CO/UT Spring 2018 - A trip to get away


Forever Wandering
Apr 8, 2015
OK, so, it's 2AM, I got off night shift yesterday, and despite my best efforts I simply can't sleep at all tonight, so I'm giving up and going to do something halfway productive and post up a trip report or two.

This report will cover a trip I did in April/May of this year. I discussed at length some options in a trip planning thread here, and feel I owe it to the place to get a trip report up, even if it has taken me several months to get to it. This trip report probably doesn't strictly belong in the "Backpacking" section, as I backpacked only one night out of... I think I spent 9 days away from home. But I'm putting it here because the backpack hike was the highlight of the trip.

My initial plan for the trip was to spend the whole time in Southern Utah, somewhere. The requirements for what to do on the trip weren't really too strict. It had been a long, depressing winter, and I was just in a state of needing to get away and shake myself out of the dull tedium I was stuck in. This trip was definitely a new thing for me. Typically on solo trips, I go to areas I've been before, and maybe explore new trails/spots in those areas. For a lot of this trip, I actually went to totally new places. It kind of pushed my limits a bit but was rewarding, although I still haven't really gained a full liking of travelling solo, this was a nice way of pushing my limits a bit and overall was a pretty successful trip.

My initial targets for the trip were either the Escalante area, or Cedar Mesa, or both. I ended up starting off heading to Escalante and, first off, wanted to get Coyote Gulch crossed off my list of places to see.

My trip started with a drive across Nebraska, which still had snowdrifts along the road ditches despite it being the end of April. This is very unusual--winter really hung on hard this year. Stayed the night in Frisco, CO, (which would cause me to make some changes to the trip in the end). Despite the fact that I was sick of snow in Nebraska, the snow in the mountains in CO was magical to me. Actually, just being in the mountains is magical to me, and is an instant mood changer. I wandered the mostly dead streets of Frisco that evening, had a burger, and celebrated to myself not having to show up to work for another 10ish days (can't remember what my exact schedule was on this trip now).

The next day I drove all the way to Escalante. The drive, especially once I turned off the interstate just past Green River, was fantastic. Surreal desert landscapes abounded.

Driving through Capitol Reef NP

Stopped for a look at the Henry Mountains between Torrey and Boulder

The guys that scouted and built these roads were clearly tough and determined people. The terrain is a bit mind boggling, and I am always flabbergasted how difficult travel really is when you get out into these desert areas compared to how difficult it initially seems from a map, or Google Earth.

I stopped in Escalante to get a couple maps and a permit at the visitor center. Also had a sandwich at Escalante Outfitters. Then I took off down Hole In The Rock Road to find a campsite for the night. I was really shocked how busy the road was. It was, to be honest, busier than the highway.

After quite a bit of searching, I drove about a mile off on a side trail and found an excellent campsite for the night. Instead of pitching a tent, I just camped in the bed of my pickup, which is something I basically never do. Camping under the stars doesn't have a lot of appeal to me, too many surprise storms in the mountains, plus I have very bad eyesight so once I take my glasses off to sleep, I can't enjoy the views anyway.

The views from camp as the light faded away were fantastic. I had a great view of both the Straight Cliffs and quite a bit of Escalante River canyon systems. Set up my binoculars and glassed around for quite a while, spotting many hoodoos, strange rock features, and just generally got a better look at the landscape.



The next morning I was treated to an excellent sunrise, and the Straight Cliffs were bathed in glorious golden sunlight.

I seem to always take a picture of my pack in the back of my pickup (or car) at the start of a hike. Not entirely sure why, but my collection of these pictures continues to grow. Started my hike down Coyote Gulch at the Red Well trailhead, figuring I just as well hike it from the top down and get a full experience of the place.

Have to admit that it took a while for the canyon to really impress me. Walking in deep sand is also kind of one of my less favorite things to do. I trudged on, though, and soon was dropping into more brush and expected that I would find water soon. Shortly after dropping into the brush, I ran into a man packing up his campsite. Having not had a good conversation for a couple days, I stopped and talked. He was a preacher from Texas, and he had never hiked in Utah before, but through various circumstances ended up in Coyote Gulch. We continued chatting and decided to hike together for a while--both of us seemed OK having company for a while.

