Tours Travel

A passion for hiking the desert of southern Utah

By southern Utah, I mean the area south of I-70 and east of I-15. Being a desert rat, I admit a prejudice. Also, I love rattlesnakes. However, the area is notable, by any yardstick, for its geological wonders and archaeological experiences. When I thought of my favorite hikes, they all fell into that one area that I love. That was not surprising, even though I have lived north, south, east and west of this beautiful country of ours. I will focus on three of my favorite hikes in the following categories; ancient Pueblo (or incorrectly Anasazi) ruins and art, a dirt trail, a geological slot canyon. I have extended the walks to two days each, not because one day is not good, but because it is not enough.

Although these areas I’ll be covering aren’t as famous as Bryce or Zion, they’re just as cool.

Also, now that I think about it, my favorite mountain climb (it’s a hike, not a technical one) might be in the same area, and not in Colorado! Mt. Peale is only about 13,000 feet (elevation above sea level), if you call it a mountain. It is in the beautiful La Sal mountain range near famous Moab, UT. I won’t give much guidance here, because if you can’t find your way down an obvious mountain trail, you don’t belong there.

Boulder Mail Trail It is my favorite land trail. It is the actual mail (mule) trail that was used between the cities of Boulder and Escalante in the early 20th century. It is now in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I like to hike half the trail (to Death Hollow or so) round trip from the Boulder Airstrip and then the other half round trip from the Upper Escalante Canyon Trailhead. Or, of course, there is the option of things in the back for camping. The entire trail is 16 miles one way. That could be done in a rushed day trip, for sure. But he wouldn’t have time for the side trip to the natural bridge at Mamie Creek. (The bridge is a one mile side trip each way.) The trail is very nicely landscaped (it even follows an old phone line for much of the way) and is scenic throughout. As you look at the topography, imagine what the mail carriers went through. Sand Creek, Death Hollow, and Mamie Creek are potential water sources along the way. Do proper research. Foolishness here is a death wish. 1 GALLON OF WATER IS REQUIRED PER PERSON PER DAY. Start early! This trail is a full two day charge. This is not a loop, but a path from point to point.

Utahcanyons is a good web reference. If you prefer a book, Steve Allen does a good job with “Canyoneering 3”.
Access to the BMT is from Rt. 12 at both ends. The western terminus is the Upper Escalante Canyon Trailhead near the town of Escalante. The East Terminal is near the Boulder Airstrip.

I consider this walk to be difficult due to its duration and exposure.

broken buckskin, a tributary of the normally dry Paria River, is the world’s best slot canyon hike (pay area). A slot canyon forms from the relentless erosion of water, usually flood waters. This one is 13 miles long, 2 feet wide in places, and up to 500 feet deep. I rode about ten miles round trip once (20 miles total), going into Wire Pass Trail Head, which offers the quickest access to the narrows. The walls of the gorge are so vertical and high that the mind-bending spectacle of Antelope Canyon (near Page, Az.) is not available here. But as the light filters into Buckskin Gulch, there’s a soothing, cathedral-like feeling in the Narrows. Buckskin also has ancient rock art, at the junction of the Wire Pass Trail and the Buckskin Trail, where it turns right into the narrows. This is an extremely dangerous place if a flash flood happens. My group got caught in a flash flood once, thank goodness in the Paria River Canyon and not Buckskin Canyon. It was still terrifying. Some Australian hikers who got stuck in Buckskin had water up to their noses. As you travel through the straits, look for logs stuck overhead. Duh, that’s the water level, up there. You will get wet on this hike more often (potholes), but check weather conditions with the Paria Ranger Station. You want to get wet only from the neck down. A day use fee is required on the trail. Just pay it, you are in the middle of nowhere if your vehicle is towed.

Americansouthwest has more good information. You must obtain the “Paria Canyon Hiker’s Guide” from the BLM. My recommendation is to get as far as you feel comfortable and get back in the vehicle, for a long day trip. Or make it an “easy” two-day trip to the confluence of the Paria River (13 1/2 miles each way) and back, with gear. For multi-day backpackers, there is at least 60 miles of hiking available on the Paria River and Buckskin. Although Buckskin is the best, I prefer the idea of ​​Day 1 there and Day 2 at Coyote Buttes (pay area). This goes from nice and cool in the narrows to nice and hot and exposed near the “buttes”. It will take a lot of drinking water at Coyote Buttes, which is divided into north and south units. The more famous northern section can be accessed from the Wire Pass trailhead. “The Wave” is the attraction (also the recently discovered dinosaur footprints!) and can be previewed at americansouthwest.

Access is from House Rock Valley Rd. to Buckskin and Coyote. The closest paved road is Rt. 89 about 40 miles east of Kanab. HRV Rd. passes by Rt. 89A and Vermilion Cliffs, near Marble Canyon in Arizona. Good hikes there too, and petroglyphs on the rim (Eastern Crack, good luck finding it).

Weird Buckskin Gulch difficult for length, deep water wading possible, rock falls. Coyote Buttes is rated easy, barring dehydration issues. If Buckskin doesn’t turn out to be skinny enough, try Spooky Gulch, accessed just east of the town of Escalante.

My favorite archeological walks are in Grand Gulch Primitive Area (fee area). My only complaint is that it is getting popular. The Great Basin desert of southeastern Utah (specifically the drainages of the Colorado and San Juan rivers) has a staggering amount of ancient Pueblo cultural remains. I spent 15 years looking around. I know where the very unique petroglyphs on the edge of the San Juan River are. I know Casa de la Luna, The Citadel, The Panel of the Procession. Unfortunately, some places cannot become tourist areas. Some places just can’t take the stress. At least Grand Gulch has minimal supervisors, and visitors so far have tried to behave. The closest cities are Blanding (the largest with about 2,000 inhabitants), Bluff, and Mexican Hat. Don’t miss this open-air museum.

The “main trail” into Grand Gulch is the Kane Gulch Trail, which is just across paved Route 261 from the Visitor Center. The first famous sight is “Junction Ruin”, at the junction of Kane and Grand Gulches. It is four miles from the trailhead. It’s a long time to wait, but the hike is a nice nature walk and easy. In addition to a nice ruin, there are lots of old painted handprints. Another half mile or so to the left leads to “Turkey Pen Ruin”, with more pictographs and petroglyphs. Stimper Arch, a good one, is five miles from the trailhead. So a change there makes for a ten mile hike on fairly flat terrain. It’s a nice and easy start.

Day 2, at Bullet Canyon, is a different story and a more difficult hike. There are a lot more vertical elevation changes involved here, and some difficulty with rock hopping. I once saw a Midget Faded rattlesnake on this trail. It is a very small snake (this one was about a foot long) but powerful. Let them have the right of way. There are ruins of “watch towers” at the beginning of the canyon, as you enter. Bullet also has several barns to see before the trail reaches the “Perfect Kiva Ruin” at 4 1/2 miles. “Jailhouse Ruin” has an ultimate spooky aura (half a mile past “Perfect Kiva”), with a ghostly pictogram hovering above it. So again it’s about a ten mile hike.

Do you have a Day 3 to spare? If so, Todie Canyon will produce “Split Level Ruin” within five miles of the Todie trailhead. There is a small ruin and pictographs at 2 1/2 miles, just 1/5 mile past the start of the canyon. (The canyon starts 2.3 miles from the trailhead.) There are also some barns on the way to “Split Level Ruin”.

For multi-day backpackers, there is about 75 miles of hiking available in the Grand Gulch Primitive area.
There is a problem if you are a day tripper. You have to see Sheiks Canyon, which is a very long day. It is full of great art and housing, especially the “Green Mask Spring” area. Sheiks is 14 miles from the Kane Gulch trailhead, 8.6 miles from the Bullet Canyon trailhead, and 9.3 miles from the Todie Canyon trailhead. There is supposed to be a loop from Sheiks Canyon Trailhead to Bullet Canyon Trailhead. This will be a 17 mile loop but I never found the Sheiks trailhead. There is a fantastic petroglyph at “Wall Ruin” on Grand Gulch Main, near the junction with Sheiks Canyon. They look like two smaller figures balanced 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 onto CR 2361.
I like to use Trails Illustrated map #706 for Grand Gulch (waterproof/tear resistant).

I rate these hikes moderate (Kane) to hard (Bullet) for length and exposure.

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