Monday, May 22, 2017

Bowington Road via Big Flat Wash and the Escalante River

Essence: An extensive slickrock loop encompassing two crossings of the Escalante River and time on the stunning historical Bowington "Road". An adventure in navigation, with an optional short trip downriver to the impressive Escalante Natural Bridge.  All within Grand Staircase--Escalante National Monument.
Travel: From Escalante, UT, travel east on Hwy 12 to MM 66.9. Turn onto a dirt pulloff out of the line of two functioning range gates on the south side of Hwy 12.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.1 miles (13.1 with side trip); 2300 feet of climbing
Time: 6:30 - 10:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation challenging; mild exposure
Maps: Tenmile Flat; Calf Creek, UT 7.5 USGS Quads
Reference: Canyoneering 3: Loop hikes in Utah's Escalante, Steve Allen, 1997.  Utah's Canyon Country Place Names, Steve Allen, 2012.
Guest Author: Thomas Holt Ward
Date Hiked: May 22, 2017
History of the Bowington Road: Originally a horse trail established by John Bowington in the early days, it linked Escalante and Boulder.  It was later improved to a rough wagon road and enjoyed a brief period of popularity, being favored as less dangerous than the Boulder Mail Trail.  It was abandoned after several sections washed out a few years later [paraphrased from Steve Allen].
Quote: Greatness is a road leading toward the unknown. Charles De Gaulle

Hiker ascends an impressive cut sandstone ledge on the BR. (THW, photo)


Route Summary: From TH 5960, cross Hwy 12 and head northeast about a mile to Big Flat Wash.  Follow this two more miles and make a steep descent to the Escalante River.  Ascend the opposite bank and climb bare slickrock another 1.6 miles generally northeast to meet the Bowington Road.  Follow this well-cairned trail another 2.6 miles southeast back to the Escalante River.  Optionally, take the three mile round trip to Escalante Bridge. Cross the river and ascend the spectacularly engineered section of the road exiting the river basin. From here, continue across slickrock and Big Flat another three miles to rejoin your incoming path and return to the starting point.

The Hike:  From the trailhead at 5,960 feet, cross Hwy 12 and roll under a well built barbed wire fence (don't worry - you're on public land).  Walk northeast through rice grass and snake weed on a generally gentle downhill route.  A transmission line should appear off to your left at about 0.3 mile. At 0.6 mile, you should arrive at Big Flat Wash amongst piles of cow patties.  The wash at this point is mud-walled, but soon to transforms itself into sculptural sandstone.  You're in the Carmel Formation at this point, but as you proceed downstream, the wash quickly changes to washed Navajo sandstone.  If you're lucky, observe Primsrose Gigantea sprouting from tiny sand dunes.

The first pouroff obstacle can be bypassed easily on the left. A branch enters from the right soon after and the drainage becomes a wonderland of gentle pools and polygonal pillow rock--a route over rippled stone with minor step downs that charm without hindering.

Eventually an impressive 75 foot pouroff blocks the way, but can be bypassed on the right through a stone gully.  The canyon is now more broad, decorated with cliffrose between 300 foot walls, and sandy bottomed between tanks (with good water on this occasion).

At mile 2.0, all this charm drops 200 feet into a deep impassable gorge. (THW, photo)

From this point, finding the descent route to the Escalante can be a challenge. You need to go directly to your right and climb a short distance to a wide ledge. You'll go up a little and then back down about 50 feet to the lowest bench above the gorge.

Follow this down canyon for a couple of hundred yards until you see a 10 foot pinnacle on top of the slickrock ridge on your right.  You can friction your way up the slickrock to the tower, choosing the least steep route you can find--there are lots of good choices.

Once there (mile 2.5), to the northeast is a shallow slickrock basin with a higher ridge beyond.  Head for the lowest point on that ridge by whatever route through the dazzling white stone that you like. Reaching that point, the Escalante River valley is visible at last. And to your right is a large crack in the high walls of the river basin.  It looks daunting, but this is your way down.

Finding the right spot to descend is not obvious. There is a nice cairn on a bench just below the rim where you are standing about 0.1 or 0.2 mile along the rim toward the crack. Head down from here following occasional cairns and a worn path.

A little ways down, you will come to the top of a bouldery gully.  This may be an alternate route down (there's a path to it at the bottom), but a trail also goes left, which is the path we took.

The path moves north along a social trail on edge under the Navajo cliff. Make a steep descent down a friction pitch and join the other path to the river. A more open route instead of the mysterious crack.

