Post #63: From the world’s worst dirt road to the world’s best slot canyons

September 29, 2020

We both shivered half the night because we’d forgotten to bring our extra down blanket. I saw why we shivered—it was 29 degrees, even though it had been in the mid 70’s when we arrived last night. The 6,500 feet elevation explained the cold blast. I started the truck to warm up the front and rear heaters—the rear heater failed to deliver so before we left our campsite, I decided to top off the coolant, which usually solves the problem. But the truck was too warm to open the reservoir tank so I screwed the cap back on the liter coolant bottle and put it in a small cubby in back until I could. Or at least I thought I tightened the cap.

The morning light was glorious

We warmed quickly as we headed out. Somehow we found our way out of the maze of dirt roads we’d taken into the canyon, though I’m pretty sure we left a different way than we came in. The drive down the highway was beautiful from the start. The sun was still low in the sky and lit up distant hills while the foreground remained in the shadows. 

Our first stop of the day was the tiny town of Escalante, UT where we found hot coffee for Susan and a breakfast burrito for me at a small log building that was the only open business in town. It was an all-in-one place that housed outdoor adventure wear and a liquor store in addition to breakfast take-out. 

Escalante has few commercial establishment. This funky one-stop-shop was the only place open

We parked the truck in the sun and warmed up while enjoying breakfast in the truck and planning our day. Susan absolutely loves slot canyons and we’d hiked through several in Death Valley earlier in the year. But the two we planned for today were said to be among the best anywhere.  

We continued along the highway to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and the information we had said we’d need to drive about 25 miles down a dirt road. NBD for us—we’d been down dozens of really bad ones all over, including in Baja Mexico. But this road quickly got the grand prize for the worst ever. It wasn’t twisty-and-narrow-and-around-the-edge-of-a-cliff type of bad. In fact, it was a straight, flat, wide dirt road. But it began with a terrible washboard surface that rattled everything in the truck at any speed over 5 mph. And then the washboard got much worse for the entire rest of the way. Washboard roads happen when lots of traffic goes down a loose-packed road over a long period of time. Ridges build up perpendicular to the road, about a foot apart and a few inches high, giving the road the appearance of an old washboard. Anything over walking speed and a vehicle’s suspension doesn’t have time to recover from rising up onto a ridge and then going down into the next gully, so the wheels have to hop from one ridge to the next with a teeth-chattering, suspension-killing nerve-wracking crash of sounds and harsh motion. At ten mph, there’s a lot of commotion and everything rattles. At twenty mph, the whole world is being slammed about as steering control is occasionally lost. At thirty, you might as well kiss your tires and wheels and anything connected to them goodbye. So, we banged along loudly and painfully on the dusty road at 10-15 mph for an hour and a half.

Being mechanically inclined with the ability to fix things is a great skill. But the other side of the coin is that you know how things work and what breaks things and how hard it might be to fix them. I’m blessed with the fixer ability and when banging along for hours, I know what’s going on behind the scenes. Fasteners loosen, hidden things behind the dashboard work-harden and break, new rattles develop that will be nearly impossible to chase down and everything that was barely holding together will let loose soon. Suspension parts can only take so much, engine mounts that are 15 years old are ready to give up and ductwork and wiring hidden behind headliners and trim pieces are ready to part ways. These are the thoughts I had as we punished the truck down the road, wanting to go faster to end the torture, yet wanting to slow down to save vital pieces from falling apart. I hate hearing mechanical things suffer. I can’t watch the YouTube videos of idiots running an old Toyota engine at redline with all the oil removed just to see how long it will take to self-destruct. I can feel its pain. I kept thinking to myself, these slot canyons had better be really really good. They were.

But before we arrived at the slot canyons we stopped about halfway down the terrible road to explore an area known as “The Devil’s Garden.” The “garden” consisted of hoodoos, stone goblins and sandstone arches, with a backdrop of the immense, desolate mesas of Grand Staircase Escalante. 

