Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012

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Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by DaveK » Sat May 12, 2012 10:41 am

Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon

Total miles traveled = 1,876. Total miles in the dirt = approx 500.

There is not much I can add to the description of the GSE over last year’s trip other than to say that it is so vast that it took an additional year to get a better view of the area. This year we concentrated on the “Staircase” or western portion of the Monument. We visited several of the overlook points which offered spectacular vistas of the geology which has created the staircase. We also drove the entire Cockscomb Ridge and camped there for one night. One of the many things that was so intriguing about both the GSE and DC was the solitude of every campsite we chose. Without exception, we never saw another soul (in a vehicle) once we left the main trail. For a brief moment, on one occasion, it appeared there were some other hearty adventurers out there as I met another vehicle coming in our direction. It turned out that the two trails that Alan and I were exploring were actually the same and we were just meeting on a loop road. Even after spending about a week in the GSE, there is still an urge to keep going back to see what we have missed, but, maybe some other time.

Dark Canyon is a fascinating area and like last years trip, it may require a second visit to see all that we missed this year. DC is located north of the Navajo Nation, but is not a part of it. Many hundreds of years ago, the land which is now called Dark Canyon, was inhabited by the same Puebloan Indians as the Navajo Nation was. Much of the topography of DC is similar to Navajo land and that meant that many ruins are still present. Unlike our trip to the Navajo Nation, a guide was not necessary to visit these sites. However, a knowledge of where to look and a willingness to do some hiking was necessary. In doing my research, I discovered that the actual sites are not well advertised (or advertised at all) nor were the exact locations published. Unlike the ruin sites in the Navajo Nation, many of which are identified on USGS topo maps, no such similar mention is made in any of the DC maps I have seen, including the USGS maps. IF one is willing to do some research and with a little bit of luck and hiking, they can be found. For reasons which are a mystery, the condition of the ruins in DC was exceptional, as the pictures below demonstrate.

Dark Canyon elevations averaged about 8000 feet, and while we were expecting some cold weather, it never really happened - the low 30s was about as cold as it got. For most of the trip we were treated to comfortable temps and sunshine. We did have one day with rain and a couple of days with “partly cloudy” conditions. Despite plenty of stories about how the dirt in this area turns to a gooey mess when it rains, we never got enough to matter. On the day that it rained, we stayed dry in camp, under a tarp, and had a fire going during the entire day. Happy hour started a little early that day.

One of the several interesting things we discovered in Dark Canyon was how little most of the trails had been used. The main dirt roads that circled the canyon rim were in relatively good condition, but most of the trails that branched off had definitely not seen much use. Between overgrown brush and fallen trees, it was always a challenge to get to the end of the trail. Another interesting thing was the lack of good paper maps that showed the available trails. Once we ventured beyond the main trails, we needed to rely on the USGS Topo maps. While a little outdated, they were, by far, the most complete and accurate.

I strongly suspect that we will need to return to Dark Canyon to complete our trip.


No trip report is ever complete without mentioning equipment that served us well. The following gear deserves special mention.

1. Nat Geo Topo! This trip presented some new challenges that I have not encountered, at least to this degree, in the past. Possibly due to the fact that neither the GSE nor DC is as popular as the more well-known parks or monuments or possibly due to the fact that many trails in both areas are not used much, there’s not a map (with one exception) that really gives a detailed listing of all trails that are open. Although the Nat Geo and Forest Service paper maps are good, they are really not complete and, at best, just give the main roads. Many of the trails we traveled were not listed at all even though they all bore official numbers or names. The one exception I mention was USGS Topo maps, as put together in the Nat Geo Topo! Program. NGT was remarkably accurate and listed the greatest number of trails.

One of the areas where NGT shines, is trip planning. To a large degree, my conversations with the rangers helped, but the next greatest aid to trip planning was NGT. Once we settled on the places we wanted to visit, it was a simple mater, with NGT, to plot out the best routes and hand draw the trails and campsites. There is no way that we could have covered as much ground and seen as much as we did without the pre trip planning made possible by using NGT. The ability to do live tracking, following the hand drawn tracks, combined with the detailed USGS Topo maps, made navigation a breeze and allowed us to visit the many areas that were on our list. For those in the group running NGT, I was able to give them a file that had all of our camp destinations and hand drawn trails.

Other than one occasion when we were in a heavily forested area, where I lost GPS reception, the NGT program ran every day without a single hiccup.

