Bluff Balloon Festival 2018

Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet up with some friends for an overnight camping trip down in my first visit to Valley of the Gods with the expectation of waking up to balloons rising nearby as part of the annual International Bluff Balloon Festival.  Weather conditions kept the balloons grounded that morning.  This year, I opted to return, this time with my daughters, in hopes the weather would be more accommodating to the balloon pilots this time around.

- Day 1 -
Saturday - January 13, 2018

Bluff or Bust

After staying a night in Torrey with my in-laws, we awoke early and set off for Hanksville via SR 24, then down SR 95, around Lake Powell and onto Cedar Mesa.  Driving this route has got to be one of the most scenic drives one can take in all of Southern Utah.  Along the way down, I pulled over for a view from Hite Overlook, a spot I alway like to stop at when making the drive down North Wash.  Due to the big snows we had across the Colorado Plateau the prior winter, this was the most water I'd seen at Hite where the Colorado feeds into Lake Powell, in quite some time.  In recent years, it had been much drier with the water levels being so much lower.  Last time I had seen this much water at Hite was on a summer trip down to Hite as a teenager in the late 90's to do some wake-boarding for a weekend with friends paired with a hike through nearby White Canyon and its Black Hole.  Back then, the boat ramp was still operational and the water level was considerably higher than it has been the last 10-15 years.

Hite Overlook

Pano: Hite Overlook

While our destination for the night was to be Valley of the Gods, I took a detour by continuing along SR 95 so that I could pull over for a stop at Mule Canyon and take my girls up to see the popular 'House on Fire' ruins.  Last time I had made this stop, I was the only one around, but that was likely due to the fact that the road down to Mule Canyon was inaccessible due to about 2 feet of snow covering it with drifts up to 3 feet in places.  This year, with the dry winter, there was hardly a trace of snow in the area.  Of course, that resulted in a handful of cars parked down along the trailhead and sharing the trail with some other foot traffic.

While I was anticipating them to be as fascinated by the ruins as I tend to be, they found just as much, if not more excitement with the other details along the trail, such as purple cacti, ice in the wash, a tree growing right on top of a rock, and so on...

Mule Canyon Trail

Mule Canyon Trail

Heading up Mule Canyon

Mule Canyon (2016) - for comparison sake

Tree on Rock

Ice Swirls

After a brief stroll up the canyon, we arrived at the ruins.  There was another group or two checking them out when we got there, so I took the girls back and under the secluded nearby rock slabs to explore.

Chilling in our little "cave"

Girl Power!

When we came back out, the other groups were packing out, leaving us the ruins all to ourselves for a bit.  If it's not obvious to those who don't already know, 'House on Fire' (aka 'Roof on Fire') ruin gets its name from the texture of the rock above it maintaining the appearance of fire coming out of the roof.

House on Fire

House on Fire (2016) -  Notice all the snow in the background

Wider shot of House on Fire

Closer up of House on Fire

A different angle of House on Fire

Concentric Windows

The girls standing next to the ruins for perspective sake

Group photo at House on Fire

From Mule Canyon, we continued on down SR 95 into Blanding, then down to Bluff where I stopped to top off on gas before heading on over to Valley of the Gods to find a suitable campsite.  In hindsight, I probably should have headed on down Moki Dugway from Mule Canyon to save on time and then topped off on fuel in the evening.

No matter, we headed on up the road into Valley of the Gods and found just about every good site closer to the highway to already be occupied.  It turns out this was for the best for us as we'd come to find out the next morning when the balloons launched.  We ended up settling into about the same site I had camped at two years prior.

I did not take the time to take any pictures though.  I did take time to shoot some video in setting up camp (video can be seen at end of post), and then we hastily drove on out in hopes of making a visit to River House Ruin before it got too dark.  Well, we made it to the ruin before it got too dark, but still missed the prime evening light resting upon it by about 10 to 15 minutes, despite how the pictures below may appear.  We were able to take the final minutes of daylight to explore around.  This was my girls first visit to it, but my second, having brought my son to it on a spring trip nearly two years ago.  The drive to it was every bit as rugged as I remember it being.

River House Ruin

Raylee walking in the footsteps of the ancients, heading up the stairs to River House

A T-shaped or keyhole window

The girls at River House Ruin

River pictograph with bighorn and human petroglyphs

River House Ruin

River House Ruin

By the time we pulled away, it was essentially dusk and the dark of night quickly settled in.  We'd get to drive the bumpy, rugged road down the hill and back up Comb Wash in the dark.

Before returning to camp, we made the drive back over Comb Ridge and into Bluff for the popular Glow In event where we could see the balloons up close and brightly lit up.

