Escalante & Capitol Reef Parks: October 2015

Next week is fall break for my boys and we’re getting a jump on the fun (and the crowds). On the agenda: Escalante and Capitol Reef National Parks in Southern Utah.

Day 1: Escalante and Capitol Reef Parks

Wheels up at 3:15 PM and I’m already a little tired. Somehow we managed a half-day of school, three loads of laundry, two runs to the grocery store, a friend’s birthday party and a Skype cello lesson with our teacher in Peru before heading south on the interstate.

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Once we get out of the construction traffic and our speeds increase I start feeling the stress of work and home melt away. The vistas out of my front windshield are gorgeous as the light pierces through the grey swirling clouds above. And the vista in my rearview mirror of three brothers packed in tight with pillow pets and snacks is pretty awesome, too.

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We hit a Mexican joint in Salina for dinner. The food is OK but the patch of green grass nearby makes the stop worthwhile. It’s a perfect outlet for the boys to stretch their legs, play a little tag and climb a tree before getting back into the car. And then they see a statue of a Native American warrior wielding a tomahawk and can’t quite resist the urge to run to him.  I don’t blame them. I am drawn to it, too.

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Before we leave, the check oil light clicks on. We’re a little low. My husband walks over the car garage one lot over to inquire about a quart. As he waits in a seemingly empty garage, a mechanic slowly slides out from underneath one of the cars in the shop. He rummages around for the oil we need and guestimates we owe him $7, which he then slides into his wallet before sliding back under the car in his shop.

We settle back in our car, now full of oil, for the last leg of the trip as the setting sun gives us a spectacular show. As soon as it’s over, darkness envelops the road in a way I haven’t seen in a long time.

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It’s another hour into the drive and just as dark when a man carrying a riffle jumps into the road in front of us. I’m not going to lie: I’m a little freaked out. But as he approaches the car, he seems more frightened than I am.  It turns out he is a 65 year-old lost elk hunter. He parked his truck on some dirt road off the highway and now he can’t find it. He’s been looking for two hours and he’s exhausted. He’s visibly shaking and I notice cuts on his hands where he likely fell in the woods.

We load him in the car and turn back down the road, driving at 15 mph in hopes of locating the turn off. It takes a half hour, but we find it. Our car can’t make it up the dirt road and he insists we don’t stay with our car full of kids. But we can’t quite leave him like that. So we load him up with provisions and a flashlight before we let him walk off into the darkness.

At first the boys are confused about why we started driving the wrong way in search of his car, but they quickly catch the vision of helping this man in his desperate situation. Afterwards, my two younger boys are feeling proud. The youngest announces, “we are kind of like Superman – we just saved that guy.” The middle replies, “well, we only saved one guy so we really one-time heroes.”

We finally arrived at our VRBO in Escalante and have just enough energy to unload our bags and half-dreaming boys. Lights out at 11:58 PM and I’m most definitely tired – and happy.

Day 2: Escalante National Park

I’m not going to lie – we start slow this morning. No one really slept that well. It takes us a day in new beds to really settle in. That, and not having dreams of a giant spider biting your neck (but I won’t get into the details of my weird dream).

The boys rouse early enough but want to linger in their pajamas over cold cereal and yogurt. The adults do, too. But we all soon find motivation to move after settling on our first adventure:  Zebra Slot Canyon.

We drive out to Hole in the Rock Road, a small turnoff from Highway 12 where runners in the Escalante Canyons Marathon trickle along with oncoming traffic. The wash boarding on the heavily trafficked dirt road jostles the car and all of us. 4.5 miles in we pull off in a small parking lot we think feeds the Zebra trail, but without any signage, it’s only a guess.

We trek off down the sandy trail, a raucous party of six boys and five adults, in search of the zebra striped hills – or anything that will keep the boys’ interest. Along the way we find wet clay in a river wash (to use for facials/warrior paint), discover an orange-hued swimming hole perched on the side of a giant rock (in which several underwear-clad boys swim), and finally a Zebra Slot Canyon filled with chest-high and VERY cold water (through which several bare-bottomed males of our party are seen floating).

The 7-mile hike takes us almost 4 hours from start to finish. But that includes all of our detours and disrobing. By the time we make it back to the cars, we are universally hungry. We drive back into town and hit the local burger joint for a late lunch/early dinner. We’re pretty sure our party of 11 necessitates a call for back up from the fry cook and are sorry – just not sorry enough to cancel our order. Hey, all that hiking and naked swimming makes people hungry!

Post burgers, the kids are happy to relax at home but the moms push for a little more fun: a sunset-stop at Devil’s Garden. Back on Hole in the Rock Road the wash boarding seems more intense than it had just a few hours before and the sun seems to be slipping away behind the Escalante Mountains faster than it should. We’re almost ready to give up when we see the turn-off for the red rock garden.

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We spend 45 minutes climbing up, hopping across and sliding down the hoodoo rock formations that make up this outdoor playground. It’s devilishly intoxicating. The boys can’t get enough. They squeal in delight when they make it to the top of some new rock and holler encouragingly for others to join them. I even catch a pair of brothers high-fiving each other for making a “sick jump” from the top of one hoodoo to another. When it’s finally too dark to safely play, they resist leaving. Finally, we are only able to usher them back to the cars with the promise of returning sometime very soon.

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Day 3: Hiking to Calf Creek Waterfall

We really try to get out the door earlier today, but we still don’t roll out until around 11 AM. But we roll out in good moods, so nobody’s complaining. We drive a half hour back on Highway 12 towards Boulder to the Lower Calf Creek trailhead. It’s well marked and requires a $5/vehicle fee via cash or check. That’s a little tricky for us because I only have my license and a debit card, and my husband entirely forgot his wallet at the rental house. We hit up our traveling companions for a loan, but they are in the same predicament.

Lucky for them, they are able to scrounge up enough quarters, nickels and dimes in their center console to cover the fee. We, however, have no such luck. All I find in my center console is a nickel, three pennies and a Panamanian coin. Oh, and some lip gloss, a child’s retainer and an old work ID badge, all of which are completely useless. But with the advice of the National Park “lot attendant,” we don’t let our lack of cash stop our hike; we put everything we have in the fee envelop with a promissory note handwritten on the back of my husband’s business card for the rest of the $5.

Parking envelope with the 8 cents, Panamanian coin and promissory note

So we hike. 3. 5 miles up beautiful red rock. Up and up we go. Climbing over boulders, tromping through loose sand, catching glimpses of ancient figures painted in red pigment high up on the cliff walls and the ruins of 600 year-old Native American old grain silos as we go.

And then we see it: the Calf Creek Waterfall. It is simply spectacular. I’ve seen several waterfalls in my day and this is one for the books. It’s big (126 feet high) and beautiful. And you can get really close to it, especially if you are willing to swim out in bitterly cold water.

My boys waste no time stripping off their shirts to make a run for the chilly, green pool. I’m not timing their adventure but I’m fairly certain they are in and out in twenty seconds flat. My husband, Alan, preps the group following our lunch of peanut butter and agave sandwiches for a return trip into the water.

Lunch of peanut butter and agave sandwiches

He instructs them on the Wim Hof Method of enduring icy water for long periods of time. According to Alan, Wim Hof, holds dozens of world records for sitting in ice baths and walking over frozen Norwegian Fjords in the buff. So, basically, Wim Hoff is crazy.

But right now, at the base of Calf Creek Waterfall, Alan is channeling Wim Hoff. He explains Wim’s special breathing technique of sucking in large amounts of air and pushing it up to the brain (this is Alan’s interpretation of Wim’s Method) to our crowd of young boys and the other dad with whom we are traveling. They practice their heavy breathing with funny hand gestures as aides on the sandy shores of the pool for what seems like forever.

Then, with a three-count to spur them on, the two dads and our group of boys rush the freezing water. Only the two dads and one boy make it more than a few feet into the pool, and only the two dads almost make it to the waterfall, even swimming a few strokes at the end.

Hiking back down the trail after everyone is dry and we’ve snapped a few family pictures, we know Wim Hoff would be proud. And probably relieved that none of his records were shattered today.

The way back down, as it often does, feels shorter. We watch the points of interest markers along the trail quickly descend before us, feeding boys a few Skittles at each new number, until we finally hit the parking lot. And since our car is still there and doesn’t have a ticket, I guess that means our promissory note is accepted.

Day 4: Peekaboo and Spooky Gulches

Over French toast and bacon this AM we make the mistake of referring to today’s activity as a “hike.” After back-to-back days of those, the boys are reasonably a little burned out. Especially the Kindergarteners. But we know they are really going to like climbing up red rocks and squeezing through tight spots in Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulches, so we quickly change the semantics and re-brand today as “adventuring.” And they’re definitely up for “adventuring!”

We hit the Hole in Rock Road one more time, enduring the wash boarding for our longest stretch yet. It doesn’t take us long to get to the entrance of Peek-a-boo from the trailhead. When we arrive, we are greeted by enticing red rock — and by a family of four stuck at the last obstacle out of the slot canyon. They are spent and completely covered in mud.

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The mud makes it hard for them to get any footing against the slick rock. Our group of 11 is just what they need to get out. Using acrobatics that rival any Cirque de Soleil performance, we wedge, push and lift them over the last pool of mud and down the slick rock ledge out to the entrance of the canyon. And one by one we trade their real estate for ours.

Then, the real fun begins. We spend the next mile or so of wedging, pushing and lifting each other over several other pools of dense mud. We make a strategic decision that only some of the adults should get muddy in case we get into spots later in the canyon that require more traction than a mud soaked Chaco can offer. That means we use one of the dads primary as a base in the mud, and most of the rest of us climb over him like chimpanzees. We promise him an extra helping of spaghetti and dessert for his dirty duty.

As we emerge from the deep mud and narrow slot to a large pool of sunshine, we whoop and holler at our achievement. Then, we break for lunch and chow down on chips and PB sandwiches.

Refueled by food, we are raring to get to the next canyon and our next adventure. Spooky Gulch is less than a mile from the end of Peek-a-boo and we traverse the hot dessert terrain rather quickly, eager to see what’s so spooky about it. We find out fairly quickly: it’s very spooky if you have any sort of claustrophobia — or value breathing.

The kids have an easy time slipping through the pockets of dark, cold space between the nearly touching canyon walls covered with small, wart-like bumps. The adults get a little more caught up, those wart-bumps nicking elbows, knees and backs. Some spots of the canyon walls are so close they almost entirely block out any of the sky’s comforting blue. And some spots require simultaneously squeezing through and dropping down the narrow shoots.

When we finally emerge from the gulch, we feel like we’ve accomplished something major — and it’s not just working up an appetite.

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Day 5: Travel Day - Escalante to Capitol Reef

It’s check-out day. We are moving on from Escalante to Capitol Reef. We spend the morning stripping beds, wiping down counters and trying to eat as many perishables as we can. (Oh, and emailing the rental company about a little accident with a bench in the house. Oops.)

We also spend some of the morning making good on a promise to the boys to return to Devil’s Garden. They are delighted to play again on the hoodoos, jumping from rock to rock and finding different pathways up the immense formations They also bring a little RC car to take turns driving in the sand between the hoodoos. They are happiest when they make the car spin out and do flips off the base of rocks.

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I’m pretty sure they can stay here forever but I’m getting hungry and I have a line on a delicious restaurant on the way to Capitol Reef. But first, we must pay our debt to the government. We quickly stop by the Lower Calf Creek trailhead and fill out yet another yellow envelope, only this time filled with a five-dollar bill instead of a crummy promissory note and a Panamanian coin.

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Burr Trail Grill is as good as I was told. Maybe even better. I have the most amazing Serrano rice cakes with a grilled zucchini, sliced carrot and caramelized onion sandwich. If I’m smacking my lips in my sleep tonight, I’m dreaming of this meal. Every single person in our group is just as thrilled with their meals as I am with mine. Seriously, it is that good. Oh, and did I mention they have from scratch pies? I may have licked my plate.

