Scott CondonThe Aspen Times

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April 16, 2013
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Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: Slots of fun for adventuresome spring-breakers

UTAH — My daughter and I were thankful for being skinny during our mid-March spring break outing to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in south-central Utah.

It's not that we're snobs. We just couldn't have done the hikes we did if we were much wider.

Slot canyons are the best of the best when it comes to desert hiking. There's nothing more exhilarating than traveling for hundreds of yards — sometimes longer — when you've got sandstone pressing on either side and soaring well overhead.

Throw in some choke stones, which require maneuvering under or over, and pour-offs, where rushing water during flash floods has worn the stone smooth, and you've got the ingredients for adventure hiking.

Slot canyons abound in Grand Staircase-Escalante, a monument created by President Clinton's administration in a controversial decision right before he left office. The drive between the small towns of Boulder and Escalante showcases some of the rawest, most spectacular land in the Southwest. At one point, the only highway in the area travels down a rocky spine with precarious drops on either side to seas of sandstone.

To truly experience the area, you've got to get off the highway and onto the side roads.

There are lots of slot canyons in Grand Staircase-Escalante. Spooky, Peekaboo and Brimstone are probably the most famous destinations, so I don't mind naming them.

I'll purposely keep my mouth shut on specific names of the other canyons we “discovered.”

Last month's trip was my fourth to the area, this time with my daughter, Hannah. We've rarely missed a spring break trip to the desert since she was in kindergarten.

This journey was particularly satisfying because she is in her first year of college now yet still wanted to camp in the cold with her dad rather than head to a beach with friends. (I was honored.) In fact, she yearned for the desert after suffering through her first, bleak Midwest winter.

Drive opens a new world

About 5 1⁄2 hours after departing El Jebel, we arrived on the fringe of Grand Staircase-Escalante.

We arrived early enough to tackle a mellow, 6-mile round-trip hike that ends at a spectacular waterfall fed by a perennial stream.

The setting is somewhat surreal, with beaver dams creating a series of ponds in the canyon floor while steep sandstone canyon walls streaked in desert varnish soar hundreds of feet high to the sides.

Small granaries built by ancient Puebloans were tucked into subtle alcoves on the canyon walls. Rock art depicted what appeared to be fierce warriors (but then, who really knows what they depict).

It was the perfect introductory hike to get us out of winter mode and into hiking mood. We would go on to cover roughly 40 miles on five hikes in five days. Days 2 and 4 were the trip's defining moments for us both.

On the second day, I was determined to find a canyon that I had heard about a few years prior but never had a chance to visit.

The nice thing about Grand Staircase-Escalante is there are lots and lots of canyons. Many of them are obscure. The vast majority don't have trailhead markers proclaiming, “Start Here” or sign-in sheets.

We took off armed only with a couple of maps and instructions to drive a certain distance down Hole-in-the-Rock Road from the highway and look for a small car-park area. We found it with little trouble and discovered the narrow “social trail” marked with a stacked rock cairn across the dirt road.

Like many a good desert hike, this one started off dull on the barren, flat range, then steadily improved as it dove into a wash and eventually a dry stream bed. We soon intersected with a major wash then headed downstream to intersect the spectacular little canyon that was our destination.

Striped canyon provides the payoff

We found our canyon without trouble and trudged along in the sand. The canyon walls were far apart at first, but it was apparent they would pinch in as we advanced.

What made the hike really unique was the proliferation of iron concretions — dark-colored, nearly perfectly round rocks. First, we noticed hundreds of them laying in the stream bed in all levels of conditions: some fully intact and others cracked open into halves and quarters. We imagined them being dinosaur eggs, though couldn't fully convince ourselves.

As the sandstone walls closed in, we saw scores of concretions embedded in the walls looking like bullet holes after a gangster sprayed the area with machine-gun fire.

Then came what we were after. The canyon closed in to no wider than three feet. The petrified sand bowed out in places and rapidly receded just a few feet farther, carved by the patience of running water over millennia.

It was like a rock wave, except it was on the walls instead of in the canyon floor.

The walls were striped with a base layer of tan inlaid with narrow, horizontal bands of red. The sunlight bounced off the north wall while the south remained in shadows, creating contrast that only nature can perfect.

Soon after the slot started, we were confronted with regular pools of water lining the narrow canyon. It appeared the water was limited to stretches of 20 linear feet or so, separated by small sandbars. We took off our shoes, rolled up our pant legs and waded through water up to our knees. Those sandbars proved to be vital reprieves from bone-chilling waters.

The cold kept Hannah from fretting too much and slowing down for the water spiders.

After four or five of the narrow pools, we came to a part of the canyon that narrowed into a “V” shape. The canyon floor was too narrow to plant a foot without risking an ankle twist and choke stones littered the route.

We had to do a modified stovepipe to maneuver on. That required bracing feet on one sandstone wall and our butts on the other, then crab-walking horizontally into the canyon. It required moving up and down the canyon walls a short distance to maintain steady pressure. Hannah froze a time or two, doubted her ability and the stability of the pressure, but ultimately handled it like a pro.

The final payoff came when we reached a spectacularly-striped part of the canyon that was maybe two feet wide but also punctuated by tight goosenecks. To navigate, we had to cut left, cut right repeatedly in rapid succession, following the route the water cut in the sandstone.

Alas, after that stretch we came to a pour-off pool that provided too much of a challenge. It was slightly too wide to perform a vertical stovepipe, and too tricky for Hannah to boost me up.

So many canyons, so little time

While that canyon was cool, the hike was trumped a couple days later by an even more obscure slot canyon we learned about from a National Park Service ranger in Escalante.

She directed us to an out-of-the-way road and gave us precise directions on how to find the trailhead. It was just a faint trail starting in parking spots in the dirt for two vehicles.

The path trailed off into a slickrock playground, circumventing a major pour-off pool before leading us into the stream bed. Almost immediately, the hike required us to perform a series of calisthenics to get down mini-pour-off pools, over choke stones and through super narrow parts of the canyon. There were spots too narrow for my shoulders. We were required to take off day packs and walk sideways.

The “narrows,” as the slots are called, went on and on. We left some skin on the slickrock walls while performing various maneuvers, and Hannah hit the limits of her fear factor a time or two.

But we survived, thrived and vowed to return some day for more.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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The Summit Daily Updated Apr 16, 2013 03:48PM Published May 3, 2013 10:22PM Copyright 2013 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.