Letters From a Bus
May 2008: Springtime High Plateau
2nd entry for May

Driving Over the Escalante Staircase

Hatch, UT, Day Nine at Cherokee Springs Golf & RV Park, Site: I-18

Saturday, May 3, 2008 — Eleven Months

Saturday, May 3.  We drive 100 miles east to Boulder across the Escalante Staircase on Highway 12.

When we were in Las Vegas, looking at Hoover Dam and the Overton Arms finger of Lake Mead, created by the drainage of the Virgin River, I just didn’t get that the Virgin River was a major river. I'd never heard of it. The Virgin cut Zion Canyon and created the scenery in the Zion Canyon National Park that we next visited.  Later, as we stood at the Bryce Canyon National Park view points, looking east into the amphitheater and beyond, I began to understood that Zion and the Virgin River are a small part of an enormous, geologically scenic territory. By then I knew that we were looking across the Kaiparowits Plateau, a remote and wild area where the last marooned villages in the United States: Tropic, Cannonville, Henrieville, Escalante and Boulder were only recently connected by a modern highway in the forties.  “Highway 12…crosses the last wilderness in the lower United States to be explored by European Americans.”[1]

I thought of these two parks, Zion and Bryce, as being separate but they are not.  They are part of an immense area that incorporates most of southern Utah.  In fact, the entire Colorado Plateau incorporates not only Utah but parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona as well.  It contains the drainage of the Colorado River and includes the Green River, the Colorado River, the Grand River, the San Juan River, and the Little Colorado River, as well as the Sevier River and the Virgin River and many others like the Paria River and the Escalante River. Along the length of Highway 12 there are two national parks, a national monument and two state parks. The sideroads of Highway 12 access another state park, a national recreation area, wilderness areas and BLM land.

At the heart of this 83-million-acre plateau is the recently created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  John Wesley Powell coined the phrase, Grand Staircase.  He described a “great stairway” of geologic layers climbing from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon.  The monument is divided into three parts.  The western portion is called the Grand Staircase.  The middle is known as the Kaiparowits Plateau.  The Cockscomb separates the Grand Staircase from the Kaiparowits.  Escalante Canyons is the name for the Eastern segment.  The Straight Cliffs separates Kaiparowits from Escalante. (See Map of Grand Staircase Escalante Monument and Surrounding Areas, below.)

All quotes in this letter, unless otherwise noted, refer to Highway 12 by Christian Probasco, who has thought a lot more about this area than I have.

Map of Grand Staircase Escalante Monument and Surrounding Areas

In Highway 12, I read, “The hamlet of Boulder…was once the most isolated town in the United States.”  Why?  Because as Probasco puts it, “the reach of land off Highway 12’s southern edge is the most broken-up, inaccessible, intractable, inhospitable country on the face of the earth, and it is unlike anything else on the earth.”  Highway 12 crosses the Escalante Mountains and then turns south to parallel the last river on the continent to be discovered, the Escalante River.  East of the Escalante, the “Henry Mountains…were the last mountains on the continent to be named.”  The Escalante River descends along the Straight Cliffs into Glen Canyon. 

But wait!  Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon are far away to the south in Arizona, right? I reach for my map. I've spent time making maps to include in this letter, one, because I like to make them, and two, because it helps me to memorize and understand this territory — heretofore brand new to me.

Way up here on the Paunsaugunt Plateau, at over 7,000’ above sea level, it is difficult for me to comprehend that the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon are so nearby.  Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is less than sixty miles southeast of Bryce Canyon (as the crow flies).  From Kanab on SR-89 we drove north 57 miles to this RV Park near Hatch.  But we could have turned east on US-89 and driven a little over sixty miles to Glen Canyon and Powell Lake.  The Green River, joined by the Grand River to become the mighty Colorado River had to cut canyons down through this incredibly rough country — down through these "towering, demented stone cliffs" to create the Grand Canyon. 