2. Ultimate Overland Recovery Shovel. Off Road Trail Tools sells this most versatile and rugged shovel which served us for a very unexpected need. The shovel comes in three pieces, allowing it to be either a regular long handle shovel or a shorter version with a D handle. When disassembled it is so much easier to stow than the long handle shovel that usually accompanies us on these trips. When stored disassembled, it takes mere seconds to access.

As we returned from our first night camping, overlooking Lake Powell, we ran across a large area that was actively on fire. We stopped long enough to put out the flames and bury most of the smoldering embers. We all had shovels, but the only full size one that was easily accessible was the ORTT product. Rugged, very well built, and easy to stow.

3. Solar panel (vs. wind turbine). My solar panel was upgraded from last year, making it fully automatic with no hanging parts or exposed wires. At the beginning of the trip, as we left home, I flipped the switch that turned the SP on and when I returned home, I flipped the switch to turn it off. No other set up or effort was required for the SP to function during the entire trip. With this set-up I had sufficient power to run all of my accessories without the need to start the motor to charge the battery.

This year I had a quick-deploy mount fabricated for the wind turbine and had it ready to set up should the conditions warrant it. This is not meant as a complaint, but we only had one evening when there was any wind and the WT was up and running. It kept the battery fully charged during the warm evening. For my purposes, the verdict is in as far as the comparison between the SP and the WT are concerned. Owing to the fact that the SP is fully automatic and requires no setup whatsoever as well as the fact that it works EVERY day, even when overcast, I am prepared to say that the SP is the winner in the alternate power contest. That is not to say that the WT won’t see any use, because it will, as it will continue to accompany me on all of these long term trips in the remote areas we travel. The fact that it is very compact when stowed and has the potential to generate a lot of power, means that it will continue to serve us in the future, but not to the same extent as the SP.

4. Some years ago, Ollie did a write-up on a trip where he (as I recall) had one vehicle in his group that suffered a damaged exhaust pipe or muffler. The damage was bad enough that the pipe needed to be removed. While he had a hack saw, the equipment that saved the day was a grinder, with a cut-off wheel, that allowed the offending part to be easily and quickly removed. Ever since then, I have carried an electric grinder with all the necessary wheels to cut metal parts, when needed.

Well.......we had the same problem on this trip. One member of the group had the muffler weld break and we needed to remove that portion of the pipe that either would have caused problems dragging or would get caught up in the drive train. We plugged the grinder into the inverter and with a few quick cuts, the problem was solved.

5. One of my pet peeves is gear that vibrates or wobbles when the road gets rough. This is especially irritating when it comes to electronic equipment (radios and GPS) and computers. Up until this trip, the most difficult device to keep still was the laptop. NO ONE makes a computer stand that, by itself, offers good resistance to vibration and wobble. I’ve checked ‘em all out and while they each offer some unique qualities, they all suffer from the same shortcoming - when the road gets rough, the wobble starts. The solution - combine the best qualities of each and make the parts that no one offers. Between the Ram Mount computer brackets, the Jotto stand, some home made solid aluminum bracing legs and some grade 8 and grade 5 hardware, the computer is now ROCK SOLID.

6. APRS. APRS is one of those things that consistently and reliably does its job and requires very little attention. Our progress was available every day despite being in some very remote areas. In addition to Airmail, everyone back home knew exactly where we were every day. Hector, Tim and Frank were following our progress and communicating with us via APRS messaging. I use AGW Tracker to operate APRS and one of its functions is that it will audibly speak a message through the computer speakers. Quite an interesting experience while traveling.

7. Trasharoo Spare Tire Trash Bags. There seemed to be a lot fewer opportunities to drop off trash than in years past. Tom had a couple of extra Trasharoos and outfitted both Bob and Alan. With three bags working, we were covered. What a pleasure to keep the trash out of the vehicles or off the roof.

8. Zodi Hot Water Showers. I’ve had the Zodi now for about 5 years and if there is one standout quality of the company, it is their customer service. Even out of warranty, they have made everything work and replaced anything that was not right. The biggest thing that Zodi has done to improve their quality is the decision to start (again) making their products right here in Utah. The newest version of the double burner hot water shower (which accompanied us) is American made and it served us well, without a hitch. On long term, dusty, and hot trips, there is no substitute for a hot shower.

9. Airmail. No matter where we were or when it was, Airmail worked. Form the deepest canyons, where no sat phone coverage was available, to the most remote locations, it always worked. I was able to keep in touch with family and friends on a daily basis regardless of the conditions.


Good meals are a must on these trips as is good wine. We were very fortunate to have excellent chefs and a terrific selection of wines. Evening cuisine included Chicken Cordon Bleu, Dutch oven chicken and rice, Dutch oven pork chops and potatoes, Chicken Adobo, Beef Stroganoff, fried chicken and everyone’s favorite, spaghetti and meatballs. Once camp was set and as we prepared for dinner, we were treated to some very fine wines. No one ever left the dinner table hungry. Breakfast and lunch were always a treat as well.

Due to the length of the trip and our decision to not stop and shop for more food, we kept many of the meats and other perishable items frozen until we needed them. One of the many benefits of the 12V freezer fridge units.


Special thanks to each of the members of our group, Alan, Tom and Bob. Great cooks, great campers and great friends.

Thanks to rangers Sue Morgan (with the GSE) and Keith Johnson (with DC). Thanks for enduring my endless calls and for your information and assistance.

Thanks to Traveltoad (Aaron) for supplying us with another set of custom OAUSA wine glasses. Not a one was lost (or broken).

Thanks to Hector for posting our pictures here.

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This was the camp where we spent most of the day under a tarp, avoiding intermittent rain.
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Camping conditions at this area were some of the most unique we experienced on the trip. The soil for the entire area surrounding our camp was sand - almost like beach sand. Views here gave a great view of the Staircase geology of the Monument. On the way to the point, we ran across a cabin that was obviously used by the cowboys when feeding or rounding up the cows.
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This ruin was not identified on any map nor was the road which led to it. We found out about it quite by accident. It was located near the end of the road, requiring a hike of about 200-300 yards. It was so well hidden that it probably never would be found unless one knew where to look and what to look for. The ruin was remarkably well preserved and seemed to be completely intact. As with many of the Anasazi ruins, it was located in an alcove which provided complete protection from rain and snow. In this particular location, there were two alcoves, side by side. The other one contained no ruins but evidence that it had been used for fires, see photo below of blackened ceiling. Also, in the photos below, small numbers are visible on the roof beams, on the inside of the structure, perhaps from a cataloging effort of the park service. The well preserved roof construction was amazing.

There were at least two mysteries surrounding this ruin. First, there was a complete absence of a door to the structure, just windows. And two, we could not find a single petroglyph or drawing anywhere. An amazing find, but most unusual!!
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Look closely and you can see the sparks from cutting off the muffler and pipe.
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Re: Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by unwiredadventures » Sat May 12, 2012 12:48 pm

Thanks for sharing the photos and trip report. Looks like you discovered some fantastic cliff dwellings.

Here's some images of watching your trip on
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Re: Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by michael » Mon May 14, 2012 9:33 pm

Fantastic photos -- thanks for posting! Your trip report gives some great details about the trip and makes me want to see even more of that area. Your detailed preparations paid off!
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Re: Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by unwiredadventures » Tue May 15, 2012 5:03 pm

Did you drive up/down the Moki Dugway?

One of those photos looks like it.

Do you have more photos for us?
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Re: Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by DaveK » Wed May 16, 2012 9:15 pm

Yes, we drove up the Moki Dugway and you did see some of the pictures, above. I have others, but not much more than already posted. Tom or Alan may have.

The road has an interesting history, see Not a road for those who have issues with heights.

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Re: Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by unwiredadventures » Tue May 22, 2012 9:48 am

DaveK wrote: Not a road for those who have issues with heights.
The view is incredible.

Every time I look at your photos I'm amazed at the perfect preservation of that Anasazi dwelling roof!
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Re: Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by BorregoWrangler » Tue May 22, 2012 6:40 pm

Great trip report and fantastic photos! Felt like I was there.
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Re: Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by OLLIE » Wed May 23, 2012 6:07 am

Great report Dave. I'm jealous every time you guys leave for these expeditions. I've been so busy I hadn't realized you were on your annual expedition until you airmailed me a photo. At least it was less painful that way. :D

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Re: Grand Staircase Escalante and Dark Canyon 2012


Post by cruiserlarry » Wed May 23, 2012 6:44 pm

A fantastic report on an extraordinary expedition - each year I look forward to the reports, only frustrated by the fact I wasn't able to be there in person...

Great pics, too...

I didn't see any mention of the unusual tree encounter with Alan's FJ and Bob's Hummer - did you take any pics of the "event" ?
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