Life on the Road – April Part 3: Southwest Utah

On our last night camping by the Grand Canyon we got snowed on… it was time to move on and see if the Utah Canyons had got their weather woes sorted out. Our first day away from the canyon, we actually still stayed in Arizona – just outside Page – but we had to cross the Utah border to get into camp, so I’m counting it as part of our Utah leg. Page was horrendously windy, this proved to be something we’d need to get used to in the desert spring, but it was a very unpleasant welcome.

A snowy morning in the National Forest outside of Grand Canyon National Park

Pushing past Page, we made our way into Utah proper and settled in the town of Kanab. Kanab is surrounded on all sides by wilderness, with the Grand Staircase – Escalante and Vermillion Cliffs – Pariah National Monuments to the North and East, Zion National Park a short ways to the Northwest, and BLM managed wilderness areas in all other directions. As such the town is geared towards desert rats and national park goers. It feels like the Tofino of canyon country.

Some snaps from our walk through Lick wash. Lots of textured rock and visible iron deposits, including the giant moqui marble we found!

One of the best known attractions near Kanab is the Wave – if you’ve used a windows computer in recent years, you’d probably recognize it; one of the stock backgrounds is a photo of the undulating waves of white and orange Navajo sandstone. The Waves’ beauty and proximity to Kanab could have been its’ undoing, so the Bureau of Land Management in charge of the area has put in place a permit lottery system to limit the traffic and help preserve the wonder. We tried our hand at the lottery for a couple days in a row. Each day there were over 200 applicants for only 12 permits, and we were there on weekdays… We didn’t wind up getting a permit on either day, but we used our time in Kanab to explore some of the other gems; one of which was Lick Wash, the other being Wire Pass into Buckskin Gulch. On our probe into Lick Wash the weather decided to play nasty again, tempting us with nice weather on our hike in, then hammering us with snow and wind once we got to our turnaround point. Thankfully, our trip down Wire Pass the next day was much more pleasant.

Cory for scale in Buckskin Gulch

Wire pass is an incision-like slot canyon that starts from an unassuming wash, and quickly feeds you into one of the largest and most well-known slot canyons in Utah’s Canyon Country – Buckskin Gulch. Wire pass itself was relatively short, but plenty interesting, with a 7 or 8 foot pour-off that requires you to clamber down rubble and trapped deadfall to continue down the canyon. If you make it through Wire Pass, you’re rewarded in spades at the confluence with Buckskin Gulch. The confluence itself is large, walled in by thousand foot rock walls, and has some cool petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings) of what looks like people and wildlife on the walls. Just down from the confluence Buckskin Gulch constricts again, those thousand foot rock walls close in to within six feet of each other, and you can wander down through this slit in the earth essentially as long as you please without any more scrambling. We ventured a kilometer or two down, until we hit water that would have required wading to pass, before retracing our steps back out of the canyons. Buckskin Gulch was amazing in a similar, but opposite fashion to the Grand Canyon – where the Grand Canyon is stunning in its’ massive scale, Buckskin Gulch was impressive by how scalpel-like water can be when eroding rock.

More snaps from Buckskin Gulch, including some rock art!

Cory on the Arizona trail We biked from Utah to Arizona and back!

After our adventure in Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch, we spent a night in the Stateline Campground, named so as it sits right on the Arizona-Utah border. Camp was beautiful, and also provided access to the North end of the Arizona Trail, a route of interconnected trails that covers roughly 1300 kilometers through Arizona from Mexico to Utah that serves hikers, bikers, and equestrians. A fellow camper told us about his ride on the trail, having previously ridden it in completion on a bike, and recommended we check it out. The next morning we took a couple hours and rode out and back on the portion connected to the campsite. The ride out was tough and uphill, but we both had a blast ripping back down to camp!

Ferris taking on the Cottonwood Canyon Road

Finished with Kanab, we set off for the Cottonwood Canyon Road, a 75 kilometer dirt road that runs up the Cockscomb Formation in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We drove this road on our previous Utah trip, and it was so beautiful we knew we wanted to come back and explore further. We spent a night camped off the Cottonwood, and explored a lesser-known hike called the Yellow Dome in the heart of the Monument. To call the dome just “yellow” really doesn’t do it justice. It is a massive dome of bare, weathered rock, swirled yellow, white, and red, and utterly devoid of any plant life. It proved to be a highlight hike for the trip so far, even though the hike itself was relatively short.