Sitting at high elevation, this is very rough country and it is extremely impressive.  Our touring efforts will only scratch the surface and tackling the Escalante Staircase seemed daunting to me.  Nevertheless, on Saturday, May third we felt ready to take on Highway 12 and drive 100 miles east across the Escalante Staircase to Boulder — “the last town in the lower forty-eight states to receive its mail by pack-mule.”  Boulder is situated on the Aquarius Plateau, “the highest forested plateau in North America.  Highway 12 runs through the largest exposure of cross-bedded sandstone on earth, and that sandstone is the remains of what may have been the largest sand desert in the history of the earth.”

At 9:30 am we set out, stopping to get fuel in Hatch and breakfast at the Pines.  At eleven we began our drive east past Bryce (Ruby's Inn), and south to Tropic and Cannonville, then northeast to Henrieville and Escalante. 

Map of Roads & Highways: Our Route from Cherokee Springs to Boulder
Dennis is putting gas into the Honda at All American Fuel in Hatch. I am next door standing in an empty RV park looking south. 05/03/08 9:50 am Leaving Hatch, we drive north on SR-89 along the Sevier River. They are still doing a controlled burn by one of the canyons below the Sunset Cliffs. 05/03/08 10:03 am
Traveling east on SR-12, we pass Bryce Canyon on the south as we begin to descend into the Bryce Amphitheater. 05/03/08 11:08 am Looking west, we stop at a trailhead called Mossy Cave in the amphitheater below Bryce. 05/03/08 11:12 am
Driving south, we passed through Tropic and saw fields being watered — but they turn to ice! It is 49° in Tropic. Just past Tropic at Cannonville, SR-12 turns east leaving the Paria River to flow south into the Colorado River — when it has water to flow. 05/03/08 11:08 am
Just across the street from Mossy Cave is this south view of the Paria River. It is completely dry. The headwaters of the Paria are diverted from the first of April until the first of November. The wash was used for transportation and is still used by ATVs and four-wheel drives. 05/03/08 11:13 am
We are at 5,960' el. I liked this big tree. It is 55° in Henrieville. Just south of here is Kodachrome Basin State Park but we didn't stop. We plan to move to an RV Park in Escalante and then we can further explore this area at leisure. 05/03/08 11:33 am
We saw this table top to our north just before we entered Henrieville. Is this Coal Bench? 05/03/08 11:28 am
The Kaiparowits Formation is known locally as The Blues. They're a uniform, drab allcharite-gray. "The strata are slumped and streaked with brown stains and studded with pinyon and juniper and wiry saltbrush." 05/03/08 11:40 am Much of the Kaiparowit's blue-gray hue was imparted by carbon from decomposed vegetation. It currently attracts worldwide paleontological research. A recently discovered specimen represents an entirely new genus of Ceratopsia, a monster horned plant eater.
05/03/08 11:47 am
Looking east, we are climbing the southern spine of the Escalante Mts. Are these ugly gray slopes part of the Kaiparowits Formation? 05/03/08 11:47 am We reach the summit at 7,651' el. Powell Point, also called Pink Point can be seen in the pink cliffs in the distance. 05/03/08 11:52 am
Highway 12 runs along and over tablelands.  It crosses the Paunsaugunt Plateau and drops through the Paria Amphitheater on the far side, then gradually rises over the flank of the Aquarius Plateau.  (See Map of Geologic Features, below.)

Clarence Edward Dutton who accompanied Major Powell in his explorations of the Grand Canyon, deciphered the geology of the Grand Canyon and the tablelands on the west edge of the Colorado Plateau in his books.  In his Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon he writes, “The lover of nature, whose perceptions have been trained in the Alps, in Italy, Germany, or New England, in the Appalachians or Cordilleras, in Scotland or Colorado, would enter this strange region with a shock, and dwell here for a time with a sense of oppression, and perhaps with horror….But time would bring a gradual change.” 

I felt this same sense of oppression as we progressed into the heart of these badlands.

Looking northwest back towards the Paunsaugunt Plateau. 05/03/08 11:53 am View of Powell Point to the north. It is the promontory at the south end of the Table Cliffs. At this viewpoint is an information sign about Major Powell. 05/03/08 11:54 am


John Wesley Powell.  The name alone invokes thoughts of adventure, bravery, exploration and men pitted against nature.  Powell expeditions of 1869-1872 on the Green and Colorado Rivers have sparked the imaginations of readers and river runners for more than a hundred years.

