A splendid short scrambling backpack past some amazing sights in the Escalante catchment.
Wednesday 3rd October 2018 With wet weather over the last few days and more forecast, we decided to cut down our ambitious plans for a week long hike in the Escalante catchment and instead go for a 2 or 3 day loop down into the Upper Harris Wash area of Escalante.
We parked on the Sheffield Road a few miles off Highway 12 east of Escalante with an eery mist hanging over the canyons. The sun soon broke through though and we started off down into the slickrock of Bighorn Canyon. This is a tremendously colourful place with generally easy hiking broken up by some interesting scrambling down slots and bypasses round the trickier drops. We left the backpacks at the junction with the west fork of Bighorn and explored it’s narrow slot for a while past some surreal swirling rock layers.
All too soon we arrived at the junction with the larger more open canyon of Upper Harris Wash. The temperature was still cool and this was an enjoyable hike with wide views out to the canyon walls and puffy clouds studding the deep blue sky.
We stopped beside a shady wall for a late lunch before continuing down the dry streambed seeing some people heading for Zebra and Tunnel Canyons. Soon after that Harris narrowed and a trickling stream appeared running down a mellow green avenue of cottonwoods. We noticed lots of woodpeckers along with coyote and turkey footprints in the muddy wash.
Just as the canyon widened a little we scrambled up onto the southern slickrock slopes and set up camp on flat rock overlooking the canyon in a lovely spot. We have been prefering camping on rock out here in Utah where possible as we make very little impact compared with camping on soil or sand. Our freestanding tent and inflatable sleeping mats make it easy too and it opens up the option of more interesting and often viewful sites.
Thursday 4th October 2018 Massive pyrotechnics last night as thunderstorms gradually came closer accompanied by torrential rain. So glad we pitched the tent above the canyon floor!
In the morning Harris Wash had flooded from a trickle of clear water to a muddy torrent about 15 meters wide. Crossing the river now looked impossible but at least the rain had stopped and the sun was out again.
After a pleasant breakfast in the sun we scrambled out of the canyon to the south and followed slabs pitted with fresh pools of water to then descend back to Harris at the 2WD trailhead. The river is wider here and levels appeared to have dropped allowing us to wade across to the north side fairly easily. Cattle trails gave quick progress along beside the line of cottonwoods but the cows have grazed heavily and the vegetation looked pretty damaged.
Soon enough past Red Breaks canyon we picked up a jeep track heading northwards under a lovely clear sky and cumulus clouds. Our target was a geological oddity and wonderful sight given various names such as the Cosmic Navel or Volcano.
A cold southerly wind at our backs assisted us up to the volcano sitting near the top of a slickrock hill. Wow! -a huge hole in the rock filled with red sand and a rock island sitting inside. Its not really a volcano but is believed to be an old river meander or abandoned meandor (rincon) raised up through time to the top of the hill.
After exploring around the volcano we headed north over a beautiful undulating sea of slickrock before reluctantly descending to Big Spencer Flats and picking up a dirt road. This was a long walk back to the car but the clear air and panoramic views made up for it to round off a superb hike!
Saturday 29th September 2018 We drove our rental car today from Las Vegas eastward towards Utah and the colorado plateau. Made it to the town of Kanab – familiar to us from previous visits as well as being famous for its movie history – and then onwards to the dirt road over to Buckskin Gulch Trailhead for about 16:30pm.
Our intention as our warm up for this holiday was to hike down Buckskin to the Paria river and then do a cross country loop back north and west to the car via Long Canyon over 2-3 days. Buckskin is one of the best and most famous canyon hikes around being about 14 miles of pure beautiful narrow canyon before reaching the equally lovely but wider Paria canyon. We didn’t have a permit for camping in the canyons so that limited our overnight options somewhat to either camping short before the Buckskin narrows to a slot canyon or camping half way along Buckskin on the canyon rim scrambling up at a place called Middle Trail. Time was against us for the latter so we set off for a relaxed evening hike down the initial part of Buckskin Gulch.
