Part 1 | PART 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
also see the Interactive Map for this hike or the Video Trip Report.
It never did rain during the night, but the gray skies persisted in the morning. Moving again I quickly dropped out of the side canyon and into the main canyon where shortly downstream I came to a huge dryfall. There was water below, but no way down anywhere nearby. It’s always fun, but a bit nerve-wracking, exploring canyons like this where I have absolutely zero information. It might not be possible for me to make it through this way, but for now I was happy as there was a wide ledge which made for easy walking along the northern rim. Water flowed below with what looked like big pools lined with cottonwood trees.
I followed the rim quite a ways with still no way down. When I got to first branch where I wanted to go north, I continued along the rim as there was still no way down. I was happy to see water was flowing down this branch as well — however the rim became a little more rocky and sloped. I kept going.
Not too far up there was finally a break in the sheer ledges and a steep climb down allowed me to get to the flowing creek. Cows made use of this access route as well so the creek still had some cow presence, but not as bad as Swap Spring. And… the water tasted much better.
After filling up on water I made my way up the stream. There were several large pools along the way. I thought about taking a dip, but decided to keep moving. Farther up the walls of the canyon began to close in and then I reached a waterfall!
There wasn’t much water coming over the top, but the trickle falls made for a pleasant environment. Unfortunately there had been no easy way to access the rim along the way, so I thought I’d have to turn around and go all the way back.
There was one slope that got near the top. Unfortunately the top required a lateral move for 10′ or so above a 50′ sheer drop — definitely not for me. Then I spotted a crack nearby that I thought I might be able to squeeze into and make my way up. I got in without the pack and popped my head up and saw it was very close to the rim, but sill about 6 feet of loose talus to go. I’m not sure if I would have been able to get my pack through the crack, but I definitely didn’t want to try to maneuver it up that final pitch in such an awkward position. So… it was back down the stream and back up the way I had descended. From there I followed the ledge systems around and with no drama I was atop the waterfall in less than an hour.
Above the falls the water began to dry up quickly despite this being the location of the official spring. I passed a dead cow — always an unpleasant experience.
I headed up a NE branch of the canyon hoping to connect back with the Hayduke Trail. The last time I was here I ventured off the route into this drainage looking for water. I remembered this part of the canyon was tough to navigate, but I was hoping to learn from my experience and have an easier go this time. Nope — it was still pretty tough. But, I took solace in knowing that there was definitely a way and sure enough eventually after numerous up and down and back and forth over ledges and around bends I made my way up to the plateau. From here I was back on the cattle trail that is also the Hayduke Trail and I made my way east underneath the cliffs of Tarantula Mesa.
I had hoped to get up to the ascent route and make it to the top before camping. But, it started raining off and on which slowed my progress. Then, as I was rounding the bend into upper Muley Canyon I spotted something unique in the distance. I zoomed in with my camera and saw what looked like a really cool balanced rock. It was about ½ mile in the wrong direction so at first I thought it wouldn’t be worth the effort to take a closer look. But then I pondered… “why are you out here and when will you ever be back?” With that I decided to drop my pack and head out for a side hike at least far enough to get a better look. When I got to that point after 10 minutes, it looked really cool and I decided I had to go the whole way. I’m glad I did — it was a very impressive Mushroom Rock. It was one of those special random sites that comes as a surprise on long hikes.
Back at my pack I made my way up toward the ascent route. It was getting late and I was really torn if I should try the climb at this point or wait until morning. Then, Mother Nature decided for me as she unleashed the biggest downpour of the day. I found shelter in a small overhang to contemplate my options. Unfortunately the overhang wasn’t big enough to camp under, so instead I would have to find a place out in the open. Soon the rain let up and I found a place to camp. The rain continued off and on through the night and twice I heard rockfalls from the cliffs nearby. Scary.
I was VERY happy to see a sunny morning the next day. I feared trying to climb the ascent route in the rain, though now that wasn’t necessary. I was even happier to find that the route up wasn’t even muddy — the desert soil soaked up last night’s rain like a sponge.
The climb up Tarantula Mesa is tough — especially solo with a big pack. There is only one way up — so if you ever want to do this route make sure you know exactly where you are! The route up begins up a steep slope of dirt. Then when one gets to the cliffband, they must step up a series of small 2-3′ ledges. The poor footing makes this much harder than one would think. Then, once up on this now fairly precarious slope, one must get over the biggest step — about 4′ tall. With a buddy this wouldn’t be too tough, but solo it’s a different story.
