Sunday, October 8
Last night, we pulled into Escalante just as the sun was setting and found a spot in the large boondocking area at the beginning of Hole-in-the-Rock Road. We’ve been here before and knew that even on a Saturday night near nightfall we could easily find a spot. It wasn’t the greatest spot, but it worked as a quick place to pull in for a single night.
By the time we got up and out in the morning, half the RVs had left and we quickly moved over to a more private spot overlooking the valley below. Last time we visited Escalante we stayed in this amazing spot off Little Spencer Flat Road. We loved it there, but in an effort to be closer to the hikes we want to do this week, we’ve decided the area at the start of Hole-in-The-Rock Road is a better choice.
After settling in and unhooking the truck we got ready for the day’s planned adventure of a hike to the Phipps Arch. I’m not sure if it was the long day of hiking yesterday or the frequency at which we’ve been moving lately, but we ended up having an off day.
The problems started with some confusion over where the trailhead was located which escalated into an argument. From there, the hike turned into a comedy of errors where we missed the first turn on the unmarked trail, took a shortcut that ended up adding two miles to the hike, and eventually gave up on finding the arch after encountering a jungle-like tangle of thorny bushes deep inside the canyon. Some days it just doesn’t work out.
In the course of all this, we realized that there are actually two ways to get to the Phipps Arch. Two ways that start at different trailheads and approach the arch from different directions. It turns out that we had been reading different trail descriptions and that’s why we didn’t agree on the location of the trailhead. A pact was made to compare notes before we leave the house for future hikes to avoid this problem. We also vowed to go back one day this week for a second attempt.
Monday, October 9
Today was laundry day. I loaded up our two weeks worth of dirty laundry and headed to the only laundromat in town, the Canyons of Escalante RV Park. It’s a cute little park with lots of mature shade trees. The use of the word “little” is deliberate. This place only has maybe 25 sites and they are packed together very tightly.
The laundry room was okay. A bit on the dirty side and the machines were pricey ($3.75 for a single front loader washer), but it got the job done. While my clothes were in the dryer I drove 5 minutes down the road to the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument visitor center. The last time we came through we tried to stop here twice and both times they were closed. This time they were open and very busy. The exhibits were pretty basic, but it’s a great place to come for information on hiking in the area. Not only is the national monument gigantic in size, but it doesn’t have a central scenic park road or network or easily reachable established trials, so I suspect the rangers spend a lot of time giving out directions.
My main reason for stopping in was to get us a national park pin. We’ve been collecting these pins for some time now. We snap the pokey part off the back and glue on a magnet so we can display them on the fridge.
Tuesday, October 10
Today was to be the day we redeem ourselves by finding the Phipps Arch. The push was on to get there and back before dark, so as soon as the workday ended we packed up and headed to the trail. This time we followed the easier route down the Escalante River and into Phipps Wash. Judging by the well-worn path, this trail is obviously more popular than the route we tried on Sunday and there was never any question as to whether we were on the right track.
We knew ahead of time that we would have to cross the river a few times. Fortunately, it was not very deep and we simply took off our shoes and waded across.
After making the turn into Phipps Wash we followed the prominent footprints in the sand for a few miles before turning left and heading up a side canyon.
Cairns marked the way and we followed them up the side of the canyon, occasionally scrambling up ledges and trying our best not to look down on the steep parts.
And then we spotted the arch. You can’t see it from the bottom of the canyon which makes me wonder under what circumstances it was discovered. I like to imagine some intrepid explorer climbing up the canyon and stumbling across this very large, very impressive arch.
We scampered around a little and then walked to the other side of the arch for a different view.
The sun warmed rocks beckoned and we settled in for a bit to enjoy the view and the silence. Around 5:30 we started back down so as to avoid getting caught on the trail in the dark.
Wednesday, October 11
Every weekday morning Tim has a video conference at 7:15. That means the alarm goes off at 6:30. These days, that’s almost an hour before sunrise. While I’m not necessarily a fan of getting up while it’s still dark, sometimes mother nature sweetens the deal with a stunning show in the sky.
With little motivation and hikes planned for the next four days, our afternoon activity was limited to a short walk around the neighborhood. This area is basically a large field filled with scrubby grass and scattered low growing junipers. There are three roads and some obvious established campsites, but many people simply drive and camp wherever they want. Which sadly means that one day the whole area will likely turn into a large dusty pit.
As we walk we talk about how this area could be better managed. Maybe a few truckloads of gravel to define the roads and some simple dirt sites carved out of the field would prevent people from ruining the area for future campers? There’s been some grumbling on Instagram lately about boondocking spots getting overrun because too many people are sharing the locations. Ignoring the arrogance of this stance on a site like Instagram (“Hey look at me doing fun stuff in a cool place! Oh, you want to go there too? Too bad, it’s my secret’”), is the fact that the overcrowding is a direct result of the increased number of people traveling by RV. Not everyone wants to stay in campgrounds.
I firmly believe that even if there was no Instagram or social media, boondocking locations would still be experiencing a boom in popularity. The real question is not how do we prevent people from using these places, but how do we teach people to treat our public lands with respect? Sadly, agencies like the BLM and the NPS (who jointly manage the Grand Staircase NM) are barely getting by with the funding they have, so finding money to better regulate areas such as this is not going to happen anytime soon.
After our walk, we were ready for some dinner and I knew just the place. When in Escalante, a visit to Escalante Outfitters for pizza is a must. They have other things on the menu, but everyone gets pizza. That’s because it’s really, really good. We’re fussy pizza people and more often than not find ourselves disappointed by restaurant pizza. But this place has it down. Chewy homemade crust, just the right amount of cheese, fresh toppings, and interesting combinations might just make this the best pizza in all of Utah.
Thursday, October 12
During our last visit to Escalante, we hiked through the Peekaboo and Spooky slot canyons, but we missed out on the other two popular ones in the area — Zebra & Tunnel. These two are considered the easiest around with no rock climbing necessary. Well…easy if you ignore the fact that they almost always contain some water. Since it hasn’t rained around here in almost two weeks we hoped the water level would be minimal.
The trail starts with a two-mile sandy trek across the desert. I read one online review of this trail where the reviewer complained because the beginning was “just a walk across the desert”. Just a walk across the desert? Oh come on! The words “just” and “desert walk” do not go together. A beautiful desert walk, an interesting desert walk, or even an exhausting desert walk could all be accurate, but it’s never “just” a walk in the desert.
Along the way we passed a group of hikers who told us that Zebra had chest high water at the beginning. Not what we wanted to hear. We pressed on to examine the situation ourselves. Sure enough, when we reached the entrance to the slots there was the water.
At this point in the hike, I wasn’t too keen on getting wet. A little wading up to knees I could probably handle, but when a normal size man says the water was up to his chest, that could possibly mean swimming for me. Ummm…no.
Tim investigated through the first two sections while I waited on dry land. At the deepest point, it reached his mid-thigh which meant it only got deeper from there. The water kept going as far as he could see and the decision was made to skip this slot. Besides, with fading light in the canyon, the famous zebra stripes in the Zebra Slots are not nearly as stunning.
Also, Zebra slot is an out and back which means we would be walking (or swimming) through the water twice. Nope, not happening. Instead, we set off in search of the Tunnel Slot. Right away we took a wrong turn up a short narrow canyon. When we encountered a fence it was obvious that this was not the correct way.
We use two hiking apps, Alltrails & the Hiking Project, that both have offline maps. By consulting the maps we could see that we were off course, but it looked like if we just went up and around that knobby looking formation in front of us we’d be back on track. That was not the case, and once again we added some extra mileage to our hike, but the detour up through the textured slickrock was insanely beautiful.
