Camper quarantining in Utah:
We spent the entire month of April in Utah, where COVID really didn’t seem to be as much of an issue. St. George seemed to still be operating business as usual, with fewer mask requirements, because the virus just really wasn’t as big of a deal in these rural areas. The small towns were pretty much shut down though to tourism because they couldn’t risk a run on their limited medical supplies. State parks were also shut down to non-locals. We started the month camping outside of St. George in the Sand Mountain OHV area on BLM land. There is so much dispersed camping in this area, some in grassy meadows, some in classic Utah red rock landscape. The trails take you on top of red rock mesas overlooking Sand Hallow State Park and snow capped mountains in the background. Some of the trails are similar to riding in Moab, but there’s also huge pink sand dunes you can ride on as well.
We also dirt biked the Toquerville Twister trail north of St. George. This trail was a 23 mile loop, with 25+ water crossings. The first 12 miles are narrow single track that wind in and around cliffs and hill climbs, and you end at the Toquerville Falls, a beautiful waterfall where people go to cliff jump and can actually drive their jeeps across the top of the waterfall. All 25+ of those water crossings are on the second half of the loop. And I’m pretty sure it was closer to 40 water crossings in spring when the water was high. On our way to the waterfall, we ran into a couple groups of riders that were headed back our way because they said the water was too high to cross. Despite their warning, Blake pointed out that they were all riding motocross bikes instead of trail bikes, so maybe they just didn’t want to try the river crossings on their bikes. So we decided to at least go check out the first water crossings, which was shin deep but we all made it across, and decided to continue this route. By the second crossing we all decided we were committed to just having wet boots, and it would feel refreshing on a 80 degree sunny Utah day. The third crossing was so deep I made Blake walk across the river up to his knees to come help me ride my bike across. I was about to walk across as well when a group of UTVs showed up and gave me a ride on the back across the river. This was pointless though, because in the next two crossings my feet were soaked anyway. We’re talking like a pound of water in each boot kind of soaked. We had to stop to dump our boots a few times, but nobody dunked a bike, so it was a super successful ride. There was easy dispersed camping nearby overlooking the virgin river, where we made margaritas we’d been craving!
Boat ramps and campgrounds were closed during April at Lake Powell, so the lake was completely empty. Dispersed camping was still open around the lake though. This was our first time camping at Lake Powell, and I don’t think we’ll ever see the lake that empty again. The water was total glass (except for when it got windy a couple times), and we only saw one other house boat on the water. We did see quite a few other rigs camping on the beaches with kayaks though. We camped in Warm Creek Bay.
To get there, we drove about 20 miles down the Smokey Mountain Scenic Backway starting in Big Water, Utah, and turned down the Crosby Canyon, which goes down a very scenic slot canyon wash to get to the camping on the beach. We picked a spot we thought was super scenic, but didn’t realize the water front by us was mostly stinky mud, and there were better spots with white sand a bit farther down the water. We got the packrafts out the next day and paddled to a couple nearby coves where the water was super emerald green.
We’re still newbs at this kayak thing and have realized paddling is very much a morning sport, but we haven’t really been morning people during this whole quarantine, so we keep ending up paddling in heavy wind in the afternoons. A big storm rolled in that was making the packrafts pretty tough to handle, so we got out on the beach and walked a bit back to camp in the rain with the deflated rafts over our heads. The problem with this was that the water kept diverting into long finger coves, which would’ve taken forever to walk around, so we blew the kayaks back up twice to paddle across and then get out again. We’re so glad we got the Featherlite pump that can blow the kayaks up in 1 minute and works 25 times on 1 charge for this reason. We started thinking how fun it would be to pack the rafts on to our dirt bikes and ride to another section of the lake to explore. So we packed up the rafts, which roll up to a bit larger than a paper towel roll and only weigh 5 pounds. Blake strapped his onto his saddle bags on his bike, and I packed mine into a day pack with the paddles strapped on, and we wore our life vests.
We rode 10 miles from camp to another beautiful bay, and this time no wind came in, so the water was completely glass and you can see the reflection from the tall rock walls. The rafts were super relaxing, but we’re definitely excited to come back to Powell some day with a house boat just so we can cover more ground and explore more of the lake. We also spent a day riding the dirt bikes around some of the beaches and jeep roads around the north side of the lake. We didn’t know that Powell was such a fun spot to bring off-road vehicles, but we saw lots of the other campers had UTVs and ATVs, so we went to rip down the beach as well. We also took the bikes out to Alstrom Point, a famous camping spot hundreds of feet up on a cliff overlooking the lake. It was fun for us to actually camp at the water in Warm Creek Bay for the pack rafts, but the views at Alstrom Point really can’t be beat.
Smokey Mountain Scenic Backway:
When we decided to leave Lake Powell, we took the scenic backway between Big Water and Escalante, Utah last month, which was a full day 60 mile adventure. The Smokey Mountain scenic backway starts with a climb up the Kelly Grade, with amazing views of Lake Powell at the top. The grade is essentially a few miles of a steep shelf road, which is no problem unless it has rained recently. There’s a fine silt layer underneath the dirt road, so if it rains, the road just becomes mud. The road was dry for us until the very last turn before the top, and the mud started collecting on the tires. We were able to get through it though and up the last climb to where we camped for a night with this amazing view of Lake Powell.
We drove past ancient underground coal fires that have been burning for hundreds of thousands of years in the monument, and continued to have views of the grand staircase throughout our windy rocky route. The road was graded with slick rock sections, but totally do-able in our set up as long as we kept it slow and steady. Instead of continuing on the backway to the town of Escalante, we cut over to Hole in the Rock Road via Left Hand Collett Wash, a 12 mile unimproved road that would save us a bunch of mileage from having to go all the way around through Escalante. Sometimes it’s hard to find good info online about backroads like this, especially during COVID, so we weren’t sure if the Collett Wash was do-able in our size camper. We don’t normally venture down 4WD trails that we don’t know enough about, but we were open to the adventure. So at the first obstacle, we decided to check out the rest of the road on the dirt bikes to make sure it was passable. We saw there were about 5 off-camber rocky drops that we would have to spend time building up extra rocks to make level enough to drive down, but once we got through those, it was a graded dirt road all the way to where we intended to camp. In these situations, we love having the dirt bikes on the rail because its so easy to just get them down and check out the road to make sure we’re not getting ourselves into a tricky situation. We’re also so grateful for our Hellwig suspension products to prevent us from rocking and rolling into the side of a canyon wall So after passing the few rocky obstacles, the road took us through another super scenic slot canyon like wash, before putting us out at mile 12 of Hole in the Rock Road. In the end, I would not recommend the Left Hand Collett Wash for any truck camper our size or bigger, but it would be a fun jeep trail for a smaller overland set up. Would definitely recommend the section of the Smokey Mountain backway that we did though, but we aired down the tires and took it slow!
There is so much recreation on Hole in the Rock Road and the Escalante area; this was our second time there, and we will still have to go back a third time to complete other hikes on the bucket list. Hole in the Rock Road is a 56 mile long road that started as a Mormon pioneer trail, starting in Escalante and ends at a “Hole” in the rock, a slot canyon leading down to Lake Powell, where the Mormons blasted a hole in the rock to try to continue their path east. The road becomes wash-boarded out though, and can take absolutely forever to drive, rattling your entire car the whole way. Last time we were in Escalante four years ago (pre-camper life), we drove the entire road to the end. It took 3 hours each direction, but when we scrambled down the “hole” to see Lake Powell, it was absolutely worth it. This time we didn’t want to take the camper any farther down the road than necessary, so we camped at mile 12 by the Devil’s Garden, an area of Hoodoos you can walk around. Each day we planned to take the dirt bikes to get to the trail heads for our hike, thinking we’d be much faster on bikes.
