Road Trip: Denver to Salt Lake City
Six National Parks in six days. That was the plan as we drive through southern Colorado and Utah during the Thanksgiving Break (plus a couple vacation days), while passing through as many National Parks that we can fit in a single trip. I always look forward to these trips for the chance to get away from city noises to see wide open skies and fresh air. But with all the recent political stories bombarding the airwaves, this trip felt even more necessary. I feel like I needed to be reminded of the beauty and peace that still exists somewhere in this country. And reminded, I was.
We allocated 6 days of travel, hopping from one park to another from Denver to Salt Lake City. We knew that for most of them, these were merely a drive-by and we might not be able to spend as much time in each park as we want to:
Day 0: Land in Denver, CO
Day 1: Great Sand Dunes National Park
Day 2: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Mesa Verde National Park
Day 3: Arches National Park
Day 4: Canyonlands National Park
Day 5: Capitol Reef National Park
Day 6: Fly out of Salt Lake City, UT
Google Maps, Wikitravel, and the individual park websites were very useful to help plan the trip. I also cross-referenced points of interests with Google Image Search, Flickr, or Instagram to prioritize the spots that we wouldn’t want to miss. Hotels were booked ahead of time, since holidays tend to be busy season for the parks. We assumed no camping because it’s too cold now--nightly lows from 20-30s--and we don’t have a winter tent (plus, saves time from having to setup / take down our shelters).
For gears, I pretty much carried everything I have; but the most used lenses were my 55-200mm zoom lens for far landscapes, and 10-24mm for lookout points and vistas. I carried most of my filter with me, but the polarizer stayed on for most of the time during cloudless sunny days.
Park 1: Great Sand Dunes National Park
We woke up to a cold frosty morning and overcast skies in Colorado Springs. After a quick breakfast, we headed out towards Great Sand Dunes National Park. The drive itself is about 2.5 hours, but we also made a quick swing around at the Garden of the Gods park. The scenic drive takes about 20-30 minutes plus some stops. The rock formation were striking, and it’s crazy to think that this park is still within city limits.
Much to our surprise when we arrived at Great Sand Dunes, the dunes were covered by snow! It had dumped a few inches overnight and in the morning, so there were still fresh powder on the ground. Good start to the trip, I suppose.
We parked by the High Dunes area and strolled into the sand. We didn’t get to the highest point, but we saw many others did and even brought a sled. Yes, you can snowboard and sled down these dunes, we sure wished we had a sled with us.
Park 2: Black Canyon of the Gunnison
To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of this park until earlier this year when I happen to come across a beautiful shot of the canyon at sunrise in Instagram. It’s a relatively small park and less well known, but that is also its advantage. Granted it was Wednesday before Thanksgiving where some people might still be working or driving, but we only saw maybe 2 or 3 other cars in the park. And the canyon is also a certified International Dark Sky location, which means night shots of the Milky Way here would be gorgeous.
It’s a shame we visited during the day when the lighting was harsh, so I didn’t really come away with any good photos. I also somewhat regretted not staying at the closer town of Montrose, so we can drive in for the sunrise. Guess that’s a reason to come back… There’s always a reason to come back.
Nearby Accommodations: Gunnison, CO or Montrose, CO
Food: High Alpine Brewery
Park 3: Mesa Verde National Park
Another park that we didn’t spend near enough time at. Mesa Verde is a lot bigger than I expected, from the park entrance alone it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to reach Mesa Top loop to see the Cliff Palace from across the canyon, and the loop closes after sunset.
You can only visit the palace on a Ranger-led walk that you have to sign up for at the visitor center, and it’s only available March - October. But you can still get a pretty decent look at the Cliff Palace from the lookout point where the tour would start from.
The park feels very unique in my opinion, because you get both beautiful and unique landscapes, along with historical remains of a society long gone. It reminds me of the Incan ruins in the Andes, especially the relatively difficult location where they are built at. These villages were built sometime around 300-1000 A.D. These are not the nomadic native American savages living in tipis we often seen them portrayed in movies and televisions. These are agricultural people with complex societal structures, and they’ve been here long before any of us have. It makes you wonder who does this country really belongs to. Who are the real Americans who had their way of living taken away from them. Makes you wonder, don’t it.
Nearby Accomodation: Cortez, CO
Food: Thai Cortez
Park 4: Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is a huge park. So huge it’s actually divided by the Green River and Colorado River to 3 distinct parts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. The Island is the most accessible and most popular section of the park. It essentially sits on top of a large mesa, with steep drop-offs and fantastic view of the canyons. Another reason why this part of the park is very popular is also because most of the viewpoints are extremely accessible with little to no hiking required.