The evening light made for a mellow hike to help stave off our jetlag – down the sandy wash of Buckskin Gulch surrounded by swirling sandstone slopes. We left the canyon floor about 18:00 and climbed up to the east over some slickrock to find a great pitch for the tent. There was just enough time to explore the rocky slopes further above the tent before the sun set and it was dark quickly by about 19:30.
Fantastic pillow rock shapes in the sandstone as the sun set……
Sunday 30th September 2018 We had a broken first night’s sleep still suffering from some jetlag. But it was a beautiful night with a bright moon lightening up the tent in the night and a stunning silence over the canyon. This was only broken by what I thought was a harley davidson buzzing by my head….it turned out to be a manic moth!
We hiked further down Buckskin Gulch in the morning and it soon closed in on us with lovely scooped red walls. Muddy marks about 3 meters high were signs of the last flood sweeping through here. The gully bed was surprisingly muddy too and we soon hit the first of many unavoidable dark pools. The confluence of canyons at Wire Pass gave us a bright sunny interlude before continuing down. But we were forced to wade muddy pool after pool with slippy silty slopes unseen under the water. We had visited this part of the canyon in 2014 and had a simple hike in dry conditions able to enjoy the fantastic scenery of the steep walled narrow canyon. This time was different with constant wading and mud…..so we turned around after about an hour and headed back to the open area where we had camped.
To save the day we chose to climb up the slickrock slopes to the east to the plateau above Buckskin Gulch and then head north through pinyon juniper forest to scramble back into Buckskin down some gullies. It was a fantastic little trip….
We drove down to the Flagstaff area in northern Arizona and climbed the Arizona’s highest point, Humphreys Peak (12,633ft or 3,851m) using the standard route up from the Arizona Snow Bowl ski area. It was cool to be in forest with pondarosa pine, douglas fir, then aspen up to limber pine and bristlecone pine on the highest ridges. Above we had views around northern Arizona and to the pitted landscape of volcanic cones. Being the highest peak, there were a fair number of hikers around with an excellent trail to follow. I guess though, the peak didn’t have particularly dramatic views compared with what we have in our own sunny Scotland so we decided one day was enough for us and we would spend the last few days before we flew out back in the canyon country of southern Utah.
Tuesday 24th October 2017 Hackberry Canyon
The aim for our last couple of days in Utah was to visit the Hackberry Canyon, Paria River confluence and find somewhere nice to camp overnight. From Page Arizona we drove over the Colorado River, past Big Water then left the tarmac to head north up Cottonwood dirt road for about 12 miles to near the foot of Hackberry Canyon. The light was sharp and clear and the cottonwoods looked particularly golden and autumnal.
With Michael Kelsey’s guidebook in hand we hiked east uphill to the top of Cockscomb ridge on steep dirt road then cross country to the top of the ridge itself. The panorama was cool with great views over rippling sandstone layers and slickrock to Yellow Rock, Castle Rock and Powell Point way in the distance to the north. We then hiked north up Hackberry Canyon which we rather rushed through previously on our 2014 Hayduke hike. The twisting canyon was beautiful and a healthy stream rushed over the sand and between the curving red walls. As the canyon opened out further upstream continued up through cottonwoods to rustic Watson Cabin in a technicolour scene of gold, reds, greens under a deep blue sky.
Back at the car, we packed the camping gear and headed uphill again this time to the west to the top of the amazingly colourful slabs of ‘Yellow Rock’. We found a superb camp near to the summit on slickrock and pitched the tent just before the sun set.
Wednesday 25th October 2017 Yellow Rock, Paria River
We awake early in the morning to see the sun rise and it quickly warms to tent up for breakfast. Stroll over Yellow Rock down to the natural feature ‘the red cairn’ where the rock patterns are particularly vibrant. The peak to the south provided some slabby scrambling – this whole area is cool! We then followed a faint trail west then south back down into the ‘box’ canyon of the Paria River past some lovely cactus rock gardens amidst pinyon juniper forest – very mellow!
Once down in the Paria we hike up to the old movie set (last movie filmed here was ‘The Outlaw Josie Wales’) nearby situated under some particularly colourful Chinle rock formations. The heat began to build in the afternoon and we were happy to splash back down the Paria through the box and up Cottonwood Wash back to the car to complete a great little mini trip!
After a good breakfast at Twin Rocks diner in Bluff we drove to South Mule Canyon for a day walk to look at some Anasazi ruins. Flaming Roof ruin was the best, living up to its name with its impressive streaky sandstone overhanging roof. Whilst here though we both agreed that backpacking for a few days suited us better than day hiking and allowed more of an immersion into the backcountry! So we decided to visit Dark Canyon further west and drove off mid-afternoon back to the basic Hite marina campsite at the edge of Lake Powell.
Tuesday 17th October 2017 Dark Canyon
Some eerie coyote choruses overnight including some right next to the tent. A guy drove into the campsite last night and asked if there were any shops or diners nearby (Hite is a looong way from shops with Hanksville or Blanding being maybe 90 minute’s drive away). Martina gave him 2 snickers for the road and he set off for Hanksville!
Drove down in the morning to the Sundance TH- 11 miles of dirt road with beautiful vistas including the Henry Mountains prominent to the west and Sigor Ros on the stereo – superb! This road is also used as part of the Hayduke trail to hike between Dark Canyon and Hite and then onto the Dirty Devil river.
On leaving the car, we hiked for about an hour using the Hayduke route variation from the trail on a nice faint line through pinyon juniper and some cool slickrock before reaching the beautiful rim of Dark Canyon with horizontal layers and towers below. Three ravens and a raptor swooped above to complete the scene. The descent was steep, down bouldery and sandy ground, but at least is well cairned. We took it slowly and were down to a sub valley that feeds into Dark in an hour. After relaxing behind some massive boulders we moved on down the sub valley on good trail to cottonwoods and Dark Canyon itself with a healthy flowing river (rangers had warned us there might not be water here but that seemed unlikely with this major river system!).
Our aim was to hike Dark Canyon upstream to the junction with Youngs canyon and set up camp to explore- this again being part of the Hayduke trail that we hadn’t yet seen. This was a fantastic walk, often on limestone pavements above the river shore providing a mix of easy walking mixed with scrambling. The pavement terraces were often undercut and embedded with red, white and black cherts (we think) in a beautiful abstract array. Fossils appeared now and then too. With the water often pouring down slabs forming pools and waterfalls, we managed one cold dip but it was fun. The canyon was deep with high open walls blocking the sun out much of the time- perhaps where the ’Dark’ name comes from?
At one point we hit a dead end in the canyon and were forced to back track until we could scramble out the west side before picking up a cool trail following the rim upstream. Nearing Young’s canyon we hit some slower travel, more lush vegetation and bushwhacking before we arrived at the atmospheric confluence with Youngs canyon and set up camp with Youngs waterfall cascading nearby. Great day!
Wednesday 18th October 2017 Dark Canyon
We decided to leave the tent in place and explore Youngs Canyon today. To get into the canyon we bypassed the waterfall by going 100m up Dark Canyon then taking a steep cairned trail before traversing back into Youngs above its pool. Soon after we hit a deeply vegetated patch thick with poison ivy and bamboo- bashing our way through we were glad it only lasted a few hundred meters before we emerged out into a dry canyon.
From here we scrambled up the canyon floor on slabs and over boulders. Staying in the canyon we arrived at a beautiful slabby rockwall which we climbed before being halted in our tracks by another steeper 20m wall. We backtracked 400-500m down canyon to reach a cairn at a side gully and scrambled our way up past a tower on the east to pick up a rough trail contouring up the canyon rim. Following this for maybe a mile it dropped us back into canyon floor where we continued upwards.
Lunch was under some cottonwoods in an open section of the canyon at the foot of the cairned route taken by the Hayduke onto the rim again far above. The Hayduke does a big detour from the canyon floor here to avoid a dryfall above. At 2pm we turned back and this time stayed on the eastern rim trail as it went past the tower, round the rim of the side gulley and on another 500m or so to a cairned descent steeply down a rubbly scooped gully. This went better than expected and we were soon back in the canyon to scrabble through the vegetation before returning to the tent at 4pm. The rim route on our return was much quicker. Overall the section of Youngs we looked at was wild and scenic.
After dinner Brian explored up Dark Canyon from the Youngs confluence and again it was interesting with a more chilled, tranquil vibe.
Thursday 19th October 2017 Dark Canyon
After a warm night we had a brief rain shower at breakfast and once it stopped we decided to both head further back up Dark Canyon and leave the tent. The meanders are tight upstream and we both loved the mellow feel with a gentle stream flowing. There is an attractive large pool which we bypassed on the right going upstream. After about 1.5 miles from the Young’s junction the water stopped flowing and we went another couple of miles before turning back. It would be great to include upper Dark Canyon in a future longer hike- perhaps on the Hayduke alt from Salt Creek or joining into Woodenshoe canyon going south.
Returning to the tent, we packed up and headed back downstream in Dark Canyon. Repeating this stretch was no hardship as it’s so great! We found an excellent place to pitch the tent on a rocky limestone terrace right above the river. Heard a dipper and canyon wren on the way.
Friday 20th October 2017 Lower Dark Canyon and up Sundance Trail
In the morning we hiked back down to the junction with the Sundance Trail after taking a short diversion up Lost Canyon which was also rather scenic. Met a couple of hikers from Flagstaff camping on the way. From there we decided to explore down the lower part of Dark Canyon to where it flows into the Colorado river. The canyon walls close in a little after the junction with Lean To Canyon and after a false attempt on the left, we retreated and climbed up to a trail on right/east of the canyon (LDC). This was a fantastic high ‘balcony’ trail with short exposed sections and tremendous views downstream.
After about an hour the trail drops down steeply to the valley floor at the junction with a side canyon from the east- a lovely spot with water sliding down bare slabs. From here we downclimbed past a deep, beautiful pool on its left and then scrambled up right past some loose blocks. Then things got muddy! Lake Powell must have reached up to here in the past but the lake has since retreated back leaving the valley floor filled with mud and silt making for stodgy going! The temperature built up too and we plodded on but eventually turned round about 300m short of the Colorado river itself.
Going back upstream was easier and again a great hike- we thoroughly recommend this lower part of Dark Canyon. Made it back to the juntion with the Sundance Trail at 3pm in hot, sultry conditions. After a drink in the shade of cottonwoods we shouldered our packs for the steep, hot climb ahead to the rim. Made it back to the car at 5.30pm after another great scenic trip. Drove to the metropolis of Blanding for a motel and pizza!
Slickhorn and East Slickhorn are remote canyons in Cedar Mesa country in southern Utah, with the nearest towns being Blanding and Bluff. Less visited than the more famous nearby Grand Gulch, even our canyonlands bible ‘Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau‘ by Micheal R. Kelsey (must buy if you are interested in exploring the area) has this to say- ‘Adventurous hikers may be able to hike all the way to the San Juan River (?) in either of these 2 main canyons, but the author still hasn’t done that, and hasn’t heard whether or not you can make it‘.
However we had looked at the excellent trip reports from Roger and Susie on the Two Hikers website where they describe a backpack down these canyons in 1997 confirming that, not only is it possible, but that they had an excellent hike as well.
The canyons had the attraction of being seldom visited, rugged, and able to be hiked in a loop by joining the canyons with a hike alongside the San Juan river, one of the major rivers of the south west and itself a feeder of the Colorado River. In addition the canyon’s and their tributaries contain a large number of well preserved Anasazi ruins. We were sold!
