Enough with the introspection! Now that vacation's over, it's time for a straight-up trip report.
Ever since my parents first took me to Zion National Park as a teenager, I've been fascinated by the American Southwest, and Utah's canyon country in particular. It's a landscape perfectly designed to instill a sense of exploration, with vistas that unfold suddenly, slot canyons and arches that reveal themselves only from certain vantage points, and seemingly impassable cliffs and gorges with hidden paths that expose entirely new areas for further exploration. Imagine driving from LA to SF, or New York to DC, where every mile travelled contains canyons, cliffs, desolate badlands, hidden waterfalls and river oases, and soaring peaks. And above all, the remoteness -- there's nothing quite like the silence experienced with massive landforms as your only companions.
But with the exception of many return trips to Zion, my fascination hadn't yet translated into significant exploration. When President Clinton made a national monument out of large swaths of the region, I rejoiced and made visiting a top priority -- that was more than ten years ago. But the closest I got was staring wistfully out over the landscape every time I flew from New York to Los Angeles or Las Vegas. On one recent flight, I saw a semi-circular geologic formation that looked like a titanic child had made a sand castle wall hundreds of miles long and thousands of feet high. That was the last straw -- my curiosity had reached a breaking point, and I began planning a trip.
With so much pent-up interest, it was inevitable that I would go a little overboard in planning. The area has no shortage of four wheel drive roads that can be used for exploration. For the first part of my trip, I chose the most remote and difficult one I could find: the Smoky Mountain Road, some 80 miles of barely maintained dirt road through the most remote sections of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Armed with maps, a GPS device (which promptly failed on me - Garmin sucks), a shovel, and plenty of water, I set off across the Warm Creek badlands, an eerily barren landscape of grey, yellow, and red mud hills surrounded by imposing crumbling cliffs more than a thousand feet high. After a brief detour down a narrow canyon to see the shores of Lake Powell, the road took me straight towards one of those cliffs.
Those who have written about the road all comment that until you hit the incredibly narrow and steep Kelley's Grade, it seems impossible that any road can take you up the sheer face of Smoky Mountain. Even when you're on the road, it seems impossible at points. The initial grade is steeper than any road I have ever driven, requiring the lowest possible gear and maximum torque to even inch forward in the gravel and rocks, and runs along the narrow spine of a ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides. Once past the first segment (no pictures, sorry, I was trying to stay alive), the grade abates somewhat, but still continues for several miles of nerve-wracking cliff-edge driving before depositing you at a amazing vista atop Smoky Mountain.
From there, it's a fairly flat and smooth run across the Kaiparowits Plateau, a broad flat expanse of stunted pine trees and desert shrubs, until the road suddenly turns incredibly nasty in Carcass Canyon as it runs past Death Ridge. Even calling this section a road is a bit generous, and the rental car company mechanic must be wondering what happened to the car. After a few hours of violent jostling, the road eventually returned to a civilized state, eventually depositing me (and my back and neck pain) in the town of Escalante...
...Where I promptly got a flat tire. I actually consider myself quite lucky, as a flat on some sections of the Smoky Mountain Road could have been a serious problem. Unfortunately, I had to abandon my plans for dinner at Hell's Backbone Grill. I left the car outside the closed auto shop, and walked across the street to the roadside motel, in the hopes of finding the mechanic first thing in the morning.
More on the trip later (especially the wonders of Capitol Reef National Park, and a great time in Zion with A.), if time permits. Click here for pictures.
|From Utah Road Trip, Oct. 2009|