After exploring a bit and stopping to snack on our Capitol Reef apples, we did eventually find the correct trail. We also found these really cool geologic formations called Moqui Marbles.
If there are trail markers between the two slots we never found them, but the Hiking Project map showed that we should be down in the canyon so we found a way and scrambled down in.
After walking through the canyon for a short distance we encountered a large, deep looking puddle. Fortunately, it was possible to climb up and around.
And then we found the entrance to the tunnel slot. Sure enough, it was also full of water.
At this point, it was close to 6 pm and I was wanting to go back the shortest way possible — which was through the slot. We could see the other side and a stick test showed the water only a foot or two deep. Once again, we found ourselves slogging through a slot canyon filled with murky water.
At about the halfway point, it started to get a bit deeper so we tried out the chimney method which involved wedging ourselves up above the water with feet on one side and back on the other. I was surprised by how easily I could scoot along above the water using this method. That is until the canyon widened and I had to drop back down into the water.
Despite our wet, sand-caked shoes, we made quick work of the hike back to the truck and arrived a few minutes after seven just as the sun was slipping behind the cliffs.
Friday, October 13
Since our slot canyon experience yesterday was on the lame side (although the hike itself was great) we decided to go back and re-hike through Peek-a-boo and Spooky. These two slots might have been the highlight of our visit last time around and we were both eager to experience them again.
Getting to the trailhead requires traveling over 20 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road. This dirt road wins the award for the longest stretch of washboard surface. Much to Tim’s delight, the best way to minimize the washboard effect is to drive fast enough so that you almost glide over the bumps.
We turned off at the sign for Dry Fork wash, drove all the way to the second trailhead (high clearance vehicles only) and quickly started down the trail. It seems that we’re some of the few people who start a hike at 4 pm. Like all the hikes we’ve done this week, we passed lots of people going back up the trail but by the time we got to the slots we practically had them all to ourselves.
The two slots can be hiked in a loop. There’s some debate as to the best direction, but the last time we went up Peek-a-boo and down Spooky so that’s what we stuck with again. A big part of that decision for me is the 20-foot sandstone cliff that must be navigated at the start of Peek-a-boo. I would much rather climb up this than slide down it.
With daylight hours short we climbed through the slot rather quickly. It was just as beautiful the second time around.
At the end of Peek-a-boo, it’s a short walk to the entrance of Spooky. It was here that we encountered a solo hiker who got turned around and couldn’t find the trail. We pointed him in the right direction, told him to follow the cairns and sat down for a snack (more CR apples), yet somehow still managed to reach the slot before him.
He caught up to us minutes after we entered the slot muttering something about following footprints and walking in circles. We let him pass since he seemed to be in hurry. After spending some time playing in the slots (practicing our chimney technique for tomorrow’s planned adventure) we continued on and once again came across the same guy pondering an area that requires tricky navigation. There is large rock fall made up of several boulders that require climbing over and then dropping down through a hole to the canyon floor about 10 feet below. All trail accounts I’ve read mention this spot and how to navigate it which tells me this guy must have done zero research on the trail. This is how people get lost and hurt in the desert.
The last time Tim went first and then I shimmed down backward using his foot as a brace. I scraped myself up pretty good on the way down so this time we tried a different tactic. He again dropped down unassisted (long legs for the win) and I then braced my leg on the wall of the canyon, lowered myself on his shoulders and held on tight while he crouched down so I could slip off. It was a little nerve-wracking, but no injuries ensued so I guess we can count it as a success.
From here, the rest of the slot is easy with only a few minor choke stones to climb over.
Spooky is not a long slot and soon we were back out in the wash where we climbed up to the trailhead and made it back to the truck nearly an hour before sunset. Another successful late afternoon hike.
If you want to see more photos of these canyons be sure to check out our blog post from last time, Boondocking Success & Slot Canyon Mania in Escalante. It was earlier in the day and a lot brighter in the canyon which made it much easier to photograph.