Okay. After a couple weekends staying fairly close to home, we decided to go balls-deep and head all the way out to the Hole-in-the-Rock road of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It was definitely a haul (about 4.5 hour driving,) but it was worth it to explore some really wild terrain.
We busted out after work Saturday evening and drove south. The paved part of SR 12 and 24 are unbelievably gorgeous -- they've got to be some of the most beautiful roads in the world. You swerve through white checkerboard mesas, aspen forests, and soaring red cliffs. Unfortunately, Hole-in-the-Rock road is a different story. Suddenly you're confronted with a brutal, never-ending washboard of a road. We're talking an hour or two of brain-rattling, car-busting, insanity-inducing torture. Let 20 psi out of your tires and hold on.
But ... it's worth it.
On our first day out, we hiked to the Golden Cathedral of Neon Canyon. The Cathedral is a huge pour-off from upper Neon Canyon, where water has carved three distinct pothole arches. When the sun is just right, beams of light shine through the arches. There's also a technical route to the Cathedral, so you might see people rappelling through the holes! The entire hike is 9.2 miles round trip. It's definitely more of a 'route' than a defined trail, so a good map and navigational skills help a lot. It's also a good idea to swing by the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center (755 West Main Street) to get the latest on road and water conditions.
To get to the trailhead, drive 17.2 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, turn east at a sign that says "Egypt," then drove another 9.9 miles to the trailhead. A high-clearance vehicle definitely comes in handy on the last stretch. From the trailhead, you start the hike by descending off the mesa. Soon, you'll meet the beginning of Fence Canyon, so hike east along the north rim. There are a bunch of cairns when you start, but they're just haphazardly piled up by random people. Follow the gist of their path, but take them all with a grain of salt!
After hiking along the rim of Fence Canyon for about 3.5 miles, the trail drops into the canyon. Get ready for a totally different world! You go from vast sandstone vistas to a lush green world full of cottonwoods and willows. Soon, you'll hit the confluence of Fence Canyon and the Escalante River. You'll definitely be wading in water, so it's a good idea to check the flow levels before you head in. We're having another dry year (only 0.51 cfs!,) so the river was only ankle-deep and crystal clear. No problem.
There's some nutty rock art along this stretch of the Escalante River. I've never seen anything like it before -- it looks like two guys boxing. The horses tell me it has to be historic (they were introduce to North America by the Spanish,) but other than that, I have no idea. Crazy.
After hiking along the Escalante River for about one mile, you'll see Neon Canyon coming in on your left. It's the first canyon you'll see after leaving Fence Canyon, and there's a huge dead cottonwood tree at the mouth. The canyon itself is a gorgeous vibrant orange, offset by brilliant green foliage -- maybe that's why it's called Neon Canyon? Hike up-canyon for about 0.25 miles and you'll reach the Golden Cathedral. Ta-da!