Day 6: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

OK, we didn’t actually see lions or tigers, but we DID see wolves, pronghorn, elk, bison and TWO grizzly bears, so our sixth and final day in Yellowstone was pretty epic. After five days of mountains, geysers, springs, canyons and rivers Matt and I woke up early on Monday, October 14th, excited to drive through the Lamar Valley in hopes of spotting some of the park’s more elusive wildlife.

The wildlife sightings started very early. After a quick and delicious breakfast at Wonderland Cafe in Gardiner we stopped back at our tiny cabin to pick up our suitcases. After a few minutes inside we were ready to “check out” (which simply meant locking the door behind us). I stepped outside and BAM! There was an ELK, RIGHT THERE, nonchalantly munching the grass growing around the cabin’s front steps. (Where did this elk come from?? We had just gone into the cabin moments before!!!) I leapt back inside and Matt and I happily watched the elk and her friends enjoy their breakfast for a few minutes before they meandered far enough away from our door for us to make a safe getaway. Wildlife day was starting out well so far.

We entered Yellowstone NP through the North Entrance and immediately saw several antelope-like pronghorns grazing along the side of the road. Then, as we wound our way through the village of Mammoth, we saw dozens of elk, including one massive buck lounging on the lawn in front of the post office. We took several photos of this guy from the safety of our car (I wouldn’t want to meet those antlers outside my cabin door!) before turning east towards the Lamar Valley.

Although Lamar is known for its wildlife watching we knew that it was fairly unlikely that we’d actually see a wolf or a grizzly bear on our last day in Yellowstone. These predators are much rarer and harder to spot than the bison and elk we had become accustomed to seeing several times a day. Nevertheless, we were determined to make the most of whatever wildlife we did get to see, so we satisfied ourselves by watching the numerous herds of bison roaming through the Lamar Valley.  By mid-morning we had pulled over and I was taking a video of a large herd moving serenely alongside the Lamar River.  Then a white SUV slowed down on the road behind us and the driver yelled out “Hey! There are WOLVES a mile down the road!!”  Bison video immediately forgotten, we leapt into our car and headed east towards the wolves.

Sure enough, a mile down the road there were several cars parked along a gravel road and a cluster of people gathered atop a high, snowy hilltop with tripods and spotting scopes. We parked our car, grabbed our jackets (it was “warm” for that week but still in the 20s), and excitedly climbed the hill, eager to see what was going on.

A couple with a scope greeted us almost immediately and pointed to a (very) distant hillside, explaining that members of the Junction Butte wolf pack had just finished eating some kind of animal carcass and were settling down for a post-meal nap in the sun. The couple generously let us look through their massive spotting scope and we could see the dark spots of the wolves against the snow. Cool!

We soon discovered that the wolves were not the only point of interest visible from our snowy hillside. There was also a grizzly bear who was (barely) visible as he lumbered down a steep hillside about a mile to the south. Again the couple generously let us watch him through their scope (all I could really see was his shadow, honestly) before he disappeared into a copse of trees. We were thrilled to have spotted both wolves and bears so quickly (from the same hillside, no less!) and we stayed and chatted with the couple for a while longer before heading back to our car to see what else the Lamar Valley had in store for us.

We soon came upon a small traffic jam of cars pulled over on the shoulder of the main road. This is usually a VERY good sign for anyone hoping to spot wildlife… but what kind of animal was stopping traffic at this particular moment? We scanned the scrub ahead of us and saw a GRIZZLY BEAR!!! Not a bear’s shadow on a far-off hillside through a scope. No, this was an actual bear, easily visible from our car (safety first!), making his way towards the road in the snowy grass. We watched, transfixed by his lumbering gait, and reveled in our good fortune as he moved diagonally past our car before crossing the road right between the stopped cars ahead of us. Before we knew it he was out of sight and the magical moment was over.

Satisfied that we had checked every animal off of our wildlife wishlist, Matt and I headed south to see the last landmark of the trip, Tower Fall. After the massive Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone I have to admit that the 132-foot Tower Fall was a little underwhelming. But the drive there was easy and we were able to stop at several gorgeous overlooks on our way.

After Tower Fall it was time to say goodbye to Yellowstone National Park and head up to Bozeman, Montana for our flight home. On our way out of the park we stopped in Gardiner for our fourth and final meal at Wonderland Cafe, then followed the beautiful Yellowstone River north to Livingston before turning west towards Bozeman. We spent the night in Bozeman, took an 8:22 flight to Denver the next morning, and we were back home with Piper by dinnertime on Tuesday.

Planning your own trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks? There are TONS of resources out there (not to mention guided tours!), but I found the following to be most helpful when planning our trip:

Day 5: Norris, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Real Food!!

Sunday morning in Yellowstone started off much like the previous 3 days: with sub-freezing temperatures and a frosty windshield, brr! It was October 13th: Canyon Village’s last day of the 2019 season. Remembering how uninspiring the previous morning’s rubbery eggs and french toast had been, I decided in advance that I would simply have a banana and yogurt from the dining hall’s “grab and go” station for breakfast. But alas, Canyon Village was all out of bananas, yogurt, AND milk for cereal! I settled for lukewarm oatmeal with a side of hot cocoa because the coffee machine started spewing out coffee grounds midway through filling up my mug. I promise that I’m not trying to make this post about how bad the food was, but man was I ready to eat some hot, fresh, flavorful food after three straight days in the park!! Luckily my wish would come true soon.

Matt and I said goodbye to Canyon Village and headed west to Norris Geyser Basin. We strapped on our Yaktrax and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the basin’s geysers, springs and bubbling thermal features. The icy boardwalks threaded in and out of eerie fog and, even though we shared the more popular “Porcelain Basin” area with a gaggle of young German tourists, we still felt like we had most of the basin to ourselves.

Towards the end of our walk we came upon an older couple camped out in front of Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser. They explained that while the unpredictable geyser has sometimes gone for years without an eruption, Steamboat happens to be in an unusually active period right now with eruptions as frequent as every 5-6 days. Steamboat had last erupted 6 days before, so this couple was planning to spend their Sunday watching the geyser in hopes that it might put on one of its rare shows. (Keep in mind that it was below freezing out… these were very hardcore geyser watchers!!) 🙂  We hung around and chatted with them for a while as Steamboat puffed and spit hot water (the norm between eruptions) before eventually heading back to the car.  Later I found a web site that tracks Steamboat’s eruptions… looks like it didn’t go off until 3 days later so I’m glad we didn’t stick around to wait for it!!

Next up on our itinerary was Mammoth Hot Springs. On the road north from Norris we got stopped in one of the park’s ongoing road construction projects and had to park our car in a line of traffic for 20-30 minutes. (Which is really not so bad; drivers have been delayed for MUCH longer in bison jams!) I read about Mammoth in our guidebook while we waited and Matt gazed around at the rocky hillsides surrounding us. A young girl wandered by on the shoulder of the road and Matt said “That looks like the climate girl.” I didn’t think much of it at the time but later learned that Greta Thunberg had been visiting Yellowstone on that exact same day and was wearing the same blue jacket we saw this girl wearing. So yeah… oddly we can add Greta Thunberg to our list of notable sightings on our Yellowstone trip!

It was nearing lunchtime by the time traffic got moving so we drove straight through Mammoth (where my iPhone found one bar of service… civilization!!) and continued up to Gardiner, Montana to find somewhere to eat. We stumbled upon a small cafe called Wonderland and proceeded to have THE BEST LUNCH I’VE EVER EATEN. I wolfed down a decadent grilled caprese panini with a side of homemade butternut squash bisque while Matt enjoyed a pastrami sandwich with ridiculously delicious caramelized horseradish onions and a crisp Montana IPA. We had already decided we’d be returning to Wonderland for dinner before lunch was over.

After lunch we headed back into the park to see Mammoth Hot Springs. The lower elevation and bright sunshine made Sunday afternoon in Mammoth our warmest weather yet. We happily peeled off layer after layer of clothes (I think I had started the day wearing four shirts!) as we explored the otherworldy travertine terraces.  The hot springs are constantly changing and in some of the more active areas the acidic water and sulfury clouds of steam were nearly taking over the boardwalks.

