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!
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.
Thursday 5th October 2017 We left Kanab campsite and drove on one of our favourite drives up through Orderville lined by beautiful autumnal cottonwoods and sparkling cold sun, then over the high plateau past Bryce canyon and onto Escalante town through stark but beautiful scenery. We asked at the ranger station about the state of Death Hollow river level as the river had defeated us last year with its deep, cold, fast flowing water. The ranger had one report of a team that had turned back recently at the crux narrows but we decided to head in anyway as the autumn has been dry and we expected the water levels to be reasonably low.
We left the car at a windswept and dusty turn off about 2 miles west of the town of Boulder in mid afternoon at the eastern trailhead of the Boulder Mail Trail. Having hiked the west portion of this trail last year and finding it to be superb we were so glad to be back now on the eastern side.
An easy hike to start on good trail winding its way through pinyon – juniper scrub before we dropped height onto slickrock and to cross Sand Creek with running water and lush cottonwoods, greenery and even some aspen. From there we continued west on slickrock before a bigger drop down rock into stunning Death Hollow. It was evening now and our thoughts were to finding a campsite before dark and we waded downstream in and out of the river of Death Hollow before finding the same site as last year on sparkling white sand on the canyon floor underneath ponderosas. Wonderful!
Friday 6th October 2017 Now for the descent down Death Hollow to the Escalante which had defeated us last year. The river bed here is filled with hard wearing volcanic boulders in many places making for tougher going than many of the canyon rivers here abouts. That plus the ubiquitous outcrops of poison ivy along the river banks slowed us down initially. The scenery was superb though with towering walls and the green canyon floor filled with tall ponderosas.
As we continued the going got easier and steady as we often followed faint trails on the banks between river crossings. The water warmed up into the day making the river crossings easier too. Often the bed of the stream was slickrock sandstone layer. It occasionally dropped off into potholes or deep clefts though such that we had to keep concentrating. We passed the junction of Mamie Creek which was a useful marker point and stopped for a bagel lunch on a beach with sparkling blue pools.
Next up was a section of narrows which were exciting! The water roared through a subway shaped slot with rock overhead forcing us down to a crawl and a sloping slippery ledge under the water for feet. A mistake would have made for a cold swim but we both made it and from then on Death Hollow was more mellow but continually beautiful. Saw some canyon wrens, dippers, blue jays, woodpeckers, 2 snakes and a buzzard!
We made it to the junction with the Escalante River at 3pm and noted that the Escalante had much less flow than Death Hollow. We continued down the Escalante with some trails, river crossings and bushwacking to camp near the Natural Bridge. What a great day!
Saturday 7th October 2017 A cold night. Our shoes and socks froze overnight and we had a slow start waiting for the sun to hit us and thaw us out. We walked downstream along and across the Escalante river which was broader and more open here with sagebrush flats but still fringed by red rocky cliffs.
We crossed Highway 12 and saw a few people here around the trailhead, soon leaving the road and people though on a good mellow trail. Stopped to watch a canyon wren dart about on the rock only a couple of meters away. It had a white breast and long curving beak- good for extracting insects from cracks in the rock? There are a few well marked river crossings but mostly this section of the Escalante down to Boulder Creek is easy and relaxing hiking. Golden cottonwoods lined the river.
At Boulder Creek we hit a huge pile up of wood and flood debris which had formed a large island with rapids through the wood. Just beyond was a fresh downed cottonwood tree, with distinctive beaver teeth marks. Impressive!
Half an hour later we found our exit point from the river on the ‘Brigham Tea Bench as described by the Steve Allen guide and stopped for lunch in the shade from the now hot sun at about 2.15pm.
A faint trail climbed up rock slabs to a dessicated wooden ‘line shack’- an old cabin complete with an old bed and table. From there we headed north on a mix of sandy flatlands and swirly slickrock following a wide bench between the high escarpment on our left and the canyon of the Gulch on our right/east. It was hot and sometimes tiring on the sand but the wild atmospheric open views were a great contrast to the canyon walking.
