Category Archives: Utah

Turkey tourism 2: Bryce

North to main Bryce from below Bryce Point

North to main Bryce from below Bryce Point


After participating in the time-honored American tradition of eating way too much for Thanksgiving, including no fewer than four species of animal, I decided to go for a long trail run in Bryce while the others did a shorter hike. The obvious Bryce run is the Under-the-Rim Trail, a 23-mile route from Rainbow Point at the south end of the park to Bryce Point near the middle. However, with a late Spanish start from Cannonville, the extra driving time to drop me off at the south end would significantly limit the others’ day, so I instead did a 20-mile, 4900-foot meander starting at Fairyland Point and visiting most of the best parts of the park. This was probably more scenic than Under-the-Rim, and while it was crowded in places, I was rarely unable to run, and the trails were wide, smooth, and well-graded. Somewhat to my surprise, Bryce turns out to be a wonderful place for trail-running, making it a fun one-day park.

More good running

More good running

I hiked the initial descent with the others, crossing occasional stretches of hard-packed snow on shaded northern slopes during the descent from Fairyland Point. The park’s southern end is about 1500′ lower than the north, and the snow had all but disappeared by the time we reached the base of the rock formations around 7200′. I took off jogging after about half an hour, stopping to zip the legs off my pants about 10 minutes later, and stripping down to just a t-shirt after the first hour. I think the temperature stayed around 35-45 degrees, so while I was slightly cold in the shade or wind, I was mostly comfortable in summer clothing for the rest of the run.

Queen's Garden trail

Queen’s Garden trail

I cruised the generally downhill rollers to the Tower Bridge turnoff, took a short side-trip to this underwhelming feature, then ground out the climb back to the rim at 8000′ near Sunset Point. While the Fairyland Loop was uncrowded, the descent to the Queen’s Garden was a bit of human chaos. It wasn’t a solid mass, though, so I had fun dodging and weaving, launching around the banked switchbacks and startling a few tourists. The Queen’s Garden trail was built in Zion style, with tunnels blasted through what seemed like an unnecessary number of mudstone fins. This is probably the most scenery-dense part of the park, and I stopped frequently for photos of various Bryce-y things.

Climb to Bryce Point

Climb to Bryce Point

From Queen’s Garden, I continued along the base of the formations on the gradually-climbing east side of the Peekaboo Loop, then began a more sustained ascent to 8300′ Bryce Point. To my surprise, I was still fresh enough to jog the entire climb. I milled around a bit with the tourists while deciding what to do next: it was around noon, and I had agreed to fetch the car from Fairyland Point and meet the others at the Lodge at 2:30. I figured that I could do the 4-mile out-and-back to the Hat Shop, then return via the other side of Peekaboo Loop and Wall Street, thus visiting all of Bryce’s “good stuff” in one fell swoop.

Hat Shop

Hat Shop

Bombing the 1000-foot descent along the start of the Under-the-Rim Trail, I passed two other runners wearing a disturbing amount of fancy logo-encrusted Lycra (“all Euro-tarded out,” as Mike put it). I wasn’t sure what to expect of the Hat Shop, but I was glad I made the detour. It turned out to be a collect of a couple dozen caprock hoodoos, some with impressively large and overhung boulders on top. After stopping to take some pictures and eat a bit more, I steeled myself for the climb back to the rim. I was definitely slowing down by this point, and had to walk some of the steeper parts of the climb.

Double-arch fin along Peekaboo

Double-arch fin along Peekaboo

I returned almost to Bryce Point, then physically and mentally recovered as I bombed back down the snowy trail to Peekaboo Loop. The western part of the loop is longer than the eastern part, and contains much more up-and-down. I ran what I could, hiked some of the steeper bits, and distracted myself by gawking at the scenery, including a couple of impressive arches.

Wall Street

Wall Street

I felt sluggish as I returned to the Navajo Loop junction, so I walked some perfectly runnable terrain while eating the last of my food, then continued toward Wall Street at a slightly pathetic jog. I passed Mike and the Armada a few minutes from the junction, stopping to chat briefly before turning on the gas so they wouldn’t have to wait too long before I came back with the car. The climb up Wall Street was the only part of the trail where the crowds actually got in my way, but I was feeling worked by this point, so I didn’t mind the delay.

