Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Red Breaks Canyon from Harris Wash Trailhead, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Essence: A fun, off-trail hike in a diverse Navajo Sandstone canyonscape. There are narrows, chockstone challenges in slots, and exquisite wide-open, flat-floored, chromatic canyons. The hike is within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. See the end of this entry for information on the Big West Fork slot.
Travel: At the junction of Utah State Route 12 and Hole-in-the-Rock Road, set your trip meter to zero and drive south. Expect some washboard on the maintained broad surface. After 10.6 miles, turn left at a sign for Harris Wash. The side road bears east while crossing a euphedra and juniper plain. Veer left at 13.3 miles. Pass primitive camps with superb views. The road goes over a rise and then winds down, crossing a couple of washes. Take the left fork at 15.9 miles. Rabbitbrush, sage, and cottonwood edge the canted road. There are whoop-de-doos in the soft dirt. Park under a big cottonwood at the Harris Wash Trailhead, 16.7 miles from Highway 12. 4WD is recommended.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.2 miles; 1,000 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 to 7:30
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; numerous Class 3 chockstone obstacles and a lower Class 4 friction pitch with exposure
Map: Red Breaks, UT 7.5 USGS Quad
Reference: Canyoneering 3: Loop hikes in Utah's Escalante, Steve Allen, 1997.
Latest Date Hiked: April 18, 2017
We think we choose our own path,
Until in canyons we stray,
And find our intentions bounced from wall to wall,
Our illusions winked out in profound shadow,
And our conceits dissolved in bright and clear and beckoning pools.

Thomas Holt Ward

The confluence of Red Breaks Canyon and the East Fork. (THW, photo)

Route: Walk north from the trailhead. Cross Harris Wash and enter Red Breaks Canyon. Where the canyon divides into the Upper West Fork and Northeast Fork, branch right. Exit the Northeast Fork and gain the pass between Points 6,015' and 5,887'. Descend the East Fork and drop back into Red Breaks Canyon to return to the trailhead. The blue-line is an alternate route from the Old Sheffield Road parking area to the pass between the Northeast and East Forks. A map detailing access to Big West Fork from the west side of Red Breaks follows.

An established path links the trailhead, elevation 4,960 feet, to Harris Wash. Cross the huge drainage and locate a dirt road leaving the wash on the opposing bank. The road drops into Red Breaks Canyon at 0.3 mile and continues up the other side at a massive cottonwood. Leave the road and bear left/north up Red Breaks Canyon.

Stay in the broad, main wash. It's not a pretty entrance and, frankly, the first mile is kind of a drag trudging in deep sand. The low, red hills bordering the channel are in the Carmel Formation. The resistant limestone cap slows the erosion of the underlying sandstone.

At 0.9 mile, Navajo Sandstone comes up out of the ground and the canyon narrows. Reach a 20 foot barrier fall at one mile. Climbers can opt for the Class 5 pitch up-canyon-right (UCR). We backed up about 50 yards and climbed out UCL. A clear path runs along the west rim. It is not marked downcanyon but there is a major cairn at the upper end of the 0.2 mile bypass trail. (THW, photo)

Upon reaching the floor, the canyon splits. Red Breaks Canyon is to the right. Walk on deeply incised, sculpted bedrock with fluted chutes directing into water-filled tanks. Tamarisk gives way to juniper lining the clean bottom. Paradise interplays with unremarkable stretches of rubble and deep sand slogging.

The inner canyon narrows to six feet, three feet, six inches, with walls fanning out to permit passage. In the lower slot there are about five Class 3 chockstones that require jockeying. Some hikers will need a helping hand, packs off.

The slot continues for about 0.3 mile and the pace is slow. The second set of narrows has deeply fluted, cross-bedded walls. (THW, photo)

Pass the suspended East Fork confluence UCR at 2.3 miles. The Big West Fork joins Red Breaks Canyon UCL at 2.6 miles. The impassible fall is stunning with vertical funnels. Stay in the main canyon.

The 1.2 mile Big West Fork slot is reportedly the most beautiful in the area. Chockstones are numerous and challenging. Bypass directions are at the end of this post. (THW, photo)

Red Breaks Canyon widens and constricts repeatedly. Chimney a ten foot dryfall. Bypass a 15 foot jump.

Walls lower and creamy stone intercepts a sandy corridor signaling an upcoming canyon division. (THW, photo)

A two-tiered fall with a deep waterpocket in the middle is located where Red Breaks Canyon divides into the Upper West Fork and the Northeast Fork at 3.7 miles. Our route goes into the Northeast Fork, UCR. For me, this junction is the most aesthetically pleasing scene in the region. (THW, photo)

The canyon constricts and 0.1 mile ahead is a high, impassible fall with a pool. Backtrack to the top of the two-tiered fall. The bypass is located on a broken slab between the canyons. The lower Class 4 friction pitch is about 80 feet.

At the top of the incline, Point 6,015' is visible at the head of the Northeast Fork. It is an exhilarating moment.

The intermediate bench segues back into the canyon. The next one-mile segment is simply outrageous--big, broad, and beautiful. Liesegang paints swirls and streaks on bedrock. Sand fills low places as water. Tanks are deep. There are no obstacles. (THW, photo)

Ascend the softly rounded amber-colored floor.

Textures vary radically.

Once clear of Point 5,887' and closing in on Point 6,015', shown, leave the canyon and bear east to a minor pass at 5,780 feet.

Note: Inselberg Pit, one of the largest cylindrical sandstone weathering pits on Earth, is relatively close by. This is the point where the navigation savvy may divert.

At 5.6 miles, drop off the softly rounded pass into the East Fork. Like the Northeast Fork, the canyon is unusually welcoming, even broader and flatter, the total opposite of a slot. The aeolian process has scoured the canyon floor silky smooth. There are a series of soft funnels to pass through.

Moqui marbles are attached to underlying sandstone. To learn how the iron concretions are formed, consult Becky Oskin's article in Live Science. (THW, photo)

Stone displays hues of pearl, ruby, bronze, and garnet-colored dotted lines. (THW, photo)

An ephemeral pool in the East Fork. (THW, photo)

A checkerboard wall interrupted and enhanced by erosion. (THW, photo)

The canyon constricts and shoots into a keeper pothole. Bypass DCL, descending a friction pitch back into the canyon.

The passageway slots up. We turned around just before the pouroff at the Red Breaks confluence at 8.3 miles. Now you have route options. The first I have not done. Back up until you can climb onto an intermediate, east-side bench. A distinct trail goes down to the confluence where there is reported to be access into Red Breaks Canyon. Retrace your steps down the slots and back to the trailhead.

We chose to backtrack 0.2 mile to elevation 5,280 feet. Look for a gap in the east rimrock. This is an easy escape route onto the Navajo caprock framing the inner canyon. From here, follow the rim downcanyon. Avoid trampling the inches-thick cryptobiotic soil crust broken only by cougar tracks. This rim image looks down the East Fork toward the confluence with Red Breaks Canyon. (THW, photo)

The image below depicts the dramatic, suspended confluence.

The ledge walk is pleasant. There are occasional cairned routes to the canyon floor. We played out the rim until it grew tiresome and reentered Red Breaks Canyon via a minor branch at 9.9 miles. From here, we simply retraced our steps to the trailhead.

Note: A variation on this hike may be done from Old Sheffield Road. It is 2.75 off-trail miles from the parking area to the pass between Points 6,015' and 5,887'.

Big West Fork From Old Sheffield Road (May, 2017)

This shortcut route to the Big West Fork is much quicker than coming in from the Harris Wash Trailhead.

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 suitable for 2WD with good clearance. The road splits in Big Spencer Flats, 5.8 miles from the highway. Veer right/south staying with the main road. Drive another 2.6 miles across a sage flat north of the Red Breaks cliff face. Two standing logs mark the end of the road at a drill hole and cattle tanks.

From the parking lot at elevation 5,740 feet, either cut directly across a dune field or take a social trail southwest onto a sandstone apron. Pass a multi-hued bowl with scattered iron concretions. While passing south of Point 6,136', get a visual on the weakness in the well-armored Red Breaks escarpment, shown. It is a simple Class 2+ climb to the mesa top just shy of 0.8 mile, 5,940 feet. A large cairn marks this location for the return.

The terrain on the Carmel Formation surface is broken by small drainages and hills. Head southeast on red earth with rock chips and well spaced foliage in a piƱon-juniper forest.

In 2.1 quick miles, reach the rim of the Big West Fork, hopefully about 0.3 mile from the confluence, shown below. At a break just south of a small drainage, descend from the mesa to a mid-level bench. If you want to head up Big West without delay, walk down the small sandstone bowl to the floor of the tributary, 2.2 miles from the trailhead.
(THW, photo)

Before going upstream into the slot, walk a few paces downcanyon to the barrier fall with its exquisite vertical fluted water chutes.

For those who want to get into Red Breaks Canyon, follow the clear trail on the bench south for 0.2 mile. Descend a mild friction pitch to the floor of the main canyon, shown (N37 39.922 W111 20.535). For those continuing upcanyon, enter a slot with one chockstone. Reach the Big West/Red Breaks confluence in 0.2 mile.

