This will go down as one of my longer trip reports. I can’t help it though, this trip was really, really nice. Hard to put it to words but this excerpt from Desert Solitaire says it pretty well.
“Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom” – Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Hiking in the desert truly is one of my favorite things in the world. So far this month I have backpacked into the winding canyons of The Maze and into the wide open vistas of Chesler Park. Such beautiful places but for the most part, dry as a bone. So for this trip I was very excited to get back to the basics, a nice lush water canyon in the place where I first started backpacking, The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The route we chose for this trip is not a common one. In fact, a year ago I didn’t even realize it was a possibility. I had day hiked one leg of it back in 2007 with Audra but that was all I really knew of it. The route is a point-to-point or a loop depending on how you connect the two trailheads. It starts where Hole in the Rock Road crosses Sooner Wash, follows Sooner Wash into Fortymile Gulch (aka 40 Mile or Forty Mile, I’m going with how the topo spells it!) and ends at the trailhead for Willow Gulch. The two points are only about 2 miles apart on dirt roads so Taylor brought along his bike and ran the shuttle before we started down the trail the first day. Here’s an approximate map of the route with some locations marked. Keep in mind this is all just approximate locations/routes and mileage is usually 20-30% higher in reality compared to when a line is drawn on a Google map.
View Fortymile-Willow Gulch Loop in a larger map
On to the trip, we left Salt Lake on Thursday afternoon with the goal of making it to a campsite on Hole-in-the-Rock Road before dark. The day started out with torrential rain in Salt Lake City and then a full on blizzard while I was at work in Park City. It’s always fun to transition from such extreme weather when heading out on a trip. The rain and snow continued for almost the entire drive to Escalante. Shortly after turning onto beautiful Highway 12, we were pleasantly surprised to see the usually dry wash in Red Canyon was flowing. Here’s a little clip. I’m still sucking pretty bad at the videos but I’m trying.
Lucky for us, the clouds parted and the sun came out as we approached Escalante. The drive down Hole-in-the-Rock was nice, the road was a little damp but not muddy so no dust and the clouds were lighting up in beautiful blue and purple colors as the last rays of sunlight disappeared.
We setup camp right at our starting point for the hike, Sooner Rocks, about 42 miles down Hole-in-the-Rock Road. As we were setting up, a rental jeep pulled through and parked probably 100 feet away. A guy got out, said hello, and within 5 minutes he was sleeping in the back of his jeep. Kind of strange but no biggie. I fired up the music before he settled in so he knew what he was going to be in for over the next few hours.
The mice were out in force that night like I’ve never seen before. At first they were just surprisingly unafraid of us. Then they started coming right up to our feet. On one occasion Taylor told me that one had run under my feet and I didn’t believe him. I lifted my foot to go along with the joke and sure enough, a mouse goes darting out. Naturally at this point we had everything cleaned up and in the back of the truck. Nothing more than the cooler between our chairs was left on the ground. A few minutes later, Taylor was snacking on a bag of cheese curds he picked up in Beaver when we look over and a mouse had gotten on top of the cooler and was working on getting into the cheese! Okay, no more food on the cooler either, EVERYTHING into the back of the truck! Well that worked fine for about 20 minutes until we look over and see a mouse right on my tailgate. Everything on the roof!!! Luckily they didn’t get into anything else and there doesn’t appear to be any nests underway in my truck. Here’s a few pics from camp that night.
We were up pretty late that night, somewhat on purpose. We were shooting for a late start down the trail to let things warm up. The high for the day was only going to be in the upper 60’s and we knew there was going to be a lot of time in the water. After we were packed up, Taylor left the packs and I at the bottom of Sooner Wash and he drove my truck up to Willow Gulch where he would drop it off and pedal back. It took about 45 minutes to run the shuttle and then we were headed down the trail a little before noon. There is a well worn foot path on the north side of the wash that runs for about 3/4 mile before arriving at a big dryfall. We were using Michael Kelsey’s instructions for the route which are pretty straight forward but apparently involve reading in their entirety. Kelsey says to follow the left side of the wash to a ‘fun slot’ down into the canyon. That’s the part we read. If you read past the semicolon he then says that there is a also an easier hiker route into the canyon which can be reached by following the right side of the dryfall
We started scrambling down into the slot and got to a point that would involve some down climbing which we thought we were prepared to do. But upon further inspection, it was well beyond our skill level. I’d say the drop was 15 or more feet but it was overhanging and stemming down was not easily possible because it opened up on one side. It looked like there were several more tricky spots below that as well. Here’s a view into the slot where we turned around. It’s pretty tough to take a picture that can really show how sketchy of a drop it was.
