Back from the Southwest--Part I, Great Basin and Cedar Breaks

posted Jun 25, 2018, 10:13 AM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Jun 25, 2018, 10:47 AM ]
We're back.  We know you've missed us...but we've been very busy.  This is a four-part trip report...and this is part one, the first week.

The plan was a month-long trip to the Southwest, visiting all the big name parks, some of the smaller ones, and doing extensive day-hiking and a few short backpacking trips as we went. 

That was the plan. 

But M was diagnosed with tendonitis in her heel following our adventure last month in the Grand Canyon, and so that plan didn’t look so good.  The fact that my left knee seemed to be intent on causing me pain with every step I took didn’t improve the situation.  We needed a new plan.   

So what do you do in that situation?  We decided to go anyway---and we would just see how much hiking we could do.  And we were determined NOT to make things worse with either of us for our backpacking later this summer—If possible.  That meant taking it easy on the hiking.  Sigh.

In the end, this turned about to be a really good trip, and we did get to do just a bit of hiking---nothing major—but this would serve as a very good outline for anyone who is considering a trip to Utah and its neighbors and doesn’t want to hike their feet off.  We didn’t, thank goodness.

Day 1:  We began the trip at our cabin above Sonora, and drove over Sonora Pass in our 2006 white Ford E-350 van, AKA Le Vin Blanc.  The original plan was to drive to Austin, NV and do a short backpacking trip in the mountains south of Austin.  But with that off the menu, we looked at the map and somehow found a small state park that had camping:  Berlin/Ichthyosaurus State Park.


What a treat! It really is in the middle of nowhere.  If you can find Austin, dead center in the blank section in the middle of Nevada, go 60 miles southwest and find BISP.  There’s a ghost mining town (Berlin) and the park where they discovered the massive remains of many of Nevada’s state fossil, the Ichthyosaurus.  And a small campground as well.  We checked in, visited the museum (a short walk from the campground---testing our tender limbs amid light sprinkles of rain) and walked through the ghost town on the way out.  It was a great start to the trip---and a fun discovery. 

Day 2: After the visit to Berlin (we drove to Berlin on our summer vacation!) we asked about the dirt road that would connect us over the mountains to Austin.  And since the St. Park manager told us a school bus drove the road every day, we decided to try it out.  How bad could it be?

It was a treat.  And we drove most of it at 45-55 mph.  Simply the finest dirt road we have ever driven.  Plus it had great views, and we saw lots and lots of Pronghorn antelope.  Very cool.  From Austin we drove straight through Ely to get to Great Basin National Park where I was disappointed that my senior interagency card was of no use.  It turns out the park is free to all.  Hmph. 

But the card did get us a discount for camping in the Baker Creek campground—where the water system was not yet up and running.  In fact, the only potable water in the park was a single spigot at the end of the visitors center.  Still, we were set for the night, we made reservations for the Lehman Cave tour the next afternoon (only available through our favorite team) and settled in for the night. 

Day 3:  The Park Road to Wheeler Peak was only open to the Mather overlook, and so we drove only that part of the scenic drive up Wheeler Peak.  Fire damage had closed the last few miles of this road. OK. Fine.  We then drove back to the visitors center to hike the nature trail there.  And since we still had some time after lunch and before our 3 pm tour, we drove back out of the park of few miles and visited the Baker Archeological site, where we walked through the ruins of a Fremont settlement of 1500 years ago.  That was an unexpected delight.  While the ruins are minimal, the guidebook is really good!

It was then time for our cave tour---and it was stunning.  Huge cave, really impressive and beautiful, with all sorts of amazing things to see.  Highly recommended.  And when we were done, there was good news, the road was now open. So we drove up to the top of the road, took in the sights, walked the short 1 mile nature trail up there.  And back to camp for the night.  All I all, we probably walked 4 or 5 miles at a very leisurely pace…and we were only a little sore. 

