The Box / Pine Creek, Day 1
[Easter] Sunday, April 21
A warmer (finally) sunny morning greeted us. An Easter Sunday morning, too! Jenn had thoughtfully brought a supply of easter eggs for the kids, and while they (the kids) were still sleeping, we scattered and hid the eggs around the campsite - in nooks, crannies, branches, cars, etc. When the sleepy-headed kids finally emerged from the tents, it really was only Evie who seemed interested in an egg hunt. She found and collected approximately 31 of the 32 or so chocolate eggs we had hidden. And Katie donated the one egg she found to Evie anyway. Slightly anticlimactic.
Easter Egg Hunt
Today was the first day of our two-day Pine Creek traverse backpack, which descends through a canyon section known as "The Box". Because it was a traverse, we needed to position a vehicle at each end. That, then, was our first task.
We drove up Pine Creek Road, starting out on the Hells Backbone route towards Boulder. After many twists and turns, we again came to the section of road where patches of snow still remained. Even though it had only been two or three days since we had last been here, there had been some noticeable melting, and we were able to proceed farther down the road, closer to the trailhead. Having 4wd, the Wrangler was able to make it down a little farther than the Tahoe, to a point about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the route access point.
Negotiating Last Winter's Snow
We congregated at the point where we could no longer proceed with the Jeep, and piled up everyone's backpacking gear in a dry, sunny section of forest just off the road. Chris and I then climbed into the Jeep and headed back out, with me stepping out at the parked Tahoe. Then, each driving a different vehicle, we drove in tandem all the way down back towards Escalante, turning off at the Lower Box access point, where I parked the Tahoe and climbed once again into the Jeep with Chris. Back up we went once again (we were getting pretty familiar with this stretch of road now), arriving back where the others were patiently waiting at about 11 a.m. So much back-and-forth!
With everything in place, we hoisted up our packs and starting walking along the Hells Backbone road in the direction of the Upper Box Access point. The large sections of remaining snowpack on the road, the ones that had blocked further progress by car, were only intermittent, and there were large snow-free stretches in between. However, the roadbed itself was still saturated with water from recent snowmelt, and in many places the walking was a little.... squishy.
Arriving at Upper Trailhead
It only took about 20 minutes to hike from the car dropoff point to the start of the route, which is clearly marked by a roadside sign that says "Upper Box Access". There was no specific parking lot here - I guess the expectation is that you'll find a roadside pullout or other suitable area some way up or down the road.
Faint Downhill Trail
A smallish meadow opens up below the sign, leading downward towards the very slight ravine formed by Pine Creek at this point. Down the middle of this small meadow was a very faint footpath. Fairly straightforward so far!
At the bottom end of the meadow, the trail disappeared under a patch of snow, and we briefly lost it. However, just ahead was a large interpretive sign and trailhead register for The Box Death Hollow wilderness, which confirmed we were on the right track.
The trailhead installation is basically right next to the rushing water of Pine Creek itself, and we could see a bit of the path leading down beside it. Route finding from this point on would be pretty simple, as we knew that virtually the entire length of the backpack followed the creek.
The environment up here on the slopes of Boulder Mountain stood in stark contrast to the warm, arid, open environment of lower Coyote Gulch, which we had just been hiking in two days before. Here, we were in a thick pine forest, ground covered in needles, a rushing mountain stream next to us, quite chilly, and quite a lot of snow everywhere. It could have easily been somewhere in the foothills of the Rockies in Canada.
Upper Pine Creek
Up here at around 7800 feet of elevation, there were still extensive patches of snowpack, but only in sheltered hollows, or under trees. Fortunately, these patches of snow were intermittent, and with careful attention, we could re-locate the faint path on the far side.
The other fact that became quickly apparent is that the path (which admittedly followed the easiest path through the terrain) crossed the creek frequently. We had mostly elected not (as I recall) to wear water shoes, so we were always trying to find the dry (i.e. rock-hopping) way across. This hopping back and forth was not too bad at first, but as the creek gained water from side tributaries and ground water, it became increasingly challenging. Chris and Gillian had decided that with the rushing creek (and the cold), it was best to pick up and ferry Katie and Evie across the water crossings.
We were happy that the snow was just hard enough to support our weight, making crossings much drier and easier. However, that was only initially. As we gradually descended into warmer air and as the day gradually warmed up, the snow began to soften, and over time, I (and the other heavier folks) began to sink in to the snow, sometimes unexpectedly. This was of course quite tiring, and also meant that it wasn't long before our footwear started to get pretty wet.
