As we pulled out of The Grand Canyon we were wild and free, ready for the next adventure. Our minds full of ideas and our legs ready to keep moving — the hiking endorphin’s were pumping and the Highway was in our vision.
We didn’t really have any plans as to where we were staying this night. We had a good 7-hour drive in front of us into Utah where The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was patiently awaiting our arrival. So we road tripped for a while, hitting the scenic Highway 89.
The sun was making its departure from the earth as we were getting close to, and ended up stopping at, a pretty famous place: Horseshoe Bend. If you aren’t familiar with it, Horseshoe Bend is an incised meander where the Colorado River in all of its force has actually cut bedrock very similar to The Grand Canyon. Only difference here is, it’s in the shape of a Horseshoe. 🙂
Upon finding a place to park (its crowded so be aware), we took the sandy trail of 3/4M and found ourselves at the edge of a beautifully nature-made masterpiece. We stayed for a while, cheered some Champagne, and took the moment in as the sun slowly tucked itself away.
It’s a stop I’ll never forget. There’s something about a sunset in the desert that is so peaceful and it resonates within — almost like a small beat of a drum. Out here it’s you and the wild. This is mother nature close up, and raw. This is the type of view that changes lives. These pictures will NEVER be able to do what was before our eyes, justice. My words will NEVER be able to explain that how when I came home from this entire trip, I had changed as a human being more in 10 days, than I probably would living a “normal” life in one year. This is my disclaimer that you won’t get much from this post until you see it for yourself. But I’ll try my best to help you understand the way I feel, and why we do this. Why every weekend I seek solitude and freedom. Why I spent my week’s vacation in grueling pain from hiking the hardest hike I’ve ever hiked. Why I loved every minute of it. Why I’ll do it again at any moments notice.
Welcome to the West Coast.
This is the part where The Grand Canyon ain’t shit anymore — because in Utah, we kick some real ass.
A map in hand and still no idea of where we would stay. We drove around almost aimlessly for a while before deciding the $50 was worth a nice shower and a bed. We were actually pretty tired and sore in more ways than I wish to explain. Finding the Best Western was a gift from the Gods. We had made it all the way to Page, Arizona (2 hours from The Canyon).
The next morning we woke up super early, grabbed some breakfast, and hit the road like the warriors we are. Making it into Utah around 1pm on a lovely Wednesday afternoon.
Remember how I said we would need this AWD machine later in the trip? Well that later, was now. When leaving The Grand Canyon, a young guy started talking to us. He ended up being pretty cool, and gave us directions on a napkin of a shortcut that would lead us into The Grand Staircase-Escalante.
So we were to take Joh[n]son Canyon Road, which leads to an all dirt road called Skutumpah. Upon some later research: Skutumpah road is also known as Road 500. It’s a 34-mile dirt road that provides some pretty good scenery of slot canyons, and some old ranches and bridges. It was by no means a “shortcut”, but definitely cool to drive through and experience.
We took our time and decided not to be in any kind of rush. Once at the end of Skutumpah Road, we turned right onto UT-12E. We were also in The Glen Canyon area of Utah, and Bryce Canyon National Park. You’re surrounded by nothing but rocks, sand, and mountainous beauty. Sky meets land. Land meets sky.
It was around 3pm when we finally arrived at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center. The Park Ranger on staff loaded us up with information.
We knew we wanted to hike down into Coyote Gulch, however, there are many ways to do this. She told us of the most “popular” ways, and told us how much time (miles) it would take per each, so we made our best judgement and I’m going to do my best to explain it all here.
We decided to hike in through Crack-in-the-Rock, and hike out at Jacob Hamblin Arch. This means we would leave our car at Crack-in-the-Rock trail-head, and do an 11 mile loop in two days.
In order to hike in and camp anywhere in the Escalante, you must have a back-country permit. It’s free to obtain (as of now), and you just fill out a paper either at the Visitor Center, or the trail-head. Also being that the Grand Staircase-Escalante is a National Monument, you MUST carry out EVERYTHING. This includes human waste, i.e., your poop. It sounds crazy, I know, but you must fully understand what the term “National Monument” means. It’s protected, and it contains so much history. From dinosaurs, to the Indians, it’s actually quite amazing. They want to preserve this land as much as possible. So we purchased two Toilet-To-Go bags for about $3/each at the Visitor Center, filled out the permit, packed our packs, made more sandwiches, and hit the road towards the trail.
In order to get to the Crack-in-the-Rock trail-head, it takes some work. After leaving the Visitor Center, you turn back onto UT-12E and shortly after, make a right turn onto Hole in the Rock Road. This road is nothing but dirt. And you’re going to be riding down it for a while (an hour), so get used to it. It’s bumpy, it’s rocky, you think your car is going to fall apart, and sometimes the cows get in the way and they look angry.
Once you get past all of the above and just accept it — the ride actually isn’t quite so bad. We found that, the faster you go the less bumpy it gets so there’s my advice on that. The speed limit is 30mph, but we also didn’t see any law enforcement. I was also the one driving, singing at the top of my lungs, and scaring Ginger as we hit a few rough spots where the road just kind of turns into a big hole…oops.
Glad it was a rental. 🙂
Make sure to look at the small and sometimes hardly visible signs at each turnoff, because you’ll be turning again onto a road called Fortymile Ridge Road. It’s another 7-miles down this road before it reaches the dead-end at the Crack-in-the-Rock trail-head. This is where the AWD or a vehicle with 4-wheel drive will really come in handy — the sand gets pretty deep down this road and is very similar to beach driving.
We had landed at our destination around 4:30pm. The sun was setting, and we had a couple of miles to hike before we would arrive at a good place to camp. So we hit the trail.
The trail down is deep sand and very difficult to walk in — especially if you already have sore legs. I complained a lot, which I know wasn’t the greatest of mentalities to have but it happens. I love being outdoors and seeing nature in its purest forms, but I also can’t lie to anyone and must state the true statement that: I am still a girl. It takes a little adjusting to being dirty, sandy, and just plain smelly. Once past these insecurities and basically just an acceptance that we both smell like shit, I continued hiking into the dark.
There comes a point where this sandy trail turns into nothing but rock. The trail at this point becomes hard to make out. After a few steps, however, we noticed a pattern of rock cairns leading the way. And this is why you build rock cairns. Not for fun, not just to do it — but to actually show your fellow hikers the way.
With the help of these rock cairns, we were able to find the crack-in-the-rock. The crack is situated in a 50-foot cliff that allows you to literally squeeze through and come down into the gulch. Everything we read while planning for this trip cautions hikers about the challenges of this actual moment. It’s something you definitely do not want to screw up, but simple enough that I wasn’t scared at all during the whole process.
The picture right above is crack-in-the-rock. Look to the right and you will see it.
It’s best to go ahead and just lower your packs down onto the sand that way you can easily maneuver through and climb down to retrieve it. So that’s what we did. We brought a bunch of 550-cord, lowered each pack down, slid through the crack, and then retrieved our packs.
The next mile or so was straight down thick sand, and down again, until we reached the river to setup camp.
We reached the river at complete dark. Setting up our tent and fixing macaroni and cheese for dinner. I must have forgotten to ask the Park Ranger about the animals here, because I was worried about them right now. It was like we were the only people out here, because, well, we were. But was a Mountain Lion about to come take my Mac -n- Cheese? It was pitch dark and the stars were blazing the sky with a bright and beautiful scene. It wasn’t long after that, we called it a night.
The next morning we woke up with the sun.
I enjoyed seeing the small tiny details of fall peaking. The leaves were turning a crisp yellow and falling down as the wind blew quite frequently.
We made a quick breakfast, packed up and hit the trail. Almost immediately we had no other choice but, to cross the river. This meant putting our water shoes on. The water was absolutely freezing in early-November for those wondering.