We decided to keep going into the evening to reach a series of rocky pools on the other side of a saddle on our western escarpment. Made it there to a wonderful campsite on a small patch of sand amongst rippled rock with a string of pools below us descending down the rock slabs. Crystal clear starry night and totally quiet- another great day!
Sunday 8th October 2017 Warm still air in the morning (8C) and we left the tent to scramble up the creased slabs to the north. The slabs were too steep to be taken direct but zig zagging and following lines of weakness allowed us to reach the summit with multiple pinnacles. What a spot!- which didn’t look like it sees many visitors at all but with extensive views across this remote sandstone area with the higher slopes of Boulder Mountain to the north.
Back at the tent we decided to also have a look at the water line dropping westwards before packing up and leaving the campsite. Numerous potholes and vegetated pond oasis’s made it another lovely area to explore.
After a superb start to the morning we continued hiking north along the slabby eastern side of the dome escarpment until it faded away and we turned west to follow shallow washes into Deer Creek. Just before Deer Creek we hit an obstacle of a 30 foot cliff but after a bit of hunting around we found a slender tree trunk lying against the cliff and were able to shimmy down to the bottom. A bit more scrambling through bush, across Deer Creek then up walls on the west side aided by some juniper trees and we emerged onto a trail heading northwards upstream. Relaxed hiking past autumnal cottonwoods followed before we hit the Burr Trail tarmac road at a campsite and picnic tables.
From here we hiked north west on the Burr Trail towards Boulder town on tarmac. Paved road is not our favourite hiking but at least the scenery out here made it very pleasant and there was very little traffic although a supported cycle group came past at one stage. Eventually we caved in and hitched back to the car beyond Boulder. But what an excellent 4 day loop, with lots of scenic interest, variety, scrambling and a few side trips. Recommended!
Monday 17th October 2016 With only three days left before we were due to fly out of Las Vegas back to Scotland and quite a lot of driving to do to get to Vegas, we deliberated on how to best use our remaining time. Eventually we opted for a two-day backpack in the Escalante area again – this time down Wolverine Canyon to Horse Canyon then back out via Little Death Hollow canyon – famed for it’s long narrow slot section.
Our approach to this loop was from the small town of Boulder and a drive along the tarmac Burr Trail road before turning off down the Wolverine dirt road. This was fine for a while but after a few miles it dropped into a dry sandy river wash and we were afraid of scraping the undercarriage of our nice shiny rental car. So we chose to abandon the car and start walking a bit earlier than intended!
This stop gave us 5 miles of hiking down a dirt track before reaching the canyons but the open pinyon juniper scenery was pleasant and we enjoyed the walk. Leaving the dirt track, we headed cross-country into Wolverine Canyon on gravelly, colourful Chinle rock layers and hit upon a fantastic area of petrified logs. Some of the biggest trees were about 20 meters long and one meter in diameter. The detail of bark and growth rings were amazing. Seemingly, these were conifers buried by volcanic ash and sediment around 250 million years ago and silica from the ash penetrated inside or ‘petrified’ the wood.
Continuing down Wolverine was easy following a dry sandy wash with red Wingate sandstone cliffs towering above. The canyon gradually narrowed and meandered with a number of massive alcoves and cool scooped holes in the walls.
The wind was gusting and kicking up sand as we exited Wolverine and hit Horse Canyon. Rather disappointingly there were 4WD vehicle tracks in the wide wash which spoiled our wilderness feeling a little. Hiking down canyon we were pleased to see some water surfacing in the bed and pretty soon there was enough of a trickle for us to stop and load up with water for the night and all of the next day.
We passed the vehicles that had made the tracks, parked at a point where the canyon narrowed and it was trail only from there on. It appeared as if this was a trail maintenance crew with horses. After about 10 minutes more we came to the junction with Little Death Hollow Canyon and hiked up, on the look out for a campsite. Martina found a great spot on a raised slab about 3 meters above the dry canyon floor. With a full moon it was a brilliant last wild camp of the holiday for us…
Tuesday 18th October 2016 A grand moonlit, quiet night with the moon doing a traverse along the length of the canyon, so we saw it all night. Today we were to ascend Little Death Hollow Canyon which has a long, narrow slot section which we were looking forward to.
We started up a slot with deep muddy pools and slippy, slabby walls. This got us both wet and dirty. We began to think that recent flash floods meant that we were going to find more mud and water on the way ahead. For two hours the canyon stayed tight and narrow and….muddy. On a few occasions we had to crawl under boulders jammed in the canyon walls and unfortunately that meant getting stuck into some slime and dirt. It was all fun despite both of us picking up some scrapes and bruises and the eventual opening of the canyon came too soon!
The remaining hike was more mellow as a trail began to form in the now wide canyon floor. But it was still scenic and we stopped at a petroglyph panel on a large boulder before arriving at the canyon trailhead on a dirt road.
All that remained now was about 3 hours of hiking north on the dirt road back to our car. Another excellent backpack which could probably be done in a long day (especially with a high clearance vehicle) but the overnight camp was definitely worthwhile for us.
Saturday 8th October 2016 Choprock canyon provided us with a pleasant, quiet and still night. In the morning we left our camping gear and decided to explore down the Escalante river to Neon canyon – intending to return to the tent and hike up Choprock canyon in the afternoon to camp.
First we had some cold river crossings and tough bushwhacking down the Escalante. We are learning that the rivers are a lot colder in the morning before they heat up from the sun later in the day!
After about an hour we came across more signs of trail and easier hiking- probably because we had passed Fence canyon which is another access point for hikers from the Egypt trailhead. Soon after that we stopped at a large petroglyph panel with a mix of older Anasazi art and more recent ‘Cowboy’ drawings.
We turned into Neon, a side canyon on the left/east side- it was leafy, about 30 meters wide with muddy pools of water and the most striking red walls imaginable. There was poison ivy around but it’s easy to recognise as it is shrubby and had turned to autumnal colours whilst the rest of the shrubby plants were still green. At least it was very visible and easy to avoid.
We hiked and waded for about 20 minutes up the beautiful twisting canyon before reaching a dead end- the ‘Golden Cathedral’. Here there was a pool of muddy water underneath a huge cave system pierced by two large holes where water must pour in times of rain. Reflected light against the walls created a stunning scene.
We sat around for a while before heading back to the tent, agreeing that this canyon was so good that we would return again as part of a future hike someday.
Returning to the tent without incident, we packed up and headed up Choprock canyon. We dropped the backpacks again to explore the south fork, which was again scenic, but we found it had a bit too many deep pools to encourage us to go too far!
Choprock canyon itself though narrowed to give about an hour of tremendous hiking with the walls only a few meters apart.
The canyon opened up a bit after that and with some seeps of spring water appearing we pitched the tent at the junction with the north fork (or poison ivy fork). What a magnificent day for scenery!!
Brian explored the north fork in the evening and then we were treated to a slow motion spectacle of the moon gradually lighting up the canyon.
Sunday 9th October 2016 We awoke at 6.30am to get an early start today as we knew we would be heading out into open and potentially hot territory on our return back to the car. The canyon widened further as we headed upwards but still with steep rock walls of wingate sandstone about 400 meters apart. The going was easy up the gravelly meandering wash and we made good time. We heard canyon wren and saw some jackrabbits, ravens and coyote tracks but mostly the canyon was silent.
We climbed steadily up into the grey and purple chinle rock layer to the watershed amongst pinyon-juniper, before finding a scrambly route down through a short rock layer to the Moody dirt track. There was a massive petrified log protruding from the rock here studded with glistening crystals.
