Quite the Adventure, South of Moab, Across the Colorado Plateau, May 2019 - Part 3

TrailScot

Member
Joined
Dec 2, 2019
Messages
40
Part 1 of the trip report here
Part 2 of the trip report here

I had, so far, covered 124 miles over 11 days (10 hiking days)

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The trail from Beef Basin into Fable Valley was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The path follows a high bench with steep cliffs on one side, and a deep gorge on the other. This is Gypsum Canyon, and it is a tremendous sight to behold; not so much for sheer beauty, but more for its vast, brutal, tortuous drainage, which seems to have been violently gouged from the high desert down to the Colorado River. This may make the route sound precipitous, but it is anything but; in fact it is a very pleasant, flat, well-established old cattle trail, with consistently glorious views, as the trail winds gently down to Fable Valley.

The stroll along Fable Valley was a very pleasant and enjoyable one, with a lovely flowing stream, meandering across the wide valley floor. Steep, soft, white sandstone cliffs rise steeply on both sides, with several isolated tall red sandstone buttes rising from the center of the valley. At the southern and northern end of the central valley, ancient ruins are perched atop these buttes, with uninterrupted views up and down the length of the canyon. It is obviously tempting to speculate that these sites were lookout stations for the local inhabitants, although it is impossible to know exactly what or who they were looking out for.

I came across this rather ‘flowery’, but lyrical, quote from one of the first publicized recreational explorations of Fable Valley, from Desert Magazine in March 1959:
That these ancient inhabitants of Fable Valley felt the need to guard their homes and their fields must be taken to mean that even this remote valley was visited by covetous men who sought by conquest what was not theirs by right “.

Several pictograph panels and simple granaries can be found in the side drainages of the valley, but the highlight is a magnificent large ancient habitation dwelling. The ruin is perched 100’ up a cliff, in a spring-fed, soot-blackened alcove, and features an unusual ‘T-shaped’ doorway. Sitting beside the imposing front wall of this structure, as the light rain starts to fall and heavy mist hangs low in the valley, one can’t help but imagine the lives of the small community who inhabited this large alcove almost 800 years ago.

The issue with my ankle had impacted my schedule, so I had hoped to make up some lost time today, by hiking into the evening. Unfortunately, afternoon rain again forced me to set up camp under a sheltering tree, a few hours earlier than I would have liked. Fortunately, this appeared to be one of the few trees in the valley that was not completely surrounded by cow pies. There must have been plenty of cattle in Fable Valley, at some point, and judging by some of the huge 'deposits' here, they must have shared the canyon with a herd of dinosaurs !

I fell asleep to the drum-like sound of torrential rain battering my tent. I do seem to remember thinking in advance of this trip that I probably wouldn't have very much use for my tent flysheet; I was sure I'd be spending my evenings gazing up at the stars, and being woken up by the first rays of morning sun the next day. Maybe tomorrow !


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I woke the next morning, and was relieved not to hear the rain hammering down; instead, I could hear a gentle ‘swish-swish’ sound all around me. I was very confused. Upon opening the tent, all was revealed: it was snowing heavily, and judging by the 2 inches or so of snow on the ground, it looked as if it had been falling for most of the night. My biggest concern was that I was currently at an elevation of 6,500', and my plan for today was to climb to 8,000' to exit Fable Valley, and then to reach over 8,500’ in a couple of days time. Given the amount of snow at my current elevation, there was no way I could commit to heading up another 1,500' by the end of today. If it continued to snow, or the weather got even worse, I could be in some trouble.

The snow continued to fall for most of the day, so I had little choice but to stay put, and hope for better conditions tomorrow. Another day lost to weather. This was getting frustrating ! Effectively, in the 7 days since I had left Needles Outpost, this was the 6th day of significant storms.

Another issue was food; effectively, I had now lost 2 hiking days due to my ankle injury, and today’s snow, so I was going to have to scale back my daily rations, in order to stretch out the supplies that I still had. Oh well, no more evening cereal bar for me, for a while !


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I wasn't in an optimistic mood, as I awoke the next day. But, what's this, is that the sun hitting the cliffs on the far side of the valley ? It was, and sparkling blue skies above. Hooray, this was more like it. Finally, a glorious Utah morning. I was delighted and was quickly breakfasted and packed up, keen to be on my way. The rays of the morning sun sped across the valley floor to greet me; my rucksack sat on the still damp earth, leant against my sheltering tree.

I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from On The Road by Jack Kerouac: "Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life ".

Today the 'road' I was taking was leading me south once more, this time towards Dark Canyon via Trail Canyon. I certainly had longer ways to go, to complete my journey, but as I slung my now battered backpack over my shoulders, I was finally feeling optimistic, for the first time in several days. The trail is life.

The descent through beautiful Trail Canyon, was extremely enjoyable. It is a steep, forested valley, which plunges dramatically between gorgeous white sandstone cliffs and tall buttes, with tremendous views of hazy distant valleys. (Unfortunately, the route to reach here from the Fable Valley trailhead across the Dark Canyon Plateau was far from enjoyable. Although the dirt road across the plateau was horribly muddy and slippery, the main issue was the devastation wreaked upon the pinyon forest in this area. It appeared as though a small thermo-nuclear device has been detonated here, with many square miles of trees utterly obliterated. It unfortunately makes for a rather depressing couple of hours of walking).

Emerging from the pine forest of Trail Canyon, I found myself in Dark Canyon, an area that I have been looking forward to visiting for several years. Given the remoteness and relative difficulty in reaching it, the Dark Canyon Wilderness sees far fewer visitors than other parts of the South-West. Initial impressions certainly did not disappoint, with huge blonde sandstone cliffs, towering above the wide forested canyon.

It was a lovely sunny afternoon, and the walking was just wonderful as I boulder-hopped across the sparkling stream. I smiled because, in preparation for this hike, this area was the one where I had the biggest concern about finding water, since it is notoriously very dry. The extremely large precipitation falls over the winter meant that I needn’t have any worries on this occasion.


As the snowmelt flowed down from the higher elevations into the side drainages of Dark Canyon, the main stream in the valley was swelling as I walked down-canyon. This meant that my increasingly regular stream crossings were getting progressively deeper, reaching above knee-height by the time I reached the confluence with Woodenshoe Canyon. I was certainly glad that I had my hiking pole with me to help with the crossings, although I had managed to fall into the water once. The fantastic views, and warm sun, more than made up for any discomfort, although I was utterly exhausted as I pitched my tent in the late evening. Adrenaline had probably kept me going to a large degree, since I realized that I had probably crossed an re-crossed the stream over 40 times, during the day.

I awoke suddenly in the night, feeling strangely nervous about the next day. I was aware of the night sky, full of incredibly bright stars shining through the tent mesh. It was a fabulous sight, with enough light to create an eerie glow amongst the trees.

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The next day’s progress through Woodenshoe Canyon continued in a similar vein. I could feel my toes start to get numb as I traversed the ice-cold stream throughout the early morning. This canyon is not as immediately dramatic as Dark Canyon, with softer cliff bands, and fewer dramatic buttes, but is stunningly beautiful nonetheless.

The canyon’s upper drainage is steep and narrow, resulting in the stream being funneled into a deep, twisting channel. At times, a ferocious flow was created, which made today’s water crossings considerably more challenging, and occasionally a little frightening. I suddenly had a flashback to my overnight nerves. My stomach tightened, at a very worrying thought: what if there was a single stream crossing today, that was literally impossible or just too dangerous ? Given some of today’s difficult crossings so far, this was entirely feasible.

In such an event, I would have no choice but to turn back, and repeat, not only all of today’s stream crossings, but also all of yesterday’s. And, not only that, I would then have to find another way out of the Dark Canyon Wilderness, and somehow find another route that would allow me to continue heading south, towards civilization. My dwindling food rations would also take a hit, if I lost another couple of days, which wasn’t a very tantalizing prospect. It was certainly too late to consider returning north to Needles Outpost, which was 5 days and 65 miles away.

Good grief man, pull yourself together; enough of this negative thinking ”. I had found a lovely small sunny beach next to the tumbling stream, and sat for awhile to give myself a good pep-talk. Here I was in this utterly glorious locale on a beautiful Utah morning, and all I was doing was fretting endlessly about something that might never happen. And, even if it did, I’d just have to buckle down and get on with it. ‘Onwards and upwards ’, as my Mum would say !

The stream crossings continued relentlessly, but gradually the water got shallower and the drainage wider. By the time the canyon finally opened into lovely open verdant meadows, in early afternoon, I was exhausted. I had probably crossed the stream over 70 times in the past 2 days.

