Monday 31 August 2015

Utah Backpacking Trip - Escalante Wilderness (Part 2)

After our expedition down 25 Mile Wash, we decided to try a different canyon, Coyote Gulch.  This canyon is the most popular area in Escalante, and for good reason.  The canyon is beautiful and unique, almost beyond description.  Trying to capture the scale of the towering cliffs, overhangs and arches was a challenge.  Despite the popularity of this canyon, we only saw a few people, likely due to the summer heat which keeps people away.

After hiking 20km out of 25 Mile Wash, we parked at the Coyote Gulch trailhead to begin a relatively short walk across the desert.  I didn't research this route (since I hadn't planned on coming here), so we were going in mostly blind, although I had a description of the route from my guide book which I brought along with me.  I knew that the first section involved a walk across open desert for a few miles before dipping down into the canyon.  We began hiking at the hottest part of the day (around 3pm), against all common sense, with the temperatures hovering around 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Escalante Desert
If I have ever been hotter, I can't remember when.  The heat roasted us and I could feel it through the soles of my shoes.  I checked a couple of times to make sure the rubber wasn't melting, but my Merrell Moab shoes held up nicely!  I was grateful that I had packed my bandanna on this trip, it blocked out the sun from reaching my neck and sides of my head.  If someone had succumbed to heat stroke (Jensen seemed close!) we could have been in some real trouble.

Halfway through the hike I found a tiny pocket of shade against a rock ledge.  We sat here to recover.  Fortunately a storm was rolling in, giving us some shade.  I was anxious to move off the plateau and get down the cliff that I knew we had to scale in order to reach the canyon bottom, before the storm hit.

Approaching the chasms of Coyote Gulch
As we approached the canyon rim, I could see the wild scenery of Coyote Gulch, with dark chasms, sculpted rock walls and arches becoming visible, with the approaching storm as a violet backdrop.

As we continued down in elevation, the grade became steeper and steeper until it was nearly vertical! We got into the situation where we had traveled quite deep into the canyon and it was nearly as safe to keep going down rather than turn back.  I was able to get myself and my 50lb bag down the cliff without too much trouble and then went back up to help Kyle and Jensen.  Mike and I, being a bit more comfortable on the cliff, helped the other two get their bags down.  I took only one photo on the cliff the whole time as I was much more concerned with not having one of my friends plummet to their death! Fortunately the rain held off until we made it down, otherwise things could have gotten quite treacherous.

About halfway down the cliff
Once we were down and had found a spot to camp for the night, we took a closer look at the guide book on this section.  It said something to the effect of "This route is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, should only be attempted by rock climbers experienced with belaying techniques and with a 160 foot rope".  Not one of our brightest moments!

Our camp the 1st night
This pair of ravens spent a lot of time grooming each other.  I thought they struck an interesting silhouette against the red canyon walls.
 The next day after resting up, we decided to explore further down the canyon to the east.  As we were leaving, this squirrel was hanging around our camp.  Kyle tried to scare it off, but when we returned, he had chewed into my garbage bag and my "wag bag" (wag bag is the term used for the bag used to carry out your fecal waste, necessary since this is a sensitive canyon with high traffic at other times of the year).  I almost felt bad for the poor guy, that must have been an unpleasant surprise!

This long horned beetle seemed to be contemplating life on this rock in the river.

We had fun playing in the abundance of water (compared with the trickle at 25 Mile Wash).  Small waterfalls could be found, adding a nice touch to the scenery.

Coyote Natural Bridge

Birds were wary of being approached, making photography difficult in the canyon.  Black Phoebes were common along with Spotted Towhee.

Black Phoebe
Spotted Towhee
After a great day of exploring, we planned our strategy for exiting the canyon the next day.  To avoid a repeat of the afternoon in the desert and the cliff, we decided to head west along the river to Hurricane Wash where I knew there was supposed to be an alternate exit route.  Along the way, we passed the massive Jacob Hamblin Arch and a little further on, an enormous amphitheatre formed by an imposing rock overhang.  The birds twittered invisibly from the ceiling, hundreds of feet up, we felt as small as insects  It was awe inspiring, one of the most amazing spots I have ever seen.

Jacob Hamblin Arch - for scale, you can see Mike in the bottom left of the picture.

After hiking as close to the canyon exit as water availability allowed, Kyle and I scouted ahead several miles to try to find a way out for the next day.  We found it, just as the sun was starting to set. The sharp, impenetrable cliffs eventually gave way to gentler slick rock domes that we could climb.  

The next morning, we broke camp in the dark at 5am and exited the canyon just as the sun was beginning to rise over the horizon.

I left the canyons of Utah, content that my route planning had gone so wonderfully wrong.

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