Wandering the West
May 20, 2008
It’s with a little reluctance I write about this place because I hate those articles in outdoor magazines that list "Ten Great Unknown Places," which make them known and thus disqualify them as "unknowns." But the secret is out on Calf Creek. On my list of great places on southern Utah’s Colorado Plateau, this is in my top three (and I think I’ll keep quiet about the other two).
Back in pioneer days, ranchers ran a short fence across Calf Creek Canyon at the top and bottom and knew their calves would grow fat and happy in the lush green canyon and couldn’t get out because of the steep sandstone canyon walls. The calves are gone now, which means the creek unlike most muddy red Southern Utah streams runs with pure, cold, clear mountain water, and when it plunges over two falls, it is as perfect a scene as exists on the planet.
Calf Creek lies in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah’s newest national park, although it is run by the BLM instead of the National Park Service. It was declared a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and set aside 1.9 million acres of Utah’s best remaining roadless terrain not already set aside as parks by previous Congressional acts and Presidential declarations. I was standing about thirty feet from Clinton as he spoke, and I think it’s the biggest piece of Utah history I’ll ever witness.
There’s a lot in the monument a big geological sampler of the best of Southern Utah but this column is just about the little creek no wider than six feet or so. It is located between Escalante and Boulder, two isolated towns connected by Highway 12, which is a story in its own. Highway 12 is a National Scenic Byway saturated in scenery. As it descends from Boulder to Escalante, it runs along the Hogsback, a spine of rock barely wider than the road in places, so don’t admire the scenery too much if you’re driving or you’ll plunge into canyons on either side. The trailhead for the more famous of Calf Creek’s two waterfalls is about 15 miles east of Escalante on Highway 12, at the Calf Creek Campground which is also in my top three campgrounds in Utah. (Yes, the other two shall remain undisclosed).
From the trailhead, Calf Creek Falls is about a three-mile mostly level hike. You’ll see petroglyphs on the sandstone canyon walls and stone granaries on impossibly high ledges, both created by the ancient ones of a thousand years ago. Once you get to the falls, you’ll recognize the scene. It has graced Utah’s official state highway map for years and is a perennially favorite calendar shot. Water plunges over a sandstone lip 128 feet into a perfect pool of water surrounded by desert greenery. Instead of being in the middle of the desert you’d think you were in Hawaii for a few minutes. Even on the hottest day, a plunge in the pool is a shock to the system. This is mountain spring water and snowmelt, and dips are refreshingly brisk.
Upper Calf Creek Falls are a shorter but more challenging hike. The first challenge is finding the trailhead, as there’s certain zealousness in protecting Upper Calf Creek Falls from too many visitors. The directional signs are torn out frequently, so don’t be surprised if it’s unmarked. It’s not far out of Boulder on Highway 12 heading to Escalante on the right between mile markers 81 and 82. Unlike the lower falls trail, which starts near the end of Calf Creek Canyon and is level, the upper falls trail starts at the canyon rim and descends. The mile or so hike is more difficult so watch the kids and keep them on the trail and off the fragile desert soils. The reward is a slighter smaller waterfall landing in a similarly perfect pool of cold, clear water. There’s a sandstone alcove just to the side of the pool where I’ve camped under the stars, which may or may not be strictly legal anymore.
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With a steep narrow canyon, there’s more shade than you’ll find elsewhere in the desert, and with a cold stream punching through the middle of it, it is a perfect oasis in the desert all summer long. After the lower falls hike one year I put my lawn chair in the middle of the creek back at the campground and read a book as water poured around and over me. What a way to waste a summer day!
THE VITALS: Park City to Boulder: 250 miles.
Web site: http://www.escalante-cc.com . Other links available from there.
Insider tip: Camping at Calf Creek is competitive. Get there way early to snag a site from a departing camper. It is first come-first served and highly prized.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.