Backpacking Through Grand Gulch

My sister and I wanted to do some backpacking while in Utah. (See my post from the first half of our Utah trip.) After hours of paging through the hiking books over the winter we settled on Grand Gulch, which is about two hours south of Moab. The canyon was home to prehistoric Indians between 700 and 2,000 years ago. Then they deserted Grand Gulch and the remains of their homes were left in the hot desert sun.

When white men arrived in the late 1800s they plundered and pillaged the old Indian sites, and many of the artifacts they collected ended up in museums. Today it is illegal for visitors to take anything from the sites. But you CAN get up close to many of the ruins if you do this hike, which is why we chose this trail.

After the two-hour drive from Moab we arrived at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, picked up the $15 permit we had reserved several months earlier, and got ready to hit the trail on what turned out to be a VERY windy day. There were some solar panels at the edge of the parking lot and I was sure they were going to rip loose and fly away!

The first four miles of trail are through Kane Gulch.

We spotted several dozen aspen trees along a stretch of trail about a mile in. According to the BLM glaciers deposited aspen seeds here during the last ice age. The seeds survived and grew into trees. The aspens that are here today are all of the same genetic makeup and they represent trees that have been growing here continuously for 11,000 years! 😯

There are some ENORMOUS boulders at the bottom of Kane Gulch.

There were still some pools of water from the last time it rained, but other than that it was pretty dry.

We spotted our first old Indian ruin way up high.

We saw a snake (not a rattlesnake) slowly crossing our path. He was pretty big, about four feet long. Since I know some people are afraid of snakes I won’t embed the picture here. Click this link if you want to see it.

We followed the twists and turns of the canyon.

Sometimes we were hiking right in the bottom of the dry wash, and sometimes cottonwoods were growing right there in the channel. This one had lots of debris wrapped around its trunk from past flash floods.

A note about the “trail” in Grand Gulch. Sometimes we were on a real trail with dirt or sand. Sometimes we were hiking in the dry wash. And many times we were climbing in and out of the wash. Even though there wasn’t really any elevation gain to speak of it still felt like there was. I lost count of how many times we were descending into a wash and climbing back out of it. Pretty tiring with a heavy pack!

Where Kane Gulch meets up with Grand Gulch is a very cool site called Junction Ruin. The ruins consist of cists, storage rooms, habitation rooms, kivas, and defensive structures.

This smooth depression in the rock is where they would have ground their corn.

This high upper level would have been the defensive level and would have been accessed via a ladder.

Kivas were dug out of the ground and are assumed to have been used for ceremonial activities. Back when they were in use they would have had roof beams and a roof made of bark. An opening in the roof allowed the people to descend into the kiva via a ladder. One of the ruins many miles further along Grand Gulch has a kiva that’s been stabilized enough to allow people to climb the ladder down into it.

Archaeologists think that the Indians abandoned the Cedar Mesa area around AD 1260. Although the reason for abandoning the area is not known, several possibilities include depletion of resources, drought, disease, or warfare. Besides the ruins themselves, all that is left here are pieces of broken pottery and corn cobs.

There were some handprints on the wall.

Pretty nice view from here!

The BLM has an ammo can on site with a logbook (made for some interesting reading) and a packet of info about this site and the people who once lived here.

After spending time poking around the site we continued on. We passed quite a few cottonwoods, which were newly leafed out and lovely.

We passed Stimper Arch, high up on the canyon wall.

We came to Turkey Pen Ruin.

The final push before we reach our stopping place for the night.

Water is scarce around here but we knew there was a spring at Todie Canyon. We hiked up the canyon about a quarter mile, found the spring, and filled up all our containers. (The map showed several other springs we should have passed throughout our trek but we never saw them. They were either dried up already or we just missed them. Good thing we carried plenty of water!)

The only empty campsite we found was a bit exposed, but it would have to do, so we pitched the tent and started making dinner behind a makeshift wall of rocks to protect the stove from the wind.

There were some ruins high above us.

With the sun gone and the wind blowing so hard it was pretty cold, so we went to bed right after dinner. Despite the seven miles of hiking we had done that day neither of us slept very well. The wind pummeled our tent all night long. If we hadn’t been in it I think it would have blown away. The wind also blew dust up underneath the rain fly and through the mesh walls of the tent. In the morning everything was caked in dust: our faces, our hair, our sleeping bags, EVERYTHING.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the wind was STILL raging. It was hard to relax and enjoy the surroundings with the wind buffeting you and trying to blow your stuff away. After breakfast we moved the tent to a more protected campsite which was fortunately vacant after the previous night’s occupants had packed up and left. Then we headed out for a day hike further along Grand Gulch.

