Phipps Arch Loop
Tuesday, October 1
Table Cliff Plateau
Our enjoyable and scenic hike in Red Canyon had only taken an hour, and soon we were again driving east on UT-12 towards Escalante. We made good time, arriving at the town of Escalante around noon.
We still had not formulated an exact plan, having been disrupted from our original schedule by the shutdown. Roland and Stephanie had a hard boundary, however: their flight back to Ottawa left Las Vegas early on the morning two days hence. So, we had the rest of today and all of tomorrow to do an outing that included them. It meant that we could not do any sort of backpack that started now and ended after tomorrow. So either we'd have to do a quick overnight-only backpack, or simply do two individual day outings.
After some discussions, we decided on the later: two individual day outings. There was enough time left today to do something fairly substantial, but we would have to get on it right away and it would have to be something not too far away from the town of Escalante.
When rushed, it's always most convenient to fall back on what you know, and that's exactly what I did: I suggested that we do the Phipps Arch Loop route described in Steve Allen's excellent Canyoneering 3
guidebook. This was a route that Jenn, myself, Roland and Pu attempted to do back in 2006
. It had been a cold and snowy March day back then, and although we made it all the way down to the arch, we were unable to finish the loop due to a layer of slippery snow covering a steep slickrock section. I suggested that we could go back today and do it again, and this time - finish the job!
Phipps Loop Start point
We arrived at the route start point at about 1pm. Even though the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was a unit of the National Park Service, we had not seen any signs or indications warning us away from hiking into the wilderness. So, so far, my hunch had been correct - exploring the Escalante while the federal shutdown was ongoing was looking like a workable proposition.
Realizing that we had about 6 to 7 hours of light with which to work, we made our preparations with utmost haste and started off down towards Phipps Wash only minutes later. Off in the distance we could see the reddish humps of smooth slickrock that marked the location of Phipps Arch. In fact, the arch itself could be seen, its opening only visible as a shadowy, flattened semi-circle from this angle.
Over the edge
I did not have the exact GPS tracklog from our 2006 visit to Phipps Arch with me, but I remembered the general orientation of things well enough, and the walk down into Phipps Wash was accomplished in a straightforward manner. There are only a few obstacles that require minor route-arounds. In short, all we needed to do was walk down the drainage from the route start point, always seeking to stay at or near the lowest point. Eventually, we'd intersect with Phipps Wash itself.
Terrain of Little Spencer Flat
Next step down to Phipps Wash
The highlight of the first part of the walk (i.e. the descent into Phipps Wash) was a beautiful section of steep, banded slickrock.
Colorful, Banded Slickrock
Below the banded slickrock slope, a short fifteen minute walk down the bottom of the intermittently bedrock, intermittently sandy wash brought us to the confluence with Phipps Wash. Phipps Wash itself was open and sandy at this point.
Pouroff bypass, Phipps Wash
Next up was a one hundred-foot high dropoff in Phipps Wash, just a few minutes farther along. I recalled from 2006 that a faint old cattle trail led off to the left, down a slope that bypassed the pouroff. After descending this semi-cairned trail, we immediately noted that Phipps Wash had transformed itself from a shallow desert wash into something much more canyon-like. Impressive curved desert-varnished walls were present along the outside of several subsequent bends in the drainage.
Classic Escalante area walls
The sheltered confines of the canyon and the bright unfiltered sun had made our walk feel surprisingly warm, and we actively sought out the shade of streamside walls, cliffs and embankments.
Thirty minutes' worth of walking brought us to the first indications of water: First, a bit of damp sand underfoot. Then, a shallow pool in the sand. And a deeper one. A stand of Fremont Cottonwoods stood nearby - the first we'd seen since starting our hike. They are always a testament to the presence of a somewhat permanent water source.
That first oasis of water was followed by a return to dryness - an impressive long straight stretch in Phipps Wash, with a very wide, flat sandy streambed. It was like a big, long half-kilometre strip of beach.
Immediately beyond this strip of beach, the riparian (river-side) vegetation returned, this time with a vengeance: trees and bushes crowded the banks of the watercourse, creating a sudden closed-in, almost forest-like feel. There were bits of standing water here and there, but nothing flowing - yet. I imagined that a thin flow of water would soon follow.
Riparian Vegetation in Phipps
There was no distinct path to follow in this vegetated section of Phipps Wash. Occasionally there would be a snippet of discernible path, which we'd follow, but then it would dead end in a thicket, which we would then have to bushwhack through. At other times we simply walked in the streambed, which by this point had developed the thinnest little rivulet of water flow - easily hopped when required.