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A Hiking Passion For the Southern Utah Desert
In southern Utah, I mean the area south of I-70 and east of I-15. As a desert rat, I admit to being biased. Also, I love rattlesnakes. Yet, by any standard, the region is a remarkable geological wonder and archaeological experience. When I think about my favorite hikes, they all fall right into that area I love. That’s not surprising, even though I’ve lived in the North, South, East, and West of our beautiful country. I will be focusing on three of my favorite hikes in the following categories; Ancient Pueblo (or incorrectly called Anasazi) Sites and Art, Overland Trails, Geological Slot Canyons. I extended each hike to two days, not because one day wasn’t good enough, but because one day wasn’t enough.
While the areas I’ll be covering aren’t as well-known as Bryce or Zion, they’re just as great.
Also, come to think of it, my favorite mountaineering activity (which is hiking, not technical) is probably in the same area, not in Colorado! Peel Mountain is only about 13,000 feet (altitude), even if you call it a mountain. It is located in the beautiful LaSalle Mountains near famous Moab, Utah. I won’t offer much guidance here, because if you can’t find a clear mountain path, you don’t belong there.
boulder mail road It’s my favorite overland trail. This is the actual (mule) mail route used between Boulder and the town of Escalante in the early 1900’s. It is now located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I like to hike half of the trail back and forth from the Boulder airstrip (to Death Valley or so), and then hike the other half back and forth from the Upper Escalante Canyon Trailhead. Or, of course, there is the backpack option for camping. The full trail is 16 miles each way. Of course, this can be done on a rushed day trip. But you won’t have time to drop by the natural bridge at Mamie Creek. (The bridge is a mile each way.) The trail is well anchored (it even follows an old telephone wire for most of the way) and is scenic throughout. When you understand the terrain, imagine what the postman goes through. Sand Creek, Death Hollow and Mamie Creek are possible water sources along the way. Do your research. Here, stupidity is a death wish. Each person needs 1 gallon of water per day. Start early! The road is a full two days load. This is not a loop, but a point-to-point path.
Utahcanyons is a great web reference. If there’s one book to love, Steve Allen does a great job with “Canyoneering 3”.
Access to BMT is from Rt. 12 on each end. The west end is where the Upper Escalante Canyon Trail starts near the town of Escalante. The East Terminal is near the Boulder Airstrip.
I think this hike is going to be difficult in terms of length and exposure.
Buckskin Canyon, a tributary of the usually dry Paria River, offers some of the best slot canyon hiking in the world (fee area). Slot canyons are formed by the relentless erosion of water currents, often by raging floods. This one is 13 miles long, 2 feet wide in some places, and 500 feet deep. I walked about 10 miles back and forth (20 miles total), entering from the Wire Pass Trail Head, which is the fastest access to the narrow area. The walls of the canyon are so vertical and high that the jaw-dropping spectacle of Antelope Canyon (near Page, Arizona) cannot be seen here. But when the light trickles into the Buckskin Gulch, the cramped place has a soothing cathedral-like feel. Buckskin also has ancient rock art, at the junction of Wire Pass Trail and Buckskin Trail, where you can turn right into the narrow area. This is an extremely dangerous place if a flash flood passes by. My team has had flash floods, thank goodness it was in the Paria River Canyon and not Buckskin Canyon. It’s still scary. Some Australian hikers trapped in Buckskin have their noses flooded. When you’re traveling in tight places, look for logs stuck above your head. Uh, that’s the water level, it’s way above there. You’ll most often get wet (potholes) on this hike, but check the weather from the Paria Ranger Station. You want to get wet from the neck down. The trails require a day’s use fee. Just pay, and if your vehicle is towed, you’re in trouble.
Americanssouthwest has some better information. You should get BLM’s “Hikers’ Guide to Paria Canyon”. My advice is to return to the vehicle as comfortably as possible for a long day trip. Or make it an “easy” haha trip with gear to the confluence of the Paria River (13 1/2 miles each way) and back. For multi-day backpackers, there are at least 60 miles of hiking options in Paria River and Buckskin. Although Buckskin is the best, I prefer the idea of being there on day 1 and being in Coyote Buttes (the toll area) on day 2. This keeps you cool in tight quarters, nice and hot and exposed around the “knolls”. Coyote Buttes require plenty of water to drink and are divided into two units, North and South. Access to the more famous northern section is from the Wire Pass trailhead. “The Wave” is the attraction (and dinosaur footprints were recently discovered!), previewed at americansoutwest.
Enter from House Rock Valley Rd. For buckskins and coyotes. The nearest paved road is Rt. 89 is approximately 40 miles east of Kanab. HRV Road. Pass to room temperature. 89A and Vermilion Cliffs near Marble Canyon, Arizona. Great hiking there too, with petroglyphs on the edge (east fissure, good luck).
I think the Buckskin Gulch is difficult with the length, possible deep water wading, rock falls. Coyote Buttes are rated easy unless dehydration is an issue. If Buckskin isn’t lean enough, try Spooky Gulch, just east of the town of Escalante.
My favorite archaeological excursion is at Grand Canyon Original Area (fee area). My only complaint is that it’s growing in popularity. The Great Basin Desert of southeastern Utah (specifically the Colorado and San Juan River basins) hosts a surprising number of ancient Puebloan cultural relics. I spent 15 years looking around. I know where the very unique petroglyphs on the edge of the San Juan River are. I know Moon House, The Citadel, The Procession Panel. Unfortunately, some places cannot be made into tourist areas. Some places can’t handle the pressure. At least Grand Gulch has a handful of overseers, and so far the visitors have tried to behave as best they can. The closest towns are Blanding (the largest town with a population of about 2000), Bluff and Mexican Hat. Don’t miss this outdoor museum.
The “main road” into Grand Gulch is the Kane Gulch Trail, which is just across the paved Rt. Dial 261 from the Visitor Center. The first famous attraction is the “Junction Ruin” at the junction of Kane and the Grand Canyon. Four miles from the start of the trail. The wait was long, but the hike was a nice nature walk and easy. In addition to the beautiful ruins, there are also a large number of ancient painted handprints. A further half mile or so to the left leads to the “Turkey Pen Ruins” with more pictographs and petroglyphs. Stimper Arch is a nice arch 5 miles from the start of the trail. So a 10 mile day hike on fairly flat terrain. It’s a nice, easy way to get started.
Day 2, at Bullet Canyon, was a completely different and more difficult hike. There are more vertical elevation changes involved here, as well as some gnarly boulder jumps. I once saw a pygmy faded rattlesnake on this trail. This is a very small (this one is about a foot long) but very powerful snake. Give them the right of way. At the starting point of the canyon, there is a “watchtower” site, once entering the canyon. Bullet also sees a number of granaries before the trail reaches the “Perfect Kiva Ruin” at mile 4 1/2. “Jailhouse Ruin” has a distinctly eerie vibe (1/2 a mile above “Perfect Kiva”) with a ghostly hieroglyph. So another day hike of ten miles was involved.
Do you have a free day 3? If so, Todie Canyon will spawn a “Split Level Ruin” 5 miles from the start of the Todie trail. There is a small ruin and pictograph at mile 2 1/2, just 1/5 mile from the start of the canyon. (The canyon begins 2.3 miles from the trailhead.) There are also granaries on the way to the “Split Level Ruin.”
For multi-day backpackers, there are approximately 75 miles of hiking trails to choose from in the pristine area of Grand Gulch.
If you are a day hiker, there is a problem. You have to visit Sheiks Canyon, it’s a long day. There are great works of art and dwellings everywhere, especially the “Green Mask Springs” area. Sheiks is 14 miles from the Kane Gulch Trailhead, 8.6 miles from the Bullet Canyon Trailhead, and 9.3 miles from the Todie Canyon Trailhead. There should be a Sheiks Canyon Trailhead to Bullet Canyon Trailhead loop. It’s a 17-mile loop, but I never found the Sheiks start. There is a fantastic petroglyph in the main Grand Canyon “Wall Ruin” near the junction of the Emirates Canyon. It appears to be two smaller figures balancing on a larger figure, like circus actors.
Bullet Canyon Trailhead: Just south of mile marker 22 (Rt. 261), turn west 1 mile.
Todie Canyon Trailhead: Just north of mile marker 25 (Rt. 261), turn west on CR 2361 for 1 mile.
I like to use Trails Illustrated map #706 for Grand Gulch (water/ripstop).
I rate these hikes moderate (Kane) to hard (Bullet) in length and exposure.
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