Ouray Canyons

In early July I headed to Silverton, an hour north of Durango, for a month. Did some biking and other assorted activities up here, but my focus until early August was on the canyons around Ouray, an amazing town another 40 minutes to the north. The town occupies a small flat spot in the Uncompahgre river gorge, and is surrounded by towering mountains in all directions. Lots of hiking and climbing in the area, but the mountains also hold many small streams feeding into the Uncompahgre, and descending these is a huge amount of fun.

All the canyons I had done in the spring back in Zion and the Escalante were dry or had only pools of standing water — south Utah didn’t get much snow over the winter and by April it had melted out. The Ouray canyons flow whenever they’re not frozen, from snowmelt and springs (aka time-delayed snowmelt.) In most years flows are too high for safe descents until August, and with snows starting in September and the monsoon season throughout this makes for difficult trip planning and management. This year the San Juans had an extremely low snowpack which pretty much all melted by early July, allowing for descents much earlier than usual. I took advantage of this and spent a total of 10 days in various canyons around town.

Descending a flowing canyon is dramatically different from descending a drier canyon. All the drops become waterfalls, which many times need to be rappelled straight through, negotiating carefully to manage your footing and pick your way down while being pelted by the falling water. Additionally, the canyon floors are often all wet and slick with algae, making downclimbing and even walking treacherous. A far more dynamic and engaging experience than most dry canyons I’ve done.

Of the canyons I did, my favorite was Cascade Creek. Starting on the east side of town, an approach trail hike of four miles or so gains over 2000′ in altitude before crossing the creek. Descending loses all that altitude in less than a mile, with a ton of downclimbing and ten or so rappels. The last rappel is magnificent, 300′ down a waterfall right to the edge of town, at one of the most popular tourist spots in town. Two other big rappels, of 150′ and 200′ or so, round things out; a long, challenging canyon. The second big rappel, and some of the downclimbs in the canyon’s narrows:

I did Cascade Creek twice: first solo, lugging 700′ or so of rope and cords up the approach, then with a group of three I’d met online, visiting the area for the weekend from central Colorado, Iowa and Georgia. After descending Cascade, the next day we all went down Bear Creek, another favorite canyon in the area. The flow in Bear Creek was substantially larger than in Cascade, the most of any canyon I did around Ouray, but the downclimbing is not so difficult and none of the rappels are terribly long. The canyon is just plain gorgeous, however, with the milky creek cutting its way through layers of Limestone, Quartzite, and other marble like rocks I can scarcely identify. One thing I especially love about the Ouray canyons is how varied the rock strata are and how much the canyons transform when passing through them. One of the prettier drops in Bear Creek, and me during a downclimb:

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Denver to Durango

Over the last week and a half I did a mountain biking trip following the Colorado Trail, starting in Denver, finishing up in Durango and traversing the width of the Colorado Rockies.


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In all, this was 461 miles of biking, with 287 miles on the CT itself, almost all of it singletrack, 107 miles of dirt roads and 67 miles of paved roads. The total climbing was 60,000′ or so. I started 6/26 at 5pm and finished 7/5 at 12pm, for a trip length of 8 days and 19 hours. Tons of great riding and great scenery, an awesome and grueling trip.

Overall, I was super happy with my performance. Last year I did the middle portion of the trail in a few days and estimated doing the whole route would take closer to two weeks. Coming in well below that was due to several factors:

– I was able to sustain long days on the bike. I usually started a bit after 6am and finished a bit before 8pm, biking and hike-a-biking with few breaks in the interim. I was able to maintain this pace throughout the ride.

– I had great weather for almost the entire trip. I was trying to time the trip to be early enough to mostly avoid the monsoon, yet late enough that most of the passes would be clear of snow. This worked out well.

– Only about 2/3 of the Colorado Trail can be biked. The remainder passes through wilderness areas where bikes or other mechanized equipment can’t even be possessed. These wilderness areas need to be detoured around on dirt and paved roads, which are much faster riding than singletrack.

– When I went through the west fork complex fire had forced closures of two rideable segments of the trail, along with several segments in wilderness areas. The detour I made, over Cinnamon Pass, was a long, tough climb but still a good deal easier than the trail being detoured around, and reduced the percentage of the trail I rode to 60%.

Except for the detour over Cinnamon Pass, I was following the route used last year in the Colorado Trail Race, a self supported time trial held each July. Had I been doing this I would have finished near the back of the pack and more than twice as slow as those at the head. Doing well in this race requires extreme determination, skill, strength, and sleep deprivation, racing nearly 24 hours a day, and only about half of those who start end up finishing. I’m not cut out for this kind (or any kind, really) of racing — these stresses and risks hold no appeal, and I’m happy just to finish in a timely fashion.

Logistically, the lead up to the trip was complicated but went pretty well. I’d been staying in Durango the first three weeks of June, so a couple weeks beforehand had a shop in town (Pedal The Peaks) tune and box the bike, shipped it to another shop in Aurora (Adventure Cycling) to reassemble it, flew in to Denver, took a taxi to the shop and biked the remaining 28 miles to the trailhead.

The eastern trailhead is at the bottom of Waterton Canyon on the south side of Denver, right at the base of the rockies. The first portions of the trail are comparatively mellow. After seven miles of dirt road the trail narrows to singletrack, which it follows for 34 miles before requiring a detour around the Lost Creek wilderness to Kenosha Pass. At 10,000′ this is a relatively low pass, but from here the trail stays above 9,000′ almost the entire way to Durango. Late in the second day, shortly after Kenosha Pass:

For me the trail didn’t really begin until 12 miles after Kenosha Pass, when the trail first climbs up to the Continental Divide. This is at Georgia Pass, which at about 11,900′ is also the first time the trail stretches above treeline. The alpine sections of the trail are my favorite parts, wide open with great views of mountains and, later on at least, many wildflowers. Looking back up the trail towards Georgia Pass, on the descent:

Except for a pretty rocky section on the descent, Georgia Pass is pretty friendly, with a nice gradual ascent and smooth, fun descent. After some miscellaneous minor climbs and riding the trail crosses route 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco, then climbs up and over the Tenmile Range. This is one of the toughest parts of the trail, with 3700′ of climbing to reach a pass at 12,500′ and, for me at least, almost everything above 10,000′ being hike-a-bike.

The San Juans around Durango had a very low snowpack and were clear even above 13,000′ when I started the trip. By contrast, the Tenmile and other parts of the Front Range apparently got some late season storms and were still holding a lot of snow in places. Going over the Tenmile was the snowiest part of the trail, maybe a dozen spots where I had to walk or wade across fingers of snow. Fortunately this never got excessive. Despite my concern at seeing some surprisingly huge cornices lining the range, the trail did a remarkable job of threading up between two impassably snowy areas. The folks who laid this trail out really knew what they were doing. Sighting down the crest of the range:

The Tenmile Range made a good contrast with the next day’s riding. Starting at Copper Mountain, the trail again does a long, 3000’+ climb to reach Searle and then Kokomo Passes, both around 12,000′. This is a wonderful ascent, with beautiful views the whole way up and very little hike-a-biking. Between Searle and Kokomo is one of the prettiest parts of the trail, many streams and abundant wildflowers:

After Kokomo is a first rate, 4.5 mile, 2300′ descent, dropping through the tundra, aspens, forest without interruption. Overall, this climb and descent together was my favorite part of the trip. Looking down from Kokomo:

Another 10 miles on the trail touches Tennessee Pass before reaching the second detour, through Leadville and around the Holy Cross and Mount Massive wildernesses. Past here, I’d done almost all of the next 150 miles of riding last summer. Going through again was nice, retreading some great sections of trail with a new and in some ways very different perspective. I really like the trail around the eastern Collegiate Peaks, there aren’t any big climbs and so much of the route is great, mellow riding. Some sections through Aspens I could never get tired of:

Passing by the Collegiates had the only inclement weather of the trip. Some rain in Leadville when I stopped in town was a prelude to an hour or two of pretty torrential rain the next afternoon when I was south of Buena Vista. Not knowing when this would stop I kept riding through it, still making good progress as the sun eventually came out.

I wanted to get as early a start as possible up Fooses Creek, the climb back up to the divide that marks the end of the Collegiates. Much of this is very nice, before getting steeper and steeper and requiring me to hike the last 1000′ of vertical. Getting to the bottom at noon got me to the top close to 4pm, with sun but an unsettling mix of clouds in most directions:

Along the Monarch Crest shortly afterwards, such an iconic part of the trail:

After leaving the Monarch Crest I was able to make it past some rocky sections to get to Tank Seven creek at dusk. This is a great camping site and left me in a good spot for the next day. Shortly after Tank Seven, from the top of Sargents Mesa to the Cochetopa Hills, was the gnarliest section of the trip. Rocks and more rocks, then rocks plus steep loose hills that I had to hike both up and down. I remembered this as being bad last year but not this bad, maybe breaking this section up by camping at Baldy Lake made it more tolerable.

After more than half the day working through this I made it out to route 114 and crossed for 12 nice easy miles before leaving the trail for the last, long 98 mile detour. At this point I was pretty determined to get to Silverton before things closed up the next day — groceries, real food, beer. Silverton is nearly at the end of the detour and with some massive climbs in the way, so I pushed hard to get as far as I could and leave myself as much leeway as possible. I left the trail around 4pm and continued to bike another 30 miles with 2000′ of climbing to gain Los Pinos pass, reaching it at dusk and coasting down as night fell (below). I camped in what was basically a ditch by the road at 9pm, and set an alarm for a 5am start the next day.

The early start let me finish the first climb, 2500′ up to Slumgullion Pass and highway 149, by 7:30am. All of the detour up to this point was mandatory — it skirts around the trail’s segments that go through the La Garita wilderness. Heading a few miles south on 149 would bring me to Spring Creek Pass, the start of 33 miles of the highest altitude riding on the trail, with all but the first 9 miles above 12,000′ and the highest point on the entire trail at 13,271′. I’d really been looking forward to this section as it seems full of great alpine scenery and is supposed to have some of the most challenging parts of the trail (though apparently not as tough as the area after Sargents Mesa).

