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Grand Canyon National Park
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Desert National Wildlife Refuge

April-May 2017

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.

Grand Canyon

Back at the Grand Canyon, we stayed at the Mather campground and hiked/walked the south rim path. Not much had changed in the few years we were away. We hiked a short distance down the Bright Angel trail to the first rest area. Despite the steepness of the trail, a lot of people were hiking on it - likely because it was the most accessible trail down the canyon. Looking down on the trail doesn't look so intimidating. It's not until you're huffing and puffing your way back up the canyon wall does the massive size of the canyon become overwhelming. We were fortunate to see a California Condor soaring high and being harassed by a raven near the Bright Angel trailhead.

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.

At sunrise the following morning, we walked over to White Pocket - an interesting mix of worn down rock faces and uplifted mounds of rock formations in white, pinks, and tans. It's difficult to describe other than to say there were many beautiful rocks built up with time and then weathered down to swirls, lines, and mounds.

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.

We started at Peek-a-boo canyon, which required an initial scramble up a smooth 12 foot rock wall. Niches provided some handholds, the rest required a little extra oomph. Once in the canyon, the narrow walls stretched 20 feet above our heads. The crack of sunlight cast down an eerie yet beautiful orangish-red glow caused by the reflection off the rock walls. We worked, scrambled, and squeezed our way into the slot canyon discovering beauty among slick and rough walls and wondering what lay beyond the next bend or crook. Eventually the walls widened and got shorter. We had to climb the wall at one point to go around a particularly narrow pinch in the canyon. Above the Peek-a-boo canyon the lands were flat and open with scrubby bushes, cactus, and loose sand. Granite Spiny Lizards and Whiptails scuttled about the rock crevices. And the ever present Black-throated Sparrows belted out their song.

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.

Despite the lateness of the day, the cottonwoods along the wash were filled with birdsong. We ended up walking the trail past Harris's wash and into open desert. The desert here differed slightly in geology and flora compared to where we stayed near the Straight Cliffs. There were numerous spiny lizards and whiptails. And we were lucky to come upon a juvenile collared lizard. After exploring a few natural tanks complete with water, tadpoles, and plenty of evidence of cows, we turned back down the trail and walked up the wash, listening to singing Yellow Warblers in the mid-day heat.

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.

We wandered the roads at dusk, taking in the blooms and familiar plants of the Mojave desert. A Common Poorwill flushed from the gravel, a Great Horned Owl hooted softly in the distance, and a few bats flew erratically in the breezy night air. Tor spotted and caught a Night Snake - a small, docile, beautiful snake.

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.


Pictures (click on the pictures to enlarge)

Bird List
Canada Goose roadside
Mallard E
White-faced Ibis roadside
Turkey Vulture G,V,E
California Condor G,V
Osprey E
Golden Eagle roadside
Sharp-shinned Hawk V
Cooper's Hawk V,D
Red-tailed Hawk E
Eurasian Collared-Dove G,E,D
Mourning Dove V,E,D
Western Screech-Owl E
Great Horned Owl V,D
Common Poorwill V,E,D
White-throated Swift G,V,E,D
Black-chinned Hummingbird D
Broad-tailed Hummingbird G,V,E
Belted Kingfisher D
Ladder-backed Woodpecker D
Hairy Woodpecker G
Northern Flicker G,V,E
American Kestrel V,E
Peregrine Falcon G
Western Wood-Pewee D
Gray Flycatcher E
Dusky Flycatcher V,E
Black Phoebe E
Say's Phoebe V,E,D
Ash-throated Flycatcher G,V,E,D
Western Kingbird roadside
Loggerhead Shrike V,E
Gray Vireo V,E
Cassin's Vireo G
Plumbeous Vireo E
Black-billed Magpie roadside
Pinyon Jay V,E
Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay G,V,E
Common Raven G,V,E,D
Horned Lark E
Northern Rough-winged Swallow V
Violet-green Swallow G,V,E,D
Cliff Swallow G,V
Mountain Chickadee G,V
Juniper Titmouse G,V,E
Verdin D
Bushtit G,V
White-breasted Nuthatch G
Pygmy Nuthatch G
Rock Wren V,E,D
Canyon Wren G
House Wren G
Marsh Wren D
Bewick's Wren V,E
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher G,V,E,D
Ruby-crowned Kinglet G,E
Western Bluebird G,V
Mountain Bluebird V,E
American Robin G,E
Northern Mockingbird V
European Starling roadside
Cedar Waxwing D
Phainopepla D
Orange-crowned Warbler E
Lucy's Warbler E
Virginia's Warbler D
Common Yellowthroat E
Yellow Warbler E,D
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's) G,V,E
Grace's Warbler G
Black-throated Gray Warbler G,V,E
Wilson's Warbler D
Yellow-breasted Chat D
Chipping Sparrow G,V,E
Brewer's Sparrow V,E,D
Black-throated Sparrow V,E,D
Lark Sparrow V,E, D
Dark-eyed Junco (Gray-headed) G
White-crowned Sparrow V,E
Song Sparrow E
Green-tailed Towhee V
Spotted Towhee G,E
Western Tanager D
Black-headed Grosbeak E,D
Lazuli Bunting D
Western Meadowlark V,E
Brewer's Blackbird G
Great-tailed Grackle D
Brown-headed Cowbird V,D
Bullock's Oriole D
Scott's Oriole E
House Finch V,E,D
Pine Siskin G,E
Lesser Goldfinch E

