Crisp but wintry
Sunlight streamed through the uncovered corners of our motel window. Outside everything was coated in a clean white mantle of about 2 inches of snow. It was cool - even cold out, several degrees below zero. The destination for today was a hike to Phipp's Arch - a backcountry attraction that fulfilled several of the criteria I had for the day: 1) it was not far off from a main highway, so I wouldn't have to worry about driving on a wet impassable backroad, 2) it did not involve any slot canyons that might be flowing, and 3) wasn't super long (in case conditions turned out to be unpleasant).
Phipps Route Start
It was a short but pleasant drive, first along the main highway (UT 24), and then a short distance along a well-graded dirt road (called the 'Old Scheffield Road') to the start of the route. There were no difficulties on the road itself (a good omen, since there are many warnings in the area about impassable roads when wet or snowy conditions exist). The Old Scheffield road is pretty scenic - at least the first few miles of it that we did. It winds its way through open benchlands and along the edge of cliffs looking out over vast slickrock vistas.
Stepping out of our trailblazer, the beautiful sunshine and the excitement of a day exploring strange new terrain had us in high spirits. I planned to follow the Phipps Arch 1-day route described in Steve Allen's Canyoneering 3 Loop hikes guidebook. This called for a descent of Phipps Wash down to the Arch, then returning via a bit of class 4 scrambling to a return route via high ground. Just in case, we through in a few slings and short cordalettes in case the scrambling proved tricky.
Winter's brushstroke on the desert
The route started off by immediately descending off of the high benchlands where we'd parked. All of the north and east facing slopes had a fresh coating of snow, and all of the south and west facing slopes were bare and dry. Very interesting contrast, and one that made for some unique photo opportunities. The common expectation is for a desert to look barren and DRY. The juxtaposition of snow and desert at the same time was kind of cool. Not so cool was the fact that fresh snow on top of sleep slickrock was indeed tricky. We had to carefully make our way down a few sections, although there was never much in the way of difficult exposure.
After a bit, we were always able to find a dry sunny south-facing slope to climb on, if we really needed to. The warmth of the morning sun, the melting snow, and the wonderful desert surroundings combined to create a wonderful atmosphere. For Pu and Roland, with this being their first Colorado Plateau hike, were ecstatically snapping digital photo after digital photo. I don't think the little Phipps Wash sub-tributary we were in had ever experienced a barrage of photo-taking quite like this!
We meandered down the little wash, following its wanderings back and forth, down over the occasional dryfall, past a few larger dropoffs. In one spot, there is a scenic large stretch of steep slickrock with very nice cross-bedding patterns in the sandstone. This was a perfect place to see the differential snow-melt: a sea of white on the eastern side of the steep slope, then a sharp demarcation line, and a sea of dry red sandstone on the western side. It was a very good thing that the snow had melted on one side. If the recent snows had remained on both sides, I don't think we could have safely gotten down a lot of the slopes we encountered.
Not long after this, our wash joined into the Phipps Wash proper. It wasn't long before beautiful sheer navaho sandstone walls started to create a well-defined canyon. The canyon's walls were, as we were to later discover, very characteristic of this rock layer in the Escalante. Smooth, completely vertical or even overhanging walls, streaked with runs of darker color (this is known as 'desert varnish'). Where the canyon made a turn, there would often be a huge, scooped out alcove. In the center of the canyon, a nice sandy wash meandered back and forth.
Video Clip: Phipps Wash Hike
Evidence of past flooding
Further downcanyon we started to experience clumps of thicker vegetation. Trees and thick riverbank vegetation choked the canyon bottom - all of it leafless and lifeless at this point in time. We had to do a minor bit of bushwacking through it, but for the most part there was a discernable herdpath we could follow. We noticed water-shaped bundles of plant material several feet off the ground and plastered to the trunks of trees and such - indications of the height of the last flash flood through here. A good reminder to treat these canyons with respect.
Scrambling up to the arch
Shortly after noon, we reached the side canyon that led up to Phipps Arch. The weather, which had been cool but nice and sunny, had started to turn a little. The sky was mostly gray and there was the hint of flakes in the air. We quickened our pace, hoping to get some good time at the arch before any inclement weather moved in.
"if I started sliding off the ridge at this point it would be a bumpy and painful ride..."
The route up to Phipps Arch is actually reasonably well-cairned. The route goes up steeply over several benches and ledges, wandering back and forth a bit to find the best weaknesses at each ledge. After about a 300-foot elevation climb, we reach a wonderful area of rounded red slickrock domes. One section of this slickrock has formed into a thick fin of rock, and it is in this fin of rock that the forces of erosion have carved the stout, squat Phipps Arch.
Phipps Arch is not going to fall apart anytime soon. It is a low, wide arch with a very thick and solid slab of sandstone over top. The side that we've come up on appears to have been sliced and scored as if from some sort of sandstone cutting machine. It is situated in a very neat and scenic spot, higher up and in an area of amazing slickrock. Going through the arch, one is treated to a neat garden of slickrock knobs, alcoves, and arches in various states of formation.
Lunch break at Phipps Arch
We went through the arch and located the steep bit of slickrock climbing that Steve Allen describes in his guidebook. The 4th class "exposed" part, as he describes it, is a short bit of exposed slickrock ridge. It was indeed a bit airy, but it didn't seem too long nor too steep. Except that today the crest of this ridge was half in snow, and half dry. Hmm... That made it a lot trickier.
We pondered and pondered, even to the point of getting out a long stretch of webbing and tying it around my waist for a crude belay. I gave it a go, but partway up at the steepest section, even the rock on the dry side was a little bit wet from the melting snow on the other side, reducing grip. If I started sliding off the ridge at this point it would be a bumpy and painful ride. I could see up, just past this section, to easier terrain. So close but yet so far. Jenn was freezing in the brisk and cold wind of the ridge, and we could see a wall of precipitation approaching us from the west. We couldn't spend too much more time on this; so, it was time to give up and walk back to the car via the route we came down. No loop trip for us today!
Old Scheffield still snowy
We scurried back down the ledges to the bottom of Phipps wash. The wall of precip we saw approaching hit us - it was a brief squall of flurries, but no real accumulation. The day was turning decidedly snowier, and again we wondering if the improving forecast would hold. Our walk back up Phipps wash was a no-nonsense march against a stiff breeze, with the brim of the hoods of our Goretex jackets pulled down low to ward off the bits of snow driven by the wind. Fortunately, by the time we reached the car, the weather had passed, no new snow had accumulated, and it started to look brighter and cheerier again. Amazing how a bit of nice weather can raise the spirits!
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[ On having to hike through snow ]
: "I had never seen snow in the desert, so that was pretty new. In
some ways I didn't really like it, only because it hid all the
beautiful desert rock that I love so much. Hiking
through it didn't pose much of a problem, although I will never
forget Andrew's advice, "They don't call it slickrock for nothing!"....after
a couple of tumbles from the men."
absolutely no problem at all. It added so much character to the
in the desert sucks. It does make for great pictures though,
and ultimately wasn't as offensive as first feared."
We decided to spend the night in one of the only developed campgrounds in the entire park: Calf Creek Campground. It was only about 10 miles or so from where we were. The campground turned out to be nearly deserted (not surprising) and the water was still turned off for the winter months (also not surprising given the cool temps). Still, we ended up with a nice spot very close to clear and flowing calf creek.
One of the very very few established and marked trails in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument starts right from the edge of our campground, and leads down the lower part of Calf Creek to a high waterfall, rumoured to be very pretty. Roland, Jenn and I obviously had some extra energy to burn and instead of getting dinner going, we decided to see if we could fit in a quick visit to the falls. The trail seemed fairly level, after all. The day was getting late, though, and we had little time before sunset.
We started off at a fast trot. The trail was indeed wide, easy and relatively flat, but it soon became apparent that it was not quite so short. After about 4km of half-trotting, half-running, past interesting fremont culture ruins and pictographs, and still not reaching the falls, we decided to turn back. It was getting dark! Perhaps another day or another trip!
As dusk progressed, the sky cleared completely. Perhaps the promise of some days of clear and calm weather? The night was especially nippy - well below freezing. Roland complained about the cold bitterly (in both senses of the word!). Many of the words he uttered were unprintable; however, he seemed to make it through the night without losing any limbs.