The Gulch is perhaps one of the more prominent tributaries of the Escalante River between Boulder, Utah and Capitol Reef National Park. It is one of the few that generally has a permanent flow. I say generally because in this land of uncertainty one cannot say that open water exists with any sort of permanence. If I were a betting man, I would say that the stream will still have flow in it in July of this year given our above-average snowfall and the amount of snow on the higher elevations of Boulder Mountain and the Aquarius Plateau – the upper reaches of the Grand Staircase.
The Gulch trailhead is about ten miles from Boulder, Utah off the Burr Trail. I cannot judge how much recreational use The Gulch gets since I have only been there twice in the offseason, but my guess would be not very much. The register at the trailhead recorded only two other overnight groups in the canyon in the last month. There is quite a bit of ranching activity that goes on and the The Gulch is entirely free range – the upper canyon above the narrows has two line shacks and grazing activity is fairly intense.
Human activity in this canyon – like all the canyons of the Escalante – is not recent at all. There are a few examples of rock art in the canyon; evidence that ancient hunters were active here. The one example I have shows a few amateurish looking animals – a ram and a deer perhaps – and I like to think that this was a sort of early highway sign not all that different from a modern ‘sheep crossing’ sign. It was a way of telling others or reminding oneself that this was where the animals were. We camped quite near this bit of prosaic rock art and there are also several bits of what appears to be shaved rock under the cliff among the basalt boulders. One can easily picture the ancients honing their knives and drying their kills in the cave just around the corner from where we camped. I need to return to this idea in another post because it is part of a larger issue about these canyons I find so intriguing – the sense that the places we walk now are not new, but also that to those older people this was their world, this maze of canyons with its intermittent water and brutal seasonal variations. Their knowledge of this place was written in uncertain pictographs. Their names for these places and their knowledge of them passed from mouth to ear and disappeared into vapor as fleeting as the clouds that infrequently gather over these redrock canyons.
I spent a short weekend exploring The Gulch by myself back in November and made it as far as its famous narrows. This was my first experience in the canyons of Southern Utah. All of my previous canyon skill was done in Southwestern Colorado. I had had the goal at that point of making it all the way to the confluence of the Escalante river. This was not to be, however, since the narrows presented a roadblock and I did not feel comfortable ascending and descending the western bench.
I returned to The Gulch on April 1 with my new intrepid hiking buddy Mike. He seems to tolerate my adventure craziness extremely well. Although, I have yet to stick my car in the mud as I did at the Dolores River Canyon in Colorado ages ago with my most trusted (possibly because of that particular experience) outdoor buddy Matt. We’ll see if Mike keeps in touch when my exuberant stupidity makes an adventure out of an adventure.
This time, with a dependable hiking companion, I reckoned we would have a fairly easy time doing the thirteen mile trek downstream to the Escalante. After a day’s hiking we set up camp in mid-canyon just above the narrows. I had previously camped in this same spot, and as I mentioned above, it evidently has been used for aeons as a location to rest. The soft red sand and the shelter of a couple of juniper trees nestled close up under the cliff made it a very inviting place to pitch a tent. It is also well back from the stream and showed no evidence of being touched by flooding. Water does have the potential to pour off the cliff above, but this would have been highly unlikely. And if such an event did occur, we might as well abandon the tent and construct some sort of ark-like craft and start rescuing two of each desert creature.
I decided to explore the narrows and the bench while Mike rested – it seems someone decided to celebrate an early spring with a few gin cocktails the night before and our 6am departure from Salt Lake City and a 7 mile hike downcaynon made a nap an necessity. This time, just above the narrows, I located the cairns that mark the route up onto the bench. It was a short scramble up and I was immediately rewarded with a stunning 360° view: to the immediate west some higher white Navajo sandstone mesas, to the north snowcapped Boulder Mountain in the Dixie National Forest, to the East the rolling red knobs of Wingate Sandstone continuing to Waterpocket Fold, and to the south the high vermillion cliffs of Glen Canyon and the very top of Navajo Mountain.
On my way up to the bench I noticed a small drainage with some basalt boulders and two mushroom-like structures I thought at first were some sort of human construction. “What is that?” I kept asking myself as I crawled the shear sandstone to the low point in the drainage. The structures were so odd in this deconstructed environment. They looked completely artificial. Of course, they are completely natural. They were basalt boulders balanced on the underlying sandstone which had been eroded from beneath them. They stood above the herd of basalt boulders as if they were leading them, or keeping watch over them.
