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Adventures of the Boondocking Photographer: Mule Canyon and Kokopelli Trail

I recently became an empty nester and was looking for a change in my life that would maximize my time left on this great planet. So I sold my house, bought a Ford F-350, an Arctic Fox 990 truck camper, and hit the road. This is the story of my adventures with travel, photography, and RV tips designed around living the boondocker lifestyle.

Kokopelli Trail and Mule Canyon, Utah

The key points of interest for this boondocking adventure are Kokopelli Trail and Mule Canyon both located in Utah. These destinations offer lots of great views, Anasazi ruins, and plenty of places to camp off the grid.

Kokopelli Trail

Kokopelli Trail is located just north and a bit east of Moab and Arches National Park. To get to Kokopelli Trail exit I-70 at the White House and Highway 128 exit, roughly half way between Green River, Utah and Grand Junction, Colorado. Note for boondockers, there are no services in either White House or Cisco even though they appear to be prominent towns on the Utah topographic map. From the White House exit proceed south on Highway 128 roughly eight miles until Highway 128 meets the Colorado River. Look for a small BLM sign on the west side of the highway.

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Please don’t confuse the Kokopelli Trail that I am describing with Kokopelli’s Trail that is a 140-mile, mountain biking trail that roughly runs along I-70 in this area. The Kokopelli Trail I am describing is a two-lane track through the desert that will require a four-wheel drive vehicle. Once you exit Highway 128 there are multiple tracks and unlimited camping possibilities.

While in the Kokopelli Trail area be sure to check out Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Moab. The drive south of Kokopelli Trail on Highway 128 is spectacular as it follows the Colorado River through a high walled, red rock canyon.

Mule Canyon

Mule Canyon is located 19.4 miles west of Blanding, Utah on Highway 95. There is a visitor’s center for Mule Canyon that is plainly marked with a sign. The road for Mule Canyon is just east of the visitor center’s turnoff. The trailhead for Mule Canyon is only .5 miles off of Highway 95 and a good road usable by most vehicles. Past the trailhead are multiple areas to camp.

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While in the Mule Canyon area be sure to check out Natural Bridges National Monument and the Comb’s Ridge area. Both of these destinations have natural beauty, Anasazi ruins, and will be featured in upcoming blogs.

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RV Tips

Water, electricity, and propane are three items that will limit how long a boondocker can stay off the grid and in the fun zone. In this blog we will discuss water conservation to maximize your time in the field.

My Arctic Fox 990 holds 55 gallons of fresh water. That is quite a bit of water, but depending on how many people you have in your group, your water demands or how many days you plan to stay off the grid will determine how you need to ration your water. If I am in maximum, conservation water mode using the techniques below I can easily stay in the field for 14 days boondocking solo.

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I always carry four, three-gallon jugs of water in my pickup as a backup in case something happens to the camper’s water system or I just run out of water. I normal only use this reserve water if needed and have the ability on the Arctic Fox 990 to hand pour water jugs into the camper’s water supply if needed. Depending on your setup, perhaps carrying extra water is an option.

One way to conserve water is to take a shower every three days. I use wet wipes to clean up between shower days. This idea works fine for some people, but showering everyday is necessary for some folks.

When taking a shower in water conservation mode, I wet myself down, turn off the water, apply soap, and then rinse off the soap. With a little trial and error you should be able to keep the whole water usage time under a minute and just a couple of gallons.

Depending on where you are at and the time of year, consider washing outside the camper, perhaps in a lake or river. On a hot summer day this is a great way to cool off. While working in Jackson, Wyoming, one summer during college, I stayed in a tent and used a natural hot spring to clean myself daily.

I also use wet wipes to wash my hands, during cooking, and clean up around the camper. Using wet wipes does create some trash, but sacrifices must be made to maximize your time in the field.

Consider going to the bathroom outdoors. Usually this is pretty easy for males and not going to happen for females. In most RV’s the water used for each flush can be regulated to using no water for just urination to using less than a gallon for more serious jobs.

Another serious consumer of water in a boondocking situation is washing dishes. Consider using a propane grill for cooking, paper plates, and plastic cutlery. If you would like to reduce your imprint on the earth and prefer to wash your dishes consider using the same method as taking a shower. Wet down the dishes, apply soap with a scrubbing wand, rinse off dishes using as little water as possible.

Using the techniques above, you should be able to extend your stay in the field for at least a week with four people. You may need to brief your fellow boondockers on water conservation, but the joys of staying in the field longer should out weigh the need for excessive water usage.

Photography Tips

My first photography sessions in the wild lands of Utah were very disappointing. I was seeing a lot of great scenery, but my photos looked extremely bland and I was not catching the awesome beauty of the terrain. Colors were often washed out and dramatic rock formations looked unimpressive. I needed to step up my game to take better photos, not just in the desert, but in mountainous terrain as well.

