Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend

Page AZ is a wee little city with an incredible number of places to visit. Between the lakes, canyons and hiking spots, you could spend several days in this one city and keep yourself entertained. We only had the morning to explore, so we decided to splurge and take a tour of Upper Antelope Canyon.

 
Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics
 

Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are exclusively visited through tour guides, for a number of reasons. Located on the Navajo Reservation, the canyon (sometimes called "Corkscrew Canyon") is a quarter mile long and 130ft deep. Like Jesse mentioned in his blog post about Spooky Gulch - slot canyons are Dangerous with a capital D, in rainstorms. With the volume of visitors that Antelope Canyon gets every year, you wouldn't want to be trapped in a 130ft deep canyon with dozens of people when a flash flood hits.

Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics
Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics

Visiting in the winter time meant that we didn't get the same bright colours or light beams that a summer visit would provide - but there were fewer people, and for a cold January morning there were still more people than I really preferred.

Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics
Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics

Antelope Canyon is the most photographed slot canyon in Arizona - photographers travel from all over the world to spend time in this canyon and capture its beauty. And for good reason - it makes for remarkable photographs! National Geographic once asked to capture the flash flooding in the canyon and secretly bolted their cameras to the (millions of years to carve out) canyon walls. When the flash flood came through, it ripped their equipment off the walls and carried it away - the cameras (and footage!) were never seen again. (Karma's a bitch, National Geographic.)

Upper Antelope Canyon | Emma Smith Ceramics

We got some spectacular photographs, but to be honest, the atmosphere was a let down. I can imagine the canyon would be a very spiritual, serene, and moving place to be - if you were alone. But we weren't. We were shepherded along in a group of 6 (we were told this was a small group) with a tour guide chattering on about all the different rock formations, where exactly we should aim our cameras, and what filters to use. We got some great photos, but the photos are much more incredible than the experience was. There was no time to quietly enjoy, reflect, or wander off on your own.

If you're going to visit Arizona, Antelope Canyon is worth visiting - but only if you have extra time. There are so many other sites to see that (for an adventurer) would be more rewarding.

On our way to the Grand Canyon, we stopped at Horseshoe Bend - another famous landmark where the Colorado River (the same river that carved out the Grand Canyon) makes a sharp horseshoe curve. The short hike to the bend brings you to the cliff's edge where you can look down and see the river wrapping like a snake around the rocks below.

Horseshoe Bend

And then we were off to the Grand Canyon - the highlight of the trip (for me) and a place I will go back to, MANY more times.
That's up next, and until then, thanks for reading!

Zion National Park

Day 10 Soundtrack:

Morning - Vaudevillian, Salty Dog

Late Morning - The Beatles, White Album

Evening - The National, Boxer

When we do this trip again (because we plan on it.... maybe in the spring though) we will give ourselves more time to get to the Grand Canyon.

In order to stay at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the GC, you need to book your trip well in advance. We were lucky, and due to the time of year, we were able to get a cabin with only two months notice. But if you were going peak-season, you'd need to book 6-12 months ahead of time.

Our trip-planning process was looser than most - we booked our stay at GC for January 10th, giving ourselves 12 days to drive down and make some stops along the way. Other than our first stay at Starved Rock State Park (because the friendly border patrol guards want to know you're not just gallivanting around the States with no itinerary), we didn't book a single thing the whole trip - we would spend each day of driving looking online or phoning parks to make sure we could stay there for the night. If we couldn't get a hold of them, we just showed up, and hoped for the best (this only backfired on us once... stay tuned for another blog post).

Canyon Overlook Trail Zion National Park
Zion National Park

The only problem with this plan was that we quickly ran out of time to see all the things we wanted to see. We could have spent all 12 days at any one park!  (Except maybe that night in Brush CO - no offense, Brush)

And so it was that we had 48 hours to get from Escalante UT to The Grand Canyon AZ, with about a billion things still on our list. No surprises - there were things we didn't get to do, and places we didn't stay long enough. This is where the "when we do this trip again" comes in...

En route to GC we were within a stone's throw of Zion National Park, so we decided to take a slight detour and spend a few hours there (not nearly long enough!) before continuing to Page AZ where we would spend the night.

Zion Canyon
Scenic Drive Zion Canyon

With only a few hours in one of the most well-known and beautiful parks in the US... what to do? You ask a ranger, and follow their suggestions.

First we drove the length of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (normally a shuttle-bus-only road in peak-season, the SD was open to personal vehicles for the winter). We were able to take our time, stopping at the scenic views and lookouts along the way, and finally ended at Temple of Sinawava where we took in the waterfall view while snacking on smoked oysters and trail mix. I half expected to see a pterodactyl come sweeping down from the cliff tops, or a tyrannosaurus come barreling through the trees. There was something especially prehistoric and grandiose about this place. If there is another Jurassic Park movie in the future - they should film it here (but don't, you'd ruin it).

Canyon Overlook Trail
Checking out the view
Canyon Overlook Trail
Zion Canyon

After driving back up many switchbacks, and barreling through the Mt. Carmel tunnel, we parked and hiked up the Canyon Overlook Trail which, SURPRISE, overlooks the canyon. It was a slightly treacherous hike up, with spotty sections of ice, loose rocks and steep drop-offs, but we made it to the top and were thrilled that we did (Thanks ranger!) The view was astounding - red cliffs stretching out into the distance as far as the eye could see. And though there were spots with railings for the folks with height-related fears, there were lots of perching opportunities for those without. But please, don't fall!

 
The Edge
 

Wecontinued on to Page AZ where we quickly lost cellphone reception (thank you, all of Northern Arizona, for your terrible cell reception) and wandered around for a bit looking for an appropriate place to camp for the night. In our wandering, we discovered that you can easily get McDonalds WiFi from the parking lot, and returned to the parking lot on 3 separate occasions that evening after finding that the sites we looked for no longer existed (or maybe never did?), were closed, or were merely a patch of dirt at the side of the highway.

We finally found a nearby RV and tent park that accepted late arrivals, and set up camp.

Zion National Park
Zion National Park
Canyon Overlook Trail
Zion National Park

 

 

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.