On our recent trip to Utah, Tanya and I (with our friends Jim and Kris) spent two days in the Escalante area in the heart of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. I first took Tanya here about 15 years ago, when the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was still relatively new and unknown to many. Not so much today, though it still gets a fraction of the visitors the Utah national parks get. We did three and a half hikes in the national monument, and while we weren’t the only people on the hikes, they were not like the hike we took in Bryce Canyon National Park a few days later where there were many hundreds of people on the trail. On each of the hikes we took in GSENM, there were long periods of time were we didn’t see other people. And on the half hike (can’t call it a full hike, it was only 1/2 mile round trip) we were the only ones there.
Still, it isn’t like it was 15 years ago. One hike we took, both last month and 15 years ago, was to Peek-a-Boo and Spooky slot canyons. The first time we did this hike, I think Tanya and I saw one other group of people and there were maybe two other cars at the trailhead. Last month, there were probably 20 cars at the trailhead, and other 20 that were parked down the road from the trailhead (that couldn’t make it all the way in due to not having high enough clearance). We saw plenty of people, from 4-year old kids to 70-year old grandmothers. However, there were few enough people that I didn’t have a problem setting up and using my tripod while in the slots. This trip, we also hiked down to Brimstone slot canyon (we didn’t do this 15 years ago); on that part of the hike, we only saw two other groups of people – so it is fairly easy to still find solitude in the GSENM.
The Peek-a-Boo/Spooky hike is, perhaps, the most popular hike in the GSENM, and rightly so. There are few other areas with such easy access to pretty and non-technical slot canyons. The two slots, as well as Brimstone, are tributaries to the Dry Fork of the Coyote, which itself has some nice narrows. The trailhead is on the rim of the Dry Fork canyon, and the trail down to the canyon bottom is a mile or less. Peek-a-Boo is almost directly across the canyon bottom from where the trail from the carpark ends. The two canyons make a nice loop, climbing up Peek-a-Boo and back down Spooky. Peek-a-Boo requires a short climb to get into, but from there on it is fairly easy to navigate, with only one spot where you need to crawl a short distance. Spooky is much narrower in many spots, and there is one set of large boulder-sized chockstones that requires climbing down through a hole in the boulders, back up canyon under a boulder, down through a very skinny hole, and then down canyon again under the remaining boulders. Down canyon from that spot there are no more obstacles, just plenty of super-tight sections where both your chest and back rub against the walls at the same time. Peek-a-Boo is not as deep as Spooky, and when we were there at mid-day, direct sunlight into the slot made photography difficult due to contrast issues. Spooky, being deeper and narrower, made for better photography, but it was much darker and a tripod was definitely needed.
Brimstone Canyon is about an hour’s walk down the Dry Fork from Spooky. This side canyon starts large and narrows and narrows until was impossible, for me anyways, to go further. It is very deep and extremely dark, but well worth the extra hike.
The day prior to our slot canyon adventure we hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls. Though the turnoff from the highway is unmarked, we still found 10+ cars at the trailhead. This relatively short trail goes downhill over slickrock and sand into the Calf Creek canyon to a lovely small waterfall. We chose this hike over the more popular Lower Calf Creek Falls because Tanya and I had not hiked it before. Lower Calf Creek Falls is larger and more spectacular, but you will find the trail more crowded as well. After our hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls, we stopped at the Calf Creek Campground – which is also the starting point of the trail to Lower Calf Creek Falls – for lunch and the parking lot was overflowing with cars of hikers to the lower falls.
Our third hike was down and back up through the Willis Creek Narrows (the featured photo above is from there). There are several points where Willis Creek canyon slots up. At it narrowest, the slot is perhaps only three feet wide, so it is not quite the claustrophobic adventure of Peek-a-Boo, Spooky, and Brimstone. But it has a small stream running through it, and we found it a easy, beautiful, and very relaxing hike. It is possible to do the hike without walking in the creek, at least at the water level present when we went, but I hiked in my sandals and just walked in the water.
