Trip Report- Swell Rock Art, Grand Gulch, and Johns Canyon

12 October 2010

We are back in Colorado after two and a half perfect weeks in southeast Utah. You never know what to expect at the end of September, but we had great weather with unseasonably warm days and nights. The skies were clear,  filled with stars, planets, and a full moon. Temperatures were a warm 85 to 90 or so during the day, dropping to around 50 to 55 at night.

Rock Art and Green River Town
We began our trip by visiting a few rock art panels in the San Rafael Swell area. All the panels are named, quite well known, and are found on most maps. The Head of Sinbad panel, the Lone Warrior panel, and the Black Dragon panel are all rather easy to find and get to, provided you have a four wheel drive, or are prepared for a little walking. All three panels consist of pictographs, with petroglyphs also found at the Black Dragon panel.


Head of Sinbad panel, San Rafael Swell. The detail in this panel is really amazing, the lines are very fine and crisp.



The Lone Warrior panel is as the name implies, a single, isolated image. The pictograph is exposed to sun and the elements and as a result is not as clear as the Sinbad panel.


Along the way we stopped at the town of Green River where they were having their annual Melon Festival. The honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon were at their peak of ripeness and sweet and juicy. We also made a visit to Crystal Geyser and spent an afternoon there, alternating between walking through the cold water erupting from the geyser, and then dips into the warmer water of the Green River. There is a new coffee shop in town, right at the corner of Broadway and 150 West- it is a few doors away from the Melon Vine grocery store.  They serve Illy coffee- stop in and support them. See our Desert Links page for more on Green River.

After we left the Green River area we did our usual drive south towards Cedar Mesa with stops in Moab, along the edge of Canyonlands, and in Blanding. Matrimony Spring in Moab is still running strong, and there was nothing in the paper and no talk around town about closing it down again.

Horsethief Road
One important piece of news out of the Moab area had to do with a torrential downpour some time in August. The storm literally washed away the switchbacks on Horsethief road coming up from Mineral Bottom. The road is impassable by any vehicle (even a Toyota Land Cruiser.) It can be walked, and I could portage a mountain bike up through the washed out spots, and get a good workout doing it. According to the Grand Junction Sentinel, the damage is going to cost Grand County about 2.5 million dollars to fix, and it will take about 6 months to do so. The estimated loss in revenue is about 5 million dollars! So if you are still planning a river trip with a takeout at Mineral Bottom, or a ride of the White Rim, you will want to review your plans. See the National Park Service website for more info and great photos.

Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch
We did a couple of overnight backpacks in Grand Gulch and its tributaries. On our first overnight we walked in on Government Trail and Nicolai finally got to see Big Man Panel, something he was very excited to do. Our next overnight took us down an unnamed canyon at the lower end of Cedar Mesa known locally as Lookout Canyon. This walk is not for the faint of heart or those that are out of shape, especially when it comes to exiting up the left drainage if you do the loop. Be sure to see our Lookout Canyon Dayhike page at the Desert Explorer website for more details on this hike. The hike is certainly worth it if you are up for it. Nicolai enjoyed the solitude, and we entered the canyon the night after a huge downpour, so we were negotiating not only downclimbs, house-sized boulders, pouroffs, and brush, but also pools and potholes filled with fresh rainwater. Red spotted toads were out in force after the rains. It was a great adventure, especially for a 6-year old.


Nicolai sketching the Big Man.


Johns Canyon Bikepacking Trip
Next we drove into Johns Canyon as far as is possible with a full-sized vehicle (Johns is spelled with no apostrophe, this is not a typo). After crossing over the drainage in the canyon bottom and heading south out of the canyon, there is a washout that apparently will not be repaired as it has been there for a number of years now and is just getting worse. It stops vehicle travel altogether, although dirt bikes and possibly ATV’s can get past. From this point we got on our bikes and rode most of a day to an even rougher section of what was once the road to the mouth of Slickhorn Canyon. Nicolai made the decision at this point that we should turn back and camp at a nearby switchback. It was a perfect campsite, allowing us to watch the sun set, then Venus, and Jupiter rise in the east.


Petroglyph in Johns Canyon- man with headdress, over a meter high.


Along the way we saw a number of rock art panels. I am sure we missed a few as well. It seems that this road was also a route used by the ancient inhabitants of the area to reach the San Juan River at the mouth of Slickhorn Canyon. If you do this ride, and plan to go all the way to the river, I recommend not hauling a trailer as we did. Panniers would make the portages through the washouts much easier. Be sure to carry a patch kit and extra tubes!

Unschooling in Southeast Utah
Adventures such as these are a large part of our unschooling experience. Nicolai does not attend school; his learning is largely based on what we decide to do on any given day, and on our travels and adventures, wherever they may take place. Learning for us occurs on many levels, but it is always occurring. For example while on this trip we studied not only the rock art of the basketmaker and Puebloan cultures who inhabited the area, but many other aspects of their cultures such as their technology, farming practices, building methods, food storage and preparation, and hunting strategies.

