Joe Berardi Utah Trip Report – Sept. 2013
See SlotCanyonsUtah.com for more details and photos.
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This is by far the most exciting hiking trip for me in years. I just returned from a trip into Utah Slot Canyon Country where I hiked five slot canyons in five days.
Day 1 – Drive to Kodachrome Basin SP
Day 2 – Willis Creek
Day 3 – Escalante River Ravine
Day 4 – Capitol Reef NP – Grand Wash and drive to Green River
Day 5 – Crack Canyon
Day 6 – Devils Canyon and drive home (arrived 3AM Sunday morning)
I needed to “field verify” some of the maps that I’m working on and I also needed information for more detailed hikes descriptions and driving directions to the trailhead.
What separates this trip from most road trips is; I brought along a hiking companion. My wife has accompanied me on many of my journeys but our age and her arthritic knees are slowing us down so she opted not to try this trip. I managed to persuade a fellow landscape photographer Brent Cox to come along so I wouldn’t be doing backcountry hikes solo. One of the hiker’s rules is to never hike alone and I usually ignore this rule but on this trip I planned some long hikes into the wilderness and I needed a companion for safety reasons.
Before I could even start this trip I also needed a vehicle capable of taking me somewhat close to the area to be hiked thus I needed a high clearance vehicle and the two minivans we own were obviously not up to the challenge. Actually I have tried using them on previous backcountry trips and one of them had incurred major damage on a trip so another vehicle had to be acquired. I retired a Chevy S10 Pickup Truck with 250,000 miles on it three years ago. That small pickup had been a reliable explorer for me but I wore it out and there were too many problems with it at the end to make the repairs so off it went to the auto salvage yard. My photography portfolio suffered during those three years since I had limited backcountry travel and my new venture into producing hiking books required a high clearance vehicle thus one week prior to making this trip I purchased a 2003 Ford Ranger pickup truck outfitted for towing with helper springs but it does have one major disadvantage that it has a long-bed which and like my previous S10 has the bed extend past the rear axle by several feet. This means driving out of a wash almost guarantees the rear end is dragging. This new to me pickup truck had 132,000 miles and the tires that were barely legal, the amount of tread on the tires but it was acquired because it fit my limited budget and has a high clearance. Some people thought I was crazy for buying a worn out pickup for this long backcountry journey but I took the risk. I figured a tire or two would have to be replaced along the way since they also appeared to have the “Arizona Sunburn”. The rubber on the tires will dry out and crack from the blazing Arizona sun.
There were several challenges before even beginning this trip. I was pressed for time between art shows and couldn’t plan and prepare for the trip that much. The first challenge was traveling and carrying everything in an open truck bed. I did install my old S10 toolbox for the truck-bed but it is a small box. The second challenge was bringing camping stuff such as sleeping bags, tent, and cot, blankets and camp cookware. I also had a passenger and had to carry all his stuff too including camera gear.
Day 1 (Travel)
We got off to a late start Monday, Sept 23 because we both had business errands to do from the weekend art show. We drove from Mayer/Cottonwood, Arizona to Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah. It was almost dark when we arrived at Cannonville, Utah and headed south on Cottonwood Rd, the highway UT-12 junction has a large sign for the turnoff. Although the road is paved all of the way to the state park, I drove cautiously down this dark winding road. We made it to the park and got the last available tent camping spot, #18. I paid for two days although we only planned hiking Willis Creek the next day.
Day 2 (Hike Willis Creek) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
We started our day at first light, ate a very quick breakfast, leaving behind the camping stuff and used my new book “Paria River 2013 Canyon Atlas” for directions to Skutumpah Rd and Willis Creek. I anticipated that Skutampah Rd would be suitable for 2-Wheel Drive High Clearance Vehicles based on the internet road report. The monsoons were very wet this year wiping out roads at the washes and many had not been repaired from the storms of a few weeks ago. The road report stated the road to Willis Creek was okay.
As soon as you enter Skutumpah Rd from Cottonwood Rd it drops down into Yellow Creek. On this day there was two small streams of water flowing which I drove across and up the small hill out of the creek. Many of the back roads either have no signs or use a mix of street names and numbers. County Road 500 is Skutumpah Rd and after several miles we came to a fork in the road marked “500” left and “530” right. We went left and were at the Willis Creek parking lot after only 6.3 miles down Skutampah Rd. Not only was there a large sign for the parking lot just prior to the creek but a large area had been cleared to make room for parking vehicles maybe for 20 or so. Along the way we drove through Averett Canyon and Sheep Creek. Sheep Creek had a small concrete dam at the right side of the road and it was letting a trickle of water run across the dirt road.
We parked and registered at the Willis Creek trail register and follow the trail sign pointing to the trail across the road. I have read on the internet the hike begins at the road dropping down into the creek but this trail ran parallel to the creek for a few hundred yards before making an easy transition into the streambed. I forgot my handheld GPS since I made a last second shirt change and ended up going back to the truck while my hiking companion killed time waiting for me. My secondary purpose of the hike was to get actual field data, GPS points, so I had to retrieve it despite being in no jeopardy of getting lost.
As we walked across the road a few hundred feet from Willis Creek I noticed a fairly large puddle of water where the road dips at Willis Creek. We followed the trail sign arrow onto a clearly defined path and arrived at the creek after a few hundred yards. Looking up-stream it looked like we bypassed a very shallow narrows and a small stream of water was flowing toward us. The streambed consisted of small gravel with a 3-foot wide stream of water of about 3 or 4 inches deep. Along the stream were small boulders and bushes and trees. It didn’t take long heading downstream for the creek to zigzag through building rock walls. Unlike many narrows this one had vegetation growing in the creek bed and on top of the cliff walls. Some of the cliff walls were sheer cliffs almost straight up while others had a very gentle slope. Then came an obvious narrowing of the streambed into a narrows of about 15 feet across which was lacking any vegetation and consisted mostly of small gravel with a few rocks the size of 3 to 12 inches. Some places the water flowed along the rock wall while other places it flow right down the middle of the small canyon. Inside the narrows it is completely in the shade from the sun while looking further down canyon the sun lit rock walls can be seen in the distance. At this point the rock walls have some texture but what is more noticeable is the sculpturing of the rock walls into smooth but large rounded indentations creating a ripple where the walls go back and forth by several feet. Some places the shallow water runs almost entirely across the streambed, only an inch or less deep while other place only using one half or less of the width of the narrow canyon. Some of the canyon walls must be at least 50 feet tall at this point. The canyon opens up into a wide wash and a boulder the size of 20 feet or more must have dropped off the canyon wall as surely this little stream doesn’t have the force to push a large boulder downstream. At this point the canyon walls are 30 feet apart not allowing the boulder to choke off the streambed. On this cool fall day many of the weeds had yellow flowers to add to the green weeds and trees. The canyon walls cast large shadows making for a photographer’s nightmare of very high contrast. Some places the canyon walls are made of dirt carved by the creek rather than the rock walls. When we reach the end of Willis Creek we are staring at a very tall cliff that seems to be blocking Willis but it is where Sheep Creek runs and Willis is a dry tributary at this junction. The stream dried up about halfway between the trailhead and Sheep Creek. Also Averett Canyon terminates into Willis near the mid-point and I found on the internet that this was a possible return point back to the road to make a loop out of the hike. On the way down Willis Creek we hiked into Averett for a few hundred yards where it was clearly blocked by a 12-foot choke-stone wedge into the canyon with no possible way to bypass. My only thought was those internet accounts were either outdated or just plain wrong. This choke-stone was rather rectangular making it a vertical wall to climb and even with an aid of another hiker for a boost it is insurmountable. This choke-stone is a technical climb to overcome.
On the way back we had an opportunity to admire the upper canyon walls more, where holes, arches and caves have been sculptured. These are beautiful narrows concentrated toward the upper end of the hike and has provided an extremely satisfying hike that is suitable for the entire family. The elevation change is barely noticeable, there are no obstacles and no dangerous exposures (elevations) where one could fall and get injured. Some streambeds have long sections of sand or mud which really slows a hiker down but Willis Creek had none and were covered with small gravel making for an easy hike. If you’re looking for a challenging hike with many obstacles this is not it but it is a rather tranquil hike through several great narrows despite being popular and seeing several other hiking parties.
