Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a hidden gem. Spanning two million acres of mostly undeveloped wilderness, this national monument preserves a vast expanse of red rock desert in southern Utah. The monument is part of the Grand Staircase… an enormous span of rock layers that represent nearly two billion years of geologic history. These layers have been uplifted and eroded at different rates, forming a large “staircase.” The top step on the staircase – composed of the newest and highest elevation rock layers – is Bryce Canyon National Park. The bottom step – the lowest elevation with the oldest layers – is the Grand Canyon. Escalante is in between.
Closer examination of this staircase reveals colorful rocks, hoodoos, arches and canyons, petrified wood (which I talked about last week), and a diverse collection of fossils, including marine animals, reptiles, mammals, dinosaurs, and dinosaur eggs.
We barely scratched the surface of Escalante on this trip. We drove along the edge of the monument on Highway 12 between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. This is a scenic byway, and with good reason, as it winds through some rugged and beautiful terrain. It is so rugged, in fact, that it was the last area of the continental US to be mapped by white people. From 1871-1876, expeditions led by John Wesley Powell and Almon H. Thompson entered the region and began mapping it. Part of Highway 12 actually follows the route of one of the Powell expeditions.
But as recently as 1985 many of the people in the region still lived a very primitive life, relatively cut off from the outside world. This was especially true in the winter when weather rendered the few roads impassable. Only once Highway 12 was finally paved did the region become accessible year round. Today, though, Escalante remains a largely roadless wilderness.
Escalante is also the traditional homeland of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute), and Pueblo people, all of whom were displaced upon the arrival of white settlers.
On our one day in Escalante, we chose what is probably the most popular hike in the monument: Lower Calf Creek Falls. From the trailhead at Calf Creek Campground, it is 7.3 miles (11.7 km) round-trip with only about 850 feet (260 m) of elevation gain to reach the falls, making this a fairly quick hike for us. Parts of the trail are sandy, though, which does increase the difficulty level slightly. The other sections of trail are hard-packed with a few rocks. I’d estimate it was about a 50/50 split.
The trail begins in a somewhat open area but soon enters into one of the many deep canyons that comprise the landscape in this portion of Escalante. Due to the low angle of the sun in the November sky and the rock walls towering above us, we spent much of the hike in the shade. It was chilly.
It was also a very unique combination of scenery as we made our way through the canyons. We spent much of the hike adjacent to Calf Creek which was lined with cottonwoods, bushes, and thousands of horsetails. Further away from the creek, it was mostly sandy with grasses and sagebrush. A creek flowing through a desert makes for an interesting juxtaposition of ecosystems.
At long last, we rounded a bend and there it was, flowing through a low spot in the cliff and dropping 126 feet (38 m) into the pool below. And even better, we were the only ones there!
When I was researching for this trip and first stumbled across this hike, I was surprised to find such a tall waterfall in the middle of the desert. A couple days later, I realized we’d be visiting in November and the waterfall would probably be dry. Some research confirmed that it does in fact flow year-round, but I was still skeptical as to how much water would actually be present. Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised.
After retracing our steps back to the car we continued our drive along scenic Highway 12, winding along the rims of the many canyons and eventually climbing up and over Boulder Mountain where the road topped out at over 9000 feet (2740 m). From here, we had an expansive view of the canyons of Escalante.
And in the distance, we could now see our next destination: Capitol Reef National Park. More on that park next week… stay tuned!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Escalante is an enormous national monument with multiple access points. However, most are primitive and require a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. Highway 12 is the main paved route through the monument and is where you’ll find the Calf Creek Trailhead
- Fees and passes: $5/car to park at the trailhead and/or use the adjacent day-use area; Interagency passes are accepted (hang it from your mirror)
- Hiking: round-trip to Lower Calf Creek Falls is 7.3 miles (11.7 km) with 850 feet (260 m) of elevation gain; easy-moderate… be prepared to walk on sand
- Swimming: in the summer, some people swim in the pool at the base of the waterfall. If you plan to do this, please help prevent water pollution by washing sunscreen and other products from your skin before entering the water. Remember also that humans and dogs should avoid using the bathroom within 100 feet of any water source and to pack out any paper, feminine hygiene products, and solid waste
- Where to stay: this trailhead departs from Calf Creek Campground, which is open year round but with limited services in the off-season. Thirteen sites, first-come-first-serve, $15/night. There are other established and dispersed camping options nearby. This hike can also be done as a day trip from the towns of Boulder, Escalante, or Torrey, all of which have hotels and other lodging available
- Other: Escalante National Monument is very remote, with long distances between food, gas, and other services. Come fully prepared and plan to be very self-sufficient. Phone service is essentially non-existent