Day 14, Moab, UT to North Platte, NE:
The previous day was long and packed with excitement but there was no time to sleep in. I set an alarm for 8am but woke up a little earlier because the sun was shining right in my eyes through the tent wall. The dog was sleeping on top of my feet and when she noticed I was awake she moved to my chest. There’s not a lot of room in our small tent and she’s cuddly and warm so I let her stay between us. Beth eventually woke up too and we prepared for another busy day.
The three of us had arrived in Moab, UT after dark and the bright sun illuminated our surprising surroundings. Literally across the road from the KOA campground were massive orange cliffs. It was a very pleasant surprise. I knew this area was picturesque, of course, but having driven the final three hours at night we missed a decent amount of it. The sandy soil below our feet was an interesting soft consistency. Just like the night before it was the perfect temperature outside (but not for long in the desert). Apparently the best time to be outside in Moab is between sundown and 9am. Even the designated dog-walk area was gorgeous and dogs poop there constantly.
I made sandwiches out of canned chicken for breakfast (worse than they sound) and we packed up our stuff. If you’ve heard of Moab before, it’s probably because of where we were headed first, Arches National Park. Arches is one of three National Parks/Forests near Moab, the others being Canyonlands National Park and Manti-La Sal National Forest. Arches is home to more than 2000 natural sandstone arches, hence the name. The most famous of them is called Delicate Arch and it’s on the Utah license plate (I got stuck the other day behind a guy with one that was clearly lost). Arches is fifteen minutes from the campground on the other side of the Colorado River. Beth drove so I could take pictures.
The landscape was foreign, almost extraterrestrial. The orange cliffs and peaks shoot up hundreds of feet in the air now but they were sculpted by erosion over millions of years. You can read more about it here because I’m not a scientist. As we entered the park, the road in was packed. Arches is a popular place! The road is flat for the first half mile but ahead I could see cars climbing the steep cliffs. We soon reached that same cliff and a series of switchbacks. The road climbs steadily. The entire park after that first half mile is between a thousand and sixteen hundred feet higher and we climbed it quickly. Every rock face and view was so spectacular. We stopped a couple times at vista points but our first longer stop was at Balanced Rock, a 128 foot pillar with an odd shape. The round portion on top of the pillar, the ‘balanced rock’, is the size of three school buses! Our time was limited so we took lots of pictures and left for the next sight. With so far to travel that day I knew all along we wouldn’t see it all, but I hoped to see as much as possible in an hour.
We passed some of the more notable natural structures right along the main road. Arches is big but nothing compared to Yellowstone. There’s only one main drive with two off-shoots. We headed for the first side road (always take the side roads!) toward the ‘Window Section’. The Window Section is home to several famous rock formations such as Cove Arch, Turret Arch, Parade of Elephants, and North and South Window. There’s one loop of parking in the middle of all these features. Using our park map I decided that Double Arch was close enough to merit a quick hike. It was in the upper seventies even at 10am in mid-September. I lathered up in SPF50 and left my girls to hang out in the car. Beth wasn’t up for a half mile hike with her ankle still on the mend and it was too hot to leave Maeby alone. Looks like I was on my own.
Double Arch is visible from the road but I wanted a good adventure. The path leading up to it was fairly flat and easy to traverse. The same sandy soil was underfoot until I reached the base of the rock formations. Double Arch received its name for obvious reasons, there are two arches close together. I climbed the gradually taller rocks until I was under the arches. It wasn’t very difficult to get up there but I had to take my time a couple times climbing down. There were two guys climbing even higher up to the crest of the hill below the arches. I would have gone up there to except for the fear of getting down again. From my spot I was able to take pictures out over the other rock features in the area as well as the blue sky above. I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many selfies in my life trying to get the perfect angle on the arches above. I headed back to the car after a couple minutes of photography and rejoined my lovely ladies.
We were already two hours into my one hour planned itinerary so we made the decision to head out. There were 1950 or so more arches in the park for us to see but they’ll have to wait for our next visit. That group also includes the most famous, the aforementioned Delicate Arch. If we didn’t have so far to drive that day, I would have liked to see it. We were low on gas as well so it was the right decision. Gas was a whopping $5 per gallon at the nearest station so we limped to the next one seven miles away. The scenery changed gradually from orange rocks to vegetation-covered orange rocks as we turned East on Interstate 70. I took over driving from Beth and we crossed into Colorado, the tenth state of our trip (including our start state, Minnesota)!
Gas was way cheaper in Grand Junction, CO so we filled up and got some hot grub at the Hardees. The older man in front of me in line was asking annoying questions like what kind of salads they had available and where they get their chicken. He went on to inquire whom owned the franchise. It was frustrating. I mean, who goes to Hardees for salad? I don’t remember what I ordered but it was enormous and I only ate half of it as I drove. I had already been snacking on popcorn and fruit snacks anyway. Beth slept most of the way to Denver and missed out on some of the prettiest sights on the entire trip. The views along I-70 were fantastic. There were beautiful mountains, lakes, tunnels, and trees decked out in fall foliage. I was waiting to see some fall foliage throughout the trip and I finally got the chance. Not all the colors were represented, it was mostly yellow leaves, but the mountains speckled in green and yellow were breathtaking. The road followed the Colorado River, we just couldn’t break away from it. It was not as wide there and full of whitewater rapids. That’s probably where the White River National Forest got its name. It was truly a spectacular stretch of road.
