Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument


Two towering pillars of multicolored sandstone reflected in a pool of water was what I saw in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area in 2004. This year I decided to go back to the Paria River and photograph the Paria River again with my Canon camera and also combine the trip with some hiking in Grand Staircase National Monument. Grand Staircase is a geological wonder full of dinosaur bones, intriguing colorful canyons, and Native American archeological sites. It deserves to be preserved for all posterity and protected. Please write your congress people and senators and ask them to stop President Trump and his evil Secretary of Interior, Zinke, from handing over these precious landscapes to oil and coal development which would ruin Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

We drove from the SLC airport to Kodachrome Basin State Park in Cannonville, UT. We took a short walk on the Grand Parade Trail and dinner we enjoyed a picturesque scene of the moon still very big and bright rising over the hoo doos of Kodachrome Basin. That night in my tent I slept very poorly as every time someone went to the bathroom and dried their hands a loud “hmmmmmmm” noise blared in concentric circles throughout the campground, waking me up abruptly. (Utah State Parks subsequently remodeled the entire campground which now holds 50 but I’m not sure if the sites still surround the noisy bathroom).

The next day we drove from Kodachrome Basin down Cottonwood Road to the Lower Hackberry Canyon Trailhead. The first half mile was lovely but then the canyon opened up and cattle had entered the canyon past the rickety fence attracting thousands of swarming deer flies. These nasty little critters have a vicious bite and are apparently immune to poison. I sprayed copious amounts of 100% Deet onto my legs and yet they continued to molest me for hours as we looked for a side canyon that allegedly had an arch in it. After swatting deer flies with a sage brush for an hour we finally came to the canyon and scrambled over a rock fall 1.5 miles until the canyon ended in a pour over. There was no arch and I was out of water. I had not counted on the extra two miles in Cockscomb. Not only that but we had to re-enter the cow infested, deer fly infested canyon in order to get back to the car. I would not recommend hiking last three miles of Hackberry Canyon. What should have been a six mile hike ended up 14.4 miles. After our hike we were so grateful for the cold beers in the cooler. I had bought the beer at a grocery store in Salt Lake. In Utah, grocery stores can only sell beer with a maximum of 4% alcohol. So these beers were more like malted barley-aid. From Hackberry we drove back to Cannonville to buy some more Deet. I noticed that the once famous, Ruby Inn had been renamed “Grand Staircase Inn” and the town had a brand new Mormon Temple. These were very ominous portentous sightings for what was to come. We returned to our campsite at Kodachrome Basin where there were less people and we hoped less hand drying in the night.

