Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Driving the Moki Dugway

View from the top 

We left Natural Bridges National Monument and headed south toward Monument Valley.  We opted to drive on state highway 261.  It includes a stretch known as the Moki Dugway...a series of steep switchbacks on unpaved road.  Some of the descriptions I had read about this road made it sound a bit hair-raising.  I was glad the weather was good, so at least we didn't have to worry about poor road conditions.  We talked to several people (at our motel front desk and at the visitor's center for Natural Bridges) who assured us the road was fine and that it was a good drive, so off we went.

The sign before you begin the descent.

From the top of Cedar Mesa, we began the 1100 foot descent.  Oh the places you can go in a minivan!  The road is not recommended for vehicles over 28 feet in length or weighing over 10,000 lbs.  In other words, large trucks, buses, RVs, and people pulling trailers should avoid this road.  

We could see the line of the road stretching south far below us.

As I looked out the window at the narrow ribbon of road stretching south, I could see tiny vehicles like ants in the distance.  Were we really going down there? 1100 feet in only 3 miles.  I was glad I wasn't driving!  Despite the fact that there aren't a lot of safety features, like guardrails, along this road, I only felt a little nervous on this adventure. We took it slow, and enjoyed the amazing views on the way down.

Switchbacks of the Moki Dugway

I think it is the craziest road I have ever been on.  The most nerve-wracking times were when we encountered another vehicle and had to pass each other on the road.  The views were beautiful, though.  It was hazy that day, which is becoming all too common in this part of Utah.  Still, it was a great drive.  Be sure to use your lower gears on the way down!  

Leaving the Moki Dugway behind!

Once we were at the bottom, we took a minute to look behind us at where we had been.  Only minutes before we were on the top of that high mesa.  This is definitely a beautiful part of Utah, and a great drive to take if you get the chance.  The Moki Dugway is on the Utah section of the "Trail of the Ancients" drive.  As you travel on highway 261, you will see places to turn off to the Goosenecks State Park and the Valley of the Gods.  Because we were fitting so many things into our day, we did not stop at those two places.

Mexican Hat

A short time later we passed this "Mexican Hat" geologic formation, and then we were in the town of Mexican Hat.  We stopped for gas, and then headed out to Monument Valley.  I was very glad we took the drive through the Moki Dugway!  If you are traveling between Blanding, Utah and Mexican Hat, it is the scenic way to go!  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Natural Bridges - Owachomo Bridge

Owachomo Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument

Owachomo ("rock mound" in Hopi) was our last stop at Natural Bridges.  We walked first to the overlook, then continued on a short hike to the bridge itself.  I am glad we took the time for the hike.  The view from the overlook isn't nearly as good.  However, the overlook walk is paved, only 220 feet long, and completely accessible. 

Paved trail to the overlook.

Owachomo blends in with the background from the overlook.

After seeing the view from the overlook, we started down the trail to the bridge.  Owachomo looks more delicate than the previous bridges we viewed.  Perhaps it eroded more quickly. The river that formed it no longer runs beneath it.  The trail was not too steep, and also not very long.  The trail sign indicates this trail is two-tenths of a mile, and only has a 180 foot elevation change.  It is suitable for a variety of ages and abilities.

Sign showing the trail to the bridge continuing to the right.

Not very far down the trail, the view of Owachomo was improving.  We were eager to reach the bridge.

View of Owachomo from the trail.

The sun was out, and as we descended we got some protection from the wind.  Still, we were grateful for sweatshirts.  We continued on to the bridge, and then spent some time beneath its wide expanse taking in the view and listening for the canyon wrens that are supposed to be common in this area.

Yellow flowers by the trail.

Once you reach the bridge, you can sit on the rocks, or wander a bit further to the river bed.  You can easily walk to see the bridge from the other side.  Owachomo is the oldest bridge in the park, and it was very calming to sit under its 180 foot expanse.  

Sun over Owachomo bridge.

We took photos and walked around for awhile.  This hike is not long, and you could easily visit this bridge in about half an hour.  The views are worth the effort.

