author of my guidebook calls the obscure canyon in which
we are walking "an undiscovered gem". Its real name is
Bighorn Canyon - an appellation that reveals nothing about
its true nature. There is nothing, really, that would give
a clue to the casual at-a-distance observer that this is
such a wondrous spot. On a topographic map, it appears no
different than the countless other side tributaries and sub-tributaries
of the Escalante river's drainage basin. It is quite a different
story when you take a walk down its length, however. It
is a crisp, clear, early spring day. A thick dusting of fresh
snow is in evidence - but only in the shadows of desert shrubs
and on north facing slopes and hollows. In evidence everywhere
else is an amazing kaleidoscope of swirls, textures and colors.
And all of it sculpted into every conceivable sort of shape
- rounded domes, jagged towers, narrow polished clefts, vertical
cliffs, and wide, sandy washes. To call this canyon "a gem" is
to understate an understatement. That's how nice it is here.
to the Escalante.
Escalante river basin is one of the major drainages in south central
Utah. It drains a large swath of land: from the north rise the
cliffs of the Aquarius plateau, at over 10,000 feet of elevation,
all the way down, far to the south, to the Colorado River at Lake
Powell. Less than ten years ago, most of this land, along with
a huge area of surrounding south central Utah, was incorporated
into the U.S. National Park system as the Grand Staircase-Escalante
National Monument. The land they preserved is very remote, very
undeveloped, and very beautiful.
Scenic Utah 12
The Escalante region does not have the big-number superlatives that make it an easy stand-out: there are no exceptionally high peaks; nor are there exceptionally wide or deep canyons. It doesn't have the most arches or the most archeological ruins. From afar, it looks like a flat, unremarkable high desert. Even a brief excursion into one of its hidden treasures, however, reveals an amazing diversity of landscape.
In my travels in Southern Utah (and I've done many trips down here in the last ten years), I've only briefly touched on this region. A brief slot-canyon stopover while on the way from over-here to over-there. A quick (but beautiful) drive along scenic Utah 12. The stopovers did offer tantalizing glimpses, glimpses that created and nutured the desire for a trip that would focus exclusively on this area. That trip was finally realized in March of 2006 - long overdue!
I managed to corrall three other intrepid desert adventurers for this off-the-beaten-path expedition: Jenn, Pu, and Roland. This was Pu's and Roland's first time in the deserts of the Colorado plateau. Boy, did they did not know what treats they were in for!
The basic framework of our trip was this: take a week of vacation time, and cram it as full as we could with as much as we could of the Escalante region: visit scenic arches, tight slot canyons, and slickrock-walled canyons. We hoped to get one or two backpacks in, with the rest being medium to long dayhikes.
We did the usual low-cost and convenient Vegas thing - flight, car rental, a buffet, yada-yada. Roland and Pu had not been to LV before, so they soaked in a bit of the glitz and excess and snapped a lot of photos. The weather... ah yes, the weather. We'd been monitoring it the week before leaving on the trip, and, to put it simply - it looked like crap. After seeing week after week of completely dry weather forecast go by, our trip arrives, and so does a forecast filled with troughs and upper-level lows and cool weather and - snow! Where we were in Las Vegas, it was mostly just cool, breezy, a bit of cloud and a bit of sun and even a sprinkle or two. However, I was fully aware that things could be very different up on the plateau and in the mountains. But, what can ya do? We were here and that was that. .
Everything for sale in sin city
We packed up our 4x4 Chevy trailblazer rental (useful when going to a remote and mostly unpaved park like Grand Staircase-Escalante) and headed off up Interstate 15. Pu and Roland were agog about the desert scenery, especially when we made our way through the Virgin River Gorge. Mandatory stop here with lots of photo snapping. We could see that up at the higher elevations there was a good dusting of snow, and there was a lot of heavy-looking cloud everywhere. Down here on I-15, though, the going was dry. As we crossed into Utah, however, a light bit of flurries mixed with rain greeted us.
After the one-and-a-half hour drive from Vegas, we stopped briefly in the southwestern Utah city of St. George. We needed camp fuel and groceries for our week of adventure! Pu picked himself up a nice puffy down jacket for a song (as it turns out, it was an immediately useful purchase!!).
My usual route from here to the south-central region of Utah is via a beautiful and scenic route that goes through Zion National Park. However, I thought to myself, we want to focus on the Escalante region, and a slow and traffic-laden drive through all of the twisty and slow roads of Zion, while beautiful, would get us to the Escalante too late. I instead chose an alternate, higher-speed route. Higher-speed, that is, when road conditions are normal.
Today they were not. Not long after St. George, the bad weather hit us full-force. As we started crossing the mountains that stood in our way east to the Escalante region, the snow started to fall, and fall hard. It was not long before we were climbing on mountain road in deep snow. Pu and Roland were a bit concerned about how their dry, sunny desert trip was starting to pan out! The going was very slow, needless to say, and it took us a good four hours to make the trip from Interstate 15 to Escalante (typically this would take perhaps 2 hours).
A few scenes from our drive to the Escalante region
The original plan was to find a spot to camp, perhaps in a campground, perhaps even some at-large camping. The dark, wet, snowy, late night was sapping my enthusiasm for such a venture. In fact, I really wanted to get a detailed accounting of what the weather had in store for us over the next few days. If it continued like this, then I was starting to question the value of staying around in the Escalante region. Steep slickrock, narrow slot canyons, and an excess of moisture do not get along well together (at least not when humans are in them!).
knew that snow was a possibility as I was obsessed with checking
the Escalante weather everyday (and often multiple times
a day) weeks before we even left. I was rather shocked to
hear from a young guy who worked in the outdoor we stopped
in while searching for fuel in St.George, that Escalante
got 4 feet of snow. Ooooo....that didn't sound so good. (Thank
goodness he was wrong on the amount) Good call on buying
the down jacket, Pu!"
"If I had wanted to scratch around in the muddy
slush, I would have gone to the Adirondacks. The desert is
supposed to be dry. I wanted scorching heat, parched lizards,
scorps and other desert nasties. Nothing. At this point I had
serious doubts that this trip could be fun."
"Came from a snow covered city to a snow storm, I was not surprised,
really. I was, however, disappointed. I was expecting warmth
and [the] color orange. We are supposed to be in the desert.
The possibility of camping in the snow in a strange place was
not very welcoming."
After much humming and hawwing, we decided to forego camping and instead stay at a motel in Escalante: the Prospector Inn. It seemed open and had a big sign proclaiming "free wireless internet". We could get our detailed weather fix from the internet. The elderly lady at the front desk seemed less than happy to see us. "Ya wanna room or not? I'm about to close up in a few minutes". "Where are the instructions for connecting to the internet?", I asked. "They ain't no instructions! If you know how to use it, you'll get on". hmm... ooo-k. My guess is that that translated to "unencrypted wide-open dhcp-served wireless internet connections".
Roy checks the weather
The room was spacious and clean, and the internet was just as the lady at the front desk predicted: "you'll get on". And that we did! The weather story it told was less bad than we feared. The next day was to be a mix of sun and cloud with the possibility of a few flurries, and beyond that, a steady day-by-day improvement. The decision was made to do a relatively straightforward hike tomorrow and see what the backcountry looked like. We'd then decide whether or not to stay in the area.