Just about every Utah or Canyon Country hiking guidebook will have Death Hollow on its best hikes list. Yet, it remains relatively unknown. Access into this deep canyon is not easy. And once in its inner recesses, travel is challenging and somewhat cumbersome--especially with a heavy pack. Most hikers wanting the Death Hollow experience use the old Boulder Mail Trail with trailheads at Escalante and Boulder. In about two days, you can follow the Mail Trail over slickrock bluffs and flats and finally down into the lower part of Death Hollow. From there, you can head downstream through perhaps the most spectacular (and easiest) part of the canyon to the Escalante River, and then follow the river either upstream to the town of Escalante, or downstream to the Highway 12 Bridge.
When my brother Eros and my Nephew Hector asked about a challenging multi-day backpack trip to do, Death Hollow was the first hike that came to mind. These guys wanted a challenge, so I recommended the full 30-mile version of Death Hollow which forgoes the Mail Trail "shortcut" and starts from the top of the drainage off of the Hell's Backbone Road. I knew there would be tricky chokestones to negotiate, stagnant potholes to swim, and groves of poison ivy to contend with. But with good planning and the right gear, I was confident we could make it through and that it would be a rewarding experience we would never forget.
There are many opinions out there when it comes to waterproofing your backpacking gear for Death Hollow's infamous swims. Waterproof kegs, air mattresses, garbage bags, or even a small raft, have all been used. I think the best way is to place all of your gear into 2-3 dry bags and then place the bags into your backpack. I've never had a dry bag leak on me (other than a little seepage through the roll top), you don't have the hassle of blowing up a mattress, and it overall just seems like the most efficient and safest method.
Here are some other notable gear we took: one trekking pole each (essential once you hit perennial water for balance on slimy rocks and for probing potholes), 40 feet of webbing (we used the webbing two or three times for drops of up to about 18 feet), 20 feet of parachute cord (for lowering packs), and convertible pants (you'll want pants at least for the middle and lower parts of Death Hollow where poison ivy is profuse). We also took (and wore the entire last three days) a long sleeve, tight polyester top for temperature (and poison ivy) control--even though I got chilled a couple of times, I still think a wetsuit would be overkill. For footwear, I wore some old hiking shoes paired with some desert gaiters; Eros and Hector hiked the first (mostly) dry day in old hikers/running shoes and then switched to 5.10 Canyoneers for the remainder of the trip. To reduce weight and volume, we packed bivy sacks rather than tents.
After meeting at the Escalante Bridge trailhead and leaving Hector's car, we stopped in Escalante for one last hearty meal. We then headed up Hell's Backbone Road and after I missed a turn, we ended up at Posey Lake. Once back on track and as we neared the trailhead, we pulled off on an old logging road and found a pleasant campsite on a windy ridge overlooking Death Hollow. We made a fire, checked our gear, debated who had the better trekking pole, and I poked fun at Eros for buying a 30-dollar pair of underwear.
The wind howled all night, but somewhere around 3 am, it suddenly stopped and all was calm.
After a 10-minute drive the next morning, we arrived at the trailhead. We double-checked our gear one last time and headed downhill to check the trail register. We couldn't find anyone who had taken this route since April.
Above: A parting shot moments before taking the plunge into upper Death Hollow, from right to left: Hector, Eros, and Tyler (me).
The route drops about 1000 feet in just the first mile--letting your knees know early on that you mean business. There is a pretty distinct path to follow butwe had a lot of scrambling and bushwhacking to get around or over all of the numerous felled trees. Once down into the main drainage, the grade mellows a bit and good views of the surrounding country unfold. Lush pine and aspen forests intermingle with normally deserty bluffs of white and yellow Navajo Sandstone to create a unique scene that is reminiscent of some of the higher-elevation areas of Zion National Park.
Above: typical scene in the upper part of Death Hollow.
For the first 7 miles or so, we took every possible shortcut to shorten the numerous meanders in the main wash. This usually required a short but steep climb out of the wash onto the surrounding bench, but in the end we expended a lot less energy than if we were to follow the long lines of the sandy wash. Even with a short lunch break, we were making good time. My goal for the day was to reach Right Hand Fork at about mile 10.
At around the 7 or 8 mile mark, the wash enters a section of low narrows.
This 1st section of narrows can be bypassed on the bench above, but after several hours of easy cross-country travel, we were excited to get into a few challenges and to cool off in some water. So into the slot we went.
We quickly began to encounter a number of large chokestones. Every one of these stones was a dark (red, purple, or black) volcanic rock washed down by glacier (thousands of years ago) and more recently, flood waters, from the lava sheet that caps Boulder Mountain. These lava rocks are much more durable than the surrounding sandstone, so even though the entire Death Hollow canyon is carved out of the Navajo Sandstone, while walking in the stream bed, the predominant rock type is always volcanic.
Just about every plunge pool below the chokestones had been scoured out down to bedrock. I've never been through the upper part of the canyon before, but I could see staining on the sandstone walls indicating that the pools had been at least partially filled with sediment fairly recently. I theorized that the widespread flooding that most of southern Utah experienced in late December of last year had flushed out Death Hollow pretty good and that several chokestones that were just 3-4-foot "hop-overs" before, now had fairly serious 8-10-foot drops on the downstream side to deal with.
If the canyon walls were close enough, we could simply stem or chimney down over the chokestone. Other times we used webbing to either hand-line or repel down, and on one occasion we found a nearby log to prop up against the canyon side to assist in the descent.
Most scour pools below the chokestones were dry, but we soon came to our first stagnant pool of water. The pools were full of shrimp, beetles, and larvae of all types, and we saw a few freakishly skinny worms swimming in the water that were up to a foot long. I had long waited to see Eros' s reaction to the stagnant pools since he has a bit of a phobia when it comes to all things gross and unclean. He didn't disappoint, but after a little hesitation, he and Hector cautiously entered the murky and smelly waters, and soon after, both were wading through cesspools like seasoned canyoneers.
Above: Eros and Hector make there way into one of the first stagnant pools of the trip.
Above: there was almost about as much dead stuff as there was alive in the pools; one of the worms, about 10 inches long, crosses the photo from left to right.
Above: Eros and Hector were convinced the worms we saw in the potholes were snakes. I decided I had to fish one out for a closer examination. No backbone, no eyes that we could see--so it must be some kind of worm, right?
Above: that look says it all. Eros exits a particularly putrid pothole.
Between major obstacles and potholes, the hike was a fairly easy stroll through alternating sections of deep sand and large colorful cobbles.
With all of the obstacles, problem solving, and shuttling of packs, the last two miles were very slow and tiresome. Exhausted, we were ready to set up camp. We waited patiently for our cue to exit the main canyon: a large and difficult 15-foot double chokestone. When we finally came upon it, we didn't even bother scouting out the obstacle. We followed a guidebook's recommendation to back up a few yards and follow a steep slickrock route out of the north side of the canyon over a low ridge and then drop down into Death Hollow's Right Fork. It took all the gas we had left to get up that hill, but we were able to safely bypass the troublesome obstacle, and the route delivered us to the perfect campsite in the bottom of Right Fork.
We had a nice slickrock ledge for setting up kitchen, and soft sand for sleeping. Water for filtering was plentiful in nearby potholes, but unfortunately, it was full of creepy-crawlies, including a couple of the worms. But after filtering, it tasted extremely good and it even got Eros's approval.
We all went to bed early that night, dreaming of what was in store for tomorrow.
Above: after a mostly overcast day, the sun makes a brief appearance and lights up yellow Navajo walls behind campsite #1.