But my total isolation didn’t really strike home until I stepped from my 4x4 onto the edge of a mesa above Coyote Gulch, a ravine whose golden sandstone hides three gorgeous, narrow slot canyons. The lonely trailhead offered none of the familiar national park comforts like ranger huts or wooden welcome signs — certainly no dubious snack vendors. There was nothing but expanses of rock stretching toward the horizon, which at 10 a.m. were already glowing like embers under the intense Utah sun. Only a few stone cairns far below indicated that there was any hiking trail at all.
I gamely reminded myself that this was precisely what I’d been looking for — a landscape unchanged since 1872 — and set off into the piercing light.
I’d gone to southern Utah on the trail of an improbable outdoor adventurer — Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh, who at the ripe age of 18 joined the last great voyage of exploration in the Old West. This Gilded Age Hardy Boy made it through the raw desert in May and June 1872 with a group of amateur explorers who were hardly more qualified than himself. In his later years, Dellenbaugh traveled the world as an artist and writer, and helped to found, in 1904, the esteemed Explorers Club, now on 70th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
But I was fascinated by his teenage adventure, largely forgotten today, when he and his friends found the first route through southern Utah’s maze of canyons, discovering the last unknown river in the continental United States, the Escalante, and the last mountain range, the Henrys. They were the first to peer into that phantasmagoric expanse of Bryce Canyon and the first to cross what is now Capitol Reef National Park.
At one particularly tricky canyon crossroad, they tried to convince a Ute Indian to act as a guide, “for the labyrinth ahead was a puzzle,” Dellenbaugh later recalled. After the man wandered off, the group pressed on anyway, trusting to their spirit and wits.
This corner of the southern Utah has since been immortalized by the painter Maynard Dixon, the novelist Zane Grey, the photographer Ansel Adams and countless Hollywood westerns. And yet, it still qualifies as the best-kept secret in the West. While millions of travelers are drawn every year to Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, Grand Staircase-Escalante and its surrounding area offer a seemingly endless choice of natural wonders that lie blissfully forgotten and empty. It’s America’s Outback.
SHORTLY after starting the Coyote Gulch hike, I had to wonder if I might not disappear into the desert void. Back in the town of Escalante, some rangers had given me a printout of directions to the three slot canyons.
“These are unmarked routes,” it screamed in bold print. “Hikers must pay attention to landmarks so they can find their way out.”
I had lost sight of the first stone cairns almost immediately, as I stumbled down to the dry river wash at the bottom of the ravine. (“Water is scarce,” the printout helpfully noted.) After a few false leads, I made it to Peek-a-Boo Canyon, whose hard-to-spot entrance was surrounded by what looked like a shallow pool: I took a step in and sank straight up to my thighs in thick mud. As the sun continued to climb in the sky, I wished for my own Ute guide — or at least a GPS tracking system.
Hugging the canyon wall for shade, I pressed on heroically and found Spooky Canyon, named for its otherworldly atmosphere. It was only an 18-inch-wide crack in the rock, but to me it yawned like the gateway to Shangri-La.
As I squeezed inside, the air was immediately cool and fragrant. The sky appeared to be an electric blue sliver far above, and the reflected light made the golden sandstone seem to glow from within. I remained utterly still, in a lizardlike state, knowing that I couldn’t hide in there forever.
Finally, I drank the last of my water and staggered across the rock like a sun-struck character out of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” I was parched, scratched, encrusted with mud — but triumphant. Out there in Coyote Gulch, I had a sense, however distant, of what Dellenbaugh and his companions had been up against back in 1872.
Back home in Manhattan, I had often walked past the Gothic facade of the Explorers Club and thought with more than a twinge of envy of the halcyon days of travel. The club’s founders had grown up after the Civil War, when you could hop on a train from Grand Central and plunge into the West like a character from a dime novel. They were a tough bunch who set off with little more than their hobnailed boots and a month’s supply of bread and bacon.
Frederick Dellenbaugh, fresh from high school in Buffalo in 1871, heard that John Wesley Powell was looking for men to join his second expedition down the Colorado River. Powell had become a celebrity for conquering the Grand Canyon in 1869; this time, the white-water trip would be combined with the mapping of the Colorado plateau. Hundreds volunteered, but Powell liked to pick his crews from friends and relatives, and Dellenbaugh, who was connected on Powell’s brother-in-law’s side, became the expedition’s artist.
The adventure lasted nearly 18 months and involved plenty of near-death encounters on the river. But its most striking achievement came in May 1872, when Powell sent his second in command, Almon Thompson — a self-taught surveyor nicknamed the Prof — on a monthlong horseback trek through the unknown deserts of southern Utah. Dellenbaugh went along, and 36 years later, in 1908, he published his classic account of the Thompson expedition, “A Canyon Voyage,” which became an American bestseller.
I’d had this book in my library for years and had regularly tried to connect the stories on a map. Finally, I decided to trace some of the grand adventure myself.
My journey began in Kanab, a tidy little Mormon outpost of mowed lawns and municipal buildings framed by glowing red bluffs. Powell set up his winter base there, in wood-floored canvas tents not far from a fort. Kanab in 1872 was no Deadwood: “Not a grog-shop, or gambling saloon, or dance-hall was to be seen,” Dellenbaugh wrote. Liquor was in such short supply that one of the photographers actually made cocktails from his photographic alcohol.
Life has loosened up slightly in Kanab today. You can buy alcohol, from the State Liquor Store, including the Utah brew Polygamy Porter (“Why Have Just One?”). After dark, I found a brand new bistro filled with stray Europeans enjoying quinoa salads and sauvignon blanc.
In the heyday of the western movie, Kanab became an unlikely boomtown as Utah’s Little Hollywood, a film location for dozens of famous movies. Photographs of forgotten black-and-white stars in Stetsons line the main street in a Western Walk of Fame, and you can find a whole theme park of cinematic relics like Clint Eastwood’s cabin in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” (For true nostalgia buffs, the remains of the “Gunsmoke” set are quietly decaying on private land a few miles out of town, visible from the road).
The Parry Lodge, a string of retro cabins where most of the stars holed up — including Charlton Heston while filming “Planet of the Apes” — presents scratchy reel movies every summer’s night in an old barn. The real-life adventurers, Powell and his men, seem overshadowed by these celluloid demigods. I had difficulty even locating Powell’s modest stone monument, marking the site of his winter camp. It’s parked on a side street outside an elementary school. An ideal starting point, I thought, for finding the history behind the Western myth.
It was late in May when the half-dozen riders on the Thompson expedition broke away from Powell’s main group in Kanab, leading a train of pack mules and a wagon. They descended “gullies and gulches barren and dry,” as Dellenbaugh wrote in “A Canyon Voyage,” past the grave of a Mormon boy whose bones had been scattered by wolves. “The broken country was a bewildering sight,” Dellenbaugh found at one point, “especially as the night enveloped it, deepening the mystery of its gorges and cliffs.”
I set off on the same spectacular route, now Route 89, entering a terrain that seems to obey no existing rules of geology. North of Kanab, the horizon expands to reveal a series of plateaus, bone-white to chocolate, gray, coral pink and Pompeian red. The combination creates the illusion that the earth is rising in titanic steps — hence the name, Grand Staircase.
But despite the grandeur, it required a touch of effort at first to recapture the Gilded Age ambience. I pulled in for the night at Bryce Canyon National Park, where hundreds of stone fingers, called hoodoos, rise out of the depths. Dellenbaugh had gaped at their eerie shapes from a lonely camp on the southern rim of Bryce Canyon, but today, it’s the only place on his 1872 route where tour buses are in evidence.
To avoid the crush, I rose at 4.30 a.m. in the log Bryce Canyon Lodge (quite coincidentally, in the Powell Room) and stumbled downstairs in the dark. The elderly security guard apologized that there was no coffee.
“But you could go out and see the meteor storm,” he said. “I been watching it all night.”
Sure enough, lights were trailing across the desert sky as I drove to the canyon amphitheater. Than, as the sky paled, I followed the Navajo Trail into a silent forest of hoodoos, blissfully alone. I felt as if I was wandering through an abandoned Anasazi city, creeping under natural portals and along tight stone alleys — until I was snapped from my reverie by the sound of cracking twigs behind me, still unexplained. I envisioned a headline: “Foolhardy Traveler Devoured by Mountain Lions.”
Driving east from Bryce Canyon, it was far easier to envision Dellenbaugh and company traipsing through the “tangled sandstone labyrinth,” their horses picking their way carefully down steep, slippery switchbacks. Route 12, one of the most dramatic roads in the United States, is carved through the enormous Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which covers 1.9 million acres, an area slightly larger than Delaware.Driving it, the year 1872 felt closer by the mile. The crowds evaporated. Towns looked abandoned, the doors of sun-bleached frontier houses flapping in the wind. Even gas stations became rare.
Out there, you get your travel info where you can. In the ghostly hamlet of Escalante, where Dellenbaugh’s party once also camped, a ranger gave me a 10-day permit to pitch my tent pretty well anywhere I wanted within those 1.9 million acres.
Even more inspiring was the town’s information office: an 1880 Mormon pioneer cabin, staffed by a 70-something retired wrangler, Arnold Alvey (“Horse Breeding and Training” read his card), and his wife, Dion. After they heartily denounced President Bill Clinton for handing such a vast area of land to federal control in 1996 (I haven’t been back to see how they feel about the likely wilderness-preservation policies of the Obama administration), Mr. Arnold recommended that I make haste to camp at a little place called Calf Creek.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said, “but you can see it from there.”
One of the charming things about “A Canyon Journey” is how Dellenbaugh revels in this desert’s unexpected slivers of paradise, rare gullies that contain water and shade. (Of one such leafy oasis, he wrote, “In gratitude we called the stream Pleasant Creek without an attempt at originality.”) Calf Creek must have been one of them.
Like a sun-struck armadillo, I crawled in my dust-encrusted Suzuki into that cool crevice. Shaded tent sites were laid out along a crystalline stream where trout darted over smooth pebbles; the air itself smelled of cool stone.
The next morning, I set out in search of a waterfall said to be upriver. I followed the creek for three miles, passing ocher pictographs painted by the Fremont Indians and the remains of their stone granaries; this lush green refuge had teemed with people around the time of the First Crusade.
At last, I found myself at the base of a 126-foot-high cascade with a circular pool surrounded by ferns and graced by a pristine gold-sand beach — paradise itself.
Stripping down, I threw myself in the water, registered its near-freezing temperature and leaped straight back out. From then on, I simply lounged in the sun, gently sprayed by waterfall mist. I tried to imagine all those summer travelers jostling through Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, only a Western-size stone’s throw away. Right now, I was fine with my own private park.
East of Calf Creek, the landscape becomes even more strange and unearthly. The Creator was having fun out there. Canyons yawn. Arches sprout from nowhere, not to mention spires, buttes, towers and pinnacles. The earth erupts and convulses. There are raw desert lookouts where not one single man-made light distracts from the stars.
No wonder local T-shirts read “Utah Rocks!”
At this stage of his journey, Dellenbaugh seems to have been too concerned about being lost to recall the scenery with lyrical flourishes. The Thompson expedition had to navigate a way through the 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, a bewildering formation where the planet’s crust is ripped open and rears from the desert like the spine of an enraged stegosaurus. Today, this is Capitol Reef National Park; its regal name comes from one of the rounder protrusions, which resembles the dome of the United States Capitol.
Even more daunting in 1872 were the Unknown Mountains — now known as the Henrys — which resemble enormous shark fins.
At last, the dust-caked explorers found a lookout above the Colorado River. “The view from our camp was extensive and magnificent,” Dellenbaugh wrote, “the whole Dirty Devil region lying open, like a book, below us.”
And Dellenbaugh recalled, self-deprecatingly, “We had at last traversed from the unknown to the unknown, and felt well satisfied with our success.” In fact, several professionally trained surveyors had tried to find a route there and failed.
As for me, I arrived at the side of a road and realized I was at the same 1,000-foot precipice. It’s still a breathtaking view, even though the mighty Colorado River was tamed by the Glen Canyon Dam in 1966, and the river’s water level has risen to fill the canyon and become the turquoise Lake Powell.
From there, Dellenbaugh and his party rejoined Powell, boating in the Grand Canyon rapids and then returning to Kanab for a second winter to draw the survey map. In early 1873, Dellenbaugh sealed this precious document into a long metal tube and rode with it through blizzards to Salt Lake City, where it was rushed by rail to Washington. Later in his life, as an accomplished artist, Dellenbaugh would return to the Southwest regularly to paint.
I HAD one last step to make in my own journey. When I got back to New York, I hopped the subway to the Upper East Side to the Explorers Club. In the 1920s, it became Dellenbaugh’s home away from home, and I wondered if it still held any of his artifacts.
Entering those slightly forbidding stone ramparts, I made my way past the stuffed polar bear on the second floor to the club’s library. The archivist, Dorthea Sartain, unearthed for me a few of Dellenbaugh’s handwritten letters, along with some faded photographic portraits of him as a wizened, balding man with a handlebar moustache, wearing a neat tweed suit.
Ever the volunteer, Dellenbaugh designed the Explorers Club flag, which is still in use: red and blue separated by a white diagonal and the motif based on a compass. His hand-stitched prototype was framed on one wall. Copies have been taken up Mount Everest, into the Amazon and Congo. A pocket version was carried on the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Was there anything else of Dellenbaugh’s, I wondered?
“Well, the catalog says we have one of his paintings,” Ms. Sartain said hesitantly. “If I can find it.”
We went into the club’s storeroom. It was an oversize cupboard crowded with dusty relics, including a stuffed armadillo and a bust of Admiral Peary’s Eskimo guide. Climbing onto a ledge, she soon passed me down a tiny canvas of a desert landscape. The colors were murky with age, but I could clearly make out the name of the artist.
I wish I could say the painting immortalized the remote wonders of the Escalante River, Capitol Reef or Calf Creek, but it didn’t. It was a view of the Grand Canyon.
Even Fred Dellenbaugh, it seemed, joined the throngs sometimes.
A STILL WILD WEST
HOW TO GET THERE
WHERE TO STAY
Since the 1930s, when Kanab became known as Little Hollywood, the place to stay has been Parry Lodge (89 East Center Street; 888-289-1722; www.parrylodge.com). It has 89 rooms (rates start at $62), including seven comfortable, retro-chic suites with kitchenettes. Western films that were made in the area are shown in the old barn on summer evenings; I caught Jack Nicholson’s little-known 1965 performance in “Ride in the Whirlwind.”
At the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge (888-297-2757; www.brycecanyonlodge.com), which is open April through October, doubles start at $130. Although the rooms are rather charmless, the antique log main building, which has four of the 114 rooms, itself is wonderful and the location unbeatable.
Beyond Bryce, cheap motels predominate. The great exception is the Lodge at Red River Ranch (800-205-6343; www.redriverranch.com) near Torrey, at the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. It is a lavishly decorated old-style Western lodge on 2,500 acres, with gorgeous views over blood-red bluffs and 15 rooms from $160.
WHERE TO EAT
You may have to search, but a surprising number of decent restaurants are hidden away in southern Utah. In Kanab, the Rocking V Cafe (97 West Center Street; 435-644-8001; www.rockingvcafe.com) is a bistro and art gallery where the eclectic menu includes Thai curry and garlic lemon shrimp (around $80 for two, including wine). On weekend nights, you actually need a reservation.
In Torrey, the garden tables at the Cafe Diablo (599 West Main Street; 435-425-3070; www.cafediablo.net) provide a pleasant setting for the upscale Southwestern cuisine (about $80 for two, with drinks).
Even the one-horse town of Escalante has an improbably excellent, if very casual, dining option: the cafe inside Escalante Outfitters (310 West Main Street; 435-826-4266; www.escalanteoutfitters.com) has good pizza ($12.50 to $20), salads and (believe it or not) cappuccinos, plus cold beer on tap. The company offers guided fly-fishing trips and rents mountain bikes ($35 a day).
WHAT TO DO
Just north of Kanab in Mount Carmel, the Maynard Dixon Home and Studio was the summer residence of the painter (Mile Marker 84, Highway 89; (435) 648-2653; www.thunderbirdfoundation.com). Built in 1938, it is a beautiful, shady residence that still includes the darkroom used by Ansel Adams when he was a houseguest. Self-guided tours cost $10; a formal tour is $20.
For a relatively easy taste of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, drive the unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the Devil’s Garden, where eerie rock formations sculptured by the wind protrude from the desert. The latest hiking conditions in Dry Fork Coyote Gulch can be found at the Escalante Visitor Center (435-826-5499; www.ut.blm.gov/monument). Even if you don’t stay at Calf Creek campground, take the lovely creekside hike to the lower waterfall (a brochure is available for self-guided walks; five and a half miles round trip, three to four hours). The campground at Calf Creek Recreation Center operates on a first-come-first-served basis; campers leave $5 in a box for the caretaker.In Capitol Reef National Park (435-425-3791; www.nps.gov/care; entry, $5 a vehicle), take the hourlong Scenic Drive to Capitol Gorge and hike in to the narrow canyon; the graffiti of Mormon pioneers from the 1880s can still be seen scrawled on the walls. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid chose to hide out around these wild, inhospitable corners of Utah, and after a few days in the area you can understand why.