Nature & Hiking Photography

2021-10-23 thru 24 Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

I had the good fortune over the weekend to get a visit from an old friend from Connecticut. Our plan was to visit Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This area has been in the news for at least the last 4 years or more depending on your level of awareness into land conservation issues. Most recently President Biden reinstated the borders that President Trump had cut back for this area. This was my first visit and only to one area, but it is plain to me why this area is protected and should be from development.

The trip started off a bit sideways as Eric’s second leg flight was first postponed then canceled. This put him in SLC Friday morning rather than Thursday evening. A bit of a downer since it cut back what we could do. After some catching up with Carly at the house we took off South. Our route was down through Boulder, UT rather than the way Apple Maps first suggested. This gave us another way to get home, it also allowed us to go by a restaurant called Hell’s Backbone that Carly and I heard about in a food documentary. While the restaurant was busy we got take out and it was fabulous. While waiting we were greeted by 3-4 cats that roam the grounds of this sustainably, locally sourced restaurant in the middle of a desert.

We stopped for the night a little outside of Escalante. Even though the moon was nearly full there were considerably more stars than Eric was used to in Connecticut. In the morning we did some breakfast and headed down towards Peek-a-boo and Spooky Slot Canyons.

These slot canyons are fairly casual affairs and require no equipment or skill, just a willingness to possibly get a little wet and be OK with shimmying through narrow slots sideways. I haven’t done a slot canyon before so it was good first experience. One difficult thing to do I found was to take compelling pictures. Not so much because the scene wasn’t beautiful, but because there is almost no sense of scale unless there’s a human in the photo. Interesting features in the canyon could be enormous or tiny.

Mini arch we needed to crawl through.

After the slots we continued down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which is about 50 miles of washboards similar to a cattle guard for hours on end. It would be kind of awesome to see how something like a Ford Raptor would do on this road, we on the other hand were relegated to somewhere between 10-30 miles an hour, usually on the low end of that.

We arrived at the trailhead and bivied since our hike the following day in Coyote Gulch would be about 10 miles. The hike takes out across the sand and desert to the rim of the Escalante River and Coyote. The trail is easy to follow and brings you to the edge of a 60-80′ cliff. At first it doesn’t seem likely there’s a way down, however there is a feature called Crack-in-the-Wall. The crack is formed by a large piece of the cliff exfoliating and leaving a crack down to 14″ or so inches wide at some spots. This crack forms a ramp that is easy to take down to the sand dune that brings you to the river.

The walk down from the cliff was the purest powder sand around.

After getting to the bottom of the talcum powder soft sand dune I needed to empty out my shoes as they were filled with about a 1/4 cup of sand. But I didn’t really end up putting on my shoes until we got to our exit point up the gulch, 6 miles upstream. The trail wanders in the bottom of the gulch through the stream. For the most part the stream is softer than any beach sand you’ve experienced so we both just went without shoes for the rest of the way.

The hike is fantastic. The contrasts between the red walls, cliffs, arches are offset by the green of trees and grasses and the water sculpting its way through the rock. The contrasts were the most amazing part of the hike. We also were lucky in that we didn’t see anyone else except for at Crack-in-the-Wall and near the terminus where we hiked out of the gulch.

Camping is allowed in the canyon and I can see the appeal of a very leisurely hike through and enjoying a full evening in the gulch. There are numerous large flat sand bars were setting up a tent, or even just a pad and sleeping bag would be ideal.

Our timing was good for the hike, it was very pleasant temps and a little overcast at the beginning of the hike. The cottonwood trees were just turning so there was green, yellow, and reds from other trees. One very memorable feature we encountered was the Coyote Natural Bridge. The stream has cut a sizable arch from the stone.

Wandering along we reached the finale which is Jacob Hamblin’s Arch and the massive amphitheaters the stream has cut around it. One large sandbar had 8-10 tents and room for many more. The edge of the cliff above I estimated at 225′ or so high. The depth of the amphitheater was perhaps 100′ deep.

The exit from this side is a semi-steep slab of sandstone. The first 30′ or so is a little tricky because everyone has worn it down with the sand and mud on their shoes. It is a bit of scramble in that distance. We ended up helping three ladies who’d done perhaps their first backpacking experience up this section.

Once above the scramble we headed off the main trail back to the van. This is marked on my map as a trail, but it is a huge expanse of sandstone with nothing to mark a trail. This wasn’t too big a deal as we used the GPS and a compass heading to point us to the van.

Then began our tortuously slow, bumpy, 36 mile ride out. While it was bumpy the previous day it seemed like it got even bumpier the next day. Speeds were limited to 10 mph at times because of the washboards. It took us over 2 hours to get back to the paved road outside Escalante. For our return to Salt Lake we headed passed the lower end of Bryce Canyon National Park.

I’d recommend this area to anyone looking for some hiking, camping, stargazing and river walking. There are so many other sights on the washboard road that we could have visited with more time. Not to mention it is but one area of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

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