Friday, 25 April 2014

The Colorado to Hanksville

20th April Spanish Bottom to Lou's Spring 12 miles
We left the boats behind at Spanish Bottom in Canyonlands National Park. Our plan is to hike on for 4-5 days roughly westward through desert and sandstone country to a highway where we aim to hitchhike into the small town of Hanksville for supplies. In the Utah desert lots of comparatively small geological or landscape features have been given names by white explorers and cattle ranchers and our hike was a sort of micro navigation from one such feature to the next.

It sounded a bit like an itinerary from middle earth......
From Spanish Bottom to the Dolls House, over Ernie's Flats past the Fins up Sweet Alice Canyon to Lou's Spring. Climb the Golden Stair  - past 'Mother and Child' Rock - over a plateau to the Flint Road. Down into Happy Canyon, through the narrows to cross the Dirty Devil river, then up to Poison Spring Canyon to the highway.

We had a nice relaxed morning beside the Colorado sorting the gear out in the shade. Our pick up boat arrived around 12.30 from Moab and they made short work of pulling our kayaks onto the boat and taking our kayak rental gear, toilet(!) and garbage bag away with them. Soon we are alone, just us and our backpacks. It's got hot (high 20's C) and we were motivated to camp at a water supply 12 miles away so we set off quickly up the steep slopes above the Colorado.
Our kayaks are collected

Heading above the Colorado to Dolls House

There was a trail to follow uphill which made the hot climb easier. We reached the Dolls House - an area of superb sandstone towers with a campsite reachable by a long dirt road, and we saw some people here. We picked up a faint trail through pinyon juniper out onto Main Flat, a sandy plain surrounded by pink pinnacles. The sand made for tough walking but we loved getting back into hiking and soaking up the views.
Main Flat
Our route weaved it's way through lovely rock garden scenery to near Clells Spring, which we don't visit, but we do spot a couple of pools of water here that we could have drawn from. We are aiming for Lou's Spring though further on which is supposed to be a good water source. After some rockier terrain we made it to the spring in late evening and were glad to find clear water in a tank fed by a dripping pipe. Martina spotted a hummingbird here.

We camped on a good flat spot on top of a sandy hillock, a few hundred meters away from the spring itself. Some spots of rain but the sky cleared as it got dark around 8.30 pm. A great day!

Heading west away from Doll's House
Lou's Spring
21st April Lou's Spring to Happy Canyon south fork 20 miles
We woke at 6 am as it got light and fetched some more water from the spring before heading out with 5 liters each as we were not sure where our next water would be. The tent is frosty but the heat soon builds up as we climbed slick rock out of the canyon and are bathed in red light from the sunrise. After crossing some jeep tracks we headed uphill through another cliff band on the Golden Stairs trail. This traverses across the cliffs finding a line of weakness up onto a higher plateau area via a neck of rock to another jeep track trailhead.

Here we met Tom who is 70 and is heading out into Ernies Country (where we have just come from) for 2 days. We had a good chat and Martina in particular is delighted when he offers us bananas (the first fresh food item for 5 days!!!) and who had lots of useful info about the way ahead (himself being a desert hiker for many decades).
From the top of the Golden Stairs looking east past 'Mother and Child' rock

We hiked onwards on jeep tracks with heavy loads for 2-3 miles to another climb through a cliff band of Wingate sandstone. This is a jeep track called the Flint Trail which will take us up to the higher plateau at 6,800 feet. There were people around here accessing the area by the jeep tracks and we realize that it is Easter weekend as well! Lot's of petrified wood around, and we spotted mountain bluebirds around the pinyon juniper.

Big expansive views opened out to the 'islands in the sky' cliff bands around. After some more jeep tracks we reached the edge of the plateau at Happy Canyon campground and searched out our route down through cliffs into Happy Canyon itself.

We picked up what looked like an old disused mining track zig-zagging down into colourful blue, white, bright orange and lavender bands of rock - part of the Chinle group which is also a source of minerals and uranium.
Descending down into Happy Canyon south fork
This route was quite clear, if a bit bouldery in places but the drop into Happy Canyon felt like we were entering wonderful wild country with no one else around. Once we dropped into the canyon bottom we just followed the sandy dry wash as it meandered downwards.

We stopped just after a prominent feature above the canyon called 'The Hat' (a rock tower) and find some shade under an overhang to read and rest. Brian's feet were blistered from the hot hiking but otherwise we are holding out well and loving Happy Canyon.
Shady juniper rest in Happy Canyon south fork

Happy Canyon south fork camp
22nd April Happy Canyon south fork to the Dirty Devil river 21 miles
Alarm at 5am this morning (super early for us!) and we breakfasted in the dark. We made good pace down the south fork following the twisting dry, sandy bottom of the wash. Cheerily we see a number of pools of water in the slickrock along the way although we are carrying enough for today through to our intended campsite by the Dirty Devil river and we hope to have some pools of water in the canyon before then.

We soon join the main Happy Canyon and head south west with a few more hummingbirds around. A fox dashes up the canyon slopes when we surprise it.

This main canyon has some cool honeycombed cliffs maybe 100 feet high and still the occasional pool of water. Its dry and windy though and both of us put on headphones for the first time whilst walking and start listening to music. This works well, no navigation is required for a few miles as we simply head down the dry riverbed and watch the scenery change subtly as the canyon twists along.

A strong wind got up later though, at one point blasting us with swirling sharp sand grains and forces us to take shelter- like the 'Jibli' in the Sahara that we have seen in the movie 'The English Patient'!
Hiking down the alkaline wash in Happy Canyon
We arrived at a point where Happy descends into a narrow slot canyon in the afternoon, providing a great chance to shelter from the sandstorm. 

We clambered down a dryfall into the rocky slot canyon and take the opportunity to have a sheltered lunch. The slot canyon is wonderful, with beautifully sculpted walls, seamed with curving white layers of rock. We loved this hike with the odd scramble but too soon eventually emerge at a widening to the Dirty Devil river itself.

This river can change in nature very quickly but our crossing was easily achieved in ankle deep refreshing cool water! We found a place to pitch the tent by the river but the wind was gusting hard and whipping sand which found its way into everything.
Happy Canyon
Happy Canyon

23nd April Dirty Devil river to near Poison Spring 16 miles
The wind had thankfully died down when we woke up making things a bit more relaxed. We even managed a wash in the river before leaving at 7.20 am. 

Our climb out of the Dirty Devil was fairly straightforward on some faint trails but we generally just kept heading up until we hit an old mining track contouring around the west side of the canyon. This is a viewful 'balcony trail' along the colourful Chinle rock strata and we could see back down to Happy Canyon and south along the Dirty Devil river as it makes it's way to its confluence with the Colorado river itself.

Lots of petrified wood at the side of the trail before we swing west away from the Dirty Devil to parallel Poison Spring Canyon and meet up with the actual Hayduke Trail. The wind is up again and we take a break behind a large boulder for shelter and snacks.
Petrified wood above the Dirty Devil river
A jeep trail provides relaxed, easy hiking and there were seeps of water on the track. The canyon walls were now the smooth red Wingate sandstone and with lush green cottonwood trees on either side,  it was very welcoming.  Poison Spring was just up the track where we decide to camp in late afternoon on our 8th night out by the clear piped spring (no poison).

Once the tent was up we headed out for a few hours east of the canyon by scrambling up slabs and broken rock onto the plateau for some grand distant views both back east to Canyonlands national park and west to the snow capped Henry mountains where we are heading next! We reached a canyon overlook and disturbed some swifts - a grand wander!
Looking to the Henry mountains from above Poison Spring Canyon
Camp in Poison Spring Canyon under cottonwoods
24th April Poison Spring to Highway 95 (hitch to Hanksville) 10 miles
Today we headed for town for some food and a clean - yay!
The highway was about 10 miles away and we started with a sandy jeep road. It made for pleasant hiking with more green cottonwoods and smooth Wingate sandstone walls changing to the blonde Navajo sandstone further on, higher up.
Walking out of Poison Spring Canyon
We hiked quickly in the cool morning air and made it to Highway 95 by about 11 am with wide vistas ahead to the Henry mountains. Got a lift to Hanksville from the 3rd car passing after about 15 minutes - hikers from Steamboat Springs Colorado who have been in hiking at Salt Creek canyon in Canyonlands National Park. Hanksville is a small place which you would imagine that tumbleweed is invented for, but it has motels, diners, a post office and a small grocery- all we need!
Hanksville post office - we collect our supplies!

Paddling down the Colorado

16th April Moab to south of Potash 17 miles
Our plan from here was to hire two sea kayaks in Moab and paddle down the Colorado River from just outside the town where we walked past yesterday.  Loaded with 9 days of food we intended to paddle for 70 miles or so, have the kayaks picked up for us and returned to Moab whilst we shoulder our backpacks and hike on for another 65 miles through Canyonlands National Park before reaching a road.
National Park inspection before we set off

The boats were a tad silty looking (for reasons which were to become obvious to us in due course). We had never paddled a river before and were pleasantly surprised when we put in that even without paddling we were moving at walking speed. Keeping up a relaxed paddling pace we made 5 miles per hour! 
We are off!

This was the life! The water was a thick cappuccino, silty brown color and the paddles disappeared from sight once submerged under the water. Although on our first day a minor road followed the river it was still a pleasure staring up at the big red, black walls above the thick green vegetation lining the river.

Our schedule gave us plenty of time so we stopped at midday to hike up to Corona Arch. The shore was made up of deep silty mud and we already become caked in it! We passed a canoeist on this first day and a motorized tour boat came up river but that was all the river traffic we see. Later on we see Potash Mine but soon float by in our own world.

We found ourselves an idyllic sand flat to hitch up the kayaks and set up camp for the evening. What a great day!
First river camp by the Colorado
17th April Potash to Lockhart Canyon 17 miles
And so we followed the meandering river for another day underneath red and pink and orange and maroon walls and towers, camping on sandbars and ledges. The unexpected things were 1) the deep incredibly sticky mud and 2) the number of beavers and Canada geese we encountered!

Today we crossed into Canyonlands National Park and the water levels dropped along with the water flow rate- probably settling after the rain a few days ago.

We stopped at Lockhart Canyon paddling through the rushes up a small inlet before getting out and hiking up canyon for a while. It was super hot though, the air is definitely cooler kayaking on the river. Back at the kayaks we set up camp on a little sand bank island in the river. The river flows silently by on both sides and it was another great spot. Luxury meal of tortilla, beans, salsa mashed potato and Chardonnay wine. Bats, ravens and Canadian geese around the campsite- we could get used to kayaking on the river!
2nd sandbank island campsite
18th April to the Loop 'neck' camp 19.5 miles
A slow start today as we had plenty of time. Martina paddled into the inlet again to collect some fresh drinking water to save us cleaning the silty Colorado River water. It was cool first thing but the cloud overhead soon dispersed to give hot conditions again. The dreamlike meandering down the river continued until we stop at midday at Rustler Canyon on a steep mudslope. Behind the thick tamarisk though there was a cleared area for camping and we met a family there paddling with their children- what an adventure!

We hike up Rustler Canyon to a scenic waterfall and pools and manage a dip in lovely cold water. Further upstream the Hayduke trail crosses Rustler Canyon.
Rustler Canyon

Back in the kayaks a wind got up and it clouded over, but still remained hot. The wind made it harder work for us- funneling upstream against us. Further on the character of the canyon changed as the rock walls closed in on us and the river took some dramatic 'gooseneck' meanders. The options for beaching the kayaks disappeared so we kept paddling until we saw a high muddy ledge and go for that. It turned out to be an excellent pre-used site with a fantastic perch for the tent 100 feet above the river. Lots of desert flowers around and a boulder with a petroglyph panel.
Petroglyph panel

Camp 3 above the river
19th April to Spanish Bottom 11 miles plus hiking 
There was rain overnight but otherwise we had a very comfortable camp in a dramatic spot with no-one else around. In the morning we hiked up to the narrow neck between the loop of the Colorado river in a unique spot.
After a bit of ferrying the gear down to the mud take off point, we float off again in a very still, gently flowing river.

Brian spotted a beaver at close quarters swimming near a sandbank. We guess the river is too powerful for dams so we think they stay in burrows in the river banks instead.

Later the clouds break up and the sun pokes out so we 'raft up' to remove our fleeces before paddling on to 'the slide'. This is an area of small rapids which we were a bit unsure about! Its a narrowing of the river caused by a rock slide and we knew we were nearing it as a dull roar rather intimidatingly got louder and louder. It was short though and we were soon through but the eddies afterwards swept us round off to the side before we both managed to take control again and paddle on.

The confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers is an iconic landmark which we passed by quickly before settling onto a sand bank for some lunch.

We had three miles now of faster flowing water down to 'Spanish Bottom', an open area of the canyon where we had pre-arranged for the kayaks to be picked up by a tourist boat the next day. We both agreed we will be sad to leave the river- it has been sublime! Just beyond 'Spanish Bottom' the canyon narrows and the river plummets into a series of rapids- 'Cataract Canyon', a no-go area for us!
At Spanish Bottom
Approaching the rapids
After pitching the tent we wandered downstream to have a close look at the rapids of Cataract Canyon. It's a lovely short hike in its own right, and we felt lucky to have this spot to ourselves.

Tomorrow the boat hire company will picked up the kayaks and we will shoulder our packs and continued on foot, taking as our drinking water some of the Colorado (and its silt).
Desert bloom
We used Alum to sort the sediment out of the silty Colorado River water for drinking
Raven looks on

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

First 3 days in arches national park

We are setting out on our version of the Hayduke Trail, a wonderful hiking and scrambling route that winds its way through the canyons and plateau of southern Utah and northern Arizona.  We have lots of alternates planned from the published version but hope to follow the general spirit of the trail and seek out some wild, beautiful territory!
The first part of our route is through Arches National Park and, as we are intending to rent kayaks for the next section and have to stick to a schedule, we find ourselves with a leisurely three days to do this part of the route.

Starting out!
13th April Klondyke Bluffs to Devil's Garden 17 miles
It rained hard on Sunday April 13th as we tried to hitch from Moab to our planned start point 18 miles to the north. After getting soaked at the side of the road we retreated to the 'Sweet Cravings' cafe to regroup! Luckily for us fellow Scots Mathew and John from Largs (thanks guys, and enjoy the rest of your holiday) gave us a lift to the Klondike Bluffs junction near Moab airport and we started our hike in driving rain across the sage brush plains.

We headed north east on dirt road in the rain for about 3.5 miles to a trailhead possibly used by mountain bikers. From here we headed out east cross country over washes and rising sandstone slabs. This was great and what we had traveled from Scotland for! We aimed for the 'Marching Men' tower formation on the horizon and the sky gradually cleared as we reached Tower Arch in Arches National Park. Sitting under the arch we looked out to a magnificent canyon view framed by the arch itself.

Starting out from Klondyke Bluffs

Tower Arch

From Tower Arch we followed a cairned trail winding through sandstone towers, then a jeep trail into the wide open Salt Wash. Here we crossed the Hayduke trail to head out again on an alternate north east. We had our first scramble up a cliff band towards Dark Angel tower and vast open views all around. Now on proper trail we took the Primitive Loop through the Devil's Garden area of Arches NP through its labyrinth of vertical fins and gullys. A superb start to our journey!

We camped at Devils Garden and got hit by freezing cold wind and rain....long may it continue as we know that heat will be our enemy later on this hike rather than cold. Our sleep was broken during the night caused by us needing to get out to move and repitch the tent after a large puddle formed underneath.

14th April Devil's Garden to Courthouse Wash 16.5 miles
Next morning we awoke to clear blue sky and frozen puddles around the tent. Firstly we did a wee extra hike around Broken and Sandy Arches which were fantastic.
Broken Arch, Arches NP
Crossing the Arches NP road, we then headed cross country south west to aim for the Hayduke trail again. Both of us wore all our clothing to keep out a biting cold wind on this exposed stretch but views opened out to the La Sal mountains covered with fresh snow.

Our mid morning break was taken sheltering from the wind beside a rock fin before we climbed up to a fence line forming the park's western boundary. Back on the Hayduke, we crossed country south, weaving on sand between bushes and cacti before arriving at a semi circular slab dropping below us. A scramble down this led to Willow Spring wash and it was heartening to see some water in potholes in the slabs.
The wash was left further down to allow us onto the slabby plateau following a route described by Nicolas C. Barth called Arches Slickrock. This provided a great hike with expansive views to the La Sal mountains to the south east, still with a spring snow cover. A sea of grainy, ripply slick rock interspersed with sandy joints, juniper, cactus undulates but it was easy going.

Arriving above Courthouse Towers we looked down into a slightly intimidating great amphitheater of rock. The first step down was easy followed by a traverse rightwards along a slabby ledge. We then scrabbled down slightly slippy, grainy slabs using our 3mm cord to lower the backpacks a short way from a juniper tree. Then down a chimney crack back into a sandy wash- phew that was interesting!
Looking down to Courthouse Towers
Descend down final chimney
We found the main Courthouse wash valley and followed that for a while through vegetation crossing the park road again. Pools of water here and signs of beaver activity in the wash. There was a faint path and we stayed dry as there are logs handily spanning the pools. Our tent was pitched on a small patch of grass in the canyon next to the river under cottonwood trees. A superb day!
Courthouse Wash
15th April Courthouse Wash to Moab 7 miles
A crisp frosty morning but the sun was up quickly and we were able to lay the tent out to dry before moving off. The canyon is not narrow, generally about 50-100m wide, with red walls and shimmering green cottonwoods with mild breezes and the trickle of water- it is beautiful. We see what look like raccoon tracks in the mud and enjoy our easy walk downstream before breaking out onto the road into Moab.

Our first crossing of the mighty Colorado river is by footbridge and then we hiked on by road into the town of Moab. We had some logistics to sort out for our next long stretch and enjoy the luxury of a motel for the night - the Adventure Inn. Moab is a great vibrant town...but it was a bit weird as it is 'Jeep week' and the town is packed full of the strangest looking 'souped up' Jeeps!

Tomorrow we pick up kayaks for 70 miles paddling down the Colorado followed by 65 miles hiking. Next stop Hanksville, Utah in 9 days ....

Saturday, 12 April 2014

First impressions

Our first camp before starting the hayduke trail itself was car camping in Colorado National Monument (like a national park). We had great views down from a canyon rim onto towers including independence monument shown here.

Organised some food parcels to send forward to ourselves to collect at post offices... Which was hard work but fun! Martina rests in the sun....

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Getting sorted to get going

We are in Montrose, Colorado, with our friend Mary-Joy and have just shopped for food for 28 days in the desert. The plan is to head into Utah tomorrow and to start with a short 2 day section through Arches National Park before renting kayaks for 4 days and letting the Colorado river do some of the work for us (from Moab downstream for 70 miles). After that it is 5 days hiking through desert (an area called "the maze" - ominous!) before we get to the next resupply town, Hanksville. We've been down the canyon of the Gunnison River yesterday with Mary-Joy and saw lots of interesting things including a burrowing owl, lots of prairie dogs and vultures circling above - apparent they can dispatch a carcass (human) in under an hour! Happy to be back in red desert country and smelling the sweet juniper and pine. Photos to follow!

Burrowing Owl