Angel's Landing l Zion National Park

Classic Trek to the Top of Zion

Mileage:  5.4
Difficulty:  Moderate (with some scrambling and exposure)
Elevation gain:  1500 ft.
Dog friendly:  No

A long, long time ago, baby 24-year-old me moved to Utah.  Before I started my first park ranger job, I made an obligatory road trip to Zion National Park.  There, like thousands of other tourists, I made the trek up to the top of Angel's Landing.  I was a total desert newbie then -- this vertigo-inducing hike up a skinny hunk of rock blew me away.  I was hooked.  Fast forward eight years, and I'm still in Utah.  You've been warned -- hiking Angel's Landing might turn you into a bonafide desert rat!

Obviously it's been a while since I first hiked Angel's Landing, and it was time for a repeat visit. So this weekend, I loaded up my daypack and made the quick drive from St. George to Zion. I had to brace myself for the cluster-F of humanity -- Zion is busy this time of year.  But you guys, the view from the top of Angel's Landing is worth it.  Slap on a smile, leave your fear of heights at the door, and join the party.

sittin' on top of the world

Get there:

This time of year, private vehicles are not allowed in Zion's main canyon -- you have to take the mandatory (but free!) park shuttle.  So after driving into Zion National Park along Highway 9, park your vehicle at the Visitor Center or in the town of Springdale.  The shuttle stops at all the trailheads in the canyon.  Hop out at the Grotto Triailhead.

Starting the hike.  Angel's Landing is the wedge-shaped monolith on the left.

Do it:

Navigation along this hike is a breeze -- the trail is popular and well-marked.  From the shuttle stop, cross the road and head towards the bridge that spans across the Virgin River.  After you cross the bridge, continue right (northeast.)  You'll be hiking parallel to the river for a while before the paved switchbacks start.  Time to go up, up, up.  At 1.5 mile, you'll enter Refrigerator Canyon and a pretty, shady stroll with an easier grade.

The trail starts climbing again via 21 switchbacks known as Walter's Wiggles.  At the top of the wiggles, you'll reach a signed junction.  Look to your right.  See that skinny, vertigo-inducing hunk of rock?  That's Angel's Landing.  Get your party pants on -- it's time to climb.

The final stretch of this hike is not for anyone with a fear of heights.  It's not especially dicey -- thousands of people do it every year -- but this isn't the place to try and cure your acrophobia!  The trickiest part is navigating the crowds.  Angel's Landing can definitely turn into a tourist conga-line, and it's a bit of a pain waiting for everyone to navigate steep, narrow sections.  Anyway, the route is lined with thick chains.  Hang on, don't look down, and soon enough you'll be at the top.  Take a few minutes to soak up the out-of-control view before turning around and hiking back the way you came.

tourist conga-line

Hellhole Canyon l Kayenta, UT

Heavenly Hellhole

Mileage:  4.2 miles round-trip
Difficulty:  Moderate
Elevation gain:  300-400 ft.
Dog friendly:  Yes

Are you guys sick of me waxing poetic about spring in the desert yet?  I'll be brief:  it's great.  Warm temps, blooming flowers, chirping birds.  Being inside is a waste of time.  Time to go hiking!

If you only have an afternoon to hike around St. George, put Hellhole Canyon on your short-list.  It's a quick, easy hike with some killer views.  The trail follows a sandy wash up near the base of Red Mountain, where the technicolored sandstone cliffs will knock your socks off.  Toss in an endless stream of blooming desert plants, and you're in business.  If this is a hellhole, sign me up!

Get there:

Hellhole Canyon is super-close to town, and it's a cinch to find.  From St. George, drive north on Bluff Street.  Turn left on Sunset Boulevard and continue as it turns into Santa Clara Drive and then Old Highway 91.  7.6 miles from the intersection of Bluff and Sunset, you'll see a sign for the Kayenta subdivision.  Turn right here onto Kayenta Parkway.  Turn right on Evening Star Drive, then turn left on Wintook Drive, and finally turn right on Taviawk Drive.  At the bottom of a minor hill, you'll see a small pull-out on the right, near a Kayenta sign.  Park here.

On a related note, Hellhole Canyon is having a bit of an identity crisis.  Apparently, some folks wanted a more G-rated name and are trying to rebrand it 'Kayenta Canyon.'  (To each their own, although I'm partial to the original name!)  Anyway, the parking area identifies the trail as Kayenta Canyon, so don't let that throw you off.

Do it:

From the parking area by the Kayenta sign, cross the road.  You'll see a path heading down into a sandy canyon.  Look for a small post that says 'Hellhole Canyon.'  Start trekking north here.  The route isn't really marked, but it's easy enough to stay in the wash and follow the social trails.  Hiking in the wash is a bit of a sand-slog, but don't worry, it's worth it.  Just look up -- it's pretty hard to beat the 1000ft cliffs of Red Mountain soaring overhead in all their super-saturated glory!

After about 1.8 miles, the canyon forks.  The right fork takes you into Hellhole Canyon, the left fork takes you to the Hellhole Spur Trail.  Both routes are worth checking out -- Frankie and I went into Hellhole Canyon.  Past the fork, the route gets a little more scenic and scrambly.  After about 0.3 miles, the trail gets steep and bouldery enough that we decided to turn around and return the way we came.  Success!

identity crisis

map credit:

Yant Flat

Swoopy, Sherbet-Colored Geology

Mileage:  2-3 miles round-trip
Difficulty:  Easy
Elevation gain:  Depends on how much off-trail exploration you do.
Dog friendly:  Yes

Spring in southern Utah is out in full-force.  It's glorious.  Cacti are blooming, temperatures are hovering in the low 80s, the sun is warm but not desiccating.  You'd have to be made of lead not to want to get outside.  So, of course, all our usual haunts are turbo-crowded.  The National Parks are slammed and trailheads are filling up.  Misanthropic desert rats like myself have a serious conundrum:  we want to get outside, but we want to avoid the swarm of humanity.

Cue Yant Flat.  It's the perfect tucked-away desert hike for St. George locals.  Yant Flat is less than an hour drive from downtown, but it feel like a world away.  Here, swoopy sherbet-colored rocks undulate at the base of the Pine Valley Mountains.  Kaleidoscopic patterns of pink, orange, and cream lure you in for some solid off-trail exploration.  Best of all, we had it all to ourselves!

Get there:

To get to Yant Flat from St. George, drive north on I-15 until you hit Exit 22 towards Leeds.  Take a left on Main Street and drive north 1.5 miles through the town of Leeds until you hit Silver Reef Road.  Turn left here and follow Silver Reef Road until it turns into Oak Grove Road.  When you cross into Dixie National Forest, the road turns to dirt.  It's well-graded and mostly passable for 2WD passenger cars, although it gets a bit rough in spots (and you'll want to avoid this road if it's wet -- the muddy shale surface turns to snot, and there are some steep drop-offs!)  

You'll drive past a campground, and soon see an intersection for Forest Road 031.  Stay to the left.  From here, it's 6.8 miles to the 'trailhead.'  But the trailhead isn't marked at all -- so keep your eyes peeled!  Look for a few informal parking spots on the side of the road, directly across from FR 903.  (GPS coordinates 37.23475, -113.4771.)

Do it:

Finding the 'trailhead' is the hardest part -- I promise!  From here, navigation is fairly simple.  There are no signs, but you'll be walking along an old dirt road / social trail.  From your car, look for a few boulders and a 'Restriction Area' post on the east (left) side of the road.  Start hiking down this path.  At first, you'll be trekking through a fairly boring pinyon/juniper forest, but hang in there.  After a quick 1.3 miles, the view opens up, and you'll look down onto a Dr. Suess landscape of swirly orange cliffs.  The formal trail ends, but give yourself plenty of time to wander around off-trail.  When you've had your fill, return the way you came.

Anasazi Ridge Petroglyphs l St. George

Enigmatic Rock Art in the Santa Clara River Reserve

Full-disclosure here:  I'm a novelty junkie.  For better or worse, I rarely hike the same trail twice.  But every once and a while, I find a trail that deserves a repeat visit.  The Tempi’po’op Trail up to Anasazi Ridge is one of those trails.  It's a St. George classic -- quick, close to town, and super-cool.  Our friend Diana is camp-hosting at Snow Canyon for a few months, so this afternoon we went on a hike to check out this ancient rock art.

Get there:

To get to Anasazi Ridge from I-15, take Exit 6, then turn north on Bluff Street. Turn left on Sunset Blvd.  Continue on Sunset Blvd as it turns into Santa Clara Drive.  Continue 3.2 miles past the Jacob Hamblin Home as Santa Clara Drive turns into Highway 91.  Turn left onto a gravel road framed by a ranch-style fence and travel 0.3 miles to the Anasazi Valley Trailhead.

