Yesterday’s drive to my backcountry campsite was dangerous and foolhardy. Side roads in Grand Staircase-Escalante require a high-clearance vehicle. Having high-clearance is more important than having 4WD, because of all the bottoming out on sand and solid rock. Toyota Camrys have neither of those, so I was seriously worried about getting back to Hole-In-The-Rock Road. There is no cell phone service out here, so getting stuck or destroying my car would mean a long walk to the road, then a long wait to try to flag down a passing vehicle. Paying to extract my stuck car would probably cost thousands of dollars.

Luckily, I was able to power through the washes at the bottom of the steep drop-offs. The bottom of my car scraped on the rocks, but it kept running. After a few harrowing minutes I was back on the main road. It is unpaved, but is grated gravel, not sand and rock. It is like a highway compared to the side road.

Morning in Devil's Garden.
Morning in Devil’s Garden.

Hole-In-The-Rock Road has some interesting history. The Mormons blasted a hole in the cliffs above the Colorado River, hoisted their wagons up to it, and continued on through the desert. It would be fun to drive all the way to the end and look down on the river in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which is where my adventures in the Southwest started. Unfortunately, the last seven miles are passable only with a high-clearance vehicle, and I didn’t want to repeat last night’s crazy adventure. Instead I would stop off at some of the more accessible sites.

My first stop was Devil’s Garden, 13 miles down Hole-In-The-Rock Rd. I wasn’t worried about getting stuck, but it was slow going because the road became very washboardy, and I hadn’t yet discovered it’s better to go fast over washboard. I was a little worried the constant shaking would damage the car.

Like being in the Devil's sculpture garden.
Like being in the Devil’s sculpture garden.

The car was fine, and I arrived early. Devil’s Garden is an area of hoodoos, or fee-standing rock formations. Since it was early, the place was deserted, the morning sun was casting beautiful light, and the full moon was still out. I had fun wandering and climbing on the rocks. It was like having a beautiful sculpture garden all to myself.

My next stop was the Dry Fork slot canyons, 13 more miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Rd. Now I was getting deep into the desert wilderness. The road got narrower and bumpier. I turned off onto the side road leading to these canyons, and drove until a sign warned that a high-clearance vehicle is required. I had a mile walk along the washed out road, with high rocks sticking out of it.

One of the Dry Fork slot canyons.
One of the Dry Fork slot canyons.

I was deep in the desert, but not a desert as depicted in movies. This was incredibly rugged terrain full of cliffs, valleys, and rocks. It’s amazing that any road exists at all through this impassible land. Ominous mountain walls lined the horizon. Scraggly juniper trees grew everywhere.

The three mile trail started on a slickrock cliff looking down on this rugged landscape, and I carefully followed the cairns down, scramling in places. There are several slot canyons here: Peek-A-Boo, Spooky, and Brimstone. I followed Dry Fork Wash to Peek-A-Boo, which is 15 or so feet up via some handholds. I was by myself, so didn’t want to climb up to this small slot canyon. I continued down the dry wash to Spooky, which was a classic slot canyon. It started out fairly wide, and I went until it got so narrow I wouldn’t fit. I skipped Brimstone because I had some more plans for the day. I wanted to hike to Coyote Gultch.

I kept surprising mule deer in Coyote Gultch.
I kept surprising mule deer in Coyote Gultch.

According to some, this is one of the best hikes in North America. But first I had to drive seven more miles down the shrinking Hole-in-the-Rock Rd. The ranger assured me I could make it in a Camry, but I was a little worried in some places. There were more steep descents with solid rock washes at the bottom, then steep ascents I had to power through. It wasn’t as bad as the side road I camped on, and I made it to the trailhead. At this point I was 30 miles from the highway and the nearest signs of civilization.

A nice thing about Grand Staircase-Escalante is that it’s totally free. There are no entry fees, no hiking permit fees, and camping is free in the backcountry. A nice way to keep my spiraling costs down. I registered in the book at the trailhead, then set out alone into the high desert, following the dry Hurricane Wash. This was incredibly hot, rugged terrain, but it was full of life. Unfortunately, getting lost would mean death for me, so I carefully followed the cairns.

There was some dramatic scenery in Coyote Gultch.
There was some dramatic scenery in Coyote Gultch.

The day was half over, and I had ten miles to cover. The first few miles in the desert were difficult and not all that interesting. But eventually I entered Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the scenery changed. First the ground got muddy and there was more vegetation. Eventually there was a stream, and the vegetation became thick and lush. Red walls towered over the green plants. Much of the time I had to walk in the water, which eventually joined a larger stream. The vegetation grew so think in places I had to bushwhack.

I encountered no people on the walk in. The red cliffs towered higher, and there were enormous alcoves every time there was a bend in the river, which was frequently. My first destination was Jacob Hamblin Arch, which I reached around 6 pm. Some Germans camped there were in the middle of a week long expedition!

Jacob Hamblin Arch
Jacob Hamblin Arch

I wanted to see Coyote Natural Bridge and it was getting late, so I continued down the river at a rapid pace. A herd of mule deer up ahead had nowhere to run, and struggled to keep ahead of me. At the impressively large natural bridge I got my picture, chatted with the folks camped there, then headed back to look for a place to camp. I found a nice site on a sandy beach high above the river, under an enormous alcove. After dinner it was pitch black at 8 pm, and a little creepy. The only sounds were the nearby waterfall, and mule deer, which I imagined could be zombies.

Luckily they weren’t, and I survived the night alone. I had to hike back out, but there are more wonders to see deeper in the Gultch. You could spend days in this remote, undiscovered paradise, away from the crowds and civilization. Grand Staircase-Escalante is worthy of its National Monument status, and was a highlight of my trip. Maybe someday I can return and see it properly in a Jeep.

The moon in the gultch.
The moon in the gultch.
Terry
I'm Terry, former cubicle-dweller, and now traveler, photographer, writer, and entrepreneur. I quit my job in 2014 to travel to US national parks, then to South East Asia. I write about independent, flexible, long-term, budget travel. Sign up to my newsletter to get the latest news on what I'm up to. I hope you join me on my trek around the world.

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