St. George, San Rafael Swell, and Grand Staircase-Escalante
Fall, with its cool nights and sunny days, makes for primo desert conditions. Unlike spring, where everyone from the high country is escaping mud season and headed south for some sand and sun, autumn tends to be much quieter among the castles, mesas, and buttes of southern Utah.
Sure, the weather is great in the alpine while the leaves are turning, but why not pack the car with some ropes, bikes, and grippy shoes and enjoy a change of scenery before winter tightens its grip? I like to cram as many outdoor pursuits into a single trip, whether my destination is St. George, San Rafael Swell, or Grand Staircase, as an embarrassment of riches awaits adventuring in each locale.
St. George: Bike, Climb, Canyoneering
Three cheers for “motel camping”!!! I learned and perfected the art of motel camping in St. George, a practice I continue today. Invariably I leave Salt Lake too late for the autumn sun to still be in the sky when I pull off Exit 8. To the purists, sure “it is not camping unless you set your tent up in the dark.” But, I’ll gladly plop down a few twenties and have running water, secure indoor bike storage, a mattress, and a breakfast buffet to raid. “Nuff said.”
Still feeling fit from dozens of Mid-Mountain and Wasatch Crest rides throughout the summer one of my favorite things to do is re-ride the desert trails that crushed me on my first trips in spring. Take that strava! Mountain bike options in and around St George are incredible. Technically in neighboring Hurricane are several favorites: Guacamole, JEM and Hurricane Rim to name a few. A bit further from town lies Gooseberry Mesa and Little Creek, both of which have great camping if complimentary muffins and light switches aren’t your thing. Right in Saint “G” proper are Church Rocks, Bearclaw Poppy, and the Santa Clara River trail system.
Once the sun begins to dip lower on the horizon, the time is right for some cragging. With hundreds – maybe thousands – of routes within a short drive there are several places to get your crimp on. Green Valley Gap is on the western edge of town and features short climbs within view of the highway. Snow Canyon State Park is nothing short of world-class – multi-pitch trad and mixed sport routes, incredible views and some of the easiest approaches around. A tad further away, which also opens up additional camp options, is the unique Veyo / Crawdad Canyon area, and, of course, Zion National Park.
Speaking of Zion, I can rarely pass up the opportunity to don my trusty neoprene and drop a canyon or two whenever I am in the mecca of canyoneering. Some of Zion’s shorter – and by this I do NOT mean easy – canyons are ideal on a getaway day: Pine Creek and Keyhole can be ticked off quickly. If you have more time, the world of ‘biner blocks is your oyster: Boundary Canyon, which does not require a permit, as well as other classics such as Spry and Behunin are great single-day adventures.
San Rafael Swell: Climb and Scramble
I love the Swell. And I have no idea why it is not more crowded. At just three hours from Salt Lake, why more people do not stop here on their way to Moab or other points south is beyond me. When it comes to car camping, the Swell is hard to beat. Tons of BLM roads equal heaps of space to spread out and enjoy the solitude of the desert. I’d been to the Swell about a dozen times for other sport pursuits before I realized how many quality climbing routes were to be found here. Interstate 70 bisects the Swell, and most directions begin with either North or South Swell. For example, the climbs in Buckhorn Wash are in the northern Swell (don’t miss the route Private Pizza) while the Eastern Reef area is in the southern section. Known as the Sandstone Alps, the Eastern Reef features crags arranged alphabetically from A Crag through U Crag with a wide range of routes, grade, and length – some over 2,000’.
Hiking in the Swell is part walking, and part scrambling. Classics such as Little Wild Horse, Bells, Ding and Dang canyons require two hands almost as often as two feet, plus a careful eye on foot placements. Nothing scary: many of these are kid-friendly, but they really take walking to the next level. Each of these four canyons, plus several more, are located near Goblin Valley State Park, where climbable, otherworldly rock formations keep all ages of visitors entertained.
What’s also cool about the Swell: you can do everything here. We’ve covered rock climbing and some scrambly hikes, but if you want to up the rope game, there is some incredible canyoneering: Zero Gravity and Quandary (including the uber-technical direct route). Up for a pedal? Goodwater Rim is a great, fairly level ride, which begins and ends at The Wedge Overlook (in the Northern Swell). How about paddling? The San Rafael River is SUP-able, and the Green River through Grays Canyon is an easy daily with mellow rapids. But let’s just keep the Swell our little secret, okay?
Grand Staircase-Escalante: Hiking, Backpacking, Road Biking
One could write an entire article on backpacking in Grand Staircase, and several guidebooks do just that. Point being, it’s near impossible to cover the wealth of options for day hikes, overnight hikes, and multi-day backpacks in this huge swath of Southern Utah. Keeping things simple for weekend trips, head toward one of several great day hikes with rewards at the end: popular Calf Creek Falls and Escalante Natural Bridge along Hwy 12, or the twist and turns of Muley Twist near Capitol Reef off the Burr Trail Road.
If you have the time, head down Hole in the Rock Road and lace up your boots to tackle the classic multi-day Coyote Gulch or the historic Boulder Mail Trail. Ropes your thing? Look up Zebra and Tunnel slots, as well as Spooky and Peek-A-Boo for some fun with knots. GSENM also has several technical backpacks to places like the Golden Cathedral in Neon Canyon.
Highway 12, which is the highway that connects Torrey, Boulder, and Escalante, as well as Bryce Canyon, is one of the prettiest highways in America. Grinding up from Torrey over Boulder Mountain and its tall pines while peering down thousands of feet to lower “steps” of the Grand Staircase is a view best savored from a saddle. Pedaling past Boulder and heading towards Escalante, cyclists will descend “Hells Backbone,” a knife-ridge that overlooks sandstone expanses as far as the eye can see. These sections of road can be ridden as out-and-backs, or even by trading turns at the wheel of a vehicle on the drive there and back home for a spell behind some handlebars, with other sports squeezed in the middle of the trip.
Packing for multi-sport trips is fairly simple. We fit all of our adventure gear, including two adults, into a compact Prius–sometimes with bikes on the roof, inflated SUPs inside, along with small bags for clothes and random gear, plus a cooler. Some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way to save space are pretty simple: use clothes and gear that work for several types of sports.
I don’t follow the “outdoor uniform” so many adventure-y people do with sport-specific clothing and gear. I use the same (gasp: usually cotton) t-shirts climbing as I do biking that are just as utilitarian around camp with an extra layering flannel on cool mornings or evenings. My Camelbak fanny pack works equally well hiking as it does biking. Padded bike shorts fit under the same shorts I wear around town, hiking, or climbing. I do use different ropes for climbing and canyoneering, though. Same for bike helmets versus climbing helmets. Hey, safety first! Plus, there is more room for a big cooler filled with beer and snacks, and a camp chair for trail head chill sessions.
So, who’s up for a road trip?
Destination Honorable Mentions
Moab: The grandaddy of them all. Slickrock biking, ATV and moto rides, climbing, canyoneering. Moab has it all (including crowds) thus the later in the fall the better in our opinion.
Fruita: Just over the Colorado border near Grand Junction lies the sweet, sweet singletrack of Fruita. Climbing in nearby Colorado National Monument, as well as single and multi-day river trips on the Colorado make for an action-packed weekend.
Jackson Hole: Hike amongst the Tetons on a myriad of trails in and out of the national park, or test your mettle trying to climb one of the eponymous Tetons. There’s solid biking accessible from town, as well as over the passing nearby Victor and Driggs (Idaho). Plus, Yellowstone is a short drive north.