We came to another set of unnamed ruins.

Some areas of Grand Gulch were surprisingly lush and green!

This is called Pour Off Pool, a pond of stagnant water. During flash floods a thundering waterfall would go crashing into this pool.

We came across this enormous old cottonwood tree. The picture, of course, doesn’t convey just how big this thing was.

We spotted some distant ruins high up on the canyon wall.

Then we were approaching Split Level Ruin, which is situated in a big impressive amphitheater of rock.

Same as Junction Ruin the BLM has an ammo can here with a logbook and info about the ruin.

This ruins here are believed to have been occupied during the Pueblo period (AD 750 – AD 1260).

The split level structure for which this ruin is named is believed to have been habitation rooms.

I found it kind of amazing that there are broken pieces of pottery just laying around at the ruins. People are told not to take them for souvenirs, and although I’m sure some people take them anyway, there are enough pieces still laying around that it seems most people are leaving them be.

A cactus in bloom near the ruins.

We rested in the shade for awhile since we had plenty of time. Deb did her best explorer imitation.

This is one of the many birds we heard. There were an astonishing number of them singing throughout the gulch.

The colors here were so vivid. Red rock, blue sky, and green trees. Beautiful!

I loved the look of this cottonwood. (My wide angle lens would have been better for this, but even though I lugged it along for the whole backpacking trip I never dared to use because of all the blowing sand.)

Back at our campsite in Todie Canyon it was too early for dinner so we hung out and relaxed (or tried to, anyway; the wind was STILL blowing).

I forgot to bring my deck of tiny playing cards, so after dinner we played 20 Questions, which somehow ended in a fit of giggles. (That’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing that game!) By the time we turned in for the night the wind had finally FINALLY died down and we were able to sleep soundly through the night.

Nothing eventful on the hike out to the car. We were motivated by good food and drink waiting for us at the end of the day. Our total mileage for the hike was 20.5 miles over the course of three days. Many people do this trek as a 23-mile “loop” instead of an out-and-back. But if you do that the end of the hike has you exiting at the Bullet Canyon trailhead, which is 7.2 miles from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. We weren’t comfortable hitchiking back to our car, which is why we didn’t do that.

It was a two-hour drive back to Moab and even though we were hot and tired and dirty we had to stop at the Hole In The Rock. There’s a 5,000-square-foot “home” carved out of the rock here. A guy and his wife lived here before it became a tourist attraction.

We set up our tent at Up The Creek Campground (a walk-in campground with showers in the middle of Moab).

Then we headed to the Moab Brewery for some nosh and cold drinks. Excellent!

The next day we drove as far as Twin Falls, Idaho where we stayed at the KOA. From our campsite we had an excellent view of the amazing sunset. What a nice treat for the last night of our trip!

Utah is pretty amazing. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see a little bit of it on this trip!

Lyle Cherry Orchard

With a rather dismal-looking forecast for Portland on Saturday Greg and I headed east in search of sunshine. We originally wanted to do Cook Hill but decided that without perfectly clear skies for the nice views it wasn’t worth doing. So we decided on the Lyle Cherry Orchard trail.

When we started out the skies were overcast and it was sprinkling. The narrow window of  Everything Is Green! in the eastern Gorge is closing and the grass here is already brown.

Rain from the morning lingered on the lupine leaves. (It lingered on a lot of vegetation, actually, and I had soon had wet boots as a result.)

Views down to the river.

Once we leveled out up on top the poison oak seemed to be EVERYWHERE. It was growing out over the trail and we were really glad we had on long pants.

Down below the lupine had already gone to seed. Up above it was just starting to go to seed. In past years we have been too early to see the lupine blooming at all, and this year we were almost too late!

The oaks were fully leafed out and it was a green green world up there.

And then we reached the big grassy meadow at the end of the trail.

There were some lupine blooming in the meadow, but not the purple kind. Greg later identified it as Velvet Lupine (indeed, the leaves felt velvety!).

This is new since I was last here. There’s a memorial here for someone who died in January 2012.

We ate a snack and admired the view.

By this point the skies were really clearing up and we actually had blue sky!

We saw a herd of deer on the next hillside over. We got a good look through the binoculars, but my zoom lens just barely picked up two of them. Can you see them?

Then we turned and headed back.

This was a particularly bad section of poison oak. It has almost totally overtaken the trail.

Once we left the protection of the trees we were hit by winds that had picked up in the past hour. Greg’s hat looks like it’s about to take flight!

It was SO windy that this bird (raven or crow?) was hovering in place as he “flew” into the wind. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and it was fun to watch. I wish I could have gotten it on video.

