Fish and Owl Canyons overnight

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With snow putting an end to the Colorado alpine backpacking with which I have so recently and completely fallen in love, I thought I'd take a few days and see what backpacking in Utah had to offer. I've never visited Utah before at all, so when I saw a nice stretch of weather forecasted between here and the Cedar Mesa area I took some last minute time off and got permits for a buddy and I to try a 3 day/2 night loop through the Fish creek and Owl creek canyons down in Cedar Mesa.

I started off very excited to get out there, then as the time to leave grew closer my enthusiasm waned. My buddy had to drop out at the last minute due to being called in to work. I also forgot to pack a lot of things which is unusual and, looking back, probably another sign that I really wasn't in to the trip. Among the things I forgot to bring were a coat to wear during the very cold evenings I planned to bang around in Grand Junction before and after the hike, various toiletries, and as I discovered on the trail I forgot the map I had printed out with ruin locations marked.

Nonetheless time off is time off and there are worse ways to spend it than driving through Colorado and Utah and spending some time in a tent. I split the 8 hour drive to the trailhead and spent the night in Grand Junction where I had a nice dinner and got some pre-trip intel from @IntrepidXJ . From there it was a few hours drive to the Kane Gulch ranger station to watch the mandatory 'how to behave like a good hiker' movie, pick up my permit and get info on water availability in the canyons. I brought two gallons with me hoping not to have to haul it all in and, based on the week old info the rangers had to share, I decided to carry in half of it just to be safe.

The rangers also shared that someone reported seeing bear tracks in the canyon, something they thought highly unlikely but figured they would pass along the info anyway.

The trailhead is a file mile dirt road drive from the ranger station. I chose to drop in on the Fish side, so I headed off for a mile and a half hike to the rim.

850.IMG_5332.jpg


You pick your poison when it comes to entering and exiting the loop. Exiting via Owl is a sure thing. Exiting via Fish requires being able to climb up the 15 foot dihedral-ish section seen below. The rangers advised entering via Owl and climbing out Fish, but I'd take a 'sure thing' exit when tired and beat down over hoping that I'd be able to climb out with a pack on and facing doing the entire route in reverse to get out if I couldn't.

I had brought some rope of my own, but someone had tied off a length and left it. I wouldn't have trusted this at all had I not arrived in time to see a group of five kids using it to come up out of the canyon. These were the only people I'd see for the duration of the trip.

850.IMG_5352.jpg


Once past the tricky bit it was a game of 'spot the cairns' and picking a path around the larger drop offs where there was no obvious trail to follow. Some very pretty fall colors greeted me at the canyon floor.

850.IMG_5386.jpg


850.IMG_5408.jpg


The ranger intel was still accurate. Ample water for nearly the entire length of Fish canyon till the confluence with Owl creek.

850.IMG_5414.jpg


850.IMG_5422.jpg


I also saw evidence that the bear report was accurate indeed. I came across a few scat piles loaded with pine nuts and juniper berries as I hiked.

850.IMG_0229.jpg


850.IMG_0249.jpg


I had seen some pictures of the loop, but for some reason I had it in my head that the scenery was going to be mostly baked and blasted a la the Grand Canyon. This was anything but that. Some sections were sandy and barren, but mostly it was a very lush environment full of trees and plants of all types. I saw many different birds and more chameleons than I could count.

850.IMG_0240.jpg


850.IMG_5449.jpg


I had hoped to camp at the confluence. My original plan was to then spend the next day hunting around for ruins in the leg of Fish canyon that continues south, but having forgotten my map this was a non-starter. If I learned one thing about Utah backpacking on this trip it's that if you're looking for ruins, every pile of rocks up on the cliffs looks like ruins and probably isn't.

Around 6:00 I called it a day and tried to find a serviceable spot to set up camp for the night. I had put in just under 11 miles total. Slow going overall. There is no trail to speak of, so I took the creek bed where it was the easiest way forward and bushwhacked my way along side it where necessary.

The sun wasn't even set completely before I got my first glimpse of what true dark skies areas have to offer:

850.IMG_5454.jpg


850.IMG_5455.jpg


And once it had completely set, the real show began.

850.IMG_5471.jpg


850.IMG_5473.jpg


I hoped a good night's sleep would refresh my spirit, but I woke up and just immediately started calculating how long it might take to complete the loop and drive back to GJ. I really can't put my finger on it, but my heart just wasn't in it for some reason and if you're not having fun then what's the point?

850.IMG_5479.jpg


All research I had done showed this to be a 15 mile loop. I knew I had tracked a little extra mileage the day before wandering around, but I figured it should be no more than 7 miles from camp to the trailhead. I started hiking down to the confluence, which turned out to be about another mile and a half from where I had stopped the night before.

850.IMG_5487.jpg


Heading back up Owl canyon would prove to be an entirely more difficult exercise in route finding. The picture below shows a random section of 'the trail'. I would walk a while, stop and check my map, head in the direction where the trail should be (or give up and jump back in to the creek bed). For the most part the trail is overgrown.

850.IMG_5501.jpg


Neville's Arch

850.IMG_5523.jpg


More fall colors as I moved further up Owl canyon.

850.IMG_5531.jpg


850.IMG_5534.jpg


850.IMG_5537.jpg


When I passed 7 miles and the map still showed another 3 or 4 to go, I knew I was in for a long slog. The last half of the Owl canyon hike was the toughest hiking I have ever done. Very easy to miss what few cairns have been set up along the way, and following the creek bed is no longer a viable option as it becomes filled with impassable obstacles and deep pools of water. At one point I ended up doing a stretch of straight up slab climbing which I last did while roped up in Kentucky a few years ago, but I could see no other way forward and the map insisted this was the route to take. Only when I had gotten on top of the ridge could I look back down and see one small cairn perched atop a series of large boulders that were apparently the preferred route.

I did finally get to see some ruins near the exit.

850.IMG_0380.jpg


I backtracked from here to find the route up and out. It's a scramble up a long slickrock pour off followed by a steep bit of rough trail and then finally an easy quarter mile hike over a field of slab back to the trailhead. I was pretty well beat and while I shot some more video, apparently I didn't take a single picture of anything along the way.

Can't blame the trail for my lack of enthusiasm, but effort vs reward for this one definitely skews towards the 'effort' side of things. The suggestion to do it in three days would certainly make it easier to tackle, and carrying a map of the ruin locations would make for much better 'reward'. My gps also showed it to be a significantly longer hike than advertised (even taking in to account some aimless wandering), though I've started to question the accuracy of the tracks on the inReach and have a support case open with Garmin so I don't know what to believe.

600.IMG_0398.jpg


Trip video:

 
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#2
There have been times when the canyons have seemed uninviting to me. No idea why. But that's when I head for the flat country such as the San Rafael Desert where I can just wander aimlessly. No rhyme or reason to it, though sometimes I wonder if it didn't have to do with barometric pressure. In any case, you got some stunning photos.

And not to be nitpicky, but we call those chameleons lizards out here, just so we're all on the same page. :)
 
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Thread starter #3
Hah! Aren't they chameleons? Unless I was hallucinating I watched one change colors when it ran off a brown rock in to some green leaves to hide from me.
 
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#4
Some of those canyons are well known for jimsonweed, also known as datura.

What I mean is, some of the lizards like it. ;)
 
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#6
As far as the length your GPS is reporting, it's very common for the GPS to lose a good signal and jump around down in those canyons adding to the length they report at the end of your hike.
 
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#7
With snow putting an end to the Colorado alpine backpacking which I have so recently and completely fallen in love with, I thought I'd take a few days and see what backpacking in Utah had to offer. I've never visited Utah before at all, so when I saw a nice stretch of weather forecasted between here and the Cedar Mesa area I took some last minute time off and got permits for a buddy and I to try a 3 day/2 night loop through the Fish creek and Owl creek canyons down in Cedar Mesa.

I started off very excited to get out there, then as the time to leave grew closer my enthusiasm waned. My buddy had to drop out at the last minute due to being called in to work. I also forgot to pack a lot of things which is unusual and, looking back, probably another sign that I really wasn't in to the trip. Among the things I forgot to bring were a coat to wear during the very cold evenings I planned to bang around in Grand Junction before and after the hike, various toiletries, and as I discovered on the trail I forgot the map I had printed out with ruin locations marked.

Nonetheless time off is time off and there are worse ways to spend it than driving through Colorado and Utah and spending some time in a tent. I split the 8 hour drive to the trailhead and spent the night in Grand Junction where I had a nice dinner and got some pre-trip intel from @IntrepidXJ . From there it was a few hours drive to the Kane Gulch ranger station to watch the mandatory 'how to behave like a good hiker' movie, pick up my permit and get info on water availability in the canyons. I brought two gallons with me hoping not to have to haul it all in and, based on the week old info the rangers had to share, I decided to carry in half of it just to be safe.

The rangers also shared that someone reported seeing bear tracks in the canyon, something they thought highly unlikely but figured they would pass along the info anyway.

The trailhead is a file mile dirt road drive from the ranger station. I chose to drop in on the Fish side, so I headed off for a mile and a half hike to the rim.

View attachment 58738

You pick your poison when it comes to entering and exiting the loop. Exiting via Owl is a sure thing. Exiting via Fish requires being able to climb up the 15 foot dihedral-ish section seen below. The rangers advised entering via Owl and climbing out Fish, but I'd take a 'sure thing' exit when tired and beat down over hoping that I'd be able to climb out with a pack on and facing doing the entire route in reverse to get out if I couldn't.

I had brought some rope of my own, but someone had tied off a length and left it. I wouldn't have trusted this at all had I not arrived in time to see a group of five kids using it to come up out of the canyon. These were the only people I'd see for the duration of the trip.

View attachment 58739

Once past the tricky bit it was a game of 'spot the cairns' and picking a path around the larger drop offs where their was no obvious trail to follow. Some very pretty fall colors greeted me at the canyon floor.

View attachment 58740

View attachment 58741

The ranger intel was still accurate. Ample water for nearly the entire length of Fish canyon till the confluence with Owl creek.

View attachment 58742

View attachment 58743

I also saw evidence that the bear report was accurate indeed. I came across a few scat piles loaded with pine nuts and juniper berries as I hiked.

View attachment 58768

View attachment 58770

I had seen some pictures of the loop, but for some reason I had it in my head that the scenery was going to be mostly baked and blasted a la the Grand Canyon. This was anything but that. Some sections were sandy and barren, but mostly it was a very lush environment full of trees and plants of all types. I saw many different birds and more chameleons than I could count.

View attachment 58769

View attachment 58746

I had hoped to camp at the confluence. My original plan was to then spend the next day hunting around for ruins in the leg of Fish canyon that continues south, but having forgotten my map this was a non-starter. If I learned one thing about Utah backpacking on this trip it's that if you're looking for ruins, every pile of rocks up on the cliffs looks like ruins and probably isn't.

Around 6:00 I called it a day and tried to find a serviceable spot to set up camp for the night. I had put in just under 11 miles total. Slow going overall. There is no trail to speak of, so I took the creek bed where it was the easiest way forward and bushwhacked my way along side it where necessary.

The sun wasn't even set completely before I got my first glimpse of what true dark skies areas have to offer:

View attachment 58747

View attachment 58748

And once it had completely set, the real show began.

View attachment 58749

View attachment 58750

I hoped a good night's sleep would refresh my spirit, but I woke up and just immediately started calculating how long it might take to complete the loop and drive back to GJ. I really can't put my finger on it, but my heart just wasn't in it for some reason and if you're not having fun then what's the point?

View attachment 58751

All research I had done showed this to be a 15 mile loop. I knew I had tracked a little extra mileage the day before wandering around, but I figured it should be no more than 7 miles from camp to the trailhead. I started hiking down to the confluence, which turned out to be about another mile and a half from where I had stopped the night before.

View attachment 58753

Heading back up Owl canyon would prove to be an entirely more difficult exercise in route finding. The picture below shows a random section of 'the trail'. I would walk a while, stop and check my map, head in the direction where the trail should be (or give up and jump back in to the creek bed). For the most part the trail is overgrown.

View attachment 58754

Neville's Arch

View attachment 58755

More fall colors as I moved further up Owl canyon.

View attachment 58757

View attachment 58758

View attachment 58759

When I passed 7 miles and the map still showed another 3 or 4 to go, I knew I was in for a long slog. The last half of the Owl canyon hike was the toughest hiking I have ever done. Very easy to miss what few cairns have been set up along the way, and following the creek bed is no longer a viable option as it becomes filled with impassable obstacles and deep pools of water. At one point I ended up doing a stretch of straight up slab climbing which I last did while roped up in Kentucky a few years ago, but I could see no other way forward and the map insisted this was the route to take. Only when I had gotten on top of the ridge could I look back down and see one small cairn perched atop a series of large boulders that were apparently the preferred route.

I did finally get to see some ruins near the exit.

View attachment 58772

I backtracked from here to find the route up and out. It's a scramble up a long slickrock pour off followed by a steep bit of rough trail and then finally an easy quarter mile hike over a field of slab back to the trailhead. I was pretty well beat and while I shot some more video, apparently I didn't take a single picture of anything along the way.

Can't blame the trail for my lack of enthusiasm, but effort vs reward for this one definitely skews towards the 'effort' side of things. The suggestion to do it in three days would certainly make it easier to tackle, and carrying a map of the ruin locations would make for much better 'reward'. My gps also showed it to be a significantly longer hike than advertised (even taking in to account some aimless wandering), though I've started to question the accuracy of the tracks on the inReach and have a support case open with Garmin so I don't know what to believe.

