25 miles down a dirt road lie some hidden marvels. We headed deep into the heart of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument today to discover the fabled slot canyons, Spooky and Peek-a-boo. We also found a third, with a much less intriguing name, Dry Gulch.
Walking a mile down a nearly impassable road from the parking lot, we soon found the trailhead leading over the rim of the desert down into a land of hidden treasures. We have heard about the canyons and how to find them, but we had no idea what to expect. Some folks resting in the shade of a lone tree on the way down told us how to find the first slot canyon, by the shadow of a rock on a canyon wall. The way down was rather difficult, but the many rock cairns along the way helped us find the way in, snaking down the boulders leading into a large dry waterway.
Once we reached the bottom we found our way to the entrance to Dry Gulch. This place is a testament to the work of water and wind over eons. How nature carved such a narrow and deep slot in the Navajo Sandstone is a big question for me. As we traveled further in the hot desert morning soon gave way to a delicious coolness deep inside the walls of the slot, where the sun couldn’t reach.
We were halfway expecting to find water in the slots due to recent rains, but other than a few mucky muddy spots Dry Gulch was perfectly dry. This canyon was not so narrow as to need one to squeeze through sideways, but narrow enough to give someone claustrophobic the willies. The walls were smooth as can be, etched as they were so artfully by the elements. This area used to be a giant Sahara-like desert of sand. The Navaho Sandstone is actually the compressed remains of this great desert, such that the stone is gorgeously layered in thin lifts of solidified sand.
Next we moved on to Peek-a-boo. This little canyon required some bouldering up a rather daunting 15-foot pitch of stone. Mandy made it, but I stayed behind after some attempts as I couldn’t hoist myself up due to my bad shoulder and the sandals that I wore expecting a watery bottom. This canyon was a wonderland of arches and amazing switchbacks. One arch only allowed one to crawl through on hands and knees.
Now, on to Spooky. So aptly named. This canyon immediately narrowed to now more than a foot wide in many spots. We had to remove our camelbacks to carry them in front of us. And a narrow passageway soon became even narrower, forcing one to shimmy through sideways, sometimes with arms raised. Thankfully we only met one other person coming out near the entrance, so no need to get intimate with a stranger, trying to pass in such confines.
After roughly half a mile we met a steep and forbidding wall of stone, definitely climbable but not without contortions. We decided at this point to back out the way we came. Luckily we didn’t know about and therefore didn’t seek out Brimstone Canyon. This one apparently has quicksand in addition to winding narrow passageways!
We are now getting settled into our first Campground Host position, at Calf Creek Recreation Area, inside Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, in southern Utah. We jumped right into work the day after our arrival – on a busy Friday. The days since have since been full of cleaning campsites, checking the restrooms, answering questions and most of all, helping people park. We’ve jokingly said that we’re not really Park Hosts, but more ParkING hosts. The parking lot gets pretty full with limited parking, so we’ve been parking folks in the entry road leading back up the hill towards the Highway, helping to avoid traffic jams in our little corner of the world.
This is such an amazing setting. We are in a deep canyon surrounded on all sides by towering “Navajo Sandstone” walls.
When one passes on the high, climbing highway beyond we are the teeny Airstream down in the parking lot. The light on the canyon walls is stunning to observe throughout the day. On many evenings we have parked our camp chairs behind the Airstream to watch the light change on the stone as the sun sets.
And then, when the stars come out, OMG, it’s simply amazing to behold! The skies are so light pollution-free that one immediately sees the Milky Way, then as eyes adjust maybe a shooting star or a satellite passing overhead. This remote land is said to have some of the best stargazing in the country. Think about that dry desert air and you can imagine how sharp the points of light are.
