Bluff Balloon Festival - 2016

This past January I took the the opportunity to meet up with a group of friends down in Bluff, Utah for an annual balloon festival.  While all didn't go entirely to plan, it all turned out to be a fantastic experience.

- Day 1 -
Saturday - January 16, 2016

While much of the group made their way out to Bluff a day or two before, I wasn't able to get out until Saturday.  I had driven my family down to Torrey the night before and since none in my family wanted to camp in the cold, they all opted to stay with my in-laws, save our dog, Sophie.

Having woken up early, I was treated to a beautiful sunrise as I left Torrey.

Sunrise over the Henry Mountains

There are some incredibly scenic byways in Utah, but the route through Capitol Reef and out to Blanding and Bluff has to be right there at the top.  With the morning light of a winter's sun, I couldn't have imagined a more beautiful drive.

"Twin Rocks" stand as sentinels at the western edge of Capitol Reef

Factory Butte off in the distance

Jacob's Chair

Along the way, I wanted to make a stop to check out the "House on Fire" ruins, a set of ruins that have grown very popular among photographers.  While I'm not a professional photographer, they were still on my growing bucket list of things to see.

Little did I know just how much snow was sitting across Cedar Mesa.  While the paved highway was fully plowed and clear of any snow, all the turn-offs were not.  Still, I managed to squeeze the family minivan into a little margin just off the highway and out of the way while still maintaining some traction under the left side of the vehicle so as to ensure I didn't get stuck.  Once I crossed the road to begin the entry into Mule Canyon, I was instantly greeted to a good three feet of snow I would have to tread through for much of the way thereon.  Fortunately, a group had recently blazed a trail beforehand, so I was able to keep my feet in their tracks for much of the way and avoid a lot of post-holing.  I would later come to find out that it was some of the friends I was meeting up with that had laid those tracks the day before.

I can't recall ever experiencing the desert in the winter the way I did on this trip.  Seeing all the red rocks accented with so much white snow and laced by glistening icicles everywhere I looked really transformed the surrounding landscape into a spectacular winter wonderland.  It was hard to believe a place like this regular sees temperatures up into triple digits in the peak of summer.

Normally this is a place that can be busy with hikers, especially on a holiday weekend, but on this day, as far as I could see, I would have it all to myself.  There's an overwhelming sense of calmness, peace, and serenity that just can't be experienced in the wilderness without the solitude I now found myself in possession of.

Onward I hiked, in awe of the landscape before me every step of the way.

The tracks I was following through the snow in the canyon wash remained the only sign of a human's presence through here until after a mile where I beheld the famed ruins.

It's not called "House on Fire" for nothing.  Of course, a little bit of post adjustments and filtering can exaggerate the effect.

House on Fire

Still Burning

A peek inside

Sophie did great and stayed her distance.  In fact, she was more interested in sniffing around and exploring the area a bit further out.  Dogs aren't permitted to enter into alcoves and overhangs containing ruins or other artifacts.

The canyon remained just as stunning, if not more so, on the way back.

As we approached our car, another vehicle had just turned off the highway and braved the snow into a little parking area.  Later I would come to find out that it was a member of the group I had not met yet but would be camping with that night.

As I made my way down the highway and with lots of time still to spare before the scheduled meet-up time down in Bluff that evening, I pulled off to visit the Butler Wash ruin site.  This site had quite a bit less snow covering its path and because its parking area was clear of snow, there were several other cars there which ultimately meant lots hikers out along the trail.  It was quite the contrast from the previous site.

This would be my second time looking at the Butler Wash site.  My wife and I had driven through the area on a little road trip some 10 years before and made the stop here.  Of course, that was in mid-summer with no trace of snow.

Butler Wash

I thought the local cactus plants rising above the snow provided a nice juxtaposition.  The cactus was one of the long time residents.  Like myself, the snow was just a visitor.

Fire & Ice

At last I arrived in Bluff.  Still with some time to spare, I paid a visit to the local visitor center at the historic fort where I was invited to sit through a brief presentation on the "Hole in the Rock" pioneers who had settled and developed the small town of Bluff in the late 1800's.  I was impressed with the history and facilities presented there and determined to bring my whole family back through there on our next spring break getaway.

I would have spent more time walking around the fort and learning much more about the site but I opted to save that for the future trip with my family.  Instead, I made my way up the hill above to checkout the "Great House" ruin.  While not nearly as picturesque and exciting to look at as the ruin sites of earlier in the day, it was still interesting to see another ancient archeology site.  Because this site exists out in the open and was much more exposed to the elements, a modern structure has been built over it to provide shelter

Great House

With the rest of the time available, I took a drive out toward Monument Valley to see what I could see, hoping to maybe get a peek at the famed "Mittens" from some vantage point along the way without having to pay the entrance fee.  Unfortunately, the lower I got in elevation, the foggier it became.  It was a fog that had become a permanent fixture over the area the whole weekend.  In fact, it was visible from above it while driving over Cedar Mesa earlier in the morning where it appeared as a thick white blanket laying across the southern lowland in the far off distance.