It was also an awesome stretch for seeing Xterras. I’ve mentioned this car game before. Beth and I play it on road trips but also any time we’re driving together. For this trip we decided it would be most fair if no Xterras counted while the passenger was sleeping. Colorado made me despise that particular rule. I was behind Beth in the overall trip count by two before she fell asleep and I couldn’t count the nine I saw between Grand Junction and Vail, CO. It was incredibly frustrating, especially because I rarely sleep on road trips. It’s a one-sided rule now that I think about it.
The Colorado River turned North and was replaced by the Eagle River. The interstate winds between various peaks in the narrow gorges. There were many places where there was no room for both lanes of traffic on level ground so the Westbound side was on a bridge higher up. I did have to deal with road construction off and on before Vail but that’s when Beth woke up. I didn’t realize we’d be driving through Vail but it was clear it was a bustling tourist area even without snow. We stopped briefly thereafter at an overlook of the Dillon Reservoir. It was a pretty view and there were a couple sail boats in action below. Back on 70 we approached a tunnel that turned out to be rather notable. The Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel happens to be one of the highest in elevation tunnels in the world at over 11,000 feet! It’s 1.7 miles long so I was unable to hold my breath and make a wish (because I’m a child). I learned later online that we had crossed the Continental Divide again while in the tunnel. Once on the other side, we descended at a 7% clip. If you’re unfamiliar, that’s pretty steep for a 70mph interstate. We were more than two miles high and there was only fifty miles to go to Denver, which is one mile in elevation.
The last section to Denver was a lot of down-hill and traffic really started to increase like we had not seen since Las Vegas. There were Xterras everywhere and with Beth awake I could actually count them. We each got like 25 of them in the state of Colorado. Having played the made up game of Xterra for many years we know that some areas have more than others. The previous best state was Texas on our various trips but now Colorado is king. Texas can be second followed by California. Minnesota has plenty as well which makes playing fun, even on short trips to the in-laws. There was a car accident before Denver but our trusty Google Maps guided us around it.
This was my first time to Denver. We were behind schedule but all I had planned for the Mile High City was a meal and a walk. There’s a ton of fun things to do in Denver but, with only an hour, what else could I do? Our meal was from a bar and restaurant called Prohibition featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. If you’ve seen or read my previous posts, you’ll know that Guy travels the country looking for fun and interesting (non-chain) restaurants. They’re typically small, hard to find, off-the-wall, unique, and quite possibly unusual (or at least some combination of the five). Whatever they are, they’re usually tasty. My Prohibition Burger was topped with two beef patties, blue cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, (I left off the) onions, garlic aioli, and apple slices, all on a brioche bun. I don’t normally like blue cheese but it was good in this combo. The apple slices were my favorite part. Beth got the Focaccia Chicken Sandwich with goat cheese, spinach, and avocado.
We got our food to go so we could eat outside. Also because there was no available parking nearby. I had called in our order while we were approaching the city but I still needed to park at a nearby McDonalds just to walk and pick up the food. There was available parking near the Colorado State Capitol where we ate on a park bench below the impressive dome. The dog was happy to come with us because she likes to watch us eat. She got to try my delicious french fries. Beth’s sandwich wasn’t anything special (which usually means I get to try it as she leaves a couple bites behind). We were behind schedule because of our morning in Arches so our planned walk was cut short. Maeby got a quick walk until she went and then we drove around the Capitol complex instead. There is a U.S Mint building a couple blocks away. I wish we had time to take a tour but they were I think they were closed for night anyway.
Beth took over driving duties, having slept so much that day, allowing me to catch up on my correspondence and rest my tired eyes. We passed by Sports Authority Field AKA Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos, as well as a large amusement park across the highway. The sun went down behind us and I tried to sleep. Beth sped along I-76 Northeast towards Julesburg, CO. We had visited Julesburg once before in 2011 with Beth’s dad, Ken, on a different return trip from San Francisco. Yes, we went out of our way from Interstate 80 just to add Colorado to my travel list. This time I didn’t stop to use a porta-potty at the historic Julesburg train station. Good times. We reached Nebraska and because it was getting so late I called ahead to our hotel to make sure someone would still be there to check us in. We didn’t arrive in North Platte, NE until 10:30pm. That’s not exceptionally late for a hotel lobby to be open and functional but this was a small place. America’s Best Value Inn was by far the cheapest room available when I was booking a month before the trip. The nice proprietor stayed for us to check in. We were the last guests to arrive which is why we ended up parking across the street in the auto parts store lot. I had my leftover Hardees before bed and we watched The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. End of day fourteen.