Monday, we got up, packed up our tents and headed back down Cottonwood Road to the Paria River Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area. We headed first to the White House Campground which is at the eponymous trail head into the Paria River Canyon. There were two sets of people camping there already but one set was leaving so we took their site, set up our tent, and headed down the trail. I was shocked to see dozens and dozens of hikers and backpackers coming up the trail. When I hiked from White House Trailhead to the Paria in 2004 with Susan we were the only people at the campground and we never saw a single hiker the entire time. In 2004 we hiked seven miles to the unusual rock formation I had photographed and framed, and back to the car and camped for the night there all by ourselves. I knew things would have changed since my visit nine years earlier but I was totally unprepared for what we experienced while in the Paria River Canyon those two days. There was a complete onslaught of people to this remote wilderness area. After hiking four miles we entered the narrows which are about four feet across and very scenic. Then after three more we came to the spot I had come all that way to photograph. There those courtly colorful columns stood but there was no water to reflect their princely state. They were still magnificent to behold but without the water to reflect them it was clear my photo would not be the mind boggling, award winning photo I had been dreaming of. I took photos from as many angles as the body would allow and then we continued to the confluence with Buckskin Gulch. We passed a day hiker. I have never seen another day hiker in Grand Staircase before. We turned up Buckskin Gulch for another mile and came to a lovely canyon with trees. A Canyon Wren sang from the canyon walls and a large adult male Northern Goshawk was perched in one of the trees and glared down at me as if to say “get out of my canyon!” After the trees the canyon narrowed significantly and became filled with water. We turned back and headed back to the trailhead. On the way back we saw two juvenile Northern Goshawks, still with a little downy feathers, perched high up on the canyon waiting for dinner from mom. Back at the campground it had filled beyond capacity since we had left. We heard a lot of German. The men just across from us spoke very loudly and one of them had an annoying hack. Well past quiet hour, 10:00 PM, this guy was talking extremely loudly. I politely said several times, “you are talking very loudly.” “It’s quiet hours.” He continued barking to his friends oblivious. I was reading a philosophy book I had brought with me. Finally, I started reading aloud from the book I was reading at the same decibel as he, “The simplicity selector, for example, picks out Null Possibility from among the cosmic possibilities. Similarly the goodness selector picked out the Axiarchic possibility universe.” Someone camping behind us yelled out, “What on earth are you reading?” The men went instantly silent in fact the whole campground. The bathroom which was not even there in 2004, was completely inadequate to the changed conditions and was quite noisome. The wind blew the smell directly into our campsite. We had to drive up the road a ways to find any kind of privacy for our outdoor solar shower which is one of my favorite things in the world. Back at camp I noticed that a hurricane had passed through and dumped large quantities of red sand into my tent and sleeping bag. It was clear I could not camp there a second night. All I could think of was years earlier when Susan and I had camped there all alone and had such a great wilderness experience.

At 6:20 AM two large noisy trucks pulled up and dumped off hordes of hikers. I got up and said to Sharon, “let’s get out of here!” After breakfast we packed up and drove to the Wire Pass Trailhead. We passed the ranger station where I had intended to pay for another day pass but it was still closed even though it was normal business hours. So we continued. In 2004 when I hiked Paria Canyon with Susan we had to turn on the odometer and guess where the Wire Pass Trailhead was; it was not even marked at that time. Well, things have certainly changed. There was a large sign, a huge parking lot full of cars, and two bathrooms at Wire Pass Trailhead. The signboard said that you had to have a day pass to hike Paria River; that had been instituted in 2003. The trail register said you had to apply three months in advance to hike to Coyote Buttes. We got lucky with a lottery pass and headed up Wire Pass trail to Coyote Buttes. Sharon wanted to see the famous Wave. Apparently this whole area has been the subject of an article in Der Spiegel Magazine because there were dozens of people speaking German. I had a map from Michael Kelsey’s excellent book, Hiking the Colorado Plateau, that had “Coyote Buttes” marked on a hand drawn map with two “xes” but that was the extent of our knowledge of how to find it. We hiked up over a hill of Kayenta sandstone and then headed northerly until we came to some beautiful brown colored buttes and a multicolored swirly wall. Then we noticed some people on the other side of the canyon so we walked in that direction. And there it was– this incredible swirl of colors in the sandstone. There were a bunch of Germans there. After walking around this amazingly beautiful area and getting some fantastic photos we headed back to the parking lot which was now totally full of cars and people. With less than a mile to go we passed a family dressed extremely inappropriately for this hot desert hike. The little girl was carrying her dog in her arms! I could not make eye contact; I was so appalled. We left Paria River Canyon and drove Cottonwood Road back to Cannonville and on to Escalante where we were delighted to discover that there is a State Liquor Store! In Utah, liquor, beer over 4%, and wine can only be sold at State Liquor Stores. We bought some real beer and then drove on the scenic by-way UT 12 to Calf Creek Recreation Area. A sign said the campground was full but we pulled in anyway and low and behold a very private nice site next to Calf Creek was open. We camped there the rest of the trip. There were lots of birds singing and a very private place to take a solar shower. It had everything I needed in the world– outstanding canyon walls to admire, a clear view of the stars at night, birds singing in the morning, and lots of privacy. As I set up my tent a Yellow-breasted Chat sang away in the cottonwood above me.

