The 2011 "Mostly" Escalante Trip
As winter turned to spring, the desert beckoned -- as it always seems to. Time for another year's outing. The choice? another visit to explore the hidden treasures of the Escalante region of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
We were a small group this time -- just four of us. Ewart came along, feeling that it was time for a well-earned break from long hours of work; and, in a nice turn of events, Jenn's dad Roy had decided to come along. It seemed that our many stories and images from past trips had tweaked his interest. This trip would be his first real backpacking experience.
The trip was organized around a five-day backpacking route that I had charted across the middle part of the Escalante River's drainage network. Our route would sometimes track across high desert, but more often it would trace sinuous canyon bottoms -- some dry and stark, and some with flowing water and filled with verdant, riparian growth.
Packaged around the backpack were a few days' worth of time -- time which we would spend on day outings, visiting some scenic thing or other in a manner which would complement what we'd see on the backpack.
Our Mad Dog
As usual, we converged on Las Vegas at the start of our trip. Being a place that is cheap to get to and cheap to rent a car from has always made the city a logical start point. By the time we arrived, Jenn's dad Roy had already flown in from British Columbia a few hours before. It was late and we planned to cram a good amount of activity into Saturday, so it was right to bed for us.
Breakfast at Coco's
Bright and early (and somewhat cool, by Las Vegas standards), we convened at Coco's restaurant, a simple but fast-and-cheap roadhouse type of place that sat at the edge of our large Motel 6 complex. As Roy took special joy in his syrup-drenched pancakes, we discussed the week ahead.
Today was a combination day: we would deal with the remaining logistics, and then we'd start the fun part of the trip. The logistical part meant getting to an outdoors store ( to buy fuel and various sundry items) and getting to the general region of south-central Utah. As for the fun part, I'd decided that we would drive as far as Bryce Canyon and camp there for the night. This would allow us plenty of time to fit in a short day-hike, and would cap off a full and productive day.
Entering our destination state
We drove north on I-15 out of Las Vegas, driving through the vast expanse of the Mohave Desert. Barren to be sure, but still beautiful. It wasn't long, though, before we crossed through the narrow gap of the Virgin River Gorge, and entered Utah just south of the city of St. George.
In St. George, we stopped to acquire our camp supplies. In times past, there was a decent outdoor store just off of the interstate near the center of town. Unfortunately that was now closed, so we hunted around for a while until we came to a large "Sportsman's Warehouse" box store on the northern outskirts of the city. It looked mostly like a hunting-oriented place, but as it turned out, it had a very decent camping/hiking section. We picked up some fuel and a bit more camp food, and were soon off again.
Getting camp supplies
It was a clear and warm day down in the lower-elevation environment around St. George. As we drove north on I-15, however, we started a long climb onto the southwestern corner of the Colorado Plateau. The temperature indicator in our Ford Explorer rental slowly but surely fell, and by the time we exited the Interstate at the town of Cedar City, the temperature was down into the single degrees celcius.
Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
Saturday, April 30
From Cedar City, it was time to head east towards our destination for the day -- Bryce Canyon National Park. The route to Bryce Canyon from Cedar City is quite scenic, and follows Utah highway 14 up through Cedar Canyon and onto the very lofty 10,000-foot Markagunt Plateau, where winter still held sway. Having just been in 20+ degree Celcius desert, it was quite a contrast to be driving through a landscape still covered in several feet of bright white snow. The temperature had dropped to several degrees below freezing.
Heading to Bryce Canyon
It was still quite cold when we arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park. We quickly set up our tents at a nice spacious spot in Bryce Canyon's North Campground. It was still early afternoon, and as a result were still on track to get out and enjoy some scenery. The chilly weather only further encouraged us to get the blood flowing through our veins.
One of the reasons why I'd chosen our particular North Campground campsite was that it was very close to the Fairyland Trail. So close, in fact, that we could easily walk to it from our tents. The Fairyland Trail is a footpath that, used in conjunction with a portion of the Rim Trail, describes a circular route partially along the rim of Bryce Canyon and partially winding down through the colorful landscapes below the rim. I figured it would be an approximately five-hour hike for us, and we had just enough time left in the day to complete it.
Within a few minutes we had arrived at Bryce Canyon's windy rim. The view, of course, was magnificent. We could see far out to the southeast, towards the broad valleys in the near distance, all the way to 10,000-foot Navajo Mountain, just north of the Arizona border, on the horizon. Row upon row of brightly colored rock spires, called hoodoos, were in evidence both right in front of us at the rim and farther down below. The mostly-pink assemblages of rock were separated by sections of pine forest.
I heard Ewart mutter something about it being good to be on the trail again with friends. Right he was!
The Inneses enjoy Bryce Canyon
We started north, heading clockwise on our loop route. This would cause us to complete most of the 'rim' portion of the loop first, before descending into the mysterious hoodoo-filled amphitheatres below.
The rim trail has many beautiful overlooks down into amazing below-the-rim formations, but it also periodically angled away from the rim, onto the open, tree-dotted flats of the Paunsaugunt Plateau - this provided a less-dramatic but completely different type of scenery from that of the rim. These sections of trail reminded me a bit of some of the plateau sections along the West Rim trail
in nearby Zion National Park.
Highest point of the hike
Jenn and Roy at Bryce Canyon
After reaching our route's high point (at 8155 feet), we started a long and gradual descent, still following the rim, towards Fairyland point. The trail itself is the easiest sort of type imaginable - almost car-width wide, with no rocks or obstacles to speak of. It was easy, simple walking. All the better to allow you to focus your attention on the scenery! We stopped at marvelled at several excellent lookouts along the gradual descent, then made the flat traverse through the col between the plateau and Boat Mesa - a plateau remnant that erosion is gradually cutting off from the rim. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at Fairyland Point, at the head of Fairyland Canyon. This point marks the actual trailhead to the Fairyland Trail itself (there's a carpark and lookout here).
It had gotten somewhat cloudier and gloomier by the time we got to Fairyland point, with even an occasional snow shower (it was quite cool, with temperatures only just above freezing). As a result, our views down Fairyland Canyon were somewhat muted. We could see the neat formation of the Sinking Ship, where some faulting of the normally flat-lying strata of the Claron formation had been tilted back at a 20-degree angle.
Clouds above Sinking Ship
Along the Fairyland Trail
Continuing along, we were now on the Fairyland Trail proper, and we started our descent below the rim. The trail is very nicely constructed and graded, and gradually wound down into Fairyland Canyon in a series of scenic traverses above, below and along sections of hoodoos, gently-sloped badlands, and groves of pine trees. Once down at the bottom of the drainage, the trail begins a long series of ins and outs, dipping down to cross a drainage system, then angling back up and across to the next drainage. All the while, it wound in and out amongst fantastic arrays of hoodoos - some tightly packed in rows and columns, some standing solitarily on rounded, dome-like slopes.
Ewart hikes into Fairyland
Hiking through Fairyland Canyon
Stately Hoodoos from below
Along the Fairyland Trail