The Escalante River in south central Utah was supposedly the last river in the continental United States to be “discovered” and mapped. You don’t have to spend too much time with it to see why. First of all, it’s not large. “River” is a bit of an overstatement for most of the year, when it is easily forded on foot. Only during torrential summer monsoon storms does it resemble anything that the rest of the world would call a river. Secondly, even the most easily accessible stretches of its ~90 mile course take some time to get to. The Escalante is crossed by a grand total of one paved highway, a remote stretch of Utah Highway 12 that is among the most scenic drives in the west.
The lower reaches of the Escalante’s sinuous canyon pose even more of a challenge, reached only by boat on Lake Powell, or via a combination of hellish dirt roads and long hikes, something we undertook on a backpacking trip a few years back when we entered the Escalante via one of its tributaries, Coyote Gulch.
Upper portions of the canyon are far more accessible, if not as imposing, requiring only an occasional wade across the river to see sights such as the Escalante Natural Bridge:
One of the most significant tributaries of the upper Escalante River is Calf Creek, best known for a pair of waterfalls that are refreshingly out of place in a place not generally known for its aqueous wonders. Lower Calf Creek Falls, the larger of the two cascades, is reached via a ~3 mile hike along a broad canyon carved by the creek:
A few miles north, reaching the smaller Upper Calf Creek falls requires a short but steep scramble down a slickrock slope into the depths of the canyon:
Surrounded by some of the least developed land in the continental United States, the night sky from the Escalante canyons is a prime attraction as well!
The 47 mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road slices through some of the most otherworldly terrain in Southern Utah, connecting Highway 89 in the south with the Bryce Canyon region in the north. Mostly unpaved, some GPS devices have been known to lead travelers down this road in the name of a shortcut to Bryce Canyon National Park. When dry, Cottonwood Canyon makes for a wonderful scenic drive and is indeed a shortcut. But in the days following rain or snow, the layer of clay-rich shale the road follows for most of its length turns into a veritable morass, and renders the road impassible regardless of how many-wheel drive your vehicle might possess. Coming from the south, the road initially follows the broad valley of the Paria River drainage, before leaving the river behind and heading up the narrower valley of Cottonwood Creek. This portion of the road passes through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; other sections used to as well before the monument experienced its recent “downsizing.”
We recently took a three-night camping trip to explore Cottonwood Canyon and some nearby areas. Our first stop was Yellow Rock, near the south end of the road about 13 miles from Hwy 89. Yellow Rock is a massive dome of Navajo Sandstone, easily visible from the road as is rises high above the jumble of rock layers alongside Cottonwood Creek. While the hike to its summit is not long, getting there requires a moderately-difficult scramble up a hidden rocky chute littered with loose boulders. Hiking poles/sticks highly recommended. After scrambling to the base of the rock, the real fun begins. After a few years living in Southern Utah, it is natural to assume that you’ve seen every color, pattern, and texture of sandstone that can possibly exist, but then Yellow Rock comes along and proves you wrong:
While the abundant cottonwood trees lining the canyon bottom were still quite leafless, even in early April other signs of spring were beginning to show in this high desert. Traversing across Yellow Rock, we encountered many pockets of Desert Paintbrush, Anderson’s Buttercup, and Manzanita in sandy stream bottoms or in crevices in the sandstone, already in full bloom:
On our final night, we camped near the north end of the road, not far from Kodachrome Basin State Park, where we were treated to a spectacular sunset and even more stunning dark, moonless night skies:
No Southern Utah camping trip would be complete without a saunter through a slot canyon, so on the way home in the morning, we made a quick detour to Willis Creek Canyon. At the beginning of our trip, we had briefly probed the famous Buckskin Gulch, just south of Cottonwood Canyon in Arizona, but were quickly turned back by waist-deep mud & debris pools that were emanating quite possibly the most foul stench to ever besmirch this Earth. In contrast, Willis Creek Canyon is a rare bird in Southern Utah; a beautifully sculpted slot with no technical obstacles to rappel over, and no putrid cesspools to wade through. Instead, a small babbling brook winds through the sandstone narrows, seemingly oblivious to its own high-quality handiwork:
This past weekend we made our first foray into the interior of the Colorado Plateau since moving to Utah. Our destination was Coyote Gulch, a well-known tributary of the Escalante River that straddles the boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recereation Area. Below are some photos from the trip:
As a final note, Coyote Gulch has, for good reason, become an extremely popular destination over the years. We actually had some second thoughts about going after reading guidebooks that implored us not to visit on a holiday weekend in the spring (it was Easter) and after the BLM employee who issued our permit told us we would be “joining a party.” In the end, we found the over-crowding hype to be somewhat overblown. While there were more folks down there than you might expect to find in such a remote location, it could hardly be called a party. We camped in the most popular half-mile section of the gulch and couldn’t see anyone else from our site along the banks of the creek. We met just a handful of other groups on our hikes in and out of the gulch, and only occasionally encountered other people on our all-day hike down to the Escalante River and back. If you are seeking complete and total solitude or isolation, this is probably not the place for you. But we didn’t feel like the crowds detracted from the experience much if at all.