Thumbs up!
There are also pretty things to be found in in The Devil's Garden
Joyfully running around and over the sandstone structures

We spent about an hour wandering about, climbing on the structures and giggling like children. We talked about how much fun our (now adult) children would have had here when they were small. It was the kind of natural playground/sandbox where children would start in the morning, climb for hours on the structures, play hide and seek, dig in the sand, have a snack, climb and hide again, drink some water, play some more, have another snack, go back to running and climbing, and then refuse to leave until they’re completely exhausted and the sun is setting. 

Eventually, we dragged ourselves away from the “playground” to continue on to the slot canyons. After more driving down the interminably long washboard road, we reached the dirt parking lot for the hike. 

Watch out for snakes!

Getting to the slots required hiking for a mile and a half in hot sun through sand and sagebrush on a very poorly marked (as in, not marked) trail. Susan spotted a snakeskin along the way—an instant reminder to watch our steps for reasons having nothing to do with brushing up against sagebrush or stepping on cacti. 

We had a general sense of the direction we were going and saw a cairn here and there that assured us we were basically on the trail. We saw only one other hiker returning from the slots and she said it wasn’t too hard to find the way. 

A couple of wrong turns later, we finally descended into a dry wash and came face to face with the entrance to Peek-a-Boo Gulch. We knew we were there by the wailing sounds of a twenty-something woman trying (and failing) to climb a twelve-foot high sandstone boulder at the entrance. Others in her party were encouraging her and one or two of them were physically pulling her up as she was saying that she couldn’t do it. 

When she’d finally been pulled up, we looked at the boulder and smiled. This was just the beginning.

Though the first climb was more than twice her height, Susan scrambled up with little difficulty, shaming the much younger woman ahead of us
This is gonna be fun!
Obvious why this place is called "Peek-a-boo"

Once we climbed up and over the initial boulder scramble, we were met with a very narrow slot canyon that twisted one way, then the next, barely wide enough to walk through. The floor in places was not even wide enough to plant a shoe and we walked uphill over obstacles and around smooth walls, climbing up over more boulders, sometimes barely squeezing through. 

And through

We were having the time of our lives, grinning and laughing like 10-year-olds. In fact, the whole slot canyon felt like a grown-up playground and we giggled as we slithered through impossibly narrow passages, carved by wind and rain that curved Dr. Suess-style into beautiful multi-layered 40-foot high walls. 

It was fantastical and kept going on and on as we climbed toward the top of the super-narrow canyon. Some turns were so sharp, we lost sight of each other only three feet away. I’d already forgotten about the World’s Worst Road.

Exiting Peek-a-boo Gulch involved traversing a winding slot
. . . then climbing up through a sandy passage
. . . then twisting our way out to reach the trail to Spooky Gulch

As we climbed out the top after about a mile, we half looked around for the carny wondering if we could get another ride. But there was more. Spooky Gulch was less than a half-mile away and we’d be entering this one from the top, heading to the bottom as the walls grew higher.

The passages at Spooky Gulch are ridiculously narrow
Charles's foot barely fit, let alone the rest of him

Spooky Gulch has even narrower passages than Peek-a-boo Gulch, with more odd carved features that we had to crawl through on hands and knees sometimes. 

Turning sideways was often the only option
Here's where things really became challenging. Toss pack down, grab rope, shimmy along the walls of a narrow chute of rocks then descend/jump to the bottom

Suddenly, a couple of people in front of us stopped and we could hear them encouraging someone to slide their backpack down the “chute” so they could use the rope to get past a narrow steep drop-off. Mkay… The idea was to Spiderman down a narrow passage until you could drop onto a ledge and then use an inch-diameter rope to lower yourself down another ten feet of twisting passage. It was too narrow for a pack and I slid mine down the chute as well. This part of the slot canyon was much harder for vertically challenged people and I looked at Susan’s five-foot four-inch frame and asked her if she wanted to turn back. She looked at me incredulously and said hell no! I love this woman. We were both able to shimmy down the chute with only a few scrapes, still grinning like kids. They could charge $30 and people would pay it, I thought. 

