Glen Canyon Adventure Guide

An exclusive guide to five hikes that have been under water for 40 years
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An exclusive guide to five hikes that have been under water for 40 years

1Escalante River

Barefoot Hiking At Its Best

During the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, Wallace Stegner wrote to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy suggesting a dam be built at the mouth of the Escalante River to keep its wonders from being submerged. Stegner's dam never happened, but dropping reservoir levels have exposed almost 7 miles of river bottom at the mouth of this Colorado River tributary, allowing hikers to rediscover alcoves and side canyons that have been underwater for 40 years.

This hike drops into the Escalante just downstream of Stevens Arch, a stunning photo op and the world's seventh-largest natural arch. The lush canyon is a half-mile wide in places, with stained walls of Navajo sandstone that rise 600 feet over the ankle-deep brown water. Springs and shady campsites are plentiful, especially between Coyote and Cow Canyons, as are opportunities for exploring the serpentine slots that open to either side. Shoes are an insult; the sandy floor and even the last muddy mile to the reservoir are perfect for barefoot wading.

The Way Follow Hole-in-the-Rock Road to Fortymile Ridge Road, which dead-ends at Fortymile Ridge trailhead. Head east across the slickrock to Crack In The Rock, a 3rd class descent to the Escalante. Allow 4 to 5 hours one way.

2Explorer Canyon

A Red Rock Museum

Archaeologists believe that Fremont people inhabited this region from 400 a.d. to 1350 a.d., living a seminomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle that may have ended with the coming of a decades-long drought like the one some scientists think is underway now. The short hike into Explorer Canyon is a tantalizing window into their mysterious world; it leads past three sets of rock carvings--or petroglyphs--that depict human forms in a variety of poses. Between the first two petroglyph panels, keep an eye out for Zane Grey Arch in a small box canyon to the north. This canyon leads to the last carvings and an insurmountable pour-off. Several springs that feed the creek begin here. Below, there's good camping amid oak trees, a surprising find whose shade takes the sting out of the desert's swelter. There's also good scrambling over various domes and slickrock faces, and huge alcoves to curl up under with a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang.

The Way Explorer is 12 miles up the Escalante from Lake Powell by boat or kayak. Tie up where you beach, then walk upstream, crossing small waterfalls and .5 mile of resurfaced canyon. At the high-water mark, take the faint trail on the north side of the canyon. Allow 3 to 4 hours for the 4-mile round-trip.

1Willow Creek

Playing The Slots

This twisting tributary offers some of the best canyoneering in the region and the finest example of natural restoration in a newly exposed canyon. If you approach by boat from Lake Powell, you can explore Bishop Creek, where flash floods have already scoured silt from a mile-long stretch of sandstone. On a clear afternoon, sunlight creates dazzling reflections in the creek and pools.

Back in Willow Creek, walk upstream through quicksand (it's safe) to a mile of resurfaced canyon streaked with desert varnish. The walls close in then, and several undercuts form tunnel-like passages. At Fortymile Gulch, gardens of fern, monkeyflower, and moss hang from the walls, dripping into hip-deep pools. The narrowest stretch is only 6 feet wide; you'll need to stem (see photo) and swim. Small waterfalls add music to these tight chambers, but there may be too much grunting and laughter to hear it.

The Way By boat, follow the Escalante 9 miles from Lake Powell to Willow Creek. Very quickly, Bishop Creek will open to the north. Allow 3 hours to explore Bishop and 4 hours to visit the Willow narrows. By foot, drive south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road 44 miles to Carcass Wash. Walk downstream in the wash to Fortymile Gulch Narrows and then Willow Creek (about 2 hours).

4Davis Gulch

A Walk Among Ghosts

On November 12, 1934, a brilliant but enigmatic writer and painter named Everett Ruess left the village of Escalante to explore ancient cliff dwellings along the Escalante River. He was never heard from again. This hike visits his last known camp, a corral in the lower reaches of Davis Gulch that was discovered in 1935 along with the mysterious signature "Nemo" on nearby walls. But these aren't the only sights to see. From the reservoir, the route passes La Gorce Arch into a quiet canyon whose towering walls hem in a lush environment apparently favored by pre-Columbian Native Americans. Prior to the dam, ruins and intricate pictographs were found here in abundance. Farther along this 1.5-mile stretch of virgin canyon lie live cottonwood trees that apparently fell when the receding reservoir eroded their sandy foundations. Just beyond the high-water mark, a trail on the north side of the canyon leads to 3,000-year-old petroglyphs.

The Way By boat, follow the Escalante 5.5 miles from Lake Powell. Allow 3 hours for the 2.5-mile round-trip to the corral. By foot, drive 50 miles south on Hole-in-the-Rock Road to a turnoff just north of where the gulch crosses the road. Use GPS to follow Davis Gulch Stock Trail 3.5 miles before descending.

5Cha Canyon

High Desert Sampler

Offering everything from dayhiking, swimming, and scrambling to multiday backpacking, Cha is a multisport wonderland. There's the quarter-mile of resurfaced canyon where you'll cross beds of red clay that mark the Chinle Formation. Farther up, you may spot petroglyphs on boulders of Wingate Sandstone that have tumbled from the cliffs; if you're lucky, you'll see wild horses. In the narrows, the canyon gets even more spectacular, with overhanging waterfalls and pools that reflect the rock's almost-artificial colors.

Cha's most tantalizing option, though, may be the access it provides to 10,388-foot Navajo Mountain. Six miles from the lake, past giant boulders you must climb over and around, is a junction with the North Rainbow Bridge Trail, which begins a 3- to 4-day circumnavigation of the sacred peak (call 928-871-6647 for the required permit). Hiking across slickrock at roughly 5,000 feet, you'll pass great fins of sandstone and the heads of at least five major canyons before coming to Rainbow Bridge.

The Way Cha is 11 miles up the San Juan from Lake Powell. From your boat, head up the wash, taking the west fork in 1 mile. After 5 miles of fun canyon scrambling, take a path on the west side of the creek to North Rainbow Bridge Trail.