The cool breeze (that we had in the evening before) died overnight. It was a dead calm when we arose, just before dawn. A high haze covered the sky, although we could still see a few of the brighter stars shining through. It is incredibly silent in the desert when there is no wind - which is especially strange when you are in a huge, wide open area, as we were. There is something incongruous about being able to see 30 miles in all directions and not hearing even a whisper of sound.
Moonset over Fiftymile Mountain
Early sun on Fiftymile Mountain
Our destination for the next two days was a canyon called Coyote Gulch. Reputed to be one of the more popular and scenic of the side canyons of the Escalante, it had a number of interesting natural bridges and arches as scenic attractions. The canyon itself is deeply carved into the navaho sandstone, with sheer smooth walls bordering much of its lower reaches.
40-mile ridge water tank trailhead
We got up, quickly made some breakfast, took some scenic pre-dawn and post-dawn photos, and packed up for our backpack. We would leave the car here, at the 40-mile ridge cattle tank trailhead, walk down into hurricane wash (a side drainage of coyote gulch), down coyote gulch, and back out where coyote gulch met the Escalante river. From there we'd walk back to a different trailhead, then along the single-track gravel road to the trailhead with the car. A big loop, essentially.
From the high point where we were parked, the area that we were going to be spending our next two days looked like a relatively drab expanse of slightly undulating open slickrock. There was no hint, no indication that a deep arch-and-alcove filled canyon was carved sinuously across the terrain in front of us. This is very typical of this region. Often you look out and see nothing special - this land hides its treasures, opening them only to those willing to spend some energy and explore on foot.
The Chimney as a guidepost
The first part of our route was completely cross-country. We followed a basic route description and kept on a heading (which fortunately happened to line up almost exactly with the rock spire of chimney rock in the distance). It was pleasant but windy and cool walking down various slickrock drainages and washes into Hurricane wash. Again, and refreshingly, we were all alone - nothing like having a desert to yourself!
After about an hour and a half of walking, we intersected the bottom of Hurricane Wash. There were some nice narrows between high walls at this point. We were out of the wind in the bottom of the wahs, and the sun came out from behind the high haze, making the morning suddenly much warmer.
Sometimes a good footpath
Hurricane wash was at this point a dry wash. Not much further along, however, was a small spring that started a small, stagnant trickle down the bottom of the wash. Although it was only a trifling here, from this point on flowing water would be our constant companion until almost the end of our backpack.
The presence of water meant a riparian vegetation zone, so we had to start wandering back and forth through bushes, reeds, and trees. Since this area is relatively well-frequented, there was often a good path. However, the lack of an official trail also meant that several alternative paths existed, and you sometimes couldn't tell which was the main one and which would peter out. So there was an occasional bit of bushwacking to get back on the right path. The path also started hopping from side to side, across the small but gradually growing flow of water. At this point it was usually a fairly simple hop.
Increasing Stream and Walls
Not so easy to cross now!
Walls of smooth slickrock rose higher and higher as we descended Hurricane wash; very soon thereafter, we arrived at the junction of Hurricane Wash and Coyote gulch, where the small brook of water flowing out of Hurricane Wash joined the larger stream of water flowing down Coyote Gulch.
The much larger flow of water now meant that crossing the stream was no longer a no-brainer. We had to start picking constrictions in the stream, or spots where a few stones could be used to get across. It wasn't like this was a mean torrent of water; it was just that we didn't want to get our hiking boots wet. If it had been a warmer season, we would probably have just crossed barefoot or in sandals; the stream was gentle and the bottom was shallow and perfectly sandy.
Morning snack break at the Confluence
Coyote Gulch's course was very sinuous - and in the outsides of the bends, erosion had carved huge overhanging alcoves in the smooth sandstone. These were beautiful, awe-inspiring spots, full of echoes and color and ambiance. Groves of large Cottonwood trees were everywhere, and we imaginged the brilliant splashes of green they would provide in the coming spring and summer months. There were many idyllic sandy-bottomed spots everywhere, perfect for setting up camp.
Nearing Jacob Hamblin Arch
Lobo (Jacob Hamblin) Arch
It was nearing lunchtime when we reached the first major attraction: Lobo Arch (aka Jacob Hamblin Arch). At this point, the canyon walls are huge - perhaps 500 feet high. Lobo Arch had formed when the two bends of a hairpin loop in the canyon had both eroded and connected with each other. It was a huge, massive opening, surrounded by huge, massive overhanging alcoves. Everything was on a gargantuan scale. And it was also incredibly beautiful. This was a perfect stop for lunch, next to this fantastic work of nature. Our day was now beautiful, sunny and warm, and we were down to our t-shirts.
We climbed up and through the arch, which was a little tricky because you had to climb up and down some steep and exposed talus to get through, but it was a neat way to see the arch and also cut off a big bend of the canyon that we would otherwise have had to follow.
As we proceeded downcanyon, water crossings became the main focus; almost every sharp bend in the canyon meant the water would shift to the outside of the bend, usually right up to the vertical rock wall of the canyon. Trying to figure out when and where and how to cross became a science! Roland's hiking poles turned out to be especially useful in these water crossings, since he could use them to semi pole-vault across sections of the stream. At times there were situations where we'd pass around the hiking poles to help us get across (not Pu, though, he took some pride in being able to hippity-hop across the stream unaided).
Some ways downcanyon from Lobo Arch, we encountered a beautiful rincon (a rincon is the entrenched remnant of an old meander in the canyon - similar to an oxbow lake in flat terrain, but with high walls and usually higher than the level of the watercourse). This rincon had a high, flat, grassy floor, surrounded by beautiful canyon walls on one side and a tall pinnacle, presumably the collapsed remnant of a natural bridge that once spanned the watercourse, on the other. A few tents were set up here, and I can see why - this was a supremely beautiful campsite. The main trail cut a pleasant path through the rincon's meadow.
[on the never-ending stream-crossings in Coyote Gulch]
"Thank God for Roland's hiking poles!!! And for the record...I did think about the fact that the log I threw in the stream would probably float away...I was just silently hoping the laws of physics would fail just this once."
"Hiking poles really help with stream crossings. I should have charged a fee every time I shared mine!"
"It was fun."
The next feature of interest was Coyote Natural Bridge - another beautiful hole in the navaho sandstone, through which coyote gulch's water flowed. (The key difference between a natural bridge and an arch, by the way, is that a flowing watercourse flows through a natural bridge, whereas an arch is just an opening through rock with no water flowing through it).
We started to see a few other hikers by this point; presumably they were camped in the lower reaches of the canyon and had wandered up for a bit of afternoon sightseeing. This canyon was definitely busier than any other spot I'd encountered in the park!
Although we had figured on camping somewhere in the vicinity of Coyote Natural Bridge, we decided to move on a little farther downcanyon. It was still early in the day, and if we pushed on a little farther, it would mean we could have a bit more of a relaxed day out tomorrow. So, on we went.
crossings became the main focus; almost every sharp bend in the
canyon meant the water would shift to the outside, usually
right up to a vertical rock wall."
The afternoon wore on, and we were starting to get a little weary of the constant stream-hopping; also, we had made good progress, and were most of the way down Coyote Gulch. Time to find camp!
Of course, now that we were interested in finding a campspot, there were none immediately obvious. Most suitable spots were either too small or too close to the main path, so we kept on going downstream. After one particularly nasty bit of brush bushwacking just above Jug Handle Arch, we thought we noticed a potential spot on the opposite side of the stream, away from the path. Roland hopped over to investigate, and over the rush of water we heard "this will do.". 'nuff said! One last awkward water crossing and we were in our own little private clearing amidst a grove of trees, towering canyon walls rising all around us. Not quite as sublime as some of the other campsites we'd seen today, but still pretty durn' good.
Human reptiles warm bodies
Video Clip: 40-mile Ridge Road Drive
It was still early in the afternoon and the sun was still shining brightly into our little clearing. We took our time setting up camp and exploring around. There was a high bench we could climb up on from near our camp, and from it we could look straight down onto our little tents and to the canyon around us. We stuffed our semi-damp boots into a sunny crack near our tents and lazed around until dinner. It was nice to relax for a bit. The thick brush and rushing of the stream meant that no other hikers were ever visible from our camp. Again, it was like we had the place to ourselves!
I had a tasty Beef Satay dehydrated meal (these dehydrated meals are getting pretty tasty!) for dinner, along with a tuna-and-cheese bagel sandwich, followed by a nice relaxed evening of sitting in the sand and chatting. We retired with the arrival of dusk, hitting the sack at about 8pm.