Crossing the Escalante


It was late afternoon as I turned off of the highway, and started south on Hole in the Rock Road. The drive down from Salt Lake had taken me longer than expected, and I was hurrying to reach the turnoff for Harris Wash before sunset. Out here, in the midst of the Utah desert, there would be little but starlight to see by once the sun set.

The Grand Am scrabbled over the washboard board, and I had to take it slow to watch for the turnoff. The guidebook had given exact mileage to the turn, and even when I reached it, I almost drove past it. The road was little more than two tire tracks leading off to the East in the scrubby brush. I pulled onto the Jeep trail and drove a mile in before parking the car off to the side of the road. Already the sun was sinking toward the cliffs of the Kaiparowits Plateau and the desert was gilded in gold. Shouldering my pack, I set off towards the east, following the Jeep track into the desert towards Harris Wash. Just before sunset I stopped and pitched my tent, out on the open plateau, with nothing but the sky to shelter me for the night. That night I slept uneasily, feeling the empty expanse around me.

My plan was to spend 4 days hiking in the canyons of the Escalante River. One of the most remote corners, of a state full of remote places. It was 1991, and the area had yet to be declared a National Monument. Instead it was just open country, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It is an unforgiving landscape of slick rock, broken by red rock canyons, and almost impervious to travel by any means except foot. This area was one of the last places inside the continental United States to be mapped, holding tight to its secret topography until finally yielding to aircraft photographic surveys in the 1950’s.  Four days alone in the wilderness, with only myself to rely on was a challenge that I did not take lightly.

Harris Wash

I rose early with the sun, and made a quick breakfast on my camp stove before packing up, and continuing on my way. The trail followed the lay of the terrain until it finally crossed a shallow depression, where the sandy residue of runoff had washed across the trail. Consulting my map, I was fairly confident of my location, and that if I were to turn off of the trail and begin following the dry wash downstream I would eventually find my way into the canyons. I quickly began to warm up in the chill morning, removing my sweatshirt as I followed the flow of sand and the sun climbed the sky. Eventually, I came upon a trickle of water flowing in from a depression to the north, and as I hiked the water became a stream, and then a creek. As the stream began to slowly carve it’s was down into the desert, walls of slick rock began to rise around me. My compass and topographic maps would be of little use in finding my way now. There was only one way forward, and it led down with the water, towards the confluence with the Escalante River ten miles away.

As the water increased in depth and flow, the vegetation changed. Pinyon pine gave way to willows and tamarisk. The color green began to accentuate the reds and oranges of the sandstone. Deeper, and deeper I went. As lunch time approached, the canyon walls had grown, and reached over 100 feet high along the wash. I pulled out my map, and decided to turn off into a blind canyon that entered to the south side of the wash, to look for a fresh water spring to replenish my Nalgene bottles. Entering the shade of the narrow slot canyon, I could feel the cool air flowing past me. The floor of the canyon was choked wall to wall with growth. Pushing my way slowly through the undergrowth I came at last to the back wall of the canyon. There at it’s base was a small pool of clear water. I filled my bottles, and poured some water over my head to cool off. Even for late September, it was getting warm out.

Photo of Harris Wash – from Panoramio

Returning to the main canyon, I continued on. By now the only path was the water. The canyon floor was covered wall to wall with luscious green undergrowth. Walking through ankle deep stream was the only option. The sounds inside of the canyon were otherworldly. There was an underlying silence that was punctuated by the sounds of birds, and the rustle of leaves. The colors of the sandstone walls varied from orange, to buff, to a deep russet patina over the smooth rock face. In places they came together almost close enough to stretch out your arms and touch both sides. In other places the canyon widened, and large deposits of sand rose like hills along one side of the canyon, dotted with brush and cacti.

There was no path to follow but the water, snaking its way through the stone, folding back upon its self, over and over. I surrendered myself to the canyon and followed the stream as it deepened, and widened, the water flowing into it from the stone itself. North facing walls sported beards of moss as the water seeped from inside the red rock. I stopped many times to explore the width of the canyon, or marvel at the smooth walls carved like an amphitheater, now rising over 1,000 feet above me. In the recesses of a high cliff wall, I could see the remains of a stone granary, left behind by the Fremont peoples, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians that lived in these canyons between 700 and 1,200 A.D. The ruins suspended in the middle of a sheer face, accessible only to the birds.

Harris Wash – photo from Panoramio

Following a side canyon to its end, I came upon ancient footholds, carved into the stone face, rising up the sloping canyon walls to the slick rock above. Even after one thousand years of erosion they were deep enough for an experienced rock climber to gain a grip. Not that I was an experienced climber, or had any such delusions to climb the steep walls. Being there alone was adventure enough for me.

