Friday, June 29, 2012

Yellow Rock in the Grand Staircase: Part One of a Desert Hiking Adventure

For several years now, I've been making trips to the red rock deserts of the American Southwest, sometimes with my wife Beth, and sometimes on my own.  During that time, I've had many hiking adventures.  Eight and a half miles at 8,000 feet of elevation really put our lungs to the test in Fairyland Canyon.  Hiking along the rim of the Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park and descending hundreds of feet into the Bryce amphitheater, I realized I had gotten over any fear of heights I'd once had.  On a January visit to Delicate Arch, I may have been the last human to leave the park, inching my way across compacted ice in the twilight.  But certainly one of the biggest "adventures" unfolded during my recent trip up Yellow Rock in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

I first learned about Yellow Rock from Laurent Martres' fantastic guide, Photographing the Southwest, which has been my go-to volume for both excursions planned and spontaneous in the gorgeous country of the Colorado Plateau.  Martres refers to Yellow Rock with such adjectives as "simply awesome" and "an exhilarating experience," and the several photos in his book only further sell it as a great afternoon in the region.  He also gives the warning that the beginning of the hike involves a steep 45-degree incline along loose, rocky terrain (remember, you'll be descending this hill in the dark) and that it is "preferable" to have a partner along, which after my adventure I can only second most enthusiastically.

Yellow Rock is located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which encompasses nearly two million acres of land in southern Utah.  Bill Clinton created this largest of our national monuments in 1996 to no little degree of controversy under the authority granted him by the Antiquities Act; the law (dating to Teddy Roosevelt's tenure at the turn of the 20th century) allows the President to set aside public land and protect it without requiring the congressional involvement needed for designating an area a national park.

Without diverging onto too much of a tangent (or getting onto too much of a soapbox), many people are surprised to learn that public land owned by the citizens of the United States as a whole can still be used by and for the profit of private industry, including such destructive activities as mining and timbering--and even can be transferred to private ownership for far below its true value under anachronistic laws originally designed to encourage the exploration and settlement of the American west.  Though originally intended to protect Native American artifacts from tomb-robbers, from its passage presidents have used the power to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act to bulwark natural wonders as well.  Because of the powerful financial and political interests involved in Congress, obtaining the protection of national park status can be difficult, particularly when lobbyists pressure congressmen against each and every attempt to conserve lands which the companies those lobbyists represent would like to pilfer.  Teddy Roosevelt used that power to enshrine Devil's Tower in Wyoming as well as the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon in Arizona; subsequent Presidents have protected lands throughout the country--much to the ire of the industries which would like to make use of the resources on public land and the congressmen whose pockets they line.  Many national monuments eventually do become national parks, too (once Congress accepts the fact they're not going to be able to turn the land over to mining interests!).

Beth and I had planned to visit and make the trek up to Yellow Rock back in October of 2010 on a trip that took us to Bryce Canyon, but unfortunately, we encountered rare October rains which closed off the primary access road into the Grand Staircase-Escalante.  Cottonwood Canyon Road traverses the monument from north to south, connecting Scenic Byway 12 in Cannondale, Utah (near Bryce Canyon and Kodachrome Basin State Park) with US 89 between Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah; Beth and I unfortunately found a big "road closed due to inclement weather" barricade at its southern end that fall, and ever since then, that trip into the Grand Staircase had been nagging at the back of my mind.

View of the Cockscomb Fault; Cottonwood Canyon Road is visible as the slender strip in the lower-center of the photo to the left of one of the Cockscomb's ridges.
Though most guidebooks I've read claim the graded clay and dirt road is generally navigable by passenger cars when the weather is good, I can say from experience that I wouldn't attempt Cottonwood Canyon Road without a four wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle; it's just too rough for cars or casual drivers--not to mention that a 4WD is absolutely essential for many of the side roads within the monument which you won't want to miss.  The roads are washboarded in some places, and slick with deep sand in a few others.

Also take note: absolutely do not under any circumstances, no matter what 4x4 vehicle you drive (unless it has tank treads), attempt Cottonwood Canyon Road during or after heavy rains; the dust-atop-clay surface will become completely unnavigable, and chances are you will get stuck, have to hike out, and pay mega-bucks for a tow once the road conditions finally improve.  A few other road tips: take plenty of water with you and a shovel (in case you get mired in sand or mud), as well as a tow strap in case you need or can offer assistance to others along the road.

