Friday, June 22, 2012

Coyote Gulch - Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

One of the things I love about Utah is not only do we have five awesome National Parks, we also have some incredible National Monuments. And my all-time favorite is The Grand Staircase National Monument.

But long before it became a National Monument, I have the great fortune to discover it’s incredible beauty. In the spring of 1968 my dad and two of my older brothers came out from the San Francisco Bay Area and along with some other extended family headed out to a very little known area of south-central Utah near the little town of Escalante, UT. I didn’t get to go because of ear infections.

Fortunately, a year later we did the same trip again. The trip was to a canyon called Coyote Gulch. A perennial stream that eventually drains into the Escalante River and then into Lake Powell. We loved it so much that we ended up returning 3 or 4 more times in my early years. I also had the good fortune to hike Harris Wash to Twenty Five Mile Wash, as well as Twenty Five Mile Wash to Coyote Gulch before I was 16 years old.

The big dilemma of hiking Coyote Gulch is that everything else in the Grand Staircase doesn’t quite measure up. Sometimes I think people ought to visit a bunch of other places before Coyote Gulch. But fortunately every area is unique and wonderful. Fair warning though, it’s really difficult to top the 18 miles that make up the main section of Coyote Gulch.

The early years in Coyote Gulch have always held a special place in my heart. But even more memorable has been taking the next generation there. In the early years we used to camp at the Willow Tank Trailhead which accesses Coyote Gulch by way of Hurricane Wash. We would take two days to hike to the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River and either layover near the mouth of Coyote Gulch or camp just across the Escalante River at a big sandy area called Packer’s Camp on the big bend in the river below the confluence.

After a few days of exploration from our base camp we would hike from the Escalante River all the way back out to Willow Tank in one day. A very long hike for a 9 year old boy, but always exciting to see the canyon walls start to drop and 50 Mile Mountain start to rise up in the west.

In the years since, Packer’s Camp has become very overgrown with Tamarisk plants, the scourge of the Colorado Plateau. Also, since the early years a different route into Coyote Gulch was discovered via the Crack-in-the-Wall trail.

If you choose to start at “The Crack” trailhead, keep in mind there are some sections of deep, soft sand it’s advisable to have four wheel drive for that section.

My favorite way to hike Coyote Gulch now is to leave a shuttle vehicle at the Willow Tank trailhead and drive the 10 miles out 40 Mile Ridge to the Crack-in-the-Wall trailhead.

If you arrive with enough time, you can start your hike to Coyote Gulch after arriving. If you don’t have at least 2 to 3 hours of daylight left, it’s best to camp at Willow Tank, do your shuttle and start your hike in the morning.

The trail out from the trailhead to the “crack” isn’t very difficult, but much of the trail is over slick rock and the need to follow the cairns is essential to finding the “crack.”

When you reach the “crack” the view down to Escalante Canyon is awesome. And if you look closely you can see Stevens Arch just in the bend of the river as it turns southwest. The arch tends to blend in as your are high enough on the opposite rim that you cannot see any sky through the arch.

The route down through the crack isn’t very difficult, as long as you are not trying to take a full size pack through. We like to bring a 30 to 40 foot rope and lower the packs off the side of the crack and work our way down through the gap without the packs.

We chose to lower the packs in two stages. A short drop down to the opening after the first squeeze. Then the next drop was further, and this is where having 30 feet of rope or more is helpful.

There are two sections of the "crack" and the second section is the longest and would be very difficult if you had to hold your pack out in front or behind you while you worked your way through. Lowering the packs with a rope is much easier.
Once you get through the crack it’s a long downhill walk through deep sand. I remember as a young boy camping at Packer’s Camp looking up at that sand dune and wondering if there was a way to climb up to the rim. From a distance it looked like the sand went right up to the rim.

Once you reach the access point to Coyote Gulch, you have the choice to go upstream or downstream. We usually choose to head upstream a few miles to an overhang on the south side of the canyon and a hiker’s pit toilet up on the north side of the canyon. They are both just beyond a cascade that’s easy to walk up on the left side almost like a staircase.

