Chasing the Totality

Day Two: Southern Utah

Traveling in southern Utah means navigating around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. You either swing west on US 89 through Kanab, or east on UT 261 and UT 95 through Hanksville. With a bit more time, of course, you can cut across on Cottonwood Canyon Road, but with lingering monsoon storms, we did not want to risk that route's justly famous Bentonite clay surface.

So we hooked west on 89, stopping for a wonderful lunch at the Rocking V Caf in Kanab, a cute tourist town dressed up in its signature Navajo sandstone. All around were thrilling landscape — so many places I'd like to explore with a bit more time. We turned east on UT 12, which would take us across the northern end of Grand Staircase-Escalante. We had intended to camp at Red Canyon, but the campground was right next to the road and every spot was occupied.

A bit farther we turned north on FR 117, and then became mesmerized by a faint track running alongside Mud Spring Creek. This area had obviously a lot of recent rain. All the creeks were flowing bank-to-bank and the the meadows were awash in summer wildflowers. Dennis had me drive, to get a feel for four-wheeling on rough, steep and muddy terrain. The track became more and more faint, periodically disappearing in grassy meadows with buff-colored mountains towering in the distance. There were many fine places to camp, but since it was still earlly afternoon, we pushed on.
There were so many pronghorns along the route — they always delight me with their curious expressions, colorful collars and comical white butts.
We went a few miles up Old Escalante Road, but the campground shown on the map had long since washed away. And we passed up the crowded campground at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. Crossing back onto BLM land, we turned south on a dotted road, which to our great suprised turned out to be Hole-in-the-Rock Road. In 1879-80, Mormon settlers made their way to the Colorado River via a short, steep valley that is the only breach for many miles in the otherwise vertical cliffs of Glen Canyon. The settlers worked all winter to enlarge the opening with only pick axes, shovels, and blasting powder, eventually constructing a road that dropped nearly 2000 feet with an average grade of 25 degrees. Yet another area that demands further exploration!
A short distance down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, we followed a two-rut track to the top of a rise that overlooked a stunning red-walled canyon. Score!
In the morning we hiked down into our private, unnamed canyon, where we were dazzled by white sandstone streaked with tendrils of deep orange. On closer inspection, the streaks were actually flows of fine red clay from the upper layers of the canyon.
We scampered up to a knoll for a better look. Dozens of nighthawks were foraging — during the day — along the side of the cliff.
And so I realized that in southern Utah, you don't need to visit the many national parks. Just follow any sideroad and you are guaranteed to see something wonderufl.
Next: Escalante and Calf Creek Falls