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

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - TRAVEL - WORDS: BRAD BRANAN

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.

TRAVEL

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