Wednesday, April 11
The night before, in Catherine's Motel room, we sat down and decided what would fit best into the time remaining. Most of us want to do a backpack, but it had to be something that fit easily into two days, so that we would have time to fit in the Zion mountain-biking portion of our trip on the last day before we fly out. I spent a while consulting my guidebooks, and the best thing that I could come up with that fit the bill, was scenic, and combined the elements we were looking for (primarily some river wading) was a loop trip starting from the Egypt trailhead, heads down the Escalante River, and back up via 25-mile wash. After I explained the route to everyone, all were in -- except Catherine, who's been spooked by the flash flood in the Maze and has sworn off canyon camping. We'll give her one vehicle, so that she can explore on her own, and the rest of us will pile into the other.
We gear up for our backpack, stop at a small outdoor store in the town of Escalante for some camp fuel, and we're off. It takes about an hour of driving down the hole-in-the-rock road and the Egypt road before we get to the trailhead. That annoying high-cloud type weather has returned, and we hope there's no repeat of the inclement weather of a few days before. In any case, we'll be more prudent about choosing campsite, I'm sure.
By 11am we're about ready to head off. The Egypt trailhead is at the edge of a plateau, and we can see a good portion of our route from there. We descend steeply down swirling Navajo slickrock, then walk across sandy and rocky terrain to a side tributary of the Escalante called Fence Canyon. Here, on benchlands above the multitude of canyons that drain the Escalante Basin, the landscape is pleasant, if somewhat nondescript high desert. I've been to this area before, though, and I know that the scenic gems are waiting for us in the washes and canyons below. Once down in Fence canyon, it is a short walk to its confluence with the Escalante.
The Escalante river is the primary river in this area. It drains a large area, including terrain up in the high mountainous plateaus to the west, so it always flows. Upon reaching the mouth of Fence Canyon, we immediately need to change into our water footwear and hike up our pants, because it is now wading time!
Normally, I'm a big wuss when it comes to entering cold water, but for some reason I don't find it so bad, while on the other hand Luke (who is a water pro) finds the cold water is giving him an 'ice-cold-water-headache'. The water is no deeper than about thigh deep.
The Escalante is a fairly major river, and as a result it has carved a flat floodplain a few hundred metres or more wide. Within this narrow floodplain, the river meanders back and forth. This means that the most direct path downstream is not to follow the water's flow precisely, but to cut across the bends of these meanders, and usually crossing the river where it makes a hard turn against the smooth red walls of sandstone. There's typically a well-defined use path through beautiful riparian vegetation on the benches next to the river (big cottonwood and boxelder trees, willows, tamarisk, sedges, rushes, and cattails).
As we attempt to cut across the first curve downstream with Fence Canyon, it soon becomes obvious that there's been some major damage. There is no well-defined, pleasant use trail anymore. Instead there is a muddy mess of tangled vegetation. The bigger cottonwoods are all intact (mostly), but the smaller vegetation has clearly been inundated by a very large flow of water - everything covered in a bit of mud, and all of the smaller plant vegetation is bent or crushed in the downstream direction. What should have been pleasant hiking turns into something a bit more akin to bushwacking.
Soon we reach a notable side-canyon, called Neon Canyon. Neon canyon is known for its iridescent red walls, and also for a famous arch-like pothole and dropoff a ways upcanyon, through which the little stream in the canyon comes shooting. The alcove in which this pothole is located is called the Golden Cathedral. Upstream of this, Neon Canyon is a popular technical slot canyon. The end of the technical route is a wild free-rappel through the hole in the Golden Cathedral, into the pool below. We don't have any climbing gear with us today, and in any event we wouldn't have time for it, but it would definitely be something fun to do on a future trip!
Lush Cottonwood in Neon
We stop and take a short time to explore up the lower part of Neon Canyon. It is a beautiful little spot, narrow and with high, red walls of clean sandstone. We're starting to get a good does of the intimate beauty of the Escalante region here. Ewart seems to like it!
I walk briskly upcanyon with Ewart, hoping to get as far as the Golden Cathedral, which I've seen many times in pictures but which I've not seen myself in person. Unfortunately, times-a-ticking and we decide we'd better turn around and continue our backpack. I imagine I was just a few bends away.
Wading the Escalante
Soon we are back to the mouth of Neon Canyon and we continue our backpack down the Escalante. Because of the flood damage we're encountering, travelling across the wooded benches between bends is a bit tedious.
"it is a very pleasant experience to wade down a desert stream, with the flow gently helping you along..."
At first I think "Gee, that storm the other night was more widespread than I thought". But then I realize that while this looks relatively fresh, It doesn't look 3-day-old fresh. And by the signs we are seeing, this looks like it was a far bigger flood: we see huge, beaver-dam like thickets of dead branches stuck way high up on trees - above our heads. In certain areas, we see evidence of massive scouring, with large expanses of root systems of very large trees exposed. It looks like the whole floodplain, from canyon wall to canyon wall, was underwater [we later discover that this damage is the result of a large 50 to 100-year flood event that occured in October of 2006. Click here
to go to a blog entry that describes someone who witness this event from right in this spot, in Neon Canyon.
A video account of the first half of the first day of our backpack down the Escalante River:
Escalante Backpack Part I - Click on video above to start
A few bits of use paths have started to appear in the tangled mess, but we must frequently push our way through thickets and past debris. As a result, we find that it works better if we wade in the stream a bit more often. Often, this allows us to bypass what looks like especially messy areas. And, as a bonus, it is a very pleasant experience to wade down a desert stream, with the flow gently helping you along. With a bit of care, we are able to keep to spots that are less than thigh deep, and so keep all of our clothes dry. I wonder how long it will take for this mess to fade away and be rejuvenated...
Shortly, we arrive at the next side-canyon of note: Ringtail canyon, home, apparently, to one of the darkest slots in the Escalante Region. Not having visited any slots so far on this trip, I deem it quite appropriate that we stop and take a quick jaunt up it for a look-see.
It is a 100-metre boulder-scramble upcanyon to the start of the slot. The entrance is a cave-like triangular opening, and it is indeed quite dark looking. Upon entering, it seems almost temple-like, with a faint lane of light casting a line down an otherwise pitch-black interior. We wait in the entrance for the others to catch up and for our eyes to adapt, and then we walk upcanyon, where it immediately narrows down into a three-foot wide slot.
Soon there's water, too, and very cold. Ewart, surprisingly, offers to charge ahead in the water, exclaiming that "If I can get through, any of you can". But soon he's stopped short by a swimmer pool, and the water is so cold, no one wants to make a go of it. Thus ends our brief exploration of Ringtail Canyon!
Once again back at the Escalante, we put on our packs and head downcanyon again. We're mindful of the time, and we've still a fairly long and sinuous walk down to our desired camping location, which is somewhere near the mouth of Twentyfive-mile wash. No more side canyon exploration for today, unfortunately.
Fortunately for us, the Escalante's canyon and river get more beautiful as we walk downstream. The ochre walls grow higher, and the canyon narrows. The river winds very scenically through the deep, sharp bends. We're staying more and more in the river, enjoying the novelty of wading in a gentle desert stream amidst all of this beauty. Also, the water seems to be not as cold as earlier. Ewart is especially enjoying this 'water hike'. He'll come back here someday, he promises.
Our time estimates our good, and we reach the scenic confluence of Twentyfive-mile Wash and the escalante more than one hour before sunset. My guidebook indicates that there are good campsites just a short ways up Twentyfive Mile wash, so we head up, keeping our eyes peeled for a nice (and high) campspot.
Mouth of 25-mile Wash
This lower part of Twentyfive Mile Wash also shows some evidence of the 'big flood'. We can see that the sandy bottom has been deeply scoured, also there seems to be less vegetation damage here. There are still high, sharp-edged deposits of sand, and there are also a few spots of annoying quicksand... one of which tries to suck Luke in.
25-mile wash campsite
On the inside of the first curve in Twentyfive Mile Wash, high above many levels of sandy terraces, we find a small spot of ground, surrounded by pretty Gambel Oak trees, and right against the Canyon's wall. We can see from the line of flotsam on the ground that this spot was high enough to escape even that 50 to 100-year flood of last October-- although barely. I calculate the odds of an event worse than that happening this very night to be so astronomically low as to being akin to suddenly seeing John Lennon set up camp next to us, and having him tell us that in fact he wasn't shot, but instead faked it because he wanted to duck out of public life and become a desert hermit as a result of reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in October of 1979. Or, anotherwords, quite unlikely. So we decide this is a good place to set up. Our campsite is quaint, private and quite scenic! We've seen no people for the whole afternoon, and we have a nice sense of solitude here.
Since we've arrived at camp at a reasonable hour, we have a leisurely dinner in the late day light. During the night, we are once again briefly fooled by the rustling of the wind on our tent-fly, and think we've had some more rain. Paranoid now, aren't we?
"Loved it, loved it, loved it! I was thinking that in the ideal world, one could float down this river in their inner-tube trailing another inner-tube containing cold beer. This backpack was spectacular and must be repeated. I would have loved to do a bit more exploring in Neon Canyon, and maybe even more of Ringtail Slot if time permitted and the weather was a bit warmer. The aftermath of the storm from the previous October was phenomenal and a real pain-in-the-arse to hike in. As I hiked through most of it, I kept thinking that it feels as though I am walking through a war-torn country... devastation surrounded us. Only last year we backpacked through Coyote Gulch which was stunningly beautiful, and I wonder how it must look now. !"
A video account of the second half of our Escalante backpack's first day, down the Escalante River to twenty-five mile wash:
Escalante Backpack Part II - Click on video above to start
Ruminations on the wonderful first day of backpacking along the Escalante River:
Escalante Backpack Part III - Click on video above to start