Is There No Right Way to See Calf Creek Falls?

Because I had foolishly left Porter in the car, and because it was approaching what I call the witching hour in southern Utah - that 4 p.m. time of Sunday when everyone seems to clear out in order to get home at a decent hour - I essentially jogged the 6-mile trail to Calf Creek Falls, and I simultaneously loved, and hated, every minute of it.

I loved it because the whole canyon rushed at me at warp speed, at a speed I'd never before experienced, and I hated it because the trail was so exquisitely beautiful, so serendipitous, that it seemed each moment along the trail - the stream, the dogwoods in their Velvia green, the snake low in the grass, the cliff dwellings high above and, of course, the waterfall and its bonsai-like trees, its sandy beach, its mossy margins and its picture-perfect plunge pool - they each demanded a lifetime's worth of contemplation.

I doubt there is a single right way to see Calf Creek Falls.

Well, I suppose that is not true. The proper way to see it, jogging or not, is senses wide open, eyes wide awake. That is because, in all fairness, you might say Calf Creek Falls and the meandering trail that leads to it is a sort of condensed version of everything that is great about Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, that new national park which surrounds it.

Before I go too nuts about this place, let me try to give you a few basic facts. Calf Creek Falls is a 126-foot waterfall. Now, 126 feet isn't much to write home about in the world of waterfalls, but when you consider that this water fall is in the midst of a desert, that adds something, I think. The falls takes its name from Calf Creek, a clear stream that flows down from benchland above, picks up the considerable flow of seep springs, takes a leap over the similar-height Upper Calf Creek Falls, then gets down to business in Lower Calf Creek Falls, where I jogged to, plunging into what quickly becomes the main body of the Escalante River, which itself is the main artery of water and hope through this south-central part of Utah.

It is quite likely you have already seen a picture of Lower Calf Creek Falls - it is often named as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in America; the mostly level trail to it, as it leads through a lush desert canyon, only adds to the beauty, I think; it makes you work for the view.

Even if it did not end at the falls, the Calf Creek trail would be a worthy one to hike, I think. It begins at a curiosity-peaking bend in state Route 12 - itself often named one of the most scenic drives in America - as it crosses the Escalante and begins the delirious ascent to Boulder Mountain. The canyon gradually narrows to embrace the stream, and cottonwoods and dogwoods crowd over the water.

We know that Indians were once permanent inhabitants here. Several times along the trail their granaries, where produce was safely stored, can be seen in the high, seemingly inaccessible cliffs on either side of the canyon, as can their rock art carvings, or pictographs. But we also can guess that Anasazi Indians frequented the area because of its beauty, its rare water and its plethora of usable plants. For example, there are juniper trees, whose berries were used for beads and whose sap was used to waterproof baskets. Also there is squawbrush, whose red berries were eaten and whose pliable branches were used in baskets, Indian ricegrass, which was used to make cereal, and saltbrush, which was used for dye.

Despite the obvious Indian uses, the canyon was named by white men, who erected a simple fence in the upper portion of the canyon and let weaned calves graze in the rich pastures beneath the falls. These days, the falls are perhaps the most prominent and easily-visited part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a four-year old showpiece of presidential order. Geologically, the falls drop over Navajo sandstone to Kayenta sandstone; the vertical rock is streaked with minerals and the water collects first in a sandy pool, later in beaver ponds, then flows over sand, gravel and rock into the lower valley, where flyfishers wade casting their line.

Like I said, I pretty much ran this trail, telling myself I'd come back later and take my time. In truth, I wanted to take more than just 'time' - I wanted to take forever in this canyon, and see everything until I was sick of it.

The canyon is a deep one, and the sky appears as an abbreviated slice, and on the way out I noticed that the sky had completely clouded over and dark clouds seemed to be rushing over the taller ridge tops. In the last quarter-mile before the trailhead, I ran into two grown men arguing about how to proceed. One man, shirtless, wanted to go on to the falls. The other wanted to go back, and they both turned to me to ask if it was going to rain. I told them no; for a moment I really did not think it would rain, and besides I think walking in the rain would be just fine, right? After all, they are in the wilderness, not some disneyland. But I think I was wrong. I think it rained a lot that afternoon, because as I drove up Boulder Mountain I was rained on, and I could see a sheath of showers pausing over all of the canyon country. I bet it rained pretty hard down in Calf Creek, a good cold spring rain, and I bet those guys got mighty wet, and I bet that when they made it to the lower falls the water gushed over that Navajo sandstone even more furiously than it did when I stood there.

The Trail:

The trail to the lower falls takes most hikers at least three hours; there is a $2 fee for it. There is also a Bureau of Land Management Campground at the trailhead; camping is, I think, $7. Access to the upper falls is more difficult and not recommended for novice hikers; the trailhead is located discreetly along SR-12 on the rimrock above. As it is generally undeveloped, access to the remainder of the national monument, which stretches all the way to the Arizona border, is free and at your own risk.

A bit of news:

Saturday, June 9, is Utah State Parks Day. That means that entry to all state parks, from Antelope Island to Wasatch Mountain, is free!

Other things of note:

  • July 27-28 is the Salt Lake City Jazz and Blues Festival;
  • Aug. 11 is Brigham City's Railroaders Festival at the Golden Spike historic site (that's where the east and west railroads met);
  • Swiss Days in Heber City is Sept. 1-2;
  • And the best in melons will be on display Sept. 14-15 at Green River's Melon Days.

Finally, the new Utah Museum of Fine Arts, on campus at the University of Utah, opened June 2. The new museum has already won design awards, and it has double the exhibition space of its dark, drab predecessor. The musuem is open 7 days a week, admission is nothing, and now on show is a travelling Rodin show.

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