We arrived to the Hole in the Rock Road just a couple days after it opened back up after quarantine, which I only knew because I called the ranger office, it wasn’t advertised as back open on the National Monument site. So when we arrived and got a camp spot to ourselves, we figured we were the only ones there. But the next day we saw plenty of other vehicles coming down the road. Trails weren’t too crowded though, and surprisingly, no one tried to come camp by us. We think that they had recently graded the road while the area was closed for quarantine, and it was way less wash-boarded than last time we’d been there.
We rode 14 miles from camp to the Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons, a 5+ mile hike that goes through a couple very narrow slot canyons. Each of the slot canyons are about quarter mile long, and you can hike them as out and backs or as a loop. Based on my research of the best way to complete this hike, we hiked up Peek-a-boo canyon, and completed the loop down Spooky Canyon. Peek-a-boo starts with a probably 10 foot high wall with a couple chiseled out foot holds that you have to climb up. I think this was probably much easier to climb up than down. A lot of people bring ropes if they choose to climb down. The benefit of hiking mid-day is that the light shines into the canyons more than if you climb early morning, so we had really pretty light rays coming into some of the slot sections. Spooky canyon gets even narrower than Peek-a-boo, and includes a probably 8 foot drop that you have to climb down. There are a few wedged boulders and handholds, but it always helps when Blake goes down first (being 6’7” he can practically just step down) and then helps me find the good foot holds. I can see why Spooky is named Spooky, because the narrow sections got dark and you could hear the wind whipping through the canyon, with pieces of old driftwood wedged above you. I got a bit claustrophobic in the narrowest section only because I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie 127 Hours. There’s a third more mellow slot canyon you can hike after the loop called Dry Narrows. It stays several feet wide with no technical obstacles, and kept going for quite a long time to where we just turned around after having enough fun for the day.
The next day was our big hike day to complete the Coyote Gulch to Jacob Hamlin Arch trail. The hike to JH Arch can be done from 4 different trailheads, and it took me a bit of research to figure out the best way for us to do this, because the shortest way is also the most technical. So you can start at the Water Tanks/JH Arch trailhead, and hike just 2 miles to a class 3/4 scramble down to the arch. Or you can go down the “Crack-in-the-Wall” from the Forty-Mile Ridge Trailhead, and hike 9 miles to the Arch. This is a narrow slit in the rock that you have to scale down to get off a canyon ledge, barely wide enough for a body. After the 9 miles, you can either turn around or do the 3/4 class scramble up from the arch, and hike 2 miles back to your car. A lot of trip reports online say that you need 200 ft of rope to complete the “Crack-in-the-wall” and the scramble into/out of the arch. We didn’t have any rope, but still wanted to do the hike. The other options are long hikes through dry washes into the coyote gulch from two other trailheads, but this didn’t sound too exciting. After digging into so many more trip reports, I started to realize that the rope requirement was mostly only applicable for people hiking with huge backpacking packs because they could tip you over on the scramble and wont fit in the crack-in-the-wall. Most backpackers use a rope to lower their bags over the ledge of the crack-in-the-wall before climbing down because big packs wouldn’t actually fit in the crack. I started to feel confident that we could do the hike without a rope since we would only have day packs, and by the time we got to the scramble, we’d have drank most our water, and eaten all our food anyway.
We had the same plan to ride our dirt bikes to the trailhead since we had to go another 30 miles on the Hole in the Rock road just to get to the trailhead. Unfortunately my bike got a flat on the way back from our hike the previous day, and we popped my only spare when we changed the tire. So we ended up doubling the 30 miles (each way) on Blake’s bike. This was ridiculous because we had our big day packs with 4 liters of water each, extra fuel for the bike, and water shoes, which Blake had to put on his lap while riding with me doubling on the back. Doubling on a dirt bike is not comfortable because there is nowhere to put your feet. We tried to figure out the best configuration for doubling, and ended up with me putting my feet on the pegs and Blake’s feet on top of mine, which sounds painful but really wasn’t that bad.
The hike starts with a two mile stretch just to get to the Crack in the Wall. I was so glad I’d seen pictures online so I knew what I was looking for to scramble down this crack. You would never imagine it leads to a trail beneath. The crack was literally as narrow as our bodies, we had to hold our backpacks below our waist to get them through. Then you hike down pink sand dunes overlooking the Stevens Arch and Escalante River to get to the Coyote Gulch. There was ankle/shin deep water running through the Coyote Gulch, and the trail weaves in and out of the river for the next 6 miles or so. Some people were just walking directly in the river the whole way, shoes soaked and all. We didn’t feel like having soaked shoes all day, so we tried our best to hop over every river crossing. I didn’t end up soaking the feet until the last couple river crossings. It definitely would’ve saved some time to walk in the river though, we probably lost about an hour just in trying to navigate the best spots to cross the river. The gulch is full of overgrown cattails, and since people hike all year when the river is different heights, there were so many trails just meandering throughout the gulch, so it was kind of hard to navigate at times, but they all pretty much ended up in the same spots.
Losing that hour in navigation was not ideal because we didn’t even get on the trail until 11:30 that day, and we knew it would take us about 6-8 hours to hike and an hour to ride bike to camp, and we were hoping to get back in the daylight since we were riding the dirt bike. It has a headlight but sometimes didn’t work very well. So to make up for that lost hour we were hiking FAST. (We did the whole hike in less than 7 hours, including our stop for lunch). You pass several waterfalls and a couple other natural arches in the gulch before reaching Jacob Hamlin Arch. The immensity of the arch is pretty impressive, and after a nice break, we had to start the class 3/4 scramble out of the arch. We ran into a family that had done the scramble before and said we’d be fine with our climbing experience and it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It’s a 60 degree slope for about 100 feet. It was easy to get up the first section, and then had a
couple sections that took us a minute to figure out the best way. Foot and hand holds were carved into the rock, but you definitely wouldn’t want to fall in some of those spots. The guy from the family came up right after us and practically ran up the slope to set up a rope for the rest of his family. He’d clearly done this a bunch of times. At the top of the scramble you get to take in the views of the canyon one last time. The trail takes you out to the Water Tanks trailhead, which is a couple miles further on the road than we parked and would’ve added 2 miles to the hike, but if you have GPS tracks, you can pretty much bushwhack 2 miles straight across the desert to get back to the forty mile ridge trailhead that we parked at. This is what we did and saved us a bunch of time. We got back to the bike at 6:15, and we actually made it back to camp with enough time to cook and eat dinner in the daylight. We were so happy to complete this hike, but hiking 12 miles mostly in sand really kicked our butts, so we were happy to make the next day a travel/relax day.
We made plans to dirt bike with a friend closer to Green River later that week, so we started making our way out of Escalante. We stopped at Mimi’s Cafe in Escalante for toasted sandwiches made on fresh baked focaccia bread, and even got a bunch of focaccia rolls to go. Highly recommend this restaurant! On our way out of town we hiked the Upper Calf Creek Falls, which is only a 2 mile hike, but goes straight down from the trailhead to the waterfall, so you have to gain 600 feet vert in a mile on your way back up. The Lower Calf Creek Falls is a much more popular hike, which a taller and more spectacular falls, but since we did 12 miles the day before, and the parking lot for the lower falls was full, we opted for the upper falls hike. We’ll have to return another day for the lower falls though.
Escalante is truly one of the most amazing places in Utah. Even the drive out of town is spectacular. On one side of the town is a million acres of the grand staircase national monument (mostly red rock desert), and on the other side is two million acres of the Dixie National Forest (mostly pine trees getting up to almost 10k feet elevation). When you leave town, you should make the drive between Escalante and Boulder, and you get views all the way down to Capital Reef. I know we could spend a lot more time there, and we already have ideas about what to do next time we go back to southern Utah.
We made our way north from Escalante because a couple friends who were sick of being pent up in quarantine wanted to come visit us (from a safe distance, of course). So we drove from Escalante to a riding area near the San Rafael Swell. Our friend Nobu, plus Blake’s brother and two friends came out to camp with us, and ride the 5 Miles of Hell Trail. This trail has obstacles bigger than my bike, so I did not partake. But the boys had fun, and even rode it twice. I got to hang at camp and hike around with Blake’s brother’s dog, so I was perfectly happy. We camped two nights at the 5 Miles of Hell trail, and another two nights at at another riding area north of Green River. Apparently the trails in this second area got pretty gnarly, and the map we had wasn’t completely accurate because the trails in the area just don’t get ridden as much, so the guys ended up unintentionally doing an 80 mile day and barely making it back to camp with any gas to spare.
After these guys left, our other two friends came to join us for a couple days of hiking by Goblin Valley. I found a couple hikes for us to do by Hanksville since we were already in Green River. State parks had opened back up in Utah, but areas like Moab were still closed, so I think everybody in Utah and Colorado wanting to get out of the house googled other places to go in central Utah, and came up with the same plan I did. So much for social distancing. Goblin Valley was so packed that they had to close off to more visitors at 11 am. All the dispersed camping spots around the area were taken, people were flocking in to find camping spots all night. Luckily our friends were able to come out on a Thursday night, so we beat the weekenders by 24 hours, and got a decent spot to camp. We did two slot canyon hikes: the Little Wild Horse Canyon, and Crack Canyon. I’ll admit, planning to hike slot canyons on a popular weekend when you’re supposed to be social distancing was maybe not the smartest idea, because the trails had several ropes you have to use, and every single person hiking that trail had to touch those rope. Should’ve brought some hand sanitizer I guess, but I never would’ve thought I needed that for hiking.
Little Wild Horse Canyon was a 8 mile loop that also takes you through the Bell Canyon. There’s a three mile stretch between the canyons where you’re walking on road, but with beautiful views of the San Rafael Swell. There weren’t any ropes required on this hike, but you do have to scramble in a few sections. Crack Canyon is a 5 mile out and back with two rope sections. So many people had dogs and I just can’t imagine ever bringing a dog on a hike where you have to scramble 10 feet up or down. You can keep hiking a while in the wash to add extra mileage, or combine it with the Chute Canyon to make a loop, which we didn’t do because we didn’t know about it at the time! It was 90 when we hiked, but we had a breeze and shade in the canyons, so it made it just bearable. The dispersed camping in these areas was really neat, and we just wish it wasn’t so crowded because all the best spots were taken! All the spots along Little Wild Horse Road were tucked up into little alcoves of tall red rock walls. There were tons of spots on the way to the Crack Canyon hike as well, and just about every single one was taken with big RVs with ATVs. Definitely the crowd that would normally have been in Moab this time of year.
After about a month of play time in south and central Utah, we headed to Logan, Utah to do some more snowmobile filming for the same project we were working on in Alpine, WY. We went to film some additional days with one of the athletes that lives in Logan, UT. It looked like total springtime when passing through Salt Lake and Logan. The mountains were still snow capped, but everything in town was bright green. There was still snow in one of their local riding areas up the Logan Canyon. We spent 5 days with him and a few other riders building jumps and filming in the area. We learned a lot about the Logan Canyon when we were driving through everyday, and it sounds like there’s a lot left to explore next time we are there for longer. Apparently the Logan Canyon has a pretty intensive cave system. We passed by the Rick Springs, an underground spring/cave, and people have apparently scuba dived in the spring and discovered an underground river and waterfall multiple miles back into the cave. The craziest part was that there are about 30 sinkholes in the snowmobile area that the athlete took us to. He told us not to go near a certain area because there was a sinkhole that goes 600 feet deep that he didn’t want us to fall down. We had never even heard of such a thing in the mountains. The forest service doesn’t even mark them because they don’t want the liability of having to maintain the markings.
We spent about a week in Logan because Shad, the athlete we were filming, his family has a fabrication shop in the area and he helped us weld some new parts for rigging our camera for some of the tracking work we do. But then we got picked up for a few jobs in Colorado, so decided it was time to leave Utah and head back to Colorado.