Diversion into Coyote Gulch
Monday, May 2
We awoke much rested on a bright and sunny Monday morning, ready for our big 5-day adventure. We were at the Prospector Inn's cafe the instant it opened at 7am, ready for a hearty breakfast to start us off for the day. After eating, we all returned to our rooms to organize and pack our packs for five days out in the wilderness. Finishing a bit earlier than the others, I headed over to the Escalante Interagency Center (i.e. the local ranger station) to get some beta on the conditions in the backcountry, and in particular, of the Escalante River. Since our backpack involved many crossings of the river, I wanted to know if it was in some sort of flood state.
The trimly-dressed ranger sitting behind the the desk frowned slightly when I asked about the current Escalante River conditions. "Here", he said, handing me a stapled set of printouts. "Here's the data from the flow stations we have on the river, not far below town. Notice the large spikes in flow from some warm weather we had just recently. It's going to be warm this week, really warm. All the snow from the high country will likely mean increased flow."
I tried to put what he said in context. Did that mean that I would simply have to contend with an occasional splash on the family jewels, or did that mean that I'd be carried away in an angry frothing muddy torrent? The Ranger said he'd heard reports of crossings over the waist, strong currents, and opaque water. He talked about unclipping pack waist belts and having ropes. Sounded pretty serious. But he stopped short of actually saying we shouldn't cross the river - "that was a decision that we had to ultimately make".
So, I was left standing there, trying to reconcile what was really happening on the river to the story I'd been given. Was he just painting the worst-case scenario? Or perhaps because he didn't know what level of backcountry skills we had, that he should exaggerate the seriousness a little to cause us to be extra careful? It's always hard when you have little context upon which to base your decision.
Speeding along Hole-in-the-Rock
I somewhat disappointedly returned to the Motel to confer with the others. Part of me had wished that I had not bothered to consult with the ranger station at all, and had chosen to analyze the river itself when we got to it. But I had gone and asked, and so it was now my duty to report.
The general sense from the others was to take the ranger at his word. That meant, disappointingly, working out an alternative. We needed to come up with something quickly, and for that something to be nice and to be doable with one vehicle. The safest bet would be something that I had already done, so that there would be no unknowns. Jenn suggested Coyote Gulch -- a side canyon of the Escalante that she, I, Roland and Pu had done in 2006
. It was indeed scenic, no doubt about that, and it was doable with one vehicle. And it was relatively easy logistically.
So, within five minutes, we had changed course - instead of a five-day cross-Escalante backpack, we would do a three-day backpack in Coyote Gulch - a backpack that would not require us to cross the Escalante River. I was disappointed that we weren't going to chart any new terrain, but on the other hand it would be very nice to have another go at Coyote Gulch - this time at a more relaxed pace and at a later time in spring (which would mean that all of the green foliage in the riparian zones would be fully out).
Fortymile Ridge Road
We were already all packed and ready for backpacking, so there was no extra prep required other than to take out two days' worth of hiking and camping food. Other than that we were ready, so we immediately set off, heading east out of Escalante, and once again down the backcountry artery that is the Hole-in-the-Rock road. Our destination was Fortymile Ridge Road - quite a bit further down than the road to Harris Wash had been.
Fortymile Ridge Trailhead
It was about noon by the time we reached the Fortymile Ridge Trailhead, set on a low hill with expansive 360-degree views of the lower Escalante region stretching in all directions. Mostly it was fairly featureless, save for the long straight cliffs of Fiftymile Mountain. What the featureless terrain concealed, though, were canyons of amazing beauty. Canyons in which we would soon be hiking!
Fortymile Ridge TH
The Fortymile Ridge trailhead is probably not the most popular way to start a hike of Coyote Gulch. It is, however, quite handy if you want to do a loop (which we like to do) and you only have one vehicle (which was all we had). From this trailhead, we would be able to hike cross-country and intersect a route that would bring us into the best parts of Coyote Gulch. We would then hike down Coyote Gulch to its confluence with the Escalante, and then take the "Hole-in-the-Rock" exit back up to the open desert above, from which point a well-defined route headed back to a trailhead about five kilometres further down the Fortymile Ridge Road. The only downer part of this itinerary was the extra five kilometres of trudging along the road, but overall not a bad penalty for an otherwise superb route.
With only a couple of litres of water weighing us down (there is lots of perennial flow in lower Hurricane and in Coyote Gulch), we headed down from the Fortymile Ridge Trailhead, across the open desert, on a course to intersect the first objective of today's hike: Hurricane Wash.
Hurricane Wash is a tributary of Coyote Gulch, and is often used to access Coyote Gulch, on account of the fact that lower Coyote Gulch has very high walls that present an obstacle to entry. A common route to access Coyote Gulch is to start hiking directly in Hurricane Wash where it intersects Hole-in-the-Rock road. For us, that would have precluded a loop route. Instead, we were hiking northwest cross-desert. In a way, this was preferable, because it allowed us to combine an experience of the wide-open country with the intimate narrows of the canyon floors.
There was no track to follow. We just picked the easiest way through the terrain, which began as a plain of scrub-dotted sand and then transitioned into wide, clean slickrock. As we headed along the land started to gradually form into a shallow drainage, headed towards the northwest, towards the not-yet-visible Hurricane Wash. Off in the distance, the solitary spire of Chimney Rock guided the way.
Fiftymile Mountain in the Distance
The shallow drainage we were following continued to deepen, and soon bits of narrow slot started to form. The slot looked wet in spots and difficult to navigate, with several potential dryfall obstacles, so we stayed up on the right-hand bank. Eventually this deepening slot intersects Hurricane Wash.
We stopped on a rounded point above the descent down into Hurricane Wash for an afternoon snack break.
A quick slickrock descent brought us into the rocky and dry bed of Hurricane Wash. From here, it would be canyon-bottom hiking all the way to our campsite. We didn't have a firm location for our first night's camp - the plan was to look for a nice spot somewhere beyond the confluence of Hurricane Wash and Coyote Gulch.