Archive for the ‘Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument’ Tag

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.

Grand Staircase III – Travel Info.   Leave a comment

The rural areas of southern Utah probably have more cows than people in late November when most of the tourists have gone.

The Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument covers a huge area in southwestern Utah.  Zion National Park is directly west while Capitol Reef N.P. and Glen Canyon Recreation Area lie to the east.  Lake Powell and the Arizona border skirts it to the south.  Two highways, U.S. 89 and Utah 12, encircle all but the east side of the Monument.  Both roads are very scenic, but you can also dive into the heart of the Monument by taking one of the unpaved routes.  Regular 2wd vehicles, as long as they have decent clearance, are usually suitable.  But beware: when it rains, these roads become impassable, even with a 4wd.  This is because of the abundant clay.

Grand Staircase is cut by two few major rivers that flow south toward the Colorado.  Actually they enter Lake Powell, since the Colorado has been dammed at Glen Canyon.  The Paria and Escalante Rivers are characterized by gorgeous wilderness canyons with countless tributaries.  This is canyon country…big time canyon country!

Clay often forms sculpture in canyon bottoms of the Paria River system in Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, Utah.


Spencer Flat is accessed via an unpaved road that heads south from Hwy. 12 between the town of Escalante and the bridge over the Escalante River.  The turnoff is very close to the top of the big hill just west of the Escalante River bridge.  The gravel road heads 7 miles or so to Spencer Flat. Along the way are a myriad of interesting rock formations.  The road forks right at the far end of Spencer Flat and soon becomes too sandy for 2-wheel drive vehicles.  Actually, you can’t go much further in a 4wd. If you camp here, or at any likely spot along the road, make sure you bring plenty of water (there is none).

The Wave in the Coyote Buttes area of Vermilion Cliffs N.M. is made of thinly laminated and sculpted sandstone “waves”.

You can literally close your eyes and have a friend spin you round.  When you stop, open your eyes and that is the direction you will go.  Whichever direction you happened to choose, you are sure to find a desert canyon playground.  There are sand dunes nearby, unnamed slot canyons, huge rock massifs, fields of moqui marbles, and assorted other wonders.  Stop at Escalante Outfitters in the namesake town and grab a map.  National Geographic has an excellent one called “Canyons of the Escalante”.  The guys there can give you plenty of local advice too. Either use a GPS and set your camp’s location, or be very handy with map and compass.

I have camped and hiked at Spencer Flat twice now, once a couple years ago and again this time.  I think I will go there each and every time I visit.  It’s not far from a town, relatively unknown, and unlike many of the destinations in the Monument, it does not involve endless miles of washboard.  I think one could easily spend a month here, camped in the same spot, and never visit the same place twice.

A classic sandy wash hike at Spencer Flat near the Escalante River, Utah.

Sandstone strata near “the wave” in southern Utah, near the Pariah River.

Lick Wash is another great place, on the opposite side of the monument from Spencer Flat.  The canyon hike is accessed from the gravel Skutumpah Road (I don’t make these names up!).  This very scenic route connects Henrieville just west of Bryce Canyon to Johnson Canyon, from where a paved road connects to Hwy. 89 just east of Kanab.  Lick Wash is a hike of about 4 miles one way, through a beautiful canyon.  At the far end of the canyon it opens out to a large area surrounded by mesas (you can climb one!).  There is a charming stone cabin.  You are likely to have the place to yourself, as I did when I hiked it in the early Spring last time I was here.  The creek had a healthy flow, and so I was hiking in the water.  If you don’t have soggy sneakers on numerous occasions while hiking Grand Staircase in the springtime, you aren’t doing it right!  Later in the year, Lick will be a dry hike.

The Pine Creek/Hell’s Backbone loop road is another very worthwhile detour.  The gravel road heads north from Escalante and loops around back south to Hwy. 12 near the town of Boulder.  It will take you through a very different kind of country: mountain lakes, pine forests and clear streams.  Blue Spruce is a lovely small camp set amongst pine trees.  You’ll sleep mere yards from a gurgling creek.  Visit at least one of the lakes along the route, and wet a line or take a dip.

You will drive around the head of a huge box canyon called Death Hollow.  There is a very adventurous backpack trip that heads down this canyon, ending at the Escalante River Bridge.  Previous canyoneering experience is a good idea; this is no walk in the park, believe me.  Hell’s Backbone, where the road traverses along the top of a narrow ridge, will have you alternately rubbernecking and gripping the wheel tightly.  At one point a skinny bridge spans a gap in the ridge – it’s a catwalk.  You will end your descent in quiet ranch land on the beautiful lower slopes of Boulder Mountain.  I fantasize about having a place here, reveling in the quiet surrounded by my animals.

There are many many other places to visit at Grand Staircase/Escalante. Camping at Kodachrome Basin or Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Parks, hiking Peekaboo and Spooky slot canyons, driving the Burr Trail, or visiting the town site of Pahreah with its pioneer cemetery.  

And if you can get a permit, do the obvious; that is hiking The Wave.  Be sure to take the whole day to hike the area around the Wave though, don’t just go see the formation itself.  All of these could have you lingering a week or more.  Even more important than plenty of time, I think, is to bring a real sense of adventure.  If you visit Grand Staircase and the Escalante River country, be prepared for BIG fun in a BIG playground!

Hell’s Backbone near Boulder, Utah is like driving across a huge natural catwalk.


A bit of the old west survives at the old Gifford homestead, now inside Capitol Reef National Park.  It’s a short drive east of the Grand Staircase.

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