…for visitation to the busier parts of the Plateau. Roads and visitor centers are closed, parking lots empty, days getting longer…
I had plans of blazing through the first miles with my trusty trailhead shuttle mt bike but sandy canyon bottoms and Elephant Hill aren’t exactly blazing terrain so I ditched the bike and started walking.
Nice views down Red Lake…
…and up Red Lake….
Water was trickier than expected for a lot of the trip, with the expected being water everywhere and some remaining snow (based on how things look here at home). I hadn’t carried any water up from the river and had to spend some time looking, but knowing where to look is usually successful.
In the morning it was down into Ernie’s Country…
Some ramblin in the Fins before making my way out…
…and down into the Maze…
Plenty of water in the canyon bottoms…
I never tire of Cottonwoods.
Climbing out again…
Back down to the river…
I hadn’t been down Red Lake before this trip and it’s pretty excellent.
Never tire of Junipers either.
This time of year choosing routes that stay high and out of the bottoms of canyons is usually preferable Water is plentiful and one can take full advantage of the wonderful Utah winter sun, avoiding chilly and shady canyon bottoms. The top of the Waterpocket Fold seemed like a good place to be. We were traveling through the tail end of a rather large weather system, which made things a bit slow and sloppy, especially once we hit Hole in the Rock road. Escalante had about 6″ and I theorized that by the time we got down to 40 mile ridge we’d be out of the snow. Didn’t happen, and the snow actually got deeper the further south we headed. The afternoon was sunny and the snow was melting fast, making for some pretty gnarly driving.
We eventually made it and headed out in the dark in about 8″ of snow. Once we hit Navajo and its stores of warmth only a few hundred feet lower in elevation water was running everywhere. We set up camp and enjoyed the show until it got cold enough for the melting to stop.
We enjoyed the sun for the few minutes it was below the fog…
…and then enjoyed the fog…
All that snowmelt made for some fun waist-deep sections of river walking. Cody getting stuck in thigh deep quicksand at the mouth of Stevens was particularly interesting.
The fog finally cleared in the early afternoon but finding the sun for some drying and warmth wasn’t exactly easy…
It was pretty clear that due to slow travel since leaving home we weren’t making it to the promised land above, so we chased the sun around bends in the canyon hoping for a solid half hour or so to dry off a bit more before the early evening set in.
I think we ended up with about 10 minutes, but it was glorious.
We were a bit concerned about what a couple more warm days might mean for river levels and road conditions getting out so we decided to mosey back and shoot for being reasonably close to the truck the last night.
The river ended up being a little bit lower and hitting it during maximum sunlight made things much more comfortable this time around…
We sat here a long time drying out and wondering why we didn’t just wander around up here for a couple days.
We considered setting up camp here but warm greasy food and beer was calling from up north
A night of car camping and bumming around in the Swell topped the trip off nicely. All in all a fairly terrible route for the conditions but I can’t think of anything else I would have rather been doing.
I guess that living in Colorado, this is the time of year that I’m supposed to go to the mountains, but I just keep heading west this summer. No crowds, hanging gardens going bonkers, and being in a place in a time you aren’t supposed to be there keeps bringing me back.
On the morning of day 2 we took our time drinking coffee to a good 45 minutes of near-continuous lightning.
…and a few sprinkles…
A little rumblin’ from upcanyon and things started to look pretty different. This was about thigh deep and 20′ wide right here. As the raven flies we were only about 6 miles from Fiftymile Mountain (at the top of which all rain would drain in the opposite direction) and had major drainages less than 2 miles to the north and south of us. That’s a pretty small area to gather water from considering it was barely raining where we were. Yikes.
The narrows ahead were clearly going to have to wait, so we did the obvious thing. Willows prevented running more than a couple bends in the canyon, but saying this was a really, really fun morning doesn’t begin to do it justice.
Though it had subsided a bit, the flood was still crankin’ over three hours later. As a cooworker of mine would say, a reeeeeal toad-choker! Everything below here has, at least at some time, been under Lake Powell (note the bathtub ring on the wall). It had stopped raining a couple hours earlier but we played it safe and let the water level drop a bit more before heading into this section of narrows.
Some normally-submerged narrows…
The chance to see some these places that have only been above water a handful of times in the last 50 years was definitely a reason for doing this trip now. These canyons, though are more than rock. Bleached walls, seeps without plants, and feet of silt on the canyon floor will take a long time (if ever) to restore.
There was some hope; the lower canyons were less weedy than I expected. The silt benches are almost completely tamarisk and russian thistle, but along the water was mostly willows and natives and even some young cottonwoods in areas that have been above water for a few years.
Eventually hitting the lake…
it’s a start…
I’ll try not to rant about the lake, but one of the biggest tragedies is that it effectively buit a superhighway (with hundreds of side roads) through one of the most spectacular and remote wildernesses in the country. Side canyons that would take days to reach have jetskiers zipping up to the end of the water just to turn around and head to the next one.
Camp for night two. Between the lake and here was the gnarliest of all beaver dam complexes I’ve experienced, and I’ve been through a few. We counted 12 consecutive dams (those are just the ones we could see). I don’t know the total distance, but it was almost 3 hours of serious thrashing into dusk.
Sometime I’ll just sit in here a couple days. I don’t know that I’ve had a place linger in my mind for days after being home like these few miles, especially in such familiar country.
Somewhere in here I had a bit of a *ahem* mishap with the camera that involved water and this was the end of the photos for the trip. Luckily it recovered.
I made myself suffer by coming home and looking at photos from Eliot Porter and Philip Hyde and Tad Nichols, which typically makes me feel physically ill in the moment, but mostly I just wanted to go back and do it again.
Although my good friend Kyle fell head first and deep in love for canyon country after moving here from Omaha a yearish ago, he hadn’t really done much in the way of multi-day adventures. He’s always up for anything so I let him borrow some gear and we headed out to a corner I hadn’t been to. photo Kyle
I’ve somehow managed to not own a shelter since last September. I’ve been out a lot of nights since then, and not always in good weather (alcoves and ledges have been sufficient so far). Hopefully I can remedy that before getting punished too badly.
How to not lower packs…
Onto the water. Pace on water is still a bit mysterious to me. I had based what I thought was possible mileage-wise on other trips so far, but it was soon apparent that the current was basically non-existant and that we had 32 miles of paddling on the menu for the day.
We considered climbing over Bowknot Bend, but didn’t. I’m all for enjoying the journey, but it was a little hard to stomach that it would take us almost three hours to travel a hundred meters or so as the raven flies…
I knew that the canyon supposedly had perennial water, but this is the dryest time of year–after the runoff and seasonal streams are gone and before the monsoons of later in July and August. We had tanked up at the river just in case and ended up finding a small pool after lunch. After another hour or so, we were stopped in our tracks by one of the craziest things I’ve seen. Out of seemingly nowhere, water just started flowing down the streambed like a crystal clear little flash flood. I’m open to explanations, although I’m happy without one. It was about 95 degrees with no precip anywhere near in weeks.
There was no water when we arrived at the spot the below photo was taken.
Travel got a tricker as we made our way up canyon. The willows got thicker and the boulders to climb around bigger and more frequent. This poor guy was having a hard time getting out of a pool. I gave him a little boost out and was thanked with bared teeth and a hostile screech.
Kyle hit a wall with about 4 miles left. We’d done about 16, most of which were pretty tedious, particularly with 90+ temps and a pack that was a less than ideal fit.
A now-dry canyon didn’t help with morale…
People react differently to facing their physical and mental limits. For some of us, it’s a reason we go (at least sometimes). For some it’s needless suffering. As we arrived back at the truck, I honestly had no idea if this might be Kyle’s last backpacking trip (or at least his last weekend adventure that most folks would spend 4 or 5 days on). He went home and immediately bought a pack, so I guess he’s in.
The first half of the summer is pretty nuts around here. I do biological surveys for a living, which means that the slow winters of almost no work quickly turns into 60+ hour weeks.
Western Colorado is quite rich in endemic plant species, some of which exist only in a several-mile radius.
Most people go places for scenic value or for solitude. Having some understanding of the natural history of an area can transform somewhere seemingly bland into some pretty special places.
When the aim is having my eyes open to everything around me rather than getting from point A to B, I see things that I usually miss while on backpacking trips.
Weekends have been full as well, and packrafting has been the perfect early summer activity when the canyons are getting a bit warm and buggy and mountain access can still be sketchy.
Checking out some cliffs on the Gunnison
Southern Utah’s isolated mountain ranges are insanely awesome.
