Lying on the ground in Coyote Gulch, the night sky framed by openings in a natural arch and a curved canyon wall, I peer at the cosmos as through a Mardi Gras mask.
My legs and shoulders ache near the end of a 70-mile backpacking hike in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. This is the reward for exploring remote places: a long and challenging trek culminating in an otherworldly vista.
A short distance from Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, the national monument shares some of the red-rock wonders of its better-known neighbors. During a weeklong visit in May, I saw natural arches and bridges, Indian ruins and drawings, slot canyons and more, all contained in deep-red, sculpted ravines that run through the Escalante River basin like roads in a city.
What the Escalante doesn’t share with the national parks is well-marked trails or paved roads – or the crowds that come with those “amenities.” This rugged region was the last part of the continental United States to be mapped, and it requires work for those wanting to see its treasures.
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Everett Ruess shared my love of remote places. A teenager from Los Angeles, Ruess traveled the Southwest and the Sierra with two burros, making block-print art and meeting famous photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, before disappearing in the Escalante in 1934.
“As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think,” Everett wrote his brother Waldo, in the last of his many letters recounting his adventures. “I have not tired of the wilderness; rather, I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time.”
Ruess’ body has never been recovered, only adding to the mystery. In 1996, Jon Krakauer revived the Ruess story in his book “Into the Wild,” about, Christopher McCandless, another youthful wilderness traveler who died. Longtime adventure writer David Roberts and former Los Angeles Times reporter Philip L. Fradkin followed up a few years ago with their own books about Ruess.
The teen’s last known location was about 10 miles from where I scanned the heavens from Coyote Gulch. His legacies colored much of my trip, for better or worse, making me better realize the risks and rewards of travel in isolated places like the Escalante.
The rigors of traveling in the Escalante telegraphed through my body on the drive there, as soon as I left Utah 12 for the unpaved, 55-mile Hole in the Rock Road. My teeth were on edge as my car rattled past the monument’s most popular attractions and made its way to near the road’s end at the “Hole in the Rock,” an opening in a canyon wall next to Lake Powell.
In 1880, Mormon pioneers made their way through the hole to begin settling the area. “It’s the roughest country you or anybody else ever seen; it’s nothing in the world but rocks and holes, hills and hollows,” a Hole-in-the-Rock pioneer said around the time, as I learned at a visitors center. John Wesley Powell’s expedition of the American West did initial mapping of the area during this period.
Adventurers have long explored the Canyons of the Escalante, but it was not made a national monument until 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton praised the “high, rugged and remote region.” The monument covers 1.9 million acres and has three parts – the Kaiparowits Plateau, which includes the distinct Straight Cliffs, a sandstone shelf that runs parallel to the Hole in the Rock Road; the Grand Staircase, where cliff lines and benches form the “steps” near the Arizona-Utah border; and the Canyons of the Escalante, the area I visited, largely north of Hole in the Rock Road.
In addition to endless opportunities for hiking and backpacking, the monument has many campsites, a river for fishing and rafting, trails for mountain biking, and much more.
The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for the monument, does not provide many of the features designed to make a park user-friendly: signs, built trails and the like. While this gives the area a more wild and natural feel, it can also make the area more difficult to travel. Guide services in the town of Escalante provide tours of the area.
If you go without a guide, make sure you know a few things about desert hiking. Take plenty of water, of course. Also take detailed maps or a GPS unit. Desert trails are typically harder to follow than trails in other places because the ground doesn’t retain footprints and the sparse landscape provides fewer natural cues to follow.
I used a GPS unit to find two slot canyons, West Fork and Big Horn; without the unit, I would have been lost in a maze of desert canyons.
Once I found them, I was transfixed. Bright orange and red walls look freshly painted with swirls. As those walls press closer and closer, small shafts of light seem to set them on fire, until canyons get so tight you can’t move anymore.
The highlight of my excursion was hiking the serpentine canyons of Coyote Gulch, named a top hiking destination by many outdoor writers, including Peter Potterfield in his “Classic Hikes of North America.”
Coyote Gulch is probably the monument’s most crowded attraction. In three days I saw about 40 people, most of them traveling in large groups. I met a couple from Arcata traveling the trail for the second time; they had wonder and joy etched in their faces. Most of the time, I trekked in secluded bliss, as hours would pass without seeing anyone.
Coyote Gulch leads across 14 miles of land and ankle-deep water. The canyon walls get bigger and the views get more dramatic as the gulch makes its way toward the Escalante River, under the Jacob Hamblin Arch and the Coyote Natural Bridge and past Cliff Arch. The topography gets trickier with a succession of waterfalls requiring the traveler to scramble on rocks at the edge of the water.
On one of those scrambles, I had to ease across a strip of slickrock about a foot wide. On another, I was traversing steep slickrock that led to a 30-foot drop-off into a rocky waterfall. At such moments as these, I was most aware of my solitude. If I broke a bone, I would have to wait for rescue, which may not come.
At such moments as these, I thought of Ruess. Any statement about his fate is speculation. I had time to develop my own: that he died in a hiking or swimming accident and his body was washed away by the Colorado River, before it was overtaken by Lake Powell.
Thinking of Ruess’ fate made me more careful as I climbed or stepped on wet rocks. Ruess was apparently without a companion to help him when he disappeared. But his legacy is also one reason why I took those risks – to see beautiful places such as the Escalante.
When I finished my first trip through Coyote Gulch, I went out to the Escalante River and saw yet another natural arch. Then I immediately made my return trip down Coyote Gulch, to be just as stunned by the beauty as on the initial view.
My legs felt like burning stumps from a week’s hiking, but like Ruess, I had not tired of the wilderness. The beauty propelled me forward.