Bighorn Canyon, Harris Wash and the ‘Cosmic Navel’

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.

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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.

[Click here or the image below for a short video clip]

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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.

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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!

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Buckskin Gulch and slickrock

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……

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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….

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Ötztal Alps

Monday 16th July 2018 Obergurgl to the Ramol Haus We took the train and bus from Innsbruck to Obergurgl in the Ötztal mountains. After a visit for lunch to the Backerei we set off up the north slopes of the valley gradually ascending on more good trail. We had sun, cloud and a little hail, but mostly nice viewful conditions. The scenery improved all the way to the Ramol Haus at 3000m set on a pedestal looking down south across glaciers.

This may be the best hut of our trip and we had a newly fitted wood dorm room to ourselves. We hiked uphill for about 5 minutes with the cooking gear and had a splendid dinner admiring the panorama set out around us.

Tuesday 17th july 2018 Ramol Haus to Martin Busch Hutte  Swirling cloud in the morning added to the atmosphere as we hiked up a short distance then over the Ramoljoch  3186m. The descent was down beside a nice sweeping glacier field followed by boulders then a high traverse southwards on an unusually easy path. We stopped for a brew outside the small ‘Schafferhutte’ once on a bigger trail, then followed it up to the large Martin Busch Hutte.

We headed past the hut for a pass on the Italian border occupied by the private Similaun Hutte. We had intended to overnight here and go and look for the site where Otztal Man was found. ‘Otzi’ was a well preserved, frozen mummified man dating from about 3100 BC. However the weather was a bit grim and we needed to find somewhere else to stay, so we retreated back to the also busy Martin Busch Hutte and got beds in the dorm.

Wednesday 18th July Martin Busch Hutte, Saykogel, Vent Up at 5.45am for the 6am breakfast buffet then off early on a steady climb to Saykogel- at 3350m our highest peak of the trip. Nice trail with some scrambling at the top and we met a solo woman working at the hut who was out for a morning jaunt up the peak.

This was another lovely summit with glaciated summits all round. The descent scrambled down a rocky ridge between snowfields before trail took us into a stoney valley and down to Hochjoch Haus at about 2500m. This was to be our final hut so we had a farewell pancake and soaked up the surroundings before descending down valley on an interesting trail above a gorge to the hamlet of Vent.

We were able to pick up a bus here down valley and eventually work our way back to Innsbruck and Munich for some city sightseeing. This has been a excellent hike in the Austrian Alps and wetted our appetite to return again!

Stubai Alps

Thursday 12th July 2018 To the Brenner Hut We caught a bus out of Steinbach to a trailhead at the small rural village of Gschnitz allowing us to meet up with the Stubai Rucksack Route.

(I guess it would be easy and pleasant to connect our hiking steps into one continuous ‘thru-hike’ and avoid the bus, but we had limited time and were keen to go straight up to the high routes rather than use a connecting trail in the valley).

The Gschnitztal valley is idyllic picture postcard Austria with lush green fields, hay bales and cows dotted between small villages. We exited the bus at the end of the road and hiked up the valley gently at first before climbing steeply up hot trail through forest. A beautiful flower meadow surrounded by steep peaks and bubbling streams was an excuse for a stop before the final push up to the small Bremer Hut. This was possibly our favourite hut so far, being small and next to a tarn with grand mountain views.

After checking in to the hut, we decided to climb the nearby peak- Innere Wetter Spitze, which rises steeply about 700m right from the hut – ‘Weather Top’! Some great exposed scrambling with a little via ferrata took us to the sharp summit with panoramic views with no one else around.

A fantastic day and maybe the best yet.

Friday 13th July 2018 Bremer Hut to Dresdner Hut We started with another steep climb to the first pass of the day with a cool border patrol hut right at the top of a sharp ridge. We hit some rock hard snow slopes descending the far side and had our ice axes out with Brian pulling out a set of microspikes (mini crampons) providing additional grip for the running shoes. Below, the trail wound its way through some lush alpine meadows and streams before dropping through a rock band aided by cables. A mellow hike took us to the Nuernberger Hut nestled in another great spot.

From here another short climb took us up to the Niederl col opening up views to more and more peaks and glaciers to the west. The descent down passed some surreal blue lakes then onto glacier moraine ridges to the Sulzenau Hut. This one was bustling and must be within easy reach of the road as it was mobbed with people soaking up the sun and enjoying the good food and drink!

We happily exited from here for the last pass of the day, the Peiljoch, hiking up past a tremendous zone of glaciers dropping from the ‘Zuckerhuetl’ mountain range. It was late afternoon and we had this trail to ourselves as we descended steeply to our final hut for the day, the Dresdner Hut. This is situated within a ski area and is connected by road so is a bit more hotel like than the other huts, but the food was excellent and we had a great night there.

