Escalante National Monument
"There was no question that preservation as much as patriotism contributed to the economic well-being of the county." - Allen Chamberlain
In light of all the discussion surrounding Escalante Grand-Staircase National Monument and Bear Ears National Monument, I wanted to highlight my trip through the area, and give you a sense of the scene under the spotlight. I want to mention that the reason I don’t mention the reductions of the national monuments in Willingness to Wander is because it was sent to print before the announcement hit the media. Regardless, my trip through the deserts of Hurricane Wash and canyons of Coyote Gulch ranks as one of my all time favorite hikes to date.
It is also, by far, my most commonly recommended hike. The ease of the trip, the stunning views of the canyon, and the experience of backpacking on your own all make Hurricane Wash a perfect beginner backpacking trip. Additionally, this post goes well with the Route 12 post. because this trip happened just before we hit Route 12.
Hurricane Wash Trail
Getting to the trailhead is a journey in itself - like it often is. Wilderness implies being far away from people and cities, meaning that it is going to take some effort to get to most of the places I mention in my work, and Hurricane Wash is no exception. The trailhead is located 38 miles down the very bumpy Hole-In-The-Rock-Road, near the town of Escalante, Utah, smack dab in between Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. I apologized profusely to my 2002 Dodge minivan the entire way to the trail head. A 4x4 vehicle may or may not be necessary depending on the amount of rain and conditions of the roads. Continue down the road past the Zebra Canyon and the Spooky Slot Canyons, it will be tempting to stop, but I promise Hurricane Wash is worth it. It is also usually less crowded too because it is farther away, and generally less well known that the other two areas.
The trail head will look... unflattering. In fact, the total of the surrounding area will look unimpressive. It was my first thought once we got made it to the dusty, desert trail head. The condition of the trail head sets the stage for a wonderful surprise later on, which I believe, is the most enjoyable part of the trip. Park in the designated parking area, unload your vehicle, and start wandering.
The First Night
The start of the trail is interesting. The path leads directly into a dried stream bed (wash), and follows it for almost the entirety of the trail. The wash leads around strange boulders and rock structures but for the most part, the wash remains fairly flat and easy going. We got a late start to the hike, and only managed to hike a few miles into the wash before it started getting dark. Camp was constructed quickly so we could explore with the remaining light in the sky.
Everything about our location was Martian, the wavy red rocks, the fiery sunset, even the plants were lime-green, fuzzy, and funny looking. I heard it described as a "Suessian" landscape, one that is fanciful and whimsical.
That night we cooked a tasty dinner of noodles and watched the sunset while we cleaned our dishes. We were being conservative with our water - so far we had seen no signs of natural springs, and we didn't know how far we needed to go before finding some. I love desert hiking, but having to carry pounds of water is off putting. The group came to the agreement that if we didn't find nature water to refill our bottles by noon, we would have to turn back.
The night sky in the desert was mystical. There was no light pollution thanks for the forty mile drive down the bumpy road, so we could enjoy one of the brightest moons I had ever experienced. I don’t think any of us even turned our headlamps on.
The Wash continued similarly as the day before, rather bland. And I hate to say that because there is beauty in all natural settings, but it was like we were promised more. Having come all the way from Pennsylvania, we chose this trail over other national parks in the area, and only had a little over two weeks - half that was dedicated for travel time.
It was getting close to our turn around time. Our water was getting low and the hot desert sun was unrelenting. Suddenly, the Wash started to descend and the red rocks around us closed in. It happened quickly, but before we knew it the canyon was well above our heads - evidence of an ancient rushing river..
With every step, the canyon walls grew. I realized that this was the first hike where I went down, rather than up. From above, in the desert we were just hiking in, you would have completely missed the canyon. It was deep, but only a few hundred yards across meaning the canyon would be almost invisible until you walk up to the edge.
There had been some green in the desert, but it was only from the heartiest of shrubs. The kind of vegetation that make you regret stepping off the path. When we rounded the first bend in the long corridor, the canyon burst to life. The light green of healthy flora flooded the floor and contrasted harshly off the red wall in front of us. Signs of life suggested water was near.
Coyote Gulch Trail
We followed the greenery until we found ourselves sloshing over the smallest of streams. A seam in the rocks bubbled a spring to life. Every yard we followed the stream it grew wider. A shady spot saved us from the sun and we decided to finally refill our bottles. From this point on, we were never further than fifty feet from water.
It took some time to get our bottles full. The stream, while cool and clean, was sandy. The sand clogged our filters and slowed the process considerably. The extended process gave us a chance to rest. With us in the picture, you get a much better sense of scale of the canyon wall.
I can’t stress the ease of this trip, no leg breaking climbing, no lung popping elevation, unlimited access to water, amazing views, and an eternally half shaded path - we had made it to Coyote Gulch. It was almost casual. The canyon had created an Eden in an otherwise hellish landscape above, who would have guessed heaven was underneath hell?
The trail was along the stream, in a few places the stream was the trail. At this point we had taken our boots and socks off and completed the rest of the trail barefoot. Again, the only hike I have ever been able to do that.
