Grand Staircase-Escalante

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Giving Tuesday

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

If you’re reading from the United States, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving holiday, and that you managed to somehow survive the deluge of marketing that comes with it. Despite the commercialized insanity this time of year, I rather like the notion behind today–Giving Tuesday. Giving is truly more joyous than receiving, and that’s something we can all be reminded of from time to time.

As I’ve written about before, our public lands–and specifically our national monuments–are under threat. While the overwhelming majority of Americans rejected the idea that we shrink any of our national monuments, President Trump is traveling to Utah on Monday to announce that both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments will be reduced in size.

The president will be–in my opinion wrongly–pushing through the largest elimination of protection for land and wildlife in US history. While the Antiquities Act states that the protection of our antiquities should be confined to the smallest possible area of land, both of these monuments are contiguous wild and cultural landscapes that can’t be subdivided for the sake of development.

In the spirit of Giving Tuesday, I am writing to ask for your help. This action (and likely more in the future) by the president is likely to be met by opposition and legal action. While I can write about my own opinions, they don’t pay legal bills. As a community, we need to support those organizations who are fighting this flawed legislation on the ground. So, that’s what I’m asking you to do: donate to a group that advocates for our public lands.

What do you get in return? If you show me you donated, I’ll send you a free 8×12 print of your choice to thank you for being a supporter of our public lands.

Some Resources

Not sure who to donate to? There are a lot of groups out there; some work locally, and some–like the Sierra Club–work at a national level. I won’t tell you who to donate to, but personally I try to donate to groups who do the most with my dollar. Neutral websites like Charity Navigator tell you where your dollar goes within the organization.

If you want to donate to a local group that’s great! Pick your favorite place, and find a group who works there. Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Grand Canyon Trust, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers are a few of my favorites, although there are many (many) others.

I don’t care how much you donate, or who you donate to. All you have to do is show me you did, then pick your print. It’s that easy! This offer is good through President Trump’s Utah visit next Monday.

Thank you for helping to support our public lands!

Three photos of monuments in southern utah, which are all under attack by the Trump administration

More from the Escalante

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

“We spend our days trying to be big. In the middle of nowhere, though, we can surrender to smallness again and instead find where we fit in the landscape. Out there, where there’s nothing, is where there’s the most to learn.” – Christopher Solomon, A Case for Getting Far, Far Away


In my last post, I briefly described a backpack through the canyons of the upper Escalante River.  This entire area of southern Utah is among the most remote in the western United States.  As a result of this (or maybe because of this) it is sparsely populated; depending on where you’re at, the nearest traffic signal can be hundreds of miles away and the stars in dark night skies vastly outnumber any town lights.

Escalante River Sunset

The Escalante River and its tributaries have cut sinuously through the sandstone in this area below the Aquarius Plateau.  As I said in my last post, it’s rugged country, but its matched perhaps only by the mettle of the area’s first explorers*.

As an underscore to the already remote nature of this country, about a century after the Escalante-Dominguez expedition, Major John Wesley Powell came through this area (roughly) on his Colorado River expedition.  He named the Henry Mountains, which are not insignificant, and are visible from much of southeastern Utah. The Henries were the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to be named and explored (the Navajo call them Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní–mountain whose name is missing).

Henry Mountains Sunset

Grand Staircase Sunset

There are certainly places you can go in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument where you would feel anything but alone, but there are far more that would give you a feeling of complete isolation.  I can’t help but think that perhaps searching out that feeling of solitude–taking time to listen to the deafening silence–is something we should do from time to time.  I’m grateful there are still places like this for us to do just that.

*Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante is regarded as one of the first Europeans to have explored this area as part of the Escalante-Dominguez expedition in 1776.  Before reaching this area, they were forced to kill and  eat their horses while searching for a crossing of the Colorado River (the place where they eventually crossed is now known as the Crossing of the Fathers, which is underneath Padre Bay in Lake Powell).