The increase in visitation to Coyote Gulch certainly creates challenges for the future. Hikers are now required to carry out all human waste, which seems to be a step in the right direction. However challenging keeping the gulch in pristine condition might be, I tend to believe that this situation is better, in the long-term at least, than the alternative. Coyote Gulch has been described as one of the last remaining echos of Glen Canyon, a small remnant of the scenic wonders that were submerged after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the filling of Lake Powell in the 1960s. Glen Canyon was lost ultimately because it was “the place no one knew.” The same cannot be said of Coyote Gulch. It is one of those places where the term “loved to death” gets thrown around, but ultimately we only fight to protect places that we love and value and it is hard to truly appreciate a place like Coyote Gulch solely through pictures. Hopefully the more people that go to Coyote Gulch and experience its majesty first-hand, the more people there will be to stand-up for it against future threats that are assuredly to come.
Next time you find yourself in extreme eastern Nevada with time to spare, I highly recommend checking out Cathedral Gorge State Park. This gem lies tucked away on the floor of Meadow Valley, about halfway between Las Vegas and Great Basin National Park, not far from the bustling hub of Panaca, Nevada. In other words, for a place fully accessible by paved roads, Cathedral Gorge is about as off-the-beaten path as you’re going to get.
Despite its under-the-radar status, Cathedral Gorge was established all the way back in 1935, and was one of Nevada’s four original state parks (along with the more well-known Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas). The highlight here is a shallow valley excavated out of a layer of soft lake sediments by Meadow Valley Wash and numerous small tributary streams. The sediment was originally deposited in a freshwater lake that called Meadow Valley home during wetter times in the Pliocene epoch (~2.5-5 million years ago). This area has been the epicenter for some pretty extensive volcanic activity over the past few dozen million years, so the sediment that accumulated in the lake was rich in volcanic ash.
Today, with the lake gone, the exposed sediment is so soft that it erodes extremely rapidly. Few plants can gain a foothold in earth that is crumbling so rapidly, so the water (and to a lesser extent, wind) have created a intricate landscape of badlands along the margin of the valley. The scenery is bizarre and not all that unlike what you might find in the famous badlands of South Dakota and the Great Plains. It definitely feels out of place in the sagebrush expanses of the Great Basin. While Cathedral Gorge bakes in the summertime, during our visit it was cold, windy, and virtually empty. We saw not another soul on a four mile loop hike around the perimeter of the valley.
While the loop hike around the valley was enjoyable (if a bit windy), we didn’t stumble upon the highlight of our visit until we started poking around the rock formations adjacent to the trailhead parking lot. In a matter of minutes, we found ourselves exploring a landform that I still don’t have the right words to describe.
At the edge of the valley, runoff has carved a series of deep, extremely narrow, and almost perfectly vertical crevices into the soft sediments. The park calls them “caves” but the words cave, crevice, gully, crevasse, gorge, and ravine all fail to accurately capture their bizarre and truly unique nature. Perhaps the best way to describe them is as “slot canyons of mud.”
