Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bryce Canyon (March 24-27, 2011)

Discussion in 'Hiking & Camping' started by ashergrey, May 6, 2012.

  1. ashergrey

    ashergrey Broadcaster

    Messages:
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    Location:
    SL,UT
    This trip had been one I started thinking up the previous fall during a visit to Bryce Canyon National Park with my father. Having scouted around on the internet and Google Earth, I became set on the idea of visiting the Cosmic Ashtray (aka Escavolcano) via Red Breaks. Descriptions of Red Breaks made it sound close to my skill level… something with some minor boulder problems but nothing technical. I also wanted to introduce a female friend to the southern Utah backcountry. She's a girlie-girl, the type to wear heels when invited on a hike. Red Breaks would be a stretch for her, but I figured I'd be there to make up the difference. This was my first error in judgement.

    We headed out from Salt Lake City late Thursday afternoon and drove to Torrey, where we spent the night at the Best Western. The following morning we set out to hike down Sulphur Creek in Capitol Reef National Park. Weather in the morning was overcast but not threatening and the skies opened up after 20 or 30 minutes on the trail. Temperatures were chilly but not cold. There was still a good deal of ice on the creek in sheltered areas that lacked much sun. We worked our way down the creek at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sections where sun did reach the canyon floor.

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    Upstream by ashergrey, on Flickr

    The waterfalls were spectacular. The first proved easy enough to circumvent, and doing so offered a great view of this gnarly old log.

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    The Log by ashergrey, on Flickr

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    The first falls of Sulphur Creek by ashergrey, on Flickr

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    Sulphur Pool by ashergrey, on Flickr

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    Downstream by ashergrey, on Flickr

    My friend did fine getting around the trickier bits and this bolstered my confidence that Red Breaks would be no trouble.

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    The second falls of Sulphur Creek by ashergrey, on Flickr

    We reached the end of the trail at the visitor's center near Fruita around noontime. (GPS track)

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    Distant Castle by ashergrey, on Flickr

    Trip reports I'd read online mentioned that it's best to have a car shuttle for Sulphur Creek, but that hitching a ride usually isn't a problem. Well, that wasn't the case for us. The only people at the visitor's center in late March were tour bus patrons from out of state. Discouraged, we set out walking back to the car up highway 24. Let me tell you, that is a long, awful, uphill walk. No one stopped for us as we hitch-hiked (something I never do and something that terrified my friend).

    hitchhiker.jpg

    To make matters worse, a storm was blowing up from the south. We could see it crashing into the cliffs behind us and before long the wind started.

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    Storm on the Reef by ashergrey, on Flickr

    Then came the rain. It was cold, pelting and blew sideways. At last a park service employee headed home pulled over and offered us a ride, long after we'd both given up on hitching. We crammed into her sub-compact and appreciated every foot of ground it helped cover.

    We ate a hasty lunch at the car then set out down highway 12 over Boulder Mountain. Rain and snow fell heavy for a bit, then the storm broke and we were treated to excellent views. Winter snowpack at the upper elevations still stood several feet deep and parts of the road were snow packed.

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    Capitol Reef from Boulder Mountain by ashergrey, on Flickr

    By the time we reached Boulder, you'd never have known there had been a storm or snow. It was bright and hot, feeling more like May than March. I was really excited to show my friend the drive between Boulder and Escalante, as it's one of my favorite landscapes in all of Utah. I filmed a portion of this drive, up to the point we stopped at Lower Calf Creek Falls (mute sound... it's just wind noise).



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    The Bend by ashergrey, on Flickr

    We hiked to the falls in the late afternoon, enjoying solitude. The falls themselves were good but not great. Much of the foliage had not yet greened up for the spring and the light was terrible for photography at that time of day.

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    Another shot at Lower Calf Creek Falls by ashergrey, on Flickr

    Sore-footed, we made our way back to the car. My friend started getting hotspots on her heels, but refused to use the blister prevention bandages in my first aid kit. She insisted on stuffing grass into her shoes instead. We joked about it, but I also made a mental note of this... potential trouble. (GPS track)

    We rolled into Escalante after dark and checked into the little motel. The following morning started just as the previous had… with overcast skies spanning horizon to horizon but nothing that seemed to threaten an actual storm. We set out down Hole in the Rock road, turning off onto the Harris Wash road and driving its rocky length to the "trailhead". I parked on the sandy bank above the wash, which is wide and shallow at that point. It's easy to see see that a lot of water flows through it when it's filled to capacity.

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    Parking Lot by ashergrey, on Flickr

    The skies had not yet started to break and I had a choice to make. Caution told me to bag the trip into the canyon and head elsewhere. Still, I figured the day was young and the clouds were still high and non-menacing. And so, I decided to make a go of it. This was my second error in judgement.

    We crossed the wash. There were piles of manure everywhere but we didn't see any cattle. We wandered around a little bit after crossing the wash, not finding our way into lower Red Breaks without a little GPS assistance and a bit of dead-reckoning. Eventually we started seeing water-carved sandstone and the walls, while not overly tall, did start to constrict a bit.

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    Sculpted by ashergrey, on Flickr

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    Main Fork of Red Breaks by ashergrey, on Flickr

    When we at last reached the main fork slot I began to realize the error of my thinking. Wind started to breeze through the canyon. The clouds had not broken and seemed to settle lower to the ground, though it was difficult to tell from inside the slot. We moved up some minor chockstones before getting stuck on a set of boulders that were more of a problem than I'd anticipated. We spent a good amount of time trying to work our way up and over without success. In the end, I had to wriggle up a small hole between two rocks. When pinned between them, legs dangling useless below, the thought crossed my mind that this is the most stupid thing I've ever done. One shift of those rocks and I'd be dead.

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    Squirm by ashergrey, on Flickr

    Once above, I anchored a rope and lowered it to my friend. No good. She couldn't get up. We burned more time trying to get her over the top but had to concede she'd have to come up the same way I had. Trouble is, she got stuck worse than I had. Then she started to panic. Not good.

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    Chockstone by ashergrey, on Flickr

    Only by me pulling until she yelped was she able to squeeze through the opening. Now my troubles started to compound. She was exhausted physically and emotionally. She became quiet, only speaking to quip or criticize. Small flakes of snow were falling from the oppressive clouds, evaporating in mid-air before us. I put on the cheeriest face possible as we trudged further up the slot, not wanting her to realize that I was becoming very concerned about the danger of being in the canyon when it started to flow with water. But we ran into two more obstacles that slowed our progress, each made more difficult by shortened tempers. Her sore hips and boots made slick by sand kept her from stemming up passable rocks. At one point with me at the top and she at the bottom, I heard her sobbing as I set a rope anchor.

    I knew that if we could make it to the top of the main slot, we could exit the canyon early. The hike became a race against time. By now the snow was no longer evaporating, but instead wetting the rock. The camera went into the bag... no more time for pictures. Also, I lost GPS signal for good here. (GPS track up to that point)

    Red Breaks forks about halfway up into three upper sections. The plan had been to enter the left (aka west) upper slot and navigate to its end before crossing overland to the Cosmic Ashtray. To enter the left fork, one must bypass a dryfall by exiting up a slick rock slope, then re-entering the slot on the far side of the fall. This path now became our emergency way out. To my great relief, we reached the top of the slot and I explained the exit strategy to my friend.

    The slope is not overly steep to walk up, especially at an angle, but it could feel uncomfortably steep to descend. The weather and our sense of rising panic only heightened that sensation. I instructed her to keep her eyes directed up and to follow the path I traced. We needed to come up about 75 feet in elevation but would attack the slope obliquely to keep the climb moderate. I started out first, following the flattest grooves I could find in the rock. An outcropping stood about a third of the way up and I made this my target. She followed, hesitant and slow. About halfway to the rock she sat down on the slope and started untying the laces on her boots.

