March 24-31, 2004: Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: March 12, 2008

Following for your amusement are miscellaneous memoirs from a seven-night solo road trip I took, which mostly involved camping and rockhunting, also some houseboat maintenance work, plus visiting Jenny Pruett in Los Alamos. I didn't intend to write yet another trip report, but after sending and saving some email about my rockhounding I decided I might as well assemble those and round out the tale for posterity.


Wednesday, March 24 -- Long Drive to Hanksville, Utah

Packing completed, I departed from home in Fort Collins at 9:40 am in my old Subaru wagon with 175K miles on it. Since the car was leaking a quart of oil every 600 miles and recently needed a new radiator, I had some concerns, but it was reliable for the 1933-mile roundtrip, and even got good gas mileage. The cruise control did not fizz out until soon after I got back (sigh). A long-anticipated contract job offer from HP didn't materialize until after I returned, therefore recasting my outing as a last fling (for a while), but not dampening my enthusiasm during the fun. Also I lucked into unseasonably warm, dry weather for most of the week.

The first was the longest driving day of my trip, nearly 500 miles west in nearly nine hours. I made just four stops for food, gas, etc. It went fairly fast as I listened to audio tapes from the library. I drove through some rain and duststorms in Utah, but nothing serious.

I called my wife Cathie from a pay phone in Hanksville, Utah just before sunset (6:36 pm), then made it before dark to a nice rockhunting site on top of a mesa near the Fremont River, 11.5 miles west of town. (Thanks to Les and Judy Gehman for the pointer to this location.)

It was a dry, quiet, comfortable place to camp under the stars although it was cloudy and windy for half the night. A crescent moon was near Venus this evening and Mars the next evening. Each night outdoors I did not use a tent, but I did cover my sleeping bag with a heavy quilt which kept me plenty warm.

Thursday, March 25 -- Rockhunting, Offshore Marina

What a nice time of year to be in the desert! Starting early in the morning I meandered through six "forays" to collect for tumble-polishing about five gallons of nice alluvial agate, jasper, and some fossil wood from three parking spots on the mesa. It's a mystery how this silicated stuff was deposited by water high on top of the Mancos shale. Anyway the views north, east, and south (to the distant Henry Mountains) were lovely.

Before noon I headed back east toward Hanksville. At a cryptic "MDRS" sign about four miles west of town, I took a 3.5-mile one-way detour north on a clay road into Morrison formation badlands to find and view the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station, which as a member I'd long heard about. Along this road, few rocks noted, although one scrap of fossil wood was seen. Later I had a nice lunch at Stan's in Hanksville, then continued south toward Lake Powell.

A bit after 2 pm I arrived at Offshore Marina about ten miles from the lake. Both the houseboats Wildwind I and II were there, up on blocks for sale or maintenance respectively. I talked with various people about service requests on the new boat, then took lots of "technical photos" and worked on minor tasks until twilight. I stopped to chat with a couple looking to buy a houseboat, and even gave them a short tour of the Wildwind I parked six spaces away.

I spent the night on the new boat. Since it was (road) noisy and well-lit outside, I elected to camp in the living room rather than up on the roof. The bow of the boat was tipped down, and the pontoons made enormous, shuddering bangs as they cooled down in the evening. Fortunately, as I hoped, this ceased after a while.

Friday, March 26 -- Ferry, Red House Cliffs, Natural Bridges, Goosenecks

Up early, but still after sunrise as bright light streamed in the front door of the boat. I loaded my car, buttoned up the houseboat, and was on my way in 28 minutes for what turned out to be a very long, full day.

Rather than drive the long way back north and around via Hite, I'd decided to take the ferry ($16) south across the lake. Alas, the entrance station at Glen Canyon NRA was manned beginning at 7 am... Bass fishing season, you know... So I bought a $50 annual Parks pass instead of paying $10 for a one-time entry.

The first ferry not being due until 9 am, I had time to visit and study the 1600'+ boat ramp and other amazing features visible with the lake down 117' from full pool. I ate some breakfast while waiting in line, and was the first onto the ferry. My GPS unit said the lake crossing was 3.01 miles and took 27 minutes. It was fun and pleasant.

On the south (Halls Marina) side, I found a spot mostly out of the cold morning wind, and took a very fast but much needed bath and shampoo in the 58-degree lake. It's interesting how after you exit water this cold, you feel pretty warm for a while.

Not much after 10 am I continued south out of GCNRA. I followed the road about 20 miles, down the Clay Hills dropoff to some gullies I'd explored last September that drain the Red House Cliffs. Mostly I wanted to revisit...

Red House Cliffs area, hematite boulder:

The hematite boulder was embedded in the alluvial deposit of a wall of a gully on BLM land in the Moenkopi formation of southeast Utah, below the Chinle formation from which it probably arose. Also present were/are hundreds of smaller hematite nodules of varying density, ranging from merely metalized rocks to nearly solid Fe2O3.

I dug out the boulder, jacked it up, and dropped it a couple of feet to the gully floor. Once it was loose I could tip it up on end, but no way at all could I lift it. The beast probably weighed over 100 pounds. So there it remained a mere 0.15 miles from the paved highway. (I came back and got it a few years later, but that's another story!)

After 2.5 hours of quiet, enjoyable, solitary time in this area playing with the boulder and rockhounding for hematite, wood, and agates, I proceeded east to Natural Bridges National Monument. I chatted with the rangers at the visitor center. As it turned out I knew a lot more about hematite and fossil wood than they did... So I gave them a short lecture, and some welcome samples to add to their rock box for showing visitors.

Then I parked at the Sipapu Bridge overlook and took a 3:15, 5.6-mile round trip hike, the first half of the full, 8.9-mile "three bridges" loop. It was all I had time to do before dark. I dropped 500' down the steep trail, stairs, and ladders to Sipapu, the world's second-largest natural span, then walked 2.3 miles downstream in the sinuous gully to Kachina Bridge. Until that point I saw no one else.

Relaxing below Kachina and doing the math, I decided it was time to climb out and walk the 1.8 miles back to my car across the Mesa Trail, rather than continuing up Armstrong Canyon to Owachomo Bridge. There were clouds and it rained for maybe ten minutes, but nothing serious. I arrived back at the parking lot just before sunset.

After another stop at the visitor center, I drove south to the Goosenecks of the San Juan State Preserve -- a free campsite near the south Utah border overlooking an incredible panorama -- to spend the night among a few other far-away, scattered vehicles. I got there after 8 pm, and enjoyed a very nice night sacked out a few feet from the rim.

Saturday, March 27 -- Petrified Forest, Lyman Lake

Up at sunrise, but for my second time at Goosenecks there were clouds to the east muting the early morning colors. I took pictures and departed soon after 7 am.

A few miles down the road I filled up and bought breakfast munchies at a gas station in Mexican Hat. Then I crossed the San Juan River into the Navajo Nation. I drove south across it, initially near Monument Valley on the way to Kayenta, for a total of 2.5 hours with just one brief rest stop, enjoying the pretty morning. I elected to bypass Canyon du Chelly to maximize my time in the...

Petrified Forest area:

Over four years ago on the way back from the Grand Canyon with Cathie, we stopped briefly at a drainage west of the road junction north to PFNP. I found a little bit of very nice fossil wood, both colorful (mostly red of course) and white outside, black inside, which took a nice shine though. I'd long wanted to return, although it was about 470 miles GPS direct from home.

On my way south into Holbrook, after leaving the Navajo reservation, I made several stops at drainages in Triassic rocks (per my geological map), but I found few rocks and only one scrap of wood -- at least it was an existence proof. This included the very wide wash north of Holbrook whose name I forget -- not many rocks, very little interesting there.

After lunch I headed southeast from Holbrook. I started looking by the roadsides about 12 miles west of the PFNP junction. (I set a MAP waypoint at the junction north to the PFNP entrance, and when I got there it was only off by 200'.) I didn't bother to pause at the Little Colorado River bridge, which looked overgrown and hard to access.

I found a few bits of fossil wood (but nice) at random stops, some of it right next to the asphalt! They either trucked it in with roadbed gravel, or (more likely) dug into it while constructing the road.

I found a reasonably productive drainage 9.1 miles GPS direct west, but now it's been recently hunted (by me). I did cross under the barbed wire to walk south a few tenths and back, hoping it was BLM land, or if private no one would care. There were lots of very solid barbed wire fences (compared with Pawnee NG fences in Colorado), but few if any posting signs (or gates).

I found little at my "original" drainage site 6.0 miles west, as if it had not flushed in the four years since I was last there. Bits were found at other random stops where I saw rocks in the wide right-of-way along the road. More random stops might turn up more goldmine areas.

Dunno why the locals haven't stripped these sites long ago -- there are as many rock shops as fast food places in Holbrook! I suspect they have connections on private land and/or want bigger material mostly. I was happy with the tumbling and hand-specimens I found.

The real bonanzas were two. First, 1.95 to 1.62 miles GPS direct west of the PFNP junction, around the mile marker 323 sign, as the road went downhill southeast, mostly on the south side, a couple of happy hours walking and exploring, moving the car a hundred yards and repeating. I was picking up pieces every 10 seconds or so! Mostly loose, or I could kick them out with my sneaker.

I think the whole hillside was rich with "float," and road construction dug into it. Over the fence on the hillside was an extraordinary amount scattered around, from flakes up to one-pound pieces. Next visit I will check and see if that's BLM land, or if not, try to get permission from the owner. (A few years later I did, and was firmly told "no way". Sigh.)

At 0.5 mi west of the PFNP junction there was a bit more, on both sides of the road, again a lot beyond the fence, this time on the north side.

Now it was 5:10 pm and I was tired, with 1.5 hours until sunset and I had no idea where I was spending the night. But I decided I might as well check out the Jim Camp Wash 0.56 miles GPS direct east of the junction.

It was relatively easy to access the wash. There was a wire fence across the drainage right below the bridge, but again no signs about private property. Second bonanza! An incredibly rich strew of flakes and chunks of very colorful and varied wood both upstream and downstream. One chunk weighs about five pounds! Note, the PFNP boundary is only about 0.3 miles north, although no fence or marking was seen.

I hope this was legal hunting, no one passing by seemed to care, nor even honked as they sometime do. Next visit I will check if this is BLM or what, or where the BLM access is for washes draining PFNP, etc. Again I was amazed the locals don't strip this very rich area, or if it's private and the owners don't want you walking the wash, why they don't post it either.

Now I've hunted pretty well the two areas described above. However, there's probably still a lot of material, especially in the wash, especially after it flows again sometime, or further downstream from the bridge.

Nearing sunset, I hated to quit, and as I recycled near the bridge I kept finding more bits I had overlooked. I returned to my car just as the sun straddled the horizon.

Lyman Lake, AZ:

As it got dark I drove east to Saint Johns. I had an excellent, inexpensive dinner at Corky's Diner. There I also got good advice about Lyman Lake State Park, nominally 10 miles south of town, but actually 14 miles odometer in and to the campground. It was very nice, quiet, overlooking the lake (although I didn't see it until morning, when it was a nice surprise), with hot water and hot showers! Fire rings, picnic shelters, paved; $12 to camp.

Sunday, March 28 -- East Arizona to Los Alamos

Early the next morning the entrance station was open -- manned by part-time ranger John Foote, who in summers lived at 300 South Remington in Fort Collins! A map in the building showed that the state park (no collecting allowed) did not enclose the lake, there was also private and BLM land around it. I drove about two miles south (through the park, $5 entrance fee included in camping fee), past a cattle guard onto a BLM section. (Really 3/4 of a 3/4 section.)

Here there was lots of Little Colorado River alluvium rich with bland white but relatively translucent chalcedony, some of it with bands or crystals; lots of fossil wood (not wild colors); and other interesting stuff. Possibly you could visit the entrance shack, study or digital-photo the maps, go out to the main road, and enter nearby BLM parcels from the main highway to avoid the entry fee. (A few years later I did this, but didn't find much in other nearby places.)

Maybe someday I'll study the maps closer and spend more time in this area, on BLM parcels hunting the alluvium. But I'm happy now with over a gallon found in a couple of hours. It would also be a fun lake to kayak and hunt shorelines with the water down. Major pueblo ruins here, and petroglyphs. I even found some pottery sherds in the cowboy road, which I took back to John to add to his display.

I left the park after 11 am... Drove back north through Saint Johns without needing to stop, then about 60 miles more north to I40, then east into New Mexico. At a brief rest stop at the northwest NM visitor center, I got a good, free state map and learned about El Malpais National Monument for a future visit. Later in Gallup I took a drive on "business I40" through the old town and stopped for a lunch break.

Wanting to reach Los Alamos before the weekend was entirely over and Jenny would go back to work, and already being "late" due to the unexpected rockhunting in the morning, I pressed on. I arrived at Jenny's landlord's (Kei's) house in Los Alamos at 5:40 pm... And hardly drove again for two days.

Jenny took me to a nice Mexican dinner down in Espanola, and I camped in their guest bedroom for two nights. It was mellow, pleasant, and comfortable. I borrowed her PC to check email and do some web research too.

Monday, March 29 -- Los Alamos

I met Jenny for lunch, and later spent some time at the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, the Bradbury Science Museum, and the city library. At about 5 pm I met her at the library, left my car, and accompanied her 1.5 hours and 100 miles each way to Albuquerque and back for her weekly Sweet Adelines (women's chorus) practice, in anticipation of an annual regional contest the next weekend in Phoenix. It was a fast, fun drive with lots to talk about, and I enjoyed hearing the unexpectedly lovely sounds of the chorus practicing.

Tuesday, March 30 -- Great Sand Dunes

After Jenny and Kei left for work I logged in again, then somewhat reluctantly departed after noon. I spent more time having lunch and exploring Los Alamos further. At 3 pm I drove east down the hill to Espanola and north towards Colorado and home. Not much to tell... Just audio tapes, a few stops to look at rocks (boring volcanics), a fill-up at sunset in Alamosa, and later I found a campsite at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument ($12) after 7 pm.

The weather forecast was for low 20s overnight (brrr), but I was warm enough and it was pleasant. Once again I slept long and well although my water bottle half froze.

Wednesday, March 31 -- Back Home

I watched sunrise hit distant peaks far away across the San Luis Valley, and later make it to the Dunes. I packed up camp as the sun arrived there. Nearby at the Dunes trail I had the icy Medano Creek all to myself for about an hour. I strolled around in water shoes trying to keep my feet warm between wadings, admiring the scenery and ice formations that were rapidly melting.

After this it was time to depart and go north. I detoured five miles into and through Salida to find the dirt road (CR 175) north out of town to Hartsel. This also gave me a chance to finally visit the ghost town of Turret, plus look for rocks in numerous places. Nothing exciting seen on old mine tailings, nor around Agate Mountain.

Finally back on pavement I continued north to Fairplay and then northeast to spend less than an hour checking on Cathie's mountain cabin and three-acre property near Jefferson in South Park. All was well, and there was very little snow on the ground -- it was a record dry March.

From there it was a 2.5-hour nonstop drive home, arriving at a carwash just after sunset... Mellow, mellow...