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Day 7: Prehistoric Lands and Ghost Towns

Navajo National Monument to Zion National Park to St. George, UT


Today we woke up around 3am after a failed attempt to camp in the car at the Navajo National Monument (it was dark, it was creepy, and mysterious noises were coming from all directions). Unable to go back to sleep, we decided to get a very early headstart on the day and drive towards Zion National Park in Utah. We took it slow, stopping for long breaks in gas station parking lots to bitterly chug coffee or eat a snack to fill the gaping holes in our sleep schedules.

It was around dawn when we pulled into a ghost town named Pahreah (or Paria) just outside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The town's wild west scenery evidently made it the ideal location for filming Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s, and Paria was featured in films like Buffalo Bill and Sergeants 3. The sunrise was absolutely beautiful (Tian couldn't stop gasping) but I was unfortunately too tired and angry to set up my camera for a shot. I regret that all I have of this location is a cellphone picture, see below.


After that brief detour, we were somewhat reenergized and able to make the rest of the drive to Zion without another break. We pulled in to the park early in the morning with the full day to explore the most unusual landscapes I have yet encountered.


The winding roads led us through prehistoric-looking canyons and valleys straight out of a Jurassic Park scene. I half expected to see a Brontosaurus grazing at the top of each rocky ridge or a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing us in my rearview mirror. Fortunately, this was our first wildlife-free day of the trip; we didn't even see deer, let alone a dinosaur.



Tian had been to Zion earlier in the year and had found an interesting part of the park that wasn't marked on the visitor map. She led me on a short hike down an unmarked trail, the path's terrain was a mix of strange diagonal stone slabs and powdery white sand, and ended at a small pond.




The best part? Carved into a rock wall in front of the pond were dozens of preserved petroglyphs. Seeing drawings made hundreds of years ago never ceases to amaze me.



After the brief history lesson we carried on towards the visitor center in the middle of the park. Unfortunately, one of the tunnels going through the mountains was a one-way road, meaning we were trapped behind a very long line of cars for around 30 minutes waiting for the road to clear up. Cheered up from the hike, we used the time to explore and take photos of the landscape around us.



By the time we finally arrived at the visitor center, there was literally nowhere to park (and they had hundreds of parking spots)! The only way to get to a famous hiking trail in the park was to take a bus from the visitor center and since we had nowhere to store our car, we were forced to skip the hike and make up our own adventure.

We drove to an area of Zion called Horseshoe Bend to visit Grafton, an infamous ghost town where the opening scenes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were filmed. The town had a sign declaring it as a national register historical site, but more interesting were the signs explaining how and why Grafton was chosen for these film scenes. As a recently graduated film student, it was surreal to be walking on the set of a film I once had to analyze for a class final.





We took out the Jet Boil and cooked lunch on the gravel path right next to the house where Butch Cassidy rode past on his bicycle decades back. While we ate, we chatted with an eccentric artist who was sketching the town and wildlife surrounding it with amazing detail. The site was actually very popular and we ended up talking with other adventurers from all over the country who were eager to comment on my Michigan license plate and our somewhat pathetic cooking set-up.



Tian had found a scenic route on our park map that seemed like it would be an interesting drive, and we eagerly cleaned up and headed in that direction. Unfortunately, the route was unpaved, muddy, and filled with potholes. We braved a large stretch of it before the road progressed into an incredibly steep incline. We watched a mini van struggle up the hill for a long time but, since it appeared to successfully make it to the top, we assumed my Kia Rio could handle the slope as well.



We were wrong. We slowly climbed up the road for almost 30 minutes before the wheels got caught in a pothole and spun uselessly, the poor car trapped on a dangerous incline with no way to move forward and no way to turn around. We decided that it was not worth it to risk the rental car at this point, and shoved the car out of its trap and tried to point it downhill again. The picture below was taken with my cellphone, because I was too afraid to take my foot off the brake for a moment to snap a real picture.


After an exhausting struggle, we finally got the car to turn around. Tian walked beside me and called out potholes while I drove at a steady 5mph down the hill, parking brake locked and ready. By the time we got to the bottom again, our adventuring spirit had worn thin and we agreed to leave the park.

We passed by some cheesy Western themed tourist areas on the way towards St. George, UT where we booked a motel for the night, but most things were out of business or closed as we moved further from Zion.


By the time we got to the motel, we were desperate for a hot shower and real beds to catch up on sleep for the night. But after relaxing for a bit, we decided it would be crazy to not take advantage of the beautiful weather and watch the sunset at a nearby park.


We cooked dinner outside on a park bench and watched while locals climbed the bluffs that looked over their city. The sun made its way down the sky slowly, bathing the area in magical glowing light and casting the other visitors in perfect silhouette against the red sky. Tian and I both fell in love with the area, and I swear I'd come back just to see the sunset against the red rock again. I must have taken 100 photos (and none do the moment justice) but I'll just share a few here:






I was a strange mix of utterly exhausted and deliriously happy the entire evening, and looking back I wouldn't have changed a thing about today.

Posted by aswoger 18:18 Archived in USA

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