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Hole in the Rock Road

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State Parks

The Hole-in-the-Rock Road is a 55.5-mile road that runs southeast from an area near the town of Escalante to a narrow crevice—or hole in the rock—within the western rim of Glen Canyon. The crevice is an exciting passageway to the Colorado River and terminates at Lake Powell, which now submerges the last 300 feet of the original road. The road is within the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the neighboring Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and was formed in 1879 by the Mormon San Juan Expedition. The expedition—consisting of 250 people, 83 full-sized wagons, and over 1000 head of livestock—was seeking to colonize the southeast corner of Utah. The route they chose—today the Hole-in-the-Rock Road—was the shortest of three possible routes leading to their destination.

Though their route was initially benign, it eventually led them to the 1200-foot sandstone cliffs of the Glen Canyon. In an attempt to cross the rim of the canyon, they discovered a hole in the rock, or a steep crevice that served as the only breach in the canyon walls. Though it seemed an impassable barrier, six weeks of labor then ensued in an effort to safely move the expedition to the other side of the canyon. In order to traverse the steep—as high as 45-degree—slopes, the expedition used blasting powder to widen the upper section and hand chisels to carve anchor points into the rock. Finally, on January 26, 1880, the expedition passed safely through the canyon to the other side.

Hole-in-the-Rock Road begins as an unpaved road 4.5 miles east of Escalante on UT 12. Most of the road, though steep in some parts, is navigable for most cars up to mile 38. After this, the terrain gets trickier and includes six steep dry wash crossings, though it is still passable for many vehicles. After the last crossing at about mile 52, the Davis Gulch crossing, the road is traversable for 4x4- and high-clearance vehicles only. At the end of the road, there is a parking area and trailhead sign that mark the beginning of a short hike to the top of Hole-in-the-Rock.

Many attractions lie alongside the road today, making it an interesting tourist destination. To begin with, Hole-in-the-Rock Road serves as an access point for several trailheads, including Harris Wash, Egypt Bench, and Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch. Of particular note along the road are Devil’s Garden and Dance Hall Rock. Devil’s Garden is located about 16.5 miles from UT 12 at about mile 12 along Hole-in-the-Rock Road. It is a glamorous collection of large, eroded rock formations. It includes a picnic area, a short loop path, and two exciting arches. Dance Hall Rock is located at approximately mile 37 along Hole-in-the-Rock Road and boasts long stretches of striated, undulating rock mounds that include small cliffs, ravines, pools, and overhangs. Several of the overhangs served as shelter for the original 1879 expedition.

In addition to these attractions, the Kaiparowits Plateau runs parallel to Hole-in-the-Rock Road. This plateau, like the road, extends nearly 50 miles from the Escalante area to nearly the Colorado River and is a large portion of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It is a large plateau covering approximately 1650 square miles and is covered with pinyon pines and junipers. Its sandstone layers house several unique fossil remains that have contributed crucial information to understanding the evolution of dinosaurs. These remains include details as fine as dinosaur teeth and eggshells. In fact, a new dinosaur species, Gryposaurus, was discovered as late as 2007 in the plateau layers.

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We were determined to head to roads and trails less traveled in search of the Golden Cathedral. We knew it would be a tough hike, but doable. We stopped at the National Parks interagency office in Escalante, there was no pamphlet for this hike, I took a photo of the only “map” they had. The Park ranger was more concerned about our vehicle getting to the trailhead than us being lost in the unforgiving desert. The road turned quickly from washboard dirt and rock to “are we sure this is a road?”...good thing Randall was driving, though there were moments we both had our heads out of the windows looking for the best way through. We made it, and there were at least a dozen other vehicles already there, so we weren’t totally alone. There was a trailhead and nothing else...no pathways, no signs, just looking down from the top of a plateau into endless orange. After a few head scratches we decided to follow some relatively fresh tracks...we’d give it a try for a few minutes. After the initial decent into the canyon, we turned around to see where we had come from, for reference...not that it helped, everything looked the same. We started spotting little stacks of rocks, which we knew were a form of trail marking, even though the park ranger informed us this was an unmarked trail. Someone had left breadcrumbs... We continued down finding awe inspiring caves and slots. We got closer and closer to the canyon floor, running into a few hikers coming back out with no success. We kept going. We wanted to get to the river and cool off. We got to the river and crossed, it was refreshingly cold and clear water. We crossed again, and again looking for the next marker...we couldn’t find it. We were at the bottom of the canyon in an oasis of life, the trees blocking any visual of above. We were going in circles and knew it was time to make our way back up instead of continuing in search of the cathedral, we only had so many hours of daylight left. 12 miles later, we climbed out of the canyon...disappointed, but relieved. It was beautiful. We gobbled pop tarts as fast as we could, and Tatum was asleep before we could finish dumping sand out of our shoes.
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