Backpacking in the Escalante and a Grand Gulch Dayhike

26 August 2008

A Few Days in the Escalante

Robert and I spent five days in the Escalante from 17 through 21 August, 2008. Four days were on the trail, the fifth day was at the trailhead camp that turned out to be much nicer than we expected. Our hike took us from the Horse Canyon trailhead down Horse Canyon to the Escalante River. I hiked up the river one day to The Gulch and took a look at The Gulch, about two kilometers up, and a few of its short side canyons before returning the same way. The Gulch was quite choked up, even with the recent rainstorm, and there were no tracks from other hikers visible at all. Our way out was up Horse Canyon to Little Death Hollow for a muddy walk through the slot.

An old cowboy line shack in Horse Canyon, once a train caboose.

Recent rains in the area had washed out roads throughout southeast Utah, including in the Escalante. Luck was with us though, and we were among the first to drive on recently graded roads. We had no trouble at all navigating the roads to the Horse Canyon trailhead. On the way out I drove the Wolverine Loop road back out to the Burr Trail and down the switchbacks to the east. I drove all the way to Bullfrog for (expensive) gas on the backroads. A ranger in the town of Escalante advised Robert that it wasn’t the right time of the year to go down these canyons, that they might be impassable, or choked with underbrush. He even said that the Horse Canyon trailhead afforded no good camping. Our experience was nearly the opposite.

Four days was more than enough for this hike, three would have been adequate. We chose to spend two nights at our camp right on the Escalante River. The river had calmed down by then and the water was running clean. There was no settling of the river water necessary, we just filled our bottles and Dromedary bags and used the Miox to purify the water. We took advantage of the cool water for swimming many times during our two days there.

The narrows of Little Death Hollow.

The hike up the river to The Gulch was interesting. Half of the walk was in the river, the other half following cow trails through shortcuts in the brush as the river meandered beside me.

The walk in the river wasn’t bad, kept me cool and it made me wonder about doing the entire river that way- starting out at the highway bridge north of the town of Escalante and walking down to Coyote Gulch, about 75 miles away.

It would be an interesting way to see the river. If you do any navigating of the river on foot, be sure to bring a solid pair of shoes or boots for wading.

Little death Hollow is a great slot canyon with kilometers of narrows to enjoy. Because of the recent rains it got quite muddy at times. At one point we even climbed out to skirt what appeared to be as much as 100 meters or more of water and choke stones on the canyon bottom. We were prepared for backpacking, not canyoneering, and this seemed to be the safest and most comfortable way around. I will surely return to this canyon for more exploration at another time.

Upper Grand Gulch

After leaving the Escalante I managed to spend one day hiking on Cedar Mesa in the upper end of Grand Gulch. It was a hike I had been meaning to do for years, and with it I have hiked all but about 3 kilometers of Grand Gulch. I parked right at the intersection of Highways 95 and 261 and walked right into the drainage. It took me about 3 1/2 hours to reach the junction with Kane Gulch, about 10 kilometers down canyon. I took a quick look at Junction Ruin, and returned the same way, although I veered west about 4 kilometers from my starting point where a drainage comes in from the west.

Ruin in upper Grand Gulch.

The hike was easy, except for two pouroffs about one kilometer up from the junction with Kane Gulch. One of them required a jump down, and a climb back up. The other I just skirted by climbing through a boulder field. There are at least a few ruins in this part of the canyon that are well worth seeing. The one pictured above, along with another about 500 meters away from it, were built with bright red sand from the wash in Grand Gulch immediately adjacent.  The red sand mortar had stained the stones and both ruins stood out among the deep green of the Pinyon, Junipers, Cottonwoods, desert Aspens, and Mormon tea.  They were easily visible from the canyon bottom below.

For more info on both of these hikes, and others in both areas, visit the Desert Explorer website.

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The White Rim by Bike- A Nice Stroll Through the Park

15 August 2008

I am writing this post from the public library in Moab, Utah. I am sure I am not the first to do so. The new library- a couple of years old now- is a great place to take a break. And the wireless connection is fast and free.