If you are coming up Red Breaks from Harris Wash and you overshoot the Big West Fork bypass upcanyon-left, you will know upon reaching the confluence. Backtrack through the slot to the bypass.

We only made it 0.3 mile up Big West and missed most of the premier slot. The first chockstone is great fun.
(THW, photo)

The fifth chock was beyond my ability level. The captured boulder is 12 feet tall with a water scoured six-foot hole beneath. I couldn’t find decent holds and had to concede. However, a couple of serious climbers happened along and commandeered it beautifully. Bring a line for hoisting packs. According to the literature, a more challenging chockstone awaits upstream. (THW, photo)

An important note from author Steve Allen about protecting endangered National Monuments in Southern Utah. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Capitol Reef National Park: Dome 6,620' and Stegosaur Fin via Hickman Natural Bridge

Essence: Most domes in Capitol Reef are impossible to scale. Here is an exception. A half-day hike starting on a popular trail before an off-trail, thrilling climb on Navajo Sandstone. The dome is highly textured, an assist to climbers. The panorama from the crest is enthralling and fantastical. Option to circle Stegosaur Fin, Point 6,821'.

Capitol Reef is so convoluted it is almost impossible to process, and inarguably difficult to navigate. Steep-sided domes and cliffs, slots and entrenched canyons challenge the explorer. This venture goes to the rather gentle-looking dome seen in the center of the image. Most hikers will find it suitably demanding.

Travel: The Hickman Bridge Trailhead is two miles east of the Visitor Center. The parking area is on the north side of the two-lane. Fee Information. Park facilities are open year-round.
Fruita Campground: This idyllic, shady campground is adjacent to the Fremont River, tucked amongst historic fruit orchards. In 2018, the campground initiated a reservation system. The 71 sites are first-come, first-served November through February. There are bathrooms, fire grates, picnic tables, and water.  Campground information.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.0 miles out-and-back to Hickman Bridge, Rim Overlook, Dome 6,620', and to circle Stegosaur Fin with 1,700 feet of climbing; 11.5 miles and 2,200 feet of gain if you add Navajo Knobs. A visit to Longleaf Flat adds two miles.
Total Time: 3:30 to 4:30 for Dome 6,620'; 5:30 to 7:30 with Navajo Knobs
Difficulty: Trail and off trail; navigation is considerable, must be able to read the map; moderate exposure on the dome, friction pitches; Class 2+ with a Class 3+ scramble option; carry all the water you will need
Maps: Fruita, UT, 7.5 Quad; Hiking Map & Guide: Capitol Reef National Park; or Trails Illustrated: Capitol Reef # 267, all available at the Visitor Center, open daily, 8:00 to 4:30
Latest Date Hiked: April 26, 2022
Quote: He gestured loosely with his arm, covering the whole of the landscape below us. "How long do you think we can be pummeled, I mean seeing stuff like this and still be able to return and function in the other world?" "It's too late," I said. He laughed loudly, standing. "Yes, too late." Craig Childs, Soul of Nowhere.
Route: While standing on Navajo Knobs late the day before, we were overcome with a desire to reach the Dome 6,821' platform. We returned the next day and ardently tried three approaches. The black-line route is the best way to climb Dome 6,620' and circle Stegosaur Fin. The blue-line route is an option that goes under the Hickman Bridge and up a Class 3+ crack. The purple-line route ascends "The Ramp" in Longleaf Flat. 

From the Hickman Bridge Trailhead, 5,300 feet, head out on the most popular trail in the park. It passes beside the Fremont River, the canyon-cutter bifurcating 100 mile-long Waterpocket Fold. The excellent trail switches up ledges in the Kayenta Formation to reach a junction at 0.25 mile. Navajo Dome, seen below, is typical of such structures in the park. Its namesake sandstone weathers in rounded forms.

Our route turns left here on the bridge trail before climbing a Class 3+ defile and regaining the standard track to Rim Overlook. This is entirely optional. Unless you are an avid scrambler, go directly to Rim Overlook.

The trail to the bridge has an unexpected delight. At 0.7 mile, look into the drainage to find two lovely, diminutive bridges which may be crossed before returning to the trail. Go ahead because these may be the only bridges on this hike. Some geologists think Hickman Natural Bridge is misnamed. They claim it is an arch carved from a Kayenta Sandstone fin by the small washes running on either side. At 0.9 mile, reach the beautifully shaped arch, 133 feet long and 125 feet high. It is perfectly smooth underneath. (THW, photo)

Walk through the arch on a social trail. Soon you will encounter chockstones and rubble as the chasm squeezes and steepens. Slither under a boulder and climb blocks with good holds. A ten foot wall will give you a charge. At 1.2 miles, emerge on the trail. Turn left. This image looks into the constricted cleft. (THW, photo)

Rim Overlook is at 2.25 miles. While it slightly overshoots our route to Dome 6,620', it is not to be missed. In the image below, my hiking partner is standing on the Kayenta Formation. It breaks horizontally forming the walking ledges gracing this hike. The Kayenta is a thick layer that separates Navajo Sandstone from Wingate Sandstone. Navajo Knobs are the two small nibs at the horizon in front of him. Below is The Castle. It is Wingate, a formation that fractures vertically.

The Visitor Center, campground, and Fruita are almost 1,000 feet below. Drop-away cliffs are unforgiving along the edge.

To reach Dome 6,620' from Rim Overlook, backtrack east to the very next north-trending minor canyon. It is unremarkable. Leave the trail here and walk up a small drainage. It is essential to stay in the wash rivulets and off the cryptobiotic soil. Go right to bypass a small pouroff. The image below was taken from the main trail looking north up-canyon.

The wash directs to an open, sandy area. Dome 6,821', informally referred to as the Stegosaur Fin, is straight ahead. Climb the appealing ridge left/west of the drainage slot. The ridge on the east side soon cliffs out; avoid it. Keep a bead on The Steg. The rib is deeply contoured but the steep friction pitches are easy enough.

Soon, the saddle between Stegosaur Fin and Dome 6,620' comes into view. Stay on the ridge until it peters out and then go east to the saddle.

Below, I am climbing to the saddle between Stegosaur Fin, shown, and Dome 6,620'. There is plenty of textured cross-bedding to assist. The color spectrum is simply outrageous: turmeric mustard, iron red, sunny yellow, and dusky lavender. From the saddle we investigated the base of The Steg hoping to climb the beast but, no chance. There are numerous oversized water pockets on the slender saddle. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Walk south to the base of Dome 6,620'.

Pigmentation and texture will transport you into a state of incredulous reverie.

While this brainrock dome may be scaled however you please, I went up the crack that is in line with the saddle. The pitch is steep but the rift felt well-protected with abundant foot and handholds. This image looks down on the ascent. (THW, photo)

The crest is generous, rounded, and lumpy, the lookout utterly enrapturing. It may not be the tallest, but the dome is well-positioned. There is a precipitous drop to a myriad of Spring Canyon tributaries with convoluted narrows. Waterpocket Fold, the mega monocline, is easy to cipher; it is topped with Navajo Sandstone domes. In this image, the Fremont River is flowing on and on as the Henry Mountains keep watch.

The adjacent Stegosaur Fin looks like a mathematical function, a three dimensional standard normal distribution curve. It is impossible to look away from such rare perfection. (THW, photo)

Circumnavigate Stegosaur Fin, Point 6,821': The half mile trek around The Steg is easy and safe. It can be done in either direction and takes 15 to 20 minutes. To go clockwise, drop off the saddle to the west and contour on the lower runout of The Steg starting at about 5,520 feet. Northeast are wavy rocks created by soft sediment deformation.
(THW, photo)

Retrace your steps to the main trail and consider your options. Turn left to return to the trailhead. If you want to keep hiking, here are two very different choices.

Navajo Knobs via Trail: Rim Overlook is precisely halfway to The Knobs. It will add 4.5 miles to the hike overall. Turn right, pass the overlook and enjoy blissful walking on Kayenta ledges. Look down on The Castle.

The hike finishes with an easy scramble to the aerie. Stegosaur Fin, undeniably appealing, is just left of center in this image.

Swing around to the northwest and the view is equally beguiling, if altogether different. Hwy 24 is the thin blacktop below.

Longleaf Flat Off-Trail: To reach the Flat from Dome 6,620', return to Rim Overlook and continue on the Kayenta bench trail toward Navajo Knobs. At the first major north-trending drainage, enter Longleaf Flat. It is split down the center by a substantial ridge. "The Ramp" topology is slightly complicated and most definitely wild. As the map indicates, there are three high points. Walk to the third, its pure white Navajo Sandstone infiltrated with a peculiar blood-iron impostor. A coral-colored sand dune is piled up against the west wall of the Flat.

The view of Capitol Reef from here is stellar. For me, it is the most captivating and mind-numbing panoramic of them all. Retreat to the trail. A left turn takes you home.