The focus of #TerryTreksUSA has been on National Parks. These places showcase the most amazing scenery in the United States, but are often victims of their own success. Overdevelopment leads to big crowds in the more popular parks. I did my best to get away from the crowds by spending time in backcountry and wilderness areas, but I thought it would be nice to visit a scenic place that doesn’t have the crowds.
While planning my trip I learned about a place called the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that sounded like such a place. Only recently, and controversially, upgraded from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land to a national monument during the Clinton years, it has several factors keeping the crowds at bay. It’s not famous; I certainly had not heard of it before. It’s too gigantic to be crowded. The place is nearly twice the size of Rhode Island. Rhode Island is the smallest state, but the fact that the place is bigger than a state is impressive. It’s the largest expanse of public land in the Southwest.
Most importantly, it’s undeveloped. There is only one paved road skirting the edge. There are no lodges, hotels, strip malls, visitor centers, gas stations, parking lots, or any of the other junk the National Park Service has built in its parks. It’s different from an NPS park because it is still managed by the BLM, which allows some of the land to be used for grazing and mineral exploitation. But there is no tourist infrastructure.
The sheer size of the place and lack of infrastructure both excited and frightened me. Where would I stay? Would I be able to get around in my rented Toyota Camry? The lady at the little visitor center in the tiny town of Boulder assured me my car would be fine on the unpaved Skutumpah Road, so with a full tank of gas, a lot water, plenty of food, and some trepidation I set out.
This would be the first of many dirt roads I would drive in the Southwest, and this particular one was indeed passable, albeit steeper, curvier, and narrower than I was accustomed to, and lacking any kind of shoulder. The dirt was piled up by the plow right at the edge of the narrow road, leaving little clearance when I encountered another vehicle coming towards me. Luckily this was infrequent.
My destination was the slot canyons at Willis Creek. This was a three mile hike reminiscent of the Zion Narrows. It couldn’t compete with that incredible place, but was still a nice walk. I could count the number of fellow hikers I encountered on both hands.
The downfall of such a big place is that it requires a lot of driving to get from site to site. After my hike I drove along the paved and scenic Route 12 to the visitor center in the little town of Escalante to get more information. Route 12 is the easiest way to see some of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and it has views looking down on vast expanses of dramatic badlands. This stretch of road is know as the “million dollar highway,” and is a must-drive when visiting the Southwest.
The road descents into a red canyon filled with green vegetation. My next stop was here: the Lower Calf Creek Falls hike. This is the most popular hike in the monument because it’s easy to get to it. There were quite a few people on the trial, but the reds and greens made it worth it. This is a lush oasis in the desert. I got here late and was worried about where I would camp, so I rushed to get to the waterfall, then rushed to get back to my car. I normally like to take my time to enjoy the sites, but I was worried about sleeping.
There is a small developed campground here, but I wanted to try to find a free place in the wilderness. I didn’t want to search in the darkness, so I had to rush so I’d have time before the sun went down. Once I completed the hike, I set out down the unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road.
This road was like a superhighway compared to Skutumpah, wide and well-grated, at least at first. But there was nowhere to pull over to set up camp. I would have to go down one of the side roads. Thus began my crazy adventure.
The important lesson I learned was, if you’re driving a Camry on a dirt road, don’t go down side roads! This road was not passable. Dirt gave way to sand, and slowing down or stopping risked getting stuck. Sand gave way to expanses of slickrock sticking up. The road became narrow with sand piled up along the edges, so there was no way to turn around. I was committed!
The scariest parts where the “washes,” creeks that flood, but were dry now. They are at the bottom of steep descents, and are either sand or rock at the bottom, followed immediately by a steep ascent. When there was sand I couldn’t slow down and just had to power through, bottoming out. The rock washes were worse. These were big expanses of solid rock sticking up from the ground, not little pieces of gravel. I had to go slow over these, but the rock did not give way like the sand did, and scraped the bottom of the car. If I destroyed the car, I would need a helicopter to get out!
Somehow I made it to an area that opened up. There was a turnaround to some empty horse corrals. I took this opportunity to pull over and set up camp. It was pretty incredible. I was truly in the wilderness alone. The stars came out in force, and silence reigned. I set up my little tent, made some dinner, and enjoyed the stars for a bit. A flare went off in the distance. Was a hiker in distress? What could I do about it in this land with no cell phone service? I listened to the coyotes before taking shelter from the cold in my tent. Tomorrow I would have to drive back out somehow.