High Desert Camping

My brother Eric does a great job in the cool uncle role, whereas I’ve been typecast as the nerdy dad — so my kids were super excited when he decided to join us on a spring break camping trip. As I usually do, I obsessively searched Google Earth for a perfect campsite and ended up doing pretty well. The goal was to explore some remote canyons from a base camp on BLM land near the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. This is a big, wild part of Utah: the official map shows several locations in the park that are a 5-6 hour drive from the ranger station at Hans Flat, which is itself at least 1.5 hours from the nearest town. A lot of these places can’t be visited without carrying extra gas, and even when you get to where you’re going there are very few foot trails, so most hikes end up being cross-country routes on difficult terrain.

During our first night it stormed, ending up with more than a third of an inch of rain, which is quite a bit considering the average annual rainfall is around 9 inches.

A wet morning:

Our camp was at 6500′ and it looks like the snow line was around 9000′:

I was worried the rain had made some roads impassable, so we spent the day hiking the rim of nearby Happy Canyon. Since the wingate sandstone layer tends to form long, impassable cliff systems, we didn’t have any way to get into the canyon itself.

A rough tool of some sort, perhaps a scraper, that Eric found:

Home sweet home. I don’t enjoy driving while pulling a trailer, but it’s really nice to be up off the ground and to be able to stand up in the tent.

Views from camp:

The next morning, on the way to our hike, we stopped to look into gigantic Millard Canyon. There are a couple routes down to the bottom that the cowboys put in in the early 20th century, that probably get very little use, but we opted for a different hike. The mountains on the horizon are the La Sals, on the other side of the Green River and Moab.

Wild burros! Inside the park there’s no grazing and both plant and animal life are a lot more abundant than outside.

Doing some more wildlife spotting:

A slab-sided granary that we found in an alcove:

Fingerprints in the mud. These could be a few thousand years old, or could be as recent as 700 years old — people were forced the leave the region around 1300 AD due to climate change. My understanding is that humans arrived in this part of the world around 9000 years ago.

Half of a metate:

A very cool rock art panel:

A pair of granaries; it’s rare to find them with the lids intact:

This is either a huge arrowhead or a small spear point, broken in a couple of places. I’ve come up with a good tactic for making the kids feel better about not being able to carry away artifacts like this that they find: we take a GPS point so we can visit it in the future. This was found in a wash, far from any possible archaeological context.

The next day we visited High Spur slot canyon, an easy but extremely bumpy 13 mile drive past the ranger station. Colorful scenery near the trailhead:

Dropping into the drainage, which was a bit wet from the rain a couple days earlier but happily was free of deep pools, which would have been really cold:

Plenty of low-key obstacles like this one, but no larger ones until further down-canyon than we had time to go.

Yin and yang:

It turned out Eric had never been in a slot canyon! Here he’s having fun:

And here, perhaps, not quite as much fun. We ended up taking off our packs for this section. I’m fairly tolerant of enclosed spaces but would not be interested in exploring a canyon much narrower than this one. In a really tight canyon you are forced up off the ground level, sometimes many feet, and a fall would be disastrous.

Sometime you go under:

Sometimes you go over. Getting wet when this is avoidable is considered bad form. Of course it was me who slipped into a pool first.

Kids looking over an obstacle of some sort:

Long road to nowhere:

Back at camp just in time to eat dinner in the light:

The stupid wax log I bought at the supermarket was very reluctant to burn, the kids spent a long time trying to get a fire started as it got colder and darker and windier:

Eric and I sipped adult beverages and provided helpful suggestions.

Temperature dropping fast, it got down to 24F on our last night. In a high-altitude desert it can easily be 50 F warmer during the day than overnight.

On the last day we got up early and packed quickly since we had to get Eric to the SLC airport for an afternoon flight. Here the first sun is hitting the Henry Mountains:

This is the area I visited on my very first trip to southern Utah about 18 years ago. I love it!

Strange Rocks 2018 Edition

My family, along with some friends, visited Kanab UT over Presidents’ Day weekend. One day we visited the White Pocket, a few miles south of the Utah/Arizona border. This area had been on my bucket list for a while now, but organizing a visit took time due to the long and punishing drive.