Finally, as the afternoon sun began creeping up the walls, and shadows deepened through the canyons, I came upon the Escalante River. Harris Wash flowed out, and blended with the water coming down the river from the high country to the north. The Escalante canyon was much wider here, with a broad arid plateau 15 to 20 feet above the water line, dotted with desert plants. As hard as it is for a Midwesterner to believe, they graze cattle in these canyons, releasing them in the spring to forage the undergrowth, and rounding them up in the fall and sorting them out between ranchers. While I never came upon any cattle in my wanderings, I did come upon the skeleton of one, an unsettling sight to say the least.

Escalante Canyon

After scouting out the area, I decided to make camp in a clearing on the flat bench above the river. I was doing well on food, and had been careful to keep my water re-filled at every chance I had. Sitting down in the evening light I looked at my map, and plotted my route for the following day. I planned to be down in the canyons for 4 nights, and figured I would spend the next day hiking down river to Neon Canyon, exploring the side canyons along the way, and return back to this spot in the evening. That evening I slept well, my dreams carrying me away like a river, deeper and deeper into the wild. I awoke in the before dawn, to a low rumble, like a growl, rolling in from a great distance. Walking outside and looking into the sky to the west, the stars had disappeared, and a faint flicker over the horizon told me what I feared was true. Rain was moving in slowly to the Kaiparowits plateau, and with it would come the flood. I considered my options. I could stay where I was and wait out the flood, spending perhaps another two nights on the high ground in the wide Escalante canyon, until I could hike back out Harris Wash. Or I could pack quickly and turn back up Harris Wash in the morning, to a spot 3 miles away where a wide bend in the canyon had left a bench of land, sheltered beneath the sloping, thousand foot walls, 30 feet above the water. I choose to head back.

Crossing the Escalante

So I crossed back over the Escalante and began the hike up Harris Wash. The sky to the west was dark and overcast, I was sure it was raining up at the higher elevations. I hurried through every narrow slot, prepared to have to seek high ground at any moment. Finally, I reached the spot that I remembered from the previous day, and climbed the bench to set up camp, and wait. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, waiting and worrying. There was little that I could do, and I stayed calm and pragmatic. I found shelter in an alcove, on a level above the river that supported growth that appeared to be years old, and had obviously not suffered from flash flooding. So I waited.

Camp site waiting out the flood

About 3 o’clock in the afternoon I heard it coming. A noise like a freight train approaching down the canyon. The noise grew louder, as did my heartbeat. Climbing to the top of a small hillock, I got a good view of the nearest upstream bend in the canyon. Finally it came into view, a 3 foot high boiling wall of mud and debris, the color of a chocolate milkshake. It flowed on down the canyon picking up branches, and wood, and carrying it away. The noise rattled and echoed off the thousand foot high walls, and I wondered how long it would last. Hour after hour went by. I wrote in my journal, and read a little bit, but it was hard to concentrate. It was not a peaceful sleep that night, sitting there alone with my thoughts, wondering how long I would be stuck there. There was only one way in, and one way out of Harris Wash, and for the moment it belonged to the river.

The first thing I did when I awoke was to check the level of the river. It had subsided over night, and the mud, and debris had given way to murky brown water about knee deep. I packed my bag ate a little breakfast and started the long, slow slog out of the canyon. It took me most of the day to hike the 7 miles back to where the Jeep Trail crossed the wash. With each step my boots would sink into the soft muddy bottom of the stream, and tug at my legs as I pulled them out. If nothing else, it was a heck of a workout.

When I reached the car, I stripped off my boots, and wool socks, and threw them in the trunk. With mud drying on my legs, I started the car and started making my way back up Hole in the Rock road. The culverts over the low spots had held during the rain, and within a few minutes I was back on the highway headed west. That night I would check into a Casino hotel in Nevada, still caked in mud and smelling like a wild animal. I made the mistake of leaving my mud saturated boots in the trunk of my car, and there they sat baking for several days. When I finally took them out they were as hard as red bricks.

It had been a little over a year since I had left New York behind, and begun my life on the road. In that time I had crossed the country twice, and struggled to find my place in the world beyond college. When I went into the canyons I wondered how I would manage with such solitude. In the end I came away not with hallucinogenic visions, or deep enlightened thoughts, but with a pragmatic, matter-of-fact outlook on my surroundings and situation. It was deeply moving and lovely being surrounded by such grandeur, but I found my thoughts continually returning to the mundane matters of food, water, and shelter. The beauty of this world will never cease to amaze me, but the true lesson of wilderness is that survival is ultimately all that matters. God may know the number of hairs on our heads, but nature is utterly indifferent to our very existence. After crossing the Escalante, there would be no looking back.

2 thoughts on “Crossing the Escalante

    • Yes. Thankfully I only had to cut off a foot to survive.

      Seriously though, when I read that story in the news it gave me chills. I thought, Jeez, that could have been me. I still don’t have the courage to watch the movie.

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