Grand Staircase-Escalante – May 2017

May 25-27, 2017

There has been a lot of controversy over the recent National Monuments formed in Utah.  But one thing I will say, is that it gives me a name for my adventure report!

This trip has been in a gradual planning phase for a few years now.  I have been studying other trip reports, watching weather forecasts, and checking on road conditions.  As soon as my son and daughter’s scheduled aligned, we set down a date and hoped for good weather.  We lucked out.  A few weeks earlier saw severe rain storms, which would have made some of the roads impassable.  We had hot and dry weather, with a fair amount of wind.  Temperatures were perfect at night for sleeping, and great during the day while riding, but hot for hiking.  The only real downside was the infestation of gnats.  We had a lot of gnats at both of our campsites.

Here is my highlights video.  More detailed road report videos are included farther down.

We left home late on Wednesday afternoon and drove to Cannonville where we stayed in the Grand Staircase Inn.  A fitting way to start our Grand Staircase adventure.

The next morning, we drove to Escalante and stopped at the National Monument visitor’s center just as they opened at 8:00 AM.  We picked up a backcountry camping permit and checked on road conditions one more time.

Grand Staircase May2017 (42)

Jason caught a lizard

We stopped at the Renegade Restaurant and ate a huge breakfast.  This allowed us to have a late lunch and a late dinner, which we would need due to the busy day’s schedule.

Grand Staircase May2017 (43)

Renegade breakfast

Here is a portion of the map provided by the visitor’s center, followed by my GPS track.

Grand Staircase map 2017

A portion of the visitor’s map

 

Grand Staircase A May2017

GPS track for most of our ride

Grand Staircase B May2017

GPS track for the southern part

The green track is day one, blue is day two, and teal is day three.

Day 1

Hole-In-The-Rock Road

We parked at a primitive camping area about six miles east of Escalante, just a few hundred feet down the Hole-In-The-Rock Road (road #200).

Grand Staircase May2017 (5)

Almost to the trailhead

While unloading the trailer and rigging our bikes, a nearby camper came over to ask where we were headed with so much gear.  We told him of our plans, and he suggested an alternate route.  His description sounded great, so we decided to follow his route and abandon ours.  This turned out to be a good decision as it added some fun and scenic roads and eliminated about 50 miles of pavement with strong headwinds and heavy Memorial weekend traffic.

Devils Garden

Getting ready to ride

It always takes longer to rig the bikes than I think it should, so we didn’t get started until after 11:00 AM.

Grand Staircase May2017 (44)

All clean and ready to go

The first part of the Hole-In-The-Rock Road is a nice gravel road.  The speed limit is posted at 35 mph, but it would be very easy to cruise at 50 mph on much of the road.

The road was in pretty good condition.  In fact, we passed two road graders coming back from Hole-In-The-Rock after finishing grading the road.  We were actually surprised to find that most of the roads in our 300 mile loop were recently graded.

HITR Road

Hole-In-The-Rock Road

The first part of the road varies between gravel, hard packed dirt, and sections of loose sand.  Luckily the sand wasn’t very deep, so it didn’t cause us much trouble.  The worst sections had wash board bumps in the bottom of ruts, buried in 2” of sand.

After about 10 miles, we took a short side spur to Devil’s Garden.  This is a fascinating set of rock formations.  It reminds me of a mini-Arches National Park mixed with Goblin Valley.  This would be a great place for families with young children to enjoy a picnic.  There are picnic tables and restrooms, and plenty of hoodoos and arches to explore.

 

Devils Garden A (3)

Hoodoos at Devil’s Garden

Devils Garden B (7)

One of several arches

We didn’t stay long since we had a long ride ahead of us.  We made good time as we rode in a southwesterly direction toward Hole-In-The-Rock.

Our next stop, Dance Hall Rock, is about 40 miles down the road.  The pioneers that blazed this amazing trail held dances here while work crews constructed the wagon road down through the slot to the Colorado River.  I was surprised at how uneven the sandstone floor was.  I suspect they suffered a few sprained ankles at their dances.

 

Dance Hall Rock (3)

A short hike to Dance Hall Rock

Dance Hall B (2)

A closer look

Dance Hall Rock (1)

The uneven floor

 

The road to this point was pretty easy, and somewhat boring.  But after Dance Hall Rock, the road immediately gets a lot rockier in spots.  It wasn’t overly difficult for us on our small dirt bikes, but it could be a challenge for those on larger adventure bikes lacking good off-road skills.  It would also require higher ground clearance for 4-wheeled vehicles.

We were getting tired by this time, and we were anxious for a change.  Luckily the last few miles get even more interesting with slabs of slickrock, more twists and turns, and more ups and downs.  A little variety really helps you stay focused.  The scenery also improves as you near the end of the road.

Hole In The Rock C (4)

Jason cruising along

HITR Approach

Jamie approaching Hole-In-The-Rock

We arrived at Hole-In-The-Rock just after another group left, so we had the place to ourselves.  We hiked (or hobbled) part way down the slot to eat lunch in the shade.  We had now ridden about 58 miles and finally wore off that huge breakfast.  It was nice to sit and relax and ponder how in the world those pioneers got horses and wagons down through this slot.  It was truly an amazing feat.

 

Hole In The Rock A (1)

We made it

Hole In The Rock A (5)

Jamie and Jason at Hole-In-The-Rock

Hole In The Rock A (6)

Jamie starting down

Hole In The Rock A (3)

Lunch in the shade

 

Fifty Mile Bench

Our plan was to ride back towards the car and camp somewhere before reaching the turnoff into Left Hand Collet Canyon.  We were also anxious for a change of pace, so we took some side roads and explored the area a little on our way back.

Fifty Mile Bench (2)

Heading back from Hole-In-The-Rock

Our first side spur was to an old coral at Fifty Mile Spring.  That would have made an excellent campsite, but it is too early in the day for us to set up camp.

Fifty Mile Bench (3)

Approaching Fifty Mile Spring

Fifty Mile Bench (4)

An old coral

After discussing our options, we decided to try riding up Sooner Slide (Road #280) to Fifty Mile Bench (#290).  If the road wasn’t in too bad of condition, it would bypass most of the rockier sections of the Hole-In-The-Rock road.

This turned out to be a highlight of the trip.  The climb up Sooner Slide was long and steady, but the road was in pretty good condition.  Once we arrived on Fifty Mile Bench, the road was an absolute blast!  The road was fairly smooth (it hadn’t just been graded) as it wound through the Juniper trees.

Fifty Mile Bench (5)

Fifty Mile Mountain in the background, Fifty Mile Bench part way up

Fifty Mile Bench (6)

Climbing up Sooner Slide

Fifty Mile Bench (7)

View from Sooner Slide

 

Fifty Mile Bench (8)

Cruising along Fifty Mile Bench

Fifty Mile Bench (9)

Lots of fun twists and turns

Fifty Mile Bench (11)

One of the rockier sections

 

We eventually had to head back down off the bench, by taking road #260.  This northern end was significantly steeper than Sooner Slide, and the road was very rocky and eroded.  There were many bowling ball sized rocks and ruts about 2’ deep.  It was a tiring descent, but we all made it down without incident.  This would have been a real challenge for anyone on a larger bike or even an SUV.

Fifty Mile Bench (12)

Starting the descent from Fifty Mile Bench

Fifty Mile Bench (13)

Some sections were a lot rockier than this

Fifty Mile Bench (16)

It was a long and steep descent

Our last side spur of the day was towards Batty Pass Caves.  We never found the caves, but we did find a great place to camp.

 

Batty Pass Camp B (1)

Jamie teaching Jason a little yoga

Batty Pass Camp (1)

Freeze-dried dinner coming up

We quickly set up camp, took a short break while fighting off gnats, and ate our freeze-dried dinner.  The wind blew most of the time, sometimes keeping the gnats away.

It was hot during the day, but at night the temperature was just right for sleeping.  Everyone got a fairly decent night’s sleep – especially for a first night in a sleeping bag.

Day 2

We awoke to another gorgeous, sunny day, but the wind was still blowing.  For breakfast, we thought we would try scrambled eggs.  Prior to the trip I purchased a plastic egg cartoon that would hold six eggs.  Unfortunately, two of them broke sometime between lunch and dinner the previous day.  Fortunately, I was smart enough to place them in a zip-lock bag.  Otherwise, Jason’s backpack would have been a horrible mess.

Jason ate two of the remaining eggs, while Jamie and I each had one.  We supplemented with granola bars and clementines.

Twenty Mile Dinosaur Tracks

We broke camp and hit the road shortly after 9:00 AM.  We quickly buzzed down Hole-In-The-Rock Road and turned into Left Hand Collet Canyon.  We stopped to check out the Twenty Mile Dinosaur tracks, but we were not particularly impressed.  Maybe we didn’t find the right place, but what appeared to be a serious of footprints didn’t really look like dinosaur tracks that I have seen in other places.  But based on this report, I think we found them: http://www.gjhikes.com/2014/08/twenty-mile-dinosaur-tracks.html

Dinosaur Hike

In search of dinosaur tracks

Dinosaur Tracks (3)

They are mounds rather than dents

Left Hand Collet

Left Hand Collet Canyon (road #230) was really fun.  The road follows a stream bed for several miles, thus it is subject to frequent washouts.  Luckily the road was in good condition and made for a really fun ride.

 

LHC (3)

Riding up the stream bed

LHC (2)

A fun canyon

LHC (1)

The popular photo rock

We had to stop at one point because my right-side mirror mount came loose.  The threads had stripped, so we had to remove the mirror before we could continue.  This was our only mechanical issue of the entire trip.

Near the end, the road climbs out of the streambed and goes up a few switchbacks, bringing you out on top with a junction for Croton Road to the left, or Smoky Mountain Road to the right.  Our original plan was to ride south on Smoky Mountain Road, but the guy at the car said Croton was in good condition this year and a much better option.  We ended up returning via Smoky Mountain Road, so we verified his report.

Croton Road

I was a little nervous starting down Croton Road (#340) because I didn’t have a track loaded in my GPS.  But the guy that recommended it said it was easy to follow and well signed.  It turned out to be a great ride.

Croton Road sits in between Smoky Mountain Road and Hole-In-The-Rock, being just west of Fifty Mile Mountain.  The road eventually swings around to the west and ties back into Smoky Mountain Road.

The first part of the ride was up in the Juniper trees.  The road was in good shape, so we were able to ride pretty fast.  The road crisscrosses a ridgeline several times, offering great views both to the east and the west.  We kept wondering why anyone would build a road here – but we were glad they did.

 

Croton Road (3)

Riding along the ridge

Croton Road (1)

First look at Lake Powell

Eventually the road drops in elevation and you get your first glimpse of Lake Powell.  There is little shade after you leave the higher elevations, and it was about time to eat lunch.  We finally found some shade at the junction with the Grand Bench Road.  The side spur crosses a small stream with Tamarisk trees.  Normally I don’t like Tamarisk trees, but we were glad for a little shade.

From the junction, the road works its way west until it finally merges into Smoky Mountain Road.

Alstrom Point

Alstrom Point is a side spur off the Croton Road to an overlook above Gunsight Butte and Lake Powell.  This was a really fun and fast road, and the scenery at the end was wonderful.

 

Alstrom Point Road (2)

Cruising out to Alstrom Point

Alstrom Point Road (1)

Getting close

Jamie was getting pretty tired by this time, so she was glad for a half hour break while we watched the boats down on the lake.

Alstrom Point (1)

Gunsight Butte

After our break, we hurried to Big Water for a promised ice cream bar.  We also needed to buy gas and refill our water bottles.  We each used about two gallons of water during the past 24 hours, and we were almost out.  My mileage read 206 miles from the car to Big Water, and my low fuel light came on about 10 miles out of town (with a 3.5 gallon tank and 3 liters of extra fuel).  As usual for dual sport rides, Jason and I averaged about 55 miles per gallon while Jamie got around 60.

