Kaiparowits Obsession... you've been warned
A year ago, while camping and shimmying through the slot canyons southeast of Escalante, I couldn't help but notice the long, endless north-south cliffs to the west. I'd read about the Straight Cliffs in a couple books. About how difficult they are to ascend. About the ruggedness once on top. But I didn't give them much more attention and focused on the trip at hand and on others not yet begun.
Then one day, as I was browsing information on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) I read the words “last mapped area in the lower 48”. And thus began my innocent obsession with the Kaiparowits Plateau. If asked, Blake would likely say it was more akin to an addiction. For me, the thought of experiencing such a remote, largely untouched, and unpopulated land was irresistible.
I scoured the internet, going four and five results pages deep on every search. Finding little, aside that the Plateau is rich in fossils, accompanying coal, and was an intersection of several ancient tribes, I reached out to the area’s visitor centers with hopes of learning from folks who'd spent some time up there what there is to see. I found one - their backcountry ranger. In his two years on the job he'd traversed the Plateau but a couple of times. Understandably, he has other, greater priorities.
I pressed on with a determination to glean any possible tidbit of knowledge from professional guides out of Escalante, the Monument’s lead paleontologist, an archeologist who'd been involved in the Plateau’s first excavation, and a staffer with SUWA. The conversations with all these kind and generous folks yielded far less than I had hoped in terms of “points of interest”.
Undeterred, I resorted to reading environmental impact statements (seriously dull); a book focused on the geology and fossils of the Plateau (very nicely written and fabulously illustrated, but yet not of great interest to me); a few university-generated archeological studies (often quite tedious); and papers written by proponents of the formation of and continued status of GSENM (aimed presumably at government officials).
With few “points of interest” and no trails to be hiked, we went ahead and devised a plan to check out the Plateau for ourselves. The phrase “the last mapped area” was far too tempting.
We drove up to Escalante to spend a few days hiking and sightseeing before moving on to Kaiparowits. Still trying to gain insight we asked rangers, guides and locals if they'd been on the Plateau. We got a few “yeses” and a lot of “nos”. Upon mentioning our interest in exploring it for ourselves, we would, without exception, get bewildered looks and a single word..."Why??".
Those who realized we were serious about our intent implored: It's stark. It's remote. You won't see another soul. There are no trails. The vegetation will shred your clothes as well as your flesh. Take lots of water. Do you have recovery gear? And, there are gnats.
A guy in a parking lot inquired about our rig and where we were headed. “Kaiparowits” we replied. As with all the others, his response wasn't “It's awesome up there. Have a great time!” Instead, as he was shaking his head, he shared he used to own and operate a tow truck. And that he'd used it aplenty up on the Plateau.
We had been warned. So, with a can of bug spray and 30 gallons of water onboard, we went.
What is the Kaiparowits Plateau anyway? Located north of Grand Canyon and south of Escalante, the Plateau is a series of red, white and pink cliffs stretching north to south. It is bound on the east by the Straight Cliffs and on the west by the Paria River. It's southern flank is deeply cut with canyons formed by tributaries of the Colorado River and overlooks Lake Powell. In all, the Plateau is about 1,650 square miles of ridges, benches, and canyons largely covered in sage, juniper, and pinyon pine. Due to its inaccessibility, it was the last mapped area, and perhaps the most remote place, in the contiguous United States
Kaiparowits, a Paiute word, variously translated as "home of the people", "mountain home of the people" or "Big Mountain’s Little Brother." I don't think the Paiute's gave the various canyons and mountains the many colorful names such as : Dirty Devil, Death Ridge, Carcass Canyon, Last Chance Gulch, Devils Pocket, Cads Crotch, The Bishop's Prick, Brigham's Unit, Queen Anne's Bottom, Nipple Butte, Nipple Bench, and Nipple Creek. Smokey Mountain Road, the one on which we primarily traveled, crosses the largest wilderness area in the lower 48. It has no permanent human residents. Only the occasional cow and hummingbird.
Smokey Mountain Road, begins (or ends) at Escalante and ends at Big Water. 78 miles in length, it ranges in elevation from 4500 to 6500 feet. Initially it is fairly smooth and runs over mostly packed sand, criss-crossing Alvey Wash several times. The road becomes progressively rough, especially upon reaching, and past, Last Chance Creek. The road would undoubtedly be a muddy mess, probably impassable, when wet. As it nears the southern end, the road smooths out again and a faster clip is possible. The last 5 miles are called the "Kelly Grade" and takes you 1200 feet down a steep, narrow, gravel road with many a blind, hairpin turns. But, the views from Kelly Grade are phenomenal!
There are numerous roads on the Plateau to drive, some more used (and in better shape) than others. Ruins, arches, rock writing, unusual rock formations, and smoking coal seams are there for the viewing. Endless canyons and ridges are available to be explored. There are no trails, nor signs, indicating where to go or what to see.
I'm still not sure what to think of Kaiparowits. It's difficult to adequately describe and I would be pressed, at present, to give a solid argument as to why it's worth a trip. Except that with the possible rescinding of 50% of GSENM it may be opened to coal development and, subsequently, no longer a vast, wild, remote place. That, and the phrase "last mapped area in the lower 48".
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.