Bluff Ballon Festival Glow-In

Bluff Ballon Festival Glow-In

Bluff Ballon Festival Glow-In

Up close at Bluff Ballon Festival Glow-In

Balloon flame

It was every bit as neat as my first time down, and of course the girls thought it cool too.  Only for a short while though, since they soon let me know how hungry and eager for dinner they were.  I had told them all day we'd get to eat out, and so it was off to the Twin Rocks Cafe a few blocks away for dinner.

Ellory and Willow enjoying their dinner at Twin Rocks Cafe


My Navajo Taco

With full tummies, we gathered back in the car for the drive back out to camp where we gathered around the warm fire for some S'mores before going to bed with anticipation of seeing the balloons among the red rock cliffs and up in the sky the next morning.

Note: For some reason, the BLM doesn't like people to build campfires in Valley of the Gods, though many people do it anyways.  My guess is that they don't want people tramping all over gathering in what sparse wood that exists around there and then leaving messes behind in fire rings as many are prone to do, among other impacts on the local landscape and environment the fires can have.  As a compromise, I brought down a collapsible fire bowl device that allowed us to have a fire with our own wood we had brought with us and up off the ground. This in turn allowed me to bag up and pack out the ashes the next morning so that our fire would leave virtually no impact on the land.  If it hadn't been winter, I wouldn't have bothered, but with the cold, we were eager for a good source of warmth to gather around.

Camping in Valley of the Gods

Camping in Valley of the Gods

- Day 2 -
Sunday - January 14, 2018

At the crack of dawn, I jumped out of my warm bag to brave the cold and take some photos.  It wouldn't be long before the balloons would start rising up further up the road with the stream of traffic transporting the balloons now passing by.


Rise and Shine

Battleship Rock

Franklin Butte

Our tent with Setting Hen Butte in the distance (left) and Franklin Butte (right)



Valley of Light

Valley of Light

Satisfied with some of my captures of the rising sun, I returned to camp to get some hot water going so the girls could have some hot chocolate when they awoke.  Moments after the water came to a boil, we had our first balloon sighting and I called the girls out.

1st balloon up

Taking Flight

Rising Higher

Back down

And back up again

The lone balloon was soon joined by others until we could view up to seven for one brief moment from where we had our camp set up.

More balloons up

Six balloons with a seventh barely peeking out from beyond the butte

Six balloons in twin formation


When the balloons had all appeared to return to land, we got to work breaking down camp.

My original plan was for us to head out of Valley of the Gods straight up Moki Dugway, and then on to Moon House Ruin up on Cedar Mesa.  Unfortunately, the night before, my car lost electrical power to all of its systems right as we parked it at camp.  I had checked all the fuses and they were all good.  After thinking back on a time where something similar happened, I had a look down into the water ports of my battery.  The water level in each port was quite low, almost exposing the cells or plates beneath.  That's my bad for not checking this all out before the trip.  Almost miraculously however, the power gradually returned to the car later in the evening and ultimately started successfully in the morning.

With this discovery, I didn't dare risk finishing out the trip with the battery in its current state.  This dictated a change of plan and we made the drive back down into Bluff while we had the car running again and made a stop at the convenience store to purchase 1 of their last 2 remaining jugs of distilled water.  After topping off the water ports in the battery to an appropriate level, I had to think about what else we could do instead of Moon House since by now, the day was half spent and it was unlikely we'd get to the Moon House trailhead, to the ruin itself, back to the car, and into camp somewhere before it got dark on us, let alone have any time to really enjoy and appreciate the ruin had we went.

So, I opted to take us out to Muley Point to check out the view and have ourselves some lunch up there, then we'd move on to check out the Cave Tower Ruin site and see what time we were at after that.  On the way out of Bluff, I pulled down into Sand Island to show the girls the big petroglyph panel found there.

Big Horn parade


Busy wall with Kokopelli figure

Bighorn Pinocchio and Kokopelli Bighorn


Big hands

Navajo Cowboy?

Near the top of Muley Point, I pulled over to show the girls out to a favorite viewpoint.  While getting out of the car, the girls noticed a rock formation they thought looked very much like a monkey head.  I concurred.

Monkey Rock

Moki Dugway

Moki Dugway in black and white

View across southwestern side of Valley of the Gods from Moki Dugway

Pano: Valley of the Gods from Moki Dugway

Yes, girls, we really did camp way down there

Girls being girls at Moki Dugway

Back in the car and once at the top of the dugway, we veered off for Muley Point.  I had not been out there yet, as my last attempt to drive out there resulted in a flat tire that turned me back half way down the road out to it.  I was excited to see what kind of views it offered of the San Juan Goosenecks, Monument Valley in the distance, and the greater Southeast Utah area.  We were not disappointed.  We actually carried out our small cooler and camp chairs to a flat spot along the rim to enjoy the view with our lunch.

View eastward of Cedar Mesa rim from Muley Point

San Juan Goosenecks from Muley Point

Looking out across San Juan to Monument Valley from Muley Point

Zooming in on Monument Valley

Monument Valley's iconic West Mitten Butte laying low in the haze

Looking west from Muley Point with Navajo Mountain on the horizon (center)

San Juan River

Love these girls!

Having spent enough time taking in the view and finishing our lunch, we moved on to the Cave Tower site.  This ruin site would be a first for both me and the girls.

Bear Ears buttes

Cave Tower Ruin

Ellory checking looking through Cave Tower window

Cave Tower Ruin window

While checking out the towers up on top, I was able to spot some more ruins sitting along the cliffside down below the rim.  Had we more time, we might have been able to make a successful scramble down to get a closer look at them.  Instead we opted to retreat back for the car.

Cliffside ruins at Cave Tower


There certainly wasn't much left of the seven or so towers that once dotted the rim they sat atop of, but it was still fascinating to consider their use and relation, if any, to the ruins beneath them tucked down in the cliff side.  My best guess is that they were employed as some strategic watch towers at one point.  There have been graves, even mass graves, discovered in the area where both skeleton and mummified remains revealed evidence of great violence.  That and there are other ruins in the area that also appear to be situated not just for their exposure to winter's southern sun and a very picturesque setting, but also for strategic defense purposes.

Back at the car, we had a decision to make regarding where to camp for the night.  We now had less than an hour of good daylight left and its attending warmth to set up camp with.  I had lingering hopes through the day of being able to make it out to the Posey Trail road along the top of Comb Ridge and finding a suitable spot to pull over and make camp with the potential for waking up to a gorgeous view down into Comb Wash and of nearby Bears Ears.  However, we'd assuredly be looking for a camp spot and setting up in the dark had we pursued that course.

Our next option was to just pull into a spot down in Comb Wash, which is what I was now leaning on, until driving through the lower clearance trailhead for the Cave Tower Ruins.  There, I noted a couple of vacant fire rings that had been installed along the back edge.  With night fast approaching and nobody else around, I determined the site was was good as any for our needs.  

Camp at Cave Tower trailhead

I had also hoped for a good sunset, but the sky remained clear, so nothing dramatic took place.  It's probably good that way, lest we could have been too spoiled.


With camp all set up, we gathered around for our final night of the trip and enjoyed some warm Mountain House meals followed by more S'mores.  I usually prefer to spend time actually cooking up a meal when car camping, with a Coleman stove and cast iron pans or even in the fire itself.  But when it's dark and cold, you just can't top how quick, simple, and convenient something like Mountain House can be.

Getting warm by the fire

Preparing hot coals for s'mores

Camp glow

Having recently purchased a basic beginner DSLR Camera bundle in the form of a Nikon D3400 from Costco, I decided to take some time experimenting with its long exposure capabilities.  I knew that the Milky Way wouldn't be as dramatic as it is in mid-summer, when its galactic core becomes visible, but I was still curious to see what would come out.  While I did set my camera to take RAW images, I enabled it to take JPG copies as well.  I need to sit down and take some time to really learn some post editing skills for harnessing the full power of RAW with programs like Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop.

In the mean time, I just took the JPG copies and tweaked them with Google to see what could be produced the lazy way.  While certainly far from being the finest, I was still pleasantly surprised with the results.  With how bright the tent came out, I also learned how little light is needed to illuminate a tent for the future.  Other things I can play with later is multiple exposures for composites, and so on.

Milky Way over camp


- Day 3 -
Monday - January 15, 2018

Our final day of the weekend trip was now upon us.  I awoke to greet the sun and get some water heating up.


Sunrise over Colorado's Sleeping Ute Mountain

Sleeping Ute Moutain

Frosty fence

Camp bathed in morning light

After getting sufficiently warmed up, the tent defrosted and dried out, and the rest of camp all packed up, we set off to go check out some ruins in lower Arch Canyon.  I wasn't sure if it'd be worth fitting in a spur trip up into there or not with Tower House Ruin and a few other points of interest further up around Moab also on the day's agenda before making our way home.  I decided to go for it, and we made the turn up Comb Wash up to Arch Canyon where we got out to take a brief hike up to find the ruins a short distance up the canyon there.

Shortly into the hike, the girls were thrilled with stumbling into a drift of sand along the side of the trail and Willow wrote a factual statement into it.  The girls love to employ their creativity when out on such trips.  I always make sure they do it in a way that is with natural elements and in a way that is temporary, so as to not leave any destructive or permanent impact or damage on the land, its resources, and the natural beauty.  When it comes to fragile sites like historical ruins, I also make sure they know to respect the ruin sites, not to enter inside of the structures, not to keep any pot sherds or other artifacts, not to add their own marks to rock art panels, and not to manipulate such sites in any other way.  To simply leave the sites as we find them out of respect for both the past inhabitants and  future visitors.