Backpacking a wilderness of rock

Monday, April 18th, 2016

“The upper Escalante Canyons, in the northeastern reaches of the monument, are distinctive: in addition to several major arches and natural bridges, vivid geological features are laid bare in narrow, serpentine canyons, where erosion has exposed sandstone and shale deposits in shades of red, maroon, chocolate, tan, gray, and white. Such diverse objects make the monument outstanding for purposes of geologic study.” – Presidential Proclamation 6920 (establishing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument), September 18, 1996


A wilderness of rock.  That’s what I imagined the historic Boulder Mail Trail would be when my dad and I set off to backpack it last month.  Indeed, to paraphrase Maynard Dixon, the upper Escalante Canyons expose the earth’s skeleton in a beautiful, if austere, way, exposing the earth’s skeleton.

The Boulder Mail Trail (which isn’t much of a trail at all), is the historic mail delivery route between the hamlets of Boulder and Escalante, Utah.  Highway 12, which now connects Boulder and Escalante, wasn’t paved until the 1970s, so the Mail Trail was the quickest route for quite some time.  All along the route, the old telegraph wire connecting these towns is also very obvious, although it’s fallen down in a few places.  The Mail Trail now lies almost entirely within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A couple of months ago, my dad asked if I wanted to go backpacking this spring, and of course I jumped at the chance.  A while back, I wrote a blog post about January trips with my dad, and I continue to feel really fortunate that my parents are both willing and able to be active.  It was our first backpacking trip together in many years, but it ended up being very fun, and just the right length for two old “geezers.”

For early spring, the weather was what one can expect on the Colorado Plateau: windy and cold.  Out of the wind in the sun, it was pleasant, but it was never too hot.  When we set off from the trailhead outside of Boulder, snow flurries were ducking in and out of the canyons on the Aquarius Plateau to the north, and looked like they might reach us within a few hours.  Dark skies to the west seemed to promise wet weather as well.  That’s better than boring blue skies, though, right?

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

The Mail Trail is more than just a walk across sandstone, as it crosses a few fairly large tributaries of the Escalante River.  The most significant of these is Death Hollow, which despite the name is known for being a fun backpacking trip in its own right (save for the poison ivy it is also well known for!) and is about halfway along the Mail Trail. Death Hollow is surprisingly lush (hence the poison ivy), and is a wonderful riparian habitat tucked neatly away into the desert. We ended up camping in the bottom of the canyon amongst giant ponderosa pines because the weather was just spunky enough that we didn’t want to get blown off the rim and into the night as we slept.  We ended up falling asleep early, and despite a small sprinkle of rain and major sandblasting from the wind, the storm never really developed.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

The next morning, we hiked about a mile down Death Hollow before the route continued out the west side of the canyon, and towards Escalante.  We were able to see Escalante within a few hours, but it took much longer to wind our way down through the sandstone and back to the car we had parked at that end of the Mail Trail.  A quick run up to Boulder for the other car, and a beer (or two) at Hell’s Backbone Grill topped off the trip.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

Despite the increased popularity of the Escalante area since President Clinton included it in his massive 1996 National Monument, the upper canyons of the Escalante River seem to be less visited than other more popular areas along the lower river.  It was nice to be able to experience a little bit of history, wilderness, and complete solitude for two days.  That said, solitude shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise–there isn’t a traffic signal for at least 100 miles from Escalante, and this is one of the most remote and rural places in the lower 48 states.  Combine that with world class scenery, and this wilderness of rock is truly an area to be cherished.

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

Concerto in D minor

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

It’s chilly, gloomy, and rainy outside today; winter, it seems, has arrived in southern California.  Sitting here in my office, the heater is warming me up, and I am listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.  The third and final movement ends on a happy and light note, but unlike some of Mozart’s other work, Concerto No. 20 is aggressive, in places even agitated and ominous; well-suited for the weather today.  As I listen, I think of our recent trip to the Escalante area of southern Utah.  How fitting I would be drawn to this particular piece today, as my imagination wanders back to the sandstone I love so much.