Day 4:  We had originally planned to camp and hike out of the Snake Creek area of Great Basin so we drove there to see what could be done.  M’s heel was not good today, and she really wanted to take it easy.  And then as we drove up the Snake Creek, the weather started getting a little nasty (The range is so high that makes its own weather).  OK.  Not such a good idea.  So we drove East to move forward with our plan to check out Utah.  Cedar Breaks seemed to be a good place to start, so that’s where we headed—through sunshine, clouds, driving rain in the desert, and then more sunshine.  A memorable drive, often surrounded by shafts of sunlight and dark rain. 

When we got to the visitors center at Cedar Breaks, we discovered that the campground was closed—it was still too early in the season, and there was snow on the ground (the park is at 10,000 feet).  But they recommended trying Navajo Lake in the national forest.  We did.  We chose the last of the three campgrounds there, Te Ah, and had the place to ourselves.  That worked out really well, until later. 

Day 5:  Today we took the full tour of Cedar Breaks, visiting each overlook in the park (the main trails were closed due to ice and mud on the rim).  We started by hiking the one mile nature trail to Bristlecone Pines, since we hadn’t been able to do that at Great Basin.  That was cool, although the walkway had been severely damaged by snow during the winter.  Then each overlook of the canyon was spectacular.  And after that we thought we might continue to the drive to the town of Parowan…to see what was there.  Not much.  But the petroglyphs we’d passed by the day before on the way from Great Basin were not far away, so what the heck?

Well.  These were simply stunning.  Whole walls of the most amazing and complex petroglyphs.  The best we have ever seen.  All easily visible from a short trail along the road.  We were delighted, and spent a lot of time here.  And took endless photos.

Then drove into Cedar City do laundry, wash the van (those dirt roads had left their mark) and then showers at the local KOA.  We bought ice, more food, and drove back to our campsite to discover that someone had stolen the step box I’d made for the van.  Along with two folding chairs and a water jug, we’d left it to help mark our site, and it didn’t really have a lot of expensive stuff in it, but it was custom made to fit under the seat in the van…and I made it.  When we asked the campground hosts about it, they explained that this was not uncommon!  Good to know!  Maybe post something about it to warn people!  To be fair, two of the three campgrounds at Navajo Lake were missing their hosts for medical reasons…but still.  This is the only place in our lives that we have ever had anything stolen from a campsite.  In Mormon Utah.  Go figure. 

Day 6.  Our original plan called for us to drive to St. George over the next couple of days so that we could pick up our daughter, who was flying into Vegas.  But HER plans changed, and now she was going to join us two days later in Moab.  OK.  So we drove East to Kanab and then Pipe Springs National Monument, thinking it would be on the way to St. George.  It was interesting (more on this later) but it was also hot and in the middle of the desert.  And right after we arrived, a huge tour bus pulled up and crowded the facilities with a ton of people.  We’d also noticed Jacob Lake up in the mountains to the East, and the staff at Pipe Springs recommended the camping there.  Cool, we thought.  But once we got there, we realized that we were only 45 miles from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Really?

Change of plans again.  We kept driving to the Grand Canyon and spent the afternoon enjoying the views and viewpoints of the North Rim.  Very cool, and quite different from the South Rim.  Far fewer people, and the views dominated by Bright Angel Canyon…lovely and fun.  We loved it, although M left one of our seat cushions on a picnic table there.  Sigh.  But we did hike a few short trail here, and really enjoyed them. 

But when we asked about campsites there, we were told that they had been booked solid for months in advance.  But they gave us a map of USFS roads in the area where dispersed camping was legal—including some with pit toilets!  Fair enough.  We had come prepared for this, and so took the second or third road we saw, drove a few hundred yards, and found a lovely campsite in the pines and aspens.  Perfect.  Quieter than most campgrounds.  We loved it, too.

We even had a guest or two stop in for breakfast.

  The rest of the photos are here: