This is the last destination stop on our 2019 road trip! It
is hard to believe that we left Atlanta, GA nine months ago. It has been an
absolutely amazing trip and ending it at the balloon fiesta is a great way to
We arrived in Albuquerque on Thursday, October 3rd,
a couple days before the balloons were to fly. Charlie is a balloon pilot and
wanted time to catch up with his balloonist friends. We did not bring our
balloon, since we have been on the road for 9 months.
On Saturday morning the dawn patrol balloons took flight. They are the first balloons to take off each day. It is really neat to see them. Their flames light up the sky, as it is still dark when they launch.
The remaining 500 balloons on the field prepared for their flight and then fog rolled in, which resulted in a cancellation of the morning’s flight.
The weather Saturday evening was perfect for the Balloon Glow and fireworks.
On Sunday, Charlie and I were extremely fortunate as his friend, Daryl, gave us a ride in his balloon. It was a beautiful flight.
After our fantastic flight we met up with Charlie’s sister,
her husband and friend at a local restaurant. It was great seeing them, as it
had been years. Back on the field we met up with friends and enjoyed another
great balloon glow with fireworks.
Immediately following the fireworks the winds picked up, as a front was moving in. It was very windy most of the night. By morning though the winds had settled down over the field and the balloons took flight. Charlie joined Daryl’s chase team. A chase team helps put up the balloon, follows it during flight until it lands and then helps pack it back up. While he was chasing Daryl he saw another balloon crash and burn. He, and the team, drove quickly to the damaged balloon and found no pilot or passenger in the vicinity. Charlie saw a line of fire going back for quite a ways. He ran ½ a mile through the desert, trying to find them and went another ½ mile in an off-road vehicle that picked him up. Eventually, they got word that the pilot and passenger had been found. They both had non life-threatening injuries.
The winds in Albuquerque can be very tricky for balloonists. The Sandia Mountains frequently shield the balloon field from high winds. However, once you get away from this protection, out in the desert, the winds can increase significantly. Charlie was clocking Daryl’s balloon at 19 mph over the desert. He can only assume that the balloonist that crashed was also going nearly as fast. The balloon that crashed hit the ground very hard. When it did, the pilot fell out, leaving the passenger and balloon to take flight. When it hit the ground again the passenger got out (either fell or jumped). Thank goodness he/she did as the next time the balloon came down it ignited due to ruptured gas hoses. There were a number of other hard landings and minor injuries that day.
Fortunately, the winds died down in the afternoon, allowing the America’s Challenge Gas Balloons to begin filling with hydrogen. The America’s Challenge is a gas balloon distance race that lasts for days.
Once the balloons are filled with hydrogen that is all of the
available lift they will have for their flight. In order to control how high
the balloons go they release ballast, which is sand contained in bags, tied to
the outside of the basket. If they want to go higher they throw out a scoop or
two of sand. When they are ready to land they release a small amount of
hydrogen. Running out of sand is like running out of fuel.
In the evening we met up with friends Karen and Gary. We hadn’t seen them for nearly a year, when we last visited them in Hilton Head. We enjoyed a great dinner, while catching up, at the nearby Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.
On Tuesday, our final day at the balloon fiesta, we were
blessed with beautiful weather. It was the best flight for the balloonists so
Below is a gallery of pictures from the fiesta. I hope you enjoy them. Click on the first one to enlarge and start a slideshow.
Later in the afternoon we packed up and drove to the other
side of the Sandia Mountains, to visit with our friends Debbie and Terri. We
enjoyed great food and lots of wine with them. We had seen them in Palm Springs
near the beginning of our road trip, back in February. It was neat to see them
now, at the end of our trip.
In the morning we hit the road at 7am and drove 10 hours /
560 miles, to the Grand Casino Hotel & Resort just east of Oklahoma City.
They have free overnight RV parking, with power. It was a long drive, as we had
to endure strong crosswinds for a couple of hours. Winds were nearly 30 mph at various
points. Just west of the city were nasty storms with hail the size of golf
balls. We were very nervous that these storms would reach us, but we were very
fortunate that they moved north and dissipated.
The next day (yesterday) we drove 12 hours / 730 miles and
made it to Cookeville, TN. We could not find any campgrounds with availability
in or near Nashville. Hence, the long day. We overnighted in a Walmart parking
lot in Cookeville, which was terrible. Turns out it is a major hang-out place
for teens/young adults. There were at least 20 carloads of them very close to
the RVs. At times they raced their cars in the parking lot. Of course they only
raced the ones with very loud exhausts! This went on until after 2am. Back on
the road today before 6:30am. We are on the homestretch!!! Our 9 month trip has
come to an end. We arrive back at our motorcoach resort today; Mountain Falls
Luxury Motorcoach Resort in Lake Toxaway, NC.
I hope you have enjoyed the blog posts from our 2019 Road
Until next time……
Where we camped in Albuquerque:
We camped just above the balloon field, in the VIP East Lot. The location of the lot was great. We had a bird’s eye view of the field and balloons in flight.
We enjoyed a dinner at the El Pinto Restaurant. It is very close
to the balloon field, and is a favorite for both locals and balloonists. We
went to this restaurant on a previous trip and really enjoyed it. The wait to
get a table was over an hour so we snatched up a couple of seats at the bar.
The food and drinks were excellent.
We enjoyed a lunch at The Range Café in Bernalillo. It was
very good. In addition to great Southwestern food, they have a bakery and gift
Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen is not far from the balloon
field, and was great. We have one in Atlanta and always enjoy it.
Charlie and I were both a little under the weather, with
colds, when we arrived in Torrey, UT. Neither of us had much energy, so hiking
was out of the question. We were happy to discover some great driving options
in and around the park.
The first is the popular Scenic Drive road. This paved road is only about 8 miles long. It is the highlight of the park, and very busy, for good reason. The scenery is spectacular!
The scenic drive starts in Fruita, where the visitor center
is. Fruita is an anomaly in this desert area. There are about 2,500 orchard
trees in the area. Visitors are welcome to pick fruit from many of them, using
the honor system for payment. You pick, you weigh, you pay by dropping money in
a box. Fruita is also home to the Gifford Homestead, where you can find fresh
baked pies and cinnamon rolls early in the morning. They are usually sold out
of these by mid-morning. We never seemed to make it there early enough 🙁
After enjoying the Scenic Drive we headed over to Sunset Point. As the sun set behind us the harsh red rocks in our foreground turned to a soft pink while the sky radiated beautiful baby blue and pink tones. It was amazing!
The next day we drove through Cathedral Valley. We began the drive on E Hartnet Rd S, which requires you to forge a river. Fortunately, there had not been rain for awhile. The river was fairly tame and the water level was manageable.
Shortly after crossing the river we spotted this tarantula!
The red rock scenery along Hartnet is spectacular.
This part of the road is gravel and at times a bit bumpy, but manageable for any type of vehicle, as long as you can make it across the river. We came upon a car though that apparently did not make it around the complete desert loop.
After about 3 hours on the dirt road (2 hrs driving and 1 hr for lots of photography stops) we came to the Cathedral Valley Overlook point, where we decided to enjoy lunch. The views were spectacular.
After lunch we headed down into the valley for another 3-4 hour dirt road drive. Unfortunately, much of this road was washboard type, leading to an unpleasant and slow drive. The scenery in the valley is very nice, but we both agreed that we liked the first half of the loop better. Don’t get me wrong though, it is all spectacular! It is amazing to see such enormous red rock sculptures protruding out of the flat desert floor.
In the end we spent 7 hours driving along 70 miles of bumpy
dirt roads, and loved it.
For our last day around Capitol Reef we drove just outside the national park and took a few pictures with the drone. As a side note, most of the Cathedral Valley loop road is outside of the national park. We didn’t realize this until after we drove it. Had we realized it earlier we would have taken our drone with us. I think we could have gotten some great shots.
Since we were feeling a little better we took the short hike to Hickman Bridge. It was nearing sunset time and the light was perfect for a picture.
We ended the day, and our visit to Capitol Reef, with sunset along Scenic Drive.
A few final photos from Capitol Reef.
Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Our next destination was Escalante, UT. The drive, along UT-12, is one of the most scenic byways in the United States. The scenery is nothing short of breath-taking. Between Capitol Reef and the small village of Boulder you travel through the Dixie National Forest where expansive views of the colorful Capitol Reef National Park stand out, as well as the Circle Cliffs and the Henry Mountains. South of Boulder, UT-12 twists and turns through the Hogsback, a section of the road where cliffs drop steeply into narrow canyons on both sides of the highway. As you travel further south, through the Escalante canyons, you are blessed with panoramic views of colorful slickrock covering miles and miles of land. It is just gorgeous!
We stopped in Boulder, UT on our way down to Escalante, as
we had heard that there was a fabulous restaurant in town called Hell’s
Backbone Grill (www.hellsbackbonegrill.com). Boulder is a small village with
about 200 residents. The closest major grocery store is about 2 hours away. We
found it hard to believe that a restaurant, one that has the highest Zagat
ratings in Utah and was selected as a James Beard Award semifinalist in 2017
and 2018, could be found here. Well, let me tell you, if you ever make it to
this neck of the woods you must enjoy a meal at this restaurant. Reservations are
highly recommended. At a minimum, check out their website.
We enjoyed our breakfast/lunch so much so that we made a dinner reservation for the next day. The owners of the restaurant, Jen Castle and Blake Spalding, published two cookbooks since opening the restaurant 19 years ago. The books are more like stories of why they chose to open a restaurant in this remote location. It highlights their strong commitment to sustainability, environmental ethics, and social and community responsibility. They serve only organic, locally produced, regionally and seasonally appropriate cuisine. They grow many of their own vegetables and fruits in the restaurant’s two gardens and on their six-acre farm. Their grass-fed meat comes from local ranchers. Their books focus on their amazing community; the people and the land. I had to buy both of their books, of course. I’ve already finished one of them. I really enjoyed learning about the people of Boulder. I now have a strong appreciation for them. I can’t wait to try out some of the recipes from the book too.
For our first day in the area of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Park we drove the Burr Trail. This dirt road begins in Boulder, UT and passes through the painted rock country of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Capitol Reef National Park, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Highlights of this old cattle route include driving through the Long Canyon and great views of the Waterpocket Fold.
The Waterpocket Fold is a 100-mile long bend in the earth’s crust, extending from Thousand Lake Mountain in the north to Lake Powell in the south.
We took the short 3 mile 4WD side road to Strike Valley Overlook. We had fun off-roading and really liked the unique red rocks along the path. The views from the overlook were fabulous!
Below is a gallery of other pictures taken along the Burr Trail. Click on the first picture to enlarge and start a slideshow.
Along the Burr Trail is a set of switchbacks, a steep 12% grade. These switchbacks were once the only part of the road referred to as the Burr Trail. It wasn’t until more recently that the entire road became labeled as the Burr Trail.
We ended our day at Hell’s Backbone Grill, which is conveniently located at the start of the Burr trail.
The next day we drove the Hole-in-the-Rock road for 52 miles (round-trip). It was a painfully slow and bumpy drive in the Jeep Wrangler, as the dirt road was one continuous long washboard. Our first stop along this road was at mile 12, to see the Devil’s Garden. This is an area of spectacular rock formations. We spent about an hour roaming the formations.
At mile 26 we arrived at the Peek a Boo and Spooky Slot Canyons. We enjoyed hiking through both of them. They are very different. We started with Peek a Boo , which required that we scramble up a 15 foot wall initially. The canyon was fairly open and did not contain very many obstacles. Upon exiting Peek a Boo we hiked across the desert for half a mile to the Spooky Canyon.
Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon:
Spooky was definitely more challenging and is absolutely not recommended for anybody that cannot handle dark tight spaces.
At two different locations in Spooky we had to finagle 10 ft drops. Fortunately, the people ahead of us helped us get down, as we did for the people behind us.
Next to these two canyons is a third one, with no-name. It is a very basic slot canyon. We enjoyed strolling through it. There was only one area where we had to climb up and over some rocks. Charlie got a little creative.
We thoroughly enjoyed our slot canyon hikes, even if the drive there was unpleasant. The views near the slot canyons was gorgeous too.
Along the way, Charlie thought it prudent to disturb this huge ant hill. He wanted to prove to me that it was actually an ant hill. I don’t recall seeing any ant hills like this back in Michigan.
For our last day we hiked to the Lower Calf Creek waterfall. It is a nice canyon hike, 6 miles round-trip.
Bryce Canyon National
On UT-12, just east of UT-63 (which takes you to Bryce Canyon), is the Mossy Cave Trail. We enjoyed this short, but scenic, 1 mile hike along a stream. We were able to get up close to the hoodoos and spires.
After our short Mossy Cave walk we headed into the National Park. We parked at Sunset Point, in the last available parking space. We then took the shuttle bus up to Bryce Point and walked back to Sunset Point, taking in all of the gorgeous views along this 2.5 mile trail. We timed it such that we ended up back at Sunset Point for sunset, of course.
We were very happy to have such a beautiful day for exploring Bryce, as the next day brought winds in excess of 30mph and temps in the 40s. It would not have been pleasant walking along the rim. We hunkered down in the RV and chilled.
Zion National Park
My photography bucket list included capturing the iconic Zion National Park sunset picture along the Virgin River, at Canyon Junction. We were able to do this on our first evening.
I also captured this setting just after sunrise.
Another sunrise picture I captured was of the ‘Towers of the Virgin’, behind the park museum.
After getting my sunrise pictures in we headed over to the lodge and enjoyed a nice breakfast, followed by more picture taking at the Court of the Patriarchs.
We then hiked up to Angel’s Landing. The Angel’s Landing hike is the most iconic hike in Zion, and possibly the US. It is a 5 mile roundtrip hike with an elevation gain of 1,617 feet. You traverse up 21 switchbacks, named Walter’s Wiggles.
The Wiggles put you on top of the ridge, at Scout Lookout. The views from here are amazing. Hikers often think they have successfully made it to the top of Angel’s Landing once they arrive here. However, they quickly discover that they have the most challenging part of the hike ahead of them.
The final ½ mile of the trail follows the ridge across a saddle and up the hogs back. The trail is steep and only about 4 ½ – 5 feet wide, with 1,000’ drops on either side. There is a chain to hold onto, in most places, but not all. The rock can be slick, as it is covered with sand in spots. If you hold the chain and take one step at a time you can successfully make it to Angel’s Landing and be rewarded with fantastic views.
At times, it can get very crowded up on top. That’s when you have to be very attentive and careful! People have fallen to their death.
As you can imagine, we were exhausted after our full day of
sightseeing, photographing, and hiking in Zion. We ended our day at the Pizza
and Noodles restaurant in Springdale. Their pizza was very good!
We spent another day in Zion driving through the park, along UT-9. We enjoyed lots of ‘Eye Candy,’ including a great view from Canyon Overlook.
Below is a gallery of pictures taken throughout Zion, including another Tarantula and a Mickey Mouse cactus!
We ended the drive at Mt Carmel Junction and had lunch at the Thunderbird restaurant. It was pretty good. The restaurant itself has a lot of interesting history.
After a week and a half enjoying the beautiful national parks of southern Utah we began working our way to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. More on that later…..
RV Park Info:
Capitol Reef: We stayed at the Thousand Lakes RV Park in Torrey, UT. The view from our RV window was spectacular. The RV park was very clean and they have a great gift shop. Highly recommend this park. They are almost always full though so advance reservations are required. They have a grill on-site. We ate dinner there once, because we were too exhausted to do anything else. Food was average.
Escalante: We stayed
at the Canyons of Escalante RV Park. We liked the location of the campground;
walking distance to restaurants and close to the trails that we were interested
in hitting. Our site was a little tight for our 40’ four slide motorhome, but
we did fit and it worked out fine. The restaurant next door to the campground,
Circle D, is pretty good.
Ruby’s Inn RV Park
& Campground: One of the nicest campgrounds we have stayed at. We were
located in what appeared to be a new section of the park. All of the sites in
this area are HUGE. All have grass areas with picnic tables and fire pits. The
park is very nice and only a ½ mile from Bryce Canyon National Park.
Zion River RV Resort: Very nice resort located about 20 minutes from Zion National Park. This is a very nice campground with large sites, a great gift shop, and an ice cream parlor. They throw numerous activities for campers. While we were there we enjoyed a cheese and wine event. We found the staff to be great too. Highly recommend this park.