It’s mid-October and time to move from Capitol Reef National Park onward into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park. So, we packed up our comfortable camp outside of Capitol Reef and followed spectacular highway 12 south into Grand Staircase National Monument.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is huge, over 1.9 million acres. And, it’s spectacular. Sadly, it’s also threatened by the Trump Administration’s ill-advised attacks on our public lands and Grand Staircase is on the chopping block to be dramatically reduced and developed for natural gas drilling.
Our first goal in this vast desert wilderness was to explore the Burr Trail, an old sheepherders route through the canyon lands, but now a paved, backcountry route. You can enter Grand Staircase on The Burr Trail from Capitol Reef National Park, but parts of it are steep with notorious switchback turns climbing a sheer cliff face. So, we took the safer, yet still spectacular state highway 12 from Capitol Reef to Grand Staircase instead. Later, after driving “the switchbacks” with just our truck, we’re glad we did. The Burr Trail is paved within the national monument, graded gravel in Capitol Reef, but all drivable in a normal car.
There’s one small campground along the Burr Trail, Deer Creek, but it’s small and brushy. We found a fine, quiet spot nearby on Bureau of Land Management public lands to set up our camp; boondocking. Tucked into a shady, sandy wash underneath some ponderosa pine trees and blindingly white slick rock cliffs, this would make a great base to explore the east side of the Grand Staircase.
After unhitching from our trailer, the first order of the day was to drive into The Gulch where the Burr Trail follows through a magnificent red rock canyon. This was breath-takingly beautiful, all the more so with the cottonwood trees turning gold in the mid-October sun. We took short hikes into side canyons and sat silently at an overlook seeing far across the deserts, mountains and canyons of the Waterpocket Fold, a massive uplift in the earth’s crust, spread out before us.
When we returned to camp we noticed that the rear tires on our trailer were badly worn. On closer inspection, they were bald! Since we usually travel far out into the outback on rough, gravel roads, the specter of a flat tire out there is serious business to us and we realized we needed to change those tires immediately. But it was Friday afternoon and we were far, far away from any kind of automotive shop. Oh well, we’ll deal with it on Monday.
On Saturday we drove the Burr Trail all the way into Capitol Reef National Park with the truck (and down the infamous switchbacks). As we returned to the top of the switchbacks we hiked down Lower Muley Twisted Canyon (also reported in our Capitol Reef National Park post). It was spectacular and a great ending for the day.
We spent Sunday relaxing in camp, doing minor repairs, and waiting for the following day to drive to the small town of Escalante to replace the worn-out trailer tires. Once we had the tires installed, we would return to explore the canyons of the Escalante River. Meanwhile, I spent the afternoon hiking a few miles into the Upper Escalante Canyons Wilderness area where we were camped. There was no one else there for miles around.
Monday! We hitched up and drove to tiny Escalante. But, the local service station didn’t have tires that fit. So, on to Panguitch, past the entrance into Bryce Canyon National Park, and another fifty miles away. The tire shop in Panguitch was closed on Mondays. So, back to Bryce Canyon City, a developed area at the entrance into Bryce Canyon National Park. Finally, the full-service Sinclair gas station there had a set of tires that fit, and we had them installed. Total cost was only $240, a bargain considering how far out there we were.
Now we were exhausted from driving all day. And, since we had traveled so far from Grand Staircase, we decided to stay in Bryce Canyon National Park instead of backtracking to national monument. From Bryce we would continue our travels westward towards Zion National Park and on into Arizona. We would explore more of Grand Staircase in a week or so when we traveled around its southern boundary, but at least our anxiety over the tires was gone.
Bryce Canyon is over-the-top spectacular. It costs $30 to enter the park (free for us with my America the Beautiful senior pass), and another $30/night to camp in the park’s campground ($15/night for us with my senior pass). We usually don’t stay in developed campgrounds, especially in national parks, but the North Campground in Bryce is nice with flush bathrooms, good water at community spigots and a strong Verizon cellular signal. There’s a RV dump station in the campground, but it was closed due to freezing nighttime temperatures. No matter, the Sinclair gas station has a RV dump for $5. Also, Bryce Canyon National Park is pretty remote and, though there are camping areas in nearby Dixie National Forest, it’s easier to explore the park from the campground inside of the park with its paved hike and bike trails running all along the canyon rim.
At 8,000 feet elevation, Bryce is cold at night, but the days were sunny and cool. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking out to the viewpoints near camp; sunset point, sunrise point, inspiration point. The pinnacles of red, pink and white stone emerged from the mountain sides and marched down en masse into the valley below. They were magnificent in the afternoon sun.
The next day we drove the scenic drive through the park, through alpine meadows and forests of ponderosa pine, to Rainbow Point at road’s end. Along the way were more armies of pinnacles and long views to the canyons of the Escalante and further, to the rim of the Grand Canyon far off in the distance. We hiked the Bristlecone Trail to Yovimpa Point before returning to our camp.
We decided to hike the Under-the-Rim Trail the next day. We spent the whole day hiking just five miles following the Queen Victoria and Navajo trails through the pinnacles and strangely shaped towers of rock called “hoodoos” in the area called the Bryce Amphitheater. It was an enchanted place, the trail zigzagging through tunnels and tight canyons formed by the towering hoodoos, then breaking out into shady meadows with red, purple and white rock towers standing all around.
By late afternoon we climbed out of the canyon and drove to the Fairyland Overlook with views into another spectacular basin of towering rock formations. Satisfied with a day well spent, we returned to camp to enjoy the lingering sunshine. Bryce Canyon National Park had not disappointed us; it lives up to its reputation as a special place not to be missed.
From here, it’s on to Zion National Park, but we’ll be back to hike some more of the trails through Bryce, one of the most unique places on the planet.