So in a spur of the moment, I pulled over at the "Mexican Hat" for which a nearby town is named after and then turned up for the state park that offers a lookout over the San Juan River Goosenecks.

Mexican Hat

San Juan Goosenecks

At last it was time to meet up back in Bluff at the community center.  We drove out to Valley of the Gods from there to set up camp and then drove back into town for the traditional "Glow In" event where the balloon owners set up and heat up their balloons just enough to keep them inflated and put off a warm bright glow across the lot.

It was a neat experience to get up close and personal with so many balloons there under the darkness of night.  Once again, I found myself wanting to bring my family back to experience it themselves at a future event.

Once the Glow-In came to a wrap, we went back to camp where we enjoyed a warm fire with great company, a fine contrast to the bitter cold darkness and atmosphere that would now surround us for the night.  Eventually it was time to retire to bed.  I was grateful to have my little dog there who served as an effective foot-warmer in the bottom of my bag.

- Day 2 -
Sunday - January 17, 2016

For the second morning in a row, I was treated to a gorgeous sunrise.  Some slept in, while others were up and at it, soaking up the light, both into their soul and into their cameras.

Sunrise at Valley of the Gods

My chosen tent site

Another angle

Did I mention I am not a professional photographer by any means?  I don't even own a DSLR.  I lost a little point & shoot to a drop last year so now I've just been relying on what I can capture with my current cell phone.  While I'd love the greater range and options a DSLR can provide, or even some other point & shoots, I'm very pleased with how well my current phone's camera performs.

Here's some more shots to show off the spectacular light we were fortunate to bathe ourselves in.

Did I also mention it was a cold night? The frost settled in rather thick on my windshield.  Going by my little keychain thermometer, it had easily gotten down into single digits and perhaps then some.

It was so muddy the night before that Fred the van sunk into the ground a couple of inches and became so cold overnight the the tires were frozen stuck into the ground pretty good and it took quite an effort from Fred and his owner to get free again.

Fred, the van

Typically, the balloons will be brought out to Valley of the Gods and launched for the final morning of the festival, a key reason for why we were camped where we were.  Unfortunately, conditions weren't right and the balloons were kept in Bluff so we did not get to see their flight.

After breakfast, the group split up to go separate ways.  Some would head out for Moab where conditions were warmer and drier, others would head up toward Capitol Reef for the day, and others elsewhere.  I chose to tag along with a group that wanted to attempt what is known as the Citadel up on Cedar Mesa.

While those with 4WD vehicles exited Valley of the Gods by continuing on out the dirt road north and west, I opted to take my minivan down the way we came in and would circle back along the paved highway to meet back with the group at the junction just below the Moki Dugway.

Oh yeah, did I mention it was foggy down low?

Fog below Moki Dugway

Back near the junction with Valley of the Gods

Once reunited, we made our way up the switchbacks of the Moki Dugway.  Yes, there was more breathtaking scenery.  It was hard to avoid being a distracted driver.  Near the top we pulled over to take in the sights down below.

More fire & ice

Near the top of Moki Dugway

Above the Valley of the Gods

Soon thereafter, we arrived at the turn-off that would take us to our hiking route.  Due to all the snowfall, the road was narrow and there really was no where to park or turn around without a lot of careful maneuvering and some special traction aids stowed away on the vehicles.  Once we had the cars all settled and turned around, we were off hiking.  We did not take the traditional way, which again, was due mostly to unplowed snow that prevented the cars from driving out to the rim.  Instead, we kept to a wash that would take us out toward our destination.

Along the way, there'd be pour-offs, ice, water, mud, exposed ledges and other obstacles to negotiate and navigate around.

After hiking along a ledge just under the rim for a bit, we rounded a corner and found ourselves at a well preserved ruin.  To my knowledge, this site has no name and is well off any well-known beaten path.  I think it's nice that some well-preserved ruins such as this still exist without a name.  It leaves it open to your own imagination to give it a name, should you feel so inclined to.

We carried on a bit more and before we knew it, the Citadel was now in sight.

We found a way back up to the top of the rim and continued on to what would become a dead end for us.  The route down to the final stretch leading out to the iconic landmark was deemed to be too risky given all the snow and ice plastered all over the sandstone slopes.  While disappointed we had to cut the hike a bit shorter than we had hoped, the view from where we made it and all the features we saw along the way made it all worth it nonetheless.

Along the way back, a few more clouds rolled across the sky, adding some nice natural filters to the sun's radiant light.

As I drove back to my family in Torrey I made one last quick little stop at the Hite lookout.  Of course, it too was as spectacular as ever.

Short of having my family there at my side, I couldn't have dreamed of a better way to start my 2016 outdoor adventures.

I did not take a lot of video on this trip and have not yet decided if I will piece together what short video clips I did take into something.  In the mean time, Steve and Tess, a couple from the group I met up with has published their video which nicely captures the trip from their perspective:

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