Elk - G
Mule deer - G
Pronghorn - roadside
Coyote - G, V
Bobcat - E
Marmot - roadside
Black-tailed jackrabbit - V, E
Desert cottontail - E
Rock squirrel - G
Abert's Squirrel - G
Red squirrel - E
White-tailed antelope squirrel - V, E
Cliff chipmunk - G, V, E
Uinta chipmunk - G
Valley pocket gopher - V
Bat sp. - E, D
Western rattlesnake - V
Gopher snake - V, E
Racer - E
Night Snake - D
Striped plateau lizard - G, V
Desert spiny lizard - V, E
Western fence lizard - G, V
Western whiptail - E, D
Zebratail - E
Sagebrush lizard - E, D
Long-nosed leopard lizard - E
Side blotched lizard - E, D
Great Basin collared lizard - E
Great Basin spadefoot Toadpoles - V, E
Cliff rose - G, V
Cliff fendlerbush - G
Utah serviceberry - G
California redbud - G
Phlox - G
Sharpleaf penstemon - G
Utah penstemon - E
Firecracker penstemon - E
Broadbeard penstemon - E
Palmer penstemon - D
Desert paintbrush - G
Paintbrush - E, D
Toanus milkvetch - E
Milkvetch - G, V
Lupine - E
Purple desert lupine - V
Mountain goldenbanner - E
Tufted evening primrose - G, E, D
Pale evening primrose - V, E
White stem evening primrose - E
Lavenderleaf sundrop - E
Narrowleaf suncup - D
Arizona bladderpod - G, V
Great Plains bladderpod - E
Naked broomrape - G
Stemless hymenoxys - G
Winding mariposa lily - V
Pallid milkweed - V
Claret cup cactus - V, E
Beavertail cactus - D
Smallflower fishhook cactus - E
Whipple’s claw cactus - E
Dagger claw cactus - E
Strawberry hedgehog - D
Navajo bridge pricklypear - E
Porcupine pricklypear - E
Gypsum phacelia - V
Notchleaf phacelia - D
Death Valley phacelia - D
Yellow throats - D
Fly basin yellow catseye - V, E
Capitate catseye - E
Wingnut cryptantha - D
Virgin River cryptantha - D
Pebble pincushion - E, D
Desert pincushion - D
Desert pepperweed - E
Mountain pepper weed - D
Mesa pepperwort - E
Spectacle pod - V
Canyon bird’s-foot trefoil - V
Eyed gilia - V
Coral gilia - E
Twolobe larkspur - V
Tall mountain larkspur - E
Desert larkspur - D
Desert monkeyflower - D
Fragrant white sand verbena - V
Winged sandpuff - E
Silvery townsendia - V
Townsend daisy - V
Shaggy fleabane - E
Slender fleabane - E
Silver fleabane - E
Navajo fleabane - E
Stemmy four-nerve daisy - E
Gravel ghost - D
Fiveneedle pricklyleaf - D
Desert marigold - E
Zion goldenaster - E
Mojave aster - D
White daisy tidy tips - V
Pink funnel lily - V, E
Nevada onion - E
Common globemallow - G, V, E, D
Banana yucca - V
Harriman’s yucca - V
Little sunflower - E
Purple sage - E
Rosemary mint - E
Blackbrush - E
Brittlebush - D
Lobeleaf groundsel - D
Rocky Mountain stickweed - E
Longbeak streptanthella - E
Death camas - E
Utah yellow flax - E
Winged erigonum - E
Desert snow - D
Scarlet beeblossom - D
Wishbone plant - D
Apache plume - D
Heronbill - D
Cooper goldenbush - D
Indigo bush - D
Mormon tea - D
Yerba mensa - D
Sacred datura - D
Prince’s plume - D
Yellow Monkeyflower - G
Granite gilia - V


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page updated: 6/2/17