GUEST POST: The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Day 9 Soundtrack:

Traveling to the Canyons - George Harrison, All Things Must Pass

When Emma first mentioned to me that she wanted to visit The Grand Staircase, I envisioned a rock formation, in the shape of a staircase. I was not wrong, but my imagination was not completely right either. The Staircase, similar to “Balanced Rock” at Arches National Park, or the Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, was formed over millions of years. (Geologic time-scales almost completely unfathomable to this big-brained monkey.) Unlike these other awe-inspiring rock formations, however, The Grand Staircase does not fit into one’s field of vision (or even a “pano” shot on the iPhone). It is not the “naturally formed” set of stairs that you might see Rocky Balboa running up in a montage, so much as it is a metaphorical geologic construct that stretches over millions of acres in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. The “steps” in the staircase refer to the layers of sedimentary rock that begin around Bryce Canyon National Park, and stretch down through the National Monument in Escalante, through Zion National Park, and finally reach the Grand Canyon.

The “Grand Staircase National Monument” is about 2 million acres of public land in the desert of Western Utah. It is rich with streams, monoliths, and slot canyons. Again, I was naive to the meaning of a “National Monument”. When I think “monument”, I think “statue” or “plaque”, not 2 million acres of mostly primitive, completely gorgeous land, protected from development for the sole-purpose of public use. America is serious about their public land – and good on em’! In that neck of the woods (or desert, in this case), one may set up camp, free-of-charge, almost anywhere, at any time, and stay for up to 14 days. There are some stipulations to be aware of if you are going to do this, but they are straight forward and make sense. (Fire regulations, proximity to developed areas/parks, etc..) There are also some areas that have been intentionally developed into campgrounds, that do charge a small fee to offset maintenance costs/up-keep. These are great value, often the designers of the sites are very creative about working within the confines of the landscape with minimal impact. Pit toilets can also seem like a luxury after you’ve been shitting like a bear for a few days.

Escalante

Escalante

Calf Creek Campground, which we could have easily driven right by without any clue that it was there, may be my absolute favourite car-campground of all time. As we were driving through the landscape pictured above, up and down switch-backs, and along cliff-sides, there was a small side-road down to the camp. Upon arrival, we felt at home. Cosily nestled between two large red cliffs, beside Calf Creek, there are maybe a dozen beautiful little campsites. It was $7 per night. Each site has a cast-concrete picnic table, coloured to match the surroundings, and a heavy-duty iron fir-pit/grill. (As we learned is standard practice in the U.S.) There is a wonderful suspension bridge for pedestrians to walk over to the pit toilet. Each campsite has its own, unique features.. 2 have man-made pole-barns for shelter, and all have amazing views of the wild formations that have been carved out of the red cliffs all around.

There were 2 other campers on the first night of our stay. On night 2, it was just us and the coyotes (and the possibility of a mountain lion).

Emma's whippin' up some hot din.

Emma's whippin' up some hot din.

This is normal, right?

This is normal, right?

Just a typical Utah campsite.

Just a typical Utah campsite.

 

From Calf-Creek (where I wish we had spent a few more days), we day-tripped out to some slot-canyons. Apparently in the summer-time these things are so full of tourists that you can’t move. Not so in January. We didn’t see a soul out there all day. We visited Peek-a-boo Gulch, Spooky Gulch, and the Dry-Fork Narrows, all slot canyons, located in the Dry-Fork area of Escalante.

 

Goin' fer a rip in our 1994 Mazda MPV.

Goin' fer a rip in our 1994 Mazda MPV.

As we started heading down Hole-In-The-Rock Road, we realized why all of the canyon-tour shops back in town (closed for the season now) had jacked-up Jeeps and giant, 16 seat dune-buggies parked beside them. This place is “Goin’ fer a rip”-ville USA. We stuck to the main road, as the directions said, but there were intricate networks of side-roads for all levels of off-roadin’ vehicles (and their crazy drivers). Even the main road got pretty rough at times. It was no match for ol’ Vanny though. Save for the odd, seemingly wild, cow, we didn’t see nothin’ ‘r nobody for a good 26 miles on our way into the “parking lot”.

 

MPVs only.

MPVs only.

The trail to the slots is about a 3.2 mile loop, with each slot canyon accessible from the main loop. There is a “check in” station at the trailhead with a book to sign in and out. This makes sense, considering the trail is not super well defined. It’s not ultra difficult to navigate, but there were a few moments of minor confusion as we looked around for the next pile of rocks (cairns) to guide us in the right direction.

