|Flood debris 20 feet above the floor of Red Slot.|
Some of the best hikes in guidebook author Michael Kelsey's books are long, meandering routes that string together many interesting gems that otherwise may not be worth a long hike. One of these routes that I recently completed is titled Johnson Hole Canyon & Trail, Asay Bench Trail & Canyon, the Red Slot, and Middle Deer Creek Canyon, in Kelsey's book covering the Paria River region. That's a mouthful of places most Colorado Plateau enthusiasts have never heard of (Deer Creek Canyon is the only place officially named on topographic maps--the others are either local or Kesley names), and the title doesn't even include all of the attractions along this approximately 20-mile jaunt into the heart of the Paria River canyon country.
Knowing this would take nearly every bit of daylight a mid-October day has, I decided to drive to and camp at the trailhead so I could get a crack-of-dawn start. Although Kelsey describes the maze of dirt roads leading from near Kodachrome Basin to the Johnson Hole trailhead as passable by a 2WD car in good conditions, with all of the big thunderstorms southern Utah had seen in previous weeks, I threw a shovel in the back of my Montero just in case.
Good choice. I ended up filling in three deep gashes cut across the road by heavy rains several days earlier.
A new moon and clear skies ensured I'd see every possible star on a clear and calm night.
As soon as it was light enough to see the berries on a nearby juniper, I started down the old Johnson Hole Canyon stock trail--a steep, sandy, and at times, ill-defined trail leading from Rock Springs Bench on top of the White Cliffs, 1000-vertical feet and about 4 miles down to the Paria River. Fresh scuffs from clambering hooves searching for traction on the steeply-tilted slabs of slickrock on the upper part of the trail made it obvious that this old trail is still used by brave stockmen today.
|This hike explores the Paria River and tributaries just downstream from where the Paria cuts through the White Cliffs.|
The trail drops into the dry wash flooring Johnson Hole Canyon (again, a local name), skirts around a couple of dryfalls, leaves the drainage, and descends an elevated sandy ridge that provides good views of the surrounding White Cliffs and, to the south, across the Deer Trails bench, and onto the distant but still dominant Mollies Nipple.
Just before reaching the Paria, a couple of short diversions off the trail were well worth the effort. First there is Balanced Rock just a few 100 yards off the trail to the south on a bench overlooking the river. There is no shortage of hoodoos and balanced boulders in this country, but this one really stands out. From some angles, the physics here really do seem impossible.
|The amazing Balanced Rock on a bench east of the Paria River.|
Another somewhat longer diversion off the trail to the north leads to what Kelsey calls the Red Slot, where the Johnson Hole Canyon wash cuts through red Navajo Sandstone. Although it only takes about 5 minutes to walk through the slot, its tall, sculpted crimson walls and snow-white sandy floor demand extra time for photography. The slot ends in a large, interesting grotto where you have a nice cross-section view of faults that have shattered and offset the sandstone.
|Red Slot portal.|
|White sand, washed down from the white Navajo higher upstream, adds stark contrast in the Red Slot.|
|Ducking under driftwood wedged tight in the Red Slot.|
|Dry fall and grotto impede progress up the Red Slot.|
|Lone Rock is one of the more prominent landmarks along the Paria River. The base of this rock is covered with old cowboy inscriptions.|
The trail intersects the Paria River near a distinct stone monolith known simply as Lone Rock. From there, I made my way upstream, crossing the clear waters of the Paria several times toward Asay Canyon. Not shown in Kelsey's Book, I was lucky to spot a nice petroglyph panel partially obscured by tall willows on the east side of the river near its confluence with Johnson Hole Canyon.
|Desert varnish-streaked walls along the Paria River gorge.|
|Unusual petroglyphs near the Paria River.|
|The Great Blue Heron of the Paria.|
Following Kelsey's recommended route, I turned left (west) up Asay Creek which immediately started to slot up. The lower Asay Creek slot is not very tall, but its walls are beautifully sculpted, and if you're there at the right time (about 11 AM on this particular day) you get reflected sunlight that imparts an unearthly glow to the red sandstone. Just before the canyon gets super skinny, I stepped in a patch of quicksand that took me a bit by surprise. I've found the dangers of quicksand on the Colorado Plateau to be somewhat overblown, but this was the real deal. Mid-thigh in mud, it took a good 10 minutes to dig myself out. I then carefully crawled on all fours until I could see further passage through a very tight section ahead was questionable. Chimneying through the slot looked doable (at the cost of some skin no doubt), but being alone, I didn't want to risk getting stuck, so I carefully backed out of the canyon and climbed the sloped slickrock to the north to bypass the lower slot.
|The lower slot in Asay Canyon. Beware of hidden patches of quicksand.|
|A watery passage in the lower slot of Asay Canyon.|
|Just above the lower slot in Asay Canyon.|
The middle part of Asay Canyon is wide open with the White Cliffs looming to the north. Shortly after taking the right fork, I made my way through the upper Asay narrows which are carved into the upper white Navajo Sandstone. As Kelsey puts it: another short and sweet slot.
|Bits of iron concretion and white sand in Asay Canyon.|
|Upper Asay narrows.|
|Weaving through the upper narrows of Asay Canyon.|
Near the head of Asay Canyon, Kelsey's route heads south up a minor tributary, passes through a small grove of low-altitude aspen, and climbs up to a narrow bench (locally known as Asay Bench) separating the Asay and Deer Creek drainages. The traverse between the two drainages passes another petroglyph panel and a number hoodoos.
|A unique petroglyph panel near the upper reaches of Asay Canyon.|
|Hoodoo near the rim of Deer Creek Canyon.|
With a little route finding and trial-and-error, I climbed down off Asay Bench and into the deep middle part of Deer Creek Canyon. About 1 mile upstream from this entry-point the canyon splits into the Northwest and Main Forks of Deer Creek. A short distance up each of these forks are photogenic slots that can only be fully explored by descending them with ropes and technical gear.
|Typical scene in the middle part of Deer Creek Canyon.|
|A modern dune encroaches on Jurassic dunes in Deer Creek Canyon.|
|Making my way up the extremely narrow slot in the Northwest Fork of Deer Creek Canyon.|
|From the bottom, you can't get very far into the narrows of the Main Fork of Deer Creek, but what little can be seen makes an impression.|
|Main Fork of Deer Creek Canyon.|
After checking out the slots in upper Deer Creek, I regressed to the entry/exit leading back to the top of Asay Bench and headed east across the pinion/juniper-studded bench toward the Paria. At the rim of the Paria, yet another constructed stock trail leads down near-vertical cliffs to the river. Just downstream was Lone Rock and the long, sandy slog up the Johnson Hole Canyon trail to my car.
|The White Cliffs rise above Asay Bench.|
|Sandstone glowing in afternoon sun is reflected off the rippled waters of the Paria.|