Saturday 14th July Dresdner Hut to Franz Senn Hut We are both feeling a bit fatigued after 7 long days but are soon fortified by the buffet breakfast- we are consuming a lot of calories on this trip! Our route turned northwards today on another scenic balcony trail, roughly contouring round the sides of the mountains. We cross a steep pass, Grawagrubennieder 2888m, and have the ice axes out again dropping down snow the other side to a rubbly boulder field before reaching trail again. From there we head pleasantly down a wide glaciated valley to the Neue Regensburger Hut, known for its home baked cakes which we had to sample!

Our first pass of the afternoon was the Besslerjoch, which was almost blocked by snow but we sneaked past. The descent is rocky and gets a bit slippery with some afternoon rain.

We are both happy to see the Franz Senn hut in the distance but find it to be mobbed when we arrive at 18:10. Our tactic this trip has been to avoid booking any huts in advance- unlike everyone else- but this gives us the flexibility to change plans and double or even treble up hut to hut days. This time though we have to wait until 20:00 to find out if we can get a bed but hoorah, luck out in that yes there are beds and that we have got a place in the overflow basement ski room. The good thing here is that it is quiet and has a door so that we can have fresh air through the night!

Sunday 15th July Franz Senn Hut to Innsbruck It rained hard through the night and the in the morning. We are a day away from connecting with our next mountain range, the Otztal but have some high passes to go over. We decide to hike down the valley instead and get buses to Innsbruck and dry out. The hike works out fine and once we reach the road, we actually get a lift from a couple also descending from the hut. They drop us off at the small town of Neustift and we catch a bus easily into Innsbruck from there.

Next Ötztal Alps

Zillertal Alps

Saturday 7th July 2018  Edel Hut and Ahornspitze After some shopping in Innsbruck we had a pleasant ride on two trains up to the ski resort of Mayrhofen, past lush green valleys and steep hills rising all around. We sat around with fresh bread and cheese for lunch in the busy village centre  before starting with the helping hand of the Ahorn cable car to 2000m and then strike off on trail!

We climbed on a good trail for about 1.5 hours up to the Edel hut and checked in quickly before heading for an afternoon ascent of Ahornspitze- a nearby mountain with a good trail leading to a scramble at the top. With lots of cloud around we had the occasional view of jaggy peaks and enjoyed some nice steep scrabbling up to the sharp summit at just under 3000m.

Sunday 8th July 2018 Kasseler Hut We were off at 7.45 for the hike to the Kasseler Hut traversing the west side of a mountain ridge and crossing over 7 passes on the way. Much of the time the way wound its way through boulder fields of granites and platey schists making for slow but interesting going including some cool scrambling and via ferrata over the sharp ridges.We hear marmots, see some ravens and meet a flock of large black sheep that take an uncanny interest in us. Martina pats one and they follow us for about 20 minutes showing a stealthy ability to navigate the boulders!

It’s cloudy and chilly all day and we had a welcome brew up at a ‘bivvy hut’ as marked on the map but actually a rather wonderful wooden cabin with 4 bunks and 5 euro overnight charge. We reached the Kasseler hut mid afternoon before some rain set in. A good day over rough trails!

Monday 9th July 2018 To the Berlinner Hut via the Greizer Hut After finishing early-ish yesterday we decided to stretch out a bit and cover two guide book days to the Berlinner Hut.

From the Kasseler Hut we contoured round a steep valley generally westward crossing numerous glacial rivers and snowfields. The sun came out mid morning to brighten up the atmospheric scene around us. There was one exciting crossing of a steep gully filled with a snow tongue which involved hanging down the edge of the snow with our ice axe to reach the other side.

After meeting more friendly sheep we climbed steeply up about 700m to the Lapen Scharte pass at 2701m to great views with puffy clouds, peaks and glaciers. A steady descent took us down to the Greizer Hut around lunchtime. Being well ahead of our guidebook times we decided to stop for lunch then continue the plan to head to the next hut in the afternoon.

Snow slopes in the morning

We sat outside the hut admiring the beautiful glacier views with two hut horses for company. To be honest, everyone was friendly here and the hut terrace was a great place to hang out so this would have made a good overnight stop.

But..fuelled by some Apfelkuchen and 2 cokes we descended steeply to the valley bottom crossing a deafening loud glacial river with a tricky loose gravelly slope. Then it was up 1200m to the next pass- Moerchen Scharte, firstly by some cool ladders and via ferrata to assist the way through an initial rock band, then steep zig-zags up a ridge. We were both ‘firing on all cylinders’ so made light work of the climb with a final snow covered push to the col. More great views!

The descent was stunning over snow patches then past some lakes including the Schwarzersee to the huge gothic Berlinner Hut at 2000m. What a atmospheric hut both inside and out and a fab day!

Tuesday 10th July 2018 Berlinner Hut to Dominikus Hut After a pleasant breakfast on the hut veranda in the sun we set off steeply uphill with more great views of peaks and snowfields. We were following a busier trail here as hikers use it to climb from the hut to the nearby peak ‘Schoenbichler Horn 3133m’. Higher up there was some steep scrambling with cables to the top of the peak with spectacular alpine views.

