Utah Hikes: The Case For Glen Canyon

Drought is giving Glen Canyon--and those who love it--a second chance. Here are four spectacular reasons why we should protect this Southwest wilderness by making it America's next national park.

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“Glen Canyon died in 1963, and I was partly responsible for its needless death. So were you. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else knew it well enough to insist that at all costs it should endure. When we began to find out it was too late.” –David Brower, The Place No One Knew

When the floodgates of Glen Canyon Dam closed more than four decades ago, environmentalists believed the nails had been forever pounded into the coffin of one of the largest wilderness areas in the Lower 48. Soon, the rising waters of Lake Powell would bury a 160,000-acre roadless landscape that included 200 miles of the Colorado River and more than 100 side canyons. But something curious has happened recently: A 6-year drought has half-emptied the reservoir, exposing countless miles of pristine hiking, climbing, and canyoneering terrain. Scientists say the dry times will almost certainly continue–and even if the rains return, increasing demand for water from Lake Mead and other reservoirs downstream might still make the condition permanent. Farewell, Lake Powell. Welcome back, Glen Canyon.

During several scouting expeditions last spring and summer, I explored the far reaches of this reborn wilderness, often with adventure photographer James Kay. We hiked in stretches of canyon where perhaps no human has been before. We crossed landscapes easily worthy of crown-jewel status, as awe-inspiring as those in nearby Zion or Grand Canyon. And we are happy to report Glen Canyon is alive and well. But don’t take our word for it. Go witness this miracle for yourself. Try one of our handpicked trips–or lay down your own first tracks. Then, help us prove David Brower wrong: It’s not too late to save Glen Canyon after all.

Twilight Canyon

A hands-on journey to the center of the earth

This canyon, it squeezes me. The fluted walls, now 3 feet apart and 400 feet tall, press in. Close and then closer. I pad my sandals over the white cobblestone floor, simultaneously exhilarated and intimidated by this intimate encounter with towering slickrock. Today, we’re exploring a place that 5 years ago was buried under more than 70 feet of lake water and 30 feet of sediment. Tomorrow and the next day, we will visit other recovered slots, all stubbornly alive and incredibly scenic.

Glen Canyon harbors dozens of labyrinthine narrows like this one, many still unnamed and uncharted. Each slot has its own personality, peculiar to the texture and angle of its walls and how the light plays between them. In Twilight, the light is yellow and descends in heavenly shafts; it swirls and dances and turns the tan walls orange and our pink skin violet. We stumble as we walk, eyes fixed on the narrow sliver of sky hundreds of feet above.

There is something irresistible about these slots that lures us up their ever-narrower passages. I imagine myself an ant in a sidewalk crack, so vulnerable yet always driven to a distant exit. My body learns new moves to get around obstacles. A deep pool or giant chockstone–I stem and crawl and wade and smear. Occasionally, we spot streaks of paint high above where jet-skiers were once wedged. It’s the only sign the lake was once here.

Like moths to a porch light, we venture up a side drainage that is deeper, narrower, and darker than Twilight’s main canyon. Lake water weeps out of the sandstone walls as if squeezed out of a sponge. The bonanza feeds lizards, bugs, birds, Day-Glo green algae, and numerous hanging fern gardens. I pause in a hip-deep, copper-colored pool, press my palms against the damp slickrock, and listen for a moment to the echoes of frogs and gurgling water. Here, in the belly of the Earth, I am blissfully at peace.

Getting There From UT 12 just east of Escalante, turn south onto Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Continue on the 4WD dirt road for about 50 miles to where it crosses Davis Wash. Park just past the wash.

The Route Allow 3 days for this out-and-back. From Davis Wash to the Twilight drop-in is a 9-mile traverse south along the east side of Fifty and Sixty Mile Points. (Sixty Mile is not named on USGS quads, but it’s the southern tip of the cliffs that continue south from Fifty Mile Point.) Wrap around Sixty Mile and continue northwest along its west side for 1.75 miles until you arrive at the elevation benchmark “4147 T” indicated on the USGS quad. The entry into Twilight is between this benchmark and the “T” in Twilight on the map. Hike around the northwest side and drop down toward the canyon, looking for a solitary 20-foot-tall juniper (UTM 12S 0502417E 4114034N). There’s good camping in this area. From the tree, walk south for about 220 yards along a series of narrow, vegetated ledges until the slickrock begins to fall away to the right. At a point 40 feet above the canyon floor where it becomes too steep to continue walking, look for a notch cut into the top of a rock by a climbing rope (UTM 12S 0502337E 4113719N). Bring two 60-foot ropes and a harness to descend the steep friction slab to the floor of the canyon. This is also your exit route; it’s easier to go up (a 5.2 climb) than down, but you may want to leave a rope in place to get up. Note: The only guaranteed water is at the lake, a few miles down Twilight Canyon. USGS quads: Davis Gulch, Nasja Mesa

Llewellyn Loop

A bold trek from canyon bliss into terra incognita

Splashing downstream in Llewellyn Gulch, we marvel at the bounty of late-spring blooms: evening primrose, prickly pear, globe mallow. Then something shiny and white glints in the afternoon sun. Wedged in the sandy bank, almost swallowed up by a green tangle of reeds, is a pool slide. Chances are, it once adorned the deck of a tricked-out houseboat that floated by 50 feet above where we are now padding through a few inches of water.

Like a tombstone marking a forgotten grave, the slide reminds us of what was–and that we have no idea what lies ahead. The reservoir buried 250 square miles of Glen Canyon long before guidebook authors or mapmakers or Desert Solitaire fans had a chance to explore it. Now that the lake has shrunk by more than 100 square miles, a slickrock and slot-canyon wilderness the size of Arches National Park has suddenly materialized. And all of it is terra incognita.

Before reaching this spot just below the reservoir’s old high-water mark, my hiking partners and I had spent a day and a half trekking down from the top of Llewellyn, following a remote route coveted by canyon junkies. Upper Llewellyn is certainly a jewel, with challenging scrambles over pour-offs, narrows 10 feet across and 50 feet deep, a crystalline perennial stream just deep enough to cover your feet, and a bottomless swimming hole that is better, even, than strawberry ice cream on a blistering day.

Beyond the known section, we pioneer our own loop, connecting drainages by hiking across once-submerged benches that, like Lower Llewellyn, are virtually unknown. We scout several miles downcanyon and find a ramp near the reservoir where we can scramble up onto sandstone ledges and traverse newly exposed benches about 30 feet above the lake. Tomorrow, we will complete the loop by climbing a staircase of steep slickrock, maneuvering around knife-slit gullies and ridges of rotten rock, and eventually following an old cattle trail that luckily–if anticlimactically–delivers us back to the car.

Getting There Same trailhead as Twilight

The Route To hike this 3-day, 18-mile, cross-country loop, walk south along the base of Fifty Mile Point about 2 miles, then scramble down the narrows of the south fork of Llewellyn Gulch. After 2 miles, you’ll reach the first spring (where the creek starts). There’s good camping in the next 3 miles. Just before the lake, scout the south wall of the canyon for a place to climb out (UTM 12S 0507778E 4120050N). Hike the benches above Llewellyn, then continue along the main Colorado River canyon for about 2 miles beneath high cliffs, until they end and you can climb up onto an expansive dome to camp. Complete the loop by hiking northwest up the large slickrock ramp behind camp (right under the word “Glen” on your USGS quad) to reach the top of the ridge between Cottonwood and Llewellyn Gulches (bottom of ramp: UTM 12S 0508872E 4116935N; top of ramp: UTM 12S 0508807E 4117330N). Continue northwest for about 7.5 miles to your car. USGS quads: Davis Gulch, Nasja Mesa

Smith Fork

An ecological orgy where the reservoir once ruled

My 8-year-old son, Austin, has had enough of Lake Powell: the boat-engine exhaust, the desert of open water, the lifeless shoreline of sizzling sand and rock. “Where are we going now?” he asks, skeptical about this hike my husband, Mike, and I have planned. He scans the barren slickrock and scowls…until I point to the glowing green corridor nestled 300 feet below in a twisting orange canyon.

We step into the drainage at the lake’s high-water mark. Upcanyon are sinuous narrows and a tunnellike inlet that harbors a shady swimming hole, but we head downcanyon to explore the resurrected 2-mile section of Smith Fork. We splash through a spring-fed stream that sparkles in the sunlight; young cottonwood and willow trees line the canyon between towering alcoves sheltering fine, cool sand. “I love this place,” Austin announces as he scoops up tadpoles.

Compared to the reservoir’s monotonous landscape, recovered canyons like Smith Fork are toy boxes of natural wonders. Before the dam, biologists counted 500 species of plants and animals in Glen Canyon, including 150 different birds. It was an oasis in the desert, an embarrassment of ecological diversity. And now it appears much of that life has returned, flocking like us to the ribbons of green.

We spend the day lazing about in this new Eden, watching the parade of life. Hummingbirds dive-bomb around our ears; a fat beaver slips into the stream; a bobcat bolts across a sandy terrace. We make toys out of willow twigs and lie flat on our backs watching the reflected light of “water music” shimmer on the overhang above us. In search of the perfect shady lunch spot, we step through a curtain of cattails and discover algae-slick sandstone chutes that tumble into green pools where dragonflies dance.

Eventually, our downstream ramble collides with the lake. But the stench of stagnant water, polluted sediment, and rotting fish stops us in our tracks. We turn around and follow Austin back to the land of the living.

Getting There From UT 95, drive south on UT 276 toward Bullfrog Marina. Turn left (east) at Milepost 32 onto an unsigned dirt road. In 1 mile, go left at a fork, cross a dry wash, and continue east on a 4WD road for 1.9 miles to a T west of Danish Knoll. Turn right and go 1.3 miles, staying right at the fork, to a great car-camping spot atop the ridge (UTM 12S 0529762E 4162744N). From there, take the right fork just down the road and continue southeast another 1.5 miles to the bottom of a small valley. Park where the road crosses the valley’s low point (UTM 12S 0531022E 4161227N).

The Route From the car, hike east along a blackbrush-covered flat, staying on the south side of a small dry wash for about .4 mile until you arrive on the south rim of a slickrock canyon. Continue hiking east to rim’s end, about .1 mile. Descend off the north side of this point down a 20-foot slope with stairstep ledges and good holds (UTM 12S 0531819E 4161338N). Novice climbers may want a rope for this Class 4 scramble. Zigzag down the smooth slickrock, heading southeast for another .3 mile to the creek. USGS quad: Bullfrog

Moqui Canyon

A lush ramble past thousand-year-old Anasazi ruins

“There is a way up!” shouts Flagstaff archaeologist Neil Weintraub. From the bottom of Moqui Canyon, we’d spied a set of Anasazi granaries on a narrow ledge 350 feet above. I’d assumed we couldn’t reach them, but Neil knew better. After a tricky scramble, we find one granary in perfect condition, with wood slats still in the roof and the fingerprints of its builder pressed into the mud mortar.

Neil guesses the structure is a thousand years old. “I can see why they lived here,” he says, looking down at the now-thriving canyon bottom. There are fertile silt banks for growing crops, willow for making baskets, a perennial stream, and shady alcoves for housing and food storage.

With its vortex of major river drainages, Glen Canyon was the heartland of an ancient Puebloan society for tens of thousands of years. A pre-dam survey conducted in the 1950s found more than 2,000 archaeological sites. Moqui itself was a hub, with 150 ruins and rock art sites in just 12 miles of canyon.

Venturing downstream, we use binoculars to study a handful of granary and dwelling structures hundreds of inaccessible feet above the creek. All are well preserved. But several sites near the lake’s high-water mark have been destroyed, either by vandals or the reservoir. In fact, we can trace the high-water mark by graffiti scrawled on the canyon walls, perhaps over pictographs. (Last spring, a coalition of Navajo medicine men appealed to the U.S. Department of the Interior to protect sacred ruins and rock art that have been exposed. So far, their pleas have produced no action.)

Later, we set up camp on a high ridge with best-seat-in-the-house views. Neil finds a litter of petrified wood flakes and guesses someone sat here thousands of years ago making a knife. We sip beer and soak up the sunset, swapping predictions about what this vista–which currently includes the trapped blue waters of a shrinking reservoir–will look like in another thousand years.

Getting There From the north (Hanksville), take UT 95 and 276 south to the Bullfrog/Halls Crossing ferry at Bullfrog Marina. Once across the lake, drive 10 miles to a pullout on the left that is exactly 2 miles west of Cal Black Memorial Airport. From the south (Blanding), drive west on UT 95 and turn left (south) onto UT 276 toward Halls Crossing. Park your car at the same spot along UT 276 (UTM 12S 0536786E 4145428N).

The Route From the road, hike northeast and cross-country about 1 mile to the lip of Moqui Canyon (UTM 12S 0537205E 4146187N). Look for a 500-foot sand slide below the canyon rim; this is a lot more fun to go down than to come up, but it’s the best way in and out. (Try to hike this hot section in the morning or evening.) Occasional cairns mark the way down sandstone benches to the top of the slide. Once you reach the streambed, there are miles of exploration up- and downcanyon. USGS quad: Burnt Spring


Season Spring and fall. Winter can be pleasant if you avoid canyons that require swimming.

Getting Around You’ll need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle for the Llewelleyn, Twilight, and Smith Fork trailheads.

Hazards Flash floods make slot canyoneering dangerous during the summer monsoon season (July-early September). The safest times for exploring slots, to avoid flash floods (and hypothermia in cooler months), are spring and fall.

Permits No permits are required for backcountry camping in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but anyone camping within .25 mile of Lake Powell is required to pack out human waste in a river-runner-style container (no plastic bags). A voluntary GCNRA policy asks that human waste be packed out of slot canyons and other areas where it cannot be adequately buried.

Contact GCNRA backcountry office: (928) 608-6200; www.nps.gov/glca

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