I was lucky enough to have the last two weeks of September to myself in the Grand Gulch area of southeast Utah this year. I managed to spend about a week in Grand Gulch and on Cedar Mesa, and a few days hiking Comb Ridge. During my hikes I found countless rock art panels- a few that I revisited, but many new ones, and ruins all along the way. I also made a side trip down to Chinle, Arizona for an evening of Navajo singing and dancing sponsored by KTNN, the Navajo Nation’s radio station. The weather was perfect, not too cold, and warm during the day. There was one night and morning of sustained rain while I was down in Grand Gulch. There was enough rain to send water cascading off canyon rims and to turn the previously dry canyon bottom into a fast-moving stream.
My hikes started out with a few days in upper Fish Creek Canyon- 3 days and 2 nights to be exact. I entered from the Fish and Owl trailhead and then walked up the Main Fork and came back down the South Fork. This was a section of canyon I had wanted to visit for at least the last ten years, ever since my first trip into lower Fish and Owl Creek Canyons. The head of the canyon seems very inviting as you drive across it on Highway 95. Looking down canyon, it appears that it would be a gradual, even descent on slickrock canyon bottoms. This is not really the case, especially up high.
Since I was traveling alone and not carrying any technical canyoneering gear (no ropes, harness, slings) I started from below and worked my way up. It always feels safer to me to work this way- if I can climb up something I can usually climb right back down it. Coming in from above and following the canyon bottom in an unknown canyon often requires a lot of climbing out- around- back in. This adds the potential for becoming “rimrocked” while trying to find a way back in. Then there is the possibility of downclimbing and coming to impassable pouroffs requiring backtracking and climbing back out. Of course the same will then be true for traveling up canyon, but the potential for getting into trouble is minimised, in my opinion, by traveling up canyon.
Upper Fish Creek Canyon is not lower Fish Creek Canyon, not that lower Fish is that easy of a walk. The canyon started out with water everywhere, and associated brush, requiring lots of skirting of pools, and some climbs around bigger pools at pouroffs. I found pools of hundreds and even thousands of gallons of water on my hikes in Fish Creek, Grand Gulch and side canyons. I should mention that just a couple of weeks before my arrival there was a tremendous downpour lasting some 10 hours at certain locations. This filled the canyons with water, scouring them out and depositing debris, and creating problems for navigation both in the canyons and on the mesa top. I was told by the rangers at Kane Gulch that “the narrows” of Grand Gulch had become a swimming hole at the bottom, and was jammed with debris at the top. There was a group of volunteers clearing out brush and rebuilding trails in that area while I was there.
Back to Fish- canyon bottom walking was rough at times. Besides water and brush, there was plenty of climbing over, under, and around boulders higher up in the canyon. Slots were a problem higher up, requiring climbing out, skirting on a bench, and climbing back in. The vegetation changes as I gained elevation traveling up canyon occurred in conjunction with the slots- once I started seeing Ponderosa and other pines, the canyon narrowed and started to slot. I encountered more slots coming back down the South Fork than moving up the Main Fork. A rope, harness, and some slings would have made for an interesting experience in these upper sections. I spent a few hours on benches skirting slots on the way back down.
After I finished up with Fish Creek Canyon I headed across the mesa into Grand Gulch proper. I entered via Dripping Canyon, which is passable. That is about all I will say on the subject; it is a fun one, and can be done. I spent the afternoon in Grand Gulch and headed out via Step Canyon, where I stayed the night. Along the way I passed by some of the well-know panels and ruins in the canyon bottom. If you are new to Grand Gulch, it was at one time very populated. This is evident as you walk along the canyon bottom; all you have to do is look up every now and then to see ruins and rock art.
Part two of my September Trip Report will cover hikes in Comb Ridge, rock art along the San Juan River, and my visit to Chinle, Arizona. I will also include an update on my tracking book bibliography. Look for that in about a week. In the meantime, for more on visiting southeast Utah, see the Desert Explorer website.