In late April I set out on my latest long-distance hike in southern Utah. The goal this time out was to hike from Zion National Park to Capitol Reef National Park. The start and end points would be similar to my “Grand Staircase” hike in 2006, but the new route I had planned would change things up quite a bit and feature some spots I’d always wanted to visit.
Day 1 (April 27, 2015)
After driving to southern Utah and spending a few more days to set out 3 caches and pick up permits… I was ready to begin my hike! I began just inside the east entrance of Zion National Park near the popular little “bonsai” tree.
I was headed to the Barracks southeast of the park and I opted to climb over the pass at Separation Canyon instead of the more common Checkerboard Mesa route. Though longer, I enjoyed this alt route more as it afforded great views from the pass and involved less bushwhacking.
Before long I was on the south side of Checkerboard Mesa and headed down the slickrock toward the East Fork of the Virgin River. I got out outside the park boundary and made camp on the ridge above the canyon. Coyotes howled throughout the night; it felt good to be back out on the trail.
Early in the morning I began dropping down into the canyon. The route seemed marked with cairns much more thoroughly than I remember back in 2009. The final drop to the river is very steep down sharp rocks, but with careful steps there’s no need to even remove the pack.
Once down at the river I immediately found the Powell Plaque that I missed last time as I thought it was on the other side of the river. Doh! (North side of the river btw, just west of entrance/exit route.)
I dropped the pack here and headed down the river to see the lower canyon. This stretch of narrows is fairly short, but is one of the best around in my opinion.
I enjoyed the narrow section, but unfortunately I was unable to get all the way to Labyrinth Falls (again!) The big boulders just upstream (presumably) from the falls make for a tricky downclimb which I didn’t feel comfortable doing solo.
Headed back up canyon, I also struck out getting up into lower Misery Canyon. I didn’t give it much effort though as the deep pool at the exit looked too difficult to even attempt. Otherwise the lower section of the Barracks was awesome. Several narrow sections are incredible and rival the Narrows in Zion, but unlike that popular spot, I didn’t see one other person in this entire stretch.
At little farther up canyon I reached the one and only obstacle in the canyon. The log/boulder jam is actually not as bad as it used to be as many of the logs on top have washed away. For a while evidently water flooded over the entire obstacle making it difficult, but in 2015 the water is back to only one side. Making the climb however still involves going through 4′ deep water. Not too bad, however, I wanted to go up the bypass route which became the popular method when the obstacle was more daunting. The bypass goes up/under/through a rockfall on the right side of the canyon (looking upstream.) The climb up through the bypass isn’t technically difficult, but it does take some work especially for the solo hiker with a big bag. It’s pretty tight in a few places so bigger hikers with large packs will have to push/squirm/squeeze a bit. If conditions at the obstacle aren’t too bad, I’d rather just stay in the main watercourse — but it’s good to know there is an alternate if needed.
Above the obstacle are the first signs of cows in the canyon. Boo.
A little farther up canyon I did the side hike up Poverty Wash. This is a nice side canyon that ends with a set of narrows and a small grotto. It was only about 45 minutes to do the entire up and back and definitely worth it in my opinion.
Just past Rock Canyon I checked out the petroglyphs on the north side of the canyon and camped near the entrance of Mineral Wash.
Began the day with another side hike up Mineral Gulch. There are some caves in the lower section which seem to have been inhabited by natives. Above that the canyon dries up and there are several sections of narrows that are really impressive. Besides that though, the rest of the canyon isn’t that exciting. It took about 1.5hrs for my side hike.
Back in the main canyon and headed upstream I finally ran into some cows. I was surprised I hadn’t seen any thus far based on the large amount of cow pies and bones I’d seen. It’s really a shame that such a beautiful canyon is so polluted with cow feces. There’s a barrier just below Mineral Gulch which must not be doing the trick all the time.
A little bit farther and the route begins to follow a dirt road beside and sometimes along the river which has almost disappeared by this point. The White Cliffs come into view and are impressive. One must stay on the road as to not trespass along several parcels of private property — one now complete with a zip-line attraction which spans the mostly dry streambed.
Nearing Hwy 89 I filled up on water for what I knew would be a long dry stretch ahead. It was already fairly late in the day, so my goal was to just get up to the Diana’s Throne area and my cache. Every time I walk this stretch, I seek out a better route through maze of ATV routes and old roads that run between the White Cliffs and the highway. And each time, the chosen route deteriorates and/or leads me back to the Hwy and thus I end up just walking up the big long hill beside the traffic whizzing past. Not the best hiking environment, but it seems as if it might be best choice for getting from Point A to B.
Got to my cache at dusk and just camped right there to easily re-organize my gear.
Tried to sync up with the outside world since I had cell service so close to the highway. Unfortunately my batteries were dying and thus brightness had to be turned down and I could hardly see anything. Ug — back to hiking!
