Delicate Arch to Escalante
April 1, 2019
Start: Delicate Arch
Finish: Pedestrian Bridge
Distance: ~(1.5 + 16) miles
I camped at the pedestrian bridge last night because I was characteristically reluctant to shell out money for a room, especially at the inflated spring break rates that are so pervasive this time of year. No problem. It gave me a chance to scout the area. Lion's Park is heavily trafficked and very near town. I found a nice, quiet spot in the adjacent wetlands preserve. Not technically kosher, but I wasn't hurting anything.
Mckenzie and her father picked me up at 0400 this morning en route to the Delicate Arch trailhead. We made small talk the first stretch, but words quickly faded to silent anticipation of the journey ahead. For me, it was yet another foray into the wilderness, though arguably a more demanding outdoor challenge than any I've undertaken to date. For Mckenzie, her first experience in Canyon Country's desolate enclaves. She's a good friend who I met on Te Araroa last year. I'm glad our start dates aligned, and I'm looking forward to teaching her some skills and sharing some pro tips for her otherwise solo adventure. We'll share the first leg of the journey, likely splitting off just before the Needles alternate in Canyonlands.
Today we arrived at Delicate Arch, our official start point, around 0600 and spent the following twilight hour snapping photos. For a brief period, we even had the overwhelmingly popular destination all to ourselves. It's an icon of the Utah landscape and, I thought, a fitting start point. Mckenzie and I set out as the sun peeked over a distant ridge, our dark shadows stretching far ahead of us, leading the way. We passed dozens and dozens of day hikers on our way back to the trailhead.
We arrived back at the parking area, crossed the paved road, entered Salt Wash, and fought our way through a mile of overgrowth before the path ahead of us abated. There was still plenty of route-finding as we worked to keep our feet dry during the many creek crossings. We wanted to see the Windows and Double Arch, so rather than follow Salt Wash all the way to Courthouse Wash and on to the Colorado River, we scaled the high walls and cut cross-country through undulating drainages toward the Windows area. Before we could gain the trail, we had to contour along steep slickrock for over a mile. It can be frustrating to be off the beaten path, but more often than not, it's just so awesome that I can't help but smile.
It's amazing how quickly the landscape turned from tranquil and desolate to crowded and overwhelming. No sooner had we emerged from the backside of the Windows than we were surrounded by park visitors. Jeans and flip flops, no water, a stone's throw from the comfort of their vehicles, which lined the parking area end-to-end, a sensory overload of unnaturally flourescent blues, greens, and reds. Ed Abby's nightmare, realized. But there is a reason these parks are so popular. They're amazing. I love that they're accessible; and I hate it. I love that so many people get to experience these incredible places; and I hate it. I love that the Hayduke exists, and I (selfishly) hope that it never becomes as popular or heavily traveled as the AT or the PCT. For every natural wonder that's been overrun, there are a dozen lesser known, less accessible natural wonders. Let's keep some of these wild places for wild people.
We stayed only briefly in the chaos. Eager to return to stillness, we scarfed down our lunches as we observed the goings-on around us. It felt surreal. I mean, we hadn't been on trail but a few hours. Still, it felt odd to have walked from Delicate Arch and yet to be surrounded by visitors who had only just gotten out of their cars. I wonder whether our experience of a place is in some part shaped by the effort it takes to arrive there. I believe that it has to be, like anything we work toward. An achievement that comes easily hardly fills us with pride. In fact, it's the work and sacrifice that we pour into reaching a goal that's more the achievement than the goal itself. Yes, these places are beautiful. And they're even more beautiful when you arrive there under your own power. That's one of the many things I love about thru-hiking. That's what I'm psyched about for the Hayduke.
We could have made a b-line for the lower reaches of Courthouse Wash, but we wanted to hike through it for a while to appreciate the narrow corridor and high walls. So instead we followed a small drainage southwest away from the crowded parking area. After negotiating a few overhanging dryfalls, we emerged at the road. We mirrored the road as we searched for an access point along the cliffs and drainages that feed Courthouse Wash. It took some doing, but we finally found a drop in point, and we were on our way.
We were fortunate to have a path to follow pretty much all the way to the highway. It was exciting to finally be on the official Hayduke route. Even though it's not a trail, I still had the sense that I was now on a "path" that will carry me to the Grand Canyon. "Now we've begun," I thought.
Camping again tonight in the wetlands adjacent to the park just outside of Moab. Mckenzie and I shamelessly walked a mile toward town along the bike path to get ice cream. (Couldn't even make it a day, haha.) Of course, the whole plan was a fail. The gas station turned out to be an express, which means pumps but no convenience store. Then the Denny's beyond that had a broken milkshake machine. We just looked at each other and laughed. Got a chocolate milk and a soda, which the waitress comp-ed because she felt bad, then we headed back to camp for dinner. I was tempted to get food at Denny's, but I preferred to lighten up my pack.
I slept poorly last night because it was chilly and frost had formed on my bag before I even fell asleep. It was pretty damp this morning, so I left it here to dry while we hiked. Who wants to pack a wet sleeping bag if they don't have to? Tonight feels warmer, so I'm hoping I'll sleep better.
April 2, 2019
Start: Pedestrian Bridge
Finish: Kane Spring
Distance: ~(5 + 6) miles
I slept blissfully last night. The clouds rolled in, which helped keep the temperature in the forties. I heard Mckenzie packing up around 0700, but I was so comfortable that I just rolled back over. I knew we only had about five miles into town to resupply, then another six to Kane Spring. And nearly all of that was along paved paths and roads. Easy miles.
We headed for town around 0800. Mckenzie had left her resupply at the Motel 6, so we picked that up on the way. She gave me her extra food, which was very nearly a full resupply. All I needed was a few packets of instant mashed potatoes. Mckenzie waited at a bakery while I ran some errands in town. I set up my Delorme subscription before we left, which took longer than I'd anticipated.
We finally walked out of Moab around 1300 and headed for the so-called Portal, which is where the Colorado River splits the Moab Rim. The official route would have had us following roads all the way out of town, but we took a wrong turn and ended up tracing the muddy banks of the Colorado before fording a tributary stream and scaling a steep, loose slope to access the road. All part of the adventure, y'all.
The last five miles or so were quite uneventful. Well, unless you count the frequent vehicle traffic and our first Hayduke Trail Angel experience. A car pulled up next to us, and the passenger asked if we were thru hikers. We eagerly replied that we were, and she tossed us a few bananas. Small victory, but it counts. As we neared Kane Spring, we came across the Birthing Scene, which is a unique petroglyph adjacent to the road. It's etched onto a large boulder among many other petroglyphs, but the impressive depiction of a woman giving birth is the namesake. It's a very cool site and easily accessible from Moab.
We arrived at Kane Spring around 1600 and decided to call it a day. The water is clear and abundantly flowing, and we found a sweet campsite underneath a large overhang nearby. (Hope it doesn't collapse and crush us tonight.) We have yet to experience true wilderness - we can hear constant vehicle traffic from our otherwise secluded site - but we expect that climbing over Hurrah Pass tomorrow will be the much-anticipated beginning of our backcountry experience. As for tonight, early to bed.
April 3, 2019
Start: Kane Spring
Finish: Established BLM Site
Distance: ~13 miles
Mckenzie and I slept in again this morning, and we took our time getting ready once we finally did get up. Probably left our little cave dwelling around 0830. We weren't in any hurry because we knew that we only had 13 miles to go and that it was all along a dirt road.
Within an hour, the narrow canyon walls opened up into a breathtaking view of high cliffs and towering mesas. The road carried us well-beyond Hurrah Pass before switching back and steadily ascending the cliffs toward it. Still it seemed the road couldn't possibly reach the pass, even though we knew it must. Dozens and dozens of Jeeps, dirt bikes, four wheelers, and dune buggies passed us as we climbed, and we could follow their progress far ahead as they weaved in and out of the red rock cliffs. I kept glancing down at the road we'd walked to get there, and it was hard to believe we'd come so far.
We finally reached the pass where we stopped for lunch. An incredible view stretched out both behind and before us. We could trace our route far down toward the banks of the Colorado River. The climb would've been far more challenging if the sun had been shining. The persistent cloud cover was a blessing. Chilly at times, but every time the sun broke through, it got blazing hot very quickly. I hope the clouds are a mainstay on our journey, but even if they aren't, we had them today, and I'm grateful for that.
We arrived at the primitive BLM site around 1400 and badly wanted to press on, but the lack of water ahead made that impractical. Instead, we called it a day. We got sidetracked down an old two track in hopes of finding nicer sites or at least water access, but the track ultimately dead-ended at a turnaround among thick brush. We backtracked and found a broad drainage that took us down to the muddy Colorado.
At first we drew water directly from the flowing river and returned to camp to let it settle before filtering it. After a few hours, we were able to pour off the relatively clear water. When we returned to the river for another run, we discovered a still pool adjacent to the river. Since the water wasn't moving, it had already settled and was quite clear. We drew water from there and were able to filter immediately. Another small victory but one we were stoked about.
The clouds seemed to build overhead as we set up camp and made dinner. I debated whether I should cowboy camp and eventually settled on taking the risk. Now that I've crawled into my sleeping bag, the clouds seem to be clearing. Hope I don't find myself in a race against the wet sometime in the middle of the night. Tomorrow is gonna be long and challenging, including a stretch of cross country travel and some dryfalls to negotiate. Gonna be fun and demanding with no water along the route.
April 4, 2019
Start: Established BLM Site
Finish: Lockhart Canyon
Distance: ~(20.5 + 1.5) miles
Mckenzie left a little after 0700, and I stayed back for about an hour waiting on the sun to dry out my frosty sleeping bag. I got going a little after 0800 and cruised hard in an effort to catch Mckenzie. She was making great time, because it took me almost three hours to make up the difference. Part of the issue was that I'd followed the round about road rather than short cutting up the drainage as dictated by the official HDT route, which easily doubled my distance through that stretch from one and a half miles to more like three. I really need to pay more attention to those route notes.
Most of the miles today were along four wheel drive roads, but we did a fun cross country section through deep canyons. We saw jaw-dropping dryfalls and lowered ourselves down rocky cliff bands as we worked our way down nameless drainages to Lockhart Canyon. It was breathtaking and empowering. Looking out over sweeping dryfalls that seemed impossible to safely navigate, I finally got the sense that we're really out here. The only signs of life that we saw today were a handful of car campers this morning. Otherwise it's felt like we're all alone. This is the Utah backcountry. This is the Hayduke.
There was no reliable water along our route, so we both carried enough to get us to what we hoped would be a running spring for camping tonight. We were really hoping for clear, fresh water since the Colorado last night was muddy and a little funky. Instead we found a slightly alkaline pool. I went on a scouting mission to see if I could find fresh water. The marked spring nearby was dry. I ventured up a side canyon where I found reeds growing thick in the wash. There I found a seep coming from the canyon wall, but even at the source the water was alkaline. There was salt everywhere lining the creek and the drainage walls. I gave up and returned to camp.
Mckenzie had enough fresh water left to avoid using the alkaline water for anything but cooking. I was down to a half liter, so I chose to save it for the morning. I figure if the alkaline water is gonna mess with me, I'd rather it be tonight than at the start of another long day. I guess we'll see how that choice plays out.
April 5, 2019
Start: Lockhart Canyon
Finish: Little Spring Canyon
Distance: ~(20 + 1.5) miles
I was reluctant to get up this morning even as I heard Mckenzie making breakfast and beginning to pack up. I wasn't especially tired or especially cold. I was just especially lazy. And I knew that I'd pack up more quickly, so I figured I had time. She beat me out of camp by about twenty minutes, and I knew it would take me a few hours to catch her. She's quicker than she gives herself credit for being. Fortunately I caught sight of her just as she darted off the road and into a drainage that would lead us down into Rustler Canyon. "Here we go," I thought as I gave chase. I freakin' love this stuff.
The whole upper drainage was dry, and I was intentionally trying not to drink the liter of slightly alkaline water I'd packed from camp. Indian Creek often holds water, so I crossed my fingers as Mckenzie and I meandered our way along the sandy canyon bottom. We came to a large dryfall, which we bypassed by skirting along the cliffs to the west, but we overshot the easy scramble down and quickly found ourselves navigating class 3/4 pitches as we tried to work our way down to the footprints far below. Nothing especially harrowing but certainly more exciting than it needed to be. As we descended one band at a time, we hoped we wouldn't have to backtrack, though we knew we could if it came to that. We did find ourselves very nearly cliffed out about 30 feet above the wash, a long line of footprints teasing us just out of reach. Luckily we were able to trace that cliff all the way back to the easy scramble without having to ascend the challenging terrain we'd already worked so hard to descend.
From there, it was an easy walk to the confluence with Indian Creek where we found plenty of clear, fresh water. We'd now walked a day and a half between fresh water sources. Yep, this is the Hayduke. It was a beautiful spot, so we took lunch before following Indian Creek a short ways up canyon. The notes led us to believe that we'd be following a well-cairned route out of the drainage, but in truth we saw one large cairn high on a cliff marking the initial exit and then no other cairns the rest of the climb. If the route was cairned, it wasn't cairned well.
But no matter. We reached the top and the start of a long cross country section on ridge tops that zigged and zagged, skirting a myriad of deep drainages, one right after the other, seeming to sprawl out at all angles from the ridge top. We walked through seemingly endless fields of geodes, shattered and broken at our feet. I wanted to stop and explore there infinite shapes and colors, but I knew we had miles to go and no assurance of water at camp, so I diligently kept pace with Mckenzie who found our drop-in to an unnamed drainage that would lead us to day's end. We found potholes as we went and even some slowly running water, which we took as a positive sign of things to come.
Before we reached camp tonight, Mckenzie and I ditched our packs and climbed a side canyon to an overlook of the Colorado River Loop. It was an impressive view from high on a ridge of a drastic bend in the Colorado. It's a feature quite similar to the far more famous and accessible Horseshoe Bend near Page. The difference was how few people had ever enjoyed the view that we were seeing. Hundreds? Thousands? Certainly scores fewer in a lifetime than seem to visit Horseshoe Bend nearly everyday. And we had it all to ourselves, not another soul for miles and miles. That's neat.
Mckenzie and I parted ways this evening. She came to a spot she liked about five miles before I was ready to stop. Since we'll be parting ways tomorrow morning regardless, we just split up tonight. I'll miss the company, of course. Mckenzie has become a closer friend over these recent months of shared planning and anticipation. And at the same time, I'm excited to have this landscape and these remote places to myself.
Shortly thereafter I entered Canyonlands and arrived at a reliable spring about an hour and a half later. Perched high above on an overhanging cliff, I could see and hear the running water. I also saw another backpacker down low setting up under cover of an imposing alcove. Probably one of the same trekkers whose boot prints we'd been following for days. Amazing site, but I didn't need water, so I skirted the bench above and continued a short distance until I found a narrow overhanging nook of my own. There isn't much space, but I don't need much. It's a cozy spot. I'm excited to be spending my first night of this trip solo. I don't imagine I'll see many people over the coming weeks outside of the high traffic tourist areas. I wonder how many days I'll get to string together without seeing another soul and how many days I'll get to walk without going into a town.
This is a different kind of trip than any I've ever taken, and I'm suddenly eager to see how it unfolds. I get the impression that Mckenzie is in a similar mindset, though I sense a bit of anxiety tightly tangled in her stoke. I think she'll be fine out here. She has everything she needs and a good head on her shoulders. Enjoy your time, Mckenzie!
April 6, 2019
Start: Little Spring Canyon
Finish: Horsehoof Arch (fallen)
Distance: ~(15.5 + 2 + 6) miles
Today was awesome, my favorite so far. I can't believe that tomorrow already makes a week on trail. By continuing last night and covering a few extra miles today, I've made up a day on my itin, which is nice because my current projection has me a week late for my Grand Canyon permits. Not ideal, but also - I'm told - not a deal breaker for park rangers.
I gained the road after maybe a mile of following game trails this morning, and I followed a road or trail the rest of the day. Pretty easy walking overall. And the views were fantastic. Took the spur up to an overlook of the Green River and Colorado River confluence. Gave a shout and heard an impressive echo rip up and down the merging canyons. Again, not a soul around. It was just me. Just me and this epic landscape. I'd passed an overnight backpacker on my way in, though, so I didn't stay long. Besides, I was excited to see the Needles and Druid Arch again. Besides caching here a few weeks ago, I haven't been in this area since my road trip after college over a decade ago. It doesn't feel so far removed, but I suppose that's the nature of getting older. Time is passing more and more quickly the more I age.
Cyclone Canyon was absolutely gorgeous. No one around, of course. I expected I'd start seeing people once I traversed a few drainages and got to the Needles trails. Part of me wanted to keep to the true Hayduke, which avoids the Needles, because I knew I'd find solitude on it, but I really wanted to see Druid Arch again. The Needles, like most popular destinations, are popular for a reason. They're incredible red rock hoodoos and fins layered over canyons and drainages. It's an impressive landscape.
I ditched my pack again for the long side trip out to Druid Arch. I figured I'd make good time on the 6-mile out and back. And I did, which is good because I didn't bring any water or snacks with me. The route didn't seem familiar. It was well-marked though surprisingly exposed in places. I wonder if I took a different trail when I was there in 2008. The arch itself is a massive feature that rises high above the canyon floor. The last bit of trail is a climb up steep scree to its base. I was happy I'd come, but I didn't stay long. I'd seen something far more enticing on my hike in. There was a deep pool of water below a 20-foot dryfall. I wasn't sure, but I thought I'd heard a few folks cliff jumping into the pool, and I saw some soaking wet college kids hiking out.
I found the pool and scouted out the drop on my way back. It looked pretty straightforward, though there was no way to tell how deep the dark water was or whether there were hazards below the surface. "What the hell," I thought as I leapt off the overhang and plunged into the frigid pool below. I gently hit the sandy bottom and propelled myself up to the surface. I was shivering as I swam to the shore. It was awesome. This is the stuff of the Hayduke, and once just wasn't enough. I scaled the canyon wall and followed the trail back to the drop. No hesitation this time. Free fall, plunge, swim, shiver. I wanted to keep going, but there was little sun in this narrow part of the canyon, so I took one final glance at that little heaven, and I hiked hard back toward Chester Park to retrieve my pack, giggling to myself as I went. So much stoke.
I've said before that I disagree with McCandless when he wrote "Happiness only real when shared", but I remembered today as I walked out that McCandless had attempted to leave the bus before he died. The river was swollen with snowmelt and too high to ford, so he turned back. It occurred to me that he'd gotten what he needed from the wilderness. Life is not about absolutes. It's messy and ill-defined. It's more about balance and embracing choices as we make them than it is about living this way or that. That he concluded in his final days that happiness is only real if it's shared with another is, I believe, a reflection of his growth into a new stage of life. The phrase seems to invalidate his choices between finishing college and meeting his demise, but my own experience has mirrored his in a less fanatical way, and my longing to share happiness doesn't negate the happiness I've felt - and even still feel - when I'm alone in the wilderness.
Each mile draws me nearer to my next stage of life, a shared life, perhaps even a family. And I'll embrace that life when I choose it. Just like I've embraced nearly every trail and journey that I've chosen since college. One fig at a time; not one fig for all time.
I arrived at my cache to find it undisturbed. I smiled to myself as I unearthed a resupply and fresh water that I'd buried weeks before. I'm so excited to carry on without a stop in town. Staying out here is empowering and gives an even stronger sense of remoteness. As I packed up, I was trying to figure out how I could carry the bin and jugs of water, because I really didn't want to have to come back for them. At that moment, a jeep drove by. I flagged them down, and they were all too happy to help me out. My second Trail Angel experience. I sent them with everything except my two Campbell's soups and my two gallon water jugs. If I don't see anyone else, I can pretty easily manage that trash until I get to the Hite crossing in a few days.
I still had plenty of light, so I hoofed it another mile to dry camp at a primitive backcountry site with a table and pit toilet. Less likely to see traffic that might take out my trash but generally more comfortable. I'm lying under my tarp now listening to soft, intermittent rain falling outside. Given water sources and terrain, tomorrow will either be a long day or a short one. But now, sleep.
April 7, 2019
Start: Horsehoof Arch (fallen)
Finish: Fable Valley
Distance: ~22 miles
I didn't arrive in camp tonight until after 1900. Today makes four straight 20+ mile days. (I'm hoping to break that streak tomorrow.) That's quite a lot for the Hayduke, I think. I'm feeling it too. Mostly in my feet, but also of course in my knees. Shoes full of sand really take a toll, and the slickrock traverses too. Nothing I can't handle, though. And this is precisely what I signed up for. I love that it's tough.
I think today was the most physically demanding so far. It certainly started that way with a 6-ish mile haul through the infamous Butler Wash. I'm glad I got it done the first part of the day; I can't imagine finishing with a miserable slog like that. It was hot, exposed, and slow-going. The sand is deep and loose the whole way. For every step forward, I felt like I slid back a quarter of a step. I hardly looked up at all during the three and a half hours it took me to reach Seldom Seen Bridge, which is where I stopped for lunch, pooped.
I was elated to climb up through the natural bridge and ascend out of the drainage. Of course what lie ahead was no reprieve. A few times on the ascent, I had to heave my pack up to a ledge before climbing it myself. I could've backtracked, but who wants to do that? And besides, I enjoyed the quick, exposed scrambling. Nothing quite like trusting a rock hold that hasn't given you any reason to.
From the first ridge, I could clearly see the upper ridge, though I couldn't yet identify the route. Not at all surprising, since the notes clearly state "CYOA". For those unfamiliar with the term, it means cover your own [butt]. After traversing the shelf above a series of drainages, I came to a steep, rocky slope. Lots of potential lines but no way to tell from the bottom which ones would go all the way to the top. I chose one and off I went, climbing higher and higher, the view all the way back over Butler Wash emerging as I gained ground. I reached the top more quickly and easily than I thought I would and suddenly wished I'd taken lunch there. What a beautiful view.
There were ruins nearby according to my maps. Even with many miles still to go, I couldn't help but have a look. En route, I spotted some that weren't marked, so I scaled the cliff and poked around. I love ruins and artifacts. Apparently this area, Beef Basin, is well-known for its concentration of both. I thought the marked ruins were more impressive, or at least different than most I'd seen. They weren't rounded walls built into broad alcoves, but rather flat facades built into small nooks along the cliff face. "Neat-o," I thought as I peered into the tiny entrances.
It was a long walk overland across flats to reach a 4x4 road and more marked ruins, which I couldn't find. No matter; I needed to be on my way. The day was already late, and I was unsure how far into Fable Canyon I'd have to go before I found water. I hoped not all the way to the spring by the same name, because that would take me two and a half miles off trail, and I'd certainly have arrived well-after dark.
I walked through clouds of swarming mosquitoes as I descended into the canyon, which I figured meant that there must at least be standing water nearby. I wondered whether I was in for a night of torment or if it would get chilly enough to drive them away. Probably the latter, since it cooled off as soon as the sun dipped below the high canyon wall.
I found water and a flat bench before I finished the descent, so here I am, exhausted. I'm excited for sleep and a shorter day tomorrow, even if it includes some dicey scrambling in Young's Canyon. Should be a fun one!
April 8, 2019
Start: Fable Valley
Finish: Dark Canyon
Distance: ~11.5 miles
Damn. That was a tough day. I busted my butt all day long and covered a measly 11.5 miles in 9 hours. I would like to have pressed on down Dark Canyon a ways, but the water looked muddy. I much-prefer the fresh running water of lower Youngs Canyon, so I set up camp on a shelf just above a clear stream within about fifty yards of the confluence. A stone's throw.
I foolishly imagined that I'd have an easier time today and was in no hurry to break camp this morning. The first stretch through Fable Valley was easy-going, nothing more than a mosey. Then I reached the side canyon that marked my exit from the valley and everything changed. It was innocent enough to start, but I had some trouble with the route-finding at the first dryfall bypass. I followed faint tracks up the southeast facing slope before losing them. I fumbled around up there, scouting this way and that in the hopes of finding a path to the top of the fall, but nothing went. I finally admitted defeat and backtracked to look for footprints and a possible route up the northwest facing slope.
From the drainage, I saw what looked like a route up. I also heard the very faint dripping of water. I was tempted to just cruise along because I understood Ledge Spring to be a reliable source, and I was sure to be there by lunch. But something unconsciously drew me toward the water. It was a seep dripping slowly from the base of the dryfall. I stood under one of the drops for what felt like an eternity and collected a half liter. That'd have to do. I had places to be. The path I spotted carried me up a steep slope, and I emerged above the dryfall. I was on my way, having wasted more precious time than I care to think about now.
I knew today would be physically demanding, but I hadn't anticipated the mental game. I'm generally pretty good at route-finding, but I floundered repeatedly today. It was humbling. The water situation also proved more challenging than I expected. Cattle had fowled many of the sources in the early part of the day, and I spent much of mid-day traversing high above the Youngs Canyon floor. I managed to carry just one liter at a time and fill up when I found a pothole or seep or even some snow. It worked, but I wouldn't say it was ideal. In fact, it was a little anxiety-provoking at times because progress was sooooo slow. But with all of the navigation and the elevation gain and loss, I was happy to have a lighter load. Pros and cons, per usual.
That's the narrow line we backpackers so frequently walk. Just enough food for the next section; just enough water to the next source. More weight generally means more peace of mind but also more suffering. Less weight means a bit of uncertainty but likely a more pleasant walk. It's a balance that's different for everyone. I tend toward lighter weight, but I also like to have a small safety net, so I wouldn't say I'm truly ultralight. I'm mostly light. My choice to carry less water today was fine; I was never in any danger. I just didn't give myself quite the same safety net that I normally would, mostly because I was over-confident. Imagine that.
The dryfall debacle above Fable Valley was an unfortunate sign of things to come. Youngs Canyon proved a substantially more challenging obstacle. In truth, I would've probably gone much faster if I had slowed down - checked my maps, followed worn paths more closely. I wanted to finish early, though, so I needed to make up for lost time. That mindset, more than any other factor, derailed my day.
There were two large dryfalls in Youngs that required substantial workarounds. The first seemed impossible to bypass no matter which way I went. There were sheer cliffs lining the drainage on both sides as far as I could see. If I had read the guidebook notes, I would've known to backtrack some and find a way up the slope to the south. Instead I caught site of some footprints heading up the opposite slope, so I just followed those. When they faded, I kept going along and scouting to find what I assumed must be a reasonable downclimb. After more time than I care to admit, I backtracked again. When the route still wasn't obvious, that's when I finally pulled out the guidebook. (No, I'm not carrying the whole guidebook. Just the pages I need for this section. Mostly lightweight, remember?)
I found the route as described, first following a faint trail, then making my own way after it faded up toward the seemingly impossible sheer cliffs ahead. I couldn't imagine a way through, but my notes assured me that it's a common NOLS route and "totally doable". I chose the safest route I could find, which wasn't really all that safe, and I started up the cliffs. After about a hundred feet, I stumbled across a small cairn. It wasn't as reassuring as you might think, but certainly better than nothing, so I followed along. Sure enough, the sparsely cairned route carried me ever higher on exposed ledges and through hidden breaks until, finally, I stood atop the plateau.
I found another worn path in the cryptobiotic soil and followed it to a point where I enjoyed an epic view of the towering cliffs and incredible topography of Youngs Canyon. I felt intimidated as I started the steep downclimb through loose scree. By now it was nearly 1400, and I hadn't had lunch. I couldn't believe that I was still about a mile and a half from Ledge Spring. Surely I'd cruise this last stretch.
I reached the floor of Youngs and off I went. Well, mostly. I made it about a mile and came to another epic dryfall. This time I correctly skirted to the south along a worn path, but I followed a stray cairn down a loose slope and cliffed out about 30 feet from the canyon floor. Reluctant to regain the ridge, I skirted the steep terrain and fortunately found a way through to the proper downclimb. It was still a loose scree slope, but at least it got me where I needed to go.
I reached the floor of Youngs once more without incident. There was running water, so I stopped for lunch beneath a patch of shade cast by a boulder just large enough to protect my person from the unforgiving sun. It was after 1500 already, so I ate quickly and continued on.
There were a handful of other pour-offs to negotiate as I worked my way toward Dark Canyon, but nothing so imposing that I couldn't clearly see the way down with a little scouting. Ledge Spring was gushing right out of the wall beneath one such pour-off. I could hear it below me and was overjoyed at the knowledge that I could drink straight from the spring to my heart's content. I chugged a liter and filled another to carry. It occurred to me that I could stop there for the night, but I still had it in my mind that I could at least start down Dark Canyon. I'd read that water is plentiful all through there, so I'd just choose a site when I was ready to stop. No worries. And besides, Ledge Spring is in a narrow part of the canyon, and I'm scared of flash floods.
Half an hour later, after bushwhacking through thick reeds and bamboo that had swallowed the canyon floor below Ledge Spring, I arrived at the confluence of Young Canyon and Dark Canyon, both equally impressive in scale. I was standing high above the stream and could clearly see the muddy waters flowing fast through Dark Canyon. Not at all appetizing. I turned around and quickly spotted the flat bench perched above the clear flowing waters of lower Youngs Canyon. Settled. That's home for tonight.
I'm tucked in now beneath a pocket of clear, starry night sky that's framed on three sides by the black silhouettes of towering cliff walls. Haven't seen another soul for two full days now. The register at the Fable Valley Trailhead yesterday only included a dozen Haydukers so far this spring and none in the last five days. I'm as alone as I've ever been and not an ounce of longing or loneliness in my heart. And still I have the sense that this perfect content could only be augmented if I were sharing it with my perfect person. Surely you exist; but where are you?
April 9, 2019
Start: Dark Canyon
Finish: Rock Canyon
Distance: ~21.5 miles
I got a relatively early start - about 0730 - from the Youngs Canyon / Dark Canyon confluence. Of course, I also finished later than I have any day so far - nearly 2130. Fourteen hours today. I expect another long one tomorrow, then maybe a few shorter days. That'd be nice.
I met a group of five backpackers near the Dark Canyon confluence first thing this morning. They were heading up Youngs and asked about beta, so I described the tricky route and told them it was my toughest day so far on the Hayduke. They were also curious about ruins. I'd seen some things that might've been, but I was in no shape to be exploring yesterday. We chatted for a bit and wished each other well. I was eager to be on my way and anxious about creek conditions downstream.
Dark Canyon was unreal - narrow and winding, ledges and cliffs lining the creek banks nearly the whole way. I later met a local ambassador for the American Discovery Trail who said that that trail intentionally skips Dark Canyon because it's too difficult. I could see his point. But I also got my groove back down there. Route-finding was smooth, and despite the guidebook's warning, I don't remember once cliffing out and having to backtrack more than a few dozen feet. I was on, and it felt good. There were well over a dozen fords of the swift, cold, muddy creek. A little common sense and thorough scouting kept everything mid-thigh or below.
The exit from Dark Canyon is essentially a lightly-cairned bushwhack up the steep, loose, rocky slope of one of its tributaries, though supposedly it's called the Sundance Trail. I think "trail" is a strong word. But then, perhaps I just lost the trail early on and bushwhacked unnecessarily. I gained the plateau after ascending over a thousand feet from the canyon floor. During my frequent breaks, I looked back and enjoyed the expansive view up the Dark Canyon drainage system. It only got better as I climbed. Reluctant to leave the hard-fought view from the top, I found myself a perch, kicked off my shoes, and had lunch, satisfied with the day so far.
The rest of the day was road walking. First many miles along a 4x4 road, then a little pavement at the Hite Crossing of the Colorado River - where I left a cache for the next leg - then more 4x4 road. The wind was relentless that whole way. The first stretch of 4x4 road, that's where I met Bob (you remember, of the American Discovery Trail). He drove up as I was sitting on the roadside kicking my shoes off. (I'm getting a heel blister on each foot, ugh.) He was a friendly guy and hopped right out of his truck at the sight of me, his two dogs too. We chatted for a spell. I was thankful for the company, however brief. Then he asked if he could help with anything. An ambassador and a Trail Angel! I was grateful to hand off my trash, some of which I'd been hauling since my last cache in the Needles. I loved on his pups for a little while before he headed out. One day I'll have a few dogs of my own, and we'll be Trail Angels too.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Bob is the first person I've ever met who already knew me as Sochi from my online presence. Facebook, I think he said. He recognized my name when we first exchanged them. Pretty neat to think that my photos and stories- that my journey is reaching beyond my circle and into the vast emptiness of the Utah desert even before I got here. I don't know if you read the blog, Bob, but thank you again for the kindness, the company, and the encouragement.
A few more hours of walking brought me to the highway and my resupply cache at the Hite Crossing. With the small outpost at Hite just a mile off trail, I was tempted to zip in for a treat, but I resisted the urge. If I can avoid town until Escalante, that'll be two straight weeks of wilderness, and I'm betting that'll make town treats that much sweeter.
Don't let the paved highway here fool you. It's a remote thoroughfare connecting rural communities and outposts. This place is out there. I saw fewer than a dozen vehicles during the couple hours I was at the crossing resupplying and eating an early dinner. I felt quite lucky to flag down a guy who agreed to take the bulk of my trash. After I finished dinner, I flagged down another car, but they drove off in disgust as soon as I said "hiking to the Grand Canyon". That was confusing to me, but it worked out great, because I then met Patty and Kirk (I hope I got those names right...) who were willing to help and just a general pleasure to talk with. I gave them this website and showed them the next week of my route on their map before they had to leave. I hope to hear from them again. If y'all are reading this, thank you again! You're Trail Angels! And with that, I'm two for two. No need to come back after I finish to clear these first few caches. Hope to have the same luck going forward.
It was twilight before I hit the trail again. Patty and Kirk were the last car I was going to try to flag down. If they had declined, I simply would've carried the last bit of trash to my next cache at Highway 95. Instead I was giddy and light-hearted as I trotted off back into no man's land. So much goodness in the world. And beauty. How lucky I am to be out here experiencing both at once.
I covered a few more miles as the night set in and arrived at camp late. Red Benches and the Dirty Devil River on deck tomorrow, so I expect it'll be a tough day. Little did I know as I rolled out my sleeping bag that the passing clouds above would bring rain and a stressful night. All part of the experience.
It's now 0245 on the 10th. I fell asleep before finishing the day's journal entry, but the sudden sprinkle of rain on my face jarred me awake. I shot up like a wacky inflatable man, the ones you see at the car dealerships, and rifled frantically through my pack looking for my shelter. The rain wasn't falling especially hard, but the drops were big, and the wind made it difficult to keep my gear covered and dry as I worked to get my shelter up. Found it! I ripped the tarp from its bag and set about erecting it, but the ground was hard pack just an inch below its soft surface. Just my luck. And there were hardly any rocks around. I was fumbling through the dark looking for anything to stake down the corners, but all I could find was shale that broke into thin sheets as I lifted it. As they say, beggars can't be choosers, so I wrapped my tie-outs and weighed them down as best I could, rain and wind fighting my progress all the while. My shelter is up, and I'm tucked under it inside my damp sleeping bag as the wind and rain persist. I hope my tie-outs hold. The rest of the night might be rough.
April 10, 2019
Start: Rock Canyon
Finish: Dirty Devil River
Distance: ~20 miles
Last night pretty much sucked, so I wasn't in any hurry to get out of the relative warmth of my sleeping bag this morning. Finally forced myself up despite the ongoing wind. At least it wasn't raining anymore, though the dark clouds overhead teased that it could start again at any moment. I finally left camp a few minutes before 0900. I felt a hint of hope as I walked toward the only patch of blue sky I could see. Perhaps a better day lay ahead.
I planned all along to scout the Dirty Devil today, but I was always pretty well set on the bypass. With the above average winter precip, the tenuous weather, the largely quicksand bed, and the unpredictable flow, I'd rather ford it once at the end of the bypass than walk up its corridor and ford it perhaps a dozen times or more. I heard a rumor about a solo trekker getting stuck there recently and having to be pulled out by a helicopter after setting off his SOS beacon. I dunno if that's true, but I'll take it as a tale of caution. Plus it finally started raining as I neared the confluence of Fiddler Cove Canyon and Hatch Canyon, so I definitely wasn't trying to spend the next few hours in a narrow corridor of the flood-prone Dirty Devil.
I'm carrying about five liters of water today in case I have to dry camp on its banks after the bypass, which of course I'd do if it was unsafe to cross. The Dirty Devil earns its name by virtue of its thick, muddy flow. (I think.) It apparently also may carry various heavy metals and agricultural waste from upstream. So in addition to killing my water filter instantly, it may very well kill me slowly by way of cancer. Not trying to drink that stuff.
But let's rewind. Before I could even address the puzzle of the Dirty D, I needed to find my way out of Rock Canyon and across the infamous Red Benches, a twisted maze of drainages and cliffs nestled high on what might otherwise be called a plateau.
The first few miles up Rock Canyon were mellow and quite pleasant in spite of the dark sky and cool breeze. Then I spotted the cove where the exit chimney sits high in a pocket on the northeast wall. I reached the alcove easily enough, but the narrow chimney was a little dicey. True to the guidebook description, it was short. Also true to the guidebook, it required me to haul my pack up behind me on the 3-mil line I'd been carrying for just such an occasion. My ever-present anxiety spiked as I tugged on the line from above. I was pulling my pack up from a lower shelf that sat above the alcove. As I pulled, the thin line wore against the grainy rock overhang. If it broke, my pack would tumble and my water bladder might explode or my camera could break. There was no other way to do it, though, so I took a slow breath and kept pulling. I figured that whatever happened, I could deal with it. Of course all that happened was that I got my pack up safely and continued on my way. I swear I feel anxiety about something or another 98% of the time. God only knows how I function without medication.
Navigating the Red Benches with my GPS wasn't so much difficult as it was annoying. Like I said, a twisted maze. There seems to be no logic at all to the topo map. I can manage a map and compass, but I don't think I'd be up here without a GPS, especially with a pinpoint and potentially harrowing drop into Fiddler Cove Canyon. But again I'm getting ahead of myself. The wind was howling as I contoured and traversed drainage and ridge, drainage and ridge. There is no clear route to Fiddler Cove Canyon, so every time I spotted a set of footprints, it reassured me that I wasn't the only one who thought that particular line looked promising. But the footprints came and went, and they weren't always from the same hiker, as we crisscrossed each other's favored routes. I'm not kidding. It's a mess up there.
I didn't check my time, but I was up there at least a few hours stumbling along before I finally arrived at an incredible pour off above Fiddler Cove Canyon. Seriously. It was a sheer drop from the ledge all the way down to the floor. Had to be 800 or 1,000 feet, I'd guess. I let out a loud whoop and listened to the echos ripple up and down the canyon. Sick. But of course this wasn't the drop-in. It was just sheer walls in both directions. I shadowed the cliffs northbound until I found a prominent cairn marking the proper drop-in. It was a steep descent to the canyon floor, but not so horrifying as I'd imagined. Cairns and lightly-worn path guided my way. This place is truly epic.
I followed the canyon generally south toward the Dirty Devil. The only way I was willing to hike it was if the bed was bone dry. Of course I knew that was highly unlikely given the year and current conditions. I ditched my pack at the confluence with Hatch Canyon, which is the "high water alternate" to the Dirty Devil corridor. Turns out the water wasn't so much high as it was high enough for me to not wanna deal with it.
I backtracked and ate a quick lunch as the rain that had been threatening all day finally started to fall. I was naturally annoyed but such is life on a long outdoor trip. You can't even get a reliable 10-day forecast, nevermind a six week forecast. You just prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I suppose a cool day is generally better than a hot one in the desert, but with the Henry Mountains rapidly approaching, I expect to get my fill of cold weather conditions very soon. The wind and rain continued off and on into the evening. Brrr.
The route notes say to follow Hatch Canyon for four miles and then exit via a rare sloped westward wall providing access to the bench and 4x4 road above. I'm quite sure that I missed the proper exit from Hatch Canyon, but I didn't mind because it was incredible. High sheer cliffs and sections of colorful narrows. I was tempted to follow it all the way to the mouth where it would intersect the road anyways, but it was late in the day already and the tightly wound canyon looked to extend for many more miles, so I found an alternate exit up a westward running slot canyon. It opened up - like I hoped it would - into a moderate slope that led me to the benches above Hatch Canyon where I was able to gain the road. A few bonus miles on my suffering feet but not for nothing. And new kicks in my cache tomorrow, so I've got that going for me.
The road was nicely graded and contoured evenly along the cliffs, making for a mellow walk even as the ferocious wind seemed to frequently catch me mid-stride and suspend me there momentarily. Pros and cons. Nothing too easy. Balance. A couple of miles before the ford, the road dropped dramatically into a drainage and twisted its way to the canyon floor. The sun had already set, and the ever-threatening clouds loomed overhead. With no protected shelter site likely, I found myself a flat-ish ledge under an overhang. It's a tight squeeze, but at least it's mostly out of the wind and it'll keep me dry if it starts raining again. Low standards tonight after another grueling day.
April 11, 2019
Start: Dirty Devil River
Finish: Henry Mountains
Distance: ~20.5 miles
I'm surprised to report that I slept better last night than I have any other so far this trip. Guess I was just that tired.
Less to say today, since I was almost exclusively on roads. The ford of the Dirty Devil was remarkably uneventful. Mid-shin, not moving very swiftly, and only a hint of quicksand under my feet. Still happy with the detour, though. That's not a river I'd mess with...even if I did ford the infamous Rangatata in New Zealand. (Not something I'd do again, by the way.)
I cruised the road all the way to my cache at Highway 95. Made it in time for a late lunch and was a little tempted to hitch up toward Hanksville to hit this sweet little burger and shake joint there, but I resisted the urge. Ate my Campbell's soup as I fought the cold wind that whipped and whirled all day long. Got my new kicks, and my feet already feel so much better. Oh my God, what a difference! Finished my resupply and flagged down the first car that came by. "Hey, are you ok, man?" I feel badly when I flag down cars in the middle of nowhere like this, because they typically seem to think that I'm in trouble out here, which makes sense when you consider their perspective. They chuckled when I told them what I was up to and asked them to take my trash. Again, this lovely young couple seemed genuinely happy to help. Good dang people.
I crossed the highway and moseyed up a 4x4 road toward the base of the Henry Mountains, my highest obstacle on the whole route. Clouds obscured the summits of the range, and I could see sheets of rain falling on its broad flanks. Still plenty of snow up there. I wonder whether I'll be able to safely summit Mt Ellen's south peak tomorrow. It'll depend on the weather as well as the condition of the snowpack. (Boy, I almost sound like I know what I'm talking about.)
I found a nice campsite in a depression below the road. It's flat, sandy, and mostly protected from the wind. It's not even quite 1700 now, which makes tonight by far the earliest I've had in what seems like a long while. Henrys on deck. G'nite, y'all.
April 12, 2019
Start: Henry Mountains
Finish: Crescent Creek
Distance: ~18.5 miles
I woke up today minutes before my alarm sounded. I could see patches of blue in an otherwise lightly grey sky. The sun was casting shadows, but they were faint, muted. Light cloud cover this morning. I was interested to see how the weather would unfold. Seemed it might go either way - clear serendipitously or build ominously. Regardless, I stepped into the brisk morning air and prepared for the day ahead, whatever it would be.
The road climbs first gently then sharply into the mountains. The clouds moved in and settled over the peaks as I climbed. The seasonal creeks running strong with snowmelt, cascading falls adorned by icicles, evidence that spring is overtaking winter while fleeting snow flurries suggest that Lady Winter is not yet ready to abandon her hard-fought hold over the alpine slopes. I walk slowly now as the trees thin and the views open up, the vast desert sprawling empty for miles behind me, the summit ridge still hidden by a myriad of snow-laden drainages ahead. I cross my first short snowfield. It's more firm than I'd expected but thankfully not solid ice. Soft enough that I easily kick steps for traction but firm enough that I don't posthole. What a pleasant surprise. Thankful that the clouds have protected the snow from the sun but anxious that those same clouds are protecting icy slopes in the higher elevations. Sure enough the snowpack became more consistent as I followed buried roadway contours. I encountered the full spectrum from soft snowdrifts where I postholed above my knees all the way to hard pack that required the use of my spikes to keep traction on the steep slopes. And even that at times seemed inadequate.
I expected that the approach would be the worst of it, as the route has hikers gaining the summit from the north/northeast aspect where snow tends to linger. The descent follows the southwest ridge, which I hoped would be far less sketchy. I was wrong, of course.
The flurries persisted up high, and I imagined that the cloud cover which had moved in and lingered over the Henry peaks was doing more of the same today. Such conditions in the Colorado fall would be cause to abandon the summit bid, but these spring conditions in Utah brought with them little anxiety as I climbed higher. It wasn't cold or windy or whiteout. I still felt safe and secure, more intrigued by than afraid of the conditions. Continuing was perhaps ill-advised, but off I went.
When I left the road early and followed a steep slope to gain the summit ridge, I still had a thousand feet to gain. I began to wonder whether I was prepared for this kind of summit. It wasn't like following the PCT in the snowpacked Sierra. This was a different beast. Still, I was reluctant to turn around and fight my way back through deep snowdrifts just to do more of the same on the bypass. I'd turn around but only if I had to, only if I couldn't see a way through.
From atop the false summit, I could see the south summit just ahead. The ridge between was wind blown with snow building on the eastern side. Not yet a cornice, but I knew enough to steer clear of the edge. Perhaps that was part of the problem, a common problem for me I think: I knew just enough about snow and snow travel to get myself into trouble and not enough to ensure my own safety. I trotted across the ridge to the summit, stoked to be there and also keenly aware that I had a lot of work still to do. It was cold enough by then that even a faint breeze chilled me to the bone, numbing my fingers and toes. I snapped a summit photo, then picked my way down the snowy south-southwest running ridges.
The descent was sketchier than I'd anticipated, and progress was slow. From the topo map, I was skeptical of the final exit point, so I darted off the ridge in favor of the western slope before I reached the last high point. In retrospect, I should've at least scouted the official route ahead. The overcast skies yielded flat light which made it difficult to gauge the pitch of the slope that I was committing to. Once on it, I found it to be far steeper than I'd thought. I kicked tenuous steps as I considered abandoning the escape and returning to the ridge. But when I turned into the slope and tried downclimbing the face like I would a ladder, the kicking got easier and more stable. Two or three solid kicks, and I'd break through the crust to get a solid foothold. I decided to stick with it.
I'd kick a step with each foot, then bury the ends of my trekking poles into the snow for stability as I kicked the next two steps. After a time, I turned to gauge my progress. I'd made little. Again the thought of abandoning the slope came to mind, then the thought of glissading. The first was too bothersome and the second too dangerous. I had to forcibly kick my way through the crust. If I got any kind of speed, which I was likely to pick up quickly on this pitch, I'd have a hard time stopping without an ice ax, which I wasn't carrying.
Instead I continued - kick, kick; stick, stick; kick, kick; stick, stick. As the official route crept into view, I could see that it was at least moderately easier. The nose it follows was rocky, and I could see large patches of yellow earth amidst the snow. Topo maps are an amazing tool, but they have their limitations. The obvious lesson here is to get eyes on options whenever possible. There I was standing on a slope that had to be nearing 60 degrees, and the snow was so hard in places that I couldn't kick a solid step. I had to settle for a tenuous foothold while I quickly kicked another. Sometimes there were many tenuous steps before I felt secure again. It was really damn sketchy, actually. And totally unnecessary.
The view from the summit was pretty incredible, though. To my surprise, the clouds stretched for miles across the landscape, but I could still see the desert and Waterpocket Fold far below. I imagined the view on a clear day. I would've loved to have eaten lunch up there, connected to the world via LTE, and taking in that perfect view. But that wasn't the deal today. Today it was cold and generally unwelcoming. I was happy to be heading down.
Found myself a nice camp spot tucked in the trees a short distance from Crescent Creek. If the wind picks up or it snows overnight, I'll be pretty well-protected in here. Gonna be a cold one. I got the weather report from my InReach. Mid-20's all night and a chance of snow into the morning. Looks like I'll be putting on frozen shoes tomorrow. Hmm, my favorite. The irony is that I'll be dreaming of the cold nights when it really starts heating up in the desert later this trip.
April 13, 2019
Start: Crescent Creek
Finish: Swap Canyon
Distance: ~20 miles
Gorgeous day out here. The weather outlook last night was bleak, but I managed to stay warm and snug in my sleeping bag. It was cold this morning, so I let myself sleep in. I knew I had about 20 miles to walk, but they looked to be pretty straightforward according to the map and route description. Lots of road walking. I didn't get out of camp until after 0930, my latest start this trip, I think.
Thankfully the sun was shining, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. The light breeze was surprisingly brutal as I worked my way down a ridge adjacent to the official route, which follows the horribly overgrown Sweetwater Creek. This was one of the times where deviating from the official route served me well, so I guess the scales are balanced after that hiccup on Mt. Ellen's south summit yesterday.
I gained the road easily and zipped along it for nearly 10 miles all the way out onto the infamous Tarantula Mesa. The route through the mesa itself is pretty but hardly compares to the incredible views and harrowing descent from its eastern rim. I stopped and had lunch at the cairned drop-in, admiring the incredible view out across canyons below and to the mountains beyond. There were sheer cliffs all around, and I wondered how on earth a person finds the one safe route down. If I didn't know it existed, I'd be damn certain that it didn't. But it does, and I was seated right next to the cairn that proved it. (Ok, but seriously cairns don't prove anything in and of themselves. They're just piles of rocks. This cairn affirmed the route description and coordinates that I already had. Taken together, I was pretty darn sure that I was in the right spot.)
The sketchy part of the descent through the sheer cliff band is relatively short, but the crux is especially dicey. I had to leap from an overhang to a small boulder embedded in the slope, a distance of maybe five feet. The catch was that only one end of the boulder was buried in the slope. It was rectangular in shape and the long end was suspended away from the slope and resting against the boulder just below it, which was also precariously resting on the steep slope. The whole thing really didn't inspire confidence, since I imagined that my weight might dislodge the two and we three might go careening out of control down onto the canyon floor far below. Pucker factor: high. But then I reminded myself that we all die, and that there are worse ways to go. I sprang from my perch, strangely calm and accepting of whatever might happen next. I felt my foot make contact and my knee bend then immediately recoil, vaulting me forward onto the more solid slope before the boulder could absorb the full force of the impact. Too easy. The rest of the drop-in was steep but straightforward. I was on the canyon floor in no time, all in one piece too. (Probably could've done without the melodrama, but it was fun to read, wasn't it?)
I followed drainages, game trails, and hiker footprints across Swap Mesa to an obscure access point into Swap Canyon, where I had hoped to find water. No luck, really. There were some shallow puddles dotted down the canyon, but nothing appetizing. No matter. I can ration what I have to get me the quick seven miles to my cache at the Lower Muley Twist Trailhead tomorrow morning. I'm cowboy camped tonight for the first time in what feels like a while. The half moon is shining brightly tonight, and stars adorn the clear sky all around it.
April 14, 2019
Start: Swap Canyon
Finish: Muley Tanks
Distance: ~19.5 miles
Well, today was a bit of a cruiser. Chilly morning as I sailed down Swap Canyon to the Burr Trail Switchbacks. The Waterpocket Fold opened up as I neared the bottom of the canyon. The Fold is one of the coolest spots out here, I think. It's so epic. You can easily imagine one tectonic plate diving beneath the other and pushing up this 100 mile long stretch of nearly unbroken crust, fins, and domes. It's a sight to behold. And though I'd seen this view before, it still stopped me in my tracks this morning.
I was diligently working my way up the long roadway switchbacks when a car slowed as it approached. I heard someone holler out the window, "Hey, are you on the Hayduke?!" I grinned wide and shot back "Sure am!" They were all like "Cool, us too. But not now." Sarah and Kate had gotten off the trail at Hanksville for a little adventuring with their friend, Seth. The three of them were coming down from caching at the Muley Twist Trailhead, which was exactly the cache of mine that I was giddily on my way to retrieving. They asked if I needed anything, and of course I didn't, but then they offered bananas, clementines, and cookies - oh my! Who could resist such generosity? I indulged as we chatted about the Hayduke and about other trails we had done. They were a rad clique. Too bad I'll likely never see or hear from them again. So it goes. I left them a note at the trailhead register, which they'll get sometime in the coming weeks. Thanks for the unexpected trail magic, y'all!
I got my cache, packed up the next section's haul, bathed in baby wipes (per usual), ate my Campbell's soup, and marveled at the fact that I'm only another three days from town. Escalante, my first town since Moab, my first town in two full weeks. Exciting stuff, y'all. A guided hiking group arrived as I went about my chores. It looked like they were being shuttled, which meant I might be able to send out my trash. I kept an eye on them as I hurried along. Corey, the guide, came over and chatted me up about the Hayduke. Really nice guy, and for some reason I felt guilty asking him to take my trash out in the van they'd arrived in. A relatively small favor, really, and he was all too willing to help out. I'm not sure why I felt weird about it, but I sure appreciate the help, Corey! That makes 4/4 on the cache outs!
Muley Twist Canyon is appropriately named, I assure you. The canyon floor twists and turns at every opportunity, sometimes so sharply that it winds back on itself. The sandy wash winds in and out of imposing alcoves and traces along the base of high red rock cliffs. The walls narrow and widen according to no obvious rhyme or reason. Sometimes the sand underfoot gives way to undulating rock that's more reminiscent of captured ocean waves frozen in time than of the characteristic sandstone. There are occasional log and boulder jams to negotiate, evidence of rare but possible flash floods. It's a beautiful walk. Another of the endless highlights of the Hayduke.
But the day is hot, and my pack is suddenly heavy with my resupply and extra water. I understand that the Muley Tanks, my destination, are "typically generous", but the guidebook is twenty years old, and I have often come upon "reliable" sources that no longer are. I believed the tanks to still be reliable according to updated reports, but better safe than sorry. I never know quite what to expect out here, and there are limited opportunities for aid or bailout during the next few days.
I arrived at the Muley Tanks before 1800 to find them full and brimming. These large, naturally occurring potholes are neatly situated at the base of the Fold. There are a number of excellent campsites among the nearby juniper trees, and I'm happy to have arrived in plenty of time to enjoy mine. It's surprising to me that I'm the only one here. I can't imagine there are too many other water sources out here, and I saw half a dozen cars at the trailhead. Where is everybody? No matter. I'm happy to have this little oasis to myself tonight. What a treat.
April 15, 2019
Start: Muley Tanks
Finish: Halls Creek Bay
Distance: ~20.5 miles
The night was slightly overcast and pleasantly warm. I slept quite well and hated to get up as the wind whipped sand in my face, a thin layer caked on all of my gear. At least the wind kept the bugs at bay. It was a warm enough night that it might have been a problem otherwise.
I had hoped to visit Brimhall Double Arch this morning, but there was a deep pool about thirty feet long through a narrow twist in the canyon about halfway up the route. I couldn't see a way around the pool, so I swam it. The water was ice cold, and I was shivering violently by the time I reached the boulder jam on the opposite end. There was no way I could climb it, so I accepted defeat and returned to Halls Creek. So it goes sometimes. The overcast day made it difficult to get warm, so I layered up and hiked fast through the broad Halls Creek drainage.
I'd been greatly anticipating the section through the Halls Creek Narrows, and now I was suddenly wondering whether they would be passable without a few icy swims, which I wasn't prepared to do with my backpacking kit and camera gear. Fortunately there was a bypass which I could've defaulted to if the need arose. But I really, really didn't wanna. Before I got to the split, I ran into some backpackers who had done it first thing this morning. They assured me that it's stunningly beautiful and that there were no crossings above waist deep. Cake walk.
I cruised along for the next few hours shortcutting as many twists in the drainage as I could. Halls Creek is sandwiched between the impressive Waterpocket Fold to the west and the towering cliffs of Halls Mesa to the east. It's an epic walk, and I was happy to have planned the Hayduke alternate, which stays in the drainage rather than climbing to the Fold at the Red Slide. I'll follow Bakers Route up into the Fold tomorrow, then drop into Exit Canyon and follow that to Stevens Canyon, which I'll follow all the way down to the Escalante River, and ultimately up Coyote Gulch to Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Doesn't sound like much when I sum it up in a sentence, but I expect it'll be a big day tomorrow up to Jacob-Hamblin Arch, a favorite of mine.
I finally arrived at the narrows later in the day than I'd expected. Still this section had been a mainstay on my Utah wishlist for some time, so there was no way I was gonna blast through it. I giddily approached the high walls, camera in hand. The most stunning section, in my opinion, came very quickly. And of course, it wasn't long enough. There was clear, cold water running throughout, a sharp contrast to the often-dry drainage that I'd come down to get there. At the narrowest sections, there were deep potholes, presumably smoothed by years of running water and flash floods. There were brilliant colors striated in the sandstone walls. Never were the walls so close that I could reach out and touch both with outstretched arms, but these narrows rank among my very favorite nonetheless. What a special place, made more-so I think by its remoteness. I saw some other hikers but not many. This place is neither well-known nor easily accessible, and in spite of my own awe, they're not so impressive as a myriad other outdoor destinations in the Southwest region.
I exited the narrows back into the main drainage through a quagmire of overgrowth, which quickly became characteristic of the rest of my walk today. I was often in the creek or on a bench above it, doing my best to follow tracks, but there aren't as many below the narrows. The flip side was that the drainage was more green, even the rolling hills adjacent to it and the vibrant green cottonwoods in it felt reminiscent of the Shire but for the contrast of the red rock cliffs.
I arrived at Halls Creek Bay, or least where the shores of Lake Powell once reached. It's obvious that the water of the great lake has long since receded. By now the Waterpocket Fold has abated enough to scale the slickrock and ultimately cross to the Escalante drainages - a project for tomorrow. Tonight I've found a nice spot among juniper trees up a side drainage and at the proper start of tomorrow's climb. It seemed an eternity of fighting dense (no, seriously - DENSE) overgrowth to arrive at my little oasis. Bamboo chutes and who knows what else have choked out the banks on the western side of Halls Creek, and I stumbled and cursed my through it tonight, knowing that I'd rather not deal with it in the morning. Got a nice bleeder on my knee in the process, but I'm happy to be here. Long day, but then it seems most are.
April 16, 2019
Start: Halls Creek Bay
Finish: Coyote Gulch
Distance: ~16.5 miles
What an awesome day! I got out of camp around 0800, early by my standards this trip. The climb up the Baker Route was challenging, as expected, and stunningly beautiful, also as expected. There were cairns marking the route, but they were sporadic and difficult to pick out where they existed. I mostly blazed my own way and stumbled across reassuring markers as I went. I topped out and was greeted by a blast of cold wind blowing in from the Escalante side. I was drenched in sweat and suddenly quite chilly, but that didn't stop me from taking out my phone and getting some good ole LTE service for just the second time since Moab. One of my favorite parts about being disconnected is how exciting it is to be reconnected.
I plopped down right there in the wind and had a snack as I checked email, texts, and voicemails. I had a few from some dear friends at the AmeriCorps reunion in NOLA. Man, I hate that I missed it. I was smiling, and yes, tearing up a little bit, as I listened to my tipsy friends pass the phone around. My heart swelled with love and melancholy. I regretted - for a moment - that I had chosen the Hayduke rather than the reunion. Then I remembered something Mckenzie said earlier this trip. You just gotta make choices and embrace them. She's right, of course. I'm here, and I'm stoked about that. I'll see my friends next time.
The view looking down on the Escalante drainages immediately ahead and the Straight Cliffs far beyond was epic. I was stoked to be dropping in and on my way to Stevens Canyon and Coyote Gulch. I was also a bit anxious about crossing the Escalante. I wondered whether the water would be up and whether the bed would be quicksand. I pushed the thoughts from my mind. Nothing I could do from the top of the Fold; I'd just figure it out when I got there.
Stevens Canyon and the Kayenta Ledges were sensational, or at least the upper and middle portions. The bed was deep and winding with large pour-offs and pockets of bright green cottonwood trees. The sweeping views up and down the canyon from the Kayenta Ledges, a slickrock bench that runs adjacent to the canyon floor, were unbelievable. I walked the moderately exposed ledges in awe for over an hour before following a slickrock ramp back down to the canyon floor. From that point to the mouth of Coyote Gulch was an uninspired slog.
The lower section of the canyon was overgrown, and the path was often choked out entirely, which was also true of the long and miserable mile down the Escalante River before I finally turned up Coyote Gulch. I had hoped to ford the river only once but instead had to cross it a surprising seven times during such a short distance, which seemed to go on forever. Fortunately the quicksand bottom was hardly even a nuisance, nevermind a threat, and the swift river never came above mid-thigh. The project was annoying more than anything, another reason to recommend the alternate, which avoids twenty-five such miles down the river.
Knowing that there would soon be a well-worn path to follow up Coyote Gulch, I was overjoyed to finally leave the silty, choked out waters of the Escalante. Though as soon as I did, I began to encounter pack rafters and backpackers. I had had the Baker Route and Stevens Canyon all to myself today and wasn't a bit surprised that the popular and slightly more accessible Coyote Gulch would see traffic, even in the middle of the week in April.
I passed nearly a dozen overnighters in the first few miles. Some were camped prudently atop shelves overlooking the creek while others had set up their tents right in the immediate flood plain. The dark sky loomed all day and repeatedly gave me pause about even entering these narrow canyons; I certainly didn't want to spend the night exposed. Inviting as these lower sites could be, I wanted my camp to be up out of the wash. I've heard many a horror story about waking up in the middle of the night to the thunder of a flash flood ripping through the canyon above.
I found myself a deep, uninhabited alcove just above the creek at a wider bend in the canyon. There is a cascading waterfall just outside, and I'm listening to the tumbling water as I write this update. I had intended to go all the way to Jacob-Hamblin today, about another four miles, but I expect the gulch will get more busy as I near that highlight, and I couldn't pass up such a prime, unoccupied site. This leg from the Muley Twist Trailhead to Escalante has easily been my favorite so far on the Hayduke. I truly can't recommend the Halls Creek alternate highly enough. What a stunner.
April 17, 2019
Start: Coyote Gulch
Distance: ~10.5 miles
I got an actual early start this morning. It's true; I was up before the sun. I wanted to cruise the last four miles to Jacob-Hamblin before the light became sharp and broken by the winding canyon walls. The morning was a nice moderate temperature, and even in the dark I made quick work of the well-work path. I passed a number of tents but still fewer than I would've anticipated this time of year, even mid-week. It's prime time in the desert.
I got a few nice photos of the impressive Jacob-Hamblin Arch, a non-distinct feature but for its setting within the high wall of an imposing alcove. Anything but a fisheye lens would utterly fail to do the scene justice. Unfortunately my GoPro, while wide enough to take in the full scape, lacks the flexibility and grace of a full-featured camera. It's a compromise to be sure, but that's the game on a thru hike. Perhaps one day I'll return to this inspiring location with a camera setup equal to the task of capturing it. Until then, the posterity photos I got today will have to do.
I walked fast for the last half dozen miles to the surprisingly full parking area at Hurricane Wash. I understood that the hitch out would likely be difficult despite the few dozen folks I saw in the gulch. I waited about an hour there by the road and saw just two cars. The first was only going a short distance to another trailhead, so I opted to stay at the parking lot. The second was full up and wished me well as they passed. A little later, a familiar Nissan Xterra came driving back toward me heading the wrong way. It was the first vehicle coming back to get me. Tenessa had just dropped her husband and kids off and was heading back out to Escalante. She doubled back to scoop me up - another Trail Angel!
She was easy to talk to, and the hour drive along Hole-in-the-Rock Road passed in a flash. I was checked in and settled at a motel by 1300. Shower, laundry, dinner, veg - that was all that was left to do. I went ahead and splurged on two nights here. It's a neat little town, and I'm excited to make the most of it, especially because it's a bit of a chore to get here. I'm sure I won't do much tomorrow besides lay around and eat, but I'll make up for my laziness during this next difficult leg across the Kaiparowits Plateau.
I'm happy to be in town and enjoying all of the creature comforts, though I don't feel as eager or indulgent as I expected to after a long two weeks in the backcountry. It just feels like every other trail town experience I've had. Glad to be here eating all of the food and hogging all of the WiFi but also looking forward to getting back out there. It's hard to believe that today was my seventeenth on the trail, that I've covered over 300 miles in that time, that I just spent 14 full, uninterrupted days in Utah's wild backcountry. It's hard to believe that I feel so strong and capable, so at peace and passionately in love, and so hungry and eager for more. I'm back in my element, my free spirit soaring.
There are glimpses of that free spirit in my lineage. My father's parents were traveling musicians in their adult lives, living that gypsy life for decades before settling down in Duluth. My mom's sister was a traveler and explorer in her day, taking a number of trips both here and abroad. This wanderlust, it seems, is genetic. I'm so grateful for these familial role models who showed me by their example from a young and impressionable age that a traditional life doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion, that there can be more if we so choose. It wasn't until my senior year in college that I felt my spirit longing for more, and I'm certain that my own courage to seek that longing came from the courage I had witnessed in them. So- thank you. And for the unconditional love and encouragement I've received from the rest of my family - even when I'm sure they did not understand - thank you. I'm living my best life, the life I was always destined to live.