We explored the historic Mammoth Hot Springs hotel and visitor center before heading back north to Gardiner for the night. On our way to Wonderland for dinner we passed an elk taking a casual stroll on the sidewalk. Welcome to Montana!

And, speaking of elk… for dinner at Wonderland Matt had Baked Elk Chili Mac and Cheese. It was insanely good. If anyone reading this is planning a trip to the northern section of Yellowstone National Park you MUST eat at least one meal at Wonderland. We ended up eating there four times! More on that coming soon in the recap of our sixth and final day.

Day 4: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

It’s a brisk 21° here in Pennsylvania this morning but it still doesn’t feel like this weather is actually cold after our October trip to Yellowstone. Day 4 began in frosty Canyon Village with temps in the single digits. Matt and I were getting used to being outside in the cold by Saturday so honestly the hardest part was just sitting in the rental car waiting for it to defrost enough to make the short drive to the dining hall building. (Then, unfortunately, the breakfast of french toast and strata at Canyon’s cafeteria was cold, soggy, and flavorless, but I’ll address the park food later!)

Lackluster meal behind us, Matt and I headed up to Artist Point once again to gawk at the massive Yellowstone Canyon and Lower Falls in the distance. This time we were prepared with Yaktrax on our hiking boots which made the short but extremely icy walk to the lookout feel much safer.

Next we drove back down South Rim Drive towards Uncle Tom’s Trail, a steep stairway down to the base of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. We were excited to see that our car was the only car in the parking lot – what luck!! But the reason soon became apparent… Uncle Tom’s Trail was closed. At the time we figured this was due to snow/ice on the stairs* so, emboldened by our Yaktrax, we started along the snow-packed trail towards the lookout point, curious to see how far we could get.

The beginning of the trail was fine, but what was not fine was how isolated we felt the moment we started hiking away from the parking lot. We had become accustomed to having a few other tourists around us at all times but this trail was lonely and silent. We thought about all of the “BE BEAR AWARE” warning signs we’d seen around the park and decided to turn back. Just as we arrived back at the parking lot we noticed a couple hiking towards us. I asked them if they were also heading towards Uncle Tom’s Trail and, when they replied that they were AND that they had bear spray, we promptly turned around and headed back towards the waterfall with them.

We had fun chatting with our fellow hikers as we journeyed up the south rim trail. We stopped at overlooks to snap pictures of the waterfall below, but we never did see the actual turnoff for Uncle Tom’s Trail. (Probably because the trail was buried under a few inches of fresh snow!) In the end we found ourselves up at the Artist Point parking lot once again, so Matt and I peeled off to return to our car via the road while our newfound friends continued on to see the famous overlook for themselves.

After lunch at the Canyon Village General Store we drove south to explore the Hayden Valley and mud volcano. The mud volcano area was home to one of the coolest thermal features we saw (and heard!) on the whole trip: Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The spring is inside a cave that constantly spews a column of steam out into the basin around it. The best part was the ominous low rumbling sound that accompanied each “dragon’s breath” of steam. Click below for a video.

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Our next stop was Lake Village on the shore of the massive Yellowstone Lake. We drove by the Lake Lodge (closed for the season) and stopped by the visitor center before soaking up some sun at the edge of the lake. By this point it had warmed up to the 30s which felt downright balmy compared to the weather we’d experienced for the past few days.

We enjoyed the drive back north along the Yellowstone River before again feeling the pull of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  As the sun was getting low in the sky we visited the canyon one last time, this time on the north rim with stops at Lookout Point, Grand View and Inspiration Point.

