Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Escalante - An Addiction Is Born

Thursday May 5th:

Anjuli and I pack all* of the gear into my Subaru Outback Sport, make a quick stop for some food and gas and off to I-84 we go. The goal for day one: make it to a campground at Bryce Canyon where we can set up tent and call it a day. 11 hours after hopping in the car, we arrive at Bryce. The national park gate unattended by 8pm with no drop box or any sort of required payment slip available, we saved ourselves $25! Next stop, the campground. $15 for a campsite on a Thursday night wouldn't be too bad of a deal for camping so close to such an amazing feature. Wait, no drop box or camp host to collect here either. We pull up to a nice camp site and dig through all the gear to set up camp. Very first thing you need to set up camp? A tent* right? Well.... somehow that didn't make it from my basement to the back of my car. Oops. Luckily Anjuli had an aluminum emergency blanket that we could throw on the ground to keep our sleeping bags dry and protected. Get in a meal after the sun sets and hop in the bag for a good nights rest at colder than expected temps.

Friday May 6th:

We had set big goals for day one. First, a 6.5 mile loop through Bryce Canyon to start the day could simply not have been any more scenic! Start at Sunset Point, go down the Navajo trail to "Wall Street," to the Peek-a-boo loop (unreal, do not miss!), on to the Queens Garden and up to Sunrise Point back to the start.

Next up, drive to Escalante, check in with BLM to let them know what our plans are and get a permit to pack into the Fence Canyon area, and get to Lower Calf Creek Falls Campground. We had more than enough daylight to do the 5.5 mile hike to the falls and back. This is very worthy sight in the Escalante area; not to be missed! As there were no campgrounds left, the camp hosts said it'd be fine if we set up shop in the sandy area down by the creek. A late night party group down by the creek seemed like fun to join in on and set up camp near, but we had bigger goals for the next day than too many beers and being up too late would allow for. Camp was setup directly in front of the Suby in the parking lot on the brand spankin' new tarp. A near by fire had taken out power to the restroom so the shower was extremely make shift via a five gallon bucket of creek water. It's been a long time since getting cleaned up has felt so good, especially given that it was from a bucket.

Saturday May 7th:

First thing that morning, the camp host tells us that we slept right next to a popular scorpion hang out. Good news, we didn't wake up with any uninvited guests in our sleeping bags. I wasn't overly freaked out by the idea of scorpions liking warm places, being nocturnal and our sleeping bags being directly exposed to the lil' crawlers, but I must say, Anjuli seemed even less perturbed by the possibility.

Day two of exploration was another packed day. The first two days were the most jammed packed with hiking, driving, organizing, eating... you get the idea. Thus I figured these days the most likely to gum up our plans to see nine canyons, an arch, a giant water fall and a whole lot of other random wonders of southern Utah.

Before getting into the meat and potatoes of the day, we stopped in for a quick bite to eat at a rustic restaurant (Kiva Koffeehouse) built into the hillside near the campground. Once done with our last non-freeze dried, warm meal for a couple days, we got on the road towards the ultimate destination area, Hole-In-The-Rock Road. Goal one, find the pull off for Halfway Hollow and make our way into Harris Wash. Zebra and Tunnel Slot canyons, here we come! Eight miles down Hole-In-The-Rock Road, there's a pull off just after a cattle guard. Cross the road, find the trail and head off towards awesomeness. That's my interpretation of our guide book. Although I must forewarn anyone looking into going to Escalante that "Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau" by Michael Kelsey is written in an extremely arrogant and not as easily to follow fashion. You may want to avoid it and go straight to "Canyoneering 3" by Steve Allen.

Anyways, enough on the book rant. We made it to Harris Wash and headed up wash towards Zebra Canyon. Along the way, we came across a section of Moqui Marbles, way cool! After an extended hunt for and discussion over the rocks also known as Shamans Stones, we made our way on up to Zebra. That place is mystical... and this coming from a pretty rational, level headed dude that doesn't typically use the word mystical. The place is unlike anywhere I've ever been. It was both of our first real slot canyon experiences and it was really impressive! There were Moqui Marbles in the canyon's swirling orange and white canyon walls even! To get into the good stuff, we had to take our first dip into the cold Escalante canyon waters. If we weren't feeling alive already, that did the job! A little further on up, we met up with the first real canyon challenge. A eight or so foot wedge climb that I decided to tackle and got up over. Shortly after, there was a pothole of unknown depth (potentially a keeper pothole) followed immediately by a 20ft sheer rock face. Time to turn around and see the amazing canyon one more time.

