we’ll take a raincheck, please
Spending a couple of weeks hiking through the Southwest’s canyons brings one face to face with the awesomeness of nature, in every sense of the word. Even as the unparalleled beauty of the region at times makes the jaw drop, it is impossible not to be filled simultaneously with awe at nature’s tremendous power. Just two weeks before we arrived in Escalante, 21 people drowned in flash floods in the very canyons that had drawn us to southern Utah. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is famous for its unique slot canyons, but in light of recent events we found it prudent to adjust our hiking plans.
The Grand Staircase is the largest of America’s national monuments, a vast expanse whose 1.9 million acres equal the combined territory of America’s two smallest states (Delaware and Rhode Island). The staircase ascends in a series of plateaus starting just north of the Grand Canyon and rising into the foothills of Boulder Mountain. The slot canyons carved by the Escalante River and its tributaries are without a doubt the monument’s greatest draw, but there are plenty of other natural wonders to keep visitors occupied when the canyons become inaccessible.
Despite the rains that dogged us for several days once we left Moab, our hiking plans had survived intact until we reached Escalante. We didn’t mind hiking in wet weather atop the Frying Pan trail in Capitol Reef, but to do the same in the Escalante canyons would have meant courting disaster. Flash floods can happen in the blink of an eye, engorging placid streams into deadly torrents of water and mud that are hundreds of times more voluminous. And because the runoff begins to accumulate high up in the Staircase, flash floods can happen even when the weather is dry in the canyons themselves; all it takes is a storm higher up on the mountain.
After talking at length with the staff at Escalante Outfitters, where we stayed, we cobbled together an alternative itinerary to occupy the time we had allotted for Escalante. We started by taking the Hogback road, which is a marvel in and of itself, back towards Boulder. After crossing the Escalante River, we pulled off at an unmarked trailhead and ascended a short trail that leads to a cliffside panel called “One Hundred Hands.” The Native Americans who called the Southwest home long before the land was colonized left a vivid tapestry of their artwork on the region’s rock walls. That particular panel featured dozens of palm prints that were etched into a rock wall many centuries ago.
From the hundred hands panel, we drove another mile up to the Calf Creek trailhead. There is an easy three-mile (one-way) interpretive trail that leads to a pretty waterfall, which is quite popular during rainy weather because it is one of the few, easily accessible trails that are on high ground. We had a pleasant hike on the way there, but storm clouds gathered as we approached the waterfall and it wasn’t long before rain started coming down in buckets. After a wet hour, during which we made it most of the way back, the sun came out again and the rest of the day proved pleasant enough.
After completing the six-mile Calf Creek hike, we headed to Boulder for lunch, taking advantage of the sudden sunshine to stop for pictures along the spectacular Hogback Road. It took us close to an hour and a half to navigate the 63 miles from Torrey down to Escalante the previous night along this scenic byway. We got a good sense of its serpentine zigzags, but missed out on the breathtaking views. Driving it in broad daylight we were split on the question of whether the road is more nerve-racking in pitch darkness or when one can actually see the sheer drop-offs on either side of the thin strip of asphalt.
Boulder may just be a dot on the map, but it’s a dot that features two fantastic restaurants, making it easily the best place to eat in the entire Grand Staircase. We had dined at the Hell’s Backbone Grill the night before, so we went to the nearby Burr Trail Grill for lunch, which in addition to outstanding burgers also features a variety of delicious home-made pies.
After our late lunch, we had just enough daylight left for one more stop — at the Petrified Forest State Park, which lies a mile past Escalante. Petrified wood is not uncommon, but it literally takes millions of years to form and requires a unique set of circumstances. Fallen tree trunks must be buried by river sediment fast enough so that the wood is not destroyed by oxygen or insects, and the sediments must be infused with mineral-rich ash, which calcifies the wood into colorful crystals. The resulting petrified wood, when unearthed by erosion, is nothing short of spectacular.
The sun had set by the time we emerged out of the Petrified Forest, but the day had one more adventure in store for us. Just as we pulled out of the park entrance, D heard a crash in the woods. He slammed on the brakes, and a split-second later a giant buck burst out of the foliage a few inches in front of our car. We followed him, and happened upon a large group of mule deer — between thirty and forty — that had gathered on the outskirts of the park just as night fell.