Reader Stories: The Hike of a Lifetime – Lower Calf Creek in the Grand-Staircase Escalante
posted Sunday, February 5, 2017 at 8:20 AM EDT
By IR reader Mark Seawell
Utah. My wife and I have been living in the northern part of the state since the summer of 2014 after serving overseas with the Air Force for over two decades. We didn't really know what to expect but what we found was beyond our imagination!
What we discovered was this truth: If you are bored in Utah, it is probably your own fault! Utah offers many things, but for those who love the outdoors, it offers everything! Skiing, fishing, hiking and of course a landscape of such diversity, most photographers would believe they died and passed on to heaven. Few places rival this state for the thunder of the mountains in the north and the awesome red canyons of the south. With five national parks and many stunning state parks, it is hard to go wrong. But Utah also has a national monument or two, and the Grand-Staircase Escalante is by far our favorite.
The Grand-Staircase Escalante received National Monument status from President Clinton in 1996, much to the annoyance of the local political establishment here in Utah. This area encompasses thousands of miles and millions of years of history. Roughly the size of Delaware, the Escalante is a geological wonder and just a pleasure to the eyes. The location is perfect for exploring southern Utah with Canyonlands National Park, Bryce National Park, and Zion National Park all within a few hours' drive.
The journey through the Escalante has another treasure for anyone visiting. Scenic Byway 12 is one of the most awesome, breathtaking drives in Utah, and I would argue, in the United States.
Coming from northern Utah, you make the turn off I-15 and drive towards Canyonlands National Park. Just before you arrive in Torrey, you make a right turn and head towards Boulder, Utah (not Colorado!) and drive the byway. Up, up, and up you go through the forest with the summit at over 9500 feet. We’ve done it three times, once in June and September of 2015 and once again in September 2016.
And what do you see in September as you drive the byway? As you drive up Boulder Mountain, the beauty of the forest is gorgeous. As you rise, the forest starts to give way to little snippets of color on your left. Your pulse quickens as you see the colors of the canyons starting to come through. Reds and yellows clash with the color of the trees, which have also changed. Now you have entered aspen territory, and the deep greens and sparks of yellow compete for your attention. Suddenly, the road view rips open, and the canyons are no longer hidden by the foliage. You witness astounding views of the massive canyons on full display as the yellows and golds of the aspens shimmer in the soft wind. I mean, seriously, if this doesn't take your breath away just turn around and head home! And there is more to come.
Like I said, the Escalante is vast, and our exploration of it has just scratched the surface. We were invited to camp the first time in June of 2015 by a dear friend who knew the area like the back of her hand. This was our introduction to the Escalante, and it left a permanent mark. A group of four families took part, and we had a blast. One interesting note was on the last night of camp my wife asked me to walk her down the road to the toilet. No problem. As we were walking, we heard a very definite "roar" (?) coming from the bushes and VERY close to us. After we had returned home, our host Ginger told everyone via Facebook, "Didn't want to freak anyone out, but we had a mountain lion in the camp every night. I saw the paw prints!" Welcome to the wild side.
The nights in the Grand Staircase are marvelous. For stargazers, you have a view of the sky that is unaffected by light pollution. In other words, what seems like millions and millions of stars cram the sky! Just so humbling to observe. Crickets sing throughout the evening, and the breeze is your friend if you've had a blistering day. Before I forget to mention it, I would recommend September as opposed to July to visit this area. We've found mid-September, though warm, is much nicer than the blazing heat of June/July/August. To each their own, but please come prepared if you go in the heat of summer. Fair warning!
We have stayed at the Boulder Guest Ranch our last two trips to the Escalante. This is an authentic ranch, which also offers cabins and tents to stay in. Family from Belgium stayed in the Indian tipi last September, and we stayed in the cowboy tent.
We felt such a part of the place, and our family loved the tipi! Prices are reasonable and won't break the bank. We would recommend making reservations at least six months in advance to make sure you have a place to put your head down. There is NOT much in the way of hotels in the area. Boulder itself only has a population of just over 200. The Boulder Mountain Lodge is a very nice hotel in Boulder proper (the Boulder Guest Ranch where we stayed is about 15 minutes' drive from Boulder), but it is not cheap. But for those looking for a "proper" hotel to stay at, the Boulder Mountain Lodge will more than meet your needs.