Window along the rim

Window along the rim

Once on the rim, I managed decent speed on the rolling but generally downhill commute back from Sunset to Fairyland Point. I had expected this section to be a dull forest run, but it stayed close enough to the rim to have consistently nice views of the nearby hoodoos and some more distant red cliffs to the northeast. I reached the Lodge at 2:30 as promised, then spent the rest of the day shuffling around like a tourist near Rainbow Point. At over 9000′, the southern end of the mesa offered expansive views of the Escalante plateau 2000′ below. It was also much snowier than the rest of the park, and I was barely warm enough in the shade with all my clothes.

Southern Utah food options are usually grim, but we found what looked like a decent pizza place in Tropic. It was clearly the only choice around, as there was a steady crowd the whole time we waited to have our order taken, waited for the food, and waited still more for the bill. Southern Utah: come for the scenery, lower your expectations for everything else.

Turkey tourism 1: Zion

Down-canyon from Observation

Down-canyon from Observation


Mike was spending Thanksgiving in southern Utah with a small contingent of the Spanish Armada, and had some extra room in the car. I had already seen most of the planned route, but trips with Mike and the Armada are usually good fun, so I found myself fighting sleep across the Big Res Tuesday night, en route to Page, Arizona. There is probably some scenery along the way, including Shiprock, but other than sunset on some familiar terrain during the first hour, we saw almost nothing other than the huge and well-lit smokestacks of the Navajo Generation Station, a glowing symbol of our coal-powered future.

Important information (photo by Lidia)

Important information (photo by Lidia)

As usual, I was awake well before the others, and took a first trip through the hotel’s well-stocked breakfast bar before settling in to read and wait for the others to emerge. After a second, “social” breakfast and a sort-of Spanish lesson, we rolled out late for Zion. The park was filling up in anticipation of the holiday weekend, but the crowds were not yet overwhelming as we parked down the road from the Observation Point trailhead.

Slot below Observation

Slot below Observation

We contemplated the fact that falling off cliffs can result in injury or death, then headed up the switchbacks blasted in the sandstone. Zion was developed in the 1920s and 1930s, when man felt the need to assert his dominion over nature, and its roads and trails were constructed using quantities of dynamite and chain that would be unthinkable today.

Exposed, blasted trail

Exposed, blasted trail

The route from the valley to Observation Point was probably somewhere between difficult and impossible in the 1800s, but is now essentially an exposed sidewalk. While it is easy walking, the exposure does get to some people: Linda was unfortunately overcome just below the rim, so only Lidia and I reached the end of the trail. We hung out with a half-dozen others for awhile, taking pictures and fending off the over-friendly chipmunks, then headed back to meet the others near the end of the short November day. We found our hotel in Hurricane, then found semi-decent and only slightly depressing food at some kind of Mormon Chipotle.

Approaching Kinesava

Approaching Kinesava

After considering several plans for Thanksgiving, the Armada dropped Mike and I off at the start of the Chinle “trail” in Springdale, then drove on to do Angel’s Landing while we headed for Mount Kinesava. There is a large dirt parking lot on Anasazi Way just off the main highway, but the useless trail dumps you right back on the road, and is probably longer. We passed some fancy houses, then found the “trail” continuing as a gated road to a water tank where it disappears. Still, Kinesava is hard to miss, so we headed in the right direction and soon found a faint, intermittently-cairned use trail through the sparse desert brush and junipers.

Kinesava semi-exposed traverse

Kinesava semi-exposed traverse

The route follows a slide through the lower cliff-band, then heads up more steep dirt and rubble to a fairly obvious left-to-right ramp leading to the plain between Kinesava and the higher West Temple. The ramp is mostly steep dirt, but there is one semi-exposed section, some third class, and a short but apparently unavoidable fourth class corner near the top. None of it slowed us down much, and we soon emerged on the grassy plain northeast of the summit.