Powell’s explorations were more than adventures.  They provided valuable information about unmapped regions.  Powell Point was used as a landmark survey point by the Powell Expedition.  Powell Point dominates the landscape, rising 10,188 feet above sea level.

Descending east-northeast from the Escalante Mts., we approached the town of Escalante.  Just before, we stopped to look at a cliff labeled “Cliff Dwellings” on our map.  Immediately north of the highway at this point is the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park.  Several creeks run into this valley.  Highway 12 follows Upper Valley Creek, which is joined from the north by Birch Creek, North Creek, Pine Creek, and others.  East of Escalante, the combined creeks turn south and become the Escalante River, which drains into the Colorado River near Hole-in-the-Rock. 
We stop to look at a series of tall cliffs situated on the north side of the highway. There are many places in these cliffs where the Fremont Indians stored grain. One of the major graneries was located in the arch seen above. 05/03/08 12:14 pm This photo is taken at the same location. We are stopped on the south side of the highway to look at the Cliff Dwellings. Escalante is straight ahead to the east. We are following a dry wash in an arid valley, Upper Valley Creek. It is about 52° and the elevation is about 6,270'. 05/03/08 12:14 pm
The sign at the Cliff Dwellings viewpoint reads, "Imagine trying to reach the third floor of your apartment building without the use of stairs or an elevator.  Now try carrying groceries with you.  This is exactly what the Fremont Indians did many years ago. The structures before you were used by the Fremont culture as granaries between 1050 to 1200 A.D.  The Fremont were a hunting and gathering society who supplemented that way of life by growing corn, beans, and squash. It is bad luck to disturb the ancient ones.  Besides, all Archeological sites on public lands are protected by Federal Law.  Pease enjoy viewing the site from a distance."

We arrived in Escalante at 12:30 pm and spent quite a lot of time at the Visitor’s Center.  I found some better trail maps and we tried to understand this strange landscape through which we were passing.  The town of Escalante is the largest of the series of small towns on Highway 12.  It has an RV Park and some groceries and places to eat.  We plan to move down to this area after we’ve finished exploring the Paunsaugunt and Sevier Plateaus west of Bryce Canyon.

Just east of Escalante we stopped at the trailhead of the famous fifty mile dirt road to Hole-in-the-Rock. The trail runs south to the Colorado River along the Straight Cliffs and parallels the Escalante River that is to the east of the trail.

The Escalante Visitor's Center is large and comprehensive. They were very helpful. It is 69° and we are at 5,900' el.
05/03/08 12:36 pm
Now that we've gotten a taste of back road explorations we wish we could drive to Hole-In-The-Rock. But it is a long tough road and I have my doubts that the Honda would make it very far. 05/03/08 1:31 pm

Hole-in-the-Rock gets its name from a narrow chute to the Colorado River, now the surface of Lake Powell. The sign reads as follows.

"It took pioneers 6 weeks to travel this route, but today you can drive it in approximately 6 hours.  Drive the forgotten route to famous Hole-in-the-Rock located on the cliffs high above Lake Powell.

An Impossible Trek
In 1879 the Mormon Church formed the San Juan Mission to colonize southeastern Utah.  Over 200 people responded to the call and gathered in Escalante to pioneer a direct route to the San Juan Country. With 83 wagons and hundreds of head of livestock they traveled over seemingly impassable terrain to fulfill their mission.  The most notable feat was the cutting of a road down Hole-in-the-Rock, a narrow notch in the 1,200 foot high cliff above the Colorado River. Building the road down Hole-in-the-Rock required six weeks.  The entire 270 mile journey, which ended at present day Bluff, Utah took six months.

Hole-in-the-Rock Scenic Backway takes you into a very remote and beautiful area.  Because of the remoteness, travelers are advised to take plenty of water and a full tank of gas.  This road may be impassible when wet.  If you are unsure, please check with the Escalante Interagency Office before proceeding.

55 miles to Hole-in-the-Rock, high clearance vehicle required last 5 miles."

Map of Geologic Features & Parks in Piute, Sevier, Wayne, Garfield, Kane and San Juan Counties, Utah

A short distance beyond the Hole-in-the-Rock trailhead, on the north side of the road we came to a large view area at 6,190' el. Before us to the northeast, north and northwest was a wide vista looking toward the Aquarius Plateau, Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area, the little town of Boulder, Capitol Reef National Park and the Henry Mountains. However, the panoramic sign had me quite puzzled and I wasn't the only one. I spent time with a very pleasant woman from an RV parked nearby. Point by point we compared the sketch on the sign to the horizon in front of our eyes. We were kidding around because I said something like, "No, you're right, that's Boulder Top."

She laughed and said, "Say that again! My husband never tells me I'm right!" We were able to match the identified points until we got up to landmarks like Lake Powell and Navaho Mt. They lay due south of our position. Finally we understood that the imaginary horizon on the sign made a 360° circle.

Above, we've reached the Monument. 05/03/08 1:42 am Below, I've matched sections of the sketch on the information sign to photos I took of the same scene. After I took this photo I talked with the woman in black standing at the sign with her husband, hidden, wearing a red cap. The guy drinking from a soda can was sitting there when we arrived and when we left.
05/03/08 1:53 am
Panoramic Viewpoint. 05/03/08 1:56 pm
We were facing the view outlook towards the north. I was able to match my photos to the sketch from west to east until I got up to this point when the artist simply painted the rest of the scene facing south and continuing from east to west. This portion wasn't visible from our vantage point so it was pure fantasy. It sure confused me because I knew Lake Powell and Navajo Mt. were behind us to the south and I knew the Kaiparowits Plateau was to the east. The sign did not explain that we were supposed to be looking at a 360° view.

The landmarks on the list from west to east are:
1) Aquarius Plateau, 2) Boulder Top, 3) Dry Bench,
4) Impossible Peak, 5) Escalante River, 6) Mt. Ellen,
7) Mt. Pennell, 8) Mt. Hillers, 9) Phipps Wash,
10) Little Rockies, 11) Circle Cliffs,
12) Waterpocket Fold, 13) Escalante Pt.,
14) Red Breaks, 15) Lake Powell, 16) Navajo Mt.,
17) Kaiparowits Plateau.

Our viewpoint is marked with a pink circumference circle in dashes on the map above.

Elsa poses at the edge of this panoramic viewpoint. 05/03/08 1:54 pm Leaving the panorama, we stop briefly at this viewpoint to let the dogs out of the car. We have driven 88 miles. The temperature is 61° and we are at 5,660' el.
05/03/08 2:00 pm
Just beyond, we go around a corner and stop to look at this amazing shelf on the south side of the road. 05/03/08 2:03 pm This scenery reminds me of high elevation locations in the Sierra Nevada where I backpacked on the granite shield — but this is sandstone. 05/03/08 2:03 pm
We walk out on the shelf looking south.
05/03/08 2:03 pm
One could easily hike a long ways on terrain like this — if there were water to be found. 05/03/08 2:04 pm
Above, the road turns north as we continue towards Boulder. 05/03/08 2:08 pm
Right, Dennis climbs up a stone wall to the cliff at Boynton Lookout to look north-westward back towards the Aquarius Plateau. 05/03/08 2:10 pm
This is what Dennis sees. We are looking down into the Escalante River Canyon. 05/03/08 2:11 pm We are stopped on the left side of the road at the Boynton Lookout looking towards Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area. 05/03/08 2:11 pm
At the overlook there is a sign with an account of how Washington Phipps shot and killed his one-time partner John Boynton. 05/03/08 2:12 pm Phipps turned himself in to local authorities who gave him $10 to go to the Sheriff in Kanab. He was never heard from again. 05/03/08 2:12 pm
In Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah, Dutton tells us that on a geologic scale the Plateau is rapidly expiring, being worn down to sea level by intense erosion.  From the Wasatch Plateau, the land below and beyond is “a picture of desolation and decay; of a land dead and rotten, with dissolution apparent all over its face.”  He states that the lesson taught by this region is EROSION. 