Alas, this section was closed due to the fire mentioned earlier. Despite the fire continuing to grow with little containment, this and the other closed parts of the trail were reopened a couple days after I finished the trip, and the closure may have been entirely arbitrary. Grumble. I’ll have to come back and either bike this section or backpack it in combination with the La Garita or Weminuche wildernesses on either side.

In any case, I headed north on 149, descending to Lake San Cristobal to continue the detour up to Cinnamon Pass. The pass is at 12,640′ and the highest point I hit on the trip, with a 20 mile, 3500′ ascent from the lake that took about five hours. The road up to the pass is very nice, but had a very different tone from the other dirt roads I’d been riding. Rough in spots with a need for 4wd, which would usually keep traffic low, but the Alpine Loop byway runs through here and being July 3 the road was thick with Jeep and ATV traffic. This was generally fine (excepting occasional dorks screaming by on ATVs with dust masks on, throwing up clouds in my face) but I much prefer the quiet of the Colorado Trail itself. Looking back, from near the top of Cinnamon Pass:

And me at the top of the pass, before the 3500′ descent to Silverton:

After a couple hours of much needed R&R in Silverton, I climbed another 1800′ up to Molas Pass to finally resume travel on the Colorado Trail. From here there is still 70 miles of singletrack before reaching Durango. At this point I was pretty worn down and having difficulty with the tougher sections, and yet this had some of my favorite riding on the trail. Lots of smooth singletrack, great views and flowers. Looking up at Blackhawk Pass, about 28 miles in:

The last big obstacle on the trail is Indian Trail Ridge, four or so miles above treeline with a good bit of up and down and lots of hike-a-biking. I wasn’t able to make it through before dark so camped at the last group of trees. Below is the view at dawn. Pleasant time finishing up this section in the morning and riding down to Kennebec Pass.

From Kennebec Pass the trail makes its final descent to Durango, over 20 miles and with a loss of nearly 5000′ in elevation. Except for an annoying 1000′ climb in the middle this is essentially uninterrupted, descending from the alpine (below) with a thick aroma of flowers through to forests, dense and jungle-like around Junction Creek, then out from the creek and down into town. Quite a coda for the trip.

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Choprock

Over Memorial Day weekend, I made a trip to Escalante to see a new part of the plateau. The Escalante River runs from near its namesake town down to Lake Powell. Beautiful riparian corridor in the desert, many canyons feeding in from the sides.

There were several canyons in the area I wanted to hike, but this trip ended up mostly consumed by the south fork of Choprock Canyon. A grueling technical hike, recent reports had pegged this canyon as being in good shape — this canyon is easier at low water, and it was a dry winter in south Utah. While a bit apprehensive, I was ok with going in solo.

Using the river as a base camp, the canyon can be done as a loop hike. After getting up onto Choprock Bench, to the south of the canyon, several miles of desert hiking allows one to walk down into the canyon above the technical bits. Some downclimbing and rappels drop into the first of three very different sections, the Riparian. The canyon here is relatively wide and choked with growth, a jungle in the desert.

Lots of fun wading and hiking down. Eventually the trees peter out, some springs start flowing, and the canyon goes through several pools. Water slides, cold clear water, frogs and so forth. This is the Happy section, well named.

The Riparian section took me about 45 minutes to get through, the Happy section took about 20 minutes. The third section is the Grim, and took about two and a half hours. Fortunately, at least at this water level this isn’t the best name, and the Grim was great fun. Much worming through tight slots, stemming over tighter slots, downclimbing, wading, swimming to be had. The only problem being that this just keeps going on and on and on with little abatement. Heading down, doubt started to eat at my mind (is this ever going to end?), and while I don’t think it ever got to the point of being grim, after a while I was certainly ready for it to be over.

After sidling through a slot for the hundredth time the Grim abruptly stops at a 90 foot drop into a pool. A spectacular rappel, especially after such a demanding hike.

Coming back to camp I ran into a group planning on doing Choprock the next day. After filling them in on conditions I spent the evening at their camp and ended up going back through the canyon with them. The second time was even better: no apprehension, a much better knowledge of the canyon, and these guys were great to hike with. They left the following day, while I did a couple new canyons, Neon and Ringtail. These were very nice but not in the same league as Choprock, and left me pretty chewed up and ready to go home (bring knee and elbow pads next time…).

I’ll need to get back to Escalante before too long, there’s just so much in the area I haven’t even touched on, from more technical canyons to non-technical slots, day hikes and backpacking. But, for now at least, Choprock reigns as the most amazing, intense canyon I’ve done.

