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The weather continued to improve for us, and Monday was looking like a pretty fine day, albeit still a bit cool. Today I decided to take a gamble on a fairly innocuous looking route down a relatively untravelled drainage called Bighorn Canyon. We'd couple that with a visit to a noteworthy little slot canyon called "zebra slot". I'd seen some pretty fantastic pictures from Zebra slot and wanted to see it for myself.
A clear expanse
This hike also started on the Old Scheffield Road, not far from yesterday's hike start for Phipp's Arch. The start of the hike was pretty low-key: high benchlands with pines and desert grasses. We left the car by the side of the road and hiked south through the open fields, following a faint but discernable herdpath (remember, pretty much nothing is marked or an official route in this park).
Phipps Arch area, 1 day later
Route start, Bighorn loop
Upper Bighorn Canyon
We made for a blocky, square butte a short distance to the south. This was our marker for the head of the drainage of Bighorn Canyon. The day was crystal clear and warming up nicely. The snow of two days before was continuing to melt, although it persisted in the northern and eastern nooks and crannies. All in all, it was an extremely pleasant desert walk. Jenn ramped up her dad-in-the-desert photo stops, with many shots being taken with his disembodied head next to landmarks, on packs, and posed with us hikers.

After passing the blocky butte, we started to follow the sandy floor of Bighorn Canyon's wash. We came to the first high dryfall where the walls of the canyon started to rise. We had to make a slightly exposed scramble down one side of the dryfall, but it wasn't too difficult. Still more pleasant walking ensued after this. The area was definitely pleasant.
Scrambling down
Bighorn's first slot
Pu is liking his first slot!
We then reached the first of several interesting little slots carved into the bottom of Bighorn Canyon. This being the first bit of slot canyon that Pu and Roland had ever encountered, we spent a lot of time marvelling at it. Although we could have easily walked around it, we decided to climb into it and explore a bit.
courtesy RHanel
courtesy PChen
Lower Bighorn Canyon
Checkerboard mesa-like
Buttresses of rock
The Canyon then alternated between tight slots and more open areas. We explored a few of the slots and detoured around others that had big dropoffs that would have required a full rope to negotiate.
Amazing textures
Hiking in Lower Bighorn
A swirl and a hoodoo
It was after this series of tight slots that we discovered why Steve Allen calls this canyon a "hidden gem". We entered a region of smooth slickrock where the canyon's waters had carved out long, long stretches of metre-wide, sandy-bottomed narrows. The sides of the narrows were sculpted and smoothed into endless waves of sandstone, and the sandstone itself had the most delicate and colorful of patterns. This went on, and, on, and on. Picture yourself looking straight ahead, walking, walking, walking, and imagine minute after minute of ever-changing color, texture, and light scrolling past you on either side. Very amazing. And so very different than what we'd encountered the day before.
Video Clip: Bighorn Canyon
Slot Damage
The Fab Four
Mesmerizing textures
courtesy PChen
The party hikes on
Another portrait
Hanging cattle fence
After soaking all of this beauty in for quite some time, we came to the lower reaches of Bighorn Canyon, where the fantastic colors and shapes and textures faded away into a more normal looking desert wash. Not long after this we interested a larger wash, called Twenty Mile Wash, at an old ingenious hanging cattle fence. Here we'd walk downcanyon for a few miles until we hit the location of "zebra slot" and also the location of the canyon that we would walk up to return to the car and complete our loop.
courtesy RHanel
Alien cubbyholes
Twenty Mile Wash
Jenn crossing the wash
"Beyond the narrow pool was the prize: Undulating buttresses of smoothed sandstone, colored in exquisite bands of light and dark pink."
This part of the loop was a little boring, but only so because it wasn't quite as jaw-droppingly stunning as the lower part of Bighorn Canyon. Still, a pleasant walk, although the soft sand made walking a little tiring. It wasn't too long before I had to peer closely at the map and GPS; we were nearing our 'exit route', which would lead us to zebra slot and to our walk out.

The entrance to Zebra slot looked much like any other slot canyon in the area: rounded domes of slickrock converging, convex-ly, into a narrow crack. We walked up the wash to the start of it and dropped our packs. The route description stated that you can't go all the way up the slot because of an unclimbable dryfall.