The Moody track provided an easy hike for a few miles back to the car to complete another great and varied loop hike!
Thursday 6th October 2016 We planned to do a canyon loop around the Escalante river again but in a new area to us which we hoped would visit some of the finest scenery in the south west. In 2014 we visited the southern end of the Escalante river via Halls creek, Steven’s Canyon,Coyote Gulch and Hurricane as part of our Hayduke hike. This time we aimed to link up canyons to the north including Neon with it’s photogenic Golden Cathedral.
After coffee in the Burr Trail Outpost in Boulder, we drove along the super scenic Burr Trail for about 30 miles before turning south 10 miles down the Wolverine Loop Road on the east side. The road was a bit bumpy in places but we made it to a junction about 3 miles short of the hiking trailhead for Silver Falls Creek amidst big wide open vistas dotted with sage and pinyon-juniper. Here we sorted our gear out for 4 days and set off on foot down Silver Falls creek. We firstly followed a dusty jeep track to the actual trailhead for about an hour and from then just continued down the mostly dry stream bed surrounded by the colourful Chinle and Wingate rock formations.
The sun was penetrating but the air was cold making for great hiking conditions. As we descended the canyon walls gradually closed in and meandered with the steep clean red wingate cliffs surrounding us. Although cross country, the hiking was pretty mellow following the canyon- allowing us to gaze upwards at the alcoves and streaked rock.
Some water appeared in the canyon floor from springs before we reached the greenery of the fast flowing Escalante river itself. We got lost a bit in the deep willow shrubbery before wading through the river to find Harris Wash on the other side. Lot’s of fresh looking flood debris around here made for tougher hiking but we eventually found a comfy flat sand bench above Harris Wash to pitch the tent….
Friday 7th October 2016 A cold starry night and also a smelly one! We had a skunk pass by the tent during the night but by morning the smell had subsided (or maybe we had just got used to it!).
We left the tent pitched and explored up Harris Wash for the morning. Starting out, we waded up the calf deep wash which had frigidly cold water and it took a couple of hours before the sun crept over the canyon walls and warmed us up. The flood debris made for slow going but Harris had some superb deep alcoves and colourful walls. We didn’t see anyone here and only saw two other pairs of hikers in the four days we were out despite Harris in particular being described as a popular canyon.
Every canyon in this region has it’s own character- depending on the different rock layers, the steepness of the canyon, the amount of water, the size of the water catchment, the amount of sun exposure amongst many factors. It does make for incredibly interesting hiking as the view changes at every meander bend and there are constant surprises to be found!
We saw some wild turkey on the river banks but our main feathered companions were ravens -soaring above us with their shadows flickering across the canyon walls.
We found a side spring with fresh water coming in from a side canyon on the south side of Harris. Here we tried to climb out of the canyon here on grainy slickrock but we gave up due to the slippy rock and the lack of holds! A raven monitored our progress…..
Soon after, we turned around and returned back to our tent for a mid afternoon lunch. The water and air temperature had warmed up making the return more relaxing. Our plan next was to pack up the tent and hike / wade down the Escalante river towards a side canyon called Choprock to camp there.
The Escalante river had a much larger volume than Harris and we had to criss- cross many times in thigh deep water. But it didn’t cause many difficulties despite the steep muddy river banks. Between crossings we hiked most easily on sage brush flats with faint trails and with more difficulty through willow and tamarisk scrub. The canyon here was roughly 500 meters wide and with deep red walls and autumnal cottonwoods it looked great.
We followed some big cat trails for a while, and it looked to us that it might be mountain lion- and quite fresh at that.
Eventually we made it down to Choprock canyon at around 6pm and set up camp in a pleasant open spot next to our ever present cottonwood friends!
Sunday 2nd October 2016 After returning from our hike down the Paria river we thought we would sample the canyons and slickrock plateau in the Escalante area of southern Utah with a short 2.5 day backpack straight out of Escalante town itself.
