Across the Flats to Scorpion Gulch
Tuesday, March 11
Construction on the Bench
We got away as planned at 7am from the Inn. We had a (by my estimate) 1 hour drive from Escalante to the trailhead. The trailhead was at a spot called 'Early Weed Bench', located on a spur road that connects to the 24-mile point along Hole-in-the-Rock road. The drive down the Hole-in-the-Rock was dusty but otherwise uneventful.
Crossing a Gully
The Early Weed Bench Road was in less-good shape. It had experienced a number of small washouts since it had last been graded, and unfortunately, the girth and sub-optimal overhangs of our Suburbans made this a chore. We were forced to do a fair bit of rock-piling to allow us passage over the many little one and two-foot gullies that crossed the path of the road. These rock-building exercises burned a lot of time, and it was nearly 10:30am by the time we got to the Early Weed Bench trailhead. So much for starting early, eh?
Brian guides the way
Despite the once-again late start, we had a projected 12-ish km to hike in and, as far as I was aware, no major terrain obstacles between us and the location at which we wanted to camp. So, not too bad. We still had enough time if we maintained a reasonable pace.
Early Weed Bench Trailhead
Before I go any farther, let me describe the plan for this backpack. We wanted to do a 3-day loop that involved Scorpion Gulch. Scorpion Gulch is a side canyon of the Escalante River. Like many of the side canyons of the Escalante, Scorpion Gulch starts off as a non-descript wash on the flat desert benchlands that stretch underneath the long, uniform escarpment of Fiftymile mountain (a prominent land boundary to the west of the Escalante drainage). Scorpion Gulch then widens and deepens dramatically, eventually becoming large and with huge walls, before emptying into the Escalante River. It is reputed to have a beautiful mid-section with clear flowing water and pleasant campsites.
The route I had planned included more than just the Gulch, however. The return route did not simply return up the Gulch -- instead, we would hike down the Escalante River for a short stretch, then climb up and out on a huge sand dune to a "ledge route" known as the Scorpion Horse Trail. This route follows along a weaker, "ledgier" layer in the rock strata, above and below sheer slickrock layers. According to my Canyoneering guidebook by Steve Allen, it was known as "the finest ledgewalk in the Escalante". Sounded really nice! From the top of the Scorpion Horse trail, we'd cross-country back to our cars, making for a tidy 3-day loop.
We got our gear together quickly, knowing that we had to make up a bit of time from our slow-driving approach. The trailhead definitely had the air of true wilderness. There were no other cars, and from the parking area on the Early Weed Bench, we had expansive views in all directions. Expansive views of very wild and lonely looking desert scenery.
With one last careful look at the route description and out topo map, we started out, following the remnants of a faint old mining road. The going was mostly sandy at first - tiring!
The old mining road was not always easy to follow (very faint in spots), but we were able to stay on it for an hour or so. It contoured around, avoiding the deep head of Brimstone Gulch, and eventually we reached the spot where we had to strike out straight across the terrain. The route describes a low arch on the skyline, and sure enough, we soon spotted it. It was a neat, low arch made out of limestone, and it made an excellent rest-stop and a tangible indicator of progress.
Continuing on, we crossed a height of land, and then started a long, mostly slickrock descent into the upper drainage area of Scorpion Gulch. Off to the right we could see a medium-height mesa with a small pinnacle to it's right end - this was Scorpion Mesa, and the little pinnacle was known as the tail of the Scorpion. We knew from the route description that the head of Scorpion Gulch was to the left of these landmarks. Pu seemed interested in the whole process of cross-country navigation, and so I explained the route description to him, showed him the map, and let him choose the way for a while.
Backpacking in the Escalante
Although walking through the trackless desert to the head of the Gulch was indeed wild and beautiful, we were looking forward to transitioning into the Gulch itself. We wanted to experience the beauty of our desert campsite in the light, after all.
We made excellent time, though, arriving at Scorpion Gulch, which at this point was a small, nondescript-looking wash. A short walk down the wash, however, revealed an abrupt change of character, as the small wash poured off a huge overhanging wall into a wide, broad canyon. This was Scorpion Gulch proper.
The way down into the Gulch wasn't going to be here, however - not unless we wanted to rappel down hundreds of feet! The route description mentioned an access sand dune on the north side of the Gulch, so we hiked out of the wash and along the northern rim of the high walls. And, sure enough, within fifteen minutes, we encountered a huge dune of sand that had piled up against the north wall of the Gulch, allowing us to plunge step down through soft sand to the floor of the gulch. We were in!
Scorpion Gulch was very dry in it's upper part. There was no indication of any perennial water; everything was bone dry and mainly sandy. It wasn't until we'd walked for an hour or so, crossing a couple of big sand dunes, that we finally saw some trees and vegetation ahead in the bottom of the canyon. A sure indicator of moisture!
There was no discernable path to speak of in the bottom of the canyon, something I was a little surprised at, since the route description did make mention of one. This became a slight problem as we entered a more riparian habitat, with sections of bush that we had to force our way through. Still, it was nice to be in an area of vegetation, and the small trickle of moisture amidst the bottom of the reeds we were trampling through was reassuring - it would be our water source for the night, after all.
After hiking up, down and through a mixed array of cottonwood trees, Gambel oaks, and low brush, we finally found a faint path. It was pretty much at the point where it became obvious we were in the ledgy Kayenta formation, and soon it became a most pleasant little ledgewalk trail, leading down the increasingly deep canyon. It was nearing dinner time at this point, and everyone was keen to get to our campsite for the night. We had been walking for about six hours at this point.
The semi-stagnant moisture in the bottom of the Gulch had now turned into a delightful little clear stream, flowing and falling over the many small drops in this part of the canyon. There were some potential campsites starting to become apparent at this point, and I had to reassure everyone that the area where we wanted to camp was still ahead. The troops were getting impatient!
Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, the canyon made a sharp left where a side-canyon entered. The orientation of the canyon was now such that the afternoon sun nicely streamed down, and the watercourse widended into a pretty series of very shallow (just a few inches deep) pools. Surely this was the place mentioned in the guidebook!
The guidebook indicated that it was more appropriate to camp in the "sandy wash below the pools", but I couldn't really find any such spot, so I suggested that we camp near the pools, but stay on solid rock to avoid creating any record of human presence. Unfortunately, Pu didn't think it was a big deal to camp off the bare rock, and I couldn't convince him otherwise.
Fiery sunset colors
The beautiful locale, bright sun, and reasonable hour meant that we were able to have a nice, relaxing dinnertime, sitting out in the open in the late-day light. Even with our delayed start, day 1 of our backpack had turned out pretty well, and I was looking forward to day 2 - our hike along the Escalante! Later on, the sunset light against the walls of Navajo Sandstone above generated an beautiful, intense orange light. A fitting end to a very nice day!
Interactive Trackmap & Photo Points - Scorpion Gulch Backpack Day 1 - Click map to expand
Elevation over Distance, Day 1
Elevation over Time, Day 1
Hike Data - Scorpion Gulch Backpack, Day 1
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet