BETWEEN ROCKS AND A HARD PLACE
TRAVELLING THROUGH THE ESCALANTE IN UTAH CAN BE TOUGH GOING, BUT THE SPECTACULAR SCENERY MAKES IT WORTH THE EFFORT
Lying on the ground in Coyote Gulch, the night sky framed by openings in a natural arch and a curved canyon wall, I peer at the cosmos. My legs and shoulders ache near the end of a 110km backpacking hike in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. This is the reward for exploring remote places: a long and challenging trek culminating in an otherworldly vista.
A short distance from Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, the national monument shares some of the red-rock wonders of its better-known neighbours. I saw natural arches and bridges, Indian ruins and drawings, slot canyons and more, all contained in deep-red, sculpted ravines that run through the Escalante River basin like roads in a city.
What the Escalante does not share with the national parks is well-marked trails or paved roads — or the crowds that come with those “amenities”. This rugged region was the last part of the continental US to be mapped, and it requires work for those wanting to see its treasures.
Everett Ruess shared my love of remote places. A teenager from Los Angeles, Ruess travelled the Southwest and the Sierra with two burros before disappearing in the Escalante in 1934. Ruess’s body has never been recovered, only adding to the mystery. In 1996, Jon Krakauer revived the Ruess story in his book Into the Wild, about Christopher McCandless, another youthful wilderness traveller who died.
The teen’s last known location was about 16km from where I scanned the heavens from Coyote Gulch. His legacies coloured much of my trip, making me better realise the risks and rewards of travel in isolated places such as the Escalante.
The rigours of travelling in the Escalante telegraphed through my body on the drive there, as soon as I left Utah 12 for the unpaved, 89km Hole in the Rock Road. My teeth were on edge as my car rattled past the monument’s most popular attractions and made its way to near the road’s end at the “Hole in the Rock”, an opening in a canyon wall next to Lake Powell. In 1880, Mormon pioneers made their way through the hole to begin settling the area.
John Wesley Powell’s expedition of the American West did initial mapping of the area during this period. Adventurers have long explored the Canyons of the Escalante, but it was not made a national monument until 1996, when then-president Bill Clinton praised the “high, rugged and remote region”.
The monument covers 800,000 hectares and has three parts — the Kaiparowits Plateau, which includes the distinct Straight Cliffs, a sandstone shelf that runs parallel to the Hole in the Rock Road; the Grand Staircase, where cliff lines and benches form the “steps” near the Arizona-Utah border; and the Canyons of the Escalante, the area I visited, largely north of Hole in the Rock Road.
In addition to opportunities for hiking and backpacking, the monument has campsites, a river for fishing and rafting, trails for mountain biking, and more.
The Bureau of Land Management, responsible for the monument, does not provide many of the features designed to make a park user-friendly: signs, built trails and the like. While this gives the area a more natural feel, it can also make the area more difficult to travel. Guide services in the town of Escalante provide tours.
If you go without a guide, make sure you know a few things about desert hiking. Take plenty of water, detailed maps or a GPS unit.
I used a GPS unit to find two slot canyons, West Fork and Big Horn; without it, I would have been lost in a maze of desert canyons. Once I found them, I was transfixed. Bright orange and red walls look freshly painted with swirls. As those walls press closer, small shafts of light seem to set them on fire, until canyons get so tight you cannot move any more.
The highlight of the excursion was hiking the serpentine canyons of Coyote Gulch, named a top hiking destination by many writers. Coyote Gulch is probably the monument’s most crowded attraction. In three days I saw about 40 people, usually in large groups. Most of the time, I trekked in secluded bliss.
Coyote Gulch leads across 23km of land and ankle-deep water. The canyon walls get bigger and the views more dramatic as the gulch makes its way towards the Escalante River, under the Jacob Hamblin Arch and the Coyote Natural Bridge and past Cliff Arch. The topography becomes trickier with a succession of waterfalls requiring travellers to scramble on rocks.
On one of those scrambles, I had to ease across a strip of smooth, wind-polished rock known as slickrock about 30 centimetres wide.
On another, I was traversing steep slickrock that led to a nine-metre drop-off into a rocky waterfall.
My legs felt like burning stumps from a week’s hiking, but like Ruess, I had not tired of the wilderness. The beauty propelled me forward.