It’s a sunburned September day in southeast Utah, and I’m following 10 parched hikers through a jumble of burnished boulders and sparsely spaced cottonwood trees on the floor of a sinuous canyon called Grand Gulch. Amber-tinted sunbeams filter into the 700-foot-deep chasm and light up our lanky, long-haired, bird-legged backpacking guide, Vaughn Hadenfeldt. He’s hunting for potable water, but the only pools we’ve found so far are a speckled latte brown. “A flash flood ripped through here two weeks ago,” he tells us, “and these pools still aren’t settled. If we don’t find one that is, we’ll be pickin’ grit out of our teeth all night.”
Flash floods tear through this spot a couple of times a year here in Grand Gulch Primitive Area, a 37,580-acre maze of protected canyons 30 crow miles from Bluff, Utah. Most hikers enter the 52-mile Gulch from the top of the canyon, via a handful of trailheads off UT 261, but our group of three women and eight men, a mix of lawyers, medicos, a retired sociology professor, and an environmental engineer, started walking at the mouth of Grand Gulch. This is the farthest point from those trailheads and the least visited section. Our crew was just halfway through a journey that would rank as my favorite in years of exploring empty corners of the Southwest.
We got to the mouth via a five-day, 65-mile raft trip down the lazy San Juan River, a journey worth doing in its own right. This morning, we beached our rafts (river guides would take the boats downstream and out) and hoisted our packs to follow Vaughn, who owns a guide company called Far Out Expeditions. Over the next five days, we’d hike north 40 miles to Collins Canyon through the Gulch’s winding chasms, where at almost every turn lie the homes, tools, and art of the ancient Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans, as scientists now call them. This canyon is thought to be the most densely populated area in the pre-European United States. Like the majority of my hiking partners, I’m here because I’ve become an archaeology junkie. After three decades of scaling Himalayan peaks, I’ve traded frozen summits for canyon secrets. And I’ve quickly learned that–when it comes to timeworn red-rock terrain filled with ancient petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and artifacts–Grand Gulch is the Southwest’s Everest.
Vaughn predicted we’d find good water in Shangri-La Canyon, and 20 minutes later, we catch up to him pumping clear liquid out of a natural cistern into a nylon bladder. The spring isn’t on maps, and it’d be easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look. We gather around the waterhole and guzzle long, cool, slaking gulps. Vaughn smiles. He doesn’t carry maps, yet every nook of the Gulch is imprinted on his mind like waypoints in a GPS.
A thunderhead rumbles as we begin setting up camp on a level bench a half-mile upstream from the waterhole. Though the storm cell whips up dust devils that spin through a posse of hoodoos on the canyon rim, we get only a tiny spray of cold raindrops, as if from a squirt gun. Even so, we make our camp high: The trees in the streambed wear necklaces of brush around their trunks, signs of the recent flash flood (we’d arrived just after monsoon season). I ask Hadenfeldt if he ever has mixed feelings about taking clients to these occasionally dangerous and always remote and fragile locations.
“I’ve seen these canyons flood in minutes flat, but I always watch the weather and only do trips when conditions are good,” he says, “and I’m not worried about leaving a few boot prints. I enforce strong ethics. No one grabs even a twig as a souvenir. No campfires. We pack out toilet paper. I worry more that if young people stop going to places like this, there’ll be no appreciation for wild lands and their history and no next generation to protect them.” Our conversation ends before he can elaborate, when the thunderhead passes and a rainbow forms across the canyon. Everyone gazes in silence, rapt in one of those ah-ha moments when you know with absolute certainty that you are in the right place at exactly the right time.