From here it’s a fairly easy walk for about 800′ contouring south underneath the upper cliffs. As I approached the final climb, I’m startled by the sound of a rattlesnake. I’m glad I wasn’t on a sheer ledge at that moment as I probably jumped three feet in a random direction. The snake was actually at eye-level for me nestled into a crack in the wall. He slithered farther back into the crack before I could get a picture.
The final climb up Tarantula is another challenge for the solo backpacker. One must step up onto this huge boulder and then climb across a gap unto a smaller platform on another boulder about 4 feet higher. These two moves are paired with a moderate amount of exposure. Not “fall-to-your-death” exposure, just “fall-and-maybe-break-a-leg-in-a-very-inconvenient-location” exposure. Again this climb would be much easier for two or more people.
Once past the crux, it’s a matter of climbing 15-20′ up a gully of talus before reaching a good sloped ledge system that can be used to climb the remaining 100′ to the top of the mesa. Looking back down the views are awesome and one has an incredible sense of accomplishment thinking “I just climbed up that!”
Once on top I made it to the other side of the mesa just to take in the views back to Capitol Reef and then headed north cross-country before finding the Jeep road that runs down the spine of the mesa. Again walking from this point was much faster and I’m glad as I had a storm on my tail! I got to the solar well just as the storm unleashed. I set up a make-shift shelter under the solar panels. I felt kinda silly getting water from the well when it was a downpour all around me.
Once the rain stopped I continued up the fairly uneventful walk up Tarantula Mesa toward the Henry Mountains which were still mostly stuck in the clouds. Another storm forced me into another make-shift shelter. This time the rain turned to hail. But, as commonly the case, the storm passed within 15 minutes and once again I set out walking.
Near the top of the mesa the road descends through a cool reef of rocks near the foothills of the mountains and then connects with the Head of Bullfrog backroad. At this point I decided to change my plan from continuing north along the Hayduke route to a questionable water source and to the higher slopes, and instead I would follow another jeep road up to a named spring and then onto the pass between the mountains. As I was climbing up the slopes it began to rain again. When I got to a nice open area with a nice view to Mt Ellen in the distance, Mt. Pennell close and down to “Turn of Bullfrog” area I decided to make camp.
Again it rained off and on much of the night and I awoke to a soggy day and my great view of Mt. Pennel had completely vanished into the clouds.
I continued up and before too long I arrived at Airplane spring. The spring itself isn’t contained and just makes a muddy mess that has been stomped around by the cows. The best water here is definitely in a trough about ¼ mile down the mountain (which meant I had to backtrack to get it!) I was also surprised to find an old outhouse here (completely full with litter) and a memorial next to magnificent pine. The memorial states that the spring was named in honor of the military pilots who crashed near this site back in the 1950.
Continuing up to the pass was a strange, misty walk through the green hillside. Visibility was low as fog enveloped the surroundings and the ground steamed with the new rain. It looked much more like Scotland than Utah!
Once up at the pass I took the short side hike down to check out Box Spring. There was a large stock pond here and then a little bit farther the actual fenced off and covered well. The water in the well itself was low in and thus not convenient, but just a little farther down the slope were two troughs which were full of clear water.
The rain continued as I headed north up from the pass toward Mount Ellen. My intended route would climb another 1200′ feet before topping out on the shoulder of the mountain. As I climbed the road got muddier and muddier making it a tough go. The rain was cold. Despite my physical activity, it was hard to keep warm as I was drenched as I was not really prepared for such cold/wet weather. When the rain really started to come down I jumped off the road and took cover in the trees. Soon the rain turned to hail and then to snow. I stayed there for a while hoping it would let up — but it didn’t.
Knowing that my intended route would climb higher into the terrain that was currently completely socked in — I knew that I had to contemplate other options. I figured at the going rate it would take me about 3 hours to get over the shoulder of the mountain. That assumed that the conditions didn’t worsen. I didn’t think I could handle that in these temps so instead I decided to head back down to the pass. From there I could follow another jeep road south. I didn’t have maps for that area so I didn’t exactly know where it would go, but in general I knew it went south and DOWN which was what was important.
I started walking down the muddy road. I stopped for a moment, thinking my decision was wrong and that I needed to just power through. I turned around and looked again at the mountain ahead of me. It was mostly covered in clouds, but the patches I could see were now covered white. No — I needed to go south and take the unknown long way via lower elevation. So, I trudged on down through the mud.
After dropping just a few hundred feet the snow turned to rain and then just to a fine mist. The temperature was still fairly chilly — but far better than up in the snow. The mud however was proving to be a real obstacle. It was extremely hard to walk as the road was slippery and pounds of mud would cling to my boots. Every few minutes I would have to stop to clean them off. I would walk off the road where it was practical — but it often wasn’t due to brush and boulders. It was a slow process, but the sunny desert below called to me as I made my way slowly downward contouring around the mountain to the south.
Soon I passed Dark Canyon and its tiny stream. I filled up here — despite the fact there was another dead cow nearby. I did have an overview map of part of this area. I could see the road I was on continued farther south and off my map. This was the exact opposite of the way I wanted to go in order to re-connect with my planned route. So, I decided to go cross-county once again and down in the drainage to the east. I didn’t really have any information about this area, but I remember looking at the interesting terrain on Google Earth. If nothing else — it would be an adventure!
It was a slow climb down through the forest and down a few hidden ledge bands. The thick brush was actually more of a challenge than the climbs — well until the final descent which required a bit of scouting to find a viable route though a predominate cliffband. Soon though I was down into the dry streambed of Slate Creek.
I followed the bottom of the canyon down to the east. It began to narrow as it cut through a layer of sandstone. I feared that the canyon could slot up at any minute but I pushed on. Soon water appeared. This was both a relief and a concern. It was nice to have a good source of water, but I feared it could lead to deep pools in the narrow canyon. At one point the canyon did begin to slot and it looked as if it would soon become impassable. I dropped my pack and scouted down another 800 yards or so and all was fine. I went back to my pack and continued down the canyon. Not too much farther I abruptly can to a huge chockstone with a 10′ drop on the downward side. I think it probably would have been possible to get down this obstacle, but what lie beyond didn’t look promising. By this time it was getting late as well. Since I noticed a ramp not too far back which looked like a possible exit — I turned around to explore a route out of the canyon. Sure enough it was fairly easy to get out and to the rim where I decided to make camp for the night.
I awoke to rain again. After sleeping in a bit I got out and was glad that the rain actually stopped not long after. Instead of going back to try the chockstone obstacle, I decided to walk the rim and look for a way back in farther down canyon. I wasn’t able to find one. A few times it looked like my route along the rim could be blocked by sandstone fins, but luckily there was always a way.
Not too much farther, I had to decide whether I should continue following the rim of this canyon which was slowly turning to the south — or if I should try to climb north to the next canyon. Again I only had an overview map of the area, but I could tell the next canyon up looked more rugged, but much more of a direct route. I opted for that.
I climbed the steep slickrock up to the rim of the next canyon — Ragged Canyon. What an impressive view! There was definitely no way down into the canyon, but I was able to follow the rim without too much effort. Great views along the ridge.
Farther down the ridge became a little more rugged. I decided to try to get down a branch of a canyon to the east. It was a little sketchy at a few points, but in the end it wasn’t that bad and soon I found myself at the bottom of this side canyon. From here it was an easy walk to the bottom of Ragged Canyon where it empties into an area called Psyert’s Hole. Once here I picked up an ATV route that went out of the rugged landscape and onto the plains.
Soon the ATV route turned into a better route and once again began to bend away from my desired route. So, once I again I headed cross-country and eventually picked up another back-road that went more the direction I wanted to go. Before too long at all I came to an old ranch and was back on a well-traveled road and headed to the geologic feature known as Little Egypt.
Little Egypt was a fasicinating area. Even though it’s just off Hwy 95, I’d never stopped to visit. The sun was out again so it was warm and I was able to enjoy the myriad of cool rock formations in the area. Since I didn’t plan to be here, I didn’t have any information about the area. I knew there was one super-cool balanced rock on a spire though — somewhere. I checked gully after gully to no avail. I had to finally give up to continue on up toward my cache. But, in what looked like the last possible gully in the cool area, I spotted a lone spire in the distance. I decided I had to go investigate and once again… I was glad I did. Just before the sun went behind the ridge I got to see… The Torch!
Leaving Little Egypt behind I continued the uneventful walk up past a few cows and eventually to my cache site. From here I crossed the highway and made camp. There was an awesome Sundown. It felt as if it was the end of the chapter — as if the storm had passed. I was happy again.
End of Part 2.
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Very enjoyable Paul. Awesome experience.
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Digging this full trip report and the maps… ohhhh the maps! Picking through these bit by bit. Loving it. Part 3 tomorrow.
Enjoyed part 2 immensely ……hike on…..