Smoky Mountain Road

After a break in Big Water, we rode back the way we came.  Our original plan was to ride west on Highway 89 for about 11 miles and then go north via Cottonwood Canyon.  We decided that we didn’t want to fight the strong headwind with the heavy Memorial weekend traffic, and that it may be difficult to find a campsite in Cottonwood Canyon.  So, we headed back towards Escalante via Smoky Mountain Road (#300).

Shortly after passing the turnoff to the Croton Road, we reached the base of the Kelly Grade – a steep climb up the face of the cliff.  This reminded me somewhat of the switchbacks on the Burr Trail, the Shaffer Trail, and the Muley Dugway.

 

Smoky Mtn Road (2)

Starting up the Kelly Grade

Smoky Mtn Road (3)

Part way up

Kelly Grade B (2)

Half way up the Kelly Grade

Kelly Grade (3)

Panoramic view from the top

Kelly Grade B (5)

Selfie time

 

We stopped at the top to take some photos and visited briefly with a couple that were set to camp right on the rim.  The wind was really strong there, so it didn’t look like an ideal campsite to me – at least with this strong wind blowing.

We continued on, looking for a place to camp.  The first site we found was near Pilot Knoll.  The campsite wasn’t as nice as the previous camp, but it would do.  It offered some shelter from the wind, but the ground was mostly sandstone so it was hard to stake our tents.

Smoky Camp (1)

Camp #2

Smoky Camp A (3)

A view of camp

Smoky Camp C (2)

Seeking shelter from the gnats

 

 

Seeking shelter from the gnats

It had been a long day, putting in about 138 miles.  This may be a record for Jamie and Jason.

We fought off the gnats for a while and then heated up our Dinty Moore beef stew and enjoyed a freeze-dried dessert.  Once again, the temperature was just right for sleeping.

Day 3

After enjoying some freeze-dried granola and berries, we packed up and got started by 9:30 AM.  The temperature dropped just after we starting, making for a brisk morning ride.

As with most of the other roads, Smoky Mountain Road had recently been graded, so we made good time.

Smoky Mtn Road (1)

Somewhere along Smoky Mountain Road

Smoky Mtn Road (4)

It was mostly good road

Alvey Wash Road

Smoky Mountain Road eventually becomes Alvey Wash Road, which leads right into the town of Escalante.

Alvey Road (2)

Alvey Wash Road

Alvey Road (1)

Jamie on Alvey Wash Road

 

Alvey Road (3)

Crossing the wash

According to the map I picked up at the visitor’s center when we got our camping permit, it looks like there is a dirt road, called Cedar Wash (#210), that leads back to Hole-In-The-Rock.  Had I known earlier, we may have taken that route back.  But since we didn’t think of it until after the trip, we ended up riding about six miles of pavement on Highway 12 to get back to the car.

We arrived at the car about 11:30 AM – much earlier than we expected.  Our total mileage was about 294 miles.  We quickly loaded up the trailer and drove the scenic part of Highway 12 to Boulder to get some lunch.  Being Memorial weekend, the restaurants were very crowded, so we ended up buying a burrito at a food truck at the Anasazi State Park.

We arrived at home with enough daylight left to unload and wash off all of the gear, bringing the end to another fantastic dirt biking adventure.

Statistics

  • Water: 2 gallons/person/day.
  • Max fuel range: 206 miles.
  • Car to Hole-In-The-Rock: 58 miles (including Devil’s Garden and Dance Hall Rock).
  • Fifty Mile Bench: 16 miles.
  • Left Hand Collet Road: 12 miles.
  • Croton Road: 63 miles.
  • Alstrom Point: 7 miles, one-way.
  • Smoky Mountain Road: 80 miles.

 

 

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About gardinerfamilyadventures

A really great family!
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