The only days since mid-May not spent outside at work or adventuring on weekends were spent with good friends in Pittsburgh, where we still did some climbing.
…and a bit of relaxin…
On another boating trip, every desert noob’s worst nightmare was realized and our friend actually got stung by a scorpion while she was sleeping. I’ve always thought (and still do) that that was a completely irrational and dumb fear, but I guess now I’ll have to acknowledge that it happened once.
There was also another particularly great packraft/hike that deserves its own post….stay tuned…
This weekend, rest.
This was a good one. Trips this long are rare, so I tried to be conservative on overall trip mileage to ensure time for some side exploring, picture taking, and maybe a nap or two.
I’ll let route specifics be vague, though many won’t have any trouble figuring it out. Route creativity can be one of the more rewarding aspects of wilderness travel. Trying to find unpublished routes in and out of canyons, dealing with water problems with no beta, and having to wander around or turn around every once in a while makes things more fun.
I had never been through Halls Creek Narrows, and it was fantastic.
It was a chilly, breezy afternoon and I knew I might have some deep wading ahead. The scenery made the potential impending discomfort easy to ignore for a while.
There ended up being two armpit-deep wades in the early evening shadows, which made the last bit difficult to give its due appreciation. Dry socks and a few minutes of sun after exiting the narrows felt pretty heavenly.
I spent much of the second day wandering around the foot (and at times up the face) of the Fold, checking out canyons, springs, early flowers, and having one of the most enjoyable backpacking days I can remember.
I expected a bit of snow at the highest elevations, but it was a surprise here…
Wingate benches make the southern Escalante canyons mostly easy walking. You can definitely get into zen mode here…For the next couple days I’d find myself realizing I hadn’t paid attention to a single step for unknown amounts of time…
I had two sections of river walking planned for the trip. I wavered on bringing a packraft for the trip, but ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth it for the short distances it’d be used. I’ve heard people basically say that the Escalante below Scorpion is the worst desert river walking there is, but I found it to be much less painful than further north. There’s significantly less veg than up north and I only crossed three times in 7ish miles. I’ll take crawling over boulders to crawling though willows any day.
I followed mountain lion tracks the entire way…
River walking still isn’t much fun and I was excited to head up and out…
I don’t think I saw a dry pothole on the east side of the river…the west side was a different story…
After a hours of bone dry unobstructed slickrock walking, a short decent into another canyon revealed the awesome contrast of the Colorado Plateau.
I wasn’t sure if the canyon I was hoping to exit was going to slot up so I got out when I could. Despite looking flat and contourless on a topo (I knew better), the rest of the day was to be most difficult section of the trip. Trying to strike a balance between minimizing ups and downs and still trying to travel in a relatively straight line was particularly difficult here. Where it’s not rock, it’s deep sand. Crossing some slots added to the fun, as did carrying enough water for a dry camp (although of course I found some of the deepest potholes of the trip along the way).
My legs were shot early so I found camp. I opted for views over a flat camp.
Walls in Scorpion Gulch…
A bit more Escalante, upriver this time..
…and up Moody. I sat here and watched a Peregrine for a while.
I wasn’t sure how this section was going to go. After entering the Chinle (and cattle), I backtracked a bit and filled up with enough water to get back to Halls Creek the next morning. The cedar mesa inner gorge was a nice surprise, although I wasn’t quite sure if I should be in the bottom or on top.
After carrying the most water I had all trip, I found a clear running stream from a side canyon right when it was time to make camp. So it goes.
Looking for the path of least resistance below the Circle Cliffs…
Back at the foot of the Fold…
Patagonia merino 1 short sleeve – I took the old (’09?) version and it’s much, much better than the new. Thinner, softer, more breathable…
Patagonia Long Hauler running shorts- worked
Patagonia sol patrol pants – I think I might have finally killed them. They’ve had lots of repairs, but there’s not much left below the shins and I ripped the inseam up past the knee.
Defeet Wooleator x2 -Got a couple holes, but full days of wet, sandy feet will kill any sock
Inov8 Trailroc 245 – Meh…Wore some holes in the uppers and the slickrock did a number on the tread. I’m not sold on the fit, either. It’s fine for general walking, but I think I actually prefer the more narrow Inov-8s for scrambling or tricky footing.
