National Geographic : 1955 Sep
Escalante: Utah's River of Arches 399 A Pack Trip Through Little-known Canyons of the Western United States Reveals Spectacular Formations Carved by Frost, Wind, and Water BY W. ROBERT MOORE National Geographic Magazine Staff With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author BRILLIANT sandstone cliffs wheeled past the window of our banking plane like a color movie film that had suddenly jumped its sprockets. The scene straightened again and our vision settled on a wide arched window in a sheer cliff. Again and again we repeated the performance and each time saw another arch or natural bridge. Skillfully Harlon W. Bement, Director of the Utah State Aeronautics Commission, ma neuvered his small plane over the red land scape so we could look into the deep, twisting canyons of the lower Escalante River in south ern Utah. We were only a few miles north of the junction of the Escalante with the sweep ing Colorado (map, page 401).* During our flight over the river and its side canyons-Coyote, Willow, Soda, and Davis Gulches-we saw eight natural arches and bridges hewn by frost, water, and wind in the flaming Navajo sandstone. Flying alone earlier in the year, Bement had spotted one of the arches. Later he had gone back to explore the area more carefully and had located the others. "No one in Salt Lake City quite believed me when I told about the arches," he said. "Only Burnett Hendryx and a few persons in Escalante seemed to know anything about them. That's why I wrote to the National Geographic Society." Plane Flight Inspires Canyon Trek Now Hendryx, who manages the Cameron Hotel in Panguitch, Utah, Dr. Arthur Craw ford, of the Utah Geological and Mineralogi cal Survey, University of Utah, and I were flying with Bement to photograph these for mations from the air. Later we would make a pack trip to examine them at close range. It is understandable that few persons other than the cattlemen who have pastured herds along the Escalante know anything about the river or its natural arches. The canyons are accessible only on horseback or afoot. The nearest town is Escalante, 45 miles away. To picture the Escalante River from the air, loosely interlock your fingers and look at the backs of your hands. Like the curv ing line made by your joined fingers, the stream twists and turns snakelike through the eroded Navajo sandstone (page 402). The river threads a harsh land, a wilderness of eroded slickrock and patches of sandy des ert where little more than scrub brush and prickly pear thrive. It is one of the emptiest places in all Utah. Among the few trees are cottonwoods, alders, and scrub oaks in canyon bottoms. Desert Trip Begins in Rain "You can expect perfect weather in Sep tember-clear blue skies with perhaps a few Kodachrome clouds," Burnett Hendryx had said when we arranged our pack trip into the Escalante. Yet on the mid-September morning when we drove east from Panguitch, the wipers on our jeep station wagon strove vainly to brush away the rain. "It won't last long," Burnett said reassur ingly. "It seldom does." But rain blurred the landscape as we passed the fantastically eroded cliffs of Bryce Canyon National Park. It continued to rain while we ate lunch in Escalante, and skies still dripped as we headed south. "Too bad we made a mistake and thought this was sunny September," my son Bob commented. A few miles on, three feet of muddy water surged through Harris Wash, which nor mally is only a gravelly streak across the desert. We looked discouraged, but Burnett smiled. "It will clear," he said. I cocked an eye at the scudding clouds and thought of flash floods and hidden quick sands in the narrow canyons. * See "First Motor Sortie into Escalante Land," by Jack Breed, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1949.