In Highway 12, Probasco agrees and says, “At every level this is a place where aspects of the earth have been subtracted out.  It is a negative earth.  Mountains used to stand where the Grand Canyon is now entrenched, and the High Plateaus, with their black lava caps, are all that remains of a level ashplain….These strata record dozens of regimes: an enormous sand desert, perhaps the largest in the world’s history, and inland seas, lakes, sloughs and lush gardens.”  In High Plateau, Dutton continues the thought.  “The strata which are cut off successively upon the slopes formerly reached out indefinitely and covered the entire country to the remotest boundary of vision.  Their fading remnants are still discernible, forming buttes and mesas scattered over the vast expanse.”

Negative space — we are looking at what was once a level plain at this elevation or higher. Now it is eroded and become nearly impassable. It is a beautiful but a very tough environment.

On a lighter note, we left the Boynton Lookout and around a few more corners we stumbled onto a reassuringly domestic scene amid this wilderness. Most unexpectedly, a coffee house is perched above the canyon. An amazing view can be seen from the terrace of Kiva Kottage Koffeehouse. Who would think to build a coffee shop here? Why of course, a man from Carmel, CA who moved here in the seventies. Brad Boman must have been thinking of the famous Nepenthe, built on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean on Highway One. Unfortunately, we felt we couldn't stop because we wanted to get to Boulder before the day got too late. Next time.

A view of the Escalante River Canyon can be seen from the parking lot of Kiva Koffeehouse. 05/03/08 2:17 pm Below the parking lot we could see this inviting coffee house nestled under the cliff. 05/03/08 2:17 pm
Dropping down, we see a ranch in the river valley. 05/03/08 2:27 pm The Escalante River turns south and we drive north passing Calf Creek Campground. 05/03/08 2:30 pm
We drive up through Calf Creek Canyon beneath red ledgerock and overhangs. 05/03/08 2:30 pm At the upper end we see this rock tower. Dennis says it's a sculpture of a lizard sitting up to look around. 05/03/08 2:33 pm
Having climbed a fourteen percent grade into the Navajo Sandstone we come to the top of Haymaker Bench. 05/03/08 2:35 pm I check my map. Is this the canyon created by Sand Creek flowing out of Box-Death Hollow?
05/03/08 2:39 pm

Designated an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration, Highway 12 is one of only twenty roads in the nation to receive this distinction and as such it is ranked with the Seward Highway in Alaska, Highway One along the Big Sur Coast in California, and Wyoming’s Beartooth Scenic Byway.  “Most of the layers of the Colorado Plateau…are preserved in a nearly horizontal configuration, yet in terms of travel, the terrain ranges from difficult to impassible because…the land is broken and abrupt, incised, anguished.” 

Without having to scale or blast through innumerable rock barriers, the only way roads could be constructed through this land is to follow the course of a hogback or the floor of a gulch and this makes for a spectacular road.  In one section, Highway 12 rises to the Hogback, near a portion of the old road between Escalante and Boulder called Hell’s Backbone.

Having driven 96 miles from our RV Park, at an elevation of 6,260' we have arrived at The Hogsback.

Elsa stands near the canyon. 05/03/08 2:39 pm

The viewpoint sign reads:

"Take A Deep Breath
As you drive over the narrow ridge of the Hogsback it is easy to imagine that you walking a circus high wire.  This 29 mile section of road was sometimes referred to as “the million dollar road to Boulder” by its creators the Civilian Conservation Corp.  Completed on June 21, 1940, the road provided the first year-round automobile mail service for the people of Boulder."

On the right side is a sketch of Lower Calf Creek Falls. It "plummets" 129 feet into a "turquoise blue" pool. If we stopped at Calf Creek Recreation Area and hiked up the canyon for 5.5 miles we could see it.

Probasco says, "Hell's Backbone Road gets its name from the knife-edge ridge that runs above Sand Creek."

Sand Creek is on the west side of this ridge. On the east is another precipitous canyon, Dry Hollow and Boulder Creek, which runs south into the Escalante River.

