Friday, August 24, 2012

The Grand Staircase Escalante

     Let me preface this blog by stating honestly that I am in no way going to bring justice to the immense splendor of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  It is so big, so vast, and so all-encompassing of what is the American Southwest that I am only going to be glancing the surface of this 2 million square miles of rugged and remote beauty.  I have only written about the areas that I personally spent time in while I passed through the Monument. 

     The Grand Staircase is more of a state of mind than an actual place that you can pinpoint on a map.  A state of mind with boundaries, I suppose you could say.  Within these “boundaries” are Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Capitol Reef National Parks as well as Glen Canyon NRA.  The confines of the monument contain a plethora of hidden jewels that take as much as a short walk off the side of the road to days of back county hiking to experience.  

     The treasures within the Monument are boundless, some of the most outstanding and recognizable being:  The Wave (a multi-colored, smooth layer of rock cut into a sandstone mountain), Calf Creek Falls (a gorgeous oasis), Buckskin Gulch (the longest slot canyon in the world) American Scenic Byway 12, a countless number of natural arches, and thousands of  miles of some of the most remote trails in the lower 48.
     Whether you’re a lone hiker, a serious backcountry advocate, a geologist, an artist, or just out for a joyride,  you will undoubtedly be able to find something to fit your idea of a good time within the Grand Staircase Escalante.  

     If you’re near the town of Escalante, I would suggest a stop at the Visitor Center for a voluminous amount of information on the area including maps and trail guides of the aforementioned places but also of all the other hidden recesses in the Monument.  Even if you’re nowhere near Escalante, any park in the region will have information on the Staircase.  

American Scenic Byway 12

     American Scenic Byway 12 is any joyrider’s dream.  This road extends from just before Bryce Canyon National Park, all the way up to Capital Reef National Park.  It is 120 of the most beautiful driving miles I have ever experienced.  The scenery changes before your eyes as you drive along.  At first, you're falling down into a valley with orange cliffs towering above, the next moment desert trees are hugging a shimmering creek bed, crest a hill and all of the sudden you're in a dense forest of delicate birches, and in another moment the whole road is spread out before you and you can see the different layers of time revealing themselves through the colors of the ancient past, the road winding like a silver snake in the desert sun.

     Here is the road as we left Bryce Canyon National Park:

     The Vermillion Cliffs:

     As you're weaving through orange rock and white mountains, the last thing you expect is to ascend into this lovely contrast which is Dixie National Forest:

     Continuing on Byway 12 and the mood changes yet again.  These views are from an overlook off the side of the road.  From here I can see for miles.

Capitol Reef NP
     Capitol Reef National Park is stunning.  Each of Utah's five National Parks are part of the Colorado Plateau, which leads them to have their similarities but they each have distinguishable differences that set them apart from one another.

     Capitol Reef is dominated by its stark red, rusty brick colors against the bluest of skies, interrupted by a smattering of dead trees black as coal, whose desperate bare branches reach heavenwards as though they are waiting for something to catch.  

     It was over 100 degrees in the park that day, so we stuck mostly to the scenic overlooks and more or less just drove through the park.  

     Age is written on the sides of these cliffs.  What was several million years ago a giant plateau are now fading spires of rock called chimneys.

     Life will always surprise you out in these middle-of-nowhere-places.  One might imagine this is the last place on earth that a luxurious wildflower might grow but there it is.

     Dancing in the 100 degree desert, just happy that we have made it this far!

     The Freemont River flows through the park giving green life to an otherwise stark landscape.  The river is lined with tamarisk, an exotic plant from the Mediterranean that was brought over in the 1930’s to stabilize the riverbank.  Although it's pretty to look at, it has now become a pest and is nearly impossible to control.  

     Capitol Reef has so much more to offer than what I’ve shown in this blog.  There are natural arches, petroglyphs, an old schoolhouse, apple picking when the season is right, Cohab Canyon, Cathedral Valley and a tour of the Waterpocket Fold, the ripple in the Earth’s crust that makes Capitol Reef distinguishable from the rest of Utah’s fantastic National Parks.

     After a hot afternoon spent at Capitol Reef, we continued on down Highway 95 to spend our evening at Natural Bridges.  On the way I had to stop to get a few photographs of the stretching roads that have made the American Southwest famous in so many movies.  The roads that stretch to infinity.

     Awhile later down the same stretch of road, there was a prime spot to stop and look out over the very top of Lake Powell, at its rigid beginnings.  Down below are the remnants of  the ghost town called Hite.  You can't see Hite in the photo because it has since been covered by the lake, which was created in 1963.  There are many old mining and once booming towns that are now submerged in the backed-up waters of the Colorado River.  What is very disheartening are the hundreds of historic, native american, and archeological sites that are also hidden by water, possibly ruined forever.  

Natural Bridges NM

     Although Natural Bridges National Monument is not officially a part of the Grand Staircase as it lies just outside of its boundaries on the East side of Glen Canyon, it is a part of the American Southwest and the last big sight that I experienced before heading the next day into Colorado and back home towards Iowa, and therefore I feel as though it belongs in this entry.

     Natural Bridges was declared a National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908.  It is considered an International Dark Sky Park, which means the night sky here is almost as pure and perfect as it was before the Industrial Revolution.  For this reason, I cannot imagine any place better to view the stars.  

     There is a campground here that is completely primitive and has 12 sites.  They are first come first serve, and I'm willing to bet that if you want to snag one of these incredible sites you would need to be here pretty early in the morning, and hope that someone is clearing out to make room for you.  We did not get this lucky.  There is overflow camping down the road outside of the park.  We followed the Park Ranger's directions a few miles East of the Monument, turning onto a rough gravel road to the end of an abandoned turnabout.  It seemed strange that not a single soul was camped out there, and even if there had been, after what happened to me in Kingman I probably wouldn't have risked it.  Needless to say we turned our rented compact Toyota around and bumped out of there.

     The park consists of a lovely scenic loop drive with several lookout points where you can view an ancient cavernous riverbed below.  There are three Natural Bridges:  Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo.  Archeological evidence reveals that throughout the millenia there were dozens of other Natural Bridges that were created and met their end throughout the years.    

     Some amazing hikes can be had within this park.  Sipapu is the longest and most challenging hike which is 3 miles long and involves climbing ladders and scaling slickrock to reach the bottom, but once you are there you are able to stand underneath the enormous arch and gaze upon it from the bottom of the ancient riverbed.  There are also individual paths to Kachina and Owachomo Bridges.  

     If you have at least half to an entire day and an adventurous spirit, I would suggest doing the 9 mile loop that takes you down through each of the bridges.  This hike can be started at any bridge throughout the park.

     Brett and I went halfway down to Sipapu, stopping at a cavernous overlook to gaze at it from afar.  

     The second bridge, Kachina, which means “the place of emergence” in Hopi language, an entryway by which they believe their ancestors came into the world.  I make no excuses for the fact that this is a poor photograph and doesn't do the view much justice at all except that the sun was in the worst possible angle.  Just believe me when I say that it is beautiful, an almost haunting sight.

     The third bridge, Owachomo, is about 2 miles roundtrip and was our best bet for the day as it was beginning to get dark on us.  Owachomo is the smallest bridge.  We hiked down to it and sat in the ancient riverbed that is now overgrown with desert trees and shrubs.  We stayed until the stars came out.

     Before getting back on the bright Highway and heading East, a direction that I generally avoid but nevertheless is comforting when I'm going home, we stayed until the sky got pitch black.  As luck would  have it, that night it was slightly overcast, but for moments at a time the sky opened up to reveal transcendent patches of stars.  

     I have experienced desert nights filled with more stars than this one, a particular night outside Wendover, Nevada during the Perseids meteor shower comes to mind, but on this night outside the Natural Bridges, I did notice the vibrant colors of individual stars.  That is something I have never noticed so vividly anywhere else. 

     It didn't occur to me until later that since we left at night, I didn't really get to say goodbye to the Southwest.  It faded into blackness while all I'd been thinking about was the sky, forgetting to look around me one last time.  But maybe this was a different sort of goodbye, something happy and unintentional.  I think people spend too much time on goodbyes, to the point where they become so intense that the goodbye is what they remember the most after so much time passes.  Maybe if there weren't so many goodbyes, there would be more to remember, somehow. 

1 comment:

  1. That was beautiful! That area deserves nothing but the best and you hit the nail on head!