Another view of Owachomo.

We headed back up the trail.  By now we had seen all three bridges at the monument, and everyone was getting hungry for lunch.  Because it was still cold and windy, we opted not to eat at a picnic area, but instead made lunches out of the cooler in the back of the van, and ate in the protective warmth of the vehicle.  This was a nice little trail, and visiting the Mule Canyon Ruin and Natural Bridges was a great way to spend the morning.   Owachomo was my favorite of the three bridges, maybe because it is the only one we hiked to!

View of the Owachomo Bridge trail looking back toward the overlook.

After lunch, we packed up, made one last stop at the visitor's center to refill our water jug, use the restrooms, and do a little souvenir shopping, and then we left on our drive to Monument Valley.  It was a beautiful morning at Natural Bridges!  Someday I hope to do the hikes to their fullest, but I was glad we could at least do a little bit this morning!

Uglydoll Dave Darinko enjoys Owachomo Bridge.

Check out our other stops from this day trip:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Birding in Utah - Part 2

Barn Swallow

Our morning visit to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge began with swarms of swallows flying around us.  As we approached their mud nests, they abandoned their homes and swirled around the area.  I don't know if they were trying to distract us, or were just waiting for us to leave so they could return to their nests.  We saw both barn swallows and cliff swallows.  The cliff swallows had a light colored patch on their heads.

A cliff swallow works on his mud nest.

We saw swallows down near the water getting mud for their construction projects.  These nests were under every eave near bathrooms and under pavilion roofs.

American Avocet

We saw several water birds, including this American Avocet.  The rosy colored head is indicative of breeding season.  In winter, these birds have a white head.

A Black-necked Stilt

The black-necked stilt had bright pink legs!  I enjoyed watching these long-legged birds walk.

Cinnamon Teal

The brightly colored cinnamon teal was a favorite.  It was easy to pick this bird out, even from a distance, because of its rich cinnamon color.  The female on the left is much duller in coloration.

Canadian Geese and Goslings

Driving in to the refuge, we saw several Canadian geese in fields.  As we drove the auto-tour loop, however, we saw families of geese.  They swam away from the shore as we approached, keeping their goslings safely between the parents.  These goslings were much larger than the first ones we saw, and fewer in number.

Franklin's Gull

At first I thought this might be a Bonaparte's gull, but the Franklin's gull has a distinctive red beak.  When we looked through the binoculars, it was clear that this fellow sported the red beak, and therefore, we determined it was the Franklin's gull.  The Franklin's is more common in this area anyway, so it made sense.

American Coot

The American coot looks a lot like a duck, but is not considered to be a duck since it does not have webbed feet.  It has large lobed toes instead.  It is the only all-black bird with a white bill.  We saw several of these, and they became a favorite as they were easy to identify.

California gull

As we drove, we saw several gulls standing on what looked like pieces of wood.  However, as we got closer, we realized the "logs" were really dead carp.  I am not sure why they died.  The water level was lower in this channel, and perhaps these big fish were trapped without enough water.  The gulls were ready for a feast, though!

Western Grebe

During breeding season, the black on the head of a western grebe extends down to its eye, and often below the eye.  It is also identified by its red eye and yellow bill.  The Clark's grebe is similar, but has an orange bill and the black does not extend to the eye.  We saw many western grebes during our drive.  Sometimes they move their necks back so that their heads are practically resting on their backs.  I enjoyed seeing the birds exhibit this behavior.

Western grebe with its head pulled back.

Yellow-headed blackbird.

Yellow-headed blackbirds were everywhere.  The white on the wing was more visible when the bird was in  flight.  I even learned to identify the females which are a lighter brown with a yellow-brown head.  We also saw several red-winged blackbirds.

Red-winged blackbird.

The red patches on the wings are particularly brilliant when these birds are in flight.  

American white pelicans.

I have occasionally seen a pelican, but it was great to see these birds in larger numbers.  We watched them floating  on the water, walking on the shore, and flying in the air.  These are big birds, and it was beautiful to see several of them flying together.

Pelican in flight.

