Category Archives: Utah

A Couple of Thoughts About the Reduction of Staircase Escalante National Monument

I get several emails a week and even more notices on facebook asking for money to save Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments, usually, the emails and facebook posts are close to hysterical but I’m not convinced that the Trump Administration’s reduction of the Monuments is bad. I have very mixed feelings, to say the least. For starters, I want to admit that I am slightly embarrassed and certainly defensive for not being at Code Blue over the reduction so please bear with me while I try to explain. By way of background and to establish my bonafides, I want to say that Escalante is my favorite place and has been well before Bill Clinton established The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in 1996. In a guided meditation years earlier, I was asked to imagine a place that spiritually moves me. The place I was instantly taken to, in my mind’s eye, is a real place, the junction of Hurricane Wash and Coyote Canyon in the Escalante Wilderness. For me, it is a place of almost supernatural beauty and calmness. The beauty comes from the land. It comes from the effect of sparse rain mixed with monsoonal deluges on the eroding edge of an immense plateau. The calm comes from the deep Mormonism that permeates rural Utah (and both Escalante and Bear’s Ears are very much in rural Utah). Up until a couple of years ago, I had been backpacking the canyons in the Escalante and Paria River drainages once or twice a year and I’m still head over heels in love with both. I’ve backpacked from Bears Ears down to the Colorado River and a good portion of Grand Gulch, both in the Bears Ears Monument, and have been entranced by the country and the surprising number of Native American ruins. But, I am an outsider and the country didn’t always feel like it loved me.

Late one night, after coming out of a loop backpack that started down Little Death Hollow, looped down the Escalante River, and up Silver Falls Canyon, we ended up at Boulder Utah – population about 130, then – at about eight o’clock at night, looking for a place to stay. There was a small – small like three rooms small – motel with a lit vacancy sign. We knocked on the door of what looked like the office and was the only place with the light on and we could see they were watching television inside. Nobody answered. So we went over to the window and knocked again. The man got up, walked over, and pulled the shade down. We were stunned, but – and this is the point – so was he. Boulder was the last place in the Continental United States to have its mail delivered by mule – possibly excluding the Havasupai tribal lands in the Grand Canyon – the nearby Henry Mountains were the last place in the lower 48 mapped by the USGS,; the road to Boulder was not paved until 1971. These people moved here to get away from civilization and here it was, banging on their door.

Another story – and hang in here, this is actually going someplace – started when we were driving through Boulder a year or two later while wandering from Escalante to Fruita via lower Capitol Reef National Park. We were thrilled to see a great looking, new place to stay in Boulder, The Boulder Mountain Lodge. The next year we stayed there and we stayed there at least once a year for the next ten years. Attached to the Lodge was an excellent restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill, but It didn’t serve booze because the Town of Boulder was dry. A year or so later, we came by and the restaurant had new owners, two Buddhist women, who had bought it after the previous owner, who also owned the Lodge, failed to get a license to serve wine. He had filed a lawsuit against the Town and took it all the way to the Utah Supreme Court. Now, here is the kicker, the Lodge owner, the former restaurant owner, the Town of Boulder suer, a fellow canyon lover, had a bumper sticker that said, “Free Tibet” and, when I talked to him, he was pretty adamant about it. What he couldn’t see was that he was doing the same thing in Boulder Utah that he was accusing the Chinese of doing in Tibet. Sure, the scale is different but both are trying to force a bigger, newer, and probably more vibrant, culture down the throat of an isolated rural area.

Significantly, a couple of years later the new owners got a license to serve wine and beer. They had become part of the community, they bought local food and hired local young people as servers – people that probably would have left town otherwise – they held an annual Ice-cream Social and hosted an annual retreat for a group of Buddhist monks. The Ice-cream Social has become a major event in town and Mormon elders often join the monks in their retreat. I asked one of the owners how they had gotten their license and she told me “I went to the Town Elders and asked for the license when they asked me ‘Why?’, I said ‘Because we will make more money’. They said ‘That’s a good reason, OK'”

To a certain extent, from its start in upper New York State in the 1820s by Joseph Smith, Mormonism can be defined by its conflict with outsiders. The original Mormons were driven out of New York and went to Kirtland Ohio in the early 1830s. Then they were pushed out of Ohio and went to Missouri in 1838 to escape that persecution. There they got into a war with other Missouri settlers and were kicked out of the state by a governor’s Executive Order. After Missouri, Smith took his growing Church to Illinois where they built a new city that soon was bigger than Chicago. While in jail on a dubious charge, Joseph Smith was killed and the Mormons were driven out of Illinois. Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, led a community that had grown to some 60,000 Mormons about 1200 miles due west until they got to the Great Salt Lake. They had found a safe home in the wilderness and the Mormons spread out as far and as fast as they could to settle as much land as possible. This is hard land to settle but the Mormons did it, finding little patches to farm or graze cattle and sheep.