Which brings me to another high point of our trip to Boulder and the Grand Staircase-Escalante. Adjacent to the Boulder Mountain Lodge is Hell's Backbone Grill, one of the finest restaurants in the southwest of the United States.
What is so great about the place is the food, of course, but there is also more. The restaurant is farm-to-table and uses only local butchers. Our friend Ginger, who introduced us to the Escalante, helped the owners start the restaurant years ago. She arranged a tour of the farm during our first trip down, and it was fantastic to see and made us appreciate our food even more. The owners Blake Spaulding and Jennifer Castle are the best. Friendly service and a warm smile will always greet you. This restaurant has received accolades from Bon Appetit, the New York Times Travel Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and Oprah just to name a few! And the best part is the prices are so reasonable. If you are in Boulder, Hell's Backbone Grill is a must, and we strongly urge you to make a reservation. Hell's Backbone Grill is open from early May through November when they offer a Thanksgiving Day special. Breakfast is also very nice.
What else? As I've said, the Escalante is huge. I will limit the discussion to places we have visited but keep in mind there is much more, and I would encourage you to look it up. More, if you are serious about Utah and the southwest, purchase the book Photographing the Southwest: Volume 1 - Southern Utah (2nd Ed.) by Laurent Martres. This is my bible for photographing and for hiking in southern Utah. This book is worth every penny and more and will really provide the guidance you need to hike and photograph the true beauty of southern Utah. The second edition includes GPS coordinates. Martres has a series of books on the West, and each is a treasure.
We have been to many beautiful places in Escalante. One thing I've learned the hard way is if you are driving in Utah you will cross mountains and canyons. I have a fear of heights that Utah has forced me to face. The good news is, if I can overcome it, so can you! The Escalante does present said height challenges. For example, one of our favorite places to visit and I will cover in detail is Lower Calf Creek waterfall.
When you drive from the direction of Boulder, you cross what is called the Hogsback road. What is this? Hogsback is simply one of the most breathtaking stretches of Scenic Byway 12 in the Escalante. The vistas, while driving over make you literally gasp. You are driving through massive white and crimson canyons that seem impossible in scale. From both sides, whether coming or going the viewer is in for a visual smorgasbord. For some, the term "Sweet Jesus!" may escape their lips, and this is more than appropriate. As for me, I pray every time I cross Hogsback, not just because of the view but because of the thousand foot drops on either side! Oh yes. You may arrive at Hogsback as a non-believer, but I assure you as you drive this road, your belief in a higher authority may become a priority. My wife always marvels at the views no matter how many times we cross. Enjoy!
Now, onto the main show. Not the only show in this special place, but certainly one of our favorites. Once again credit to our friend Ginger for introducing us to the Lower Calf Creek Falls trail. On our first trip there, with a group of nine people total, we arrived at the trailhead on a blistering June morning. Ginger, to her credit, valiantly tried to rally the group by 8 a.m. As an experienced photographer, I appreciated her efforts, but it was not to be. We arrived between 10.30 and 11 a.m, much, much, too late. The sun was merciless as we started our hike which is a six miles round trip and takes a couple of hours. By the first 30 minutes the two children were feeling unwell, and, of course, their parents turned back. Maybe 20 minutes later we stopped to rest. My wife, Lutgart, was a pale shade of pink, flustered and not looking so great. I didn’t feel great at all. In fact, no one was eager to carry on. We started too late, didn't bring enough water and flat out were not prepared. Fortunately, a cool stream ran adjacent to our path and we all jumped in to break the heat. Regrettable, but hey, it would be there another day. Lesson learned.
A few months later my wife and I, along with our son, returned. We had family visiting from Belgium, and they were eager for round two and the hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls since we failed to reach it in June. This time we arrived just around 8 a.m with hats, and plenty of water. The day was cooler (80's instead of high 90's), and we set off before the sun crested the canyons. The red of the canyons was superb, and I happily dragged behind the group to capture the beauty.