Photos from our hike up the Yellow Dome. It was like climbing a massive vanilla mango strawberry ice cream sundae.

At the north end of the Cottonwood lies a little State Park called Kodachrome Basin. Another favorite stop from our prior road trip, we planned to stay a night or two there to explore, freshen up, and use as base camp to nearby Bryce Canyon National Park. Unfortunately, the day we came out of the Cottonwood they were filled right up, we made camp on a nearby backroad so that we could get back to Kodachrome early to snag a spot. That night we had our second run-in with a rodent, waking shortly after going to bed to find a mouse scurrying around the floor looking for our food stocks. We set out the mouse traps and stuffed in earplugs, slept, and in the morning I unceremoniously dumped the little guy on the road… That’s what you get for ruining my sleep. Our nighttime intrusion just made us all the more ready for a clean campsite and some amenities. We wound up staying two nights at Kodachrome, doing a nice little bike loop within the park on our first day, then going to explore Bryce Canyon the next.

Biking around Kodachrome State Park under stormy skies (the downpour started right as we finished our ride!)

If you haven’t seen Bryce Canyon, you should. It does fall victim to crowds due to it’s accessibility and nearby development, but if you can see past the Disneyland level crowds, you’ll find that it still has plentiful natural charm. Part of the hike we had planned on doing was unfortunately still closed due to snow – this is the desert, but it’s at high elevation and still gets a fair amount of snow through the winter. We re-routed our path around the closed portion, and still managed to get deep enough into the park to escape the crowds. On our hike we were treated to many hoodoos, rock fins, and rock windows. The density of formations is astounding, and the geology nerds in both of us were enthralled.

Bryce Canyon’s coral coloured spires – just fantastic!

We had our last night at Kodachrome, took advantage of the showers one last time, then hit the road Northward. Leaving Kodachrome Basin behind, we set off Northeastward towards the town of Escalante. Escalante, much like Kanab, is a common home base or re-stocking stop for desert rats accessing the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, which nearly completely surrounds the town.

Who needs wave permits? … We found our own mini wave like formation out in the desert!

By this point we were very near one month on the road. While that first month was quite focused on learning the new rhythms, and getting used to our new daily routine, that one month milestone approaching also brought clarity to the fact that this trip would not continue in perpetuity. Our trip has an end, and that end was approaching faster than we’d put any thought to the last few weeks. We sat down and took a look at our schedule, realizing that the extra time we spent in Sedona would need to be taken from time spent elsewhere. As much as we love Utah, and the Escalante region, it made sense for us to quicken the pace through this area, as we’d already visited once, and could easily do so again in the future. Our visit to Escalante, and the historic Hole in the Rock Road, would be shorter than originally planned; however we agreed there was one sight that couldn’t be skipped.

Adventures on the way to the Ashtray. No trails here – just slickrock!

One of the highlights (probably the top highlight for me personally) our last trip was a fairly hidden formation in the upper reaches of the monument called the Cosmic Ashtray. The entire monument is remote and wild, the last area to be charted in the continental USA, but the volume of visitors means that many of the popular hikes are well documented, mapped, and travelled. The Cosmic Ashtray, despite its’ jaw dropping nature, maintains its’ mystery. It doesn’t show up in guidebooks, it’s not marked on maps, the rangers won’t mention it unless specifically asked, and even the GPS coordinates posted by hiking bloggers don’t guarantee that one will find it, if one even knows to look for it. We armed ourselves with maps and GPS and set off into the unmarked desert to find the Ashtray again.

The Cosmic Ashtray

We found a set of carved steps down into the ashtray and climbed down into the orange sand.

It would have detracted a bit from the adventurous charm to access the same way we had before, so with some tips from Alex’s parents and the park ranger we started our hike from the complete other side, from a different access road. The hike followed the foot of a desert mesa, skirting around or climbing across drainages, before cutting blindly up into the rock. It was slow going as far as desert walking goes, we were constantly looking at the map and GPS to make sure we didn’t go too far along the mesa before climbing. As I said, even the GPS coordinates didn’t quite do the job, and in the end it was Alex’s memory and intuition that lead us to our destination. The Ashtray was just as jaw dropping as it had been two years ago. After climbing in and around the Ashtray, we traced our steps back to the van and camped one last night in the Monument. From there it was time to make up some ground, and some time, and push to Moab, but that’s for next post!

Two happy goofs at our favourite spot on our one month on the road anniversary!

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