A bit further north on the road we stop at another viewpoint and look at this sign. We are at the beginning of The Hogsback. 05/03/08 2:45 pm
Elsa poses nonchalantly on the edge of Sand Creek Canyon. 05/03/08 2:46 pm Sand Creek Canyon forms the west side of the ridge known as The Hogback.
05/03/08 2:47 pm
Sand Creek Canyon. Somewhere down there is Lower Calf Creek Falls. 05/03/08 2:47 pm Looking north, as you can see, the Hogsback is not much wider than the road. Boulder is ahead.
05/03/08 2:50 pm

The viewpoint sign reads:

"The Settlement of Boulder
On June 22, 1889 Amasa and Roseanna Lyman brought their family from the town of Grover to settle in Upper Boulder. Amasa and his son Vern cut down trees and moved heavy boulders to pull their wagon through the seemingly impossible terrain.

The town of Boulder maintained the reputation of being isolated from the rest of the world, until the mid 1930's. It has been said, that Boulder was the last town in the United States to receive its mail via pack mule."

Until Highway 12 was built in 1940, Boulder could not be accessed from the south because of the many canyons. It was reached by a long northern detour across the Aquarius Plateau.

Probasco adds, "In 1895, Amasa and Roseannah Lyman and their children and horses and a pig became the first to take a wagon down this route and then on to Boulder, but they had to disassemble the wagon at the base of Haymaker Bench and haul it up in pieces, and reassemble it for the rest of the rough trip over the bench and down into Boulder Creek and out to Boulder itself." Probasco makes it sound as if they made their approach from Escalante because he is talking about old roads between Escalante and Boulder before Highway 12 was built. But I am confused because the Lymans moved from Grover, which is north of Boulder Mountain and 32 miles north of Boulder on Highway 12. Did Lyman have to make his approach from the south and ascend Haymaker Bench from the bottom of Calf Creek Canyon — as we did on the road?

At last we reached our goal for our Highway 12 drive, the tiny town of Boulder. Naturally I wanted to stop and take a break. We drove 104 miles from Cherokee Springs RV Park. We'd been driving since we left the Pines Restaurant at 11:00 am. I was due for coffee and a piece of pie before we drove back for over 100 miles.

There are three restaurants in town and we chose Boulder Mesa Restaurant. The restaurant sits at 6,630' el.

This turned out to be a hilarious interlude. From the menu I chose something called Cajun Blueberry Pie. It is a cold pie that sets up in the refrigerator. It had lots of blueberries and it was topped with toasted pecans. I loved it. I asked if we could buy a whole pie to take with us but they were out. I bought their last two pieces of pie as takeout. In the process I met the owner of the restaurant and asked for the recipe. Nope, it's an old family secret. She was sitting at the counter with her chef. He said she'd kill him if he told — but he'd seen similar in a magazine.

"What magazine? What year, what month?" I told them I'd sic my gourmet friends onto the problem. We had a lot of fun kidding around. I wish I'd taken a photo of them.

At last we are within sight of the small town of Boulder, situated on the Aquarius Plateau. 05/03/08 3:01 pm
We stop to rest at Boulder Mesa Restaurant.
05/03/08 3:15 pm
Interior of Boulder Mesa Restaurant. 05/03/08 3:17 pm
On our way back we stopped before the Hogback to walk the dogs. The ridge is wider here and there are many RVs hidden amidst the Junipers and Cedars. There is a trail down to the canyon. 05/03/08 4:13 pm Once again we cross the Hogsback. 05/03/08 4:22 pm
Before we reach Escalante, I take a photo of the cliffs that are a sillouette in evening. 05/03/08 5:35 pm We pull into Cherokee Springs Rd. The sunset reflects on the Sunset Cliffs above our camp. 05/03/08 6:27 pm

Altogether we drove 213 miles and we were away from the bus for nine hours. That's a long day for me but it was an amazing trip. Now we know we have to return to explore more of the side roads on the Escalante Staircase. And I have many questions to ask at the Escalante Visitor's Center.

But meanwhile we are happy on the Paunsaugunt Plateau. We want to go back to SR-22 and drive up to Pine Lake and around the Escalante Mountains. We have more to see in Bryce and Red Canyons. We want to see the part of the plateau above us and drive up the East Fork of the Sevier River to Tropic Reservoir. Also, Further exploration of the Escalante Staircase and the Kaiparowits Plateau will have to wait....

We surprise a deer crossing the road as we drive to our RV Park. 05/03/08 6:27 pm
Elsa Walton, Cherokee Springs Golf & RV Park, Hatch, UT, Saturday, May 3, 2008