Then came the really narrow part, narrow as in, I had to relay my pack to Susan in front of me, and most sections were too narrow for even wearing a sun hat. In fact, some places we had to turn sideways and exhale to get through. It was not for the claustrophobic. Or the large.

Once we were spit out of Spooky Canyon, still grinning, we realized we had indeed been to probably the best slot canyons on the planet. But by now, we were hot and tired and ready to get back to the truck and steel ourselves for The Return of the World’s Worst Road. 

Leaving the slot canyons, we followed a couple of other hikers who took a slightly different but much easier trail back. Only it wasn’t going back to the truck, but rather to a different parking lot. 

The doctor and his daughter were visiting from Denver. They were enjoying a father-daughter trip to Utah in advance of her wedding coming up in two weeks

As we were looking at our GPS and discussing whether or not we should turn around and go back the way we came (by now at least an extra mile or two, and possibly without quite enough water—once again), a physician and his daughter who we were also on the trail said if we needed a ride from one lot to another, they’d happily drive us in their rental truck. 

Once we made it back to the wrong parking lot and saw our mistake, we gladly accepted their offer to drive us a couple of miles up the road. We figured it was Covid-safe riding in their brand new truck since he was a doctor . . . until the conversation turned to Covid and he said it was all overblown, basing his views on the fact that his patients haven’t had bad cases. A poor data set, we thought. As soon as we arrived at the right parking lot, we got out our hand sanitizer. 

Then, we gritted our teeth for the interminably long washboard road. Mile after bone-jarring mile we drove, powder-fine dust billowing from our tires. I vowed never to drive another bad dirt road again (a vow I quickly broke) if we made it out in one piece. Eventually, we did and the sudden shift from machine-gun washboard surface to newly paved road was shocking—and very welcome. As I sped up to cruising speed on the highway, clouds of dust flew off the truck, as if it was cleansing itself of the experience. 

The drive from Grand Staircase Escalante north on the excellent road was spectacular and was the perfect antidote to the agitating washboard road. Scenic Byway 12 crosses 9,000-foot high cliffs, plunges into deep valleys and passes rushing creeks, all the while winding from one wondrous colorful vista to another of sandstone cliffs, limestone hills and lush forests.

Just on the other side of the chair on the right is a 500-foot dropoff

Eventually, we found a campsite for the night a half-mile off the highway that backed up to an incredible view of a canyon far below. As I was setting up the chairs overlooking the canyon in the afternoon sun, I heard a bloodcurdling scream from Susan who was in the back half of the truck retrieving something. I dropped what I was doing and sprinted over not knowing what to expect: A nest of rattlesnakes on the pillows? A partially severed body part? A framed photo of Donald Trump? But it was worse.

Apparently, I had not quite tightened the liter bottle of coolant earlier in the day and it had leaked onto a hollowed-out plastic shelf in the truck that Susan used for storing important non-coolant stuff. I quickly surmised that the rough road had gotten the better of the seal and several hours of jack-hammering had caused the bottle to lose most of its contents, splashing onto everything nearby. How it happened quickly took a back seat to what it had done. A half-liter of sickly-sweet smelling urine-colored liquid had leaked out onto our bedding, the carpet under the bed and onto a whole bunch of other fabricky stuff it shouldn’t have come close to. I’ve had lots of experience over the years with coolant leaks, but never inside a vehicle. After I pled guilty to (probably) not tightening the lid, Susan got into the kids just threw up in their sleeping bags mode and started cleaning, knowing she had precious little to clean with and little daylight to get anything to dry before bedtime. I sheepishly wiped off the coolant bottle as I watched, careful to stay out of the way. In the end, she got most of the smell out and most of the bedding dried (who do you think got the damp side?), but by then the sun had set and our gorgeous view was dark. At this point our appetites were gone so we opened a can of soup for dinner and sulked.

Before turning in for the night in our now only slightly antifreeze-sweet smelling bed, we did our best to relax and take in the stunning vistas. Once again, we’d found an amazing spot to camp for free in the National Forest. We were near the edge of a cliff with 270 degree views of the canyons below. We watched the last of the sun disappear over the western hills just as the moon rose over the eastern ones.

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