Wednesday, at 3:00 AM I woke to a Common Poorwill softly singing. Then at 5:00 AM that Yellow-breasted Chat started singing. A Poorwill is a nightjar and hunts for food at night but a Chat is a warbler. What was it doing singing in the middle of the night? My goodness I certainly did not want to get up that early. I considered it briefly but it was still dark out. When we did finally get up it was a bit chilly– about 54 degrees. After breakfast we hiked from our site to Calf Creek Falls, a 120 foot year round waterfall that starts above from springs and flows into the Escalante River. Since we were the first people we saw lots of birds, more Chats, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Violet-green Swallows, Western Wood Peewee, Plumbeous Vireo, Hummingbirds, Black-throated Gray Warblers, lots of Yellow Warblers. We also saw two Fremont Indian granaries high up the canyon wall and a set of petroglyphs. After admiring the falls we turned around. On the way back there were dozens of hikers including two German chicks in bikinis and flip flops, one carrying a two liter bottle of water in her hands along with her pocketbook, and both yelling repeatedly, “April, April!” I said I don’t want to hear y’all yelling in this wilderness area but they would not let us pass; they were oblivious or did not speak English or both. So I said, “excusez moi!” Finally they let us pass. Later as we left the campground we saw them at the entrance to the park with a third chick lighting up a cigarette. From Calf Creek we drove to the charming little town of Boulder, UT and onto the Burr Trail, a very scenic road through canyon country. We briefly had cellular service long enough to receive a text from Mary saying the Supreme Court had overturned Prop 8 and the odious, evil, and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Curiously this loathsome legislation had been signed into law by Bill Clinton of all people, the same president who made Grand Staircase a national monument by executive order in 1996. Well, I thank him for that and hope that his insight in preserving the magnificent Grand Staircase will not be overturned by that moron Trump. I was so happy that Prop 8 and DOMA had been overturned: I was overcome with joy. Here I was in my favorite place on the planet and finally justice had prevailed. What better place to be to receive the good news? Back to the Burr Trail. We passed an overturned Land Rover in a ditch. They probably took one of the curves too fast and flipped. We turned off the Burr Trail and went to the Wolverine Petrified Wood Natural Area where there are entire petrified conifers. We hiked down the trail and soon came to beautiful black petrified trees which made a stark contrast to the orange and red cliffs surrounding them. We hiked up the canyon five miles to the confluence with Little Death Hollow and then back. We returned to our neat little site at Calf Creek Falls and had a wonderful warm solar shower and then admired the stars. I was loving life. From our vantage point we could see all of Sagittarius and the refulgent Milky Way. I slept like a log that night.

