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.

 

 

 

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.