Friends and Photography in Bluff, Utah

Bluff, Utah SignThe past two weeks have passed in a blur of activity for us here in historic Bluff, Utah. We have stayed at the Cadillac Ranch RV Park, a quiet and clean little campground conveniently in the heart of Bluff. From here, we have enjoyed the sights in and around Bluff, as well as visits with our friends, Paul and Joyce Martini.

Bluff is a very small town, but does receive much tourism traffic. As such, there are some nice campgrounds and lodges in town, as well as several interesting restaurants. The most prominent restaurant is the Twin Rocks Trading Post and Cafe, located below the namesake Twin Rocks, and featuring good food and an extensive gift shop and art gallery. Do try the Navajo Fry bread with Navajo Tacos or stew at the Twin Rocks Cafe. Other restaurants of interest are the Cottonwood Steakhouse and the Comb Ridge Bistro.

We enjoyed a visit to the historic Bluff Fort, located just down the road from the Cadillac Ranch campground. The Bluff Fort was founded in 1880 by Mormon pioneers who forged the precipitous route down Hole-in-the-Rock road and overland through tortuously broken canyon country before homesteading this site in the San Juan River Valley.

Our friend, Joyce, directed us to Calf Canyon on the north side of Bluff as a good place to take the dogs for a little exercise and to enjoy a pleasant hike.

As mentioned, we have enjoyed visiting with our long time friends, Joyce and Paul, who have recently retired and moved from southern California to Bluff. They have a very nice ranch house with dramatic  views of the Bluffs across the San Juan River from the backyard, as well as impressive views of the bluffs on the other side of town from the front yard. We have enjoyed going to their house for dinner and back-yard barbecues and just to hang out and play with the dogs. Joyce and Paul joined us for dinner at the Twin Rocks Cafe to help celebrate my birthday and invited us back to their place for cake and ice cream.

Paul is an avid photographer, enjoying both day and night photography, and has taken me to some his favorite photo locations in the area. While Paul and I are out photographing, Kim and Joyce have been enjoying other activities – movie nights, hikes in Calf Canyon, a shopping run to Cortez, and a local women’s social get-together.

Jasmine and Pepper have very much enjoyed visiting, too, as they are able to romp freely in the backyard. Just a few days ago, Jasmine and Pepper were introduced to a new playmate – Paul and Joyce had just adopted a year-old dog named, Bart. Bart (AKA “Bartini”, “Black Bart”, “Bart the dart”, “Bartkowski”, etc.) is a Blue Heeler-mix from a nearby reservation, is intelligent, has a sweet disposition, has had some training, is well socialized, fixed, and has had all of his shots. The dogs got along great together and were having much fun romping in the backyard. Congrats to Paul and Joyce on the new addition to their family!

During our stay here, Kim and I have gone on a number of day trips. Locations include Sand Island BLM Petroglyph Site and Campground, Valley of the Gods, Goosenecks State Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, Moki Dugway and Muley Point. We also enjoyed the scenery while driving to Blanding on grocery runs. While in Blanding, we also visited the Edge of the Cedars State Park.

Sand Island features a small campground suitable for tents or small rigs, only. The BLM site also features a boat launch on the San Juan River. During our visit, the river was running high, but a number of river raft outfitters were in the process of putting in at the launch. Also featured at Sand Island are several petroglyph panels. The panels are surrounded by a fence and some portions are worn or vandalized, yet there are still many intact and interesting petroglyphs. The petroglyphs would best be photographed on an overcast day or when the panels are not in direct sunlight.

The Valley of the Gods features similar formations as does Monument Valley, but is far less crowded and is more easily accessed as it is not on the Navajo reservation. The road through the Valley of the Gods winds past many stunning rock formations, bluffs, buttes, and mesas which are iconic of the American desert southwest. Kim and I very much enjoyed our visit to the Valley of the Gods and Paul and I returned several other times for photo sessions.

We visited Goosenecks State Park after our drive through the Valley of the Gods. After having lunch and admiring the view of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, we stayed awhile longer to watch a thunderstorm roll in across the desert and nearby Monument Valley.

Our day trip to Natural Bridges National Monument took us past the Comb Ridge and on the Cedar Mesa. Along the way, we stopped to view the ancestral Puebloan ruins at Butler Wash. We returned from Natural Bridges via a detour to Muley Point and then down the Moki Dugway. At Muley Point we enjoyed vista views from cliffs overlooking more goosenecks on the San Juan River.