There weren’t any other trails around so I decided to hike up a side drainage hoping to get to a high point where we could see the confluence of Sooner and Fortymile. Of course if we had read the book more carefully we would have just backtracked to the first dryfall and gone down that way. At the top of the drainage there was a single cairn and a light path. We followed that for a bit and then lost it so we decided to just head toward Fortymile Gulch. This is Taylor standing at the edge of Fortymile Gulch just above the confluence with Sooner Wash.
We took a little break at the bottom of Fortymile and finished reading the Kelsey guide. The feeling of high adventure from route finding down the canyon wall was quickly extinguished when I finally read that we had actually taken the wrong route at the very first dryfall. Oh well, we made it down in one piece and it was a lot of fun. This is Taylor at the confluence of Sooner Wash and Fortymile Gulch.
The wash bottom is dry for the first little while but not far down the seeps begin. At first its just moist soil and the occasional puddle but then around a bend or two it becomes a small flowing stream.
Shortly into the water section we ran into this dead cow, errrr, Bull. Not sure how long it had been there but it was so full of gas that I think a well thrown rock might have caused an explosion. We moved briskly.
Soon after that the canyon goes past a couple of deep undercuts. At the second one, there is an alcove, well above the river level that has some very nice rock art and a small granary. If you didn’t know to look for it it you would almost definitely walk right past it. The floor of the alcove is about 20 feet above the level of the river and there is no obvious route to it. This is the best way we found.
We hung out there for a while, had lunch and swam in the water. It’s a tough one to photograph though. From the grotto down, the canyon stays very narrow, often times slotting up completely. This is probably about as wide as it gets.
After a mile or two of awesome river walking, the first deep pool presents itself. Fortuantely, each of the deep pools is preceded by a chokestone and a small waterfall so we were able to see them coming and take our packs off first.
I took a lot more video through this section than I took pictures but I’m still working on editing it to a point that I’m happy with it. Here’s a couple of screen grabs from the video. The sun went away and the wind and rain started kicking up at this point which made shuttling the packs through harder than it needed to be.
We started scoping out camp sites before we made it to the confluence but there was nothing accessible in Fortymile so we kept going down Willow Gulch. We considered going upstream to camp at Broken Bow Arch and then heading out a day early to do some other hikes in the area but opted to do a little exploring down towards Lake Powell instead.
I thought there might be a campsite up on a nearby bench so we dropped our packs and scrambled up. There was no campsite but once I was up the hill a ways it looked like there might be a little bit of a ledge in an alcove with possible ruins. I scrambled up there following a faint path. The views were nice and it would have made a nice high campsite but it was really far from the river and there wasn’t a very good path.
I found this strange object at the edge of the alcove. It appeared to be made of concrete and would have made an excellent toilet. Any ideas what this is people? I included my toes in the bottom of the frame to provide scale. I can’t imagine it was actually concrete considering how far it is from a dirt road and even a good climb from the canyon bottom. But on the same token, at full pool, Lake Foul would not have been too far below. Thoughts?
After our little side trip up the hill, we decided to hike back to a very low but large alcove closer to the confluence that we had passed up on the way down. It turned out to be a great campsite. I shot some star trails and played around with a new tool for light painting, firesteel.
In the morning we noticed for the first time that there were some pictographs on the wall of the alcove we were camped in. Upon closer inspection they appeared to be made out of mud, it appeared to be something very recent. What do you guys think, real or fake? This figure is about 2 feet tall. Check out the huge, full resolution file here.
