What is the Tonto Trails Experience?

 In Trip Reports

A sunset like this demanded a special meal, so we cooked glazed pork loin….and that was after a day of four-wheeling in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

It was Day 3 of our first adventure with Tonto Trails. We’ll talk about this night later, for now we need to go back to the beginning. About six months ago, my husband Michael and I decided to visit parts of the west that were unfamiliar. We have previously visited several National Parks, staying in hotels close by, but this time we wanted to really explore, so we contacted John Hartley, co-owner of Tonto Trails, about our idea. After a few emails discussing where we wanted to go and the activities we wanted to include (hiking for sure), he sent us a sample itinerary, which included maps, pictures and helpful information, so we could get a sense of the trip. We were very excited by the suggested route and wanted our vacation to start then and there; however, we had to wait until October as planned.

October finally comes – Arrival Day!

We got to Durango on a Saturday and began the first order of business, selecting the vehicle. Our choice was Truck Norris (Dodge Ram with attached camper) or a Sports Mobile (SMB). Either would have worked, but as I’m short and could see better in the SMB, the choice was made. John took us through the vehicle training to familiarize us with the ins-and-outs of the SMB and the supporting materials, should we need their reference. Full disclosure here, we are John’s aunt and uncle, but underwent the same process as any client. The next order of business was to plan some menus and go food shopping. With those tasks out of the way, we essentially moved in to the SMB for a five-day camping trip. We were ready! The SMB was fully loaded with great cooking equipment, sheets, towels, warm sleeping bags, other camp tools and a supply of maps, GPS and satellite text. We basically had a rolling condo!

Day 1

After looking at the maps again and discussing the general plan, we headed west to Utah. A relatively short time later, we stopped in Blanding, UT at a gas station, complete with a bowling alley. A few miles after that, we stopped to hike in the South Fork of Mule Canyon to see the Anasazi Ruins (Ancient Pueblo). The well-known ruin is called “House on Fire”. We saw a few fellow hikers a long the way, but not many. After three miles of exploration, we hiked back to the vans to proceed to our first night of camping.

We drove on to Muley Point and found a site overlooking Monument Valley. By the time we got there it was supper time, so we set up camp quickly – raised the top of the SMB, got out the table and chairs, collected some wood and started the camp fire. Dinner was rice pasta with tomato sauce and sautéed vegetables – all cooked on the camp stoves. It was a great start to the trip! We had the added bonus of a nearly full moon, which made headlamps unnecessary. Since we expected the sunrise to be spectacular, we went to bed early so that we would be ready at first light.

Day 2

We awoke when it was still dark and put water on for coffee. At first light, we walked about 50 yards to the edge of the cliffs to watch the sunrise.

Trying to find adequate words to describe the beauty, may be best left to those with more poetic talents than I. I’m going to have faith that the pictures offer several thousand words.

Once the sun was up it was time for more coffee and Michael’s yummy oatmeal with cranberries and nuts. After that, we broke camp and began driving to our next hiking destination – Hammond Canyon in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The hike featured a significant elevation change (almost 2,000 feet), spires, a stream and in fact more shade than I would have imagined. It was challenging, but the trail is well maintained and the many switchbacks help tremendously.

Hammond Canyon Spire

Because we finished a little later than we had planned, we considered camping there (it’s not like we had to worry about a hotel reservation), but in the end we pressed on to get near the southern tip of Canyonlands National Park. We pulled into our site in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area off of Salt Creek Rd and were treated to another spectacular sunset view.

We set up camp, lit the campfire and tonight, got out the grill for steaks with sides of green salad and quinoa. We were again treated to a blazing moon and clear sky.



Day 3

After a full night’s sleep, it was time for breakfast, so John whipped together French Toast. Once we packed up, we headed to the Needles District of the Canyonlands National park. Today would be a less active hiking day since the Hammond Canyon journey was challenging.

