Seven days ascending the Grand Staircase to sandstone heaven
Inspiration came in the form of Utah's Mighty 5 advertising campaign, 127 Hours, Westerns, and a desire to sniff that fresh desert air.
Some background on the trip: In May 2018, after about a year of traveling from Long Beach to Oakland for work, I needed some time off. I was no stranger to outdoor adventures, but up to this point, I had not really done any camping. I figured one of the best places to cut my teeth was on the back roads and trails of Utah. I last minute shopped for all the wrong camping gear (everyone makes this mistake the first time) on Amazon. I had purchased my National Park pass and loaded up my car for the trek into the unknown. Little did I know that this door would open the floodgates to my unsatiaiable outdoor apetite. I didn't have much of an intenerary it was mostly playing it by ear but it ended up being an insane Fear and Loathing type rage run to see as much as humanly possible in the span of a week.
An interactive map of my journey:
Day 1: Long Beach to Joshua Tree
This drive is fairly easy from greater Los Angeles, and JT is definitely the most accessible National Park from the Southland. I remember specificially driving down the 62 and thinking, "this trip has truly begun". Sand and stone stretched around in every direction. Then the Joshua Trees started to appear. Most national parks are designated due to their geological significance. Think: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon (we'll get to that one later) but Joshua Tree is somewhat distinct in that it is a National Park simply due to the abundance of these plants, more like Redwoods than Badlands, found nowhere else besides the Mojave Desert. Spread of the Joshua Tree was a symbiotic relationship between the plants and now extinct Ground Sloths. The Trees provided the fruit and the Ground Sloths spread the seeds. The Joshua Tree population no longer increases in geographic area, thus, your cool story and national park designation. Joshua Tree is a cool spot to explore for reasons besides taking pictures for Instagram.
Joshua Tree National Park
Most of the Day was spent exploring different areas of the park, Ryan Mountain is an easy little hike with some decent elevation, but nothing too hard. My campsite was a car camp spot at Jumbo Rocks. After I setup my tent and had some dinner I was greeted by one of the gnarliest sunsets I've ever seen. Red cotton candy, unreal, will never forget the sunset over those martian looking rocks truly the feeling of being welcomed to another world.
Day 2: Joshua Tree to Grand Canyon
From Joshua Tree I hit the road the next morning for Grand Canyon National Park. This is a doozy of a drive. Since this trip I have done it overnight, I don't recommend that, but it is doable with a car full of friends, and completely worth it. Most people will never get the true experience of Grand Canyon National Park because they won't set foot below the Rim. Sort of like that scene from National Lampoon's Vacation where they pull the car up, look out and drive off. Going down is optional but going up is necessary, therefore lots of people don't even bother.
Grand Canyon National Park
I got to Grand Canyon around noon, and with all of my gear I was determined to backcountry camp. Despite the dissuasion (rightfully so) of the rangers at the Backcountry office, I obtained my permit, and a hiking buddy who was much more expereinced than I was. We parked and headed down into the Canyon. It was May, but after a dry winter, and without his help, I probably would have lost the route and not found a reliable water source. I learned some valuable lessons on this overnighter. First, if you want to get away from the crowds at National Parks, backcountry is where it's at. Second, all of my gear was too heavy, and I was a complete n00b. But setting up my tent at a five star campsite inside the rim of the Grand Canyon ignited a spark that still burns to this day. There's something about the alipinglow and setting sun, grounding yourself and waking up with the rising sun that just awakens dormant animalistic insitincts.
The hike back up the next day was a bear, gaining probably around 4 thousand feet in elevation with a loaded pack. But this adventure was just getting started. next it was off to Zion.
Day 3: Grand Canyon to Zion
Getting back to the trailhead, the car, and the road, I was headed through Northern Arizona to Zion. The drive took me through the Kaibab Plateau and into Utah. The climb through the Grand Staircase had begun. The sandstone layer at the top of the Grand Canyon is the bottom of Zion. And the top of Zion is the bottom of Bryce Canyon, and so on - hence The Grand Staircase.
Getting into St. George and Zion is really an awesome experience the first time. I had a car camping spot the first night in Zion, and was able to grab some good food, get a shower and get my gear ready for Angels Landing the next day. I also scored a backcountry permit for Cable Mountain the next night, but I was beat and had a long day ahead.
Day 4: Angels Landing and Cable Mountain
Zion National Park
A lot of people focus on The Subway but to me, Angels Landing was the spot that really enticed me to take the trip to Zion. The chains, the views, the sheer drop. I don't think I had ever expereinced this level of exposure on both sides of the trail anywhere else. Certainly, the trails to Upper Yosemite Falls in Yosemite and Ooh Ahh Point in the Grand Canyon gave me the footing confidence but Angels Landing is on another level. When you get to the chains, I would say probably two thirds of the people turn back and give up, but the juice is worth the squeeze with this one. I spent about 30 minutes around the edge admiring the views, but I had one more climb in me for the day and headed to the East Rim Trailhead to get to my next campsite.
Honestly, don't tell anyone about the East Rim, and the backcountry of Zion. Angels Landing was cool, but a bus dropping you off and having people around at every switchback kind of takes away from the awe of the experience. East Rim is desolate, on the whole hike I think I saw maybe 4-5 groups of people. Water was sparse even this early in the season, but a manmade spring was sufficient about halfway through the hike to fill up my reservoirs and tide me over for the night. As I got to Cable Mountain you could see Angels Landing about fifteen hundred feet below and this view of the Zion Valley was even sicker! The sun set over the west ridge of the valley and all of the sandstone started to glow orange and red. The fouth day in and another five star campsite. My backcountry interest was mushrooming.