Once back to Harris Wash, we headed down wash towards Tunnel Slot. On the way, we came across all shapes, sizes and colors of rocks, including both white and pink chalk rock. It was a giant jumbling of rocks from far off places as they clearly didn't come from the surrounding red rock. Upon finding the entrance to Tunnel Slot, it felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie. The sun's reflection off of the cold, cold water danced on the canyon walls as we waded in to see more of what resembled a keyhole to another world. It was one of those rare moments that I felt like a kid again. You know back when your imagination ran wild around every corner? Being in this canyon was the closest I've felt in a loooong time! The canyon is short and sweet, a lot like my memory of being a kid.

When we got back to the car, a much needed lunch break with the best tasting grape juice, tangelos and pudding packets ever ensued. The red dirt at our feet seemed to sink in more. Maybe it had something to do with my sitting right in it. Sometimes, if you put away your notions that being dirty is a bad thing, sitting right down on the hard ground puts you in a much closer connection with our primal selves. Forget about the rat race for a time and let yourself enjoy being your basal self. It does wonders for a person. Sitting right down in the red soil while packing away the most amazing tangelos somehow brought out that sensation for me.

Next up on our agenda, the Egypt trailhead. We started by organizing the packs in a blustering wind that pushed out over the 1,300ft edge we were to drop over shortly. Mind you it wasn't a sheer drop off, but from the vantage point at the top, it looked like it almost could be. In the first half mile, it dropped around 700ft. This was our route down to Fence Canyon which feeds into the Escalante River very near other incredibly beautiful canyons. After the first half mile descent, it leveled out with sections of sand that left the trail sometimes difficult to follow when rock cairns were further apart.

By the time we reached camp, we were more than ready to get the stove going and get some Mountain House meals in our bellies. Luckily, Fence Creek runs clean and clear enough to pump water from without clogging up the filter as the Escalante River very much so would do. If the Escalante was all we had available, allowing the water to settle in my small cooking pan first would make for a very, very slow process!

After filtering, cooking and plowing down some mad calories, I decided to go chat it up with our neighbors. Turns out they had completed the south fork of Choprock Canyon that day, my current fixation and extremely high priority on my bucket list! One of the members was named Scott Patterson who claimed to have named Zebra Canyon. Anjuli later found a link that confirmed it true, but my first reaction was to call bull s***. Not directly of course, only in my mind, as they had just completed one bad a$$ canyon. This same canyon claimed the lives of two men back in 2005. Sometimes, this canyon becomes extremely challenging when high water, big log jams, and the silo effect combine. For this trip though, neither of us had anywhere near enough experience or equipment to tackle such canyons. So after picking their brains on some of the intricacies of the canyon, I headed back and hopped in to the mummy bag and crossed my fingers that the local scorpion population didn't feel so inclined to join either of us in our slumber.

Sunday May 8th:

At some point in the night of perfectly clear skies, a little mouse came to check out our garbage bag. The first two times, I couldn't shine my headlamp on him fast enough to figure out what was coming to visit us. The third time was a charm though. He froze immediately, holding an energy bar wrapper like a kid who's been caught red handed with a candy bar that his mom had said no to. I turned the light off and let the little guy enjoy whatever leftovers he could find from the wrapper.

The next morning, we woke to find scorpion track every which way all around us, even leading right up and onto the tarp. We were probably walked on by scorpions over the night. Upon inspection, neither of us found any little friends in our bags. I was kinda hoping to see one, but never got the chance, even though I shined the headlamp all around a couple times in the night.

After packing up camp and stashing the backpacks, we headed over to the Escalante River for crossing numero uno on our way down river to Neon and Ringtail Canyons. The trail was very lush and almost jungle like. Little lizards darted about left and right everywhere we went with the occasional snake to say hi. We never ran into a rattler, but they are around.

Up first, a trip up into Neon Canyon and it's treasure, the Golden Cathedral! This place was absolutely surreal. Peaceful, beautiful, stunning, unreal... words cannot do right what this place is. We had the whole canyon to ourselves on a Sunday morning. I suppose that could be considered fitting for some, at a cathedral on a Sunday morning. As for the name, there was never any doubt once we stepped foot into the canyon. The trees seem to radiate the brightest green you'll ever see from a plant and the walls are a glow with orange. The contrast of dark and bright is everywhere you look.

Another mile down river, much less explored Ringtail Canyon beckoned to be ventured. The name comes from the seldom seen, but clearly prevalent friend of the area, the ring-tailed cat. The canyon quickly turned extremely dark as the top of the canyon is extraordinarily narrow. Not too far in, I found that the required gear to go much further was not in my current possession... or maybe I just didn't know how deep the potentially keeper pothole was and wasn't really ready to find out given that I was already alone at that point. Someday, I'd like to see more of this fascinating canyon.