West Temple from Kinesava

West Temple from Kinesava

Neither of us remembered the route description for this last part, but a line straight up the middle of the summit blob looked doable and mostly brush-free. The final climb turned out to be a mixture of easy steep desert stuff and enjoyable class 3 slabs, similar to North Guardian Angel. I managed not to get dropped by Mike, and we were soon enjoying the impressive 360-degree summit view. To the north, the West Temple looked both intimidating and tempting. We had neither the time nor the information to try it, but it turns out that there is a devious route to the summit with only one pitch of 5.6-5.7; now I know what to scramble the next time I’m in the area.

NW to Guardian Angels

NW to Guardian Angels

There are apparently some petroglyphs on the summit plateau, but this was a Mike hike, so there would be no sight-seeing. We retraced our route nearly to the Park boundary, then headed cross-country for a road closer to the entrance, crossing about 100 feet of private property near the end and jogging a bit of “private road.” Our road spit us out right next to the southernmost Springdale shuttle stop just as a shuttle pulled away. Rather than wait, we jogged a mile or so up the road before catching the next shuttle at another of the closely-spaced stops. Then I had an hour or so to nap and listen to the foreign tourists before the Armada returned (successful), and we were on to the next.

Kings Peak

First view of Kings (center)

First view of Kings (center)


After a couple days of type I fun — Tahoe is really nice this time of year, nice enough that even I was willing to submerge myself — it was time to head back east. I had hoped my tires would last through the end of this season, but one of them decided to disintegrate in Nowhere, NV, and I got to enjoy a good part of northern Nevada at 50 MPH on a lousy donut spare. Lesson learned, I preemptively replaced the rest of the tires before heading out into the middle of nowhere.

It's fall...

It’s fall…

Kings Peak is the Utah highpoint, though it feels like part Wyoming. It is located in the middle of the Uinta range, an unusually east-to-west subrange of the Rockies on the far northern end of the state. I had previously tried to tag it on the way by early one summer, and was utterly defeated by the Uintas’ legendary slush-bog season. So when the opportunity presented itself this September, I gladly drove to the middle-of-nowhere Henry’s Fork trailhead, found a nice campsite near the creek for the night, and went to sleep without bothering to set an alarm.

Snowy boardwalk

Snowy boardwalk

I heard some rain overnight, and woke to frozen water on my car, so I was in no hurry to get started. It had been cold enough to snow for at least part of the night up high, and I did not envy the poor folks huddled in their tents somewhere to the south. I got started about when the sun finally hit the trail, jogging the flats and hiking the hills. Thanks to an unofficial annual race, Kings has a stout FKT around 4h30, likely faster than I could manage even on a good day, so I was glad to have the snow as an excuse. The fresh dusting of white also made the Uintas, with their broad valleys and striated rock, look even more like the Canadian Rockies.

South side of Gunsight Pass

South side of Gunsight Pass

I passed some cold-looking backpackers on my way in, and finally hit solid snow just below Henry’s Fork Lake. The trail is usually a multi-lane highway, with several parallel paths worn in the turf, and ample sign of stock traffic. I found a pair of footprints leading partway to Gunsight Pass, but evidently someone had thought better of it the day before. It was cool with the partial cloud cover, and downright cold and unpleasant where the wind whipped through Gunsight Pass.

Climbers' trail and Gunsight Pass

Climbers’ trail and Gunsight Pass

I hid in the lee of the giant cairn for a minute, then tried to follow the climbers’ trail that shortcuts around to Anderson Pass. The drifted snow made this difficult, and often made the trail a useless ledge covered in calf-deep snow. This section felt long and slow, and although I knew which peak was Kings, the fact that it is not much higher than its neighbors made me doubt myself. Most of the Uintas’ 13,000-foot peaks are bunched in this small area in the center of the range, and several of Kings’ neighbors are only slightly shorter.

Kings from approach

Kings from approach

There may be a trail from the Anderson Pass trail to Kings’ summit, but I did not find it, instead slogging up large and miserably loose talus covered in drifted powder. I eventually found the (happily clearly-labeled) summit, watched the clouds for a bit, then turned for home. I had been fortunate to only feel a few seconds of graupel so far, but I could see scattered precipitation all around, and did not relish a long walk home in a flapping garbage bag.