Willow is right, Nature is indeed gold!

After a few stream crossings, we came up to the first set of ruins, a set that had been fenced off by the BLM for additional protection.

Arch Canyon Ruin

Wall at Arch Canyon Ruin

From there, we went a little further up, enduring a stretch of solid bush whacking to make our way up to another set.

2nd set of ruins up Arch Canyon

Ruins at second set

Hand prints

Backwards hands

Lone potsherd

Ruin in Arch Canyon

From there, we followed the side of the canyon a little further to find one last set of small ruins, before turning back.

Ruin at 3rd set

Wall remnant at 3rd set of ruins

On our way back down and out, we stumbled into a beaver habitat.  The girls were impressed with the dams, but the lodge was well secluded because we couldn't find it.

Beaver dam

Beaver dam close up

The girls also had a lot of fun with the stream crossings, particularly one with a log to test their balance on.

Stream crossing

Another stream crossing

With Arch Canyon successfully checked off the list, we made our way out to what I was most excited to show them, Tower House Ruin.  This was another site that I had already been to once prior, with my oldest son, who is ironically younger then my daughters on this trip.

Strangely, right in the parking area, there was the skeleton remains of a carcass.  We can only assume it was that of a fox or a small coyote based on its size and the color of the fur that was still attached to the lower hind leg.  Graphic, I know.  With flesh and fur still on the hind leg, and the rest of the bones pretty well picked clean, it remains a mystery to us what had happened to it.  Thankfully the cooler winter air kept any foul stinch to a minimum.

Fox or Coyote?

Onto more scenic sites to see, we continued on with our hike down to the ruin.  The girls loved the textures and the opportunities to use their hands to climb and down-climb select spots and negotiate the slickrock, especially Ellory, who has a special fondness for climbing.  I really need to consider getting her some climbing lessons in the near future.

Toadstool formation at Tower House

Negotiating the slickrock around pot holes

Nearing the wash

After the brief fun-filled descent, we came up on Tower House.

Approaching Tower House

Lots of fascinating things are present at the Tower House site between the Tower House structure itself, another neighboring single level structure, some rock art in the form of both petroglyphs and pictographs, a moderately large alcove, and the foundation of what appears to have once been a kiva.

Particularly interesting is the texture difference between the lower level and upper level of Tower House.  The lower level stones are laid up with a rougher texture, an earlier mason style of the Pueblo III period.  The upper level however is a much smoother texture along its walls, a style used later on in the Pueblo III period, according to my limited reading and research.  This suggests that the second level of Tower House was erected by a later generation from that which built the first.

Tower House


Tower House Window

Tower House Window

Tower ascent

Tower House 'junior' and neighboring alcove

Bird feet


Tower House from nearby alcove

Another anthromorph

Cactus cross and Tower House

On the way up and out

Once back at the car, we headed on over to Blanding to fill up the gas tank and get some Slurpees.  Yes, it was warm enough to work up a bit of sweat hiking out of Tower House.  From Blanding, we drove on up toward Moab.

Church Rock

We made a brief stop at Wilson Arch to keep the blood going in our legs.

Making the short ascent up Wilson Arch

Wilson Arch

Descending sun at Wilson Arch

Silly shot at Wilson Arch

After Wilson Arch, we had plans to try and get in a visit at the unique Hole'n'the'Rock site not far up the road, but unfortunately it was closed, so we put that off for perhaps a day trip where we could return with the rest of the family.

We continued on up the road into Moab, where we pulled over to see the Courthouse Wash Panel, featuring petroglyphs and some pictographs, particularly some in the Barrier Canyon style, with what appear to be shields held up by some of the anthromorphic figures.

Approaching Courthouse Wash Panel

Trying to keep to the trail at Courthouse Wash Panel

Just below the panel

Upper Courthouse Wash Panel

Lower Courthouse Wash Panel

Ghostly figures

Bighorn Sheep

Courthouse Wash Panel

Sunset across northern Moab

Back at the car, and with what little daylight there was left, we tried to squeeze in a quick visit to the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Track site.  We did not make it there before dark, but still got to see a few tracks off the boardwalk with our flashlights.  My son, Lennox loves dinosaurs, among other interests, so I have plans to return with him on a camping trip down in the area next month, specifically to visit these and other dino tracks and do some other dino-related activities.

Dino track

Dino track

Dino track

With daylight all gone and the evening getting later, we made our way up to Price where we drove the extra little distance off the highway to get a late dinner and some much deserved milkshakes at Sherald's to wrap up our trip with the final drive back home to Provo.

Sherald's Drive In

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