On the way back to camp, we made a point of trying to find both sets of pictographs along the section of the Escalante that we were covering. One being between Neon and Ringtail on the east side. The other being about a quarter mile up river of the mouth of Neon on the east side as well. The one just up river of Neon was, by far, the most amazing! Hundreds of figures of all forms of the imagination. Mormon pioneers from the late eighteen hundreds made a few of their own, which luckily wasn't overly destructive of the originals and were cool to see as well.

We managed to over shoot our trail over to Fence Canyon and continued on up the Escalante a bit too far. At that point the trail is on the opposite side of the river and the trees kept us from being able to see the gaping canyon that is Fence. After a short bout of feeling mildly lost, we flipped it and found our way back to camp via some bushwhacking. Oddly, immediately upon getting into the camp area, we came across a severely lost woman who was in dire need of slowing down, getting her whits about her, eating, drinking and somebody to help her out. Perfect timing as Anjuli and I were nearing our breaking point on need for water, food and some time out from the go, go, go that had been our day up to that point. After an hour of filtering water, cooking up a giant Mountain House, guzzling the Nalgenes, and finalizing the packs, we started packing back on up to the cars. During this time, an incredible story came out from our new found friend.

Paula, a 60yr old lawyer from Alaska, had come to this point via an inflatable kayak that she submerged early on in her second part of an epic adventure with the friends she'd came down with. The first part had consisted of seven days from Hells Backbone on down to Highway 12 along the Escalante River and then through Death Hollow. She told of canyons that they'd gone through that were supposed to be non-technical, but proved to be very technical. She had the proof too! All ten of her finger tips were missing significant amounts of skin and maybe even some flesh, it was hard to tell. After that section of the river, they were shuttled to the Egypt trailhead and packed on down to where we'd stayed. A couple days later, she'd hiked back after she'd lost her group when she submerged the kayak. She was able to snag the kayak out of the river and packed back to the Fence Canyon area, but was unable to follow the trail on out. We helped her pack the raft on out and proceeded to drive her back to the town of Escalante, where her group had planned to meet on Thursday if anyone got separated. Not really the plan that I'd set for a group if I were captain, but at least it was a plan.

Once back in Escalante (a place we'd only considered going if we were out in time to get a good steak for dinner, which we knew it would be too late for once we'd packed out), Paula covered our hotel room at the Circle D hotel, the nicest place in town. Score! An especially welcome event as that night was to be rainy and we lacked a tent. A hot shower was extremely welcomed as well! Oh man does warm water and de-nastifying ones self improve life a whole lot sometimes! Turns out it poured pretty solidly that night. Enough so that we were concerned about getting to do our last days worth of canyons, the ones I looked forward to the most.

Monday May 9th:

Breakfast at the Circle D took foreeeeever, but it was delish and Paula compt it too! Anjuli and Paula had a whole lot of international travel stories to share as I thumbed through the Escalante area books the restaurant had while simultaneously concerning myself about the days ventures. A quick stop in at Escalante Outfitters to check in on their opinion on canyoneering on this potentially rainy day gave me the go-ahead that I was so hoping for! It also resulted in my being the proud new owner of an Escalante canyons t-shirt.

Run back to the hotel, repack everything in the car and hit the go button back to Hole-In-The-Rock Road. Upon reaching Dry Fork trailhead, we were pleasantly surprised to find only four cars. With such popular canyons in the area, I was expecting far more fellow canyon fans.

Once down into Dry Fork wash, we quickly trodded on up a slot section of Dry Fork before moving onto one of the main attractions of the Escalante area, Peek-a-boo Gulch. This proved to be an amazing playground, even for us adults! The canyon zig-zags every which way with potholes, double arches (technically bridges), fin like structures, hollowed out walls, mini-bridges to go under or over as you please, all sorts of jungle gym features!

Towards the end of the canyon, I decided to stem up to the top of the canyon and drop off the backpack as it was really more of a pain to pack along given how narrow the canyon was. It was my first time stemming to any height (15ft) that could result in injury. Upon dropping off the pack on top of the canyon, I looked back down and had a mild, short lived, mini-panic. Coming back to my senses, I just stemmed back down and we went along our way to the exit of the canyon, where I hiked back down along the top of the canyon to grab the backpack.

As is the normal way of seeing both Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulches, we found the trail on over to the top of Spooky Gulch. The start involved the biggest challenge of the whole canyon, a jumbled pile of boulders that block the entrance to the canyon. There are small holes in between the giant boulders and we picked our way through them to get into Spooky proper.

