We crept from Torrey on the morning of July 4th, declaring our independence from Capitol Reef National Park. It had been good to us but it was time to move on. We headed down Utah 12 at a slow pace. The sun was not yet up and the critters abounded on the road. Mostly jackrabbits.
Our original plan had been to drive to the Notom-Bullfrog Road and head south, take the Burr Trail switchbacks up to the top of the Waterpocket Fold and hike Upper Muley Twist, the most challenging hike in the tiny slice of Capitol Reef National Park south of the main park areas. We found out that driving the surface roads would take less time than negotiating the unimproved dirt roads we were planning to travel, so we took Route 12 over Boulder Mountain, into Dixie National Forest. There, the sun rose as we sat high among the aspens.
Upon coming down the other side of the mountain, we entered the town of Boulder. We had a weak cell signal so my dad called my mom to let her know our plans for the day. We then took off down Burr Trail.
Burr Trail used to be unimproved, much like the Notom-Bullfrog Road but at some point they paved most of it. It's not the greatest paving job but it worked well for us. We kept the speed to under 30 mph because the rabbits abounded in such numbers that we quickly lost count. We passed through Long Canyon, which is a wide slot canyon you can drive through. It was quite pretty but we kept going because we were going to revisit it later in the day. Eventually, the pavement came to an end as we approached the turnoff to Upper Muley canyon and our speed slowed further. When we got to the "road" that would take us into Upper Muley Twist, our speed slowed to a crawl. The road was in horrific condition. There are people who enjoy taking their four-wheel drive vehicle crawling over rocks and uneven terrain but I can not be counted among them. I was terrified the whole time as I slowly jounced and bounced from one obstacle to another. My dad frequently had to get out of the car and navigate me around some of the more challenging obstacles. After an agonizing time, we made it to the 4WD parking lot right at the train head. Now, there are arches in the canyon walls to either side of the road but I was so focused on not having to file an insurance claim for the rental vehicle I only saw one of them.
The parking lot is the trailhead for both Upper Muley Twist and Strike Valley Overlook. We struck out for Strike and hit a home run with the view.
To the north were the jagged chunks of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold is the broken line of cliff along the edge of the valley below, a valley through which Notom-Bullfrog Road makes its course. The name comes from the cauldrons of water that are trapped and held in the potholes formed by the broken terrain.
After gaping openmouthed at the scenery unfolded before me we turned back to go to the car. The trail back was so poorly marked that we ended up bushwhacking our way back to the car. Once we arrived, we looked at the time and realized that if we started the hike then, we would be finished near dark and then have to drive out on the bad road in the darkness. Not only that, clouds were massing to the northwest and we had just gotten trapped in a thunderstorm the day before and were not anxious to repeat that experience. So we decided to skip Upper Muley Twist and instead make our way down towards Escalante.
First, I just had to drive the Upper Muley Canyon road back to Burr Trail. It was easier getting out than it was getting in because the obstacles and how I overcame them were fresh in my mind. We got out to Burr Trail and headed east towards the Burr Trail Switchbacks.
We had no practical need to visit this twisting road that descended through the Waterpocket Fold into Strike Valley as our ultimate goal lay the other way. Still, I had envisioned the passage and wanted to see for myself what it was like. Four years ago we drove the Moki Dugway north of Mexican Hat, Utah and that was quite an experience for someone as terrified of heights as myself. In the last four years, however, I have gotten more involved in photography and lost some of the edge off of that fear.
I sat on the edge of the cliff with the car parked behind me. I would have stayed there longer transfixed but, as always, my dad provided the fire under my ass that got me moving back to the car. I can so easily get lost in a moment. We were not parked in the safest location and so I got back in the car and we proceeded down the twisting incline and past towering chunks of torn-up sedimentary layers. I had only a feeling of exhilaration at the experience and we found ourselves at the bottom. We turned around and came right back up. We had places to go and things to see and, as my dad likes to say, "We do not dilly dally here!"
Long Canyon stretched out before us in daylight and we searched for the parking lot we had missed on the way in. It is a stretch of gravel along the road where one can park and go investigate Long Canyon Slot, the only narrows within the larger canyon. There were a few cars parked there and we parked behind them. Emerging from the car, the strains of flute music wafted to our ears, echoing and haunting.
Down the short slope we skidded, gravel against our booted feet. There were a couple of teenagers near the entrance. The entrance to the narrows was clotted with greenery, shrubs and trees. The green against the rich deep red of the rock made my eyes water. The flute became louder. I could picture David Carradine, as Bill, sitting cross-legged on a stone at the end of the canyon playing. But it was not David Carradine, for that worthy departed this world long before we entered Long Canyon. It was a gentleman of middle age, surrounded by his audience, which consisted of about six people. He alternated between playing and pontificating on the natural world.
The narrows have tall walls but the cleft itself is not particularly deep into the cliff. We took a minute to walk to the end, just beyond the flute player. We enjoyed his music for a time before heading back to the car.
The flute player and his entourage followed us out of the narrows and we departed, resolute in our desire to head to Escalante and what lay down its back-country roads.
We got back into Boulder and gave my mom another call and then stopped off at a gas station to use the bathroom and see if there was anything interesting for lunch. Having nothing of the midday comestibles that enticed our now-rumbling bellies, we moved on down Rt. 12.
Just before Escalante, there are a few interesting features of note. First is the Hogsback, a sort stretch of highway where he land on both sides falls away to steep slopes with the rugged terrain spread out on both sides hundreds of feet below. To the right is the chasm of Calf Creek Canyon, which we visited in 2012 and therefore elected to give a miss to this go-round. Next comes the entrance to Calf Creek Campgrounds and around a bend further on is the parking lot for the start of the Escalante River hike. We walked out to the river, which would be considered a creek back in the Hudson Valley, but is the main drainage for the entire surrounding area. It empties out into the north side of Lake Powell about 70 miles past where we stood at the river's edge. We came back to the car and made our way a little further to a delightful outpost, a culinary oasis in a desert of nothingness. It is called the Kiva Koffeehouse and we stopped in for a bite to eat.
The Kiva Koffeehouse is shaped like a kiva, with half of it a semicircle around the edges which held numerous tables. We chose a table, with a map of the area under glass that we could investigate before lunch was delivered to us. We ordered turkey and cheddar wraps and then got onto their wifi and got caught up on mail. There is precious little cell service for Verizon in the areas we traveled and so relied heavily on wifi whenever we could get it. Our lunch was delivered and it was delightful. Real, thick slices of fresh, juicy roasted turkey was the highlight of the wrap and the balsamic vinaigrette that was drizzled in it complimented it well. There was also a small side of pickled potatoes that was odd at first but quickly because enjoyable. All in all, perhaps the tastiest and most satisfying meal of the trip.
We carried our satiated bellies out of the place and headed for Escalante. It was far too early to arrive at our motel so we decided to investigate Hole-In-he-Rock Road, which would feature heavily into our lives for the next several days. We had originally planned on traversing this washboarded avenue all the way to the end the next day but we had the time so we began our investigation.
Our first stop was at Devil's Garden. I wanted to do a Milky Way shoot from here but quickly saw that would be impractical. It was a weird area, small in coverage, a maze of natural sandstone sculptures that was a wonderland to explore. I can imagine my seven-year-old self spending an entire day here. playing hide-and-seek among the rock goblins, climbing over the smooth slickrock domes, laughing my way through the arches and overhangs. I just carried my camera with me and tried to capture reasonable images given how high in the sky the sun was. I'd love a go at this place near sunset. Blue Hour would be haunting here.
This is the Metate Arch, a small feature lost in the maze but one I had seen in online descriptions of the place and wanted to see. I call it Trochanter Arch because it resembles the bone of the femur as it arches to join with the socket of the hip.
It was hot and getting hotter and after playing out the possibilities of Devil's Garden, my dad spotted a fortunate outhouse and I made timely use of it. We then made our way further south on the road.
Our next stop was to see dinosaur tracks. We had to drive a short way down Left Hand Collet Road, a road like Hole-In-The-Rock but more weed-choked and with more ruts and rocks. We found the pullout to the right and followed it down and parked the car. We found out later that we had missed the designated parking area so we had to work harder than strictly necessary to find the correct path up to the top of the worn sandstone formation. We came across a few dead ends and non-starts before finding our first cairn. We followed it up to the top of the formation and there were the remnants of the giant sauropods that had walked sandy shores a hundred million years before. They were a large cluster of round impressions in the rock. No toe-marks, just the remnants of the effects of great weight on the underlying sand that were frozen in time before wind and rain uncovered them for us to witness.
One of these tracks is visible at my father's feet, a vaguely round dimpled shape that stands out from the surrounding rock. We investigated for a time and then picked our way carefully back down the slickrock and back to the car.
We continued down Hole-In-The-Rock Road as far as the turnoff for the Dry Forks of the Coyote Gulch, a destination we would visit in a couple of days. We made our way slowly back up the road. Only one other car was visible, the one we were following out. The road did not see much traffic at all in the time we were there.
We got into Escalante and found Circle D at the edge of town. We stayed there one night in 2012. We were scheduled to spend the next five nights here. We were preceded into the small office building that doubles as the caretaker's residence by a woman who did not have a reservation. She had nothing to worry about. The place was nearly empty. More people would move in as the week wore on but that night it was a ghost town. We got checked in and asked about information regarding road conditions. We were directed to ask our next-door neighbor, who was a BLM ranger who had been living there since April. This ranger pulled in next to our car and we immediately struck up a conversation. His name was Mike and we would be entertained by stories of his time working up in Alaska and the things he's seen working the Grand Staircase since arriving in the spring. Seemingly a loner, he was friendly and hungry for company and we made good use of his excellent advice and enjoyed chatting with him from our front porch every evening. Thanks to him we found out that two of the canyons we wanted to visit were flooded out and that the road we were hoping to take on our way out of here on Saturday was in terrible condition. He saved us a lot of time and trouble and we are both thankful for that.
After our lunchtime feast, the canned chicken for me and tuna for my dad seemed meager and poor but it served. We would visit the town's best grocery store the next day and replenish our supply of fruit and vegetables but we enjoyed a nice evening out on the porch watching the cliffs surrounding Escalante turn first orange, then red, then blue, purple and black as the sun disappeared out of another day.