Saturday 14th September 2019 We had an incredible drive heading east from California to Utah across the middle of arid and barren Nevada. We had been driving into the night, and started looking for places we might camp by the side of the road, when we saw some lights on the horizon which turned out to be the tiny settlement of Rachel. At the edge of Area 51, and famed for its UFO conspiracy theories, the ‘LittleAleInn’ is an oasis and we happily spent the night here instead of camping. Delighted to see photos on the wall of the bar of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost taken here whilst they were looking at sets for the superb movie ‘Paul’ .
Sunday 15th September 2019 Anyway, we eventually arrived in Escalante, southern Utah in the late afternoon the next day. Our rough plan was to hike into The Gulch and Boulder Creek, two tributary canyons north of the Escalante River that we hadn’t visited before. For ideas we used our bible (but aging) guide book – Steve Allen’s Loop Hikes in Escalante – plus our own knowledge of the area and many other references including Jamal Green’s superb website.
With a late start, we had a short evening hike from the point that Highway 12 crosses the Escalante River. We hiked trails along the river, then crossed into the dry Phipps canyon and walked up valley for a while to camp.
Monday 16th September 2019 Lovely moonlit night and we enjoyed nice cool temperatures for breakfast in the leafy but dry lower part of Phipps Canyon. Setting off back down the Escalante River, the river level was low with some faint trails, river crossings and a little bushwhacking to keep us alert! The Escalante is lined with vertical sandstone cliffs and escape points are mostly via confluence canyons. After passing Boulder Creek confluence at about 11am we arrived at a different type of exit point that makes use of a slabby break in the cliffs on the north side. A short steep hike up above the river took us to a ‘line shack’ wooden hut – this route has been used by cattlemen in the past.
From here we hiked on undulating slick rock slabs and sandy washes heading north then south east paralleling above the Escalante River. Our idea was that this would give us easier hiking to reach the canyon of The Gulch than following the meandering Escalante River itself. It was pretty hot though and involved a fair bit of up and down but with the plus of extensive views across the plateau.
Eventually we found a cool rock rib descending steeply down into the green canyon of The Gulch – another route used in the past by cattlemen. Unfortunately for us the ‘perennial stream’ at the bottom of the canyon was dry, so we decided to drop our backpacks and head down The Gulch for about 20 minutes to pick up the Escalante River again and fill up our water bags there. Heading back up canyon with heavier backpacks, The Gulch has a fair bit of vegetation so the hiking was slow but with some interesting overhanging alcove walls. It was hot and sweaty and we were glad to find a camp in the evening by scrambling out of the canyon floor onto a grand slick rock perch.
Tuesday 17th September 2019 Another lovely morning with the moon dappling the canyon walls and we set off up canyon to reach an exit scramble avoiding some dryfalls further on. Still no water in the canyon at all so were glad of diverting to the Escalante yesterday. After clambering up some rock ledges on the west side we picked up a faint trail paralleling the canyon with some great views back into The Gulch. We dropped again hoping to descend back into the canyon and reached a cairned point at the top of a slab/wall. We looked at this drop for a while and decided to give it a miss as it appeared too risky for us! Maybe would be easier in ascent…..
Instead of heading further up The Gulch as we had hoped, our new aim was to cross country over to Boulder Creek and head up that canyon. This again was nice viewful hiking in pleasant temperatures winding our way over to the ‘Bingham Tea Bench’ and actually crossing our tracks from a hike in October 2017. We reached a col and then descended very gradually in a superb slickrock valley south west towards Boulder Creek. This is gorgeous country out here and needless to say we hadn’t seen anyone else yet (nor would we til we hit the road- Highway 12- tomorrow afternoon).
We passed a few deep potholes and gratefully took some water. It appears that we are in a dry period as this year there doesn’t seem to have been the usual wet spell in late summer to replenish the water sources.
At the point where the pothole drainage drops into Boulder Creek it looks impossible to scramble into the creek. However about 300m to the north we found ‘The Crease’, a 30 foot slabby corner that provides a doable way down- maybe about Class 4 in descent? We were happy to lower the backpacks first to make the slightly slippy scrabble a bit easier.
We were now just above the Boulder Creek Narrows, a tremendous narrow canyon with the river running through a subway style rocky cleft. Leaving the backpacks behind we waded downstream for a bit. I guess it would be a lot harder if the water levels were higher, but as it was, we turned round at a pool which would have required a swim to cross.
Back at the packs, we now headed up Boulder Creek. The canyon walls were not too high, but narrow, and the river itself was pretty chocked up with vegetation. At times we hiked up above on slabs, at times we hacked through the willowy brush, but often the easiest way was up the bouldery river (as per the name!). At one point Brian was suspended above the creek pinned to willow branches, with lots thrashing he managed to disentangle from the shrubbery with some scrapes and tears to show for it.
After we passed the confluence with Deer Creek the water volume went right down, but even then there were some waist deep pools to wade through. It felt tough going upstream and we were again thankful for the low water levels. An interesting sight was that the river was packed full of fish – rainbow and brown trout- plus the odd snake.
We found another great campsite above the creek bed on a superb wide slickrock bench. A great if slightly tough day.
Wednesday 18th September 2019 In the morning we had an explore of the slabs around camp before heading back into the creek again. Good to see some hummingbirds and we now came across a fair bit of beaver activity- with chopped trees and a few dams.
In late morning we made it to the middle exit point described in the Steve Allen guide and picked up a way out of the canyon and climbed fairly easily out on slabs all the way up to Highway 12. We had about 3 miles to hike south down the road to the car at the Escalante bridge and this was surprisingly pleasant with cool winds and little traffic.
All in all another great little backpack!