As an aside, the road down to my beloved Coyote Canyon is called the Hole in the Rock Road. The Church sent a group of about 250 men and women on a mission to settle the San Juan River Basin. To save on a 450 mile trip to the nearest ford across the Colorado River and back to the San Juan River, they built a road south from Escalante for 55 miles, through rough desert terrain cut with steep-sided arroyos, before they hit a cliff overlooking the Colorado River 2000 feet below. They blasted a ramp through the rock so that they could lower their wagons by rope to a bench above the river and then the bench below that and below that until they dropped the 2,000 feet to the Colorado. On the Mormon website, the story begins with a subheading: The faith, courage, and sacrifice of the Saints who passed through Hole-in-the-Rock in 1880 stand as an example to all Latter-day Saints of the power available to us when we are on the Lord’s errand. End aside.

The Mormons have been good stewards of this land. They have nursed it with a religious passion, with hard work and their blood. Their roots have grown deep into the red rock. Red rock that, for most of the Mormon history here, was of no interest to outsiders. But then roads got better and people started to hear stories of an almost fabled land of red canyons beyond Zion and Brice. I first heard about Escalante in a quarterly four-page newsletter, The California Explorer, that had a breathlessly poetic description of Coyote Gulch. I had been to Zion and Brice – at the tail end of an unhappy marriage – and even in that state, was enchanted so, in the spring of 1981, I went to the town of Escalante then down the Hole in the Rock Road to Hurricane Wash and into Coyote Gulch for the first time. I was stunned. Ten years later, when I first met Michele, after a shakedown over-nighter in the Yosemite high country, the Escalante Wilderness was the first place we backpacked together. When President Clinton established the Staircase Escalante National Monument, I was thrilled. But, as I learned more about it and thought more about it, my feelings have become mixed.

At 2,938 sq miles, Staircase Escalante National Monument is about one and a half times the size of Delaware. It is composed of three somewhat detached areas, my beloved Escalante River Basin, the upper Paria River Drainage and the Cottonwood Canyon area – BTW, the lower part of that drainage was already protected by the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area – and the Kaiparowits Plateau between them; the Clinton Administration combined the three areas into one National Monument and jammed down it down Utah’s throat. Because of a fear of protestors, the announcement ceremony was even made out of state, at the Grand Canyon Visitors Center, seven hours away by car (Trump’s rescission was in Salt Lake City, still five hours away by car). I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, this was not land taken from anybody, it was already owned by the Federal government and controlled by the BLM – Bureau of Land Management, the Agency that controls most of the land in the west – that was renamed and repurposed as a National Monument. It is still run by the BLM, with a much bigger budget, at first, at least, and higher restrictions on use. Still, this was not a monument that Utah wanted. According to a pro-Monument article in The High Country News: The forces arrayed against conservation in southern Utah were deeply rooted. County commissioners, state elected officials, the entire Utah congressional delegation — all were against the monument from the moment of its creation in 1996. They considered it a usurpation of local power, and they had acted at every chance to attack its legitimacy.

If my opinion were the only one that counted, the whole of Southeastern Utah would be a National Park. It is that beautiful and that sacred. But the people who live in Southeastern Utah also have opinions and while a growing number agree with me, the majority still worry about the Monument’s damage to their way of life. They point out that, while the Escalante City population of 652 in 1980 has grown to 793 in 2014, the Escalante High School has lost 73 students because families who were farmers and ranchers have left. The new proposal, of three smaller Monuments, would still be about 1,560 sq. miles, three quarters the size of Delaware and still much bigger than Yosemite National Park. Huge amounts of land will still have the additional protection a Monument affords but not everything. Much of The Hole in the Rock Road will not be protected for example and, the road is upstream from some of the best canyons in the Escalante Basin. If that area were strip-mined as some of the emails I get suggest, it would be a real disaster; but that is highly unlikely (it is also upstream from the politically powerful Lake Powell). It is more likely that this area would revert to rangeland or get paved making it easier to get into the wild areas, in turn, making them less wild. In between the three new monuments, much of the land falls in a network of Wilderness Study Areas and will stay protected but both the northern edge and southern edge of the old monument will probably be open to hunting and/or grazing. In the eastern part of the old Monument, that backs up to Capitol Reef National Park there are several expired and suspended oil and gas leases and it is possible that they will be revived but this is unlikely. This is a very remote area, 125 miles by rough mountain road to the first town with a population of over 1,000 people and hauling stuff out would be very expensive. 

