|Zebra Slot, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.|
October may be one of the best times to camp on the Colorado Plateau. Temperatures are mild, it rarely rains, and the tourist season is over, making the more popular hikes less crowded. Yes, the days are short, but if camping with kids, this allows plenty of time for roasting hot dogs/marshmallows and telling stories around the fire.
Despite the decrease in visitation at Utah parks and monuments this time of year, it still can be difficult to find a camping spot in some of the smaller, popular campgrounds. We found this to be true recently as we tried to nab a coveted site in the scenic and pleasant (but tiny) Calf Creek Campground in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
I thought we would have a decent chance at success being a Thursday, but we got packed and out of the house too late. By the time we arrived at the campground at 3:30 pm, all of the sites were gone.
Plan 'B' was to backtrack 5-6 miles south on Highway 12 to the Old Sheffield Road and look for a primitive site there. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the BLM had designated several nice sites that have great views and plenty of soft sandy soil to set your tent on. There are no improvements whatsoever (no toilets, tables, water, fire pits, etc.), but camping is free. With plenty of available sites to choose from, we ended up at a secluded site perched on a high ledge overlooking Spencer Flat. I would have been happy to spend the next 2 nights there, but we were not prepared equipment-wise, or mentally for an extended backcountry campout.
We packed up early the next morning and headed back over to Calf Creek. A couple were leaving just as we pulled in, and we were finally able to score a large site adjacent to the day-use area.
|Sunrise at our campsite on Old Sheffield Road.|
|Ren fuels up for a fun day outdoors.|
|View of Escalante canyon country from our camp on Old Sheffield Road.|
With the shorter days we planned to complete just a single hike each day, with plenty of playtime around camp. Since we had already hiked up to the lower Calf Creek Falls a number of times, we decided to hike up the trail a ways and search for a somewhat hard-to-find pictograph panel. Although faded and partially vandalized, it is still a nice little diversion off the main trail.
|Faint human figures painted in red and yellow overlook a minor tributary of Calf Creek.|
|Bighorn sheep migrate across sandstone near Calf Creek.|
|Zoe investigates a beaver dam built across Calf Creek.|
Our big hike for the next day was to Phipps Arch. This is a six-mile (round trip) hike down the Escalante River and up Phipps Canyon. We had a kaleidoscope of colors and pleasant temperatures (although the river crossing were a bit chilly), making this a memorable hike.
|Susie gives Zoe a lift over the cold waters of the Escalante.|
|Ava and Zoe hike beneath a golden canopy of cottonwoods in Phipps Canyon.|
|The aperture of Phipps Arch doesn't hold any size records, but the thickness of the arch itself is impressive.|
|Susie takes a break in the shadow of Phipps Arch.|
|By carefully scanning the cliffs above the Escalante River near the Highway 12 bridge, you can spot a couple of these Anasazi granaries.|
|Cottonwoods of the Escalante.|
While everyone rested at camp after the hike, I slipped out just before sunset for a quick bird's-eye view of the lower falls.
|Lower Calf Creek Falls as seen from the east rim of the canyon.|
|Looking south down Calf Creek Canyon from the rim near the lower falls.|
On our way home on the final day, we veered south down the Hole in the Rock Rock to check out the Zebra and Tunnel slots. After a few miles down the trail, it became clear that the kids weren't going to complete the entire 7-mile hike. They and Susie were content to play around in the sand in Halfway Hollow, while I ran the rest of the route.
|The trail into Halfway Hollow.|
It's a good thing I didn't drag the kids all the way because it turned out that both slots were flooded with cold, chest-deep water. Although these slots are only about 100 yards long, plan on taking plenty of time for pictures. I snapped away with my point and shoot as I ran through, but a serious photographer could spend hours here. Zebra is an especially fascinating place that should be on everyone's must-do list.
|The flooded entrance to Zebra Slot.|
|flood-sculpted walls of the Zebra slot.|
|Zebra gets its name from the unique alternating light and dark layered cross-beds of the Navajo Sandstone that the slot is carved into.|
|A unique combination of color and texture make Zebra slot a photographer's dream.|
|Entering the flooded Tunnel slot. Tunnel lacks the colorful stripes, but it is still an exciting walk.|
Calf Creek Campground makes a convenient base camp for a number of excellent hikes and adventures in this area. There's much more to see and do, and I suspect we will spend many more nights at Calf Creek -- as long as we can get a spot.