Photographer + Sportsmobile = Unforgettable Adventure

 In Trip Reports

I saw a Sportsmobile on the internet and started to dream. After talking to Sportsmobile and some other Sportsmobile enthusiasts, I found Tonto Trails; and connected with John and Julie Hartley, who luckily began a business renting Sportsmobiles and other 4WD/RV vehicles. It was a done deal and the scheduling began. John and I hit it off over the phone and exchanged many possible itineraries. Maps, books, internet searches and information from other photographer friends provided an initial game plan to do the back roads north of Durango, where John was based, then head west for canyon country, possibly as far as the Grand Canyon. However, arriving in Durango, Colorado was inundated with rains, floods so extreme as to lead to national disaster relief. Fortunately, Durango wasn’t in the center of the storms and it didn’t delay the trip. Plans altered however, I need to head west, away from the weather where 4WD roads would be impassible.

Meeting John for breakfast, on Friday the 13th the journey began with a thorough review of the vehicle. I was driving an extended body van and John decided to come along and drive Tonto, his personal Sportsmobile that he and Julie had put many memorable miles in. John was bringing Ozzie, a young red heeler, with whom I quickly bonded. After the lengthy and detailed review of the vehicle, we headed to the supermarket for provisions and agreed to head west into Utah, arriving toward the end of the day in Valley of the Gods, Utah for our first boondocking site. Storms were roving and I took the opportunity to take a few lightning shots at day’s end and John surprised me with his culinary skill. Not an experienced camper, I quickly learned the daily life drills for boondocking and spent the end of a long day “upstairs” in my Sportsmobile.

(Saturday, 9-14) An early riser, as still in Eastern Time, two hours earlier, I was up at 4am and anxious to get some initial sunrise shots, especially with the numerous storms which were still roving the area. With Ozzie barking at my movements I decided to drive my van closer to the buttes where I might be able to get a better composition than from where we were camped. Some of the best shots of my trip resulted, being treated with a double rainbow over a tall and imposing butte.

Considering out options we decided to head southwest to Monument Valley. Flat arid land with amazing buttes and red rock structures rising from the plain in a myriad of shapes and sizes. John and I had the same immediate reaction: tourists galore. The Navajo don’t permit explorations without a native guide and the permitted loop road, was crowded with cars. The absence of rain made the midday photo opportunities nil. We were on the verge of leaving but met Fred, a native guide who professed to specialize in guiding photographers. He turned out to be a treasure. He showed us an impressive photo album and I made arrangements to meet him at 3am. John decided to find a boondocking site and do some hiking with Ozzie and connect with me back in Utah Sunday afternoon at 1pm. I caught a shower for $10 at Goulding and camped at a public area just outside the entrance to Monument Valley.

(Sunday, 9-15) Fred was able to verify my arrival from his house and met me at a deserted visitors center at 3:15am. We spent the hours before dawn shooting rocks in the dark, starlight background and various artificial lighting. (Definitely a learning curve with I’m anxious to get back to.) As the dawn approached we headed for a location that would put us on the top of a butte for a good view of the area. After walking over flat sandy ground for a couple of miles we came to the rocky base of a large butte. Fred asked if I wanted to take the valley or the rocks. Of course, the valley. The valley lasted for a few hundred yards when he led me the base of a way too vertical rock face. Fred assured me it was very short, he would help me, carry the tripod and began the initially doable lower portion. It wasn’t possible from that position to see where we were going or the climb would have been over before it began. Sweating and nervous we turned a corner and nervous turned to scared and soon scared turned to terrified. There weren’t any handholds and only the barest of depressions to gain secure footing. In the less vertical areas Fred kept instructing me to stand straight but my brain wouldn’t allow it. But leaning into the rock reduced the surface area my feet held on the rock. I finally arrived at a slightly more upright posture, crouching so my hands could be pressed against the rock in front of me and I kind of scuttled forward behind my upright noble guide.

Without going into more detail, which is seared into my memory, we made it up and back without fatality or mortal injury and I will never do it again, but given my survival very glad to have had the experience. The pictures from the height of the mesa took on a somewhat Salvador Dali look due the atmospheric conditions and I am quite happy with them.

[Fred Cly Photography Specialist, P.O. Box 310308, Mexican Hat, UT 84531-0308; cell 435-419-0465, home 435-739-4294, $175/person for what we did.] Back for another shower and off to meet John at Moki Dugwai, where we arrived simultaneously. My nerves and my legs were shot so I was only interested in a nice drive and campsite. We took a dirt road to Muley Point and set up camp. We were high on the rocks with a nice view of the unusual terrain below, carved into a seemingly infinite number of rises and valleys. Ozzie found a dog pool in the rocks and I snapped a few shots of John and his best friend at the campfire.

It initially looked like our planned route to Capitol Reef was going to be frustrated due to flooded roads. We headed west on 95, south on 276 and wanted to take Burr Trail to Boulder, UT. Unfortunately the road was closed to standard vehicles. Having Sportsmobiles, however, we decided to dare it. We encountered one 4WD truck being pulled by a bulldozer out of the mud but were glad to learn that it had come from the direction we were going and the going turned out to be easy. On to Burr Trail with a glorious switchback rise into the southern portion of Capitol Reef National Park. John led us into Muley Twist, a rocky dry riverbed that I found very challenging but John advised was relatively easy. Good directions, spotting and lessons from John and the experience made my confidence in the vehicle soar. Finding a flat spot we set up camp. A short hike to Strike Valley Overlook followed by dinner and a few night shots of the stars and some welcome recovery sleep from the hard day at Monument Valley.