Spooky Slot Canyon is aptly named. It can be pretty dark, even in the middle of the day, down in the depths of the canyon. It is also very narrow (10’’) at points. Bringing a backpack was a poor decision.

Good thing she's small.

Good thing she's small.

Better shimmy.

Better shimmy.

The canyons are prone to flash-floods in heavy rain, and there are no warning sirens. If it starts pouring.. get the hell out! All of the surrounding desert basically funnels acres and acres of surface water down into these canyons. It is the extreme force created by all this water that keeps eroding away the walls and carving out the beautiful, sculptural forms.

Just chillin'

Just chillin'

The canyons do require a certain level of agility, determination, and willingness to traverse. There is some climbing, and there is the odd pool of water that may require some creativity to navigate without getting wet. The kid inside me loves it. In a way, it is a giant, beautiful playground. If we ever have kids, I’ll wait until they are 10 or 12 years old, I will definitely bring them here. Mabe ol’ Vanny will even still be kickin’ around.

 

The entrance to Peek-a-Boo requires about a 20’ climb.

The entrance to Peek-a-Boo requires about a 20’ climb.

Don't get wet...

Don't get wet...

Once inside, rock scrambling skills required.

Once inside, rock scrambling skills required.

She got wet...

She got wet...

All in all, I highly recommend this little venture if you’re anywhere near the neighbourhood. Don’t go in peak tourist season. A local man was telling us that tempers can flare up in Spooky Canyon when dozens of folks are trying to squeeze by one another in the 10” wide sections. For me, much enjoyment was derived from the atmosphere of the experience as a whole. This included the sense of adventure that came from the solitude in such a vast, open space as the gulch. Obviously there is some risk involved, so a jeep tour is good for those who’s vehicle isn’t up for the challenge. I wasn’t joking when I said the road is rough. It is in no way maintained. We absolutely took advantage of the 4 wheel drive. There were some very deep sandy spots, huge bumps and cracks, and some pretty tilty spots. Had it started to rain hard, a 2 wheel drive vehicle would definitey have gotten stuck. (There may be a story about such an event coming up after our visit to Sedona.. stay tuned.)

Thanks for reading.

Jesse

If there were ever a suitable selfie spot - this was it.

If there were ever a suitable selfie spot - this was it.

Dry Fork Narrows

Dry Fork Narrows

Up and through.

Up and through.

 

 

 

Bryce Canyon National Park

Day 8 Soundtrack:

Morning - The Velvet Underground, VU

Lunch - The Pesky Alders, Heavy Meadow

Evening - Roy Orbison, The Very Best Of

Half of the enjoyment of road-tripping is the driving.  Not the act of driving itself, but the opportunity to pass through miles and miles of land that one would otherwise miss if they flew. 

 
Scraping out Vanny's wheel-well, after tackling the Rocky Mountains.

Scraping out Vanny's wheel-well, after tackling the Rocky Mountains.

 

Since leaving Ontario, the landscape has changed so frequently that it seems we are almost in a new land everyday. As we travelled South, the soil became lighter and lighter, slowly changing from the almost black, nutrient rich soil of Southern Ontario, to deep browns, to reds, to tans. The plants at first grew larger - in the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, everything seemed gigantic - and then slowly shrinking as we passed state after state. 

Snow capped hoodoos - winter in Bryce Canyon
IMG_0126.JPG
Red Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon

As we get further from the Canadian border, the environment becomes "curiouser and curiouser" as Alice might say, and Bryce Canyon was the tip of the "curiouser" iceberg. The most photogenic and striking park we've been to so far, the bright orange hoodoos stood with strength on a bright blue skyline. 

We pulled into Bryce after leaving our motel, travelling the historic byway (passing several "Prospector" themed stops - "Prospector Gasoline" "Prospector Lodge" "Prospector General Store") and slowly following the changing landscape. After the blizzard the night before, the sky was bright and clear, but it was a chilling -12C, the coldest day we'd had yet.  

Bryce Canyon National Park
Navajo Loop Bryce Canyon

We spent a number of hours hiking into the amphitheatre of hoodoos, following the Navajo and Queen's Garden trail in a loop from one edge of the rim to the next. 

Few people ventured deep into the amphitheatre that day, so we enjoyed the peace of the wooded valley just the two of us.

Despite the frigid weather, the sun shone brightly, and we couldn't help but sit in awe of what existed on this planet, right in front of us. It's a big, big world out there - lots to discover, and Bryce Canyon is a must see if you're in the Utah area. We will be back. 