Yesterday, since it was a Monday following a very busy weekend, we decided to strike out and see Lower Calf Creek Falls. This is the main attraction at this Recreation Area, and most people that visit hike the 3-4 hour, 6 mile roundtrip trail. The trail is mostly flat and sandy, carrying one up the canyon past stunning rock formations and some other surprises. We knew what to expect, but were still amazed once we reached the Pictograph viewpoint. Across the canyon, are three large figures painted with red pigment. With their trapezoidal shape, depiction of arms and legs, and elaborate head dresses, these images are typical of the culture known as the Fremont. Archeologists speculate that it may represent significant events, religious ceremonies, deities, lineages, maps or even warnings.
There are also supposed to be Fremont culture granaries high on the canyon walls, but they are so well camouflaged that we could not spot them. Maybe next time. Finally, at the end of the hike, one enters a wetland zone. Cattail, common reed, river birch, cottonwood, false soloman’s seal, and willow are among the plants thriving in the bottom of the canyon. As one rounds the bend the sound of water picks up and you soon realize you are listening to a waterfall.
The waterfall is 126 feet tall, and emanates from many springs above the Upper Falls. Mist from the falls and the tall canyon walls create a much cooler zone here, and the walls flanking the falls are covered in maiden hair ferns. We could have stayed for hours, just gazing at the falls and watching the patterns of the falling water and mist. Mandy even swam in, although it was very cold.
We would like to come back in a rainstorm to see other waterfalls that appear on the canyon walls. Water is such a precious commodity here in the high desert, and it is very unusual to see so much of it in one place. I am writing now to the sound of Calf Creek running through the campground, which is also in a rich riparian zone.
I could never imagine what seeing a whale in the wild was like; until today. On our return hike to East Sooke Park we heard before we saw a whale-watching boat. As it drew nearer we could hear people cheering and whooping. We ran to a clear spot to see the action and we had our reward: a pod of at least 10 Orca Whales about 1/2 mile off the coast. We sat and watched them for about 20 minutes. The Orcas looked like they were having a good time – a couple of them even slapped their tails on the surface of the water! We were close enough that we could hear the spouting as well as see the mist, although the video didn’t pick up the sound of the spouts. The majesty and beauty of the creatures is really something to behold. And the freedom they enjoy! The larger adults appeared to be shepherding the younger ones as they swam along. It’s amazing how much they come out of the water as they make their way. Seals beware! The video is about 1:20. Enjoy!
Today we ventured westward on the Southern End of Vancouver Island to the town of Sooke and up to the Sooke Potholes. Kind of an unimposing name for something that takes your breath away. I’ve seen Yosemite Falls which is incredibly tall and Niagara Falls which is incredibly wide and powerful, but the waterfalls that formed the Sooke Potholes are incredible because you can get truly up close and personal with them.
We were introduced to the Potholes further down on the Sooke River, but they became ever more spectacular the more we explored upriver. You soon understand why they are called Potholes, for the holes and shapes that the forceful river has carved into the granite. In this photo you see the panorama above the Potholes, whilst listening to the powerful roar of the raging river below. Basically, we followed the roar of the river until we came to the most impressive waterfalls at the Potholes themselves.
At the top of the waterfalls we climbed down the rocks until we were sitting right in front of the loudest and most interesting one. I could have stayed for hours, observing Mother Nature hard at work. The closer you look into the waterfall the more clearly you can see water shooting out in all directions through the holes in the rock. The gorge was at our left, where the roaring river was cloaked in mystery.
All in all a very rewarding day; one I won’t soon forget!
