Hiking Escalante

A Land Of Extremes
By Grant Johnson
  |  Gorp.com

Had I been able to predict the ferocity of the storm and the speed in which it would engulf us, I might have suggested that our group opt to cower in camp all day. But even after living twenty years in the Escalante Canyons, there was no way to forsee this typical April surprise.

In fact there's a beautiful blue sky overhead as we leave our base camp on the Escalante River carrying drinking water, bag lunches and a vague idea of where the day's route will take us. We set out upstream in calf-deep water under 400-foot tapestried walls. ('Tapestried' refers to the black vertical stripes of manganese that are deposited by water running from the canyon rim over the face of an overhang .) At every bend the river laps against the canyon walls, creating peaceful grottos. Maidenhair fern and monkey flower cling to wet red sandstone. Somehow these delicate looking plants survive the frequent flooding. The banks of the river are lined with wire grass, horsetail, willow and water birch. Three or four feet above the river's edge grows grass, clover, white and yellow evening primrose, red-orange Indian paintbrush, cottonwood and russian olive, and an occasional tamarisk. Higher still on the banks are rabbit brush and sagebrush, hackberry, single leaf ash, squawbush, box elder and gamble oak.

As our group approaches a bend in the river, an enormous alcove looms above, making us strain our necks to take in its height and width. Perhaps a thousand years ago the river finally undercut the canyon wall, causing the sandstone to cave naturally in an arc. Inside this arc, on the soft orange sand, a few large boulders have metates. Their surfaces are worn smooth and dished, from years of grinding seeds and corn by the Anasazi Indians at least 800 years ago.

On another bend is a south facing alcove— truly a solar oven. The Anasazi certainly camped here. Rubble with pieces of mortar are piled where dwellings once stood. Flakes of colorful agate litter the ground— the handywork of ancient toolmakers. As we leave the alcove we are lucky to find the sun illuminating bighorn sheep petroglyphs. The rays across the surface have shadowed the pecked depressions, highlighting the sheep.

Straight across the canyon, 200 feet away, a line of carved steps ascends an impassable looking route to the top. Surely this was only for expert climbers. Being in the cave, part of a living museum, we take time to explain the importance of treading as lightly as possibly and the moral and legal obligation we have to leave the archaeology undisturbed. Looking up and down canyon from this place one can easily imagine families 1000 years ago hunting, growing crops and harvesting wild plants. All along the river are the subtle remains of the Anasazi and their predecessors, illuminating another world within these same walls.

Suddenly the sun goes behind a cloud, waking everyone from a silent, thoughtful state. But it is only a small cloud, and we continue to the next bend of the river where the small opening of a side canyon intrigues us— giving no hint of what is beyond.

Having hiked for years on the Escalante, we long ago decided that every curiosity should be indulged, so we can't pass up this side canyon. The entrance is a walkway of water half an inch deep and ten feet wide flowing over brilliant orange sand. Through the cottonwood and box elder trees we can see that the top of the canyon narrows and the bottom expands until it opens into a colossal chamber. The inside is mostly damp compacted sand, with a still pool about 75 feet in diameter reflecting the red walls and blue sky. One hundred feet above the pool, runoff from an unseen wash have polished the canyon wall into a funnel. We walk across the open flat of this huge room to an alcove that cuts far under a seeping wall. A forest of tall ferns strains to meet sunlight. Their dazzling green lights the dim chamber. Opposite the fern room is a dry overhang. Here in the dusty sand are more chips from toolmaking and shrunken corncobs left by the Anasazi. We linger through our lunches here, and then reluctantly leave this little cathedral— walking in silence back to the river.

Wanting to trade our filtered river water for something cold and delicious we stop our upstream wanderings at a spring. From a crack in the canyon wall pours a huge volume of water collected above by hundreds of waterpockets and filtered through hundreds of feet of Navaho sandstone. We intercept it and, canteens full, are ready for the last part of our hike.

I decide that a route along the canyon rim would be preferable to retracing our steps. Walking further upstream on the river's bank, trees and sagebrush almost conceal a crack about three feet wide. Inside, a stairway of rocks climb to a set of pecked steps leading to the rim. Up and out of the canyon we climb to where the slickrock stands in spires and monuments. Although we are on a bench above the river level, we are still 800 feet below an array of slickrock buttes and peppermint domes made of white slickrock swirled with red stripes.

We walk along the rim downstream, heading for an old horse trail that will take us into the canyon below camp. Bowls of sand between sandstone knobs contain tiny lemon-smelling flowers beneath the Pinyon and Juniper. A Hopi woman once told me that these, a relative of the marigold, were a traditional food used in winter broth. On a sandy hill we come upon a blackened area of sand from ancient fires, surrounded by flakes of obsidian. Nearby are yellow potsherds (broken pottery) with black stripes and triangles. This could only be black on yellow Jeddito ware made by the Hopi around the sixteenth century. A fascinating discovery for us! Having seen signs left by the Anasazi at almost every bend of the river, this discovery is evidence of their modern successors, the Hopi. The Anasazi migrated out of these canyons in the 1200's, heading southwest, and the Hopi arrived with their pottery 400 years later.

Travelling along the rim we discover the wash that pours into the cathedral we explored earlier. One by one we strip off our shirts and plunge in the cold water.Then we dry in the hot sun on warm sandstone.

At this point the group splits. Half opt for a direct walk back to camp with another guide, and the rest of us, six including myself, decide on a more challenging route up the wash and over the top of a high dome. Three deep crevasses slice this 800 foot slickrock monolith creating a giant"W". To traverse this dome we must zig-zag across two causeways. The route is a little sketchy but wide enough to be safe. On the way up we enter a shady crack to cool off and doze in the shade.

Rested, we shoulder day packs and notice, for the first time, white puffy clouds moving quickly overhead. We climb the steep slickrock and as we top the dome the southern sky becomes visible. Black clouds fill the sky, and below them is a solid wall of red, from sand and rain, heading our way. Everyone reaches for rain gear as slickrock spires and peaks disappeared in the storm less than a mile away. It's moving fast, and I'm concerned it will pin us on top of the dome. The wind increases as we reach the first causeway, about six feet wide, back to the camp. Only two of us make it across before the initial sand blast hits, bringing us to our hands and knees. As soon as we've all made it across, hail begins clacking against the rock and thumping our heads. The air is thick with sand, hail and rain.

As we approach a steep incline, the group huddles behind a large rock. Bringing up the rear, I urge them on. The wet rock will only get slicker— we need to keep moving. We start to ascend a 200-foot sheer drop. I stand with my heels on the edge and help everyone above me with footholds and a boost. It rains so hard, waterfalls are shooting down the slickrock on all sides. I push the last person up the slippery rock. She turns to offers me a hand, and we scurry away from the edge to safety.

My appetite for adrenalin is immense, so I was excited by the storm., but I felt awful to have put everyone else through such a terrifying experience. Then I hear Maxine say,"That was one of the most incredible experience I've ever had!" I pull back my hood to see five wet grins. Waterfalls are still cascading down the slickrock and the rain is pounding the bench on the other side of the river. The sky clears and we take off our coats to let the sun dry us. Once again it looks like a perfect day. It seems that you can never know what to expect in this land of extremes.

Special Thanks to Grant Johnson and Sue Fearson at Escalante Canyon Outfitters for providing this story.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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