We descended down to the Escalante river from the trailhead at around 4pm in hot sun but soon found cool shade at the river amidst beautiful autumnal cottonwood trees.
The Escalante was lusher, greener and a little less severe than the Paria river and the contrast felt good. We hiked downriver easily with some good trail mixed with crossings of the calf deep water. After about an hour we came across a huge alcove with a striking set of white pictographs with real size figures. A park service ammo box beside the rock art contained information leaflets and warned against touching the art to prevent it being damaged. It dated the rock art at 2000 years old and the location inside the massive cave was wonderful.
We hiked on a bit, splashing down the river before finding a pleasant riverside campsite. Another clear starry night above between the canyon walls was broken by constant flashes of distant lightning somewhere and some gusty winds. We had a night of broken sleep imagining another flash flood like last week’s in the Paria!
Monday 3rd October 2016 No floods thankfully and we continued down the Escalante with a mix of trails, river and bushwhacking. The temp. dropped and we kept our fleeces and trousers on for a couple of hours as we arrived at the confluence with Death Hollow Canyon. A strong clear flow came out of Death Hollow and it was obvious that the river levels were high which was going to make our long hike up the canyon a little tougher than we had thought!
We set off up the river of Death Hollow which was frigid cold and knee deep. The vegetated banks were stuffed with poison ivy, so the river seemed the best way to make progress. Two dippers dashed around on the river. But boy was it cold! We lasted about half an hour (we reckoned we had about 7-8 hours to our planned exit point at the Boulder Mail trail) and decided to turn back to regroup at the Escalante river again where we were able to sit in the sun to warm up and eat some bars.
After scanning our map and the pages of Steve Allen’s wonderful but now rather ageing guidebook ‘Canyoneering 3 – Loop hikes in Utah’s Escalante‘, we came up with another high level route northwards up onto the slickrock plateau above Death Hollow canyon on the ‘Bowington trail’ before meeting up again with our intended route.
After about 40 minutes further down the Escalante, we climbed up on rock slabs above the canyon amidst some beautiful ‘zen’ water slides and golden layered rock.
We soon hit the ‘Bowington trail’ which we found to be a series of -just enough- cairns across undulating rock slabs and pinyon-juniper. The hiking on this route was relaxed, keeping our feet dry and with panoramic views- to Boulder Mountain to the north, the Henry’s mountains eastward and Navajo mountain south in Arizona. Tall ponderosa pine grew out of the cracks in the sandstone slabs.
Late in the afternoon we started dropping down on amazing rock formations into the canyon of Death Hollow again. Now following the more popular ‘Boulder Mail trail’ the cairns were more prominent but the scenery remained spectacular.
We return to Death Hollow and it’s river was heavily vegetated again but the going was easier at this point upstream of where we started out this morning. We found a lovely white sand bank under towering canyon walls in Death Hollow to camp. A great day!
Tuesday 4th October 2016 A cold morning as we climbed westward steeply and directly from camp out of the canyon on the ‘Boulder Mail trail‘. Grand views all around in the early morning light…
The hiking on this cairn marked trail continued through splendid scenery of pillow and brain shaped rock formations dotted with trees and some great little waterpockets in the rock hollows. We dropped down to cross Mamie Creek with a huge pool maybe 30m diameter at the bottom. The water here was rusty red colour – from the iron rich rock we thought.
The rest of the day we meandered over rock slabs and across some sagebrush flats westward to eventually arrive at a rock rim overlooking a distant Escalante town. The cairns headed steeply down improbably over more rock slabs before we hit the lush corridor of Pine creek at the bottom. All that remained was some now familiar splashing along the river and bushwhacking to pop out at the Escalante river again and back to the car.
What a magnificent short backpack with huge variety of hiking in a quiet area -we didn’t see any other people! Steve Allen describes the Boulder Mail trail as ‘one of canyon country’s premier routes’and we agree with that!