We soon got to running water, and the canyon started to carve deeper. Eventually at a crossing, the preacher wanted to stop to get water and a snack. I stopped for a snack, but after eating decided I would press on alone, and probably we'd meet again somewhere down the canyon. At this point I was planning to push as far as possible, wanting to make this hike go all the way to the confluence with the Escalante.

Now here's where the story begins to twist a bit, and become one of those strange desert tales. Two women hiking together passed through as the preacher and I snacked, and we (mostly he-he was much more talkative than I am) chatted in that brief fashion passing hikers often do. I thought nothing of the meeting, having had so many of these conversations before and since. Never really figured I'd see them again other than in passing, and never figured on speaking to them again.

However, maybe a quarter mile down the trail I passed them. One was knee deep in quicksand and the other was standing nearby. I said a few words in passing, not initially realizing what was going on, and kept hiking. I don't tend to pester women in the backcountry much, and figure they came to enjoy the wilderness, not get chatted up by every guy on the trail (having hiked with women in the group a few times now, it's kind of amazing just how many people chat with them on the trail. I kind of figure it must get tiresome for them eventually. I'm used to maybe "Hi" or a nod most of the time), so I continued hiking. Another couple hundred yards down the trail I just didn't feel the situation looked right so I turned back. The one woman seemed very stuck, and the other had that look of not knowing what to do. So I turned around and asked if they needed help.

They were pretty happy that I had turned back, though they were not sure how I could help. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. I tried just walking near the woman who was stuck first, but found out that, not surprisingly, it was pretty nasty stuff. To get closer, I grabbed a couple cottonwood branches and threw them on the ground to keep me from sinking. The woman was stuck only by one foot, so I had her just use the branches to also support her weight and I dug the sand away from her leg that was stuck. Within a few seconds she was free and quite happy about that. Definitely one of the more strange experiences I've had in the backcountry.

On the hike out the next day I took a picture of the scene. The girl had been trying to dig herself out for quite a while, and between her work and mine there was quite a hole.

The preacher had caught up by this point, so all 4 of us chatted for a little bit. I then continued on down canyon, leaving the others to their own plans.

As I continued on, the stream cut the canyon deeper and things started to really impress.

Going to just throw up a few pictures now. As I continued down, the canyon really lived up to its reputation. Especially past the confluence with Hurricane Wash. The worries of the world melted away as sandstone sculpted in the finest manner surrounded me.






The canyon just continued to impress with every turn. I lost a little track of time, and the going was slow as I marvelled at the sandstone walls. Walls is maybe the wrong word, as "wall" implies something straight, flat, uninteresting. But these walls of sandstone were anything but that. They flowed, danced, ebbed in and out of one another. In some kind of strange poetry, the sandstone, once made of dunes of loose flowing sand but turned solid, was turned again into something flowing by the flow of water.

Soon enough I came around a bend to Jacob Hamblin Arch, something I'd really been excited about seeing. It did not fail to impress. There's good reason this spot is so popular. It simply gives you the "shock of the real" and forces you to contend with something you didn't really believe could exist until it stared you in the face. The arch and alcoves here are sublime.

This was kind of my first trip trying out long sleeve shirts, and I picked an earth toned one, as is my habit. Unfortunately combined with my pants, I felt as though I was in far, far too much brown.

The alcove and arch form something that would have made Mobius scratch his head.

At the arch, the two women and the preacher and I all kind of met up again. We chatted for a short while. There were a few other groups also, and general chatting went on between various groups, the sounds of our voices distorted by the sinuous sandstone. I decided to climb up inside of the arch, because why wouldn't I?

After spending quite some time by the arch, I decided to continue on a bit. It was only maybe 3 or 4PM at this point. I was plenty tired from the hike, and really wasn't feeling going too much farther. In the end, I camped with the preacher in the alcove just past Jacob Hamblin Arch. The evening was something to remember for sure, and the campsite one of the more surreal I've ever stayed at.

There were plenty of people camped around the arch that evening, in the various alcoves and beaches. It would sure be fun to see this place alone, but I was not unhappy to have company. Another group came down to our site as darkness fell and chatted for a while. They were quite friendly, although I think some of their friendliness was from the "plenty of booze" they were carrying. They were fun to chat with, though. The preacher told tales of his cello-playing brother. One of the other guys told stories of bighorn sheep hunting (something I wouldn't mind doing someday myself). One of the folks played some cello music on a phone, and although I usually despise music in the backcountry, somehow this music fit the location and bizarre acoustics. Eventually, after darkness had fallen, all groups retired peacefully to their tents, and the night was quiet. The stream sung us its soft songs as we slept.