The view across the river to the sandstone region to be explored:

Looking back on route down below the Navajo cliff-face:

Congratulations, you've reached the floor of the river canyon at 5,380 feet, a navigational accomplishment. Although the route will remain unmarked until you reach the Bowington Road, you've done the toughest part.

Join the well-trodden backpacker's trail heading right downstream along the river. At mile 3.3, you will cross the river on that trail. A few steps further and you should spot a social trail heading left towards a break in the Navajo sandstone. This is the way out. You will first enter a sand-floored drainage with ponderosa pines. 

At the upper (westerly) end, you will see a black streak left by the passage of water down the stone.  Walk around a pool and follow this up out of the sand. From here to the Bowington Road, in one of the finest segments of the hike, you will be on slickrock almost exclusively. This begins with a large bowl at a striking reflection pool, which can be bypassed on the right.

You can return to near the center of the drainage at this point and traverse along multiple pools on a bit of a friction pitch, or you can remain high above them until the series of bowls ends. The Navajo walls here are breath-taking and creamy.

This drainage bowl is southeast of Point 6084.  You can see a 15 foot pinnacle on the ridge just below that prominence.  Head for it.

At mile 4.1 (5,800 feet) you will come to a broad saddle above a northwest-southeast running drainage.  The bottom of this drainage looks somewhat appealing, but don't be fooled.  It is a nearly impassible tangle of foliage.  The correct path is to parallel the drainage heading northwest along the gently sloped slickrock above.

At mile 4.4, you will see the canyon below divides in a section of open rock. This is where you want to cross over and enter the northeast branch.  After a series of impressive deep tanks, at mile 4.6 (5,850 feet), you will see a line of cairns crossing the drainage and heading up a sandy hill on the right.  You have reached the Bowington Road.

The trail now travels easterly in and out of sand amongst wizened pinons and junipers. To the north, you will see domes and wildly shaped prominences rising out of iconic cross-bedding and pillow rock hills. (THW, photo)

As the trail sweeps to the southeast, a deep wide gorge opens up ahead. This is the fault through which the old road descends back to the river, and a spectacular one it is.

There is complete solitude as you descend through mustard sands and white walls along the southwestern side of the canyon. The twisting path passes a rusty stack of paper-like layers. (THW, photo)

As you eventually approach the river, it becomes overgrown and hard to follow in places, finally disappearing at the canyon floor.

Before you reach that point however, perhaps a hundred feet above the bottom, you should stop and inspect the opposite wall for your way out.  Yes, another navigational challenge awaits. There are two notable (if not entirely obvious) landmarks to look for. Almost directly across the canyon, perhaps a little to the right, the actual Bowington Road is visible making a rising traverse from left to right up the sandstone wall.  It may not jump out at first, but it is ruler-straight in a land of curves.

Following this line to the left, you will see a distinctive pink pinnacle with a shear face on the left side. The entrance to the rising road is located near the base of this pinnacle. Continuing down, the river is reached at mile 6.9.

Side Trip to Escalante Natural Bridge: At this point, it is possible to make a short but rewarding side trip downstream. The round trip is about three miles on the well-worn Escalante River Trail and includes a skyline arch, fascinating petroglyphs, and the natural bridge (I have not made this trip personally, although I have been there from the trail that runs upstream from the Hwy 12 bridge).

Begin by heading towards the river until you encounter the well-worn backpackers' trail along the river. Turn left downstream and be prepared for multiple wet river crossings. In about a mile, the unnamed skyline arch will appear at the top of the canyon wall on your right. Beyond this, there are elaborate petroglyphs along this wall and a small ruin. Finally, in another few tenths of a mile, the 130 foot tall Escalante bridge appears on your right. Return as you came. (THW, photo)

Continuing the Hike:  Walk along the north bank of the river a little downstream of where you entered the canyon. You should find a worn (if steep) crossing point which is most apparent on the opposite bank. You should be very near the aforementioned pink pinnacle, shown. 


Cross here and follow a visible trail into a large break in the canyon wall just upstream of a side canyon. You should be able to see the worn path winding up through this break, although there were no cairns here when we visited.

The path climbs up and back towards the river, coming out in the amazing cut you observed from the opposite side.

Signs of construction are obvious and impressive here, with sections of wall hacked or possibly blown out, chiseled steps, holes for supports (for something) and scattered bits of very old dimensional lumber.

After ascending along the river for about a third of a mile, the cut stone path sweeps to the left and away from the river into a large open area of rising slickrock, passing southeast of Point 5769.

After this point, and contrary to some reports, we found only the occasional seemingly random cairn, and it is difficult to know if you are on the old road or not.

Continue southeast through this area, eventually turning more to the south in order to remain in slickrock.  If you're lucky, you'll reach a section of more apparent construction remnants where the old road exits the slickrock on a steep friction pitch, image-left.

Once out of the slickrock, we found no further trace of either road or trail, nor any cairns. Steve Allen's description does indicate the possibility of joining an off-road vehicle track, but we were unable to locate this. In this case, proceed by dead reckoning across the benchland until you reach Hwy 12. If you encounter a shallow canyon with cliff walls, this is probably Big Flat Wash upstream of where you entered it at the beginning of the hike. In this case, proceed left along the cliff until you reach an obvious place to head off the mini canyon and cross over.  (You have actually found the original BR again, here.)  Reaching the highway, you can find your car from there, at about mile 10 (or 13, with the side trip).

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Ladder Canyon, Spencer Canyon Grid, Milagro Passage: GSENM

Essence: Cross vast expanses of sandstone while walking beside a geologic maze and beneath a string of closely-packed discontinuous and bizarrely-shaped prominences. This hike has three options. The central feature is the walk down to the Escalante River and up "Ladder Canyon." On the way, visually tour the "Spencer Canyon Grid," a series of perpendicular, technical cracks bisecting "Spencer Canyon." On the return, walk through the "Milagro Passage" to intersect the Upper Sand Slide route coming from the Escalante River. This passageway is a rare landscape connector with vertical, sheer glossy walls. Spend the day in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Travel: Old Sheffield Road is off Highway 12 between Escalante and Boulder, UT. At mile marker 70 (where a cattle guard crosses the highway), turn south on a dirt road. Start measuring from here. At 5.8 miles in Big Spencer Flat, the main road goes right/south. Take the left fork trending east. The parking area was moved back a quarter mile in 2017 and is now 6.65 miles from Highway 12. It is a good road when dry, suitable for 2WD with good clearance. Check road conditions by calling the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center: (435) 826-5499.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Ladder Canyon, 9.2 miles; 1,500 feet of climbing
Spencer Canyon Grid adds 1.6 miles
Milagro Passage adds 2 miles and 600 feet of vertical
Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; mild exposure on the two ladders
Map: Red Breaks, UT 7.5 USGS Quad
Reference: Canyoneering 3: Loop hikes in Utah's Escalante, Steve Allen, 1997. 
Latest Date Hiked: May 20, 2017
History of the ladders: Steve Allen noted that the ladders were installed by a youth group several years before his book was published in 1997. They were sturdy and reliable in May, 2017 but decide for yourself whether they are safe. A bypass route is described.

Route: This hike offers three options, all of which can be done in a day. The hike to the Escalante River via Ladder Canyon is the black-line route. Spencer Canyon Grid is the red-line route, and Milagro Passage is represented in blue.

Spencer Canyon Grid
The optional Grid tour meets back up with the standard Ladder Canyon route east of Ponderosa Pine Valley. Not only is this a rare opportunity to study a right-angled world but you will bypass a mile of sand slogging. From the parking area, elevation 5,760 feet, walk east on the road. Within 0.4 mile, leave the road and head northeast crossing Big Spencer Flat. At once, the landscape is dreamy and sureal with iron concretions covering Navajo Sandstone painted in garnet and cream-colored stripes. In just 1.4 miles, stand at the mazeway of Spencer Canyon and Fork 1. In this image, Spencer Canyon is a narrow, dark crack running west to east. (THW, photo)

The scene looks like a whole-earth tic-tac-toe board. To best view the Grid, stay close to the south head of the tributary canyons while moving generally east. The massive west wall of Fork 1 appears as a tapestry woven into a fin.

Curious, my hiking partner dropped into Fork 1. After a bit of brush thrashing and boulder dodging he arrived at a 60 foot barrier fall with a fixed rope at the rappel point. This was followed by another pouroff and pool. (THW, photo)

A thin, delicate hoodoo balances on the western precipice of Fork 2. (THW, photo)

Gashes run in four directions and there is a strong sense of cliff suck in this exceedingly dramatic slice and dice earthscape. Pictured is the north crack of Fork 2 piercing the opposing mesa. (THW, photo)

Pass a wall alcove above Spencer Canyon that is moments away from transitioning into an arch. (THW, photo)

According to Michael Kelsey (Non-technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 2011), there is a route into Spencer Canyon through the Fork 3 slot. The dark slit has a series of downclimbs at dropoffs. Once in Spencer Canyon, hike west to the bottom of Fork 1 before returning on the incoming route.

Just north of Fork 3, a minor highpoint at elevation 5,520 feet affords a view toward the collection of wild protuberances west of Ladder Canyon. Head Fork 3 and walk south to intersect the standard black-line route east of Ponderosa Pine Valley at about 2.8 miles. (THW, photo)

Ladder Canyon
Continuing east, cross "Super Tanker Canyon" on a stone rib. In spring, large potholes are flush with clear water.
(THW, photo)

A tenth of a mile further east cross the South Fork. It emanates from the northern escarpment of Red Breaks near Point 6,015'. A softly rounded watercourse plunges over a 200 foot drop into Spencer Canyon.

Skirt a small sandstone dome to its south on a two-foot wide sidewalk.

Note: On our first exploratory trip to Ladder Canyon, we probed two access points just west of Point 5,756'. The most promising and beautiful was via a spectacular, small side canyon where a vertical wall meets a sheeted floor at a crack. A Class 3 downclimb accessed the floor of upper Ladder Canyon. Very soon we encountered a 30 foot drop in the defile and retreated.

The proven route continues east along the base of a second dome. Enter a small, north-trending drainage on a sand dune. It directs into a broad, shimmering, wide open basin, shown below. On our first trip we were so enthralled we walked down to a high, dramatic pouroff, worth the extra steps. However, for this route stay fairly high and cross the north ridge of an unmarked promontory on sheets of sandstone. Enter a large slickrock basin with three notable features: a wide gap, the Milagro Passage; a crack tributary of Ladder Canyon; and a gentle tributary of Ladder Canyon at the base. Head the crack canyon and walk beside its east rim to the floor, elevation 5,180 feet. 

Walk down the soft, sandy tributary for 0.2 mile, cross a small side canyon, and arrive at the rim of the main fork of Ladder Canyon. This route proceeds counterclockwise, taking the Ladders Bypass to the Escalante and then proceeding back upcanyon and climbing the ladders. The ladders may be difficult to locate going the opposite direction. To follow this bypass route, stay rather high above Ladder Canyon and aim for a prominent red hill southwest of the Escalante. The image below was taken from the bypass route. Click on the image and find the ladders braced against the sandstone wall below the barrier fall.

Once atop the red hill, probe the area and find a cairned route down a mild friction pitch mixed with rubble. Cairns lead into a short, low Class 3 gully, access to the river. The image below shows the fin marking the gully. (THW, photo)

The Escalante River, elevation 4,940 feet, is a riparian habitat with massive cottonwoods, big sage, and brushy entanglements. To get into Ladder Canyon walk upstream for about 200 feet. The river was raging, milky, cold, and waist deep in places. Exit upriver-left. Follow the small channel coming out of Ladder Canyon hugging the wall. Walk 0.4 mile up the brushy drainageway. The ladders are located upcanyon-right, just before a massive pouroff. They are securely bolted to the sandstone wall. Most people will enjoy the ladder climb but there is a hard point drilled into stone at the top should anyone need a rope. (THW, photo)

From the ladders, climb a hill and then drop back into the canyon. If you descend too soon, you will encounter a pouroff and pool, easily bypassed. Go upcanyon and intersect the incoming route.

Note: We had read that it was possible to follow the main fork of Ladder Canyon to its upper end. So we explored two forks, got squeezed in narrow defiles, and climbed the sandstone rib between them. We could see into the upper section of Ladder Canyon from our overview. Point 5,756' is image-right. A convoluted, trashy jumble of rubble and bedrock led to the 30 feet drop we'd encountered from the top. A good climber might be able to get up the left side of the exposed obstacle. (THW, photo)

Milagro Passage 
This remarkable and optional trek, the blue-line route, is well worth the additional effort. The image below shows the pass-through gap. The in-coming route tracks along the crack in this image and exits right. Climb the gentle sandstone slope to the northwest entrance and enter a 50-foot wide corridor. 

Framing the passage are towering, sheer, carmine walls. (THW, photo)

This image looks back through the gap. (THW, photo)

We never dreamed the passage would exit the other side of the ridge but it did. Descend a short rubble-filled slope and emerge onto a sweet stone floor bearing southeast. Join up with the Upper Sand Slide route coming from the Escalante River, right of the two domes, shown below.

Hold elevation while swinging right/southwest. Note the distinctive liesegang rings, red and white concentric circles. Pass in front of Points 5,932' and 5,821'.

Keep circling, now to the northwest, passing a heavily cross-bedded butte. To avoid dune fields, stay on the stone skirts at the base of the prominences.

Rejoin the standard route. To return to the Old Sheffield Road parking area head due west and enter Ponderosa Pine Valley. Walk beside a dozen venerable, old growth trees. (THW, photo)

Locate the road emerging from the northwest corner of the slickrock, marked with a cairn. The last 1.3 miles is a deep sand slog, a small price for a glorious day.