The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument offers many other hikes and slot canyons to explore. I’ve been to the area a half a dozen times, and each time I come away wanting to go back soon. If you haven’t been to this area of Utah, I highly recommend it. This national monument is on the list being examined by the Trump administration for possible elimination; it would be a crime if the protection the area is afforded by its national monument status is taken away.
I recently returned from our quick trip to Utah. While there, I spent several hours in the middle of the night doing some Milky Way shots at Devils Garden in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument (a fantastic place that I love and that my so-called President is trying to take away). I arrived at the Devils Garden parking lot at about 1:30 am on a weekday morning. I obviously wasn’t the only one with the idea of shooting there that night, as the parking lot had five other cars parked (by comparison, I took Tanya and our friends Jim and Kris back there later in the morning – around 10 am – and there were only two other cars there).
Devils Garden is a fairly small area filled with wonderful hoodoos and several arches. And I was a bit surprised by the number of photographers there there, but figured if everyone was polite with their lights, we could all get along. I headed toward one particular set of four hoodoos shaped like heads from Easter Island that I thought would look great with the Milky Way and some light painting. However, there was a group of people already working there. So instead, I went to Metate Arch and shot the image above. I did my light painting with a LED headlamp covered with an orange gel. I was pretty happy with the result, and hoped the other folks had moved on to another spot so I could capture the “Easter Island” hoodoos. But no, they were still there.
I talked briefly with another photographer, asking him if my light painting had hindered him, but he said no. He was not with the group by the Easter Island hoodoos also wished they would move. He had been photographing some hoodoos near Metate Arch, and we traded places. I had some trouble shooting this spot, the group down by the Easter Island hoodoos was in the corner of my composition and they rarely turned off their lights. Further the photographer now at Metate Arch was occasionally using his light, and that was partly in my shot as well. Between the two, I took five shots, none without some light from the other photographers – especially the group by the Easter Island hoodoos – whom it seemed when they finished with light painted, turned on red lights and keep them on until they started light painting again (for those who don’t know, when out doing night photography, using a red light helps keep your night vision). Rarely did they have both their normal and red lights off. The image shown here is the best of the lot I took – there is some red light from the photographer by Metate Arch (lower center) and the light on the Easter Island hoodoos (down in the lower left corner) isn’t too bad. I was able to use Photoshop to fix the image (see below), getting totally rid of the red light in the center, removing the light spot in the lower left, and dimming the rest of the light in the lower left (I thought it looked better with a little light there rather than making it totally dark). I am happy with the result, but by now I was starting to get a bit mad at the rudeness of the group down by the Easter Island hoodoos, who almost always had one light or another on.
I ended up photographing three other spots, two of which are shown below, in total spending about two hours at Devils Garden. I never did make it to the Easter Island hoodoos as the light-happy group of photographers there never left the spot. And frankly, even now, days later, I’m still a bit peeved at that selfish and rude group.
Aside: rant directed at that group of photographers: seriously people, would you sit in the front row of a movie theater and talk on your cell phone for the entire movie? Do you enjoy shining your flashlight in other people’s eyes at night? Do you never turn off you high beams when other cars approach on the highway? And it’s not just the lights. It’s hogging the spot. It’s one thing to arrive early and setup at a preferred spot for sunrise – sunrise only last 10 or 15 minutes. But honestly, 2 hours without moving at a place that has dozens of potential shots? Have you no creativity? Obviously not! How many shots of the same set of hoodoos do you need? I suppose you never learned to share your toys when you were a kid either.
With the capabilities of today’s digital cameras, night photography is continually growing in popularity, and you will often find other photographers out with you at the same time as many sites, such as Devils Garden. Such situations beg for politeness and etiquette. If you find yourself out with other photographers at night, please be respectful and use your light sparingly. In places such as Devils Garden, where there are multiple subjects, try not to hog one spot. Nighttime photography is much more difficult than daytime work, it is more difficult to control the camera, more difficult to focus the lens, more difficult to get a composition, and demands long shutter speeds. It is difficult enough that you shouldn’t have to also battle light pollution from other photographers.
Later this month, Tanya and I will be off for a quick trip to Utah with friends. Nahla, unfortunately, gets to stay home with our housesitter. Rather than driving down like we usually do, due to only having a week for the trip, we will fly down to Salt Lake and rent a car. We plan on spending two days at Capital Reef National Park, before heading down to Escalante for two days, and finishing up with two days at Bryce Canyon National Park. This is a great time to go; it is usually sunny and warm, but not yet hot, with fewer thundershowers (than summer) ruining those slot canyon hikes. In anticipation of the trip, I’m posting a few shots from my past trips to the area. The one above is from the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. The two below are from Capital Reef and Bryce Canyon. Looking forward to getting more shots like these.
My computer is down now, going through an upgrade. So for the next week or so, I am without a darkroom. I’m wondering how many of you remember the days when a darkroom was actually a dark room and not a computer? Or perhaps you are one of the few, the lonely, who still use a wet darkroom. I imagine there are very many, probably even the majority, photographers who have never even seen a real darkroom, let alone processed film or prints in one.
I do have nostalgia for my wet darkroom days. Back then, I shot with black and white film, usually Kodak TMax, and color slide film (Velvia or various versions of Kodak Extachrome). I don’t really miss shooting with film – I like being able to bracket and experiment with digital without having to worry about the cost of film and processing (though I’ve probably replaced those costs with camera and computer upgrade costs); I like being able to see instantly if a shot works on the back of the camera. But I do sometimes miss working in the darkroom, watching a print magically change from a blank sheet of paper to a photograph, or pulling a roll of film out of its developing can and seeing the negatives for the first time.
Processing film and producing prints in a wet darkroom was a much more sensory experience than working on a computer. And working in the dark, either in complete darkness or in the glow of a dim red safelight, enhanced.the sensory experience. With limited sight, the smells, feels, and sounds of the darkroom came alive. There was the unique smell of the developer or the vinegary smell of stop bath; the smooth feel of the paper and film, both wet and dry; the sound of the enlarger humming, the timer ticking, or the water running. And though the light was dim, there was plenty to see – the negative image (or color slide) projected by the enlarger, the neon green glow of the moving hands on the timer, and, as mentioned above, images slowly appearing from nothingness in the developer tray.
There was so much more activity too. Today, with computers, processing an image physically involves using a keyboard and mouse. But in the wet darkroom days, you loaded film into a development canister (in complete darkness) by breaking open the film canister, cutting the tapered end of the film off with scissors, threading the film onto a development reel (trying hard to make sure it’s threaded properly so each wrap of film doesn’t touch its neighbors – and never knowing for sure if you did it right or not until the development was complete!), placing the reel into the development tank, and piecing the tank back together (hopefully correctly) so that it was light tight. There was the pouring of chemicals in and out of the development tank, rolling the tank back and forth on a table top to slosh the film and agitate the chemicals. There was the washing of the film, and pulling it out of the tank for your first look to see if it was developed properly and if you messed up on your exposure settings. And finally, hanging the film to dry, using a hook on top and a small weight on the bottom to keep it from curling.
Similarly, printing was much more of an activity than sticking a piece of paper in a printer and pressing a button on a computer. There was loading the film or slide into a negative holder and placing that in the enlarger, moving the enlarger head up and down to get the right size for the print, focusing the enlarger (peering through a special little scope gadget to make sure the film grain was in focus), adjusting the print easel, calculating exposure times, setting the f-stop on the enlarger and setting the timer, practicing the printing prior to putting paper in the easel, placing the paper on the easel, turning on the enlarger, conducting dodging and burning with wands or holes cut out of cardboard, and slipping the paper into its chemical baths.
Before the days of digital, it was impossible to create totally identical prints when printing from the same negative. Small differences in timing of dodging and burning, timing in the developer bath, the age of the chemicals, etc. all conspired to make each print unique.
Those days are gone for me now. All that equipment was sold for pennies on the dollar or given or thrown away. Today, I process and print many more images in much less time, without dumping gallons of toxic chemicals down the drain. That’s progress I guess. But on these days when my computer is down, thinking back on those hours in the darkness does bring back some fond memories.
One chore I accomplish each winter is to edit my photo library for all the photos I neglected to edit earlier in the year. Editing is a thankless task that some notable photographers even suggest is unnecessary due to disk drives being inexpensive. However, it is hard enough for me to find the photos I want when things are edited, let alone when I don’t edit.
Editing, at least for me, has one big added benefit. By going over those thousands of image I took that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to earlier, I always find some hidden gems that I missed earlier (along with lots of dogs – but more on that in a later blog). As my Christmas present to you, I offer a look at some of the hidden gems I’ve found thus far during my editing. Merry Christmas everyone!
Here are some more details about the Paria Canyon hike along with some more photos.
There are four trailheads: three starting trailheads (assuming hiking downstream), all in Utah: Wire Pass, Buckskin Gulch, and Whitehouse campground; and one ending trailhead, at Lee’s Ferry, AZ. My hiking buddies (Rob Tubbs, an friend from grad school; his wife, Deanna; and daughter, Abby; and my brother Rob) and I choose to start at the Whitehouse trailhead because there were better camping options on this route (there are no places to camp in Wire Pass and very few in Buckskin Gulch). The Whitehouse trailhead is on the Paria River, two miles south of the Paria Contact Station on US Highway 89, roughly mid-way between Page, AZ and Kanab, UT. The Buckskin Gulch and Wire Pass trailheads are south of US 89 on House Rock Road. Roads to all the trailheads, at the time of this writing, were passable by passenger car.
Buckskin Gulch is a tributary to the Paria River, and hits the Paria 7 miles from the Whitehouse trailhead. Wire Pass is a tributary to Buckskin Gulch, and is relatively short. Hiking Wire Pass cuts off a portion of Buckskin Gulch.In addition to the hike to Lee’s Ferry, it is also a popular hike to start at Wire Pass or Buckskin, hike to the Paria, then upstream to the Whitehouse trailhead.
Permits: a permit is needed to hike from any of the trailheads, and there is a limit of 20 overnight permits per day. Needless to say, we didn’t see a lot of people on the 6 days we were in the canyon. Permits are also needed for day use, but there is no limit on the number of permits issues. Dogs are allowed, but also need a permit. Permit information can be obtained here.
Shuttle: Unless you want to backtrack back up the canyon, this is a one-way hike. There’s no quick way to drive from the starting trailhead to the end. Unfortunately, the quickest paved route is not currently an option because the highway between Page, AZ and Lee’s Ferry is out for the foreseeable future due to a landslide which took out a portion of the road on February 20th. Now the quickest route involves driving the length of the unpaved House Rock Road. In our case, I followed Rob Tubbs’ Ford F350 truck in my little Hyundai Elantra. Now, while I’m a proponent of the drive-fast-over-washboards-on-dirt-roads method, I’m a piker compared to Rob Tubbs, whom I swear is a teacher at the Drive-As-Fast-As-You-Can-on-Desert-Roads School. There was no way to keep up with him, but we did eventually make the drive. In total, the shuttle took 3.75 hours, with about half the mileage over dirt roads. (Google Maps suggests the round trip over the same roads should take approximately 5.5 hours). It is also possible to leave your cars at one end and hire a shuttle company to do the driving.
Best season: This is definitely not a place to go hiking when it’s raining. The flash flood danger is serious. Plus, as the Paria River drains a large area north of the hike, a thunderstorm miles away can cause a flood in the canyon. August is typically the rainest month of the year here, with May having the least rain; though floods have been recorded in every month of the year. The peak visitation is during April and May – but with the permit system, the canyon is never crowded.
Trail conditions: there is no official trail. Much of the trip is in water. On our hike, I estimate 20% of the trip was walking in the river – mostly in the narrows section. The water was typically ankle-deep, but occasionally knee-deep. Of course, water depths depend on the weather – flash floods occur every year and can be dangerous. It’s best to plan the hike during the dry season (spring). In the lower portion of the canyon, where the canyon opens up, there is an unmaintained overland trail (with many river crossings) which is much easier than walking along the river – which contains many large boulders in this portion of the canyon; these create deeper pools.
A large portion of the hike, when not actually in the water, is on muddy river bank. Quicksand is fairly common, both on the muddy riverbank and in the water itself. It’s not dangerous, but you can sink quickly up to your knees (this happened to me once), and it is difficult to get out of without help. You can avoid quicksand by testing suspect locations with a light foot before putting all your weight on it. Also, when crossing the river, favor rocky spots rather than slow water spots.
Buckskin Gulch is known for having large pools of standing water that sometimes must be waded or swum, as well as one point where boulders block the route. In previous years, these boulders present a problem where some climbing might be necessary. Currently, we found the boulder section, several miles upstream from the confluence with the Paria, was easily passable without scrambling. Report from other hikers who had done the complete length of Buckskin reported no large pools of water either. Of course, this could change with the next rainstorm.
Guidebook: there is a guidebook with maps of all three canyons (Paria, Buckskin, and Wire Pass) available at the Paria Contact Station for $9. This is well worth the money, particularly as it shows the locations of springs. My one complaint about the maps is that they lack north arrows, which can sometimes make it difficult to orient the maps properly (every map is oriented differently, with the river/canyon running lengthwise on the page).
Shoes and clothing: I wore hiking boots with gore tex socks over wool socks. Don’t bother with the gore tex socks – they just filled with water. Most people hike in sandals or tennis/running shoes. I chose hiking boots for the ankle support – but the boots never completely dried out the whole trip. Your feet will get cold. You might consider neoprene socks to help keep them warm.
Even in warm weather, it can be cool in the narrows section of the canyon where there is plenty of shade. This is even more true in Buckskin Gulch where it is rather dark. Take warmer clothes than you would think are necessary based on the weather.
Water: the river water is very silty and will quickly clog a water filter. Luckily there are a number of springs in the canyon where fresh water can be obtain. We drank from these springs without using filtration (do take some care how you fill your bottles if not using a filter). The springs are well marked on the guide maps, but still may be hard to find. We had a particularly hard time finding one called Shower Spring. The boy scout leader we met told us his scout group planned to camp there, yet when we arrived, we saw them hiking off down the canyon. But then, we couldn’t see the spring. We just about gave up looking for it, but as we were running low on water, I gave one last look. I crossed the river and found a hidden trail through tall, thick pampas-type grass, and behold, a big spring with lots of water! The last spring, aptly named Last Reliable Spring, was easier to find, but has a low flow rate so it took time to fill our bottles. The final 12 miles of the hike do not have any reliable water sources. If you plan well, you can minimize the water you have to carry by planning your daily mileage around the spring or by camping near by the springs. Do remember to carry enough water – you’ll need it, even in April or May.
Campsites: there are campsites marked on the map, but many other campsites are available – just be sure to camp high enough above the river in case the water comes up overnight. Within the narrows section of the canyon, campsites are much harder to find. And in the full 18 miles of Buckskin Gulch, there are only a couple, including the one we stayed at our second night, shortly up canyon from Buckskin’s confluence with the Paria.