Despite the difficult traverse through this area, Dark Canyon and Woodenshoe Canyon had more than lived up to expectations, as major highlights of the US South-West. I rested for an hour and took my lunch of tuna and tortillas in the sun-dappled shade of a beautiful aspen grove, and gathered my energies for the final climb out of the canyon, to reach the trailhead on the Elk Mountain Plateau.

It was interesting to review the trail register at each of the official trailheads that I had passed since leaving Beef Basin. Undoubtedly, the unusually large amounts of snow over the winter, and the recent wet weather of spring had made it very difficult for even the most determined hiker to reach the trailheads in the surrounding area over recent months, whether on foot or by vehicle. Every trailhead register had only a handful of names (mostly Hayduke Trail hikers) listed for the year so far, with only one single entry at the southern Fable Valley trailhead. I didn’t necessarily think that I would meet many people on my hike, but for over a week to have now passed without seeing a single soul was something I hadn’t anticipated.

Although I had had a long day in Woodenshoe Canyon, I was determined to reach the vertical high-point of my entire trip at over 8,500’, before sunset. Although my route followed dirt roads for several miles across the Elk Mountain plateau, the melting snow at this elevation had turned the roads into a slippery, slimy mess. It was very slow-going, as the heavy, thick mud clung to my boots. My timing was perfect however and, as I exited the trees, I had a stunning view of the late evening sun hitting the buttes, causing the rock to glow a dramatic deep red. What a magnificent view of The Bear Ears this was.

I had, so far, covered 188 miles over 15 days (13 hiking days).


Part 4 of the trip report here


Trail Map and Elevation Profile

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Leaving Beef Basin
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Gypsum Canyon
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Gypsum Canyon
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Fable Valley
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Lookout Station overlooking the valley
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Overlooking Fable Valley
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Ancient dwelling high on the cliff
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Front wall of ruin overlooking the valley
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T-shaped doorway
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A scenic camp spot in Fable Valley
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Looking back on Fable Valley
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Approaching the Dark Canyon Plateau
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Pinyon forest remnants on Dark Canyon Plateau
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Entering Trail Canyon
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Trail Canyon Pine Forest
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Trail Canyon Waterfall
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Flowing stream in Dark Canyon
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Dark Canyon
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Dark Canyon
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Dark Canyon
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No shortage of water
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Woodenshoe Canyon
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Woodenshoe Canyon
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Woodenshoe Canyon
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Woodenshoe Canyon
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Bear Ears - Westerly Butte
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Bear Ears - Easterly Butte
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Jammer

❤2Hike
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Joined
Feb 23, 2012
Messages
640
Love these reports. :thumbsup:

It's so interesting to see this area in different conditions for that season. I was there in May of 2010 and again May last year and both times it was extremely dry and fairly warm. To see that much water in upper Dark and Woodenshoe kinda shocks me.

I did a series of shorter hikes this past May and if I hadn't been invited on a Dinosaur Float Trip, my plan was to re-visit this area along with Salt Creek and those side canyons you hit. Funny to think... if I'd stuck to my original plan we might have crossed paths! :) In hindsight I was glad to be on a boat with plenty of warm gear/hot food since I'm not a fan of the chilly temps. So... kudos to you for powering through.
 

Titans

Member
.
Joined
Aug 18, 2018
Messages
995
Resilience!!! Wow.

Another time of the year, but I remember seeing that Fable Valley TH sign featured in the snow in one of @George_Washington_Hayduke TRs:
 

Ugly

Life really is better Here
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Joined
Apr 20, 2013
Messages
752
Likewise loving these reports.

Fable, Trail and Beef have been on the list ever since I did Woodenshoe down into Dark. It was during June and quite dry, even the seep near the confluence was barely dripping.

It has been good to have these to read as a diversion. All of this on a hurt ankle... tough.
 

Mikjik86

Member
Joined
Apr 22, 2018
Messages
68
Another amazing report!

We did an 8 day backpacking/packrafting trip in the Dark Canyon Wilderness in April of this year.

