Tuesday, November 9, 2021

 Escalante Sundry II

After a disappointing Spring/Summer hiking season owing to injuries sustained on the Hayduke and in Alaska, I headed out one more time. This was in part to escape all the noise related to covid and politics more generally, as well as to establish whether my knee was fully recovered and ready to tackle the Hayduke again in Spring. As in my earlier Fall trips I went out for several shorter hikes instead of a really long one.

I was not entirely successful in completing my intended trips as the weather was wetter than it had been in years prior. In addition I tried to teach myself a new skill, namely flat tarping, and the cold, windy and wet weather was not the ideal way to begin climbing up that specific learning curve.

Egg canyon

During my first traverse of Southern Utah in 2019 I had hiked Upper Muley Twist canyon, had exited at Shy Arch and then proceeded to the Lampstand. I had intended to descend to the Burr Trail via Egg canyon but had gotten disoriented and used Long canyon instead. Since Jamal had strongly recommended Egg canyon, it has been on my to-do list and this Fall it was time to explore this canyon.

At Boulder you leave highway 12 and drive the Burr Road until you reach the Upper Gulch trailhead which is at lower altitude than the Lower Gulch trailhead, which is higher in altitude. Don’t get confused by this. The Upper Gulch trailhead is called “upper” because it is located upstream of the Lower Gulch trail head.

From the small trailhead a use trail heads upstream and you cross the stream multiple times as you proceed. Even this year, after several days of rain, the creek flow was minor and the crossing is easily possible without getting your feet wet. After about 90 min you reach a place where the creek has dug deeply into the bedrock to form a mini slot. Since the Gulch, alas, is heavily used by cattle you can just follow the cow trail on the right bank to get around the obstacle. Another hour later Water canyon comes in from the left (LUC) and you’ll find that the bulk of the water flowing in the Gulch is contributed by Water canyon, while the Gulch itself has at best a trickle in its wash above this junction. Be aware that this is most likely the last opportunity to collect water until you return to your car. If there is a lot of cattle activity in the Gulch, you may have to ascend Water canyon to its head where the spring is located.

        Lower Egg canyon

        Morning light in upper Egg canyon           

        Mud, mud, glorious mud

        I hope not to be standing there when the cap slides off

Heading further upstream in the Gulch you can follow a use/cow trail which is obscured for a while as it crosses a brushy area with dead trees and sage. As you approach Egg canyon the use/cow trail becomes obvious again. The lower end of Egg canyon is wide and there are decent areas to camp. You should use these if your plans include an overnight stay. Higher up in Egg canyon camping spots are hard to find and, if found at all, not that great, i.e. in the bouldery drainage itself. Soon you will find yourself walking in the wash as it winds its way through the mud hills. The colors of the cliffs to your right as you head up Egg canyon are pretty incredible, at the very top they are really egg yellow.

Jamal had mentioned that there was a lot of petrified wood in Egg canyon, but until I reached about the last quarter of the canyon I did not see any, then a few pieces here and there. At some point I entered a side drainage on the right (LUC) and in short order I found what I considered to be the mother lode, massive pieces and lots of them.

        My size 14 shoe as a size comparison



When this side wash ended I aimed for the butte separating Egg and Long canyons, trying to climb high to cut short the hike. Boy, was that a mistake! The “mud foot” of the butte not only looked steep, it was actually steep. The only reason that I made any progress at all was that as a result of recent rains the mud was soft on top and allowed my shoes to get some purchase. Eventually I realized the futility of my plan and started to descend the mud ridges and slopes to a spot lower down where I might make progress towards getting into Long canyon. And then I saw the true mother lode: three or four intact long petrified tree trunks of at least 2 ft diameter and several other trunks that were in the process of falling apart by separating into disks. This is an area of whitish rock and I conclude that the pieces I had seen lower down in the canyon in the reddish mud slopes had originated higher up in this whitish layer.

