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.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument is a small national monument in New Mexico. Located roughly halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fé, and about 25 miles west of Interstate 25. Though more popular since it gained monument status in 2001, it is still relatively unknown, so much so that there are not even exit signs for it on the interstate. Yet, Tent Rocks, is definitely worth a visit.
The park is home to a large number of cone-shaped “tent” rocks and hoodoos made in white- to tan-colored volcanic ash and tuff deposits (left from a series of pyroclastic flows, or nuée ardente, off the Jemez volcano to the north – as a geologist, I just had to get some geology in). Many of the tents have boulder “caps.” The tents range from in height from a few feet to nearly 100 feet. The park is a day-use only facility run by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the National Park Service. The park opens at 8 am in the winter and 7 am in the summer and closes at 5 pm and 7 pm respectively, with the entrance gate closing an hour before the park. There is a $5 entrance fee (or use your National Parks pass).
To best see and photograph the tent rocks, you need to park the car and take a short hike. There are only a few trails in the park, with the two main trails starting at the picnic area. These are the Cave Loop Trail, which is 1.2 miles long, and the Slot Canyon Trail, a mile long (one way), that branches off the Cave Loop Trail half a mile from the parking lot. The featured shot above was taken from the loop trail between the parking lot and the start of the canyon trail. The Slot Canyon Trail is more strenuous of the two, but also more scenic. You can easily combine the two trails, like Tanya and I did, to create a longer walk. If you have time for just one, take the Slot Canyon Trail.
Shortly after leaving the loop trail, the Slot Canyon Trail enters a steep canyon cut through the volcanic ash deposit. Though typically 20 feet wide or so, 500 feet or so from the entrance to the canyon, it forms a tight slot reminiscent of some of the slot canyons in Utah and Arizona (except not in sandstone). Shortly before the tight slot portion, on the west wall of the canyon, a bit off the trail, there are several petroglyphs carved into the rock, including an impressive one of a snake.This is not the only evidence of former inhabitant in the area. The cave, on the Cave Loop Trail, is a small alcove in the ash deposits with a roof black with soot deposits of ancient campfires.
Past the slot section, the canyon opens up bit and there is a great view of the tents looking back down canyon. The trail continues up the canyon which eventually curves westward and upward through some tall tents. Eventually the trail climbs steeply up out of the canyon with good views back toward the upper part of the canyon just traversed, toward the mouth of the canyon, as well out to the plains of the Rio Grande Valley and the far off mountains.
Because of the light-colored rock, mid-day light is not very good for photography. Early morning or late afternoon work well, but beware of the park’s hours. Because of the park’s hours, spring and fall are probably the best seasons to visit. We visited on an April afternoon, with nice afternoon light, leaving shortly before the park closed. A wide-angle lens is needed in the slot canyon, while in places, a telephoto lens will be helpful to isolate tents in your compositions.
I spent most of last week on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park, making the 19-mile loop trip around the 7 Lakes Basin and along High Divide. Together with my two partners (my brother Rob and his grandson Izzy), we spent 5 days on the trip. In the next few days, I hope to write a photo guide post for the 7 Lakes Basin, but until then, here are a few images from early in the trip to give you an idea about what the 7 Lakes Basin is all about.