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The drive from lunch to Teasdale, Utah (Capitol Reef) is something like swimming through a bushel of golden delicious apple. All of the Aspen trees in the Dixie National Forrest are some glorious shade of yellow. I don’t think Crayola even makes the color. Around every bend on the windy mountain road pops another bushel of the Aspen golds. I almost drive off the road once or twice.

It’s quite a different drive than it was four days ago. Unlike our late night adventure over this road then, we find no lost hunters and the enveloping darkness that was here before has been replaced by a light equal to it in intensity. It’s that light, made up of the yellow leaves and the sun bursting from behind them, that make this second drive almost as eventful as the first.

We arrive in Teasdale with enough time to climb up the small mountain behind our rented cabin and pet the horses across the street before the sun sets.

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Day 6: Capitol Reef

Since planning this family trip I’ve wondered where Capitol Reef got its name. Today I got my answer: in the middle of mile after mile of gorgeous, craggy red rock erupts a white dome of Navajo Sandstone that looks a lot like the U.S. Capitol. It’s just missing the American Flag — and maybe a few (hundred) blustery politicians.

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After spying the dome, my boys and I still wonder about the “reef” part of the name. My six year-old even scoffs out loud, “it’s not like there’s an ocean around here or anything.” But then he quickly adds, “right, mom?” We all agree, but the joke’s on us because the 100-mile long ridge of red rock mountains that make up the bulk of Capitol Reef is a reef of sorts. That’s how the early prospectors saw it anyway because it was a substantial barrier to transportation. So there you have it.

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What we haven’t had on this trip so far is a good sighting of one of the amazing natural arches this area (and so many others in Southern Utah) is known for. So that’s what we do: go looking for an arch. Cassidy Arch is listed as a “strenuous” hike on the National Park Service website but we know our boys can do it — as long as we have plenty of water and a few packs of Skittles to use as bribes.

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Knowing it’s a fully exposed and mostly uphill hike, we get out the door at 9:45 AM and are at the Grand Wash trailhead a half an hour later. A pitted rock wall that looks like an enormous slice of Swiss cheese flanks the walk through the wash to the Cassidy trailhead. The boys can’t resist climbing up into several of the holes and neither can the dads. At one point, all of them are in various holes, some stacked on top of the other, and I can’t help but giggle because it reminds me of the opening credits of the Brady Bunch, especially when my middle boy looks up from his hole at my husband, who is above him, as my husband looks down at my middle boy from his hole above.

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We gain 500 feet in elevation fairly quickly and the sweatshirts come off just as fast. Stair-stepping the red rock we fancy ourselves as mountain goats, forgetting the climb and focusing on who can get to the top first. We stop for breaks, as mountain goats often do, of course, to drink water and to eat the dill pickle sunflower seeds strapped to the outside of my Camelback. As usual, it’s my husband who gets to the top first, followed by a trail of kids making requests for the next song to be piped out of his backpack from a Bluetooth speaker. At one point I’m pretty sure I hear one of the kids request William Shatner’s “You’re Gonna Die.”

I’m at the end of the pack holding hands with my middle boy. He starts reciting Shel Silverstein’s “Smart” as we traverse the plateau over to the arch and I’m pretty sure I’d be happy staying in this moment for at least three weeks. But as these moments usually do, it ends as unexpectedly as it begins, and before I’m ready he’s off with two of our travel mates pretending to be a lizard on the hot red rock.

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We walk across Cassidy Arch after giving the boys the obligatory safety speech. We even take a group photo to prove we were there. Truth be told, the view of the arch is better from the trail, but it still feels exhilarating (and a little nerve-racking) to be so near the arch. The boys really want to throw rocks into the drop off and we absolutely forbid it. Later, after our picnic lunch, my authority is slightly diminished on the rock-throwing front as I try, and fail, to toss a very small roll of toilet paper to Alan. When it falls short, it bounces into a crevice, slides down a rocky shoot and then slips off the edge. We never do hear it hit the ground.

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We stop for milkshakes in Torrey before heading back into the National Park to check out Fremont petroglyphs. We were mesmerized by some we saw earlier in the week on the Lower Calf Creek Trail and can’t pass up another chance to see the rock-wall art. According to my boys, the figures at Calf Creek look like robot aliens. Well, to be more precise, they look like really cool robot aliens. Most petroglyphs here look more like animals one would expect to find in the area, like deer. But there still are a few figures, with their trapezoid forms and elaborate decorations, that make my boys think aliens must have visited those Fremont people.

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I’m going to stop here and pretend that later, after feeding the boys pizza and watching a cute DVD we checked out from the office at our “hotel” of cabins, I didn’t drop my cell phone in the toilet from my pocket as I was trying to shake off a large and ominous looking brown spider from one of my son’s pillows. Yeah, I’m definitely pretending that didn’t happen and instead I’m thinking about the Cassidy Arch, the “alien” petroglyphs and that super delicious cookies n’ cream milkshake.

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Day 7: The Last Hoorah

Damn spiders. I blame the entire species for my cell phone’s current waterlogged and inoperable state. Though I suppose I do share some of the blame; not for the actual dropping of the phone in the toilet, of course, but rather for not paying heed to that spider dream I had back in Escalante (see Day 2). Clearly, it was a premonition — an ominous premonition! Clearly! (Absolutely no exaggeration whatsoever here. I know, I know, I’m being a total baby about my phone. But my pictures! My trip notes! My morning alarm!)

That last part, about not having an alarm, makes for a fitful night sleep, which makes the last day of a trip a little bit harder. Plus, because it’s the last day, the moms have planned something special: a sunrise hike to Hickman Arch. Alone. After going to bed around 1 AM, I wake up every other hour worried I’ll oversleep and miss my special mom date. But when it’s finally time to get up, I almost roll over and bag the whole idea for the warm niche in the bed and the hope of one more hour of sleep, but I know I’ll regret it later. So up I get.

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As my friend and I drive out towards Capitol Reef along the deserted Highway 29, the coming sunrise is already flirting with the sky. Small sparks of pink and a color that I can only really call “light,” flicker above the silhouetted black horizon. Already I’m happy I got out of bed.

The parking lot at the trailhead is completely empty. We really shouldn’t be so giddy at the sight of an empty parking lot, but we are. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we rarely even get to use the toilet alone. But I digress.

We are out of the car and up on the trail with a quickness that surprises me; my face may be puffy and my eyes might be a little dark-circled, but there is a spring in my step fueled by this stolen adventure. It takes us 15 minutes to cover the mile uphill and spy the arch. My friend and I both laugh because we know it would have taken at least quadruple the time with the boys. Not because they aren’t wicked-fast hikers when they want to be, but more because they like to touch every cairn and crawl over every obstacle on the way.

That’s a big part of why I love hiking with my boys. I experience the trail in such a thorough way when I’m with them. Really, I experience life in such a thorough way when I’m with them. But this hike is just for us two moms and we’re good with that.

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The sun has already started up the horizon but it hasn’t cleared the Dome yet and the Hickman Arch is still blanketed with a grey, quiet light. We plant ourselves on some red rocks below the arch, snapping a few pictures while we wait for the sunlight to wash it. We wait for a while — at least double the time it took us to get up to the arch — and then it happens. Slowly at first, and then all at once, the orange arch is set aglow with the emerging sunlight. It’s nothing short of spectacular.

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We both think about those minutes with the glowing arch later in the day and smile at each other, as we agreed we would. The shared memory fuels our energy as we pack up the cars and reign in our boys for the ride home. It fuels our patience as our youngest boys struggle taking turns with the “fruit picker baskets” at the self-pick Fruita Orchards. It fuels our humor as our boys get a little too boisterous in the outdoor play area at Slacker’s Burgers as we wait for our burgers and fries. But mostly, it just fuels our desire to see more of this beautiful world with our boys — even if we have to steal a sunrise hike by ourselves every once in a while.

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