The micronavigation in this area is not easy as the different mud ridges run every which way, entirely unrelated to the main direction of Egg canyon. Just keep low and you’ll turn the corner into Long canyon. There is a luckily washed out 4x4 road running downhill on the right side of the canyon (LDC). There would probably be no petrified wood left if the OHV/ATV crowd could just drive up there and take everything that they can lay their hands on (BLM rules state that every American may collect 1.5 lb of petrified rock/year).

The hike down Long canyon is straightforward, you alternate between walking stretches of the old road, which sees some ATV use in its lower reaches, and the wash itself. You pass through a gate in a fence, then head along the road in a southwesterly direction and leave it when it starts heading South again. Ahead of you in a Westsouthwest direction you can see the Burr Trail road as it makes its way between hills 6282 and 6200 shown on the US Topo maps. It's an easy hike over mud hills and ridges to get to the road. Next you climb up to Long canyon overlook with a great view towards capitol Reef NP. Last, you then have about six to seven miles of road walking along the Burr Trail road or in the wash on the right side of it (LDC).

Overall a very satisfying outing worth a day and a half.

West branch of Big Horn canyon

Last year I had hiked Big Horn canyon (see Escalante Sundry) and had neglected to visit the western branch despite Jamal mentioning that this is must-see.  For an upcoming longer hike I wanted to explore the Big Horn trailhead along Hole-in-the Rock road and used this opportunity to visit the western branch of Big Horn. The trail head is not signed, but it is easily found as it is right next to the two big blue shipping containers about four miles from the beginning of HITR road at its junction with highway 12. You walk in Harris wash heading South, making it through a break in the red hills along a use/cow trail that cuts off the meandering wash and in short order (45 min -1 hr) you reach Big Horn canyon. As you enter it at its bottom the main drainage turns right and a narrower drainage disappears to the left in the slick rock. Follow the latter for maybe 15 min, overcome some minor obstacles and you can walk all the way to the end of this branch of the canyon right to where the water is cutting through the slick rock to form the slot canyon.


Beginning of Western branch of Big Horn canyon


                              At the dead end, here the water is still hard at work on the slickrock

Dry Fork narrows/ Peekaboo canyon/Spooky canyon

In an attempt to avoid crowds for this popular destination I drove out to Upper Dry Fork trailhead on a Friday night, slept (uncomfortably) in the car, thereby technically not camping at the trailhead which is not allowed. I descended into the Dry Forks narrows at 8 AM, just ahead of a young couple who arrived as I pushed off. I wanted to capture the morning alpenglow as the warm sunlight was making its way into the canyon. Alas, the phone was dead and I had to recharge from a power bank I carry while walking downstream. The charging process did not proceed as I had expected and I gave up on pictures from the narrows. I continued downstream where another couple caught up with me, Dan and Hollie from the SLC area and we proceeded to hike together for the rest of the morning.

The entry to Peakaboo is a pain in the butt with deep pools below dryfalls. The recent rain had left the sand everywhere moist and sticky. As a result the shoes did not really get secure purchase on the rock and pushing yourself up was hard for a no longer young gentleman like yours truly. At some point I slipped and dunked into the pool below one dryfall and was soaked. The power bank went under, luckily the phone did not. However, this was the end of all photography for the day. With some help from Dan I made it up and over the first three dryfalls and after that it’s just walking the slot. But, somehow, this specific canyon did not do much for me and I bailed midway up. We continued together over to the head of Spooky canyon and headed into it. It digs in pretty deep and is fairly narrow right away. After a couple of minutes you come to the major crux, a 15 ft dryfall that at first sight is impossible to overcome. There is a giant rock wedged into the canyon on top of a whole bunch of smaller rocks down below. From the top of it it’s 15 feet down without any discernible foot or hand holds. Upstream of this big rock is a deep pocket and Hollie very perspicaciously saw a hole between the rocks that she thought we might be able squeeze through. And it worked! You can lower yourself through this hole and I could reach the bottom no problem after first tossing the pack down. I pity the longitudinally challenged!

                        The chokestone defining the dryfall (top right quadrant) from the top
                        The hole to squeeze through right by my foot
                            In the midst of it
                            Almost done!