Do it:

This is a quick, family-friendly hike.  It's 2.4 miles round-trip with moderate elevation gain.  Follow the Tempi’po’op Trail up to to a slew of sandstone boulders 240 feet above the Santa Clara River.  Tempi’po’op (pronounced tumpee poo oop) means “rock writing” in Southern Paiute, and these boulders are covered with enigmatic designs and figures.  The hike itself is open and exposed (i.e. don't do it mid-day during the summer,) but the trail is in great shape and lined with blooming hedgehog cacti.

West Desert

Back to work, y'all!  After an action-packed 3 months off, I'm back to my seasonal gig as a Wildlife Tech.  This week we camped out in the West Desert for a week looking for frog eggs.

The West Desert is a weird place.  It's part of the Basin and Range Province and made up of rows of mountains, vast valleys, and salt-covered basins.  Honestly, I'm definitely more of a Colorado Plateau snob -- red rock cliffs are pretty hard to beat -- but there are some pretty spots in the West Desert.  At the right time of day, the grey bleakness has its own kind of subtle beauty.  Tack on a couple of natural warm springs and you're in business!  Not a bad way to get back to responsible adulthood.

spring cleaning

Goldstrike Canyon l Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Hot Spring Hike near Las Vegas

Oh, Vegas.  Sin City can be ridiculously fun, but it's definitely an alternate universe of glitter and debauchery.  After all the glitz, I always feel the need lace up my boots for a solid hiking adventure in the southern Nevada desert.

Goldstrike Canyon totally fits the bill -- it's a 6.5-mile trek through an austere desert canyon.  Don't let the proximity to Las Vegas fool you, this sucker is pretty tough (especially if you're trying to sweat out a booze-fueled Vegas bender!)  This hike is a borderline-canyoneering expedition that requires you to scramble over boulders and lower yourself down fixed handlines.  You're rewarded at the end with glorious natural hot spring pools and a killer view of the Colorado River, just below Hoover Dam.

Get there:

To get to the Goldstrike Canyon Trailhead, head south from Las Vegas along Highway 93.  Take Exit 2, just past the Hoover Dam Lodge.  Take the first right after the exit, followed by a quick left onto a good dirt road.  Despite signs recommending a 4WD vehicle, the road was totally fine for my passenger car.  The trailhead is the end of this road, less than 1/2 miles from the stop sign.

Do it:

Navigation to the hot springs in Goldstrike Canyon is fairly straightforward.  The trail isn't officially signed along the way, but it's popular enough that you can follow the footprints, graffiti, and trash (blah) of previous hikers as you work your way down to the river.  (Please, people, don't be gross!  Pack out your crap.)  

From the trailhead, start hiking down the sandy wash.  The canyon walls gradually constrict into deep corridors of spooky volcanic rock.  You'll soon encounter your first Class-3 obstacle and tons of house-sized boulders to scramble around.  Pay attention to social trails to pick the best route.

After a couple miles, you'll notice water in the canyon.  Temps are still fairly cool here, but they gets warmer as you hike closer to the river.  The natural hot spring pools are built up with rocks and sandbags, and water temperatures hover around 85-105°F.  Take a while to soak in the springs while gazing up at fern-covered grottos.  When your fingers have turned to prunes, take a quick peak at the Colorado River before turning around and hiking back the way you came.

A couple quick safety notes:  Goldstrike Canyon is definitely a cool-weather hike.  The trail is actually closed down during the summer -- check Lake Mead's website for exact dates.  There have been quite a few emergency rescues in the canyon, so at the risk of stating the obvious -- be ready to practice your canyoneering moves, wear real hiking shoes, and bring water!  Goldstrike isn't necessarily more difficult than other non-technical canyons in the southwest, but I think its proximity to Vegas draws a less outdoorsy crowd.  Be careful -- have fun!

Amanda, the canyoneering machine!

Cold beer + hot water = the perfect cure for canyoneering bruises.

refueling post-hike at the Boulder Dam Brewing Co.

map credit:

Lower Calf Creek Falls l Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

An Oasis in the Desert

Lower Calf Creek Falls is one of the prettiest places in Utah.  Imagine a roaring 126ft. waterfall tucked into a gorgeous redrock canyon.  In a desert known for ruthless temperatures and bone-dry landscapes, it's pretty magical.

