Friday, November 23, 2012

Hole in the Rock Road, Escalante, Utah

Escalante [es-cah-lahn’-tay] is Spanish for climbing and provides a very appropriate name for Utah's gem the "Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument".  This vast area of almost 2 million square miles begins along the Utah-Arizona border in southern Utah and climbs steadily but slowly "up the staircase" to the Aquarius Plateau north of the town of Escalante.  Much of the landscape is slickrock (rolling hills of sandstone), grassy plains and sand.  We are camped very near the Straight Cliffs which run north to south and are almost a perfectly straight line of white and green striped rock and vegetation providing an interesting background to our (free) campsite.

Hole in the Rock Road was engineered by the Mormon settlers who traveled from Cedar City in Utah's southwest to establish the settlement of Bluff in southeast Utah.  (See my Blog titled "No Bluffing".)  It is now a fairly decent dirt and gravel road with lots of good ol' washboard, but certainly passable (we just plug in the iPod and turn up the volume so we don't hear the groaning of the truck!).  The road ends at Hole in the Rock on what is now Lake Powell; but of course, Lake Powell (a reservoir dammed by the Glen Canyon Dam and used to generate hydro electric power) didn't exist in the 1880s when the Mormons made the trek and their route was blasted down into the valley that is now underwater.  The journey from Highway 12 just outside of the town of Escalante is about 50 bumpy miles; we drive only half of this distance to a day hiking area.

While camped in this vicinity we explore Calf Creek Falls, Hell's Backbone Road including Posey Lake, Devil's Garden, Peek-a-boo and Spooky Slots, and Zebra and Tunnel Slots.

Lower Calf Creek Falls
Calf Creek flows in a canyon along the west side of scenic Highway 12 below what is known as "The Hogback", a thin razorback ridge falling steeply on both sides of the roadway providing amazing views east and west.  Calf Creek is one of very few creeks in Utah that has water perennially.  We hike to the Lower Falls, a 6-mile round trip inside the canyon.  The hike itself is okay but not as beautiful as many Utah canyons.  But the falls are magical.  The trail ends at a sandy "beach" where pines provide shade and a deep blue-green pool invites swimmers in the hot summer (but not today).  The water falls 126 feet over sandstone in three stages.  The top section falls into a pool which then turns right (when looking up) and falls onto a ledge where the water then cascades over the smooth rock at the bottom where green moss and algae are growing.  The thunder is enormous and even from across the pool (probably 100 feet) we are feeling the water spray and wind which the falls is creating.  It is a cherished reward for the long hike and we have lunch here despite the coolness.

Rock face on Hell's Backbone Road near Escalante
Hell's Backbone Road turns west from Highway 12 only a few miles south of the town of Boulder.  Unfortunately, this dirt road and scenic byway is very disappointing, winding for miles up and down through pine forest (pretty, but nothing spectacular) until we reach Hell's Backbone Bridge where the bridge spans a thin section of rock between two deep canyons - Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area to the west and Sand Creek to the east.  The existing bridge was rebuilt in 2006 for the second time since 1933 when an original wooden bridge was constructed.  The canyons here show jagged rock cliffs coloured yellow, pink and white dotted with evergreen trees and shrubs.  Amazingly, we can stand on the very edge of these cliffs and look straight down to the bottom of the canyon hundreds of feet below - no guard rails are used anywhere!  I am getting much more accustomed to peering over these precipices although it makes Brad nervous, even though he does it too just to get that perfect photo.  We take a very short side trip north to Posey Lake which is in the Dixie National Forest.  This "lake" is no more than a big pond but popular with local fishermen in the summer because it is stocked with fish.  Right now, it is half-covered with ice thanks to the freezing temperatures at night!  We eat lunch in the picnic area watching the local Coot population (black ducks) feed, fight and preen, and enjoying the solitude - we are alone except for a park ranger who chats with us for 10 minutes.  The road continues its loop and ends in the town of Escalante.  At this end of the road, the rock walls are deep gold, yellow, pink, orange and red; much more scenic to us than the forested area.