The Moki Dugway is a narrow gravel road, originally developed for mining, carved into the cliff side of the Cedar Mesa. The road descends via a series of steep switch backs to the desert floor near the Valley of the Gods. Several turnout viewpoints offer breathtaking views of the cliffs and desert, below.

As mentioned above, Paul and I went on photo excursions around the area, generally in the late afternoon and into the evening. Our choices were somewhat limited due to an early monsoon season bringing thunderstorms and rain to the Bluff area. We were unable to visit many Butler and Comb Ridge Wash sites on dirt roads made impassable by recent heavy rains.

Indeed, thunderstorms developed almost every afternoon during our stay. One such storm generated an intense display of lightning over Bluff. Paul and I setup our cameras and managed to catch a number of lightning shots from several locations.

Paul and I returned several times to the Valley of the Gods for sunset and evening photos shoots. We also took photos on the Moki Dugway, one afternoon. Here are a few photos from those sessions.

One afternoon, Paul and I went out to a site near Bluff called the mini-Goosenecks of the San Juan River. First-most, there is nothing mini about these formations – sweeping canyons carved by the San Juan River. The canyons should only be described as epic! A unique feature of the mini-Goosenecks is a dry gooseneck, cut off by the river as it carved more deeply into the strata. From one side, the dry gooseneck looks like a massive meteor impact crater. From another side, the teardrop shape of the gooseneck is clear and the cut off point by the river is visible. Reaching the site requires traversing miles of very rough and rocky trail (it would be too charitable to call it a road). Looking deep into the canyon, tiny ants seem to drift down a small stream – looking again, the ‘ants’ resolved into rafts and kayaks going down the river.

One evening, Paul and I hiked into the Monarch Cave Ruins for a night photography session. The ruins are about a mile from a more passable section of the Butler Wash road. The trail to the ruin crosses the Butler Wash and winds up a canyon on the backside of the Comb Ridge. Butler Wash was passable, but was somewhat muddy and swampy from recent rains. We had a very productive session at the ruins, illuminating the ruins and photographing them with the night sky visible through the alcove or cave mouth. Returning, however, Butler Wash had swollen somewhat from upstream rains and was now a muddy morass. Working our way through this, I took a slip into the mud – what a mess! The trail was no longer visible in the dark and we exited from the wash up a side-trail that was a steep scramble up the riverbank. We arrived back at the vehicle none the worse for wear, but a bit dirtier than when we started. The photos were worth it!

Another evening, Paul and I visited the Tower House Ruins, another site along the Comb Ridge, but further north of Monarch Cave. The access road to the ruin trail-head was rough, but passable, with no major wash crossings. The forecast for the evening had been for dryer conditions than previous nights – only some scatter thunderstorm activity. Arriving at the trail-head, a few clouds went over and dropped rain and some hail. We waited until the storm had passed and conditions looked clearer. Just as we committed to going down canyon to the ruin, another thunderstorm came over the Comb Ridge and unloaded with rain and much thunder and lightning. The slick rock very quickly was flowing with water and lived up to its name – very slippery. Fortunately, the ruin was not far down canyon and we sheltered in the alcove – the first storm blew past and we began photographing.

An interesting feature at the Tower House ruins is a small seasonal waterfall that plunges over the top of the alcove into a pool, below. Shortly after we arrived, another thunderstorm cell blew through and unleashed even more rain. The waterfall quickly grew to a flash flood torrent, roaring as it fell and with occasional sharp retorts as rocks and other debris were swept over the alcove lip and impacted in the shallow plunge pool. Quite the sight and sound!

The waterfall was throwing up so much spray that we had to move our equipment to a dryer section of the alcove. We then found the spray contained much fine sand and had coated our cameras, lenses and equipment, requiring a quick cleaning for use.

Gradually the storm passed by and the flow ebbed to just a trickle. The skies cleared and we had wonderful conditions for our night-shoot. By midnight, the slick rock had dried out enough for safe traversal as we hiked back to the truck. The night was alive with the chorus of frogs and toads happily singing their mating songs from every pool and puddle along the way. We had to really watch where we stepped, there were so many of the little croakers hopping around.

For our last night in Bluff, we helped celebrate Paul’s birthday with an excellent dinner at the Comb Ridge Bistro and dessert back at the Paul and Joyce’s place. The pups all had one good last play session and we bid adieu. We had a great time here in Bluff and we look forward to visiting again very soon. (Joyce, Paul & Bart, thanks for all the hospitality and photo outings – we miss you already!)

Joyce and Paul

Joyce and Paul

Until next time…

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