We decided to test the vehicles on a moderate road and practice some of our off-road driving techniques. Several miles in, we saw John out of his vehicle motioning for us to pull over. We do and then see the large, but relatively fat rocks in the road, so we think it must be the hard part. Boy were we wrong, this wasn’t the hard part, that would be in a few more miles. I confess that I gulped when I realized I was going to actually drive over this, for it was intimidating! I also know that we were with experienced drivers and both John and Julie excel at four wheel driving. John walked us through how to determine the route by sections and Julie instructed on spotting techniques. By breaking it into segments it seemed less scary and very possible. I got in the Sportsmobile and did my first rock crawl! What a thrill!

We had several more ahead of us and with each one there was great instruction and confidence-building guidance. Eventually we got to the “extreme” part and so we parked and walked to the overlook. After walking back, we of course realized that we had to traverse the same road back. Using the same instructional method, Michael got to experience his first rock crawl!

Once we completed crawling and driving back, we made our way to the Needles Outpost for much needed shower. We had options in that department, because the van is equipped with a solar shower, but it was late in the day with not much solar left. The $7 shower for five minutes of hot water was a great investment, plus we could get ice cream at the general store! After that, we headed to nearby Hamburger Rock and picked a camping spot on one of the rocks. That is when we decided that Glazed Pork Loin would be the perfect meal. We got out the barbecue grill that was in the van and Michael went to work. In about 45 minutes, we had a spectacular meal to match the aforementioned sunset.

We soon realized that there would be a Total Lunar Eclipse in the wee hours of the morning, so we packed up the supper dishes and set our alarms. We did get up to view it, which was cool. You can’t really do that in the city, so it was just one more special moment in an already packed trip.

Day 4

The next day, we were heading off on our own, without Julie and John, to Moab and Arches National Park. Along the way we stopped for breakfast at Eklecticafe, a funky place that is worth stopping for. We hiked in Arches and reflected on the fact that had we been smarter about the area, we would have spent more time in Canyonlands; however, this motivates us to come back for a second trip! In the afternoon we stopped at Moab Coffee Roasters for a coffee top-off. It was another off-beat place where you could shop for a Life is Good T Shirt or flowy dress while you waited for your order.

With coffee in hand, it was now time to plan where we would stop for the night. Because we planned to spend a day in Telluride, we decided to head East towards the dot on the map called La Sal. We realized we would drive through a section of the La Sal National Forest, so we decided to explore some roads there and find a camping spot, which was easy to do.

Day 5

After breakfast we began our trek to Telluride and made it there about mid-day. It was raining steadily at this point. We stopped at the Visitor Center to get information on the Town Campground, showers and such. After stopping at the Steaming Bean (there is a theme here), we headed to the campground, where, because Michael is over 59, we got a spot for $12 a night. We were staying in Telluride, walking distance from the main drag, in a comfortable (and dry!) van for 12 bucks! The rain did not deter us, but we did opt for the free shuttle to take us a few blocks into town.

We did get a little concerned when we heard about winter weather advisories affecting our route home, but we talked to some people at a local sporting good store and were told to take Lizard’s Head Pass back to Durango the next day. The clouds were still low and we only occasionally saw a snow-covered peak, but it was still beautiful and at times breathtaking.

Not seeing the mountains around Telluride due to cloud cover was added to the list of reasons we were accumulating to do this type of trip again. We truly experienced the great outdoors in a way that we had not before and we realized that we had barely scratched the surface. Tonto Trails made it all possible!

Pork Loin with Chutney on the Grill Recipe
Get a small pork loin – about 1.5 lbs and buy a jar of chutney.
To cook it, heat the coals in the BBQ so they are hot.
Make a slice in the pork loin and spread it a bit.
Put the chutney in the slice and then press it together.
Spread more chutney on the outside of the pork loin.
Wrap in foil and put on the hot BBQ grill for about 45 minutes (depending on heat).
Once cooked let sit for a few minutes, then slice.
Then eat it. Yum!!

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