I almost didn’t get to go on this trip to southern Utah, and it still feels like it may have been a dream. It was offered by Andrew Skurka, an adventurer renowned for his solo long-distance backpacker trips and prolific knowledge of his craft. Each year he has guided trips to outstanding locations in the US including the High Sierras in California, the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and the Alaskan wilderness. When I saw his plans for trips into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in Utah I waited too long to get a coveted spot. Luckily, three weeks before the trip, Andrew let me know a spot had opened up and I was so excited I could hardly sleep for a couple of nights.
On April 24, 2015, with as much last-minute training behind me as I could cram in, I traveled four hours south of Salt Lake City and entered a landscape with a character I’ve never experienced. Its undulating hills of sand and sandstone serve as the base for impressive and sculpted peaks, plateaus and cliffs revealing the geological layers of the Grand Staircase. Add in the pinyon-juniper woodlands, sage brush, and threads of cottonwood trees in the slot canyons and gulches and you’ve got eye-popping views that change with every bend of the road. Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 twisting through the towns of Escalante and Boulder is considered one of the most beautiful highways in the US, and you’ll get no argument from me. I was enthralled and even more excited to get started on the five day hike that lay ahead.
In Escalante, an aptly-named small town that makes a good base site for exploring the area, I met up with Andrew and the other adventurers. The co-leader for the trip was Alan Dixon, editor of adventurealan.com and backpackinglight.com, former aeronautics engineer (aka rocket scientist) and all-around amazing athlete. Alan’s enthusiasm for the GSENM, which he claims as his favorite hiking area, was infectious. The other hikers hailed from all over the country and most, save one, were considerable younger than me. Thankfully the anxiety I’d had about being the boat anchor of the group was soon put aside. Our leaders did a great job of putting everyone at ease and divided the group where necessary to personalize the experience.
GSENM is so vast that very few trails have been established. For Skurka and Dixon, this is no problem. They prefer making their own way across the landscape and have the skills and equipment to make for carefree navigating. We spent Day One getting about 7 miles downriver using the Escalante River as a handrail and alternating between walking along its banks or down the middle of it, dependent upon the density of the vegetation. Since I’ve spent most of my hiking days trying to keep my feet dry, this river walking was one of many new experiences I would have. I actually found it refreshing.
Moving overland the second day, we had to rely on our leaders’ skills, along with our budding navigational knowledge, to get us to The Gulch, a deep slot canyon carved by one of the ephemeral creeks in the area. New experiences for me this day included hiking in sand, a calf building experience for sure, and examination of the multitude of desert blooms. Recent rainy weather was creating a grand desert garden.
Slickrock sandstone, the primary rock in the area, is not slick at all; in fact it’s more like sandpaper. Going up the slickrock formations requires you to “trust your shoes” as you climb vertically in ways you couldn’t accomplish on other hiking surfaces. You quickly gain altitude that affords expansive views.
Getting in and out of canyons on Class 2 access points, those that require climbing up or down steep rocky grades but without the need for belaying ropes, is one of the exhilarating joys of exploring this area. At first glance I often thought there was no way I could do these climbs and descents. It takes careful wayfinding and scrambling.
A major highlight of the trip was staying overnight in a hidden canyon that was approached through just one such access point. Complete with its own water-filled pot hole, it was discovered by the younger adventurers of the group and thoroughly appreciated by the AARP set.
Andrew’s followers have been schooled to leave behind the heavy traditional “camping” equipment, thus freeing themselves to put their energies into the hike. In this vein, I was trying one more new adventure; sleeping with a tarp and bivvy, a waterproof jacket for a sleeping bag, rather than a double-walled tent. After two nights of intermittent rain, I was able to forego the tarp our final two nights and sleep “cowboy style” under the moon and stars . It was one of many things that made this trip so unforgettable
It’s been several months since I returned from Utah, but I haven’t gotten it out of my mind and heart. I’ve bought Canyoneering 3 by Steve Allen, a guidebook we used on the trip, and Hiking from Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country by Kathy and Craig Copeland to learn more about hiking in the area. However, it’s hard to beat the instruction I received from the dream team of Andrew Skurka and Alan Dixon. It gave me at least a beginner’s base of knowledge and experience to take back there next time