The canyon didn't take long to live up to it's name. After going through a few narrow sections, I went to take a photo of one of many unreal beautiful places along the canyon. The camera promptly died on me. Given that I don't have a backup battery for that camera, it was kaput. Batteries have a rough life. They're either working or their dead (yeah I stole that line from Demetri Martin). Anyways, I went to turn on the GoPro to at least get some footage of the area. Batteries died immediately. Yeah, Spooky Gulch is a correct name. Thankfully, I'd bought a back up battery for the GoPro before taking off. Popped the new one in and batta bing, off we go. Spooky Gulch has all sorts of fun sections to it. It changes from dark and "spooky" to bright and glowing to twisting and jungle gym like. It was Anjuli's favorite of the canyons we explored and was right up there for me.

As for favorites, we saved the best for last in my opinion. Brimstone Gulch, the tightest and debate-ably the darkest (Ringtail got super dark too), went on for quite a ways through more awakening and semi-challenging parts that brought my senses to a pinnacle. Maybe it was that I was alone through most of the canyon. I must say, being back in there hans solo was a bit more of a thrill since I had no idea what was around the next bend and I wouldn't have someone there immediately if I hurt myself. Sometimes that is a thrilling feeling for me. A rush, if you will.

While making my way through the depths of Brimstone, I stayed warm, fueled by a quick snack before going in and the desire to venture into uncharted territory. Once out though, that last section of chest deep water really took a toll on my comfort. I had packed a pvc rain jacket in case it rained while we were out and also had thrown in some gloves in the event that the canyon walls got rough. Both were on and we were hiking fast, but a strong shiver overtook me and I was more than a little eager to get to the car and get it warmed up! Sometimes, the heater in your car seems to be the single most important feature a vehicle has.

About half way back to Escalante from Dry Fork, there was one last objective. We stopped in at the Devil's Garden for a quick peek at some toadstool rock formations and Metate Arch. Along the remaining section of the road back to Escalante, we decided it appropriate to pull up along side some free range cows and moo at them. If you've never taken the time to moo at a cow, you'll need to remind yourself that this is an important thing to do before your eternal dirt nap. There's just something about seeing a thousand pound animal blankly looking at you for fifteen seconds before it decides that it is scared of this strange creature in a car making their best rendition of it's own call. That old saying "if you're going to be dumb, you'd better be tough," seems extremely fitting when applied to cattle.

Later that night, we went back to the Circle D and ate our cow friend's mother in burger form. Might I add, our cow friend's mother was delicious! As was non-3.2 beer followed shortly by cheaper 3.2 draft beer. We had a fellow patron sitting near by who must have mentioned how good his double burger was at least 20 times. We debated if this fellow was drunk or on drugs, but decided against both as his breath didn't have alcohol on it when he stopped by to tell us directly at our table. Nor were his eyes dilated or any other tell tale signs of drug use. At any rate, he was friendly and left on his own accord when said double burger was completed.

Earlier, when I had stopped in at Escalante Outfitters, they said it would be fine if we camped out under their pavilion. Given that it rained that night, it was a fine idea to stay covered.

Tuesday May 10th

In the morning, we snuck quick showers from the facilities that are for the bunkhouse guests . Cleaned up and ready to go, we hit the road and reversed our course back to Boise. 11 hours later, we ended a fantastic vacation. I'm dying to go back sooner than later!

In Red Canyon along highway 12 towards Bryce and Escalante

Bryce Canyon from near the start of the Navajo Trail

Along the Navajo Trail

Anjuli and I along the Peek-a-boo trail

The Wall of Windows along the Peek-a-boo Trail

From Sunset Point

Lower Calf Creek Falls

Doing pull ups on an old fence cable in Halfway Hollow

Grass in the sand where Zebra Canyon's wash meets Harris Wash

Zebra Canyon

Zebra Canyon with Moqui Marbles in the walls

Down climbing from the upper sections of Zebra

Tunnel Slot's keyhole view

Headed out from Egypt Trailhead

On the way down to Fence Canyon
Fence Canyon from above

A monster at camp

Scorpion track was everywhere

Going into the lush jungle along the Escalante River

The Golden Cathedral

The bored out potholes of Golden Cathedral from below
A tough spot in Ringtail Canyon

Peek-a-boo Canyon's double arches
The start to Spooky Canyon

The two part video from Escalante:

1 comment:

Traveling Potato said...

This turned out fantastically hombre... will get around to writing mine too here at some point. I still dream of being down there in that mystical red rock...

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