Southern Utah: Stepping Onto the Grand Staircase

Utah’s Grand Staircase has been a bucket list item for all of its geologic treasures, natural beauty and remote location –- so remote, in fact, that it was one of the last places in the U.S. to be mapped.

With almost a million acres of public lands, it was yet another great place to get away and stay away during the continuing Covid mess.

A series of cliffs form massive natural “steps” rising 5,000 feet from bottom to top, the ultimate geologic stairway to heaven … hence, the “Grand Staircase!”  See?

Here, scenic Highway 12 winds through slickrock benches and canyons in 124 miles of beauty.

Changing fall colors compete with bicyclists whizzing by unrestrained cows for the attention of a tense and potentially distracted RV driver.

Cows and bicyclists got nuthin’ on the famous “Hogsback” section of Scenic Byway 12 for demanding concentration, with hairpin turns and steep drop-offs on BOTH sides of the road! Eeeeeeek!

Not pictured: gritting teeth, clutching the RV dash, breathing into a paper bag! I found this aerial photo online … see the road along the ridgy spine?  

Two restaurants in the area have garnered nearly cult-like followings.  One, the James Beard-nominated Hell’s Backbone Grill draws foodies from around the country. 

The grassy lawn of its six-acre sustainable farm was perfect for a (dog-friendly) farm-to-table picnic.

Hell’s Backbone has become the center of resistance against Trump’s efforts to shrink Grand Staircase, which was recently reduced by 47% via presidential proclamation, opening it up to oil, gas, coal, logging and development.  Grrrrrrr.

With its remote location amplifying its popularity, rather than detracting from it, the Kiva Koffeehouse is located high on a cliff.

Outdoor tables overlook the Escalante River and canyon below, and seriously strong coffee gets your pulse-a-pounding for the day’s adventures ahead.

Hard-core canyoneerers head straight for the mythical Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons, but we had heard that they were dangerous without taking a guide, and also based on this online description, we are probably too fat.

Slide sideways through this narrowest of the earth’s crevices and ponder how a canyon can taper so.  Leave your backpack behind. Shed any unnecessary layers: “fun” hats, push-up bras, ironic mustaches, fanny packs, babies in baby carriers, the ticket to Tremors 7 in your front pocket… Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope and nope.

And thus saying nope, nope and nope to this humiliation, we took a pass, and instead headed to hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls.  

After trudging miles through deep sand and desert scenery not altogether different from some places in Arizona, we were stunned to turn the final corner and come upon a literal oasis in the desert!

Calf Creek Falls is happiness in the form of a 120-foot waterfall and plunge pool beneath!

Further down the road near Cannonville, but still surrounded on three sides by Grand Staircase, Kodachrome
State Park is one of Utah’s least-visited parks because of its remote location.

The National Geographic Society had to secure the permission of Eastman Kodak Company to name the park Kodachrome, after its popular color film.

Try not to sing Paul Simon’s catchy song “Kodachrome” in your head as you are driving through the park’s changing spectacles of color and shadow.  Impossible!

Kodachrome is known for its 67 rock spires scattered throughout the park, the shapes prompting giggles from the eight-year-old mind of one of us, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty.

The spires range from as little as 6 feet … to as high as 170 feet, just jutting out of nowhere!  They are geologically known as “sedimentary pipes.”  

Little Philip with big spire, big Philip with little spire! 

The Panorama Trail winds across the western side of Kodachrome Basin.  It can be done as a 3 mile loop, or a 6 mile loop.

Who knew dirt could come in so many different formations?

Along the way, you’ll see lots of spires, and interestingly-named features such as “The Hat Shop” …

…and “Cool Cave,” the perfect place to rest after traversing the mostly fully-exposed territory throughout the park.

Because it’s such a low-use state park, we had the entire cave to ourselves for over an hour!  Gotta love social distancing in a place like this!

Outside Kodachrome, 10 slow miles down the bumpy and jutted Cottonwood Road, is Grosvenor Arch, one of Utah’s most intricate double arches. 

Though we’ve seen lots of rock arches (particularly in, oh, I dunno, maybe ARCHES National Park, for starters), a double arch is rare and this one is a beauty, towering 150 feet above the ground. 

Grand Staircase’s geology lesson continues in earnest, like this deposit of crumbly brown rock patterned inside non-crumble white rock.  Scientific names and explanations not available at the low, low price of this blog; but it was pretty cool!

 We’re leaving all this solitude (pop. 860) and heading back to civilization in St. George, Utah (pop. 89,587).  This includes hope for a proper supermarket, instead of where we’ve been shopping for two months:  tiny markets generally smashed together with other businesses – like a “motel/campground/gift shop/outfitter/tour guide/laundromat/library/VHS video rental/grocery.” 

See you again soon from St. George!

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