Yellow Rock as viewed from the peak of Brigham Plain Road, just across the Cockscomb Fault.
Because the other sights on my itinerary were all in northern Arizona or just across into Utah, and because I stayed in Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, I chose to tackle the drive to Yellow Rock from the southern end of Cottonwood Canyon Road.  It's a bit more than 14 miles from US 89 to the Lower Hackberry Canyon parking area which is used to access Yellow Rock.

Shortly before the parking area (which is on the left when traveling north on Cottonwood Canyon Road), you pass a turnoff for Brigham Plains Road (BLM 430) on the right.  A short detour onto BLM 430 takes you up a series of steep switchbacks to a vantage point overlooking the Cockscomb almost directly across from Yellow Rock (see photo, above) along with several other geological features in the area including one of seven of "Mollie's Nipples" named in Utah.  This is not a drive for the faint-hearted or those with a fear of heights; the switchbacks ascend nearly a thousand feet in a short distance, and there are few places to pull aside or turn around if you happen to encounter someone else coming the other direction.  I undertook this excursion with the full knowledge that Beth wasn't with me and wouldn't have ever consented to the drive were she in the car--so when we return to visit the area together, I won't get the chance to drive it again.

One quick note about Brigham Plains Road: even though it is shown on the BLM's Grand Staircase-Escalante brochure's map, do not under any circumstances attempt to drive its full length.  Looking at the map, you might think it could serve as a shortcut to/from the vicinity of the Wahweap Hoodoos (where it joins with BLM 431), but you would be mistaken.  The gentleman from whom I rented my Jeep--himself a veteran driver who had spent his entire life in the rocky deserts of Utah--crossed-out BLM 430 on my map with the caution that he had very nearly lost his vehicle over the side when the shoulder gave way along a particularly narrow stretch.  Likewise, Martres in Photographing the Southwest Vol. 1 strongly advises drivers turn back at the apex viewpoint and that the road quickly deteriorates beyond that point--and for me, ascending the switchbacks (and then descending on the return) was quite white-knuckle enough!

Once parked at the Lower Hackberry Canyon area off of Cottonwood Canyon Road, take a few minutes to double-check your gear.  Plenty of water is a must, particularly in the summer, as the hike up to Yellow Rock is quite steep in places and will tire out the average hiker quickly; likewise, I found an evaporative cooling neck wrap quite handy.  Since Yellow Rock is best in the late afternoon and at sunset, chances are you'll be descending in the twilight and darkness--so bring a working flashlight, and unlike me (more on this later), double-check that the batteries are in good shape.  Bring a map, a compass, and a GPS.  Wear sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support--a necessity for the descent as well as handy when clambering across the "sea of slickrock" or Yellow Rock itself.  Don't forget to sign the trail register so that rangers will know to look for you if you get lost or injured on the trail.  Carry a whistle in case you need to call for help.

Did I mention that flashlight?

The hike begins with a short walk down Cottonwood Wash--sandy terrain that is not exactly welcome after the strenuous hike back, but thankfully only 300-400 yards in length.  Look for a side canyon leading to the west (off to the right-hand side of the wash), located approximately at 37°15.240 N 111°54.789 W if you're using a GPS.  Though this side canyon may not look any less steep than the surrounding terrain--with a 45-degree ascent--it does have a relatively-stable path (marked intermittently with cairns) to the top.  The terrain is very loose dirt, rock, and sand, so unless you want to continuously slide back down the hill, stick to the marked path.  I wish I'd taken a few more photos of this otherwise-unremarkable side canyon, but you'll have to just take my word for it: the ascent is rough and involves no small bit of scrambling.

Yes, I climbed up this slope: looking down from near the top of the side canyon ascent to the base of Yellow Rock.
Let me add that I am not at the moment in the best shape of my life, and this hike in the 90-plus degree desert sun was not exactly easy.  I am well-accustomed to scrambling on loose ground when hiking as well as clambering up steep hills (I grew up in West Virginia, after all), but between living near sea level today (the  Yellow Rock hike takes place at nearly 5000 feet of elevation) and quite simply being out of shape, I had to stop several times going up the side canyon to catch my breath.

After crossing the saddle atop the side canyon, there are several interesting groups of hoodoos and other rock formations visible, such as the one above which I see as a beagle or dachshund baying at the moon, and which a coworker interpreted as a turtle's head.  If using a GPS, mark this point on your map for the return, and at any rate, memorize the formations next to the saddle (which look like a tall set of horns or perhaps a fork).

