Another cold but sunny morning at the Calf Creek campground. We were considering [re-]doing the Lower Calf Creek Falls hike: Roland had quite enjoyed our aborted hike up to Lower Calf Creek Falls two days before, and in general we were up for a relatively shorter hike after yesterday's long (20+ km) Bighorn Canyon hike. Plus the start of the trail was 50 feet from our tents. Plus being able to leave the frost dry off of our tents before packing up. Lotsa reasons!
We had the usual morning breakfast (which usually consisted of one or more of Mr. Noodles, oatmeal, an apple, a bagel, etc), and then got ready for our hike. We left our campsite set up and started hiking. It was a glorious but cool morning; Calf Creek canyon was still mostly in the shade, so we hurried along the trail for the first bit until we hit the first spot of sun, where we stopped, took off a few layers, and put on a bit of sunscreen. Almost every bit of the snow from three days before was gone, and that lent more of a 'warm desert' air to the place.
Start of Lower Falls Trail
We hiked along the mostly-level, very easy path. It wandered a bit up, a bit, down, and contoured around little side drainages. The trail often led through patches of gambel oak - smallish oak trees with gnarled branches, and with midget-sized brown oak leaves (brown because they were last season's leaves). Up above, high, bulging cliffs of vertical sandstone lined the canyon walls, in many places streaked with curtains of desert varnish. Above the cliffs, a dark cobalt-blue sky provided a perfect backdrop.
As I said before, the trail to Calf Creek Falls is one of the only maintained trails in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It is also an interpretive trail, and every so often along the trail there was a signed post. An interpretive pamphlet, available at the trailhead, gave a little nugget of natural or cultural history for each signed post. Along the way, we learned about old settlers in the canyon, various bits of info about wildlife and erosion, and, most interestingly, indicators to the prehistoric natives who used to live in this land. Very high up on the canyon walls were ancient granaries in amazingly good shape. We wondered how people with primitive tools and basic resources could have managed to get in and out of spots which looked like they needed modern climbing gear! There was also an excellent and somewhat spooky pictograph of human-like figures with strange headdresses, painted on a smooth canyon wall.
Video Clip: Andrew's Interpretive Talk
Andrew reads about ancient petroglyphs from an interpretive pamphlet in Lower Calf Creek Canyon.
After about an hour and a half of very pleasant and easy walking, Lower Calf Creek canyon ended in a large box canyon. Calf Creek plunged from 120 feet up and down into the canyon, creating a beautiful thin, splashing ribbon of water. At the bottom was a nearly perfectly round, sand-lined pool. We had arrived at the perfect time for the sun to fully illuminate the end of the canyon, and again, we had a magical spot all to ourselves.
I took out my tripod and did my best to get a nice "smooth" long exposure shot of the water. I also took out my wide angle and tried to get some unique non-standard angles of the falls (slipping on bits of slimy rock and dropping my camera in the sand in the process). This is an easy hike that provides a lot of wonderful scenery!
After spending some time relaxing, eating, and enjoying the falls, we headed back, where we finally encountered a few hikers approaching the falls. By the time we arrived back at the tents, the sun had dried off all of our nighttime frost. Time to pack up!
Head on down da' highway....
We went back into the town of Escalante to resupply at the local grocery store, get a bit of gas, extra water, and check the weather for the next few days. It was still looking good! Given what I'd seen of the road and canyon conditions (they were pretty good, and now most of the snow was gone), we made the decision to try something a little more challenging. It was Tuesday now, and we wanted to get at least one backpack in, so I figured we should get that in before the week was gone. I had mulled over the many backpacking opportunities in the area for a full month before this trip, and up until this point I was unsure of which route we should try - they all sounded so nice! In the end, I chose Coyote Gulch - apparently one of the more popular canyons in the entire Escalante, but also apparently popular for good reason. Even though it probably meant we'd see a few people, I decided to go with a sure thing.
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Our trailhead for Coyote Gulch was a long way down the main backcountry road in the park, called "Hole-in-the-rock" road. Because it was now early afternoon, we decided to take a leisurely drive down the gravel road, set up camp at the trailhead, and get started first thing the next morning. Trying to get started on the backpack at this point during the day was pushing it.
With a bit of the CBC program "IDEAS" playing through the radio, we headed down hole-in-the-rock road. Since we did not have any pressing deadlines, we were able to take our time and stop at the Devil's Garden "outstanding scenic area" along the way. This is an area of bulbous and colorful towers and spires of sandstone, similar in nature to the kind of thing you might see further east in a place like Arches National Park or Canyonlands National Park.
We wandered around for about 30 minutes, clambering up onto the towers and hoodoos and through and atop arches. One particularly neat arch, called Metate Arch, can be seen in one of the photographs below. What a charming little spot!
[on camping "at-large" in the park]
it! It reminded me a little of our Grand Canyon backpack
in 2005. I must admit, though, it was a bit comforting to
know the car was there on a few of the freezing nights."
must be one of the few areas where you can camp with a
view of dozens of kilometers in every direction, and not
see a light. Except one, one pesky little red light blinking
on a mountain far, far away. Too bad about that light really,
but in the end pretty easy to ignore when you're surrounded
by such deafening grandeur."
"A very pleasant experience. This is the first time that
I camped longer than 2 nights in a row after our trip to
Mt. Kilimanjaro. The difference is this time, we were self-supplied.
I felt a bit lost at beginning. But once I got used to
the routine, it was fine. Oh, I wish my tent was wind proof.
There were a few nights, it became quite windy. I
felt like I was sleeping outside. Having enough food was
a good thing."
Back onto the seemingly endless and sometimes annoyingly washboarded road, we continued until the turnoff to "forty-mile ridge". Here, a narrow single-track dirt road led off into the open desert. Our spot for the night and the start to our backpack was a short distance along this road, at a highpoint where there was a gravel parking lot and a cattle water tank.
Here, in the open desert, we set up our tents for the night. Stretching from the west to the south was the long, long escarpment of fifty-mile mountain; and further beyond that to the south rose the large rounded 10,000+ foot mass of Navajo mountain, the sacred mountain of the Navajo people of northern Arizona. A grand place for a campsite.
Although it was clear, a chill wind blew through our campsite, and, as the sun went down, the temperature dropped rapidly. Even so, it was noticeably warmer here than up near Escalante; the elevation was a good 1000 feet lower.
Sunset over 50-mile mountain
As the light faded into night, it became clear that this was true wilderness. Even though we were out in the open and could see forever in all directions, there wasn't a man-made light in the sky. Ooops, except for a tiny blinking red light atop Navaho mountain. Maybe one of the tribe's cell towers?