One of the observation decks along the auto-tour route.

Parking is available at several pull-outs along the drive.  The observation deck offered a different perspective of the refuge.  This is a great place to use your binoculars.  The views from the deck were beautiful.

View from an observation deck.

There were lots of mosquitoes, however, and we were always happy to return to the car.  At one point along the drive, we saw a badger look at us, then duck into his burrow.  At another stop, we saw otters swimming in the water.

Otter in the water.

The small killdeer ran along the side of the road.  They were also fun to watch, but blended in well with the dirt and gravel.


I think one of my favorite birds of the day was the snowy egret.  These birds are beautiful. Their white feathers are tufted and soft looking at the back of their heads, and they also scrunch their heads down sometimes, so that their neck almost disappears.  The very best part, however, is the fact that they have big yellow feet.  Really!  Black legs, and big yellow feet.  I wasn't able to get a photo of their feet, as the ones I saw were standing in the water.  However, when they took off in flight, we could see their yellow feet.

Beautiful plumage of a snowy egret

As we finished our auto-tour, we pulled into the parking area by the last observation deck.  I wanted to get a better photo of a white-faced ibis, and one was conveniently posing near the road.  

White-faced ibis

We debated whether or not we should go up on the last observation deck, but we were a bit intimidated by the swarms of bugs.  Also, we felt like we had seen a wide variety of birds, including two great blue herons that we enjoyed watching take off, but were unable to photograph.  The consensus was everyone was tired and hungry, and it was time to finish our tour.  As I looked out the passenger window, however, I spotted a big bird trying to blend in with the grasses.  It stood with its head pointing up, like a weed, and held really still.  I had no idea what it was, so I pointed it out to my passengers.  One of them said, "American bittern."  Sure enough, as we double checked the guidebooks, there it was.  An American bittern.  I had never even heard of this bird before!  And now I have seen one.

American bittern.

The American bittern has green legs.  If you look closely at the photo, you can see them.  We had a great time birding, and hope to return to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge again.  Since it is only a bit more than an hour from Salt Lake, I plan to return to see migrating birds this fall.  I am also going to try some other birding sites in Utah.  We saw a few other birds that day that I did not capture in photos, such as the eastern kingbird, mallard ducks, and a cowbird.  Overall, it was a great experience and a fun family activity.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Birding in Utah - Part 1

View of the water at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Have you seen "The Big Year?"  This 2011 movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson is about three men pursuing a "big year" in birding--trying to see the most birds in one calendar year.  The prize?  A ranking in a birding magazine indicating who had the highest counts.  Oh, and I guess personal satisfaction is the real reward.  The whole competition works on the honor system. This is a great little movie you may have overlooked.  After seeing it last year, I started learning a bit about birding opportunities in Utah.  

Western grebes - Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

My birdwatching experiences have been very casual.  We had a bird feeder at our house when I was young, and I learned to identify common backyard birds such as robins, house finches, sparrows, juncos, and black-capped chickadees.  Since then, I have expanded my knowledge base to include several other local birds, and I have seen some interesting birds on vacations.  I even know a few birds by their calls, but that has been the extent of my birding adventures.

View from an observation deck .

I have learned that Utah is a major migration pathway for several species of birds.  This gives many opportunities to see a variety of species practically in my own backyard.  With that in mind, I loaded the kids in the car and we took off for the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  Most of the spring migrations took place in March and April, so we were focusing on seeing species that live at the refuge year round, or that come for breeding and nesting season.  I do want to return in the autumn months to see some of the migratory visitors.

Cliff swallows fly close to their nests.

It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the bird refuge from Salt Lake.  Take I-15 northbound to Brigham City.  In Brigham City, take the Forest Street exit (Exit 363), and travel west on Forest Street until you reach the bird refuge (about 12 miles).  You will pass the visitor's center not too far off the freeway.  We opted not to stop at the visitor's center, but continued on to the auto-tour route.  This is a 12 mile loop on a one-way road.  Sometimes the road is closed because of weather conditions, but normally it is open during daylight hours year round.  There is no fee to visit the bird refuge.

