It has its rivals, of course, both in the desert and in the mountains, but the 6-mile round-trip hike to Calf Creek Falls and back, despite its popularity and the ensuing lack of solitude much of the time, is still a gem that belongs on everyone's must-do-once list. And don't be surprised to find yourself wanting to go back after that first time.
Sandstone pinnacles and domes. Sheer, varnished canyon walls like something out of Zion. Pictographs. A riparian strip standing out boldly from the surrounding desert. At the end, a high waterfall spilling over a colorful cliff. The waterfall and the pool at its base seem so out of place that it's hard to first to believe that they really are there. But they are.
Although I was born in California and spent almost the first three years of my life living in San Bernardino and Phoenix, Arizona, it was not until April 1996, when I was 25, that I again saw the American West for real as opposed to staring at pictures by Ansel Adams and David Muench. For two years, I'd been going on road trips through the South and Southeast, but I found myself being called by famous places like Yosemite and Yellowstone and by less famous but intriguingly named locations such as the Great Sand Dunes and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. In my mind, I had planned three or four straight summers' worth of road trips to the West. Those trips were to be the fulfillment of a dream I'd had since the age of eleven, when during a U.S. geography unit I had been put in the group assigned the Mountain West (i.e. the states between the Plains States and those on the Pacific Coast). My task had been to write to the Chambers of Commerce of Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana, and the brochures and maps I received filled me with a burning desire to see those states and the others my group covered.
When early in 1996 my brother expressed a desire to hike from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River, something I'd always been interested in since, you guessed it, the days of that geography unit, I jumped at the chance to go that year during spring break and do it. It was too late to get camping reservations, so we decided to do the round-trip in one day even though there were numerous warnings not to. And in addition to hiking the Grand, we also would go to Death Valley, Zion and Bryce, White Sands, Saguaro, and Organ Pipe Cactus. Other places we saw en route, such as Capitol Reef and Natural Bridges, were icing.
Let it not be said I am trying to hide this-- we were basically windshield tourists then. Even though we pulled off the Grand Canyon hike without any trouble (in fact, it was quite memorable because at the river, where it was quite warm that day, a large group of young ladies decided to sun themselves in just bras and panties for all the rest of the inner-canyon world to see and appreciate, and we did), we mostly were doing the drive-through thing that all too many visitors to this country's magnificent parks do: seeing the sights from the park roads, getting out at the occasional overlook, going on short strolls.
And thus it was that in Death Valley, we stopped at Zabriskie Point, drove down to Badwater, did the Artist's Drive loop, and checked out the Mesquite Flat dunes from afar. We did end up climbing Manly Beacon, but it was still primarily a car day. Visiting Zion meant driving through the canyon and getting out to take some pictures, adding in the incredible exertion it takes to see Weeping Rock. At Bryce Canyon, we drove up to the main overlooks at sunset and admired the colors, took a bunch of pictures, and did nothing else. Other places, similar stories. We were so lame that when we drove down Utah's Hole in the Rock Road looking for Devils Garden, we couldn't find it (trust me that it is very easy to find), and when we drove through Monument Valley, we didn't know about the tribal park, and so we "missed" the world-famous view of the Mittens and were privately wondering what the fuss was all about.
But one of our "real" hikes was to Calf Creek Falls. At the motel we stayed in on our Zion-Bryce day, my brother saw a picture of it. As we drove past the Calf Creek Recreational Area the next day, he said something like, "Hey, that's where that waterfall is." Therefore, we decided we could squeeze an unplanned hike into our busy day of roadside photography.
Honestly, I don't remember much about the hike except that it was very crowded, the sandy sections made the hike a little more tiring than it should have been for its relative flatness, and the waterfall was awesome. Also, my brother provided a laugh that still gets me to this day. He clambered a bit up the canyon wall beside the waterfall to get a picture, and suddenly he lost his grip and slid on his feet something like 15 feet to splash into the pool below. The look on his face as he began to slide was priceless. It was one of those moments that some of us here on SummitPost love to report in the forums and get a good, smug laugh from. But I think every experienced hiker and climber here had at least one early moment of being the potential star of a "Do not do this" video!
Last October, during a little escape from work and kids, my wife and I spent a couple nights at Boulder Mountain Lodge as part of a five-night Utah foray. She was interested in the hike to Calf Creek Falls, and I secretly was as well since it had been so long since I'd been there and because I'd have the chance to see it with a totally different set of eyes, so to speak. We had perfect weather, and although we didn't have the place to ourselves, we started out early enough to avoid the worst of the crowds.
What's that they say about the second time being better than the first? Well, it was certainly that way for me here. Calf Creek Falls was even more gorgeous than I'd remembered it, but what struck me just as much was all the rest of the magnificent scenery. Calf Creek Canyon is one of those places that you hate to see crowded, but you can't blame the crowds for going. And at least those crowds are out on a trail, not jostling for tripod space at a mobbed overlook on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
While out there at Calf Creek, I spotted the pictographs high up on the far side of the creek (something else I had no idea about on my first visit) and decided to get a closer look. A little bushwhacking got me to the creek, a little hunting around found me at a suitable crossing spot (feet got wet, but I avoided what looked like a waist-deep wade just about everywhere else), and then some hiking and scrambling led me into the alcove and just inches from the ancient rock art. Sadly, I discovered what trail hikers cannot tell, that some jackass decided to add some modern art to the wall as well, and some of it overlaps parts of the Indian art. Why?
But the figures are still impressive (and large) up close, and it was worth the effort to get there.
Ordinarily, a batch of Calf Creek Canyon photos would now follow, but I decided to display them among the text instead in order to provide some merciful breaks from that pointless essay!