TO THE EDGE OF THE EARTH
Phil Marty charts America’s less-travelled canyons
Escalante, Utah — We were relaxing in the shade at a table outside the Trailhead Cafe and Grill here while smoke from burgers drifted away from the gas grill into a brilliant blue sky. On the road into Escalante, brilliant blue met reddish orange, compliments of otherworldly red-rock formations.
As if on cue, the radio, set to an oldies station somewhere bigger than Escalante (pop. 900), began to pour out Billy Joe Royal’s lament, Down in the Boondocks.
It’s not hard to consider this southern third (or maybe the whole state) of Utah to be the boondocks. After all, there aren’t many people (only 2.3 million for the whole state – a half million less than Chicago alone). Consequently, there aren’t a lot of fine-dining options.
Or high-brow cultural events.
So, yeah, this probably is the boondocks. But, man, what beautiful boondocks they are.
It was the national parks and their close proximity – five of them, each less than 250 kilometres from the next – that lured my wife, Bonnie, and me here last September. The parks – Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion – share some of the same geology. In this area “you’re getting 600 million years of Earth history with very few pages missing,” says Kevin Poe, a park ranger/naturalist at Bryce.
Most of these parks have the same buff-colored Navajo sandstone and salmon-colored Entrada sandstone. But each has its own idiosyncratic delights: Arches’ namesake weathered rock arches. Canyonlands’ aptly named Island in the Sky. Capitol Reef’s 100-mile-long rocky wrinkle called Waterpocket Fold. Bryce’s fantastically shaped and wildly colored hoodoos. Zion’s massive and (hate to be repetitive, but…) aptly named Checkerboard Mesa. Now that should be enough for any lover of sensational scenery. But there’s more. How about Kodachrome Basin State Park? It got its name from the color film, and for good reason. And guess where Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park got its name?
Impossible to ignore is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which, with 1.7 million acres of cliffs, mesas, buttes and canyons, is big enough to swallow the state of Rhode Island and still have a little room left.
Truth be told, after you look at a road atlas and see how many routes here are designated as scenic byways, you begin to wonder why all of southern Utah isn’t one big national park.
And, oh, if that isn’t enough of an enticement, it’s not much of a jog over the border into Arizona to sample the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, then meander back toward Utah through Monument Valley, whose towering buttes and mesas have been the background for many Western movies.
In short, this is one doozy of a road trip that packs a lot into only about 2,100 kilometres.
Fly to Las Vegas and rent a car or SUV. From there, it’s only about 260 km to Zion National Park and the beginning of a circle drive that will leave your jaw dropping. And because it’s a circle drive, you can, after hauling out your road atlas, route it however you like.
This is simplified, to a certain extent, because Utah, like most of the American West, doesn’t have a profusion of paved roads, owing to those pesky mountains and canyons and deserts that we want to see but that can make road-building daunting.
That mammoth Grand Staircase-Escalante, for example, has only two paved roads that skirt just a teeny bit of its edges. So if you want to explore it more in depth, you need to choose from what a brochure describes as “five secondary roads of varying character (that) traverse the monument from north to south.”
What makes the character of those roads vary? Well, the weather for one. All of these roads are dirt and/or gravel. And that means that if they’re wet, you don’t want to be on them – certainly not in a car, but probably not even in a four-wheel-drive SUV, like we were driving. Keep an eye on the weather forecast. One morning after leaving Bryce Canyon, we stopped at the Bureau of Land Management’s new visitor center in Cannonville to inquire about the state of the Cottonwood Canyon Road. It cuts 80 km through the west central part of Grand Staircase from Cannonville to U.S. Highway 89 on the monument’s southern edge, near the Arizona border. July and August are the most likely months for thunderstorms here, but it’s always best to check road conditions with the people in the know. They’re the ones, after all, who put out that aforementioned brochure that also refers to this as “a fierce and dangerous land.”
The beginning and ending sections of Cottonwood Canyon Road might make you glad you’re driving a rental vehicle. Their washboard surface will rattle your fillings whether you drive 10 km/h or 30.
Just before we got on that section of road, though, we made a stop at Kodachrome Basin State Park, which got its name in 1949 when photographers from National Geographic were so impressed by the colors that they named it after the new color slide film they were using. The park, at 4,000 acres, isn’t all that large, but it impresses with a profusion of towering reddish sandstone chimneys that change hue depending on the vagaries of the lighting. A one kilometre nature trail, one of eight in the park, does a good job of explaining the geology of the area and its flora and fauna.
Heading south, we got our fillings rattled before making a turnoff to the towering double arch known as Grosvenor Arch, for the president of the National Geographic Society at the time of that 1949 trip.
Cottonwood Canyon Road smooths out in the middle section and at a couple of locations there are minor fords across streams, but nothing a car couldn’t handle. After one of those fords, at Round Valley Draw, we topped a hill and found a large flock of roadrunners doing what they do best — running across the road.
At other places, dirt tracks meandered off to the left or right for intrepid four-wheelers.
I wish I could say the two-hour drive across Cottonwood Canyon Road was worth it, but the last 10 kms or so seemed to go on forever. I wouldn’t do it again. At least not the whole road. But certainly Kodachrome Basin and Grosvenor Arch are worth the effort.
A few days before, we had some white-knuckle views of another area of Grand Staircase as we drove Utah Highway 12 (another of those roads the atlas marks with dotted lines to show a scenic route) from Torrey, near Capitol Reef National Park, to Bryce. Just south of Boulder, about midway through the 170k drive, we cut through a small piece of Grand Staircase and found ourselves atop what’s called The Hogback. Here, the two-lane paved (thankfully) road perches on a very, very narrow ridge. So narrow, in fact, that there’s just the road … and then nothingness on either side for at least a hundred metres down. At least that’s what I was able to see as I kept my eyes glued to the road with only a few quick, furtive glances to the side. Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
It’s the out-of-the-blue surprises like The Hogback that punctuate a drive and make you say, “Whoa, did you see that?” A few others:
The landscape along Utah Highway 24 south of Interstate Highway 70, through the San Rafael Desert, is one of bluffs and mesas, sand and cactus. Then … bang … a sea of green, leafy trees crowds into a large area along a dry creekbed, roots reaching deep to tap into the moisture that feeds this unexpected oasis. Then as quickly as they appeared, they’re gone.
A bit farther on, the relative flatness of the scenery is suddenly interrupted by out-of-this-world red-rock formations that reach probably 30m into the air. There are no other geological oddities here. Just these spires that look like they were discarded by some massive toddler at play in this sandbox.
Along Arizona 12, south of Escalante, mile after mile of otherwise tan-colored landscape glows like gold from the yellow flowers of hundreds of rabbitbrush that blanket the ground.At Capitol Reef, as the sun dips toward the horizon, its rays bounce off orange-red cliffs and paint the waters of a gently flowing stream a lovely copper color.
At the Mossy Cave turnout in Bryce, we make the very pleasant acquaintance of Terry and Pat Norman of Surrey, England. Terry (him) and Pat (her) like the U.S. – a bunch. How much? Well, for the past nine years they’ve been coming here twice a year, two months at a time, to wander in the RV they bought and store in Orlando when they’re back in England. This trip they’d planned to tour the East Coast, but worries about hurricanes canceled that, and they ended up in southern Utah after taking the advice of a woman they met in Indiana. “I guess you have to like a place a lot to keep coming back year after year,” Terry said of our country.
And that could be said of these boondocks called southern Utah. Even a trip of nearly two weeks leaves a yearning: Just one more trail to hike…Just one more glowing sunset …
Just one more …
(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune