Saturday, October 25, 2014

Boulder Mail Trail to Death Hollow

Essence: Permits are not required for a day hike on the Boulder Mail Trail (BMT). Spectacular and exhilarating out-and-back to Death Hollow. Walk on sandy trail or cairned Navajo Sandstone expanse. Thrilling descent into the canyon's depths. Finish with an optional off-trail foray on "Four Tower Ridge".
Travel: A few miles south of Boulder, Utah on Hwy 12, at MM 83.1, turn west on Hells Backbone Road. Go 0.1 mile and turn left/south on a fair dirt road. Cross the Boulder Landing Strip just before generous trailhead parking at 0.5 mile. 2WD with good clearance should suffice.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 12 miles, 2,127 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 to 6:30
Difficulty: Trail, some deep sand; navigation moderate but critical; sheer dropoff exposure on a narrow trail platform, and steep friction slab descent into Death Hollow
Maps: Boulder Town, Calf Creek, Escalante, UT 7.5 Quads; Trails Illustrated, Canyons of the Escalante #710
Date Hiked: October 25, 2014
Historical Note: This circuitous and unlikely trail was cleaved in 1902 purposefully to link Boulder Town with Escalante. Initially, mules hauled mail on the BMT. By 1910 a telephone line was strung along the route coupling Boulder with the greater world via a switchboard in Escalante. Highway 12, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, was completed in 1940, replacing the BMT. Historical vestiges remain. Remnants of the telephone line is strung from tree to tree and hand-chiseled stone paths are integral to today's route.

The BMT goes along this precipitous edge as it plunges into Death Hollow. Massive earth fins frequent the topography.

Route:  Located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this hike follows the first segment of the popular and historic BMT from TH 6,800' to Death Hollow. The BMT continues as a multi-day backpack. Overnight permits are available free at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in Escalante. Our route includes an option to detour over "Four Tower Ridge" on the return.

After registering, walk west on the well-defined trail littered with spherical volcanic boulders.

Follow the clear track southwest through a piƱon-juniper woodland, passing through a large aromatic sage flat at 0.7 mile.

The first canyon view is at 1.5 miles. Descend on sheets of white sandstone, following cairns.

Cross another forested bench to the second overlook, 6,400', at 2.1 miles. Now enjoy a sandstone descent into the dry swale of the north-northeast tributary of Sand Creek at 2.5 miles.

At 2.7 miles, reach perennial Sand Creek flowing with clear water. Cross the stream and do a short bypass down-canyon-right to avoid a choked riparian area. Above the fray is Navajo sandstone looking very much like a package of dinner rolls.

At 3.0 miles, leave the Sand Creek drainage and climb on bedrock towards a ridge with four pinnacles (shown below). Exploring "Four Tower Ridge" is an option on the return. The trail proceeds to skirt the spire-topped ridge on its east and then its north. Still ascending, the path crosses under the historic telephone line at 3.4 miles. Remnants may be found sporadically throughout this area.

Bearing southwest, encounter a wooded sandy stretch before climbing sandstone to top out on Slickrock Saddle Bench at 6,600 feet, a 400 foot climb from Sand Creek. The deep sand track goes south on top of the bench, rolling gently until it reaches the rim overlooking Death Hollow at 5.3 miles. The 700 foot drop into the hollow is the most exhilarating and spectacular feature of this hike. It takes about an hour to reach the canyon floor and return to the rim. Follow cairns mindfully. There is only one place from which to initiate the descent and only one very specific route. Follow the cairn'd route northwest as this hiker is doing.

Be wary of cliff suck while standing enraptured with the enthralling vista encompassing the deep canyon, soaring cliffs, jutting fins, and white domes.

At 5.6, miles walk on a three foot ledge with astounding exposure for 0.1 mile. The platform is carved into the steeply inclined sandstone slope and free of debris. Stay on course. Have some respect for the mules.

While carving the BMT, the treadway and steep slickrock sheets were roughened up by hand-chiseling to provide passage and increase the grip.

Pass by a large alcove and reach Death Hollow at 6.1 miles, 5,800 feet.  Defying its name, it is a pretty place with a perennial stream.  A wall rises abruptly on the opposing side.

Streamside is cool and lovely with sprawling mahogany trees and old growth ponderosa...along with poison ivy. The BMT goes on, of course, heading downstream. There is reportedly an excellent backpacker's camp down around the next bend, across from one of the massive fins that defines this landscape.

For those adventurers who want to do a little exploring on the way home, at 8.4 miles, leave the trail and turn east at Four Tower Ridge (see map above). The ridge is pocked with small tanks and towers. Walk north of the highest tower, a Class 3 scramble.

To return to the trail, do a steep friction descent off the east point of the ridge. Foot platforms make this comfortable.

At the base, walk a short distance directly east until you intersect the trail. Avoid stepping on cryptobiotic soil. This image looks back at Four Tower Ridge and the descent route.

Retrace your steps to the trailhead on the BMT. On your way home, be sure to have a look at the Boulder Landing Strip and UFO Landing Site. Don't park on the airstrip! Who knows what may be coming in for a landing.

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