A bright blue fuselage sticks out of the sand and sagebrush, adorned with the words “Boulder Airport and UFO Landing site.”
After hiking through sagebrush, stunted pines, and a light drizzle I finally arrived at the blue structure I spotted in the distance miles before. The man-made monolith is one of the many gems waiting to be found by intrepid visitors to the Escalante National Monument in Utah.
The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was created in 1996 by Bill Clinton and encompasses 1.9 million acres of land. To put that in perspective, the monument is slightly larger than the entire state of Delaware. As a National Monument, the land is managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and is protected from many forms of development and use (but not all) and is open to more recreational activities than National Parks.
There are a few things that make exploring Escalante an adventure, no matter where you are going.
First, the road signs that say “high clearance vehicles only” are not kidding...my Subaru lost some paint along the way. Many of the access roads to hikes are unpaved, and a high clearance vehicle would increase the probability of getting where you want to. There were also some roads with such bad washboards I worried the car would shake apart then and there, but the rewards were worth it (and I guess a good test for the car’s durability).
Second, finding the trailhead is an adventure in itself. Trailhead markers exist, but are not always easy to find and are rarely next to the road. Unlike National Parks where signs lead you everywhere and the best attractions are easy to locate, in Escalante the best hikes and trips require a lot of effort, time, and a willingness to go out in the middle of nowhere.
With this in mind, the most accessible day hike is fortunately also one of the most beautiful. Lower Calf Creek falls gives a little taste of everything, starting with an incredible drive from Escalante. Leaving town, the road winds its way across a plateau of stunted pine trees, and then drops down into a magnificent and vast expanse of slickrock. The road continues through white, red, pink, yellow, and everything in-between shades of rock that are swept and contorted into flowing patterns and convoluted cracks. The best is yet to come, however, as the road takes you over a hogback…
This part of the road is not for the faint of heart. At one point, the narrow two lane highway is a white knuckle traverse of a spine of rock, with big airy cliffs on either side. Get your most confident driver behind the wheel, enjoy the views, and marvel at the gumption of Utah road builders.
The hike starts a little farther along the road, and is well marked (for once) with a good sized parking lot that fills up quickly. I have done this hike three times now, and it never gets old. The trail meanders next to the creek, and I am always surprised at the verdant oasis of startlingly green plants nestled between slickrock cliffs coated in streaks of desert varnish. Keep your eyes out for petroglyphs on the distant walls and granaries perched high above the creek floor. The ultimate reward, however, is the tall waterfall at the end. The cool air is welcome after the sunny hike, and in the past the more intrepid members of my group have gone for a cold swim.
Escalante has many other gems, from the boulder airport fuselage marker to slot canyons and crazy mountain roads with names like “Hell’s Backbone.” With the right sense of adventure and navigation, you can get to scenery as remote and stunning as you wish.
Last month one of our staff members road tripped through the southwest. Here are five of her tips on how to make the most of your adventure.
1. Layer, layer, layer.
Springtime means unpredictable weather. When the sun was out I happily stolled along in short sleeves and sunglasses. When clouds, rain, snow, or nightfall rolled in, however, I had to be ready to layer up quickly. My go-to pieces of gear were a thin pair of wool gloves, a wind shirt, a hooded quarter-zip base layer (I now want hoods on everything), and my down Eos jacket.
2. Hike in the morning or evening for the best light.
This held true no matter where we went, from Bryce to Arches. The low light of dawn and dusk has long been praised as the “golden hour” by photographers, and I can see why. In the southwest, the red, pink, yellow, and white rocks become incredibly vibrant and even more spectacular. Plus, there are usually fewer people around.
3. Have a backup plan
In the early spring, the parks are waking up after a slower winter season. This means that campgrounds may not be open yet, trails can be blocked or closed, and operating hours can be different. And of course we can't forget about the weather, which went from sunny and bluebird to snow within less than a day. It also rains in the Southwest, and when it does it can be extremely dangerous. Always check flood risk at the local ranger station or land management office. With this in mind, I had a backup hike and hotel in mind at each park if conditions turned for the worse.
4. Go stargazing
Some of the clearest nights I have witnessed were in the southwest. The combination of few clouds, expansive views unhindered by big peaks or forest, and the silhouettes of rock formations in front of the milky way make for an incredible experience. Bring along a flashlight with a red light setting to preserve your night vision as you move to or from your chosen stargazing locations. It is also worthwhile to check in with local astronomical societies to see if they are having any events in the National Parks. I encountered one in Arches, and the astronomers kindly gave me a tour of the night sky, from seeing the rings of saturn to multi colored stars and galaxies. If you do find these groups, be respectful and ask nicely, as they are usually more than happy to show you the sky, but sometimes have specific stars they are following and do not want to be disturbed.
5. Explore lesser known trails
National Parks get extremely crowded, and it can sometimes feel like an amusement park when a trail is filled with a constant stream of people going up and down. To avoid this, hit the most popular trails early (and on weekdays), and then explore other trails in the afternoon. Some examples include the rim trails in Zion, longer loops in Bryce that link the rim and canyon trails, and Devil’s garden in Arches. Before you head out on these adventures, however, carefully assess your group’s fitness level, preparedness, and comfort with slickrock.
Bonus Tip: The Southwestern landscape captures the imagination like no other landscape I’ve visited. Take your time when exploring these parks to take it all in.
The binder is a jumble of slides, negatives, and faded prints. Holding slides up to the light of my computer monitor, I discovered pictures of ice falls and blue skies. Upon further inspection, handwritten labels revealed words like “Everest, K2, and 8,000” hinting at the big adventures documented in the tiny images.
Starting in the 1970’s, the pictures recount ascents in the local Cascade Mountains to expeditions across the world in Nepal and Pakistan.
Keep your eyes out over the coming months for more pictures and longer stories recounting the journeys behind our favorite archived pictures.
A huge congratulations is in order for Feathered Friends athlete Kristin Gates after she completed her epic journey, traversing the Brooks Range in Alaska. She traveled solo, backpacking and rafting her way from the Yukon border to the Chukchi Sea. We can't wait to see more photos and hear more about this tremendous feat!
Be sure to check out Kristin's Eating Miles for Breakfast blog
Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!