Wire Pass

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Wire Pass: We Win Big at the Slots

We left Page by the southern route, because I had never seen Marble Canyon or Navajo Bridge and I've always been curious. (I actually drove across Navajo Bridge once, years ago, but it was already dark so I couldn't see anything.)

Marble Canyon isn't really marble; it's redwall limestone, the grey limestone (stained red by the layers above it) which makes the tall red cliffs in the Grand Canyon. Apparently down near river level, it's polished smooth and looks like marble. People tend not to distinguish very well between marble and limestone anyway (lots of "marble this" and "marble that" features turn out to be limestone). But it's an impressive sheer-walled canyon, with the Colorado still running green and fairly clear (having had most of its sediment load removed by the Glen Canyon Dam a few miles upstream), though that will change shortly since there are rapids downstream where it will pick up the sediment load it carries through the Grand Canyon.

Navajo Bridge was for quite some time the only route across the Colorado between northern and southern Arizona. Before it was built, the only passage was at nearby Lee's Ferry. Even today, the whole six hundred mile width of Arizona includes only three vehicle crossings of the Colorado: Navajo Bridge, Glen Canyon Dam, and Hoover Dam. (There are also a few footbridges, like the ones at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.) So Navajo Bridge is interesting historically.

It turns out that it's actually two bridges. The original bridge was built before the automobile, so a new bridge was built later to accomodate automobile traffic, and the two bridges stand side by side, the old bridge open for foot traffic (so it's the place to go for taking photos of the canyon). The two bridges are remarkably similar in structure, differing mainly in width (and, I'm sure, strength of construction). There's an interpretive center on the west side of the bridge, with a store and restrooms; the east side of the bridge is more empty, with only the obligatory Navajo jewelry stand. We had both sides to ourselves, so we were able to appreciate the canyon in silence (a nice change after canyons like the Grand).

A bit west of Navajo Bridge are a few little towns (really just wide spots in the highway with a motel and/or restaurant). We'd been told that the restaurant at Cliff Dwellers was the best restaurant within 100 miles of Page (not too hard to believe -- Page is a beautiful town surrounded by amazing scenery, but restaurants are a major weak point as a tourist destination). Planning a dinner there didn't work out, but we hoped to stop there for a late breakfast. But we got sidetracked: it turns out Cliff Dwellers has an amazing little unsigned, unlabelled pullout just out of town full of weird rocks some of which have been built into parts of a house. There's no signeage anywhere, and we have no idea what the story is, which sort of adds to the charm of this interesting and unexpected find. We hung out for a while exploring and taking pictures, so by the time we pulled in to Cliff Dwellers proper it turned out we'd missed breakfast and we had to settle for lunch, which was good enough to lend credence to the "best restaurant" advice. (If anyone goes there based on this writeup, the advice we were given also stressed trying the [name forgotten] chocolate cake; the closest I saw to that on the dinner menu was a chocolate souffle (yum), so if you go there and you have any urges toward chocolate, keep it in mind.)

After brunch, our next goal, also based on a recommendation from our kindly Page informant, was to head toward Wire Pass in the Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness area of the Pariah plateau. It turned out the BLM Grand Staircase Escalante map mentioned Wire Pass briefly as being somewhere off House Rock Valley Rd, and it looked on the map like we could take that (dirt) road from highway 89A up to Wire Pass, poke around and see what was there (we weren't entirely clear except we were told it was very worthwhile and involved slot canyons) then continue on House Rock Valley Rd. up to highway 89 and take that into Kanab (perhaps detouring a bit to go see the Cockscomb if we ended up with extra time).

We found the dirt road with no trouble, and it was a very easy, scenic, and well signed road. We had no trouble finding the Wire Pass trailhead (which was packed with cars, even on a Thursday in October way out down a remote dirt road) and there's a fee pay station at the trailhead (our national park pass didn't get us any extra credit even though it's a national monument, probably because of the wilderness area). There was no map and no information about what we might be looking for or how far it might be, so we hoisted water bottle and camera and set out down the arroyo into the unknown.

After maybe half a mile of arroyo hiking (seeing two or three other groups of hikers during that time), the arroyo comes up against a red sandstone wall on one side, and then a ledge of sandstone comes in from the other side. A slot! Oh excitement! Oh, wait, it only lasts about thirty feet, and then we're back in the arroyo (with a wall on one side) again. Hmm. We pressed on.

A few turns farther, the path turns rocky and starts to drop a bit, and there's what looks like a slot ahead. I pointed. "Oh, no, I'm not falling for that again," Dave said. "Let's wait and see." But this one was a real slot canyon: at least as tall as Antelope, though not quite so golden, and it goes on and on. Every now and then it emerges into open arroyo for a while, then you come to another huge sandstone mass and the slot continues. At one point the trail forks and you get a choice of two slot canyons to explore. In between, there are amphitheatres, petroglyphs, interesting rock formations, and interesting geology to look at.

We have a running joke from hiking Golden Canyon in Death Valley, where every time you round a corner there's a view more amazing than the last view, and eventually you start to laugh -- "Oh, look, it's another amazing view." Wire Pass was like that.

As we drew ominously near to our preset turnaround time, we ran into a familiar face -- someone we'd seen the day before in Water Holes. We asked him how long the slot went on. "Longer than I have time for today ..." That turned out to be the answer we got from everyone we asked: "I don't know, I wish I could stay longer and follow it further." So did we! But alas, eventually we had to retrace our steps back to the parking lot and continue on our journey.

When we hit highway 89, we did make a brief detour east to see if we could see the Cockscomb. We're still not sure; I suspect from the Escalante Staircase map that the lovely, striped, jagged line of rocks labelled "The Rimrocks" which we saw from the highway are not really part of the Cockscomb proper. So we'll have to go back to see that, too.

We pulled in to Kanab at a reasonable time, secured lodging, and got some Navajo tacos and sopaipillas at our favorite Kanab restaurant, Nedra's.

We've seen three southwestern slot canyons now: Antelope, Water Holes, and Wire Pass (which may or may not be Buckskin Gulch canyon; the maps aren't very clear). They're similar, but all have different characters. It's clear why Antelope is the famous tourist attraction: it had the best light and color of the three, the best "golden light", so it's the one photographers will be most eager to see. But the other two are more fun for folks like us who like to get away from the crowds and explore on our own, maybe not quite knowing what to expect. We're glad we saw Antelope first; we're even gladder that we decided to explore other canyons afterward.

Thus ends our winning couple of days at the slots. With pockets full of millions of jingling pixels, we now head homeward.

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