Arches in a Blizzard

Day 7 Soundtrack: 

Morning - Spiritualized, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

Late Morning - David Bowie, Hunky Dory

Early Evening - Rufus Wainwright, Take All My Loves

Late Evening - Timber Timbre, Hot Dreams

After leaving Black Canyon we stopped at the local truck stop in Montrose and paid $7 for two showers (we got BOGO because we also filled up on gas). We filled up our water jugs from the hose and had a gigantic biscuit, egg and gravy breakfast at Starvin' Arvin's - $5 for a platter the size of a laptop, Jes had the second half of mine for dinner.  

Then we were on route to Utah! 

For many miles there was nothing but arid desert, with a coat of fresh snow sprinkled on the tops of sharp, gnarly bushes, and dried wildflowers. The occasional red cliff appeared as we got closer to Arches National Park, a short drive from Moab UT. 

Hiking to the North Window.

Hiking to the North Window.

It was a wintery day to try and spot the arches in the distance, but that almost added to mystique of them. At the start of our jaunt through the park, there was a thick fog hovering over the trails, with the odd flurry of snow. By the end it was coming down in waves - the wind whipping through the natural holes in the rocks with a fury. 

Snowey desert. 

Snowey desert. 

South Window. 

South Window. 

The bright red of the rock and clay formations were made more striking by the contrast with perfectly white freckles. The lack of full sized trees, and huge expanse of snow covered rock, reminded me of our trip to Iceland when we first started dating, back in February 2010. I had imagined that Iceland was what the moon looked like, and Utah in the winter is what I imagine Mars might look like. 

We managed to get a glimpse of "Delicate Arch" the most famous natural arch in the world. Not the biggest or thinnest or longest span, but the most photographed. We could just barely spot it through the blizzard between us and it.

Whiteout. Even Jes was taking pictures here!!

Whiteout. Even Jes was taking pictures here!!

Hiking back from Delicate Arch.  

Hiking back from Delicate Arch.  

That night, after several hours of driving in a knuckle-clenching storm "The Great Blizzard of Utah 2017" - we dubbed it, we decided to pull over into the town of Richfield and get a motel for the night. There was no use taking on more mountains, in the dark, in a blizzard. It was nice to sleep on a bed for the first time in a week, and get some reliable wifi (even if the "continental breakfast" they promised us consisted only of coffee with frozen milk, toast, and cheerios.) 

Red, red rock. 

Red, red rock. 

Colour palette. 

Colour palette. 

On Mars.

On Mars.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Day 5 Soundtrack:

Morning - Elton John, Greatest Hits

Afternoon - Real Estate, Atlas

Evening - Spiritualized, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light

Late Evening - Bob Dylan, Modern Times

Day 6 Soundtrack:

Nature sounds while on the trail.

 

Snow trudging break. Not a bad view. 

Snow trudging break. Not a bad view. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison has been my favourite place so far (and I'm writing this after visiting several parks since we were there).

Before getting to the park, I wanted to cover a couple things. There are both advantages and disadvantages to hiking the National Parks in the winter time.

Let's start with the disadvantages:

1. Many of the trails and roads are closed - The North Rim of Black Canyon is closed in the winter months, and the South Rim Road that runs the length of the park is closed to vehicles and converted into a snowshoe/cross-country ski trail. The trail is over 14miles though, which was a bit further than we planned on snowshoeing in one day.

2. Lots of snow! The campsites at Black Canyon are not plowed/maintained through the winter - no running water, and when we arrrived there was ~2ft of snow where our tent should go, and no real place to sit around the firepit. We ended up sleeping in the van.

Overlooking the canyon. 

Overlooking the canyon. 

But the advantages FAR outweigh the drawbacks.

1. FEWER PEOPLE!! We were the only people camping at Black Canyon, both nights, and we passed all of ZERO people on our 5 hour snowshoe trek. In the summer time the parks are full, but the peace and silence of solitude was part of the magic of Black Canyon for me.

2. Winter Sky. The sky at the top of the canyon is so dark, that on a clear night, you can see almost 7500 stars (three times the normal amount seen in the average park). Black Canyon was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2015 - the first night we spent there we lay on the picnic table and watched the stars come out all around us.