On our trips we always pay attention to astronomy- the planets and their appearance and disappearance, moon phases, and stellar navigation. On this trip we talked about how our view of the stars and planets differ between the northern and southern hemispheres. We always focus on geology while in Utah- discussing geology there is as necessary as breathing. Utah is a living geology textbook. We incorporate engineering and math into our discussions of ancient cultures, as well as the spiritual aspects of their lives. We discuss military tactics and strategies on our trips as well- Puebloan cultures and their choices for habitation lend well to this topic.  And of course there is the flora and fauna of Utah and our ongoing study of primitive skills. The point here is that learning is not something we do at a desk, and never will be. Learning comes with our daily experiences and we take advantage of every one of them to grow and learn and expand our horizons. For more of our thoughts on unschooling and nature, visit the Desert Explorer Wilderness Kids pages.

Next on the agenda: a trip to the Colorado Canyons. It has been years since I have visited the area, and I have been trying to get back there ever since. A few days exploring Jones Canyon from its mouth is in the works for early November. Check back for more on that trip. See our Colorado Canyons pages for more information on the area.

Biking Kokopelli’s Trail- Trip Report; Updates From Moab

25 July 2009

Kokopelli’s trail begins near Fruita, Colorado and ends near Maob, Utah.  The official trail length is 142 miles, most of it on roads, some paved.  I am uncertain what the “recommended” time is for the ride, but 5 days seems reasonable.  I make it a point to avoid learning too much about any ride, hike, or float and enjoy the process of discovery along the way. I used Porcupine Shuttle for my ride to the trailhead.  The owner, Bryan, is licensed to travel into Colorado and has flat rates for the vanload to destinations such as Green River, Grand Junction, Telluride, and Durango and per person rates around Moab.  Call him at 435-260-0896 to schedule shuttle.


Bike loaded with gear and water ready to leave Dewey Bridge.

On day one I began riding in the evening at about 6.30 pm, and rode for about 3 hours through the single track at Loma.  On days two and three I rode for 4 to 5 hours each morning and 1 to 2 hours again in the evening after it cooled down. Both of these days I spent the mid-day drinking water, reading,  and cooling off in the Colorado River, first at Westwater and the next day at Dewey Bridge.  Day four was a day full of pedaling, with very little rest.  That was the longest, toughest day, with about 13 hours of pedaling over the La Sals and into and out of Castle Valley.  There were plenty of options for camping and water along the way, and this long day could have been cut in half easily.  The final day, day five,  was a 12 mile downhill into Moab from high up on Sand Flats road amounting to about an hour on the bike.

My final calculation was about 31 1/2 hours of riding about 155 miles.  The ride could have been done in fewer days, perhaps combining the few hours of day one with day two. The same could have been done on the final day, making it a very long day, with close to a 65 mile ride.

The critical element in calculating daily distances, rest stops, and camp sites is the availability of water.  The first definite water source is the Westwater Ranger Station, where the is a hydrant.  The next is along the Colorado River- this could be Cisco take out, Fish Ford take out, various points along the single track before reaching Highway 128, and finally at Dewey Bridge. These are all very obvious from just looking at the map.  After Dewey Bridge I found at least 10 solid, semi-permanent water sources. I call them semi-permanent because you can never be quite sure with water in the west. I personally would trust that each of them will be there next year, and the year after that.  I won’t go into locations- if someone is interested feel free to email and I will give details.

I was never with less than about 4 liters of water.  The most I carried was about 12 liters- 24 pounds- at the beginning of the ride, again leaving Westwater, and leaving Dewey Bridge.  In hindsight, it was really an excessive amount, but taking chances in the desert, with the temperature reaching about 105 every day, is not a smart option.  I say carry it, and drink it.  Don’t hoard.  Follow the adage that water is better stored in your stomach, not in your canteen.

Food and Gear
I took 5 days worth of my own dehydrated backpack meals, along with an abundance of the usual snacks- peanut butter, Clif shots and bars, and so on. Although my food bag was on the heavy side with all the quick energy foods at near 9 pounds, I could have used more Clif shots, a few more bars, and more packets of Justin’s peanut butter.  I ended the ride with a few snacks and a couple of small reserve meals.  For more on making your own meals and meal planning visit the Desert Explorer Backpack Foods pages.


Shelter set up for the night.

I used the Jandd Mountain Panniers and they performed flawlessly.  Although a bit on the heavy side, they are strong, easy to attach, and have endless options for compressing and  securing gear so there is absolutely no bounce. I slept in my homemade mosquito shelter each night.  At about 9 ounces, it was a perfect fit in my 2000 cubic inch panniers.  I have discussed the shelter on the Desert Explorer Homemade Gear pages. The only issue I had with the shelter was the lack of a pole, and the lack of any method for stringing up the shelter on one night.  Some sort of micro pole would solve the problem, of course it would also add weight.  I improvised on that particular occasion by flipping the bike over and stringing the shelter over it. For a complete packing list see the Desert Explorer Bikepacking Pages.