We hiked the first portion of the Upper Muley Twist Canyon, which began at our campsite, and found and photographed the first two arches on the trail. Back to camp for lunch we met and Englishman, Sam, coming down from the Overlook trail as his wife, Helen, hiked the Twist Canyon trail. We invited Sam to sit with us for a while and had a nice conversation.

We quickly broke camp and headed west on Burr Trail to Boulder. Knowing that I would want to stop for pictures and knowing that the camping area at Lower Calf Falls, our next target, would fill early, John went ahead and we agreed to meet at Boulder if he was still there or at the camp site. Burr Trail was breathtaking. (Like most of the trip, words don’t describe.) Boulder is really just an intersection, with a few hotels and a gas station and wonderful restaurant and store. It turned out that there were no more campsites at Lower Calf Falls and neither of us was interested in camping in the parking lot, which the host graciously said we could do. John spotted a dirt road leading to the power and phone lines on the ridge paralleling the valley and we found a campsite there much more to our liking. We came back to Boulder for dinner, caught up a bit on our email and met Gina and Matt, who gave us some directions on how to hike to Neon Valley, which was going to be the highlight location of the trip. It is a cavern with holes at the top, water at the bottom where rock climbers sometime go to practice their rappelling skills. High hopes.

Up early to hike Lower Calf Falls before people got there. I got a good head start on John and Ozzie but those two athletes quickly caught up. The hike was a lot longer than I expected but we were delighted with the falls, which we had to ourselves for a good two hours. Lots of shots with and without Ozzie, and of Ozzie retrieving sticks. After the hike back I told John I needed a day off if I was going to do Neon Canyon, which was a much longer and included climbing into and out of valleys. We decided to go to Escalante and check with the Rangers. This was a well equipped Ranger Station on the west side of town. We learned that all access to Neon Canyon was washed out, no access even for our capable vehicles. We had lunch at the Outfitters, which we expected to be burgers but was reasonable and gourmet. The waitress was an older woman named Page. Our plans dashed, we decided to head for Dixie Forest which had a rocky steep access road that John had some history with climbing it in snow and flowing water coming down the path. We found a nice meadow at the top and set up camp.

I was up early and took Ozzie for a nice hike. John cooked us up some breakfast and we decided to check out Bryce Canyon. We got to Bryce in the early afternoon and explored a bit. I wanted to be at Sunset point at early but misjudged the time to get from the southernmost point of the Rim Trail to that point. John dropped me off there and parked at Sunset Point. We both realized the mistake and he came running to my aid. He was an anxious for me to get good shots as I was. I was going as fast as I could thinking I might just make it in time when to my relief I saw him coming. He grabbed the tripod and camera and off we went. Jogging the downhill. Going up I felt a hand on my back and benefited from the well-known “Hartley Assist”. We made it and although the sky was clear and the sunrise short, the place is unreal. John treated me to “Bird in a Basket”, an egg, bacon on a nice piece of toast. I wolfed it down.

(Friday, 9-20) Up early again to catch the sunrise at Bryce and hike the trails. Magical place. After a quick lunch we decided to make the long drive to Arches. Heading north on 89 to catch I-70 East. I expected the interstate to be bland but it was anything but. I would come around a curve to massive hard-edged buttes that towered over the highway. We made Arches in plenty of time and I decided to photograph the Windows area. Unfortunately, the sun wasn’t right for that location at sunset and we didn’t have time to explore further and determine a good location for sunrise. I decided to come back expecting the shadow side of the double arches to be bathed in the dawns light. Wrong. Experience counts. Next time unless there is weather expected, I’ll come during a full moon and photograph at night. The park is open 24 hours and I think the locations under the moonlight would abound.

Up early again and we on the hard roads to the Windows section of Arches for sunrise. Lots of shots, hiking and exploring and time to start the long journey back to Durango. Frankly, I was beat and needed lots of coffee to keep me functioning. John suggested taking the mountain route back to Durango, which would include Ophir Pass. As tired as I admitted to being, John assured me it would be worth it. Ophir was a collection of what looked to be vacation homes followed by an easy 4WD trail heading up. John taught me how to air down and up the tires and we shifted to 4WD low for the pass. The pass crosses the face of a mountain and while the road was easy, it still made my palms sweat and I was very concerned about meeting oncoming traffic, as there was only room for one. I’m happy John encouraged me to take the pass. It is unforgettable.

Back to Durango to meet Julie and her joyful reunion with Ozzie and John, in that order. I never saw him wiggle so much, Ozzie that is. Their house is beautiful and we were met with a double rainbow over the ridge behind their house. Their road had been closed due to flooding while we were away but despite the mud it was open and easily passable. They have set up a camping area on their property and after a nice dinner in town I went to bed early to get my camera gear and clothes together. Very happy to be spending my last night in the Sportsmobile but it thundered and lightning all night keeping me awake and concerned about my flights. A waste of worry, home safe and sound dreaming of my next Sportsmobile adventure.

Mike Cohen

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