Quite the Adventure, South of Moab, Across the Colorado Plateau
Starting off from Moab, on a beautiful spring afternoon, multi-day hike that I had planned seemed relatively straightforward. The route predominantly followed existing hiking trails, known backcountry routes, and dirt roads across the Colorado Plateau in south-east Utah. Admittedly, most of the route was in relatively remote areas but, apart from a couple of possibly challenging little-used sections, the areas I planned to traverse were well documented. The initial few days would overlap several early stages of the Hayduke Trail, which runs for 800 miles from Arches National Park to Zion National Park, via The Grand Canyon.
The Colorado Plateau refers to a 130,000 square mile area of high desert, centered on the Four-Corners region of South-West US, and straddling four states: Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. It is often referred to as ‘Red-Rock Country’. Its unrivalled beauty is encapsulated by the fact that there are 9 National Parks, and 18 National Monuments within the region; the highest concentration in the entire country, outside of Washington D.C. On my planned hike across this ‘high desert’ region, the lowest elevation would be around 4,000’, with the highest point being over 8,500’.
My main concern in preparing for the hike, as with any multi-day hike in the South-West, was water availability, so I had done plenty of research beforehand on likely water sources along the route. In addition, I also decided that, as well as my planned food caches, I would also cache water at strategic points along the route, in advance. Even with these in place, I was still nervous about water availability, especially because my planned start date in mid-May could potentially mean days of very hot and dry hiking conditions, later in the month.
As things turned out over the following days, my concerns regarding water proved to be very well founded, but for reasons that were completely unexpected !
One of the attractions of this route was the fact that I would be encountering so much of the history of this region along the way: from evidence of the Ancient Ones from many hundreds of years ago; to the routes of the intrepid pioneers of the 19th century; to the hardy cowboys of the early 20th century; and to the modern outdoor enthusiast.
As I left bustling downtown Moab on a hot, sticky afternoon, the motorized outdoor crowd sped past me excitedly, on the way to their next adventure. The narrow road was busy with dirt-bikes, Subaru’s laden with mountain bikes, RVs, and a variety of off-road vehicles. My first day’s route took me alongside the Colorado River for several miles, with magnificent views of the huge sandstone monoliths towering above the riverway.
"It's coming from the North-East ... ", "No good for Tombstone then ... ", "Shall we try Cookies ‘n Cream ?". This conversation sounded like some kind of secret code to me. I had stopped for a while at the Amasa Back Trailhead to admire the incredible views of the surrounding sheer sandstone cliffs, beautifully illuminated by the evening sun. A line of jeeps slowly crawled up the steep ledges of the trail below. It turned out that Andy and Pete were BASE jumpers from Colorado, discussing the merits of attempting one of the most famous jumps in the area: Tombstone. They tried to bring me up to speed on the subtle nuances of wind direction changes in Kane Springs Canyon, but all I could do was stare up at the enormous 400' sheer face of Tombstone in wonderment, imagining what it must be like throwing yourself off the top. They finally decided that an alternative peak, Cookies ‘n Cream would be the better bet. Feeling a little queasy and on slightly shaky legs, I bade farewell to these daredevils, and continued on my way. I needed to find a camping spot for the night.
The fabulous views continued the next day, as I followed Kane Creek Road up and over a high desert pass, before plunging back down to follow a route along the lush green creek-side. There were superb views of the high red sandstone cliffs, bordering the Behind The Rocks area, as I continued south. Before long, the sound of off-road vehicles had finally disappeared, and my hiking adventure could truly begin, in earnest !
Waking up to the gentle rustling of cottonwood trees, and the burbling of a nearby stream, was a wonderful start to the following day. It would be difficult to leave such an idyllic spot in Trough Springs Canyon, on a warm, sunny morning. My map showed a thick-dashed line indicating the official trail. This route follows the main canyon, exits the drainage, and emerges at the Hatch Point mesa. One hour later, as I stood perched on a 45 degree talus slope, with some huge piano-sized boulders ahead of me, I was feeling rather confused. As I picked my way slowly across loose scree, I was fairly sure that this was not the thick-dashed line I had been promised from my map ! When I reached the bottom of an unscalable 40’ pouroff, 30 minutes later, it was obvious something wasn’t right: either I couldn’t read a simple map, or the map was wrong.
I reversed course and followed a side canyon, which turned out to be just as gnarly as the previous one. The walking was no fun, and the going very slow, but miraculously the drainage eventually wound its way up and out, onto the mesa-top. I was very relieved to have finally reached Hatch Point, with only one small final concern: the fresh bear-tracks in the damp drainage at the head of the canyon, I had just exited !
