Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Starting a New Season in Escalante, Utah

A new season of adventure and exploration begins in early October in southern Utah, our favourite place in the United States. It is a land like no other, a planet of its own where sunshine, solitude and geologic beauty abound.

Our first destination is Escalante, a small town bordering the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This is slickrock and slot canyon country, with red sandstone walls encasing meandering canyons carved by rivers. A hiker's paradise. We make camp at the head of Hole in the Rock Road, so named for the hole in the cliff wall some 60 miles away at the edge of Lake Powell where in the mid-1800s Mormon pioneers forged a descent to what was then just the Colorado River before the damming began. It's an amazing story of a determined people battling this unforgiving, rocky desert.
Broken Bow Arch

An easy hike to get our legs back into hiking mode after our 6-months at home, we travel some 46 miles down the rough and bumpy Hole in the Rock Road and hike the 2 miles to Broken Bow Arch. We cross the shallow creek a couple of times and make our way up a very steep slope covered in deep sand to get behind and under the arch. Okay, not such an easy hike for the first time out.

What you can't see is that the creek flows between the arch and the sandy hill just beyond the arch in front of the big trees. From this view, we are looking up-canyon where our hike began.
Cedar Wash Arch

This IS an easy hike - maybe 1/2 a mile round trip, and a short drive down the washboard Hole in the Rock Road. Cedar Wash Arch is interesting if not spectacular. Brad is able to make his way on top - can you see him?
Devil's Garden

Only 10 miles down Hole in the Rock Road, the Devil's Garden is probably the most popular destination in this area, especially for tourists who are looking for a quick in and out experience of the red rock formations. Called hoodoos, these spires come in all different shapes and sizes.
Upper Calf Creek Falls

We get some heavy rains for a full day, so we have to stay out of the canyons where flash floods can easily take hikers by surprise (seven people died in a flash flood in Zion National Park in September). But a hike to the Upper Calf Creek Falls is perfectly safe once the slickrock dries out.

From the parking lot, we descend several hundred feet to view the falls from above and below. It's truly refreshing to see a waterfall in the desert, and this perennial stream doesn't disappoint.
Crack in the Wall

Okay, gearing up now for the 8-10 mile hike we came here to do (Golden Cathedral), we take a practice run to Crack in the Wall. Only 4 miles round trip across sand and slickrock to the cliffs above the Escalante River, with a view of the mouth of Coyote Gulch, one of the most popular canyons hiked in this area for its splendor and beauty. Technically part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell area), Crack in the Wall is literally a narrow crack filled with sand that hikers can barely squeeze through, at times pushing backpacks ahead of them and inching along sideways.

We do not descend through the crack (lazy, eh?), but instead enjoy the views from the rim high above the river. Yes, that black chasm I'm pretending to step into is the "crack".  It's a long drop to the next stone step, and I just don't see the point of dropping down only to have to haul myself out later.
Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon

The main reason we come to Hole in the Rock Road is to fulfill a bucket list hike to Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon. Having seen photos of it years ago, we decided we have to see this glorious natural wonder. The hike involves descending a VERY STEEP slickrock slope (at times 45 degrees); crossing a sandy plateau using only compass bearings to find the mouth of Neon Canyon; sliding down a 600-foot sand dune; wading across the Escalante River knee deep in swiftly flowing, chocolatey, cold water; and finally hiking up water-pocketed Neon Canyon nearly a mile to Golden Cathedral (one water crossing is thigh deep and cold).

It must be our lucky day as we arrive just in time to see 3 adventurers rappel into the canyon through the open potholes in the ceiling of the Cathedral. Can you see the rappeller near the top of the lower hole?

This grotto at the end of lower Neon Canyon is alive with birds, dragonflies and plants. It's a perfect lunch picnic spot.

There are two holes in the ceiling of this red rock canyon, which is why this location is called Golden Cathedral. It is stunningly gorgeous, especially with the early afternoon light reflected on the walls, and we linger too long admiring the beauty.

There are two routes to Golden Cathedral - the cross-country route which we hike in the morning and the longer route through Fence Canyon which we decide to take to return. But to get to Fence Canyon, we have to cross the fast-flowing Escalante River 4 times and blaze a trail through thick vegetation as following others' footprints isn't as easy as you might think, especially after it rains. But find the mouth of Fence Canyon we do, and we begin the 1,000 foot climb to the parking lot. Almost 4 miles and over 1,000-foot descent to hike in and 5 miles and over 1,000-foot ascent to hike out - exhaustion perfected.

But the fun never ends ... it takes us almost 1 hour to drive the 10 miles of the 4x4 road from the trailhead back to Hole in the Rock Road. It's getting dark now (we left the trailer at sunrise!) and Brad has to rebuild part of the road so we can get the truck down this rocky part - well, really we're in the wash here. (A wash is a dry creek bed.) Remember that rain we had earlier this week? Well, this wash-out is the result. And graders don't come out here very often.
The canyons of Escalante ... remote, stunning, torturous, beckoning, paradise. This is our third stay here (first time, second time), so we obviously love it. One day, we'll get to the end of the road to see the historic name-sake, Hole in the Rock, although driving over 50 miles on this rough, washboard road is an adventure unto itself. Maybe next time.


  1. We've never done that area.

    We are sure missing Arizona and are going to start west tomorrow.

  2. Spectacular!,, So jealous. We tried really hard to get there. Maybe next time.
    We hiked lower calf creek falls and got to watch people swim under the falls. The water was frigid! we just went wading :)

  3. You're back at it! We won't be down that way this winter so we're glad to be able to follow along on your adventures. Have a great trip!