails. A visitor center and outdoor coffee kiosk provide snacks and box lunches. If you’re going to Canyonlands NP (Island of the Sky district), don’t miss this state park. If you drive to the overlook just to snap a few pictures, it will only take 30 minutes out of your day. For more information, visit here.


Capitol Reef National Park – Torrey, Utah

Scenery on the way to Capitol Reef NP

Scenery on the way to Capitol Reef NP

This was my favorite of the three Utah national parks on this trip. For whatever reason, I really wanted to come here. Everybody I talked to about Utah has been to Bryce and Zion or Canyonlands and Arches. I only knew one person whose parents made it to Capitol Reef on a separate trip. It’s the least crowded of Utah’s Mighty Five since it’s right in the middle of the state and not near anything. Bryce Canyon NP is another 2.5 hours from here.

Although a 2.5-hour car ride from Moab, it is scenic. Even the 22 miles on I-70 offered breathtaking vistas with no billboards or commercial establishments. Once off the interstate, we headed south on Hwy 24, stopping in Hanksville for lunch at Duke’s Slickrock Grill. I can’t imagine living in a town with three restaurants, one hotel and two gas stations, but the people here were friendly as ever. The hostess mentioned seeing the hoodoos at nearby Goblin Valley State Park, but unfortunately we didn’t have time.

Hickman Bridge Trail

Capitol Reef got its name from the large fin or reef like cliffs that shoot up from the landscape. It’s different from the other parks and well worth the visit. We started with the Hickman Bridge Trail, a moderate 1.8-mile round trip to a natural bridge. Although it looks like an arch, a natural bridge is a type of arch that was primarily formed by a stream or body of water. When we left the parking lot, we hiked by a fast flowing Fremont River.

The Hickman Bridge Trail

The Hickman Bridge Trail

Although the hike is considered moderate, children can easily do this hike. Just take lots of water and wear a hat. The temps reached 80 degrees on this day in April, but I could imagine the over 100 degree temps in the summer. Towards the end is a small loop under and around the natural bridge. Another difference between an arch and a bridge is that a natural bridge has a flat top over an opening, resembling the shape of a man-made bridge. I failed to inform my family that we were hiking to a natural bridge and everyone was surprised it was made out of rock. This was the only section of the park that reminded me a bit of Arches NP.

The Hickman Bridge at Capitol Reef NP

The Hickman Bridge at Capitol Reef NP

Historic Fruita

Next we drove by the historic Fruita school-house, which was built in 1896 and served as a gathering spot, church and school until the 1940’s. Over time, the NPS bought more of the Fruita farms, leaving the schoolhouse, a barn and a few other buildings intact.

The Fruita Schoolhouse

The Fruita Schoolhouse

We then stopped at the visitor center and were told to continue the 10-mile (one-way) scenic drive. At the end of the scenic road is the 2.4-mile Capitol Gorge Road. Although it’s a dirt road, the ranger told us that any car could handle hit. Driving on the dirt path gave us an off-roading type adventure through Wingate Sandstone. I was amazed to see several campers driving on the narrow road. At the end was a parking lot and trailhead for the 2.0-mile round-trip Capital Gorge Trail. Our crew was getting hungry so we skipped this hike, although it was classified as easy.

Even the visitor center blends into the landscape.

Even the visitor center blends into the landscape.

Gifford House Museum and Store

On the way back along the scenic road, we stopped to admire the orchards. In the summer, visitors can pick the many fruits including cherries, peaches, pears and apples. Across the street from these orchards is the Gifford House Museum and Store.

The orchards

The orchards

The kids groaned when they heard we had to go into a museum, but it’s more of a cute store that sells gifts and snacks. The back room has some items from the Fruita era, but it’s known for selling pies made from the fruit grown in the park. We were torn between peach pie and cherry pie, but tossed a coin for cherry. It was some of the best I’ve ever had! We sat at a picnic table and enjoyed the cavernous cliffs jutting out of the landscape.

The cherry pie was a welcome treat at the Gifford House.

The cherry pie was a welcome treat at the Gifford House.

Lastly, we took a left turn  did a quick drive past Chimney Rocks and went to the Goosenecks overlook before heading back to Moab. Like Arches and Canyonlands, there is no lodging in the park. Torrey is the nearest town, west of Capitol Reef. For more information, click on Capitol Reef National Park here.


Canyonlands National Park – Utah

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About a 40 minute drive from Moab lies Canyonlands National Park. The park is divided into three distinct districts: Island of the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. Because the districts are bisected by the Green and Colorado Rivers, no roads connect the districts. Island of the Sky is closest to Moab and the most visited, while the Maze has no paved roads and is more remote.

Popular activities including offroading, white water rafting and rock climbing. The park ranger at the Island of the Sky visitor center recommended the scenic drive to Grandview Overlook, Green River Overlook, Mesa Arch at sunrise and Upheaval Dome.

Just like it’s name, you look down into the canyons while driving on the scenic road. At the visitor center, we realized from the relief map that we’re on top of a mesa.

Grand View Point Overlook and Green River Overlook

At the end of the scenic drive is a large parking lot. Look over and you see amazing cut outs in the canyons (see below picture). We did about a third of the 1-mile Grand View Point Trail.

Canyonlands NP

Canyonlands NP

The Green River overlook also offers spectacular views.

Green River Overlook

Green River Overlook

Mesa Arch at Sunrise

All information said that Mesa Arch is worth seeing at sunrise or sunset. We headed back early the next morning and missed sunrise by about 15 minutes. The 1/2-mile total loop is easy, especially if carrying heavy camera equipment. When we reached the arch, tons of tripods and photographers were lined up. At first it doesn’t look like that high of an arch, but when you look through and see the steep canyon walls, it’s a different story altogether.

Photographers catching the sunrise at Mesa Arch

Photographers catching the sunrise at Mesa Arch

 

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Mesa Arch

Upheaval Dome

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We did a quick 0.8-mile round trip hike to the first overlook for Upheaval Dome. The time of day wasn’t right for the best pictures, but it was still gorgeous. To this day, scientists haven’t figured what caused the dome to occur in the first place.

For more information, see the Canyonlands website here.