Grand Times in Grand Staircase Escalante Area


A few years ago, I packed into a small, hot, crowded room in Kanab, Utah, to enter a lottery for hiking permits for the Wave. The Wave is a unique, highly photogenic landscape that has become so popular that the Bureau of Land Management restricts access to 20 people per day (10 via online lottery, 10 via walk-in lottery for passes for the following day). The BLM system uses bouncing bingo balls to allocate the 10 walk-in passes, and up to 200 people enter during the high-season.

Our "wilderness experience" at the Wave lottery
Probability sucks, but Utah is great. We didn’t win permits 3 years ago but ended up having a great time exploring the nearby White Pockets and surrounding Sand Hills area with our friends.

Lonesome pine in the middle of the White Pockets

Chuck exploring the White Pockets

White Pocket sunset

Strange and beautiful landscape

This year, we met up with the same friends and decided we would double our (slim) chances to visit the Wave by entering the lottery 2 days in row. Usually my wife and I go on solo trips, but it was a lot of fun to have an outdoor adventure vacation with good friends. A couple years ago, our wives participated in the Rebelle Rally, so they are good company on a trip like this.

Rally veterans!

For this trip, we made motel reservations in Kanab for the first couple nights. This allowed us to enter the Wave lottery held daily at 9 a.m. at the BLM office in town. Personally, I’m done with this lottery--crowding into a room with 185 other folks all hoping our ping-pong ball number would be selected. One disturbing conversation overheard in these cramped quarters was a tall, lithe younger woman who coughed and then excused herself saying that she caught a bad viral disease from eating bad cheese in Brazil a month or so ago. I think she was trying to rebuff the guy subtly hitting on her. Not my idea of a wilderness adventure. And it burns up a good part of the morning.

Probability did its thing; we didn’t win hiking permits this year either, but there’s no losing when you have 3 days and 4 nights in this beautiful area.

After getting shut out of the Wave on our first morning, plan B called for hiking the Barracks (aka Parunweap) Narrows of the Virgin River into Zion. Our wives had done this 20 years or so ago, and the guys wanted to have the experience. This time, we had the advantage of capable offroad vehicles, so we would drive as far as we could and then hike down a wash into the Narrows to do an out-and-back hike. We found some hiking directions that described a trailhead off a 4wd trail and then 1 ½ mile hike to get to the river. It was a gorgeous hike.

Barracks hike

Returning to the trailhead - beautiful colors

But my directions were cryptic, there wasn’t a discernible physical trail, and without GPS waypoints to ensure we were on the right wash, we ended up hiking ridges and washes but not getting to the river. After a couple hours, we returned to the trailhead without getting to the Narrows. But the hike was so beautiful that we didn’t really mind.

Part 2 (next post)​


Part 2. (Excuse the mult-part report. I think the URL strings for the images are really long, and the forum wouldn't let me save due to excessive character count.)

Back in the vehicle, we navigated to the Barracks 4wd trail to get back to Kanab. This is a fun trail, with some driving challenges and beautiful scenery.

Some rocky trail sections

Crazy driver - note the swinging cross on the rearview mirror

The view out the rear window--needless to say, no guardrails on the trail

Some steep, sandy sections as you approach the river

There are 15 or so river crossings

I'm a little bit embarrassed by the motel stay on a wilderness adventure, but it was nice to end the day with pizza and beer by the pool/hot-tub.

The next day started with another another fruitless lottery event at the BLM office. Then we checked out of the motel for a couple days and nights of exploring and camping in the Grand Staircase Escalante area--such a scenic area!

We’d driven by the turn-off to the Paria ghost town a few times in previous years. This year, we checked it out.

Beautiful landscape on the way to Paria ghost town

Town cemetery - pretty scenery and hearty folks buried there

It's a 1/2 mile or so hike to get to the ghost town, with some water crossing

The most intact ruin

Interesting construction detail: note the tongue and grove beams that join over the wall
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Part 3.
After the ghost town, we proceeded to Cottonwood Canyon trail, with a few stops and scenic detours along the way.

Spur trail with spectacular overlook of Yellow Rock and Coxcomb rock formation

The appropriately named Candyland area

The long summer days are great for these trips, and we still had lots of daylight, so we took the little detour to Grosvenor Arch. I tend to be a snob about avoiding crowded attractions, and I overheard a ranger describing the hike to Grosvenor Arch as “a sidewalk hike.” The sidewalk part was correct, but we were the only ones there, and it was well worth the visit.

Incredible Grosvenor Arch

It's a rare double arch

It was time to find a campsite, so we headed onto remote trails, always selecting the lesser worn trail at intersections until we found a great campsite with beautiful views, overlooking Kodachrome park. We had time to hike the surrounding area, then enjoy a hearty trail dinner around the fire.