They evoke the sandstone slot canyons of Utah in the sense that they were so narrow that in many spots only a tiny sliver of blue sky could be seen overhead. Unlike most slot canyons though, whose delicate curves are clearly the result of flowing water, the walls here were angular and almost perfectly vertical. It was as if someone had carved huge blocks out of the mud with a chainsaw and then splattered the walks with mud to cover their tracks. Each little mud slot terminated abruptly in a roughly circular chamber whose walls were lined with linear grooves etched into the mud, extending all the way up to the rim. These chambers were clearly the work of waterfalls that spill into the canyons with each heavy rain.
As fragile and precarious as the mud walls looked, there were surprisingly few signs of catastrophic collapse. We explored about a half dozen of these little canyons, all of which were located right along the main road into the park. There were surely more that we missed, good enough reason to make the drive back to Meadow Valley another day.
Not far from the increasingly overrun splendors of Bryce and Zion is a canyon frequently overlooked when discussing the many attractions of Southern Utah. The stunning Ashdown Gorge lies just a few miles from Cedar City off of Highway 14, yet I’ve seen a grand total of three other people on a pair of weekend hikes up the gorge this summer & fall. The solitude likely stems from the fact that there is no marked trail or trailhead for this hike; Ashdown Creek is the trail for a spectacular jaunt up the canyon. One must also scramble down the steep toe of an active landslide strewn with old vehicles, guardrail fragments, and asphalt chunks just to reach the creek bed from the highway. Once this has been accomplished though, it is fairly easily walking for many miles up the gorge as the water in the creek is typically only ankle deep except during spring snow melt and after heavy rains.
Ashdown Gorge has a very different character than many canyons in Southern Utah, starting with the color of its walls. Not red or pink – the famous layers of Zion and Moab are well below the surface here – but rather varied shades of grey, tan, and yellow. The majority of the gorge is carved into the Cretaceous Straight Cliffs Formation, an impressive unit formed when southwestern Utah was a swampy coastal plain trapped between a disintegrating mountain range to the west and the shallow Cretaceous Interior Seaway to the east. Periodic but short lived rises in sea level are marked by occasional beds that contain almost nothing but fossilized oysters and other marine organisms.
Ashdown Gorge is not quite a slot canyon, although it tries in places. Despite this, the walls for much of its length are several hundred feet high and there are many locations where you would NOT want to find yourself during a flash flood, so take a close look at the weather forecast before attempting to explore the gorge! Unlike the relatively hard sandstone that forms most of Utah’s famous slot canyons, the Straight Cliffs Formation is rather soft and crumbly. The creek has taken advantage of this by eroding laterally in many places. The result of this erosion is perhaps most spectacular around the outside edges of the many tight meanders of Ashdown Creek. Here the creek has carved into soft layers near the canyon bottom, undercutting harder layers of sandstone near the rim, creating vast alcoves that completely cover the creek bed.
While walking along the creek, one thing that is striking is the color of the boulders upon which you walk. Not grey and tan like the canyon walls, but rather varying shades of orange, pink, and red. This is because Ashdown Creek drains the vast amphitheater of Cedar Breaks National Monument upstream to the east. The soft limestones and siltstones of Cedar Breaks are easily eroded, and Ashdown Creek can turn bright orange during even minor rains.
Another highlight of a hike up Ashdown Gorge is a good view of Flanigan Arch, an impressive span (reputable estimates of its length are hard to find, but most seem to say ~60 feet) that is difficult to access or even see from any other location.
In addition to the lack of crowds, the high elevation of Ashdown Gorge (7000-8000′) makes it a wonderful day hike (or potential overnight trip) for escaping the heat in summer (just watch for flash floods…) Ponderosa Pine, spruce, and fir are the most commonly seen large trees in the gorge which has a very “mountainous” feel to it. When we hiked it in late October, the temperatures were actually getting a little too cool to fully enjoy the numerous required stream crossings. In June when it was 80 degrees, the creek crossings were heaven!