As I worked my way across the bench – being extremely careful not to disturb the cryptobiotic crust – I was rewarded with some views above the small sand dunes that have formed on the bench. Winter still clings to the landscape and most of the flora have not yet produced their summer foliage. The exceptions are, of course, the evergreens. I also picked out a couple of salt bushes whose bluegreen color always attracts my eye.
After making my way back to camp we had a rather uneventful evening and were quick to bed once the sun went down. We decided to leave our camp where it was and hike out and back to the Escalante the next day. We were still about five to six miles above the river, so this would make for a long day hike.
We hiked down to the narrows and observed striking evidence of the flash flood activity of summers past. The debris becomes caught on the trees and rocks and there were several large logs wedged across the canyon – this is a very typical sight in a narrow slot canyon. We live in an age of very modest moisture in this region and I can only imagine what this canyon would have looked like when the glaciers were receding from the mountains to the north.
Our hike over the bench, around the narrows, and back down into the canyon was uneventful. It was interesting that on the intermediate bench just above the stream below there narrows there is a defined hiking trail. There are cattle paths throughout the canyon, but this was a defined human trail.
As we descended the lower canyon, I started to notice that the cottonwoods had actually started to put out their leaves. This must be due to the slight change in elevation. The grass on the banks of the stream had also fully greened, whereas in the upper canyon it was still in the shoot. The slight change in elevation – just 500 feet – brings the new season faster in the lower canyon.
One impressive feature in the lower canyon is a massive cathedral-like alcove with an excellent echo factor. The mass of this piece of sandstone arc glowering over the stream with its blackened steaks of desert varnish was reward enough for hiking this far down the canyon. Both of us had to stand and shout at this massive wall just to hear the echo. I imagined what it would be like to put a symphony orchestra here – perhaps to play some piece of Mahler or better yet Shostakovich, Beethoven is way too obvious a choice.
We had to do a lot of wading in the lower canyon and the brush was a whole lot thicker. This is probably because there is no grazing beyond the narrows except for a few stray cattle who would be able to make it over the bench. The stream is deceptively shallow and there were some quite deep holes, but the weather was warm and the water was not too cold. Luckily, the tamarisk, willows and other leafy vegetation had not started to bloom at all and our passing was relatively simple with a few scrapes and scratches from thorny tumbleweeds
I knew we were getting close to the river, and I started to look for the three prominent side canyons that mark the bottom of The Gulch. I noted one of them, and knew we were at least close. After much bushwhacking we came around the final bend, wading in the red waters of The Gulch to find a definitive stripe of green water. The silt-laden red waters of The Gulch remain well defined against the green waters of the Escalante for some way downstream – the red and green mixing to cloud the clearer waters of the upstream Escalante. We spent a while wading in the Escalante. The river was much colder than The Gulch’s stream; this is not surprising since the river is much deeper. It was a bit cold for a full swim, but it was cool and refreshing after the hike. We also gathered a few liters of water here, since it was much less silted and better for drinking than the Gulch’s turbid waters.
In the afternoon, the wind kicked up quite a bit, but it remained generally clear with a few passing high clouds. It clouded over just at sunset as we returned to camp. The wind was so strong that it had coated the inside of the tent with red dust even with the rainfly on. Again, we went to bed once the sun had set. We decided to put the rainfly on the tent and both of us ended up suffocating in the heat. The sky had cleared again so we removed the rainfly. I spent the night tossing and turning and Mike awoke me quite late to say that he could see lightning to the north. He replaced the rainfly again. We got no rain overnight. We awoke to a gray sky and a slight rain made up of more dust than actual moisture. I walked down to the stream and immediately noticed that it had risen noticeably overnight. There had obviously been more significant rain somewhere. On our return hike in the upper canyon we had to do a lot more wading, but the sun quickly came out and the temperature rose to above 50°. It was surprising to notice how much more water there was in the stream in less than eight hours. It was nowhere near bankfull, but it was enough to make the endless crossings and recrossings of our upcanyon hike more difficult than it had been two days before.