Southwest Adventure Part 4: Kodachrome & Grand Staircase Escalante



Photo: Cottonwood Canyon Road, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

This is Part 4 of a planned 10 part series covering our U.S. National Park adventure across Utah, Northern Arizona, and Western Colorado. We will spend one whirlwind week traversing 1500 miles, exploring the natural wonders of each park and the surrounding cities. Our travels will take us on a zigzagged route across the southwest from Las Vegas airport to Salt Lake City. In Part 4, we'll travel to Kodachrome Basin State Park to hike the scenic Angel's Palace Trail. After that, we'll take Cottonwood Canyon Road, traversing the bumpy terrain through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, en route to Page, AZ. Along the way, we'll admire the expansive Grosvenor Arch, take in the ever-changing roadside scenery, and get an up-close look at 200 million years of geology at work.


As we exit the gates of Bryce Canyon, we turn toward our next adventure, the nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park. Kodachrome is only about a 35 minute drive from Bryce, so the ride is a relatively quick one. The general area the park now resides in was originally nicknamed Kodachrome by the National Geographic Society during an expedition in 1948, after Kodak's color film. When it became a State Park, Kodak eventually gave permission for the site to officially retain the brand's name.


Kodachrome is located off of a paved section of Cottonwood Canyon Road. Cottonwood Canyon Road is a 47 mile long, mostly dirt, thoroughfare running through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument from Cannonville, UT to Highway 89, near the Utah-Arizona border. Since the first section leading to Kodachrome is paved, I have no concerns about getting to the State Park. However, navigating the road after that point can be a bit precarious depending on the terrain's condition. I have done quite a bit of research on the road and really want to attempt the drive as long as conditions are favorably. It's the perfect scenic route to Page, AZ (our next destination), and I'd love to get a closer look at Grand-Staircase Escalante.


The rugged road's condition* can vary rather dramatically depending upon the recent weather. So, we try to stop at the Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor Center in Cannonville, en route, to get the latest road report. Unfortunately, when we arrive, we discover that the Center is not open today. I have printed a good map from the Bureau of Land Management's site and checked the latest road conditions online, though, and everything seems favorable. There hasn't been any recent rain, and the forecast for today is completely dry. So, we decide we will proceed--with caution.


*Safety Tip: The Cottonwood Canyon Road drive can be done in any season if conditions have been dry for several days, but if wet, the road can become impassible no matter the type of vehicle. We had an SUV, and we struggled in several places, particularly on steep inclines. Always check road conditions before attempting the drive; sections of the road can wash out in bad weather, and even on a dry day, there were some very deep puddles that were difficult to navigate. Cell phone service is non-existent, and we only passed three other cars on the road the entire time. Bring plenty of water with you just in case. Getting help if something happens could be a challenge here.

The paved portion of Cottonwood Canyon Road begins off of Highway 12 in Cannonville. It's not far to Kodachrome; we encounter the turnoff for the State Park about 12 minutes into our drive. Kodachrome sits at an elevation of approximately 5,800 feet. The park's elevation is a breath of fresh air after the 9,000 feet we were at an hour ago. However, the one negative of our descent is the significant increase in temperature.


It's early afternoon, the sun high in the sky, and the car thermometer reads 91 degrees Fahrenheit. It's a dry heat, but any way you look at it, this is hot! In temperatures like this, we have to be very careful hiking. We have plenty of water in our hydration packs*, breathable clothing, sunscreen, and brimmed hats. With the current heat wave going on in the Southwest in mind, I've selected a short, east to moderately rated trail for our visit today.


*Safety Tip: A hydration pack is key to hiking in the heat; we each brought a hydration backpack with a 2L water bladder. They were comfortable, adjustable, lightweight, and had just enough space in the compartments for what we needed throughout the day (snacks, headlamps, walking sticks, money, extra memory cards, etc.). The 2L size worked well for us, but keep in mind that you should calculate for roughly 1/2 of a liter of water per hour for normal hiking conditions. However, when hiking in extreme heat and/or high altitude, you should increase that amount to as much as double the recommendation. For more information on what to pack and safety gear, see the Part 1: Planning and Preparing "Preparing for Your Trip" section.

Photo: Angel's Palace Trail

My plan is to do the Angel's Palace Trail*. It's a 1.5 mile, 45 minute hike--which I'm sure will be plenty enough in this weather, but hopefully not too much. The trail provides panoramic views of the Kodachrome Basin and is supposed to be good for photography. I'm fairly confident that any trail overlooking an area named for Kodak will have an abundance of photography worthy vistas.


*Note: If you have more time (and cooler weather), there are several other good trails here. The Shakespeare Arch and Sentinel Trail is a 1.4 mile (1 hour) moderate loop (note: Shakespeare Arch is no longer standing). The hike has some good panoramic views from the Slickrock Cutoff part of the trail. For a longer trail, the aptly named Panorama Trail is 5.3 miles (2.5-3 hours), easy to moderate, and provides some of the park's most unique vistas. It's another good choice for photographers.

We pass through the park's entrance* and pay the $10 fee, since our Annual National Park Pass will not work at a state-run facility. We are handed a map and guide from the manned booth and continue along the main park road. The Angel's Palace Trail begins one mile north of the Visitor Center; so we don't have far to go. We park in the lot across the road from the trail and get our hiking equipment together before crossing the street to the trailhead.


*Safety Tip: Cell phones do not work inside the park; plan accordingly. Always assume you will not be able to phone for help.

The Angel's Palace Trail is an up and back path with a linked-loop shaped section in the middle that is situated at the top of a butte. The majority of the hike's elevation gain takes place in the first quarter mile (and subsequently, the last quarter mile, is the majority of the elevation loss as you retrace your steps back down). The trail starts from a half-bowl shaped depression below a butte. It's a bit of a steep ascent, but at the top, the hike levels out.


We quickly discover that the trail offers no real shade, but it doesn't feel as brutal as I had feared. It is certainly hot, but it's bearable. We are very cognizant of ensuring we take a drink every few minutes, take it slow, and pay attention to how we're feeling. So far, so good.

Like Bryce, Kodachrome is a multicolored, rocky landscape, mostly the result of sandstone and oxidized iron deposits. Shale, quartz, and clay also contribute to the contrasting burnt siennas and creamy beiges painting the panoramas surrounding us. The park definitely lives up to its famous moniker. The Angel's Palace Trail features several especially scenic overlooks that spur off from the main loop, but we're not overly keen on heights with steep drop-offs; so, we stick to the wider paths and skip the narrow ones that look a bit precarious.

As we continue along the trail*, we begin to find the path more difficult to follow. There are relatively few markers, and much of the trail is just a worn track in the slickrock. We lose our way** a few times and have varying levels of success in picking the correct path back up again. I know the general direction from which we came and am fairly certain we can backtrack if necessary, but even getting lost for a few minutes here makes me slightly nervous given the temperatures today. We have an ample water supply for the hike but not an unlimited one. Luckily, each time we lose our way a bit, we manage to pick the trail back up again.


*Safety Tip: Poisonous snakes, scorpions, and spiders can all be found in the park. Do not place your hands anywhere you do not look first, particularly in rocky crevices or under vegetation. Watch for snakes on the trails and roads, as well.


**Note: Stay on trails at all times, but if you find yourself lost or off of a trail for whatever reason, stick to the bare rock and wash areas. The cryptobiotic crust that develops in arid soil is extremely important to preventing erosion, providing nutrients to plants, and holding in moisture. One wrong step on the fragile soil can take decades to reverse the damage.

While a good bit of the trail is flat, there are definitely some steeper grades in parts. If the Angel's Palace Trail rating is straddling easy and moderate, I'm leaning more toward moderate based on these sections of the terrain. The areas of elevation change are a bit more difficult to traverse than one would anticipate on an easy rated trail. I'm extremely thankful to have my hiking stick* in a few places, particular on the initial ascent and subsequent descent at the beginning and end of the trail. The aptly named slickrock can be quite slippery. At one point along the route, I have to climb up a good-sized "step" for someone my height, needing to put my gear above me before pulling myself up. Definitely a bit of a challenge for an "easy" hike. That being said, I would say the trek is more than manageable for most able-bodied hikers.


*Tip: A collapsible walking stick is a cheap, extremely useful investment for hiking. I highly recommend purchasing one. For hiking attire and accessory recommendations, see the Part 1: Planning and Preparing "What to Pack" section.

Luckily, given the temperatures, the time it takes us to complete the hike is relatively short, and it's more of a navigational challenge than a physically exerting one. Soon enough, we're headed back down to the very welcomed air conditioning of our rental car. On our way out of Kodachrome, we catch a few more of its famed, chromatic rock formations in the distance. With more time (and cooler temperatures), I would definitely give some of the other recommended hikes here a try*. However, we're on to our next adventure--the rugged Cottonwood Canyon Road.


*Tip: Kodachrome also offers horseback riding through Red Canyon Trail Rides. You can find more information here.

We're treating Cottonwood Canyon Road* as a sort of scenic (not so short) shortcut to Page, Arizona--our next destination. The road runs directly through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The site is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Grand Staircase-Escalante is the largest National Monument managed by the BLM, spanning 1.87 million acres. The area isn't manned the same way most National Parks are, so there's no "entrance" to pass through per se, but the site is marked with a sign.


As long as the conditions are favorable, the 47 mile road takes about 2 hours to traverse, including a few short stop-offs along the way. Since all condition reports we've been able to access say the road is passable, we head onto the dirt track. I'm a bit trepidatious but excited to check it out.


*Tip: Cell phone service is non-existent along this route. A real GPS is highly recommended. Without one, we had a tough time figuring out where on the road we were unless we encountered a major landmark. We finally started tracking our distances via the car's mileage.

The road is fairly rutted, and we bounce along at a relatively slow pace. This is definitely not going to be a fast drive. We have an SUV, but even in dry conditions, we have to navigate around some rather deep puddles in the road at a few points. My husband is a little concerned by the road's condition, and when I inform him we will be on it for 47 miles, he nearly turns around. However, he is convinced to continue on--at least for a little while--since I inform him that Grovesnor Arch is up ahead.

Grosvenor Arch* is giant sandstone arch situated 16 miles south of Cannonville. It is a few minutes drive to the viewpoint parking lot from Cottonwood Canyon Road. There is a (surprisingly) paved trail leading the short distance to the arch from the parking area. The arch is just visible from the parking lot, but getting up closer, it's rather immense, and we can see that it actually consists of two arches--a larger and smaller side-by-side. The National Geographic Society also named this place during their expedition apparently; it's named for their founder, Dr. Gilbert Grosvenor.


**Tip: The turnoff from Cottonwood Canyon Road for Grosvenor Arch is Last Chance Creek; there are restrooms located in the viewpoint parking lot. The GPS Coordinates for Grosvenor Arch are (37.457369, -111.825872).

Photo: Grosvenor Arch

We only encounter one other car in the Grovesnor Arch parking lot--a high clearance pickup truck. It's actually the first car we've seen at all along our route. I look enviously at their very sturdy 4x4 vehicle and debate the wisdom of continuing on, but my husband, using one of his favorite catchphrases, says we're pot committed at this point. So, we continue south.

The pickup is one of only three cars we encounter during the entirety of our journey down Cottonwood Canyon Road. We are definitely on our own out here! I've read the landscape is ever-changing and can be quite colorful in spots, but the section we encounter after Grosvenor Arch doesn't initially come through on that promise. It feels more like the surface of the moon than a kaleidoscope. It's interesting to view but not what I would define as scenic. However, the next section comes through with flying colors.

Grand Staircase Escalante displays 200 million years of the Earth's geological history via its exposed rock formations. We are literally traversing history. You can find pretty much every era of geology on display in some part of the National Monument. This opportunity to experience a history lesson firsthand is somewhat of a consolation as our car fishtails on the loose road's steeper inclines, and we hold our breath, hoping we don't get stuck in a few, less compact, places. The gravely road is definitely hard to gain traction on at times, and several areas along the track look prone to rockfall, which doesn't exactly help me to relax. Luckily, taking in the ever-changing landscape along the route of this one-of-a-kind geological wonder serves as a significant distraction!

As we inch southward, getting closer to the road's Highway 89 connection, though, we begin to relax a bit. It seems more likely that we would encounter help here than on previous portions of the drive if needed, and the road is a bit better maintained, as well. Overall, we're happy to have found Cottonwood Canyon Road fairly dry and in decent condition, but I don't know if I would rush to repeat the trip again, even in dry weather--at least not without a more sturdy vehicle than our rental car. The people with the pickup truck near Grosvenor Arch had the right idea!

The stark landscapes along this portion of our drive are beautiful and otherworldly, varying from Lunar to Martian and back again. Periodically, a little vegetation breaks up the desert-like atmosphere. However, for the most part, rocks are more likely to add colorful splotches to the landscape than greenery.

When we finally hit the junction with Highway 89, with a fairly large sigh of relief, my husband says that the drive could definitely have been worse. With it now behind us, it doesn't seem so bad. We certainly aren't feeling any impulse to turn around and repeat the experience, though! It feels odd to be back on pavement with double yellow lines. From here, it's only a 30 minute drive to Page, AZ. We settle in for the much quicker last leg of our journey. The smooth ride is a pleasant change--if less eventful and picturesque. We will have plenty of scenic vistas to explore once we get to Page!


Click Here To Read Part 5: Page, Arizona (Glen Canyon & Horseshoe Bend + Antelope Canyon Tips)



Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

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