Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Phipps Arch and Wash from Old Sheffield Road

Essence: An uncommon route to Phipps Arch traversing swaths of pink sandstone to reach the upper reaches of the wash. A delightful scramble and friction pitch to the herculean arch. Maverick Bridge and side canyons are options.
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 on a good dirt road. Pass a left spur at 0.4 mile and go left at 0.5 mile. Park in a wide place under the 100 foot tall "Parking Tower". There is excellent dispersed camping off the main road.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.2 miles roundtrip to the arch with 2,100 feet of climbing; 12 miles to visit Maverick Bridge and side canyons on the return
Time: 7:00 to 8:30 for the 12 mile hike
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation is somewhat challenging and map reading an essential skill; mild exposure on the Class 2+ climb to the arch; most of the hike is in deep sand
Maps: Tenmile Flat, Calf Creek, UT 7.5 Quads; Trails Illustrated, Canyons of the Escalante No. 710 is a poor 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 for a more ambitious version of this hike. Steve has abundant historical details, including the location of cowboy glyphs. He writes that the arch was named for Washington Phipps, a rancher who ran horses in Escalante Canyon.
Date Hiked: October 22, 2014
Quote: All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream. T. K. Whipple

 The route into Phipps Wash as viewed from an outcrop above the journey's start.

Route: The hike is within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The standard route from the Escalante River Trailhead is well documented and straightforward. This course is suitable only for hikers with desert backcountry prowess who wish to see upper Phipps Wash. Descend on sandstone sheets to the wash. Visit the arch, Maverick Bridge, and all the side canyons on the way back.

The hike starts 0.1 mile northeast of the Parking Tower. This image was captured on a reconnoitering walk the evening before.

The first objective is to drop into Phipps Wash by heading roughly southeast. From TH 5,960' enter a slightly chaotic dry stone drainage. It gathers more beauty with every step.

At 0.4 mile arrive at a pink sandstone slide. It is just a little too steep to be safe. Walk to the roll-off and have a look.

Backtrack to a cairn in a jumble of white rock. Do a lateral move to the east-facing ridge just south of the slide, climb briefly and then descend (see below). Use the slide as a confirmation landmark on the return.

Heading east-southeast, cross a minor gully and descend on another sandstone slab. A social trail takes shape as you near the wash. Finish on a sandy trail, dropping into Phipps Wash at 0.8 mile, 5,440 feet. A cairn marks this all-important juncture. Walk down the flat-bottom canyon. Relish the bedrock while you have it.

A side canyon joins downcanyon-right (DCR) at 1.1 miles. This is followed by a string of sculptural tanks in the washbed.

A big-drop barrier fall is at 1.2 miles. Bypass downcanyon-left (DCL). This is an efficient go-around: short walk, steep cairn'd route, and back in the wash. An alcove is directly across on the south wall. The canyon is all the deeper for this drop.

The north fork of Phipps joins DCL at 1.7 miles, followed by high striped walls. The walls to follow are the color of paprika with soft, rounded forms.

Two side canyons join DCR in quick succession. At 2.5 miles a cave on the right must house a bat colony because even in full daylight we were pleasantly engulfed by thousands of bats.

The turnoff to Phipps Arch is another 1.1 miles downstream. Walk in deep sand through a lush riparian stretch with dank, almost black water. Haphazard trails go every which way. We had better luck finding passage on the way back.

The Phipps Arch canyon is at 3.6 miles, DCR. Since most people are coming up from the Escalante River, the trail thread is more obvious from that direction. From the main wash cross to the northeast entrance of this side canyon and find a cairn'd trail. It tracks east on the north side of the canyon, leaving the floor immediately. It is 0.5 mile and 300 feet of climbing to the arch.

Heed the cairns for the route is somewhat convoluted as it dodges obstacles. Climb a series of stone slopes with mild exposure.

Expect some friction pitches and easy scrambling.

Ascend almost to the canyon rim, before arriving at the arch which first presents as an alcove. (THW, photo)

The arch is truly massive. You could easily run a road over this extravagantly stalwart earth arc. Walk through the arch to explore a cluster of alcoves on the other side. (THW, photo)

We returned to the canyon floor at 4.8 miles and set off downcanyon to find Maverick Bridge. A side canyon joins DCR at 5.2 miles. Maverick Bridge is up the side canyon DCL at 5.3 miles, a fat half mile below the Phipps Arch juncture. The bridge is labeled incorrectly on the Calf Creek 7.5 topo. Enter the humble opening on a trail that passes a pool while going up the left side of the canyon. The bridge is located a little over 0.1 mile up-canyon. You can't miss it. In fact, you can walk across the thin, suspended stone walkway.

Back in Phipps Wash, it is only a mile to the Escalante River. We did not exercise this option because we weren't sure how demanding our side-canyon forays would be. As it turns out, most of these canyons wall-up at imposing barrier falls within 0.3 mile.

Each feeder tributary has enticing features. Go in them all! I will mention a select few. Heading back up-canyon, recall that the mile past the arch is choked with vegetation to the point of being almost annoying. As the vegetation decreases, the bat cave is on the left. Beyond that by 0.4 mile is a side canyon UCL that ends in an amphitheater with a deep reflection pool. 

Walk 0.3 mile up the north fork of Phipps Wash before reaching its barrier fall and reflection pool. A stately ponderosa resides in this canyon.

Bypass the imposing pourover in Phipps Wash. The next tributary UCL is the side canyon Steve Allen uses for access from the Old Sheffield Road.

A fat 0.4 mile from the top of the dryfall is the exit trail. If you've had enough, simply retrace your incoming steps past the pink slide and up to the Parking Tower.

Past the exit, Phipps Wash quickly pinches into a protected space with a linear grove of old growth ponderosa. Turn around at the vegetation plugged crack.

The pink sandstone between the wash and the road is an enthralling feature, a beautiful finish to the hike.

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