Grand Staircase Adventure – May 2014

May 27-30, 2014

Kim and I spent four days exploring some of the most scenic dirt roads in southern Utah. We also did a few hikes near our camps in Capitol Reef and Kodachrome Basin.

Tues. May 27: Capitol Reef

We left home at about 8:45 AM with the hope of finding a campsite in Capitol Reef National Park. We arrived at about noon, ate lunch, and set up our camp. By mid-afternoon the campground was full.  (now you have to have reservations well in advance)


Three deer welcomed us to our campground

The Capitol Reef campground is very nice, with grassy areas for your tent, running water, and flush toilets. Most sites have a fair amount of shade, but we noted that loop C had the most shade. We also noticed that most people had a camper or a camp trailer rather than a tent. Being mid-week during the school year, there were a few families with very young children, but most were retired couples.

The temperature was in the upper 80s, but it was slightly overcast, so we decided to hike to Hickman Bridge. The hike was more difficult than we expected because it had a lot of uneven steps that were hard on Kim’s knee. But by taking our time, we made it to the bridge and back.

After dinner we had a brief rain storm that dropped the temperature a little bit. The dark rain clouds offered some spectacular scenery.

Wed. May 28: The Burr Trail

After a nice breakfast of French Toast, we packed up camp and headed out for our first dirt road adventure. We drove through the park then turned south on the Notom-Bullfrog road, which parallels the Waterpocket fold that comprises Capitol Reef.

Notom, Burr, and Wolverine roads

Notom, Burr, and Wolverine roads

The road started out being just another ride through the desert, but as we progressed southward, the scenery really improved. We stopped and checked out the remote Cedar Mesa campground along the way – a small campground with table and an outhouse, but no water.

The Notom road meets the Burr Trail about half way between Bullfrog and Boulder. We turned west and immediately climbed up the switchbacks that climb the Waterpocket Fold. These switchbacks reminded me of the Shafer switchbacks in Canyonlands. The road is in good repair, so the switchbacks did not present a problem.

Burr switchbacks

The switchbacks climb the cliff

Shortly after the switchbacks the road becomes paved. We passed a couple of adventure motorcycle riders that looked like they were really enjoying their ride. Both the Notom road and the Burr Trail are excellent roads for those with larger adventure bikes.

Since we were making good time, we decided to take a detour and explore the Wolverine Loop. This road would be really fun on my dirt bike. It was slightly rougher than the Notom road, but nothing too serious. It had lots of twists and turns, which are really fun on a dirt bike.

We stopped to look at some petrified trees along the way.

After rejoining the Burr Trail, we started the long and beautiful drive down Long Canyon. The scenery was absolutely amazing. We then stopped for lunch at the small Deer Creek campground and listened to the swift moving water while we ate.

After reaching Boulder, we enjoyed the scenic drive along Hwy 12 to Escalante and on to Cannonville. We passed several groups of motorcycles – both adventure bikes and street bikes.

We checked into our reserved campsite at Kodachrome Basin State Park in time for dinner. This was our first visit to Kodachrome Basin. Even though it is a small park, we were immediately impressed with beauty and the splendid campground – which even has free hot showers and a sink to wash your dishes.

We enjoyed two short hikes; one on the 0.5 mile Nature Trail, and a 1.5 mile hike called Angel’s Palace that offered some spectacular views of the park and surrounding areas.

On the nature trail

Kodachrome Basin

Thur. May 29: Cottonwood Wash

Today we celebrated Kim’s 8-year anniversary of her liver transplant. To celebrate, we decided to hike Willis Creek, which Kim has wanted to do for many years. Willis Creek is a little known slot canyon about 10 miles from camp. The Skutumpah road was somewhat rutted and had some very steep climbs, making it challenging to get to the trailhead without a good SUV. But the hike is very easy and family friendly.

Willis Creek slot canyon hike

Willis Creek slot canyon hike

We hiked about 1.5 miles downstream until we hit the confluence with Averette Canyon. We counted eight different sections of slots, each one getting deeper as we moved downstream. There was a small, clear stream following down the creek bottom, which made it interesting to hike without getting our socks wet.


Kim Willis Creek

As we dropped into the first slot we couldn’t help but wish our children and grandchildren were here to enjoy it.

Trying to keep my socks dry

Dee trying to keep his boots dry

After completing the hike, we continued on the Skutumpah road. This was our least favorite dirt road of our trip. It was the roughest of the bunch, and it didn’t offer scenery nearly as spectacular as the other roads we traveled.

Skutumpah, Paria, and Cottonwood Canyon

Skutumpah, Paria, and Cottonwood Canyon

We eventually hit the Johnson Canyon road, which was paved. Johnson Canyon was a lovely drive, and we stopped to take a few pictures of the old movie set where Gunsmoke was filmed many years ago.

We then turned east on Hwy 89, then took the spur out to Paria. There used to be western movie sets at Paria, but vandals burned them all down several years ago. The colors on the surrounding hills were very peculiar. We intended to eat lunch here, but the No-See-Ums were way too thick. Their bites really started to itch the next day.

Cottonwood Canyon

Cottonwood Canyon

After finding a bug free place to eat, we continued along Hwy 89 to the turnoff for the Cottonwood Canyon road. The southern end of this road was semi-interesting, but the northern half was quite spectacular.

We had planned on hiking part of the Butler Valley Draw Narrows, but we decided to save that for another time. We did stop and enjoy the beautiful Grosvenor Arch and talked to a group of Jeeper’s that had just come from the Smokey Mountain Road, which is on my adventure bike ride ‘to do’ list. They indicated that the southern half was well graded, but the northern half was fairly rough – although they thought our Sequoia could make it just fine.

Grosvenor Arch

Grosvenor Arch

The Cottonwood Canyon road conveniently returned us to Kodachrome Basin and another enjoyable evening. We decided to take the 0.5 mile hike out to Shakespeare Arch rather than the 3 mile Panorama loop that we had planned on taking.

Fri. May 30: Hell’s Backbone

Hell’s Backbone was another key element of our trip. Rather than take Hwy 89 back to Escalante, we decided to take a dirt road from Widstoe called Escalante Summit. This was a very easy drive with some nice views from the wooded mountains. This was a refreshing change of pace from the desert roads we had been traveling.

While in Escalante, we stopped at the Hole-In-Rock Heritage Center to learn more about that pioneer expedition. A few years ago Kim and I read some books about their adventures. It was a truly amazing feat. But from Escalante, the route they took looks like the obvious way to go – just following the long valley.

The Hells Backbone road is covered in gravel almost the entire length, and it has a lot of wash-boarded sections and sharp corners. This would not be too difficult to ride on my dirt bike, but you would have to be careful to not miss a corner – it is on a very steep mountain and going off road could easily be fatal.

Hells Backbone bridge

Kim at Hells Backbone

Escalante Summit and Hells Backbone

Escalante Summit and Hells Backbone

The mountain was beautiful with fresh green leaves on the Aspen trees and tall lodge pole pines. But the climax of the road is the narrow one lane bridge over the deep gorge between Box-Death Hollow and Sand Creek.

The Hells Backbone trail comes out just south of Boulder. We stopped for lunch at the Anasazi State Park, and then enjoyed the scenic drive over Boulder Mountain on Hwy 12. After returning to Torrey, we started our drive back home, arriving at home just in time to meet our children at Hires Big H for dinner.

Kim and I really enjoyed this trip. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, the camping was great, and the dirt roads were really fun to drive in the Sequoia. We took a lot of pictures along the way, so I hope you enjoy some of them.

About gardinerfamilyadventures

A really great family!
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1 Response to Grand Staircase Adventure – May 2014

  1. Pingback: Boulder Mountain Adventure – Sept 2017 | Gardiner Family Adventures

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