Although the day ended on a high note scenery-wise, the food was, once again, not the strong point of the trip.  We’d been exclusively eating park food since Thursday and by dinner on Saturday that was starting to wear on me. This was the last night Canyon Lodge was open for the year and several items on the limited menu were already unavailable or running out as we waited. (For example, they ran out of penne partway through making Matt’s entree and brought him a tiny portion of chicken-sausage pasta that was also missing the sausage because they ran out of that, too!!) I understand that it was the last night of dinner service so obviously the restaurant didn’t want to have excess food left over, but after several meals in the park I was ready to get out and eat some “real” food made with fresh ingredients. More on that in my recap of Day 5!!

*Now that I’m home and have the internet at my fingertips I realize that Uncle Tom’s Trail is actually closed for a large scale maintenance project, not because of conditions on the trail in October.

Day 2: Grand Teton to Old Faithful

The cold front had definitely arrived by the time we woke up on Thursday. Matt and I bundled up and walked to breakfast, noting that our hotel still had its grass sprinklers on (because it’s not SUPPOSED to be 10° in mid-October!) which had created a nice sheet of ice on the sidewalk. After coffee and a hearty salsa-verde-smothered breakfast burrito at Bubba’s BBQ we were ready to tackle the day’s adventures.

We hoped those adventures would include Yellowstone National Park since we were scheduled to spend the night at Old Faithful, but as of 8AM the park roads were still closed. Luckily Grand Teton National Park is at a much lower elevation than Yellowstone so the first half of Thursday’s itinerary could proceed as planned. We drove north past Teton Village, bought an Annual Parks pass at the Grand Teton entrance station (I’ve always wanted an excuse to visit more parks!!), and continued along the dirt Wilson-Moose Road for several miles, enjoying the sight of snow-dusted Aspen trees with brilliant yellow foliage.

Soon we came to Jenny Lake. As a kid my family vacationed here and we spent a night in a cabin at Jenny Lake Lodge. I honestly don’t remember much about the night other than that my mom would always say it was the nicest hotel we had ever stayed in. (For the record, I checked to see if Matt and I could stay here but, like most of the lodges in GTNP and YNP, it had already closed for the season back in September.)

Jenny Lake itself was beautiful. We stopped at several pull outs and carefully navigated icy paths to get different views of the lake and the Teton mountains beyond. This might be a good time to mention that we used three cameras on this trip: my trusty Nikon D90 DSLR, our super wide-angle GoPro Hero4 Silver (usually manned by Matt) and my brand new iPhone 11 Pro. This trip was the first test of the iPhone’s camera and it did not disappoint. Between the great color rendition, wide angle option, smarter macro/portrait mode and “photos capture outside the frame” setting I was completely hooked on this phone after day 2.

OK, iPhone ad over. Continuing north, we next arrived at Jackson Lake and gorgeous views of (most of) the Tetons. We never did see their peaks due to the clouds but the parts we could see were pretty impressive.

Matt and I had brought lunch along in the car and around noon we stopped at a pullout along Jackson Lake to eat. Surprisingly we had maintained limited cell service through much of Grand Teton National Park and over lunch I called the Yellowstone roads hotline to see if there had been any changes in the road status. Alas, as of 12:30PM on Thursday the roads were still closed. After lunch we reluctantly headed south, back in the direction we’d come from, resolved to salvage the day by seeing more of Grand Teton before spending a second night in Jackson.

On a whim we turned down a dirt road that took us to one of the most beautiful views of the trip. After several hundred yards of bumpy driving we pulled over and had easy access to the rocky bank of the Snake River. Looking west across the crystal clear water we could see the snowy Tetons in the distance. Perfect! Just as I crouched down to take a photo my phone buzzed with a text message from Yellowstone… the roads had opened!!! We finished up at the river and headed back north, finally Yellowstone-bound.

Yellowstone’s road opening announcement came with two caveats. First, the road from Grant Village (where we’d be coming from) to Old Faithful (where we were going) was still closed as it included a high-elevation mountain pass. This meant a 79 mile detour around the Grand Loop Road to get to our final destination. Second, snow tires were required throughout the entire park. Hmm. I had spoken with a ranger the day before who told me she’d never put snow tires on her car since moving here from the east coast 7 years ago. She assured us that we’d probably be fine in our 4WD rental if we avoided the mountain passes.  So basically caveat #1 cancelled out #2, right? Despite the snow tires warning we entered Yellowstone, confidently flashing our Annual Pass before proceeding north.

The higher elevation was immediately apparent. Where Grand Teton had snow-dusted yellow aspens, Yellowstone had miles and miles of snow-encrusted lodgepole pines. Except for the places where forest fires had left miles of blackened tree trunks with snow-covered new growth underneath. It was a striking difference and was just the beginning of the otherworldly landscape that is Yellowstone National Park.

Our first geothermal encounter came at West Thumb geyser basin, where we were pleasantly surprised by the huge number of colorful pools, bubbly hot springs and amazing views of Yellowstone Lake. The entire area was crisscrossed by snow-covered boardwalks that we shared with just a handful of other tourists. I guess that was one major benefit of the recent road closures!

Our 79 mile detour took us past the road to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (which was still closed due to snow), Canyon Village (where we’d spend Friday and Saturday nights), multiple geyser basins and the impressive Firehole River. It was 18° out when we drove by the river and we marveled at the fact that the water was STEAMING in the frosty air. We pulled over so Matt could dip his fingers in the water which, he reported, did not feel especially warm.

We pulled into the Old Faithful parking lot at dusk and were greeted by crowds of people walking back to their cars. Apparently we’d just missed an eruption. The parking lot and all of the sidewalks were snow and ice-covered so we carefully skidded ourselves and our suitcase into the Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the night. We’d missed seeing the famous geyser on Thursday but we still had the whole next day to explore all of the geysers and geothermal oddities in the area.

Stay tuned for day 3… STEAM! AKA all you can see when hot springs meet single-digit temps.

Day 1: Pennsylvania to Jackson Hole

On Wednesday, October 9th Matt and I woke up at 4AM and drove to the Philadelphia airport. We parked in long term parking, bypassed the bus stop and power-walked to the terminal (isn’t that how normal people begin their travel days?) before being thoroughly sniffed by an official TSA German Shorthaired Pointer in security.  Eight hours later we were greeted by this view as our plane landed in Jackson, Wyoming.

In August I planned a last minute vacation to Yellowstone. Our itinerary would take us from Jackson Hole through Grand Teton National Park, then onto Yellowstone with overnight stays at Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the North Entrance near Mammoth Hot Springs and a final night in Bozeman, Montana. But my meticulously planned schedule was almost derailed before it began thanks to the weather. During our layover in Denver I received several text message alerts from Yellowstone NP advising that ALL roads in the park were closing due to winter weather conditions.

I had been monitoring the weather and knew that a snow storm and unusually frigid conditions were forecasted to coincide with our arrival on Wednesday. In preparation Matt and I packed all of our winter layers and mentally braced for the cold. Our plane landed just as the cold front was moving in. It was 35 degrees out as we deplaned directly onto the tarmac. That seemed cold at the time compared to the weather we’d just come from, but 35 degrees sure felt nice later in the week after we experienced REAL cold!

The temperature steadily dropped throughout the afternoon as we wandered around Jackson. We checked out the elk antler arches in the town square, stopped at a warm bakery for super rich hot cocoa and braved the blustery wind on a trek to the Visitor Center.

Before dinner we hopped in our rental car and headed north on Route 191. (The same 191 that runs through Moab!) Seeing other cars stopped along the road we pulled over near the Gros Ventre River and snapped a few photos. Apparently we had JUST missed a female moose and calf. Darn!

As we headed back to the car Matt noticed something on the other side of the road… a bull moose!! He was at least 100 yards away and was slowly making his way through the brush towards the river. As we watched, the moose lazily crossed the river before turning away from us to continue on his evening stroll. Cool!! We had been in Wyoming for less than 12 hours and had already crossed a major animal sighting off our list.

During dinner at the Snake River Brewing Company I realized that we had been up since 2AM Jackson time. No wonder I was tired! When we got back to our hotel I checked the Yellowstone road status one more time – roads were still closed – before collapsing into bed.

Stay tuned for day 2… onto Grand Teton and (maybe???) Yellowstone!

I’m Still Here!

I haven’t been blogging but I’ve been busy! Here are some of the blog-worthy events of the past 6 months:

I ran a half marathon!!!!

I raced the Hallowed Half Marathon in Cape May, NJ on October 27th. Yup, after years of saying I was satisfied focusing on speeding up my 5K time, I finally did a 13.1 mile race. I had a fantastic time training last fall and learned that I love long runs. (Long runs being 9-11 miles. None of those crazy marathon-training runs for me, thankyouverymuch!) The weather on the day of the race was less than ideal (the Nor’Easter’s 50+ mph wind gusts caused another half in Wilmington, DE to be cancelled!) and I know I can run faster in different conditions. I am confident there will be another half marathon sometime in my future.

So windy. Also, pretzel. ❤️

Matt and I adventured in Las Vegas!

But actually the areas OUTSIDE of Sin City were the best part. We bookended our annual work trip with weekend sightseeing in the Valley of Fire, Hoover Dam and Red Rock Canyon.  This trip definitely warrants its own post, so I’ll stop writing about it here.

We’ve been eating so much good food.

Just before Thanksgiving we ran out of propane, which meant no stovetop cooking. For some reason it took 2+ weeks to get a refill, so we resorted to lots of slowcooker-ing and microwave-ing during that time.  When the miracle of boiling water finally returned to our home Matt and I rebounded by making a different pasta dish every night for a whole week. All recipes we’d never made before, like Rigatoni with Short Rib Ragu, Orecchiette with Escarole and White Beans, Penne with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe, and Rotini with Brussel Sprouts, Bacon and Peas. Yes.

We’ve also made a slew of blog-worthy pizzas and other foods. I always make a point of taking a photo but have apparently lost the urge to type out the recipes here.  Which is too bad, because I love referring to my blogged recipes when it’s time to brainstorm for our weekly meals!

All the trails, all the mud.

On New Year’s Day I ran down my driveway in my trail shoes. Matt picked me up 9 miles away, muddy and happy. I was thrilled… I always knew there was a way to connect into Ridley Creek State Park from near my neighborhood but I’d never done it before.  I realized that if I took a more efficient route on my next run I could make it even further. That evening I consulted multiple maps and plotted out the following route:

Enter from RCSP Yellow Trail. Right on RED/WHITE (BLUE) Ignore Blue Stay RED when White splits to Right. Left on WHITE Cross Road, Left on PINK, Right at Split Follow Pink to White merge, Right on WHITE Continue to Rocky Run SHORT VERSION: Downhill RED/WHITE RED Left- WHITE Road- PINK Right at Pink Loop Split Left- PINK/WHITE Right- WHITE

It all made sense to me at the time, don’t worry! On January 6th I set out on an epic trail run (titled ALL THE TRAILS on Strava if anyone cares) that took me from my house through Ridley Creek State Park, Tyler Arboretum, and the Rocky Run and Darlington Trails of Middletown Township, Delaware County. I crossed streams, squished through ankle deep mud, scrambled up hills, and finally emerged at a trailhead on Darlington Road 10.2 miles later. I loved every mile!

So once again, I’m hooked on trail running! I solidified this by running (and going off course) the Pickle Trail Run as a warm up to February 24th’s 13K Ugly Mudder trail race in Reading, PA. The Ugly Mudder was muddy, snowy, and wet and involved going up and down a mountain multiple times. It was better than that last sentence makes it sound. 😜 Just typing this brief recap of my trail exploits makes me want to plot out my next off-road adventure.

Lots of races, no recaps!

I’ve run fourteen (fourteen!) races since last recapping one on this blog. Check out the list and links to results on my race recaps page. Most memorable, besides the half and Ugly Mudder, were my first-ever race in Florida on 11/3 and a new year’s resolution run at a local brewery with Matt on 12/30. (I won a growler of fresh, delicious Levante IPA. Happy New Year to me!) I also ran a 5K with Piper this morning. We bettered our January time from the same course by 6 seconds. Best moment was when a guy came up to us afterwards and, in the most friendly way possible, exclaimed “What kind of SPANIEL is that??!” A perfect little german shorthaired spanielpointer, of course. 😄

What’s Next?

Well, besides getting my act together to blog about our fabulous Vegas adventures, I’ve got the 10-mile Broad Street Run coming up on May 5th. Piper and I have a Nosework “level 2” (NW2) trial on April 6th that we’re practicing hard for (and praying we make it off the wait list for!), and I’m looking forward to visiting my mom and Piper’s best buddy, Hershey the Chocolate Lab, in Florida later this month. And right this moment I’m going to hit “publish” and then make Shrimp and Grits for dinner with Matt. Cheers!

Moab: Home to Arches, Canyonlands, and Westworld

When I chose Moab, Utah as our weekend destination after a work trip to Las Vegas, I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I knew that Moab was home to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, that it was a larger town than Springdale, Utah (the gateway to last year’s destination, Zion), and that January was definitely Moab’s off season.

It wasn’t until after I settled on Moab that I realized I could run a race while I was there AND that the valleys, canyons, and vistas surrounding Moab were where HBO’s Westworld was filmed.  Running races and Westworld are two of my favorite things, so I was pretty sure that I was going to LOVE Moab!

Here’s our Moab trip in map form. Click here to view a larger map and click on a waypoint to view a photo.

After I finished the Arches Ultra 9K on Saturday morning, Matt and I began exploring Moab. We drove along the Colorado River on Route 128, admiring the steep cliffs and bright blue water. For Westworld fans, this road is the “track” that the train takes to enter the park. There are no actual train tracks here, so they built a train car on the back of a flatbed truck and drove up and down Route 128 during filming. Matt and I listened to Westworld’s theme song on repeat during this section of the drive.

We soon came upon Castle Valley and Fisher Towers, two more show locations. We spent the afternoon hiking around Fisher Towers, then drove through Castle Valley before retracing our route back towards Moab and then north towards Canyonlands. We watched the sun set as we drove towards Canyonlands’ “Island in the Sky” mesa, then turned around and headed back to town for the night.

On Sunday morning we woke up early and drove for 45 minutes in the dark back up to the Island in the Sky. We paid $15 at an unmanned kiosk to enter Dead Horse Point State Park, then made our way to the Dead Horse Point viewpoint to watch the sun rise.  It was cold (25°F), quiet and beautiful. We looked out over rugged red cliffs and canyons that stretched as far as we could see and watched the January sun beams slowly illuminate the scene, turning each rock face they reached an intense, fiery red.

We shared this experience with one other couple and three professional photographers who had set up their tripods on a cliff below us.  It was so quiet we could hear the shutters on their cameras clicking as they snapped shot after shot of the amazing view. Once the pros were done we walked down to the same spot and took a few of our own photos. Views don’t get much better than this.

For Westworld fans, Dead Horse Point is a show location that’s featured in Episode 1. Look familiar?

Next we entered Canyonlands National Park and took a quick hike to Mesa Arch… our first arch of the trip! It did not disappoint.  We had Mesa Arch to ourselves and the underside of the arch was glowing in the early morning sun.

We returned to Moab for a quick breakfast (and much needed coffee… I was really dragging after our pre-dawn wake up call!) and then set our sights on Arches National Park. Arches is a fairly small park with a single main road that allows you to get close to many of the major highlights with minimal hiking required.  We hit several of these spots on Sunday, with visits to Balanced Rock, North Window Arch, South Window Arch, Turret Arch, and Double Arch.

Next we embarked on a longer hike to see Utah’s famous Delicate Arch. I was a little worried that this arch might not live up to its hype… how could it possibly compare to our transcendent sunrise from 8 hours earlier??! Matt and I hiked up smooth red rock for a mile and a half and carefully picked our way along an icy trail that was little more than a ledge on the shaded side of a red cliff face. This was the most crowded hike we’d been on so far and I was just starting to get tired of watching people in inappropriate footwear try to navigate the ice when we turned a corner and there it was: DELICATE ARCH.

Delicate Arch was breathtaking. The scale of it is hard to describe. It looks small at first, but then it dawns on you that the little speck at its base is a person and you realize how big it is, and how stately and alone it is, just standing there, rising up out of the red stone and framing a gorgeous range of snow-capped mountains off in the distance. All of the other hikers around us were clearly hit with the same emotion, and we all just sat down with our backs against a warm rock wall, murmuring quietly amongst ourselves and staring at Delicate Arch in the afternoon sun.

Matt and I stayed at Delicate Arch for close to an hour before heading back down the mountain. Delicate Arch totally rivaled Dead Horse Point’s sunrise views and I would strongly recommend both spots to any future Moab visitor.

Monday was our last day in Moab and we had a long list of arches that we still wanted to see. Matt and I got on the road in the dark once again, this time heading to the Devil’s Garden section of Arches NP. Devil’s Garden is home to a staggering number of arches and other crazy rock formations, including Landscape Arch, the longest natural arch in the world.

We hiked on the snow-covered trail in the dark and arrived at Landscape Arch just before sunrise. There were no other people in sight, just us and the long, unbelievably thin arch. We watched the sun hit the arch, turning it a bright golden yellow, and took tons of photos. Then we left Landscape Arch behind and set out on the “primitive trail” to see more of Devil’s Garden.

The primitive trail was barely a trail in most places. It was good that the sun was up by this point, because we had to climb and scramble up, over and across rock fins and ridges to get to the next few arches on our list. In one area we had to walk along an exposed rock spine with drop offs on either side and a steady, strong cross wind… so powerful that when I took my glove off to take a photo and I had trouble putting it back on because it was blowing straight sideways.  Luckily my earwarmer headband was holding my precious Arches Ultra cap securely on my head!!

While in Devil’s Garden Matt and I saw Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, and Double O Arch, then returned back by Landscape Arch to visit Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. There was one other couple out on the primitive trail but we otherwise had this sunrise hike to ourselves.

Next we took a few short hikes to Skyline Arch, Sand Dune Arch and Broken Arch (all “private” viewing again… January is definitely the time to visit Arches!!) and then we wrapped up our long morning of hiking with a trek down “Park Avenue,” a canyon lined with towering rock monoliths that reminded early visitors of a skyscraper-lined street in Manhattan.

We returned to Moab for lunch at the Moab Brewery. By this point Matt and I estimated that we had hiked close to 10 miles but we weren’t done yet. After lunch we made a quick stop at the nearby Matheson Wetlands Preserve, a natural wetlands area on the Colorado River. The preserve was underwhelming, with little wildlife out on a chilly January day, but it was a quiet place to digest our beer and burgers before our final hike of the trip.

To get to our last hiking destination we had to drive along Route 279 (aka Potash Road), a scenic road sandwiched between the Colorado River and sheer red cliffs. The cliffs are home to “Wall Street,” a popular rock climbing area, as well as several great examples of historic Indian rock art. We stopped to see the petroglyphs before continuing on to the Corona Arch trailhead.

The Corona Arch parking lot was almost empty, and we passed the afternoon’s only other hikers on their way back to their car less than a mile into our hike. Excited to have one more arch all to ourselves, Matt and I pressed on, climbing up and up into a wide bowl-like formation with steep drop offs to our right. We scaled a ladder bolted to the rock and trekked up stone steps carved into the rock.

Finally the massive Corona Arch came into view. Once again, we had a private viewing of the breathtaking arch, and we spent a while soaking in the view and utter silence around us. Just as we were about to head back to the car the nearly full moon (the super blue blood moon) rose up and over the arch. Perfect.

And just like that, our whirlwind weekend in Moab was over. We were on the road by 4:14AM the next morning and back in Philadelphia nine hours later.

In three days we hiked to sixteen arches, visited two National Parks, saw magnificent views of the Colorado River, and were outside (or in the car) for every sunrise and sunset. Best of all, we experienced all of this with no crowds and, in most cases, with these iconic landmarks all to ourselves. Moab in January definitely did not disappoint!