This overhang is an excellent place to camp as it provides great shelter if a rainstorm passes through or if you are in the canyon during hot weather. Once we set up camp it’s nice to head back down the canyon and explore the lower section of Coyote Gulch. You can even make a full dayhike by heading up the Escalante River to Stevens Canyon, then to Elephant Arch. Or you could scramble up the canyon wall from Packer’s Camp right into the middle of Stevens Arch on the rim.

If you choose to head up Stevens Canyon, be aware that the entrance is overgrown with tamarisk and there is plenty of poison ivy on your way up to Elephant Arch as well. It’s also possible with enough time and some planning to work your way up Stevens Canyon and then cut up an over the top through Steven’s Arch and then down to Packer’s Camp in a long loop. This loop I have not done yet, but met two Glen Canyon rangers who had just completed the loop one of the times I was in that area.

Back at the overhang, from the camp you walk upstream a little ways to an excellent seep coming off the wall. It’s great place to refill the water bottles and use clear water for cooking. Some say it’s okay to drink straight from the seeps, but I prefer to be careful as I’d rather always filter rather than risk an illness. Bring a poncho or raincoat as you’ll get pretty wet filling your pots.

I remember in the early years dipping my Sierra Club cup right in the stream of Coyote Gulch without worrying about water-borne illness being an issue. Unfortunately, those days are gone, so it’s a good idea to take advantage of the clear-water seeps along the way. That should lower the risk of clogging your water filter.

Just beyond the first seep is one of the first waterfalls. There are two ways around this obstacle as you head upstream. One way is to go up on the rim via a small trail that goes right past the outhouse and up on the rim. The second way is to go almost up to the waterfall and then scramble up the left side. You’ll see some good size rocks there to make it easier to get up to the level of the top of the fall.

The high trail by the outhouse will also get you past the second falls as well. I personally like to take the route close to each waterfall on the left side as you can get some excellent pictures of each waterfall and it really is a spectacular sight.
Once you pass the two waterfalls, the going gets a lot easier with a lot of stream crossing and winding through the canyon, which is classic Coyote Gulch hiking.

A few miles up is the last major waterfall. Also, up on the north side of the canyon is Cliff Arch. Since I was a kid we always referred to it as Jug Handle Arch, but that was before there were any maps of the area.

In the past few years we have chosen to work our way up around the waterfall on the right hand side and up along the canyon wall and then back down again further upstream. I’ve heard you can stay low and closer to the water for an easier route, but I haven’t used it yet.

As a kid I remember using a route on the opposite side of the canyon as well, but there have a been some significant flash floods through the canyon since the late 60’s and early 70’s which seem to have changed this section dramatically. I vaguely remember scrambling over a big log jam above the falls, but the log jam no longer exists.

After more winding through the canyon Coyote Natural Bridge comes into view. Arches tend to be the predominate rock feature in canyon country. So it’s always nice to encounter a natural bridge once in a while.

Another interesting section comes along when the stream works its way through a very narrow gap in the wall. As a kid I really don’t remember this in the four or more hikes in and out of Coyote Gulch. I assume it was there all the time and it just never made a significant impression on me back then.

Just past this narrow gap is a really nice little narrow section. The easiest way to go is to just work up onto the ledge on the right hand side and go around it. This is a spot we like to stop for lunch and enjoy the cascade for a bit.

Just around the corner from this section is one of the more photographed but lesser known sections of the canyon. This section I do remember as a kid and I’ve always been fascinated by the flukes created here and once you’ve seen them you’ll recognize them in any picture where they are featured.

The next major point of interest is Jacob Hamlin Arch. You’ll know you are getting close when you can see up on the top of the north canyon wall a white mark in the shape of a letter U.

When the arch is in sight, if you look to your right you should see a trail up to a second outhouse. There is also a way to work your way up the canyon wall and out to a cross-country trail that will take you to the trailhead parking about half way out the 40 Mile Ridge Road. This is the same trailhead you would use to hike to Sunset Arch. There is also a big water tank on top of the hill where the trailhead parking is located.

A few years ago I hiked out from that trailhead to the rim overlooking Jacob Hamlin Arch. If you decide to hike out to Jacob Hamlin Arch from that same trailhead, you can find your way to the right section of the rim by aiming for that same U shaped mark on the opposite rim.

After doing that day hike I decided when coming up Coyote Gulch it would be more desirable to spend an extra day and go out to the Willow Tank trailhead instead. Plus I didn’t think climbing up the canyon wall with a full pack would be the safest way to go without some kind of safety rope.

The area around Jacob Hamlin Arch is another good area for camping. Besides having the outhouse, there some nice seeps on the north side of the canyon. In fact, even when I plan on staying at the confluence of Coyote Gulch and Hurricane Wash I like to take advantage of a clear water source and fill up here.

From Jacob Hamlin Arch to the confluence is more of the classic meandering stream and high canyon walls. I’ve heard there are pictographs and other features along this section, but I’ve never been able to find them.

The confluence of Coyote Gulch and Hurricane Wash isn’t as obvious as you might think. When the canyon takes a right-hand turn and you see a small stream coming in on the left, that’s Hurricane Wash.

There are some really nice camping areas on the right hand side of Coyote Gulch and the confluence with Hurricane Wash. One year this area was already taken so we just walked upstream along Coyote Gulch and found another excellent spot to camp.

You can go all the way out Coyote Gulch to a trailhead called Red Well. I prefer the hike out Hurricane Wash as it goes dry within a couple of miles of Coyote Gulch and I really love the changing scenery from Coyote Gulch to Willow Tank.

One year I hiked a few miles up Coyote Gulch towards Red Well to see how it looked and decided I still like the Hurricane Wash exit in comparison.

If you go out Hurricane Wash be sure to fill up with all the water you’ll need for an eight mile hike out to Willow Tank. Hurricane Wash tends to dry up pretty quickly and there is typically no water until you reach your shuttle vehicle at Willow Tank.

There is one place along Hurricane Wash where the streambed seems to split and you can go either left or right. I’ve found bearing right is the better route and will keep you in the correct wash to reach Willow Tank.

On one trip out, I met a hiker who had come in from the Sunset Arch trailhead and was going into Hurricane Wash on her way to Coyote Gulch. So I suspect that you may find yourself off-course if you bear too far to the left (south.) Just keep in mind that you should be heading generally west directly towards 50 Mile Mountain.

In this area the walls have started to come down and the wash widens out, There is an interesting section that narrows down quite a bit, but the walls aren’t very high compared to Coyote Gulch. Then just as fast as the narrow section appears, it spreads out again. You start to think you’re almost there, but you’re really not.

It isn’t until the wash really opens up for good and you start seeing the evidence of a lot of cattle activity in the area.

When you reach the Hiker's Maze and the sign-in kiosk you will be within a mile or so of the Willow Tank trail head.

50 Mile Mountain in the background.

Once you arrive at Willow Tank then it's time to run the shuttle back along 40 Mile Ridge to the Crack-in-the-Wall trail head.

Once your shuttle is completed and if you have some extra time, there are some excellent detours along the Hole-in-the-Rock road or out on 40 Mile Ridge. You can hike out to Sunset Arch from the trailhead mentioned before. A very popular day hike is to Spooky and Peek-a-Boo slot canyons just off of the Dry Fork of the Coyote road. A brief exploration of Devil’s Garden is also interesting, especially if you are there around sunrise or sunset. The most popular hike in the monument is to Calf Creek Falls.

More on these areas in a future blog posts. Keep in mind these trip reports are informational only and are not to be relied on as accurate. Canyon country and can change dramatically and everyone should always use their best judgement in the outdoors.

Additional Photos:

Above: Near the Overhang Camp

                         Jacob Hamlin Arch

Lowering the packs down at Crack in the Wall.

Downstream in Coyote Gulch, near the confluence with the Escalante River.

Looking at the Overhang Camp from the Outhouse.

                     Another look at the Crack in the Wall.

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