Friday 4/15: We planned to drive west to Boulder UT today. Our way led thru higher mountains where the forecast was bad; Boulder had a 70% chance of snow showers and a high of 40 F. We drove north around the Canyonlands area to Hanksville; and bought gas and treats in the “hollow mountain” gas station, which except for its pumps is built inside a tunnel in a sandstone cliff.
Rain and snow hit us as we drove over the Waterpocket Fold ridge in Capitol Reef National Park. We paused at the visitor center. A ranger, on learning our intended route, warned us that the Boulder Mountain Pass snowplow stops working at dusk. She urged us to get over the pass quickly. Anxious about getting stranded, we bought a bag of groceries in Torrey. The storekeeper pointed out that the temperature was 46 F., too warm for snow to be a problem. “It never freezes until 4 AM,” she assured us.
Armed with contrary opinions, we headed up U-12. We soon saw snow, first in the trees and grass and then on the road. For several miles on each side of the 9600-foot pass, the world was white; fog obscured the mountains, and snow blew across the road. The temperature dropped to 26 F. A blurry, puny sun peered down thru the mist. That storekeeper must have been speaking of the weather in Torrey, not up here. We crept along, watching for poles and signs to stay on the road.
We dropped down out of the storm and started looking for our rental house. At first I couldn’t get on the Internet with my phone. Then I could, but Google Maps couldn’t locate the address. We saw nothing like the instructions the owner had emailed me. After three phone calls to the owner and a visit to a cafe for directions, we found a back road with the right name. I remembered that the picture of the house on the Internet had a single gable in the middle. We found a house with no number sign that had a single gable in the middle. I walked all around it in blowing snow and gathering darkness, peering under the doormats. No key.
I was for driving back to town and calling the owner. But Pat remembered hearing something about a pansy in the driveway; so we continued up the road. A few driveways later, we came to one with a plastic sunflower and the house-number we wanted. It was a very nice house; but we were a bit upset, and hungry too.
We drove back downtown (a clutch of small buildings at a kink in the highway) and had a good dinner at the surprisingly elegant Hell’s Backbone Grill. I wondered what the owner of the first house would make of our tire-marks and footprints in the snow. “It’s probably happened before,” Pat guessed.
Saturday 4/16: The wind roared around the house during the night. It was snowing a bit during breakfast; then the clouds started to clear up. We went to the Anasazi State Park Museum in Boulder. Here are interesting exhibits of Anasazi artifacts and explanations of their technology, all based on an excavated pueblo ruin behind the museum.
This pueblo was built in about 1150, and abandoned after only 50 years. The pueblo had been purposefully burned–by whom and for what reason is unknown. We entered a replica of part of one building. Walls were formed of stones with adobe mortar (mud and stones). Small stones were used to fill in large gaps between the big stones. Ceilings were made of log crossbeams, covered by mats of small branches, covered by adobe. The ceiling was somewhat low. The Anasazi averaged 5 feet 4 inches tall–the same height as were Europeans at that time.
We drove down U-12 to milepost 72, where a museum handout said there was a trail to a natural bridge on the Escalante River. We followed a faint car-track to a dry wash, and then followed the wash. Here and there pinion pines and juniper grew, or it was choked by flood debris. We came to a sandstone dome and clambered up onto it. We never found the bridge; but Pat found a sandy basin with a lot of thin, sharp, slightly curved shards of flint and chert. Flint-knappers had made spearheads here; or had done so nearby, and these fragments had been washed into this basin. Such relics are not to be removed; “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”
Hole In The Rock Road
Sunday 4/17: When we got up, we saw a bit of dry snow in the grass outside the kitchen window. It didn’t look like an auspicious day for wading; but we would soon be doing that.
We drove down to the Burr Trail Trading Post (a nice little café) to meet guide Keith Watt of Earth Tours for a day of hiking and canyoneering along the Hole In The Rock road. Keith was a geology PhD who’d opted out of working for corporations and academia; “If you hate your job, just walk away and live your life.” Our party also included Meera, a business analyst and amateur opera soprano from California; her dog Sadie; Ace, a local photographer, volunteer ranger and guide-in-training; and his dog Genghis Khan. This is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, so dogs are allowed, unlike the policy of national parks and monuments.
As our SUV followed twisty U-12 into canyon country, Keith donned a wig and did a hilarious impression of local explorer John Wesley Powell, raving about how every little rivulet below Boulder Mountain and 50-mile Mountain had carved a giant canyon. “I’m glad I’m driving today instead of him,” Ace commented.
Midway between Boulder and Escalante, we turned south off U-12 onto Hole In The Rock Road. It’s named for a notch in the Glenn Canyon cliff to which it leads. The 1879 Mormon Hole In the Rock (San Juan) expedition widened and graded the hole with great labor (and dynamite) to make a passage down to the Colorado River for their wagons and livestock. Pioneers seldom afterward used the road; but it has become a route for recreational access to the heart of the Escalante canyon wilderness. This was a good dirt road as far as we went. If it were wet, of course, things would have been different.
We parked and set off down an unpromising trail thru desert scrub. I told Ace, who was hiking rear guard, that I was going up a dry wash to pee. He walked ahead to the rest of the group and deadpanned, “Where’s Paul?”
We paused while Meera summoned Sadie, who’d found a rabbit to chase. It was all Ace could do to restrain Genghis, who was desperate to join the hunt. Another group of hikers approached as we were about to turn off the main trail. Keith started channeling Powell again, delivering a pompous geology lecture sprinkled with Latin terms, until they moved on. “Works every time,” he chortled.
He didn’t want anybody to see where we were going. Before we left the main trail, he and Ace placed some fallen branches over the start of the side-trail, regretting that they hadn’t brought a broom to wipe out footprints. Then they led us to the trail by another route. “When you go off-trail, walk on rock to protect the plants and crypto (cryptobiotic soil, a fragile ground-cover of lichen and other microorganisms). If you have to cross sand, step on grass, or as a last resort walk in each others’ footsteps to minimize the damage. Sand in washes is okay to walk on, because the crypto can’t grow there.” Where no grazing is allowed, Keith has seen the delicate, frothy-looking crypto reach heights of 6 inches. Like Alice, he broke up any cairns he found, while muttering darkly about how the Internet is ruining the wilderness.
We hiked over several slickrock domes and crossed more washes. (Slickrock is sandstone bedrock. It’s usually fine to walk on unless sand makes it slippery. Early settlers whose metal-shod livestock had trouble with it named it slickrock.) We came to a sand-bottomed canyon whose pink and white-striped walls drew together like a funnel. Keith calls this place “Candyland.” (It has a more common name on the Internet, which I’m omitting here.) We stopped to change to shorts and put on water-shoes, left our gear and dogs in Ace’s care, and entered the funnel.
First came what seemed like an endless wade thru ice-cold water up to knee-deep. It hurt, and it didn’t get any better; “Faster!” I gasped. Keith obligingly sped up. I worried that I’d step into a depression that was really deep, but that didn’t happen. Next came a tight squeeze between canyon walls as little as one foot apart at shoulder height that met at the bottom. (This is what makes it a ‘slot canyon.’) We waded some more, then scrambled and squeezed our way (and pushed and pulled each other) thru several tight spots with coaching and help from Keith. Meera unleashed an operatic trill to test the echo.
When we’d gone as far as we could (about 400 feet) we turned back, taking pictures of the striped, fluted canyon walls until direct sunlight entered the canyon and made photography impossible. We left the same way we’d entered, with the advantages of gravity working in our favor and a bit of practice.
After drying off and changing back to normal hiking garb, we worked our way toward Tunnel Canyon, another slot canyon. A guide friend had told Keith that the water here was waist-deep; so we merely looked in. I saw a narrow canyon full of water, and was grateful to leave it at that. Part of the canyon was a double-ended cave; thus the name. But we weren’t able to see that part.
The beige-colored slickrock in this area had collected spherical nodules along crevices and in shallow basins. They were heavy, dark brown and up to about 1.5 inches across; and there were millions of them. They were “Moqui marbles,” formed by iron dissolving out of sandstone and then precipitating onto iron cores. Silica also precipitated onto the cores; they were about 25% iron, and covered in rust. We’d noticed them sticking out of the canyon walls; as the sandstone erodes away, the Moqui marbles fall out and roll into low spots on the surface.
I wondered if a Moqui marble had a magnetic field. Kevin checked one with a magnet built into the strap of his eyeglasses and said apparently not. The name “”Moqui” comes from Spanish explorers’ term for the Anasazi; and from early Mormon pioneers who noticed little rooms in cliff dwelling ruins and guessed that a race of midgets, the Moqui, had built them. (The little rooms were really granaries.) I wanted to take home a marble as a souvenir. But the BLM had placed a “No Collecting” sign at the start of our trail, and I’m a good boy.
Keith picked up a clump of marbles cemented together with sandstone, commenting, “You need to be careful when you pick these up. There might be spiders under them or something.” A minute later he picked up another one and gasped. There was a scorpion on it! It was a rubber one, the worst kind; fortunately, its stinger had broken off.
Keith and Ace gave an interesting description of the Boulder community. Its population of 200 is half Mormon old-timers and half non-Mormon newcomers. The old-timers take a dim view of environmentalists (“Greenies”). “Greenies obstruct progress and take away jobs.” Keith grumbled about having to attend a boring Highway 12 meeting, but issues were afoot that he couldn’t ignore. There’s been a proposal to pave the Hole In The Rock road. And the billboard industry has been donating money to local politicians with an eye toward loosening advertising regulations. Billboards on U-12, which dances thru a series of beautiful canyons, would be a dismal prospect.
We made another stop at Devil’s Garden. This short, easy loop trail circles a group of distinctive sandstone formations, including a sweet little arch.
Monday 4/18: Hoping to locate a canyon that Keith had described, we returned to the Anasazi State Park Museum for maps and advice. The helpful attendant sent us down the Burr Trail Road that weaves thru the canyons east of town. A “No Collecting” sign was posted at the start of the road. We descended through white Navajo sandstone into the orange layer below. We stopped at a short dirt road 11 miles from Boulder, and walked down a dirt ramp into a canyon that locals call “The Crack.”
Here a small stream weaved across the narrow floor of a canyon with dramatic layered walls. A cottonwood forest within the canyon displayed fresh green leaves. Mexican grass, tumbleweed and willows lined the stream; we saw no sign of the invasive Russian olive and tamarisk trees that we’d seen along the San Juan River. Pat pointed out that the willows had dirt and debris banked up against their trunks; most or all of the canyon must have flooded earlier in the spring.
Three times we crossed the stream on “volunteer” stepping-stones. Pat noticed an interesting tree, which turned out to mark a side trail. This led us to a dry wash that climbed the side of the canyon. We found a shady spot for a snack. Then we got curious about what might be further up. From far away a canyon wall just looks colorful; but standing on it reveals a complex world.
We left our packs and climbed a steep dome above our picnic spot. Part of a ledge around the base of the dome broke under my weight; so I wanted to find a different route back down. We found a level stretch of a higher wash, and followed it down to a dirt hill next to our picnic spot. But I didn’t want to climb that hill because I might damage the crypto on it.
I told Pat I’d find a way down to the first wash and follow it back up to our picnic spot. The wash I was following joined onto a bigger one with a pink sandstone floor. This led to a drop-off that made me nervous. So I turned back, missed the side-channel I’d come out of and was lost. I saw some interesting stuff while casting around for the way I’d gotten here, including a slot side-canyon that might be the real “Crack.” But I resisted temptation, and went back to the drop-off to see if I could climb down somehow. Pat was standing in the basin below it, looking for me.
It was about an eight-foot drop, shaped like the spout of a pitcher. Slippery sand was present; handholds were not. So I walked back toward the slot canyon until I could climb over the left-hand ridge between the washes and meet Pat. This turned out to be the place I’d started from. So I slid down the dome to our picnic spot, despite the broken ledge, and was unlost.
All this fooling around had used up an hour; so we quickly hiked back to the car. Pat stopped at an organic grocery in Boulder and emerged clutching a weapons-grade dark chocolate bar to propel us into Arizona. On our way out of Boulder we saw a school bus; the driver was wearing a cowboy hat.
We drove down U-12, past the Hole In The Rock turnoff, to Escalante; then on U-89 past Bryce National Park (what a thing to skip!) to Mt. Carmel Junction. We had supper at the ’50s-themed Thunderbird Restaurant, featuring “Ho-made pies,” and moved on to Page AZ. Upon crossing the state line we gained an hour, because Arizona doesn’t acknowledge daylight saving time.