Cottonwood Canyon Road, Grand Staircase/Escalante Nat’l Monument

IMG_1025Our long planned trip to Cottonwood Canyon with John & Sonya Swatsley.  Background:  Cottonwood Canyon basically begins at Cannonville, Utah at about 10 miles east of Bryce Canyon off Highway 12.  It passes Kodachrome Basin State Park and continues toward Grosvenor Arch (pictured at upper left) as a dirt country road #400 or just Cottonwood Canyon Road.  This road contains clay, sand, steep grades, etc. Near Grosvenor Arch the road has been graded so that it is below the level of the surrounding desert and is level in some places for hundreds of yards.  When it rains the road fills up with water and becomes a series of 15 ft. wide and 2 feet deep lakes.  When the clay sections of the road get wet the clay gets slick.  When some of the sandy sections get too dry, they get loose and deep.  Like driving on sand dunes.  OK , to drive this road, get first hand reports on the road’s condition.  If possible, talk to the BLM rangers at the visitors’ center in Çannonville in person

Our trip was scheduled for June 14.  We could not get good information on the Cannonville section of the road so we decided to start at the south end of the road where it deadends at SR 89 about 30 miles east of Kanab, Utah, near Big Water on Lake Powell.  One BLM employee told Sonya that a heavyweight vehicle is best because they don’t slide around as much in sand or clay!!  Cat and I did just fine last year going north to south on a dry day in my ’02 Ford Focus popemobile.  This time we started north and figured that if the road was not passable we would turn around and exit south.

John & Sonya have a small S.U.V. 4 WD something like a Rav 4.  Cat and I have an old beat up ’02 Chevy S-10 pickup.  John and I are both artists.  I make rock jewelry and sell at art shows in the southwest.  John is an international artist in oil painting, specializing in African wildlife scenes.  He is now in Iron County and is doing some Utah paintings.  I asked John if it would hurt if he just sneaked a small zebra into a Utah landscape painting. He said, “Juniper trees look something like the trees on the plains of Africa so maybe a zebra would not look out of place in a Utah painting.”

The trip: Cedar City to Kanab, stopped for refreshments (coffee).  Got on the road (89) east toward Page, Arizona.  Proceeded down the road past the sharp turn (with the dirt road turnoff to Coyote Buttes and Buckskin Gulch on the right) and then past the GSENM visitor center on down 89 on the right.  The Cottonwood Road turnoff is on the left with a parking lot near the sign.  The road was in good condition all the way.  It was a sunny day and not too hot.  Good for us with no AC.  Soon we were seeing sights that this road is famous for.  Most of the time we followed Cottonwood Creek with its iconic trees.  Monuments and features abound like The Cockscomb, a slot canyon, caves, arches, spires, a few rocky ridges bypassing spots when the river is in a slot canyon itself.  About 15 or 20 miles in we found a shady flat stand of cottonwood trees and had a delicious lunch.  Table and tablecloth, chairs, napkins, punch, pulled pork (for the non vegans) & tortillas, white bean salad, olives, Manchego cheese, potato crackers, fruit compote, & dessert.  Cat & Sonya do like to cook.

Next on the road came the part of the road that I had some concern about.  It was a steep narrow stretch of about a half mile.  Oh! And twisty.  I had descended it twice but never went up it.  I gave the problem a lot of thought – probably too much.  I started up at just the right speed, gave it just the right amount of gas, checked for cars coming down, etc.  About half the way up something went wrong.  We started to slow down, the RPMs started to fall, the engine started to lug.  I thought it was going to stall!  Not good!  Then I noticed that it was in second gear.  Oops!  I slammed it into first, popped the clutch, floored the gas.  The wheels started spinning, gravel started spraying, dust started billowing, and we shot up to the top of the hill.  No problem!  The rest of the trip was on good roads.  The bad areas had been graded and channels had been cut to drain the low spots so that the road in this area was nice and dry.

Just a few miles from the end of the dirt section we came upon a big pickup truck at the side of the road.  The driver was working under the rear end getting the spare tire down.  We both stopped to render aid.  This was a big pickup, a brand new heavy GMC with a 5th wheel hitch in the bed, 8 lug wheels, big wide all terrain tires.  One of the rear tires was flat.  Just getting a big wheel out from under the rear of the pickup bed is a major task.  You have to figure out how to get it down.  Each brand of truck has its own way of mounting the spare.  Some simple, some not so much.  You do not want to be under the truck on your back and have a 100 pound heavy duty truck tire fall on your face.  This guy was smart.  He had the owner’s manual out and had read it.

By the time John & I had parked and walked back to his rig, he had the spare down.  We decided to stay with him and give moral support while he changed the wheel.  Cat, Sonya, and this guy’s wife got together and had a nice chat about wildflowers, traveling, campgrounds, etc.  John & I fussed around and talked to him while he worked.  We did a little fetch and carry while he did the work.  I got to work the jack a bit to adjust the axle height while he fit the spare on those eight lugs.  John and I both helped lift and throw the wheel that had the flat tire into the pickup bed.  This time everything worked out OK.

If you drive a car or truck, you should take time and be sure you can change a flat.  Most cars come with tools that you can use to do this.  Be warned.  The tools provided are the minimum provided by law.  You may find out the hard way that they require extra skill or luck to use them.  Try them before you need them.  A good jack and lug wrench are not expensive.  If you go off the main roads and need them, you may be thankful that you had them.  Even with big thick off road tires something can reach out and take a bite out of one of them.  I am not a fan of aluminum rims.  They cost a lot; they look pretty.  (My wife says they look ridiculous)  I have seen that they don’t stand up to rough treatment.  Get a flat on the interstate and if the rim comes in contact just a little bit, it is destroyed.  A steel rim is cheaper and more rugged.

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