The combination of time-consuming water crossings and snow patch navigations impacted our overall travel speed. Quite a lot. In fact, to travel the first 1 kilometre downstream from the trail register, it took us an hour and a half. 90 minutes to go 1km/0.6mi !!
Now, if you think upper Pine Creek was all about misery and uncomfortableness, that wasn't the case. It was a fresh, pristine environment up here, and the rushing creek was pretty. Pine Creek soon starts to carve its way into the underlying sandstone, and it isn't long before yellow sandstone walls frame either side of the forested creek. And I'm quite sure that another week or two and most of the snow would have been gone, along with a lowering of the creek's flow.
After more than three hours of rather tedious and very slow down-creek hiking, the little canyon of Pine Creek merged with another side-canyon to the northeast. From this point downstream, the canyon was much more open, much wider. We had also descended nearly 500 feet of elevation from the trailhead, and with the combination of more open terrain and lower elevation, the snow had finally disappeared completely. And released from the narrow confines of upper Pine Creek, the path now had much more latitude to stay on one side of the creek or the other, rather than having to jump back and forth all of the time. Our hiking pace increased dramatically.
More Open, Drier
It was quite relaxing and pleasant to hike now - a lightly-used path and open forest, punctuated by huge pine trees, framed by the now 700-foot high walls of the canyon. The weather had improved as well, with less clouds and more blue skies, and an occasional stretch of genuinely warm sun.
Despite the now-nice conditions, our initial difficulties were still weighing upon us. The mood was one of weariness, and talk soon turned to campsites and stopping for the day. Evie (the youngest of the two kids) especially was feeling a bit under the weather, and as soon as we stopped for a rest break, she promptly fell asleep.
The overall distance of our backpack here in Pine Creek was about 15 or so kilometres, split over two days, and we naturally wanted to make about half of that on this first day. Our overall pace (combined with the extra distance back up at the start) meant we weren't quite there yet, so I pushed for a bit more distance before we started to look for sites.
After some extremely pleasant sunny stretches, late afternoon saw a few cool showers pass over us, hastening the desire to find camp, and at about 6pm, we chose a somewhat marginal campsite in a wider spot along the trail. It wasn't the amazing open grand-vista'd campsite we had envisioned, but it was fine - especially since there seemed to be no other hikers in this part of the canyon today (we had not seen anyone). So that was it - trailside camping in Pine Creek tonight!
Being the highest campsite of our trip thus far (at about 7,000 feet above sea level), the temperatures were quite cool, especially since we were deep in the canyon and already well into the evening's shade. Hence, everybody had nearly all of their warm-weather clothes on. With the rushing creek only a few feet away (creek and trail and our little spot next to it were all very close together), we had our evening meal. I had an MRE (Meal-Ready-to-Eat) that I was experimenting with tonight. It requires no stove, with heating power provided by a chemical pouch that is activated by "any liquid". My experience wasn't super great. Unlike the description on the package, it took about ten minutes for the chemical pack to start working upon contact with water (I initially thought it wasn't working at all). I then found that it didn't really heat up the contents (tortellini in tomato sauce in this case) all that much, and on top of that, the bulk of this heating system took up a lot of space in the pouch, which meant that the quantity of food wasn't as high as a regular dehydrated meal. Eh... no, not really something I'll bring on a future outing, I don't think.
Above the Trees
After dinner, Jenn, Chris and I went exploring a bit, climbing up the steep hill behind our campsite. It soon gave way to open slickrock, and we climbed above the tall trees and forest next to our tents. It was a different world, just a few hundred feet away from the creek below - an open world of yellow, jointed sandstone - similar in look and feel to much of the backcountry of Zion National Park. From our vantage point, we could look down and see that the forest that we had been hiking in was confined to quite a narrow strip. Area-wise, most of the canyon of "The Box" (Pine Creek) was open, bare sandstone - only the very bottom had this strip of dense forest.
The full moon present in Coyote Gulch was now several days in the past, and we were now in a period of a waning gibbous moon. This meant that the first hour or two of night would be moonless, and in a location such as this, could mean a super-duper awesome star-watching experience. But high wispy clouds had drifted in overhead, and we could only see one or two of the brightest stars. Disappointed, we walked back down (now in near complete darkness) to our tents. No awesome star nights for us on this trip!
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Pine Creek Day 1 - click map to view
Pine Creek Backpack Day 1 - Hike Data
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet