Mountain Classroom was jam packed with adventure, grit, perseverance, and pretty views this week as we successfully hiked the 30 mile Boulder Mail Trail in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. There’s no doubt that this was a week of immense growth for not only our individual selves, but also our group as a whole.
We started our expedition with a 7:00 am wakeup at our campsite near downtown Escalante and soon enough, we were off. Upon arrival to the trailhead, the massive storm clouds that we saw looming over the horizon, were now quickly approaching. We threw on our rain gear because of course, it only rains when you don’t have your rain gear on. So it didn’t rain… it snowed! Soon enough we were on the trail enjoying the trees and bagging the miles. Mile eight was a long descent to the Escalante River with sweeping views of the canyon below. We’ve been able to see some pretty famous views this trip, but this was by far my favorite. Our campsite that night was one of the best yet, 300 ft volcanic rock cliffs hung over our heads and a river trickled at our feet. Our cooks, Baxter and Annie took advantage of some fresh spring water that was dripping out of the bedrock cliffs and used it to boil a delicious dinner of curried lentils. We snuggled up under the stars after a chilly evening meeting and hit the tarps for a hard night’s sleep.
The next morning was probably the coldest we had experienced yet. The sun doesn’t reach the bottom of the canyon until midday so we were all shivering whilst eating breakfast and packing up camp. Tyler led us in a super stretch and pump and then we hit the trail! Our first river crossing of the day proved to be a funny one- Luke’s wag-bag fell out of his backpack and was quickly floating away downstream. Being the committed man he is to leaving no trace, he sprinted down the river, grabbed it, and fell in somewhere along the way. We were all thankful for an early morning belly laugh and continued down the trail in high spirits. Soon after, we hiked through some poison ivy and then washed any exposed skin with “techno scrub” in the river. We were so dirty that it felt like a spa treatment and left our skin silky smooth. We then had to trek up out of the canyon, which was about an 1,000 ft vertical rise full of switchbacks that took us around 30 minutes. Not gonna lie, we killed it! We walked and walked for miles, had lunch, and walked even more. The surroundings were stunning, but the terrain was challenging.
Around 2:00 pm exhaustion really started to settle in amongst the group and according to our navigation, we were barely past half way. We trekked on and eventually hit some flat ground. With two miles left to go, the weather took a turn to everyone’s favorite forecast: a lovely wintery mix. We came to a cliff that overlooked downtown Escalante from above. It was such a tease as we still had two more days of hiking and knew we would eventually end up back in town. After a mile-long decent back down to the river, we found some flat ground and set up camp in the rain. Nate and Camden graciously prepared a well deserved pasta dinner while we all hunkered down under our tarps for a quick nap. We all stood in a circle and ate dinner while rainwater splashed in our bowls and soaked our warm layers. Bedtime approached earlier than usual and Camille and I snuggled up real close to keep warm.
Along with most of the group, I woke up the next morning with a wet tarp plastered on my face and sighed at the sound of more raindrops falling outside. Most of our sleeping bags were dripping wet when we climbed out of them. Luckily, the rain stopped just in time for us to enjoy a breakfast of powdered eggs, a first for many of us. In my opinion, aside from the grainy texture, they really weren’t bad! After a slow chilly morning we were stoked to get back on the trail and warm up. I was the day's navigator which meant I was in charge of carrying the maps and compasses as well as being completely responsible for leading the pack and keeping us on the right trail. I was happy that we were hiking along the Escalante River all day which made navigation simple. After the previous day's difficulties, we were all overly joyful at the sight of flat dirt trails. By lunch time we had already traveled eight miles, our group's record! We were all feeling amped and collectively decided to hike another four miles to the next campsite. The post lunch terrain was nothing like the morning’s. Beavers had completely taken over the area and cut down tons of trees and brush blocking any direct route of trail. As navigator, I eventually made the call to just wade through the river, which meant completely soaking our hiking boots. It ended up being a total hoot as we climbed over beaver dams and watched huge schools of fish swim by our ankles at lightning speed. In some places the river was waist deep, which was an unlucky situation for those of us wearing pants. The boys made up funny songs about beavers and we all chuckled. Within no time at all we found ourselves looking up at a huge red rock arch carved out of a cliff. Annie, who was the leader of the day, and I decided to set up camp right below it. We were all excited to dry out our wet clothes and sleeping bags so we threw them over tree branches all over camp. It looked like a mess but it got the job done. Dinner was as delicious as always and was followed by evening meeting under a crescent moon and shooting stars.
Burrrrr! Our last morning in the backcountry was freezing. Camille and Luke made us a hearty breakfast of oatmeal. Tyler and I froze our fingers off doing the dishes as we scrubbed the pots and pans with pine needles, a consequence of forgetting the sponges. We all struggled to put our hiking boots on as they froze overnight when we were trying to dry them out from yesterday's river adventures. We waved goodbye to the arch and hiked a ways down the trail with numb toes until we came across an ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling in the canyon wall. We dropped our packs and hiked up to the base of it to get a closer look. Petroglyphs and pictographs were scattered around the area and we got a little creative when interpreting what we thought they meant. After lots of “oohs,” “ahhhs,” and “dang this is so cool,” we strapped our packs once again and charged to the trailhead. Because we had hiked twelve miles the day before, we only had a two mile jog to our bus, Deb, who was patiently awaiting our return. When we saw her in the parking lot we joyfully screeched and sprinted to give her a big bus group hug. Exclaims of feeling accomplished, exhausted, and strong blustered throughout the group. We all happily stripped off our wet socks and threw on our sandals as we snacked on candy, chips, and our groups new found obsession: corn nuts. On the drive out, Quinn and Erica surprised us with a coffee stop at the coolest cafe perched on top of a cliff overlooking the canyon. I don’t know what was better, the view or the drinks! We camped in town and de-rigged our gear before jumping in the steaming hot showers.
This expedition was a huge turning point for our group as we exited the “training phase” and entered “main phase” of our program where we become completely self-sufficient without the guidance of our instructors. We learned to turn small challenges like frozen hiking boots, beaver dams, and frigid weather into opportunities to prove our perseverance and grow as individuals. I can’t speak for the group, but this was definitely the coolest backpacking trail I’d ever trampled through. As we close on another incredible adventure, we’re already onto the next. Stay tuned for Camden’s reflections on our solo adventures next week. We’re currently gearing up and couldn’t be more nervous or excited for three days alone in the desert!
- Aubrey '21