What: off-trail loop hike in southern Utah.
Where: Waterpocket Fold and Pollywog Bench, Glen Canyon N.R.A.
When: April 21 to April 29, 2023 (8 walking days).
Distance: about 82 miles.
Highlights: vast areas of fabulous slickrock, isolated and quiet, fine weather.
Canyoneering 3, Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante, by Steve Allen, is an excellent hiking guide for the region and includes detailed descriptions of hikes for backpackers at all skill levels. Some information in this book was helpful for this trip.
Via personal communications, Harvey Halpern generously provided us with notes about a few sites in the area he had previously visited.
There are two National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps that cover the entire region. They offer a useful overview, but are not as detailed as the 1:24,000 USGS maps.
- Canyons of the Escalante, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (map 710)
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (map 213)
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Grand Canyon Trust have worked for decades to defend Utah’s redrock wilderness.
As for all our trips, we used our favorite mapping tools: Google Earth and CalTopo.com to prepare gpx data and printed maps, and Gaia GPS while hiking. For this route in particular, Google Earth and CalTopo were critically important tools used to plan a primary route and numerous possible alternates.
https://lakepowell.water-data.com/ has water level data for Lake Powell.
Why we went
The red rock canyons of the Colorado Plateau are one of our favorite places to go hiking, and it had been two years since our last trip. We have taken numerous walks along the Escalante River and most of its side canyons, but there was one large region we had not yet explored: the southern Waterpocket Fold and Pollywog Bench section just north of Lake Powell. The reservoir’s water level was at an historic low, opening large areas that had previously been under water. This meant that access to the Fold would be more direct than when it is blocked by Powell’s waters.
It had been a wetter than average winter and early spring in southern Utah, meaning that the normally extremely dry expanses of slickrock (nicknamed the Drypocket Fold by Steve Allen and Harvey Halpern), would likely have accessible surface water. That would reduce the need to carry large quantities of water, making travel easier for aging backpackers.
Fortuitously, our nephew found himself with some free time and could join us. He had joined us on two previous trips and we enjoy his company. His girlfriend was able to get some extra time off work, and she joined us as well.
This was my twentieth backpacking trip in southern Utah red rock canyons. I keep going back because the scenery is breathtaking. On this trip, the walking was relatively easy, with no thrashing or wet feet. The scenery was stellar, and we were surrounded by slickrock bumps and weirdness every day. The route-finding was tricky, and I appreciate Jim’s skill and patience. We had five-star campsites every night. The weather was perfect. The company was fun. There was plenty of water in all potholes. We had no injuries or illness. All in all, it was a perfect trip.
I greatly enjoyed this trip. The region has the largest and some of the finest stretches of slickrock walking that I have ever experienced. Navigation and route finding, while requiring constant attention, was great fun and a intriguing puzzle to be solved. The weather proved very cooperative, and more importantly, water sources were easy to find. When the trip began, few flowers were in bloom, but by the end of the walk, colorful blossoms were scattered wherever there was soil and this added greatly to the pleasures of the walk.
We took our first trip in the Escalante area in 1984 and over the years, the region has understandably grown much more popular with other backpackers. It was truly refreshing to take a trip that had the total solitude we had experienced on our earlier trips.
The great snow-covered Navajo Mountain was a prominent landmark throughout the trip, as was the long line of the Straight Cliffs. The Henry Mountains also had snow and viewing them brought back memory’s of when Amy and I had crossed though them on our Across Utah walk.
Notes for Potential Hikers
We strongly recommend that only people with significant canyon-country experience attempt to visit this remote region. As in previous posts, we repeat what Steve Allen said in one of his books: “If you have any doubts about your qualifications to do any of the routes, they are not for you. Those with enough miles under their feet and days under the rim know who they are.” Backpackers who do not have expertise in this region will find hikes suitable for a wide variety of skill levels described in Allen’s Canyoneering 3, Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante.
The track on our CalTopo map has been reduced in resolution to one track point per half-mile, thus it is not intended for navigational purposes. Publishing a detailed route map might lead others to rely on it to duplicate this trip. Travel in this area requires extreme micro navigation and route finding that no map can support. This terrain is very different from many other places and route-finding expertise in other regions may be irrelevant. In many places, there may be only a single obscure route that allows safe travel and there is currently no detailed written source of information on those passages. If you decide to go, you will need to have appropriate navigation and route-finding skills, and should not rely on our map to ensure a safe and usable route. You should be able to reverse your trip at any point if you are unable to safely proceed onward.
The map does not include several day hikes taken from various campsites.
Prior to this trip we researched and prepared our route map with an intended track plus numerous possible alternates. We used USGS topographic maps and Google Earth satellite imagery as source material. In the field, these maps proved to be generally useful, but as was expected, realities on the ground required constant adjustments to where we actually went.
We parked alongside the Notom-Bullfrog Road at the entrance to a currently closed dirt road leading to a GCNRA campsite. Once past the campsite, all travel was cross-country: there are no established trails or old roads on this route.
We first walked across the dry Bullfrog Bay, over the south end of Hall Mesa, and across the dry Halls Creek Bay. We then climbed the east slope of the Waterpocket Fold and walked across the Navajo slickrock domeland to the entrance into Rose Canyon. We explored portions of this canyon, including, in order to skirt some impassible pour-offs, repeatedly entering and exiting the canyon and traversing above its rim.
Leaving Rose, we headed toward Cow Canyon. Amy and James had explored this canyon on a trip in 2009, entering it from the Escalante River. There is no easy access to Cow Canyon from the rim. After heading Cow Canyon, we dropped into and crossed upper Fence Canyon and then walked south to the rim of Bowns Canyon. We located the horse step entrance route mentioned in Allen’s book, but decided that the long unprotectable descent was too risky for us.
We headed Bowns Canyon, found the east side entrance, and descended into the canyon. We spent the rest of the day exploring portions of Bowns. Next, we traversed from Bowns Canyon to Long Canyon on Wingate terraces and Kayenta slopes. A large pour-off prevents access into upper Long Canyon directly from the Colorado River.
The following morning, we day-hiked to the north end of Long Canyon. After lunch, we exited the canyon via Allen’s convoluted east side access route. On Halpern’s recommendation, our next stop was Kane, 5388’, where we had unobstructed and fabulous views of the entire region. After descending Kane, we walked south, first through easy terrain, and then via an extremely convoluted route across gorgeous domes and slots, culminating in the utterly grand walk down The Slope toward Lake Powell. Prior to reaching the Lake, we turned north and worked our way through an intricate region of bumps and weirdness. From there, we continued north for a day and a half back to the car, again crossing several miles of formerly lake-drowned terrain. We were able to cross two creeks with very deep muck banks using makeshift log bridges.
This trip had more extensive slickrock than any of our 16 prior southern Utah backpacking trips. Travel across the sandstone is a series of constant ups and downs over the old, petrified aeolian dunes. Most of the walking was on beautiful solid stone with little or no loose gravel or other hazards. The slickrock terrain ranges from level to vertical, and the slope often changes subtly and gradually; therefore careful route finding is required to connect one safely walkable friction slab to the next. We elected to use a rope once to lower packs and belay the group down a short vertical wall.
We had only a few miles of unconsolidated slopes with loose rock and no significant boulder fields to traverse. We never got our feet wet, and experienced only trivial amounts of vegetative obstacles. Overall, the walking was technically easier than on many of our other southern Utah hikes. However, unlike those trips where much of the travel was in canyons where navigation is relatively simple, finding a viable and safe route across the vast undulating open slickrock domelands required constant attention and sometimes extensive exploration. On several occasions, the only safe option was to retreat and try a different approach.
We did not encounter any Russian Olive and there was surprisingly little Tamarisk in the canyons. The former lake bottom-lands were heavily vegetated in places, but these areas could be easily bypassed and almost no thrashing was required to travel across them.
Except for the area near the car, there was no evidence of active cow grazing. The canyons we visited appear to have been cow free for decades, with lush grass, clean water, and stable creek banks. We found active beaver dams and a lodge in Bowns canyon.
We saw no other people on the entire trip and only a few sets of old footprints. We found no old fire rings.
The lake’s water level was 3525′ where we did the trip. Lake levels of 3600′ would require walking further north to bypass the water. Much higher levels would likely make it extremely difficult to access our route from the parking location we used. Lake levels can change rapidly during the spring and early summer when runoff levels are high.
Except in the canyon bottoms or at a few accessible points on Lake Powell, finding water on this route is not reliable except after recent rains. One month prior to our trip the region received about two inches of rain in a four-day storm, and that replenished all of the potholes; the medium and large potholes still held water. We also had 0.25” of rain on our third day, and that replenished some of the small potholes. Our water sources were at most a half day apart and while some of potholes were quite large, most were medium to small. By the end of the trip, many of the smaller potholes were drying out or were already empty.
If the weather has been dry, plan on carrying a lot of water and be certain of where your next source will be.
We had fabulous weather. Daytime temperatures were mostly pleasant, with only part of one day noticeably warm. Evening and nighttime temperatures were cool. The days were calm except for the expected springtime gusty evening winds. We had very light rain early one evening just as we were setting up tents and more light rain later that night, otherwise the weather was dry.
We observed about 40 species of birds, a count similar to previous trips. The number of individuals was much lower than expected; for instance, we found only three Canyon Wrens. Highlights included Chukar, a Mountain Bluebird, and a Townsend’s Solitaire.
We found cat tracks in Long Canyon which we believe were made by a young mountain lion.
We found one area with beautiful mortars, a basalt pestle, and numerous chert flakes, including one possible scraper. We did not find any rock art.
What absolutely gorgeous country! My most memorable hikes have all been in SE Utah. I’m so glad to see you leading the next generation into the canyon lands.
Thanks for the many great pics and trip description. I’m curious about the apparent steps carved into the sandstone slope, and the broken boulders with patterns in the rock. I’ll never get there, so now I have a way to appreciate it!
The steps carved into the sandstone slope are what Steve Allen calls the Horse Ladder into Bowns Canyon, on “an unbelievably spectacular sheet of steep slickrock”. Page 221 of Canyoneering 3. It was steeper and more exposed than we liked, and we didn’t descend. The photo is taken from the bottom after we had entered Bowns Canyon from a different access point. The mortars in a floral pattern are up for debate. Amy thinks they were deliberately carved into artistic patterns. James thinks they were functional mortars. Although standard mortars for grinding corn are fairly common in the region, neither of us has seen anything like this arrangement of mortars before.
If you have any doubts about your qualifications to do any of the routes, they are not for you – truer words are rarely spoken! Great trip, cool area, thanks for posting! 👍
Wonder-full photos and trip description. Thanks for sharing!
Wonderful. It’s great to read about this trip and the navigation challenges. Bravo