Thursday, the Yellow-breasted Chat did not wake me up but a flute player did at 6:30. Overall the campers at Calf Creek were extremely respectful. The campground went completely silent promptly at 10:00 PM every night. But there were some over zealous musicians there. After breakfast we drove to Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a dirt road that goes from Highway 12 in Escalante all the way to Powell Reservoir some 50 miles. We drove 36 miles to Forty Mile Ridge Road and then another 7 to the Trailhead. The rental car had been shaking and rattling since we picked it up in Salt Lake but now it was shaking uncontrollably and especially when I ramrodded it over a huge sand pile. When we came to a stop the radiator overflowed. I knew it would take hours for a tow truck to come so we went on the hike anyway. The hike is 18 miles round trip first cross country over slick rock to Crack in the wall, an extremely narrow crack you walk through in order to enter the canyon, down a two mile sand pile and into Coyote Gulch, then up Hurricane Wash for seven superbly beautiful miles to a natural bridge and then to Jacob Hamblin Arch. In the wash we passed three waterfalls, several hanging gardens, three arches, massive alcoves, and overhanging 1000 foot high cliffs brushed with desert varnish, towering over us. This beautiful canyon is one of Utah’s premier hikes. I had hiked portions of it in winter several times with Susan in vain attempts to reach Jacob Hamblin Arch before finally reaching it in the summer of 2011 with my brother, John. It was a thrill of a lifetime to reach the arch in 2011 with John, but at that time I was overwhelmed with grief over the divorce and could not truly appreciate it. So I was excited to go back on this sublime aw-inspiring hike again but was dismayed too, to see trash littering the canyon. It was disturbing to see my beloved Grand Staircase full of trash and people. After enjoying the arch and all the sumptuous scenery we turned around and headed back to our disabled car. The last two miles up the sand pile Sharon became delirious and started babbling more than usual. I could not understand what she was saying but she was moving slowly. I reached Crack in the Wall and waited and waited while she continued to babble below me saying nonsense things. I got back to the car and got some gatoraid and took it back down the trail to her along with some ice. She finally made it up and then we waited for three hours for the tow truck to come. We enjoyed a stupendous sunset while waiting. Dale or Dell, the driver, showed up in a regular Dodge Pickup with a trailer attached. He told me he was from Danville, CA. He took forever to attach the car, complained incessantly about how bad the road was, and then proceeded to drive Hole-in-the-Rock Road 5 MPH for 36 miles! When we got to the intersection with Hwy12 he started counting on his fingers. Ignorant, depraved little miscreant could not even count. Then he said that will be $1150. I said I thought it was $500. He said no, I charge by the hour. No wonder the little reprehensible little scoundrel was driving so slowly. He was running up the bill. I said, “you were driving like a snail and you took forever to hook up the trailer.” He said, “I didn’t want to drive fast and tear up my equipment.” I was outraged. “What? You are a tow truck; you are supposed to be able to drive through anything. I’ll give you $800.” He said “no I’ll take this car with me.” I said, “fine you evil little mobster. I’ll walk back to Calf Creek.” Sharon told me just to pay the horrible little larcener. I paid him and then his final parting act of criminality was to rip the bumper off when off loading the car at Calf Creek. I wanted to punch him in the nose but I was too tired. It was 4:00 AM and too late to even take a solar shower. I had cut my leg in Coyote Gulch. It is now red and swollen as I write this. I hope it’s not fatal.

