Don't let the lack of content on the ol' blog make you think I've been lazy this summer. Thanks to a geologic-mapping project I'm involved with at work, I've probably hiked more this summer than any other in recent memory. I'll report on that later.
Still, I hadn't completed a trademark, long solo adventure all summer, so I reserved Labor Day to fill the void.
I had daydreamed of traversing Canaan Mountain ever since my first drive through that magical stretch of blacktop through Virgin and Rockville en route to Zion National Park. There, south of Rockville, rise towering red-rock mesas with craggy edges, dotted with majestic pines.
I thought they surely must be part of the park. A quick look at the map revealed they weren't. In fact the map showed the area was simply good old BLM public land, and a wilderness area. Interesting.
|The south face of Canaan Mountain as seen from Highway 59. Canaan Mountain is part of the larger Vermilion Cliffs.|
Canaan Mountain is even more impressive as seen from Highway 59 to the south, between Apple Valley and the twin cities Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. During each drive to Lake Powell or Kanab, I imagined what sort of terrain this isolated wilderness held atop the great stone fortress. Access to the mesa top didn't just look difficult, it seemed impossible. One thousand-plus foot cliffs all the way around as far as I could tell.
There is not a lot of info out there on hiking in the Canaan Mountain Wilderness. I did learn that there are three main entry points: either Water or Squirrel Canyons near Hildale, an old stock trail from near Rockville, or a long sandy track originating near the Coral Pink Sands Dunes far to the east.
Since I'd be using a mountain bike to shuttle back to my car after the hike, I decided to hike up the stock trail and then down Water Canyon. This would result in a mostly downhill 24-mile bike ride at the end of a 15-mile hike.
|The Eagle Crags and trailhead above Rockville.|
My challenge that Sunday evening was to hide my bike near the Water Canyon trailhead without any of the dozen or so recreating polygamist-sect members noticing. Both Water Canyon and the small reservoir by the trailhead are apparently very popular with the locals even on the Lord's day.
Camping at the Eagle Crags trailhead assured an easy, early start. The first few miles of trail are well defined and easy to follow, even with a weak headlamp. The trail fades quickly however, after skirting around the crooked Eagle Crag spires. The sun crested just in time to help me follow the fleeting route marked by an occasional cairn or faded flagging.
Dawn breaks on the Eagle Crags. Zion's signature monoliths rise in the background.
|Varicolored crossbeds of Navajo Sandstone are peppered with tiny iron concretions.|
Ultimately, I simply bush-whacked my way through thick manzanita, pinyon, and juniper toward the only possible break in the cliffs. I soon managed to intersect the old stock trail, badly eroded, but fairly well defined, leading through the narrow cleft and on up to the rim-top.
On top is a surprisingly well-forested (ponderosa and p-j) and verdent cliff-locked island of stone beehives and shallow, mysterious canyons.
With no sign of a trail, I followed my GPS toward Sawmill Spring, scrambling down a series of ledges and into a wide, sandy wash. While climbing out of the wash toward a larger grass-lined drainage, I came across a very unexpected sight. Here I was, in the middle of a wilderness area with no road in sight, in fact, no sign that any human had ever been through this country before, and I looked up to see a truck tire suspended from a broken ponderosa limb, a good 20 feet off the ground.
I'm still scratching my head.
|Typical scene from a high vantage on Canaan Mountain.|
|Where from? How?|
Rain the week before meant running water, tall grass, clear potholes, and tadpoles in the drainage below Sawmill Spring.
Near the spring, I first noticed an unusual horizon of iron concretions (a.k.a. moqui marbles) within the Navajo Sandstone. These particular concretions were welded together into clumps rather than weathering out to individual "marbles". They reminded me of clustered flower bulbs, with only a select few that were "flowering" or revealing their internal concentric bands.
|Iron concretion "flower bulbs" -- just starting to bloom.|
|In operation from 1915-1928, and employing up to 25 men, the old sawmill operation at Sawmill Spring removed millions of board feet of lumber. There's very little left to see at the sight today.|
Reaching the old Sawmill site, I took advantage of the shady, fluttering canopy of aspen leaves and munched on my sandwich. I had a decision to make. From here, the usual route is to follow an old road or path from the sawmill site to the windlass structure (a cable- and pulley-operated cable car) used to transport logs, equipment, and people(!) up and down the 1,400-foot escarpment to the south. A nice, straightforward, worry-free path.
But, I couldn't stop thinking about those anomalously piled up contours on the topo map south and east of the spring that I noticed during planning. It sure looked like a slot -- but you don't often find slot canyons on high plateau tops with no higher drainages. I checked the aerial imagery on Google Earth. It was definitely a slot of some sort, but was it passable?
Thus, my quandary. Play it safe and take the well-trodden path? Or, explore and risk wasting precious time descending a potentially dead-end slot, and end up on the well-trodden path anyway 2 hours later?
It was a no-brainer.
|The upper part of the secret slot on Canaan Mountain.|
As I cautiously entered the canyon top, I fully expected to be stopped by a dryfall, chokstone, or a number of other insurmountable obstacles at any moment. It didn't happen. There were a couple of 20 to 40-foot dryfalls that, at first glance, looked impassable. But a little searching always revealed a safe bypass with some minor scrambling.
The canyon is a hidden gem. The canyon's walls are taller than expected and finely sculpted. Fir and ponderosa pine stretch hopelessly toward the sunlit rim from the sandy canyon bottom. As a bonus, the top part of the slot envelops a beautiful natural arch.
The slot is only about 1 mile long, but going in without any grand expectations, I exited the slot very impressed and excited with what I'd seen in such a short span.
|This short but spectacular canyon deserves a name. I propose Windlass Canyon. Although long forgotten nowadays, I suspect the loggers back in the 1920s knew of it and used it as a shady alternate route between the mill and windlass.|
|Windlass Arch near the head of the canyon. Okay, technically it's a natural bridge as water occasionally flows beneath, but arch has a better ring to it.|
|In the heart of Windlass Canyon.|
|Exiting the canyon.|
Bearing southwest from the mouth of Windlass Canyon, I soon intersected the old roadway or path and the windlass ruins. I followed the rusted cables through a man-made notch at mesa edge and was smacked with staggering views of desolate Arizona Strip country sprawling toward the Grand Canyon.
|Windlass remains dating back to the 1910s and 1920s. Note the deep notch blasted out of the sandstone in the background.|
|According to the BLM wilderness proposal for Canaan Mountain, this windlass not only transported logs and equipment, but people routinely took the nearly 1,500 foot ride between valley bottom and mesa top. Yikes.|
|Westward view from the Windlass along the south front of Canaan Mountain.|
|The Vermilion Cliffs east of the Windlass are particularly craggy and wild.|
|Desert bighorns are always a welcome site in the high desert.|
|A thin iron-rich concretion zone (the dark capping layer) has formed some interesting hoodoos near "the Notch".|
|View to the south down through the Notch.|
It's a relatively short stroll from the Windlass to the Notch--a natural break in the mesa rim offering an inspiring framed view to the desert below.
Although the air was perfectly still at the Windlass, the narrow confines of the Notch were creating all sorts of atmospheric turbulence. Every raven from Pipe Springs to Gooseberry Mesa had come to ride the thermal. If you believe such animal behavior is strictly instinctive, well, you haven't seen a hundred ravens playfully tumble through a summer thermal.
|Ravens enjoy the ride above the Notch.|
Sometimes following the sandy path, other times not (I'm easily distracted), I soon found myself in the midst of smooth, bleached sandstone known as the "White Wave". This is where I encountered a couple of hiking groups day hiking out of Water or Squirrel Canyon.
|The White Wave of Canaan Mountain.|
|The White Wave.|
From the White Wave, I dropped into a drainage that eventually led to the head of Water Canyon. From Top Rock--a huge sandstone slab at canyon rim--a trail provides a safe descent down impossible terrain into the bowels of the canyon.
|View from Top Rock into the impressively deep Water Canyon.|
The trail parallels a technical slot for a short stretch and then leads to the canyon bottom where a cool, clear stream slips down a series of cascades and small pools. Hanging gardens adorn water-weeping stone walls.
After having the mountain to myself all day, I was somewhat annoyed by the loud teenagers playing in the area and their assortment of trash left in the stream.
Below the narrows, I chose to stay on a trail that clung high to the western edge of the canyon. I could occasionally hear and see polygamist families hiking and swimming in their typical prairie dresses and long-sleeved shirts in the stream below. The few locals that I did meet on the trail near the trailhead were very polite and courteous.
|The verdant narrows of Water Canyon.|
|Wow. These sure look like small dinosaur tracks. I couldn't find anything online about them. I'll float this picture around to some colleagues to find out if they are known in the scientific community.|
|Water Canyon Arch is easy to miss high on the east rim of the canyon.|
I was relieved to find my bike where I'd left it. I changed shoes, strapped on my helmet, and began the ride back to the Eagle Crags trailhead.
Three or four challenges still laid ahead. First, I had to negotiate the narrow Hildale streets without getting nailed by one of the many 12-year-old boys that always seemed to be chauffeuring their numerous siblings around in massive SUVs. The second challenge was the wind. It was sort of a cross-headwind, making it both hard to pedal and hard to hold a straight line. That brings me to challenge #3: the 3-4 inch sorry excuse of a shoulder along Highway 59 that left little wiggle room (and in the wind, I was a wigglin') between me and the boat-toting monster trucks returning from Lake Powell at the end of the Holiday weekend.
After meeting those challenges, the last seemed pretty insignificant. It certainly wasn't going to kill me. But I knew it would be painful--the final short but steep climb from Rockville to the trailhead.
This was a fantastic trip. I really enjoyed getting back into this wilderness where few have been, and I felt like I made some exciting discoveries, or at least, rediscoveries.
|The temples of Zion provide a dramatic backdrop along the Smithsonian Butte Back Country Byway.|
|The last push to the end. The beautiful town of Rockville lay below.|