An Escalante "Miss"-Mash
This trip report describes a somewhat unconventional 5-day backpack in the Escalante drainage of Southern Utah, stringing together a number of drainages and overland sections, including Harris Wash, Egypt, 25-mile Wash, and a section of the Escalante River.
Southern Utah backcountry has been an ongoing refuge for us eastern Canadians for well over a decade now. At least every year, perhaps twice a year, we would organize an outing to amazing and remote corners of Utah's canyon country.
(if you are interested in the video version of this report, go to the video page.)
Covid... interrupted all of that, and for two and a half years, we were deprived of this wonderful area. Understandably, then, when cross-border travel restrictions had mostly eased, we started talking in earnest about another Utah adventure. Ultimately, six courageous adventurers agreed to embark on a return-to-the-desert soujourn: myself... Jenn, Brian, Gino, Alana... and a newcomer: Chris (Waddington), basketball fan and general all-round sportsy-type work colleague. Perfect for this trip, I was sure.
The trip planning was rather last minute. That meant that any routes in locations that required advance backcountry reservations were out of the question. The Escalante was an obvious choice, then, because it is virtually devoid of any sort of advance reservations .... and it is remote, quiet, and super beautiful.
I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what outing or outings we'd do. I wanted the following to be achieved for this trip:
- 1. be a single, uninterrupted 5-day backpack, rather than a set of disjoint dayhikes or backpacks.
- 2. involve a significant proportion of terrain that was new to all of us.
- 3. visit interesting locations and have beautiful campsites.
- 4. not involve anything too technical (but also have some minor challenges).
- 5. be logistically feasible (avoiding excessively long car shuttles, for example)
It was surprisingly hard to come up with an itinerary that satisifed all of the above. Leaving out just one of these requirements yielded many options, but achieving all five was... tricky.
Originally I thought about a true traverse of the Escalante Drainage, from the Hole-in-the-rock side to the Circle Cliffs side. This is something I'd always thought would be cool to do, and I even drew up a few tentative itineraries. Unfortunately, I calculated that the car shuttle required at either end of the backpack would involve a mind-boggling three hour drive, each way. Then multiply that by two -- one at the start of the backpack, and again at the end. That would have been much too long and would have put too big of a burden on our available logistics time. So, an Escalante traverse was out. I think if we ever do such a journey, we'll need to engage some sort of drop-off service.
With traverse ideas out of the question, I next focused on stringing together a nice set of day-long segments that would showcase great Escalante locations. I wanted some beautiful Escalante side canyons with gentle flowing creeks and alcove campsites; I wanted some elevated open desert crossings; and I wanted a touch of fun or challenge here and there, but nothing too crazy. What I came up with was a kind of mishmash of several great and/or interesting locales, all strung together in a long traverse that mostly stayed to the immediate west of the Escalante river itself: Down Harris Wash; then the open mesa-top of Egypt; a jaunt down 25-mile Wash; an open trek across Scorpion Flat, then down into Scorpion Gulch; a section along the lower Escalante River; an exit out of the tunnel-like Bobway; a high traverse over King Mesa to Sleepy Hollow and upper Coyote Gulch, and from there to the nearby Redwell trailhead. Somewhat ambitious distance-wise, but I felt like our group was capable of it. And likely not a route that many people have strung together. It'd be a neat achievement.
We arrived in Las Vegas late on a Saturday night. We had a rather difficult time finding reasonably-priced budget accommodations for our stay-over. Even the strip's Motel 6 had rooms going for a crazy $200+ per night. For a motel 6 room! We eventually located something moderately priced on the outskirts of the suburb of Henderson. The Railroad Pass Hotel and Casino. A little old-school-ish, but more than adequate.
Our two SUVs
The next morning, we headed off in our two rental SUVs and started to make the necessary logistics stops in advance of our backpack: REI for fuel and any last-minute outdoor items, and a grocery store for our camp food. As it turned out, the propane-butane canisters upon which our stoves run were in very short supply. The REI was sold out and we ended up canvassing several Walmarts before we came across one that had some in stock.
Now stocked up with the necessary supplies, we started out on the five-hour drive from Las Vegas to the Escalante area. We left Gino behind with one of the SUVs in order to pick up Chris, who had gotten horribly delayed by a short connection on his flight down from Ottawa. We had already picked up supplies for Chris, so Gino and Chris wouldn't be too far behind us. A quick pick-up at the airport and then Gino's fast driving would catch them up to us.
Up to the Pink Cliffs
The drive from Las Vegas and into southern Utah is always in itself a thing to look forward to. Traversing hundreds of miles of spectacular arid landscapes from the low Mojave Desert to high sub-alpine country and then, finally, to the varied color country of the Colorado Plateau, there is always something spectacular to look at. We chose a route that led up and over the high country near Brian Head, stopping at several amazing overlooks down into Zion Canyon country, and even seeing a bit of snow amongst the still-bare aspens up above 9,000 of elevation.
Distant Zion Country
The flats before Red Canyon
Slicing through the Entrada
We trundled into the small hamlet of Escalante at about 8pm and checked in to our rooms at the local Circle-D motel. Gino, true to form, appeared only about 15 minutes later with Chris, having made up a ton of time. Perfect timing, really, as we were all reunited and able to eat together out on the patio at the motel's fine restaurant. Just east of town, rising up over the huge bulge of Navajo Sandstone that is the Escalante Anticline, a full moon rose *in-eclipse* - a very unique event. When the moon had later risen clear of some intermittent clouds, we got a few good shots of it.