Canucks in the desert-an October Utah trip


Sep 22, 2016
Having endured nearly two unbroken weeks of arctic weather up here in Calgary- thoughts turn back to our desert camping and hiking trip in the first two weeks of October. For my wife Jo and I, our annual trip south gives us an extension to summer, as October in Alberta usually brings a definite shift towards the eventuality of winter. After ten desert tours totalling well over 20 weeks of camping and hiking, with a bit of MTB here and there, we still find new places to explore, and old favourites worth revisiting...


After 18 hours of driving spread over two days, we pulled in after dark to one of the many fine camp spots tucked under the cliffs not far west of Goblin Valley. Distant flashes from a storm hitting the Henrys, and a brief sprinkle of rain overnight as we drifted off to sleep had us wondering what the next day would bring.
Fortunately- sunshine!

The days goal was Little Wildhorse and Bell canyons. Unbeknownst to us until arriving at the trailhead- a flash flood had rolled through 2 days before, leaving trim lines 3 feet up in the wash, and a grumbling worker removing several inches of mud from the outhouse. The trailhead register mentioned chest deep water, but we headed up anyway.

After about a km of canyon and one minor pool, we reached what would prove to be our impasse. Wading in to the deep cold water, I realized that it would be neck deep on my 5 foot tall wife. With the cool 10c temperatures and strong winds reaching down into the canyon- we wimped out and backtracked over to Bell.

A few small pools of mud and/or water were easily negotiated in lower Bell, but then a deep pothole was encountered that we couldn't climb out of. Apparently the pile of rocks that would usually aid in this had been washed away in the flood, and a potential bypass looked too risky with everything covered in wet silt. Foiled again- I guess we will have to return!

Next on the agenda were a couple of days in Capitol Reef. We swung off along the way down the Notom road, finding a nice campspot not far from the highway beside Pleasant Creek. Despite being only 100m away from the paved road-traffic was nonexistent overnight, and we were lulled off to sleep by the sound of running water and crickets, waking up to a nice view of the domes of Capitol Reef to the west.

Yours truly at the Fruita overlook along the Navaho Knobs trail. We've hiked quite a bit in Capitol Reef, but it's always worth a return visit.

We had hiked the full Navaho Knobs trail in the past, so decided try another option- up the Ponderosa filled side valley just beyond the overlook to a feature known variously as the Stegasaur, or Sharks Fin.
A brief class 3-4 rock scramble took us to an upper plateau area with great views and some colourful rock.

Continuing on to the saddle below the fin.No Stegsaurii to be found...Sharks Fin seems more fitting.

There are expansive views in all directions from the sandstone highland surrounding the fin, plus some entertaining wandering. We exited back the way we had entered- with the rock scramble descent to the Ponderosa valley proving easy to me with some climbing experience, but a little daunting to my wife. The rope never came out though, and on our way out we scouted what looked like a potentially easier route from just east of the Fruita overlook.

Picking a bag of apples, but eschewing the overcrowded campground at Fruita- we ate dinner by sunset at the "overflow" camp area just west of the park. We've stayed here a few times now, often finding it raked by winds, and sometimes a bit busy, but this night was peaceful all counts.

A Cohab Canyon thruhike, and Cassidy Arch, were already on the "done" list, but not the Frying Pan Trail.
I'd put it in the top 3 in Capitol Reef along with Navaho Knobs and Spring Canyon.

Cohab Canyon from above.

Following cairns through the rolling landscape of the Frying Pan trail.

Rather than hike all the way to Grand Wash and the hope to hitchhike back to close a loop, we backtracked for a different perspective. We met a number of hikers on the same agenda, so if you want to do it one-way, I think hanging out at the trailhead in the morning and arranging a shuttle with other hikers would likely prove easy.

Heading down the east fork of Big Horn canyon, after camping nearby along the Old Sheffield road.

After a few small negotiable canyon sections, and some larger obstacles easily bypassed on skiers left- the most interesting section of east Big Horn continues on uninterrupted.

The terrain alternates between shallow canyon, and wider expanses of very colourful rock.

A bit of welcome shade on the first really warm day of our trip, the previous few days having had cooler than normal weather.

The canyon continues on down towards Harris Wash for a km or two in more or less this fashion- sometimes quite narrow, but mostly just easy walking.

Finding color in more than just the sandstone on the return up-canyon. The upper stretch of wash seemed a bit tedious and much sandier than in the morning (as they always do!)- but this was a a first rate hike in our opinion, and one that we would definitely do again.

View from near camp along the OSR. Spot Phipps Arch?

A great place for morning coffee!

Driving a bit further out the OSR- we started out across sand, then onto slick rock benches with the aim of looking for the fabled "Volcano" aka the "Cosmic Ashtray". We never did get there though after a combination of errors- starting with me forgetting the GPS, followed by doubts about our routefinding and thus veering too far to the east. Climbing a slick rock dome gave a glimpse of the Volcano a km to the SW, but then Jo tweaked her knee on the descent- making a retreat the wise option.

Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable day of rambling through some fine scenery and colourful rock.

A detail of a particularly interesting section.

With Jo's knee feeling much better after a nights rest, we descended into Fairyland at Bryce the next morning. To be continued.....


Sep 17, 2014
This fine piece of yours has pushed me over the edge; I'm going back to Southern Utah for the first time in years this Spring. Thanks a jillion for sharing.


Broadcaster, formerly "ashergrey"
May 5, 2012
Love it. Great itinerary.


Desert Rat-Weekend Warrior
Jun 7, 2012
My favorite area on the planet. You hit some great stuff.


Sep 22, 2016

We had been to Bryce several times, including hiking the Fairyland loop, but it never ceases to amaze.

Plus- no need to pay the park entry fee, as we had camped in the pine forest between here and Red Canyon.

While not always as vivid as some other areas of the park, the subtle shadings of Fairyland are just as engaging.

The smooth well graded trail was easy on Jo's knee- another reason for revisiting.

Closing the loop with 3 km of rim walking offered plenty of scenic rewards. A favourite hike, for sure!

Leaving Bryce- we headed south, with a short detour at Glendale for u-pick pears at $5 a bag. Not far to the west of Kanab and well off the highway, we found a quiet secluded spot in the forest to camp, at sunset.
The next morning, we hit Kanab early to try for a Coyote Buttes south permit. While there were about 90 people in 38 groups hoping for Wave permits (we've been lucky to get there twice), getting the south permit was easy, with only 4 groups totalling 13 people trying for a spot. Apparently on some days, even in busy periods- there are less than the allowed 10 wanting in, and there is no need for a draw.

After re-supplying in Kanab at the one grocery store open on Sunday, we wandered around the Paria Rimrocks area in the afternoon.

These are the toadstools above Kelsey's "Valley 1", accessed by an easy walk off the Cottonwood road. The route down from the rim was a bit washed out in spots, especially where it crossed a clay sideslope, but it was easy to kick new steps in the soft surface.

Many of these toadstools are much larger than they appear from above. A couple of hours were easily spent exploring the area, with some bench walking and minor scrambling.

After bumping our way down the rougher than remembered House Rock Valley road, we pulled into a prime camp spot not far off the main Sand Hills access, that we had stayed at in 2013 when visiting White Pockets.
Refreshed from solar showers and dinner under the setting sun- we drove out to Cottonwood Cove in the morning, finding the road dead easy to negotiate despite all the warnings given by the BLM staff in Kanab. Not that I was expecting any issues in our 4wd Tacoma, but a much lower Ford Escape with street tires made it easily too. YMMV!

Cottonwood Cove is compact, but with the convoluted terrain featuring something interesting around every corner- we spent a very full day wandering around. With literally hundreds of photos taken- I'll just post a representative sampling...


I could go on and on... Despite what may be seen as second tier status to the Wave area- we felt that Cottonwood was equally as amazing, without the same difficulty of securing the permit. We'll be back again someday.

Spending a second night and a relaxed morning at this spot, which is one of the best we have found of many in our desert travels- some decisions had to be made. With Jo's knee still giving a bit of pain occasionally, and no bikes along to offer a knee friendly alternative to hiking, we decided to cut the trip a couple of days short and skip the planned itinerary of a second visit to White Pockets, and some other options in the Paria area. Reluctantly packing up- we hit the road west towards St. George.

Arriving at Snow Canyon by mid-afternoon, we found the campground full as expected. But, no worries, BLM camping proved easy enough to find after a short hike in the park.

This was our first visit to Snow Canyon, and while the exploration options seem a bit limited, the loop taking in the lava tubes, white rocks and this route across sandstone domes was very enjoyable.

Moqui Marble factory. According to parks info- this zone of a series of interconnecting rock ridges is the only area of Snow Canyon where off trail travel is not prohibited. Fair enough I guess, as it was pretty busy on the trails despite the late afternoon hour. As expected- a passable quiet camp spot was found to the north near Veyo.

Out on the I-15 the next morning- a short walk was in order before beginning the long haul home to Alberta.
Red Cliffs near Leeds fit the bill.

The short canyon offers some pleasant easy hiking. One way around the pool- not as steep as it looks!

It was a a short excursion up this little gem of a canyon, but a fitting end to our 2016 desert tour. 2100 km and a day later- we arrived home to find a late Indian summer in effect. With a couple of rest days enroute and some easy bike riding- Jo's knee thankfully recovered and has held up to the first few days of our new ski season. Already though- we are looking forward to October 2017 in the desert. I hope you enjoyed following along!

A bunch more photos of the trip can be found here-
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Feb 7, 2015
I get a weird sense of pride when people come such a long way to enjoy my back yard. The inverse, is my jealousy that you can drive west and be in the Canadian Rockies in little time. My memories of their splendor need refreshed.
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Sep 22, 2016
I get a weird sense of pride when people come such a long way to enjoy my back yard. The inverse, is my jealousy that you can drive west and be in the Canadian Rockies in little time. My memories of their splendor need refreshed.
The grass is always greener...!
Living 30 mins from one of the iconic mountain ranges of the world has it's perks, but sometimes I feel that envy about the Colorado Plateau- could easily spend a year down there.
Fun Fact- geologically speaking, the Canadian Rockies extend into Montana, through Glacier NP to Marias Pass.


Jul 5, 2014
This was a lot of fun to read. Great write up and excellent pictures to go along with it. Thanks.
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