The trail follows the river the whole entire time. We were lucky that the first time was also our last time, of having to take our shoes off to cross. The rest of the time we just literally walked across, hopped on rocks, or sometimes, just went ankle in and trusted that our shoes were in fact: waterproof.
And they were. Whew.
I want to state a fact that the river is ever-changing in its deepness. If you’re coming to do this trail, bring water shoes 100%. I couldn’t imagine doing this trail if the river was deeper. But people do it.
After making our first crossing at the point pictured above, it wasn’t long after we came upon our first sets of small waterfalls.
And right around the corner, tucked away in a cave-like hole along a curved amphitheater, was our first human interaction since arrival the night before.
A very friendly couple who were celebrating a birthday, greeted us with big smiles and handshakes. They eased my worries of animal attacks, gave us some water, showed us some maps and we exchanged stories.
Just up the hill on the other side, was a pit-toilet. The only toilet we found during this whole visit, so take note of that.
Apparently there used to be another toilet towards Jacob Hamblin Arch, but some kids reportedly burned it down. I want to point out that no fires are allowed at all here in the Escalante. The level of respect you must portray for this land is extremely high. Kids, adults, and everyone, should have that respect. The parks in Utah have some of the largest protected pieces of land in the entire world. Take that sentence in, and let it soak for a moment.
Once we said our farewells to the friendly couple, we had in our minds that the hike wasn’t much longer to Jacob Hamblin Arch.
Well, we were wrong…
As you move along, there are plenty of small waterfalls that require you to complete easy rock scrambles to continue up the trail. These all can be done with a pack on your back, so no worries.
The trail sometimes winds through pretty dense vegetation including Cottonwood Trees, willows, hanging gardens, and several stream crossings that can be tricky, but we had fun with it and even got a little wet.
Since the passing of the first couple, we had only saw two other guys at this point. It was very secluded and we felt like we had the place to ourselves. It’s interesting because, come to find out, Coyote Gulch is actually the most popular and most visited backpacking area of the whole entire Escalante Canyons section. It gets pretty busy in the summer months. But here we were, in November, goofing off in the river and laughing at the top of our lungs.
The area of The Escalante is separated into two parts:
The Escalante Canyon part (the most visited), and then the Grand Staircase part (least visited). These two parts together make the area of The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument consist of 1,003,863 acres. So yeah it’s huge.
Now back to the trail.
After about 4.5 miles of trail you will come upon your first arch called Cliff Arch.
You can see it up there, hanging off the cliff.
As we continued on, the forest changed and we started seeing lots of horsetails, cattails, more willows, and tall grass. The trail itself is so frequently traveled that it isn’t hard to find the best way to go. There are points where you have to stop and look ahead to figure it out, and maybe even backtrack to get onto a better route.
The hike itself isn’t hard at all, there isn’t really any uphills or challenges to face except the winding in and out of the various trees and riverbed.
At 6.5 miles we approached Coyote Natural Bridge. It looks like an arch, and you have to travel underneath it, and cross the river to continue on the trail. We actually thought we were at Jacob Hamblin Arch when we reached this point, but it’s still a few miles away.
We took a short break here and observed the nature-made spectacle in front of us. It was amazing. We considered camping here for the night, but I’m glad we continued on.
Noticing some fresh water falling off the stone walls, we gave it a slurp. This was probably some of the best water I’ve ever had. So good! This water doesn’t have to be filtered because it filters naturally coming off the rocks. We learned this from the Park Ranger, FYI.
A helping hand is always nice and sometimes necessary. We helped each other continue along the trail, tired, sore, and hungry. It was starting to get dark at this point and we had been hiking the whole entire day. When hiking along the river, those 7 miles are probably more than that as you constantly have to backtrack and stomp through difficult terrain.
At 8 miles, I looked back at Ginger and smiled with tears in my eyes. We were walking up and approaching the Jacob Hamblin Arch. The arch stands 1.5 miles beneath Coyote Gulch and the Hurricane Wash confluence. This 1.5 miles was something we would have to hike straight up and out of the next day. The arch itself is 150 feet wide and 100 feet tall, and provides acoustics that sounds like you’re in a Theater.
As we walked up further we met two guys. They were setting up camp for the night right under the arch, and told us of another great camp spot on the other side. They were wonderful and it felt so warming to know they genuinely cared about us as they filled our ears with stories and tons of information about Utah and the Escalante.
Sure enough, we followed the path to the other side of the arch and we were amazed at the beauty and the most perfect campsite I’ve ever seen. Standing right underneath Jacob Hamblin Arch, we pulled the tent out, and setup for the evening.
We drank wine, ate dinner, and enjoyed our time here tremendously as the only other sounds we heard were our two friends on the other side. The sound of the river gently flowing beside our tent calmly put us to sleep, and we slept through the night experiencing one of the best sleeps during this whole trip. This was our last night in a tent, and as I was getting excited for the return trip home and getting the pieces back together of my way over organized life, I began thinking about what it would be like to do this for a longer period of time.
You see, as much as we want to take vacations, do we really ever take them? It can be so much work packing and getting prepared to go on vacation, and then seeing everything you want to see so quickly because you only have so much time. That’s not vacation to me. During this trip we were able to almost stop time and see things for what they really are. We learned how gratifying it is to have certain luxuries in life, and we learned that these amenities aren’t always needed as much as you think they are. Being out here, it’s you against the world. You either suck it up and hike out, or you just die down there in the Gulch. I am truly grateful and honored to have learned the things I have, and all thanks to Mother Nature herself. Sometimes the biggest lessons in life, aren’t that hard to find. We learned so much about each other during our time here, and I spent the early part of the morning laying awake, listening to the wind come in and down into the Arch thinking about the trip in its entirety.
This wind, eventually turned into a storm. A sand storm for that matter, and it was coming in with a force that was almost unbearable. We were forced to skip breakfast, pack our things, and get the hell out of here around 7am on a Friday morning. Everything was covered in sand, and we could hardly walk at times as the wind was that strong.
The hike out at Jacob Hamblin arch, is where I truly learned how much this Ginger boy of mine really does care for me.
On the way out we said our farewells to our new two friends. And started the most difficult hike I have ever experienced. Considering I’ve never really rock climbed, or done any real serious rock scrambles before, this was a big ordeal. As you make your way towards the back end of the arch, there’s a climbable crack on the south canyon wall.
Yep, where I’m pointing is what you must go up. Small cracks and man-made grooves allow you to somewhat easily climb yourself up the majority of this steep “pitch climb“. This is a 300-foot total climb up, with 100-feet of it being at a 45-degree incline. Hikers have attached a thick rope to the middle of this cliff so that when you reach about half-way up at the steepest part, you can easily grab the rope and hoist yourself up.
This is seriously no joke.
I’ve stated earlier how easy some of these things are as far as getting in and hiking the trail for the most part. But this is where you need to be 100% cautious, because you will get hurt and/or die if you fall or screw up at this point.
I’m going to show you the views looking from above, and then below, as we made our way up this rock. I’ll break it down into sections, as there are a few flatter portions along the way, that make it easier to sit and rest for a quick moment if needed.
The first section is simple enough that I wore my pack and easily made it to a good flat spot to wait for Ginger.
This is the view looking down. Not that bad. You pretty much just place yourself inside the crack in the rocks, and use the rocks to pick yourself up.
Pictured below is the view looking up at this point.
This is where I freaked and all but lost it.
Ginger went ahead and made his way up to the next section using the rope, and took the below picture of me clinging to a rock, crying my eyes out in terrifying horror. You can see the rope dangling down if you look closely.
In order to get me up, Ginger dropped his pack, came down, and grabbed my pack putting it on his back.
