The first few days of this trip were designed to cover much of the same territory as my 2004 “Arches and Canyons” trip. That’s not a bad thing, when you’re in an area as spectacular as southern Utah. Fortunately, my route allowed me an excuse to travel the Cottonwood Canyon Road (BLM Route 400) through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The dirt road leads to the almost dream-like canyon pictured above. It’s a place where rocks come in every color imaginable, and all seem to be arranged in chaos.
Because this is part of Utah’s vast, mostly untamed wilderness, you can’t simply turn off of a paved highway and into a parking lot, to experience Cottonwood Canyon. It requires a big commitment, some patience, and a little bit of risk. So let’s start at the beginning…
… at the turnoff from US 89, 46 miles east of Kanab, Utah. As you can see on the sign, this is a seasonalroad that is impassable when wet. Don’t take these warnings lightly. If Cottonwood Canyon Road is wet, it will quickly turn into deep, sticky mud, and it won’t matter if you’re driving a car, truck, or jeep — you will end up stuck. You might want to check in at the BLM visitor center in Kanab, before you make the drive all the way out here. (I stopped and asked, but the rangers hadn’t received a report on the road yet that day. Weather had moved through the previous night, so they couldn’t say if the road would be passable or not. I decided to give it a try, anyway.)
Although I had driven Cottonwood Canyon Road in 2004, this experience was much different. This time, I was driving north, instead of south. During the first few bleak miles, where the road and surrounding landscape are all grey, I had a preview of what was to come, since the canyon was often in view in the distance. I also believe the road was rougher this time, in 2009, than it was five years earlier. On my first trip down the road, I made it in a compact rental car. This time, I found a few spots that were tricky, even in a 4wd SUV.
After a few miles of grey dirt, the road joins up with, and runs alongside the Paria River (at times, on a shelf that’s just a few feet above the river bed, which makes this part of the road easily susceptible to washout). As I traveled the road in late March, there were some very faint sprouts of green returning to the plant life that lines the river.
Eventually there’s a fork in the river. The Paria breaks away from the road, and Cottonwood Creek continues to parallel our route. Cottonwood Canyon Road travels for a while on the east side (and much less attractive side) of the Coxcomb — a jagged line of tooth-like hills, that also look a lot like a backbone on a topographical map.
After some ups and downs, the road finally moves from the more bleak side of the valley…
… into the Technicolor world on the west side of the Coxcomb. It is here that, at long last, you reach the main attraction:
This is the most striking part of Cottonwood Canyon. The road makes a quick dip down, then steeply climbs back up the other side.
Here, you find the best example of this bizarre world of rocks. Everything is jumbed and seems to be out of place. White rocks shoot out of red ones. Some hills are jagged, others rounded. You get the impression that the Creator had a lot of fun here.
As if the treat from the road isn’t enough, there’s also an excellent slot canyon nearby. It’s easily accessed at the bottom of the canyon. Park your car and watch for a tiny trailhead sign (one of those flexible sticks) on the west side of the road. Pass through this crack…
… and you’re in the slot canyon. From here, you can choose to walk north or south. Either way, the canyon walls quickly close in around you. In places, the canyon is narrow enough to touch both walls at the same time.
During my 2004 visit, I walked a short distance north and south, but I was a bit spooked by the canyon’s remote and lonely feel. This time, I hiked north, then took a left…
… and ended up here, at a point where the canyon became shallow, and widened out. It was probably less than a 10 minute walk from the trailhead.
Back at the car, I spent a few minutes enjoying the scenery and the silence. Not a single car rumbled through Cottonwood Canyon during the entire time I spent here.
A few minutes north of the canyon, there’s a side road that leads about a mile to Grosvenor Arch (pronounced like governor, except with a “grr” at the beginning). Grosvenor is actually a double arch, with a large and a small window. From the parking area, a sidewalk takes you about halfway to the arch. It’s a good place to view it, but you’ll probably want to walk on the dirt path all the way to the foot of the sandstone hill.
The rest of Cottonwood Canyon road is more open. You’ll get a peek at the valley that’s home toKodachrome Basin State Park (which I visited in 2004).
At the entrance to the park, the road is (thankfully) once again paved. Signs warn drivers headed the other direction not to trust their GPS devices, some of which apparently tell truckers that the road would make a good shortcut.
Cannonville is barely a dot on the map, with a few homes and a gas station. Don’t worry, this is not the gas station.