One last view!

We saw almost no other people on this hike. We saw two people at the very beginning who turned around after about half a mile. And we saw a group of four hikers near the end of the trail as we were heading back. But that was it. Least amount of people I’ve ever seen on this trail!

As you can see, the poison oak was very bad. We were very careful and we washed everything as soon as we got home. Too soon to tell yet if we got any on our skin. As for the ticks we flicked a number of them off our pants and socks, but no ticks made it past our clothing.

The wildflowers are wrapping up here and they’ll probably all be gone in a few weeks. Greg’s full wildflower report for our hike is here:

Adventures in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks

My sis and I recently spent a week in SE Utah. She had been to the area twice before but this was my first time. WOW. What an amazing place!! Here’s a teaser:

Day 1: Driving

I couldn’t get off work until 5:00 because so many of my coworkers were away at a conference that day, so we didn’t hit the road until about 6:30. We made it as far as Hilgard Junction State Park, where we camped for the night. Here we are in Portland ready to get the heck out of dodge! 😀

Day 2: More Driving

HJSP is at a higher elevation and it got so cold overnight that the tent had frost on it in the morning. BRRRR!

We quickly ate, packed up, and left at 7:15 to begin the LONG LONG drive (750 miles) to Moab, where we hoped to be by bedtime. Not much to note about this drive, except the amusing stop at a gas station that was in the middle of nowhere in Idaho. They even say as much in the sign in their window!

They apparently get a kick out of entertaining the few people who stop here:

When we got to Moab at 9:30 that Friday night we were amazed to find the town absolutely hopping. The sidewalks were full, the streets were full, and all the hotels had “no vacancy” signs. Our plan had been to head to Sand Flats, the largest BLM campground in the area. But we saw a sign on the road to the campground that said it was all full. Crap.

We got out the map and started looking for alternatives. We also got on our phones and discovered that there was a huge hot rod show going on in Moab that weekend, which explained all the crowds. There are quite a few BLM campgrounds around Moab, but most of them are pretty small. We could easily have spent hours visiting all the campgrounds looking for a vacancy. Considering the beautiful weekend forecast and the hot rod show, we had a hunch that our search would be in vain. Fortunately we hit a stroke of luck and the awesome guy at the hostel in town let us pitch our tent outside the hostel. We clearly weren’t the only people who got skunked on camping accommodations. Here was the view the next morning (and there are more tents you can’t see in this photo!):

Day 3: Arches National Park

Our first day in the area was spent at Arches National Park. The park has over 2,000 known arches (and probably more that haven’t yet been documented). They range in size from a three-foot opening to the largest (Landscape Arch) at 306 feet from base to base. In a nutshell, the arches form because of erosion, but there’s a lot more to it than that, which you can read about here.

We decided to do the Devil’s Garden hike, where we ended up seeing quite of the few of the features for which the park is named.

On the drive to the trailhead we were treated to some of the weird and awesome rock formations that fill the park:

We got to the trailhead, snagged a parking spot (the place was really filling up) and hit the trail.

Tunnel Arch:

Pine Tree Arch (can you see tiny Deb standing under the arch?):

Next up was Landscape Arch:

Does that one look a little thin to you? It is. In fact, in 1991 a big slab of the arch fell off. It was caught on video, which we saw at the park visitor center. The only copy of this video I found online is not the best quality, but you get the idea: Scary! Since that time the trail that goes up under the arch has been closed for obvious safety reasons.

After Landscape Arch the trail got more primitive and I had my first taste of slickrock hiking. The section in the picture below doesn’t look hard, but it was steeper than it looks and the afternoon was getting hot!

A side trail took us to Partition Arch:

And Navajo Arch (this was one arch where I couldn’t get a people-free shot; there were HUNDREDS of people doing this hike the same day as we were):

The trail took us up atop a big rock fin where we could see all around us. Cool!

There were many spots along the trail where we could see the nearby snow capped La Sal Mountains. The tallest peak in those mountains is 12,721 feet and the range was visible from MANY places in the Moab area:

This rock formation is called Dark Angel and reminded me of Stein’s Pillar in the Ochoco National Forest:

It’s hard to tell from this picture, but there is a lower arch and a larger upper arch here. Appropriately this one is called Double O Arch:

At this point in the hike you have a choice. You can return the way you came two miles to the trailhead or take a longer route back via a two-mile “primitive loop.” We decided to take this loop. I’m guessing the reason that it’s considered “primitive” is because there is a lot of up-and-down slickrock hiking and long stretches of sand, which – if you’ve ever walked very long on the beach – you know is very tiring to hike through.

Along the way a side trail led to Private Arch:

Locals and rangers told us that they had been having a cool spring and the desert wildflowers were late this year. We did see some paintbrush in bloom, though. That cool-looking plant next to it is yucca.

We were both carrying three liters of water, but Deb ran out about 30 minutes before the trailhead and I ran out about 10 minutes before. Fortunately there’s a water spiggot at the trailhead. Ah, refreshing! The parking lot, by the way, was overflowing with cars. Officially the park staff tell you to “try back later” if the trailhead you need is full, but I wonder how much they enforce that.

The eight-mile hike took 5.5 hours including all the stops and side trails. It ended up being more challenging than I thought it would be. This early in the year my body isn’t used to hiking at high elevations yet, nor was I used to the heat.

On the way back to Moab we stopped to see the most famous landmark in the park (maybe the most famous landmark in the whole state): Delicate Arch. There are three ways to see it: a three-mile round-trip hike to the base, a 1.5-mile round-trip hike to a viewpoint that gets you pretty close but not all the way, and a 30-second walk from the parking lot to a distant viewpoint, which is the one we opted for. I would have liked to get closer to this beautiful icon, but I was just too hot and tired for any more hiking this day.

Day 4: Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky District

After two nights camped out at the hostel we packed up Sunday morning and moved closer to Canyonlands. We were visiting the Island in the Sky District that day, which only has one small campground. We decided to try for nearby Dead Horse Point State Park and even though it was a Sunday morning we grabbed the last available campsite that day. Whew! Campsite reserved we headed into Canyonlands to do the six mile Neck Springs loop hike.

As with the day before, the views began immediately:

Instead of the weird rock formations and arches we saw the day before, this time we were hiking in and out of little canyons:

Red sandstone walls towered above us:

We saw lots and lots of cryptobiotic soil, which is a living crust of algae, fungi, lichens, and other biological material It stabilizes the sand and dirt so it doesn’t blow away. It’s a big no-no to step on it because it can take up to 100 years for it regenerate back to its former state. Here’s a close-up shot:

And a wider shot:

One of many birds we saw while in Utah. My sister is a bird nerd and loves identifying birds with her new iBird Pro app.

About halfway through the loop we reached a viewpoint looking west or northwest (we weren’t quite sure). What an amazing landscape!

We sat at this spot for about 45 minutes eating snacks, enjoying the scenery, and relaxing. We had the place all to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t see any other hikers on this entire trail, which was a welcome change from the day before.

We finally tore ourselves away and continued the hike. A short while later we had a view down into a canyon and an arch. We were startled to noticed that the tumble of rocks inside sort of resembled a sitting person with their arms wrapped around their knees. Weird!

Interesting rock formation. Reminds me of something….

The “trail” out of the canyon was a scramble up the rock. Unused to the heat and the high elevation I found this far more challenging than Deb did!

I made it!

Now we were almost directly above a part of the trail from the first half of the loop and we could see the trail far below.

The last part of the trail back to the TH was alongside the road and we passed an astonishing viewpoint of the Shafer Trail Road dropping 1,400 feet into the canyon. I had to use my wide angle lens to get this all in. This road connects up with the White Rim Road, a 100-mile-long 4WD road through the park. These 4WD roads are SUPER popular in the greater Moab area. There are lots and lots of them from what I hear, but I was surprised to find one in a national park.

After the hike we went exploring a bit before heading back to the campground. We visited beautiful Mesa Arch, which is super popular with photographers at sunrise. I didn’t bother trying to go there for that since there is room for about two and a half tripods to get the good vantage point.

We visited the Green River Overlook, where we could see the distant snaking Green Giver and the appropriately named White Rim:

And we visited Grand View Point Overlook, which is the end of the road for the Island in the Sky District of the park. Although the southern Needles District is quite close as the crow flies, it requires an hour of driving from here, up and out of this section, down through Moab, and around down to the south.

There were other viewpoints to see but it was hot and we were tired so we headed to the campground and found our site. I’ve never camped anywhere where the weather gets so hot and there are no trees for shade so the picnic tables have roofs! 😆

For sunset we headed to the overlook at the end of the road in Dead Horse Point State Park. (By the way, the park gets its name from a legend about how cowboys would herd wild mustangs out at the point. They fenced off the neck with branches and brush creating a natural corral. They chose the horses they wanted and left the rest out on the waterless point where they died of thirst. Sheesh, what a story!)