The clash of autumn yellow trees against the red canyon rock was magnificent. The hike itself is not too strenuous as long as you have proper hiking shoes. The path stands out, and though you can get lost, you really must wander off to accomplish this. I would recommend not hiking it alone. That being said, people do it all the time. To each, their own but always let someone know where you are going!
As we started to approach our destination, we encountered people on the return leg, and everyone encouraged us to press on. Finally, we started to hear distant rumbling and our destination came into view. And what a view it was!
This makes absolutely no sense. If you think about it, we just hiked through the desert, a beautiful desert, but a desert nonetheless for three miles. What is this oasis doing out in the middle of nowhere is the magic question? Lower Calf Creek Falls is a truly remarkable earth gesture. What takes you by surprise is the size...very impressive. Another thing you will notice is the air is cool! From the thunder of the falls, the air coming off is chilly. Very refreshing after a hot, sweltering walk. Some brave souls may have the audacity to dive in. Just so the reader is aware, the water is ice cold! On our recent trip in September of 2016, one of our Belgium companions took the plunge! I salute him.
This hike is a must if you visit the Grand Staircase-Escalante. Calculate your water needs, and my strong advice is to stuff two more bottles somewhere. You will thank me. Sunscreen and hats are a MUST. Please don't do this hike without both. I have one cautionary note to pass on. Not too long ago I noticed a friend at work limping. I asked him why and he told me, "I hiked to this place called Lower Calf Creek Falls and got into trouble! I got lost, ran out of water, and got dehydrated. My legs were cramping so bad I had trouble walking, and I'm still hurting." I felt bad because I could have saved him a world of hurt and honestly his situation could have ended much worse than with sore legs. We personally never felt endangered during this hike. The Lower Calf Creek trail in itself isn't dangerous, but a lack of preparation for any hike is what will get most people in trouble. Oh, make sure you have a cooler of cold water waiting for you in the car for after the hike.
A couple of last notes for this hike. There are toilets at the beginning of the hike provided by the park service. There are no garbage cans. What you bring in, you take out. Start your hike early to avoid the heat and crowds! You can bring your dog, but please keep in mind some dogs are NOT built for the heat, so please think about it. Have cash with you to pay for parking, $5 will do. Lastly, if you want to reward yourself after the hike, go to Kiva Coffee House. Take a right as you drive out of the trailhead parking. Drive for about 3-5 minutes and look up to the right. You'll see the building on the hill. They have great sandwiches, coffee, and dessert. If you walk to the back, you'll find tables AND a fantastic view of the surrounding canyons. They also have rooms to stay in, overlooking the same beautiful scenery. We would love to wake up to these views one day; maybe for our anniversary...
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the famous Burr Trail Boulder and the Long Canyon about 15 minutes down the Burr Trail. The Burr Trail leads to some incredible views, and you will definitely want to stop at Long Canyon. It will be on the left side of the road and easy to miss. Looked for a parked car as a sign! If you drive to the end of the road, you can see clear to Capitol Reef National Park.
One last thing to mention before my fingers go numb. We stayed at the Boulder Guest Ranch the last two times. The road to the guest ranch is typical for the area, high and twisty, but you suck it up. It has a name, Hell's Backbone Road and for a good reason! Anyway, the road has a famous landmark about 20 minutes past the ranch. It is called Hell's Backbone Bridge. (Could it be anything else?) Stunning, along with the autumn foliage and mind blowing views, it is a must see. I will warn you the roads are high as you go further along. Apparently, someone forgot to add guard rails. ;-) We made it to a certain point that you see below but not to the bridge which, according to Google, was three minutes away. I froze. Guess I haven't totally conquered my fear of heights.
Enjoy the Grand-Staircase Escalante! A treasure of Utah and the West.
"A world has gone mad. It wears down the heart and empties out the soul leaving nothing but a numb feeling of hopelessness and despair. We look to the news, and it is all bad. Turn off your computers, your phones, and your fears and seek refuge in the colors of Autumn, the solitude of Winter, the hope of Spring and the warmth of Summer. Grab your hiking shoes and walk a beautiful shore. Grab your hiking shoes and climb that awesome mountain. This is where you'll find me walking the path."
Facebook/ Instagram: Mark Seawell Photography
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(From all of us at IR, Thank You, Mark!)
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