The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

Read Part One of the series here.

After a restful sleep in Tropic, Utah, we packed our Ford Transit CV1 CamperVan custom outfitted by ModVans, a family-owned Oxnard start-up. Dubbed ‘Vinny Von Van,’ Vinny was not only our convenient constant companion, but also a seriously fun ride. Having all we needed at our fingertips including kitchenette, toilet and outdoor shower coupled with the ability to easily change course added to our sense of freedom following COVID-19’s lengthy lockdown.

The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

Vinny Von Van, our Ford Transit CV1 CamperVan, is custom outfitted by ModVans, an Oxnard start-up. (Julie Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Hiking, driving and yurting, oh my

We wanted to see Zion National Park, but declined since when traveling in early June visitors were required to shuttle to many areas within the park. I’d become emotionally attached to Vinny and liked having his refrigerator of ice-cold drinks handy as the mercury rose. And then there was the fact that being in a crowded bus was hardly social distancing. Days later, the shuttle operation was suspended. (Visitors should check routinely during travels as road and trail openings and operations are constantly changing.)

Bryce Canyon National Park, though, was perfect. With an umbrella of clear, turquoise skies, my daughter and I hiked the arduously steep, eight-mile Fairyland Trail Loop amid massive canyons and otherworldly hoodoos — the tall, thin, totem-pole like spires — for which the region is renowned. In under four hours, we happily saw only a dozen other hikers.

Returning we opened Vinny’s side door and awning, made lunch and enjoyed the park’s marvelous canyon views. Happy to sit in Vinny’s comfortable leather seats, I drove several miles through the park to its highest elevation — the magnificent Rainbow Viewpoint. A better payoff would be hard to imagine.

Driving along Scenic Byway 12 is less about driving and more about staying oxygenated, so breathtaking is this 122-mile highway. Peaks ranging from 4,000 to 10,000-foot elevation, extreme engineering feats allowing vehicular passage, rock formations, plateaus, alpine forests and other eye candy compete for a mind-blowingly beautiful drive.

Heading east to Escalante, population 750, we hung our hats and tired bodies at Escalante Yurts. Though I’ve slept in a countless variety of accommodations over the years, this was my first – and hope fully not my last – yurt. Idyllically set on 30 acres about two miles above Byway 12 and owned by Jan and Scott Roundy, seven beautifully outfitted, hardwood floor yurts have strong wi-fi, king-sized bed, kitchenette, indoor and outdoor dining areas and en suite bathroom. Grounds are peaceful with trees, hammocks and of course, fire pits for necessary s’mores.

The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

The interior in the yurt in Escalante was nothing short of lovely. (Julie Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Slithering through Slot Canyoneering

I’m fond of neither heights nor close, narrow spaces. However, I wanted to experience the ethereal environment of fissures, canyons and chasms invisible from Vinny’s leather seats or hiking. So we met up with affable, expert guide Rick Green, owner of Excursions of Escalante, who has been canyoneering for over 20 years.

Following an interview about our activity levels and detailed safety lecture that would serve us well throughout our travels, we were outfitted with helmet, harness, backpack and critically important suede gloves.¬ An hour drive to a remote section of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with views of 50-Mile Mountain – part of the Kaiparowits Plateau – we used Rick’s Spot GPS satellite device to let the office know we were about to descend.

As I turned my back to the abyss starting my descent, serious questions about my sanity swirled. But Rick’s calm expertise and Solomonic-like voice “Think yoga, not ninja warrior” prevailed. Without looking down and fixated on planting my feet, I slowly descended into the canyon’s opening, wedded in holy matrimony to my harness and nine-millimeter rope.

The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

The author takes a short rest from canyoneering at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. (Julie Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Our day adventure included four rappels and several hours of contortionist maneuvering to get through extremely narrow, twisted crevasses. At first glance, they seem impassable, but slow navigation while contemplating Raggedy Ann proved successful.

Just before stopping for a picnic lunch within the canyon, Rick saw a leopard lizard had fallen into an opening. Quickly snatching it, he slid it into his backpack’s pouch for release once outside the cave. Otherwise, with no food sources in the canyon, reptilian death was certain. On other occasions, a bobcat kitten, rattle snake, owl, fawn and even a skunk went into Rick’s backpack for later release or medical attention.

After exiting the cave into the bright sunlight and during the fairly strenuous hike back to the Jeep, I simultaneously felt empowered and humbled. (Canyoneering season is April through November.)

Capitalizing at Capitol Reef

Following a night of crashing thunder and lightning so intense our yurt lit up like a Christmas tree, we headed northeast towards Capitol Reef National Park. This section of Byway 12 was by far the most dramatic. Some parts looked like lunar landings while at others, high arches were impossibly cut into limestone to allow passage. Then mysteriously a duck materialized as if literally lost in space.

On one side of the sky, jet black clouds emerged like a death knell with blinding sun peering through the other. The skies opened pouring torrential rains while my cell phone screeched an emergency flash flood warning alert. Two minutes later a massive hailstorm hit sounding akin to automatic weapon fire. Having never seen nor heard anything similar in speed, density or magnitude, I pulled over and opened the window to take a photo. Huge mistake. Hail was falling sideways and hit me like target practice by an angry teenager brandishing a loaded BB gun.

As soon as it started it stopped. So by the time we arrived at Capitol Reef’s steep, four-mile Chimney Rock Trail, the sun started peeking through. The initial ascent was extremely sticky mud and comically slow. After many switchbacks, several weather changes and some precarious signage, the hike ended dry as a bone. Happy again to sit, Vinny took us on a 20-mile scenic, mostly off-road cruise which appeared as another lunar landing.

The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

Deer nosh at Fruita picnic area near Capitol Reef National Park’s Visitor Center.(Julie Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

In nearby Torrey’s Capitol Reef Resort, we checked into a covered wagon. With electricity, USB ports, comfortable bedding and massive red rock backdrop, it almost seemed we were in a Hollywood set. Private bathrooms were 20-feet away with Kuerig coffee machines like nothing pioneers could have imagined. There were also teepees and traditional lodging available.

The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

Heading North

In tiny Manti, population 3,600, built on a once rattlesnake-infested site, is perhaps America’s most magnificent Mormon Temple. Completed in 1888 in Gothic and Renaissance Revival-styles, it’s massive, at over 100,000 square feet. Nearby, Vinny gleefully got his fill at $1.98 a gallon.

Social distancing was easy at The Lodge at Blue Sky. In the Wasatch Mountain Range on 3,500-acres in Wanship, Blue Sky has 46 large, minimalist-designed suites in three sections: Sky, Earth and Creek. And odd June weather front brought several snow and hailstorms and put the kibosh on activities. However we still managed yoga, a five-mile hike on one of its 30 miles of trails and visited with some rescue horses from its on-site nonprofit, Saving Gracie.

In Park City twenty minutes away, some great restaurants were open and practicing dining room social distancing. In a historical building 20 feet from the chairlift, Silver Star Café’s chef Derek Gherkins presided over delectable shrimp polenta and perfectly prepared New York strip with wasabi-laced mashed potatoes.

The Great American Road Trip – Part Two

Delicious seared scallops were served with balsamic pearls at Park City’s Riverhorse on Main. (Julie Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Overlooking charming, historic Main Street, Riverhorse’s poached pear and Barrata salad delightfully complemented their signature macadamia nut-crusted Alaskan Halibut.

Well rested and well fed, it was time to get back on the road.

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at


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