Monday, November 16, 2015

Return to Cedar Mesa, Highway 95, Utah

About 2 miles south of the intersection of Highways 95 and 276 (the latter which goes south to the Bullfrog Marina) are four slot canyons known collectively as the Irish Canyons. They are, from north to south, Lucky Charms, Shillelagh, Blarney and Leprechaun. We set up camp just south of Leprechaun in a BLM area at the foot of another, but much more technical canyon, Sandthrax Canyon (sounds ominous, doesn't it?). One day of rain for us produces more snow on the Henry Mountains to our northwest. Beautiful, isn't it?
Blarney Canyon

Okay, Blarney is just a super fun canyon to explore - no blarney! We actually hike this canyon before we even know which one it was. We just see cars parked here all the time and decide to explore. Most people do the canyon top down - they are usually real climbers and they rappel down the drops which are waterfalls when water is running. These folks are called canyoneers. We do not consider ourselves canyoneers as we don't carry the gear - helmets, harness, carabiners, etc. and we don't rappel or do any of the other "technical" stuff. We do carry a rope, just in case we get stuck, but we've never used it. But this day, we become canyoneers. No rappelling, but we do have to do some stemming, or chimneying, to climb up and over chokestones. I know this doesn't look high, but some of the obstacles we have to climb up are over my head.

Me in the middle of chokestones!
This is a bit trickier. We have to crawl under the boulder right behind me, pop up in this small hole, then climb over the rest of the boulders. Going back down was even more fun.

It's about one mile to this dryfall with a rope hanging. Brad actually gets almost half way up, but we are just being silly as we have no intention of actually climbing this. It would be almost impossible anyway. This is what clues me into the fact the true canyoneers start at the top and come down the canyon.
No photo here, I just want to explain what constitutes a very bad day for me. Before we do Leprechaun Canyon, we decide to hike Butler Canyon just a couple of miles down the road. Now, remember I said how rainy it's been this summer and fall in Utah? Well these canyons are still a bit wet, which isn't too much of a problem as most creeks are only a few inches deep if they're running at all. As we start hiking up the canyon from the highway, fallen trees and debris carried downstream by flood waters block our path everywhere, and we have to scramble over and around them. As we get deeper into the canyon where the walls close in a bit and are forced to walk in the creek, which is flowing, we discover quicksand frequently. We're walking on solid sand one minute and in the next step our feet sink several inches. Quicksand can be common here because of the sand/clay mixture, and once it's saturated, it becomes quicksand. Twice, my foot is sucked in up to my laces and I get a soaker. After about one hour of inching our way around the quicksand and through the debris, the canyon still has not slotted up as we expected. We turn around and head back, realizing that this year is too wet to be exploring some of these canyons, especially this one.

After lunch back at the trailer, we decide not to waste the rest of this gorgeous day (not a cloud in the sky and about 50F or 10C), so we decide to hike Shillelagh Canyon. Remember my boots are wet inside, so I wear a pair of nice, expensive hiking shoes which I bought about 12 years ago for a trip to the UK with my sisters. I've hardly worn these shoes since. Well, Shillelagh isn't a pleasant bottom-up canyon stroll like Blarney. The bottom of this canyon has a series of dryfalls totalling about 100 feet high. We scale the slickrock (smoothed, sandstone rock) to the side and find what we think is an easy place to drop down into a slot canyon, which turns out to be another dryfall of about 50 feet. So we climb back up the steep slickrock and as we are, the top half of the rubber tread on the bottom of my right shoe rips half off! I cling to the rockface as I start sliding downwards a little. "Turn around and sit on your bum," Brad yells. I do manage to, but now I'm just pissed off. I tear off the rubber tread, but now I'm vulnerable. My shoe is very slippery even on the sandstone (which is like sandpaper), but I manage to make it back up the slope. I'm done. Today is not meant to be. But I still have to climb back down, and as we are doing this, the bottom half on the heel rips too. I yank it off, throw it in my backpack, and finish my climb down. Arrgghh! Get me to tomorrow!

But the moral of the story? A bad day hiking in Utah is still better than a good day at work!
Leprechaun Canyon

Looking into the Subway going up-canyon
Leprechaun Canyon is described as "the jewel of the Irish Canyons", so we're pretty excited to hike it (going up canyon again). Within a mile of hiking in the creek and pushing our way through willows, we come to the "Subway".