I love it.  But ... so does everyone else driving along Highway 12.  The 5.4-mile trek to the falls is probably the busiest hike in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  It's one of the few hikes in the region you can access from a paved, signed, well-marked road.  In an area famous for its remote solitude, Calf Creek can feel a bit like Disneyland.  Even mid-week, we had to share the path with dozens of other hikers.   I had to constantly remind myself not to be such a wilderness snob and ignore the GIGANTIC GROUP OF MBA STUDENTS SCREAMING ABOUT THEIR WORKLOAD (ahem ... sorry.) 

But it's worth it.  Just look.

Get there:

Lower Calf Creek Falls is definitely the most accessible hike in GSENM -- think a paved trailhead, signs, a designated campground, restrooms, and drinking water.  From the town of Escalante, UT drive east along Highway 12 for 16.3 miles until you reach the Calf Creek Campground.  The trailhead is near the back of the campground.  (GPS coordinates:  37.79573, -111.41359.)  Use an envelope at the fee station to pay your $5 (an annual fed pass works, too,) put your dog on a leash, and start trekking.

Do it:

Navigation to Calf Creek Falls is really straightforward.  From the trailhead, start hiking along the path the runs parallel to Calf Creek.  The hike is 5.4 miles, round-trip.  It's fairly easy and elevation gain is minimal, although there are some sandy sections.  Grab a free trail guide and keep an eye out for Fremont graneries and pictographs (mile-markers 0.9 and 1.6.)  After 2.7 miles, Calf Creek Canyon abruptly ends at the waterfall.  Glorious.  Take a few minutes to gawk before returning the way you came.

Fremont pictographs

map credit:

Zebra Slot Canyon l Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Huge Views; Tiny Canyons

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is -- hands down -- one of my favorite places in the world.  It's a huuuuuuuge, Delaware-sized expanse of sandstone busting at the seams with crazy geology, zebra-striped slots, and wide-open solitude.  It's fantastic.

My job starts up again next week, meaning this is the last 'weekend' Jordan and I will have off together for a few months -- time to go out with a bang!  Luckily, our full-time RVer buddies, Jeff and Coffee, have been camped out in GSENM for a few weeks and wanted to show us their new, temporary turf.

adventure husband

We loaded up the car and set our sites on Zebra Slot Canyon.  Zebra is a gorgeous little slot off Hole in the Rock Road.  It's a relative easy, non-technical canyon hike that quickly constricts into a beautiful pink-and-white striped sandstone section.  The delicate striations and embedded Moki balls make it ridiculously photogenic, and we had a blast sneaking through the stripy corridors of rock.

sherbet-colored stripes

Jeff + Coffee

Get there:

From the town of Escalante, UT, drive east for about 5 miles along Hwy 12.  Turn right (south) onto Hole in the Rock Road.  This road is a crapshoot -- it might be totally fine, or a washboarded nightmare that rattles your brain out of your skull!  Reset your odometer when you turn on Hole in the Road Road.  Drive 8 miles.  Just after a cattle guard, you'll see a trailhead on the south side of the road (0.2 miles before Halfway Hollow.)  The trailhead isn't signed, but there's a fairly obvious trailhead and social trail.  (GPS coordinates:  37.63943, -111.44561.)

found my first (mostly) intact arrowhead!

Mike + Beau

Do it:

From the trailhead, cross the road and follow the obvious social trail on the north side of the road near the cattle guard.  Hike north as you work your way down to Halfway Hollow.  After about 45 minutes of walking, you'll reach the bottom outlet of Halfway Hollow.  From here, veer left and head towards Zebra.  Follow the path, cross Harris Wash, and hike towards the first obvious side canyon on your left.

Zebra looks like a fairly generic slot canyon at the start, but after a few minutes of shimmying between the progressively narrower walls you'll quickly enter the short but fantastic pink-striped section.  Take a minute for gawking before turning around and hiking back to Harris Wash.

But wait, there's more!  After checking out Zebra, Tunnel Slot is definitely worth a look.  Hike down Harris Wash a bit less than a mile from Zebra to the first side canyon on your left.  Hike up this side canyon for 10-ish minutes to reach the Tunnel.  It was full of thigh-deep water this time around, so we didn't delve into it, but it was still worth a peak from the canyon mouth.