Leaving the other hikers we descended down steep rock, then onto a snowfield before hitting easier trails to the Furtschagel Haus. Another grandly positioned hut where we enjoyed lunch with ‘knudel spinach’ dough balls. More steep zig-zags in the afternoon took us down to a low wide valley and past the Schlegeisspeicher Reservoir and the now unusual experience of walking along flat trails! The rain came on heavy though and we dashed for cover to a cafe when we reached a road. After a chat with the cafe owner who had lived in the UK for 20 years we headed out into the torrential rain and decided to stay in a bunk room at the nearby roadside Dominik Hut.

Wednesday 11th July 2018 Domikus Hut to Brenner Pass and Steinach It was ‘socked in’ grey and misty in the morning with heavy rain. We decided to set off anyway and cross a slightly lower than intended first pass (the Pfitscherjoch) into Italy then climb higher from there in the hope that the weather would clear!

We headed south, gradually ascending a valley- and lo! – the cloud lifted to reveal some views and the rain stopped at least. It was rather pleasant, relaxed hiking up to the pass into Italy. We then took a balcony trail winding its way grandly round the side of mountains high above the Italian valleys heading towards the Landshutte at 2700m. Here we stopped for a drink and to escape the damp cloud that had now set in again. Another fine hut both inside and potential views outside (when clear!).

A long steep descent now followed to the main road crossing the alps at Brenner Pass – 1350m. The trail was good and the weather cleared as we dropped way down into tree lined hillside and eventually to fields in the valley floor. We had completed our traverse of the first range, the Zillertal Alps, and to save us some road walking to start our next stage, we took transport to the town of Steinach for the night. A superb 5 day hike!

Next- Stubai Alps

Hiking in the Austrian Alps

We had a two week holiday in the Austrian Alps in July 2018. Our aim was to hike on trails as high up in the mountains as we could without climbing and thus avoiding the need for technical climbing or glacier kit (we did carry lightweight ice axes though). We chose to not bring the tent along as well and to overnight using the alpine hut network across Austria. This was a big change for us as we like the freedom and solitude of camping, but the huts allowed us to go light and are a cultural experience in themselves.

So we flew from Scotland to Munich, then trains to Innsbruck in Austria. From there trains to our startpoint at the winter ski resort of Mayrhofen. Then… hike roughly westwards! The three ranges we crossed through were the Zillertal, Stubai and Otztal Alps and you can read our story in the links below…..

Overview map

Zillertal Aps

Stubai Alps

Ötztal Alps

Photo gallery

Thoughts on the hike We followed marked trails all the way on this trip but they took us through some incredible alpine scenery. Many times the trail looked improbable but wound its way through boulder fields, snow slopes, high passes and scrambles aided by ‘via ferrata’. The addition of an extra scramble to the summit of Inner Wetterspitze (3050m) was a great bonus.

The hiking included lots of ascent and descent and many trails were bouldery or over rocks so the going was slow. But the scenery was almost continually dazzling

We hiked from July 7th – 20th which is quite early season for the Alps and there were a few snow patches covering the trails but nothing that caused a problem. We did carry lightweight ice axes and were glad to have them at times for security crossing and descending icy snow patches.

The huts were a positive experience. I have to say I still prefer wild camping with its freedom to lay down where you like and not be confined indoors in bunks or to fixed eating times. But the food was mostly pretty great, the wardens friendly, it was good to chat to other hikers and each hut had great character and sited with splendid views.

In comparison to the classic US trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide, Austria provided more spectacular true alpine scenery with many glaciers and scrambling in exposed positions. There are more people though and much less wilderness with huts, the odd ski resort, occasional pylons dotted around. Trails are universally excellent and well marked but often include scrambling or via ferrata.

The lower valleys and villages are scenic and make resupplying easy. That plus the superb public transport network makes organising getting to and from trailheads simple.

We really enjoyed our visit and would easily head back out to Austria for another hike!

Resources

Walking in Austria Cicerone Solid overview. Check out the rest of the Cicerone website for various other Austrian guidebooks.

Walking Austria’s Alps hut to hut Cordee  Out of print 1999 guide but still available and an excellent book with lots of hiking ideas.

Trekking in the Zillertal Alps Cicerone Definitive guide to doing the Zillertal Rucksack Route (Hoehenweg) which is a classic 7-8 day loop in the area. We followed most of this then cut west from the Olperer Hut. Also good info on additional peak ascents along the way.

Trekking in the Stubai Alps Cicerone Another excellent detailed guide to the Stubai Alps this time.

Electronic maps on Viewranger android app I loaded Compass maps onto the Viewranger app on my mobile phone. Not absolutely necessary but I found these maps useful.

Paper maps from Compass

Austrian Alpine Club (UK branch) By joining you get discount rates at the huts as well as rescue insurance and many other benefits. Definitely worthwhile.

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Hackberry Canyon-Yellow Rock-Paria River

Sunday 22nd October 2017 Arizona Humphreys Peak

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.

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On Humphreys

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.

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From the Cockscomb south down Cottonwood Creek

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Lower Hackberry

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Watson Cabin, Hackberry

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Camp, Yellow Rock

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!