Crossing from the side canyon rim to the base of Yellow Rock itself isn't much of a routefinding challenge, nor a particularly difficult hike.  Once at the base of Yellow Rock, though, you'll begin to appreciate the scale of the sandstone dome before you.  It doesn't look that large from across Cottonwood Wash--just a bare patch of sandstone amidst the desert scrub--but in the barren landscape, sizes are deceptive.  Martres refers to the "sea of slickrock," and his description is quite apropos, though in this particular case the seas are rather high.  Waves of rock wrap around, in places cross-bedded like the scales of a snake, in others laid out like ropy, long snakes themselves.

Slickrock snakes on Yellow Rock
I visited near the peak of summer (about a week before the solstice), and timed my hike to arrive at the peak about two hours before sunset.  Martres indicates in his text that the sea of slickrock falls into shadows "about an hour" before sunset, and I'd suggest arriving perhaps three full hours or more ahead of time to fully be able to hike and enjoy the vast expanse of sandstone around Yellow Rock.  As a photographer or simply a nature enthusiast, you'll definitely find a wide variety of terrain, texture, and colors to satisfy, with only so much time to see them.

Once I finally reached the summit of Yellow Rock, I do have to say I found the entire experience somewhat anti-climatic.  Yes, it's a fantastic view--but there are better in the southwest.  Yes, the colors in the late-afternoon sun are stunning--but so are they at many other locations throughout the Colorado Plateau.  I think had I had a bit better skies, my opinions would be different: imagine some clouds hanging over the horizon, filling up the air with the anticipation of a real gully-washer of a storm as the energy builds and the clouds stack atop themselves into one massive anvil-shaped thunderhead.  I'm not saying the hike wasn't worth it--don't get me wrong--just that perhaps I had built it up in my mind as the sort of existential experience that is seeing Bryce Canyon's hoodoos for the first time, or watching the sun set at Delicate Arch, or rise over the Maroon Bells amidst aspens in their full fall-color glory.  I don't think Yellow Rock is that kind of experience, though perhaps my adventure on the hike back is coloring my view somewhat jade.

At any rate, I explored the top of Yellow Rock and took plenty of photos (see the lead-in image for this post as an example of the light about 15 minutes before sunset, casting the rock a stunningly-deep orange-red near the north-western side of Yellow Rock).  I read a good portion of a book, enjoyed a snack and rehydrated.  Then I packed up my gear and headed back down.

Ascending the slopes of Yellow Rock
Remember that saddle and rock formation you crossed at the top of the steep side canyon?  I hope you do, because you need to descend by the exact same route.  That's where my adventure really began, for although I had not only taken a photo of that "fork-like" formation and marked its coordinates in my GPS, it's quite easy to get turned around atop Yellow Rock and its vast slickrock expanse.  As I carefully descended the rock slopes, I sighted my objective by eye and by GPS compass bearing (n.b.: make sure your GPS compass is properly calibrated!) and set off out of the wilds.

Given the rolling terrain and large patches of sandy or cryptobiotic soil (the latter of which should not be walked upon, as the delicate crust is easily damaged and can take decades to recover), it wasn't as simple as just walking in a straight line toward the saddle.  Several times, I'd top a small ridge to find an impassably-steep slope on the opposite side, then have to backtrack and navigate around, then take another bearing and descend, then climb the next ridge.  I realized when my objective didn't get any closer that my compass wasn't functioning properly; even with the many detours I took, I should have made some progress.

Reviewing my GPS track log, I discovered that I had diverged several hundred yards to the right of my original course; after recalibrating my compass (fortunately easily done in the field!), I took stock of my situation.  Here's where things got interesting.  It was by then growing increasingly dark, and I had yet to start the descent back down the steep side canyon.  I'd worked my way around to the wrong side of the saddle (with the proper descent off to my left on the opposite side of the tall, fork-shaped rock formation), and due to the terrain, couldn't easily get to the correct side.  My navigational mistake meant I'd have to backtrack quite a bit: I couldn't just walk along the ridge to the saddle itself due to several obstacles (the tall, fork-shaped rock formation; several trees; steep slopes), and wasn't exactly thrilled at the notion of backtracking and descending to the sea of slickrock, crossing several more sandy beds, then ascending the ridge again.

"It's just over that hill!"  Oh, no, it's not, unless you mean a sheer drop to the wash below...
I tried several shortcuts which from where I stood looked promising but which inevitably failed to pan out--usually ending at the brink of a 200 - 300 foot descent down a 70-degree talus and scree-covered slope.  In retrospect studying my topo map in detail (I had deleted my GPS track log by then in disgust--I do wish I'd kept it now, though), I ended up attempting the descent into the side canyon from its top, head-on, when I should have wrapped around it to the side slightly.  This put me on much steeper ground, and with the light failing and my legs worn out from over 20 miles of hiking throughout the day, I was not in a happy place.

Descending along the southern slopes of Yellow Rock
Now, I've done plenty of hikes in the dark before and on terrain just as challenging as that of the Yellow Rock descent.  A couple of years ago, I visited Delicate Arch for sunset in January and had to inch along sheets of compacted ice and snow crusting the slickrock for a 600-foot descent without crampons or ice spikes of any sort on my hiking boots (n.b. slide-on traction spikes are a worthwhile investment! I couldn't have done Bryce Canyon this past January without them.).  I have hiked out of pitch-black woods on animal trails in the rain.  But when I pulled out my flashlight and discovered its batteries were just about kaput, I was not pleased at all.  I was at least several hundred yards off course and facing some incredibly treacherous footing.  Martres' words of warning started glaring down at me in recrimination: "The potential is there to hurt yourself or twist an ankle, especially during the descent. It is preferable to do this hike with a partner."  (I was actually rather glad not to have Beth along--worrying about my wife slipping and taking a tumble down several hundred feet of slope isn't something I needed when I had to concentrate on where to put each footstep.)

Indeed, I took a couple of spills myself during the descent when seemingly-solid footing gave way--once or twice I slid a good 15-20 feet before coming to a stop, giving myself the worst (and possibly first) skinned knees and shins since I'd been twelve years old or so.  If I didn't have such strong ankles and flexible tendons and ligaments (and very good hiking boots), I suspect I'd have come away with a broken or at the very least badly-sprained ankle several times.

During one tumble, I managed to plow one of my cameras into the gritty soil, and later on that evening at my hotel when preparing my gear for the next day, I discovered a deep chip on the lens's UV filter--well, that's what the filter is there for; better to damage a $70 filter than a $1200 lens!  I'd packed away one of my cameras already, but in the arid terrain, I didn't want to disassemble the other and contaminate the sensor with dust--a mistake I rued considerably when on a 50-degree slope on the descent I did decide it would be easier just to clean the sensor than risk critical damage. You try removing a heavy pack, keeping it from tumbling down into a desert canyon, and keeping your own balance in the dark... not fun.

Can I say this again?  Make sure your flashlight batteries are in good shape before undertaking this hike!

On one particularly nasty side, I discovered I'd ripped the necklace I always wear.  Given half the pendant on it was hand-made by someone who no longer makes jewelry, I wasn't pleased and was kicking myself for not having removed it for the tricky descent (and stowed both cameras, and re-attached the zip-off legs to my hiking pants to save my skinned knees, and ... well, it was a bit of a moment of recriminations, okay?).  To this day, I cannot believe that I managed to find both parts of the pendant, in the dark, on the side of a rocky slope where I'd plowed ankle-deep into the dirt.  I promptly stowed the necklace, pendants, and my wedding ring in a sealed pocket, then said the equivalent of a couple of Hail Marys to the Invisible Pink Unicorn in thanks, and amazingly found myself at long last back on the proper trail.  I'd only spent the past forty minutes in the dark sliding my way down about 300 feet of vertical drop, and I was thankful to finally see a cairn along the path.

Back in Cottonwood Wash, I still had to find my car--which I'd cleverly parked in the shade of a particularly-large cottonwood tree but now, under the worthless light of my ever-dimming flashlight, I spent another twenty minutes hunting out.  I'd marked my car's location on the GPS, but in the descent, my compass had gotten tweaked again, and I trudged a tenth of a mile in the wrong direction through the deep sand before realizing the error (I should have zoomed in more, and relied on the track log instead of the compass, I suppose).  When I finally did get to my car, I could barely get my boots off to pour out all the accumulated sand and pebbles and other grit that had accumulated inside them; my feet had rather swelled during the day's marathon of hiking.  But I was back, and I only had fourteen miles of rough dirt roads and another forty of highway ahead to reach the hotel, lick my wounds, hit the sack, and then get back up and tackle another day of hiking and photographic adventures.

And you thought nature photographers led a glamorous life, didn't you?