Day 5: Zion to Bryce and Coyote Gulch
The second National Park of five in Utah was Bryce Canyon. But driving on Highway 89 between Mount Carmel Junction and Kanab was another highlight of this day. As you approach Kanab the rock turns a deep red, and is the actual inspriation for Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland. The hoodoos and formations on the side of the road feel fake, like an amusment park, one of the coolest drives in the US. All of these formations would be their own state parks anywhere else in the world, but in Utah, they are just another mile marker.
Bryce Canyon National Park & Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Arriving to Bryce Canyon, and hiking the Wall Street trail was an awesome expereince. Seeing all of the hoodoos transports you to another planet, it really feels like Mars. That being said, out of the five national parks that I visited in Utah, this was probably the most underwhelming. The rock formations are awesome, but that's pretty much all it has to offer (something cool to look at). Also it is extremely heavily trafficked and cultivated. There isn't a feel of a nature trail and moreso an art gallery or waiting in line for a rollercoaster. I checked this off my list and headed to Escalante to get away from the crowds.
I rolled into Escalante in the late afternoon and I had compeltely overestimated the shape Hole in the Rock Road was in, not that it is probably ever in good shape but the 50 miles of unmaintained road made for a very long drive to the Hurricane Wash Trailhead. I hit the trail at around 5:30pm and thankful to the lingering civil twilight I was able to get into Coyote Gulch in time to hit the water and find a campsite around 8:00pm. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for the hike further into the canyon the next day.
I had seen a few videos of people hiking Coyote Gulch on YouTube in 4k, and yes it looked awesome. But I was not prepared for the spiritual experience of walking the Canyons of the Esclanate barefoot as the sun started to peek over the sheer hundred foot smooth stone canyon walls. Every sound echoed; from the sloshing of my feet in the stream, to the chirping of the birds and the laughs of other campers in the gulch. As I meandered thorugh the u-turns of the stream, I turned the corner and saw the Jacob Hamblin Arch. A double arch that towers about 150 feet tall and 100 feet wide. Standing on the western side of the arch I looked in awe at one of the most magnificent natural creations I had seen in my whole life. God is a perfect artist.
As I walked back to camp I just felt a presence. I did not have to see the pteroglyphs and constructed huts in the gulch to realize that I was walking with the spirt of my ancestors of the human race. The worries and tribulations of the world washed away with the weak flowing stream. I felt the nearness of our creator and a oneness to nature that I didn't even realize I quenched. At about this time a perfect stranger moseyed up to me with a huge smile on their face and talked to me exactly about what I was thinking. You can believe what you want to believe but to me, they were god talking to me in human form. I realized that I did not need worldly possessions, and had no necessity to dominate those about me. I did not need to be caught up in the rat race, I was working too hard and putting too much emphasis on my career. I needed to make more time to channel these natural and spiritual connections. To leave no trace so that others can have this same experience as I had that morning.
Day 6: Grand Staircase to Capitol Reef to Moab
Getting out to the trailhead and driving down the Hole in the Rock Road all was right with the world, it didn't matter how long it would take to get back to paved roads. on the way I stopped at Capitol Reef.
Capitol Reef National Park and Arches National Park
I treated Capitol Reef a lot like Bryce Canyon and I feel a little bit guilty about that. I defintely want to go back and check out Halls Creek Narrows and some other backcountry spots in the park, but I had just spent two nights in a row in a tent and driven hundreds of miles and I was a bit ready to spend the night in a hotel. I booked a hotel in Moab but also got a chance to check out Arches National Park at dusk. Parks 3 and 4 were checked off of my Mighty Five list and the sights were just as splendid. Hiking the extra mile to get up close and personal with Delicate Arch was well worth it. I was just amazed by how wind and rain and cold and hot could make these splendid rock formations.
Day 7: Moab to Canyonlands and Home
I overpaid for my hotel room but it was well worth it. My first shower in four days and the first real bed I slept in for a week. I only had one more park of the Mighty 5 to check out and that was Canyonlands. I think this goes in the same category as Capitol Reef, as a sight that I only briefly saw, but in the future want to experience more of the underbelly of. Island in the Sky was an awesome sight - I assume what the Badlands looks like, just hundreds of miles of rock formations and trails, but I was ready to head home with memories and a self realization that would last me for the rest of my life.
Canyonlands National Park
The adventuring of the Southwest Spirit Quest was over. Seven national parks and one national monument, all five of the five in Utah crossed off of my list. There's a scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams scolds Matt Damon about not experiencing the places he read about in books or heard others talk about. That something is not fully attained or appreciated until you have been there and done it. This has always rang true for me. I want to experience the thing for myself and I will not stop adventuring until the day I die. I didn't care that I had an eighteen hour drive home, it was worth it. To feel the beauty and wonder of the American Southwest. How an ancient seabed became a canvas for weather to depict sandstone masterpieces. How you can feel the spirit of the Navajo and Paiute as you step foot on the same paths they did. How you realize that maybe they were right all along and if the European settlers had seen some of these natural wonders they would have realized that there is more to life than the pursuit of capital. Perhaps I am getting too spiritual here, but go ahead and check it out for yourself.