Across an expanse of parched desert scrub and petrified dunes in southern Utah, a coyote lopes along with its snout down and tail low, headed for the only water source in the red rock for miles around: the 900-foot-deep Coyote Gulch, a desert oasis of waterfalls, green trees, and cool shade. It's a September afternoon, the air broiling, and I'm also headed into the Gulch.
Coyote Gulch sits amid the vast and rugged Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, 1.9 million acres of plunging sandstone gorges, soaring plateaus, narrow slots, and hidden rivers. The expanses of the Grand Staircase also have the distinction of being the last area in the continental United States to be mapped. What's best about this place is it provides a real challenge and some risk without requiring a guide or ropes or any real technical knowledge or equipment. Just bring a GPS, a 4x4, and time enough not to worry about schedules.
The coyote descends into the canyon, and I plod behind with my pack. I'm traveling ultralight: no tent, just a bedroll and a summer sleeping bag, a few days' worth of grub, a headlamp, a water filter, and enough water – a liter – for the three miles from the trailhead to the rim. The only thing keeping me from the stream is a steep descent down a cliffside trail. Make sure to bring a rope to lower your backpack, as the trail passes through a tight crack that acts like sandpaper on anything it touches. (I forgot mine and ended up shredding my pack.) An hour later, I'm rolling around in the creekbed. My canteen replenished, I look for a campsite for the evening.
My trip started a couple of days earlier, in Boulder, Utah, one of the last outposts of civilization before entering the northern end of the Monument. Boulder Mountain Lodge is rustic and peaceful, with an 11-acre bird sanctuary on the premises, but the real reason to stop is the Hell's Backbone Grill (try the Backbone Breakfast with Utah elk sausage).
After eating, I get gas for my jeep, do a final gear check, and head south into the Monument via Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a historic Mormon trade-and-settlement route. A graded dirt track stretching 62 miles to a dead end in a sea of petrified dunes, Hole-in-the-Rock offers scores of day-hiking choices along the way. I stop at two of the area's best-known slots: Peek-a-boo and Spooky gulches. Peek-a-boo offers a spectacular but easy-to-handle series of obstacles carved in the sandstone: natural bridges, portholes, bowls. Spooky is so narrow that I have to walk much of it sideways.
I camp that night on the side of the road, in a stand of juniper, and when I arrive at the dusty trailhead to Coyote Gulch the next morning, there's not a single other vehicle. Coyote is crushed with backpackers in the spring, but in late summer, when midday temperatures can top 100 degrees, it's all mine. Down in the Gulch, I find only one other pair of boot prints in the mud. But I find hundreds of animal tracks – rabbit, deer, coyote.
I set up base camp next to the creek, on a sandy beach under tall cottonwoods. My kitchen counter consists of two graying blowdown trunks laid crosshatched in the sugary-fine sand. My drinking water is from three squirting springs that feed a hanging garden of maidenhair fern and moss. The air temperature hovers around 85 degrees. A cool breeze makes the cottonwood leaves flicker like candles.
The next day I hike up-canyon, wandering through stretches of white sand, under mammoth alcoves, through arches and natural bridges, green glades of moss and ricegrass, arcades of oaks and willows.
On the second day, I spend a little time bouldering in the canyon on blocks of sandstone that long ago calved from the walls. I hike the two miles over to the Escalante River, and go wading in its fast-moving current. But mostly I souse around in the waterfalls, enjoying myself in deep, swirling swim holes, and do nothing.
By the third day, I begin to hear voices emerging from the water, and I know it's time to leave the gulch and see humanity again. The next morning, when I ascend to the rim before the heat sets in, I find a tall, petrified dune that affords a vista of the surrounding wilderness. The landscape is rutted and gashed with canyons, more than one could ever explore in a lifetime. But Coyote Gulch is a good place to start.
More Information: Fly to Salt Lake City, 250 miles north of Boulder. The road from Boulder to the Fortymile Ridge trailhead requires four-wheel drive. USGS map Petes Cove covers this part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Michael R. Kelsey's 'Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau' is the bible of Utah's slot canyons.