Every Utah canyon provides a surprise in spring | AspenTimes.com

Every Utah canyon provides a surprise in spring

Jim Uhlenkamp, front, and Hannah Condon find a tight squeeze in a canyon in south-central Utah during their spring break.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

My nearly annual spring break trip to southern Utah for slot-canyon hikes last week reminded me that the older I get, the less I know.

It’s been a dry winter, so conventional wisdom suggested my companions and I wouldn’t encounter wet conditions in some of the narrower canyons we wanted to explore on day hikes. Just in case, we attached sandals to our packs.

Our first destination was a sloppy mess. We waded up to our thighs through a handful of pools of freezing water hemmed by sheer sandstone walls. Ankle-high mud pits outnumbered the pools. We were slip-sliding away.

We kept plugging on because it was so damned scenic and, frankly, fun. The canyon was on the southeastern edge of Capitol Reef National Park. We didn’t see anyone on the hike, and we saw just two other people during two nights of camping in the area. Sweet isolation.

Unfortunately, my daughter Hannah’s allergies roared to life while she was back in the desert on spring break from college in the Midwest. (She claims the Midwest has altered her respiratory system.) By the end of the first full day, she was nearly blind with eye sensitivity and her nose was a faucet.

My brother-in-law and I bribed her to stick it out. We promised a feast at Hell’s Backbone Grill in Bolder, Utah, an oasis if ever there was one. I sweetened the bribe with a promise of pie. We threw in an IOU for a killer breakfast at the grill at the end of the trip.

It worked! The bribe and allergy pills calmed the irritation. The second-day hike was in a wide canyon rather than the narrows we yearned for, but we wanted to make sure all was cool with Hannah’s system. It was, but we ran into standing pools and mud even in the wider canyon. We easily skirted them, but I thought that spelled doom for the rest of our planned trip — into the narrowest of canyons called slots. They feature long stretches of towering sandstone walls with a gap so narrow you have to remove your pack and walk sideways.

After our experiences in the Waterpocket Fold, the dominate geologic feature of Capitol Reef, I figured there was little hope the slot canyons would be dry.

And that’s where I was reminded that I know so little about the Utah canyon country even after 30 years of spending vacations there. We got 5 miles into a 7-mile slot canyon on day three with little sign of water or mud. Just when I thought we were high and dry, we encountered a pool with water that came up to mid-thigh on me, higher on my mates. They stayed behind while I scouted and discovered another pool of equal length and depth. After that, the canyon really closed in and got dark and narrow. After conferring, we decided we weren’t up for more sloshing through water and mud and turned around.

Day four was the payoff. We picked an extremely isolated slot canyon that doesn’t even have a trailhead. We snaked through long expanses of water- and wind-carved sandstone only as wide as outreached arms. We wedged ourselves between slick sides of dry pour-off pools and eased down six-foot drops. We hoisted one another out of precarious potholes. This time we encountered only one small pool that was easily circumvented over an 8-mile out-and-back hike.

After five nights of perfect camping, six days of adventure, pie and breakfast, we declared spring break 2015 a success. And I was reminded never to assume I know what I’ll find in the canyons.

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