Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Bryce Canyon National Park is beautiful but, within any reasonable walking distance of a car, essentially urban.  In fact, given that nearly all of the conversations that one overhears are in French, Italian, or German, Bryce is positively cosmopolitan.  Wanting to explore the backcountry a bit without wearing out my feet, I drove SE on Utah Highway 12.  This is billed as “the most scenic highway in America” and seems to genuinely deserve the title.

After 15 minutes the sign for “Kodachrome Basin State Park” appeared.  This is a beautiful peaceful place with a good paved road all through it.  I figured I’d come back and bike around a bit after the mid-day heat wore off.  I pointed the rental Buick down Cottonwood Canyon Road, a 46-mile red dirt track that cuts nearly the way south to highway 89 to Page, Arizona.  This is Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created in 1996 by Bill Clinton.  The scenery is fantastic.  You can hike or mountain bike if you want to, even bring your dog.  But really the vistas are magnificent just viewed from the driver’s seat.

After a few miles the road went down to the bottom of a steep wide wash and forded a stream that was perhaps 10′ wide and 6″ deep.  I kept going.  A bit of rain started to fall.  Hmm…  rain in the desert.  That little tiny stream had sure cut a deep steep wash.  Maybe it got bigger after a rain.  Perhaps a lot bigger.  I turned the Buick around, resolving to get back across that stream before it had time to swell.  Before I’d gone back 1 mile the road liquified and became as slick as ice.  You couldn’t even walk on it without slipping.  I maneuvered the car to the right side of the road and shut down.  Ten minutes later two cars carrying 8 Dutch tourists came skidding sideways to a halt behind me.  They’d come all the way up from the south and were on their way to Bryce.  As the rain continued it seemed possible that we wouldn’t get out before the next morning.  I took an inventory of the trunk  tent, pad, sleeping bag, food, 3 gallons of water.  Could be worse.

After an hour the rain had stopped and the road was drying out.  The Dutch folks took off and I followed 15 minutes later.  I caught up to them at the little stream.  It was 25′ wide, maybe 3′ deep, and raging with a fast current.  Periodically a huge section of the stream’s canyon would fall away and collapsed into the stream with a loud noise and a substantial dust cloud.

We sat for an hour, watching people in SUVs and 4WD pickups approach from the other side of the stream, get out of their car to have a look, and make a U-turn back to the pavement.  The Dutch turned around and decided to drive back the way they’d come, a 150-mile detour if you wanted to get to Bryce.  Local rancher Jim Milne, his wife Christine, and dog Stubby, showed up every now and then on the opposite back in their white 4WD pickup to see if Christine’s dad was coming up from my side of the ford.  Three Navajo in a jacked-up red pickup truck came roaring in from Jim and Christine’s side of the stream.  It was about 1.5 hours after I’d arrived at the site and the flood waters had receded quite a bit.  They made it across uneventfully.  The water wasn’t much more than 1′ deep at this point but the banks of the ford were extremely muddy and had been cut much more steeply than when I’d crossed just a few hours earlier.

Jim brought a shovel out from his pickup and started to dig out the bank on his side.  “C’mon, gun her across and you’ll make it,” he encouraged.  The Buick slide down one bank, got some good footing on the rocks in the streambed, then foundered 95% of the way up the opposite bank.  I backed up into the stream and Jim did some more digging.  Christine suggested backing up farther and getting more of a running start.  The Buick made it on the second try.  The Navajo cheered, as did a couple of Canadian schoolteachers who’d stopped to watch.

When I finally got to the little town of Tropic, Utah the locals couldn’t help staring at the mud-covered rental car.  The Buick’s hood was drenched in mud.  I told my story and everyone in turn had a story of their own regarding that road.  One man had driven down there in 1983 and come upon a car up to its axles in sand.  The occupants had been stranded for three days, two of which were without water.  Others talked about a French couple that had gotten stuck in the snow back in January.  The man walked out and got help.  The woman died.  Rescuers found that they’d never figured out how to engage 4WD on their rental SUV.

Let’s review the Weather v. Philip..  Thursday: couldn’t land at Bryce due to thunderstorms; landed Cedar City instead.  Friday:  had to come away from overlooks in Cedar Breaks National Monument due to lightning strikes, stop the car for 20 minutes due to obscured visibility in heavy rain, and wait for 20 minutes to get around a washed-out portion of a road.  Saturday: got stuck for nearly 3 hours.  Weather: 3; Philip: 0.

A few snapshots from the experience:

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