Around Hanksville Utah

Last weekend Sarah had a work trip so the boys and I spent a few days in the desert. The area around Hanksville–a tiny town right in the middle of Utah’s southeast quadrant that got electricity only in 1960–contains a lot of stuff I hadn’t seen yet, so we operated out of a motel there. Camping would have been more interesting, but I figured the short days and cold nights that we get in the high desert in late October might not be that fun for the kids. Or me for that matter, though I’m generally totally happy to sit there in the dark in a down jacket, drinking whiskey and reading a book by headlamp.

Just northwest of Hanksville is an area of Mars-like badlands that I wanted to poke around in. Fittingly, this area contains the Mars Desert Research Station, a facility used by the Mars Society to let crews simulate being on Mars. That recent stupid John Carter movie had some scenes filmed not far away. Also nearby is the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, a recently discovered treasure trove of fossil bones. Visiting this site turned out to be not that interesting; the people working there had taken a lot of care to hide their ongoing work under foil and sand, leaving only a few random (and presumably uninteresting) bones exposed. With any luck, next time we’ll be able to visit while they’re working.

I tried to explain to the boys the complex rules for collecting rocks and fossils which depend on what kind of land you’re on (BLM, wilderness study area, national park, national monument, etc.), who you are (land owner, person given permission by land owner, holder of mining claim, etc.), what methods you are using (collecting surface material, using hand tools, etc.), for what purpose you are collecting (personal use vs. commercial), type of material being collected (vertebrate fossils, invertebrate fossils, human artifacts, minerals, etc.), how much material you collect (“BLM regulations allow the collection of 25 pounds per day of petrified wood plus one piece, provided that the total removed by one person does not exceed 250 pounds in one calendar year”), etc. Of course at some point what happens is a boy rolls his eyes, holds up some pebble, and says “Dad… just tell me if I can take this rock home.”

On Saturday I had planned to spend the day exploring the area around Cowboy Cave, a (misnamed) alcove in a remote tributary of Horseshoe Canyon that was first inhabited by humans more than 8000 years ago. The bottom layer of organic debris in Cowboy Cave, 13,000 years old, contains dung from mammoth, bison, horse, camels, and sloth—it’s wild to think about these animals wandering around Utah. Also I have heard there are little-known dinosaur trackways nearby and I wanted to look for those. However, although the kids admitted that all of this sounded kind of cool, they were unimpressed by the prospect of 3 hours of driving on bumpy dirt roads and vetoed the plan.

We got up early and our first stop was a location near Caineville where I had read about zillions of fossil oyster shells weathering out of the shale. This turned out to be the case and we picked up a few souvenirs. After that I wanted to kill some time while the sun got higher so we’d have more light and warmth in a slot canyon, so we visited Little Egypt, a great area of hoodoos in the foothills of the Henry Mountains. It was a lot like a smaller Goblin Valley but without the people. We ended up having lunch there; for some reason the kids totally love backpacking food so I fired up the Jetboil and made us some Mountain House chili mac.

Just a few miles down the road from Little Egypt is a collection of popular technical slot canyons with a nasty reputation for narrowness. We hiked up Leprechaun Canyon from the bottom, stopping at a point where none of us felt comfortable continuing, and in any case it was so dark we’d have needed headlamps to do so. We had a funny moment where one of the boys, who had repeatedly proclaimed we had to stop and turn around, noticed that he had forgotten to remove his sunglasses.

On our last day I wanted something kind of short so we could do most of the drive home in daylight. Crack Canyon is one that I’ve wanted to see for some time but I got intimidated by some of the descriptions of its obstacles, so we headed for the easier Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons. It used to be the case that these canyons had a slightly remote feel but since I had last been there, the road to their trailhead had been paved and the toilet facilities improved. LWH is spectacular, easy, and easy to get to, making it the most popular canyon in the San Rafael Swell. Even so, thanks perhaps to getting a bit of an early start, we saw few people. We did the eight mile loop hike which ascends LWH through the San Rafael Reef, walks a couple of miles behind the reef, and then descends Bell Canyon. We hadn’t been to Bell before but it turned out to be totally great: it’s fairly short, contains great narrows, we saw no people, and there were numerous kid-sized obstacles that provided them with entertaining climbing problems. Next time I think we’ll just go up and down Bell and give the more popular canyon a miss. The only not-entertaining obstacles were a couple of 30′ sections of cold, muddy water knee-deep for me and with slippery and uneven footing. I managed to carry both boys over these sections.