Shooting during the perfect light hours right away in the morning and in the evening help create dramatic photos. The natural light for approximately 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at night bath the terrain in a magical glow.

Dramatic clouds, normally cumulous clouds, the big puffy ones, can add contrast to desert photographs. These types of clouds can really make a photo pop especially in black and white.

What you don’t want for clouds in desert shots is the solid, gray type of clouds. These types of clouds offer no contrast to the rugged terrain and should be avoided by featuring limited amounts of sky in your shots.

Clear blue skies are very common in the desert. A blue sky can add a nice contrast to red rocks, however completely ruin tan or light colored rocked photos.

As far as editing desert photos, I primarily use Lightroom with the Color Efex Pro 4 plugin. I will generally use the detail extractor preset to pull colors and details out of the rocks. After making initial adjustments in the Color Efex Pro 4, I will make my final adjustments in Lightroom.

Key sliders in Lightroom for desert shots are contrast, clarity, and sharpening. Adjust these sliders as necessary to achieve the desired contrast to really make rocks and clouds pop.

Other key sliders are highlights, shadows, and whites. In desert photos I will generally reduce the highlights and whites to darken the photo a bit to even add more contrast especially on strongly, lighted shots. Adjust the shadows slider as necessary. Midday shots are not ideal, but sometimes photographers must take the situation they are given and do the best they can with it to produce a stellar photo. The highlights, shadows, and whites sliders can help tamp down well light terrain photos.

Next consider the colors in your photos. Color Efex Pro 4 can produce unrealistic desert colors. You can adjust the saturation in this plugin, but final adjustments to color especially yellow, orange, red, and blue color channels must be fine tuned in Lightroom.

Consider using just a bit of vignette to enhance your desert photos. I normally use at least 5% vignette in most photos. However, depending on the subject a bit more vignette in desert photos can really add to the overall appeal of the photo.

With a little bit of extra work in editing, shooting during the right time of day, and using clouds for contrast correctly a photographer can capture amazing desert shots. Utah is a photographer’s playground offering a lifetime of shooting possibilities.

Travel Tips

Kokopelli Trail

Kokopelli Trail area offers a series of dirt roads in varying condition north of Arches National Park with amazing views without the crowds of the park. The terrain is generally desert rim country, which offers views of La Sal Peak and Fischer’s Towers to the south.

Hiking

The dirt roads offer easy hiking trails, but there are plenty of opportunities for off road hiking opportunities. I would follow the dirt roads until the roads where not going the direction I wanted them to go and then I hiked cross-country. The terrain is generally easy to navigate on top of reasonably, flat mesas. I would hike up hill in the morning, follow the rims during the day, and then hike down creek bottoms in the evening back to my camper.

Camping

In the Kokopelli Trail area there are an endless amount of places to camp. The land is BLM (Burea of Land Management), which means you can camp anywhere you want for up to 14 days without moving. Basically find a flat place that appeals to you and camp for one night or camp for a couple of weeks.

Anasazi Ruins and Mining Camps

The views in the Kokopelli Trail area are enough to ensure an enjoyable visit, but there are also Anasazi ruins and old, mining camps to explore.

The area was originally settled by the Anasazi, which were kind enough to leave behind petroglyphs and pictographs on the rock walls. Anasazi rock art is scattered along several rock walls in the area so keep your eyes open.

The first white settlers in the area were miners. There are several abandoned mine shifts, cabins, and out buildings in the Kokopelli Trail area to explore. I would highly recommend staying out of the abandoned mine shafts. These shafts could house bats, various desert animals, and could collapse at anytime.

Mule Canyon

Hiking and Anasazi Ruins

The South Fork of Mule Canyon is filled with Anasazi Ruins and home of the famous House on Fire ruin. The Mule Canyon trail follows a wash and is generally very easy hiking.

The House on Fire ruin is two miles round trip and the last ruin in the wash is 9.2 miles round trip. Basically the entire wash is filled with ruins. Some of the ruins are easy to see from the trail in the bottom of the wash, while some ruins require off trail exploring. Watch carefully for cairns (rock piles) leading off the main trail to hidden ruins. Be sure to explore interesting looking areas off the trail. Even if you don’t find a ruin you will be rewarded with amazing, red rock rim views.

Camping

Driving past the trailhead to the South Fork of Mule Canyon will lead you on top of a ridge that offers multiple campsites with great desert views. This entire area is BLM land, which means you can pretty much camp anywhere you want to for up to 14 days.

For more information check out: http://www.hikingwalking.com/destinations/ut/ut_se/blanding/mule_canyon

Conclusion

For your next boondocking adventure consider the Kokopelli Trail and Mule Canyon areas of southern Utah. You will be rewarded with amazing views, Anasazi ruins, and unlimited camping opportunities, perfect for boondockers.

Please remember to always boondock without a trace! 

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