3. Lots of snow! I know I said this was a disadvantage (and sometimes it feels that way), but it also allowed many awesome opportunities. The rangers at the Black Canyon Visitor Centre lent us snowshoes for the day, and we were able to hike down partway into the canyon on the Oak Flat Loop trail before winding back up and breaking ground across the rim. The snow also fills in all the craggy nooks and crannies, adding an additional layer of information for the eye to see.

Winter trekking. 

Winter trekking. 

4. Fewer people = more wildlife. Thanks to the quiet of the trails and roads, on a single day we were able to spot more than 20 mule deer, a handful of elk, tons of birds, and a fox.

5. Free stuff. In the winter many of the campsites are free (Black Canyon is one of them) or they offer off-season rates. Also, sometimes the park entrance fees are waived (as was also the case with Black Canyon).

The depths. 

The depths. 

"Several canyons of the American West are longer and some are deeper, but none combine the depth, sheerness, narrowness, darkness, and dread of the Black Canyon." - Duane Vandenbusche

The Black Canyon, as seen from the Oak Flat Loop Trail.  

The Black Canyon, as seen from the Oak Flat Loop Trail.  

Black Canyon gets its name from the fact that some areas of the canyon receive only 33 minutes of sunlight per day - for most of the day the canyon is cast in shadow, appearing black. It is the 5th steepest range in North America, and its vastness simply cannot be caught on camera. This is definitely one of the spots that must be seen in real life to be appreciated.

Sneaking out to the edge.  

Sneaking out to the edge.  

There was a sombreness to the canyon - I could have looked into its depths for days. Staring into it from above, you couldn't help but feel its solemn presence. I will most definitely return here - I hope to one day hike down into the depths and experience the canyon from its heart, and hear the rushing sound of the Gunnison River echo in the dark around me.

Out on the rim.
Out on the rim.

After our long hike through deep snow, we had tortellini over the fire and were in bed by 5. Early to bed, early to rise. 

Colorado flora. 

Colorado flora. 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Day 3 Soundtrack:

Morning - AA Bondy, American Hearts

Afternoon - silence.

It didn't take long after leaving Denver for the Rocky Mountains to swallow us whole. They rose up in front of us, then consumed us as we climbed the steep and winding road into their depths.

View from the Moraine campground road

View from the Moraine campground road

Through the winter the park doesn't take reservations – instead you self register, and set up camp at whichever site you'd like. $18 a night, plus a $30 entrance fee. Not the cheapest, considering there is no running water in the cold months,  but the beauty of the park was worth the expense. We were one of only 6 sites occupied on the large loop of ponderosa pine forest. Our site was right on the outskirts, so a short walk up the hill and a view of looming peaks awaited us. We were surrounded on all sides. 

Cozy sleeping place. 

Cozy sleeping place. 

After setting up our tent and getting comfy for the night, we ate dinner over the firepit grill (did I mention that every single park has had emmaculate, super fancy grills?) and cuddled up in our sleeping bags.

And then the wind started.

When we arrived at the park, the ranger warned us they were expecting up to 2ft of snow over the next couple days – be prepared to dig yourself out.

Well, that first night it didn't snow, but the wind came down with GUSTO and shook our tent with an incredible force. We could hear the wind starting on the other side of the valley and slowly building in volume and speed as it made its way down the mountain and up the hill into our campsite. I enjoyed laying in the dark listening to its strength. But we  didn't get much sleep that first night.

The next day we didn't have to drive anywhere (HOORAY!) so we spent the day exploring the park. We started our hike at Bear Lake (9475ft) and trekked up to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes (1011ft) – a 4 mile round trip. The steep climb and icy hike across frozen lakes was worth it. The wind was wicked, but the views were spectacular – great open spaces surrounded by snow covered peaks, shaggy pines growing from the side of boulders, and more wind, whipping across the lakes and blustering snow in their wake.

Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake

The climb.  

The climb.  

All bundled up. 

All bundled up. 

Overlooking the mountains. 

Overlooking the mountains. 

Dream Lake.  

Dream Lake.  

The hike down was easier on the lungs, but harder on the knees. By the time we got back to our campsite, we were ready for another big dinner over the fire.

Making Dinner on night 4.  

Making Dinner on night 4.  

Tea making equipment - the most important. 

Tea making equipment - the most important. 

It snowed over a foot that night. The sound of snow delicately sprinkling on our tent was peaceful to wake up to through the night. In the morning we had to dig ourselves out of our tent-turned-igloo before hitting the road.

Snow day. 

Snow day. 

Onwards to the next stop, (and the one I was most excited about seeing) the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.