Day 3 (Hike Escalante Ravine) Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Our day started at first light, it took us awhile to pack all of the camp gear into the truck bed since we had stayed a second night at Kodachrome Basin SP. I originally found this ravine in a book but there wasn’t that much info on it. On a previous trip this year I scouted out the location and inquired at the BLM Interagency Visitor Center where they discourage this hike and provided no information other than it was a steep hike into the ravine. On that trip I was driving a minivan which meant the hike would have to start at the highway (UT-12). I was holding out for much closer. Being a book author I am always looking for hikes I could do but are rather “Off the beaten path” and this was one of them. I wasn’t afraid of a little scrambling unless the drop was more than 30-feet then it was time for plan-b. I made a tentative hike plan and when we arrived there was a car parked at the highway and the 2-track road went north and we had driven only a few hundred yards when a couple approached us and the young lady mentioned she had high-centered here full size pickup truck (large tires) and a friend of her arrived by car to help that was parked near the highway. The 2-tracks were deep ruts and the grass showed signs of people driving around this bad spot. I drove past the bad spot but decided not to risk getting stuck myself and parked my little pickup. In my worst case scenario from my scouting trip I thought I might have to hike from the highway, well I only drove about 0.3 miles before parking it.
We proceeded to follow the rutted track to a fence and it made a sharp left turn at a creek crossing and continued north and slightly to the east. As we approached this rather deep canyon we followed a worn path going east along the canyon. We actually found a rock pile (cairn) and realized this marked entry into the canyon. The canyon wall was rather steep and my first time hiking partner turned to me and asked, “You want to go down there”? The expression on his face and the tone of his voice was precious and said it all. He didn’t believe this fat old man could make it and I’m not sure he had much experience with this kind of hiking. The ranger at the visitor center was right, it was steep, but after finding a second rock pile I knew it could be done without ropes. I’m a non-technical climber and have never relied on a rope. This was a hard rock canyon slope with very little vegetation or dirt. I was a little more cautious than usual since I promised a safe return for my first time hiking companion. I was gaining confidence as I surveyed the landscape for the easiest route down. I noticed the canyon wall had cracks ranging from 10 to 20 feet long and from a few inches to a foot wide. These were nature’s expansion joints. I explained to my hiking buddy how we were going to use these cracks to climb down the canyon wall. He was still questioning the soundness of this climb and basically I was telling him, don’t worry, be happy. I finally got him to agree and off we went heading down the steep canyon side composed of rock. I was relieved to find out the cracks greatly assisted our descent and I made sure my partner noted exactly where we made are descent pointing out several rock features on the cliffs edge. I did this for myself too so we knew exactly where to exit the canyon. I also had my handheld GPS and marked the way. Although I’m post stent implant (2011) and overweight, I figured it would be a challenge for me to physically climb up this canyon wall. We made short work climbing down as I picked the route utilizing the cracks in the canyon wall. My partner mentioned it wasn’t as hard as he originally thought and we found the streambed of red rock and sand and headed downstream. After several hundred yards we approached the first pool of water. Then another pool, several pools with some of the holes in the Slickrock dry. My buddy decided to set up his tripod and DSLR and I anxiously continued downstream not knowing what to expect. I saw little chance of us getting lost or separated but we had agreed to meet at the truck if we got separated. I saw some rather large pools of water and found a down-fall so deep that I was having a hard determining the drop. From the contour intervals on the map, I was guessing at least a hundred-foot drop into the slot canyon and it was straight down. Wow, came out of my mouth and I was thinking how are we going to get down there. I tried and tried to find a way and after a long time yelled out to my hiking compassion to confer about the situation. We agreed this was the end of the trail for us, ropes and anchors would be required to continue. We snapped a few more photos and took a break. We headed upstream without incident and climbed the canyon wall. This time I was fighting gravity and age and slowly climbed the canyon wall taking many breather breaks. My hiking buddy conferred with me about the route as he led the way up. We had no problems making it nearly to the top when the final ascent was confusing, the waypoints from the top and the descent waypoints were overlapping because we were only 20 to 30 feet from the top. We had zigzag down and I didn’t recognize the final ascent point. We finally agreed just to do it and made it back to the top. It took us awhile to get oriented and we finally were back on our waypoints and easy sailing back to port. The pickup truck was still there and the ice-chest was still very cold as we enjoyed the cold drinks. In summary this was a fun hike which I would recommend only for experienced hikers. We spent the night in a camping cabin in the town of Escalante. The trip was otherwise a bust to Escalante since many of the roads were still washed out from the wet monsoons only a few weeks ago.
Day 4 – Grand Wash, Capitol Reef NP
We stopped at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center where we stuck around to hear a lecture on the geology of the park and I purchased a very comprehensive geology book for Utah which material will be useful for my books.
As a reward for the previous day challenge, I gave my hiking partner the pick for today, any place to photograph on the way to Green River. I was looking for an easy hiking day or a day of rest while my buddy photographed. He picked the Grand Wash and although it was an easy hike (only 1.3 miles to the narrows and 2.25 mile one way) we were on the trail for about three hours.
The name is appropriate since this is a large wash (wide) in most places with very tall canyon walls looming in most directions. In many places the wash or streambed is flat with small gravel and 10 to 20 feet wide. In some sections along the streambed is another 5 to 20 feet of sloping gravel/rock mix with small trees/bushes growing. Occasionally along the way are sections of the creek bed where boulders of 6 inches to several feet have accumulated as they flowed down stream. I’ve seen this phenomenon many times and I think it has to be the water flow velocity is slower in some spots causing the larger rocks to accumulate.
This was a photography day and my hiking companion had set up his tripod and DSLR and was taking his time. I proceeded up the wash shooting along the way but for me this was an information gathering hike and I wasn’t using a tripod. This is a very popular trail with only a short drive on a maintained gravel road and the hiking trail difficulty is rated easy unless you’re going to the arch where it is rated strenuous. I was enjoying the Zion like canyon walls and the streambed occasionally did a sharp zigzag resulting in a different look of the wash such as rock piles along one side. In some places the large canyon walls had stripes of black running from top to bottom known as desert varnish. As the canyon wall tightened closer to each other either part or the entire canyon was in the shade. A brightly lit canyon wall could be seen in the distance making for a high contrast scene.
I had left my hiking companion behind over an hour ago when a young couple stopped me and asked if I was the slot canyon expert. I responded that I have written several books on the subject. They proceeded to tell me my hiking partner had fallen and wrecked his camera and lens. I inquired about his injuries which were just a few scratches and bruises on his legs and mostly his ego was hurting. I flashed back in my mind the previous day’s hike where a mistake could have resulted in a several hundred foot tumble but we successfully made that hike. Today we were on a very easy hike and I wasn’t worried about injuries. I had seen enough of this canyon and started heading back and shortly met up with my hiking companion. He was embarrassed to recount his trip over a rock in the streambed and mentioned he had wrecked his camera gear. He pulled out the body and lens from his backpack and it looked fatal to me. I did not want to dwell on his bad news and changed the subject. We returned back to the truck without incident and left Capitol Reef NP and headed for Green River.
Day 5 – Crack Canyon, San Rafael Swell
My original plan for this trip did not include going to the Swell since we had a limited amount of time. I always have a backup plan and I had the need to come here. The wet monsoons around Escalante had wreaked havoc on the back roads and I decided it would be too difficult to attempt several planned hikes. On my previous trip here earlier in the year, I didn’t have a High Clearance Vehicle (HCV). Now I was ready to take on Crack Canyon from the northern trailhead which is closest to the narrows.
As usual we started our day at first light and arrived at the trailhead at 8:27 AM. There was a small parking area, a trailhead sign and an information board which had a faded map of the area at the official trailhead. Although maps show a road (track) going south of the trailhead, I didn’t dare to drive past the trailhead sign although it was obvious that ATVs were doing so. We didn’t have to walk very far to enter the streambed and after awhile a wood fence which originally blocked the entire wash was now only partially there but a “No Vehicle” sign was still intact on the fence. We continued down canyon which looked like a typical wash for this area. We came to a small dry-fall made of red rock and easily bypassed it. One thing that is more prominent here is the canyon walls have lots of holes in them ranging from several inches to several feet. At the bottom of the dry-fall was a commonly found waterhole and this one actually had some muddy water in it. Eventually we came to a more narrow part of the canyon where it looked more like a cave tunnel with a crack in the roof about 3 feet wide with a zigzag in the opening at the top running for several hundred feet. If I was naming this canyon, the “crack” between the canyon walls seems like an obvious name. The canyon walls have narrowed at this point and we were definitely hiking through a narrows that curved back and forth before opening up into a wider wash. This wider wash had scattered boulders and weeds (yellow wildflowers) to add to the variety. Some of the sections of the rock walls were filled with hundreds of holes or mini caves making it difficult to stop staring at the walls and paying attention to where we were walking. We conversed about the holes many times because they were so fascinating. Occasionally there was some large boulders in the streambed but not large enough to slow our progress. We made steady progress heading down stream and approached another narrows where a 10 foot dry-fall had to be overcome. The climb was aided by pieces of the wood fence we saw at the beginning of the hike. This stretch of the canyon requires some scrambling and had some pools of water. It eventually opened up again making a good turn around point. We returned to the truck and spent several hours scouting other hikes and entry points.
Day 6 – Devils Canyon (San Rafael Swell)
I was really looking forward to returning here since my visit earlier in the year fell under the category of misadventure. I had the minivan on the first trip and parked on top at the ATV parking area. I had read on the internet it was possible to descend the steep canyon walls of Devils Canyon just south of the parking area. On the first trip here I had no problem finding the steep canyon but finding an entry point eluded me despite searching every ravine and drainage into the canyon along at least a mile stretch looking for an entry point. I finally resigned to the fact that the jeep road was the only entry point into the canyon from the north side.
On my second trip here I was prepared by having a Ford Ranger pickup track that was a HCV. I was hoping to make it to the bottom of the canyon. Upon returning to the Escalante and the Swell I noticed that all of the roads were rougher now than earlier in the year. The road to the ATV parking lot was much rougher now than in the spring. As we drove past the ATV parking area the ruts in the jeep road were so deep that there were several bypasses that were not much better. There also were tracks going every which way. We finally made it to the signed junction pointing the way to the bottom. The road started dropping faster and the road was crossing stair-stepped rocks ready to crack open an oil pan. I parked the pickup after retreating from a nasty stretch and turning around finding a suitable spot to park it. We had to hike the last mile of the jeep trail down to the streambed.
I had the GPS point where the jeep trail entered the streambed and we were exactly where we wanted to be in the streambed to start the canyon hike. We started heading east for the best narrows following the main channel noticing a small tributary entering from the left. After hiking for awhile I pulled out the compass to verify we were heading southeast as planned. As we continued everything seemed correct when we noticed another tributary entering from the left. I had a distant GPS point we were heading for but at this point even if I checked distance and the track I probably would not noticed something was awry. We had come to a sign with road numbers and things started getting strange. We continued hiking the wash until we came to a dry-fall blocking our progress. We had already noticed we were traveling more south than expected but the streambed was curving back and forth making it difficult to determine our average direction. Once we came to the obstacle, I plugged in the destination GPS coordinates and went to the map mode where it showed us going south away from the starting point and destination point. Oops, we were enjoying the hike but not heading for the narrows. We by now had consumed several hours and I picked up the pace heading back. Shortly after we passed the road signs we ran into a motorcyclist that was driving cross-country (east coast to west coast) and he was as lost as we were. We told him the ravine we had just hiked was a dead end but he was looking for a road and had his own GPS. We heard him buzz into the ravine and return shortly where he probably found the jeep trail road. We returned to the second tributary and checked the GPS coordinates and realized this was not it. We headed back to our starting point but stopped at the first tributary. I consulted the GPS unit and suddenly realized what we thought was a small tributary was the streambed heading east of Devils Canyon and what we just returned from hiking is the South Fork (my name). Now we were back on track and hiked east. It took about a mile before the canyon developed into a narrows with pools of water. We explored the area and headed back. The climb back up the jeep trail to the pickup truck took this tired old man awhile but mission was accomplished.
Joe Berardi books are available at amazon.com
My website is SlotCanyonsUtah.com