Cedar Mesa Utah Trip Report – August 2014
Joe Berardi books are available at amazon.com
Cedar Mesa Hiking Guide (published Sept. 2014)
Cedar Mesa / Comb Ridge 2014 Canyon Atlas
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I’ve been anxious to head back to southern Utah and come out of hibernation. We desert dwellers do it the opposite way as our northern brothers. I live in central Arizona and it gets just plain hot during the summers with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. For those of us who don’t have to leave the house such as a book author, we rely on Air Conditioning for surviving the summer months. Robin and I went to the California coast for a week during 4th of July week to enjoy some cool weather.
I’ve been anxious to go back to Cedar Mesa for my fourth trip this year to complete a book I’ve been working on for the past year but some minor health issues, author commitments and finding good hiking weather have made scheduling tricky. I had monitored the Cedar Mesa weather forecast closely and noticed a cooler than normal long term forecast but ended up leaving about half way through this cool spell.
Day 1 – 8/25/2014 – Travel Day
I drove to Blanding, Utah and then to Natural Bridges National Monument. I figured the campground would fill up every night so I just reserved by paying for the entire week. I ended up leaving home about 8 am after getting everything loaded into the pickup.
I made a side trip to the Kane Ranger Station to determine if their mini-cell tower service worked when they are closed during the summer. I also was curious if they would open two days early to cover the Labor Day holiday weekend. The phone worked but the closed sign was up, no clue to when they would open other than the website information. My wife likes me checking in daily so knowing about the cell phone service was important for planning the week.
Since I had time I drove to UT-276 scouting out the county road to Collins Springs Trailhead. This would make planning the hike day more efficient.
Day 2 – 8/26/2014
Johns Canyon Main West Fork
My goal for today was to find the trailheads for some of the forks for Johns Canyon and hike one. I needed field data, GPS coordinates and mileage and road conditions.
The day was starting out fairly cool in the 60s but I slept on top of the sleeping bag and blanket last night in the mini-camper on the pickup truck. The skies were overcast in the morning.
I knew the highway 95 milepost for the county road but drove past it without seeing. I returned from the other direction and missed it again. I starting thinking about punching in the GPS coordinate to get a fix but decided to drive very slowly this time between mileposts and finally found it. There is a gravel stockpile partially hiding the road along with a diagonal junction instead of a normal T junction at a paved road.
I drove through a wash, past the BLM Information sign and trail register to the first side track which had a large sign stating “Stay on designated roads”. I knew where this jeep trail went but was more interested in the next. Along the way I saw several marginal jeep trails and when I came to the official but not labeled jeep trail I was looking for I really wanted to verify it so I continued on to the sharp right bend in the road.
When I went to Comb Ridge on a previous trip I pulled in to a jeep trail, verified the GPS coordinates were fairly close but was not exact and started the hike on a worn path. The path died in a jungle in Butler Wash and I returned. Driving down the road only 0.2 miles more not only yielded the correct GPS coordinates for the trailhead but a BLM stick signs pointing the way. So for this trip I wasn’t messing around, I wanted to know for sure which jeep trail was the winner.
Although I have a high clearance pickup, I decided to leave it at the country road and hike the jeep trail to the parking loop which is the unofficial trailhead for the Main West Fork of Johns Canyon. With the GPS in hand I punched in the coordinates and set the unit to compass mode. I was ready and started walking south knowing I couldn’t miss the canyon unless I tried really hard. I didn’t notice any paths so I jumped into a wash and followed it. I came across a jeep trail going the opposite direction and ignored it. It didn’t take long for me to be standing at a canyon edge where I noticed several rock piles. I saw an entry point at one of the rock piles but decided to follow them along the rim wanting to know where they went. I found another entry point but made up my mind that the first one was the one for me but I continued following the rock piles to the other branch and picked up a jeep trail. Of course this was not a designated road and I returned to the first entry point and hiked down into the canyon just below a fairly large dry-fall, maybe 15 ft high and 20 to 30 feet wide. I headed down into the canyon just exploring, seeing if I could spot any ruins in the alcoves. I wasn’t planning on hiking very far and didn’t. This place looked like a typical canyon in the area but it does develop into a rather substantial canyon.
I returned to the campground about mid-afternoon just in time for the 2 hour rain. I stayed dry in the mini-camper taking notes, eating and planning the next day. I was concerned about it being too wet for the big hike the next day. I planned on hiking Collins Canyon down to the Grand Gulch.
Day 3 – 8/27/14 Johns Canyon Middle Fork
I was awakened by the sound of thunder booming over me at 2 am with a show of lightning flashes and a few minutes later rain drops pounding the roof of the camper. The campground is at around 7,000 ft in elevation and I was starting to think where the safest place to be for not getting hit by lightning. A few years earlier I was at Canyon de Chelly, at the rim edge, photographing a storm when I felt static electricity go from the umbrella I was holding, down my arm until I dropped it. There was a huge boom and flash and the lightning struck the ground only a few hundred feet from me. My ears were ringing for hours after that incident. Since then I take lightning very seriously.
I waited out the thunderstorm in the mini-camper and the rain ended after about an hour. I got up at dawn as usual and noticed the storm had cooled off the temperatures. I figured it was going to be too muddy for the big hike but started driving toward the Collins Spring Trailhead anyways to verify it. I never made it to the dirt road and turned around because I could see puddles of water everywhere.
So it was Plan B time and I headed for Johns Canyon Middle Fork where I could park at the highway and walk a very short ways down the county road into the wash running across the road to start that fork hike. Unlike the previous days hike, this one starts much closer to the head of the drainage where the wash slowly develops into a major drainage going downstream. I hiked down canyon until I’ve seen enough but managed to negotiate several significant dry-falls before having enough fun. If I was looking for a very long hike I could have come up another Johns Canyon fork but decided to make this an up and back hike.
Day 4 8/28/14 Collins Canyon
I have been eager to make this hike since this is supposed to be the easiest way to hike down into the Grand Gulch and its narrows. First light was about 5:00 AM AZ time and I got off to an early start. I parked at the trailhead at 7:01 AM AZ time. Here are a few things about Collins Canyon. First it is a great canyon hike with a rather gentle slope except for four distinct sections that make a rapid elevation change. Second this is a walk-through canyon hike that does not require any scrambling, all obstacles have been removed. This is fairly rare in the Cedar Mesa area. I hiked down to Grand Gulch and set up the tripod for a few shots. There was a lot of water lingering at the Grand Gulch confluence and I didn’t want to make this a water hike. I returned to the campground by mid-afternoon.
Day 5 8/29/14 Lime Creek
I originally wanted to check out the jeep trail going to the east head of the canyon but the jeep trail was just that and a little too much for my 2WD pickup. So plan B was going down Cigarette Springs Rd and hike cross country to the canyon. I parked at an unofficial trailhead and didn’t see an obvious path so I punched in the GPS coordinates and headed south. I prefer hiking washes as a route although you have to manage the obstacles because it is a natural route plus I figured it would eventually drain into Lime Canyon or one of its tributaries. I ran across a worn path, not sure but it looked more like an animal trail going in the correct compass direction so I hopped onto it. I came across an obvious man-made barrier of dead trees and branches that ran for probably a quarter of a mile along this path. I figured it was a livestock barrier for the canyon. I eventually made it to Lime Canyon and what a view. I rim walked to the east and took photographs. I didn’t see any easy entry points and decided not to try to force it. I was mesmerized by the number of alcoves and was looking for ruins. I returned back to the campground.
Day 6 8/30/14 Owl Creek
I made it the trailhead after going down a dirt road for 5 miles. I arrived at 8:38AM AZ times. There is an official trailhead with a register, pay-station and a pit toilet here. This may be the first time where I have seen a trail mileage sign. The drainage feeding Owl Creek runs near the parking area so it was easy to get started and follow the rock-piles. I would call them cairns if they had a wire mesh around them but these really are just rock-piles marking the way. I made it to the entry point which is well known for being difficult and I started making the descent through the boulders when I finally realized this may be too much for this old man to do solo. I was struggling going downhill and knew coming back up was going to be hell. I have been making a list of hikes for when I bring a hiking partner and this is one of them. I finally returned to the top and rim walked the canyon spotting a ruin in an alcove with standing rock walls. Unfortunately I wasn’t carrying my long lens since I was traveling light expecting a difficult hike.
The temperature today was the hottest so far for the trip and the cool spell was fading away as predicted. I decided it was going to be too hot for anymore hiking on this trip since it was still August and I made a beeline home.