The Scoop on Poop: When you check in at the Paria Contact Station, you will be given human-waste disposal bags. These consist of one or two silver bags with some dry chemicals in them. These bags open up to rear-end size. And a yellow mesh bag to carry the used silver bags. The ranger writes your permit number on the silver bags, so if perchance you leave one in the canyon, they will make you come and get it (okay, they’d probably give you a fine; she said they started putting numbers on the bags after some hikers started leaving the used bags in the canyon thinking the rangers came through and picked them up). Luckily, you are only required to use these bags within the narrows section of the canyon. Elsewhere, you can dig “cat holes” away from the river and campsites. In our case, we were only in the narrows for about a day and a half. It’s amazing how your body can react when forced with the possibility of using one of these bags. Four of the five of us were able to “hold it” and carried out empty bags. Concerning toilet paper, that comes out with you, even if using cat holes.
Historical sites: portions of the canyon were historically used by Ancient Pueblo people (Anasizi). There are no ruins, at least that we saw, but there are several petroglyph sites (only one of which is marked on the guide map). If you go, the best petroglyph site we saw is between mile 24 and 25. There are several more recent sites as well. These include the remains of an irrigation pump from an ill-fated attempt to pump water out of the canyon in the 1949 at mile 17.5 and a historical ranch property right at the end of the trail in Lee’s Ferry.
Critters: We saw few animals on our hike other than birds, bats, lizards and mice (luckily only at our final campsite), but I did find a scorpion behind my backpack the night we camped in Buckskin Gulch. You should also be aware that rattlesnakes are occasionally seen. Reportedly there are also beavers (we did see some logs they had worked on), coyotes, jack rabbits, cottontail rabbits, ground squirrels, deer and bighorn sheep.
Overall, this is one hike I can highly recommend. The scenery is outstanding. The country is remote, but easily accessible. I waited about 30 years to take this hike – in hind sight, I should have gone a long time ago. It’s one fantastic hike.
I’ve been back several days now from my backpacking trip down the Paria River canyon (Paria is pronounced like Maria). We hiked out of the canyon on Thursday. I had hoped to post about the trip earlier, but after driving 900 miles on Friday, going to by sister’s surprise 50th birthday party on Saturday, Easter on Sunday, and with Monday being opening day for the Seattle Mariners (I’m a baseball nut and went to watch the game at Safeco Field on the big screen even though the game was in Oakland), I haven’t had a chance until now.
When people ask about where I went, I say the Paria River – which usually brings a confused look as they have never heard of it. They ask where it is, and I say mostly in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument – which continues the confused look because they have never heard of it. So then I say, the 38-mile hike ends at where rafting trips through the Grand Canyon start (at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona) and most people then have a general idea.
The Paria River hike is one of the classic hikes in the American Southwest, and I have wanted to do it for over 30 years. Let me tell you, the hike did not disappoint. Much of the hike is through narrows, where the canyon walls are only 5 to 30 meters wide. The hike is considered as a rival to the much more famous Virgin River Narrows hike in Zion National Park.
The first day we got a late start (after having to drive the shuttle, placing a car at Lee’s Ferry to drive back at the end of the hike) only hiked about 3.5 miles, camping before the narrows begins. The narrows begin at about mile 4 and were spectacular. At mile 7, still in the narrows, we turned and went up Buckskin Gulch (a tributary to the Paria). We dropped our packs at one of the only campsites in Buckskin, about 1/4 mile from the confluence with the Paria, and day hiked several miles up Buckskin. That night, we camped where we had left the packs. The following day, we hiked 10 miles down the Paria, leaving the narrows. Though not in the narrows, this section of the canyon was still not wide and still very beautiful. Much of the hiking these three days was in the river itself. The following three days, more and more of the hiking was out of the river, as the canyon widened up. Besides the day hike up Buckskin, we also made the day hike to Wrather Arch – reportedly the largest natural arch in the world outside the state of Utah.
Here’s a few images from the trip. I’ll try to do a more complete blog post on the hike, with more photos, as time allows.