Grand Staircase IV: Ode to My Playground   2 comments

A close-up view of sandstone strata in the slickrock country of southern Utah, very near the location called “the wave”.

I have to say goodbye, for now, to my playground the Grand Staircase.  Hopefully I can visit on this trip my other favorite playground of the southwest, Death Valley.  Before I go, an ode to this beautiful and forbidding land. 

When I was 12 years old my family took all of us to Colorado to visit my uncle in the Air Force. It was my first time west, and I loved it. We visited several areas outside Colorado Springs, including Pike’s Peak, Cripple Creek, and Garden of the Gods. I remember just going ape clambering over and playing on the rocks, sliding down steep gullies, and generally making my mom crazy with worry.

Calf Creek flows thinly over the sandstone near its confluence with the Escalante River in Utah.


My horizons had expanded forever. My beloved woodsy park at home had suddenly become small. I saw that even in adulthood I would play like this, because there was such a thing in the world as adult-sized playgrounds: big mountains and big canyons! Maybe I have a hardwired penchant for this kind of fun.

All of this is to explain why I believe that Grand Staircase/Escalante is like one giant playground. Every time I stop along the roadside to take a few pictures, there is a very real chance that hours will pass before I get back to the van. Often I will have only traveled a mile or less down a canyon, walking much more than that, shooting loads of pictures, and losing track of time. It’s definitely my kind of playground.

Dramatic striations (called desert varnish) mark the sheer walls of a shady rock alcove near the Escalante River of southern Utah. A pond remains frozen in early Spring.

The whole region, including the bordering national parks, is a wonderland of slickrock escarpments, sandy washes, forested plateaus, and (famously) slot canyons. A slot is a very narrow section of a canyon. Canyon walls are near vertical and only a matter of feet to yards apart. In some of the more narrow spots you literally have to squeeze your body sideways to get through.

Banded sandstone appears to flow at “the wave”, a location in southern Utah now famous among photographers.

Tips for slot canyon hiking

  • Figure on a much slower pace than regular trail hiking. Even on a non-technical canyon route, you won’t do much more than 1 mile an hour (perhaps much less).
  • Get some local knowledge of the route, specifically whether it is a technical slot and where it turns technical.
  • Wear your most streamlined backpack, and put anything not safe for water in a dry sack if the slot is wet.
  • Often you will come up on a dropoff into a pool of water, depth unknown. To jump in or not to jump in…don’t until you know how deep it is.
  • On the bright side, there is often a way around dropoffs.  Look and scout. A rope, gear for fixing anchors, and knowledge of how to use it will allow you to stay in the canyon bottom more, and actually save you time over scrambling around.
  • Most of the slots in the Escalante country are dry for much of the year, but watch out in Spring or in wet years.  Neoprene socks will keep your feet warm.  For slots with swimming involved, consider a neoprene suit.  The water can be pretty cold even in hot weather.
  • Never travel a slot when the weather is too threatening. Get out quick when you see the water rising or it turns from clear to muddy. If you hear a roar upcanyon, put on your spiderman suit quick! Seriously, climb up as high as you can if you hear a roar. Even a couple feet more height can save your life.

    Pine Creek flows through the forests of Box-Death Hollow wilderness in southern Utah.


I will very likely come back here, maybe next Spring! I want to bring my truck next time. My van does not like washboard roads much at all, and there is so much to see of Hole in the Rock Road.  Hope you enjoyed the photos.  Remember that clicking them takes you to my website, where purchase is easy as pie.  No illegal downloading please.  These versions are too small for much use anyhow. 

The quiet and idyllic ranch land beneath Boulder Mountain in southern Utah basks in late afternoon light.

2 responses to “Grand Staircase IV: Ode to My Playground

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  1. Thanks a bunch Lyle! I really enjoy your nature photos too.

  2. Great photo tour. Losing track of time while photographing is truly a gift.

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