First birds of the day!

We stopped in the first parking area (there are toilet facilities here) and began our birding adventure.  Since I am a complete amateur at this, I wondered if we would have any success.  However, I learned that a little preparation goes a long way in helping everyone have a successful birding experience.  Here are my bird watching tips:
  • Take binoculars.  We had six people in our group and shared 3 pairs of binoculars.
  • Download the bird list from the Bear River Migratory Bird site.  This list tells you which birds are at the refuge in which seasons, which birds stay year round, which birds are common and which are rare, etc.  I also checked the website before we went to see which birds had people had been seeing in large numbers.  This gave me a pretty good idea of which species to look for before we hit the road.
  • Take a guidebook.  We had a couple of different books with us, one specific to Utah, and one specific to North America.  Both books were helpful.  
  • If you are birding with small children, consider printing out pictures so they can compare the photos with the birds they are looking at.  The visitor's center would also be a good place to visit with small children.
  • Take food and something to drink!  I was too lazy to pack snacks for this trip, and we did get a little hungry and thirsty.
  • Take bug spray!  I didn't even think about it, but since this is a marshy area, the mosquitoes are large and healthy.
  • Take a notebook to record which birds you see.  We identified 23 species of birds in the time we were at the bird refuge.  There were a couple birds we could not identify, but overall, we were satisfied with our success.
Franklin's Gull

This was a lot of fun.  It took us about 2 hours to drive the auto-tour route.  We stopped at several parking pull-outs, and both observation decks.  I don't think you are supposed to stop along the road, but we did several times since there were no other cars in sight.  We encountered a few people fishing, but there were no crowds on the auto-tour, and it was a Saturday morning when we went.

American Crows greeted us on the drive.

I highly recommend a visit to this bird refuge.  In my next post, I'll showcase some of the birds we saw during our visit.  Have you ever been birding?  What are your favorite birds?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Natural Bridges - Kachina Bridge

Kachina Bridge - Natural Bridges National Monument

As we continued driving the loop at Natural Bridges, we stopped to walk to the Kachina Bridge overlook.  The trail to the overlook is paved, 600 feet long, and has a 60 foot elevation change.  It was still cold and windy on top of the ridge here, and we didn't linger too long at this overlook.  Kachina is a bit difficult to view from here, but you can see it is a massive bridge.

Wider view of Kachina shows the water carved canyon.

There is a trail descending down to the bridge.  It is three-quarters of a mile one way, with a 400 foot elevation change.  We had a lot on our agenda the day we visited, so we only stopped at the overlook.  Kachina was named after rock art dancing figures carved near the base of the bridge.  

Trail sign at Kachina Bridge.

Kachina is younger than the other bridges.  In 1992, around 4000 tons of sandstone fell from the Kachina bridge, enlarging its opening.  I am glad I wasn't standing under it at the time!  These bridges are ever-changing as the canyons continue to erode.  Currently, Kachina is 210 feet high and spans 204 feet.

Deep wash carved by the river.

The scenery here was beautiful, as are many places in southern Utah.  Despite the wind chill, we enjoyed looking at the geologic formations here.

View from the walkway.

We wandered back to our car, enjoying the changing colors and twisted patterns in the rock.  On our way back, we passed a rock wall with an alcove that sheltered miniature bridges.  I enjoyed seeing this tiny version of nature's work.

Tiny bridges hide in the rock wall along the trail.

If you have time to hike down to Kachina bridge (plan about 45 minutes), I am sure you would get a much better view.  But, we still planned to see Owachomo and then drive to Monument Valley on this particular day, so we settled for viewing the bridge from the overlook.

Indian Paintbrush

I love plants and flowers that manage to grow and bloom in difficult conditions. This Indian paintbrush caught my eye.  It was a much deeper red in color than the paintbrush I see in more alpine settings.

Deep shadow under Kachina.

With a last look at Kachina, we continued on the scenic loop to Owachomo bridge.  For more on Natural Bridges National Monument, click here.

See my other blog posts:
Natural Bridges - Owachomo Bridge