Just like a good friend, the redrock wilderness always welcomes me; my feet find purchase immediately, and it is as if we haven’t skipped a beat since being apart.  I am constantly amazed at the plant life that–like my feet–finds refuge in this habitat of stone.  These organisms eek out a living, nurtured by the harsh landscape, growing slowly but surely through the years.

A small yucca grows out of sandstone

Finding purchase, November 2012

Hiking up the Calf Creek drainage with my family, I think of a word that’s not often used in the desert: “lush.”  Harbored between the gaunt canyon walls is an ecosystem that supports thriving plant and animal life.  It is easy to see why you can look high up on the rock walls and see ancient Native American granaries, dwellings and rock art–they were drawn here for the same reasons as we are.  Sustenance.  Life.  Safety.  While I am not growing food or defending myself from marauders, all of these qualities are here for me.  They are undeniable.  As the morning progresses, cold night air moves out of the canyon, meeting the warm air that is radiating off of the sun-warmed rocks; the lingering scent of autumn hangs in the air, and it is difficult to imagine a place on earth where I would rather be.   Just like Mozart’s welcoming melodies, it is easy to feel that way here: embraced, peaceful, calm.

Foliage in Calf Creek

Autumn in the Desert, November 2012

Calf Creek Falls

A Desert Utopia, November 2012

In the same way that Concerto No. 20 turns turbulent, so can the desert.  Here in the Escalante, temperatures can drop below zero in the winter and can soar to well over 100 degrees in the summer.  While plants and animals find a way to survive, it is not without compromise; life here is harsh.  A summer’s worth of water can arrive in one storm, destroying everything in its path as it crashes through the tight corridors of a slot canyon.  I have never seen the desert her in all of her fury, and am not sure I would want to.  However, it is just that fury that has helped shape this landscape into what it is.


Under a wine-dark sky I walk through the light reflected and re-reflected from the walls and floor of the canyon, a radiant golden light that glows on rock and stream, sand and leaf in varied hues of amber, honey, whisky — the light that never was is here, now, in the storm-sculptured gorge of the Escalante.

–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire


Navajo Sandstone

Gloaming, November 2012

I am now sitting here listening to the rain hit the window of my office; Mozart’s Concerto is over.  After 227 years his music lives on, and is still evocative; it will be until we as a species cannot hear–or feel–any longer.   So will the Escalante, which is not exactly a piano concerto, but is–without question–a work of art.

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

It hardly seems like a year ago I was writing a similar blog post from Zion National Park.  This Thanksgiving, I find myself in Escalante, Utah, a small township located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau.  The weather today was unusually warm for this time of year, and it made hiking extraordinarily pleasant, the perfect St. Martin’s Summer.  My family and I started the day in the northern Mojave Desert, and ended sitting quite alone on a sandstone outcropping admiring the sunset just outside of Escalante township.

Escalante has some of the darkest night skies in the United States; it is far from electricity, out of the grasp of large metropolises, and tonight I am only blinded by one of the darkest night skies you will ever see.  I am thankful places like this still exist.

For my friends in the United States who are celebrating Thanksgiving today, I hope you had a day with your family and friends, celebrating everything in your life that you are thankful for.  With some time in the car today, I was thinking about the things I am thankful for.  I am grateful for a family who is willing to travel with me.  Having stopped in four national parks or monuments today (Zion, Cedar Breaks, Bryce, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante), I am thankful that the citizens of our country have had the foresight to put land aside, for the well-being of our souls, if nothing else.  Sun-warmed Navajo sandstone is also on my list, as are sunsets that make me smile.

From the bottom of my heart, let me wish you a warm and happy Thanksgiving, whether you are officially celebrating or not.  There is much in life to be thankful for.

Navajo Sandstone aglow

Thanksgiving sunset, November 2012

 

Two new ‘Wind’ images

Monday, June 25th, 2012

In January, I introduced my wind portfolio, a black and white set focusing on shape and form, and celebrating landscapes that have been created (in part) by wind.  I am happy to add two new images to that portfolio.