Although, I was delighted to be out of the canyon, I was still very confused as to where I had gone wrong, after I left camp this morning. How could I have missed the main trail ? Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to rim-walk Trough Springs Canyon to try to figure out this mystery. As I stood on the canyon rim and looked 800’ straight down to my previous night’s camping spot, I realised the issue: the map was wrong ! The actual trail, in fact, does not follow the main canyon, or the side canyon I took, but instead diverts via a small ravine to the north. Probably, if I had been paying a little more attention this morning, instead of blindly following my map, I should have noticed a trail up this ravine, as I left camp.
As I made my way across Hatch Point, I was able to pick up one of my water caches, that I had left here a couple of weeks previously. Hatch Point is really a huge mesa, towering above Lockhart Basin to the west. Anyone who has driven to Needles Overlook or the Anticline Overlook from US-191 will have traversed Hatch Point. From my glorious camping spot overlooking the vast desert expanse of Lockhart Basin, the snow-clad peaks of the La Sal Mountains, east of Moab, looked stunning in the evening sun.
There were some fantastic classic Utah desert views when descending to Lockhart Basin from Hatch Point. The route was quite a challenge, and involved a 75 minute descent down an incredibly steep rubble slope, which drops 1,200’ in just over 1 mile. It wasn't overly dangerous, as such, but every step seemed to be over scree or loose rocks, so great care had to be taken. The descent has been termed the Striped Monster, which is a great name, but I will probably think of it as the Boot Shredder, since the sharp rocks and regular sliding across the rubble definitely takes its toll on footwear.
When descending to the basin, I noticed that there was a large area of water a few hundred yards away from the bottom of the talus slope. This turned out to be a rather mucky pool that the local cows had obviously been thoroughly enjoying recently. However, perched on a branch on the sole tree next to the water was the amazing sight of a beautiful egret.
I was expecting the dirt road across Lockhart Basin to be a rather hot and laborious walk, but it turned out to be very enjoyable, with stunning mesa views for much of the way, and one of my favourite camping spots. The sweeping red-rock vistas throughout the day encompassed fantastic views of the 3 main districts of Canyonlands: the Island-in-the-Sky mesa, the buttes of The Maze, and the spires of Needles. The imposing snow-capped peaks of the Henry Mountains shimmered in the far distance.
For some reason, I had somehow expected a lot of vehicles on this dirt road, but over the entire day I only saw two jeeps, one of which was a National Park patrol, who very kindly gave me some water. It was a baking hot day, as I traversed the wide desert. The only other vehicles I saw were 2 seperate cyclists, one of whom was doing an epic cycle trip across the wilds of Utah from Kanab to Moab. His journey involved hitching a ride on a houseboat to cross Lake Powell at the Hole in the Rock !
The wet springtime across the Colorado Plateau meant that there was a glorious carpet of wildflowers in almost every canyon on this trip, and the floral display was nowhere more colorful than in Lockhart Basin.
It was great to arrive at Needles Outpost, and meet the owners, Amber and Calib, again. They are such a friendly couple, and make everyone feel welcome. They have a real infectious enthusiasm for the Outpost and the South-West in general. I picked up the food cache I had left there a few weeks previously, and sat outside the main cabin devouring some refreshing ice-cream.
Following a relaxing afternoon at my camp-spot, I headed to the toilet block. I could see that a dog was tied up outside. This seemed to be the same dog that had taken a dislike to me, as I checked in earlier. As I approached, it started barking aggressively, and baring its fangs. Although I did my best to steer a wide berth past him, he somehow managed to lunge under a metal partition, and attempted to bite my ankle as I entered the toilet. Fortunately, he was only able to reach the bottom of my pants, and put a tear in them. I was absolutely furious, and began shouting at the dog's owner as I entered the toilet block, telling him that he should be keeping his dog under control, and that I could have been bitten by this hell-hound. I ranted on and on for a couple of minutes, with no response from the owner. He just sat there, saying nothing. I guess I should probably point out, that the owner was actually inside one of the cubicles at the time, sitting on the toilet ! By the time he came out, I had calmed down a bit, and was starting to feel pretty silly for shouting at a man sitting on the john. He was in no mood for apologising however, and told me it was my fault, and that I shouldn't have got so close to his dog. Extraordinary ! I was probably quite lucky, in hindsight, since if the dog had bitten me and drawn blood, I might have had to abandon my hike, and get a tetanus injection.
A fearsome, whirling wind was whipping the red desert sand around the campground, as I made my way back to my tent, for an afternoon cup of tea.
"So, what do you think of Trump ?" the polite lady from Texas, enquired. My neighbor at the Needles Outpost campground and I had been having a nice chat about our favourite National Park, when the subject was suddenly switched. Her two small (friendly) dogs were cradled in her arms, panting gently, in need of a drink. There probably isn't a person alive who doesn't have a view on the American President, but I realised a long time ago, that it's probably best to steer clear of domestic politics when visiting another country. "That sounds like a loaded question, to me", I responded. She smiled, and let the dogs run back to her RV, while we both waxed lyrical about the apple pie at Capitol Reef.
