Grand Staircase-Escalante Nat’l Monument

Before leaving Page, I had done some research and found three interesting slot canyons that were all accessible from the Hole-in-the-Rock-Road (HRR) which leads from the town of Escalante all the way to the Escalante River following the historic route of pioneering Mormons. The area lies in the recently created (during Clinton’s administration) Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, a vast wilderness with no paved road access.

So, after leaving Bryce Canyon, I drove out to Escalante and down the HRR. I camped at the top end of Spooky Gulch which I reached via a rough dirt road that was at about the limits of what my Outback could manage. That evening, I explored the upper end of Spooky whose slot, according to one of the guidebooks I consulted, could be entered via some difficult down-climbing. I arrived at the spot where the upper canyon dropped about twenty feet into a narrow slot and could see no way to down-climb without killing myself in the process, so I turned around and decided that in the morning, I would enter the lower end of the slot via the “normal” trail head.

The following morning, I retraced my path back out the rough dirt road to the HRR and made my way to the trail head. There I met three guys from South Carolina on a road trip who were also heading to Spooky and Peekaboo Canyon, so I asked if I could join them. Willis, John-O and I can’t remember the third’s name were an affable group. I was the only one with a map which we consulted, but even so, we managed to enter the narrows of Dry Wash thinking it was Peekaboo. The narrows were interesting, but nothing particularly special and after about two miles of walking, we could see the HRR in the distance in a place where it should not have been. We consulted the map and I broke out my iPhone to see where we were and we quickly discovered our error. We hiked back down Dry Wash and found the entrance to Peekaboo which involved about a 10 foot climb into the spectacularly sculpted slot canyon.

There are four arches near the beginning of the slot, some of which you crawl under and some climb over. The slot continued for maybe half a mile, in some spots so narrow we had to take off our backpacks and go through sideways. Eventually, it began to widen again and turn into a normal canyon. We followed a cairn marked path to take us over a ridge into the middle section of Spooky where, it too, was wide and easily entered. We headed down Spooky and very soon it began to tighten up. It was much deeper and darker than Peekaboo and at its narrowest parts, even narrower – our backs and chest would both be touching opposite walls at the same time. I could see it being a real challenge for someone who is claustrophobic (or who was carrying around some excess luggage.)

We passed a large group of boys about halfway through Spooky where there is a rock fall that requires climbing down between the large rocks. I was pretty impressed that all of them had made it to that point, especially when their chaperone asked me what canyon we were in.

From Spooky, we headed back to the trail head where I parted company with the South Carolinians and headed toward the trail head for Zebra Canyon. I scarfed down some tuna sandwiches and headed down the well-trodden trail into Harris Wash. The trail was well-marked, with rock cairns ever fifty yards or so, until it entered Harris Wash proper where there was one cairn and then nothing. The page I photocopied from a 1996 guide book said you must go north in Harris Wash for 3/4 mile before entering the end of Zebra Canyon. I also had downloaded an app for my iPhone which indicated that the canyon was to south. I didn’t trust the accuracy of the GPS, so I headed north and entered the end of a likely looking canyon, but there was no trail and it was overgrown with tumble weeds and briars, so I turned back. I headed south following the wash and eying my progress on the iPhone. It took some meanderings, but I eventually got my position on the phone to match that of the supposed location of the canyon entrance. I looked all around and there was nothing but a hot breeze blowing sand and tumbleweeds. I began to despair.

I put my phone away with a curse, and headed back to the last cairn on the trail. I re-read the page from the guidebook, got out my compass and scanned the area. I noticed that the previous canyon I had entered was heading east-west and that Zebra headed north-south and quickly concluded that Zebra must lie farther along the bend in the wash. I walked that direction and after fifteen minutes, found myself in a quickly narrowing canyon.

There was a strong wind being funneled down the canyon and blowing sand in my face. I kept my head down and continued walking. The canyon walls were smooth with gray and pink striations and the occasional spherical rock half-exposed in the surface. As the walls got closer together, they became more convoluted. The bottom of the canyon forms a “V” and at times there is not enough room to put your feet and you have to chimney off of both walls. Toward the end of the canyon there was a steep scramble up to the first of three potholes, still filled with water and supporting numerous tadpoles and insects. I had read in the guide that they are nearly impossible to get past, still I was tempted to try. On the walls of the canyon up ahead, I could see the reflection of sunlight off of the water of the two upper potholes. I think it would have been possible to get past the first one, but not without getting wet and I decided to turn back.

On my way down, I nearly put my hand on a nest of three baby birds on a small ledge about three feet off the bottom. Somehow, I had missed them on the way up through the canyon which was no more than three feet wide at that point. I could hear the mother bird (I presume) protesting loudly as she flew above me in the canyon.

Here is a video of the nest and of me walking out of the canyon:

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