Escalante to Tropic

Escalante to Tropic

April 19, 2019

Start: Escalante
Finish: Reflection Canyon
Distance: ~8.5 miles

I tried hitching from Main Street for about half an hour this morning before the local Sheriff pulled over to inform me that it's illegal to "solicit rides" in Utah. Then he told me that I could walk out of town to hitch, and he wouldn't bother me there. He just didn't want a gaggle of hikers always hitching from right there in town. (Guess he was afraid I'd start a trend.) So I walked out a ways and the first truck that came upon me stopped and scooped me up. Frank is a salty New Yorker who has lived in Escalante for the last forty years. He said he wouldn't move back to the city for all the wealth there, and that resonates for me. Our time together was short, since he was continuing on the highway. Nice guy, though. And I figured that getting to Hole-in-the-Rock was the tougher part of the hitch anyways, so I was glad to have that out of the way.

Once I got on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a few vagabonds picked me up within five minutes. East coasters originally, like me, and living the dream out west now, also like me. Kindred spirits. I squeezed into the back of their king cab Tundra, and they got me as far as the Peekaboo slot, which I was tempted to hike again. I'd done it last summer, and it's an incredible slot with no overly technical elements. But in the end I really wanted to try for Reflection Canyon, which I knew was a long shot, but it's also a wicked spot and the conditions are on-point right now. So I wished my new friends (Carlo, Arden, and Ori) well and threw out my thumb.

I picked up an extra day of provisions while I was in town on the off chance that I'd find a way down to the Reflection Canyon trailhead. Lake Powell is low enough to capture the famous s-curve for the first time in nearly a decade. What are the odds that I'd be here at just the right time? I had to try. The next ride I caught was with a family of four (Steve, Julie, Sophie, and Lauren) who were heading to - you guessed it - Reflection Canyon. They would've been long gone already except that they'd had some car trouble this morning. I was stunned and overjoyed at my luck! (And sorry for theirs, though they were back on track after a quick, minor fix.) Suddenly I was on my way to see something that hasn't been witnessed for eight long years. So. Damn. Cool.

We arrived at the trailhead and found a dozen cars already there. My stomach turned a little as I remember photographing Mesa Arch at sunrise. Fifty photographers lined up with tripods, jockeying for position. But then I quickly shifted toward gratitude and even hope. Perhaps I would have an easy time finding a ride back to Hurricane Wash tomorrow. That's the aspect of coming out here that gave me pause. Not too many folks go beyond Peekaboo, and even fewer beyond Hurricane Wash. Reflection Canyon is something like 15 miles past Hurricane, which doesn't sound like much, but it's quite a distance when you're on gnarly roads. A few Jeeps stopped to wish me well while I was hitching from Peekaboo. They were going to the end of the road but had no space for me. That's my fear, really - that there are fewer people out here, most of whom are more likely to want to help but less likely to have the space to do so. At any rate, I'm here. No risk, no reward.

The hike was quicker than I thought it would be. There were well-defined user trails braided wherever the route wasn't on slickrock, though some of those seemed to spur off in the wrong directions. No cairns to mark the way. Without having the waypoints saved in my GPS app, it would've been challenging to navigate a straightforward route through the canyons and rolling slickrock. Tough terrain out here, but I like it.

The sight truly is stunning. The cliffs are higher and the features larger than I'd imagined from the photos I've seen. It's very cool to get the full effect of the s-curve too. I'm eyeing it even now as I compose this update. There are very few people here despite the number of cars at the trailhead, and I was surprised to score one of the prime camping spots just above a fantastic overlook in spite of my relatively late arrival. (As the sun dipped lower in the sky, four more hiking groups arrived. Still fewer than 20 of us. With plenty of space and hidden nooks, it didn't feel crowded.) And yet, even with all of that said, I'm not so sure that it's really worth the trouble to come all the way out here. There is no water, so you have to haul at least a gallon with you for just an overnight, which is pretty much required to get the soft, even light of the twilight hours. It's about a 50 mile drive down Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which takes hours because it can be quite rough at times, is susceptible to washouts, and can quickly become impassable when wet. Long story, short. Stoked I came and probably won't come back. Well, ok. Maybe - just maybe - to share this place with that special someone. Who knows. Any takers?

It was hot while I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the sun to set. I arrived at 1630 and had over three hours to kill. While I watched the shadows inching their way up the domes and cliffs, I scouted various photo ops and found that there is one camp situated better than mine. It's just behind me and higher up, so the vantage point is cooler in my opinion. The drawback is that I have a nice sandy patch, and the group above me is camping directly on the slickrock. Even overall score, I'd say. I sat and waited for twilight up high, giddy as the soft light took hold. Unbelievable shots tonight; can't wait to get them on my computer.

Now that the harsh light and shadows are gone, I find myself much more smitten with this place. And it's cooling off, which I greatly appreciate. Should be a lovely evening. Dunno how I'll sleep tonight, though. I'm so eager to capture a killer sunburst at sunrise tomorrow!

April 20, 2019

Start: Reflection Canyon
Finish: Mudhole Spring
Distance: ~(8.5 + 8.5) miles

I was up before first light today. I packed up first thing, so I'd be able to get a quick start after capturing some sunrise shots. The light was fantastic, and I even got the burst I wanted because there was a low break in the overcast sky. (Tres lucky, like every other part of this detour.) It was difficult to leave, but I wanted to get back to the road as soon as possible to give myself every chance of getting an early ride back to Hurricane Wash. Very few cars this far down Hole-in-the-Rock, and I expected the climb up to the Kaiparowits Plateau would be...demanding. I was sure that I could catch a ride with someone who was returning from Reflection Canyon, especially because this morning there seemed to be even more people there than I saw last night, but I didn't wanna take my luck for granted.

Turns out I maybe coulda. There was a group of four young adult weekend warriors who arrived in the parking lot on their return from Reflection Canyon maybe half an hour after I did. They were the first people I saw, and when I asked for a ride, they agreed. Then they heard what I was up to and gave me a Powerade, which was AMAZING. We chatted a fair bit during the drive to Hurricane Wash, mostly about traveling and the outdoors. Lisa, LeAnn, Austin, and Jake are totally my kinda people. They were wondering about a rad day hike in the area, so I recommended Peekaboo slot, which is on their way out anyways. It's a favorite of mine that's stunningly beautiful and not at all technical. It's very nearly on par with photos I've seen of Antelope and far more enticing to me because it doesn't require a guide. Hope y'all made it and loved it as much as I do! And thanks again for the lift! Y'all are total Trail Angels!

As we were driving adjacent to the cliffs, I kept scanning the walls for a break where I could access the plateau. The walls seemed impenetrable. I couldn't fathom how or where a jeep trail might make the ascent. Perhaps they'd blasted a route into the cliff face? Seemed an unlikely effort for an arbitrary route. When I got out of the car at Hurricane Wash, I just dutifully followed the route notes and maps. The jeep road was flat at first as it approached the base of the cliffs, but then it suddenly and dramatically began to climb. There were switchbacks, but they were short and steep.

I was pretty well-spent when I reached the lower (read: easier) bench. And I was still baffled at how on earth I would gain the upper bench. I was much closer now, and the walls looked like a fortress spanning dozens of miles in either direction. The road headed north along the bench for a few miles, and I finally saw the access. There was a steep drainage that had broken up the cliffs. The road ended abruptly at a junction with a tough trail that turned sharply toward the cliff face. The second climb was on and boy was she steep.

The view behind me over the canyons of Escalante and the Henry Mountains far beyond had gotten better and better as I'd climbed, which at least gave me a beautiful view during the million breaks that I took as I very slowly worked my way up the drainage. Once on top, the going got much easier. The trail faded, but there were cow tracks stamped in the crypto, and the terrain was mostly flat. I only had a few more miles to get to Mudhole Spring, and I made it by 1630. Plenty of daylight left to continue on, but I elected to embrace the short day. I've got three long ones ahead, but there isn't a good water source for another 30 miles, and I hate to haul more than is absolutely necessary. That sweet life-giving elixir is damn heavy.

I'm going to bed before the sun does tonight. No shame in my game.

April 21, 2019

Start: Mudhole Spring
Finish: Navajo Canyon
Distance: ~21.5 miles

I woke up a few times last night and heard the pitter patter of light rain falling on my shelter. Glad I set it up. Apparently 10% chance of precip out here really means plan on rain. Got up early to partly cloudy skies and hit the trail expecting that today would be a long 20 miles through some tough canyons.

Pocket Hollow Spring, the worst water source the guidebook authors had ever seen, was piped, clear, and flowing generously into a large catch basin. Far superior to the more highly recommended Mudhole Spring where I camped last night. Little discrepancies like that are part of the deal when you're planning based on a twenty year old resource, but I was annoyed nonetheless. I couldn't help but compare the sites. Pocket Hollow was really the move, and at only an extra mile, it would've been easy to reach at the end of my short day yesterday. Ah well, onward across the flats to Monday Canyon.

The way to and through upper Monday Canyon was pretty quick and easy. In the lower reaches, though, there was a series of massive boulder jams and chocstones that created huge blind drops and required substantial route-finding to work my through. It was slow progress down there. And at one point, I was crossing a sketchy log jam that sat high between two multi-ton boulders when one of the logs kicked loose and fell to the canyon floor with a loud thud. My heart skipped a long beat as I leapt to the opposite end. Unfortunately there was no safe way through, so I had to backtrack anyways. My heart was in my throat. This is the Hayduke, y'all. Travel at your own risk...and possible peril.

Rogers Canyon was up next, and it kinda sucked. The walls weren't as narrow or high, so there weren't any major obstacles. The canyon floor was as sandy as Butler Wash, which made for miserable walking, so I stayed in and immediately adjacent to the running creek. Then I hit a few patches of unexpected quicksand, which was a little unnerving. Small obstacle until I sank in nearly up to my knees. That's when I'd had enough of that. I spent most of the last few miles in the loose sand. Better safe than sorry.

Navajo Canyon has a few tricky spots but none that were very long, though at one point I did come to a boulder the size of a large passenger van lodged in a narrow slot. Of course it was impassable, so I had to scale the canyon wall. It wasn't too high, maybe 50 feet. Unprotected, but knobby and ledgey. No big deal.

The water situation was the greater challenge in Navajo. It was horribly alkaline down low. There was some ok water up high, but I passed it up hoping to find good potholes near the confluence with Surprise Valley. No luck. I ended up finding a nice camp under an overhang and backtracking about a mile to collect water. Shoulda hauled it up in the first place, but I decided to take a chance knowing that I could always come back. I was still annoyed at myself when the gamble didn't pay off. Being lazy bit me this time. The water was probably the least tasty I've had on this trip, but I wouldn't call it fowl. Unappealing green tint to it, though. Ew.

I was still tucked in by 2030, so not a late night or anything. Even had time to whip up some hot chocolate after I realized that there is reliable water in just ten miles, which means that I gathered much more than I needed tonight. That's ok, though. I prefer to have too much when I'm dry camping. Gonna try to get as far as possible tomorrow, maybe as much as 24 miles, depending on the water situation in Last Chance Canyon. The further I can get, the better. I'd like to go all the way to the confluence with Paradise Canyon, but I don't wanna haul water, so we'll see. Either way, I'll have a long day to Grosvenor Arch on Tuesday. My reward there is my next cache, which includes two gallons of fresh water. Seriously can't wait.

April 22, 2019

Start: Navajo Canyon
Finish: Last Chance Canyon
Distance: ~21 miles

Chilly morning, so I was stoked to step out of the canyon and into the sunlight. Of course it became uncomfortably hot shortly thereafter and remained so until the sun dipped below the western ridge late in the day. Typical.

Thankfully quick and fairly easy miles through Reese and Last Chance today. Uneventful, so really not much to write about at all. Would like to have hiked further since I had the daylight for it. Water was starting to thin out, and I found a nice camp on a bench above a good pool, so I took that as a sign to call it a day. Wouldn't wanna make the same mistake twice in as many days. Twenty-six miles tomorrow to my cache at Grosvenor Arch and my first fresh water since leaving Escalante. Even the good stuff this section has had a tint of alkalinity to it. It's not ideal, but it could be much worse. There has been far more water available this year than one could expect in a typical year on this stretch. At least I haven't had to haul the infamous six liter loads that previous year's Haydukers have labored under. I'm very thankful for that.

The bugs are finally out in force and wreaking havoc tonight. I expect they'll be a mainstay for the rest of my trip. I'm annoyed that it's time but also grateful that they didn't come out sooner. I knew they were inevitable, so I packed bug spray out of Escalante. Good thing, too. I was considering holding off until Tropic, which would've been a painful error. Tonight is the first time this whole trip that I've needed any kind of defense from 'em, and I'm glad to have it. The night cooled considerably, and the bugs disappeared as it did. Sweet. I don't have to set up my bug net. It's a bit of a hassle, so really just a last resort.

April 23, 2019

Start: Last Chance Canyon
Finish: Grosvenor Arch
Distance: ~26 miles

That very slightly alkaline water finally caught up with me this morning. About an hour after I left camp, the levees broke and the runs ensued. I couldn't get to Grosvenor soon enough. Thankfully I always pack antibiotics. It occurred to me that one of the parasite-looking floaties in my pre-treated water might have somehow gotten me sick in spite of the filter. It wasn't dire yet, though. Just the first bout of what may end up being nothing at all. Time - and my next stool - would tell. Then that happened this afternoon, and the second round was worse than the first. It seems that even when the walking is a bit dull, there's always something to spice things up out here.

This last leg from Hurricane Wash to Grosvenor Arch has been my least favorite so far. Not what I would call inspiring. I hardly took any photos and instead hiked hard with my headphones in and head down pretty much the whole way. At least the last fifteen or so miles were on cruiser graded roads. Didn't see another soul for three full days, which has actually been a cool experience. I think that's the longest I've ever gone. Met Mold and Mildew, two Haydukers from like six years ago who are currently out bike packing the Escalante Loop, about five miles shy of Grosvenor. Very rad couple of folks. As they rode away, they hollered back for my trail name, which is how I got theirs. I just love that. I know some people find trail names silly, but they're one of my favorite parts of long distance hiking culture. It's an alter ego, maybe. Something we get to embody while we're out here. Something that sets our experience in wilderness apart from that of our daily lives. I dunno. It's just the coolest, I think.

Arriving at my cache tonight was total bliss! Fresh, fresh, fresh water as well as chunky soup, cookies, and hot chocolate for dinner. So psyched for the next section too. After laboring through the last, it's slots, Yellow Rock, and the Paria River ahead! Should easily make up for the last stretch where the coolest thing I saw was a dead bovine in upper Paradise Canyon.

April 24, 2019

Start: Grosvenor Arch
Finish: Cottonwood Road
Distance: ~(24.5 + 2) miles

Cold. Dang. Morning. I had to will myself up and out of my cozy sleeping bag. I'd mostly just wanted to be up in case there were early morning visitors. (There were none.) I was in no hurry for what I'd planned as an easy 18.5 miles down Round Valley Draw and into Hackberry Canyon. I paced back and forth to keep warm as I ate my breakfast and waited for the sun to finally rise, so I could de-layer and get going. I left sometime around 0800.

The first three and a half miles were on a road, which was fine by me. Easy miles during which I encountered the best Trail Magic so far on the Hayduke: road sodas. This jeep pulled up behind me as I neared the trailhead to Round Valley Draw. A bearded dude was hanging out the window with a Utah 3.2% Coors and a big grin. He said "Hey man, you dukin'?" I grinned back and nodded. He said "Us too; we'll see you at the trailhead." And handed me the beer. I was all smiles as I practically skipped the last quarter mile, chugging the ice cold libation as I went.

Myanus is on the Hayduke, but he's already done this section. He and his girlfriend, Miranda, were dropping Bruno off to continue his hike. I had another beer there at the trailhead, then the four of us hiked the first part of the draw together before Myanus and Miranda wished us well and headed back. He's gonna pick up the trail where he left it at Willis Creek.

The slot through Round Valley Draw was totally sick. Not as good as Buckskin or Peekaboo, but better than most I've seen. Not as grand as Halls Creek, but much tighter, a true slot canyon. And the drop-in is about a 15-foot stem, so that was a wicked-fun bonus. Had to lower my pack, which is just the second time I've used my cordage this trip. Happy to have carried it all this way for just such moments, though.

Bruno and I hiked the rest of the day together. He's from Chile, and this is his first long trail. Pretty ambitious, but he's totally crushing it. I hope to catch up with him in Santiago when I visit this fall. Perhaps do some hiking in the area.

Hackberry Canyon was also beautiful. Neither were the walls very high nor the corridor very narrow, but the color was wonderful. Yellows and oranges in the upper canyon walls, reds and pinks in the lower canyon, and vibrant green cottonwoods throughout. The hiking was mostly easy, a mix of stream walking, deep sand, packed dirt, and one very large boulder jam to negotiate. I'd planned a short day, but it wasn't even yet 1600, so Bruno easily convinced me - really just by his own choice - to continue on.

Looking at the map, Cottonwood Road at the end of the canyon seemed a good stopping point. It was a quick six miles further, which would set me up for a long day into Tropic tomorrow. It also looked like there would be water here. (There was but not flowing strong or deep enough to capture.) And finally, I could hike the spur up to Yellow Rock this evening, which would help make tomorrow a little bit shorter. So that was that. Off we went on down the canyon.

We arrived at the road, and there was an inviting stand of cottonwoods in a level, sandy flood plain. Perfect for me. I wished Bruno well as he carried on, then I zipped up Yellow Rock at dusk for some beautiful yellow and orange and pink and red stripes and swirls embedded in the imposing monolithic dome. Not so breathtaking as the Wave or White Pocket, but certainly a worthy venture if for its scale alone. Now I'm cowboy camped beneath a blanket of twinkling stars on this warm evening. Not a cloud in sight.

April 25, 2019

Start: Cottonwood Road
Finish: Tropic
Distance: ~(38 + 7) miles

Set out with just half a liter this morning because I couldn't be bothered to backtrack for water. Good, strong but dark, silty flow in the Paria. Fortunately better water flowing from side canyons further up the river. Still silty but not as much. Laziness paid off this time.

Loud grumblings of thunder and dark clouds overhead. Thankful to be in a broad canyon today. Still kept a keen eye on the narrows that feed the canyon, wondering whether a flash flood might explode into the Paria River at any moment. Plenty of high ground and easy escapes if one did, though it didn't seem likely with bits of blue sky upstream. But then that's the nature of flash floods. They're notoriously unpredictable; and devastating. And while I'm academically familiar, I have no practical experience with them. I'm no expert, so the long, loud thunder brought up my heart rate. I just kept walking toward that beautiful blue sky.

I arrived at Cracked Spring right as the brief storm started and was lucky to find cover under a small overhang nearby. Cracked Spring is easily the best water I've encountered since Kane Spring all the way back near Moab, and together these two springs make up the very best water anywhere on the Hayduke - at least so far as I've encountered. It's piped and running from a crack in the canyon wall, same as Kane. So pristine that I didn't even bother filtering it, same as Kane. Cracked Spring trumps Kane only because it's so remote, so unexpected, and it comes following days and days of icky water. Clear, cold, tasty, and gushing. Perfect spot for a respite and just in time for lunch. With Bull Valley Gorge just four miles ahead, I was weary of taking a planned side trip up to see her reportedly stunning narrows. The rain stopped, but the skies were still more dark than not and the thunder still rolling. Conditions change fast out here, so I was cautiously hopeful anyways. A lot can change in the time it takes to walk four miles.

I arrived at the mouth of Bull Valley and decided to go have a look. The sky was still dark, and it was sprinkling intermittently, but there hadn't been thunder for over an hour. Then, just as I stepped up the canyon, the sky let out a low, long rumble. A warning, perhaps. I paused. Then I went along anyways. Just a bit further, you know? To see. (Famous last words.) Certainly not the most prudent thing I've ever done. To the contrary, I've always felt that I lean quite heavily toward caution. Nothing wrong with that. I've just found it liberating to toss it to the wind every now and then. Gotta die of somethin'.

Then about a half mile up the gorge, the sun broke through the clouds. Little bit of everything today, I guess. Of course, the sun and blue patches that followed hardly mitigate the risk. Plenty of documented cases of clear skies overhead and a flash flood caused by rain ten miles away. At least those are the tales of warning. I gotta wonder how common that sorta thing is, though. Certainly possible, but are we talking possible like getting in a car accident or possible like being struck by lightning? Ya know what I mean? Anyways, everything was obviously fine. The first 50 yards were pretty tight, but then the canyon opened up. It would've taken a formidable storm to get any kind of water running through there, nevermind a flash flood.

Though the guidebook describes the Bull Valley Gorge narrows as "some of the best in the region", I didn't feel that they were worth the extra seven-ish miles, especially after seeing the Halls Creek narrows earlier this trip. As an alternate, I would've been more into it. But as a side trip - eh. It was a bit much, even for a slack pack. Perhaps I didn't go far enough? There was nothing on the topo map to suggest that it got better. Guess you just win some and lose some. Don't get me wrong, they were beautiful. Just not worth the effort for me on an already long day. And that's how this last section felt to me. Overall it was a vast improvement over the last in every way, though not as stunning as I'd anticipated. It was a classic example of how expectations alone can so drastically impact experience. I was imagining the towering, painted sheer walls of Paria Canyon near Buckskin Gulch and the smooth, striped colors of the Peekaboo Slot. It was a beautiful section, but Muley Twist to Hurricane Wash via the Halls Creek alternate is still by far my favorite this trip. Although to be fair, the drop-in at Round Valley Draw was the coolest individual feature so far, I thought.

The sun set a little after 2000, and the night hike was on. I had hoped to hit the convenience store in Cannonville for a treat, but my side venture had eliminated that possibility. I didn't arrive until after 2300. Today was the longest so far - 45 miles in 17.5 hours. Nothing to write home about, but it'll do. Glad to squeeze in a challenge hike on this already difficult trail. And even more glad to be getting a zero tomorrow. I certainly earned it. At least the walking was comparatively easy. It's nearly 0100. Everything is closed, and I'm pooped. Clif bars for dinner tonight.

(Speaking of poop, I had a good solid one today! Guess that peeing out of my butt thing has passed. Thank God.)