Spencer Millsap Photo Blog » Austin / D.C. Photojournalist (Editorial, Wedding, Portrait)

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Out of the remoteness that was Canyonlands National Park, we pushed back to civilization in the uber adventure town of Moab, UT. It was a cool spot with some great sites, great beer, and finally, a shower. Well, it was a camp sud bath in the Colorado River, but that was enough for both of us after a few days in what felt like the driest place on Earth. We drove around perusing sites and settled at Oak Grove campground along the Colorado just outside of town on the border of Arches National Park. The light crept lower to hit the rim in a bright red glow before dipping down below the horizon as we got a fire going. It was a perfect spot to settle into with the well-flowing river nearby and the crackling sparks of the fire lifting up to the sky. Up at first light on the rim, we headed into Arches National Park to hit up the Delicate Arch Hike. It was actually a pretty strenuous 3 mile or so loop that climbs up and up sheer rock faces and around some formations until you’re spit out into the giant bowl, and there it is in all its glory. Even at around 10 AM, we were surrounded by about 50-100 people coming and going. A line was already formed for people to take their photo under the arch, which we do too. It was a site to see there, millions of years of fanciful erosion to get to that shape, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was a little anticlimactic. Not a rare find, or even a site saved for those that put in the effort, but a site to take a photo of, say you’ve been there, and move on. There was a brief half second or so when the arch wasn’t framed with an arms outstretched family and it was just enough to get a mental image of this structure, having sat out here for so long undiscovered, following the path of nature, with the random cowboy, rancher, or passing party to enjoy it. I’d like to think there are other spots out there in Arches with the same vibe. They state there are some 2,000 arches in the park itself, and the place is open to backcountry hikers throughout the park, no specific campsite needed. Might have to lug some water in and find those last nooks and crannies.

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Our 2.5 shower spot in the Colorado River

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Sunset along the Colorado River from my campsite

SHM_0391 SHM_0400 SHM_0413 SHM_0419Sunrise at Oak Grove campsite #2 along the Colorado River
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Moab coffee run

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That brief moment

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Landscape Arch

vert 3Mesa Verde National Park

En route back towards our final destination in Colorado, we had to hit some last spots, and Mesa Verde National Park was a site to see for sure. We pulled in and got setup at the Apache Road campground, site #366, and went into local town Cortez to the Main St. Brewery for some beers and non-freeze dried food. We were up early to drive the hour or so through the park around sunrise, stopping at a few lookouts, like the Cliff Palace, seen below. Of course we signed up for their “most adventurous” tour, Balcony House. It was a sold out, packed group of all sorts of families for the 9 AM first viewing tour. We were led by our local guide through foray of ladders, small passages, and more ladders to get a glimpse of an amazingly engineered Pueblo Indian cliff dwelling dating back to the 1200’s. It’s crazy to just creep up on a place like this, like prospector S.E. Osborn did in 1884. Between all the people, our talkative guide, and the rising heating sun, I managed to find some silent moments to properly capture the empty feeling this place has now, almost 1,000 years after the original habitants of the site. Our guide had us have a brief moment of silence, as he said to hear the “wind rush down the canyon.” It was interrupted by the approaching 9:30 group.

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Cliff Palace

SHM_0464 dip 1 SHM_0466 dip 2 SHM_0489 dip 3Great Sand Dunes National Park

With only a half day left on the road, and a lot of highway miles eating away out our sanity, another final stop felt like it was so far out of the way, but we had to check it out. Great Sand Dunes National Park was completely off my radar, and I honestly had no idea the place existed. I can reference White Sands National Park, but who goes to these? Where even are they? What does it even look like? Well, it’s magical, and great. We approached for for what felt like forever, until we finally realized the dunes were that large, looming on the horizon, dark in color, not white sand, just next to the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. They’re huge, with Star Dune at almost 755 ft, these are the tallest dunes in North America. We drove in next to some dark lingering thunderstorms on the horizon, sprinting through a massive wave of mosquitos RIGHT at the parking lot, out to the dunes themselves. We had barely any time before we had to hit the road, but it was a fitting final stop to see a just recently national monument turned national park that has a ton of spots from the dunes to backcountry mountain loops to come back to visit. The park is open at all hours and looks to have some amazing night sky views. Check this place if you have time to properly enjoy it. Snaking our way through little Colorado valley towns with piercing golden light, we pulled into Boulder late to pass out and regroup. Hitting one last brewery for a pre-flight indulgence, I hit the airport as was back to D.C. before I knew it. I haven’t had time to really reflect on the variety of sites and experiences we enjoyed, endured, and checked off over the course of those 12 days or so, tent camping every night, up with the sun, out just after dark, back to the simple needs, simple pleasures, not feeling like you’re hiking or exercising, just moving to get to the next amazing view or feeling that makes you feel small, yet joyful for what majesty we have in our backyards to enjoy whenever we please.