Me, the blue dot in the middle. Looking down-canyon.
Just beyond the subway, the canyon slots up forming a straight crack open to the sky above our heads of only about one foot wide. Unfortunately, on the ground, a deep, slippery clay bottom pool blocks our path. The water is ice cold and the temperature inside the canyon is probably just above freezing (we're actually wearing fleece jackets and gloves), so wading through barefoot is not an option. Again, the wet season has struck us down. But that's okay; it just means we have so much to look forward to next time.
Comb Wash and Comb Ridge

We move about 80 miles southeast on Highway 95 to a campsite in Comb Wash under Comb Ridge, which is one of three major monoclines in Utah, the other two being the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park and the Cockscomb near Kanab.

Comb Ridge spans about 100 miles from north to south, with deep cuts for the highway here and further south on Highway 163. The white dot in the valley (far left, half-way up the photo) is our trailer.
Mule Canyon and House on Fire

Cedar Mesa has numerous ancient Indian ruins. One of the most beautiful and popular is a granary known as House on Fire. At about 6,000 feet, Cedar Mesa is cold, and there IS snow on the ground and ice in the creek.

You can see how House on Fire gets its name. Okay, okay, I played with this one to really make it look like it's on fire!

A short one-mile hike in Mule Canyon takes us to this magnificent structure under the overhanging cliffs. The rock ceiling has eroded away in striped chunks, leaving the different coloured sandstone layers revealed.

The end of the overhang.

Besides the snow on the nearby Abajo (a-BAH-ho) Mountains, there is a dusting of snow on the ground on top of Cedar Mesa. Luckily, we are camped in the valley, but it's still very cold at night, down to 25F (-4C?), although thanks to the beautiful sun, daytime temps are around 55F (about 12C) which is very comfortable for hiking with such dry air. So our plan is to head to lower elevations, making our next stop in Page, Arizona to stock up on supplies (we haven't been near a Walmart in over 6 weeks!!!) before going to St. George, Utah where temps are about 20F warmer. It'll be like the tropics!

An aside ... We asked a maintenance guy at the Glen Canyon Rec Area at Bullfrog where they go for groceries, and he said Grand Junction, which is 3 hours away in Colorado! Six hours of driving to get groceries? Wow! We really are in the boonies!


  1. Hi there, I have been following your blog and I love reading about your adventures. My wife and two kids and I are just about to head south from Guelph to spend the next five months exploring the southern states in an RV. I'm just wondering, what is Utah and the areas you have recently explored like in February and March? We would love to explore that area but would like to stay away from snow.

    Thank you,

  2. Thanks Matt. It's nice to know the info is helpful. Many states here such as Utah, New Mexico, northern Arizona, and Nevada are cold in the winter. A great website to check average temps and precipitation is - choose the state a city. Of course, there will be variances from year to year. This fall has been unusually wet and is supposed to be cooler than normal in the southwest thanks to El Nino. That's why we start out in September or October to visit the States like Utah and New Mexico which we love so much but can't tolerate in an RV in the winter. We just keep heading further south as the temps drop.

    That said, in February this year (2015), we spent a gloriously warm week in Zion National Park. We watch the weather constantly, and if we see a warming trend, we'll drive the distance to take advantage. Elevation is a huge factor too. Zion and Bryce Canyon are at high elevation, so will get snow during the winter (in fact, Zion got snow the day we left in February), so you need to know what your elevation will be where you will be staying.

    There are still lots of great places to see in southern Arizona, Texas, and California, and by March things start to warm up.

    Good luck with your trip. I know you'll enjoy it immensely. Maybe we'll run into each other!

  3. Thank you very much for your detailed response, that is the kind of info I have been looking for. I will bookmark that weather link. We plan to come across from Florida to California throughout January, so that's when we'll be in southern NM and AZ. February is California, March will be up the west coast, and we're not sure yet about our return trip east in April.

    I guess that's another question for you, if you don't mind - any recommendations on a general passage from the west coast across the rockies, to get home? Originally we thought we'd follow the northern states, but are worried that in April it will be too cold, so now we're thinking of going roughly across the middle of the country. Any thoughts?

    Thanks, Matt

  4. Matt, we have only ever returned home on I-40 as we are traveling in February or March and try to stay South as long as possible. This brings us through Flagstaff, AZ (elevation 9,000 feet) and Albuquerque, NM. It's cold, but we haven't had a problem yet with that route. We always power drive it, and take 4 days to drive the distance, usually from around Lake Havasu City,AZ to home in southern Ontario. The last night, usually in Michigan, is the coldest, but we have a Pro-Com propane heater that we run instead of our furnace, and we leave the cupboards open where the plumbing is. Nothing has frozen on us yet. We also wait for a 4-day good weather window. This year we will be going home at the end of March instead of February which will hopefully make it easier. By April, this route should be good, but watch out in Oklahoma and the Midwest states as I think that's nearly tornado season. I have no experience crossing the Rockies in Colorado or Wyoming at that time of year. Hope this helps.

    1. This does help, thanks for your response.