An interesting petroglyph panel a short hike off the House Rock Valley Road:

Kanab was having a “Balloons and Tunes” Festival:

The next day we hiked to remote and weird Sidestep Canyon:

On the last day we did a short hike to the top of the Vermillion Cliffs just outside Kanab. Here, looking north, the next two steps of the Grand Staircase — the white cliffs and the grey cliffs — are visible:

After this we headed home early to miss a serious incoming winter storm. It was a fun trip!

The Zion Subway

When Josh, my older son’s best friend’s dad, suggested that we take our combined kids through the Left Fork of North Creek in Zion National Park (more commonly called The Subway), I wasn’t immediately excited. For one thing, it’s a somewhat technical canyon, and for another the permit that we got was for mid-May, towards the end of the spring runoff, when the canyon would contain plenty of deep, cold water.

The first problem to be solved was figuring out a process where we could get our kids safely down multiple rappels in the canyon. We couldn’t just hire an experienced guide since Zion NP doesn’t allow that. We settled on spending a couple of sessions practicing rappelling with an instructor before leaving home, and then doing some more practicing in Zion before entering the canyon. I was ready to nix the trip if any of the kids seemed unsafe but they all did really well. We ended up with a process where Josh would rappel first, then the kids would rappel down with me backing them up with a belay, and then finally I’d rappel with Josh giving me a fireman’s belay. The rappels in this canyon are fairly short so we knew that a number of common failure modes (unable to communicate, rapping off the end of the rope, etc.) weren’t going to be an issue. Also the canyon is bolted so we wouldn’t have to worry about building anchors. We spent a lot of time making sure the kids wouldn’t get fingers/gloves/clothes pinched in their belay devices.

The second problem was dealing with 40°F / 4°C water. We ended up renting drysuits for the three younger children and putting the rest of us in wetsuits; this worked well. I saw a bit of chattering teeth in the longer water sections but luckily we were in the deepest part of the canyon in the middle of the day and there were always patches of sun to warm up in.

Here the kids and I are hanging out at the upper trailhead while Josh makes the car shuttle happen:

The upper part of the hike is a short section of alpine forest and then some gorgeous slickrock:

Finally we’re looking directly into the narrows, but still a couple hundred vertical feet above the canyon bottom:

A steep gully bypasses the cliffs:

And finally we’re in the canyon, getting suited up at the first sign of deep water:

Alas I have no rappel pictures since I was managing the process from above. The second rappel was challenging: it had an awkward start, running water, and finished in waist-deep water. Here Josh is coiling a rope at the bottom of the first, easy rappel, which was down the face of this boulder:

Since each person’s backpack had a drybag inside of it (with as much air trapped as possible), the backpacks could be used as flotation devices. Also, all of the kids are decent swimmers and the drysuits kept them pretty warm. They found the wet parts of this canyon to be tremendously fun:

Plenty of short, slippery downclimbs:

A little unnerving to watch the kids swimming off into the dark:

The scenery was really spectacular:

Finally we arrive at the actual “subway” section where the canyon bottom is rounded out:

Perhaps the most-photographed log in the world, not particularly photogenic here due to the harsh light, but other people have done better:

After this there’s a final technical obstacle, a 15 m rappel, and then a long and not particularly easy or fun walk out.

Still smiling at the end, but tired after 10 hours on the move:

Spring 2017

The hills above Salt Lake City are finally turning green.

Earlier in the year my family took a short trip to southeast Utah but it rained so much one day that I didn’t think the dirt roads would be passable, so we visited Ratio, a land art installation near Green River UT.

The next day started out foggy and cold, here’s an unassuming stretch of Muddy Creek shortly before it joins the Fremont River to become the Dirty Devil.

Later it cleared up and we explored the San Rafael Desert. This track didn’t seem to have seen much traffic over the winter.

In a nearby canyon I found a grinding stone that someone had stashed between 700 and a few thousand years ago.

Later in spring it turned out my kids’ school vacations were misaligned so instead of getting out into the desert as a family I took each kid individually on a short trip. Here we’re partway up a trail that was used in the first half of the 20th century to give sheep access to a remote mesa top.

The weather was imperfect but showy; here the Henry Mountains, the last part of the lower 48 to be mapped and explored, are getting stormed on. I feel like deserts are supposed to be dry but it seems like we get rained on on almost every trip.

Wind and grass.

North Caineville Mesa and Factory Butte.

Indian paintbrush.