We were originally planning on exploring down to Lake Powell on this day but our exploration the night before led us to believe it wouldn’t be worthwhile, especially with the tamarisk to bushwhack through. Instead we started hiking up Willow Gulch to Broken Bow Arch where we planned to camp the second night. This is the confluence of Willow Gulch and Fortymile.
Here’s a few shots from the area below Broken Bow. The last bend or two is a little different, more boulders, more bushes, but for the most part this is what Willow Gulch is like down to the confluence. Very nice. Kind of makes me laugh that so many people hike to the arch and then turn around and go back.
The river runs through a cool subway section around the base of Broken Bow arch so if you aren’t paying attention you could totally miss it. This was our first good view of the arch after climbing out of the river bed.
We went straight to the incredibly huge, large, gigantic, enormous, gargantuan alcove across the bend from Broken Bow. It’s a bit of a hike from the river and once you get into it it’s just plain huge. There’s no way any of my pictures will do it justice. Here’s another view of Broken Bow from inside the alcove. We spent a lot of time in there so I have more than a few pictures of this variation.
I hoped to do some star photos after dark. I was especially excited to stay up and get the bright, nearly full moon to light up the other side of the canyon. Unfortunately there were a lot of clouds so I setup my camera and went back to the tarp to chat with Taylor. That’s when I noticed we were pretty much surrounded by giant daddy long leg spiders (is there a real name for those) and lots of mice. We had seen a lot of those spiders the night before but tonight it was ridiculous. I would look down, knock a few away from me, then look down again and there would be three more. Add to that the fact that every time I would look away from the tarp mice would be dodging out of site. Taylor thinks he saw a mouse take out one of the spiders so maybe thats what was going on. Either way, I wasn’t hanging out in the dark with them so I grabbed my camera and went off to my tent. Taylor, as usual went tent-free, sleeping right on the tarp. I don’t know how he does it on nights like that.
In the morning I got to watch the morning light roll down the opposite wall of the canyon. I didn’t get out of bed but I snapped this pic from inside my tent. This is reason #1 why I will never buy anything but a full-mesh tent in the future.
No matter how cold it is, Taylor is gravitated to swimming holes and waterfalls. I am convinced that it is beyond his control. This was the deepest pool of the trip going all the way to Taylor’s neck. Avoidable with a little bit of friction on the left side of the waterfall.
Some thoughts on what worked well on this trip, what didn’t, and what I would recommend if you’re heading that way.
First, we gave it way too much time. The first day was a solid day of hiking but the next two days were a little too laid back. We probably did 80% of the hiking on day one. If I were to backpack it again I would cut it down to 2 days OR I would get in really late, camp above the good stuff in Fortymile (well before the grotto) and then camp the second night at Broken Bow or below the confluence. Or even better, I would pack light and do the whole thing as a long day hike and still take my sweet time going through the good stuff in Fortymile. It would be pretty easy to do it all in one day, especially if all you had to worry about was as small daypack with a dry bag inside.
Second thing, campsites are really sparse down there. There might be some above Broken Bow but the canyon bottom in general is very narrow and it’s hard to get up onto benches or into alcoves. I didn’t notice any other good sites than the two we stayed in. But with that said, around 7:15 on the night we stayed below the confluence, a couple walked through. The only people we ever saw actually. They too were looking for a campsite. I told them we didn’t find anything further down and they turned around and walked back up toward the confluence. A few minutes later I saw one of them high on a bench further up the canyon. We had looked around for trails in that area but didn’t see anything. I kind of think that even if there are no good sites there now, someone should kick a path in and create one. I’m all about leave no trace but I’m also about having good sites that can be reused instead of forcing people to camp in stupid places.
Last thing, dogs. I have three dogs and I love taking them to Escalante with me, it’s one of those few places in the desert where I can and there is enough water that its not a pain. I know dogs aren’t usually welcome in canyons like this but I think this would be a good one if your dog loves water and is healthy enough for a tough hike. I would have loved to take Nikita but this was too strenuous for her and Teak would have hated all the water. I did notice dog prints going through so someone before us had brought a pretty good sized pooch.
View the full set of photos on Flickr.
See more of my trip reports to the Escalante area.
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