    Horrified, I turned back and begged her to stop. She refused, saying she couldn't get grip on the rock. Given her emotional state I couldn't argue, only try to help as best I could. When she finally made the rock outcropping, I moved ahead to the next safe spot. Now she refused to move. She sat with her back to the rock and cried. In my most soothing yet frantic voice, I explained to her that she was safe, that there was no way she could be dislodged from that position. I set a rope as a hand-assist and tossed it down to her. It landed within three feet of where she sat but she refused to grab it.

    Uh oh.

    I had to draw the rope back and rethrow it a few times until it hit her before she'd take it in her hands. With my encouragement she then stood and moved up the rest of the slope. I at one point offered her my hand as an assist and she snarled at me not to touch her.

    So yeah, things were going well. By the time we reached the rim of the canyon, the light snow had become steady.

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    Escape from Red Breaks by ashergrey, on Flickr

    The flakes were fine at first, wetting the sand and turning it to mud. They became heavier as we started marching overland amidst the grassy brush and prickly pear patches. Every bush was loaded with water and as we moved past, it transferred to our clothing. Both of us were soaked to the knee and our shoes (which she had re-donned) were weighed down with thick globs of mud. Walking over rock became treacherous because we had no grip. I gave her my gloves and poncho.

    The cloud cover became so thick that visibility was reduced to about 200 feet. As I mentioned GPS had stopped working. I knew roughly where we were but was forced to use dead reckoning to navigate our way back to the trail head. Red Breaks runs roughly north-south and I knew that we exited to the west. Thus, as we walked south I knew we couldn't get lost as long as I kept Red Breaks to my left. This was difficult though because we continually came across tributary canyons that blocked our way, forcing us to march north and west away from our goal.

    I kept up the banter during the death march, trying to lighten her mood and keep her mind off the situation. Still the miles dragged on as she shivered and I tried to hide the fact that I was miserably wet. We at last descended back into Red Breaks near its foot, where it is wider, and walked alongside the stream of water that had started running out of it. The stream moved at about a walking pace and we were at its head, watching as it picked its course. This wasn't flash flood flow in the wider section, but still enough that had we been in the more constricted slot it would have been dangerous or deadly.

    When we reached Harris Wash it was also flowing with a stream about five feet wide. This swelled to about 10 feet within minutes of our crossing.

    Back in the relative safety of the car, we bundled up, ate food and ran the heater at intervals to bring our body temperatures up to normal. The storm continued for a couple of hours. I kept hoping for a break but feared that we'd be stuck having to spend the night in the car. It seemed better to wait out the storm than risk running off the road on our way back to the highway.

    Waiting Out the Storm.jpg

    Just before dusk the snow stopped and the clouds started to break. We made a run for it. The Harris Wash road was a muddy mess and it took a fair amount of concentration to keep the car going in a straight line.

    Passenger.jpg

    I stopped only once… when the scenery became so breathtaking that I figured it was worth getting bogged down in the mud for a chance to admire it. I sat on the window frame of the car door to take this shot.

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    Desert Road (Explored) by ashergrey, on Flickr

    Totally spent, we made it back to the highway at twilight. A drive still awaited us though, as we had reservations that night at Ruby's Inn.

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    Months later I was replacing the suspension on this car and was pulling rock-hard clods of dried mud from the spring perches. That stuff dried like concrete.

    My shower that night at Ruby's was one of the best of my life. We slept in the next morning. Neither of us wanted anything to do with hiking, but I made her come along for a view of Bryce Canyon. We drove along the rim, stopping at the viewpoints. Bryce was coated in fresh snow. My friend couldn't understand why I hadn't just skipped all the other stuff and taken her here in the first place.

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    Contrails Over Swamp Canyon by ashergrey, on Flickr

    My experience in Red Breaks was terrifying and I'm grateful it didn't end up worse than just this lengthy story. Watching a canyon like that go from dry to running with water is an awe-inspiring event that I don't know I ever want to experience again.

    Featured image for slideshow:
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  2. Bill

    Bill .

    Messages:
    1,094
    Great trip report ashergrey.
    So... does your friend still talk to you :D
    Seldom Seen Anderson and barl0w like this.
  3. Nurrgle

    Nurrgle Feet on the ground, head in the clouds

    Messages:
    109
    Location:
    Broomfield, CO
    Nice report dude!
  4. Nick

    Nick >_

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    6,781
    Location:
    Salt Lake City
    Fantastic trip report! Great pics, well written, just awesome. So good to hear more of the story behind your pics. :)
    ashergrey likes this.
  5. IntrepidXJ

    IntrepidXJ ADVENTR

    Messages:
    1,314
    Location:
    Grand Junction, CO
    Nice story...so are you still friends? ;)
  6. barl0w

    barl0w I slay white dragons, adventure, and take photos

    Messages:
    170
    Location:
    Orem, UT
    Wow! Great trip report, and every bit helpful as I plan my trip for CRNP during Memorial Day weekend.

    You had me on the end of my bed reading the Harris Wash experience. Reminds me a bit of some scouts ;)
  7. uintahiker

    uintahiker Member

    Messages:
    413
    Awesome! I love Sulphur Creek. Why is it always the European tourists that give me a lift? Happens every time. Gotta check out a few other spots too.
    ashergrey likes this.
  8. ashergrey

    ashergrey Broadcaster

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    739
    Location:
    SL,UT
    Well, she doesn't hike with me any more... we don't talk much any more either, but not because of this. Women. :rolleyes:
  9. intuitive cat

    intuitive cat Jurassic Dust in my Bones

    Messages:
    409
    Location:
    Boulder Town, Utah

    awesome report. well written, honest, and amazing pics.


    i just hope that it acts as a warning to people.

    pardon me while i get a little serious:

    The bad decisions at Red Breaks (which thankfully you fully recognize and own up to) are the type of decisions that in 2010 found a group ripped limb from limb, all dead, in a slot in a very nearby area. (unfortunately i do not remember exactly which slot it was, but i definitely remember the stories of a few people i know on the SAR crew having to go clean up dismembered bodies)

    i would imagine that you learned a really good lesson from this incident.
    i only hope that the lesson translates to others as you tell this story to people, rather than people simply getting caught up in the excitement of it & abstracting the actual risks that were involved.

    I have to spend a great deal of energy every day vetting tourists and hikers, whether it be answering questions while working at the store I work at in Boulder, UT or doing my area orientations at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, in an attempt to keep people safe and in areas that match their abilities and mental make-up. You would not believe how many people ask about places like Peek-A-Boo and Spooky or are looking for info on other slots while it is actually raining outside! Many times, no matter how well i try to explain it or how serious i get about it, they simply do not want it to register because it doesn't fit into the scope of how they perceive the world - being that many of them are for the most part car tourists who usually only hike established trails in National Parks. they simply do not get it. it is frustrating, to say the least.

    It is important that the risks are not belittled or overlooked. being that your story is now publicly posted, it sets an example for anyone who reads this, and i hope that the readers really understand the gravity of the situations which can occur. ( i know that the majority of registered forum users know all of this already, but there are those random visitors and newbies who have less experience in the backcountry and in dealing with natural law in the wilderness to whom it might still be a very abstract concept.)

    thanks for sharing the report. excellently done. i look forward to seeing more!

    a note for everyone on weather patterns:
    Red Breaks/Spencer Flats/The V is the MAIN path of storms that move through the upper Hole in the Rock area in late winter and spring. any storm that is traveling below Boulder Mountain and riding the Straight Cliffs is most likely going to hit that area. The low, spread out drainages above Zebra and Harris Wash channel storms up onto the bench, which then tend to move over the pyramid & red breaks and often do not hit the Phipps Wash area of Spencer Flats or simply graze it. Every once in awhile a storm will run straight down the Escalante River Gorge, though.
    I spend the majority of late march & early april roaming randomly on Spencer Flats before the season gets up & running and i am tied down with work and am pretty intimate with the weather & drainage patterns there.
    There have been multiple occasions in which i have stood ridgetop or on domes in that area and watched the storms move within a few hundred yards of me in that direction, skirting the Old Sheffield Road on the west/southwest.
    matter of fact, it is more than likely that i was out there on the day this red breaks hike occurred and watched that storm move in. :)
  10. pixie1339

    pixie1339 Desperately Seeking Sandstone

    Messages:
    1,377
    Location:
    Draper, UT
    Gripping report Dave! I'm glad you learned from your mistakes. I can understand what got you into that situation (I'm a stubborn ass when I really want to do something), but it's always better to err on the side of caution than put yourself into a life threatening situation.
  11. ashergrey

    ashergrey Broadcaster

    Messages:
    739
    Location:
    SL,UT
    Thanks very much for the kind words and well spoken feedback.