First, some recent Moab area happenings before I get to the ride. I am sure that most everyone has heard about geologic time ruthlessly moving forward, and the demise of Wall Arch in Arches National Park. But if you haven’t heard the news, tempus eda rerum- time devours all. (Forgive me if the Latin is mis-spelled or grammatically incorrect- I never took Latin.) An arch fell. Others will follow. Next, a coffee house has also fallen. Mojo is no more. It was in the Edie McStiffs plaza on Main Street, until about two weeks ago. News is that another coffee shop will open in its place shortly. I will strike it from my Moab web page soon, or perhaps replace it. Finally, about a week ago the area saw one of the biggest storms in recent memory, meaning old-timers couldn’t recall so much water in such a short amount of time. As luck would have it, most of the rain fell outside of inhabited areas, but quickly headed through washes towards roads and houses. There was no serious damage, no one injured. A few tourists had to be “rescued” from the far side of the Green River, and mud had to be bulldozed off a bunch of low spots on many roads. Most importantly, the Shafer trail from the Canyonlands National Park visitor’s center to the White Rim trail was washed away, closed down, and has been since the storm. On to the ride….

I was to begin my ride from the Canyonlands National Park visitor’s center, down the Shafer trail, to the White Rim trail. But nature would have me take a little detour. It really wasn’t all bad- Long’s Canyon and Pucker Pass were certainly interesting towing 90 pounds of B.O.B. trailer behind me. Or was the trailer pushing me? Even better were the next 11 miles up (UP) Potash Road to the Shafer campsite. I really do not mind signs that read “steep, narrow, winding road next 11 miles”. I mind them less when I read them on my way down.

All in all the detour only added about 20 miles to the normally 103 mile loop. It was a good thing I had added an extra day for rest- who needs rest anyway? All joking aside, the ride wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be. Once I arrived at the Shafer campsite for my fist night of rest, drank a couple quarts of the precious water I had hauled behind me, and ate a huge dinner, I felt great. I enjoyed the quiet, calm, starry night and slept straight through. The next few days were rather easy rides. Of course there is the ascent of the Murphy Hogback- this happens whether you ride clockwise or counter-clockwise. I rode clockwise by the way. Later is the ascent of a wall near Hardscrabble Bottom, again, you do it no matter what. And finally there was the wonderful ascent of Horsethief Trail (a.k.a. Mineral Bottom Road), but only if you ride clockwise. If you ride counter-clockwise you will have to ride up the Shafer trail at the end.

After the first morning, I rose before the sun, ate a quick breakfast, packed up and was on the bike shortly after 6 a.m. This strategy really paid off and I highly recommend it for anyone riding the White Rim during the hotter months. I averaged about 4 hours of riding per day, about 25 miles per day. The rest of the day I enjoyed the geology, the clouds, and stories of Africa by Isak Dinesen. As for water, I started out with about 52 pounds of the stuff- about 6 1/2 gallons. I could have used roughly another gallon to get me to the river, but the storm left some tasty, clear water in potholes. I took advantage of this and pumped out a gallon at the end of day 2. By the end of my ride on day four, at about 1030 a.m., I still had about 2 quarts. This allowed me to settle water from the Green River for the afternoon before pumping another gallon or so for the night and the final day of riding up and out Horsethief Trail.

self protrait from white rim trail ride- on horsethief trail

Final morning, on Horsethief Trail, after the ascent.

I wouldn’t really change anything I did on the ride. Five days for 125 miles is perfectly adequate. Five days for 103 miles would have been even easier. Next time I may try riding counter-clockwise, just to try it in that direction. If you plan to do the ride, plan ahead, but remain flexible. Be sure to reserve your campsites well in advance, especially if you are riding in cooler months, along with the throngs of cool-weather riders. If you don’t mind 95- 100 degrees, as I don’t, ride it in August and you will have the park to yourself. Otherwise plan accordingly. Keep an eye on the weather. And most important of all, carry and drink plenty of water. For more information on water in the desert, see the Desert Explorer website. For more on the White Rim ride, the campsites, planning for it and a “bikepacking” packing list, visit the White Rim page of my website. (Note: I will have the page up after I return to Colorado, at the end of the month. Tomorrow I am off to the Escalante for week of backpacking.)