The next morning I awoke fairly early, and chatted with the preacher while having breakfast. I decided to head back to the trailhead. The journey down Coyote Gulch, though incomplete in the sense of not hiking the whole canyon, and maybe seeming a waste to driving so far to only stay one night, had gotten me the mental reset that I needed. I also felt the realization of simply being able to do as I pleased for whatever reason I pleased, because I was the only one I really needed to answer to during this trip. There was no need to feel pressure from whatever real or imagined source to tough out another night or two in the backcountry for somebody else, or any outside reason. It was time to get back out and go wherever I pleased.

So I hiked out quite early in the morning. One early version of this trip, in the planning stages, was to just do dayhikes in the Needles District, so that's where I headed next. I figured a day or two there would be good. The hike out of the Gulch was much less eventful than the previous day's, but no less beautiful.

Took the time on the way out to explore the tiny slot canyon in the upper part of the gulch.

I ended up camping just outside the Needles district that night, in the same campground Curt and I had stayed in while we were hanging out before our hike in the Maze in 2017.

The next day, I did a very nice loop in Squaw Canyon/Big Springs Canyon, including some off trail contouring around the head of Squaw Canyon, which was simply excellent.

I just need to spend more time in the Needles. This so far is my favorite spot around Moab. The off trail routefinding wasn't hard, although there were a couple fairly sketchy joints that I did have to jump. One in particular looked like it could be bad if things went wrong, but I made it fine. The hardest part, really, was avoiding crypto soils on benches where some soil had accumulated.



Near the head of the Squaw Canyon there was a place I was very concerned about. The topo looked iffy and Google Earth is only good about as far as you can throw it in canyon country a lot of times. As though it was meant to be, though, there was this perfect ledge (much less sketchy than it looks) in the spot in question. I stopped here to enjoy the views, shade, and get a snack.


The head of the canyon was quite impressive.

Doesn't get much better than this. Slickrock dreamscape.

I climbed the ladder and peeked over into Elephant Canyon.

Then continued back down toward Big Spring Canyon.

The trails in the Needles seem to feature joints a lot, which I enjoy a ton.

Oh these views

Needles. They speak for themselves, really.

After finishing the hike, I made a stop at Newspaper Rock to actually take a look at it. The last time I had been at Newspaper Rock was with Curt, and we met a couple in the parking lot who had locked themselves out of their vehicle. If I'd had a piece of suitable wire, I could have "broken into" their car myself, (I've done this to my own and friends' vehicles so many times it's kind of silly) but instead I gave one of them a ride back up to a spot with cell service to call AAA, so I didn't get a chance to see the petroglyphs that time around.

That night I hotel camped in Moab and got a shower--my first in something like 4 days. The next day I decided to start meandering back homeward, with potential for some time spent bumming in Colorado. My first order of business the next day was to hit Arches before the masses and see Landscape Arch. The previous year Curt and I had intended to go to it, but ended up hiking to some other arches instead. Landscape is sure a cool arch, but I've seen enough others by now that it didn't just awe me like some. Certainly worth seeing though, and I have certainly realized that every arch has its own charm and personality--all of them are pretty awesome.

As I was driving North away from Moab, Arches, etc., I pondered what to do with the day. There was still quite a lot of time left in it. So, I made the snap decision and turned left toward Island in the Sky--the only district of Canyonlands NP I had not visited yet. Yeah, I've been to the Maze before Island in the Sky. Strange but true. It turned out to be a very good decision, the views are stunning.

I had serious considerations of just driving down the Schaeffer Switchbacks then back up after seeing them, just for the sake of doing so, but ended up not doing it. Maybe next time.


Probably the scenic surprise highlight of this area for me was Upheaval Dome. I had toyed with the idea of hiking the Syncline Trail on this trip, but passed. Going to have to do it sometime (Spring 2019 in Moab? It's a serious consideration).


The lighting wasn't so hot, so I didn't take very many pictures from Grandview Point, but wow what a spot. I spent a lot of time here with my binoculars glassing anything and everything. Probably looked like a real weirdo to the crowds, but at this point in my life I really don't have much shame left. The wind was blowing like mad at this point in the day, so standing so close to the cliffs was a bit of a rush.

I ended up staying in Frisco, CO, again that night, but the next day I wasn't ready to head home. I doubled back to Gunnison via Lead. The views on this drive were just amazing. The desert is neat, but mountains still hold the first place in my heart. Took very few pictures. Super few. My goal for the next day or so was to fly fish around Gunnison. Anticipating this might become an issue, I threw in a fly rod, figuring that on the drive through Colorado on the way out, I might be bit by the fishing bug. I really, really enjoy fishing, and especially fly fishing. There are actually a few streams with trout in Nebraska, but they are a whole different beast than real mountain fishing, and it seemed only logical to stop and fish a bit. So I did. Local reports said the Taylor River was the best bet, so that's where I headed. The fishing was quite tough without waders-the shore is lined with thick brush and I had to carefully balance on rocks in the river most of the time to get any casts out at all. It was beautiful, peaceful, and because of the season, I more or less had the stream to myself.


I caught one small brown trout. To most this is no trophy, but when I catch a trout out of a Rocky Mountain river or stream, I dance and celebrate like it's the first fish I ever caught. I've always fished lakes for my whole life, and for most of my life fished with traditional lures/tackle. The learning curve for these discerning trout in moving water is steep, and any little victory is a big one for me.

I stayed in Gunnison that night. If I had waders, I would have stayed at least another day, but the rockhopping was just not something I wanted to deal with so I headed back home the next day. The trip had really refreshed me, and while it ended up being much more of a road trip than a camping/backpacking trip, I had gotten what I needed. At work I am micromanaged to a degree that kind of makes me sick to think about, and things had been quite stressful over the few months leading up to this trip, so being able to just do whatever I wanted and answer only to myself was a really revitalizing experience.

If you actually made it this far, kudos to you, if we ever meet, I owe you a drink for tolerating this kind of rambling! I promise not to go on too long if we ever meet.
Great report @b.stark ! Thanks for sharing. Yeah, that last winter just wouldn't let go here either, it was depressing indeed. We went from winter to summer and we never had spring. I recognize the revitalizing experience of being in Utah. At some point in your life (when the micromanaging stops), it's likely that these trips will get longer and longer. There is a lot to see in Utah and Colorado. And in the dead smack of winter southern Arizona has a lot to offer too.
Very nice of you to walk back and help out in the quicksand event.
Very nice! Considerable variety in a 10-day trip. Was your wandering in the Needles on "official" routes, or did you just pick a direction and go?
Very nice! Considerable variety in a 10-day trip. Was your wandering in the Needles on "official" routes, or did you just pick a direction and go?

The off trail stretch started where the trail crosses from squaw canyon to lost canyon and ended where the trail crosses from squaw canyon to elephant canyon. Apart from that I was on official trails. While looking for dayhikes in the Needles I spent some of time looking for off trail hikes, and this was one that looked neat.

EDIT: Eh, just take a look at the GPS track from the hike on Caltopo... it explains way more better.

<iframe width="100%" height="500px" src=" Click here to view on CalTopo"></iframe>
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The spine in the picture that makes the arch is actually a somewhat reasonable Class 3 maybe 4 exit with a day pack and downclimbable.

I thought about trying it out, but was tired/fatigued enough to decide against it.
Wow! You did a lot on this trip! Two of my favorite spots for views in the Needles are at the pass from Elephant Canyon to Squaw Canyon where you took the cover photo and at the pass from Squaw Canyon to Lost Canyon. I think the first picture from the Needles group was taken from that spot. Really enjoyed seeing the pictures and reading the report. I also have been to the Needles and the Maze but never to Island in the Sky. Gotta go over there some day.
Love your photos. Congrats on the fish. I've yet to learn how to do any kind of true fly-fishing and still get a kick just catching fish on a fly and bubble on mountains lakes. I also like much of your writing. It gave a lot of perspective and hope the drudgery of your job doesn't last too long for you, but my what a contrast against the freedom you enjoyed on your trip. Thanks for sharing!
Fly fishing is great if you want to have a more difficult time catching fewer fish (sometimes anyway). But it is very rewarding. Used the fly and bubble rig for many years myself, it's very effective and you can cast clear across a lake.

The drudgery is always there, but at least the weather is better most of the year, and I'm not working as much overtime at the moment.

WasatchWill your numerous reports (and others who post numerous reports, especially short hikes or dayhikes) really activate my yearning. Really wish there was better opportunity closer to me for good short trips.
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