View from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, May 2012

The Grand Canyon is a place that has been shaped by the powerful erosional forces of wind and water for millions of years.  Attracting millions of visitors a year, it is truly one of the seven wonders of the world, and has always captivated me.  At sunrise and sunset, the receding hill layers create depth not only in the landscape, but in the imagination, and it is difficult for me not to imagine John Wesley Powell exploring this canyon for the first time, being completely awed.


“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

–John Wesley Powell


The second image is an intimate landscape from Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.  If you have been in southern Utah in spring, you know the wind can blow, and you have have even felt sandblasted a time or two.  How do you think the sandstone walls feel?  The walls of this alcove have been shaped by grains of sand being blown against it for hundreds, probably even thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Beautiful cross-bedding patterns have been exposed, creating some very powerful lines.

A sandstone alcove

Sandstone Alcove, June 2012

My Wind Portfolio is special in that 25% of the sales of these prints is donated directly to the Wilderness Society and I offer special pricing when you purchase more than one image from the portfolio.  Please click here to view the entire collection.

Photo of the Month–July

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Wait?  What?  2011 is half over?  When did that happen?

Indeed, its true.  It feels like just yesterday, we were celebrating the arrival of a new year, now, many of us are baking in summer heat, enjoying the cool climate of the high country.  Time does fly, but its been an incredibly productive year so far, not only photographically, but professionally; in addition, my year has been incredibly enlightening on a personal level too.

I’ve been taking the time over the last few days to review some of my images from the year so far.  There’s no real purpose for this, nostalgia I suppose.  However, in selecting my July image of the month, I decided to re-introduce an image that’s already been featured on my blog.  I know it won’t appeal to everyone, but I keep coming back to it as one that’s very special.  Its definitely one of my personal favorites.

The Paria River Narrows, Utah

Subtle Beauty, March 2011

As I said previously, the Paria is one of those rivers that isn’t for everyone, and its surely not as sought after as the Green, Colorado or Dirty Devil, but its gorgeous, and I think the simple beauty of it is what moves me so much.  Like so many of you, I feel safe and comforted when I’m in a canyon, and the way the walls of the Paria sweep overhead, sheltering the hiker, only adds to the effect.  Katie Lee describes a friend’s reaction to Navajo Sandstone (1):

I have licked sandstone so many times, just gotten on hands and knees and passed my lips right over the surface, either the smooth on narrow canyon walls, or the sandy-rough up on top.  And Navajo Sandstone…that rock has gotten inside of me…whales and thighs and water and moons.  MY GOD, ITS SHAPES!!!  SHOULD WE EVEN BE ALLOWED TO SEE SUCH THINGS?  I started using the word sensual all over the place.

Without getting too risqué (this is a family-friendly blog after all), I’ll agree with the author of that passage.  The redrock wilderness of the southwest moves people in special ways, and I think that’s why this image moves me so.  I hope you enjoy it too!

(1) In her essay, Sandstone Seduction.

Shelter from the Storm

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

All rocks are not created equally; not only do they vary in surface characteristics like color and shape, they also vary in properties that aren’t immediately visible.  Rocks erode at different rates, and the elements that make them up oxidize differently, giving rock formations different colors as time passes.  These characteristics are what gives the Colorado Plateau its uniqueness–there really is no other biome on earth quite like it.

Any visitor to the southwest should become quickly acquainted with hoodoos–rock spires usually found protruding from a drainage or badlands.  Hoodoos are typically formed when a rock or boulder from a newer (therefore stratagraphically higher) layer of sandstone falls onto an older layer.  The boulder erodes more slowly, but it also protects the rock underneath it from eroding, leaving the characteristic spire with the cap rock on top of it–in this way the cap rock almost shelters the underlying rock from erosion.

On my recent trip to Utah, I made a couple of sunset visits to the Toadstool Hoodoos, located in the extreme southern end of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.   Like other hoodoos, the Toadstools were formed when boulders from the Dakota Formation fell onto the older rock of the Entrada Formation.  Dakota Sandstone erodes more slowly, leaving vibrantly colored hoodoos in a stunning badlands setting.

