Bill and I had already made two attempts to backpack into the Fins area, which is part of Ernie’s Country in the Maze District of Canyonlands NP. Spring 2010 was abnormally snowy and Fall 2010 featured torrential rains, both times making roads impassable. This time — Spring 2011 — the weather cooperated. Also it was great to have John Veranth along; he has awesome hand-annotated maps of the area and a second truck provided some margin against mechanical problems or stuck vehicles.
We left SLC around 6:15 AM and had 3.5 hours of driving before leaving pavement about 20 miles north of Hanksville. Incredibly, at this point we still had 3.5 hours of driving left. Big lobes of sand had blown across the road in places and by the time we got to the ranger station at Hans Flat, the wind was really going and (as the pictures make clear) there was a lot of dust in the air. After picking up our backcountry permit, we drove down the Flint Trail, an amazing piece of road that goes through one of the only breakdowns found anywhere in the Orange Cliffs. Happily, the Flint Trail was not only bone-dry, but also it had been bladed recently and was in excellent condition.
Once below the Orange Cliffs, we quickly got to the top of the Golden Stairs, a trail that drops through the next set of cliffs, giving access to the top level of the Maze District. The alternative to hiking this trail is a long, extremely rough drive around Teapot Rock, which neither John nor Bill was eager to do. At the bottom of the Golden Stairs we walked on the road for maybe a mile and then dropped into Range Canyon, which has two springs that were used by ranchers and improved by the CCC. We skipped the first one and camped near the second, getting there around dusk. Around midnight the wind started to howl, blasting the tents with sand and pebbles and trying to push them over.
Despite the rough night, the winds were down in the morning and (atypically for the desert in March) it was quite warm. After breakfast we walked over to the actual fins, which are massive and amazing. We had lunch in an alcove at the top of the canyon containing the fins and then poked into some side drainages on the way back. Back at the tents the winds had picked up again and everything, including inside the tents, was covered by a nice layer of grit. I ate a lot of sand on this trip.
Before dinner John and I climbed a nasty little 4th-class ramp to the level of slickrock above the canyon bottom near our camp. This gave access to a beautiful expanse of slickrock above the spring; clearly a lot of exploring would be possible there, but we failed to find an easy way out to the canyon rim.
After breakfast we packed up to avoid exposing unoccupied tents to another windy day. We hiked up the canyon that is in between the two springs in Ernie’s Country. It contains a nice surprise: a slot canyon. However, before we had finished exploring it, it started to rain and rule #0 of slot canyons is you are not in them when it rains, so we backed out in a hurry. The rain continued on and off all day, eventually accumulating in pools on the slickrock, but it never rained hard enough to be unpleasant. Whitmore arch is up near the rim of this canyon, easily accessible by a slickrock ramp.
Near the head of Range Canyon there’s a great Anasazi granary and a very short slot canyon. After poking around this area for a while the weather started to look worse and we decided that if it snowed much overnight, we’d have trouble getting up the steep sandstone fin that provides access to this canyon. So, we exited and camped up on the rim. During dinner the drizzle turned into sleet so we turned in early and I read for a while before bed. Although my sleeping bag is rated to 15 degrees, it is not that warm so I slept in most of my layers. Fortunately — unlike my last two backpacking trips — I didn’t spend a miserable, sleepless, shivering-cold night.
The weather system cleared out during the night and the morning was cold and spectacular — our first clear weather of the trip. The cool morning was welcome: no need to carry much water up the Golden Stairs. A couple of steep spots on the Flint Trail held snow when we got there, but not enough to cause trouble. After getting to the top we took a short detour on the road to the Big Ridge up to the point where there’s a campsite at a narrow neck between two massive canyon systems: Happy on one side and Cataract on the other. From there we turned around and got back to SLC by 8pm.
As a backpacking destination, Ernie’s Country is great. Pros:
- Diverse and excellent scenery, even by Southern Utah standards
- Springs make water a non-issue
- Easy walking, heavily cairned routes, and constrained area would make it hard to get seriously lost
- Getting a broken vehicle towed from anywhere under the ledge would probably cost thousands of dollars
- Some red tape associated with being inside a national park
- A fairly crowded area relative to its remoteness