The Red Cliffs Recreation Area near Leeds in southwestern Utah has exploded in popularity the last few years. There is a quaint campground with nice amenities, but it is the short walk into the Quail Creek Narrows that attracts tremendous day use, especially in the Spring. On some of the busier Spring weekends, BLM rangers have had to turn people away because there just aren't enough parking places near the trailhead.
The vast majority of folks flocking to Red Cliffs splash up the creek, perhaps take a dip in some of the larger pools near the "Moki steps," and then head back down. Few venture into the more difficult slot section of the narrows above, and even fewer penetrate into the upper reaches of Quail Creek Canyon or its tributaries.
For those looking to see more of this area and escape the crowds, try the Red Reef Trail, which is really more of a route than it is a trail. The Red Reef Trail allows you to enjoy Quail Creek's watery narrows, but for most of the hike, you'll definitely be on your own--but in a good way.
I led a small Scout group through the approximately 10-mile hike last March. While it is a moderately challenging hike for most (sections of deep sand, confusing route finding, exposed downclimbing), the 12- to 15-year-old boys in my group had no trouble completing the hike. The general route is shown on the Red Cliffs Reserve Map and other maps covering the reserve. The loop can be completed in either direction, and there are advantages to both. Clockwise from near the Orson Adams house (just east of the campground) allows you to wade through the snow-melt water in the narrows during the heat of the afternoon. This is the direction I went with the Scouts. I've done it counter-clockwise as well, which allows you to hike downhill through the sandy wash sections.
It's a fantastic hike, and I'm surprised very few people have completed the entire loop.
|Typical scene of the Red Reef route where is follows a sandy wash along a tributary of Cottonwood Creek.|
|Near the pass between the Cottonwood and Quail Creek drainages. Sweeping views of bluffs and bowls carved in the Navajo Sandstone are a highlight of this section.|
|Petrified sand foresets frozen at the angle of repose.|
|Majestic Desert Bighorns? Nah, looks like someone's pet goats got out and are a long way from home.|
|An interesting and rare constructed part of the mostly back-country Red Reef route. Someone put in a lot of work to cut this bench into the slickrock.|
|The descent down an unnamed tributary of Quail Creek is as exciting as it is scenic. There are several cliffs and potholes to negotiate. The hardest part seen here has a fixed rope.|
|The slot section of the Quail Creek narrows is a good introduction to basic canyoneering techniques: stemming, downclimbing waterfalls, and wading in ice-cold water.|
|Near the bottom of the slot is where you'll start to meet the throngs of people coming up from the bottom.|
|Below the narrows on the north side of the canyon, a large cave makes a nice lunch spot on a sunny day. The Anasazi once called the cave a home, but vandalism has pretty much erased any signs of occupation.|
|There's no better way to end a long hike than with a little cliff jumping. We had quite the audience judging our dives.|