Good trips in Southern Utah given current conditions

Balsam

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Mar 16, 2023
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Hello! I am new here and am hoping you all can help me think about an upcoming trip. I have a permit for backpacking in Grand Gulch (Bullet to Kane) for March 27. Then heading to Boulder Mail Trail for a few days backpack. I'm concerned about backcountry conditions - and road conditions - given the wet year. Two questions:

1. What might conditions be like in both of these areas? I know Cedar Mesa is at around 6000ft. Is it advisable to stick with the trips as scheduled? Is it likely to be miserably cold and wet or muddy? Should we look for something lower?

2. Can you advise other trips that might be nice alternatives with better weather outlook or lower elevation? We're driving in from WA so can point ourselves wherever we wish!

I am a fit, experienced 60 yo backpacker. Very comfortable with navigating off trail. I'm leading a group of 3 women friends who are all in good shape but somewhat less experienced. We can certainly manage some scrambling but are not in the market for anything technical.

We're looking for two separate 3 night backpack routes. Plus areas to explore on dayhikes. We'll be camping in the area for 2 weeks.

Thanks for any thoughts you can share!
 
Regarding road conditions, the BLM publishes a report (link) for a number of the more popular dirt roads in and around GSENM. I suggest calling the GSENM visitors center and the Kane Gulch ranger station to get the most up-to-date road conditions for your specific itinerary. In addition to the road conditions, they could probably tell you whether there's snow/ice along your intended hiking route. Based on conditions near St. George at elevations similar to the areas you mentioned, I'd expect there to be snow (at the very least in the shade and on north-facing slopes).

More generally, this entire winter has been relentlessly cold (frequently 10-15F below normal) and wet by southern Utah's standards; even now, the 10-day forecast would be more typical of mid-January than late March. So a lot of the hikes that would normally be pleasant in mid-March might not be this year.
 
Thank you Utahastro. That's the sense I've been getting as well. Do you have any thoughts about Lower Dark Cyn? At about 4,000 ft, I wonder if the elevation low enough there to hope for better conditions.

Also, I know very little about the Needles but it also appears to be a bit lower in elevation. Though it is a bit further north. Would that be a better bet than GG or BMT?

Is there good backpacking around Hite Marina area? Northern AZ?

Questions, questions! I greatly appreciate any input.
 
The Needles area is a great alternative when dealing with muddy, sloppy dirt roads in other places. You may have to adjust your trip plan to do more of the day hike/pavement type trip. The road is paved all the way to the trailhead if you're going to loop A or B to hike the common trails into Chesler Park. Problem this time of year is that most backcountry sites are probable full in the needles. You may get lucky and have someone cancel and open up a spot.

Lots to see along I-70 and down in the Moab area if you haven't been there before. Besides the Needles, other paved roads that lead to good hiking are Island in the Sky and Arches. Both have some nice day hikes, especially for first timers to the area.

https://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/road-conditions.htm

The 7 day forecast is calling for more rain next week as well.
 
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Hi @Balsam,

That sounded like a great itinerary you had planned, but I think you're right to be concerned about the current conditions.

However, given the incredible knowledge and helpfulness of the folks on this forum, you'll soon be overwhelmed with fantastic alternative solutions :)

Regarding the Bullet/Kane route; last year I dropped into Grand Gulch in March from Dripping Canyon, when the snow level on the mesa was around 6,000 ft. There was a very little snow in Dripping, but in GG at 5,200 ft there was a fair amount underfoot, since it is very sheltered there. For your Bullet/Kane hike, given it's almost 20 miles long, I'd be a little nervous about what you may encounter; it would be no fun to have to turn back. On the plus side, both trailheads are very close to the highway, so you should be able to reach these without too many problems.

As an alternative, you could consider starting a hike from Collins Trailhead, and dropping into Grand Gulch from there. The trailhead is much lower at 5,100 ft (Bullet and Kane at 6,400 ft). You could base yourself at the junction of Collins/Grand Gulch or further into GG, and then do some long day-hikes from there, both north and south. There are some wonderful archaeological sites to visit in this area, and the scenery is superb.

Whatever your plans, it'd be worth contacting the excellent folks at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, to ask their advice.

For the Boulder Mail Trail, a close-by alternative could be to head down the Hole-in-the-Rock road from Escalante and explore some of the amazing canyons in this area (I see from the latest road report that this road is currently dry and open; see link below). I highly recommend a multi-day backpack into Coyote Gulch; it is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, with glorious scenery and abundant water. It's easy to access from the Hurricane Wash trailhead.

I'd completely agree with @CodyL about considering Needles as another alternative, especially given the current conditions. I just checked the availability of overnight backcountry campsites on recreation.gov and although much of the main section of the park is unavailable, as usual, there is plenty of availability for other sections such as Salt/Horse and Needles North. You could have a fantastic 3 night backpack in the park using either of these areas to camp.

For your idea about Dark Canyon, the main issue here may be accessing a trailhead, since Woodenshoe, Peavine etc are over 8,000 ft. The Sundance trailhead at 5,500 ft may be accessible but I'm not sure what the road condition would be like. The other problem may be the hiking conditions in Dark Canyon itself. I hiked through here in May 2019, which was the last big snow year, and it was not an enjoyable experience at all. The main canyon gathers snow-melt from the high surrounding mesas, and normally dry sections of DC had fierce, thigh-high water thundering through. It would probably be fine to do some day-hikes from below Sundance, but I'm not sure it'd be worth the trip down there.

 
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Unfortunately, the GCNRA Road Conditions are still showing 10 days to 2 weeks old. There probably was some downpours across the region since but don't know if the snow level came below 6000ft. Island in the Sky cam shows dry/no snow. High country on Zion Cam showing snow lingering and substantive. Hoping to be in the region in 10 days or less so, I too, am interested in hearing any direct observations folks may have. I would think the Needles zones are snow free. The good news is there ought to be lots of water supply for the next three weeks.
 
Unfortunately, the GCNRA Road Conditions are still showing 10 days to 2 weeks old. There probably was some downpours across the region since but don't know if the snow level came below 6000ft. Island in the Sky cam shows dry/no snow. High country on Zion Cam showing snow lingering and substantive. Hoping to be in the region in 10 days or less so, I too, am interested in hearing any direct observations folks may have. I would think the Needles zones are snow free. The good news is there ought to be lots of water supply for the next three weeks.
Thanks for mentioning the Island in the Sky webcam - I hadn't known about that. We're heading to that area in a few weeks and I'm also checking on conditions...
 
Unfortunately, the GCNRA Road Conditions are still showing 10 days to 2 weeks old. There probably was some downpours across the region since but don't know if the snow level came below 6000ft.

I've been watching the forecast closely. Things have warmed up in the SW, Escalante area to a lesser extent. Last I checked the river gauge it was still too cold for major snow melt. The SW has been getting hammered with precipitation, and I know Paria-Vermillion Cliffs flash flooded on Monday. It looks like there's a good chance of that happening in the Escalante Canyons on Tue.

Screen Shot 2023-03-19 at 3.35.51 PM.png
 
Thanks for mentioning the Island in the Sky webcam - I hadn't known about that. We're heading to that area in a few weeks and I'm also checking on conditions...

Easiest way to figure out most up to date snow coverage (or when it has snowed last, how long it has been dry ect.) is via Caltopo. You need a pro account (I know it's 50$ annually, but IMO worth it) and then simply stack the Sentinel Weekly map on top of your mapped route. You can also choose the date you want to see the sat imagery for.

However, if you just want a general overview of how much snow you can expect, just plug the location you are interested in into the Sentinel Hub Playground and you are good to go

 
Easiest way to figure out most up to date snow coverage (or when it has snowed last, how long it has been dry ect.) is via Caltopo. You need a pro account (I know it's 50$ annually, but IMO worth it) and then simply stack the Sentinel Weekly map on top of your mapped route. You can also choose the date you want to see the sat imagery for.

However, if you just want a general overview of how much snow you can expect, just plug the location you are interested in into the Sentinel Hub Playground and you are good to go

I'm remembering that I had gotten Caltopo pro a few years ago when I was checking on snow conditions, but then I discontinued it because I hadn't used it in awhile. Time to get it again! I just checked out Sentinel Hub Playground and found that helpful. Thanks for suggesting it. :)
 
I just got back from four days in the broader Trachyte Canyon system. we picked that area because it seemed fairly tame and also is low elevation and can be accessed from pavement.

starting on Thurs March 16 we had planned to walk down lower Maidenwater, but Hanksville had gotten like a half inch of rain the day/night before, and deep wading in frigid water with backpacks didn't sound too fun, so we walked down Trail Canyon, which is easy and fairly scenic. it was running nearly top to bottom. Trachyte was very cloudy and running enough that it couldn't be crossed without getting wet feet. we camped up near the mouth of Maidenwater and then the next day walked up Maidenwater without packs for maybe a mile or a bit more until we got stopped by a cold pool. there was some pretty sketchy ice in places. after getting back to our packs we walked down to where Woodruff comes in, and camped up on a bench near there. the water coming out of Woodruff was almost as cloudy and nasty as the water in Trachyte, ugh! but it settled out pretty well overnight. next morning we hoped to go up Woodruff but we got stopped quite quickly by a deep pool and again it was cold enough that this didn't seem too fun. we were basically in there to have fun and explore and relax in the sun with coffee and whisky, rather than seeking canyon adventure. so anyway we just walked back up to Maidenwater and dropped our packs and day hiked some of Road Trip Ryan's class 4 surface-level return route, which goes through a lovely navajo dome zone. then we camped again, and woke up this morning and walked back out Trail Canyon.

we had good weather and sunny skies. water bottles that we left sitting out were mostly frozen solid in the mornings -- I'm not sure what temperature that indicates but I'm guessing lows in the mid/lower 20s. days were breezy and pleasant but not exactly warm. we didn't see anyone in there at all. we didn't see any cows either, but there's an awful lot of cow shit so I guess we just got lucky on that score. it's a nice area.
 
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Hello Everyone! Thank SO MUCH to each of you for all of this wonderful information!
  • TrailScot - I appreciate your perspective on GG and Dark Cyn. Collins is certainly a thought
  • Fossana - your weather graphics are interesting. Where do you view them?
  • Stickerbumper - thanks for the reminder on Sentinal. I have Caltopo Pro that I use mostly for examing off-trail passes in early summer seaon
  • regehr - thanks for the interesting option in Trachyte Cyn area
The weather closely and it does not appear to be letting up but we still hope to pull off a couple 3-4 day backpacks that are both safe and not miserable. Any additional thoughts, ideas or information is more than welcome. Dayhikes too.

Thanks again to this excellent group!
 
If the permits are available:
Paved Road approaches:
Taylor/Syncline Loop on the Island in the Sky. Recent wet Wx good for H20 availability if trails aren't snowy.
Horse/Salt Zone Needles: jeep trails are closed so Horse would be very quiet. Usually quite dry but upper reaches should have pothole pools in bedrock bottom side canyons. Expect 8 mile approach to water and some deep sand.
 
there are also multiple backpacks that could be done starting from the Burr Trail or Highway 12. even I-70 has several decent possibilities.
 
Building on regehr's thoughts:
Don't limit yourself to canyons only if looking for loops. A rim walk return can be quite aesthetic:
Phipps Wash/Spencer Flat off Hwy 12
The Gulch/Brigham Tea Bench off Burr Trail

Lower Muley Twist/Grand Gulch of Halls Creek lolli-pop loop if gravel portion of Burr trail within Cap Reef is OK (good info avail, plus permits, at Cap Reef VC). Recent wet Wx ought to insure good H2O
 
A rim walk return can be quite aesthetic:
100% on this! cross-country travel can be excellent as well, for example passing through a navajo dome zone is one of my absolute favorite things to do in canyon country, and these often contain potholes that should be doing pretty well this spring. there are multiple good examples in the general Capitol Reef / Escalante areas.
 
Perfect timing John and regehr! I was just beginning thinking along those exact same lines (i.e., try to stay largely out of the canyons but below the snow and augment with potholes).

I've been noodling around with the ideas you presented and am intrigued by The Gulch to Brigham Tea Bench. Reading trip reports (including Jamal), I see two possible possibilities:

1. Loop Gulch TH - Brigham Tea Bench - Gulch TH by beginning in the Gulch itself and travelling S to access the Brigham Tea Bench, then walk back north to the trail head on the uplands. Questions here are: 1) how safe and easy will walking south in the Gulch be (and is it 'nice' in there?), 2) how easy is it to access the Brigham Tea Bench from the Gulch, 3) is the higher overland route north back to the TH reasonable?

2. Deer Creek TH - Brinham Tea Bench - Gulch TH. How difficult (or not) is the segment between Deer Ck TH and the Bench?

We have two trip windows for this... if we skip GG, we'd be here on March 28. Our second trip will begin on April 4.

Regarding GG, I just spoke to BLM at Kane Gulch. According to BLM website on 3/19, there was 'flooding' in Bullet and GG last week (https://www.blm.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2023-03/Cedar Mesa Conditions Report 3.19.pdf). They also noted 3' - 5' of water at the Narrows at that time. The ranger says Gov Camp Road and Collins TH roads are currently impassable and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable. Anything in that area sound difficult to pull off.

As I mentioned earlier, our group is fit and I am quite experienced off trail. I don't want to get into an epic adventure trip though. The idea is to have fun and be smart.

Thanks for any additional thoughts!
 
Perfect timing John and regehr! I was just beginning thinking along those exact same lines (i.e., try to stay largely out of the canyons but below the snow and augment with potholes).

I've been noodling around with the ideas you presented and am intrigued by The Gulch to Brigham Tea Bench. Reading trip reports (including Jamal), I see two possible possibilities:

1. Loop Gulch TH - Brigham Tea Bench - Gulch TH by beginning in the Gulch itself and travelling S to access the Brigham Tea Bench, then walk back north to the trail head on the uplands. Questions here are: 1) how safe and easy will walking south in the Gulch be (and is it 'nice' in there?), 2) how easy is it to access the Brigham Tea Bench from the Gulch, 3) is the higher overland route north back to the TH reasonable?

2. Deer Creek TH - Brinham Tea Bench - Gulch TH. How difficult (or not) is the segment between Deer Ck TH and the Bench?

We have two trip windows for this... if we skip GG, we'd be here on March 28. Our second trip will begin on April 4.

Regarding GG, I just spoke to BLM at Kane Gulch. According to BLM website on 3/19, there was 'flooding' in Bullet and GG last week (https://www.blm.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2023-03/Cedar Mesa Conditions Report 3.19.pdf). They also noted 3' - 5' of water at the Narrows at that time. The ranger says Gov Camp Road and Collins TH roads are currently impassable and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable. Anything in that area sound difficult to pull off.

As I mentioned earlier, our group is fit and I am quite experienced off trail. I don't want to get into an epic adventure trip though. The idea is to have fun and be smart.

Thanks for any additional thoughts!
Hi Balsam,

I was in Cedar Mesa last week (March 13), and we too had backpacking permits for Bullet Canyon and out Government Trail. Like you, the ranger advised us not to attempt the road to the Government trail. But it is possible to do an out-and-back down Bullet. My friend didn't want to backpack given the cold and chance of rain, so I did a day hike down to Perfect Kiva and Jailhouse ruins and back. It was great! The rangers have rerouted the descent into the canyon up and over some steep slickrock. I found it slightly scary, but I'm decently afraid of heights and I was able to do it. It does not require technical skills. There was snow along the ground, especially in the upper canyon, and water throughout the canyon, but nothing impassable. I didn't get my feet wet, and I didn't need traction devices.

I saw only one other group the day I was there, and I had the ruins all to myself. The other group was doing an overnight. There were cars at the trailhead (the road, actually), so there must have been other people down there. I parked at the road and walked into the trailhead due to mud on the road to the trailhead.

I'm attaching some pictures to give you an idea of the conditions. It wasn't the backpacking experience I wanted, but it sure was worth it to see the ruins in solitude! Whatever you do, I hope you find something great!

Elisa

IMG_1168.jpeg
Mud on the road to the Bullet Canyon trailhead

IMG_1170.jpeg
Conditions along the upper Bullet Canyon

Screen Shot 2023-03-21 at 9.13.31 AM.png
The regular way down (I think)

004219E3-CDFB-46D8-851E-8229A2C54A0C_1_201_a.jpeg
The reroute went down this slickrock

DSC01227 (2).jpeg
Beautiful Perfect Kiva!
 
Building on regehr's thoughts:
Don't limit yourself to canyons only if looking for loops. A rim walk return can be quite aesthetic:
Phipps Wash/Spencer Flat off Hwy 12
The Gulch/Brigham Tea Bench off Burr Trail

Lower Muley Twist/Grand Gulch of Halls Creek lolli-pop loop if gravel portion of Burr trail within Cap Reef is OK (good info avail, plus permits, at Cap Reef VC). Recent wet Wx ought to insure good H2O
My Deer Creek/Brigham TR access routes:
Deer Creek GSENM by John Morrow, on Flickr
 
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