This sucks

This sucks

The final talus-slope was just as slow going down as up, but I picked up a bit of speed once I got back to the trail. Though there was no need, I jogged most of the downhill sections and some of the flats. Doing so made me even more impressed with the FKT, as the trail is horribly rutted and rocky; it would be tough to run with real speed even in perfect conditions. Mine was the second-to-last car to leave the trailhead, and the backpacking couple in the last were not far behind. Apparently the weather had scared everyone off; barring an extended warm and dry spell, I may have been the last Kings hiker this season.

Maple Canyon

Maple Canyon from above

Maple Canyon from above


Maple Canyon is a climbing area in central Utah featuring mostly single-pitch sport climbs on solid conglomerate rock. This means that routes are steep for their grade: 5.9-10a is near-vertical, while 5.12 is massively overhung. Maple also has good cheap camping, is high enough to be cooler than the surrounding desert, and is much less dirtbag-hostile than the hellish sprawl of greater Salt Lake City. We were both pretty worn down, so we ended up spending an afternoon and the better part of the next day hauling jugs and clipping bolts.

Rapping off Haji Tower

Rapping off Haji Tower

After some extracurricular four-wheeling, we returned to the main climbing area to climb Haji Rock, one of the few multi-pitch routes in the area. Renée got most of the real climbing on the first and third pitches, while I “led” the lame but necessary second pitch, which consisted of a step-across, a few easy moves, a search for the bolts, and much time pulling up the remainder of the 70m rope. I was happy to follow the third pitch, a short, overhanging 5.9 to the top of the Haji’s head. After signing the register, one free-hanging and one bouncing rap took us back to our packs.

We finished off the evening in the Zen Garden area, trying out a 5.9 and some 5.10s, and I confirmed that I am basically a 5.9 climber these days. That’s better than I have any right to expect given how little I climb, but kind of pathetic for the amount of time I spend in the mountains. So it goes.

Maples near Orangutan Wall

Maples near Orangutan Wall

Having sampled the right fork our first day, we moved over to the left for the second. Though there had been sounds of manly exertion echoing in the canyon the previous day, the area had not been at all crowded, and the pleasant lack of waiting continued. We found a next of 8s, 9s, and 10s on Orangutan Wall, and worked them from easiest to hardest, alternately belaying from the Maples’ shade and roasting on the sunny wall. My forearms were failing by early afternoon, but I felt I had done enough steep, crimpy climbing to improve at least a little.

We decided to have dinner in Salt Lake before parting ways, and after a startling reminder that speed limits go to 80 in Utah (i.e. everyone drives at least 85), cheap Mexican food was procured. I headed northeast to the forests of western Wyoming, while Renée hoped to run errands and crash in town. With the help of my usual drive-time mix of vile energy drinks and beef jerky, I made it to a nice dirt road off a pass a couple hours south of Jackson. Renée was less fortunate, learning to her dismay that the normally camping-friendly Walmart does not allow overnight parking in metro SLC. I swear that place gets worse every time I visit…

Grand Gulch

Up-canyon from Split Level

Up-canyon from Split Level

I am not usually much of a desert or ruins person. However, both are necessary parts of any visit to the southwest, and I found them much more tolerable when combined with a trail run. Renée had picked out a path through Grand Gulch going in Bullet and out Todie Canyons, which she claimed was “about 16 miles of mostly runnable trail” (it actually turned out to be 25-ish miles with plenty of bushwhacking and sand-slogging). The route would visit 10 or so ruins and pictographs of various shapes and sizes.

Sunrise on buttes

Sunrise on buttes

We lazed around our campsite in Valley of the Gods — the BLM version of Monument Valley — then drove up the improbable Moki Dugway and through a herd of cattle, set up the car shuttle, and got started running around mid-morning. The trail down Bullet Canyon was well-used and clear, and we passed a few backpackers heading out as we descended. At the first major ruin area, we wasted a bunch of time trying to find a “perfect kiva” before giving up and visiting the more obvious cliff-dwelling guarded by a weird ghost-face. Like many of the other dwellings we visited, it consisted of a well-built lower layer of living quarters, and a more primitive upper one, used perhaps for storage or defense. Sheltered by the overhanging canyon wall, and preserved in the desert air, the buildings’ stick-and-mud construction had survived six centuries surprisingly well.

Corn impression on granary

Corn impression on granary

After passing a granary helpfully labeled with a corn impression, we blew right past the intersection with Grand Gulch, hidden in a mass of cottonwoods, greenery, and use trails leading to campsites. We went most of a mile downstream before realizing our error, but I did not mind at the time, since I was still feeling fresh, and I got to catch a young bullsnake along the way. Returning to the junction, we found that the trail up the Gulch was not nearly as running-friendly as the one down Bullet Canyon. It alternated between bush-whacking through the overgrown sides and following the dry, sandy wash. Neither was particularly fast, and we alternated between abusing our shins on the brush and slogging along in the soft sand.

The Green Mask

The Green Mask

Much canyon later, we found a bit of flagging and followed the short detour leading to the Green Mask Ruin. There we found a couple of backpackers relaxing in the shade, perhaps refilling their water from the supposed spring farther up. Parts of the cave roof had collapsed, destroying most of the structures, but this ruin had the most impressive petroglyphs, from several periods of occupation, including the eponymous green mask. It also had an ammo can with a short history lesson and a summit register, which I dutifully signed.

Split-level

Split-level

Back in the main draw, we passed a few more ruins, but having become either “ruin snobs” or too hot and tired, we only visited the ones closest to the trail. However the last major site, the Split Level Ruin, was worth taking some time to appreciate (it also had the all-important summit register). Though not as sheltered as the first ruin in Bullet Canyon, it was still in good shape, with substantial portions of the buildings’ roofs intact. We tiptoed around the town dump (useful to archaeologists), and peered into the various structures, then picked grass seeds from our socks and went into “let’s get this over with” mode for the slog up to and out Todie Canyon. After a brief scramble near the canyon rim, we had only a final bit of blessedly non-brushy desert slogging to reach my car. There I sensibly sat in the shade and drank water, while Renée performed some kind of stretching ritual. After a fancy dinner at the Bullet trailhead, we made late-night drive back through the cattle and down the Dugway to find the closest reasonable camping in Valley of the Gods and think of easier things to do on the morrow.

Wet, wet Moab

Sudden shower

Sudden shower


I had hoped to ride the White Rim Road, a 103-mile loop around the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands, so I wanted to take an easy day after Phil’s World to prepare. I also didn’t want to drive much, so Abajo Peak, the highpoint of a small range west of Monticello, seemed like a good low-ambition goal for the day.

Dinner?

Dinner?

After sleeping at the base of the old ski area, I decided to take the dirt road up the south side instead, figuring that the remaining snow in the woods would be annoying. It had rained the night before, and the bottom part of the dirt road was wet and mucky. Not wanting to coat my bike with mud, I drove past the area of the localized rain shower, then started riding from around 8,000 feet. The road was consistently steep, but dry until it turned the shoulder of South Peak to cross a north-facing slope, where it was blocked by snow.
Gooseneck aspen

Gooseneck aspen

Locking my bike to a tree, I walked the rest of the road to an exceptionally large and ugly collection of buildings and radio towers on the summit. Not being in any hurry, I walked most of the way back to my bike, then coasted to the car.

Abajo summit

Abajo summit

After getting some new and hopefully less mobile cleats, I hung out in Moab for awhile, then drove up to the start of the White Rim Road to camp. Waking to steady rain, I abandoned my riding plans and headed back into town, where I killed a day in the public library with the other dirtbags, then drove back to my previous camp. A large group of cyclists was finishing a multi-day tour of the White Rim as I arrived, looking generally miserable as they straggled in on mud-caked machines. As they described repeatedly dismounting to knock the mud out of their dérailleurs, I decided I would give things a bit more time to dry out.

Klondike trail

Klondike trail

After driving back to the highway, I pulled in near the Klondike Bluffs trailhead on BLM land to camp, and was surprised to find maps of what was apparently a relatively new mountain biking area. Maybe I would have a chance to ride it the next day while the White Rim dried.

Klondike Buttes

Klondike Buttes

Unfortunately, I woke to find it had rained more overnight, so after driving through some nasty muck to the trailhead, I instead decided to jog 4-5 miles of jeep road to the Klondike Bluffs. A couple of riders pulled up as I prepared, including one professional woman with a striking quantity of wavy red hair. Though they were apparently willing to ride the wet, sandy trails, I preferred to wait for things to dry out a bit. I explored the Bluffs a bit, got poured on for about 5 minutes, then jogged back to the trailhead, passing a convoy of about 10 jeeps on the way.

Fun?

Fun?

More riders arrived as I ate and eyed the weather. Though it never truly started raining, it sprinkled off and on, and it looked either overcast or raining back toward Island in the Sky. Clearly I was not meant to ride the White Rim this spring. With miles to drive and a one-day weather window in Nevada the next day, I looked through my list of things to do, then headed west for Ely, Nevada.

Deseret, “South Willow,” Flat Top

Waking up near a train track, I set out for another “snow, drive, four-wheel drive, desert” day. First up was Deseret, an ultra-prominence peak southwest of the Great Salt Lake, the highpoint of the Stansbury Range. On a clear day, five other ultra-prominence peaks are visible from its summit: Pilot, Ibapah, Flat Top, Nebo, and Timpanogos.

After driving past several popular and smoky campgrounds on Memorial Day, I reached the trailhead at the end of the road in South Willow Creek. The trail toward Deseret’s south ridge was popular and obvious for awhile, then the tracks diverged as people tried to find the least-painful way through the soft snow. I gave up on the trail, climbing some loose, brush 3rd class to a ridge on the right, then making my way along its dry side. High along the crest, I came upon a couple camped on a flat spot, having evidently been driven to this strange spot by the horrid slush.

From the ridge, I traversed some occasionally thigh-deep slush to the base of the twin couloirs, and found a nice fresh boot-pack up the left-hand one. Shortly after starting up, I met and thanked the man who had installed the stairs. Thanks to this good Samaritan, I made quick work of the couloir, then reacquired the trail for the rest of the hike to the summit. The birds I had seen circling the summit were not the ravens one might expect, but a flock of 50 or so seagulls, wheeling and shimmying as they fed on the moths swarming above the summit. I lay on my back for awhile, watching their aerobatics and appreciating the strangeness of the situation (movie).

Not wanting to retrace my steps, I descended north down the ridge, avoiding the snow where possible, then tagged “South Willow” before returning to the saddle where another trail climbs Deseret from the north, where I surprisingly found a decent boot-ski most of the way to the valley. Not seeing any trail from where the skiing ended, I bushwhacked downhill on some game trails, then thrashed through the woods in the valley until I stumbled out onto the trail, right in front of the camping couple I had met earlier. I jogged back to the trailhead, doffed my wet socks, and drove across the valley to the Oquirrh Range for the next peak.

After creeping through the ersatz Old West town of Ophir, I eventually found the South Fork road to Flat Top. Again thankful for high clearance and a granny gear, I crept up a fairly awful jeep road to 8000 feet, saving myself a long, hot walk. Surprised to find another car at this obscure trailhead, I located the trail and started another desert hike. Reaching a fork at a saddle, I arbitrarily chose to go left, and soon regretted the decision. This trail heads into the woods on the west side of the ridge, where it disappeared in a morass of mud and slush. Fortunately, the owner of the other car had also come this way, and I was able to follow in his steps until I emerged from the woods on a steep, brushy slope.

The climb from here to the ridge was steep and efficient, with ample game trails through the brush. I regained a faint human-trail on the ridge, then followed it an unexpectedly long way to the summit, where I met Alexander, who had kindly made the steps through the woods. After talking a bit, we headed back, opting to follow the ridge in order to minimize time spent in the woods. Based on a few cairns, there seems to be another human-trail along the ridge, though it is barely more than a game trail on this obscure summit. This trail eventually becomes the right branch of the fork I found on the way up, and is probably a better way to climb Flat Top when there is snow.

Guardian Angels, Tabernacle Dome

NGA and SGA from Tabernacle

NGA and SGA from Tabernacle


North and South Guardian Angels (NGA and SGA) are two prominent white fins near the Kolob Road on the west side of Zion. They are some of the harder peaks on the DPS list, the former because of a couple short 4th-class sections, the latter because of a tricky approach. Tabernacle Dome is a short, reddish dome west of the Guardian Angels, with an excellent view of both and no route easier than 5.2.

I got started a bit after sunrise under blessedly cloudy skies. The first couple of miles follow the well-established trail to the top of the popular Subway canyon, then a clear spur to the Northgate Peaks. After that, bits of use trail and footprints led to the base of NGA, where some no-hands slab-walking leads to the peak’s east shoulder. Most of the climb from here is class 3 or easier with careful route-finding, though there were a couple of trickier moves near a tree.

The crux is the final headwall below the summit ridge. I climbed some sketchy, exposed slabby terrain on the south side — never fun on sandstone — below the belay anchor, then worried about the downclimb as I walked over to the summit. The chilly wind and thoughts of getting back down made me disinclined to hang out, so I soon retraced my steps. Fortunately, I found that the north side of the headwall is much easier class 3-4. After that, it was mostly an easy walk back down to the dirt and brush.

Now to try to reach SGA, on the other side of the Subway. SummitPost describes two routes: first, one can follow the Subway from its head to an exit on its south side; second, there is supposedly a cairned route from NGA directly into the Subway across from the exit. I started off heading east around NGA, hoping that the next canyon would contain the route. Unfortunately, it was brush-choked and devoid of cairns. Much sketchy slab-traversing later, I reached the crest of the ridge to its west, which provided an easy and brush-free path much of the way down to the Subway.

Nearing the base of the ridge, I returned to the gully, which was now broad and slabby. Unfortunately, it also cliffed out well above the canyon floor, and the brush-based violence began. Following the occasional boot-prints of a fellow damned soul, I traversed across ridges and down likely-looking side-canyons, trying to head east and losing elevation, back-tracking several times to avoid cliffs. The terrain was a repulsive mix of manzanita and oak-brush atop pine duff and floury sand, often near its angle of repose.

I finally found a thrashable ramp leading to the subway, where I chose at random to head up-stream. Only a short distance up, I found what might be a way out the south side, with the suggestion of a few old footprints, and sat in the shade to have a snack and prepare for the bushwhack back out. The north-facing side was covered in more wet-weather deciduous tree and shrubs over steep duff, but thankfully no poison ivy; after the spiny descent, it was almost pleasant. Amazingly, I seem to have guessed right — at least, I escape the Subway via a bit of easy scrabbling up a broken chute.

I couldn’t see SGA from where I emerged, but took my bearing from NGA and headed south-southwest through — yep — more manzanita and oak-brush. One ridge over, I reached a sandy ravine and spotted SGA’s white tip beyond some red buttes. Following either the ravine or bits of use trail where it was choked with driftwood or brush, I eventually emerged on slickrock southeast of SGA. From there, it was a scenic, fun slab-romp to the summit, where I was both warm and tired enough for a short summit nap.

Rather than try to find the direct, cairned route on the way back, I decided to just take the Subway. Other than one short wade through thigh-deep stagnant water, I was happy with my choice. The canyon part, though short and not too scenic, was at least cool, and the canyoneers had worn a nice trail through the manzanita. Higher up, the route followed sporadic cairns across acres of cool slickrock. I even felt energetic enough to jog the last, flat mile of trail to the car.

After the SGA bushwhack from hell, the short stretch of brush between the road and Tabernacle Dome was as nothing. I found the climb exactly as described on SummitPost: First an initial steep pitch with a helpful log, then a bit of stemming in a steep chute, led to the hoodoos. Getting through the hoodoo-and-brush maze was a bit of a pain, but not so bad. The upper, exposed part was a breeze on the way up, with some nice underclings to up the friction on the steepest part, and good clean rock providing enough friction to do most of the rest hands-free.

After fighting the wind to take some photos from the summit, I retraced my steps. The crux slabs were trickier on the way down than I had expected; maybe I’m rusty so early in the season. After some cautious downclimbing, I managed to get lost briefly in the hoodoo maze, but eventually found the stem and downclimb, and brute-forced my way back to the car. Tabernacle Dome is definitely worth it as a “dessert” after a bigger outing in the area.