Taking this large, staggeringly beautiful, area and making it three smaller areas is not my ideal, however, behind the hysteria and partisan yelling, I’m inclined to believe that this new monument proposal is very reasonable.  


Hiking – to use the term loosely – out of Coyote Gulch

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We spent the second night on a sandy bench under a huge wall on the outside of a meander with the sky trying to clear. After our morning toilette,Escalante Trip-0110
and instant oatmeal with dry fruit for breakfast, we wandered around the area for a few minutes. Up until now, we have been walking through Navajo Sandstone, but, now, the creek – brook? stream? – has carved its way down into another layer or, more accurately, down into multi-layers; and the canyon starts to take on a different character.
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Today we walk under Coyote Bridge, following the stream, and nobody is around. Yesterday, we walked by Jacob Hamblin Arch, probably the most famous – using the term famous relatively – place in Coyote Gulch, but there were two large parties camped there, so we kept on walking. For the most part, we are hiking alone, although we do run into people going the other way or going faster (we don’t pass anybody who is walking slower than me). The first time I came here, we didn’t see anybody and now there are probably thirty people spread out along the thirteen mile canyon.

We are in an official park, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument but this is land that is administered by the Bureau of Land Management rather than The Park Service. It is the BLM, to anybody who lives in the Rural West. The BLM which administers over 245 million surface acres and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights. The BLM: giver of grazing and mining permits, regulator – over regulator or under regulator depending on you point of view – of fracking. Normally they do not administer parks and I really don’t remember the political reasons that brought this on except that the Monument was set-up under Clinton/Gore and Gingrich was running the House at the time.

What ever the reason, the BLM is much less formal than the Park service. In Zion National Park, many of the trails are paved, even in the Yosemite highcountry, some of the trails have wooden boardwalks and, in The Valley, some have guard rails. In Coyote, there  are no trails, there is only the way (as in this way may go through, or this way is better, or no way!). Sometimes the way is over a sandy bench covered in wild grasses, sometimes the way is in the river, sometimes it is through Gamble Oaks and Willows, but the way is always down into the canyon.
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Sometimes we take a break, just to bathe in the beauty, the wildness,
Escalante Trip-0168but the way always takes us deeper into the canyon.
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Escalante Trip-0155After a small waterfall, we ran into a slickrock section that required help from a stick that Courtney found. I kept thinking, I have been both down this section and back up, it is very doable. But I am older and stiffer and more brittle and, looking down at the landing zone, I realized that I would not make it without the stick. We slid halfway down on our butts, scooched to stage right, and then slid off the ledge to the solid sand landing zone. It was one of those places that is physically pretty easy, psychologically scary, and takes lots of time-consuming discussion.
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Escalante Trip-0175The last night in the canyon, we camp in a huge alcove. Alcoves are not my favorite place to camp because they seem so well used, maybe overused. I know that the Anasazi must have stopped here because they like alcoves, but they abandoned their major cities like Mesa Verde and Chaco near the end of the 13th century, and this is far from those cities. The magic, if it ever existed,  is gone, wiped clean by years of ranchers and cowboys using this place.
Escalante Trip-0188After our morning meditation, we hike the last couple of miles of Coyote Gulch, Escalante Trip-0191

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Coyote Gulch ends at the Escalante River at just about the place that the Escalante River, itself, ends at Lake Powell. It is as deep as we can go. But there is a way out – a long walk up a sand dune, just before the end – that leads to the Crack In The Wall. This sand dune has been a major worry for me, it is steep, sandy, and doesn’t have any shade, so Michele and I started while Gina and Courtney explored downstream. The hike up the sand dune is much worse – and much shorter – than I remembered it and my tactic becomes look up the trail, pick out a destination 15 to 20 feet ahead – like an Opuntia – then hike to that point to take a break and catch my breath. I repeat it about 50 times.Escalante Trip-0219
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Escalante Trip-0244Finally, we get to the Crack and it is much narrower than I remember – I am almost too fat – but I am able to squeeze through, only to be stopped by a block that has to be climbed.
Crack in the WallAt this point, the only way out is to go up, going back is a two-day slog, at best. With Courtney directing my feet and Gina pulling, I get above it and then scramble to the top of the plateau and, shazam!, we are out (with only a tiring, flat, walk back to the car). That night, we have a delicious dinner at the Hell’s Backbone Grill.
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Hiking into Coyote Gulch


The center of Gina, Courtney, Michele, and my trip to Utah was a four-day – three night – backpack down Coyote Gulch. Coyote is in Southern Utah, about half way across the state and the drive there – across California, Nevada, and half of Utah – can seem endless.

