Grand Canyon National Park
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Desert National Wildlife Refuge
We didn't expect to return to the Grand Canyon or the area so soon after our 2015 trip, but our friends were getting married on the South Rim so we couldn't miss the joyous occasion.
It was surprisingly cold during the day, with a biting wind that never seemed to let the air warm up. Despite the cold, we did see a few birds in addition to the condor. Grace's Warbler, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Western Bluebirds sang from the Ponderosa pines around the campground. Of course there were the ever present and obnoxious Common Ravens, who surprised us one evening by poking holes into our 2.5 gallon water jug. We thought at first the damage was due to a coyote, only to realize the truth at 5 AM by the sound of a raven pounding on the other water jugs in the back of the truck.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
After a couple of days spent with friends and celebrating the wedding, we headed north back to the Vermilion Cliff National Monument along with a couple of friends who were interested in seeing the California Condors at the release site. Our original plan was the spend the night at Jacob Lake - a nearby USFS campground, but were disappointed to find the campground closed down for the season. We ended up disperse camping in the national monument after discovering that the Stateline campground was full.
Morning at the release site, we were happy to see four condors getting ready to take to the skies. Perched on the edge of the cliffs, they spread their massive wings out to catch the sun rays. A tour guide and a couple of tourist stopped at the site. And we chatted with them a little bit before they headed off to the main attraction of the monument - the Wave, where there are only a set number of permits per day to hike into the canyon. We said our goodbyes to our friends and prepared ourselves for a week of desert camping.
We stopped at the large rock formations just off the main road in the national monument. It was a short hike on a sandy road to the cluster of rocks that we climbed to admire the various swirls, stacks, and layers. We drove back onto the main road and stopped for a Western Rattlesnake sunning itself on the road. A short distance later we found a large Gopher Snake on the road. As Tor was snapping shots of the snake, the tour guide we met earlier drove up and pulled over to show his tourists the snake. Tor asked the tour guide about the road to White Pocket - a road we had gotten stuck in the sand two years ago in the rental truck (that only looked like a truck, but did not work like a truck). The tour guide assured us that though the road was rough our current rental truck (an actual 4x4) should make it to White Pocket. So with shaken confidence but renewed determination we headed back down the dirt road to White Pocket. The road is smooth sailing up to the ranch. Beyond the ranch the road turns into a narrow lane of deep sand through the open sagebrush. Clicking into 4-wheel drive, we bumped and bounced our way through the sand. My knuckles strained white with the thoughts of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere (again). But the truck trundled along through the sand, dropping suddenly in the large holes left by other vehicles who got stuck in the deep sand. An added stress traveling over the road was the prospect of oncoming vehicles. The road was only one lane, with limited places to pullover. At each bend in the road, we scanned ahead through juniper and sage as far as we could to look out for other cars.
But we made it to the White Pocket trailhead without incidence. A couple of other cars were camped at the trailhead. We pulled into the corner of the parking lot to set up camp and take a breather from the stressful drive. At sunset, we walked out to the end of the road to the large white rock cliff and watched the sun's orange glow bathe over the layers of white rock.
White Pocket wasn't all rocks. Among the bowl of rocks, a man made tank held toadpoles in the algae infested waters of a shallow marsh. Violet-green swallows swooped low over the rocks and defended their nesting crevices from neighbors. In the sandy flats, a Valley Pocket Gopher scurried back and forth to snag nearby vegetation to store in its burrow.
After spending the morning at White Pocket, we packed up and drove back out on the sandy road. There were several tour guides (and tourist) heading into White Pocket. I suppose it's easier and less stressful to hire someone else to do the driving for you on these roads. We made it back to the in-holding. Coming out the road seemed less intimidating and not as stressful. Perhaps it was because we made it in, we knew the chances were high we'd make it back out.
We drove out of the north end of Vermilion Cliffs into Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument - our next destination for the trip.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
We drove by Bryce Canyon and the small town of Escalante, then turned south on to the main Hole-in-the-Wall road. We set up camp on the road opposite of Dry Forks Road. Despite the intriguing environment of hillsides capped with large boulders, sagebrush and juniper, there was very little bird life. With the setting sun and a cooling breeze, we hiked up the road to the sets of caves that two entrepreneuring brothers carved into the rocks. After exploring what was behind each creaking wooden door, we headed up hill on the old road to watch the sunset over the canyonlands stretched out far below us.
The next morning we drove to the Dry Fork trailhead - the trailhead to the popular Spooky and Peek-a-boo canyons. Being slightly unprepared for this entire trip, we didn't have a lot of time to do our research, so we didn't have much expectations of these canyons. We descended from the arid red dry scrub lands, followed the cairns and down the slick rock into the canyon.
Following the cairns, we made our way east through scrub and rock to Spooky Canyon. We crested a rocky hill and descended into a large wide gravelly wash. The wash narrowed and we found ourselves entering a slot canyon once more. Once again the walls narrowed and grew taller overhead. After sliding down through a large boulder fall in, we found ourselves squeezing through some narrow slots. With our bags hoisted in front of us, we squeezed through the narrow canyon walls. If I was claustrophobic I wouldn't have made it through those tight spaces. The canyon walls eventually opened back up, spilling us into the large canyon wash. We trekked back up the wash toward Peak-a-Boo canyon where a couple was scrambling up the vertical entrance into the canyon. We hiked up Dry Fork canyon a much wider and taller canyon than Peak-a-boo and Spooky. Not nearly the amount of dramatics, but beautiful nonetheless.
Around mid-day we hiked back out to the trailhead as many people were starting the trek into the canyons. We drove down Hole-in-the-Wall road and stopped at the Dance Hall - a large naturally formed rock stage with a cavernous overhang that the Mormons used as a gathering place. In the late afternoon, we returned to our campsite across from Dry Fork.
As we strolled on the jeep road in the evening, our attention was drawn to a ruckus the Pinyon Jays were creating. Drawing my binoculars up to my eyes, I noted a fury critter with ears looking back at me. A large healthy bobcat was the cause of the jays' distress. It sauntered off up the hillside through juniper and boulders as the jays continued their calling.
The next morning we headed back out toward Escalante. We stopped at the Devil's Garden where we spent the morning walked through the hoodoo formations. After continuing northward, we took the Harris's Wash side road over red gravel and sand to the end at a large stretch of cottonwoods that bordered the wash. The trailhead was full of cars and campers. Many people used this trailhead to access the Escalante River, which was about 7 miles down Harris's wash.
As the day began to heat up, we headed back to the car to hit our next destination within the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Back on the main highway, we passed Calf Creek Campground which was overflowing with cars both from campers and hikers. We instead went to Deer Creek campground which was off the main road, but still very accessible. The campground was small with only 5 or 6 sites, so we were lucky to snag one of the last two open spots. Cottonwoods and willows bordered the running Deer Creek. The songs of Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Gray Vireo, and Black-headed Grosbeak drifted from the leafy canopy. A Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay perched vigilantly over our campsite where the jays had a young brood to attend in the dense scrub.
In the evening, we took a short walk on the Deer Creek trail, listening to the babbling creek. A couple of racers zipped by along the grassy streamside. Violet-green Swallows swooped low overhead as the evening began to cool.
Night time set in a cold dampness as we tucked in for the night.
We awoke to damp sleeping bags and the dawn chorus. Leaving our gear to dry in the rising sun, we set out to hike farther down the Deer Creek trail. The trail was a crisscross of small trails - running along side the creek, through stands of willows and cottonwoods. As the creekside narrowed, it was easier to walk above the creek and through the sagebrush. A Lucy's Warbler, Lesser Goldfinch, and a Black Phoebe sang above the flowing creek. The trail lead us higher above the creek on a rocky shelf. Beyond the creek, white peaks of granite dotted with juniper and sage surrounded us in the distance. It would have been great to hike more of the trail, but we had to move on to our next much farther and final destination of the trip:
Desert National Wildlife Refuge
Since we had a mid-day flight from Las Vegas, we decided to spend our last night closer to the airport. It had been over 10 years since we last visited Desert National Wildlife Refuge - and back then it was designated as a National Wildlife Range. After the long drive from Escalante in which we manage to avoid the possible chaos of driving through Zion, we arrive at the recently constructed Desert NWR visitor center (complete with sustainable amenities) in the evening. Similar to the new visitor center at Ash Meadows NWR, also in Nevada, it was a welcomed change compared to the small kiosk that once stood there when we first visited in 2004. It was closed by the time we arrived, so we drove up the road to the Old Corral Road, where we set up camp at the decrepit corral, snug against a steep cliff face. To the south we could see the approaching stormy clouds, which were somewhat concerning, but made for a dramatic sunset over the Joshua trees, sage, and brush.
In the morning, we slowly made our way down the road, stopping along the way to admire the blooming wildflowers. At the visitor center, we looked around their new displays and walked the new trail system next to Corn Creek behind the building. Corn Creek Spring was full of aqua-green crystal water. As with the first time we visited this place, the old orchard was full of bird activity. Lazuli Buntings, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Cedar Waxwings and Bullock's Orioles buzzed and chattered while chowing down on ripe mulberries in the trees. The containment pond or rather cement chamber for the endangered poolfish stood exactly as we saw it before. Through the viewing windows, we could see the small brown marbled fish floated lazily over the tangles of algae mats. In the blooming mesquite trees, a Virginia's Warbler gleaned with a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. After the short one hour drive, we were back in the blitz, bling, and chaos of Las Vegas - always a shock to the systems have a week of relative desert solitude. It was too short of a trip that left me already looking forward to the next spring in the desert.