He then shook some sense into me. Told me to man up. Told me I could do it, and he was right there behind. He lifted my spirits and as I mustered up the courage, shaking, and terrified, I grabbed the rope and climbed to the next section. Honestly, if the rope wasn’t here, I just don’t know if I could have done this. You can call me a wimp, or whatever you want. You can be an experienced hiker and do this all the time, but me, I haven’t. This was my first time climbing up a rock cliff, and it was the scariest moment in my entire life.
As I made it to the next stopping point, Ginger grabbed the rope and met me there with my pack. Once past the part with the rope, the incline isn’t as steep and I was able to put my pack back on and continue the climb up. Below is the remainder of the climb out.
As I waited for Ginger to meet me at the top, I cried. You know those thick tears like Alice in Wonderland tears where she eventually creates a river? Those tears. It was a joyous feeling, but even more so, I was actually proud of myself. For more reasons than one, we tend to not give ourselves the appreciation and love we truly deserve. I remember being so PROUD that I actually had to sit down and feel it. I could write and write and write and write — and never be able to fully describe that feeling as I sat there, looking down, and seeing this world as something so vast, so majestic, powerful, and flawless, as it was in that exact moment. That moment will rest in my soul for the rest of my life. That moment I changed as a person. The scared little girl who rode her first roller coaster with Dad came back out and waved hello. I couldn’t wait to tell him, I couldn’t wait to call home.
And who am I kidding, I couldn’t wait to drink a celebration beer.
After we climbed the 1.5 miles out of the Gulch, it was still another 2.5 miles back to the car through back-country. This was nothing compared to easy. It was that thick sand again, slightly uphill, and this storm was getting worse by the second. Luckily the wind was facing our backs or we would have been eating sand the whole time.
As always — just as we were about to reach the car, I wanted to give up. Trekking along, we finally made it. We hadn’t even put our packs in the car yet and here came this white jeep. We couldn’t believe it was our two guy friends from the arch! They said they wanted so badly to catch us, but to also make sure we had made it out safely. And sure enough in their hands were those celebratory beers I was craving. We all congratulated each other on a successful hike, cheered, and made our way inside the car for the long ride back to Flagstaff, Arizona.
This drive back was long, and grueling. We were so tired and sore.
Capturing a few more memories with my camera, I finally put it away. Our trip was ending and we were headed to another hotel to finish our last night in the desert.
We pulled into the Howard Johnson Inn, located in Flagstaff around 9pm that Friday. Deciding that the restaurant we first stopped at here, was worth a second go around. We made our way to the Historic Brewing Barrel & Bottle House. I ordered a grilled cheese with bacon and avocado and glass of Champagne. We fell asleep almost immediately once back to the room, woke up, packed our things tightly, and headed towards the airport.
As we entered the front door to HOME on that lovely Saturday evening and hugging our sweet Caroline tight, we knew this experience was something for the books. Maybe we looked like the same two people, but inside, we were different. Through arguments, and smelling bad, we had experienced this together. We grew closer than ever before, and almost immediately started planning our next big adventure.
Sometimes the ride isn’t as pleasant or as flowers and butterflies as you had planned. Sometimes the ride involves tears and not-so-kind words to your loved ones. That’s not to say the ride isn’t beneficial or life changing. Take the ride. Learn while you’re on the ride. And just ride, my friends. Just ride.
Horseshoe Bend: https://horseshoebend.com/#
What is an incised meander? Here’s some more pictures: https://www.google.com/search?q=incised+meanders&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjPqsfJ4pvYAhULSyYKHSiZA3gQsAQITg&biw=1713&bih=801
Roads through The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: http://www.zionnational-park.com/gsfees.htm
Escalante Interagency Visitor Center:
Coyote Gulch Hikes: https://utah.com/hiking/coyote-gulch
Rock Cairns: https://bearfoottheory.com/what-are-rock-cairns/