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Mosquito central

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Colorado golden hour

SHM_0596The final gear breakdown and re-park pre-airport. It’s been a ride. Back to the District. Thanks for following along!

Canyonlands National Park. Man. I knew nothing about this park outside of the off reference to the 127 hours ordeal, which apparently took place in the remote Maze District of the west side of the park. Turns out this park is huge, and has THREE visitor’s centers separated by the Green and Colorado rivers, the park has very distinct zones for what you are looking for. We opted for the lesser traveled Needles District in the south over the Isle in the Sky district frequented for its arches and Moab adventure seekers. Without days to spend a crazy 4 wheel drive vehicle, we opted out of the Maze district as well. We approached the gates of the park after making our way out of the hellish Manti-La-Sal National Forest, to feel even more remote than we were. Stopping at the family run outpost just outside of town for ice and firewood we crept into the visitor’s center parking lot and perused our hike options with the park guide. After we got setup at Campground A, Site #1, we had a fiery red sunset, a night of crazy stars and moonscape long exposures. Up before the sun hit our camp, we headed for the Chesler Park Loop. An amazing other world experience of needle formations, boulder hopping, an awesome tight narrow canyon called “The Joint”, a cairn filled cave, and a strenuous, make that grueling, last few miles out in the midday sun that had us spent by the end of it. There is so much to explore in this park, we barely scratched the surface. It’s beautiful in its vast simplicity, surrounded by sand castle-like needle spires was somewhat comforting, protecting. Yet this is a park not to be taken lightly. Pack a TON of water, rest often, and plan your hikes as best you can. The terrain was difficult at times just on our hike, and we only saw maybe a dozen people total on our multi hour 10 mile hike. This is a place I would LOVE to come back to for some short day stint hikes into a multi day backcountry experience. So many great little tucked away campgrounds with crazy vibrant night skies.

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Canyonlands Needles Outpost

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Campground A, Site #1

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Cave Spring Loop through an old cowboy camp

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Historic pictographs

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Ephemeral pools, or potholes, just above our campsite, that play host to a variety of desert resistant life

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Cairn City
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Day 5 and 6 was our movement time. We had an in between to head north and we knew there was a ton to see along the way. Driving out of the Grand Canyon, we knew we had to stop at Monument Valley National Monument on the way. I’d always seen the pictures, the Forrest Gump scene, the cultural impact the location has had on the world’s view of the “American West.” Amazingly for us, we pulled into the main visitor center, which was closed, but heard distant music and people stirring just nearby. Closing in, we noticed a local Navajo community event happening. Complete with tribal dancing, traditional wear, and people of all ages, it was a perfect welcome into the area. Hitting the main loop road in late afternoon turned out to be the best decision. We had time and everyone else was making their way out of the area of the day. It’s a pretty magical place when you stop and think of all the lore, the history, the tribal lands, the crazy magnitude of nature that formed such a place with its monolithic mesas. Kicked up dust and the lowering light made for a visual feast that afternoon.

In search of a spot for the night we veered west when we hit Monticello, UT and just after sunset slowly drove our way into Manti-La-Sal National Forest, a massive 1.2 million acre, broken up forest with numerous peaks, Mount Peale topping them out at 12,721 ft.  After some failed attempts and uber creepy looking campsites, we found a perfect spot at Buckboard camp, site #8. We set up camp late that night, got a fire going, had some sneaky deer come right up on us, and fell asleep under the whispering Aspen trees overhead. Up early, we decided to leisurely drive our way through the national forest. Climbing up and up around Aspens, through creeks, along Elk Ridge Bypass and then down into some nerve racking desert terrain that seemed to switch instantly to a death trap. Pushing through, Megan was a trooper through our 50 miles or so of twists and turns, up and downs, iffy drop-offs, and the potential of us having to ration our water for days. We FINALLY made it out after having to drive through a moving creek overflow near the final 50 yards to the main highway. Manti-La-Sal, a place not be taken lightly. Both beautiful and terrifyingly remote at the same time.

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On the high of Zion/Bryce we weren’t quite sure what to expect of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Everyone goes to the South Rim lookouts, the iconic staple spots of every westward family roadtrip, so what does the north side have to offer? A lot. The overall southwest feel is stripped away to dense forests with peaks of the rim, cool weather at around 8,000 feet of elevation, and a lot less people pushing their way for a selfie. It was glorious. We pulled into the back country permit office late in the afternoon to chat with Ranger Steve, who was fresh off a 10 day vacation. With our requests in mind, he actually sent us just out of the National Park, to the very much overlooked Kaibab National Forest, which ALSO sits right on the east rim of the Grand Canyon. With his outline we set off out of the park and about an hour’s worth of dirt road, crossing the Arizona Trail in the process. Towards what we hoped was the end at the national park and national forest boundary we found Saddle Mt. and the Nankoweap trailhead that snakes its way down into the canyon. We decided to park it and walk out to edge point off the trailhead, set up camp, make a little fire and chill with the amazing rim view right in front of us.