Anyway, the viewpoint was stunning! I was really glad we came out here and had good conditions. 😀

Back at our campsite we hung out at the end of our “driveway” and watched the stars for awhile. The stars out here were AWESOME. There’s something supremely satisfying about stargazing with a good companion after a day spent enjoying the outdoors.

Day 5: Canyonlands National Park – Needles District

In the morning we packed up and headed south to the Needles District. On the long access road into this part of the park we passed Newspaper Rock and stopped to check it out. This cool spot is a State Historic Monument and it is a rock face covered in hundreds of different petroglyphs, some as old as 2,000 years! It is unknown why there is a high concentration of petroglyphs here or what messages the native people were trying to convey, but in any case it’s pretty neat to see.

The Needles District only has one non-reservable campground which we didn’t even try to get a site at. Having been burned on the campground situation once already this trip we had called ahead and made reservations at the Needles Outpost, a private campground just outside the park’s boundaries. They have a little general store, water, and showers. Many of the campsites don’t have shade, but since we had a tent we were given a shady spot. Hooray!

After pitching our tent and weighing it down so it wouldn’t blow away we headed off into the park. Our original plan for this day was to do the long 11-mile Chesler Park trail. But since we were starting a backpacking trip the next day and since it would be a hot difficult hike we decided against it. Plus there is NO water along the hike, which meant we’d have to carry lots with us. Maybe next time!

Our first stop was the Roadside Ruin trail, a 0.3-mile loop that brought us to an old Puebloan granary which the native people used for grain storage. It is thought to have been built sometime between AD 1270 and 1295.

We drove to the end of the road, which is where the trailhead for the Confluence Overlook Trail is located. We didn’t hike that trail but the scenery around the trailhead was very pretty.

Driving back from road’s end we stopped and did the 0.6-mile Pothole Point loop. The name comes from the many depressions that have formed along the surface of the slickrock. You can kind of see them in this photo:

This trail also had very nice views of the surrounding landscape:

To the south are the strange rock formations for which the Needles District is named. You get an up-close view of these if you do the Chesler Park hike.

And there are those snow-capped La Sal Mountains again:

We stopped at a roadside viewpoint for Wooden Shoe Arch. Sure enough it looks like a wooden shoe!

Our last stop was the 0.6-mile Cave Springs loop where we saw an old cowboy camp that was used back in the days when cattle had to be moved from range to range. Cowboys lived in isolated camps like this from the 1890s to 1975, when ranching here ended.

Cave Springs is tucked back in an alcove (nice and cool!) and is barely more than a trickle.

The cave wall here had some old Indian pictographs and handprints:

The trail hopped up onto the plateau above via two separate ladders. Fun!

The views up there were really nice!

Here’s a panorama (click to see a bigger version):

After that little jaunt we headed back to the campground to relax in the shade and enjoy the view from our site.

After dinner we turned and looked the other direction for sunset, which didn’t materialize into much but was still nice.

Soon after that the stars came out. SO. MANY. STARS. 😀 😀

Day 6: Off to go backpacking!

We awoke to another beautiful morning.

Then we packed up the car and headed south for three days and two nights of backpacking through Grand Gulch. (That report will be coming soon!)

I cannot recommend this area highly enough. It is crazy beautiful! Canyonlands has lots of trails that we didn’t have time to explore, and there were even some spots in Arches that we didn’t get to see. I look forward to going back. Also, although Moab was pretty crazy that first weekend, it’s a pretty cool little town. The only downside to this area is getting there. It’s a LONG drive from Portland and unless you’re a really hardy road-tripper you can’t do it all in one day, which means four days of your trip are eaten up with driving there and back. But it’s definitely worth it!

I want to go back to those two parks, but I was also drooling over the photos and descriptions of Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase Escalante, Bryce, and Zion in my guidebook. There is SO much more to explore!

Balsamroot Adoration

The peak of the balsamroot bloom this year happened while I was on vacation in Utah. I adore balsamroot, so on Sunday Greg and I drove out to the eastern Gorge to check out the beautiful yellow flowers before they were all gone.

Dalles Mountain Ranch

Except for one other couple, who left about 10 minutes after we got there, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. We spent half an hour delighting in the flowers near the gate and for that first quarter mile of road beyond the gate. The balsamroot were definitely past peak and starting to look a little ragged. The lupine looked great, though. Also, it was such a clear day that we could see Mt. Jefferson in the distance. 😀

I noticed a sign at the TH that I hadn’t seen before. Not surprising, since this is owned by Washington State Parks, but the sign indicates you can buy a pass in the park, even though there is no pay station there.

Tom McCall Nature Preserve (aka Rowena Plateau)

Here too the balsamroot was past its peak, but still looking fine enough for photos.