The slot was immediately tight and deep, and there was a 15 to 20-foot long pool with some half-frozen water in it. Fortunately the slot's walls were sloped back a little and close enough to allow some bum-and-foot stemming, which each of us did in his or her own inelegant fashion. No one slipped into the drink, though!
courtesy PChen
Zebra Slot ahead
Passing an obstacle
Amazing Zebra Slot
Beyond the narrow pool was the prize: Undulating buttresses of smoothed sandstone, colored in exquisite bands of light and dark pink. The bird guano of a bird's nest up above this section sullied the walls a little, but still it was very beautiful. To say we probably took about a hundred pictures in zebra slot is probably not an exaggeration. Not far beyond this section the slot ends in a dryfall. I'd say in total you can't go more than 150 feet in from the start of the slot before you are stopped. However, all in all, definitely a worthwhile diversion.
courtesy RHanel
Roland's acrobatics
Nicely lit!
Wonderfully sculpted walls
Stemming Pu
Back out for lunch
Heading up and around
Back out and into the clear sunny noontime, where we had a nice leisurely lunch. This was turning out to be a hike of remarkable scenery and diversity. Could there be anything more on the way back? It was time to find out!

To return to the car, we had to follow the upper part of the drainage in which zebra slot was located. I don't even think it has a proper name on the map. We climbed up along the side of Zebra slot and walked beside it for a short distance, and under a wire fence. Above this point, zebra slot ends and there is a wide expansive wash and extensive and pretty slickrock beyond. We headed up alongside the wash.
courtesy PChen
Pu in the desert
Map Consultation
Hiking up exit canyon
During our travels over the past few days, we'd occasionally see these weird looking round circles in the sandstone; sometimes a rounded bump or wart in the rock, sometimes a ring in the rock, or sometimes an entire dark ball weathered out of the rock. Some have a very smooth surface, and when they do, they very much resemble dark-colored metal ball bearings. A bit of research reveals that these are a type of concretion in the sandstone. These particular concretions are known as "Moqui Marbles". The outer shell of the marbles is composed of a high amount (15%) of iron (so them being like ball bearings is not so far off...!). The current theory is that these are formed in a long process of groundwater-based dissolution and precipitation of iron, and, when conditions are just right, the precipitation results in spherical structures rich in iron.
Balls and stripes
Field of Balls
Deepening wash
What's even more fascinating is that the conditions must have been extra-perfect in the canyon we are now walking up. There are mats, sheets, veritable fields filled with hundreds and thousands of these concretions, all weathered out of the rock and just sitting out in the open on the bare sandstone. Warning: do not walk around this area at night without a flashlight, or you will at some point be flat on your back!! Have a look at our photos: we took many interesting shots of these 'ball-bearing fields'. Very cool.

As we walked further up the canyon, we were treated to, unbelievably, even more unique and dramatic scenery: huge active sand dunes, high spires and "beehives" of navaho sandstone, and yet more specactular-yet-different flavours of wildly banded sandstone. It was now late in the afternoon, and the clear late-day sunshine lit the landscape perfectly. A non-stop feast for the eyes!
Huge Stabilized dune
More beautifully banded slickrock
Dune walking
Chilly and cold up here
First sight of the car
A final stretch
Roland: "What a fantastic hike! Worming through a narrow canyon carpeted with fine sand had us feeling like Indiana Jones, about to discover a hidden city. Countless black balls, excreted from the bedrock, littered the land. We hiked on Jabba the Hut's fossilized skin. Every turn served up a new marvel, utterly distinct from the one before. A perfect day."

Jennifer: "I don't think I could ever truly express how much I love being in the desert, and this hike was one of the best! Every turn brought new and interesting views, textures and landscapes. The slots, of course, were one of my favourite parts of this hike, and the "black ball bowling" was pretty cool too. (50 pts. If you hit Andrew!!!)"

Roland: "Probably one of the most intoxicating hikes I have done. Arguably my favorite hike of this trip. The weather was ideal. The hike led us to a variety of breathtaking views, from vast spacious valleys decorated with colorful pinnacles, to playful slot canyons. The snow added so much character to the view. The sky was mostly sunny with occasionally a cluster of snow white clouds - just perfect!"
The day and the hike was getting long - even though the scenery was fantastic, we were looking forward to getting back to the car. We climbed higher and higher, carefully following the route description in our guidebook, until we again reached the high benchlands dotted with arid vegetation. It was getting late and there was a cool wind up here, along with stretches where the snow had still not melted. In fact, on the last high mesa we crested, we could see our car in the distance, but the slope down the mesa to the plain below was covered in snow, making a descent by that route treacherous. We had to skirt around to a more gentle slope in order to gain the base, after which it was a short walk across the fields to the car.

Whew! what a day. That was the most scenically spectacular hike I'd been on in a long, long while. And, even better, it was untracked, remote - we didn't see a single other soul. It was like our own little playground for the day. Five stars - highly recommended. Just don't tell too many of your friends!
Interested in seeing more of our Bighorn Canyon Loop hike? Click here to go to a special "focus on" page that contains 61 additional Bighorn Canyon Loop hike pictures, as well as interactive track maps and gps-derived elevation profiles.
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