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Escalante Trip-0853At some point during the drive, somebody asked me what I most liked about Coyote Gulch and I reflexively answered, The Adventure. I think that I surprised them with that answer, I know that I surprised myself. It is not the answer I would have thought that I would blurt out. The beauty or The awesome geology maybe, but I didn’t consciously remember Coyote Gulch as particularly adventurous. Dark Canyon and Buckskin Dive are adventures, I remembered Coyote as a canyon that can often be walked barefoot. I remembered it as a walk in the park. As is often the case, my remembrance was only partially right.

The night before the adventure started, we camped near the Trailhead. The next morning, while Gina and Courtney shuffled the car around, Michele and I started walking across the desert on a well-worn trail, down into the Escalante River Basin.Escalante Trip-9998

That is the rub, while the trail into the Gulch starts off easy – wide and smooth – and looks like it will stay easy, it gets progressively harder as it goes. The first time I walked down Coyote was around Memorial Day, 1982 which means that I was 41, almost 42, and now I am 74. What I remember as easy, or didn’t even remember at all, would be much harder now.  At first I didn’t think that I should even try to hike into Coyote, but Courtney and Gina volunteered to carry most of the weight so I would be carrying a very light pack, and it is only thirteen miles in plus two out. With a full pack, even though it is very light, a small step up or down becomes a big step and a big step becomes an obstacle so I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a walk in the park but I didn’t expect it to be almost undoable.

Walking in, we run into water after about a mile and a half. Where there is water, there are Cottonwoods with their heavy bark, and chattering leaves that sparkle in the sun. they provide the shade that makes everything more comfortable. As soon as we hit water, we went from the desert into a classic riparian environment. By the time that Courtney and Gina catch up with us, the red walls dominate the little stream and we are bathed by reflected red, light.

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Escalante Trip-0032The first night, we sleep on a flat bench under a huge red wall,Escalante Trip-0034

and the next morning we wake up under cloudy skies. The weather forecast had been for sun the first day, clouds – but no rain – the next two days, and sun on the last day but, still, the cloudy sky left me a little uneasy as we walked deeper into the canyon.

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The river is entrenched, a meandering open space that has been carved out of solid Navajo Sandstone. The sandstone, itself, was formed about 190 million years ago when this was a huge sand dune field at the western portion of the Supercontinent Pangaea. The Appalachian Mountains had been formed when the continents banged into each other as Pangaea was formed and, as they eroded for the next 100 million years, much of that erosion flowed west into a shallow sea at the edge of the continent, leaving layers of  sandstones and shales. Those layers have been raised as Pangaea has broken up into the continents we know today.

On the outside of each meander is a huge wall and on the inside is a sandy bench with Cottonwoods, grasses, and a variety of blooming wildflowers. It is stunning! We walk down river, spending a time walking through the river itself, and then – to get out of the water and to take a short-cut – we hike across a hot, sandy, bench. Then it is back into the river. Variations on a theme in an – increasingly – deepening canyon. Escalante Trip-0092The second night, we camp on a bench, overlooking the Kayenta Formation, where we pump our water from a small pool above a rapid.
Escalante Trip-0118The next day, we will be going deeper into the wildness.



A Hike in Utah with some thoughts on polygamy

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In October 2003, Michele and I went to Utah to do some hiking. We weren’t going to backpack, just hike. When we got there, Utah was packed. Especially Zion where we had hoped to have a couple of day hikes. The Park Rangers suggested that we hike in an area south of Zion that – as I recall – had been annexed or was going to be annexed.

To get there, we had to drive south into Arizona, around part of the Cannan Plateau and then back north at Colorado City Arizona and Hildale Utah – which seem to be the same actual burg on both sides of the state border – into Squirrel Canyon leading into the actual Cannan Plateau, itself. What was shocking, what I hadn’t remembered from reading Under the Banner of Heaven, is that Colorado City/Hildale are the home to an inordinate number of polygamists.

I don’t have pictures of the large number of huge, cheaply built, homes – the backs had lots of windows lined up making them look like cheap hotels – with playgrounds behind them. I also don’t have pictures of the little girls dressed like pioneer girls or mothers dressed in burqas without the head covering  (uh? mumus?). I felt uncomfortable taking photos of these people who were different and clearly wanted to be away from everyone. They weren’t hostile, but they were not indifferent either, and friendly was not in the picture.