It was just about time for my freeze-dried Teriyaki chicken dinner, and then an early night, in preparation for my big hiking day tomorrow.
“The canyons are calling, and I must go”. I don’t think John Muir would mind too much if I misquote him.
He was heading into the mountains of course, but today this famous quote from the great Scottish Naturalist, and ‘father’ of the US National Parks, came very much to mind. I felt an incredible sense of excitement this morning, as I headed into possibly the most spectacular canyon system in the entire South-West: Needles.
Although excited, I also felt a little nervous as I left the Needles Outpost and headed in the direction of Salt Creek in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Although I was full of energy and enthusiasm for the 6th day of my hike (I had covered 65 miles so far), this was likely to be my longest single day at over 15 miles. It was also the day where my pack would be at its heaviest, with 8 days worth of food to carry.
My plan was to traverse Needles in a single day via a series of side canyons. This little-known route culminates in the crossing of a spectacular high saddle at the edge of the park, after scaling a steep rubble slope. The advantage of crossing the Needles District as a day-hike, is that it isn’t necessary to obtain an overnight backcountry permit, nor to carry a hard-sided, bear-resistant canister, which is required when camping in this area of Canyonlands. As part of a recent 10-day backpacking trip to Needles, I had checked out this route, and was able to cache some water outside of the park, to be collected this evening. This was the plan anyway, and hopefully it would work out as intended.
I was delighted that the weather forecast had proved to be correct, and that the high temperatures of the previous few days had gone, to be replaced by a chilly, cloudy morning, which should prove ideal conditions for this long hike.
It looked like the local wildlife was already up and about this morning: a couple of piles of bear scat along the trail, and also what looked suspiciously like a set of mountain lion tracks in the damp wash. These magnificent elusive creatures frequent the mountains and canyons of this area, but are rarely seen, never mind encountered.
As I left beautiful Salt Creek, and followed a significant side canyon, I felt great, and my heavy pack wasn't bothering me in the slightest. The side canyons here can be very brushy, and it takes considerable effort at times, to find a route through the tamarisk-choked drainages. I finally reached an easier section of the canyon, with a series of large flat sandstone slabs to walk over. This was all going very well.
TRIP ... STUMBLE ... CRUNCH ... TWIST ... CRUMPLE ... SMASH ... down I went, like the proverbial ton of bricks. Somehow, I'd stumbled on a 3-inch ledge between two sandstone slabs, and came crashing down, knee-first, onto the hard surface, turning my ankle in the process. After a couple of minutes, I was able to get to my feet easily enough, and test if I could walk ok. My knee was fine, and my ankle hurt a little, but it didn't seem too bad at all, so off I went once more. My hiking pants weren’t faring well; the rip at the ankle from yesterday’s canine encounter was now supplemented by a large rip across the knee !
It was getting very chilly, and the sky was darkening considerably as I stopped an hour later for lunch. I reached over to my pack to get my rain jacket, but something wasn't right. I tried to get to my feet and literally couldn't do it; my ankle was completely seized up, and it was agony to move it in any direction. This wasn't good. I literally couldn’t walk. As the first thunder clap echoed through the canyon, I realized I’d need to put up my tent as quickly as possible. It must have been a comical sight to see me crawling on my hands and knees back and forth across the ground, trying to erect the tent in double-quick time. It was a close-run thing, but I got the tent up and secure and threw my pack inside, only seconds before the skies opened and the hail began to fall. And, oh my goodness, what a storm it turned out to be; the hail fell like bullets from the pitch-black sky for over an hour, and was followed by several hours of torrential rain. I certainly wasn’t going anywhere today.
When I woke the next day, my left ankle still hurt badly. I had had a restless night, constantly struggling to get comfortable with one leg inside my sleeping bag, and the other one outside. I daren’t take off my boot, just in case my ankle swelled badly, and I couldn’t get it back on again. Whatever happened, I was going to need my boots on, if I was to hobble out of here, at some point.
Of course, if this was in fact a serious injury, then I wouldn’t be hobbling anywhere. Given the remote location I had reached, there was also little chance of another hiker or ranger passing by, and being able to help me. I checked in my pack for my emergency location beacon, just in case I’d need to leave here by helicopter !
It was all getting to be a bit depressing, as the realization that my hike was probably over was beginning to sink in. In addition, I was feeling incredibly guilty about camping in Canyonlands without a permit. It's something I'd never consider attempting in normal circumstances, but the fact that this was an emergency situation didn't make me feel a whole lot better about it. I was feeling low. On the plus-side of course, I still had 7 days of food in my pack, so it's not as if I was going to starve out here ! Of course, if the local bears find out that I have 7 days worth of food, they'll be making a rapid bee-line in my direction. It's lucky I didn't pack those 2 jars of honey !
It was a desperately boring and frustrating day. Listening to a couple of ‘Wittertainment’ podcasts did manage to cheer me up a little. However, as the afternoon progressed, I was able to start to move my ankle up and down and left to right. So maybe I'd be able to hobble out of here tomorrow, after all, and get back to the Needles Outpost. Later in the afternoon I was able to walk gingerly for a few minutes outside my tent, so it seemed that I was on the mend. I guess I would have a better idea in the morning, but at least I wouldn’t have to trigger my rescue beacon.
'Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh' That seemed like a familiar sound, but I couldn't quite place it at first. It got progressively louder, and I realised what it was: a helicopter flying low over the canyon. Oh my goodness, I thought, maybe the Park Service have found out that I'm camping here without a permit, and have sent out a group of elite rangers to track me down and bring me back to Park jail. The whoosh of the helicopter blades faded into the night, as I sat nervously inside my tent. I finished off my tasty dinner of Ramen noodles (Oriental flavor) realising that I had escaped justice; for now ! This trip wasn't supposed to turn out to be a re-creation of the adventures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I did hope that I wouldn't have to jump off a high cliff into a raging river anytime soon.
I slept well, but woke up with a very stiff and tender ankle. This wasn't looking promising at all. It seemed likely that this would be the final day of my adventure. However, I was able to get to my feet and walk for a few minutes, and as I walked, it did seem that the ankle had loosened up a bit and felt slightly better. I slowly dismantled my tent and was soon in auto-pilot mode of organising my gear and packing my rucksack. This was a good sign, since it meant I wasn't aware of every tiny movement of my ankle. When I thought about it, I could feel it was sore, but I wasn't in any great pain at all.
So, off I went, continuing south on my original route, more in hope than expectation. My intention was to follow several more side canyons, and then exit the park via a tricky 500’ high scree slope, and finally head in the direction of Butler Wash. My ankle was sore, and some movements resulted in a sharp pain, but it was actually fine to walk on, and as I continued, I became less aware of it. I was hesitant to feel too confident, and my fledgling tap-dancing career may be over, but it appeared that I was on my way again !
After exiting Canyonlands, and reaching Butler Wash, my next goal was Beef Basin. However, I had to negotiate a tricky route around a plethora of cliffs, drop-offs, dead-ends, dry-falls and shallow drainages across the Butler Wash Wilderness Study Area, as I made my way south. My prior research using Topo maps and Google Earth had indicated this cross-country route to be fairly benign, but my goodness, there is some complex topography here, and it was quite a challenge navigating this area at ground level.
Although my ankle continued to hurt, I had hoped to make up some lost time today, but the arrival (yet again !) of heavy afternoon rain and hail meant that I had to set up camp earlier than intended. The thunder overhead growled menacingly, late into the evening.
Beef Basin initially had the appearance of an enormous grass amphitheatre, with huge rock outcrops surrounding the vast flat meadows. It was a magnificent sight, as I arrived through a narrow gap in the rocks from Butler Wash WSA.
This appeared to be ideal grazing land, and as I strolled across the lush meadows, the local cattle and their young calves were certainly keeping a very close eye on me. The area is also known for the large quantity of archaeological sites, especially the tower structures. Many of the best known habitation sites in the wider South-West are located in alcoves in high cliffs, but Beef Basin probably has the largest number of ruins that were built on open ground.
After setting up camp, I headed off to explore some of the nearby cliffs, in search of some granaries that I had read about. Unfortunately my adventures were curtailed by the arrival of some heavy snow, which fell for several hours, forcing me to take shelter in a cosy alcove. I was able to pass the time supplementing my water supplies by gathering snow from the surrounding tree branches into some zip-loc bags. I did have to remind myself that this was Southern Utah in late May, and here I was collecting snow !
Despite being behind schedule, I was determined to spend the next day visiting as many of the significant ruins in Beef Basin, as I could. There are some superb tower structures here, and one can only imagine the activity in the area during its main occupation period over 800 years ago.
There is a little-known but impressive piece of technology in the northern section of Beef Basin. It is referred to as 'The Guzzler', and is effectively a large rain-catchment system, that distributes the water, by gravity, to a series of 12 cattle troughs in the surrounding area. Amazingly, my entrance to Beef Basin on the previous day, brought me within 200 yards of the Guzzler. In preparation for my hike, I had hoped that it might be possible to collect some water from the tanks here, but a high metal fence and padlocked gate makes it inaccessible.
Although I wasn't relying on collecting water here, and had sufficient supplies in my pack, it was a little frustrating. I had to wait until later in the afternoon to collect clean water from the troughs at Stanley Spring. There are other locations with streams running in Beef Basin, but they are quite ‘cow-ey’, so it was nice to be able to fill my bottles directly from the permanent pipe feeding directly from the fence-protected source at Stanley Spring.
I spent a couple of hours exploring the side-canyons of the area, and found several more ancient ruins. One structure in particular, perched on a ridge is perhaps the most impressive single building I have seen, in the entire south-west. As one would imagine, almost all ancient structures across this region prioritise function over style, and it is likely that it is only the modern eye that sees 'beauty' in these ruins. However, this particular structure appears to have been designed by a retired architect, such is the glorious design of this 3 story building. The walls of every room appear to be curved, and the precision of the curves allows each connecting room to flow seamlessly into the next. As one approaches the structure, there is a beautiful narrow, curved entrance corridor, that leads to an open courtyard, onto which the interior rooms face. The building must have been stunning to behold when it was occupied 1,000 years ago, and it was a true privilege to be able to visit it, and imagine the lives of the family that called this place home. This site is undoubtedly a place of outstanding beauty.
Again, a late afternoon thunderstorm and deluge forced me into my tent early to keep dry. I was using a new lightweight tent during this trip. It wasn't really purchased for its storm-proof qualities, especially as the intention was to test it for the first time during late spring in beautiful, sunny, dry Utah ! However, since the Colorado Plateau in late May 2019 resembled Scotland in mid-November, at times, I was certainly glad that the tent stood up to everything that was thrown at it during this trip.
The trail from Beef Basin into Fable Valley on the 11th day (10th hiking day) of my trip was definitely one of the highlights (I had covered 124 miles so far). The path follows a high bench with steep cliffs on one side, and a deep gorge on the other. This is Gypsum Canyon, and it is a tremendous sight to behold; not so much for sheer beauty, but more for its vast, brutal, tortuous drainage, which seems to have been violently gouged from the high desert down to the Colorado River. This may make the route sound precipitous, but it is anything but; in fact it is a very pleasant, flat, well-established old cattle trail, with consistently glorious views, as the trail winds gently down to Fable Valley.
The stroll along Fable Valley was a very pleasant and enjoyable one, with a lovely flowing stream, meandering across the wide valley floor. Steep, soft, white sandstone cliffs rise steeply on both sides, with several isolated tall red sandstone buttes rising from the centre of the valley. At the southern and northern end of the central valley, ancient ruins are perched atop these buttes, with uninterrupted views up and down the length of the canyon. It is obviously tempting to speculate that these sites were lookout stations for the local inhabitants, although it is impossible to know exactly what or who they were looking out for.
I came across this rather ‘flowery’, but lyrical, quote from one of the first publicized recreational explorations of Fable Valley, from Desert Magazine in March 1959:
“That these ancient inhabitants of Fable Valley felt the need to guard their homes and their fields must be taken to mean that even this remote valley was visited by covetous men who sought by conquest what was not theirs by right “.
Several pictograph panels and simple granaries can be found in the side drainages of the valley, but the highlight is a magnificent large ancient habitation dwelling. The ruin is perched 100’ up a cliff, in a spring-fed, soot-blackened alcove, and features an unusual ‘T-shaped’ doorway. Sitting beside the imposing front wall of this structure, as the light rain starts to fall and heavy mist hangs low in the valley, one can’t help but imagine the lives of the small community who inhabited this large alcove almost 800 years ago.
The issue with my ankle had impacted my schedule, so I had hoped to make up some lost time today, by hiking into the evening. Unfortunately, afternoon rain again forced me to set up camp under a sheltering tree, a few hours earlier than I would have liked. Fortunately, this appeared to be one of the few trees in the valley that was not completely surrounded by cow pies. There must have been plenty of cattle in Fable Valley, at some point, and judging by some of the huge 'deposits' here, they must have shared the canyon with a herd of dinosaurs !
I fell asleep to the drum-like sound of torrential rain battering my tent. I do seem to remember thinking in advance of this trip that I probably wouldn't have very much use for my tent flysheet; I was sure I'd be spending my evenings gazing up at the stars, and being woken up by the first rays of morning sun the next day. Maybe tomorrow !
I woke the next morning, and was relieved not to hear the rain hammering down; instead, I could hear a gentle ‘swish-swish’ sound all around me. I was very confused. Upon opening the tent, all was revealed: it was snowing heavily, and judging by the 2 inches or so of snow on the ground, it looked as if it had been falling for most of the night. My biggest concern was that I was currently at an elevation of 6,500', and my plan for today was to climb to 8,000' to exit Fable Valley, and then to reach over 8,500’ in a couple of days time. Given the amount of snow at my current elevation, there was no way I could commit to heading up another 1,500' by the end of today. If it continued to snow, or the weather got even worse, I could be in some trouble.
The snow continued to fall for the rest of the day, so I had little choice but to stay put, and hope for better conditions tomorrow. Another day lost to weather. This was getting frustrating ! Effectively, in the 7 days since I had left Needles Outpost, this was the 6th day of significant storms.
Another issue was food; effectively, I had now lost 2 hiking days due to my ankle injury, and today’s snow, so I was going to have to scale back my daily rations, in order to stretch out the supplies that I still had. Oh well, no more evening cereal bar for me, for a while !
I wasn't in an optimistic mood, as I awoke the next day. But, what's this, is that the sun hitting the cliffs on the far side of the valley ? It was, and sparkling blue skies above. Hooray, this was more like it. Finally, a glorious Utah morning. I was delighted and was quickly breakfasted and packed up, keen to be on my way. The rays of the morning sun sped across the valley floor to greet me; my rucksack sat on the still damp earth, leant against my sheltering tree.
I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes from On The Road by Jack Kerouac: "Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life".
Today the 'road' I was taking was leading me south once more, this time towards Dark Canyon via Trail Canyon. I certainly had longer ways to go, to complete my journey, but as I slung my now battered backpack over my shoulders, I was finally feeling optimistic, for the first time in several days. The trail is life.
The descent through beautiful Trail Canyon, was extremely enjoyable. It is a steep, forested valley, which plunges dramatically between gorgeous white sandstone cliffs and tall buttes, with tremendous views of hazy distant valleys. (Unfortunately, the route to reach here from the Fable Valley trailhead across the Dark Canyon Plateau was far from enjoyable. Although the dirt road across the plateau was horribly muddy and slippery, the main issue was the devastation wreaked upon the pinyon forest in this area. It appeared as though a small thermo-nuclear device has been detonated here, with many square miles of trees utterly obliterated. It unfortunately makes for a rather depressing couple of hours of walking).
Emerging from the pine forest of Trail Canyon, I found myself in Dark Canyon, an area that I have been looking forward to visiting for several years. Given the remoteness and relative difficulty in reaching it, the Dark Canyon Wilderness sees far fewer visitors than other parts of the South-West. Initial impressions certainly did not disappoint, with huge blonde sandstone cliffs, towering above the wide forested canyon.
It was a lovely sunny afternoon, and the walking was just wonderful as I boulder-hopped across the sparkling stream. I smiled because, in preparation for this hike, this area was the one where I had the biggest concern about finding water, since it is notoriously very dry. The extremely large precipitation falls over the winter meant that I needn’t have any worries on this occasion.
As the snowmelt flowed down from the higher elevations into the side drainages of Dark Canyon, the main stream in the valley was swelling as I walked down-canyon. This meant that my increasingly regular stream crossings were getting progressively deeper, reaching above knee-height by the time I reached the confluence with Woodenshoe Canyon. I was certainly glad that I had my hiking pole with me to help with the crossings, although I had managed to fall into the water once. The fantastic views, and warm sun, more than made up for any discomfort, although I was utterly exhausted as I pitched my tent in the late evening. Adrenaline had probably kept me going to a large degree, since I realised that I had probably crossed an re-crossed the stream over 40 times, during the day.
I awoke suddenly in the night, feeling strangely nervous about the next day. I was aware of the night sky, full of incredibly bright stars shining through the tent mesh. It was a fabulous sight, with enough light to create an eerie glow amongst the trees.
The next day’s progress through Woodenshoe Canyon continued in a similar vein. I could feel my toes start to get numb as I traversed the ice-cold stream throughout the early morning. This canyon is not as immediately dramatic as Dark Canyon, with softer cliff bands, and fewer dramatic buttes, but is stunningly beautiful nonetheless.
The canyon’s upper drainage is steep and narrow, resulting in the stream being funneled into a deep, twisting channel. At times, a ferocious flow was created, which made today’s water crossings considerably more challenging, and occasionally a little frightening. I suddenly had a flashback to my overnight nerves. My stomach tightened, at a very worrying thought: what if there was a single stream crossing today, that was literally impossible or just too dangerous ? Given some of today’s difficult crossings so far, this was entirely feasible.
In such an event, I would have no choice but to turn back, and repeat, not only all of today’s stream crossings, but also all of yesterday’s. And, not only that, I would then have to find another way out of the Dark Canyon Wilderness, and somehow find another route that would allow me to continue heading south, towards civilization. My dwindling food rations would also take a hit, if I lost another couple of days, which wasn’t a very tantalizing prospect. It was certainly too late to consider returning north to Needles Outpost, which was 5 days and 65 miles away.
“Good grief man, pull yourself together; enough of this negative thinking ”. I had found a lovely small sunny beach next to the tumbling stream, and sat for awhile to give myself a good pep-talk. Here I was in this utterly glorious locale on a beautiful Utah morning, and all I was doing was fretting endlessly about something that might never happen. And, even if it did, I’d just have to buckle down and get on with it. ‘Onwards and upwards ’, as my Mum would say !