When you've had your fill, retrace your steps up Harris Wash to Halfway Hollow and back to the trailhead.  All told, the hike was about 9 miles.  Success!

when your 95lb. dog is too big to fit through the narrows ...

when your 95lb. dog is too big to fit through the narrows ...

photo credit:  Jeff Fujita

entrance to 'The Tunnel'

photo credit:  Jeff Fujita

map credit:

Kayaking Quail Creek State Park

Kayaks in the desert?

'Kayak' isn't usually the first word that springs to mind when people think of southern Utah.  And sure, if you're visiting St. George for the first time, you'll instantly be drawn to soaring red cliffs and dry, barren landscapes.  Utah's deserts are undeniably glorious, but after a while, we start to feel mentally parched.  As temperatures steadily climb in the 80s, it's only a matter of time before we feel the undeniable urge to rinse off the red sand with a quick kayak paddle around a desert reservoir.

Cue Quail Creek State Park!  This little reservoir is just outside St. George, and it's the perfect watering hole for us land-locked desert rats.  After work on Sunday, my buddy Diana and I loaded up the sea kayaks and drove out to Quail Creek.  We spent the afternoon soaking up the sun and paddling around the turquoise water.

kayak Quail Creek State Park St. George Utah

Get there:

Quail Creek State Park is just outside the town of Hurricane, UT, within spitting distance of St. George.  From I-15, take exit 16 onto SR-9.  Drive 9 miles east until you hit 5300W -- you'll see a sign for Quail Creek State Park.  Turn left (north) here.  Drive along the lake's shore until you see the ranger station and boat ramp.

Do it:

Kayaking around Quail Creek is a breeze.  Pay the $7 park day use fee, unload the boats, and start paddling!  You can also rent a kayak or SUP (stand up paddle board) at DIG Paddlesports, which is located right on the lakeshore.  The lake is big enough that you'll have a blast exploring all the nooks and crannies, but small enough that most motorboats stay away.  Great stuff.

Gold Butte

Diana is here!  Diana is one of the first friends I met in Utah, and over the years we've gone on tons of epic adventures together.  Last week, she rolled into St. George to volunteer at Snow Canyon for a few months, and it's been a blast showing her around.

This weekend, Diana, Jordan, and I (plus our mighty pack of three dogs!) decided to hop across the border into Nevada to explore Gold Butte.  Gold Butte is a rugged, remote stretch of land hugging the eastern Nevada border.  It's located about 2 hours from Las Vegas; flanked by Lake Mead to the west and Parashant National Monument on the east.  It's a seriously incredible place -- big solitude, crazy geology, and vast views.


Get there:

We started our road trip by busting out from St. George along I-15.  Once we reached Mesquite, NV, we began driving south on Highway 170 (Exit 112 towards Bunkerville.)  The road is technically paved for about 14 miles, although the asphalt is in pretty rough shape.  It turns into gravel just before Whitney Pocket, where it reaches an intersection.  The eastern branch is okay for 2WD passenger cars, but the western branch is for high-clearance 4WD only.  This is definitely a wild, undeveloped place.  There are no services or facilities in Gold Butte -- make sure your gas tank is topped off, bring a map, pack tons of water, and don't rely on your cell phone.

Do it:

We set up camp near Whitney Pocket, then started to explore.  Jordan and I had visited Gold Butte last year, but our 2WD passenger car didn't let us dig deep.  This time around, equipped with a 4WD truck, we got to check out the Falling Man petroglyph and the crazy geology of Little Finland.

Joshua Tree in bloom

Falling Man

Falling Man is a weirdly beautiful petroglyph.  It definitely makes you wonder about the story behind it -- I couldn't help but imagine some guy falling to his death thousands of years ago.  Falling Man is only a 0.3-mile walk from the trailhead, but don't stop there!  Many of the nearby boulders are covered with rock art, so spend some time poking around.

Falling Man petroglyph

Little Finland

We finished up our adventure with a trip down to Little Finland.  Little Finland is full of crazy, colorful rock formations -- it reminded me of a hybrid between Goblin Valley and Fantasy Canyon.  It's a creepy wonderland, and a great place to explore.  Keep in mind, this place is OUT THERE, and you definitely need a vehicle with high clearance. 

Little Finland