    Indeed, I learn something every time I head into the backcountry... whether there are troubles are not. That is part of the allure. Seeing new places, testing endurance and resourcefulness, these are a big part of why I explore.

    I can sympathize with this. As a member of the Utah media, I have covered countless stories of lost hikers, stranded motorists and fatal accidents on our public lands. One thing this has taught me is that emergencies are relative. There are those for whom this type of experience would not have felt like that much of a close call.

    While I've noted what I did wrong, it's also fair to note what I did right. I went in with an escape plan and knew enough about the terrain to be able to navigate out effectively. I had supplies available at my car and was prepared to shelter there if necessary. I carried in enough extra clothing/gear that we were able to fend off frostbite. If necessary I could have found shelter in the wild and started a fire.

    I've told this story to very few people before now simply because I never want people to feel as though these are fun stories. They're not. This was not even the worst of my hiking experiences in 2011. I'm still on the fence about writing up the other one because it unnerved me.

    Survival t.v. shows and docudramas about near-death experiences already leave too many people thinking it's fashionable to be on the news for making idiotic choices. I'm tired of telling stories about teens who cliff themselves out in the Wasatch. I've talked at length with Canyonlands rangers who wish Ralston had never descended Blue John. There will alway be those who wander in the alpine country during thunderstorms, who challenge known avalanche chutes when the snowpack is unstable or who hike into the desert with a pint of water and flip-flops. Our responsibility is to not become them.
  12. intuitive cat

    intuitive cat Jurassic Dust in my Bones

    Messages:
    409
    Location:
    Boulder Town, Utah
    sounds like a challenging opportunity to express the sentiments we are here within that story, but i understand your reticence to write it.

    Amen. I almost wrote the same sentiments about Ralston in my above post. Same goes for McCandless and the "Into the Wild" spectacle. these guys are simply not heroes, but examples of people who made poor or vain, arrogant choices, with McCandless having it cost him his life.
    and that is just it. we live in a society addicted to spectacle.
    I knew a Maze District Ranger pretty well (i'd say we were casual friends, i saw him often & he spent his down time in my social circle) when i was working over at Arches for a small stint & he echoed what you say about the Canyonlands Rangers opinions about Ralston.

    I will say that i have a few friends who are primitive skills teachers and DO go out with the equivalent of a pint of water & flip flops (plus tools) - nothing but tire tread & deerskin thong strap sandals, a bow-drill, a knife, dead fall traps & a water container for walkabouts, but they do not take it lightly and don't see it as being a novel thing, but deadly serious and about relating directly to the land which they live on, which is much different than that Bear Grylls mumbo jumbo. but even a few of those people i know can get caught up in their own mythmaking/archetypal way of doing it.
  13. Miss Buffalo

    Miss Buffalo Never give up!!

    Messages:
    1,835
    Location:
    St. George, UT
    to go unprepared and overestimate your skills is one mistake, and we all know what can result of something like that.
    The other thing is that many can't say no. They're are not accepting that there is sometimes a point you have to return, otherwise you'll get into real big trouble.
    It is hard to cancel a long planned trip or something you dreamed of for a long time. But better safe than sorry.
    One thing I learned is never underestimate the weather conditions.
    Especially when not being a local of a particular area where you can't know the specific weather pattern that can occur.

    Really amazing to read about your theories, intuitive cat, I would love to learn more about it.
    Do you have any clues why that is so? Maybe the topography of the area and some odd uplifts or wind shear?
    I'm a weather geek, I'm very curious about it. Because I'm the one who usually got bummed by severe weather.
  14. intuitive cat

    intuitive cat Jurassic Dust in my Bones

    Messages:
    409
    Location:
    Boulder Town, Utah
    My weather pattern theories are mainly from direct observation.
    I personally believe that the storms ride up that bench because of the slope that comes down to Harris Wash between Red Breaks & the Bighorn Canyon area which is oriented in an east/west direction. those storms usually fall off of the north tip of the Straight Cliffs & start to move southeast. the area I am talking about is the first big wide break in the benches between Hole in the Rock & the Escalante River. That corridor is also known for high winds (as i described in my 'above zebra slot' trip report). the Spencer Flats are is uplifted and or tilted a bit as it seems to connect with a fault/fracture that runs on the west side of sand creek north of the Escalante River, forms a gigantic canyon between the Escalante River and Head of the Rocks, and runs between the 'red wall' and the 'red dome' at the top end of Phipps Wash. that fracture seems to connect the tilting that occurs at the Boulder Creek fracture with the Escalante Monocline (which one can see the tilt of in the layers of Carmel Fm on top of the benches along Haymaker Bench on the Boulder Creek side as well as the mesas across the Escalante from Boulder Creek on top of the V section). the tilt in Red Breaks is also a part of this same doming/fault system. My interpretation of that is that the dip to the east at Boulder Creek is the eastern side of the original dome caused by the escalante monocline. a bit further north, durffey mesa (which is level topped) is the changing point/joint between that doming & the doming to the east of the Circle Cliffs uplift. So, basically, Durffey Mesa is where the edges of the two uplifts meet. (ok, so i guess i threw some geology in there with my meteorology)

    another area pattern I have noticed is that storms moving north/northeast will regularly ride up Sand Creek until they get to McGath Point & then hop over into Upper Calf Creek.
    When I have free time during storm season, I will drive out to the Hogsback & sit there for a few hours just watching storms roll through. the area around the pyramid & red breaks is clearly visible from there.
    Almost all of that movement is guided by high points & benches.
    there are times that i see storms directly to my west over Salt Gulch (Hells Backbone Road area) that never reach my place, but rather feed up onto the edge of Boulder Mountain skirting town & then drop off of the mountain into the Circle Cliffs.

    Back in the early 2000's, when i was still living in Chicago, I spent two and a half years documenting the supposed 'chemtrail' conspiracy phenomenon (long term contrail dispersion forming man made clouds - some folks think we are being sprayed, some say it is spraying with reflective particles to block the effects of global warming, but i wanted to objectively observe for myself what seemed to be happening). during that time i took between 15,000 - 20,000 photos of cloud formations during my 7 mile walk home from work every day documenting the changing cloud cover. So, I've spent a lot of time watching the skies & how clouds & weather move & transform over the years.
    i'm no expert, especially in terms of any academic knowledge about such things, but I'm a pretty good observer. ;)
    Miss Buffalo and pixie1339 like this.
  15. Lorna

    Lorna New Member

    Messages:
    8
    Location:
    San Diego, CA
    Thanks so much for sharing and also the others that did. We've hiked in this area at the same time of year for over 6-7 years now. There's always some kind of weather on our trip. I always question the clouds and stay out of the washes if it's threatening. But, I really didn't think those flash-flood type of storms happened this time of year (I assumed it was always the summer monsoons that created them). Thanks for helping us all be a bit safer!
    intuitive cat likes this.
  16. intuitive cat

    intuitive cat Jurassic Dust in my Bones

    Messages:
    409
    Location:
    Boulder Town, Utah
    for the most part, you are right about the flash floods, but they do occasionally occur, though usually not on the same scale, during spring rains, as well as on the first warmer days of spring if there is still a lot of winter snow (such as spring 2010), especially in canyons fed directly off of the mountain or kaiparowits. Red Breaks is self contained, but due to it being tilted and carved into a series of steep, narrow slickrock bottomed channels that all head in one direction, any precipitation that hits the mesa goes straight through those few slots (except for the canyon on the east side next to 'the volcano' which is an open wide slickrock wash which is polished by wind erosion (which is also the cause of the carving of 'the volcano').
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