Halls Creek Narrows

Looking out at the baking sun

Looking out at the baking sun


Located near the southeast corner of Capitol Reef, Halls Creek Narrows are hard to reach from any kind of civilization. However, they are almost on the way from the Henries west (via the scenic Barr Trail Road), and were recommended by a friend much more familiar with canyon country than Yours Truly. Halls Creek is the kind of narrows that requires significant wading with shoes on, triggering my cat-like distaste for getting wet. However, I’m glad I did them; the water was clean and never more than crotch-deep, and even pleasant on a hot day.

I got started around sunrise on the rim, and was thankful to be in the shade most of the way down the broad canyon to the narrows entrance. I saw two other parties along the way — this is another popular area of the boonies. Halls Creek follows and obvious, broad gully between two long sandstone ridges, then inexplicably burrows through the western one for a few miles rather than going through a mound of dirt called the Halls Divide. It returns to its obvious course afterward, and continues to the Colorado as if nothing happened.

I reached the narrows just as the day started to turn unpleasantly hot and, after psyching myself up for a minute, stepped into the first wet section. I converted my pants to shorts, but kept my running shoes on; the canyon bottom is mostly soft sand, so I could have waded barefoot, but there are enough wet sections, with enough walking between them, that this would be terribly inefficient. Besides, in the dry heat, my shoes dried in no time.

The canyon is never especially narrow, but has many bends with overhanging outer walls, some sheltering little green oases of trees and cat-tails. Most of the wading sections were no more than calf-deep, with one thigh-deep and the final one crotch-deep. I took my time in this section, both to fiddle with my camera trying to deal with the huge dynamic range between sky and shady canyon, and because I knew that the return would be a hot, dry, sandy death-march.

Leaving the canyon, I swapped in some dry socks, dipped into my podcast collection, and got to work. Shortly after crossing the strange Divide, which has its own small streambeds cut into either side, I met a family with a baby-pack, then was alone with my growing thirst for the march back to the trailhead. I had brought about 2 liters of water, which would normally be enough for a 20-mile day, but I am unaccustomed to desert outings, and was thoroughly parched by the time I struggled up out of the wash.

Ellen, Ellen, South Summit Ridge

Ellen from camp

Ellen from camp


Ellen Peak and Mount Ellen Peak (or perhaps Ellen Peak Mountain) are the highpoint of the Henry Mountains, a remote range in south-central Utah. Although you can drive to within 1000 vertical feet of the summit, doing so involves about 20 miles on the mostly-graded-dirt Notom road, then 25 miles on a high-clearance road crossing the Henries via a 10,500-foot pass. Despite this remoteness, the peak sees many visits from county high-pointers, and the area is surprisingly well-developed for BLM land, with new-looking signs, a campground with outhouse, and a trail register for Ellen.

After camping in the desert, I drove the road to where it crosses onto a north-facing slope around 9,700′, where snow and vicious mud forced me to continue on foot. The snow was cooperative, with a firm but not icy crust, and I was soon at the summer trailhead. Just before the pass, I found an unoccupied but clearly cared-for summer cabin — nice location!

I followed the well-defined trail to the first Ellen, the highpoint of an un-peak-like ridge, where I found the traditional desert mailbox containing the register (a portion of The Fellowship of the Ring). The peak sees an amazing amount of traffic for being so remote. With plenty of time left, I continued along the ridge to the other, lower but more peak-like Ellen, and was pleased to find not just a well-built trail, but several old building foundations. The register here showed far less traffic, and was accompanied by an anemic geocache.

Rather than following the ridge back, I thought I would be clever and follow some sheep-trails contouring along the west side. Bad move. The trails soon petered out, leaving me to fight lots of loose talus and, worse, rock-hard snowfields. After some time chipping steps with a rock, scrabbling with my fingernails, grabbing protruding brush, and nearly sliding onto the rocks, I gave up and climbed back to the ridge. Wanting a bit more punishment, I tagged the first peak south of the road, with an antenna on top, before dropping to the car. It appears to be called “South Summit Ridge” on some maps.