The stream crossings continued relentlessly, but gradually the water got shallower and the drainage wider. By the time the canyon finally opened into lovely open verdant meadows, in early afternoon, I was exhausted. I had probably crossed the stream over 70 times in the past 2 days.
Despite the difficult traverse through this area, Dark Canyon and Woodenshoe Canyon had more than lived up to expectations, as major highlights of the US South-West. I rested for an hour and took my lunch of tuna and tortillas in the sun-dappled shade of a beautiful aspen grove, and gathered my energies for the final climb out of the canyon, to reach the trailhead on the Elk Mountain Plateau.
It was interesting to review the trail register at each of the official trailheads that I had passed since leaving Beef Basin. Undoubtedly, the unusually large amounts of snow over the winter, and the recent wet weather of spring had made it very difficult for even the most determined hiker to reach the trailheads in the surrounding area over recent months, whether on foot or by vehicle. Every trailhead register had only a handful of names (mostly Hayduke Trail hikers) listed for the year so far, with only one single entry at the southern Fable Valley trailhead. I didn’t necessarily think that I would meet many people on my hike, but for over a week to have now passed without seeing a single soul was something I hadn’t anticipated.
Although I had had a long day in Woodenshoe Canyon, I was determined to reach the vertical high-point of my entire trip at over 8,500’, before sunset. Although my route followed dirt roads for several miles across the Elk Mountain plateau, the melting snow at this elevation had turned the roads into a slippery, slimy mess. It was very slow-going, as the heavy, thick mud clung to my boots. My timing was perfect however and, as I exited the trees, I had a stunning view of the late evening sun hitting the buttes, causing the rock to glow a dramatic deep red. What a magnificent view of Bears Ears this was.
I had covered 188 miles over 15 days (13 hiking days).
I woke up on a lovely, sunny morning to an incredible panoramic vista of the Cedar Mesa canyon network spread out before me, from my camping site below Bears Ears. As I was packing up my gear, I got quite a start when I heard a loud voice: "Good morning. I like your camping spot ". To say that I had gotten quite used to solitude over the past week or so was putting it mildly; this was literally the first person that I had seen in the 9 days since I had left Needles Outpost !
The passing jogger was interested to hear about my trip. However, I was soon to feel rather embarrassed, as I tried to impress him with descriptions of my adventures. It turns out that he was actually amongst the top-10 finishers of the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) last year (83 days), after which he became one of the few people to have completed the 7,900 mile triple-crown of PCT, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalation Trail in a single calendar year ! Of all the people I could have met this morning, and attempted to impress, one of the country's top thru-hikers was probably not the ideal candidate. A very nice guy, and an amazing athlete. As he jogged back down the road, I felt that my recent exploits were the equivalent of an afternoon stroll around the boating lake in New York’s Central Park, in comparison to his incredible feats.
My route today would take me towards Cedar Mesa, via a short section of The Emigrant Trail. I would be following the path of the intrepid Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers who first traversed the tortuous 200 mile route from Escalante to Bluff, across the Colorado Plateau, almost 140 years ago. Their travails in traversing Cedar Mesa involved clearing a trail through the pinyon and juniper woodland, before constructing a remarkable stone stairway across the slickrock to help their 80 wagons cross Grand Gulch, the deepest canyon on the mesa. Their ingenuity and determination throughout the journey was incredible. On a warm spring day, it was difficult to imagine the deep mud and snow that the 250 settlers had to battle through to cross Cedar Mesa, as they made their way south-west, in February 1880.
Cedar Mesa is a vast 400 square-mile plateau which contains a huge network of canyons that are home to an incredible trove of ancient wonders (it is estimated that there are over 100,000 individual archaeological sites within the canyon system). The area was extensively inhabited by the Ancestral Peobloans between 2,500 and 700 years ago, before the final abandonment in 1290. It isn’t known precisely why the people left, but drought, dwindling resources, local warfare, and over-farming have all been suggested as possible contributory factors. The area continues to play an important role in the cultural life of several local tribes.
After leaving the Emigrant Trail, I stopped off for a few minutes to say hello to the fantastic folks at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. Their incredible knowledge, enthusiasm, and passion for Cedar Mesa is truly inspirational, and I always enjoy chatting with them, whenever I pass through the area.
After a few days on reduced rations, due to my unexpected ankle- and weather-related delays, I felt like a child on Christmas morning, as I headed through the pinyon and juniper woodland of Cedar Mesa, and picked up my next food cache. It was a lovely balmy afternoon as I set up camp on the slickrock at the Owl Creek trailhead. I had deliberately packed an extra day’s rations in my cache, so I was able to laze in the afternoon sun, and enjoy an extra lunch and a bonus Snickers bar !
The gaping chasm of Owl Creek opened before me, as I stood on the canyon rim the next morning. It was a stunning sight, with 500' of magnificent sandstone gorge below. It was slow work, picking my way down the circuitous path to the canyon floor, but the views were superb. A small rattlesnake darted under a nearby rock, as I descended the trail, and let me know he was keeping a close eye on me, via his distinctive rattle.
Owl Creek is undoubtedly one of the scenic highlights of the Cedar Mesa area, with dramatic red sandstone buttes, knobs, and spires towering over a beautiful wide valley, filled with an array of stunning wildflowers. Although the rain was falling steadily again, the incredible sight of Neville’s Arch piercing the high cliff walls was a joy to behold. As with many of the canyons in this incredible area, there are many signs of the ancient inhabitants, with 1,000 year-old granaries, habitation structures, look-out towers, and rock-art much in evidence. It was truly a privilege to spend time in such a wondrous part of the South-West.
As one heads east, Owl Creek merges firstly into Fish Creek, and then ends dramatically several miles later, as the huge sandstone cliffs of Comb Ridge rise dramatically from Comb Wash. As the Hole-In-The-Rock pioneers found, further easterly progress is then only possible via a considerable detour around the southern end of this ridge, which reaches heights of over 700’, and is over 80 miles in length. Further evidence of their route (and of the original 1930s highway) through Comb Ridge can be found, as one hikes from the modern highway up onto the ridge-top.
I woke up early, and opened my tent to the sight of sparkling blue skies and bright sunshine. I had found a lovely little camping spot within a 5 minute walk of the top of Comb Ridge. I took my stove and breakfast goodies and sat atop the ridge at a stunning viewpoint; an incredible vista that is easily amongst the most dramatic in the South-West. The long sweeping, sinuous curve of the ridge reached northwards in the direction from which I had traveled, over the past two and a half weeks.
It seemed difficult to believe that this was the 19th and final day of my adventure (it was my 17th hiking day, due to the earlier delays). I spent several minutes mentally replaying the route in my head, laughing and shuddering in equal measure at some of the events that had occurred along the way. From my spectacular viewpoint, I could see the La Sal mountains, east of Moab, and also Bear Ears, towards the north of Cedar Mesa. Both of these South-West icons had formed the background to many of my days on the trail, and although I was very familiar with them, they looked particularly beautiful this morning. There were several times before, and during, my hike that I had had considerable doubts about whether I could complete it, but barring another sprained ankle, or severe snowstorm, I was only a few miles from completion.
As I descended from the ridge, I was heading towards Butler Wash. This eastern section of Comb Ridge is a fascinating area for ancient ruins and rock art, and one could spend weeks exploring the extensive nooks and crannies of the numerous side canyons, that slice into the ridge.
From Butler Wash, it is possible to scramble up a little-known rubble chute onto Tank Mesa. The panoramic vistas from this mesa are magnificent, with Comb Ridge, Bear Ears, the La Sals, Navajo Mountain, Sleeping Ute Mountain, and even Monument Valley all visible from the top. Also, from satellite imaging, archaeologists have found evidence of an ancient ‘road’ running across the mesa, apparently linking two large habitation sites, either side of the Tank Mesa. These sites appear to be ‘Chaco outliers’, indicating their archaeological similarity to the large complex ancient structures found at Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico.
It was fascinating to see cowboy inscriptions on the rock from the 1920s, as I descended the well-constructed old cattle trail from Tank Mesa, and made my way towards my final destination of Bluff. The marvellous Bluff Fort was constructed in 1880 by the original Hole-in-the-Rock settlers, who had finally reached their destination, after 6 long months of arduous travel.
I spent some time chatting to the group of wonderfully enthusiastic volunteers at the fort, regaling them with my adventures over the previous few weeks. They were delighted that I had popped in to say hello, having just walked all the way from Moab. Sitting in the late afternoon shade, with some of the direct descendants of the original 1880 pioneers felt like a very appropriate way to finish off my hike across the Colorado Plateau.
As T.S. Eliot said: "The journey, not the arrival, matters ". And my goodness, what an incredible journey from Moab to Bluff it turned out to be. Despite torrential rain, heavy snow, freezing cold, dozens of stream-crossings, a badly sprained ankle, a dog attack, and an incorrect map, I had arrived in Bluff on schedule and (largely) in one piece. In total, I had covered almost 255 miles, over 19 days (17 hiking days) and ascended/descended more than 30,000’ in elevation. (Note, the core route of the trail is 189 miles, but due to additional exploring and the occasional wrong-turn, I ended up hiking much further).
It may be that this route forever remains a purely personal achievement, but perhaps other people might consider following this route in future. I hope they do, since it passes through some of the most incredible scenery, not only of the South-West, but in my opinion, in the world. The fascinating history of the region resonates through every canyon and across every mesa. It was a joy to walk it.