Driving to Distraction

UTAH: The Canyons of Zion and Escalante

Apr 24, 2001
Outside Magazine

Our small station wagon fills up quickly as we prepare for our first car-camping expedition in the American West. Even when it's full we can't stop loading—coolers, baseball gloves, a second tent, extra plastic bowls for bowl racing. We're not used to such license. For our family, gear discipline is usually enforced by the cargo limitations of backpacks or sea kayaks. But now the highway beckons to our stuff. Wedging water bottles and hiking guidebooks into the front seat, I glance into the kid zone in back, which is brimming with Legos, 'N Sync CDs, and hardbound Harry Potters. Maybe the reason we can't stop loading is we're heading from California to a new landscape: the canyonlands of southern Utah. If there prove to be no stores in the region, we'll be ready. No Mormon wagon train was ever so well prepared.

The trip starts happily enough, at least in the front seat. My wife laughs hysterically every time she turns and sees me gazing out at the farm fields with what I take to be a faint Bruce Willis smirk. I have shaved off my beard for the first time in our 16 years together. But discouraging words are heard from the back, where sleeping bags and cooking pots keep avalanching onto the heads of Emily (nine) and Ethan (five). In Reno, abandoning the bearded father's spartan ways, I buy a storage bin and mount it on the roof. Miraculously, I still can't see out the back.
We are another day crossing Nevada, rising and falling along a highway whose sagebrush loneliness is diminished only by too frequent signs proclaiming it "The Loneliest Highway in America." We turn south into Utah and soon approach the immense range of the Colorado Plateau, split like a ripe mango by canyons of red and yellow rock. It's mid-March. We're gambling that spring will arrive in the canyons by the time In this part of the world, you can actually drive deep into the backcountry. But we begin our trip in the well-marked splendor of Zion National Park, where a single busy campground is open for the early season. There is a fair hubbub in red-rock Yosemite—college students camping on their break. Though we see no animals on our midday hikes, we keep our senses sharp by counting Old Navy logos.

The sunny spring days are not too hot for hiking. The kids surprise us, chugging up two miles of (paved!) switchbacks to the top of a sheer precipice called Scout Lookout. This is mountains-with-handrails country, but as parents we're willing to overlook the breach of Edward Abbey ethics. From the lookout, the trail continues a half-mile across exposed sandstone slabs to a promontory known as Angel's Landing. Worried we're pushing too far, we lead our kids slowly onto the face, clutching a heavy chain bolted to the rock and pausing occasionally to let the college students clamber past. As I gaze into the valley 1,300 feet below, Ethan tugs at my shirt and asks, in a tone that seems only mildly curious, "Is this the end of my life?" We turn back.

From Zion we drive east into the mountains on Utah 12, through gray skies and a dusting of snow. In the town of Escalante we turn south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a 58-mile pioneer route that once led Mormons across the Colorado River and now dead-ends at Lake Powell. We have entered the Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument, created by President Clinton in 1996 to acclaim from environmentalists and outcries from Utah Republicans. The gravel road follows a high bench parallel to the Escalante River, a wild tributary of the Colorado. It is eerie to gaze across miles of redrock-and-juniper country, with its Alaska-size remoteness, and see little hint of the trapdoor landscape of canyons falling away to the east.

In contrast to busy Zion, here we rarely encounter another car. We congratulate ourselves on beating the crowds. "That's because it's snowing, Dad," observes Emily. True enough, an occasional snow squall sweeps the horizon. "Operation Desert Storm," we dub our spring vacation, and pretty much abandon plans for an overnight backpacking trip.

No matter. For families like us, there are countless "primitive" car-camping sites and turnoffs to reach side canyons of the Escalante. We choose several, relying on guidebooks and maps from the BLM office in town. At night we tent alone, read aloud by lantern, and listen to coyotes under a big black sky.

One cool gray afternoon we hike into Spooky and Peek-a-boo Canyons, slots of whimsically sculpted sandstone so narrow we have to turn sideways to squeeze through. The canyons are giddy gymnasiums that have us scrambling over chockstones, wedging past small pools of water, and even squeezing up chimneys 20 feet to climb out on the rock above.

On another day, the kids and I hike partway down Harris Wash, a regular Hopalong Cassidy movie set complete with a handful of grazing cattle. We follow a wide sandy bottom through cottonwoods into a zone of desert-varnished caves, hidden pools, and rock climbs with exploding sandstone handholds. Ethan finds a heart-shaped rock to bring back to his mother. Backing out of a box canyon, I step into a dry creekbed and feel my boot sink. "Quicksand!" I yell, dramatically leaping free to impress the kids. Rounding some trees, we discover something that makes my showing off redundant: a dead cow buried to its shoulders in a quicksand wallow. "Is there such a thing as slow sand?" Ethan wants to know. The next morning, when a local rancher rides up to our camp to ask what we'd seen down the canyon, I feign casualness as I describe our find, while Ethan hides behind my leg and gazes up wide-eyed at the cowboy on horseback.

We return to a highway campground for our last night. Above Calf Creek Recreation Area, a five-and-a-half-mile round-trip hike leads through a high-walled canyon with Anasazi pictographs and ruins. The trail dead-ends at Lower Calf Creek Falls, a refrigerated grotto where a 130-foot cataract makes a too-hot afternoon cold enough for sweaters. On the way back, we find a riffling stretch of Calf Creek just right to launch our plastic eating dishes in a bowl race, an essential family tradition. Then we throw them back on the pile of gear that's soon to be headed home.

ZION NATIONAL PARK can see rainy days in March, but sunshine is common in spring and not as unrelenting as in summer. Watchman Campground (150 summer sites, $14) has 45 sites open all year; South Campground ($14, or $16 with electricity) is open April through October. Call 800-365-2267 for camping reservations. Visitors must now take a free shuttle bus to gain access to the main canyon. More information is available from the park office (435-772-3256) or at www.nps.gov/zion.

GRAND STAIRCASE- ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT covers almost 2 million acres in southern Utah. For information on hikes and campgrounds, both developed and primitive, call the Visitor's Center at 435-826-5499 or log on to www.ut.blm.gov/monument. The town of Escalante, along Utah 12 between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks, has a few small grocery stores and motels. A great source of information and gear in town is Escalante Outfitters (435-826-4266), which also provides after-hiking pizza at its Esca-latte Cafe.

OF THE SEVERAL CANYON-HIKING GUIDEBOOKS available, we especially liked Utah Hiking, by Buck Tilton (Foghorn Press, 1999), which describes hiking through Spooky Canyon as "crawling through the belly of a sandstone snake."

Filed To: Utah

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