Making our way back into the park proper, we set off with backcountry gear for Widforss Point, named after Gunnar Widforss who painted along the rim in the 1920’s. It’s a ridiculously beautiful just shy of 10 mile roundtrip hike that meanders through the forest, along the rim itself, through patches of wildflowers, to snake up to the main point with great views of the canyon from a number of different sites. We set up camp, made dinner, had a little whiskey, and retired only to wake up to an array of colors hitting the rim from what felt like all directions. Right on the edge, it was tough to leave that campsite, but I made my way back up to the main point with Megan, to have some coffee, sketch the view, and make our way back to the car. We hit up the main Roughrider Saloon, which had perfect decor and the best tasting beer awaiting us. From there we gorged ourselves at the North Rim Lodge, frozen in time from the early 1930’s lodge days, with great details, warmth, grand spaces, and views of the rim. Well worth the time here and going back to.

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SHM_9449The trailhead of the Nankoweap Trail / Saddle Mt. – and my perfect tent spot for the night overlooking the East Rim.

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Serious Revenant vibes

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The view down to Nankoweap Creek, and ultimately, the Colorado River.

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brownie 1Mt. Hayden from Point Imperial

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oh boy…

vert 3 SHM_9695 dip 7Campsite at the bottom overlook of Widforss Point

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Roughrider Saloon. After asking the bartender this was apparently a multitude of different spots before ultimately becoming a bar. From barbershop, to post office, then a fire in 1932, the bones and air of the original 1927 structure are still here.

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Hat down, Grand Canyon Brewing Co. Pilsner

SHM_9845 dip 10Super cool history along the way. Crazy to think that the first mapping expeditions of the canyon were in the early 1900’s. This was some THIRTY YEARS after the classic John Wesley Powell excursions down the Colorado. So much was unexplored.

SHM_9852 SHM_9853 vert 2Loved the old school lodge design aesthetics at the North Rim Lodge, low lit reception, leather, grand rafter beams

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Elk Chili – After 2 days of freeze dried meals, this was heaven.

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After leaving Valley of Fire, we made our way to the outfitter town of Springdale, UT, just outside of Zion National Park. We got settled in at a cramped and packed tent site behind a Quality Inn, found some dinner and passed out. We were up around 5:30 AM to break camp, park at the main visitor’s center and hit our early morning tram through the park getting glimpses of the peaks as the sun started to rise. All the way out to the very last stop at the Temple of Sinawava, out along a 1 mile Riverside Walk where we saw some grazing deer, to the start of the Lower Narrows. We made our way through ankle all the way to neck high water crossings, with only a handful of fellow hikers coming and going in the early shade of the canyon. It was a crazy beautiful, magnificent hike that I would recommend to everyone. It is an out and back hike that is nice if you just want to go a mile in, or 10 to some of the backcountry sites, which I would love to do next time from the top down. We made our way close to 5 miles in near the Big Spring campsite. The place turned into a giant pool party of families on the last few miles back out, so get there EARLY if you are looking for some tranquility in the scenery. This area, sadly, is where I got tripped up and dunked the left half of my body in the water, bricking up my iPhone that was in my front chest pocket, so all my shots for these posts are either my old Brownie or my main 5D MKIII.

SHM_9044 SHM_9050Riverside Walk with first light in the distance

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Bryce Canyon National Park

From Zion, we made our way to the lesser known Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s an amazing crescent shaped park that hugs the rim of the canyon, filled with breath taking scenic lookouts, hoodoos, or tall spires that have been eroded over time, great star gazing, and a handful of pretty awesome looking back country sites in the canyon. We made our way in, set up camp at #250 at the Sunset Campground in the park and hit the trails. Our loop was the figure eight Navajo Loop – Peakaboo Loop – Queen’s Garden – and back out to Sunset point. It was around a 9 mile, fairly strenuous hike down into the canyon, through some amazing formations, and eventually wove its way back out. After that we walked to a handful of viewpoints and drove to the very end of the park for some others. Settling in from the day hike, we cooked up some brats, had some beers, a crackling fire, and had some great luck to catch a ranger-led star watching event at the visitor’s center. With 5-6 telescopes pointing to different spots in the night sky, we saw Saturn, Jupiter and its moons, Mars, and a number of constellations before making our way back to camp to look up from our site to the night sky as the full moon rose overhead.

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View of Thor’s Hammer from the Navajo Loop Trail

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Our loop – in blue, Navajo – Peakaboo – Queens Garden

SHM_9319The Wall of Windows off the Peakaboo Loop

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SHM_9422 SHM_9429Sunrise from Sunset Point, appropriate.