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Zion Canyons

I was in Zion National Park for a few days back in 2010, when I ranged around Utah and nearby areas for a few weeks between my defense and the start of my work at Mozilla. I had a great time doing the popular stuff like hiking to Angels Landing and up the Virgin River narrows, but it was clear I was just scratching the park’s surface. Zion is basically a giant slab of sandstone several thousand feet thick, riddled with literally hundreds of canyons cut by the spring snowmelts and fall monsoons.

So for years I’ve wanted to see more of these canyons, both in Zion and more generally across the Colorado Plateau. This spring was a good opportunity and I spent April and May near Zion — first Springdale, then Hurricane (great slickrock mountain biking nearby) — getting into the odd sport of Canyoneering. Use whatever fusion is necessary of hiking, scrambling, wading, swimming, downclimbing, rappelling, and some more specialized skills to get from the top of a canyon to the bottom in one piece. Incredible, beautiful, alien places.

Over the two months I spent a total of 17 days in technical canyons — those that involve rappelling or other ropework. Except for three days towards the end (more later), these were all in popular canyons in and near Zion. Since these get done so much, there is a lot of information about them, navigation is straightforward and rappel anchors are usually in good shape. A great environment to learn in. Here I’ll just talk about some of my favorites, in the order I did them.

The above photo is from Pine Creek, one of the most popular canyons in the park. Going in mid-April I had the place to myself, though returning in early June with my mom and her husband was pretty crowded. This is a very user friendly canyon. After parking next to the main east-west road through the park, you drop down a short sandy slope, pass under a bridge and are at the first rappel.

From here the canyon narrows into a beautiful slot. There are five or so rappels, with a couple standout ones. The above photo is of the Golden Cathedral rappel, a drop of about 60 feet down slick walls in a large chamber, with a couple arches overhead and a swimming depth pool at the bottom (drysuit time). The canyon below the cathedral:

After opening up and a great, free hanging rappel into a grotto, the canyon continues down to the exit with a lot of boulder hopping, flowing water (from a spring in the grotto), many frogs and other wildlife. Several exit options, but continuing all the way down goes to a bonus rappel down a nice waterfall, which I don’t think many people do:

A week or so later I did Fat Man’s Misery, aka the west fork of Misery Canyon. Bit of a misnomer, at least at this time of year, the canyon is several linked slots, with wading, some rappelling, and a wild grotto at the finish, with a spring of grey, sulfurous water.

The best part though is hiking from here down into Parunuweap Canyon, the east fork of the Zion river. The route follows this gorgeous canyon for just a short distance, but it left an impression. Alas, the areas downstream are closed to public access (control area for the NPS), though I want to get back and see the rest of the canyon above Misery.

After getting some more experience, in mid-May I went down Englestead canyon. In concert with the canyons it joins, this is I think my favorite day trip so far in Zion. Just a huge variety of terrain. A mellow hike in brings one to a vertical walled, nearly 300′ deep crack in the earth.

Lacking a 300′ rope, I could still get down with a 200′ rope by using a hanging rappel station someone set up about 90′ down the wall. Rappel down, clip into some bolts drilled into the wall over a tiny ledge, pull the rope and set it up on the bolts, then rappel the rest of the way down. Huge mounds of snow piled up at the base of the crack. From here, several rappels through some beautiful narrows end the canyon at Orderville.

Continuing down Orderville canyon is a big change in character. Tons of fun, at least below Englestead (above is a several mile slog), with many small waterfalls, pools, some jumping (with care).

Orderville itself ends at the Virgin River narrows. Comparatively mellow hiking next to and in the river, this area is still great. A couple miles of hiking end at pavement and the shuttle back to the park entrance.

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Maze Circuit

Leaving my kayak at the base of Water Canyon, I climbed upcanyon and hiked a circuit through much of the Maze district. This covered about 60 miles in four days, visiting several areas in the park with nice dramatic names — the Land of Standing Rocks, the Fins, the Maze itself, and, uh, Ernie’s Country.

This trip included several long off trail detours, and while most of the hike followed trails these were often just routes along canyon bottoms and stream washes. Over the four days I saw about five small groups of hikers and a few car camps; getting to the Maze requires coming in either by boat or by a reportedly long and grueling trip on jeep roads, an adventure in itself. Pretty wild country, and amazing backpacking.


View Maze Circuit in a larger map

Even after all the canyon side trips I’d done upriver, hiking the two miles up from Water and into neighboring Shot Canyon was like entering a different world. The dominant layer in the Maze, the Fins and many of the district’s canyons is Cedar Mesa sandstone, which forms red and white bands that pile up into cliffs, mounds, towers, many holes in the rock, formations that simply defy easy description. I’d seen some areas with this stone upriver and in Salt Creek Canyon a few weeks ago, but the sheer scale and extent of it here was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Days in, I still found the terrain bewildering.

Below is the view from the bottom of Shot Canyon. From here the trail passes through the gap between these cliffs and climbs up to the canyon rim.

Climbing out of Shot Canyon brought me into the Land of Standing Rocks. This is a mesa that sits on top of the Cedar Mesa layer. Flat or gently undulating terrain, dirt and scrub and some slickrock, punctuated occasionally and dramatically by towers of uneroded Organ Rock Shale, a deep brown stone that formed over the Cedar Mesa. Looking towards some of these towers across canyons to the south:

The mesa offers fast and easy hiking. With a jeep road running through that most of the area’s trails connect to, the Land of Standing Rocks is effectively a binder that makes traveling between and accessing the canyons eating into it relatively easy.

After the trail met the road at Chimney Rock, one of the standing rocks, I followed the road a mile west before turning south into the Fins, a series of canyons ringed by some exceptionally crazy scenery. The canyon walls here have a pronounced wedding cake structure, with layers of relatively flat slickrock separated by cliffs of 20 or more feet. With periodic spots to scramble between layers this area is a blast to hike around and explore. Rather easy to get blasé about the risk, though. My boots stuck to the stone, but in many places a slip would lead to serious injury or death and I couldn’t let my attention wander.

The Fins are riddled with holes, small arches and bridges, and several very large arches. I was out hiking to look for a few specific arches; hunting these is pretty fun as most of the arches can only be seen in a small area or from specific angles, and even knowing the location of an arch there is a lot of route finding to do in trying out approaches. In the background below is one of the arches I was looking for, a triple arch that is pretty easy to get up and walk on. The surrounding area has several more nice arches.

Below is Tibbett Arch, the largest arch in the Maze district. Not much of a hunt here, this arch can be easily seen from the road a couple miles to the north.

Very dry country outside the canyons, unsurprisingly. In 15 miles of hiking from when I left Shot Canyon to when I entered the Maze the second day, the pothole below was the only water I found, tinted green with algae. Interesting taste. I could carry four liters of water, twice as much as I normally do while backpacking but still pushing it. I can’t imagine hiking here later in the year when the canyons themselves have dried up.

To the north of the Land of Standing Rocks lies the Maze proper, a network of canyons and side canyons and side side canyons that are all part of Horse Canyon and drain to the Green River upriver from where I left my kayak. After several hours in the Fins I returned to the road and hiked a trail on a ridge overlooking the Maze on either side, reaching the Chocolate Drops in the evening. These are standing rocks and the best known landmark in the district. After a long first day I camped a bit to the east of the drops. Viewing the drops and a northerly bit of the Maze:

The second day started with following cairns down a slightly tricky route to the canyon floor east of the drops. There were a couple attractions I wanted to see in this area of the canyon: a fairly obscure arch, and the Harvest Scene pictograph. This is the largest pictograph in the Maze, about a dozen life size figures painted thousands of years ago, before the Anasazi came to the area.

Returning north I scrambled up another route to regain the canyon rim at the Maze Overlook. This spot offers a great viewpoint back over the area I’d been hiking through the last one and a half days. The Chocolate Drops are to the left below, with the Land of Standing Rocks in the distance. While not a big area — north to south, the Maze covers only about 5 miles — the canyons here are so incredibly intricate that finding your way through them takes hours and hours and needs good route finding and map reading skills (or, if you’re lazy like I am, a GPS. I had quads loaded up on my phone and an iPod and frequently checked my position, which made quick travel through this area and, especially, the Fins, much easier).

I dropped back into the Maze and headed through the south fork of Horse Canyon, the area on the right side of the photo above. The hiking in this canyon is pretty nice, rugged. There is a trail here, which just follows the streambed and doesn’t seem to get as much use as the routes to the east. Slow going, lots of twisting around and walking through sand, with occasional batches of slickrock, as below, providing some relief. After four or five hours of hiking I was most of the way through the canyon and camped on the floor for the second night.

The next morning I climbed out of the canyon, reached the road and crossed it to get back into the Fins for a few hours. More poking around looking for arches here, then I cut west back to the road and south to the Mother and Child (more standing rocks) to start the next leg of the trip. There is a well marked trail leaving from here which runs east almost all the way back to the river, skirting the Fins and traveling through Ernie’s Country.

Former grazeland, the hiking here is pretty mellow compared to the rest of the trip, only a bit of scrambling. The main attractions are convenient access to the southern parts of the Fins, some grand vistas such as below, and seclusion (the only other option to get back to Water Canyon would be to follow the jeep road).

Below is Whitmore Arch, the most user friendly arch I came across on the trip, and I think the second largest after Tibbett. Easily visible from the trail a few miles in, there is a quick hike up slickrock to get right under its span.

Well, another main attraction of this trail is that it actually has water available. There are two springs near the western part of the trail, both of which were running. These were the only places I saw water between the south fork of Horse Canyon and my return to Water Canyon two days later. Unfortunately, “running” in this context really means “dripping as if from a leaky faucet.” Both streams have water troughs installed the better part of a century ago, which are a little beat up and overgrown with weeds but still serviceable. I was able to fill up my water from these troughs and keep moving, thankfully. The water I took on here lasted until the streams midway down Water Canyon, though just barely.

Past the springs the trail flattens out further, and the eastern two thirds just follows washes and plains. I took another detour up into the Fins to look for some more arches from the canyon bottom, then returned to the trail and kept trudging along. Camped the last night along the trail, and the next morning reached the eastern terminus back at the jeep road and, shortly afterwards, the Doll House. This is another major landmark in the Maze, a small area with lots of spires of Cedar Mesa stone. Having seen so much of this stuff the last few days I was a little jaded getting here; the main points of interest about the Doll House are that (a) it is the only Cedar Mesa stone you can drive right up to in the Maze district, (b) it therefore gets a lot more concentrated traffic than all other areas, though I didn’t see anyone while I was there, and (c) the NPS disallows all off trail hiking in the area because of this traffic.

So I didn’t linger, and after a quick hike through the trails around the Doll House I continued north towards Water Canyon. I was getting a bit footsore at this point, but found the energy for one last side trip. There is a spur trail going to overlooks of the Colorado and Green Rivers, just a couple miles from the confluence. Great views, and nice to relax and reflect on the trip. The last miles of the Green are shown below; the confluence and a bit of the Colorado are on the right.

Returning to the main trail the drop back into Water Canyon was straightforward and I made it back to the kayak in the late afternoon. Enough light to paddle to the confluence and then down to Spanish Bottom, a flat area below the Doll House popular for camping, for the night. Some hiking the next morning (still sore), then the jetboat came in for the ride back to Moab. Quite the trip.

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Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons

Last week I did a nine night trip through some areas around western Canyonlands. This was a new sort of combination trip for me. I started kayaking on the Green River at Ruby Ranch, 95 miles from where it joins the Colorado River. From here the river passes through Labyrinth Canyon and then Stillwater Canyon as it enters Canyonlands and approaches the confluence. After five days I reached Water Canyon, a side canyon five miles up from the confluence that offers access to the Maze district of Canyonlands, on the west side of the river. From here I did a four day backpacking trip, running a circuit through the Maze and returning to the kayak. The last night I paddled to Spanish Bottom, a few miles below the confluence on the Colorado, and was picked up by a jetboat the next day for a ride back to Moab. I used Tex’s Riverways for the dropoff and pickup, who did a fine job and are I think the only outfitter around for arranging this sort of self guided trip.

This structure worked out great, and the two segments of the trip had very different characters, so I’ll talk about them in separate posts. Overall though, both segments were excellent and this is one of the best trips of its length I can remember doing.

The kayaking portion of the trip established a nice rhythm. Each day I did a hike of a few hours, usually in the afternoon, one or two other short side trips, with kayaking interspersed between. The kayaking is very mellow flatwater, with the river sliding along at one or two miles an hour and only a couple class 1 riffles on the entire trip. Sometimes the river gets upcanyon winds, though I didn’t encounter anything strong.

Labyrinth Canyon starts a few miles below Ruby Ranch and continues another 50 or so miles. Canyon walls quickly grow to about 1000 feet, and stay that way for the remainder, very dramatic. Typical views from the river:

Exploring side canyons offered the most variety. Labyrinth Canyon is riddled with side canyons, with new ones sprouting every few miles for the canyon’s entire length and often winding ten miles or more away from the river. With 90 miles to cover in five days I could only see a tiny fraction of what was on offer.

After a few hours of paddling the first day, I made it to Three Canyon, a fairly long side canyon with many side canyons of its own, two of which open right on the river (hence the name). Good hiking here heading as far back into the various side side canyons as I could. Most canyon hikes end at pour-overs like the ones below. These cliffs are hundreds of feet high, though with unbroken and often overhanging walls even a ten foot jump is usually impossible to get around.

The second day’s hike was another 15 miles or so downstream, at Keg Spring Canyon. There are several springs far upcanyon, including the eponymous one, with a nice stream flowing until close to the canyon’s mouth. This canyon didn’t have any of its own side canyons that I checked out, though the main canyon itself offered good variety as it shifted between desert, riparian areas, and slickrock moving up. Eventually it became too overgrown and I retreated to the kayak to continue on.

After hiking to the saddle at Bowknot Bend, where the river starts a seven mile wrap around a plateau before closing to 1000 feet or so from its earlier location, I spent the next afternoon at Two Mile Canyon. More appealingly named than Ten Mile Canyon further upstream, this canyon looked to offer some scramble routes to escape Labyrinth and get to the canyon’s rim, which I was keen on seeing. In the end, I wasn’t able to get all the way out. After a good talus slog, climbing 800 of the requisite 1000 feet I came up to a 200 foot cliff that ran continuously as far as I could see.

Seeing this, the surrounding cliffs, and just how much drier it was up here than on the canyon floor gave me a bit more appreciation for just how incredibly inhospitable this country is. There were still animal tracks though, having the river so close by makes things a bit liveable it seems. The view of the Green River and lower cliffs, from the same spot as the above photo:

Another 15 or 20 miles below Two Mile Canyon brought the end of Labyrinth, with the river opening up as it passed Bighorn Mesa. This is Stillwater Canyon, not as dramatic but still interesting, gradually heightening and closing in along the approach to the Colorado. The view about halfway down Stillwater:

Traveling through upper Stillwater was my longest day, 30 miles on the water, though I still had time to get in some great hiking at Anderson Bottom. I stopped here just to get water from a spring near the river, but got distracted and wandered west and north in the valley to end up at a fun little slot canyon, the only real slot I came across on the trip. After some twisting passages and not too tricky upclimbing I ended up on the rim above the bottom, all slickrock and fun to walk along, and an old cattle path back to the floor. The view from within the slot, and looking in from the rim above:

Past Anderson Bottom I spent the fourth night at the Turk’s Head, a formation still capped by the same layer that makes up the White Rim just to the east. The next morning I hiked around looking for granaries, mostly fruitlessly, and kayaked the remaining 17 miles to Water Canyon. Left my kayak near the water, and started backpacking up canyon towards the Maze.

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White Rim Road

The White Rim Road is a jeep road running through the Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands, along a bench mostly of white sandstone that separates the island — a raised plateau at about 6000′ — from the Colorado and Green rivers at 4000′ or so. Along with some dirt roads outside the park and a few miles of pavement, the road forms a circuit of about 100 miles. On Sunday and Monday I biked a variation of this route, going through Long Canyon and the Potash road along the Colorado to bypass the closed-at-the-time Shafer trail which is the normal start of the trip, dropping into the white rim from the Canyonlands visitor center. This increased the ride length to about 112 miles.

These were long days, though by starting early and finishing late I was never too pressed for time and was able to get a lot of sightseeing and some light hiking in. Most people spend more time on the route, either driving or mountain biking with a support car or three. Biking the road self supported I didn’t have this option, and since there are no water sources on the trail two days is about the upper limit on time without taking several gallons of water along. I packed nearly two gallons on the bike’s frame and despite temperatures in the 60s went through nearly all of it.

From the initial drop into Long Canyon until the climb out of Horsethief 90 some miles later, the scenery was spectacular throughout. Cliffs, canyons, towers, mesas, buttes, plains just filling your vision at all times. Many times hard to focus on the road, which is fortunately smooth and easy for almost the entire route.

Especially nice was to follow the Colorado along, then join up with the Green, heading upriver from the confluence of the two. Next week I’ll be floating this section of the Green down to the confluence, to see this same country from a different angle.

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Salt Creek Canyon

I’m spending all of March in Moab, with lots of mountain biking, assorted rambling, and several trips lined up. The first of these was over the weekend, a backpacking trip through Salt Creek Canyon in the Needles district of Canyonlands NP. This canyon is about 25 miles long, with probably hundreds of miles of smaller canyons feeding into it. I hiked maybe 35 miles over two days going from end to end, connecting back to my car with a bike shuttle this morning.

The lower parts of the canyon are narrow and twisty, following along as the floor goes from sand to damp sand to a nice stream and healthy riparian environment. This is one of the few canyons in the area where water flows most of the year.

The first day was overcast, with some spitting snow in the afternoon. Though it would clear in the evening, this put a bit of a damper on exploring the area. Towards the end of the day I did however make a side trip to see Angel Arch, a dramatic arc 1.5 miles off the main trail. There were several more very impressive arches along the trail, very neat to be walking along and suddenly notice such large holes in the rock.

Beyond Angel Arch the the canyon stops meandering and opens up. These upper portions are an ideal location for farming and have many Anasazi ruins scattered about. The trail passes close by or in easy view of several different sets of ruins, all of which I took the time to gawk at. Despite knowing next to nothing about how these people lived I was fascinated by the remains of their houses, granaries, and, especially, drawings. Hard to pin down but I think I was struck by seeing this work in such an impermanent landscape; who knows how long these ruins will still be here at all.

This hike was very nice, though I feel like I just barely scratched the surface of what can be seen here. Much of this was from breezing through at a quick pace; even more was from doing the hike blind. Going in I had no real idea for where to find or look for ruins, and saw only a fraction of those that dot the canyon. Someday I’d like to hike this canyon again with more time and preparation, but for now this has been a good lesson that the country around here doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

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Little Cottonwood Canyon

I spent the winter staying in North Salt Lake and did a lot of skiing, almost all of it out of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Less than ten miles long, this canyon is the epicenter of Utah skiing, home to the Alta and Snowbird resorts and packed with great and super accessible terrain. Most of the skiing I did, 21 out of 30 days, was in the backcountry. In previous years I’ve spent a couple weeks here skiing at the resorts, but this was my first real experience with backcountry powder skiing.

This has been tons of fun. The combination of great scenery, great exercise, a quiet unhurried pace, and usually excellent untracked descents form a gestalt that moves the experience far beyond what I can find at resorts. In the future I will be skiing in this vein almost exclusively.

Most of the skiing I did was right across the road from Alta — Emma Ridge, Mount Superior, Days Fork and Cardiff Fork. All well trafficked areas, backcountry skiing is far more popular here than in the places I’ve been in California or Oregon. Below is Cardiff Fork, from the shoulder of Superior. This is the fork at its most pristine, on account of dangerous avalanche conditions keeping folks away. Note the large slide in the foreground; after taking this, I skied the safer (on that day) main face of Superior.