This is the kind of photograph you only seem to get when you’re soaked from one rain storm and another is approaching. We had gotten the tent up during the first shower, so were mostly dry and happy. I accidentally grabbed a one-person tent for this trip so the ten year old and I had a pretty cozy night.

During his break, my older son and I explored some areas around Escalante, UT. This Anasazi granary under an arch is something I’d been wanting to see for a long time, but had previously been thwarted by logistical problems such as a long, rugged drive.

The masonry is in about as good condition as any I’ve seen, and notice the sticks at the top of the opening.

We also ran across some less well-preserved granaries.

I always wonder about the circumstances that lead to this kind of thing being abandoned, perhaps it broke inside an animal or when it hit the ground after a miss? Often you find broken arrowheads along with chippings indicating a site where people sat and worked, but this point was all by itself.

Afternoon light in Alvey Wash, a large canyon draining the Kaiparowits Plateau.

The next day we visited the Red Breaks canyon system, which has some spectacular slots filled with nice sandstone and small climbing problems. Not shown: climbing problems and freezing, waist-deep water.

A bizarre landform in the Red Breaks area that is often called the Escalante Volcano (though it is not, as far as I know, of volcanic origin). It’s hard to tell from this photo but this thing is enormous; the sandstone dome in the center of the “volcano” is about 80 feet tall.

A neat area of petrified logs in Egg Canyon off the Burr Trail near Boulder, UT.

Some of the logs bridged the waterway.

I hope everyone else had a nice spring too!

Elk and Arch

I wanted to share a few pictures from a long, very cold snowshoe/hike I did in January. The goal was to reach a natural arch that I had previously spotted in upper City Creek Canyon. This was fun to find: I hadn’t realized there was an arch large enough to stand inside within walking distance of my house. I also saw the big herd of elk that live in this area, which doesn’t get a lot of visitation from humans other than hunters.

Nine Mile Canyon

One of my boys and I spent Sunday exploring Nine Mile Canyon, in the remote Book Cliffs a few hours drive from Salt Lake City. This canyon is known for its dense collection of rock art and ruins, a lot of which can be seen from the paved road that follows the canyon bottom. This was a lot of driving for a day trip but it wasn’t too boring since I had checked out an audiobook of Fahrenheit 451 from the library.

A great pictograph panel, the figures are several feet high.

Typical scenery in the upper canyon.

A dodgy ice bridge. This one held us but I got wet to the knees on a different stream crossing.

Fremont people in a large part of Utah drew sheep this way:

Zion NP and Environs in Winter

As we enter faculty and grad recruiting season, I’d like to present a bit of Utah propaganda. No heroics are required to see this stuff: just a few hours driving from Salt Lake City (on pavement) and some mild day hiking. I’ll provide detailed instructions for visiting any of these locations upon request.

Obelisk

Classes start next week so I sneaked out for a quick hike on Tuesday, climbing a minor local peak that is informally called The Obelisk. This one had eluded me for years so it felt nice to finally stand on top. Summitpost says “Obelisk is rarely climbed during the summer and provides ample solitude,” and I found out why: the ascent involves a long, steep boulder field, with many of the rocks just barely balanced. Ugh — the next time I climb this peak it’ll be when the boulders are covered by snow.

Looking out over Cottonwood Ridge.

A couple of friends.

Wild and wonderful Hogum Fork, it sits just a few miles from a half-million people and is hardly visited.

The Obelisk at the top of Obelisk Peak. I could hear the music from 2001.

You can see my summit beer in the background.

Maybird Gulch with the Pfeifferhorn looming beyond.

Perseids

Matthew Flatt, my 9 year old son, and I stayed out last night watching the Perseid meteor shower. To find some dark skies we drove out to the Utah-Nevada border, along the way passing a sign that said “NEXT GAS 130 MILES” — always a good sign on a road trip. We arrived around 12:30 and the show started right away, we saw several meteors before even getting out of the vehicle. Here’s Matthew in the moonlight along with a very faint meteor:

After the moon set things got better although the sky never got as truly dark as it should have in that location — I don’t think the air was very clear. Even so, the milky way was pretty jaw-dropping and we saw hundreds of meteors. I know nothing about astrophotography and don’t really have the right gear but I did manage to capture a few meteors.

After a while Isaac timed out and went to sleep in the truck and Matthew and I started to get really cold so we left, getting home before dawn. Definitely worth losing a little sleep to see this.

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.