Happy Canyon

I’ve been doing a poor job of taking pictures in Europe. On the other hand, I’ve had a trip report on the back burner since last spring, so let’s look at a few pictures from that.

Happy Canyon, in a remote part of southeast Utah, has a scenic and non-technical narrow section that would be famous if it were easier to get to. There are about five ways to get there, but each has a catch: a very long hike including a rappel, a multi-day hike with poor access to water, a backcountry airplane landing, a float trip on an intermittent river, or a difficult drive. The last option was the only one that made sense for us.

We left Hanksville UT before sunrise and had about a 20-minute drive on pavement before turning off at Poison Spring Canyon where the track follows the bottom of the canyon in and out of the waterway, through mud and sand and pools of water. This canyon is frequently impassable, but it had been bladed since the last flash flood and was mostly lots of fun, with only a few sections of real 4WD. It took us about 40 minutes to drive 11 miles to where the Black Jump road turns off (#1 on the map below). This next road follows a bench between cliffs; it was put in during the 1950s for uranium exploration and, as far as I know, hasn’t been maintained since then. This track had caused me a lot of stress during trip planning and indeed it was a bit exciting: it is partially blocked by rocks, goes right next to cliff edges, has sinkholes in the clay that could eat a wheel, and has some sections of real high-clearance 4WD. It took us about an hour to drive five miles to where the track is finally blocked for good by a bus-sized rock that fell from the cliffs above (#3).

happymap (Map credit: USGS with annotations by rockgremlin.)

So there we are — an 8 year old, a ten year old, and me — parked on a ledge halfway down the 1400-foot deep Dirty Devil River gorge, probably 10 miles from the nearest human being. We continued along the deteriorating mining road on foot; there’s a lot of petrified wood including some entire logs, which are really fun to see. After a while (well past #4 — the folks who made that map dropped down to the river too early) there’s a nice break in the cliffs and we picked our way down to the river, which was flowing in the 80-90 cfs range. We all took off our shoes; the younger boy crossed holding my hand and the older one crossed on his own. The mud was nasty and there was a bit of quicksand, but nothing too hard to avoid. At this point we were at the mouth of Happy Canyon (#5) and we had lunch on the river bank.

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Happy Canyon rapidly narrows down and remains narrow for most of a mile, and while it isn’t actually a slot canyon (where you can consistently touch both walls) it is deep and convoluted.

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We could have stayed in the narrows for hours, but we had a long (and warm, even in March) hike out and I didn’t want to drive the Black Jump road in the dark. We cooked dinner at the junction with the main Poison Spring road, and then we made it back to Hanksville by dusk.

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The next day was less eventful: we visited a little-visited mesa top and found a place where wind or floods had created a perfect little beach along the Fremont River.

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On the final day of this quick trip I wanted to visit yet another out-of-the way spot. The boys endured a breakfast of beef jerky and gatorade, a routefinding debacle, an extremely muddy river crossing, and a longish and not-inspiring hike. As a reward, we got to spend an hour or two on the moon before heading home.

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Overall this was a successful trip, though we did run into one person while hiking.

Adandoned Mineshaft

Due to my 8-year-old’s obsession with Minecraft, the abandoned mineshafts found in the game are an everyday topic of discussion around the house. He is saving up to buy a pickaxe — no joke. Since we needed a day trip for the long weekend, I thought we’d visit some actual mines in the Silver Island Mountains near the Utah-Nevada border. We followed an old road most of the way up a minor mountain and found the remains of either a processing facility or living quarters, and several mine shafts higher up. One of these apparently goes all the way through the mountain but we didn’t do much more than poke our heads in, since it was difficult to gauge how dangerous it was. This area was mined from the 1870s through the 1930s. Since the pathway connecting the mine shafts with the highest vehicle access was too narrow and steep for vehicles, we were forced to assume that ore was transported downhill using some combination of human and animal power — the level of physical effort implied here seemed to be lost on the 8-year-old, who wants a pickaxe more than ever. We saw a pair of pronghorn antelope — but failed to get decent pictures.

Lamus Peak:

Built-up trail used to move ore downhill through rugged country:

Mine shaft:

Another one, with some nice copper ore right at the entrance:

And a lot of nothing in the distance:

Fall in City Creek Canyon

I’ve lived in Utah for a while now, in three different houses, but always a short walk from City Creek Canyon. This drainage starts right at the edge of downtown SLC and goes 14 miles up into the Wasatch Range. A service road provides easy walking access all year, although the upper parts are not plowed in winter. In summer, bikes are permitted on odd days; on even days there is light car traffic. Bikes are allowed and cars forbidden every day in fall, winter, and spring (though sometimes there are vehicles going to and from the water treatment plant a few miles up the canyon). The lower part of the canyon is heavily walked on nice days, for example by worker bees from downtown on their lunch break. The upper canyon receives light usage and there are many miles of trails and off-trail routes in upper City Creek where you are much more likely to see an elk or a moose than a person. Several of my favorite local mountains, Dude Peak, Burro Peak, Grandview Peak, and Little Black Mountain all overlook the upper canyon. Here are a few pictures from a bike ride the other morning.

Broads Fork

After moving to Utah I decided that regularly spending time in the mountains was one of the best ways to stay sane and healthy. Since I usually can’t make time for an all-day hike, I developed a habit getting up around 5, hiking hard for a couple of hours, and then getting into the office by 8:30 or 9. This was nice while it lasted but had to stop once I had kids. However, now that they’re a bit older, I hope to start doing early hikes again, at least occasionally.

One of my favorite trails for a quick hike is Broads Fork, which gains about 2000 feet over 2 miles, ending up at a pretty meadow with a small beaver pond. There never seem to be too many people here; the nearby Lake Blanche trail gets most of the traffic. The Broads Fork trailhead is about a 20 minute drive from the University of Utah or about 25 minutes from downtown SLC.

Cedar Mesa

For years I’d heard people talk about Cedar Mesa, a remote part of southern Utah containing so many Anazazi ruins that it’s basically a huge outdoor museum. Recently my family spent a few days exploring this area. Despite the fact that Cedar Mesa is well-known — it was popularized, in large part, by a book by David Roberts in the 1990s — as far as we could tell nobody was camped within several miles of our campsite off of a high-clearance track near the head of Lime Canyon, seen here in the evening light:

April is a great time to be in the desert but this area is pretty high elevation (6400 feet or almost 2000 m) and it was well below freezing on our first night out. Here the sun is finally starting to warm us up the next morning:

Yep, the kids are wearing their snow pants. Later that morning we visited the Moon House, one of the larger ruins in the area. Although the hike to it is short, the route is circuitous, first dropping over a small pouroff, following a ledge around a corner, and then following a talus slope to the bottom of the canyon, passing between some huge boulders in the bottom of the canyon, climbing most of the way up the other side, and following another ledge behind a big pinnacle. There are good views along the way:

The ruins are impressive:

Life in the desert, though a bit sparse, is often pretty:

The next day we hiked in Natural Bridges National Monument; as you might expect it contains some big natural bridges:

And there were other things to see as well:

Although metates (stone mortars) are a common sight on the Colorado Plateau, something I haven’t seen elsewhere are the manos (grinding stones) since they are so easy to pick up and carry away:

We had great weather in the early part of the trip but got chased home a day early by a rainy night with a forecast for more rain: the roads in this part of the world tend to turn into grease that is impassable even with 4WD when they get wet enough, and we really did not want to get stuck while pulling our tent trailer:

All in all a nice short vacation.

I’m slowly ratcheting down the number of personal blog posts but I will continue to throw in this sort of thing every now and then.

A Few Panoramas

In the early 2000s, decent digital cameras were new and I was obsessed with stitching photos into panoramas. At the time the software sucked and doing a good job was a lot of work. However, I assembled plenty of them and figured out how to get them printed and my house is somewhat littered with panos. In 2013, stitching a good panorama using Photoshop is more or less trivial and paradoxically I’ve largely lost interest. Even so, a recent trip to canyon country resulted in so many good views that I assembled some panoramas for your enjoyment. I’ll just note in passing (now that Utah’s national parks have re-opened, though the government is still shut down) that all of these views are from locations many miles from any kind of park. One of these is from a state highway; the others required more or less serious hikes. If any of my 4400 students are reading this, I hope you will appreciate that I based this trip out of a motel instead of camping so I could respond to your questions at night.

From the top of South Caineville Mesa:

Dirty Devil River from Sam’s Mesa:

Towards the San Rafael Reef from Highway 24:

Looking down on the Mexican Mountain area of the San Rafael Swell:

Partway up a hike to the top of the San Rafael Reef:

Great Salt Lake Desert Road Trip

A few weeks ago, Matthew Flatt and I took a short road trip to the area west of the Great Salt Lake. We arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats before dawn.

Unexpectedly, there were plenty of people out on the playa; it turned out to be “Speed Week” where drivers from all over the world show up to test out really fast vehicles. You can see some of their infrastructure here.

Since we had accidentally parked near where the vehicles were starting their speed runs, we watched for a while. People were driving a surprisingly wide variety of vehicles: street-legal motorcycles, 1920s roadsters, cars that looked completely home-made out of sheet metal, extremely fast race cars with parachutes — all sharing the same track. These vehicles were very loud, could barely idle, and were generally incapable of starting from a stop; several needed to be pushed to about 50 MPH before their engines could engage, at which point they roared away. This early in the morning there were very few spectators.

My new obsession is doing a long bike ride across the salt flats.

Next we had 50 miles of driving on dirt roads on a low bench between the salt flats and a small mountain range.

This is a seriously remote area and we didn’t see any other vehicles. Our destination was the Sun Tunnels near the ghost town of Lucin, Utah.

We had an early lunch in the shade of one of the tunnels and then headed home. On the way back I wanted to look for the obscure “Red Man” pictograph in Timpie Valley at the northern end of the Stansbury mountain range. We spent quite a long time hiking up and down steep hillsides in 95 degree heat, looking for caves; we were about to give up when Matthew spotted the right one.

This shot shows the scale; I do not know of any similar pictographs in this part of Utah.

Overall it was good to do a bit of traveling before classes got going.

Mt Washington

Although I lived in the eastern USA for 10 years, all of my hiking experience has been in the west — so I was happy to take advantage of being in New England last week to climb Mt Washington, the highest mountain in that part of the world. The weather on Washington is famously erratic and harsh, with treeline at only about 4,400′ (as compared to around 11,000′ in Utah). Here are the current summit conditions.

It had rained the night before and the Crawford Path was fantastically green:

This is one of the longer routes on the mountain at 8.5 miles one-way, but it seemed like a nice choice that would let me climb several of Mt Washington’s sub-peaks. I ended up skipping all of them since most of my walk was in a whiteout:

However, the clouds occasionally opened up a bit:

The Lakes of the Clouds were nice, but at this point the wind picked up and I had to keep moving to stay warm:

I basically had the trail to myself, passing very few people until I got to the summit cone where it was a bit more crowded. Overall this was an exceptionally beautiful route.

On top of the mountain it was cold and windy and crowded. It’s always a bit of a bummer to hike a mountain that other people can drive up. On the positive side, the slices of pizza I bought from the cafe were a lot tastier than the random snack items I had brought along for lunch. There were no views to be had, the summit was in the clouds the whole time I was there.

Once I was warm and full, returning by the Crawford Path started to sound boring. Taking the advice of my hiking buddy Dave Hanscom, I returned by the 5.5 mile Jewell Trail, which was pretty but not really comparable to the Crawford Path and also it had a lot more people on it. Happily, the clouds cleared as I descended so I had good views once off the summit cone. The Jewell Trail goes near the cog railway for a little ways:

After getting to the trailhead I was pretty tired and would have loved to hitchhike the 4.5 miles back to my car, but what I hadn’t realized was that the connector road was quite lightly traveled; the only car I saw was going the wrong direction, so I had to walk to whole way.

Foothill Sunset

I went for a hike last night to celebrate being out from under whatever virus made me more or less sick for most of the last month.

The foothill wildflowers are more subdued than the ones that will cover the big mountains in July and August.

Four mountain ranges and the Great Salt Lake.

Looking down at the university.

I stopped a little below 7000′ and sat on a rock for 45 minutes waiting for sunset.

It was full night by the time I got home; should have brought a headlamp!

Labyrinth Rims

The Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon begins south of the town of Green River UT; the Labyrinth Rims refers to the area of BLM land on either side of this canyon. We spent four days in this somewhat isolated area of the San Rafael Desert without seeing any other people except for a group in the now-popular Bluejohn Canyon. Although this area is only about 30 miles from Moab, it’s at least 1.5 hours away by car.

On the first day of this trip we explored upper Keg Spring Canyon, which was pretty but a bit nondescript as canyons go, which perhaps explains why we saw no evidence of recent human traffic. We camped for three nights off a 4wd track near the head of Keg Spring Canyon.

Generally this campsite was perfect, with a bit of shelter from the wind, soft dirt to sleep on, and a large area of flat slickrock for parking and cooking. However, on our last night some cows moved through and one of them woke me up around 4am by licking my tent. In a befuddled state I tried to scare it off without scaring it so much that it trampled me and the tent.

On the second day of this trip we drove down to Bluejohn Canyon. Although this is most often done as a technical canyoneering route, much of the canyon can be hiked. The hiking route, however, crosses some confusing terrain before dropping into the canyon; map and compass are definitely needed here.

The main fork of Bluejohn is maybe the best slot canyon I’ve seen so far. Here, a chockstone some 20′ above the canyon bottom has a bunch of tree limbs and other debris jammed around it due to flash floods.

This is another of Bill’s pictures; he’s a better photographer than I am and shooting in slot canyons is not so easy due to the enormous dynamic range. A lot of slot canyons have a sense of intimacy; Bluejohn is more about grandeur and this photo captures that aspect nicely. For reference, I believe the chockstone is the same 20′ one from the previous picture.

There were plenty of minor obstacles like this before we finally got stopped by technical climbing.

A little bit of snow and a little bit of sun.

Here’s John Veranth in the “cathedral” section of Bluejohn where it’s maybe 150′ deep and only 1-2′ wide at the top. For a very short time, sun makes it to the bottom.

Anyway, Bluejohn was fantastic. The next day we explored the area around Bowknot Bend, a huge meander in the Green River. Like many things in this part of the world, it was named by John Wesley Powell or another member of his expedition. One interesting feature in this area is a large arch with five openings.

This is Labyrinth Canyon with the La Sal mountains beyond. We didn’t see any boaters on the Green, perhaps March is too early.

Finally we are overlooking Bowknot Bend. If you’re floating the river, it’s 7 miles from the left side of this photo to the right side. Although it’s only ~4 miles hiking each way to this overlook from the end of the 4wd track, we made a full day out of it by taking a couple of detours and a couple of wrong turns.

On our last day we explored Moonshine Wash, another slot canyon. This one is supposed to be nontechnical but after downclimbing a couple of short drops like the one shown here, we got stopped by a 20′ drop that did not look super easy to reverse.

Moonshine is really pretty.

A sheep bridge crosses Moonshine Wash near its deepest, narrowest point. Given my general dislike of heights (probably more than 100′ to the bottom here) this is as close as I was able to get to the bridge, which is generally falling apart and unsafe.

The Labyrinth Rims area is relatively easy to get to given how remote it feels. Much of this area could be explored with a 2wd vehicle, although in that case you’d end up doing more walking.