At Devil's Garden, we wander amongst strange hoodoos and arches formed in the soft orange sandstone.  There is a heavy concentration of these formations within a small geographic area.
Marilyn beside hoodoos at Devil's Garden
Marilyn climbing into Peek-a-boo Slot Canyon
 From Hole in the Rock Road, we explore four slot canyons during two single-day hikes.  The furthest in are Peek-a-boo and Spooky, causing us to drive 26 miles down the bumpy road and another 2 miles on a 4x4 road.  Peek-a-boo Slot is a real challenge!  We must climb up a 12-foot vertical wall in order to get up into this "hanging" canyon.  Finger and toe-holds carved into the sandstone help but are spaced for a man's long legs and Brad has to boost me up.  It's very scary, hanging onto a wall 12 feet above the sand and rock floor, but once up inside the slot, I am exhilarated simply because I made it!  But the obstacles continue.  More climbing and balancing on narrow protrusions is required to get into the prettiest part of this slot.  Huh!  I can do anything now!  The sandstone walls are incredibily orange and smoothed by eons of erosion.  Near the slot entrance is a double arch which requires a lot of photo-taking.  We easily hike to the end of the slot and have another great picnic lunch, then decide to find the back end (exit) of Spooky Slot by going across the slickrock as our photography guidebook directs.  No problem!
Brad inside Peek-a-boo Slot Canyon
Marilyn in a tight squeeze in Spooky Slot Canyon
Spooky is a very narrow slot at the end and we are just able to squeeze between the rippling walls.  At many points, my butt and gut are touching opposite walls; I have to carry the backpack in front of me.  Thankfully, the canyon widens towards the entrance which we exit.  What fun!  You can tell I'm not claustrophobic; some of our friends wouldn't be able to do this hike because it is very confining and I wondered once or twice if I might get stuck.

Brad inside Zebra Slot Canyon
Zebra is another beautifully striped sandstone slot, as its name implies.  It is even more narrow than Spooky, and I don't fit through this one!  Being all alone on this particular hike, we dump our packs in a wide part of the slot canyon and head in.  I squeeze through to a narrow section where I have to arch my back to contour to the rock wall, but it's a no-go!  My feet are turned 90 degrees to my body, my right foot to the right, my left foot to the left, and with each itty bitty step I try to take, my knees complain!  While I might be able to force my body through, my knees won't agree to the angles my feet are taking.  I go back and try turning my feet in the same direction, but the result is the same.  I go back, defeated.  Sleak Brad squeezes through without any hesitation.  Bugger!  He goes in and takes photos while I eat lunch sitting in the sand outside the slot.  I later read that others who can't squeeze through chimney themselves up to a higher elevation on the wall using their hands to push themselves along.  My arms and shoulders are already sore from Peek-a-boo yesterday!

Moqui Marbles on checkerboard slickrock
Again, we head cross-country from Zebra to find Tunnel Slot in order to avoid backtracking about 1.5 miles.  Using our guidebook and our GPS, we easily find the slot (thanks to my superior navigation skills!) as well as other interesting formations along the way: the orange and white rock walls are beautifully striped; the slickrock on which we're walking has a fabulous checkerboard pattern common to this area's white sandstone; and the most curious are black ball bearings called "Moqui Marbles" which are strewn about in groups on these slickrock hills.  These marbles are iron oxide concretions of sandstone encased in a hard outer shell of hematite and goethite (GUR-tite).  They range in size from peas to baseballs, most being perfectly round but others resembling oval spaceships.  Moqui Marbles are entombed in the Navajo Sandstone walls and eventually weather out as the soft rock erodes.  It is believed that local native tribes used these stones for healing and spiritual purposes.  Moqui means "dead" in the Hopi native language.

Brad in Tunnel Slot which is full of water
We have to scale down the steep slickrock to drop into Tunnel Canyon's exit.  The floor here is about 10-15 feet wide and sandy with many chokestones blocking our path, so we have to do quite a bit of scrambling.  We encounter a pool of water and Brad finds out the hard way that it is surrounded by quicksand - sand with pockets of water underneath.  He doesn't disappear, but does sink into the mushy sand several inches.  As we head towards the slot itself, we realize that it is full of water.  A close look reveals that the water is deep - too deep to wade through as we can't see the bottom.  But the slot is very interesting with an almost closed top although the roof walls don't actually touch, they overlap giving the appearance of a tunnel.  The discovery of the water means that we can't exit through Tunnel Slot's entrance into the wash where we can easily navigate our way back to the truck.  Retracing our steps to Zebra Slot and then back through Harris Wash to our trail will be about one mile.  From the slickrock above Tunnel Slot, I can see the trail where we need to be - it's right there!  But how to get off this rock towering above the wash!  We try heading straight for our trail, but that leads us to a cliff drop of about 50 feet.  We're not going this way.  We head towards Zebra Slot and miraculously find a gentle slope down to the wash where we're within 1/4 mile of our trail.  What luck!  I think Brad doubted we could do it, but I'm always game to find that alternative.  I knew we weren't lost - we could always retrace our steps using the GPS.  Maybe I'm just over-confident in my navigation skills and one day that will get us into trouble.  Well, we survived to tell this tale...

1 comment:

  1. You hit some great spots around Escalante. You'll have to come back and hike to Phipps Arch, Upper Calf Creek Falls, Sand Creek, etc. There are a lot of layers to GSENM.
    Nice descriptions of your journey and fun photos.