Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
One of the most recent National Parks is the Grand Staircase which was formed (over much opposition) by one of Bill Clinton’s last acts as President. The area encompassed by the Monument is huge at over 2 million acres and yet there is only one maintained hiking trail and paved roads only skirt the edges. Given this, the park is relatively deserted especially when compared to its more illustrious neighbours such as Bryce Canyon.
We started off by going for hike in an area adjacent to the main Monument called the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. We travelled 8 miles down the House Rock Valley Road to the Wire Pass Trailhead. This road was ok for a gravel road but with short areas of nasty corrugations. From this trailhead you can access The Wave which is a permit only hike – we didn’t have a permit so we hiked through Buckskin Gulch.
For the first mile or so we walked up an open wash but this then narrowed into a tight slot canyon. There was a pour off about five feet high to climb down – no problem going down but coming up was more interesting and I needed to haul Sarah up. After another 0.5 miles or so the canyon opened out into a wide sandy area bordered by cliffs and then closed up again into a slot. This slot wasn’t that tight – maybe 4 feet wide but the sides got higher and higher as you moved downstream.
We had a bit of shock about half way along this canyon as sitting on a small ledge was a snake. Sarah does not like snakes at all but she managed to edge her way past to carry on. On the way back through the canyon we got to the ledge and the snake had moved – it was moving down the canyon along the edge. Again we edged by with no problems but Sarah’s stress level was high!
The Canyon runs for 13 miles until it hits the Paria River but we only went around 4 miles in before turning round and retracing our steps.
After this we drove back to the main road and slightly back on ourselves to reach the Cottonwood Canyon Road. This is a 56 mile long dirt road which cuts right across the Grand Staircase Monument. This road is definitely not feasible in a normal passenger car as there were some heavily rutted areas, some deep sand and some mud too.
We found a nice place by the river to spend the night though and in the morning drove the rest of the road, past Grosvenor Arch to Kodachrome Basin State Park. Kodachrome State Park marked the start of paved road which we were pretty thankful for.
The raison d’etre for Kodachrome is a large number of pipes that have formed in the area. These are pretty curious looking. We went on a short (3 mile) hike in this park and climbed up and over a big mound of slickrock where we saw both a pipe close up and a small arch.
After Kodachrome we drove up the road a few miles to the visitor centre where we got some information on the state of another gravel road called the Hole in the Rock road. Reassured that this was in good condition and that there was no rain forecast for the next two days we headed 10 miles up the road from the visitor centre (in Escalante) to the junction with Hole in the Rock Road.
This road is famous for a group of Mormon settlers who were convinced they could cross the Colorado in this direction. Through sheer bloody mindedness they managed to get through but had to blast there way through a solid rock wall and then lower their wagons by rope down a 1000ft cliff then back up the other side of the canyon.
We weren’t so ambitious and were only heading 26 miles down the road to the Dry Forks Trailhead. On the way we stopped off at the Devil’s Garden where there are a number of Hoodoos. We arrived at the Dry Forks turnoff after a pretty easy run down what wasn’t a bad road – other than some bone shaking corrugations. However the 1.7 mile road to the trailhead was a different story. We drove most of this at a pretty severe angle with one side of the truck about 2 feet higher than the other. This is one road that a normal car would never get down. We decided to stay at the trailhead overnight and go hiking in the morning.
The Dry Forks trailhead is the access point for two slot canyon hikes. Peek-a-boo and Spooky canyons. Both of these are tight slots with Spooky much tighter than Peek-a-boo. In fact a couple of people had suggested to me that I wouldn’t fit down Spooky at all.
We hiked down into the main Dry Forks canyon and our first stop was Peek-a-boo canyon. Well first challenge was the 12 foot high wall to climb to get up into the canyon. Fortunately there were 2 or 3 hand and footholds cut in the wall and the climb wasn’t too bad. Once in the Canyon it wasn’t much further until another ledge to be climbed. At first Sarah couldn’t get up this but a bit of perseverance and she was up and it was worth the effort with arches, tunnels and various twists and turns along the way.
Despite a couple of tight spots, we made our way through the rest of the Canyon without mishap ending in a sandy wash at which point you turn around and work your way back through to the entrance. We had more trouble climbing back down but eventually we were out.
Buoyed by our success at Peek-a-boo we moved down the main canyon to the entrance to Spooky. This was a much less intimidating start, as the wash just entered the slot at ground level. However within a few paces the slot had closed right up, the walls were much higher than Peek-a-boo and there wasn’t a great deal of light, hence the name I guess. Both of us could only make progress sideways and my chest and back were both touching rock – the feeling of claustrophobia was palpable. We pushed on through and reached a point where the canyon walls were too narrow for me – I moved my chest down and just squeezed through.
Then as we moved through a slightly more open bit – there standing in the middle of the canyon – was the biggest spider I’d ever seen. Now Sarah hates spiders – this was a problem. I thought that I would encourage it to move , so I threw a stone at it. Instead of running off it reared up and bared its fangs – it wanted to fight!
We had to gird our loins and edge round it. There is something scary about a massive spider that is un-nerving even to those of us not scared of spiders.
There were a number of twisting, tight spots that needed to be negotiated and a couple that needed some minor climbing. That is until we were about ¾ of the way along the canyon when we hit a very large choke stone which was just over 6 feet high. The only way over was to reach up and over and then use your legs to brace against one wall while edging your back up the other. Once at the top you had to crawl through a short tunnel and then climb up and over another large stone before dropping back into the canyon. Although Sarah had managed so far to climb up all the obstacles in our way she was not tall enough to pull herself up this one and there was no way to help her because of the small tunnel at the top, so she waited while I quickly made my way to the end of the canyon (only another couple of hundred metres) where it opened out into a wide sandy wash.
We made our way back through the canyon. The spider had moved nicely under a ledge so not so scary and the tight claustrophobic bit from the way out seemed much less tight as the sun was now higher in the sky. We made it back to the mouth of the canyon with a real sense of achievement.
After making our way back to the camper we headed back to the main road and then to the next area of The Grand Staircase which was the Calf Creek Recreation Area. There was a really pretty little campsite here so we decided to spend the night and registered before heading off on the headline hike here – the trail to the Lower Calf Creek Falls.
This was a really nice hike through a lush valley (a real rarity in Southern Utah), past some ancient ruined granaries in the cliffs, some pictographs and then to a gorgeous waterfall at the end of the canyon.
The only fly in the ointment of this hike was that on the way back we came across a pretty large snake which was right in the middle of the path. Not knowing if it was poisonous or not we waited a few minutes for it to move away before continuing.
The next morning we decided that we needed a day off so booked another night at the campsite and decided to spend the day doing some cleaning and more importantly some relaxing in the sun!