Setting up camp

Kodachrome park in the distance to the right

Walking tacos for dinner!

Relaxing at the end of day

The next morning, we broke camp, packed up, and visited Kodachrome park. I’m sure Zion is more spectacular, but Kodachrome was great--and uncrowded. We hiked for a couple hours through gorgeous scenery and saw 2 other couples the entire time.

Sentinel Trail with Shakespeare Arch in the center

Close-up of Shakespeare Arch
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Part 4 (of 4). Still at Kodachrome park.

Slickrock section of the trail - our campsite area the previous night somewhere off in the far distance

Kodachrome monolith

After Kodachrome, we took Skutumpah trail, hoping to find a slot canyon hike. Willis Canyon turned out to be too popular, with a nearly full parking lot, so we continued down the trail. When we got to Bull Valley Gorge, there were only a couple cars, so we packed a lunch and hiked the ½ mile to the point where you enter the canyon.

Hiking upstream to the point where you can enter the canyon

When the mudholes got too big and deep, we turned around (note the rope conveniently placed by a previous hiker)

More slot canyon obstacles

Unfortunate remains of a vehicle that plunged into the canyon many years ago

We employed the same strategy as the previous day for finding a remote campsite for the night, but this time we had to go a long ways to find a pull out. We eventually found a good spot with just enough room for a couple tents and a nice clearing in the road for an evening around the campfire enjoying good company.

Another nice campsite

It seems odd to set up near the trail, but it was so remote we didn't see or hear another vehicle either day

Full moon and campfire

All good things, come to an end, and we had to end our little vacation the next day. We returned to Skutumpah trail and then headed opposite directions to get home.

End of a great trip

It was an appropriate coincidence that our Utah adventure occurred the same week as Earth Day. What better way to celebrate than to spend a few days getting away from people and experiencing “re-creation” by heading to the Grand Staircase Escalante area of Utah.

If anybody really wants to geek out on the area, follow the link below to see more pics.
Google Photos album of the trip
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Ace Brown

Adventurer, Overland Certified OC0019
Great report. I have visited GSENM several times but you found a few spots new to me. My favorite time there is early October but more people then. I’d like to see the Wave too but hanging out in that tiny room would probably make me run out too.

I visited Pariah a few years ago and learned that The Outlaw Josey Wales was the last movie filmed there. Later I watched it again and recognized a lot of the background.


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So cool, Grand Staircase Escalante was amazing.
I've learned it's just not worth trying to get onsite permits to Coyote Buttes North (the Wave); vacation mornings are better spent seeing things (Like White Pocket!). If you really want to go, apply online 6 months in advance, keep trying till you get one (odds are better in the off season), then when you get a permit (could literally take years, not joking), plan your vacation around that date.
Or apply for Coyote Buttes South. It's just as beautiful and amazing as long as you don't mind skipping the feature everybody has seen and want to explore new features for yourself.

by Dustin, on Flickr
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I visited Pariah a few years ago and learned that The Outlaw Josey Wales was the last movie filmed there. Later I watched it again and recognized a lot of the background.
Cool! I'll have to get a movie list of offroad places. In addition to this one, I learned that Easy Rider has a scene on the trail to the Ballarat ghost town in Death Valley.

White pockets rock. Ha! dont stop in some of that sand huh:p.
Kanab has marketing posters for the area, and the one for White Pockets has the caption: "Like The Wave, but Without the Lottery" (or something like that). One of my favorite places! Thank goodness for the sand and challenging trails to keep the crowds away.
I had my only "wilderness confrontation" in the White Pockets area. We were going up one of the fairly steep, fairly deep sand hills on the way to White Pockets (they don't call it the Sand Hills area for nothing). A pickup with a couple guys appeared at the top and continued down the hill until we were nose to nose on the trail with no room to pass. Then he honked his horn. I got out, walked to the cab and explained that when driving on single vehicle trails, the vehicle going uphill is considered to have right of way. The driver replied that he was working ranchland, and people working have right of way over tourists. The guy was a jerk, but he had a point that we were just out having a good time. I didn't want a confrontation, but I didn't want to fold too easily, so I told him that we'd back up, but due to the trail conditions, I would spot the driver. So my wife drove and I slow-walked down the hill, making a drama of trying to find a wide spot where we could pull out. The jerk started honking, and when I was satisfied that I had wasted more of his time than if he hadn't been a jerk and waited for us to crest the hill, I directed our vehicle off the trail and let him pass. Funny that I remember that as much as anything else from that trip :) .