View attachment 58767

Will link a video later.
If i could say "like it a lot" , I'd say that for sure. :twothumbs::twothumbs:
 
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As far as the length your GPS is reporting, it's very common for the GPS to lose a good signal and jump around down in those canyons adding to the length they report at the end of your hike.
There's some problem with my inReach device or the Earthmate app. This is the third trip where there is a variance between the GPX exported out of the handheld versus what the phone app reports. Two of the trips were up/down 14ers so no chance of loss of signal. And in these particular canyons I don't think that was an issue either. Plenty of clear sky all the time, and I don't see any oddball or missing track points when I lay it out on google earth.

I have a case open with Garmin, but check this out.

This is what the Earthmate app says for the total trip (which is in line with Dr Ned's experience):

600.IMG_0398.jpg


This is what Google Earth says after importing the GPX:

cropped.google.earth.jpg


So 21.6mi out of Earthmate, 17.7 out of the handheld sync. That's a pretty big difference. On the two fourteeners there were also 2-3 mile discrepancies.

I've used Garmin watches for running for years, and their developers have earned my contempt in that time for numerous bugs and other issues. I cringed when I saw they bought DeLorme, and cringed again when they started pumping out firmware updates for the inReach. I'm pretty sure one of the recent updates has hosed the thing.
 
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Thread starter #9
Some of those canyons are well known for jimsonweed, also known as datura.

What I mean is, some of the lizards like it. ;)
Next you guys will tell me it was a mistake to eat the mushrooms I saw along the way...
 

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#11
Looks like a beautiful area with great weather, but sounds like a trip that would have been better/more fun with a partner. I suspect we have all had those trips before.

Thanks for the report/photos
 
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#12
You know what they say - never take a pull on a crack pipe unless you can positively identify it.
You mean as in, yup that's a crack pipe?

Those are pretty passé over here in Colorado. ;)
 
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DrNed

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#15
There's some problem with my inReach device or the Earthmate app. This is the third trip where there is a variance between the GPX exported out of the handheld versus what the phone app reports. Two of the trips were up/down 14ers so no chance of loss of signal. And in these particular canyons I don't think that was an issue either. Plenty of clear sky all the time, and I don't see any oddball or missing track points when I lay it out on google earth.

I have a case open with Garmin, but check this out.

This is what the Earthmate app says for the total trip (which is in line with Dr Ned's experience):

View attachment 58776

This is what Google Earth says after importing the GPX:

View attachment 58777

So 21.6mi out of Earthmate, 17.7 out of the handheld sync. That's a pretty big difference. On the two fourteeners there were also 2-3 mile discrepancies.

I've used Garmin watches for running for years, and their developers have earned my contempt in that time for numerous bugs and other issues. I cringed when I saw they bought DeLorme, and cringed again when they started pumping out firmware updates for the inReach. I'm pretty sure one of the recent updates has hosed the thing.
I use Motion X on my iPhone and have found it to be pretty accurate. The thing I
find striking is that we both measured it at 21 miles.
 

WasatchWill

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#16
Gorgeous pics! Glad you got a taste of Southern Utah. I'll have to watch the video a little later. Wish it were more enjoyable while you were en route, but I wonder if being solo a good way from home played any factor into the lack of enthusiasm? As for the bear sign, I've also found it odd how bears can travel those desert canyons and washes. I've always assumed they preferred more alpine habitats, such as the Abajos just north of there. My father-in-law found some bear tracks along side of Sulphur Creek just outside of Capitol Reef National Park a few weeks ago.
 
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Thread starter #17
Thanks, man. I've been loafing around the last couple days sniffling and sneezing, so I'm starting to think I might just be fighting off something which put me off my game a bit.
 

pixie1339

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#19
Looks like a beautiful hike! I haven't done this one yet, but reading your report when talking about how tough the hiking was reminds me of a trip I took in Grand Gulch with @Yvonne a few years ago. Our plan was to start at the Government Trail and exit via Kane Gulch. The hiking was pretty easy until we got into the middle of the canyon, which is apparently lesser traveled. The trail became incredibly overgrown, and we kept losing it. Much like your experience, hiking in the stream bed wasn't an option because there were so many obstacles to go around. We actually got stuck on the trail at one point because the vegetation was so thick, and taller than we were. I also had higher mileage on my GPS than any of the guides said, but I don't think it's all inaccurate. I think there is some loss of signal due to the canyon walls, but I also think that the distances that you have to travel when you're dealing with obstacles and overgrowth increase because you're not traveling in a straight line.
 

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