PHOTO GALLERY INDEX > Close to the Edge
Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, UT 10/25-27/08 (Day 743-745)
Close to the Edge
On the sage advice of Bob, the Airstream-loving host of the North Rim Campground in Grand Canyon National Park, we head straight for Locust Point in a neighboring section of the Kaibob National Forest which is administered by the United States Forest Service (USFS) when our time in the park itself is done.
The USFS manages a huge amount of land on the canyon’s rim just on the outskirts of the park and, despite its less than enticing name, Locust Point proves to be a wonderful boondocking location, just as Bob promised—remote, private, gorgeous and slightly hard to reach (and even harder to leave—more on that later).
After 20 miles or so of well-maintained dirt roads we hit the turnaround at Locust Point. From there we branch off down a rough and narrow spur trail (to call it a road would be too generous) until we literally reach the canyon’s rim. With darkness coming, we slowly and carefully tow our Airstream to a stunning vantage point and park it. We end up camped so close to the rim that we’re thankful neither of us are sleepwalkers.
From bed we can see the far wall of the canyon and the breeze brings over the faint remains of our nearest neighbor’s nightly playlist of Bob Marley and traditional Native American flute music, which suits the mood perfectly.
Because we’re on National Forest land we’re allowed to gather wood, which we do in anticipation of building a campfire in one of the lovely stone fire ring some former camper thoughtfully left behind. However, when night falls the breeze picks up to a wind which carries embers from our fire straight over the edge of the canyon so we douse it before we start a catastrophic forest fire.
It’s out here at Locust Point that we discover another use for our Safari: wildlife blind. If we sit very quietly inside the Airstream birds and squirrels seem to forget we’re there and wander right up to the Airstream—in some cases even walking around on the roof and peaking in through the roofline windows.
After a few contented days we really do have to leave Locust Point, which requires carefully extricating ourselves from our prime location. We are squeezed in between tree branches mere inches from the top of our Safari and rocks and stout brush on all sides. There’s no way to turn around, so we spend nearly an hour painstakingly backing up and around (and sometimes through) these obstacles until we’re back out on the main dirt road.
We prefer to think of the scratches that this adventure inflicts on the Airstream as battle scars of the best kind.
From Locust Point we head to the equally evocatively named Vermillion Cliffs National Monument then through a town called Cliff Dwellings which makes us think Native Americans must have settled here. When we pull off the road amidst an eerie flotsam of bulbous rocks perched atop way-too-flimsy looking pillars of earth, which give the appearance of geological toadstools, we do, indeed, see Native Americans.
However, they’ve inherited this place and now use it as a roadside vending stand. The original inhabitant of Cliff Dwellings was a woman named Blanche who started building rooms and then whole homes amidst the rock jumble in the 1920s after hear car broke down pretty much where we’ve parked our Safari SE. Yes, wacky.
The next day we continue our extraordinary streak of good luck obtaining last minute permits by scoring a green light to hike into North Coyote Buttes, aka The Wave in Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. The swirling, sloping walls of tangerine, pale pink and taupe colored Navajo sandstone became so popular after being featured in European movies that the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the area, has had to institute a complicated lottery system to dole out the 10 permits given each morning for access to the area on the following day (you can also reserve one of 10 slots per day in advance, but we never work that far ahead).
We’ve set aside three mornings to attempt to get a permit (some days hundreds of people show up for the 10 slots), never dreaming we’d score a permit on our first time out. Now we’ve got plenty of free time to explore other less famous spots in the area which BLM staff make clear are just as spectacular as The Wave.
But first we’ve got to find a home so we drive a few miles out a dirt road into the Paria/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness and park the Airstream in a flat, clear turn around off the road. Voila! Then we head to Wire Pass/Buckskin Gulch for a taste of this amazing landscape.
When we hear the word “pass” we think of high mountain peaks that require long uphill slogs before reaching the “pass” onto the other side of a mountain range. In this part of the world, however, passes through rocky obstacles happen in the opposite way—way down low on the ground where water has worn away slot canyons which are used to “pass” through.
The resulting slot canyons, like Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch, are narrow, high-walled and sinewy. In some places light never reaches the bottom of the canyon and the walls are so close together that you have to turn sideways to pass through. Many areas of the canyon floor are strewn with big boulders washed into the slots during sometimes deadly flash floods.
The most hardcore slot canyons require scaling mountains of these boulders and fording deep, dark, cold areas of collected water. However, Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch are easy ambles once you’re over a few tricky boulders early on. There’s very little standing water and what’s there can be easily skirted. The biggest hazards are pockets of saturated mud the consistency of chocolate pudding that would probably suck the boots right off your feet if you got in too deep.
Then there are the rattlesnakes.
No big deal. We’ve seen them before. But the one we come across in Buckskin Gulch is in a narrow place with sheer canyon walls on either side that prevent us from giving him a wide birth as we pass. No matter how we cut it, in order to move further into the canyon we’d have to walk by the snake within striking distance.
Despite the fact that the poor snake looks more than half dead from the cold and from the trauma of however he managed to fall or get dropped into the frigid slot canyon, risking a rattlesnake bite seems foolhardy so we turn around as the snake tosses us one last half-hearted flick of his sad little tongue.
The next morning we grab our coveted hiking pass and head for The Wave which involves a fair amount of climbing up and over rounded shoulders of rust colored sandstone formations which is generally a pleasure since sandstone is so grippy and easy to walk on. What’s not so easy to walk on are the long stretches of sand. Since both sandstone and loose sand are hard to construct a trail through, the route is marked only by the occasional Karin.
We reach the mouth of The Wave formation just as the sun is getting high enough to really show off the color bands in its hot-pulled-taffy shapes that were formed by wind literally blowing the sandstone particles into the form of an enormous wave. It’s lovely and hypnotic and seems to change before our eyes.
After sitting on the edge of a big sandstone bowl above the main Wave formation for a while we explore the rocks around The Wave. Weirdly, they are all pretty much just normal sandstone—except for a formation another hiker called The Hamburger. From one side it just looks like another lumpy sandstone ball. From the other side, however, it’s been eroded in a way that makes it look exactly like a big sloppy burger on a bun complete with tomato and lettuce.
We are very grateful that we were able to get out to The Wave but as we leave the Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness we have to think the local BLM staff members were right—there are definitely other stars in the area.
** This isn't a normal photo gallery with a slideshow because this post originally appeared on our Airstream blog. **