March of 2013 was an excellent time to backpack in the Grand Staircase area in the Hole-in-the Rock (HITR) region. We planned two backpacking trips and a day hike for the week.
On Monday afternoon after picking up lunch at the Subway in Escalante, we headed out the HITR road to Egypt Bench. The trail head is approximately 10 miles due east off the HITR with the last short stretch pretty challenging if your vehicle doesn’t have high clearance. In fact we saw a few vehicles parked at the beginning of this last stretch I assume to hike to Egypt Bench from there or to access some of the technical slots nearby.
In the early afternoon after getting our backpacks ready and eating lunch we headed off of Egypt Bench towards Fence Canyon. The first section is quite steep and even has places where the pack guides of the past cut grooves in the sandstone to make it easier for the pack animals to make the decent and accent.
To access Fence Canyon after coming off the steep bench it’s important to head northeast so that you end up in-between the two canyons that eventually make up Fence Canyon.
The biggest challenge we found was that there are multiple ways to come off the rim of the canyon and really no clear trail and cairns marking multiple ways down. So we picked our way down the south side of the point that separates the two canyons, but making sure way stayed off the floor of the south canyon until we were at the confluence of the two canyons that make up Fence. At this point the trail is very obvious.
It was still early in the year so there was still ice on the streams and some snow patches still left to cross occasionally.
Not far from the confluence of the two small canyons that make up Fence Canyon we reached the Escalante River. There is great camping on the south side of the stream as well as a high bench on the north side of the Fence Canyon stream right before it reaches the Escalante.
We decided to set up our camp on the south side of Fence Canyon about 100 feet from the Escalante River.
We were surprised that the river was running high. The two weeks before our arrival there had been some good storms that rolled through the southern half of the state and it looked like the snow that was left behind was melting and running off earlier than usual.
I was planning on coming back in May to attempt a kayaking trip from either Calf Creek or Fence Canyon to Coyote Gulch. This was the main reason for doing this hike was to see if it would be a viable put-in for a kayak trip if there was a concern about the upper half of the trip not having enough water to float.
Well, judging by the amount of water in the river now, it would have been possible to run it at this time in early March. But that wasn’t what we prepared for, so we dropped our packs and headed about a mile downstream to Neon Canyon.
The second reason for trip was to explore Neon Canyon and see the Golden Cathedral.
With the river running high it was an interesting experience to find decent river crossings. With the way the river winds through the canyon we had to make approximately 5 crossings to reach Neon Canyon.
We didn’t pick our second crossing very well and ended up in a pretty deep section of river that was a bit more challenging to cross as there were no shallow sections to choose from. But by standing on some submerged tamarisk we were able to make the crossing by probing with our walking sticks and getting wet about half way up our thighs.
On the way back we found a much better crossing further upstream. So if the water level is high, once you reach the first left turn (east) in the river after Fence stay on the right hand side of the river, but stay close to the river and follow it until just before the river turns right (south). Then cut across to the place where the river starts to turn right again (west) and that is the best place to cross in high water.
It was late in the afternoon as we heading down the river so we were aware that we wouldn’t be able to spend a long time in search of the Golden Cathedral, but we also enjoyed the afternoon light along the Escalante River.
At the mouth of Neon Canyon there is a really nice area to camp in case your plans would be to take the slot canyon route and rappel down into the Golden Cathedral, or if you were floating down from Calf Creek the camp isn’t far from the river bank.
The walk up Neon Canyon was very nice and the Golden Cathedral is spectacular. I suspect the pool below the double bridge is always changing and can be quite different depending on the amount of water flowing through the canyon each year.
Working our way back to camp was much easier since we were able to spot better river crossings and surprised to discover the very best route right before Fence Canyon is actually against the sandstone wall on the west side of the river. Being a whitewater rafter it’s usually the opposite. The deep water is usually along the outside edge of the river, especially in the curves.
We set up camp on the south side where we set down our packs earlier and by the time we had returned we had company on the north side up on the high bank on the opposite side of the stream. But the privacy is still pretty good, but I would expect that after two groups it would get a lot harder to avoid one another.
In the morning the temperatures were low and the water bucket used for filtering was iced over. I use this bucket to settle water prior to filtering to avoid having paper filters clog too quickly or having to clean the ceramic filter of my Katadyn Pocket too frequently.
I liked this south side camp this time of year because the sun hit our camp pretty early and it was helpful in warming us up as well as drying our gear off from the evening dew.
The hike out was a lot of uphill and I was glad we got a pretty early start because it did warm up quite a bit and the sun in the morning shines right down on the trail the whole way to the vehicles.
It was still a challenge to find a good defined trail up and out of Fence Canyon. But once you’re up on the rim of Fence it really doesn’t matter where you hike as long as you work your way southwest towards the last climb out. Keeping in mind that it doesn’t really matter where you hike as long as you are on the slick rock mainly and not creating new trials unnecessarily, and of course never stepping on the “kypto” soil.
We met a large group of what looked like college aged people about ½ way up as they were heading in. I counted 24 people. Let’s hope it was two separate groups of 12 (the maximum number allowed) and it was just a coincidence they were all together. (I really doubt it.) Large groups can be really tough on the fragile desert and when I see a disregard for the regulations I start to wonder how long it will be before we have to deal with a permit system that doesn’t allow for a spontaneous trip into the region.