Trip Report: Mesa Verde, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef National Parks
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
October 14 – 30, 2017
We’ve been losing things. First it was Emerson’s sweatshirt. Then a utility knife and the pair of pliers I use to force open the lid to the Superglue. Then… the laptop charger. This last one hurt because it’s expensive to replace and mind-blowing that we could somehow lose such a bulky, indoor-only item in the 150-square feet of space we call home.
“Where the hell could it have gone?” Wendy asked. All the scenarios we came up with were simply implausible.
“Maybe we knocked it out of its pocket (hanging by the door) and it fell on the floor,” I said.
“Then what,” Wendy responded. “We didn’t see it? We kicked it outside without noticing and then we still didn’t see it? Maybe we somehow scooped it up with the trash.”
“But how?” I asked. “Why would it have been near the trash in the first place and how would we not have noticed?”
Wendy rifled through every bin, drawer, and storage nook in the van and trailer, all to no avail.
While it was inconvenient to drive 30 miles outside of Canyonlands so we could park on the side of the road to get an internet signal to buy a new laptop charger and find a post office to mail it to, we were most disturbed by the fact that we lost it and couldn’t even pinpoint which park we’d been in at the time.
In good news, the new charger is now in our possession and the laptop is fully charged. In bad news, how and where we lost it remain a mystery. We make ourselves feel better by chalking it up to the fact that we’re both getting dumber on this trip. We expect it will be reversible, but one thing we’re losing and know exactly where and why—is sleep. This trip is awesome but we haven’t had a decent night’s rest in 5 1/2 months, and the effects are apparent.
We’re a bit irritable, and a bit stupid. But we’re okay with that because we know a comfortable bed is awaiting us at the end of this journey and in the meantime, the trade-off is totally worth it.
Mesa Verde National Park Morefield Campground, Site #49
Mesa Verde was different from any other park we’ve visited so far, and surprisingly popular. I’d never heard of it until planning this trip and from what I’d read, it didn’t seem like many people would want to go—much less stay—there. But our campground was full and the park’s attractions were quite busy. Another thing that surprised me is the park fee doesn’t let visitors see everything. Ancient cliff dwellings are the focus of this park and some are only available via a tour at the cost of $5/person—regardless of age.
Wendy decided to take one for the team, so stayed in the car with the kids while I toured Balcony House—a cliff dwelling built about 1,000 years ago. I got to climb a couple of ladders at a cliff’s edge, shimmy through narrow passages, tour an ancient house, and crawl through an 18-inch tunnel. I had a blast! Afterward, we drove to Step House—the only fee-free dwelling available—so Wendy and the kids could check it out, but we arrived too late. The park brochure said it closed at 4pm; we arrived at 3:32 and learned the rangers cut off access at 3:30 to ensure everyone is out by 4. We had driven 12 miles along a winding road to get there; as we returned to camp, we tried to focus on the beauty of the drive rather than our annoyance at the poor communication. The drive was like no other we’d experienced: in some places, the road was perched atop a ridge with drop-offs on both sides.
Canyonlands National Park Squaw Flat Campground, Site #3
Talk about a cool campground. We stayed in the Needles District, which is far from most of the park’s attractions but provides a beautiful view of needle-like spires. The campsites are also huge and spaced far apart. Our site was a mixture of trees, sand, and rock, while others were mostly rock—including site #5, where a massive overhang provided its campers with a cave-like structure.
It was here in the Needles District that we found our favorite toddler hike of the trip: the Cave Spring Trail. In less than a mile, the kids got to climb two ladders, scramble over rocks, and walk under a bunch of overhangs that made them feel like they were in a tunnel. They loved it!
We also explored Island in the Sky. To get there, we had to leave the park, drive past Arches, then re-enter the park—a journey that took about three hours. We loaded all of the dogs in the van and decided not to worry about what time we got home (which ended up being 9:30). The views were amazing and made me wonder if my reaction to the Grand Canyon will be “eh.” First of all: Mesa Arch. A half-mile there-and-back trail leads to a natural stone arch with jaw-dropping views of the La Sal Mountains and Buck Canyon. It’s also a fun trail with some rock scrambling and a little elevation gain.
Another really cool overlook is Grand View, where you can stand between two massive canyons—one carved by the Green River and the other by the Colorado River. There’s a mile-long trail along the side of the canyon that we would’ve loved to have taken, but logistically we couldn’t swing it. So we settled for the spectacular view, which isn’t really settling at all.
Arches National Park Moab Valley RV Resort, Site #5
Arches didn’t start off all that well. There was no camping available in the park, so we reserved a site at a nearby RV park that turned out to really pack ‘em in. The gravel pad for our trailer was literally three feet away from the gravel site for the adjacent RV with shared water, electric, and sewer pipes. The grassy spot on the other side of our trailer was also a shared space, with two picnic tables in parallel. We always try to make sure our kids adhere to their boundaries but here it was hard to delineate—if they stayed on our half of the patch, they could only access one half of each picnic table. If we let them play with an entire picnic table, they could only play on half the yard, which would put them right next to the adjacent trailer. There were also a bunch of campers with ATVs, which made the sites seem even more crowded, and the company aerated and spread fertilizer on each grassy patch while we were there.
