As I'd crawled into bed a little after 1:15am, I knew this was going to be a night without much sleep. Not because of rain or snow or cold - quite the opposite actually. Because for the first time this trip we were camped in a location that would allow us to see not only the sunrise, but the glow on the horizon before sunrise.
That of course meant being up before 6:00am, a tall order even for me, the early riser.
You can imagine my surprise then, when I climbed down my ladder and looked around camp and saw none other than Mike @Digiratus gazing out over the horizon. Out of my mouth came "'Morning Mike." but in my head I wondered, "Who are you and what have you done with Mike?"
We both enjoyed the light for a few minutes - such a special time of day - and then climbed back up our ladders to get some more shut-eye, the late night definitely taking it's toll on the "old guys" on the trip!
It was a more reasonable 8:00am when I awoke the second time - cozy and warm, the morning sun now hitting my tent and more enjoyably, my feet - through the screen of my open tent door; the sun just starting to chase away the crisp, cool, morning air. It was the perfect morning to explore!
As I headed out of camp towards the edge of clearing, I hoped for a cliff. But before I'd find that, I found so much more. In the distance, the switchbacks we'd negotiated the day before - cutting through the scorched hillside.
Behind me (and behind our camp) an amazing vein of white rock, protruding out of the mountain for miles in each direction. Out of place for sure, it's contrast with the surrounding landscape was spectacular; it would have been a great formation to explore for sure!
And then, I reached the edge. The Gooseberry Hollow road we'd traveled in on below, I gazed out over the steep walls of the canyon. Now this would have been the perfect spot to setup camp! Alas, doing so would have meant a drive out over undisturbed terrain - not something we were willing to do.
Eventually I tore myself away and headed back to camp via a faint ATV track and fence-line I found in my exploration. The air was warming and I expected a least Dan @drr to be up when I returned, but a bit to my surprise, camp was still. Maybe the old guys aren't the only ones who need their sleep!
I set about making breakfast as quietly as possible so as to not disturb the rest of the group. But of course quietly is relative - the scraping of a spatula on a cast iron griddle, the crackling of spicy sausage cooking on the grill - these things are loud when you're in the middle of nowhere; by the time I was sitting down to eat, I think everyone was up.
Whether it was my ruckus or the fact that it was 9:30am, no one complained one bit as they stood in the sun, warming themselves and enjoying the glorious beauty all around. Like the weather, we were all in good spirits and ready for a day of adventure!
After quick breakfasts and packing up camp, we headed out - back to the main road and then east and up. Up, up, up the side of East Pryor Mountain - a road nearly unrecognizable from the year before (a trend, I tell you). Somehow I ended up leading the pack for this portion of the trip - an enjoyable, dust-free experience - one of the only times I could have my windows down on the trail! Of course, it did mean that stopping for photos was out of the question - everyone behind being generally harder on their skinny pedal than I.
So, I pressed on and it wasn't long before we arrived at an interim destination - the Big Ice Cave (yep, that's it's official name). The day already warming up, it was quite a different experience walking into the chilly 32ºF cave; last year it'd been warmer inside than out!
The cave itself is a dark, cavernous space, but a brilliant rainbow of luminescent color paints the limestone walls in spectacular hues of tuquoise, yellow, and green. The cave itself was formed as slightly acidic rain water dissolved the 350 million year old Madison Limestone that makes up much of the Pryor Mountains, the water then collecting on the floor of the cave, eventually freezing to form the ice stalagmites and stalactites for which the cave is named.
Our curiosity satisfied for the moment, we headed back out of the cave to relax and enjoy the late summer warmth before heading back to the trucks via the same short stroll we'd taken on the way down. Always on the lookout, Monte @Blackdawg pointed out some seashell fossils on the side of the trail - another nice benefit of limestone-based geological formations.
After a short bit of driving, we reached a fork in the road - and it was at this point that we had a choice to make: we could either continue on the same way we'd gone last year (past Penn's cabin, and through hills often grazed by wild horses) or we could take a new route - one that even Monte had never been on. This wasn't an easy decision for us, so we popped out of the trucks to discuss.
Ultimately, votes from Mike and I were to continue the way we'd gone last year - Mike wanting to see wild horses, and I wanting to check out Penn's cabin again. This turned out to be a great decision since, not one hill crest later - just as we left the National Forest - we came upon our first herd of horses.
The horses somewhat distant, we made our way towards them, clicking photos as we went. The horses, wary of our presence keep a close eye on us - continuing to graze, but also moving further away the closer we got. And then, as we retreated to the trucks, I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye. Zane @Speedytech7 saw it too - a fox, hunting some small rodent one hill over.
We watched him for a while - his stalking, pausing, and then vertical jumps up to punch his nose into some hole hilarious and cute at the same time; totally oblivious to our presence, given our downwind position. Then, it was back to our trucks for the short trek to Penn's cabin...
...which we'd get to eventually, but not before getting sidetracked by a second herd of horses, again, just over the next crest. Closer this time, and a larger herd, we all did our best to capture them - though really it's hard to capture these majestic animals well.
But time was ticking on, and we knew we had a lot to do before we'd arrive at camp - in a whole different set of mountains - that evening, so we pushed forward to Penn's cabin to sign the guest book, and for a bit of exploration and talk of what to do about lunch.
Penn's cabin near the top of our route through over East Pryor Mountain, Monte knew of a good spot "just down the road a bit." Having skipped lunch the day before, Dan and I were both keen to stop and eat, so we decided that would be our plan. Of course - perhaps predictably given Monte's on-timelines - it turned out to be another 50 minutes before we'd reach our lunch spot.
Though, if I'm honest, it was worth it and we all enjoyed ourselves - the views great, and the sandwiches and chips tasty as we lounged in our chairs between the trucks.
Our stomachs satisfied for the moment, we continued down the mountain - only a single planned overlook between us and the bottom, our road spitting us out near the confluence of the Bighorn and Devil's Canyons which we could already see in the distance.
And it was at this overlook that tragedy struck once again. Tragedy is perhaps a bit strong a word to use in this case, but what unfolded was definitely a bummer. Always keen for the "great shot," several of us - Monte included - had hopped from outcropping to outcropping to creep right up on the edge of the cliff. And there's few better places to use a wide angle lens than overlooking a canyon. As Monte moved to grab his out of his pocket, it popped out and fell to the ground.
Down. Where it bounced again. And again. And was lost down into the abyss - the sound of it cascading down the cliff all that remained.
On my own precipice, all I could do was capture the reaction. First, disbelief and hope. Then, frustration. And finally, acceptance and more photo taking.
It was after-all, a spectacular view.
The scene captured and spirits a bit down, we ate some cookies and continued down the trail. We'd stop a few more times to capture the scenery as it unfolded before us, but for the most part we enjoyed the ride through the was - Mike taking advantage of the fact he was following Igor (instead of Frank) to push Monte a bit on speeds.
And as we exited the wash, we entered a whole new landscape. "Welcome to Utah!" said Monte over the CB. And it was like we'd found ourselves in that beautifully red land, the edge of the Pryor Mountains area, a sign conveniently telling us everything we'd just seen.
Keen at this point to get to Devil's Canyon Overlook that we'd seen from a distance as we'd descended, Dan took a look at his map and suggested that perhaps there was a dirt trail that would shortcut our planned, paved route by nearly 75%. So we headed up a wash, hoping for the best.
For the first couple miles, the road was promising. Lightly traveled, beautiful surroundings - we were all loving it. The further we went, the closer we got to our destination and the rougher the trail got. It was fun going...until Dan - leading at this point - came over the CB to let us know that he was going to explore on foot.
Turns out the road sort of just ended about a quarter mile before it would have completed our desired cut-off, and became just a wash, instead of a road next to a wash. So, we got ourselves turned around and headed back - no skin off our backs, it'd been a fun little detour!
Now on the highway, we could cover ground faster despite the longer distance, and made it to Devil's Canyon Overlook in no time, where Monte once again took one for the team, fielding a plethora of questions from a few other folks who happened to be in the area and wondered what their midlife-crisis-expedition-Tacoma would set them back. He loved it.
And we loved the overlook. To float down through that formation has just got to be an amazing experience.
After savoring it all for a while, we all proceeded to air up our tires - we had a long highway drive in front of us to get to a whole new set of mountains in a whole new state - The Bighorns in Wyoming - and a windy route up to the pass that we were informed locals called "Oh My God" due to the steep incline of the road and the resulting sound made by vehicles as they struggled to crest the top.
And yeah, that described it pretty well, as the young guns floored it, and then waited for the old guys at the top.
Done with pavement, we all aired down and discussed what we'd do for camp. We could camp just around the bend at a "meh" site, or continue on for a couple hours to a site that Monte'd stayed at before (and was great). To all our surprise, Mike opted for the far site - a place we'd surely not arrive at before dark. And with that, we were off!
Along the way to camp, we were naturally in a bit of a rush - the sun quickly falling in the sky, the light changing all around us. As such, we hesitated stopping too much, but the sight of Copeman's Tomb in the distance - a place we'd visit in depth the next day - was more than we could pass up, a gleaming white finger into the valley.
But from there, it was a race to camp. Tough on someone who likes to capture the changing light in the evening sky!
When we finally arrived, the last rays of light were on the horizon to the west, just visible over the trees. We got a camp fire going quickly and dinner started all around. Tired from a long day of driving, I don't even recall what we discussed that night, but I'm sure we had a good time doing it - that always seems to be the case on trips like this.
At some point we called it a night - as I recall it was getting chilly at our 10,000' elevation - and headed to bed, my hope for the next morning that I'd wake to an amazing view and breathtaking sunrise.
I brought the camera into the tent, just in case...