You can drive onto Shafer Trail, we actually tried for a few miles before turning back. And it has stunning canyon views. We also passed by quite a few mountain bikers, barrelling down the dirt road. Personally, I’d be scared shitless to go down this dirt road, because one little slip or turning too fast around a corner is all that takes to fall off the cliff. But hey, power to the brave riders who comes down this dirt road at speed
On our first day we also stopped by Grand View lookout point, and it really is a grand view. You could even walk down the rim to take in different angles of the canyons overlooking the Needles district. Photographically I was a little disappointed by the perfectly clear skies; there were no clouds at all to give texture or to reduce the amount of washout from the sun.
That’s part of the problem of trying to combine your photography trip with a vacation. You can’t exactly wait out the weather, and sometimes the conditions are just less than ideal. But the journey still comes first, photography second in this case. I’d be happy to get just one good shot out of the trip.
That opportunity came when we came back to the park at sunrise. Despite the crowds (as mentioned in my previous post) and still ZERO CLOUDS, I was fairly happy of the shot I got at Mesa Arch with a bit of sunflare, it really is a beautiful vista.
Nearby Accomodations: Moab, UT
Food: Twisted Sistas Cafe
Park 5: Arches National Park
Staying at Moab gives you access to two national parks, Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. There’s also a few state parks within reach as well. It’s really an adventure / outdoorsman paradise, especially if you like off-roading or mountain biking.
On our second day in the area, we dedicated a whole day to explore Arches National Park. It’s another park in the system that has so many famous accessible landmarks. Some of the biggest or most known arches are within a mile or two hike.
Even though Arches is practically just across the street from Canyonlands, the geology looks distinctively different. The Arches mesa sits a step higher than Canyonlands, and hence the different exposed layers of rocks and soil.
Most of the more famous arches (Windows, Double Arch, Landscape Arch) are easy to get to, from a few hundred yards to a mile and a half stroll.
Delicate Arch is a little harder to reach, but it’s also well worth the hike. It’s about 1.5 miles with a decent incline, it also gets steep and narrow at certain points. You won’t see the arch until when you just about to reach the end, and it really is a sight to see. But mind you that this is the most popular hike in the park and there will be crowds, lots of crowds. At sunset, you won’t get a clear shot of the arch until after twilight, which makes the hike down a little precarious especially since there are unmarked sections.
I came back to the park after dark to get some night shots, trying out the built-in time lapse feature in the camera to get some star trails. The clearer skies during cold winter nights helps bring the stars out. “Half the park is at night” the park brochures would always say, but much less than half the visitors stays after dark.
That quiet, peaceful, serene wilderness I was looking for is still here, I just have to look harder for it. Or wait it out after the sun sets.
Food: El Charro Loco
Park 6: Capitol Reef National Park
The Waterpocket Fold defines this park. A massive crease on the earth’s crust that forms a barrier of sort, an imposing wall seen from afar with seemingly no path to breakthrough and cross to the other side.
This geological crust brings out colorful layers from under the earth, that you can see easily from the 8 mile scenic drive south from the Visitor Center. A couple washes branches out from the paved road that you can drive on, if it’s not raining or flooded.
But the real gems of the park is inaccessible without a high-clearance vehicle, like the Waterpocket District or the Cathedral Valley loop. We definitely were not equipped nor had the time to see them. But we did took a nice little hike to Hickman Bridge.
Which, by the way, the only difference between a “bridge” and an “arch” is whether there is water running underneath it… this one is the former because there’s a small stream underneath.
Capitol Reef is a relatively smaller park, compared to Arches or Canyonlands, but its remoteness makes it a little less crowded.
We ended the trip at Salt Lake City in relative comfort. Staying downtown, brunching at Pig & Jelly Jar, and hanging at Publik Coffee House (which is a really really cool space). As we sat in the shop, sipping our well pulled cup of latte and sifting through photos from the past few days, I can’t help but notice that some of my favorite pictures were also from the places in between the parks. That unexpected surprise scenery that you had not looked up on the internet, instagram, or facebook.
The journey, after all, is still what matters in the end.
If you enjoy these photos, or love visiting our beautiful National Parks as much as I do, please consider supporting these parks by donating to charitable organizations dedicated to protecting and preserving these natural wonders. These parks can be a great unifier for Americans alike, but they are also constantly under threat from natural and man-made destruction. Your donation goes a long way to protecting these parks, improving its operations, and reducing its reliance on political or federal funding.