Dirty Girls- worked
modded BD Alpine Carbon Corks – carried them a lot, but I was glad to have them in a couple sections
Aut’s pink Houdini – worked (sorry no pics)
MYOG down jacket -worked
merino buff -worked
OR PL base gloves – worked
Cap 2 bottoms – worked
no shelter- my favorite shelter
MYOG down quilt -worked
Exped Synmat UL- opted for the plush pad for lots of slickrock camps
Tyvek groundsheet- worked
MYOG Pack- performed brilliantly
Snow Peak litemax ti – instant coffee gratification in bed in the morning
evernew .9 – worked
spoon/plastic eating container – worked
2L platy x2 – worked
3L platy w/ hose- worked
steripen+ some micropur tablets – Rechargeables in the Opti lasted all week.
Zebralight H51 – best light I’ve used
maps/compass/garmin etrex 20-worked.
10m 3/4″ webbing-worked. Easier to handle than thinner stuff
Sigma DP2 Merrill- In love so far
I ended up hiking for about six days and total mileage was about 120 not including side exploring (or naps).
I recently got back from a six day trip in the Escalante area and have too much going on right now for a full report, but here’s a bit of gear geekery in the meantime. Prior to the trip I picked up a used Sigma DP2 Merrill. (more…)
We finally bought packrafts this winter for Christmas; two Scouts that had their maiden voyage last weekend. We opted for Scouts over the bigger boats for some weight savings on trips where they’re carried a lot (like this one) and because they seemed like they’d be adequate for most of the water we have in these parts.
The Pinnacle. We had planned to make it all the way to the river, but Happy ended up being a bit longer than expected and we ended up camping a mile or so above the narrows. No rain in the night but we did have a few drops later the next morning.
We had flows around 175 CFS, which seemed pretty good. Higher would definitely be better; lower would probably get frustrating.
It was funny having no idea how quickly we were going to be moving. It was a bit concerning after putting in that we immediately had to carry the boats around a super shallow, rocky, woody bend when we were already behind schedule. That ended up being the only really bad spot and the rest of the day was a blast.
By early afternoon, it was becoming apparent that I had pretty badly underestimated the mileage of the canyon. I was thinking 18ish to the top, 5 to our bikes that we’d dropped, then a couple miles ride back to the truck. That ended up being quite optimistic. It was starting to look like it was going to be a late one…
It was almost dark by the time we got to the top of the Big Ridge. We had some nice views of the Henrys on the way up…
The finishing miles were a bit arduous, but it’s a small price to pay for trips like this on a three-day weekend. Total miles ended up being about 60 hiked, 20 boated. I’m pretty smitten with the boats. The amount of fun for function is insane.
Making a loop out of these canyons has been on my to-do for at least a couple years. I’ve spent a decent amount of time in the area, but never backpacking. Saturday morning was pleasant walking in splendid early March weather.
I was able to follow the trail intermittently as I gradually continued to climb. On top, rotten snow and clay mud made the going quite a bit less fun than the canyon floor. I laughed out loud when I stepped onto the soils of this short section; it was like hiking through Crisco.
I didn’t mind the mud as much as I minded the fact that the upper bench was completely decimated by cattle. Adding soggy cowpies and the fields of dense prickly pear that are often a consequence of heavy disturbance made the afternoon increasingly not fun. After about eight miles of of this, with probably another eight to go to the top of the other canyon (and a big chunk of that on old jeep roads), I decided I’d had enough. I took my time walking towards the sandstone rim of the inner canyon and made camp.
In the morning I walked the rim until I found a break in the cliffs that looked like it would go to the bottom. The canyon floor, which I expected to be a thrash (the main reason I had taken the rim route), had enough game trails to make brush a non-issue. I was somewhat disappointed I hadn’t just taken the floor all the way up the canyon, or done the route the opposite direction. My camera battery died (with no backup) the previous afternoon, so I only was able to squeeze out one last pic on the way back. Out of focus because I fired the shutter as soon as it powered up, but above are Sclerocactus glaucus, endemic to western Colorado.
On Saturday afternoon I felt somewhat bitterly satisfied; I had spent enough time in the area that I didn’t really care that I didn’t finish the route, and the new parts I had seen were ugly and disappointing. After a couple days of more level-headed reflection, though, I’m sure I’ll be back. Canyon floors all the way this time, though.