Member Trip Report



Lower Sand Creek, Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, Utah

October 7-13, 2009

Author and Trip Leader: Bill Priedhorsky - Bio

Participants: Allyn Pratt, Nellie Schachowskoj, Jan Studebaker, Kathleen Gruetzmacher, Joy Green, Ray Green, Jackie Little, Peter McLachlan, Rachel Hixson, Pat McLachlan of Olympia, Washington, Dick Opsahl, and Bill Priedhorsky

Photo Gallery: by Jan Studebaker

This is the story of a five-night canyon adventure in the wild slick rock of lower Sand Creek over the long Columbus Day weekend of 2009. Because of the 10-hour+ drive, we usually go for a whole week when we travel to the Escalante country. To save vacation time, the 2009 trip was designed to fit a long weekend plus two vacation days. We thus needed a campsite close enough to the trailhead that we could break camp, hike out, load up, and drive back to Los Alamos in one day. Our campsite, at the confluence of Sand Creek and the Escalante, was just 2 1/2 miles from the trailhead along highway 12.

To our surprise we found ourselves in the wildest and most rugged slickrock country that we had seen in the Escalante. We had passed through this country a few times, for example on the return to civilization of our Willow Patch trip of fall 2004, but have not spent significant time there for many years. My son Reid passed through in spring 2005 (read here); our trip was entirely more pleasant than his passage through record spring floods.

Being somewhat lazy when it comes to carrying of heavy loads, our trip was a llama drop camp: llamas carried our gear into a base camp, and came back to haul out our gear when we are done. This typically gave us about 70 pounds of cargo per person, making possible the comforts of chairs, tables, Coleman stoves, and a wine cellar. We engaged the services of Red Rock 'n Llamas for the hauling, Because we had only 11 llamas for our party, some of us carried modest loads on our backs, but nothing like a full backpack.

Most of the expedition left Los Alamos mid-afternoon on Wednesday, October 7, and drove the 6 hours to Bluff, Utah to overnight at the Recapture Lodge. We arrived early enough to soak and sip wine in the Lodge’s hot tub, a place with some history for us, where we have spent many an hour.

We left Bluff at about 7:15 AM on Thursday and drove overland (the timing was not right for the ferry) to Boulder, Utah, arriving at the trailhead a little after noon. Loading llamas took a couple of hours, but with the short hike, we arrived in camp with plenty of time for drinks and dinner. Our campsite, near the confluence, had room for all of our tents and dinner circle. A special treat was a dripping spring along the cliff wall. With spring water to drink, we never took our water filters out of their bags. The October sun did not hit camp until about 9:30 daylight time, so mornings were cool.

On Friday morning, we were ready for the main event: day hikes and scrambles in the slickrock expanses, domes, and clefts. We managed to start our hikes by 9:00 or 9:30 AM each morning, knowing that the days would not be long. There was usable light until about 7:00 PM, but we wanted to return to camp in time for drinks, appetizers, and dinner before dark. For our first outing, we explored the country north of the Escalante River and west of Sand Creek. After one false start where an apparent route was blocked by an 8-foot ledge, we returned to the creek and found some remarkable petroglyphs, including a Kokopelli, on a varnished rock that had fallen to the canyon bottom. We then found a scrambly route out of the canyon, and hiked across the plateau to a slickrock expanse under a line of cliffs and prominences. We found no way directly to the top, although Kathleen and others explored several possibilities. Our way westward under the cliffs was blocked by a narrow chasm over a hundred feet deep. We dropped down to the southwest and found two routes to the river bottom, then followed the river back to camp.

Rock art in lower Sand Creek.

On the second day we explored the Bowington Road to the south of the Escalante River. The diagonal slash of the old cowboy road had been visible from the north side of the river the day before, and we were able to pick up the road after some exploring. The converse was not true – we never found the continuation of the road on the north side of the river. In search of the road, we started up the first drainage upstream from Sand Creek on the south side of the Escalante, and had to cross a rib to the second drainage to find the actual route. Once on track, we were able to follow the road for about a half mile before it faded into a huge expanse of slickrock. The party split at this point, with Dick Opsahl, Jan W., Pat M., and Kathleen following due south upslope, while the rest of us headed for a sandstone peak to the west. Most of our travel was on bare rock. As we approached, we saw that the peak was actually a knob at the end of a peninsula coming out of the cliff wall. We reached the base of the peninsula via a drainage to its south, and followed along its top to the end. The summit required a little rope work. Although it was not a free-standing peak, there was plenty of exposure and view, with a nearly vertically drop several hundred feet to the river at our feet. On the way back, Jan S. and I explored a bowl directly south from the peak, and found an easy shortcut to the bottom. This route looked impossibly steep on our hike in, but the angle of slickrock can be deceptive when seen straight on from a distance.