Moab Updates

Matrimony Spring is still closed, although the pipes routing the water under the road have been vadalised once or twice.  There is still a lot of discussion about what to do with it.  Public sentiment is high for finding a way to treat the water and re-open the spring.  But it sounds like the county does not want the liability involved in trying to keep the spring safe to drink from.  In the mean time, Lyons Park remains closed because of the ongoing bridge work so water is still not available there.  Your best bet for fresh water is Gearheads, just south of City Market.  They have filtered water- as much as you can haul- for free. And if there is a piece of gear you’ve forgotten to bring along, you should be able to find it there.

Preparing for the Kokopelli Trail and Jones Canyon; Everett Ruess, and the Tamarisk Beetle

3 July 2009

I have less than a week before I drive back over the mountains.  This time my itinerary includes about 5 days on Kokopelli’s Trail, a day or so in Moab, then a few days in Jones Canyon in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness. The focus of the trip is the Kokopelli ride, but I have been thinking about exploring Jones Canyon for years and decided this is the time to do it. I am busy laying out gear and food for both trips, and as usual trying to lighten the load by going through it all again.

Jones Canyon

I have been through many of the canyons in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness including Knowles and Mee,  parts of Rattlesnake and Jones, and various other small drainages and treks around the area.  Jones Canyon is typically accessed from the south, via DS and BS Roads, through Glade Park.  It is a trek in itself to get to the Jones Canyon Trailhead which is at the end of the road.  I have decided, since I will be passing by Westwater anyway, to hike Jones Canyon from near its mouth at the Colorado River.

The plan is to  simply park at Westwater, ford the river, and spend a few days exploring the 80 kilometers or so of Jones Canyon. Of course this plan assumes that the BLM rangers at Westwater are okay with me swimming across the Colorado with my pack.  And then there is the question of whether or not the private land at the mouth of Jones Canyon can be skirted from up river.  I will bring along my PFD to help with the first issue, making a clandestine crossing at dusk if all else fails.  As for the second issue, I will asses the possibilities when I stop at Westwater on my ride.

Kokopelli’s Trail and Water

An unsupported bikepack of the Kokopelli poses the challenge of limited water at this time of year.  Over the first three days of the 140 miles ride I’ll have access to the Colorado River for water. But after that, on the two days of riding through the La Sals, I’ll be relying on what I can carry. Or on what I might be able to find.  In my experience there is nearly always water to be found out there.  Its the “nearly” that can get people in trouble. I’ll have the capacity to carry about 4 gallons of water with me, and may add another 2 liter Platypus bottle or two just to be safe.  I’ll make that decision when I do my final weather check, just before I hit the trail.

On this trip I am riding with panniers and Camelbak, not towing a trailer as I did on the White Rim Ride, so I am more limited on what I can carry. I’ll be adhering to ultralight principles to be sure.  At least most of the riding will be on roads by the end when I may be carrying more water, which will make it somewhat easier. The temperature promises to be in the 90’s, so as I usually do, I will be on the bike by about 0600 in the morning. Then I’ll be resting in the shade by 1000 or so, sitting out the hottest part of the day, watching the sun move across the sky from the shade. For more on bikepacking  and packing lists, see the Desert Explorer Bikepacking pages.

News From the Southwest

I have been meaning to add a few quick updates over the last month or so regarding events in the Four Corners region.  I mentioned the big bust of looters in southeast Utah in previous posts.  Another big event, which many people have already read about, was the locating of the remains of Everett Ruess. Ruess is an icon, a legend in the annals of desert mysteries.  His bones and a few identifying items were found early in the year along Comb Ridge, near Bluff in southeast Utah. DNA testing confirmed that the remains are in fact Ruess.

His last sighting was in November of 1934,  near the town of Escalante, over 100 miles away as the crow flies. His outfit- burros, saddles, journal, paints and so on- were found in a corral in Davis Gulch near the Escalante River.  Fortunately his journals were returned to his family.  These, along with his artwork- mainly his woodcuts, but also photos and paintings- allow us a look into the mind of this young adventurer that met his untimely death in the desert. His body his been found, but the question of what happened and how his body made it to Comb Ridge remains.

There are many great books and videos on the life of Everett Ruess.  The April/May National Geographic Adventure magazine covers the recent discovery. Two books of note are  Wilderness Journals/ Vagabond for Beauty combination edition by W.L. Rusho and On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess by Gary James Bergera. The film called Lost Forever explores his travels and the possibilities of his death. It is both entertaining and compelling in its presentation. And if you ever get a chance to see his art work, don’t miss it. In August of 2006 I saw a display of 25 of his woodcuts at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores. I thought they captured the essence of the southwest and Everett’s travels perfectly in their detail.

On to bugs and trees- it seems there is already, or maybe I should say finally, as it was inevitable- a lawsuit against the government for the tamarisk beetle program.  According to the June issue of the Four Corners Free Press, two Arizona groups have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Service for introducing the beetle into critical habitat.  It seems that tamarisk is the home of the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.  Apparently this flycatcher adapted to the takeover of native willows by tamarisk well enough. The fear is that it may not now be able to re-adapt to the slow reintroduction of native vegetation in areas previously overtaken by tamarisk. For more on tamarisk and the tamarisk beetle, see the beetle article at the Desert Explorer website.

Next post: Update from Moab after the Kokopelli ride.

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.)