Downstream of the dryfall the canyon squeezes tightly, in places so tight that you have to walk sideways while your butt and your belly scratch along the canyon wall. Not suitable at all for people who carry a few pounds too many. It is also important to recognize that there is a direction in which this canyon should be hiked, namely East to West. If two parties traveling in opposing directions meet in the canyon, passing by each other is somewhere between difficult and impossible.

I really had fun hiking with Dan and Hollie, a very pleasant impromptu meeting. A few days later I went through Spooky canyon again taking the pictures and recording a brief video



Stevens canyon

Traversing Stevens canyon is part of the classic Hayduke route. One comes from the southern end of Capitol Reef NP via the Baker route into Stevens via "Exit canyon" (not so named officially, but known as such in Hayduke jargon) and descends Stevens canyon to the Escalante river and then up Coyote gulch to Hurricane wash.

I had conceived of a loop hike of approximately ten day duration starting in Capitol Reef NP. Eventually I abandoned this idea as it involved lengthy stretches of sloshing upstream through water in Boulder creek and, as I became aware of the weather forecast, that was not ideal in the Fall of this year.

Instead I did an "in and out" kind of hike, entering Stevens at its lower end, hiking up as far as I felt like it, returning the way I came and exiting via Coyote gulch. I drove to Forty-Mile ridge and parked at the tank. I did not feel like driving through deep sand to the parking lot another 2 miles up the road, fearing to get stuck and needing an expensive rescue. I can hike those 2 miles in 45 minutes without problem, so why risk it? From the end of the road you hike along a cairned route over slick rock to “the crack” right where an amphitheater opens up at a sheer cliff. 

        View from the cliff's edge near "the crack" over the giant dune below.

You can squeeze through a man-width crack between the canyon wall and a slab of rock that has separated from the wall. If you carry a larger pack for a multi-day adventure, you need to lower it as it likely will not fit through the crack. A 50' throw line is your friend. Be aware that there is a ledge not too far below the edge, so if your line goes slack pretty quickly your pack likely site on the ledge rather than the bottom (how do I know you wonder?)


"The crack" from on top

"The crack" after the first big drop off

"The crack" from the second tight squeeze

There are two five-to-six ft drops with footholds, so not difficult, but I pity the longitudinally challenged nonetheless. Once you have passed this obstacle you descend a long dune for total of 900 ft of altitude. I’d hate to hike up this thing in the afternoon sun. As I descended I had the entire amphitheater to myself, the only other beings were a bunch of deer having an afternoon kaffeeklatsch in the shade which they reluctantly terminated to get away from me. At the bottom you can head left up the classical Coyote gulch route as I would be doing a few days hence. If you turn right instead you end on an odd sloping slickrock bench on which you head downstream somewhat awkwardly to get around a serious dryfall in the drainage below. Eventually you reach spot where a tree stump has been installed to allow you to get off the slickrock onto the level of the stream in Coyote gulch. I headed downstream walking in the shallow stream until I reached the Escalante. Heading up this creek I was struck by how murky it was as a result of recent precipitation. I had never seen it that way in the Fall. I camped under a giant wall on the right bank and next morning made my way upstream in search of the junction with Stevens canyon. 


                                Stevens Arch  from near the bottom of the dune


                        Wall along the Escalante near the junction with Coyote gulch


I crossed the river multiple times, carefully testing the ground ahead of me for rocks, boulders and quicksand. For the most part the water was knee-deep and often only ankle deep. However, I also hit one or two deep spots where the water was crotch deep. After two hours of this I may have hiked two miles as the crow flies. I should mention that on the return trip I spent more time on the banks of the Escalante simply because the entries to the paths running on its banks were more easily discernible in the downstream rather than the upstream direction.

Right at the beginning of Stevens it is brushy, but a faint use trail exists that allows you to avoid most of the struggling through the brush. Soon after you encounter deep potholes that you cannot wade by the looks of them, but you can scramble onto a bench on the right bank that gets you around that obstacle. As you descend that bench you have to switch to the other  to get around the next set of potholes as the canyon veers East. To climb onto the bench on the left bank you have to climb a rock pile and from there can step on the sloping part of the bench. This was not entirely comfortable on the way up, but somewhat unexpectedly, without issue on the way back. The reason, I think, is that, again, your shoes are wet and dirty and as you make the step onto the sloping bench your contact with the rock is not as solid as you’d wish. There are no hand holds, so forget about the “three points on the rock” rule.

                                                    The rock pile from on top


        Lower Stevens narrows

After another 30 to 45 min you reach Poison Ivy hill at a pretty substantial dryfall. The downstream end of the hill in the first 15 feet or so is rather muddy and slippery as hell. I slid down the darn thing twice before I figured out a way to support my slipping boots. After this bit there is some boulder scrambling further up and down the other side, steep but not particularly exposed. The canyon winds its way, sometimes you hike South and a short while later North. It is deeply entrenched and quite narrow in places.

                                                        Poison Ivy hill dryfall

                                                Poison Ivy hill dryfall closeup

                                    That's why I love Stevens canyon, never a dull moment

To my surprise another person came down the canyon the opposite direction, Max “Yeti”, a Hayduke hiker doing a Fall hike of this classic route. We chatted for a while and then went our separate ways.

From Jamal’s write-up I knew that the next major obstacle is the famous ramp that gets you out of the inner canyon onto the Kayenta ledges, which can be traversed to the upper reaches of the canyon. From the video I had seen on Jamal’s site I expected a ramp of 35-40 degree slope. What I had not appreciated is that before you climb the ramp you have to climb a talus slope. So I first walked past the spot that is conveniently marked by a few cairns while desperately looking for the ramp. Upon coming down the canyon after finding nothing suitable to get out of the inner canyon, I finally noted the cairns and then came to the ramp. I have been more comfortable in my life, but it is really not that bad. There are various ways of tackling the beast depending on what you are most comfortable with. I leaned my hands against the wall and walked up sideways. At the top you are up about 100 ft above the canyon bottom, so if you fall you are finished, but the ramp is about 8 ft wide and one can manage with acceptable risk.

        "Exit ramp" from inner Stevens canyon to Kayenta ledge

At the top you are on the ledge which in the beginning is rather wide and also features a few deep potholes where I could fill up on water for the hike over the next few hours. As you continue up canyon the ledges come very close to the precipice to your left. A rolled ankle, a stumble or some other mishap could be fatal on several stretches of this ledge walk. In other spots the ledge is as wide as a Viennese ballroom and you could have a waltz party without any risk.

        One of the less comfortable sections of the ledge walk
        View of dryfall from Kayenta ledge (approx. 100 ft above inner canyon)
        View from right above the dryfall to the pool below
        View upstream from the dryfall

You make your way along this chasm for about two hours when you reach the dryfall that necessitates this long ledge walk. From there you continue in generally easterly direction on slick rock and in a wash until your reach the triple point where three washes converge. It was my intention to continue up Stevens canyon and I used the GPS to make the correct and not exactly straightforward choice of which wash to follow. As dusk fell I reached the spring shown on the map and camped. Because of the wide availability of water earlier, surely specific to the time of year for my hike, I did not need to be concerned with getting water from the spring, but it was a convenient way to be “found”, i.e. knowing exactly where I was.

Next morning I hid most of my gear and continued with just minimal food and water to explore upper Stevens canyon. Around the spring area the canyon is extremely brushy, but after a while I found a narrow use trail or animal trail through the reeds (on the way back I found the entrance to a path close to the cliffs on the right bank that allowed me to avoid most of the brush). The canyon continues to wind this way and the other. There are more water sources, at least this Fall, and there are short stretches where you have to contend with boulders that have fallen down from the canyon walls. 