The Jacob Hamblin Arch
For a while the trail remained the same, only getting slightly more ‘jungly’ in some areas where the water pooled a bit. It was the opposite of exposed hiking. Out west, when you are on the cusp of the ridge you can see everything for hundreds of miles, including (if it's not too far away) your destination, including all of the obstacles between you and it. Here, however, you could only see as far as the canyon allowed. It was a mystery what was around every bend and you never knew just what was coming. That is why we were so taken when we saw the Jacob Hamblin Arch. It was just around another normal bend in the stream.
It is impossible to show the true scale of the arch without relying on the size of objects around it. Adult trees were dwarfed as the main arm of the arch eclipsed the top of the canyon wall. I climbed, what I thought a small hill, underneath the Great Arch to get a better look.
We rested and ate in the shadow of the mighty arch. It was, as I mentioned in Willingness to Wander, a natural cathedral. The Jacob Hamblin Arch was one of the few places I thought may never be topped as far as hiking experiences. But of course, I was wrong. We left the arch behind to continue exploring the Gulch, and within miles found another spectacle. The Coyote Natural Bridge.
Coyote Gulch to Escalante River
A little further past Coyote Bridge, we found an extremely dense area of vegetation and went off the path to investigate. Again, another convenient aspect of the trail is that it was nearly impossible to get lost. Being in a canyon, you could really only go so far before hitting an inscalable wall. In an effort to avoid some poison ivy (for Micaiah’s sake) we found ourselves scaling a low part of the wall. Once we were up the only way down was to attempt to gracefully fall back into the brush - which we managed to do. We found, hidden towards the back of the canyon wall, a dark, deep, cold, lagoon. Someone later told us it's called ‘The Black Lagoon'. From the trail, it could have easily been missed. The lagoon was our first bath in over a week, and a sanctuary from the heat.
The Lagoon cooled us long enough to get a few more miles in before it started getting dark. It’s customary to set your camp at least a few dozen yards away from the trail, but the canyon was narrow, and we couldn't set up near the water. You don’t want to be near water for a few conservation reasons, as well as the chance of a flash flood. There was little choice but to set up near the trail. We made sure to pack everything up early in the morning to mitigate our error.
After a restful night, we were determined to finish hiking the Gulch before sunset. We hid our bags among some rocks, and continued lightly for the rest of the morning, meaning to come back for our gear when we doubled back to leave the canyon.
Dropping your bags doubles your speed. We flew threw the rest of the canyon in record time. It was also a good idea, because the canyon grew deeper and the water ran faster. It required some bouldering and swimming to make it the rest of the way. Along the end of the route we found waterfalls, ravines, and reeds.
As suddenly as the canyon started, it ended. As we rounded a bend, the canyon walls dropped and opened up to a valley. The creek we were following emptied into the Escalante River and our hike was finished. We needed to get back to our gear and navigate our way out of the Gulch. Some trips end with, "that was fun. where do we go next?" but Escalante ended with, "when can we come back?"
A few closing notes about the area, the trail, the history, and the parks:
A major piece of this trail that I purposely left out above is the history of the Coyote Gulch. This entire canyon was home to people thousands of year ago, and there is abundant evidence of that throughout the trail. There are petroglyphs, ancient dwellings and petrified artifacts littered all around the canyon. I left out the places and pictures of these artifacts to protect them, however, I have to say that I have never been prouder of the backpacking community. As far as I could tell, the areas were left alone and only enjoyed by people’s eyes. Maybe the backpackers left the artifacts because they don’t want to add weight to their bags, but I am convinced it is because most people recognize the significance of the relics.
Escalante Grand-Staircase and Bear Ears National Monument are currently under fire from the current administration, the media, social media, and passionate environmentalists. The plans to reduce the size of the monuments are at the very least controversial. It was clear to me when I visited, that the federal government just does not have the resources to protect such a large area. An area that deserves to be protected should have the proper funding and personal to do a good job. That is just not the case with Escalante.
We need to do more than get angry on social media, we need to do more than call our representatives. What we need to do is take advice from some of the great conservationists. This is an excerpt from the book National Parks: The American Experience by Alfred Runte, that I believe relates well to the current situation.
[Alan] Chamberlain wrote to suggest that the argument be made more specific, especially in the light of the Hetch Hetchy debate. “It seems to me that we should try in this connection to stimulate public interest in National Parks by talking more about their possibilities as vacation resorts,” he remarked, similarly emphasizing visitation over wilderness. Indeed, only “if the public could be induced to visit these scenic treasurehouses would they soon come to appreciate their value and stand firmly in their defense.”
What we need to do is encourage visitation of the wilderness areas as well as the National Parks, because visitation is the key to protection. Even John Muir, one of, if not the most prolific conservationists agreed on the construction of a road into the Yosemite Valley. Runte continues to say “To save the [Yosemite] valley, indeed the entire park system, seemed to hinge on greater visitation.”
I am under the impression that the National Parks are one of America's greatest ideas, lets have our National Monuments be proof of that and not become Monumental Embarrassments.