Utah 2021 - Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument - Conditions Assessment
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
In April I will heading down south to the unique and iconic terrain of Southern Utah. I am joining a 5-day backpacking trip guided by Andrew Skurka. There are several different styles of trips available, from never-been-camping-in-my-life to experienced ultralight backpackers wanting to get into remote regions of Alaska for a week. I will doing an "Adventure" course, which falls in the middle. The course starts with two months of pre-trip planning curriculum. There is also in-the-field curriculum focusing on topics like navigation and water management. I am excited and nervous! This will be the most ambitious outdoors trip I have done (aside from wild land firefighting, although that was ambitious for different reasons).
Part 1 - Conditions Assessment (You are here)
Part 2 - Gear List
Part 3 - The Trip Report
Below is my conditions assessment based on Andrew Skurka's template, mostly my own words and research but some language and info was taken from guides suggestions and those in my group.
April Averages for Escalante, UT:
- Average highs – 65.6
- Average lows – 34.1
- Average daily – 49.9
Escalante, UT sits at 5,820’. Judging from the example routes of Utah West and Utah East from years past, we will stay in the 5,000’ to 6,000’ range. Temperatures should be pretty close to those listed above, but if we go into high 6,000’ territory they could drop 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. This climate seems arid, so let’s assume 5 degrees. Given the drop, we could see:
- Average highs – 60
- Average lows – 29
- Average daily - 45
Average precipitation in April in Escalante is very low at 0.48 inches. May is 0.61 inches. Average snowfall in April in Escalante is 1 inch. May is zero. Our trip will be later in April, crossing my fingers for zero precipitation and snow.
We will have a good amount of daylight to hike without significant use of headlamps with about 13.5 hours per day:
- Begin civil twilight: 6:14 a.m.
- Sunrise: 6:41 a.m.
- Sun transit: 1:24 p.m.
- Sunset: 8:08 p.m.
- End civil twilight: 8:35 p.m.
Phase of the Moon on 20 April: Half-moon with 58.4% of the Moon’s visible disk illuminated. We will just miss the “super moon” on April 26. Plenty of illumination throughout the trip.
The description from Skurka’s website for Southern Utah says:
“We’ll follow canyon bottoms, scramble across slick rock, traverse sandy benches, and pass by ancient rock images. We avoid technical canyoneering, but there may be a few spots where a pack haul or hand-line is helpful.”
This trip promises to be mostly or entirely off-trail and will feature many different difficult surfaces.
While this region does receive snow into April, it should be only a dusting if any, and won’t impact the terrain.
Both example routes listed in CalTopo show almost entirely shrub or barren terrain with some sections containing wetlands. The description from Skurka’s mentions vibrant green vegetation, deep canyons, and featureless benches.
Tree cover will be minimal, with pinion-juniper woodland being predominant. This means abundant exposure to sun & wind. Also, minimal large trees available for anchor points for shelters. Know how to pitch shelter using rocks and/or other alternate methods. Ground is mostly free of vegetation on upper portions, where pinion-juniper & sagebrush dominates. Below the rim and in the wet canyons can have brushy bottoms, with willows, cattails, tamarisk, and cottonwood saplings. If the canyons occasionally flash flood, there is often a brush-free travel corridor.
Trip reports from Backpacker and Adventure Alan mention unavoidable poison ivy (oh boy), especially near water & on banks. Poison ivy likes shaded, cooler areas like canyons. Leaves of three, leave it be.
Campsites could consist of flat rocky areas or low vegetated or sandy areas along the Escalante river.
The Monument is 1.8 million acres and has only one established hiking trail, which we will not be following. The canyons are topographically distinct, but can be highly disorienting because of their meanders and depth. Navigation will be difficult as the terrain will have low visibility inside canyons. High points can be featureless, but we should have sweeping vistas at points to orient ourselves.
Cairns may be present in some places, although unlikely that they will create a trail guide.
Canyons can make acquiring GPS signal unreliable; check your location ahead of descending to have the best idea of your location.
Sun exposure will be high as there is little to no tree coverage along the route. Plan to be mostly exposed throughout the trip. The type of terrain we will be walking on much of the time (slickrock and sandstone) will also increase our UV radiation exposure by about 15%. Our route is a mile high (5,000’ to 6,000’) and the summer equinox is only two months away.
Bring long sleeves, a hat with sunshade, and sunscreen for exposed areas.
Sources: CalTopo, Photos geotagged near our route, viewable on Google Maps and blogs
Skurka’s website mentions that water sources in April are “usually reliable” and that they will help us “learn to manage water.”
We will be in the high desert so water management will be very important.
This area has several perennial waterways, including the Escalante River, Death Hollow, Boulder Creek, and the Gulch. Water may also be found at spring and in potholes. Allen's Canyoneering 3 is an excellent source for this info. Some creeks and tanks may be fouled by cattle, which still graze in this area; and other sources carry a lot of sediment. Low-volume stagnant sources will make you long for snow melt-fed creeks.
Mountain Lions, cougars, bears, and rattlesnakes all live in the region. Because of the remoteness of the location, it is unlikely they will be drawn to our campsites. We will be in a large group and terrain will mostly be open, so it is unlikely we will accidentally stumble upon problematic wildlife. Rattlesnakes are always a concern in high desert regions, so keeping an eye out will be important.
Courageous mini-bears are unlikely, although a possibility at any high use campsites along a river.
Mosquitoes are uncommon in Southern Utah, if they're encountered, it will likely be in wet canyons. Deer flies and gnats hatch later in the season. The area is home to scorpions and black widow spiders, but both are rare.
This trip will be incredibly remote. Skurka’s website says “…for the duration of the trip you will not cross a road or see a wheeled vehicle; we rarely see other parties.” Cell service will not be likely.
It will be important to be careful of footing and keep all limbs intact. The closest services are in Escalante and Boulder, from where a good hospital is several hours away.
We will be traveling on high, slick rocks so footing and traction will be a concern.
Canyons and streams have the possibility of filling during flash flooding, but high amounts of precipitation this time of the year is highly unlikely. We should be mindful of weather conditions but I don’t expect flash flooding to be an issue in April.
Shoe-sucking quicksand may be encountered in some canyons. Although we won't be doing technical canyoneering, expect steep canyon ascents/descents.
This is BLM land, anything goes.