            Not exactly aqua fina, but it would probably do in a pinch (or would have to in any case)

Further upstream there are also stretches where rockfall and brush combine for even more fun. I had not foreseen all of these obstacles to progress and my goal to maybe reach the ridge between Upper Stevens and Fold canyons during this day hike did not seem reachable, so I turned around, collected my gear and started the return journey. In the hours between my hike up canyon and my return several hikers must have come down from Exit canyon as there were foot prints I saw in the morning that had not been there on the way up. However, I never caught up with these hikers and so I continued this hike in splendid solitude.

The walk on the ledge was as mentally challenging as on the way up for three stretches of a couple of hundred yards. The descent of the ramp was fairly straightforward on the return. I camped in a small cave formed by a giant rock to shield myself from the bright light of the full moon.

Next morning I continued downstream, revisiting the obstacles I had overcome on the way up. Both poison ivy hill and the rock stack where less difficult than I had though they might be. As I approached the junction of Steven canyon and the Escalante the US Air Force cam to visit Stevens Arch in the form of four F-18 or F-22 fighter jets screaming by fairly low. Being in a canyon I did not hear them approach and the noise was ear splitting inside the canyon as they passed overhead.

        Probably a very easy landmark when viewed from a plane @ 700 mile/hr

On the return I found a trail close to the cliff on the left bank of the Escalante that allowed me to avoid some of the tedious wading I had done on the way up, but there was still quite a bit of crossing to do and a bit of futile following of trail-like breaks in the brush that ultimately dead ended.

I then hiked up Coyote gulch and this being mid-week in mid-October I had a much better experience than last year when I had been in the canyon on a high traffic day. I met a group of Australian scouts early on and then nobody until I ran into two couples and three young women near Coyote arch. Just the way to experience this special place.

I left Coyote gulch at the rope site, downstream of Jacob Hamblin arch. My memory failed me at first when I tried to find the spot where you can get up and out, but eventually it came back. There is a break in the wall on the right bank downstream of the arch. Do not climb up in the break, instead scramble up the slickrock ramp to the right of the break. Once you are 20-30 feet up, you should see the installed ropes that allow you to attain the canyon rim. Last year I patiently found my way up the steep slick rock slope by exploiting cracks in the wall until I reached the spot where you basically have to use the rope. This year with dusk fast approaching I just wanted to get out of there and so I used the rope as soon as I could grab one. This exit requires a fair bit of upper body and hand strength as you pull yourself up. Your legs will not find many holds to support your climb. So, not for everyone. Alternatively, you can hike up to Hurricane wash and exit via a use trail in there. I am also told that there are climb -outs from Hurricane wash towards the South in case your car is parked at the tank on Forty-mile ridge.

        Coyote Arch
                    Jacob Hamblin Arch from near to the escape crack in the canyon wall on the left
                            Coyote Arch from downstream
                                    Coyote gulch canyon wall
                                        In Coyote gulch

                    Jacob Hamblin Arch from the ledge above Coyote gulch
            View in the direction of Capitol Reef NP from above Coyote gulch

A fantastic few days and still many more things to explore. Next time from the Capitol Reef end for sure.

Box canyon/Upper Death Hollow

(This was an ultimately futile attempt to explore Upper Death Hollow slot canyon. The futility was weather-related in that the second day of my hike up Box canyon it rained steadily and at about 8000 ft in early October the rain was really cold and I reconsidered on that basis my intention to go down Upper Death Hollow slot canyon. I had brought my wet suit shorty, but I had failed in my attempts to purchase a pool mattress that I had intended to use to float myself down the pools in the slot canyon that I could not wade and had to swim instead. Should have brought it with me from home. But the thought of wading or swimming for hours in cold water with likely little sun exposure to warm myself up afterwards was unappealing and the act itself probably foolish.)

I parked my car at the Escalante trail head and then hiked the Hell’s Backbone Rd for about seven miles until I reached the Box canyon trailhead. A pleasant hike upstream while crossing the stream multiple times ensued. The stream crossings were easy, there were always a few stepping stones, so I did not my feet wet. I found a nice clearing to camp with protection from the cold wind that had sprung up in the late afternoon.

As I reached consciousness in the morning the rain started and it continued all day without a break. Within an hour the creek swelled up to at least twice the flow it had had the night before and all of the stepping stones were now submerged. The water was turbid now as well and the crossings took a little bit more time. As the canyon got narrower in its upper reaches I decided to camp early as I felt rather cold and soaked (either from trapped perspiration in my rain gear or failure of the DWR coating). I had brought sleep clothing and could change into it for the night. The warm dinner hit the spot, but the night was freezing cold and on the uncomfortable end of the spectrum. As I woke up in the morning to blue skies but low temperatures, I reconsidered my plans and decided to return. This was an inspired decision as the same evening another front came through with rain and snow. I sat that one out in a motel rather than my A-frame tarp that I had brought on this trip to teach myself a new skill.

Even if you have no intention of doing Death Hollow, the Box canyon is a very nice day or in & out hike with pleasantly changing scenery as you ascend. The canyon is wide in places with large hemlock studded meadows and constricts to a 200 ft width in others. A continuously changing scenery. Highly recommended.


Buckskin gulch

 That has been on the list for along time and this year it was supposed to happen. I had envisioned going down Buckskin to the juncture with the Paria canyon and walking up the latter to right outside the wilderness border for a total of about 20 miles. I'd then walk up to the White House ranger station, along Hwy 89 to the Long canyon Rd, up the latter to drop down eventually into upper Buckskin gulch and return to the Wire Pass trailhead.

 Well, the ranger at White House was not at all encouraging concerning this plan, mentioning lots of standing water and suggesting that a 2mile/hr hiking speed was just not on. Moreover, bad weather was coming and that really put a damper on it.

A week later I returned with the idea of just going into the canyon for a day hike and see for myself. I camped at the Stateline campground about six miles beyond the Wire Pass trailhead and next morning headed for the TH in the dark. Mine was car #3. I cooked breakfast to give dawn a bit more time to do its work and then set out in the wash towards Buckskin gulch. As the wash entered the slickrock and began to carve into the bedrock there were two small obstacles to overcome that had been installed by the longitudinally challenged (I had to crawl underneath them on all fours), but I soon got my revenge when I walked up to a dryfall of about 10-12 ft height. There is a rope installed, but there are no foot holds. I pity the longitudinally challenged! No problem for people with giraffe-length legs.

The slot is pretty deep and varies in width from shoulder-width to 5 ft width. You then exit into a sort of amphitheater where Buckskin goes left and upstream as well as right and downstream. I followed the downstream direction first. After about a quarter mile I had to wade through the first pool of chocolate milk-colored water of unknown depth. The bottom was part rocky, party sandy and the water never reached above my knee if I chose my path correctly, probing with my walking poles as I carefully went on. Another half a mile later another, similar pool.

I went for about an hour and a half at which point I caught up to a group ahead of me whom I had been hearing from in the distance for 20 min. They were playing muzzack on a bluetooth speaker and loudly discussing every foot placement. I called in the drone strike, but the drone could not make it into the slot canyon, so these assholes lived. I figured it would take me another 30 min to get out of earshot after passing them and then I'd have to listen to them again for an hour on the way back. So I turned around, returned to the amphitheater and then went up Upper Buckskin slot where I ran into the elephant:

 I encountered two groups on horseback, one in the slot portion and one after the canyon had opened up. The walking was really difficult in places because the fine sand/clay was slick as soap, but eventually I reached the Buckskin gulch TH and then returned to Wire Pass TH via the road.

                        An extremely slick layer of muck on the wash bottom, a result of recent water flow

The ranger was correct in one thing at least, you can't walk Buckskin gulch at a 2 mile/min pace as the canyon bottom is either deeply sandy or filled with ankle-breaker rocks that you have to watch as you walk. Let's not even talk about the time you'll be spending just gawking. What a jaw-dropping place! The pools I encountered were not problematic, but I obviously do not know what they were like further downcanyon. If you want to do the whole thing, you'd have to come when days are longer and ideally with an overnight permit. 

A place that lives up to its reputation. *****