Decided to bypass upper Red Canyon (aka Peek-a-boo) and instead quickly made my way down the old highway to the ATV Routes near Kanab Creek. Surprised to find a small waterhole along the way. Later, surprised again to find the “well” marked on the map had been capped. Didn’t matter — I had plenty of water and after walking the SANDY atv route I found Kanab Creek flowing as expected. Note that the flow often starts about the same place that the private property does. Fortunately the popular ATV route briefly crosses this section with no posted restrictions. I filled up on water before heading east toward Cutler Point.
Soon I left the ATV route behind and went cross country toward a sandstone outcrop visible in the distance. It took longer to get there than expected, but it was a cool spot once I arrived and worth the effort.
I contemplated camping here, but instead headed a little farther east to try and make up some time.
After a little more cross country travel, I reconnected with another ATV route and headed toward Johnson Canyon via a circuitous route skirting private land. Saw my first snake of the trip along the way.
When I got to the Johnson Cyn Road I was surprised to see a bunch of trailers/campers/tents set up at the Trailhead Kiosk — something was going on. Turns out it was the weekend of the local ATV Jamboree. All the rigs were out on the trail at the moment, but the admin crew left behind was nice to chat to for a while. They gave me a hot dog and some extra water and were anxious to hear about my plans.
After a short jaunt up Johnson Canyon Rd, I was on another sandy ATV route (Nephi Pasture Road) and headed into Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument following the base of the White Cliffs. When the route headed south, I opted to go cross country again to maintain a heading east.
I ended the day short and camped in the sand.
Woke to find that packrats had chewed up my bandana during the night. The lil’ buggers also chewed the tie-down cords from both ends of my tent!
Soon after getting up I could hear the roar of ATVs and somebody on a mega-phone in the distance. I guess the Jamboree had caught up with me! After a little more cross-country travel I reconnected with the route and soon shared the route with HUNDREDS of ATVers. They were loud and dusty, but I will say they were a bunch of friendly people. Several offered me water and were curious about my route. I didn’t witness any of the masses deviating from the official route.
Soon the Jamboree went south and I continued along a different route east before eventually diving down into Nephi Canyon. About half way down the canyon I found a small trickle of water. It was the first natural water I’d seen in a LONG ways. If not for water from the ATVers and my own water cache along Johnson Canyon, I would have been severely dehydrated! Luckily I still had plenty to get a bit farther, because thought I was happy to see the water, it was pretty polluted by cows. Glad to find water, but I was still a little nervous heading down Nephi as I hadn’t read any beta on this canyon and wasn’t sure that it would go through (though it looked like it should via maps and SAT imagery.) Below the trickle of water the ATV tracks disappear. They re-appeared at a side canyon, but didn’t continue very far. But, walking the bottom of the canyon was fairly easy and before too long I was in the wide valley at the junction of Deer Park Wash. Soon after that I was at Kitchen Springs Road.
A little farther north I made my way up Box Elder Canyon. Found a nice spring not too far up the canyon — there were cows in the area, but not too bad. I filled up on water, climbed out the canyon and made camp on a high ridge near some interesting rock formations. Shortly after nightfall an owl was hooting in the moonlight atop a dead tree very close to my tent. I got a good look at this huge bird before it took off, but unfortunately failed to get a photo. Amazing creature.
Within the first hour on the trail I got my first glimpse of Mollies Nipple as it pierced the horizon as I gained elevation. Soon I picked up the ATV route that leads to its base on the southern side. From here it was a slow go as I made my way cross-country around the Nipple to the east. There are a lot of interesting hoodoos and other rock formations in the area. Soon I dropped down into the canyon only to find I was quickly blocked by a dryfall. I found a bypass only to find another dryfall a little bit farther. I could tell this would be frequent occurrence — so I opted to climb back out and up the ridge to try and follow the path as outlined by Kelsey. It was definitely the best bet as from the high ground I could see multiple drops in the canyon lower down.
I followed the ridge up and crossed the side canyon before dropping into the correct branch which goes down to the Starlight Caves. I got there just in time as it started to rain. Protected — I had some lunch and enjoyed checking out the unique charcoal pictographs.
Headed down Starlight was a nice hike: Red blocky sandstone framing a small flowing creek with multiple cascades along its course. When I got to the top of the Narrows it looked like a steep/slick decent into a pool, but upon closer inspection I realized it was pretty easy and I managed to stay out of the water.
Down at the junction with Kitchen Canyon I headed back up canyon to see the falls. There was a little more water coming over the top compared to the last time I was here in 2006. As I took photos it started to rain again — this time with a little more force so I didn’t stick around too long. It should be noted that the bypass that used to skirt the falls on the north side to has been completely washed out, thus it’s impossible to get above the falls without a LONG bypass (ie Starlight Canyon.)
I continued down Kitchen Canyon and then checked out the petroglyphs near the confluence with the Paria River. Then I walked a short ways down the Paria before making camp.