(Click on the diptych to view it large.)

Toadstool Hoodoo, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Toadstools , March 2011

A large part of the draw of the Colorado Plateau is the interesting geology.  For me, its one thing to marvel over a beautiful formation; its another, more fulfilling, thing to marvel over how it formed.

Rimrock Badlands, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Hoodoo Garden, March 2011

The Paria, part III: mud

Friday, April 15th, 2011

In addition to its immense, subtle beauty, another overriding theme of the Paria River is mud.  The river bed has a high clay content, and if you’ve ever been in clay soil when its even a little wet, you know it can be a disaster–its slick, sticky, and vehicles can get stuck in it in a moment.

In the spring, runoff from high elevation prevents some mud (by way of keeping from drying enough to reach that sticky, goopy, phase), but its always a factor.  What I like about clay is that it always forms beautiful patterns as it begins drying out.  This little patch was reflecting the red rock cliffs on the opposite side of the river early in the day.

Beautiful mud formations on the Paria River, Utah

Mud & Reflections, March 2011

I also ended up finding a few areas of quicksand, involuntarily, on my hike in the Paria.  I felt the area with my hiking pole, and feeling solid, I stepped, only to be swallowed up to my thigh almost instantly.  Fortunately, it was easy to pull myself out.  People who haven’t dealt with it have a misconception about quicksand.  It can’t really suck you into oblivion like childhood cartoons and TV shows lead you to believe.  But, as Ed Abbey writes,

Ordinarily it is possible for a man to walk across quicksand, if he keeps moving. But if he stops, funny things begin to happen. The surface of the quicksand, which may look as firm as the wet sand on an ocean beach, begins to liquefy beneath his feet. He finds himself sinking slowly into a jelly-like substance, soft and quivering, which clasps itself around his ankles with the suction power of any vicsous fluid. Pulling out one foot, the other foot necessarily goes down deeper, and if a man waits too long, or cannot reach something solid beyond the quicksand, he may soon find himself trapped. … Unless a man is extremely talented, he cannot work himself [into the quicksand] more than waist-deep. The quicksand will not pull him down. But it will not let him go either. Therefore the conclusion is that while quicksand cannot drown its captive, it could possibly starve him to death. Whatever finally happens, the immediate effects are always interesting.

Finally, the most beautiful effects, in my opinion, happen when the mud begins drying.  Because clay expands so much when wet, it cracks in beautiful, wonderfully stochastic patterns.  You can find little pockets of dried mud all along the bases of the sandstone walls.

Cracked Mud, Paria River, Utah

Sandstone and Mud, March 2011

Mud is a major component of the landscape in the Paria, as well as throughout any ephemeral drainage in the southwest.  While it can be viewed as a nonphotogenic nuisance, sometimes, its helpful to look at it in a new light.

The Paria, part II: immensity

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

In my last post, I talked about the subtle beauty along the Paria River in southern Utah.  It doesn’t take one long to realize just how big this place is too.  You begin hiking in the river bed, but at this point the canyon is broad, maybe half a mile across.  However, as you hike downstream, the walls narrow and swell upward, leaving you in a canyon of literally inescapable beauty.

Near the confluence of the Paria River and Buckskin Gulch, you reach Sliderock Arch.

Sliderock arch, Paria River, utah

Sliderock Arch I, March 2011

Sliderock is hardly an arch in the way we normally think about an arch.  Rather than being eroded by wind and water, Sliderock Arch was formed when a large piece of sandstone fell from the wall above, hit the river bed, and leaned up against the wall.  Let me give you a sense of scale.  The opening of the arch, on the left, is about 20′ × 20′.  The righthand “arm” of the arch is about 40′ wide.  This is one big piece of rock.

Although the Paria Narrows may not be as narrow as other canyons in the southwest, they rival any canyon in immensity.