Friday, at 7:45 AM, Avis finally showed up with the replacement vehicle. My god we would have died if we had waited for Avis at the trailhead. This poor slob said he had been lost for four hours in the mountains and his diabetes was out of control because he hadn’t had any water to drink. We got in the new rental car and drove back to Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the Devil’s Garden Outstanding Natural Area. This is a very bewitching area of hoo doos. After walking around there we drove the astonishingly bad road to Egypt Trailhead. Two miles from the trailhead we picked up two ladies who had driven their Prius as far as it could go. They said they had driven from Bryce Canyon and were on their way to Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon and showed us a picture. We showed them the starting point, soon passed them, and never saw them again. It was easy enough at first. We just headed toward the Escalante River but when we came to the obvious entry point down the canyon Sharon insisted it was not the right place. So we marched another ridiculous two miles wandering aimlessly in the desert before she finally agreed to go down where I said originally. We got to the river and were happy to put our tired feet in. The water was warm but felt good. I wanted to dunk my head but when I bent over I slipped on the rocks and went down on my knee. It was painful to bend after that. We crossed the river again and then found Neon Canyon, where the Golden Cathedral is. There was no one else down there but us. I don’t know what happened to those two ladies from New York in the Prius. After walking up canyon and not seeing the Golden Cathedral I was about to give up. I told Sharon to go ahead and look. She yelled back at me and sure enough just about 100 yards farther up canyon was a beautiful double arch with a pool of water below. After savoring this beautiful place we headed back to the Escalante River where we waded for quite a way before heading back up the canyon. I got excited with a mile left, dreaming of a cold beer, anything cold and ignored the remaining cairns. However, when I got to the rim where I thought we had parked, the car was not there! I walked back and forth along the rim but no car. Sharon came up after about 20 minutes and started panicking. Do not get stuck in an earthquake with Sharon. I was out of water. It was 8:00 PM and we were walking along the rim. I suggested we go back into the canyon to look for a cairn and she said no! She was whining and complaining. My mouth was parched. I was out of water. I tried to stay calm and positive. I again suggested returning to the canyon to look for the last cairn. She kept dropping back and moaning. I was having to make sure she didn’t get out of my sight and have to find her and look for the car. I was a little bit panicked. I started thinking how Mary always says I think I am “invisible” (she means invincible). I thought I was going to die in the desert I love so much and that has given me such joy in my life. I thought about my limp body prostrate in the sand with ravens picking at my flesh. I wondered what Susan would think when she found out I was dead. We had been to Grand Staircase so many times before. I thought she would probably think, “well she died doing something she loved. But why did she have to take her sister down with her?” I remained positive though and continued to study the canyon looking for clues. My garmin had died and was useless. We wandered an hour with no water. It was extremely hot that day, probably 100 degrees at the height. Finally we came across the last cairn and there it was all along, the big hill we had come down that morning. We struggled up it, lips parched and throats unslaked, until finally we reached the parking area and car. A tent was there and a German lady stuck her head out, “Are you OK?” Yes, I said, “we just got lost and ran out of water.” They had given the two New Yorkers a ride back to their car. We never knew if they made it or not but I’m glad they made it back alive and us too, although decomposing among the canyons of the Escalante in Grand Staircase, the place I love so much would not be such a bad way to go. The best beer I ever had was the one after I guzzled a liter of water out of the cooler, a Unitas Sum’r Ale. I’m not sure if it has alcohol in it or not but it sure was good. We drove slowly back down Egypt Road and then Hole-in-the-Rock to our lovely campsite at Calf Creek. Then I had a glorious outdoor shower followed by more beer. Sharon complained about the solar shower but I was having none of that. It was a lovely evening staring at the starry, starry night next to our camp fire.

Saturday, sadly we had to pack up and leave Calf Creek CG. We got in the car and I’ll be damned if we didn’t have a nail and a flat tire. We drove into Escalante and fortunately the mechanic was on duty and it was not the criminal Dell from Red Rock Towing. This guy was fabulous. He repaired the tire in about five minutes and we were out of there and back on the road to Hell’s Back Bone in no time. We drove to the trailhead for Boulder Mail Trail, which incredibly really was used to carry mail trail from the town of Boulder to Escalante. I cannot imagine why they would have chosen such a difficult route to deliver mail but it sure makes a great hike. Right in the middle of it the trail crosses Death Hollow, arguably the most outlandishly beautiful canyon hike in the world. The trail passes first through ordinary pinyon pine and Utah juniper before it opens up on gorgeous Navajo sandstone (my favorite) and then at 5.6 miles the rim of the ineffably beautiful Death Hollow. We hiked down about 1000 feet into the canyon, which was other worldly with trees, butterflies, flowers, and water. We took our shoes off and stood in the cool water of Death Hollow, before heading back up the canyon to the car. We passed another German couple on the way. Even though I have hiked Boulder Mail Trail once before in 2004, it was winter then, and we could only make it to the canyon rim. This time was so much more exciting to make it into the canyon. I knew that a new goal of mine would be to backpack the entire Death Hollow Trail, one day. One day. But today was our last day. Lamentably it was time to go; we left Grand Staircase after our hike and headed back to Salt Lake for the night. Despite the near death experience, the rapscallion tow truck driver, the biting insects, and everything else, it had been a wondrous outstanding adventure. I felt so fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to go to Grand Staircase and experience this nonpareil place again and share it with my sister, Sharon, who enjoys such things as much as I do. We are all indebted to Bill Clinton for making Grand Staircase a national monument, the national treasure that it is, and bringing it to my attention. Shall it forever remain in the public domain and free from development, trash, and too many people. Now if only they would get rid of all those horrible cows and stop Trump from ruining it forever by handing it over for coal development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *