Utah Slot Canyon Adventures
Copyright Joe Berardi (books available at amazon.com)
Trip Report – 2014 Feb
Day 1 (Feb 9) Travel
I had been planning and preparing for this trip for a long time. My last expedition into Utah was November of last year. Even southern Utah gets winter weather that brings on cold temperatures, winds and a heaping of snow. Since most of the roads in this area are unimproved dirt roads, travel is nearly impossible during the winter months once leaving the paved highways of UT-95 and UT-276. Only these roads are available for exploring the Upper Lake Powell Slot Canyons in the winter months. It has been a very dry January in the Hanksville to Blanding area but snow did return in early February. Hanksville is a very small town and has a few motels, restaurants and gas stations. For those not prepared for dry-camping this town is it for a base camp for hiking the Lake Powell slot canyons. I decided to build a mini-camper for the Ford Ranger pickup so basically I could stop and set up camp anywhere.
The Hite marina of the Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area has a ranger station and visitor center. The heated restrooms with flush toilets were too good to pass up and I made the paved parking lot near the dry lake-bed home for three nights. Camping is $6 per night paid via a machine using a credit card. I have an annual parks pass that allows entry into the park. On my way up here I had noticed the high elevation near Natural Bridges National Monument and quite a bit of snow on the ground and elected to travel to Lake Powell lower elevation. I arrived at Lake Powell at dusk and parked in a large empty parking lot.
I had built a camper just barely big enough for me to lay down in it or sit in it when the floor board is removed to make sitting possible at the door. I can sit with the door open or closed but staring at the door one foot in front of my face only offers protection from the weather. The camper is outfitted with one kitchen cabinet and homemade built into the stud space storage shelves. The design worked out pretty good and an 750w inverter with a power strip are attached to a wall inside the camper while a deep discharge battery lies under the floor of the camper in the truck bed. I needed this power for convenience of recharging batteries that also could be done through a smaller inverter when driving. I also wanted the AC power for a 150 Watt light-bulb that can be used as a mini-heater for the camper. I didn’t use it until my fourth night of camping which was at Natural Bridges National Monument. I had snow on the ground only ten feet from my pickup truck and it had been sitting there for about 4 or 5 days. This just shows how cold it had been at the campground. I checked in at the Visitor Center and the ranger told me I would have the pick of the camping spots and there was no fee during the winter. At least I didn’t have to pay to freeze but again the heated restrooms with flush toilets were a powerful draw to these campgrounds. When going to bed I hadn’t used my camper heater yet saving the battery and I awoke around 2 AM with icicles around my nose and decided it was time to turn it on. At first I tried the 40W bulb and after about 30 minutes decided it wasn’t enough and switched to a 150W bulb that finally started warming up the camper. I left it on until I got up for the day but had to use my hat to cover my eyes from the bright light. Oh, I was just joking about the icicles.
Day 2 (Feb 10)
I decided the most efficient use of my time plus I needed to field verify some atlas map locations to complete my book (Upper Lake Powell 2014 Canyon Atlas) and was to drive from Hite to Hanksville and down UT-273 identifying the important landmarks, slot canyons, drainages, trailheads, potential parking places and significant mile markers. I took GPS coordinates and did a lot stop and go. I filled the gas tank in Hanksville and called Robin from town giving her an update. To my surprise the Hogs Springs Picnic Area was developed a lot more than expected, a large parking lot, vault toilets, a pedestrian bridge over North Wash, running springs but the trail to the three hog canyons was closed and barricaded although that doesn’t always stop me but I thought there may be too much snow in the canyons. The second surprise was the trailhead sign and the names for the North Wash tributaries. The USGS maps have no official names but the hanging USGS map was labeled (with marker) with names and a description for the three Irish canyons. Although I had seen a hiker’s website identifying these canyons with Irish names I had never seen anything official and it looks like the BLM has accepted those names for these canyons. I’m assuming these are official BLM maps although in recent years some of the federal agencies are using donated maps and trail information signs.
Day 3 (Feb 11)
This is my first hiking day but decided to go back south of Hite, not checked out the previous day and start at Fry Canyon. There is a slot that runs under the highway bridge that turns into a narrows shortly after. Finding the trailhead was easy, just parked of the road near the bridge. The word trailhead is used very loosely when referring to slot canyon hikes since there is almost never a sign marking a trail, information board or entry point. I went down to the slot and rim walked downstream under the highway bridge looking for an entry point. I continued until the slot faded into a narrows and continued getting deeper and wider. I returned to the bridge decided to make entry upstream. It didn’t take me long to find shallow sloping canyon walls allowing easy entry but there was a problem. Most of the visible slot had pools of water and it was too deep to go very far downstream. I took some photographs of the slot and enjoyed what little I did see. Upstream from the slot was a wire barb wire fence and it looked like the canyon opened up from here. I decided to cross the bridge in pursuit of another entry point further downstream and found one but again there was too much water in the slot. I had seen enough and returned to the truck.
Cheesebox Canyon was my second hike on the agenda. I headed down the highway for a few miles and found the trailhead for this hike. Again there were no sign but there signs of people using the area. I had GPS for a good starting point. I just headed east and eventually came upon a rock pile marking a trail. I followed the frequent rock piles that were usually less than 20 feet apart. This was one of the best marked trails I have ever seen and since much of it was over Slickrock, around boulders or small trees it was needed to follow the course. The large canyon was obvious but the entry point wasn’t. I finally came to a cliff edge about two-thirds down into the canyon and lost the trail. I looked over the edge and said to myself there is at least another 50 feet to go to the bottom. I walked in both directions along the jagged cliff edge in search of another rock pile. I couldn’t find one so I returned to the last rock pile. I carefully surveyed the landscape and said if I was going to find a way down how would I do it. I noticed to the far right the primary canyon wall which was a sheer cliff may have a very narrow bench running along it but there were many obstacles in the way, mostly large boulders and small trees with a hill in the way. I headed for the obstacles and guess what I picked up, the rock pile trail again. It was almost like the secret garden story, these obstacles and a tree hid entry to this narrow ledge that ran along the canyon wall. A very large section of rock from the canyon wall had fallen and this is what allowed a way to climb down to the bottom. I proceeded climbing down to the bottom verifying this was a real entry into the canyon. From the top I could see the narrows to left and the canyon open up but remain very deep to the right. I said to myself I had seen enough and I didn’t want to get too far away from the vehicle. This was my first hike of the year and I hadn’t built up my confidence for a long solo hike plus I normally carry more provisions when there are opportunities of being stuck on the trail overnight. I also knew it was going to take this big old man a lot longer to get back up to the top. The rock piles were very useful and I did not use the handheld GPS unit to find my way back out of White Canyon plus I needed my hands for scrambling. I returned to Hite for an early dinner and rest. I cooked some hot dogs and made a grilled cheese sandwich.
Day 4 (Feb 12)
My goal today was to hike Swett Creek Canyon that crosses under a bridge at highway UT-276. Entry near the bridge looked too challenging for me and I looked for an easier entry point by driving further south on the highway. I noticed a single car pullout with foot prints heading perpendicular from the road. According to my map Milk Creek wasn’t that far away and it is a tributary to Swett Creek. I headed for Milk Creek and followed some foot prints and found an occasional rock pile. The terrain was easy hiking on Slickrock and through small sandy washes with a few small rolling hills along the way. At Milk Creek there was a short but fairly sharp drop through the jagged Slickrock into the creek. There were only 2 rock piles in the area, enough for me to find an entry point but I was concerned about my return. The creek bed was loaded with rocks varying from an inch to about 10 inches. These worn smooth grey rocks were everywhere in the streambed and I bent over to grab one and it didn’t move. I attempted to pick up another rock with the same result. These weathered worn smooth grey rocks were partially submerged into the sandy creek bed but most of the rock was sitting on top of the sand. After about four attempts I decided to start kicking the rocks looking for loose ones. I finally found some that would move and made two rock piles. The first one was on a two foot high boulder in the creek bed and another on the red slick rock of the jagged canyon wall that had to be climbed to get out. This second one had grey rocks sitting on red rock making for a good color contrast that would be easily seen on my return. I started heading downstream (left) and realized several things, first the ground was frozen solid causing the rocks not to move and I wasn’t leaving any foot prints in the frozen sand. I soon learned that walking on all of these small rocks was going to be tedious and a trip hazard where I had to constantly watch where I was going to place my next step. Shortly after hiking in the Milk Creek I came across a rather large boulder of about 10 to 15 feet filling most of the creek bed but easily walked around. I made a mental note that this boulder was near the exit point and looking around it was the only large boulder in site making it a unique landmark. I had my handheld Garmin GPS unit and was marking waypoints but I wanted a backup plan. I was carrying my Tamrac photo backpack that was fully loaded with food for several days, two fluid containers (water, Gatorade), backcountry tools and a DSLR. I was also carrying a mid-size tripod in its own carrying case. Although I was a little light on the fluids the temperature was near freezing and I figured it should be enough for an all day hike. I would have been carrying twice as much fluid for a summer hike. I could see patches of snow all around at the higher elevations.
I was ready for a long hike but wasn’t planning on going to Lake Powell either which would take me more than one day but I just wanted to get acquainted with the canyon and return with some photos and GPS coordinates. I was carrying a second camera, a point & shoot, an Olympus TG-830 and this was my first trip using it. This camera cost about $200 but it has a special feature other than being a weather proof camera, it has a GPS and tags the photo files with the GPS coordinates. This is a great benefit of knowing where a photograph was taken but adds to the complication of using so much equipment at the same time since the DSLR is still being used. The creek had developed into a narrows as I continued hiking and now I come across another large boulder of 10 to 15 feet with numerous 2 to 3 foot choke-stones clogging the path around it but still an easy obstacle to get around. Milk Creek streambed continues to be littered with an infinite number of small grey rocks making each step tedious. I’m kept busy taking photos with 2 cameras and marking waypoints with 2 GPS devices. I got an early start so I’m mostly walking in the shade with the sun partially hitting the left (west) canyon wall. I finally decide to set up the tripod so I can make a self-portrait of me hiking in the canyon. Even though I researched Swett Canyon on the internet I try not to learn too much about other people’s hikes to prevent bias. I want this to be a spontaneous adventure not an AAA trip tick. As it is I already started the hike via Milk Creek which wasn’t in my original plan. With my atlas and GPS I know exactly where I’m at so getting lost is not an issue. I finally come to a fork in the canyon; going left will take me back toward the highway but up Swett Creek instead or going right will follow Swett Creek east toward Lake Powell. I head east after verifying my bearings. Even though I’m in another creek, the canyon walls and streambed pretty much looks the same. There seems to be an infinite number of small grey rocks making the hiking tiresome. Again I set up the tripod for another self-portrait but this time it is in Swett Creek. This is a partially cloudy day and much of the time I’m hiking in the shade either because of the direction of the canyon or the clouds blocking the sun. This part of the canyon is constantly changing directions. I hike through a distinct narrows but the nature of the canyon is slowly changing into a much wider canyon with a wash running through it and consuming a smaller amount of it rather than running from wall to wall. I come across several small patches of snow and eventually attempt a snow break only to find the snow frozen solid. Eventually I decide I’ve seen enough, take a break and start heading back. Now I’m thinking about the fork in the canyon and wondering if I could hike up Swett back to the highway which would be shorter and find an exit point. I would walk along the road to finish the hike to return back to the truck. I shoot more photos along the way and make it back to the fork. I continue heading up Swett to see what is there instead of returning the way I came. The narrows continues on for awhile when the canyon starts getting narrower and transitions into a slot canyon. I’m getting really excited about the slot and set up the tripod and start taking more photos with the DSLR and tripod. Even though this is a sloping slot canyon the streambed channel has narrowed down to only a few feet and the canyon walls made of smooth sandstone has good color. Eventually I come to a choke-stone obstacle a little bigger than I can handle by myself. If I forced it I’m sure I could have overcome it but I didn’t want to risk injury so I headed for the fork so I could return the way I came. Between the large boulder near the exit point and the contrasting color of the rock pile I made it easy for finding the exit point my way back and I didn’t use the GPS on the way back. I like testing my navigations skills and use the waypoints only when I have to. It was a great hike and I was thrilled to hike the upstream part of Swett where the slot was a hidden treasure.
I’ve dry camped for three nights and two days of hiking has made me tired and ripe. I was ready for a motel and a shower and headed for Hanksville. Although a very small town it is the only choice around for base camp. I called my wife since we haven’t been in contact for a few days and she did an internet search and I ended up at Whispering Sands Motel which had very nice rooms with furniture and since it was off-season the rates were very reasonable. I ate across the road at Blondies restaurant and had a great hamburger with fries.
Day 5 (Feb 13)
I scouted out Maidenwater Canyon and decided it would be too much for this trip and looked for alternatives. I found a mini-slot canyon which is a tributary to Trachyte Creek and titled it West Fork 2 and spent maybe an hour hiking it. Entry was fairly easy going down a sloping Slickrock canyon wall almost immediately into the mini-slot. I continued downstream (east) for awhile seeing the tributary open up into a typical wash for the area. The only unusual part of the hike was finding a 50 foot long pipe about 4 or 5 feet in diameter with a tree jammed into it. This pipe had obviously washed downstream from the highway and had been replaced by a larger pipe and secured better with concrete. On my return I walked through the drain pipe under the highway and explored upstream before exiting out of the streambed and returning to the truck. This was a nice but a short adventure. I scouted around a little more but decided to head for Trail Canyon. It has a tributary that has a slot. I had already scouted Trail Canyon and knew exactly where to park and the entry point into the canyon.
During this hike I found more different animal tracks than probably ever before on a slot canyon hike. The animal tracks were from cows, deer, rabbits and either coyotes or bobcats and others.
I started the hike near the highway where three drainages merge. The plan was to hike the northern tributary to Trail Canyon. Like my previous hike the drainages were loaded with small smooth grey rocks from 1 inch to 10 or 11 inches. I headed across the drainage toward the northern most with GPS, cameras and atlas in hand. After hiking a few minutes, my right shoe caught on a rock and I attempted to lift my left shoe to recover and it also caught on another rock and I felt myself falling forward. Normally I use my hands and arms to break a fall but my hands were loaded with stuff, two cameras, a handheld GPS unit and an atlas. I felt my forehead hitting the ground first, followed by my nose smashing into the ground and then I got a mouth full. I had abruptly fallen with my gear crashing to the ground. I was stunned and spit the sand out of my mouth as I slowly got up. I looked around and realized how lucky I was. I probably should have headed for the casino. I had fallen on a soft sandy area that was about fifty percent covered with randomly placed rocks of random sizes. I could have easily hit a 10 inch rock with my forehead, nose or jaw and broken it. I could be laying here unconscious but as I look around stunned I’m saying to myself I’m still within sight of my vehicle and this is not the way to start a hike. It took me a few minutes to get my composure and I decided to continue the hike. My DLSR had slammed into the sand but it looked like it had survived. Since my hands were so full of stuff and I didn’t have an opportunity to swing them in the air to help recover my balance.
I am a schizoid because I can’t decide if I’m a photographer, book author or map maker. I had two cameras in hands, along with an atlas and handheld GPS unit, I call doing this, being an idiot. I decided to keep less clutter in my hands.
When I got home from the trip my wife asked me how I got the cut on my leg and I told her I got along the way somewhere. These are not the stories to tell my wife since she once forced me to take a companion with me on a road trip when I was recovering from a medical procedure.
It doesn’t take me long to come to a dry-fall and I have to back track slightly to bypass it. I’m grumbling to myself all this trouble to get into the correct tributary and now I have to get out of it for the bypass. I headed upstream It doesn’t take me long to come to another obstacle, a down-fall with a water hole below which actually had water in it. This down-fall was at a point where the canyon wall had grown on both side to maybe fifty feet high. The right side was mostly solid rock while the left had a lot more dirt. I study the map for awhile trying to decide how to bypass on the left or right. The hill on the right would be more of a sloping bench made out of slick rock and the hill on the left past the slick rock look more like a dirt hill with some vegetation growing on it. From the topographical map the elevation grade looks about the same for both sides but I opt for the dirt hill. As I approach it I immediately notice a deer trail and decide to follow it up the first hill. I walk down into drainage to gain access to a second hill and again find another deer trail going up over the hill and follow it. I follow the animal tracks down the hill and determine they were pretty much doing the same thing I wanted to do. I break off the trail to make my way back to the obstacle but on the other side. I snap a few more photos and then continue going upstream. The canyon at this point has about a 15 to 20 foot wide sandy streambed with hardly any rocks scattered amongst the sand. It is easier footing now and I pick up the pace toward the sloping canyon walls. There are several different bushes that announce entry into an abruptly narrower slick rock canyon with sloping walls. As I continue upstream the sand fade away and now I’m hiking a slot canyon with sloping slick rock walls and the bottom is only a foot or two in places. The sand had been replaced by small water holes only a foot or two in sizes with only a few with any water in it. Since this is an east-west canyon the sun is shining from the south making the south wall shaded while the north wall is in direct sunlight. The light colored sandstone makes this a photographer’s contrast nightmare. I snap a few shots anyways. I continue hiking this sloping slot canyon and finally approach a large deep water hole about 10 feet long and maybe 5 or 6 feet wide making an oval shape opening but about 10 feet deep with a foot or more of water in it. This obstacle would require scrambling over slick rock across the opening of the hole. It looked doable for a skinny flexible hiker especially one with a partner but for this big old man hiking solo the risk was too great for falling into the water hole and not being able to climb out. I had already had one incident and I wasn’t going to push it. This was my turn around point. I returned back to the truck and wrote notes for awhile and kept noticing how beautiful the mountain ranges in the background were and decided this has to be one of the most beautiful trailheads in the world.
I decided to start heading for Cedar Mesa, the next place on my agenda and find a camping place along the way. The small homemade camper on the pickup pretty much allows me to spend the night anywhere on BLM land. I head east and drive to Natural Bridges National Monument which not only has a campground with vault toilets, picnic table and a tent box for each site but the visitor center has a heated restroom with flush toilets. You might say so what but at 7,000 feet there is snow everywhere and I know the night time temperatures are going to be a lot colder than at the Hite Ranger Station at Lake Powell. I make it there before the visitor center closes and talk to the ranger about the roads through Cedar Mesa. I also find out camping in the nice campground is free during the winter and I have the campground to myself.
Day 6 (Feb 14)
Today was necessary work but the more boring and tedious part of the trip. I was gathering field data for the Cedar Mesa 2014 Canyon Atlas although an update probably won’t occur until after the next trip to Utah. I drove down UT-261 and recorded mile post numbers and every major track and signed intersection in my trip notebook, taking GPS coordinates when needed. The Kane Ranger Station was closed for the winter. I didn’t remember this road being paved except for the switchbacks. Many years ago I drove it when it was unpaved and it was a rough one. Now there is only three miles unpaved at the switchbacks. I drove to SR-163 and the town of Bluff to get orientated. I returned back to CR-262 (dirt road) and started the journey of driving north to UT-95 and recording every major track going off to the west and verifying the GPS coordinates in the Cedar Mesa 2014 Canyon Atlas that were being used to mark the trailheads for individual canyon hikes to Anasazi Ruins. Even though I was hoping to hike to some ruins I lost my ambition along the way and just recorded the trailhead information. I didn’t have any problems driving the road with my Ford Ranger pickup although the farther north it got rougher. I’m sure people drive this road with passenger vehicles, low clearance but I wouldn’t recommend it. Since I decided to skip the ruins hikes there was no reason to spend another night on the road. I continued on to Blanding, ate lunch there and started heading back home. I figured I would be home in about 5 or 6 hours.