Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

What Goes Down Must Come Up

There’s not much in Escalante, especially the day after Thanksgiving. The one gas station in town that was open told me about the one restaurant in town that was open so I could get breakfast.

The Hole in the Rock Road veers off from the main road about 5 miles east of town and parallels the Escalate River down to its confluence with the Colorado, or at least what used to be the Colorado before the Glen Canyon Dam turned it into Lake Powell. The road can barely be called that, it was originally an attempt at a shortcut by Mormon settlers who had to dynamite their way through the cliffs to get down to the Colorado. The road was only used for a year before it was abandoned. The old track of the road is now used as a means to access Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument.

I set off down this superhighway of the 19th century suffering through gravel for the first few miles followed by a brutal washboard surface of clay interspersed with deep sand where the road drops down to cross the numerous dry washes that feed into the Escalante (no bridges anywhere on this road).

After a brief stopover at Dance Hall Rock (which looks exactly like one would expect a dance hall to look like) I turned off onto an even less well-maintained track heading out to “40 Mile Ridge”, presumably a ridge 40 miles south of Escalante. This track parallels a small (most of the time) stream that feeds into the Escalante. This particular stream has carved a deep gulch in the sandstone with sheer vertical walls, 1,000 feet high in most places. Coyote Gulch was my destination.

Half of the fun of traveling solo is meeting people, it’s almost unavoidable. In this particular instance I had parked the bike and was in the process of switching over from “dirty motorcyclist” mode to “dirty backpacker” mode when a Jeep carrying a crew from Colorado pulled in. The sun was going down and within the hour a camp had been pitched and a fire had been started. When the wood that had been brought in via Jeep had been exhausted the decision was made to keep the fire burning using the ubiquitous dried cow chips.

The Escalante is not an untracked desert wilderness, far from it: most of the land is open range criss-crossed by grazing herds of cattle divvied up into plots by barbed wire fences and cattle-guards in the roads. One must exercise caution when driving the road as besides the sand, rocks, ruts, and sudden turns a herd of cattle may stray into the road at any time.

Setting out across the desert towards the gulch almost 2 miles away was an eerie experience. There was no trail from my starting point to the entry point into the gulch, although route finding wasn’t particularly difficult when the slightest rise provided miles of visibility. Simply pick a landmark far off in the intended direction of travel and walk towards it. Once the landmark it reached, repeat. For the most part the terrain is like beach sand interspersed with a variety of small pointy plants that should be avoided and stretches of what can best be described as moon rock that make for easier walking but often involve climbing. The shrubs provide safe haven for the smaller desert creatures, in one instance I nearly stepped on a desert hare hiding in a bush. The poor thing was so terrified he wouldn’t even move so I made the best of the opportunity and gave him an impromptu photo shoot.

Getting down into the gulch was an experience. The visitor’s center where I picked up my backcountry permit failed to mention the wall of moon rock that would have to be descended to get to the bottom of the gulch. Fortunately I had brought a small length of rope and simplified the descent by slinging horns of rock and lowering myself down from ledge to ledge.

An oasis awaited at the bottom of the gulch: yellow trees, deep green grasses like tiny stalks of bamboo, and emerald hanging gardens growing out of seeps in the sheer walls of red sandstone. The river meanders back and forth, making wild arcing turns almost back onto itself. Bits of land build up on the inside of the turns but the outsides are stripped bare clear up to the walls. This necessitates repeated crossings of the stream which never requires going in more than ankle deep.

As I was working my way downriver the crew from Colorado had dropped into the canyon further down and were working their way upriver. We ran into each other just downriver from a natural bridge and returned back upstream a bit to camp at what I’ve dubbed “Easter Island” for the large monolith jutting out of it. Easter Island is an abandoned section of the stream’s course. At some point in the past the stream had breached the wall dividing a huge perfectly U-shaped bend with the last isolated remnants of the shattered wall left standing as the monolith surrounded by a meadow high above the stream’s usual flood level. We set up the tents on a sandy ridge behind the monolith overlooking the surrounding meadow and sheltered by the enormous vertical walls safe and secure high above the stream below.

The next morning started with a jaunt back upriver and an epic climb up the moon rock face to escape the canyon. A fall here most certainly would have resulted in a nasty slide and broken bones at the bottom, I was very glad to have the Colorado crew for company on the trip back out.

After returning to the bike, enduring another trip across the washboard wasteland, and verifying that nothing is open in Escalante on a Sunday either, I pointed the bike west and made it to Bryce Canyon just in time for sunset. Reneging on my comment from a few days ago about camping at high altitude I now find myself in a tent pitched on snow somewhere above 9,000 feet elevation. Tomorrow morning I drop back down and head for Zion.
Hole in the Rock Road - galleryDance Hall Rock - galleryDance Hall Rock - gallery50 Mile Mountain - galleryDesert Hare - galleryCoyote Gulch Middle Entrance - galleryJacob Hamblin Arch - galleryBright Trees - galleryCoyote Natural Bridge - galleryBryce Canyon - galleryBryce Moonset - gallery