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:

29 thoughts on “Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

  1. It makes me think of a time in Idaho where the river ran over the road. I was in my Honda Civic and just stayed in the tracks, and gunned the engine, crossing my fingers all the way. To the right was a bunch of guys in an 4WD SUV, stuck in the mud. I just grinned and asked them if they needed a pull. They just glowered. Gave me my off-road mantra: 4WD is no substitute for brains. I remembered that a couple of years later when I stuck my own 4WD in the mud.

  2. Unfortunately you caught Utah on a bad week, regarding the weather. We’ve hardly had any rain all summer, but the last week it seems like we’ve had a thunderstorm everyday. I have to say, you definitely picked some of the best places to visit.

  3. Hmm…

    Thursday the weather let you watch a Shakespear play and make silly comments, Friday you got to see lightning at the Cedar Breaks overlooks, Saturday you found a lot of entertainment and met a bunch of interesting people (not to mention all the stories and the adventure of getting your car across a river). I’d say Weather 3, Phil 3. Perhaps your playing on the same team… 🙂

    Did the rental come equipped with tent/pad/water etc. or was that stuff you loaded in from Wiskey-Tango?

  4. The Buick Century that I rented was a plain vanilla four-door sedan (front-wheel drive I think). I had unloaded the camping gear from the airplane (remember that I’d been using it at Oshkosh) and bought the water at Cedar City’s Walmart.

    Note to self: stop laughing at people with SUVs….

  5. A lot of SUVs have little more ground clearance than a Buick Century. You probably wouldn’t have been much better off with one of the more urban-styled SUVs. Feel free to laugh at those driving SUVs if they’re nowhere near non-asphalt roads.

  6. Reminds me a trip we took to GC and Navaho country about 20 years ago. Stayed in a motel in Kayenta(sp?) and wondered about the mud splattered on the wall two stories up. Never got and explanation but I think they had one hell of a storm. We Californians thought Easter would be a good time to visit. It was, but, it was cold and we got snowed in at South Rim. Glorious when the sun came out and the canyon rim was dusted with snow.
    Thanks for the story as it reminds me to go back and see the country again.

  7. Phil, have you no concern that the rental car company could get you for this? In most rental contracts I have seen, the insurance and contract are voided the second you do offroading, and this pictures and your story are pretty good evidence. Just wondering man.

  8. Hi Philip:
    This might be off topic, but I gonna ask u anyhow. All the pictures u posted on the link to….. look very impressive and sharp. Are those unprocessed photos come straight from a digital camera? If no, what workflows did u use to process those photo? and also, what camera and lenses did u use?


  9. Stella, David: The photos were taken with a Canon D60, the cheapest digital EOS body from 2002 (it has been replaced with the 10D, I think), and mostly with a 17-35/2.8L Canon lens. They were extracted from the RAW files by Canon’s software on the PC (which actually seems to produce illegal JFIF files according to an MIT kid who emailed me recently).

    Tom: I wasn’t “off-road”! That’s the beauty of the American West; you can get swept downstream right off public roads. Even if the insurance were voided there weren’t any damages to the car (unless you count some mud in the wheelwells). A lot of people in the U.S. don’t grasp the fact that you can’t win damages from a court unless you have… damages. If a critical piece of my airplane falls apart in flight and nearly kills me but I manage to land in a field and neither the plane nor I are injured… no liability for Diamond. (There is finally the comfort of knowing that the car I’d rented was only worth maybe $17,000.)


  10. Thanks for the info Phil. I haven’t been ready to go digital yet, and have been considering an EOS 3 body. However I just started reading about the Canon 10D, and the 1.6x factor is actually a huge plus for me since I shoot birds and other wildlife where there is usually never sufficient mm’s on an amateur’s budget. I’m off to Borneo in 3 weeks to hang with the Orang’s. Happy Trails.

  11. mike harper, on “mud splattered on the wall two stories up”, nearly two decades ago I was hiking in Grand Canyon, we were on our way up and had taken shelter from a thunderstorm at the Indian Gardens plateau and had just started out again when we heard someone up the trail hollering “get up!” repeatedly.

    So we did, scrambled up the bank, got a firm hold, then looked back at the trail. A wall of water, I mean dry in front, 5 feet deep in the back, came down the trail, destroyed a retaining wall where we’d been standing, and the carnage continued for 15 minutes or so.

    Ever since that experience (and the damage to the trail as we continued to the rim), if I’m in the desert and see rain clouds or running water I go find the highest spot I can and wait for however many hours it takes to convince me that the danger is past. Flash floods are go-change-your-trousers frightening.

  12. Oh yeah, Stella: I’ve been carrying a D60 around, and my pack has been reduced to the 17-35/2.8L and the 75-300/4.5-5.6IS. The former makes a good knockabout general purpose lens, and the latter *1.6 is finally long enough to be useful, light enough to carry, and the smaller image sensor means I don’t notice the softness around the edges of the cheapy consumer lens.

