26 May 2015

Trip to Lake Powell and the Grand Staircase

Sunday, we returned from our two-week getaway in the truck and camper. If you've been following along, you know our first stop was in Sedona followed by the 2015 Overland Expo at Mormon Lake. After the Expo, we stayed at the Ft. Tuthill Military Campground in Flagstaff for a couple days where we did some laundry, dumped our holding tanks, filled up the fresh water tank, and took some time to repair a leaky toilet. After that, we were off to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) and the Glen Canyon Recreation Area to explore the Smoky Mountain Road and other locations.

First, we decided to boondock overnight at a sweet location a good friend told us about last year. The location is secret, but I can tell you it's along a river in the Grand Staircase. Anyhow, after a restful night sleep at this sweet location, we got up early to start exploring the Smoky Mountain Trail. The Smoky Mountain Trail actually traverses through both the Glen Canyon Rec Area and in the GSENM. In Glen Canyon, the trail is designated FR-230 and begins in the small town of Big Water, UT. To find the road look for Ethan Allen Road off of the US-89 and turn north, the Smoky Mountain Trail splits off from it. The first five miles of the drive was paved and after passing through a huge wash the road rose and soon turned into a well-graded dirt surface. This first part of the drive is called the Moon and if you saw it you would know why. Here the rock formations are smooth and dark gray and are largely barren of any color or vegetation. Still, the eerie landscape is beautiful in its own right and isn't something you see everyday. Apparently, several movies were filmed in this area, including “Planet of the Apes.”

About 13 miles up the Rocky Mountain Trail we came to Road-231 which leads to Warm Creek Bay. We knew nothing about this access point to Lake Powell, so we decided to explore it then have lunch. This turned out to be one of the best decisions we made during the entire trip because Road-231 passes through Crosby Canyon, a spectacular, multicolored slot canyon. This happened to be our first visit to Lake Powell and it didn't disappoint. We arrived at Warm Creek Bay on a Wednesday and apparently that was a good thing because we had the entire bay to ourselves. Because of this and because the setting was so beautiful, we decided to boondock and stay for the night. While setting up camp, we noticed that the catfish were jumping, so after resting and having a good meal, I decided to break out the fishing pole and tackle to see if I could catch one. It didn't take long. 

After a peaceful and wonderful overnight stay at Warm Creek Bay, we awoke the next morning to thick cloud cover. Rain was in the forecast the following day, so rather than staying another day, we had no choice but to take in the rest of the Smoky Mountain Trail before nightfall (this trail, like all of the other backways in the Grand Staircase, become impassible when wet due to the dirt and clay surface. Indeed, even 4x4 vehicles often get stuck in the thick and gooey muck, so we had little choice but to break camp and hit the road before the rains hit).

Designated BLM Road 300 in the GSENM, we found the Smoky Mountain Trail sometimes thrilling, often rough, but always beautiful. About 78-miles-long, it's the toughest, longest, and most remote road in the Grand Staircase. Beware, this isn't a drive for the faint of heart. Soon after leaving the Glen Canyon Rec Area, the road climbs the Kelly Grade, a 1,000 ft grade with numerous switchbacks and steep drop offs. The views along this stretch are spectacular including a distant view of Page and Lake Powell to the south. After this hair-raising ascent, we decided to take a break and give our frayed nerves a rest. At the top of the grade, the trail levels out atop the Kaiparowits Plateau at an elevation of about 6,500 ft. A short distance from the Kelly Grade Overlook, we came across a short spur, dubbed Road-332, which branches off to the east. Along this spur you can see open seams and gaping holes in the earth that still smoke from coal fires that are perhaps hundreds if not thousands of years old. This smoke is what gives the mountain and trail its name. 

Atop the Kaiparowits Plateau, the trail is smooth and sandy and the pace is fast, but after about 10 miles this changes abruptly as the remainder of the route passes over and through several rocky canyons. The pace in these rocky canyons is much, much slower, but the scenery is better. The trail along this part of the drive features numerous peaks and valleys with the low points in most cases going through boulder strewn washes. Because of this I wouldn't recommend taking a passenger car on this road, a 4x4 vehicle like a Jeep or Toyota FJ Cruiser. Five hours and 68-miles after leaving Warm Creek Bay, we reached the town of Escalante, exhausted yet feeling good about exploring this little-known trail in the Grand Staircase. 

Boondocking in the Grand Staircase before heading out.
This sign marks the beginning of Smoky Mountain Trail.
Passing large boulders near the start of the Smoky Mt. Trail.
Moon landscape on the Smoky Mountain Trail.
Approaching the Warm Creek Bay turnoff.
Here the Crosby Canyon got very narrow with an overhang.
First view of Warm Creek Bay via Crosby Canyon.
Our prime boondocking location on Warm Creek Bay.
"The catfish are jumpin and I'm going to catch me one."
After about 20 minutes, I got one!
Karen snapped this spectacular pic at dusk.
With overcast skies the next morning, we decided to head out.
Smoky Mountain Trail soon after leaving Crosby Canyon.

Climbing the Kelly Grade switchbacks.
View of the trail half-way up the Kelly Grade.
Stunning view of Page and Lake Powell from the top.
It was smooth going along the Kaiparowits Plateau.
Then things got rough.
But the scenery was beautiful.
Scenery at the junction of the L. Hand Collet Canyon trail.
One of the many steep and rocky climbs.
We decided to pass on this highly regarded drive (for now).
Boondocking near the end of the trail near Escalante.

Would I recommend taking the Smoky Mountain Trail? Absolutely, but I would take in the entire trail over a course of two or three days rather than one day like we did. The trail is rough is many locations and because of this the pace is slow in a truck camper, but the scenery is worth the time and effort. However, if you're looking for a quick and relaxing scenic backway off of Utah Route-12, skip this drive and take the Hell's Backbone or the paved portion of the Burr Trail instead. But if you're looking for adventure in a lightly traveled, less-known road where the boondocking and scenery is spectacular, then the Smoky Mountain Trail is for you