I also saw some of the four forks on the south side of the canyon — White Pine, Red Pine, Maybird and Hogum — stretching west from Snowbird. These are also popular, but less so, and cover a large area with beautiful terrain. My most aggressive day of the season started by touring through these forks to reach Thunder Ridge, close to the mouth of the canyon. Below is Hogum Fork. It’s hard to believe this is four miles from the suburbs.

After ascending to Thunder Ridge, then going down the other side because I ascended in the wrong place, then traversing a mile north and ascending it again, I reached the top of the Coalpit Headwall, the face seen below. This was a great descent, nearly a vertical mile back to the road. The upper parts were nice, with an inch or two of soft stuff over wind board (I expected this going in, didn’t known if I’d have another chance to ski the face this season), then transitioning to powder as the route entered glades and a banked river gully for the exit.

A couple weeks later, looking for a better route I approached Thunder Ridge from the north (where I took the above photo), but had to abandon that attempt as it was taking even longer than the first route. Being able to efficiently travel through this terrain is a skill I’m still working on, and there are multiple other approaches to this ridge I want to try in the future. Still, it’s hard to complain too much about the failures; below is the view back up on the descent from that attempt.

Probably my favorite descent of the season was below Thunder Ridge, in the Y Couloir. A little over 3000′ vertical in a chute that’s usually 20 to 30 feet wide but not too steep, I slowly laid a boot track up and then skied back down, fresh tracks and great snow. Looking down the couloir at the road:

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Baja Wrapup

I had a couple weeks on the boat between my week back in the states and the end of the trip proper. I didn’t have anything horribly ambitious planned here, but took the time to see the area around La Paz some more and go to a couple spots — Isla Partida and Bahia la Ventana — I’d really been wanting to spend some time at.

Leaving La Paz in the morning on October 29, I spent the first day at Puerto Ballendra, about 12 miles to the north. Nice snorkeling, with a small lagoon in the back that had some great birding.

That night I headed to Bahia la Ventana, about 25 miles away. This is a fairly laid back area with a lot of small resorts, rentals and vacation homes, and a very popular area for wind sports. The bay is backed by a small plain which heats through the day, drawing thermal winds fairly consistently in winter afternoons. My interest here was in kiteboarding, but the day I arrived conditions were calm with nothing forecast for several days (maybe should have checked before making the trip over).

I took this time to head back towards La Paz and turn north to anchor at Isla Partida. This island is just north of Isla Espiritu Santo, separated by a very narrow channel, and has similar great anchorages all along the west side. I stayed in one of these for kayaking, hiking and snorkeling in the area. The main highlight here are Los Islotes, shown below, two small islands off the north end of Isla Partida and a few miles from my anchorage.

I kayaked up to the Islotes twice with snorkeling gear in tow. Back in 2008 I did a couple excellent dives here (90 to 150 minutes each, yay for rebreathers), one of the main highlights of that trip. The snorkeling here is first rate too, great stuff ringing the islets right near the surface. The main attraction are the many sea lions living on the islets, fantastically, even aggressively curious in playing with divers and snorkelers. Good tidal currents and deep surrounding water bring a tremendous amount of fish life, with very clear water and small amounts of coral. For much of the day when I was there the islets were crowded with boat traffic, with day boats from La Paz bringing snorkelers, divers, and kayakers, and plenty of chartered and private boats doing the same. Still, it’s easy enough to get away from the crowds and on both days I was in the water for hours, great time.

With my remaining time I did a nice kayaking trip circling Isla Partida, and several short hikes on trails around the island. All the area around La Paz got a lot of rain in the fall, and Espiritu Santo and Partida were both much greener with plants than even when I passed through a couple weeks earlier.

From Partida I made my way back to Bahia la Ventana in time for the winds to pick up. I stayed here the rest of the trip, and ended up kiteboarding for seven days in varying conditions. This was a great setup. Just inside of my anchorage was a concession, La Ventana Xperience, setting up on the beach for the season. The folks running the place, Jeff and Ozzy, were great, and I took a couple short lessons from them and spent a lot of time in the evenings talking. The lessons, practicing and good weather helped tremendously in building my skills in the sport, and as time progressed I went from not really knowing what I was doing to the point where I could easily launch and ride the kite, and reliably tack and ride upwind.

Kiteboarding is an interesting sport. Intimidating from the outset and with a steep learning curve, but once I got a feel for the kite things suddenly became smooth and simple, and lots of fun. Really want to work more on the sport, and looking forward to spending more time with it on future sailing trips.

Eventually it came time for me to head back to La Paz and fly back to the US. I’m still working on absorbing and making sense of the whole trip, but it’s been an incredible experience. I think that at the most basic level I conceived this trip as a litmus test for whether I should proceed with my longstanding dream of sailing the Pacific. To that end the trip was a resounding success; I’ve really just had a glimpse of what can be done, traveling the world by boat, and even now I’m consumed with the desire to see more.

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