Bring a camera, Grand Staircase/Spooky Gulch full of spectacular views

Retired Denver area teacher Larry McKenna peeks out from the slots at Spooky Gulch, a spectacular hiking destination located quite a ways from Grand Junction. The area is full of must-see canyons.


Grand Staircase/Spooky Gulch

Drive time and distance to Spooky Gulch: 5 hours, 30 minutes, 296.8 miles

Length: 6.2 miles round-trip if you meander like us

Hiking Time: Depends on how often you stop to take pictures

Difficulty: Difficult start and ending, Spooky in between

“Work, work, work,” said retired Denver area teacher Larry McKenna. “You’re my hero.”

Sitting in the lawn chair next to our camping spot along Harris Wash in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with my laptop on my lap, I had to crank out one more hiking column on this trip. Hope this dust doesn’t hurt my MacBook any worse than it damages my Nikon camera.

We discussed our options: Hike down Harris Wash into Coyote Gulch; hike the Red Cliffs area across from our camping spot; take a nap.

Decisions, decisions.

Larry and his wife Marj (still teaching in the Denver area) strapped on their backpacks and headed into Harris Wash to Coyote Gulch. They figured it would be a two-nighter. Another friend from Denver, Chris Belle, and I were thinking of a short hike into the Red Cliffs. Ed Gibbons, my buddy with the bad knees from Colorado Springs, opted for a crossword puzzle, then a nap.

Camping in the desert is wonderful this time of year. Not too hot, not too cold, no wind, no bugs. And the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument west of Lake Powell and east of Bryce Canyon National Park is great desert canyon country to set up camp.

We’ve seen magnificent canyons, spectacular spires and impressive arches.

We’ve marched through wide-open washes and squeezed through narrow slot canyons, stopping only when there was too much water to slosh through any farther, or where we simply couldn’t squeeze through anymore.

Maybe 20 pounds ago, but not now.

We’ve climbed to the tops of canyon rims and to the bottom of canyon floors and have enjoyed every minute.

I haven’t been here since 1989, but the Hole-in-the-Rock Road is still long and dusty. Hole-in-the-Rock was long and dusty when Mormon settlers with the “San Juan Mission” sought a route from south-central Utah to a proposed colony in southeastern Utah in 1879. Their route cut through the vertical cliffs of Glen Canyon, an almost impassable barrier.

These, however, were determined folk. There were 60-some miles of road to build just to reach the sheer 45-foot cliff that had to be overcome, and six weeks of labor was needed to construct a route down so the wagons of the party could pass.

We’re not talking small parties, either. On January 26, 1880, an expedition of 250 people, 83 full-sized wagons, and more than 1,000 head of livestock began their descent to the river. Teams of men and oxen lowered the wagons on ropes through the upper crevice, which had slopes approaching 45 degrees.

Farther down, a wooden track was built along a slickrock sandstone slope. Posts were drilled into holes that supported horizontal beams to allow passage of the wagons.

All in all, it was a pretty wild ride. After an even more difficult journey on the east side of the river, the expedition founded the community of Bluff in southeastern Utah.

For all that work, they used the Hole-in-the-Rock route as a supply road for only a year before replacing it with an easier route to the north, at Hall’s Crossing.

Hole-in-the-Rock Road brought us here on a glorious bluebird day, wondering which way to go next. We’ve been to Devil’s Kitchen (I wrote about that last week). We’ve seen Sunset Arch, after a short cross-country trek had us following bovine tracks to the middle of nowhere. We’ve also been into Peek-a-boo Gulch, Spooky Gulch and Brimstone Gulch in the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch.

Those are canyons you must see.

All three are VERY narrow slot canyons, but there’s an area between Spooky and Brimstone that’s one of the widest expanses of sand you’ll find in the southwest United States outside Sand Dunes National Park in Southwest Colorado.

To get here from GJ, travel on Interstate-70 west past Green River to the Hanksville exit. Turn south to Hanksville, then head west into Capitol Reef National Park. Continue through the park to Scenic Utah Highway 12, and travel through the town of Boulder.

About 4.5 miles before you get to Escalante, turn left on the Hole-in-the-Rock Road, then drive 26.6 miles to the Dry Fork turnoff. It’ll be on your left, or northeast. When you come to a fork, go left. You’ll have traveled 1.7 miles from the Dry Fork turnoff to the parking area. You’ll find the way down almost immediately, but be careful. It’s easy to get lost here.

Now my work is done. Chris and I will head into the Red Cliffs on one more short hike before driving home, while Ed takes a nap. Hope it’s not too hot for Larry and Marj with those heavy backpacks.


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