Tales of Highway 12

I’ve been back just over a week now, and the autumn winds of England have begun to temper the bright memories of my trek with the reality of normal life. Now I’m back at a desk and a laptop, this is a good time to warm myself with tales of the desert, and a remarkable highway running through it. I must catch up on what I failed to do whilst on the road: tell you all about my adventure.

Unfortunately the internet connection was not as widespread as I’d hoped, and unreliable where I did find it. Consequently I wasn’t able to blog as I went, and one post even mysteriously published without any of its contents. For those of you who saw that, I’m sorry for the nothingness. For starters I’ll put that right and share what was in that blank post…

The last post I’d managed to get out was briefly gushing about the splendours of Unbelievable Utah, about how we’d driven through one jaw-dropping national park after another, captivated by what was around us yet unable to stop. I’ll expand on that, now I’ve got the chance. There’s so much to see and do that it would take many years to properly explore Utah. With just a fortnight, we had to be picky, passing by places which, in any other part of the world, would be the crowning jewel of any visit.

Amongst what we did manage to do was clamber over the melted rocks of Goblin Valley, drive through the sheer-walled canyon of Capitol Gorge, savour the autumn colours of Dixie National Forest and trek to the oasis of Calf Creek Falls. All four were wonderful experiences, and yet, in this trip, barely more than footnotes between places of even greater wonder. Goblin Valley is a natural amphitheatre inhabited by a petrified congregation of weird, stunted forms: little rocky towers, stunted mushrooms and bulbous projections. For all the world it looks like a population of goblins long since turned to stone by some ancient doom. Today it is the best outdoor playground you could imagine. Thankfully the Utah State Park Service has not ruined the fun by fencing it off and prohibiting close-up contact, as would surely have been its fate had it found itself in the UK. So we were able to not just walk round and admire but also climb over, clamber through and jump from one to another like huge stepping stones. It makes for terrific fun, as well as a fantastic education in some of the more eccentric expressions of geology.

Goblin Valley
Goblin Valley

A little down the road from Goblin Valley, Capitol Reef National Park straddles a long outcrop of rock running north to south through south-central Utah. Named partly after the resemblance of its premier feature to the Capitol building in Washington D.C., and partly for the similarity between the landscape and an inland reef, it represented a formidable barrier to east-west travel in pioneer days. Now, thanks to the efforts of mining companies, the federal government and the National Park Service, travel through it is much easier, leaving one merely guessing at the challenges faced by native American tribes, Spanish conquistadors, Mormon settlers and early prospectors. It is full of wonderfully-coloured rocks and fascinating land-forms, but the harshness of the desert landscape is relieved by the lush belt of green orchards sustained by the Fremont River. Passing through these, we drove the rough unpaved road through Capitol Gorge, with sheer rock walls towering up on either side. By the end you have to get out and walk, but your reward is seeing a series of petroglyphs etched into the canyon walls centuries ago by native Americans.

Capitol Reef NP
Capitol Reef NP

After only the most fleeting of visits to Capitol Reef, an unexpected treat was the Dixie National Forest. The name didn’t promise much, but once we’d driven up to about 9,000 feet or so on the Aquarius Plateau, we saw the beauty of the place. With the canyons and deserts a distant memory on all sides, up here you’re in a different ecological zone, the realm of great forests of pines, firs and spruce. We’d come at just the right time too, when the Quaking Aspens were turning wide swathes of hillside golden with streaks of blazing colour. There was a cool, resinous atmosphere, the air noticeably rarefied as we stopped at several panoramic viewpoints to take stock of where we’d come, and where we were going. I would have loved to have stopped there for longer, and properly enjoy its autumnal loveliness, but the road beckoned impatiently.

Autumn Fire in Dixie National Forest
Autumn Fire in Dixie National Forest

The road was so impatient because we had to get to Bryce Canyon that night, and with the sun already waning fast, we still had to squeeze in the highlight of the day: a 6-mile round-trip hike through Calf Creek Canyon to a beautiful waterfall. And what a fabulous hike it was. But strange too. Firstly, our setting out was tinged with distinct nervousness when we read the signs about how mountain lions had been spotted in the canyon recently. Secondly, the temperature fluctuated wildly as we went along. One minute we were baking hot, walking over exposed rocky ledges in the afternoon sun; the next we were damp and cool as we negotiated thick stands of riparian vegetation. We were following the course of Calf Creek, the eponymous stream fed by the waterfall.

With the sun casting glorious patterns of light and shade on the canyon walls, we finally arrived at our destination, eyes wide with delight. There before us was one of the loveliest waterfalls we’d ever seen, all the finer for standing out so starkly against the lifeless rock walls. Above its aquamarine pool, the waterfall drops over the cliff in silver-white curtains, with mossy green behind and streaks of black desert varnish in the buff-coloured walls to either side. Minerals, water and plants have collaborated here to create a wonderful little oasis, perfectly secluded because of being so far from the road. We were among only a few who had ventured so far, and it was well worth it. A gem you might never have known about if you’d missed the unassuming sign on Highway 12.

The oasis at Calf Creek Falls
The oasis at Calf Creek Falls

By the time we got back, mercifully unmolested by big cats, dusk had fallen. We took a decision to cook our dinner under the stars in the campground at the trailhead. We refreshed ourselves with bacon and eggs and tomatoes, ready for the final leg, as all around us the night came alive with calling birds and chirruping insects. With happy memories to take away, we rejoined the road and carried on. Regrettably the further wonders of Highway 12, which had regaled us with beauty and splendour all day, passed us by in the darkness, but we could console ourselves with the thought of the incomparable Bryce Canyon waiting for us tomorrow…

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