On Friday, September 9, 2016 Sean and I began our trip down the Grand Staircase with an evening flight to Phoenix. More often than not, this was our modus operandi, to fly out after work, stay overnight near the airport, and begin the trip proper on the ground in the morning wherever we were. That Friday, I was more than ready to be gone. It had been a very long week at work, culminating in issues with a new vendor. (I’d ultimately be proven right in my assessment of their shoddy service.) But either way, it would be good to do some hiking in a place I’d wanted to visit since childhood.
But first, we had to get to the airport. Our usual planning hit an obstacle since the Foster Avenue bridge over the Chicago River was out and we had to detour. Our cab driver was fantastic and rerouted to still got us to the airport promptly.
Soon we were through security and in line for our traditional O’Hare dinner at Tortas Frontera…with margaritas.
In American Way magazine, Sean came upon a quote by one Michael Farmer, above, which boded well for the spirit of our trip. Meteorites and adventure? Sign us up! But first we needed transportation, so off we went to the car rental center.
After a mishap about which hotel we were actually booked at (there is a Hilton Garden Inn Phoenix Airport and a Hilton Garden Inn Phoenix Airport North), we were settled in our room and ready for sleeps.
Next morning, Saturday, September 10, I did a little work for my new photography business, filing legal notice of my “doing business as” name, Out In The Parks. It was telling that I’d first established my business on our trip to California the previous month and then finally had the headspace to tie up this loose end while again on a trip rather than in “real life.” Afterward, we repacked our gear, transforming our luggage from “checked bag” and “carry-on bag” to “backpack” and “daypack.” Then we were ready for the seven-hour drive to Bryce Canyon National Park.
We drove north and up onto the Colorado Plateau until we reached Flagstaff, where we stopped at the REI to pick up our camp stove fuel and dehydrated meals. We also had lunch and got perishable food at a nearby Whole Foods.
Then we were back on the road, skirting the Painted Desert while listening to the My Dad Wrote A Porno and Better Friendship Through Podcasting podcasts.
As we continued north on US-89 through the western reaches of the Navajo Nation, the Echo Cliffs rose up on our right. They were the first taste of the nine days of geological wonders before us.
Ultimately, US-89 led us to the section of the Colorado Plateau between the Echo Cliffs and the Vermillion Cliffs, and then it led us up into the Echo Cliffs, providing huge views of the Kaibab Plateau, which the Grand Canyon is carved through, the Vermillion Cliffs, and Marble Canyon, part of Grand Canyon National Park, where the Colorado River runs downstream from Glen Canyon Dam.
It was our first glimpse of a part of the Grand Staircase, the immense series of plateaus and cliffs that descend from the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument in the high plateaus of southern Utah, down past the Gray Cliffs and then the White Cliffs of Zion National Park, then the Vermillion Cliffs before us and the Chocolate Cliffs north of the Kaibab Plateau.
Each set of cliffs exposes a different layer of rock from tens to hundreds of millions of years ago. After the Vermillion and Chocolate Cliffs, the Kaibab Plateau rises before the great plunge to the depths of the Grand Canyon.
We descended from the Echo Cliffs, left Navajo Nation, and entered Page, Arizona, population 7,400, gateway to Lake Powell, the vast reservoir created by the impounding of the Colorado River behind Glen Canyon Dam. Named after the one-armed Major John Wesley Powell who led the first successful expedition by white men down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the lake drowned Glen Canyon, which Powell passed through with his men on the way to the big canyon.
We stopped at a gas station and fueled up.
After the gas station, we drove over to an overlook that was part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. The overlook was recommended by my buddy and fellow Openlander, John. From the bottom of a rock staircase, it afforded visitors a striking view of the dam and the very beginning of Marble Canyon.
Construction of Glen Canyon Dam began in 1956 and was completed in 1966. The reservoir filled completely by 1980 and then immediately began dropping due to seepage into the bedrock, immense loss to evaporation, and demand for its water.
Glen Canyon was chosen as the site of the dam after the successful blocking of the proposed Echo Park Dam, which would have inundated parts of Dinosaur National Monument on the Green River near the border between Utah and Colorado. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the proposal to place a dam in a National Park unit recalled the bitter dispute over damming Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Ultimately, the fight against the Echo Park Dam was the great mid-century success of the land preservation movement, a success that would reverberate into the 1960s as dam proposals for the Colorado River within Grand Canyon National Park would be defeated.
But remote, unprotected Glen Canyon was transformed into Lake Powell.
Beneath the dam, the usually red Colorado flows green and anemic on its journey into Grand Canyon National Park.
While there has always been opposition to the flooding of Glen Canyon, recently the drought in the West has renewed calls for the removal of Glen Canyon Dam. It may seem incongruous to remove a dam and drain a reservoir during a drought, but the argument holds that so much water is lost to evaporation and to seepage that it would be better to drain Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead to its capacity. Lake Mead’s bedrock is not porous like Lake Powell’s and even more importantly, eliminating the vast surface of Lake Powell would dramatically decrease the water lost to evaporation. Read more about the proposal here: Abrahm Lustgarten, “Unplugging the Colorado River,” The New York Times, May 20, 2016.
We crossed the bridge adjacent to the dam. For the next nine days we’d be north of the Colorado River and almost constantly within its watershed.
At the visitor center, which did not seem to have been designed back in the 1960s with security of the dam in mind…although now security concerns were omnipresent, we stamped our National Park Passports and used the restroom.
Then we turned our backs on Lake Powell and headed north into Utah.
Now we were rising on the plateaus of the Grand Staircase, heading east through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument toward Kanab, Utah. The landscape was huge with distant cliffs and ridges and the world dropping away at points to the south.
In Kanab, US-89 turned north and so did we. The highway followed the Sevier Valley between the Markagunt Plateau to the west and Paunsaugunt Plateau to the east. In a few days’ time, we’d visit Cedar Breaks National Monument on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau, but first Bryce Canyon National Park on the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
At state route 12, we turned east, crossed the Sevier River, and headed toward the plateau and Dixie National Forest. Route 12 wound its way through Red Canyon, within the National Forest, and it was our first taste of spires, hoodoos, and formations, which waited for us in abundance across the plateau.
We stopped for gas and firewood on the top of the plateau between Dixie National Forest and Bryce Canyon National Park. Then, it was time for our final short drive to the Park, hopefully in time to catch a bit of sunset.
I really can’t overstate how thrilled I was to be at the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park. As an adolescent, I’d sat and stared at the photos of the Park in my Reader’s Digest Guide to the National Parks. I had waited a very long time to visit this place, and here I was doing it on this huge, multi-year odyssey with my husband.
We drove directly to the parking area for Sunset and Sunrise Points. Darkness had already crept across the main amphitheater filled with hoodoos, and only the distant formations were still illuminated. But we were here, and there it was before us, that labyrinth of astounding pink, red, and white spires.
There was a vastness to the sound coming from the amphitheater. It wasn’t an echo, exactly. It was a silence or an emptiness of sound that was suddenly filled by the cawing of a crow out in the amphitheater.
Visitors strolled the rim path, or were bunched at the overlooks waiting for the sunlight to vanish, or sat with glasses of wine taking it all in.
We turned away from the view, walked back to the Jeep, and drove the short distance to Sunset Campground. We found our site, started a campfire, and began setting up camp as darkness gathered around us. It had been a long, but grand drive. And tomorrow we’d spend the day exploring a jewel of the National Park System.