Amina and I left Zion before sunrise. Driving through the park, the majestic cliffs were hidden in the darkness, and the two-lane road seemed almost like any other. We turned left onto Route 89 just as dawn was breaking. Soon after, I slammed on the brakes and yelled, “Buffalo!” at a startled Amina. Indeed, a herd of juvenile bison were corralled next to the road, frolicking in the day’s first light. I wanted to get out of the car and pass them, but a tractor was driving down the road and I didn’t want to upset a farmer. Besides, bison aren’t really petting animals.
We started driving again, but made it only a hundred feet or so before I had to stop the car again to look at the sunrise.
That was just one of the wonderful sights of the morning. Every few miles the landscape seemed to improve: majestic mesas reflecting the morning light, deer bounding through groves of pine trees, a bald eagle.
Our plan for the day was to hike in the Paria Canyon- Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area, but trail information was scant on the internet, so we made a stop in Kanab, Utah to see if the folks at the visitors’ center could help us out. The man working there should be the face of Utah: cowboy hat, white bushy mustache, and a large turquoise bolo-tie. He had maps galore, and gave us detailed directions to the trail we were hoping to hike. We thought we had everything we needed and were about to leave when he said, “You know, while you’re out that way, you might check out this other little hike.” He walked to a carousel of brochures and pulled one out. “Toadstools,” he said. “They’re about a mile and a half off the road, worth a visit.”
Amina and I took the brochure, thanked him profusely, and took off.
Forty-five minutes later we found the trailhead for The Toadstool Hoodoos. We were the first ones there, a lone car in a vast expanse of desert split by a two-lane highway. I imagine this is a brutal place to be in the summer with its scant shade and sandy cover, but in December it was perfectly pleasant.
The trail out was easy enough, and in 20 minutes or so we found ourselves facing some pretty cool rock formations.
We explored for a bit, admiring the sheer dramatic cliffs, sweeping vistas, and the odd, towering toadstools.
Amina amid the toadstools
We could have spent hours there wandering around, but we were eager to get to the Paria and see the slot canyons.
The most famous formation in the Paria Wilderness Area is The Wave, a spectacular, undulating sandstone rock formation. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the area is tightly controlled and only 20 permits a day are granted for hikers to access the area. Not wanting to waste a day trying to get a permit (you have to visit the Bureau of Land Management office in person to enter the lottery), we didn’t even try and see the Wave. Instead, we headed to Wire Pass, a narrow slot canyon that stretches across the Utah desert.
The trail was eight miles down an unmarked dirt road that we very nearly drove past. We didn’t see another car the whole time, and there were just a few cars in the parking lot when we arrived; a big difference after Zion.
The entrance to Wire Pass was two miles away, an easy walk in the winter, but likely a lot harder when the sun is blazing. Entering, I was struck by the way the light hit the walls, illuminating the red.
The path was only wide enough for one person, and I was grateful there was no chance of rain. Walking through here and having the canyon start to fill seems like it would be harrowing.
We didn’t make it very far before we reached a boulder blocking the path. On the other side was an eight-foot drop. Amina and I figured that we must have entered the canyon the wrong way and turned around to try and find another entrance. We wandered for the next two hours, and very nearly gave up. Finally, we met some hikers who explained how to climb down the boulder so we could continue on.
By the time we reached the slot canyon for a second try daylight was getting short. We figured we’d walk for 45 minutes and then turn around.
After wandering through the narrows, the whole canyon opened up; we’d reached the junction with Buckskin Gulch, which stretches east for another 15 miles.
A BLM employee we met at the trailhead had cryptically told us there were petroglyphs in the area where the two canyons met up, but the area was vast, with 100 foot canyon walls on all sides. We looked a bit, but couldn’t find them and continued on our way. On the way back through, I finally spotted them.
The explanatory display at the trailhead called these “text messages for cavemen.” It was pretty amazing to see they had withstood the test of time.
I would have loved to wander more, but we didn’t want to end up in the slot canyon after dark, and it was a two hour drive to our hotel for the night. Also, between the toadstools and the getting “lost,” we’d walked more than 13 miles that day. It was time to call it quits. We headed back to the car, and into the sunset.