Fearless leader Bill in his favorite place, the slickrock,
west of the Bowington historical road.

Retracing our route to the Bowington Road, we stopped at a large pool filling a declivity in the slickrock. Our party arrived just as Dick and the ladies were drying off from a swim, and we jumped in ourselves for a dip and wash. On the way out, Jan S. and I missed the path to the road and took a big loop around a high point, looking in vain for an alternate way down. We finally returned, full circle, to the beginning of our loop and found the road, and then came across Jackie and Ron making their way down the one alternate slope that we had missed.

Sunset from our beautiful camp near the mouth of Sand Creek.

On Sunday, our third day, I hoped to do a little fishing, so joined the hikers for an exploration of the country north of the Escalante and east of Sand Creek. We found an easy route up from Sand Creek bottom on the east slope near camp. My plan was to stay with the hikers for a while, then find a way down into Sand Creek to check out the trout. Although I sped ahead of the main party and spent two or three hours looking for a way down, I found no descent possibilities downstream of Sand Hollow. Although there were possible ways to drop into Sand Hollow, I remembered, from a previous trip, that there was no way down from Sand Hollow into Sand Creek due to a drop-off near their confluence. I gave up and started back, and soon ran into the main party. We hiked back together, arriving at camp about 3 PM. I took a short excursion upstream with rod in hand – although I was disappointed to find that my reel had broken. Duct tape reconnected it to the rod, but this was hardly a high-performance angling system. I caught and released about three 10-inchers, and chased off a few dozen more when I took a dip in the stream just a hundred yards from camp.

An advantage and disadvantage of our location was the temptation of a quick jaunt back to civilization. Also on Sunday Al and Nellie, and separately Peter and Rachel, hiked out and drove back to town. While Allyn’s gift – a couple six-packs – was eagerly received, it worrisome to wait after dark for one of the returning parties. We were in the wilderness, not civilization, and were tied to each other with bonds of responsibility different from when we make our independent ways through the civilized world.

Monday proved how steeply the slickrock lies in this corner of the Escalante. Kathleen, Jackie, Ron, Jan S., Jan W., and myself set out again into the northwest quadrant, west of Sand Creek and north of the Escalante. We found a more directly route across the beaver dam, around a corner, and up out of the canyon, then set a goal –a sculptured plateau at the top of the cliff line. For the usual slickrock summit, with a little will, there will be a way, though with a challenge or two en route. This peak was different. We worked our way across the grain and rounded the east corner of the slickrock mass, figuring that we could find a friction route up the skyline. Exploration showed that we were about twenty feet short, blocked by a sandstone slope that was just beyond our capability. Continuing along the east slope, we found a gully with some promise. We explored multiple options, and eventually reached a plateau just below the summit. Our way up involved a hairy bit of rope work. Setting up for the next climber, the rope lassoed a hundred pound rock uphill from Jan S. Pulling on the rope would have brought the rock down onto Jan, and the only way out was Jan’s climb up a friable slope to free the rope by hand. Bill found a chimney that led to a staircase along the rock face, with only modest trashing through the bushes that blocked the gully. Although we did not reach our original goal, we enjoyed huge views up to Boulder Mountain, then found a straightforward descent a little north of the gully route.

When we begin a multi-day trip, it always seems like we have all the time in the world. But quickly enough, the last day is open us, then the last evening in camp. About dinnertime packers Locke Wade and Brian Dick hiked in with the llamas to make possible an early start on the morning of Tuesday, October 13. We woke in the dark about 6 AM, packed quickly, and were on the trail by about 8:30 AM. The hike out went quickly, reaching the cars about 10:30 AM. With loading the cars and a lunch stop, we arrived back in Los Alamos at about 10 PM, tired from the long drive but already scheming a plan for our next canyon adventure.

Kathleen with one of the self-propelled cargo hauling devices.

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