Thursday 12th October 2017 We headed east on the road through the beautiful, wide spaces of the southern part of Bears Ears National Monument. This is wild country with few cars, distant rocky buttes and no houses. Stopping off at Kane Gulch visitor centre as we needed a permit for the backpack, Brian asked about potential water sources in East Slickhorn (as this was a particularly dry autumn) but the ranger had no information as ‘no-one goes down there’ -excellent! Another drive down tarmac then dirt road to the head of ‘Slickhorn 2’ and we parked under some junipers to shade the car.
We started hiking south on a sandy dirt road for about 4 miles before splitting to cross country into the head of East Slickhorn. Firstly on easy slickrock with bits of scrambling including a dryfall avoided on the right (right down canyon or west). We carried water with us but there were some intermittant pools of water every 20 minutes or so on the way down although they gradually got worse and disappeared as we descended. A nice set of ruins on a ledge on the western slopes was a good excuse for a stop before the heat drove us onward.
From there the going varied between nice slickrock, boulders, bushwacking and a little trail- never too desperate though and we made good steady progress. Nearing the bottom of East Slickhorn we began to get nervous of not finding any water but eventually found a tiny spring seeping onto the slabby canyon floor. Also we lucked out to find a boulder with a flat top to camp on with views down to the rocky slopes of the San Juan! Bats all around in the evening- a nice start to the Slickhorns.
Nice slickrock at the top of East Slickhorn
Friday 13th October 2017 We headed down the right (west) side of the canyon on steep bouldery ground initially for about 40 minutes to pick up an old mining track that contours round the north side of the San Juan on terraces about 750 feet above the river. Found a couple of petroglyph panels on the sides of huge boulders on the way.
The mining track made for a superb panoramic hike west along the San Juan river – winding its way in and out of side canyons with huge cliffs and escarpments all around. Had a grand food stop above a steep drop to the river across from ‘Government Bird’ rock- a feature across on the other side of the river. It was dry up here but good campsites on the terraces are everywhere! Continuing on we made it to the end of the mining track above the confluence of Slickhorn canyon with the San Juan.
Another useful old mining track zig zags down to the river here and we saw a canoe group packing up and floating off far below. Our aim was now to head up Slickhorn canyon and we picked up a faint track contouring north into the canyon. Eventually Slickhorn canyon bottom came up to meet us and we were able to scramble down into the canyon floor after about 2km. We sat for late lunch by a shaded pool in an idyllic spot.
Went for a short explore down canyon to the confluence of ‘Hanging Canyon’ and Slickhorn where in 1997 the ‘Two Hikers’ had visited a huge 30m wide pool. Today there was a rather stagnant looking small pool of water unfortunately. We took 4 liters water each from another trickling seep a short distance up canyon and then continued upwards. The going got much tougher and hotter with scrambling over and round boulders and with the now heavier loads. Passing the first canyon to the east at 4.30 we scrabbled up further over some massive boulders and found a flat sandy spot under a cottonwood for a dry camp. An excellent varied day!
On terraces above the San Juan
Saturday 14th October 2017 Lovely warm still morning and we are off at 8am. The going eases with some trails appearing in the canyon bottom. Stopping at the junction with Trail Fork, we leave some spare gear under a juniper to explore (flat spots for camping here). Trail Fork is rather beautiful with big cedar mesa canyon walls and a slick rock wash. Looking for a site called ‘Big Ledge Ruin’ we get a bit lost but eventually find a old trail that climbed the south slopes to avoid a dryfall cliff. The ruins are high up on the north side.
What a fantastic location these ruins are in. We scrambled up rock to a long ledge in the middle of steep cliffs with various granaries and kivas. Many had juniper and mud walls and one at the far west end was in a super exposed ledge with a small well preserved step and doorway. The position overlooking Trail Fork was incredible.
We sauntered back to the gear in the main Slickhorn canyon, had lunch, then headed up. After about an hour we hit the next side opening called 3rd Fork. The Kelsey guide covers this area and water is mentioned so we took water bags with us. 3rd Fork is densely vegetated but we couldn’t locate any surface water. On the way we visited a tiny 2 storey granary and wooden kiva, but in the hot sun now these were a little less interesting to us than Trail Fork!
With only 200ml water left between us we now started looking in earnest for water! Martina headed up 2nd Fork whilst I searched up Slickhorn itself but with no luck. Having seen some minor potholes earlier in the afternoon we opted to head back down Slickhorn. At about 5.30 we came across some minor pools in the rock and Martina filtered the water through her neckerchief with great results! Set up camp nearby in a small side canyon north of Trail Fork which had a relaxed open sort of ambience.
Sunday 15th October 2017 The temperature dropped to freezing overnight but the sun soon hit the walls above and warmed us up. Hiking back upstream we explored the western walls opposite 2nd Fork to find some nicely sited ruins on a slabby ledge about 100 feet up from the floor (blog post banner photo). Just uphill a few minutes we followed a faint side trail to more ruins and petroglyphs. The hiking mellowed out somewhat above with some particularly golden groves of cottonwoods. Scrambling up the west cliffs again we found the ruin named ‘Perfect Kiva’ in guidebooks where we used a wooden ladder to descend inside.
We were now near the head of Slickhorn Canyon and, after some exploring picked up an interesting exit trail that climbed steeply before traversing some tremendous undercut slabs at the top of the canyon wall. What a trail! Easier sandy washes then took us to the Slickhorn Trailhead and all that was left was 45 minutes of sandy dirt road back through pinyon pine forest to the car. A fantastic, varied short backpack.
Monday 9th October 2017 Back at the town of Escalante we camped at Escalante Outfitters on a cold and windy night. We have a couple of days before we need to return to Escalante as Martina has a Skype interview arranged for a job back in Scotland.
We decide to go for a loop hike in Steep and Hot canyons, north of the Burr Trail road and have a leisurely morning shopping, drinking coffee, writing cards and preparing our food for an overnighter. Two dusty looking hikers arrived at the Outfitters who looked like Haydukers and sure enough it’s Bert Gils from Belgium and Monique Weir from New Zealand. We had a great chat and they sound like they are having an incredible hike and are looking fit and in good form. Making us feel more than a little jealous of their long hike and the stunning scenery of the Hayduke that awaits them as they head on westwards.
Later on we drive along the Burr Trail and descend a shallow wash into Steep Creek. It’s choked with old spiney and scrapy willow but we hack our way through heading northwards upstream. After about an hour we decide that the potential scenic benefits of this hike possibly don’t merit the bushwacking! If this had been part of a longer thru hike we would have kept at it but since this was just an overnighter we turned back, with thoughts on heading into hopefully scenic Upper Muley Twist canyon instead.
Back to the car at 5pm we drive another 25 miles east to the Upper Muley 2WD Trailhead in beautiful crisp low light and start hiking north. Firstly along a 4WD track into the canyon then just following the dry bed of the canyon. Some great arches on the way too.`
We dry camped around 7pm on sand just next to the dry wash and settled in for a cold starry night.
Tuesday 10th October 2017 Minus 5 in the bell end of the tent in the morning and we set off further up canyon with easy hiking wearing all our clothing layers! the canyon walls close in nicely as the wash twists it’s way along. More great arches and an owl flies by. We drop our backpacks at an arch on the west and explore the slot canyon heading up onto the plateau to the west (we think this is part of Jamal’s Hayduke alternate route to Escalante).
Back in the main Upper Muley Twist canyon we head up further to a narrow slot and a climb up a 20 foot dryfall where we haul the rucksacks up using our cord that we carry. The canyon dead ends a short way after this though so we lower ourselves back down again and retrace our steps for about 300m to see a cairn marking an exit from the canyon that we missed in our excitement!
This cairn marks a fun contorted route along the east wall of the canyon scrambling around obstacles before heading more directly up east onto the rim of the ‘waterpocket fold’ itself. We were now on a rocky ridge overlooking Strike Valley to the east with beautiful wavy rock layers and distant views out east to the Henry Mountains and Tarantula Mesa. A series of cairns followed the ridge line southwards with wonderful hiking and views before, too soon, we descended back down into Upper Muley Twist and back down to the car.