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Take a hike
Calf Creek Falls (Utah, USA)
Member Name: redhead78
Calf Creek Falls (Utah, USA)
Advantages: Beautiful scenery, good workout, not really known to foreign tourists
Disadvantages: Lack of parking, confusing registration system, under-described level of difficulty, busy trail
During our recent trip to the States one place we saw in the guide book before we left and knew we definitely wanted to visit was Calf Creek Falls. It wasn't really near any of the places we were stopping but was handily located en route between two of our chosen destinations, so whilst driving from Moab, Utah to Duck Creek Village, Utah (you would think that being in the same state they would be quite close to each other but the drive took us nearly 5 hours in total, not including the scheduled stop for the hike - numb bum alert!) we planned to stop and do the hiking trail to the falls and have a picnic.
WHERE IS IT?
The Calf Creek Falls trail is in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, in central Utah in the South West United States. It is easily accessible from most directions, although if you weren't deliberately looking out for it it would be easy to miss. It isn't hugely well sign posted and we almost did miss it but luckily managed to spot the turn just in time. The area seems to be very popular with American holiday makers but not so much with foreign tourists. I can only assume that this is because it tends to get overlooked by the more well-known tourist destinations such as Arches National park, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park - not to mention the nearby Grand Canyon of course!
WHAT IS IT?
Calf Creek Falls itself is a beautiful waterfall (see picture above) which can only be accessed on foot. You can't drive here or boat here or cycle here and you can't see it from the road, so the only way you can witness the stunning scenery for yourself is to get off you behind and walk to it! The falls are around 130 foot high and, over the years, have turned the sandstone over which they plunge a strange bluey greeny colour, sort of the colour that I imagine a mermaids tail to be!
The entrance to the hiking trail is located in a campground so, if you're not camping there, you definitely need to a) get there early, parking is very limited and fills up quickly as it's a popular trail. We got there at around 11am and luckily some early risers who had already completed the hike were just leaving so we managed to nab their spot, but otherwise we would have been unable to do the hike and b) pay a "voluntary" donation of $2 per person.
There is quite a complicated and confusing set up with this. You have to regitser to use the trail (so they know how many people are on it in case of fires etc) and put your donation in with your registration form (just names, car registration details etc) and this envelope then goes into an honesty box kind of thing. However, the envelopes aren't kept near the box so we didn't realise you had to put the money in an envelope and just ended up putting it in the box. We then read the signs further along which explained about registering and realised our mistake. So we had to go back and fill in the envelope form and write a note explaining we'd put the money in separately. I did feel kind of stupid, but then again the layout wasn't logical and the information signs should have been near both the envelopes and the honesty box for clarity!
The hike to the trail was described as a "pleasant stroll through a shady, wooded canyon" which would take about 1.5 hours each way and ended at the falls and was accompanied by such a stunning photograph that we both immediately decided it was definitely going to be a stop off on our tour. It was described as 3 miles each way and, obviously, as it is only accessible by foot you have no choice but to walk both directions, there's no easy "American" way out of getting a shuttle bus back or anything, oh no, this is hardcore! Well, 6 miles anyway!
As I said, we got to the Calf Creek Falls site at around 11am, bad planning on our part because it was getting to the hottest part of the day and hottest in Utah in mid-June means around 110 degrees! not exactly ideal for a hike but we'd planned well, had plenty of fluids with us, hats, suncream and besides, it was through a shady wooded canyon after all so shouldn't be too bad.
We walked through the camspite entrance and after about 100 yards found the trail head. We'd already done our registering so started enthusiastically on the walk. After about 10 minutes or so we passed others coming back from the falls, all of whom must have been in their 70's, which further encouraged us - if they could do it we'd definitely be able to!
As we walked on the trail got more and more difficult and the going definitely got harder. It wa described as "flat" and even though it didn't have any huge climbs on it it most definitely wasn't flat and, climbing anything when you're already at an altitude of about 7000 feet is much harder than climbing a mountain from sea level. We're lucky enough to live in the Lake District and so climbing mountains isn't out of the ordinary for us. We don't do it every weekend, but probably climb 2 or 3 summits a month and so didn't think we would have a problem completing a flat trail.
The issue arose, however, with the actual terrain itself. The path wasn't a proper path but a sandy one. Most people will have walked on a beach at some point and so will realise that walking on the damp compacted sand close to the sealine is much easier than walking on the drier, softer sand further away from the water and that was the type of sand we were walking on. It made the whole trail much more challenging and more of a workout and we had to make frequent stops to take liquid on board. The combination of the heat, altititude and sandy path really took it out of us!
It wasn't long before we realised that the guide book hadn't been totally honest and that for the first 2/3 of the hike we were actually very much exposed to the sun and properly hiking rather than having a gentle stroll in the shade. It's lucky that I'm paranoid about the sun (having red hair, pale skin and freckles!) and so we were well kitted out but we did pass lots of people that didn't even have a bottle of water with them, how they managed I'll never know. The scenery was, however, spectacular, with high red rock canyon walls reaching up above us and a small river (which I assume was Calf Creek!) meandering along the valley floor. It was such a gentle river/creek that at one point we stopped right next to it to watch some trout lazily floating alongside the bank. This activity was hastily ended when I heard a rustling in the bush next to me and assumed it would be another chipmunk or prairie dog - which were both plentiful around there - only to look over and see a snake slithering through the undergrowth. Needless to say we didn't linger in that particular spot and paid much more attention to where we were stepping after that!
When we finally did near the falls we could hear them from about 5 minutes away. This spurred us on as we were both ready for some food by this point. We could hear more voices (it was a busy trail, popular with summer camps and scout groups as an activity) and increased our pace. When we eventually emerged into the clearing where the falls were it took our breath away. The falls really are stunning and the picture above can;t really do them justice. The pool area at the bottom was really shaded so provided much welcome respite from the relentless heat, but the tops of the falls still caught the sun, making the water sparkle as it fell to the pool. CHildren were playing in the shallow waters and students were trying to look cool by climbing the rocks, only to fall off because the water has pounded the rocks so much they are perfectly smooth.
Despite there being quite a lot of people there (I would estimate around 50 or 60 by the time we got there) there was still plenty of space for everyone and you didn't feel like you were sat on top of each other. We found a nice quiet, sandy spot for our picnic and afterwards took a little paddle in the waters to cool our very hot feet.
I really wasn't looking forward to the hike back. I knew now what the path was like and that it would be even hotter on the return leg with the sun shining directly down onto the tops of our heads. And, despite taking 5 litres of fluids between us we had somehow managed to drink nearly 3.5 litres of it already so had to ration ourselves on the way back. But we managed it, eventually, and the campsite had several drinking water taps available for us to replenish our supplies. All in all the hike took us about four hours to complete, including about 45 minutes for our picnic and recuperation at the other end.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
Resoundingly, YES! It was a difficult hike by any stretch of the imagination and there were people we met coming back who hadn't completed it because they were worried about the heat. Having said that, at the Falls there were young children (from aged about 4 upwards), elderly people and every age group in between so it is definitely do-able provided you have a reasonable level of fitness. There were also some very overweight people who, although they managed it, looked to be suffering A LOT and some we saw back at the carpark at the end of the hike really looked like they weren't very well. It is definitely worth a stop off your tour to do a hike and is a good one to complete if you're well prepared for not only the heat but the terrain but I probably wouldn't do it again at that time of year.
The scenery is absolutely stunning and only gets better the closer you get to the falls until, suddenly you're confronted by this sheer beauty and vivid colours of the falls themselves. There is also an abundance of wildlife (although not all of it cute and furry!) to see and it is extremely peaceful when you get to a part of the trail that nobody else happens to be on at the time. The only downside for us was that it was such a popular trail. We tend to try and get away from the crowds whenever possible but this was obviously a locally well known destination. My husband grumbled that he wished they didn't put places like that in guide books so less people would know about them but I pointed out that if it hadn't been in our guide book we would have missed it!
If you're in the area and looking for something to do then I would highly recommend the hike to Calf Creek Falls but:
- get there early
- go out of the high summer months and mid-day temperatures
- take as much water as you can carry
- take food, there is nowhere on site to buy any
- wear a hat, suncream and sturdy boots
- don't forget your camera!
Summary: A lovely, challenging hike to an absolutely stunning waterfall
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