The Hogsback…there’s no other stretch of highway remotely like it. Eleven and a half miles of the craziest road you’ve ever seen; a rocky spine with a drop of over a thousand feet on both sides and vertigo views of the sandstone cliffs and canyons of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Your senses short-circuit just thinking about it.
This section of Utah Highway 12 runs along Escalante’s northern rim, from Calf Creek Recreation Area to the town of Boulder. In between are terrific hikes, backpack routes, and remnants of Native American cultures and Mormon pioneer days. The area can be the best of the best, the kind of place that you never want to leave. And it can be harsh, with weather extremes and difficult terrain. It’s not for everyone, but it may be your next favorite spot.
“I drove the Hogsback to the turnout at the Escalante River and hiked to the cliff you told me about.” The afternoon radiated heat, and my friend gulped water as she talked. “I scanned the high crevices with binoculars until my eyes hurt. No ancient Native American granary. You say it’s there. But it’s not.” I wondered if she’d found the right trail and the right cliff. Escalante has few marked trails, and to help prevent damage and theft, most granaries, pictographs, and other cultural sites don’t have signs or markers.
My husband, John, and I are seasonal volunteers at Escalante’s Calf Creek Campground, just off the Hogsback. Calf Creek is the only established campground for miles around, and my friend was lucky to get a tent site—one of just thirteen spots. She and I decided to take another shot at finding the granary, so we left John on duty and drove the Hogsback to the river turnout and started hiking.
We found the cliff all right, and now we were trying to locate a roughly thousand-year-old storage structure in a crevice high on the rock wall—a granary constructed by people of the Fremont culture who inhabited this area at the same time as the Ancient Puebloans (or Anasazi), between about 800 AD and 1300 AD. Fremont cliff granaries may have intentionally been built in high, very visible locations in order to call attention to the owner’s status and skills. How hard could it possibly be to find this one?
The two of us used binoculars to scan the cliff face. Everything fit the description of the structure’s location, including the shape of the sandstone formations, but we couldn’t spot it. When my friend and I finally succeeded, I was amazed that we had failed to see the shed-sized granary earlier. As it turned out, the granary was, as the saying goes, “hidden in plain sight.” We had been looking right at it, but its unfamiliarity might have made it almost invisible to us.
Although part of the structure had fallen away, sections of the stone and mortar walls remained. The floor was not visible from where we stood, but I later learned that Fremont builders lay down pebbles in graduated sizes to create a water and critter resistant barrier.
In his book, Traces of Fremont, Utah State Professor Steven Simms points out the workmanship that went into these storage structures. He believes that there are many signs that the Fremont people had a variety of complex features in their culture; they were both farmers and hunter-gatherers, and according to Simms, archeologists tend to assume that ancient hunter-gatherer groups had a simpler culture than full-time farmers. Perhaps this assumption has made it difficult for those who study the Fremont to see them in a different way.
Professor Simms also writes in detail about Fremont pictographs, some of which can be seen from the three-mile trail from Calf Creek Campground to Lower Calf Creek Falls. While petroglyphs are pecked or carved into rock, pictographs are painted onto the surface.
Lower Calf Creek Falls is the only maintained trail in the National Monument, and it’s an incredible hike even if you complete just a piece of it. About halfway along the trail to the falls, a large pictograph can be seen on a cliff face across Calf Creek. A pamphlet available at the trailhead shows the location of this rock art, as well as granaries and several other features along the route.
The pictograph includes three figures, each with what appear to be antlers, horns, or perhaps antenna. Are they wearing headdresses? Are they humans with animal attributes? Or animals with human attributes? If you pass other hikers, you may hear a variety of comments. Some people guess that the figures are shamans or aliens, maybe because those are recognizable images in our culture. Some find the art mesmerizing; others not at all. And a few can’t see the pictograph because they were expecting something small and close-up, not something large and at a distance.
If you see rock art that depicts trapezoidal figures with broad shoulders, and often fingers, arms and legs, you are probably looking at a Fremont pictograph. Sometimes the figures have facial features, clothing, and jewelry, and you may spot pictographs that are just the prints or outlines of human hands. Animal-like figures in Escalante rock art are also commonly seen, and include bighorn sheep and deer, as well as snakes, lizards, and birds.
Some people argue that Escalante pictographs seem too simple to be “real art;” that they’re solely a form of communication, identity, or marking of important sites, and not impressive as far as artistic expression goes. Pablo Picasso, who sought simplicity in his painting, would likely have disagreed. Gazing at the work of an Australian aboriginal artist who painted on bark, Picasso famously stated that “this is what I have been trying to achieve all of my life.” If you look at photos of bark art, you’ll see some of the power and beauty that may also be found in Fremont pictographs and other Native American art.
The Lower Calf Creek Trail and adjacent campground mark the southwest end of the Hogsback, and eleven and a half miles away the community of Boulder marks the northeast end. Boulder is the home of Anasazi State Park Museum, which contains a partially reconstructed Kayenta Anasazi village that was at its height about a thousand years ago.
The Kayenta Anasazi village at Anasazi State Park is thought to have been abandoned around 1275. While various theories have been put forth, the reason for the abandonment is not known. Archeologists are pretty quick to admit how little is really known of the Kayenta Anasazi and the Fremont people who inhabited the Escalante area, as well as the Native American populations who preceded and followed them.
Many of us remember being taught that Native Americans disappeared from this part of North America by 1300 AD or so, but the principle of “hidden in plain sight” seems to apply here. Native Americans hunted or passed through the area after the 1300’s, and small populations were continuously forming, splitting, and reforming. It appears that bloodlines may have continued, but in different groupings and locations, up until modern times.
In 1876, Mormon pioneers arrived to establish the towns of Boulder and Escalante. The pioneers had a plan to use the area’s natural resources in a new way—in this harsh environment, they set out to farm a significant amount of acreage, raise livestock, and reshape and move resources including water and timber. If you’re able to visit the Cannonville Visitor Center, on Highway 12 southwest of Escalante, you’ll get a vivid picture of how the pioneers saw the region’s landscape and a sense of the difficulty of their lives here.
A good number of the people who live in the area today are the descendants of Mormon pioneers. If you look at the family names of those early settlers, you would see the same names repeated among the current residents of Tropic, Cannonville, Henrieville, Boulder, and the town with by far the largest population of the five, Escalante. It wasn’t long ago that living in any of these communities meant a very real isolation; families tended to stay in one place, generation after generation, and although that tradition has weakened, it does continue today.
Until 1935, there was no road connecting the towns of Escalante and Boulder, and mules were used to deliver mail between the two communities. Boulder was reportedly the last place in the United States to rely on hoof power for this service. The “Mail Trail” ran between the two towns, and is now a dramatic backpack route up and down canyons and across vast sandstone slabs marked by rock cairns.
In 1935, an unpaved road between Escalante and Boulder was completed. Built by the Civil Conservation Corps, it’s a semi-circular route between the towns that goes by the name Hells Backbone. The high, narrow bridge that you encounter is Hells Backbone Bridge, and it’s one of those projects where you ask yourself “How did they do that?”—but only after your car has reached the other side and the driver has stopped gripping the steering wheel and gulping.
Highway 12 was built off and on between the 1940’s and the 1980’s. The first time you travel the Hogsback, the portion of road between Calf Creek Recreation Area and Boulder, find a safe spot to stand and look closely at this section of highway.
You’ll see that the road runs up and then along a high sandstone mesa, with Boulder Creek far below on one side and Calf Creek far below on the other. Beyond the highway lies the enormous sweep of land that has drawn successive groups of people to these canyonlands, while down among the rock walls and thicket-choked creeks lie the hidden remnants of cultures that existed here long ago.
SIDE BAR: HIGHLIGHTS OF THE HOGSBACK
A FEW FAVORITE HIKES AND BACKPACKS
Lower Calf Creek Falls, 6 miles roundtrip, trailhead at Calf Creek Campground
Upper Calf Creek Falls, distance variable, trailhead off Hogsback near Boulder Airstrip
Escalante River (hike or backpack), distance variable, trailhead at Escalante River Bridge
Boulder Mail Trail (hike or backpack), distance variable, trailhead near Boulder Airstrip
Be sure to bring extra water, food, and clothing, compass, map, and first aid supplies. Most areas have no phone service or internet, but carry a charged cell phone to use in the event of an emergency—911 may be accessible even where there is no regular phone service
Calf Creek Campground (13 sites) is the only established campground between Escalante and Boulder. Deer Creek Campground (6 sites) is located beyond Boulder on the Burr Trail. Both are non-reservation. Check National Monument website for information.
For dispersed camping (not in an established campground) ask National Monument Staff for restrictions on fire and location, and obtain a free permit.
NATIVE AMERICAN AND MORMON PIONEER SITES
Escalante and Boulder: these two communities have a scattering of historic buildings. Check websites or National Monument Visitor Centers for information.
Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail: In addition to Native American pictographs and granaries, Mormon pioneer sites may be seen from the trail, including a fenced pasture that gave Calf Creek its name.