This day started like any other. A night or two at a campground followed by the next day’s drive. This day, though, contained a little more action than I typically like, during the daily drive. We were looking for the road to the Quinalt Rain Forest, in the southwestern corner of Olympic National Park. I was leading the way with the rig and took what turned out to be a wrong turn. We passed through a quaint village and some homes deep in the forest, but the road soon narrowed into a single track. Not exactly the place you want to be towing a 27 foot trailer! I kept driving, hoping for some kind of turnaround, but the road only got narrower and narrower. Eventually I saw a sign for “School Bus Turnaround” but it turned out to be not large enough for me to turn around in. To use it, I would have had to perform a three-point turn. But, and I’ll make a confession here and now: I DON’T KNOW HOW TO BACK UP! So far we’ve been lucky with pull-through campsites and mostly ample gas stations, but there had to come a point where I would be confronted by my ignorance. i made a couple attempts at the three-pointer, but the trailer always seemed to go opposite of how I wanted. And Sofie, my riding companion, was getting pretty anxious! MISSION ABORT! Luckily some nice locals came by and offered to lead the way out, to a bridge up the way connecting our road with a road out. The road soon turned to gravel and we were consumed by a cloud of dust. The road over the bridge leading back to the main highway had a big sign recommending against RV’s due to narrowness and terrain, but at this point I was committed. The cloud of dust grew denser and the rig was rockin’ and rollin.’ Soon pavement was under the tires again and we stopped to meet our saviors and all had a good laugh. “I hope you don’t hate me for that,” said the leader. “I hope you don’t hate me for taking you an hour out of your way!” I replied.
Soon we got to our main destination – the amazing Hoh Rainforest! Things have been pretty dry in these parts, so we didn’t see the giant mushrooms and giant slugs I remember from my visit as a kid, but the flora was breathtaking nonetheless. This forest is as primeval as it gets.
We were thinking our walk through East Sooke Regional Park would be “a walk in the park”, but it was anything but. East Sooke is on the coast of the Strait of Juan De Fuca coastline about 15 miles west of Victoria, on Vancouver Island. These pristine woods must look like the entire island looked before so many parts were logged for settlement and lumber.
This little guy greeted us as we made our way to the beach. We rescued a couple of banana slugs off the trail to save them from being trampled. “I’ve been slimed!” is the appropriate exclamation after picking one up for rescue!
Levar’s been sick for the past several days, so we decided to post him on whale watch in a hammock on his own private “island”, giving him time to rest and recover. He had a commanding view of the Strait and the Olympic Range whilst scanning for sea life.
Meanwhile, Mandy and I took off for our “walk.” The Coast Trail turned out to be a pretty arduous jaunt! The coast is extremely rocky, so one is continuously ascending or descending the rocks lining the little bays. It turned out to be a pretty good workout; today my muscles are aching, in a good way. We were rewarded with many interesting vistas. Around one turn we spotted a GIANT root mass washed up in a cove. It looked like an installation of art of some sort. Sort of Andrew Goldsworthy meets Emily Carr in British Columbia.
What started out as a typical day of hiking soon turned into anything but typical. Little did we know that there was a wildfire raging just outside the eastern entrance to the Park, off Highway 120 leading into Toulamne Meadows! To start with the hiking; we were hardly acclimated to the high elevation (7,500 – 8,250 feet). After some study and debate, we chose a hike starting at Porcupine Creek, east of the Toulamne Meadows visitor center. This hike held great promise. With moderate elevation gain and the promise of a reward at the end, we were hooked. The fact of the matter, though, was it was pretty tough going. Lots of ups and downs and temperature in the high 80’s had us huffing and puffing, with lots of breaks to catch our breath. After 4 miles we had our reward: a commanding view of Half Dome, Glacier Point, the high Sierras and Yosemite Valley. We contemplated life for an hour or so and headed back to the car.
It turns out luck was on our side. We should have stopped back at Toulumne Meadows, Olmstead Point, Lembert Dome or Tenaya Lake, but we merely slowed down for a gaze.
After passing these sites and nearing the eastern edge of the Park, we were greeted with a stopped line of cars a mile long full of people scratching their heads as to what was going on. In time, a park ranger came by to say that there was a fire coming up the other side of the mountain, opposite Highway 120 and that it “wasn’t in his jurisdiction” to escort us any further. We waited for what must have been an hour until the California Highway Patrol finally arrived to escort us out of the Park. The line of cars moved slowly down the mountainous road and all were soon struck by the visage of a wildfire underway on the crest of the mountain.
Kind of scary, but at least we were at a safe (?) distance. We were basically the last group of cars escorted out before Highway 120 was closed – for days. All along the main north south highway leaving Lee Vining people were parked all along the roadside, cell phones in hand, snapping pictures. Enough excitement for one day!