Fortunately, our positive experience with Arches eclipses the negative. We got off to a slow start, trying to identify the rock sculptures mentioned in the brochure. “Do you see a sheep anywhere?” Wendy asked. “Sheep Rock is supposed to be around here somewhere.” We kept looking but neither of us could find it. “How about the Tower of Babel? Could be any of these—I don’t even know what that’s supposed to look like,” Wendy said as we drove.
For the first few miles, lots of rocks had names. But either the park lost its proactive intern or the rangers’ creativity waned because eventually they just went with the “Great Wall” (a long stretch of rock) and then had quite practical names for the arches, like Delicate, North Window, South Window, and Double.
Our first stop was Delicate Arch, which I expected to really be something because it was on a patch in the Visitor’s Center. But it was so far away from the viewpoint that I didn’t even take a picture of it. Next, we drove to Sand Dune Arch, aptly named because we trekked through sand to reach it. This is what I’m talking about, I thought to myself. The trail was short but pretty—canyon walls rose high above a sandy bottom, through a narrow passage, before revealing a large arch nestled in an alcove.
The last arches we saw also hit the mark. By walking a couple of miles, we were able to see the Windows arches and Double Arch. We went fairly early in the morning—around 9:30—and missed the crowds. The kids even got to play beneath the Double Arch for a while, laughing as their voices echoed against the rock.
Capitol Reef National Park Fruita Campground, Site #30
We left the RV park around 6:30am in an effort to secure a spot at Fruita—the most sought-after (and un-reservable) campground at Capitol Reef. Aunt Mildred spoke of the orchards here, where she had the best peach of her life straight off the tree. A fellow camper raved about the pies sold at the general store, steps away from their campsite. We arrived at 10:30am and lucked into an awesome site right at the corner of the orchard, where yellow-leaved trees provide shade for wild turkeys and mule deer. It’s our fourth and last night here at Fruita, and it’s one of our favorite campgrounds.
I can’t recommend the pies, though. The absence of fruit on the trees made us wonder how the shop is still selling pies. Turns out they’re from a nearby town called Torrey, which uses local fruit unless it runs out, in which case it uses frozen fruit. But never do the pies contain fruit from the orchards at Fruita. Perhaps they are great pies, even though they’re very small and cost $6, but we didn’t buy one. It felt like a scam to sell pies in an orchard when they don’t contain fruit from the orchard—like selling store-bought ice cream by the scoop at a dairy.
On our first day here, we walked the two-mile Capitol Gorge trail with the kids, which was very pretty. It’s along a dry riverbed at the base of towering canyon walls, and has a 0.2-mile rocky climb at the end to reach naturally-occurring water tanks that collect and hold rainwater. Wendy went first while I stayed at the bottom with the kids. When she returned, she said “0.2 miles my arse,” and we decided it wasn’t worth my making the trip because I’d probably get lost. There are cairns (little piles of rock) that mark the trail, but rocks are strewn about the whole canyon and I’m horrible at navigating. So instead we returned home.
Yesterday, we drove 80 miles to explore Goblin Valley State Park. Wendy didn’t really want to do it, but I did, so she acquiesced. I hoped that when we got there we’d all have such a great time she’d be glad we went. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with the Goblin Valley Ultra—a race that included loudspeakers, a pavilion, hectic parking, and lots of people. There also weren’t any defined trails—just a three-mile-square area of short, goblinesque hoodoos.
“Okay, I’m sorry this sucks,” I told Wendy as we stood among the runners, overlooking Goblin Valley. “I thought it’d be better.”
“It doesn’t suck,” she said, rallying and trying to make me feel better. “You would’ve always wondered what it was like if we hadn’t come here.” By now it was 11:30 and we’d brought a packed lunch. We decided to walk aimlessly among the hoodoos and try to enjoy ourselves.
And we did. The kids had a blast. CeCe enjoyed exploring. I thought it was cool to be among the “goblins” and Wendy had a good time watching the kids have a good time. Darwin climbed more than I’d ever seen—up and down the “mountains” leading to the hoodoos, and Emerson joined her. Then we ate lunch in the shade of a goblin castle, on a really uncomfortable but private slope. “I can’t cut tomato like this,” Wendy said, holding CeCe’s leash in one hand and lunch items in the other. So we dined on dry crackers, Pepper Jack cheese, wasabi almonds, and prunes. Then we climbed out of the valley and made the 90-minute journey home. We’ll hitch up tonight and head out early tomorrow morning for Bryce Canyon.
Read the next trip report: Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks