A Stiff March Out
Harris Wash Backpack, Day 3
Friday, May 6
Friday: our last day of backpacking on this year's Utah trip. The task? battle our way up the Escalante River, then up a steep sand dune to the benchlands above, then make a long cross-country walk back to the Harris Wash trailhead. The day's path would form the remaining two sides of the rough triangle formed by our backpacking route.
Flats near Escalante River
The first 'phase' of our route involved heading up the Escalante's canyon. Several bends upriver, there was a large sand dune piled up on the western side of the river. This sand dune, known officially as the 'Lower Sand Slide', was high enough to provide walking access to the rim of the canyon. From the rim, the second phase of the route was a long cross-country trek on an angle to intercept Harris Wash again, at a location up near the Harris Wash Trailhead.
Escalante Flood Plain terrain
Even though we had calculated that there would be somewhere in the vicinity of nine crossings of the Escalante from our camp to the Lower Sand Slide, we started off in hiking boots (rather than water-crossing footwear). This was because the nature of the Escalante's turns was such that from our camp to the first crossing involved a series of bends of which we were on the inside - meaning that we'd be able to walk on the flats next to the river without being forced to cross for some time, perhaps for more than a kilometre.
One of many fords
Walking along the banks of the Escalante was nice, but was often a slightly trying experience. There wasn't really a single, well-defined herdpath. Rather, there were occasional fragments of good path, separated by brushy areas that could sometimes be tiresome to push one's way through. Having no herd path in the vicinity of a river crossing means it was sometimes difficult to find a good spot to climb down from the sometimes-steep bank and into water of unknown depth. Part of the reason for the lack of a good herd path might be the great flash flood of October 2006, which seriously inundated much of the Escalante's flood plain and may have washed away or re-arranged existing established paths. Perhaps over time these tenuous sections of path will improve and connect to form a nice walking route.
Beautiful Green Space
The brush sometimes contained Russian Olive trees, which have painful long thorns and are a pain in the butt through which to fight your way. The Olive is an invasive species in the desert southwest, and various park agencies have been actively working to remove it from these beautiful canyons. Which is good, IMO. Thank you for your work and I look forward to the day where I can push my way through these thickets without worrying about drawing blood!
Despite the toils, it is still a quite beautiful walk. There are beautiful green meadow-like areas where you get beautifully-framed scenes of valley-floor greenery and red canyon walls above; The Escalante River itself is quite pretty itself in spots.
Typical Riverside Terrain
The crossings themselves -- about nine in all -- did in fact require some caution. The current itself was not excessive; however, there were often spots in the riverbed that were deeper than others, and in order to make crossings that did not involve getting your pack or any other part of your upper body wet required a careful choice of crossing locations, and a slow and thorough sounding of the riverbed with your hiking poles. Crossing right at a bend was the biggest no-no - the increase in velocity of flow around the curve of the bend would inevitably result in a significant deepening of the channel on the outside. Wider, straight sections of river were best.
The Lower Sand Slide
After a couple of hours of walking up-canyon, we came to a wide open sandy area on the floodplain where we could clearly see the Lower Sand Slide ahead of us. It really does look as if someone took a cosmic dump truck and nicely piled up orange sand off the side of the canyon wall until a nice sandy slope was formed from canyon bottom to canyon rim. This slope would be our passage out of the canyon.
One final crossing of the Escalante River brought us to the thickets below the base of the sand slide. Jenn had an unfortunate stumble on a riverbed boulder on her last crossing which caused her to get wet up to her chest.
Drying out after last crossing
We stopped for a good long break below the sand slide, primarily to refill all of our available water capacity. From here, we would be hiking up and across open desert, with no possible water available to us until we rejoined Harris Wash up near the trailhead.
Reluctantly, we left our sunny little rest spot and worked our way through the final few feet of riverside brush to the beginning of the sand slide. We knew it would be a hot and tiring climb up the slide. With full packs loaded with water and with very loose, soft sand, the trudge up the slide would be a slog.
Climbing Lower Sand Slide
The slide loomed above us, steep and pristine-looking. Although shorter in overall height, it was much steeper than the sand slide one uses to reach Crack-in-the-Wall in lower Coyote Gulch. Ewart suggested that the slopes to the right of us looked a little less steep. I originally disagreed, but we headed over there anyway. Turns out he was right - there was indeed a crest of sand that led down somewhat northwards that was lesser in angle. We made a slow, rising traverse over to it, then turned back left and slowly trudged up, making short switchbacks as necessary to lessen the steeper parts. There were many short breaks!
After about thirty minutes of toiling and four hundred feet of elevation gain, we arrived at the apex of the Lower Sand Slide. The topmost bit of sand is perhaps ten to fifteen feet below the rim itself, and there is a short slopey slickrock scramble that one must surmount to get up. Ewart fashioned an aid out of an old log to help out Roy and Jenn.
Soon we were standing on the solid sandstone of the rim, looking back down at the wide bend in the Escalante from which we had just climbed.
There is a nice little place to sit in the shade on the rim above the Sand Slide, and we stopped here for a well-earned lunch break. Jenn had to fend off an overly-eager little lizard that took to approaching and jumping on her.
The exit from the top end of the Lower Sand Slide had brought us to a completely different environment. We were now in wide, open desert terrain with no canyon walls to constrict our view, and with no thick, riparian vegetation. This environment would be home to us for the long cross-country trek back towards the trailhead.
The region of land we were to cross is called 'The V'. It is an area of gently undulating sand and slickrock that is so named because of the angle formed by the canyon of the Escalante with the canyon of Harris Wash. Our route took us across this 'V' to the terrain on the north rim of Harris Wash. We would then follow parallel to Harris Wash, above its canyon, heading west.
The walk across 'The V' was unventful - a somewhat monotonous passage through short sections of sand and desert vegetation and short sections of slickrock. An hour to an hour-and-a-half of walking brought us to a point where we could see the land start to slope ahead down to rounded cliffs - we were tangentially approaching Harris Wash.
We had already walked about nine kilometres to get to this point, and we had only come about halfway of the total distance required to get us back to the trailhead. With the heat of walking across the open desert and the distance mounting, we were starting to feel a bit tired. We stopped for an extra-long rest break above the slopes of Harris Wash.
Mindful of our water supply and the inability to refill it while we were up here in dry terrain, we pushed on, heading more or less directly west now. We more-or-less parallelled Harris Wash, trying to stay far enough away so that we could maintain a relatively straight path past the Harris Wash's many bends. The view down into the canyon in spots is quite pretty, and we could see various alcoves and features that we had entirely missed on the hike down-wash two days before.
Roy was showing signs of tiredness as the kilometres clicked by. When we discovered that he had used up nearly all of his water and was self-rationing, we stopped for a bit of redistribution. I myself had over a litre left, and I was pretty sure I'd make it back to the trailhead without using it. I mixed up a litre with some electrolyte tablets and passed it on to him.
The walls of Harris Wash sank lower and lower as we headed up-canyon, and I started looking for possible entry points so that we could get back into the wash and follow it to the trailhead (this would also give us access to water, if we needed it). We were getting a bit tired now of the slickrock-walk along the rim.
Back in Harris Wash
At a point about two kilometres from the trailhead, we managed to find a slickrock slope that gave us access back into the wash. Immediately we were beset by an annoying bit of thorny bushwhacking, but soon we were next to the wide bed of the wash. Although I felt that our last reserves of water would be more than enough for the last mile or so to the trailhead, Ewart was insistent that we filter some water. So, we did, and I patiently sat down in the reeds next to the thin flow of Harris Wash and waited.
Hiking back up the Wash
Now back down in Harris Wash, the rest of the way back to the trailhead was uncomplicated - simply a flat, easy walk up the wide open wash. This we completed in a further forty minutes or so, arriving back at the trailhead shortly before 5pm. It had been quite a long and tiring day, and we were well-spent - and looking forward to a hearty meal in town.
Below is a video sequence containing scenes from our 3-day Harris Wash Backpack. Click directly on the image below to start it.
Video, Harris Wash Backpack (all three days) - Click on video to start
Arriving at Trailhead
Upon arrival back in the town of Escalante, we immediately checked ourselves into the Prospector Inn. We had intended to go eat at a special place we discovered a few years ago. The little home-run restaurant -- called Georgie's -- was an eclectic mix of earth-mother and trendy, high-quality southwestern cooking. It was, we discovered, closed now. Georgie had retired, and a small note on the door thanked customers for their patronage.
We chose instead to eat at a restaurant attached to another motel on the other side of the street from the Prospector Inn. They had decent enough food, but our choices had been severely limited by a town-wide power failure that had occurred due to a fire at an electrical sub-station just outside of town. We were probably fortunate to have sat down when we did -- subsequent guests had even fewer choices.
Interactive Trackmap with Photo Points, Harris Wash Backpack Day 3 - Click map to expand
Hike Data - Harris Wash Backpack, Day 3
* : +/- 75 feet