    And go for the 10D, the $300 it’ll cost you over a used D60 will get you a full stop, much cheaper than buying that in glass. (Now I’m saving my lunch money for a short tilt-shift lens…).

  13. Phil, you’re lucky you didn’t break it. “Gee, looks like a broke your car, I guess I’ll just giveyou $17000, do you take paypal?” And yes, you can get in trouble if you violate a clause in the contract even if the car itself wasn’t damaged. Some even have clauses about speeding. Count yourself lucky.

  14. Tom: At my age you don’t count yourself lucky for preserving an extra $17,000 of wealth that you’ll probably die before spending. Wealth accumulation is a proper focus for young people. As I approach 40 (September 28), I count myself lucky for not having lung cancer, for not having had my DA40’s engine quit in the 100 n.m. stretch between Turks and Caicos and Dominican Republic, for not having gone through a painful divorce, etc.

  15. Phil, All I’m saying is that your lucky to not have to worry about that $17000 and i’m glad you can afford it. most people your age can’t. You seem to act like it’s not a big deal that it’s not a big deal, and it would be a big deal for most people.One thing I was wondering-do you ever feel that given your high level of training and talent, that you have any kind of a duty to develop it more and put it to use? I’m just wondering and I’m not trying to judge you. It’s just, how many 20 year olds have PhDs from MIT and spend most of their time hanging out, flying, driving, travelling. Tom

  16. Sorry to hear about the challenging weather, but it sounds like you made the best of the trip. I was out at Bryce and Zion a few weeks before (8/6-8/7 or so) and was lucky enough to have cooperative weather.
    I took a few pictures:
    also at the Grand Canyon:

    For the rental car discussion — not only can Phil probably afford to repair/replace the car, he can afford the time to fight the rental company properly. Most contracts I’ve read prohibit that sort of use, but I certainly have no problem doing that sort of thing to my own (paid for) car. I have a friend who lost about $3k last year when a rental they were driving on an unpaved but official road in Utah hit a rock (driver error, to some degree) and lost transmission fluid without them noticing. The basis for the rental company’s claim was that the vehicle was being driven offroad and out of the contract parameters.


  17. >>At my age you don’t count yourself lucky for preserving an extra $17,000 of wealth…

    Philip … you should indeed consider yourself lucky … I’m same age as you, have worked as a software engineer, er computer programmer, made good money but “$17,000 of wealth” is a lot of money. Though, my perspective might be askew now as I’ve been hit hard in the last year or so by this economic downturn and I’m going to make a third of what my average annual salary was …

    …I wish I would have stayed in school longer and pursued a MD/PHD … OTOH, it’s never too late…

  18. Tom: there is an old saying that if you’re not attractive at 20, intelligent at 30, or wealthy by 40 you’ll probably never be attractive, intelligent, or wealthy. So I do feel lucky to have scored 1/3!

    Do I feel a “duty” to work more than the 23 years that I worked? I might if society were crying out for new and improved information systems (the kind of engineering for which my PhD is relevant). But as it is what the Federal Government wants is a richer life for the average Iraqi, something that I don’t know how to produce, and the average American seems to want a larger SUV (a job for a mechanical engineer). Fortunately I’m going to be busy finishing Internet Application Workbook (our online textbook for 6.171) and teaching 6.171 through mid-December so I won’t have to spend too much time thinking about the bigger issues…

  19. Phil, sounds fair. Sadly, I think you’re right about the federal gov. wanting nothing more than to improve social services for Iraqis but not Americans.

  20. Why does that lost comment keep coming last? Is there a PhD in computer science in the house?

  21. I was glad to read this story about Cottonwood Canyon Road. Seven or eight years ago, my wife and I took it from south to north, taking the same “shortcut” to Bryce. About halfway, the skies opened and it rained at least two inches. The road south of where you took your pictures gets quite hilly. We nearly skidded off the road and down the canyon more than once. Without a doubt, one of our scariest experiences ever. We ended up in a caravan of five cars (at least two of which were full of German visitors) working our way out. Someone called the park ranger who did show up (after the terrain became flat) but mostly helped out with moral support. The pictures of the trucks crossing the stretam looked EXACTLY as I remember it. Our rental car was absolutely covered with mud and I was concerned about contract violation, etc. We took it to the coin car wash and spent about 10 bucks cleaning it up.

    One funny thing, we had our fist cell phone with us. About halfway up the road, we decided that we might at least call 911 and ask how much trouble we were really in. Turned the phone on (didn’t have one on 24/7 then) and, surprise, NO SERVICE. At least we had gas and some water (for a change). My wife won’t let me drive on dirt roads to this day.

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