As luck would have it, a couple of days later, Michele picked up a paper with a long article on the town and it’s inhabitants which had become somewhat of a local problem. It turns out that polygamy being illegal has worked out very well for these particular polygamists. The husband is married to one legal wife – legal being defined as State sanctioned in this context – his other wives, considered non-wives, by the State, are single mothers.  So this guy, let’s call him Brigham, is living with a bunch of women of whom only one is his lawful wedded wife.  The rest are still living with him and are getting State support. The more illegal wives Brigham has, the more State support money comes in to the household. In effect, the State is paying him to marry – as far as Brigham is concerned – as many woman as possible.

I don’t want to say that it is a scam, but it surely is an unintended consequence of making polygamy illegal.

During the many times I have argued with people over Gay Marriage, people sometimes argue against it because they claim it is a gateway issue. What I mean by that is they sometimes say, Well, I’m not against Gay Marriage, but it would open the gate to, other, non-traditional marriages like polygamy. Leaving aside that polygamy is pretty traditional, if a group of women want to marry the same guy, so what? Why should we – we being our representatives in this case – try to stop it. If the women are girls or they don’t want to marry this guy, then that is a different story. But if it is consensual, then why should the State stop it. And, if the marriage isn’t consensual, having polygamous marriages out in the open would make them easier to police.

Having the polygamists hiding does nothing to improve anybodies’ life and, in this case, it is costing us money.

Back at the Squirrel Canyon, our plan was to camp near the trailhead but the trailhead was also near the town and camping there felt like intruding. I had the feeling that sending us there was a little like the Federal Government pissing all around the area to establish their ownership. Either way, it was a great campsite with a great view and nobody around and we both still felt slightly uncomfortable.


The hike, however, was great. Up a narrow canyon to a spectacular plateau.

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Zion-0942 Where, while sitting on a outcrop, having lunch, we heard and then saw a Big Horn Mountain Sheep. Hearing the hollow clacking of hoofs on stone was even better than seeing him, that is, until we actually saw him.

Zion-0941We had hoped to do a loop but it was getting late so we backtracked to our camp.





The next day, we packed up and moved to a campsite closer to Lake Powell.






Coyote Gulch Part 2


Meanwhile, back in the Escalante River Basin, at the bottom of Coyote Gulch, just before it enters, the Escalante River, is a waterfall. To get around it, we have to traverse across a sloping face and then climb down a faux semi-Indian ladder. It is a very easy traverse except for two things, it is sandy because everybody who makes it has wet, sand covered, shoes and the traverse  has about fifteen feet – or so – of exposure with the bottom being a pile of nasty looking rocks. It is physically easy and psychologically pretty hard.


But, at the bottom, is the Escalante River – probably a stream anyplace east of the Mississippi, but a river here.


In Coyote Gulch, it is easy to step across the stream that has carved the canyon, but the Escalante is a much bigger deal and requires wading in most area.

On the first trip that Michele and I took to this area, we hiked down Little Death Hollow – a spectacular, very narrow, canyon – to the Escalante River and then worked our way down stream to Silver Falls Canyon. It was not very far on the map, but, because of all the wading required, it was an arduous full day of wading and bushwhacking. Another time, while wading down river between Fence Canyon and Twenty Five Mile Wash, we ran into a dead, decomposing,  cow in the middle of the river. It was one of those existential moments when logic and emotion collide. We were almost positive that our water filters would allow us to safely drink the water down stream from the cow – we had no choice – and the thought of drinking, even filtered dead cow water was pretty threatening.

In this case, we wandered up river to Stevens Canyon and checked out Stevens Arch.


Escalante-0070Then we hiked up a huge – 500 or 600 feet huge! – sand slope almost to the top of the Kaiparowits Plateau.


There we shimmy up through a crack in the top of the wall to the plateau above the canyon.





What I most remember – what I most love – about the Escalante River Basin is the intimacy. The Colorado Plateau is one of the most spectacular places on earth and, in a just world, the whole thing would be turned into an International Park, but it is not uniform. Bryce and The Grand Canyon are great places to hike but a visitor can pretty much see the whole shebang  by walking a couple of hundred feet from the car. Bryce, especially, is an one act play. A great one act play, but – still – an one act play. Zion is knockout with lots of hidden nooks and crannies to be explored. But, like Yosemite, it is very busy with over 2.5 million people visiting each year.

Escalante is different. It is really only accessible by walking. Sure, there are a couple of places where one can get a hint from the road but the road is on top of the plateau and it is only by walking down a canyon to the river that the intimacy and complexity can be enjoyed. In the rush to protect the Colorado Plateau, this area was missed: it is way out of the way – it was the last part of the lower 48 to be mapped – it is very rough with almost no roads, and it doesn’t look like much from the top. But, down in it, lies a treasure.