A Hiking Passion For the Southern Utah Desert
By southern Utah, I refer to the area south of I-70 and east of I-15. Being a desert rat, I admit to a prejudice. Also, I love rattlesnakes. However, the area is remarkable, by any measuring stick, for geologic wonders and archeological experiences. When I thought of my favorite hikes, they all happened to fall into that area I love. That wasn’t surprising, even though I have lived north, south, east, west in this beautiful country of ours. I will concentrate on three of my favorite hikes in the following categories; ancient Pueblo (or incorrectly Anasazi) ruins and art, an overland trail, a geologic slot canyon. I have expanded the hikes to two days each, not because one day is not good, but rather not enough.
Though these areas I will cover are not as famous as Bryce or Zion, they are just as great.
Additionally, come to think of it, my favorite mountain climb (it’s a hike, not technical) might be in the same area, and not in Colorado! Mt.Peale is only about 13,000 feet (elevation above sea level), if you even call that a mountain. It’s in the beautiful La Sal range near famous Moab, UT. I won’t give much guidance here, because if you can’t find your way up an obvious mountain trail, you don’t belong there.
Boulder Mail Trail is my favorite overland trail. It is the real (mule) mail trail that was used between the towns of Boulder and Escalante in the early 1900s. It now lies in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I like to hike half of the trail (to Death Hollow or so) out-and-back from the Boulder airstrip and then the other half out-and-back from Upper Escalante Canyon Trailhead. Or of course, there is the stuff-on-the-back option for camping. The complete trail is 16 miles one way. That could be done in a rushed day trip, for sure. But you would have no time for the side trip to the natural bridge at Mamie Creek. (The bridge is a one mile each way side trip.) The trail is nicely cairned (even follows an old telephone line much of the way) and scenic throughout. As you take on the topography, imagine what the mail carriers went through. Sand Creek, Death Hollow, and Mamie Creek are possible water sources en route. Do adequate research. Foolishness is a death wish here. 1 GALLON OF WATER PER PERSON PER DAY IS REQUIRED. Start early! This trail is a full two day load. This is not a loop but a point to point trail.
Utahcanyons is a good web reference. If a book is preferred, Steve Allen does a pretty good job with “Canyoneering 3”.
Access to the BMT is from Rt. 12 on both ends. The west terminus is the Upper Escalante Canyon Trailhead near Escalante town. The east terminus is near the Boulder airstrip.
I rate this hike difficult for length, exposure.
Buckskin Gulch, a tributary of the normally dry Paria River, is the best slot canyon hike in the world (fee area). A slot canyon forms from relentless erosion by water, usually rushing floodwaters. This one is 13 miles long, 2 feet wide in places, and up to 500 feet deep. I made it about ten miles in-and-back one time (20 mi. total), entering at Wire Pass Trail Head, which offers the quickest access to the narrows. The walls of the gulch are so vertical and high that the eye-popping spectacle of Antelope Canyon (near Page, Az.) is not available here. But as light trickles into Buckskin Gulch there is a soothing cathedral-like feeling in the narrows. Buckskin does have ancient rock art also, at the junction of Wire Pass Trail and Buckskin Trail, where you turn right to the narrows. This is an extremely dangerous place if a flash flood passes through. My group was caught in a flash flood once, thank goodness in the Paria River canyon and not Buckskin canyon. It was still frightening. Some Australian hikers who got caught in Buckskin had water up to their noses. As you travel the narrows look for the logs jammed above your head. Duh, that’s the water level, way up there. You will get wet on this hike most often (potholes), but check weather conditions with the Paria Ranger Station. You want to get wet just from the neck down. There is a day use fee required at the trail. Just pay it, you are in the middle of nowhere if your vehicle gets towed.
Americansouthwest has some more good info. You should get the BLM’s “Hiker’s Guide to Paria Canyon”. My recommendation is to go as far as comfortable and return to the vehicle, for a long day trip. Or make it an “easy” ha ha two day trip to the Paria River confluence (13 1/2 miles each way) and back, with gear. For you multi-day backpackers, there are at least 60 miles of hiking available in the Paria River and Buckskin. Even though Buckskin is the greatest, I prefer the idea of Day 1 there and Day 2 in Coyote Buttes (fee area). This gives you nice and cool in the narrows to nice and hot and exposed near the “buttes”. Plenty of water will be needed for drinking at Coyote Buttes, which is divided into north and south units. The more renown north section is accessible from Wire Pass trail head. “The Wave” is the attraction (recently discovered dinosaur footprints too!) and can be previewed at americansouthwest.
Access is from House Rock Valley Rd. for Buckskin and Coyote. Nearest paved road is Rt. 89 about 40 miles east of Kanab. The H.R.V. Rd. goes through to Rt. 89A and the Vermilion Cliffs, near Marble Canyon in Arizona. Good hiking there also, and petroglyphs at the rim (Eastern Crack, good luck finding it).
I rate Buckskin Gulch difficult for length, possible deep water wading, rock fall. Coyote Buttes is rated easy, barring dehydration issues. If Buckskin doesn’t turn out to be skinny enough, try Spooky Gulch, which is accessed east of Escalante town.
My favorite archaeological hikes are in Grand Gulch Primitive Area (fee area). My only complaint is that it’s getting popular. The Great Basin Desert in southeast Utah (specifically the Colorado and San Juan River drainages) has an amazing amount of ancient Pueblo cultural remnants. I spent 15 years looking around. I know where the very singular San Juan River rim petroglyphs are. I know Moon House, The Citadel, The Procession Panel. Unfortunate, but some places can’t be made into tourist areas. Some places can’t take the stress. At least Grand Gulch has a modicum of overseers, and visitors thus far have tried to behave. The nearest towns are Blanding (the biggest at 2000 or so population), Bluff, and Mexican Hat. Don’t miss this outdoor museum.
The “main lane” into Grand Gulch is the Kane Gulch Trail, which is just across paved Rt. 261 from the Visitors’ Center. The first famous sight is “Junction Ruin”, at the junction of Kane and Grand Gulches. It is four miles from the trail head. That’s a long time to wait, but the hike in is a nice nature walk, and easy. Besides a nice ruin, there are ancient painted hand prints galore. Another half mile or so to the left brings one to “Turkey Pen Ruin”, with more pictographs and petroglyphs. Stimper Arch, a good one, is five miles from the trail head. So a turnaround there makes a ten mile day-hike on fairly flat terrain. It’s a nice, easy starter.
Day 2, in Bullet Canyon, is a different story, and a tougher hike. There is a lot more vertical elevation change involved here, and some rough going with boulder hopping. I saw a Midget Faded rattlesnake on this trail once. It is a very small (this one was about one foot long) but potent snake. Let them have the right-of-way. There are “lookout tower” ruins at the beginning of the canyon, as you enter. Bullet also has a number of granaries to see before the trail reaches “Perfect Kiva Ruin” at 4 1/2 miles. “Jailhouse Ruin” has a definite eerie aura about it (1/2 mile past “Perfect Kiva”), with a ghost-like pictograph hovering above it. So again a ten mile day-hike is involved.
Have you got a Day 3 to spare? If so, Todie Canyon will yield “Split Level Ruin” five miles in from the Todie trail head. There is a small ruin and pictographs at 2 1/2 miles in, just 1/5 mile after the canyon start. (The canyon starts 2.3 miles from the trail head.) There are some granaries, also, on the way to “Split Level Ruin”.
For multi-day backpackers, there are about 75 miles of hiking available in the Grand Gulch Primitive Area.
There is a problem if you are a day-hiker. You have got to see Sheiks Canyon, which entails a verrry long day. It is full of great artwork and dwellings, especially the “Green Mask Spring” area. Sheiks is 14 miles from the Kane Gulch trail head, 8.6 miles from the Bullet Canyon trail head, and 9.3 miles from the Todie Canyon trail head. There is supposed to be a Sheiks Canyon Trailhead to Bullet Canyon Trailhead loop. This is to be a 17 mile loop but I never found the Sheiks trailhead. There is a fantastic petroglyph at “Wall Ruin”, in the main Grand Gulch near the junction with Sheiks Canyon. It appears to be two smaller figures balancing on a larger figure, like circus performers.
Bullet Canyon Trailhead: Just south of mile marker 22 (Rt. 261) turn west 1 mile.
Todie Canyon Trailhead: Just north of mile marker 25 (Rt. 261) turn west 1 mile on CR 2361.
I like to use Trails Illustrated map #706 for Grand Gulch (waterproof/tearproof).
I rate these hikes moderate (Kane) to difficult (Bullet) for length, exposure.