Category Archives: Utah

Grand Gulch

They were a small people

[This is longer than my usual reports because I camped out for a change, and if it feels a bit more polished and researched, that is because my co-conspirator Leonie is a Real Writer, and kindly offered to collaborate. — ed.]

Grand Gulch drains most of the west side of Cedar Mesa, a wooded plateau southeast of Moab about 6500 feet above sea level. Running roughly east to west for 50 miles, from Kane Gulch to the San Juan River, the canyon floor ranges from 5500 to 5100 feet and is often wide, sandy and boulder-strewn. Leonie and I hiked from Bullet Canyon to Collins Spring, a distance of about 30 miles, though her Fitbit reckoned we covered almost double that navigating the twists of the canyon floor and scrambling up cliffs to sit with every ruin and pictograph we could find.

The central part of the gulch features sheer 800-foot cliffs of Cedar Mesa sandstone, the remnants of beach from the Permian era. Fossils from the sea floor during this era, about 250 million years ago, display a diverse and thriving marine system, then a swath of corpses. The planet’s third and most catastrophic mass extinction wiped out over 95% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial life; land-based ecosystems took 30 million years to recover. No one is sure what caused this mass extinction, but global warming and ocean acidification certainly contributed. We are currently in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, but this time we know exactly whom to blame.

Day 1

Big Pouroff “spring”

I wanted to tell her that her tears were wasted water, but neither of us could stop laughing. Our second “reliable water source” in three days was a seven-foot-deep pool of black sludge, its oily surface occasionally disturbed by bubbles from the chemical reactions in its depths. Once the laughter faded, we agreed that we had enough water to last the rest of the trip. This water could be saved for someone more desperate.

Grand Gulch was not on my agenda when I left California to escape the fires and smoke. I am a mountain person, drawn to open views and sharp, easily-catalogued summits, and the Gulch is a uniformly narrow and shallow canyon in a piñon-and-juniper desert plain. However it was conveniently located, and while my previous visit made planning easy, much of it was still new to me. Leonie and I drove over to Collins Gulch to set up a car shuttle, threw a couple gallons of water and what seemed like a few days’ food in our packs, and returned to Bullet Canyon to begin the hike. Ten minutes in, we reached the first spring, a patch of moss under an overhang with an icicle and a thin trickle of water. This did not bode well for the supposedly reliable water sources farther in, so late in a dry year. We dropped our packs, returned to the car to chug as much as we could, then resumed where we had left off.

This first part was familiar from my previous trip, when Renee and I had used Bullet Canyon to visit the northeast part of Grand Gulch on a long run. It is also popular, as the first ruins are close enough to the trailhead for most people to visit them in a day. But the terrain is largely slickrock and sand, where trails do not form, so I still had to pay attention as we alternately followed the wash and bypassed steeper sections to one side or the other. The ruins are also well-hidden on shelves above the valley floor, so despite my having visited both before, we barely found Jailhose Ruin, and I wasted plenty of time and energy failing to find Perfect Kiva.

Where most people turn right at the Grand Gulch junction, we turned left, heading downstream toward the San Juan River. We were just over seven miles from our other car, but covering that distance would take a good part of three days. A seasonal stream has cut the Gulch into a nearly-flat sandstone plateau, so it meanders constantly, and its sides are mostly sheer. Once you enter, you are committed to following its twists and turns, either through deep sand in the wash, or cactus and tamarisk on either side. I could not decide which was least bad, and every time I changed my mind we were forced to slog up and down high banks of loose dirt. As the sun set in our narrow strip of sky, the cold abruptly set in, and we found a sandstone bench above the brush and pooling frigid air to camp. I always struggle with the cold, short days this time of year, particularly while backpacking, and the canyon only made them colder and shorter. On the bright side, we had barely touched our water, so we could survive the next two days with no springs and only a bit of thirst.

Grand Gulch probably has some of the best stargazing in the country. Though it is not particularly high at only around 5000 feet, the air is dry and unpolluted. The nearest town, Mexican Hat, is over twenty miles away, barely inhabited, and hidden in the San Juan River canyon. We were visiting at a particularly opportune time, near both the new moon and the peak of the Leonid meteor showers. Anticipating this, I had brought my “real” camera to practice my night photography, so I was disappointed and annoyed at myself when I found that the cold had drained the battery. So much for my plan to while away the long hours between when it is too dark to hike and a socially-acceptable bedtime. Fortunately we had shooting stars to watch, and Leonie shares my insomnia and is an endless source of crazy stories, so I did not waste my evening with dark thoughts and depressing political podcasts.

Day 2

Side-stream panel

While our campsite was mostly well-chosen, on a flat, clean sandstone bench above the pool of cold air in the wash, it faced north, so the morning routine of hot breakfast wrapped in down took longer than usual. I would ordinarily chafe at wasting any portion of a short November day, but despite the previous day’s battles with sand and shrubbery, I remained confident that we had only a modest distance to cover in the next two days. We hoped to find water at Green Canyon, but thanks to our decision to tank up at the car, I thought we could finish with only mild dehydration.

Grand Gulch can be frustrating, but is never boring. The best route alternates between the central channel and the banks to either side, with each transition requiring a minor battle with a steep dirt-bank. In the channel, one’s search for pictographs, ruins, and water sources is hampered by the ten-foot-tall banks; on the sides, by the need to dodge cacti wriggle through brush. Thus the mind stays occupied, even while the route is dictated by the canyon walls.

Leonie’s map mentioned a “Totem Pole” ruin in this stretch, but we were focused on making forward progress, and my failure to find the Perfect Kiva the day before had accustomed me to the disappointment of not finding ruins. It therefore cheered me and gave me a bit of confidence to spot, though the head-high brush, a two-story building on a south-facing ledge. We dropped packs, thrashed up brush and dirt, then scrambled some easy slabs to reach the ledge’s accessible east side.

The building was in a strong defensive position, with sheer cliffs above and below and the ledge tapering away to the west. The eastern approach was guarded by a thick wall with a low door and five apparent arrow slits, suggesting frequent vicious and petty wars between the canyon’s settlements. The building itself was solidly-built, with regular layers of larger rocks alternating with mud and smaller stones. While enough of the second story’s floor had collapsed to allow one to look inside, most of the vegas were intact, blackened by smoke. The ceilings were low for us modern tall folk — everything from doors to handprints to corncobs is small — leading me to believe that the Basketweavers were stunted by their sere environment.

As we turned to head back to our packs, I was surprised to see a man making his way up to the eastern side of the ledge. He patiently waited outside the defensive wall until we exited, and I probably would have just said a few words and moved on, but Leonie is more outgoing, and the man proved more talkative than I had expected. Dana had been visiting the Gulch for forty years, and was paradoxically documenting it online while trying to protect it from the rising tourist tide. He also had a long and wide-ranging mountaineering career, but he was reticent like most such people, and we all had miles to cover.

Before parting, Dana gave us a map pointing out some archaeological features that did not appear on ours, and suggested a possible water source up Step Canyon. We quickly found the nearby Quail Panel, small but more colorful than most in the Canyon. I took some photos, learned the Quail Panel Dance, then took off up-canyon in search of the fabled water source. This side-trip turned out to be a discouraging waste of time. Perhaps there is no water, but more likely I am simply bad at finding it. After an hour or so spent looking under overhangs and below discolorations, the best I found was some vile moss-mud hybrid that I could perhaps drink from by pressing my t-shirt against it and wringing a few drops into my mouth.

Leonie ran into Dana while gawking at the panel and waiting for my fruitless water expedition. He told her that the blocky rectangular figures are over 2000 years old, painted by people well-intentioned whites call Basketmaker. The oldest remnants Europeans found in the canyon are intricately woven watertight brackets which date from that era. The stick figures are from a later group often called Pueblo, who lived in the canyon from about 1000 AD to the 12th or 13th or 14th century, depending on whose account you trust. Most of the structures we passed date from this period.

There are five modern native tribes that trace their ancestors to Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa- the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo and two groups of Ute. When Obama designated Bear’s Ears National Monument in 2016, he created a historic management partnership between federal and tribal agencies. Registers at some of the better known structures and panels offer tips on how to appreciate the sites with respect.

It turns out that hanging out by the panel was a better way to find water. Three NOLS instructors came by, and told us of a “good” pothole farther down-canyon. In typical NOLS fashion, they were on a ridiculously long backpack out-of-season through harsh terrain, descending another gulch to the San Juan, then somehow following that to the mouth of Grand Gulch before exiting via Bullet. Unusually, though, the instructors were keeping some distance from the students, who were supposed to figure things out for themselves. I am not sure how this worked, but imagined it involved spotting scopes and tranquilizer darts. Continuing on our way, we passed a couple groups of the students, instantly recognizable by their haggard young faces and absurdly large packs. As much as I respect NOLS, it is frustrating to watch it corrupt the minds of our youth with its slow-and-heavy style.

The promised oasis turned out to be a pool of stagnant water, roughly three by eight feet and a foot deep, sitting fifty feet above the canyon floor on the south side. Other than a few algae and some floating debris, it looked drinkable, though little like a “water source” to my mountaineer’s eyes, and nothing like a “spring.” We took turns forcing some water through my filter, mostly clogged by Chilean glacial silt, and boiling some for tea, a frustrating process for those used to dipping in alpine streams. However it was worth the effort, as it alleviated the persistent water anxiety and even gave us the option of taking another day. I had packed my food expecting to cover normal summer-length days, but since caloric needs are mostly a function of miles traveled, I could easily last another day.

By the end of two days in the canyon, I was developing a sense for where to find ruins and pictographs. The natives were smart, locating their dwellings and paintings on south- or east-facing ledges with overhangs, which would catch morning and winter sun, and be somewhat shaded in the summer. Thus I correctly predicted that another ledge was likely to contain something, and found some more pictographs not labeled on either map. Their ledge had partly collapsed though, so getting close required a bit of fourth class climbing — a bonus to me. My inner peak-bagger was frustrated by the constrained hike through a canyon, and each ruin was like a summit, this one requiring an interesting scramble.

A hurried search for a campsite before dark left us on a slightly worse ledge, west-facing and sloped toward the wash. Between the slow terrain and my fruitless side-trip for water, we had not covered much ground, but I was getting better at spotting ruins, and learning to lower my expectations about water. I ate my curry-flavored nutrient paste, then settled in for another night of conversation and insomnia beneath innumerable stars.

Day 3

Water anxiety was no longer a problem: thanks to the friendly NOLS instructors, we had found usable water the day before, and knew of a reliable source ahead at the Big Pouroff. Thus we were in no hurry to get started, and felt free to stop and explore at our leisure. This included both normal tourist visits to ruins and pictographs, and sillier delays like chimneying up behind a giant sandstone flake just because it was there. Like Zion and Red Rocks, parts of Grand Gulch can feel like an adult jungle gym for those inclined to scramble.

Dana had marked some pictographs near our camp, but after failing to find them in a few minutes’ search, we headed on down the wash. As we imperceptibly descended toward the San Juan River, and more tributaries fed into the main Gulch. The greater seasonal flow manifested itself indirectly: the channel widened and became less brushy, its deep sand replaced by compacted gravel, cracked mud, and worn sandstone, and occasional wet patches began to appear. Leonie found some water in the form of calf-deep, shoe-sucking mud hidden under leaves, and shortly thereafter found a vile pothole in which to wash it off.

After two days of scrabbling up and down dirt-banks, thrashing through tamarisk, and plodding in sand, easy walking in the broad ravine was its own attraction. Our pace increased so much that we almost missed the “Big Man” panel featured on the tourist signs, had we not met an older couple hiking in to see it from the opposite direction. Rather than backpacking the canyon as we were, they were wisely dayhiking it from its tributaries to the east: Kane, Bullet, Government, and so on. We talked for awhile — as fellow travelers in the Western United States, we had seen many of the same places — then took off through the brush toward the indicated coordinates. I spotted a likely location for pictographs, a north-facing bench under a smooth overhang, and took off to investigate while the others waited.

My thrashy, slabby route was unsurprisingly the wrong way, and I discovered a well-traveled path just below the ledge. I had guessed correctly, finding the two large red figures, with the usual Basketweaver blocky bodies and spindly limbs, along with a few cruder white figures, many handprints, and either some fat abstract rodent or the severed head of a white girl with a ponytail. Leonie and the couple soon joined me, and we alternated posing for photos and signing the summit register (yay, I get points for this!). When the conversation stumbled into politics, I was relieved to learn that they were the kind of Montanans with whom I tend to agree. The northern Rockies states have a conservative and redneck reputation, but especially in Montana, I have found a strong current of wilderness conservation and defense of access to public lands. While the political divisions may be just as bitter as elsewhere, they are drawn on different lines than elsewhere, with hunters more closely allied with hikers and climbers.

We took a side trip near Polly’s Island to visit some handprints Dana had mentioned, but I was starting to succumb to archaeology fatigue. When I spotted a short wall on a ledge farther down-gulch, Leonie was content to hang out in the streambed while I thrashed up to take a closer look. A collapsed canyon wall on the right seemed to offer the most likely access, but while I found trails in the flat below, and an old cut branch higher up, the route did not seem to see much traffic. A final squeeze and exposed step landed me on the ledge. The walls were not much more impressive close up, and there were no pictographs, so I took a few quick photos and almost turned back.

Fortunately I decided to take a peek around the corner to the southwest, and saw that the ledge extended another couple hundred yards, sheltering a few more structures before disappearing into the blank canyon wall. I shouted to my companion that the side-trip was worth the effort, then waited for her to join me before exploring further. Though it was probably the largest settlement we saw, and seems easy to spot from below, the ruin did not appear on the map and lacked the usual BLM “please stay out” signs, and I found no recent footprints in the dirt along the ledge. We passed a well-preserved stick-and-mud wall and two- and three-unit “apartment complexes,” then stopped at the final round structure to absorb our surroundings.

Pictographs are worth recording, but I find it hard to relate to them. The stick figures and handprints show little skill, and the abstract paintings mean nothing unmoored from their culture. Buildings are another matter: the need for shelter is universal, and with limited labor and building materials, the ancient natives constructed structures I would find difficult to recreate myself. Sitting on that ledge, I could imagine the austere and circumscribed lives of an extended family living there, waking each morning to the same restricted view I saw. They would tend and gather their crops below, carefully manage their limited water, and trade or war with similar people a few miles up- or down-canyon.

Back in the present, it was time we looked to our own water, shelter, and forward progress. We dropped packs near the point of the Big Pouroff, a supposedly good water source, and I spent a half-hour following various game- and human-trails around a flat bend, peering under every discolored overhang and behind every cluster of greenish vegetation. I was expecting a mossy little oasis with a dripping seep, but instead found only more desert. Returning to our packs and the watercourse, we worked our way around a dryfall and found… well, the name “Big Pouroff” was accurate. Though dry now, the wide chute had once flowed into the largest pothole we had seen, still brimming with fetid scunge. While I tried to measure its depth without falling in and drowning, Leonie sat down to laugh uncontrollably.

This time we were determined to find a good camp-spot, flat and east-facing. We passed several other potholes, smaller and less vile than the Big Pouroff, but none seemed worth the effort given our adequate water. Toward dusk, I spotted a possible camping area high above the streambed inside a westward bend. Reaching it required some engaging class 4 sandstone slabs, and it was not entirely flat, but we would spend the night well out of the cold pool in the gulch, and feel the first sun after our last night.

Day 4

Summiting the narrows

Our unplanned fourth day was short, and the travel likely to remain easy, so we took our time packing up and scrambling back into the wash. The lower wash remained broad and smooth as expected, while the canyon walls twisted into sharper goosenecks, on their way toward wearing through and forming buttes, like Polly’s Island from the previous day. We passed one more ruin, with an intact kiva, a summit register, and dwellings on an inaccessible-looking shelf above. The information in the register box noted that using technical rock-climbing gear to reach ruins was illegal, which I of course took as a challenge to my scrambling ability. Reaching the shelf was no more than class 3, but the traverse to the buildings, on outward-sloping sandstone with little headroom, was more than I wanted to risk. I suspect that either the ledge has eroded, or the natives reached the dwelling via a ladder or the roofs of buildings below.

It was not even noon when we reached the junction with Collins Gulch, and the route back to Leonie’s car, so we dropped our packs to explore “The Narrows,” a feature labeled on our map. This turned out not to be a slot canyon like the Zion Narrows, but something more unusual, a gooseneck that had “recently” worn through to form an island. The new watercourse led through a gap no more than a dozen feet wide, with two logs jammed ten feet up. Being who I am, my first thought after “that’s cool” was “how do I stand on top of those?” I found two ways: a fourth class traverse from a side-canyon along a ledge on the right, and a more direct fifth class route up the right wall from below, mantling onto the log. Balancing across the lower log was heady but easy, since it was broad and stable. I posed for some photos on the summit block, then downclimbed back to the wash.

After failing to climb to the rim above the constriction, we returned to our packs and picked up the well-used trail up Collins. This was one of the settlers’ original routes into Grand Gulch, probably because it has a permanent spring at the top (though based on our experience, I am skeptical of both its permanence and its springiness). The route therefore follows an old developed trail, with spiked retaining walls in places and one section blasted into the cliff wall near the top. Despite its development and semi-regular use, the trail remains hard to follow in places, as it sensibly follows the wash where possible. This misled us into one dead-end, where we briefly wondered how mules had climbed a fifth-class sandstone step. The answer was that we had passed the point where an obvious trail left the wash.

Back on track, we climbed a ramp carved in the sandstone wall, passed through an old gate, and reemerged on Cedar Mesa, into a suddenly open sky and 360-degree distant horizon. The gulch where we had spent the past three days quickly disappeared in the undulating sandstone and spotted junipers. Unlike my familiar mountains, landmarks visible for tens of miles, Grand Gulch is a surprise, hidden in mere hundreds of yards. It must have been a cruel shock for early explorers, who had easily avoided the high and compact La Sals, Henries, and Abajos, to stumble upon this sprawling impasse. But in our modern world all terrain is known and mapped, all paths graded and paved. In only a couple of hours we had drive back around to Bullet Canyon to retrieve the other car, then down off the Mesa via the improbable Moki Dugway to spend a warmer night among the sandstone monuments to the south.

East Temple, Checkerboard Mesa

East Temple from overlook

East Temple is a large, sheer-sided butte just north of Zion’s east entrance road, on the edge of the main valley. Though it looks inaccessible to scramblers like Yours Truly, bighorn sheep have been climbing it for millenia, via an improbable route that corkscrews around from the southeast corner near the popular valley overlook. Though sheep-friendly, the route is rated 5.7, and the crux is a slab traverse, making it the most difficult and intimidating route I meant to climb on this visit. It was still cold, but I had given it a few days to dry, and had plans elsewhere, so it was now or never.

I once again drove into the park early, both to skip the entry fee and to get one of the few spots near the popular east tunnel overlook. Unfortunately it is a popular place to photograph the sunrise, so it was already a zoo when I arrived around 7:00. I rudely turned around in the road, drove a quarter mile back east to park, then sat in my car for awhile waiting for it to become less frigid. The route seemed short enough that I would not have to worry about running out of daylight, and I was getting tired of cold hands.

Hoodoos along the way

I slogged through tourist hordes on the narrow trail to the overlook, with its carved steps and nice, safe railings, thinking that it might actually be possible to transmit a coronavirus outdoors in such a throng. I stopped at the overlook to look at East Temple for a bit, then left the official trail to climb toward its base, giving the trio of rangers who had arrived a wide berth. Since I wasn’t carrying ropes and such, I looked like what I am — more a homeless guy than a Real Climber — and worried they would yell at me for wandering off-trail. The first part of the route is a rising traverse across the peak’s lower-angle apron toward the north end of its upper white cliffs. I had a route description, but it is not really helpful. There are a couple gullies that can be brushy and annoying, but the goal is to reach a point around 6000 feet on East Temple’s southwest side via a game of “slab chicken,” generally heading up and left while staying on the lower-angle slabs via micro-route-finding. None of it is harder than class 3, but there is no single best path.

The route description finally became useful at the southwest ridge, where the “notch with a tree” proved much more distinctive than I had expected. The view from the notch was disconcerting, though: I saw no feasible line up out of the next gully, and nothing that looked like a friendly side-gully leading on around lower down. There were no cairns or signs of human passage, it was shaded and cold on the west slope, and the thought of turning back entered my mind. Only partly shaking off that weakness, I traversed some snowy ledges into the gully and began descending.

Second gully

A few hundred feet down, the route’s likely continuation became clear: a brushy slot with moderate-angle slabs to its left, leading up and around toward the peak’s west shoulder. A small cairn confirmed my hypothesis, and a return to the sun lightened my mood. I scrambled up the slot a bit, then took to the slabs, where I found some more serious climbing and tricky route-finding. The crux was near the top, where one follows a series of outward-sloping white ledges to get around a headwall. I grabbed at a bush, focused on smooth movement, and tried not to think about how far I would bounce if I fell, or how this would feel on the way down. At the top, I passed an old sling around a tree, then traversed left to easier terrain on the ridge.

Brushy chimney I bypassed

After climbing easier terrain, the described route became obvious: a brush-choked chimney leading to a slung pine tree. The moves became harder as I ascended, and the climbing was unpleasant throughout, stemming and stepping on dirty ledges, and alternately grabbing, pushing through, and stepping on various brush. At the top, I encountered a large step guarded by a downward-growing shrub. I might have been able to climb it by yarding on the bush, but it did not feel solidly attached, and I backed off. The oaks below would have caught my fall, but I did not want to risk it.

A comment on Mountain Project suggested climbing one of the shallow gullies to the left, so I tried each in turn. They looked feasible from below, but I could not find a way up either that felt comfortable. Slab climbing, especially on sandstone, is a mental game, and my confidence and judgment were fading. I tried the first slot for some reason, reaching the same high point and trundling the crux plant, which had only been held in by a thin root. I found the now-shrubless step too difficult, and once again thought of giving up.

What’s over there?

After a snack — sugar makes everything seem better — I decided to check around the corner to the left. I had a good feeling about the terrain there, and I knew that sheep climbed this. Since they cannot stem, there had to be an easier way. My persistence was rewarded, as I found slabs and ledges leading around the difficulty which were mostly class 3-4. Once again, my persistence and alpine tricksiness let me cheat my way around difficulties that others seem to take head-on. But these qualities only took me so far, and once I reached the upper slung tree, I was faced with the inevitable crux: a long, rising slab traverse around to the north side.

Slabbing it up

This traverse used to be an unprotectable friction-fest, following flatter stripes and knobby dikes up and left to the pre-summit plateau, but someone (NPS? climbers?) has installed a lot of hardware. Now there are a dozen giant eye-bolts and three ladder rungs for belays, placed along either the best path or the one that someone with a drill happened to take. This was dicey climbing at the best of times, especially in trail runners, but my head was back in the right place. However, as the route wrapped around the northwest side of the Temple, the rock became wetter, and patches of snow lingered on some ledges. This was not going to be easy.

Time to get sketchy

I started along one stripe, retreated, then tried a slightly different attack, eventually reaching the first bolt. I debated for a minute, then put two fingers through and grabbed it. This was “cheating,” but I justified it to myself on account of the wet rock; if the route were dry, I would have the skill and confidence to climb it in its original condition. I worked my way up and left from there, sometimes staying near the bolted line, sometimes wandering left on ledges, grabbing or stepping on hardware when it helped. As the route wrapped around, the snow, ice, and wet rock became more problematic, and I frequently knocked snow and grit off my soles at the transitions back to dry rock. In such conditions, the tough little desert bushes were more reliable than the rock in which they grew. The final section, climbing a trough to the plateau, would have been an easy romp when dry, but it was sheltered and shaded, making it a snowy, icy sketch-fest.

Summit from above crux

I emerged on the sandy, brushy fore-summit with a shudder of relief, then hiked as quickly as I could around the peak’s north side, mindful of the slow, careful descent to come. The snow was never more than six inches deep, but it hid some treacherous cactus. I made it around to the east side with only one minor spiny incident, wrapping almost to the southeast corner before finding the obvious route to the summit plateau. From there, I trudged back to the highpoint on its west end. I took a few quick photos and had a snack, but could not bring myself to linger while the downclimb remained.

Kinesava and West Temple

Descending the slab crux was as sketchy as I had anticipated, but patience and caution prevailed. From there, the rest was mostly comfortable, though the steps below the first slung tree gave me pause. I descended the slot, reclimbed the main gully, and passed through the notch with the tree. I was either better at, or numb to, sandstone slabs at this point, so the traverse back to the overlook felt much more casual. I pulled up my buff and flowed slowly with the tourist crowds, occasionally passing when the opportunity arose and my patience gave out.

I still had a few hours of daylight, and did not expect to return to Zion for some time, so I stopped on my way out of the park to tag Checkerboard Mesa. Though it is probably more photographed than the East Temple, it is a much easier climb. Unlike neighboring Crazy Quilt, where one climbs straight up the checkered face, the route up Checkerboard thrashes up a gully to its left, then slogs along endless summit plateau before thrashing through oak and pines to the highpoint. I took a few photos, then hurried back to the car before sunset, driving back east past Kanab to find a place to camp with service. It was an anticlimactic end to a satisfying and successful Zion visit. I have badly underrated Zion’s scrambling potential, and want to return to explore it further.

Nippletop, Separation, Lonely, The Triplets, Lost

Nippletop and Triplets from NW

I had one more big thing to do before leaving Zion, but the rock still needed more time to dry, so I decided to tag a few more easy peaks south of the entrance road. Nippletop had aroused my interest from both the Ares (Aires? Ariel?) Buttes and Progeny, so when I learned that it had a class 3 route, it seemed an obvious choice. Separation and Lonely are two minor satellite peaks recommended as side-trips in Joe’s Guide, and the others happened to be nearby, and to turn the day into a nice loop.

Frozen sand is easier

I parked at a pullout near the drainage east of Nippletop, crossed the main wash, then headed south, grateful that the slickrock here was free of snow. The sun was out, but it was a cold morning, and my feet ached despite another late start. From a distance, Nippletop looks a bit like a cupcake, with vertical sandstone sides, a sloping frosting of trees, and a decorative rock blob on top. The key to reaching the frosting is a ridge extending north, with a lower-angle bowl to its east. The bowl is partly shaded by the main peak, so much of the rock was still wet or snow-covered, but it was mostly low-angle, and broken up by solid trees and bushes higher up. As I hiked, I found myself listening to an interview with a guy who had fallen in a crevasse on the Teton Glacier this past summer while descending the Koven route. Everything about his account, from his near-death experience to his description of the climbing process, was strange to me, but I easily pictured one of my favorite routes, which I have done a half-dozen times without incident.

Valley from Nippletop

After climbing the bowl, the route traverses the ridge to the main peak, then climbs a short step to the summit plateau. This is north-facing, and was all covered in snow; I briefly followed some sheep tracks, then put my down jacket back on once I passed into the shade. There was a bit of brushy third class here, but fortunately no treacherous slabs, so I quickly reached the plateau and returned to the warming sun. After a hike and another couple third class moves, I was standing on the tip of the nipple. Familiar peaks surrounded me to the east, north, and west, from Crazy Quilt around to Bridge and G2. East Temple dominated the view to the northwest, its south face drying out nicely.

Lonely from Separation

Returning down the bowl, I headed east a bit to Separation Peak, finding the final slab moves onto its summit surprisingly delicate when covered in ice and snow. It seemed arbitrary to me that, of the various bumps surrounding Nippletop, this and Lonely Peak have received unofficial names, while the one between it and the Triplets has not, but that was reason enough for me to choose which to climb or not. Lonely is another short hike from Separation, an easy peak without a steep summit cap.

Triplets and unnamed bump

I could have returned the way I had come from here, but I noticed that the Triplets and Lost were not far west and looked doable, and I could return via a loop through the next drainage. This seemed more interesting to me, so I headed west for the first and highest Triplet. All three are made of soft white rock with layers rising toward the northeast, so I found myself climbing steep, snowy, but positive terrain, then descending more gradual but still somewhat sketchy outward-sloping slabs. They are probably class 3 by their easiest routes, but felt a bit harder in the snow. I stopped for awhile on the first, where I had cell reception, to make post-Zion plans, then continued over the other two.

I dropped north off the final Triplet, then circled around west through the saddle to reach the base of Lost’s southeast side. The initial slabs climbing out of the scrubby plateau were a bit steep, but it soon mellowed out to an easy walk, leading to a summit with a close-up view of the familiar Roof, Hepworth, and Gifford to the west. The north ridge looked similar to the south slope on the topo, but was slightly trickier thanks to snow and a couple of steep steps — conditions were not ideal. Once on flatter ground, I made my way northeast into the wash, where I found some footprints and eventually a use trail leading back toward the road. It would have been fastest to walk the shoulder, but I had time to spare, and walking along a narrow road next to tourists gawking from their rented RVs and trying to parallel park sounded unpleasant. I chose instead to follow the wash south of the road, which is easy and surprisingly scenic, with bits of slot canyon and little brush. Back at the car, I thought briefly of climbing the snowy, north-facing gully to Checkerboard Mesa, then decided it could wait for a warmer day.

Mountain of the Sun, Progeny

Shadow of Progeny

With the rock wet and/or covered with snow, difficult scrambling was out of the question. Joe from the Climbers’ Ranch had sent me a link to Joe’s (no relation) Guide to Zion, a mix of hikes, scrambles, and technical canyons. I picked out a couple at random that shared a trailhead and looked no harder than class 3, then headed into the park, looking for striking views of snow-covered sandstone. However it remained stubbornly cloudy and unpleasantly cold, so I sat in the car and enjoyed my coffee, in no hurry to start.

Deertrap Mesa from trailhead

I finally got out at Upper Pine Creek, the start of the route to Mountain of the Sun, which would have a good view of the main valley peaks. The sand in the wash was pleasantly firm from its cold soaking, and even a bit too soaked in places, as I had to thrash through the snowy brush to get around some standing water. I could see enough of the surrounding terrain to navigate, but distant features were mostly obscured by clouds, and it continued to snow intermittently. My feet were soaked by the snow on the ground, my hands by that on the rocks and branches, and both were on the edge of unpleasant cold.


The climb over the saddle from Pine Creek over to the next creek west would have been little more than a hike when dry, but proved somewhat more thought-provoking in the snow. Slabs in general are treacherous when wet, and Zion’s sandstone ones are worse in several ways. First, the wet stone sheds sand, which lubricates its surface. Second, the black lichen on some slabs turns incredibly slick. Third, edges and protrusions become brittle, making them unreliable. But this is why I had chosen a hiking peak; the snow made it challenging rather than impassable.

North canyon toward MotS

Coming down the other saddle, I heard a sound and turned to see a herd of bighorns. They were timid as usual for the desert variety, with the herd taking off down the wash between the Twin Brothers and East Temple, one standing watch before following the rest. I turned the other way, heading north to a narrow saddle next to the Twin Brothers before descending toward Mountain of the Sun. This unusual feature of drainages flowing north and south from a narrow connecting saddle seems common in Zion; I had noticed a similar saddle in Hepworth Wash, and it seems like many of the valleys south of the east entrance road have such saddles. My guess is that they occur because erosion has taken place more by wind than by flowing water, where one direction or the other would receive more flow and capture the other.

The ramp

Thanks to my excellent route description, I had no trouble finding the ramp leading back to the saddle between Twin Brothers and Mountain of the Sun. True to the description, it was exposed o both sides, sloping down into the main drainage on the east, and a minor one on the west. Here once again I would have had an easy walk in dry conditions, and thought nothing of the exposure. Wet and covered in snow, it required some caution, carefully avoiding the lichen when possible, and kicking my soles clean when transitioning from snow to bare rock.

Deertrap Mesa

The direct traverse over to the saddle was too slick, forcing me to detour well south, then thrash through snowy manzanita, which offered better footing. By this point my hands and feet were unpleasantly cold, and the snow seemed about to turn to drizzle. I did what I normally do when cold and unhappy, eating most of my food, standing around with my hand in my pockets, and contemplating turning around. Fortunately I continued, and found the rest of the route no harder than what I had done so far. The “class 4” crux was fortunately a steep, brushy gully instead of bare slabs, meaning it was little harder to climb in snow.

Valley from summit

From the summit, I had intermittent views down to the Zion Lodge to one side, and the main visitor center and mouth of the valley to the other. Occasionally I could see the Twin Brothers to the south, or the lower portions of the valley’s west side, but they remained mostly hidden. Some careful slabbing got me back to the wash, after which it was just a hike to the car. No more than a quarter mile from the road, I once again met a herd of bighorns, two adults leading about eight juveniles of various ages. Perhaps because they were uphill of me, they were less timid than the others, and we stood around observing each other for awhile. I had planned to combine Mountain of the Sun with Progeny, but reading the description more carefully, I realized that they shared a trailhead rather than an approach. I returned to the car, had some hot chocolate, then set out anew with just my camera in my pocket.

East Rim view

Progeny turned out to be an easy, rewarding, and stimulating afternoon hike. I quickly left the tourists behind, and had no trouble finding the small arch. I mostly ignored the route description, simply taking what looked like the obvious line toward the summit. I was reassured of being on-route by the sight of the “two breasts,” sitting perkily to my left, though any of a number of lines would have worked as well. From the summit, the late November afternoon light gave the East Rim Formations a warm glow, from the Ares (Aires? Ariel?) Buttes, to Crazy Quilt, to… Nippletop, continuing the afternoon’s anatomical theme. It was still cold, but mostly clear and pleasant in the sun with a down parka. I absorbed the scene for awhile, then scampered back to the car to find a place to spend the long, cold night.

Pine Valley Peak, Northgate West

Pne Valley Peak from Northgate

With only half a day before rain and snow would make the sandstone slick and fragile, I headed up Kolob Terrace Road to climb some short domes. I had been this way on my first scrambling trip to Zion, in 2013, to climb the Guardian Angels and Tabernacle Dome. This time I chose Pine Valley Peak, a short yet challenging scramble near the upper Subway trailhead, which I had skipped last time from a lack of confidence and/or motivation. I added Northgate West, an easier and more distant peak, because it had not yet started raining.

Sketching along some slabs

From the trailhead, I bushwhacked down a short basalt slope, crossed another trail from somewhere, and was almost immediately at the base of the climb. I spent awhile looking for the best line, which in retrospect was obvious: follow the big left-trending ramp until it ends, go up a crack, then… do sketchy stuff to get to the top. Mountain Project commenters mention going both left and right from where the crack ends; I chose the delicate traverse right, over to a broad, lower-angle depression leading to the summit plateau.

The crack

The ramp is easy. The crack, while steeper, at least feels secure, offering hand- and foot-jams, and the occasional bush, to help on steeper sections. I looked at various cracks left of the headwall above the main crack, but none looked particularly secure, particularly in the extremely soft white sandstone. The traverse right was airy, but careful route-finding and a good eye for subtle ledges kept it reasonable, and the slope beyond was lower-angle and offered a wandering series of ramps in most places. I watched the gathering clouds as I perused the summit register, then retraced my steps to the lower trail.

I followed this trail for awhile, then took off cross-country toward the Northgate Peaks where it turns to join the upper trail from the parking lot. My line crossed a couple of shallow canyons, made annoying by brush and loose rock; I suspect following the trail would have been faster had I been in a running mood. Northgate West, the higher of the two peaks, was a straightforward class 3 scramble. I eyed South Guardian Angel and the lower east peak from the summit, debating whether to climb the latter. It looked like I had enough time before the rain started, but I was not sufficiently motivated to tag the minor bump, so I returned to the trail and headed for the car. I passed several groups on the way, a mix of those out to look at the view and those headed for the Subway. I doubt the latter would be fun in the cold and rain, but it seemed unlikely there would be enough precipitation for it to flood. The parking lot was nearly full, with one commercial van and a number of “family-sized” SUVs. I drove down to a more solitary pullout, then made lunch as the storm arrived.

Kinesava (Cowboy Ridge), West Temple

Entire traverse from approach

With only one full day of good weather left, it was time to tackle one of the longest and most technically difficult routes that had caught my attention in Zion: Cowboy Ridge to Mount Kinesava (5.7), followed by a traverse to West Temple (5.6). Going by the numbers, these are at the outer limit of what I will scramble, but the fact that the previous day’s outings had felt easy for their grades gave me confidence. However, I learned that while Zion’s slab routes feel easy to me, the 5.7 crack on Cowboy Ridge felt serious enough to merit its grade. Perhaps this is because slab climbing is more about confidence and careful foot placement, both exercised on easier terrain, while crack requires a specific technique that I rarely employ.

Cowboy Ridge from below

I woke up in the dark, giving myself plenty of time to stress about the news, catch up on writing, and chat with a friend who also could not sleep. Mike and I had used the Chinle Trailhead to climb Kinesava in 2017, so I knew where to find it at the base of an aggressively-signed Private Drive outside the park. I dithered a bit more, then hiked the trail through scattered mansionettes, following it a few hundred yards too far before reading the route description and bushwhacking back to the well-cairned wash. There is a trail up through the Wingate cliff-band, but it is not clear where it leaves the wash, so I just thrashed uphill at the obvious break near where the wash crosses under the power lines. From there, I meandered through sparse desert brush, finding sparse footprints on my way to the toe of the ridge.

Upper Cowboy

I started up near the superfluous cairn, probing and backtracking a bit as I accustomed myself to the terrain. The east-facing approach had been hot, but the changing weather was creating a stiff breeze across the ridge, making for comfortable scrambling temperatures. Having skimmed a few trip reports online, I knew to look right of the crest rather than staying religiously on top, so I moved quickly through the lower ridge by alternately traversing and climbing moderate corners. The route-finding became a bit less obvious as I neared the crux steps; a couple of times I started up something that felt “too hard,” backed off, and found another way with a bit of searching. By the easiest path, the climbing was no harder than class 3-4, and I was feeling confident as I approached the headwall.

Kind of exposed

The first step clearly visible in profile is split by a wide sort of double-chimney, surmounted by some easy low fifth class climbing. The ridge remains slightly steeper above, but not difficult. The crux hand-crack is obvious and unavoidable: a uniform slot splitting the left side of a horizontally-ribbed headwall. Not having done any “real climbing” in awhile, I looked around a bit for an alternative, then reluctantly steeled myself to the inevitable. Done correctly, crack climbing is moderately painful and involves no loss of skin: you shove your hands into suitable parts of the slot, then squeeze them so they expand against the sides tightly enough to take your body weight without moving. Done my way, there will (usually) be blood: either I desperately shove a hand into a wrongly-shaped place, or I allow it to move around and remove skin. I did better than I had any right to expect given my lack of recent practice, but still flailed a bit pulling over a slight bulge. This forty feet felt 5.7 to me, considerably harder than anything else on the route.

Kinesava and West Temple from summit plateau

Above the hand crack, more easy scrambling led to the summit plateau, from which a bit more class 3-4 slab climbing got me to the top. Since Kinesava has an easier route, it is relatively popular, and the register did not go back far enough to include our 2016 summit. I sat around until the wind chilled me, then headed toward the standard descent before continuing past to begin the traverse to West Temple. I thought this would be easy, but it proved to require the day’s trickiest route-finding to keep the climbing low fifth class. I first tried the left-hand side of the ridge, finding nothing I liked, then tried a couple of lines on the right. I eventually dropped down a sandy gully, traversed, then climbed back up through a notch to reach the lower left side, from which I was finally able to reach the saddle.

West Temple from beyond notch

From there, the route wanders to either side of the ridge, generally staying close to the crest, with unhelpful cairns scattered at random points. Parts are narrow, but none of it felt particularly exposed. Near the striking white headwall, a step with a finger-crack stymied me, just a bit too high, with feet a bit to thin. With the aid of a tree, I made some sketchy moves onto outward-sloping gritty slabs on the left, then cautiously returned to the top, only to spot an easier gully a bit farther on, which I noted for the descent. The crux is the last short pitch leading to the sub-summit plateau, the rightmost line among several corners through splitting the white headwall. Several bolts, and a two-bolt anchor, clearly indicated where I was supposed to climb. Above some scrappiness involving a bush, the hardest move involved working one’s hands and feet up the corner of a dihedral, then getting high enough to transition to some combination of hand- and foot-holds above and to the sides. After a couple of tentative tries, I figured out the correct sequence and position, passed the anchor, and bashed through yet another bush to reach the top.

Meh… close enough

The actual summit is a blob of red sandstone sitting above the Temple’s white bulk, with a wide, easy break on its left side. Unlike on Ares Butte, there are no sheep to mow the brush — who knew they couldn’t stem? — but the manzanita and oak on this part were manageable. I hiked the plateau, slogged a faint trail up the break in the red cliffs, and was immediately confronted by manzanita hell. Some other part of the plateau might be slightly higher, but I decided to consider this the summit. I thrashed over toward the antennas, crossing a blank spot where helicopters may land, hoping to get a view down to the east. This quickly stopped feeling worth the effort, so I thrashed back the way I had come, accidentally finding the register only a few feet from where I had topped out. West Temple is quite a bit more work than Kinesava, so the entries went back a couple of decades, a mixture of fellow scramblers (hi, Buzz and Jared!) and Real Climbers doing Hard Things.

Fortunately nothing on the ridge felt any harder going down than up, and there were even helpful and frequent cairns showing the way from the notch to lower-angle terrain below Kinesava. I picked up the moderately well-used trail through the Wingate this time, lost it again farther down, then continued haphazardly toward the wash, using a particularly gaudy mansionette as my lodestar. Once in the sandy bottom, I turned on a podcast, tuned out, and had an easy hike back to the car. The forecast called for only another half-day of good weather, so I headed toward Kolob Terrace Road in search of shorter peaks.

Ares Butte, South Ares Butte, Crazy Quilt, Lady Mountain

Ares from Ares South

[Apologies for the focus problems. They are now fixed.]

With more comfort on Zion sandstone and bad weather approaching, it was time I stepped up my game to try some more legitimate scrambles. The four I chose are rated 5.6, beneath-real-climbers’-notice, 5.5, and 5.5; I would call them sustained 5.5, 3, 5.0, and one move of 5.5. I climbed up and down all of them in trail runners, and found only the first (Led by Sheep on Ares Butte) and one move on the last (the awkward corner on Lady) to demand concentration.

Ares face/route

I started with Ares Butte, the hardest of the lot, because this southeast-facing route on white rock would be unbearably hot later in the morning. I parked at a pullout with a wooden fence just west of the Ares Buttes, then dropped into the wash west of the two buttes. After only a few minutes, I zig-zagged up red, then white sandstone to the saddle between the two buttes. Ares’ left skyline looked like it might be climbable, but the route description said to continue around to the other side, past the much more vertical south face. I found some cairns here, and eventually the eye-bolt at the start of the route. It was go time.

Typical angle

The broad southeast side of Ares Butte has horizontal stripes offering some traction, and various ledges and vertical features providing stances and holds. The “route” is fairly well-bolted, but I had no particular reason to faithfully follow the bolts, and found my own wandering way to either side of them. The route is named “Led by Sheep” because the party who bolted the route supposedly followed a herd of bighorns up the face. While there are indeed bighorn tracks on the summit, I also noticed some carved steps lower down. Sheep are not known for their carving ability, and anyone climbing with a bolt kit would have no need to chip steps, so I suspect local natives may have pioneered this route.

The route ends to the left, with the usual Zion sketchiness of “surprise surfboard” blocks lying treacherously on sandy slabs. A short and cautious hike led to the summit plateau, where I continued north to the highpoint and claimed my Peakbagger Points. The trees were sparse enough to afford views of mostly-higher peaks in all directions, looking more or less climbable for someone like me. Nippletop to the south looked intriguing and, since it lacks a page on Mountain Project, is likely either very hard or very easy.

Starting downclimb

Now I had to get off my plateau. The only option is to retrace the route, and most people seem to rappel, but as I no longer even own a rope, I would be downclimbing. As expected, the descent was probably slower than the ascent, but it never felt tenuous, and I eventually made it back to walking terrain with no near-mishaps. South Ares Butte is not steep enough to attract Real Climbers’ attention, but its north ridge is a fun and quick scramble from the saddle. Its summit lies only a short distance from the road, which was already noisy with traffic and construction. Rather than trying to find a more direct way down, I returned to the saddle and hiked the western wash to my car.

With the day heating up, I headed back east for the partially-shaded north side of Crazy Quilt Mesa. The approach here was even shorter, a mere couple hundred yards of sand-slogging across the road from a parking pullout. I found slings around a couple trees on the broad face, but most of the climbing was just hiking with thoughtful foot placement. Only near the top did I find a bit of trickiness, where the route narrows, steepens, and turns sandy near the plateau.

View west from Crazy Quilt

Unfortunately Crazy Quilt’s summit is almost a mile back from the top of its face, too far for most climbers. Curiously, the highpoint also seems to be ignored by peak-baggers: I found no cairn, register, or footprints, and only the lower west summit is noted online. The route is mostly a hike through moderate brush, with one class 4-5 step getting to the final plateau and the two equally-high and mostly treeless dirt knobs of the summit. I had cell service for the first time in awhile, so I burned too much daylight summit-texting before returning to the car.

It was early afternoon by now, so while it would be unpleasantly hot 2000 feet lower in the valley, the Mountaineers Route up Lady Mountain would be entering the shade. This improbable route, constructed in 1924, winds up the west side of the canyon just south of Lady’s summit. Back when fun was allowed to be dangerous, tourists staying at the Zion Lodge could cross the river and climb the face they saw from the lawn via a series of carved steps and a few ladders, protected by bolted cables. No guides, ropes, or waivers were required. Such activities are frowned upon today, and the cables and ladders have all been removed. However the carved steps remain, along with some bolts and fading painted arrows. The route is now mostly class 3-4, with 2-3 short class 5 steps, and feels like it might have been low fifth class even without the carved holds.

I parked at a pullout just uphill of the Scenic Drive junction, then rode my bike the few miles to the Emerald Pools trailhead. Zion Canyon has been immeasurably improved by being closed to cars — Yosemite would benefit from a similar arrangement — and visiting by bike offers both more freedom and less coronavirus than the shuttle system. Weirdly, the shuttles have been instructed not to pass cyclists even when they are riding on the shoulder, and I got yelled at by a park cop in a truck for not pulling over into the dirt to let one by. I locked my bike next to a handful of other normal and electric ones at the empty but not yet decayed trailhead lot, then headed up the popular trail.

Start of Lady route

The start of the old route is neither marked nor obvious, though it is clear where it should go. I went too far toward Emerald Pools on the way up, then thrashed up the hillside, following faint game trails until I encountered the old trail just below the first rock band. I was momentarily perplexed, then saw a line of chipped steps higher up, above a start helpfully protected by a large cactus. The recent rains had smoothed the footsteps from the sand, but the route was still mostly easy to follow, and it sees enough traffic to keep the manzanita and oak-brush from completely taking over. The bits of old hardware and occasional painted arrows are also helpful where the route is unclear.

Hidden slot

In general, if anything feels harder than about class 3, and there are no chipped steps, you are off-route. The first tricky part is a right-facing corner where the lower steps have eroded. Others have piled up rocks to ease the first move, but I found it more secure to climb up to the right, then make an awkward step/mantle left. The second is a non-obvious slot leading through a red cliff band. I first continued up and right, eventually running into a steep dihedral with some varnish holds that looked far harder than a gentleman of the 1920s would be expected to climb. I almost gave up here, but eventually spotted the faint chipped steps in the slot to the left. After a somewhat tricky entry, easier moves led to another path.

Spot the head-spear

The final tricky bit is a corner with a wide crack and two big steps. Other than a large eye-bolt at its base, there are no chipped holds or other signs of how this was meant to be climbed, suggesting that there was once a staircase or ladder here. I tried it on the way up, backed off, and retreated around the corner to the left to climb a sandy gully, then thrash back to the trail through some horrible oaks. In retrospect, it is easier to figure out the chimney moves and stay on the path. There are more paint arrows and steps, and no further difficulties, above this final obstacle. The only real hazard is a broken-off tree positioned perfectly to spear you in the head if you are motoring happily up the route, watching your footing and listening to peppy music. The trail tops out on a narrow ridge between Lady and Mount Zion to its south, a ten-minute walk from the summit. Perched at the level of the surrounding plateau, the view is far better than that from the much lower Angels Landing. There is even a helpful metal disk cemented to a nearby flat rock, naming the surrounding summits.

The descent, sans oak thrash and avec correct trail, went easily. I enjoyed looking down upon the tourists going to and from the Emerald Pools, oblivious to my presence and the route above. Less than a century before, they would have been clambering up and down this much more strenuous and rewarding route. While I was glad to have Lady Mountain to myself, I was slightly sad to be reminded how mankind had regressed. Back on my bike, I pedaled hard to pass a couple coasting along on e-bikes, then drove out of the park to find a camp spot before my next, more ambitious outing.

Bridge, G2, Roof, Hepworth, Gifford

Kinesava, West Temple, etc.

[Too late, I realized I had left my camera in “star photography mode,” so the photos are messed up.]

I had been to Zion several times, though only once to scramble, tagging the Guardian Angels on a brief visit in 2013. After Buzz expressed surprise in our interview that I had not spent more time there, I asked for some recommendations, and made plans to spend more time there. Further poking around on Mountain Project showed that there are a wealth of low-fifth-class routes in the area. The sandstone is not as pleasant as that in nearby Red Rocks, being more fragile and grittier, and normally lacking Red Rocks’ amazing black varnish. However, as an experienced chossineer, I took this as just another type of bad rock to be understood.

Storming on Zion

I ran into some distractions along the way. After hiking Buckskin Gulch, I learned that it had a well-established FKT, going back years and originall held by Buzz Burrell and Peter Bakwin. The current record, held by a local female athlete, seemed intimidatingly fast, but I thought I might still be able to beat it. If not, at least I could take advantage of my gender to claim the slower men’s FKT. As it turned out, I was able to best her time by all of two minutes, thanks to the canyon being so dry this late in the season. Buckskin turned out to be fun to run, with long stretches of smooth sand and a gentle, consistent downhill grade, but it is not possible to do so while taking in the scenery. I also visited the White Canyon Slot, covered in solidified mud drips, foolishly tried to ride on the Paria Plateau, where all the roads are tire-sucking sand, and met some interesting people, at least one of whom I will probably see again. There is clearly more to do in the area and, since it is BLM land, few crowds or rules.

Sunset rainbow

But on to Zion… I had not done any hard scrambling in awhile, and it had rained the previous afternoon, so I began with one of the easier routes on my list, the 5.easy southeast face of Bridge Mountain. I camped outside the park, then drove in early to put off buying my annual pass. This proved fortunate, since “construction” (actually a fence with no work going on behind it) had limited the downhill parking for Gifford Wash to three spots. These are normally used by tourists taking a short walk to a viewpoint, but I gloatingly occupied one for the entire day.

After a bit of trickiness getting into the wash, I spent some time slogging up deep sand, made only slightly firmer by the previous day’s rain. Most horizontal surfaces in Zion are covered with evil oakbrush, so routes tend to involve either scrambling or following watercourses. The terrain can be confusing, with lots of similar domes and washes, and spiteful, with surprise cliffs and dryfalls blocking otherwise-easy routes. Also, routes are mostly on slickrock or sand, where use trails do not form; elsewhere, they can often be tough to distinguish from game trails. Fortunately I had both a good approach description from Mountain Project, and the topos on my phone.

I left the wash a bit too early, then regained the path at some cairns below a crucial slot leading into the bowl below Gifford. From there, I dropped into the wash to its north, which was easy going after a long detour around a dryfall near the top. The east-west wash to the south, which eventually plummets over the long tunnel, was mostly open sand, and I was soon rounding the corner toward Bridge and G2. This wash was slightly more annoying, occasionally choked with brush, but I was close to my peak, and the ramp up Bridge was obvious.

This was a good introduction to Zion scrambling, as I learned to identify the angle at which my shoes would stick, and to avoid surface grit and things that would crumble. There were a couple of class 4-5 moves, but it was mostly a slab-walk, requiring only trust in friction. The ramp fades away as it turns the corner and climbs into the upper mountain’s white rock. I thrashed through some pine and manzanita in a corner, then reached the ledge that cuts back left to the apparent crux. The traverse to the slung tree required a bit of confidence and caerful foot-placement. Beyond, there were several options; I took a more direct line on the way up, then found an easier, wander-y path on the way down. I was getting better at cleverly linking ledges and seams to avoid attacking the sandstone slabs directly.

Above the short crux section, a lot of wandering hiking and scrambling eventually leads to the top, with no single best path most of the time. The summit, being on the edge of the main canyon, has a striking view of Kinesava and West Temple across the way, and Angel’s Landing and the other features of the upper canyon to their right. I could also see the crowded visitor center parking below, and a line of cars backed up above the tunnel so an RV could pass through, and hear the traffic noise. All too soon, I would have to face that madness.

Like many Zion scrambles, Bridge does not have an easier walkoff, so one must either downclimb or rappel the route. I (of course) chose the former, and mostly found it low-stress; the part above the slung tree can be made easier by following features a bit farther south. With plenty of day left, I continued to neighboring G2, wondering all the while about its name. I doubt it looks like Gasherbrum II, and it is not along Gifford (Cathy Lee? Mr. Pinchot?) Wash. In any case, it is an easy scramble from the head of the gully south of Bridge: although both are supposedly rated 5.easy, G2 is definitely 5.easier. It also had a register, with a few familiar names from Colorado.

Rather than trying my luck with shortcuts, I retraced my route to the main north-south drainage, continuing up to the ravine north of Gifford. I was low on food, but long on daylight, so I decided to extend the day by looping over Roof, Hepworth, and Gifford Peaks. This would involve some unknown terrain, but all the peaks were short, and the terrain looked okay according to my cursory glance at the topo. I continued up the wash to a divide west of Hepworth, staying in the streambed and only occasionally having to fight through oakbrush. Unfortunately, my relaxing afternoon stroll ended there: the wash between Gifford and Hepworth ends in a dryfall, Hepworth’s west side is rather cliffy, and the drainage south of the divide appears to turn into a slot canyon.

I wasn’t ready to admit defeat. Instead, I sat in the shade and dithered for awhile, eventually spying a line that might take me up the base of Hepworth, then around a corner into the bowl between it an Roof. It looked steep, but things always look steeper than they are when viewed head-on. My line eventually worked, but it involved some backtracking, gritty traversing, vegetable holds, and one broken foothold. That unpleasantness out of the way, I continued up the bowl to Roof’s west ridge, then scrambled its summit “pancake stack.” Since all three peaks are topped by layered, soft sandstone, all feature such summit blocks.

Hepworth was an easy hike from Roof, retracing my steps a bit, then crossing the saddle and heading up its south side more or less straight for the summit. Though both sides look the same on the topo, its north side is too steep to easily downclimb. Fortunately I was able to follow its east ridge until I could traverse back onto the lower, less steep part. Gifford was not particularly hard, but all routes to the summit seem to be class 3-4 thanks to awkward bulges and steep sections. I went up the southeast side, then descended what seemed to be the standard route — it had cairns, but also involved a downclimb onto a rotting log. I was surprised and pleased to find Honnold and McCandless in the register from not too long ago. I suppose they are locals, but it seemed like both an odd peak and time of year to find famous people.

I hiked down Gifford to the plateau, then mostly retraced my route to the car, though I dropped to the wash higher up. The scene at the road was classic Zion: the ranger was talking to some people in a rented RV while waiting for the tunnel to clear, cars were stacking up behind the RV, drivers were jockeying for the handful of parking spots, and tourists in impractical clothes were milling around on the sidewalk, visiting the overlook, taking photos, or looking bored. Someone else was glad to take my parking spot, and I was glad to get out of there, leave the park, and camp on a quiet BLM road.

Buckskin Gulch

Despite making many trips between the Rockies and Sierra, and even a few to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, I have seldom traveled the route through Shiprock, Page, and Kanab, and have paid little attention to things along the way. While there are some peaks in the area, it is mostly a country of mesas, buttes, and canyons, which have never been my focus. However, when Ted mentioned Buckskin Gulch and the Wave on a recent peak-bagging hike, I decided to pay the area a brief visit. So I assembled a random collection of routes and goals and, after a side-trip for a social hike up Placer Peak near Santa Fe, took off for the Land of Polygamy.

Aside: I am not very familiar with online resources for information on non-peaks. has a lot of information on everything from Jeep tours to cross-country hikes, wrapped up in a slickly, disgustingly commercial website, but I have no idea of the quality of its information or the nature of its contributors. is similar, and at least nominally more local. I suspect such hiking sites are all hopeless. While peak-baggers vary in skill, they all share a simple goal — getting to the top of piles of rocks — so sites like SummitPost, Peakbagger, and ListsofJohn can be focused and useful. The same is true for for climbers and MountainProject. Hikers, however, have too many unrelated goals, many of which they probably cannot articulate. I have sometimes found Strava helpful when looking for run-hikes in unfamiliar areas, probably because it selects for people interested in moving faster than a walk.

I locked my bike to the fence at White House trailhead, then drove around to Wire Pass, which adds several miles to the bike shuttle, but cuts off some hiking miles and possibly offers better scenery. Wire Pass is also the starting point for the Wave, a popular hike to a feature in North Coyote Buttes that requires reservations through a lottery in Kanab. Lottery winners seem to attach large green tags to their packs, making it hard to poach the trail. The trailhead has a large parking lot, regularly filled with day hikers’ cars, but there were only a handful of cars there overnight, so I had a quiet evening.

Utah is on Mountain Daylight Time, so the sun does not rise until after 8:00 this time of year. I could have started by headlamp, but I wanted to actually see things on this hike, so I waited until it was reasonably light, and threw my headlamp in my pack in case I ended up riding back after dark. Different sources listed the route as anywhere from 22 to 30 miles (the former is probably correct), and I did not know what sort of terrain to expect. The first part, descending a well-traveled and -packed wash, was quick and runnable, but most of the rest was slow for various reasons.

Once the canyon narrows, it is impossible to get lost. In the eleven or so miles between there and the Paria River, there is only one way to escape the canyon, a third class scramble leading to the Cobra Arch trailhead. As long as you turn right at Buckskin Gulch, then left at the Paria, you will get to Whitehouse. Though there are a few wider places, most of Buckskin Gulch is twisted and narrow, with only a narrow slit of sky visible, and no direct sunlight this time of year. The gulch appears to follow a natural fissure in the sandstone, between fifty and a few hundred feet deep, that has been widened by millenia of flash floods.

There are a couple of boulder-piles requiring a bit of scrambling, but the route is mostly an easy walk until reaching the Paria. However, both the scenery and the frequent rocky ground make it a poor run. Visiting after the summer rains and before winter’s freezing temperatures, I was lucky to find the wash relatively dry. However, I saw many signs of mud in the canyon, and the one section had to negotiate convinced me that I would not want to try this canyon wet. BLM signs warning that the area’s roads are “impassable when wet” are not exaggerating, and the same applies to slot canyons. I was worried that the viscous clay would steal my shoes, and spent a good half-hour throwing rocks into a short mud bog trying to create steps. Doing the canyon wet would probably require hip waders, or at least galoshes tied tightly to one’s feet.

I met no one before the halfway entrance, one group who had come in that way, and several parties entering via the Paria River. There were a handful of tents about a half-mile from the confluence, where there is dry ground and a small spring. Backpacking the Paria from Whitehouse, either as an out-and-back or a car shuttle to the Colorado, is apparently a popular group activity. However both require a reserved permit (versus a self-issued one for dayhikes), and the latter requires at least one partner. As usual, doing things solo in a day was much easier.

After the mostly-dry Buckskin Gulch, I was momentarily dismayed by the very much not-dry Paria River. But the years have beaten my dislike for wet feet into remission, so I only hesitated for a minute before beginning the slosh. There are probably fifty or more stream crossings between the confluence and the trailhead, the last only a mile from the end. Few were more than ankle-deep this time of year, and there were no extended stretches of walking in the river, but the water is muddy, so its depth is unpredictable. The banks are often either shoe-sucking mud or maddeningly deep sand, so travel is invariably slow. Still, I made it back to my bike by late afternoon, and returned to the car well before dark, for a full but not unreasonable day.

Crescent Benchmark, Parriott Mesa

Parriott Mesa

With a serious winter storm and cold front slowly overtaking me from behind, I was looking for somewhere dry-ish, warm-ish, and somewhat interesting to get in a bit of exercise. The scenic and relatively low Moab area seemed like a good option, with easy camping and plenty of minor summits only 5000-6000 feet high. Castleton Tower and the Fisher Towers were also only slightly out of the way; while I could climb neither, I could at least look at them as I passed.

North from Crescent BM

Crescent Benchmark looked like an easy hike-and-bike from Highway 191, so I started with that. I was the only one using the nearby BLM camping/trail area on a chilly morning, listening to the highway traffic and dodging the occasional frozen puddle as I biked to where the road got rough. It looked like jeeps and quads still occasionally use this road, but it is mostly abandoned, as it doesn’t really lead anywhere.

Crescent register

From the end of the road, I hiked up what looked from below like a nice sandstone slab, but was actually cut by numerous steep-sided gaps, inconveniently oriented perpendicular to my path. I hopped them at narrow points, winding back and forth a bit, then scrambled up the left side of the caprock to the ridge. There were several bumps on the summit plateau, with the highest having a cairn, some old survey equipment, and the benchmark. The register had been placed only a few years ago, by none other than Gerry and Jennifer Roach.

Castleton and La Sals

I returned to the car, then drove almost to Moab before turning east on Highway 128. This route follows the Colorado River through an impressive red rock canyon, and is apparently a popular recreation area when in season. I saw a couple of boulderers and some people taking pictures, but it was too cold for rafting or climbing. I turned off on the Castle Valley road and, after a few miles, spotted the trail to Parriott Mesa almost by accident. It probably owes its prominence to the crowds out for a short hike to view nearby Castleton Tower; certainly none of the half-dozen people I met seemed capable or even aware of the route up Parriott.

Follow the cairns

The trail faded a bit but remained clear as it wound toward the mesa and climbed its lower dirt slopes. The recent snow had turned the dirt into classic Moab mud, but the trail was packed enough to be manageable. I was surprised to see that someone had already been here since the snow, and grateful higher up, where the route winds around to north-facing slopes. The snow was deep enough to hide any trace of the route other than a few of the larger cairns, and the correct path is hard enough to find that I might have given up without a path to follow.

Exposed traverse with cable

Even with the previous party’s prints, I missed the route to the short via ferrata, and almost turned around before spotting it from above. The traverse it protects would be airy but manageable when dry; however, with snow and ice partly covering the wet sandstone, I was glad to be able to haul on the metal cable. The pitch above, an exposed dihedral/chimney with a handline, was surprisingly tricky. I would ordinarily have tried to climb it without pulling on the rope, but with the bits of fresh snow and wet, brittle rock, I did not hesitate to “cheat.”

Second chimney

Above the first chimney, the route climbs and winds around to the next bowl. I was grateful for another hand-line protecting an easy step-across, which would have been fairly treacherous thanks to the snow and ice hanging around on the north-facing slope. Other than its first move, the second chimney is considerably easier than the first. Rather than being a clean fracture, it is a weathered gully, with pockets and even some handles on both sides making for positive hand- and foot-holds. The final two mantels leading to the summit, however, were surprisingly challenging. Even with a cheater step that someone had installed, the upper one was vertical, smooth and almost shoulder-high. I am not sure I could have climbed it without the rope, as the crack on the left was too narrow for a foot-jam in trail runners.

La Sals from summit

Once I made my awkward way up the two mantels, the final walk to the high-point was straightforward. I stood for awhile next to the large cairn, taking in the view of the snowy La Sals to one side, the rapidly-drying red desert to the other, and the handful of farms in Castle Valley below. Castleton Tower looks much less impressive than from below, as it blends into the desert background rather than being highlighted against the sky. The flat light filtering through the high clouds also did not help.

The descent started slow, as it had warmed up enough for the mud and slush to become slicker. I passed a few other parties on the lower trail, none of whom seemed likely to go farther than the Castleton viewpoint. I had planned to tag another minor peak in the area, but decided that it looked like too much work, and instead continued the drive east.