Your third picture showcases the slope we had to navigate to reach the bottom of Gypsum Canyon. After traversing down Fable Valley, we had trouble finding a way down into Gypsum. We basically B-lined it down the sketchy slope and camped where the slickrock is on the middle of your third picture. I did not have any pictures of this descent due to rain/snow falling on us as we descended, and these pictures allow for me to re-visit this amazing place. We also had snow dump on us as we camped in Fable Valley that previous night. I made a backpacking video showing our adventure which can be viewed here.
It was during the 2nd week of April, 2019.

From about 28:00 in the video to roughly 35:00 showcases our section of Fable Valley in the snow, as well as our progress North towards Gypsum. If you'd like to continue watching past 35:00 from roughly 40:00 - 50:00 shows the rarely traveled route through Gypsum Canyon where we had fears of getting cliffed out. it was truly a wild place with little to no trail. No cairns, and no footprints while navigating 1000+feet cliff bands. That day in Gypsum Canyon lies in my memory as one of the most exciting, off-route adventures of my life.

Your trip report is very engaging, and I am looking forward to the next part very much. I hope your injury does not deter you from the remainder of the trip. Safe trails!
 

TrailScot

Member
Joined
Dec 2, 2019
Messages
40
Love these reports. :thumbsup:

It's so interesting to see this area in different conditions for that season. I was there in May of 2010 and again May last year and both times it was extremely dry and fairly warm. To see that much water in upper Dark and Woodenshoe kinda shocks me.

I did a series of shorter hikes this past May and if I hadn't been invited on a Dinosaur Float Trip, my plan was to re-visit this area along with Salt Creek and those side canyons you hit. Funny to think... if I'd stuck to my original plan we might have crossed paths! :) In hindsight I was glad to be on a boat with plenty of warm gear/hot food since I'm not a fan of the chilly temps. So... kudos to you for powering through.
Many thanks ... yes, given that I was expecting much of this area to be dry, it was definitely a mixed blessing that there was so much water

As always, your trip reports are superb, and make great reading ...
 

TrailScot

Member
Joined
Dec 2, 2019
Messages
40
Another amazing report!

We did an 8 day backpacking/packrafting trip in the Dark Canyon Wilderness in April of this year.

Your third picture showcases the slope we had to navigate to reach the bottom of Gypsum Canyon. After traversing down Fable Valley, we had trouble finding a way down into Gypsum. We basically B-lined it down the sketchy slope and camped where the slickrock is on the middle of your third picture. I did not have any pictures of this descent due to rain/snow falling on us as we descended, and these pictures allow for me to re-visit this amazing place. We also had snow dump on us as we camped in Fable Valley that previous night. I made a backpacking video showing our adventure which can be viewed here.
It was during the 2nd week of April, 2019.

From about 28:00 in the video to roughly 35:00 showcases our section of Fable Valley in the snow, as well as our progress North towards Gypsum. If you'd like to continue watching past 35:00 from roughly 40:00 - 50:00 shows the rarely traveled route through Gypsum Canyon where we had fears of getting cliffed out. it was truly a wild place with little to no trail. No cairns, and no footprints while navigating 1000+feet cliff bands. That day in Gypsum Canyon lies in my memory as one of the most exciting, off-route adventures of my life.

Your trip report is very engaging, and I am looking forward to the next part very much. I hope your injury does not deter you from the remainder of the trip. Safe trails!
Wow ! ... what an adventure you had ... I've read a couple of reports from people descending Gypsum, and it looks intimidating, even in good weather ... the fact that you undertook that route with snow and ice is incredible ...

I wonder, if like me, you had your first look down into Gypsum and thought 'oh, my goodness' ... it is quite a scary sight ... but at least I didn't have to descend it :)

I imagine, like me, that you thought that April/May was the ideal time to hike in this area ... little did we know what 2019 would have in store for us :) ... great memories though ...
 
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TrailScot

Member
Joined
Dec 2, 2019
Messages
40
Likewise loving these reports.

Fable, Trail and Beef have been on the list ever since I did Woodenshoe down into Dark. It was during June and quite dry, even the seep near the confluence was barely dripping.

It has been good to have these to read as a diversion. All of this on a hurt ankle... tough.
Many thanks ... that's very kind of you ...
 

TrailScot

Member
Joined
Dec 2, 2019
Messages
40
Resilience!!! Wow.

Another time of the year, but I remember seeing that Fable Valley TH sign featured in the snow in one of @George_Washington_Hayduke TRs:
Thank you ...
 

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