Sunday, October 19, 2014

Big Horn Canyon, Harris Wash, Zebra Canyon Loop from Old Sheffield Road

Essence: A three-segment loop hike. Chromatic Big Horn is a canyoneer's canyon with slots to drop into and extensive shallow narrows to walk through. Harris is the broad link between Big Horn and Zebra, a photogenic, striped, sweet little slot. Hike out over upper Zebra's wondrous sandstone swaths and sculpted washes.
Travel: Old Sheffield Road, aka Spencer Flat Road, is located between the towns of Escalante and Boulder, Utah. From Hwy 12, at mile marker 70 (and cattle guard), turn south. Travel 2.8 miles on the good dirt road to a pull-out on the right. There is excellent dispersed camping off this road.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 13.6 miles, 1,224 feet of climbing
Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Mostly off-trail; navigation is challenging and map reading an essential skill; no exposure; much of the hike is in deep sand; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Tenmile Flat, Utah 7.5 Quad; Trails Illustrated, Canyons of the Escalante #710 is an unworthy substitute
Reference: Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah's Escalante, by Steve Allen, University of Utah Press, 1997. Steve is the definitive expert on this region. Please consult his book.
Date Hiked: October 19, 2014
Quote: Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God. Kurt Vonnegut

Big Horn Canyon's shallow narrows are multihued and sinuous.

Route: From TH 5,840', descend south-southwest in Big Horn Canyon to Harris Wash. Travel east-southeast down Harris until it intersects with Halfway Hollow. Turn north to explore Zebra Canyon's slot before climbing out. Continue north, using a series of drainageways to return to the trailhead. The route may be shortened slightly by taking the blue-line shortcut.

Go south-southwest from TH 5,840' on a sandy trail, passing Pt 5,844' a small, red, squared-off mesa on its west.

At 0.2 mile, a wash comes in on downcanyon-right (DCR). Walking is sublime in a broad wash, the floor a mix of bedrock and fine sand. At 0.6 mile reach a 100 foot dryfall. With sticky shoes, friction down the sandstone slab, downcanyon-left (DCL) of the barrier fall. If this unnerves you, work down the talus gully DCL. This image looks back at the pouroff and the two bypass choices.

Walls grow taller, color intensifies, form delights along the almost flat drainageway. At 2.1 miles come to a small slot just before a side canyon DCL. This is a canyoneer's paradise. We messed around trying to pass through two series of slots but turned around at a six foot slide into a steep-sided pool, a move we couldn't reverse. (THW, photo)

Next, we tried to bypass DCR where many people had gone before (see below). We followed this thread for 0.3 mile before getting cliffed out and retreating. Bottom line: when you reach the slot, take the easy bypass DCL until it clearly heads back to the sandy wash beyond the slot at 2.6 miles. Note: While I corrected for our explorations in this area, my mileages may be off slightly from here on.

Once back on the canyon floor, hike back up the pleasing narrows 0.2 mile to view the pool obstacle (see photo at top). Bypass a spectacular hole DCL at 3.2 miles. At 3.6 miles, Big Horn displays exceptional stone ripples and the full spectrum of desert polychrome.

Enter narrows almost a mile long. This spectacular passageway has short, striped walls. It starts out rather widely (shown) but soon squeezes to shoulder-width.

At 4.5 miles a side canyon comes in DCR just 0.1 mile from Harris Wash where the route turns left/east-southeast. This vast, dry, open watercourse has cross-bedded cliffs, fluid forms, and strong color. The sand on the floor was firmer so we made Cottonwood Wash, DCR, at 6.4 miles in 33 minutes. It would be all too easy to walk past the Zebra Canyon turn-off. At 7.4 miles, the view opens and for the first time the Straight Cliffs may be seen in the west. Also on the west is the more common access to Zebra Canyon. It originates on the Hole In The Rock Road and goes down Halfway Hollow. It is marked with a cairn, shown. Leave Harris Wash here, turning left/north. Navigation Note: Zebra is an informal name recently given; the name does not show up on most maps.

Walk 0.4 mile in deep sand to Zebra's slot. This canyon is prized by photographers for its horizontal striping. Very soon we encountered a deep pool. After wading in to our waists we turned around. Next time we'll take the swim.

Upon exiting the Zebra squeeze, friction climb a somewhat bumpy slickrock slab on the west side of the canyon, at the center of this image. After climbing out, walk over and look into the slot from above the pouroff.

Critical Navigational Note: Zebra splits 0.2 mile above the pouroff. For us, that was at 8.4 miles. Go up the left/north branch. From here, drainages vary between subtle and obvious. There is not a single cairn all the way back to the TH. If you have any doubt about where you are in this arguably subtle landscape, simply go north until you intersect the Old Sheffield Road.

Scattered throughout this area are nearly black stone balls. They come in batches. Some are corrugated, others perfectly smooth. Please leave them, all of them, with their companions. There used to be a compliment of stone rings in various sizes but they have all been stolen. 

Staying in the wash, walk between Pt 5,731' (it will be to your left/west) and a double dome (on your right/east), shown. 

Pass through a region of beautiful sand dunes and find a surreal sand glade with two cottonwoods, golden in October.

Walk on sheets of rosy stone at the base of dunes.

The barrier fall at 10.0 miles is bypassed upcanyon-right (UCR) with a friction climb that demands dry shoes. This image looks back at the dryfall. (THW, photo)

Soon, a mesa with a large, unmistakable alcove may be seen two miles north-northeast. The canyon splits at about 11.0 miles at a shallow slot. If you wish to take the shortest way back to the TH, go northwest here, indicated by the blue-line shortcut shown on the map above. I have not done this route but know others who have. We opted for a longer course as displayed with the black line above. We continued northeast, aiming for the west side of the mesa with the alcove.

West of the mesa is a stone drainageway, a perfect water-smoothed, utterly wondrous passage.

At 12.0 miles the view opens to the north. From here, work northwest all the way back to the TH. Skirt the prominent mesa shown, topped with Pt 6,150' on the left/south.

Past the mesa, cross a deep stone drainage and then climb to the top of a rise at 6,050 feet, 13.0 miles. From here you can see the Old Sheffield Road and your vehicle. Use the beehive formation as a line of sight guide. Work down a cliff band. Then cross a sage flat graced with rice grass. Hit the road and walk 0.1 mile west to the TH.

Deep sand turned this into a rather rugged hike. But in the end I didn't want to go home. Ever.

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