On Haystack, we found sun and solitude off of the Art Smith Trail in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, a spectacular view of Southern California's mountain ranges, and our old summit register entry from 2011.
Peninsular Bighorn Sheep near Art Smith Trail, Palm Desert, CA
Ovis canadensis nelsoni
Listed in 1998 as Endangered Species due to substantial population decline from disease, predation, habitat loss and human disturbance
Cross - country to Haystack
Directions to Art Smith Trailhead:
Travel south on CA State Route 74 (Palms to Pines Scenic Highway) from CA State Route 111 in Palm Desert 3.5 miles to long sandy parking area on right of road just as it starts to curve to the left to ascend switchbacks up hills to the south. The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center is adjacent to parking, across SR 74.
Hike Directions: (Topo map of our route below)
Cross-country route off of Art Smith Trail to summit of Haystack Mountain
Yellow marker indicates point at which we left Art Smith and ascended wash
Elevation at this point = 2,237 feet; ~1,600 feet to summit from turn-off
Geology and History:
The trail to Haystack Mountain treks through quartz diorite, a coarse-grained intrusive rock with 5-20% quartz (diorite has <5% quartz). It has the classic speckled black and white texture and large grain size. Quartz diorite is often confused with granite because they look similar. Both are intrusive rocks with a phaneritic texture in which mineral grains are visible without magnification. Granite, however contains 20-60% quartz. Quartz grains are not usually visible with quartz diorite, but can definitely be seen in a granite. This rock unit is Cretaceous age (144 to 65 mya).
The efforts of Art Smith, a.k.a. "Trail Boss", a Desert Riders equestrian helped to establish the Desert Riders Trail Foundation, a non-profit trust for trail preservation and building. The Desert Riders equestrian club was initiated in 1931, has made 28 trails as of 2010, many of them follow ancient Cahuilla Indians' migratory hunting and gathering trails.
"Probably I was too young and venturesome to feel dismay, but I know now what Mama must have felt as she looked out upon that savage scene of sand and rock and sky locked in the pitiless grip of desert summer."
- Nina Paul Shumway, Your Desert and Mine, an account of her family's settlement and beginning of the date
industry in the Coachella Valley.
The past few times we have hiked the Art Smith Trail, we have seen Peninsular bighorn sheep in Dead Indian Canyon near the rust-colored metal sign that marks the Art Smith trailhead, not far from the parking lot. They were listed as a federally endangered species in 1998. This morning, the sun shone brightly on the deep-walled Dead Indian Canyon and a group of ewes with their lambs. This trail, just west of Palm Desert, links to trails leading into the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs.
The Coachella Valley is a special place for me and I carry memories of hiking all of its trails with dear friends that I will always keep in touch with. It's my "old stomping ground", or more aptly put, my old hiking ground. Living there in the 1980's and 1990's, we climbed, traversed, slid, sweat, laughed, got stuck with cactus spines, boulder-hopped, and celebrated our hikes and friendships. I am grateful I can still be able to hike these wonderful trails and when I do, all of the memories come back vividly. I met Fred on Mt. San Jacinto, and he automatically became a part of our hiking clan.
Not many people venture off Art Smith to climb Haystack Mountain. To our surprise, we found the same pad in which we had made our 2011 entry in the summit register can! I guess the dry climate and the sparse number of Haystack Mountain visitors helped preserve this small note pad. It's a simple message: "12/21/11 - Fred, Sue and Scott - old friends who love to hike." We missed Scott this year, but were looking forward to hiking with him to Pinto Mountain in the next few days.
Walking on Art Smith Trail is a treat in itself, a meandering path with weathering rock piles, beavertail cactus and brittlebush blooming in the spring, and that satisfying crunch of gravel with each step. One can imagine Cahuilla Indians walking to water sources on the trail and equestrians from the Desert Riders on horseback winding through washes across the open desert. But to pick your own route cross country, dodging cholla cactus, sharp-toothed agave leaves and cat claw acacia shrubs, climbing up and sliding down boulders and dry waterfalls is the greatest satisfaction.
Art Smith Trail was busy due to the Christmas holiday. This trail treks through a possible plutonic synform (a downward-closing or concave fold of topography). Shimmering green California fan palms pop up occasionally to the left of the trail, and the valley patchwork of forest green golf courses sprawl to your right.
California fan palms
Haystack Mountain on the horizon as seen from near Art Smith Trail
Leave trail at ~ 3.4 miles and hike to highest point at far left of long ridge
Palm oasis in canyon on left
We left Art Smith at 3.4 miles from the trailhead at a wide wash and headed west-southwest across relatively flat, open low desert. From here, it was 1.3 miles to the summit. We encountered no major rock barriers, only a few very small waterfalls and sandy benches covered with rounded boulders. I was surprised to see a few small junipers; the land is generously dotted with hedgehog cacti with their inch-long needle-spines.
Wash ~ 3.4 miles in from Art Smith Trailhead at SR 74 in Palm Desert
Climb up flank of cone to ridge - follow ridge to summit, seen in this photo
Getting closer to the base - climb cone to ridge and follow to summit
"False summit" on the ridge
Hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) in foreground in front of cholla cactus
Arriving at the base of Haystack, we gained its sunny east ridge by hiking straight up the steep flank to the left of the mountain, occasionally grasping rocks. The ridge is a Class 2 scramble with at least one "false peak" on the way up; not a long hike and the view at the summit is nothing short of spectacular. It is here you realize the enormity of this beautiful Colorado Desert and its mountain ranges.
The controversial Dunn Road can be seen not far from the summit. It is a wide, sandy road that Mike Dunn carved out through the slopes of eastern Santa Rosa Mountains starting at Pinyon Flats in the 1960's and 70's. It traces around the contours of mountains, through what is now Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains NM to Cathedral City. Because Dunn bulldozed some of his road on federal land, the BLM put a gate across the road. But Dunn would just bulldoze it down, and the BLM would fix it. I remember, when I lived in the Coachella Valley in the 1980's, Dunn Road was used for recreational jeep tours. Now of course since it is entirely on national monument land, it is only accessible to non-motorized travel. There were also differing opinions about whether Dunn Road compromised the bighorn sheep habitat.
360 - degree view from Haystack Mountain summit
Summits include Mt. San Gorgonio, Mt. San Jacinto, Toro Peak, Martinez Mountain
Also Little San Bernardino Mountains and southern Joshua Tree NP
The summit view includes the highest points in the Santa Rosa Mountains: Martinez Mountain and Toro Peak, and also Mt. San Jacinto towering above Palm Springs. To the north lies Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California, and the northeast the Little San Bernardino Mountains and the southern part of Joshua Tree National Monument. Ancient Lake Cahuilla filled the basin of the current Coachella Valley up until 500 years ago.
This area is rich in culture and history - from the hunting/gathering Cahuilla Indians to the first settlers of this arid land, to the history of the date palm industry - not to mention the dramatic and substantial geologic history. The San Andreas Fault courses through the Coachella Valley.
View from Haystack Mountain to the northwest
Mt. San Jacinto (closer range) and Mt. San Gorgonio, the highest summit in Southern California (on horizon with snow)
Our summit register entry from 12/21/2011:
"Fred, Sue and Scott - Old friends who love to hike"
Scott and Fred near Haystack Mountain summit - 12/2011
Palm Desert in background on valley floor, Southern Joshua Tree NP on horizon
I recommend returning by the same route unless you are open for more adventure and willing to negotiate the steeper and rockier terrain to the southeast. We did just that but also ended up in a thick and tangled palm oasis, the palm fronds clashing in the breeze. Briefly crossing the oasis, crunching through dead fronds, we found our way out by ascending a steep canyon wall. Out into the open again, we saw not far from us two mountain bikers on the Art Smith Trail. Back to civilization.
As we hike back along this very familiar trail, I picture a scene from 25 years ago - a faint image of a group of friends, walking in rhythm, boots crunching, happy voices laughing and talking, celebrating friendship and this great land.
I bet we find both of our summit register entries the next time we summit Haystack.
The Cahuilla Indians roasted the heart of the agave in pits on rocky drainages
Desert Fan Palm fronds
"Filifera" describes the white filaments between the segments of the frond
Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument
Fred and Sue on the way down - another beautiful hike in the desert!
Beginning of Art Smith at its intersection with California SR 74. Metal trail sign below. Wide wash is entry to Dead Indian Canyon
Topo map and our route and elevation profile to Haystack Mountain via Art Smith Trail and then traveling cross-country up east ridge
Click on image for .jpg of topo map
Bighorn Institute. 2019. Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.
Retrieved from https://www.bighorninstitute.org/endangered-peninsular-bighorn
Dibblee, T.W., and Minch, J.A., 2008 Geologic map of the Palm Desert and Coachella 15-minute quadrangles, Riverside County, California. Dibblee Geological Foundation.
Patten, Carolyn. "The Desert Riders." Palm Springs Life, October 1, 2010. Desert Publications, Inc.
Retrieved from https://www.palmspringslife.com/the-desert-riders/
Pearce, Al. "Dunn's Road Could be One of the Most Beautiful in Desert." Desert Sun, Volume 45, Number 214, 11 April 1972. In website: UCR Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research.
Retrieved from https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=DS19720411.2.59&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN--------1
Schumann, W. 1993. Handbook of Rocks, Minerals and Gemstones. Harper-Collins Publishers and Houghton Mifflin Company.
Taylor, Joan. "The Dunn Road: A Checkered Past." Desert Report, 2007. Sierra Club publication.
Winter, John D. 2010. Principles of Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology, 2nd Ed. Pearson Education, Inc., New Jersey.
Our annual California desert peak hike with our friend Scott - this year to isolated and rugged Pinto Mountain in Joshua Tree Wilderness.
Pinto Mountain - eastern Joshua Tree National Park in the Pinto Mountain Range
From California I-10 East out of Indio, take Exit 168 into South Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. Drive north 20 miles on Cottonwood Springs Road/Pinto Basin Road (past Joshua Tree Visitor Center) to Turkey Flats parking area and sign board on right side of road.
This hike treks through an array of different types of rock units ranging from Holocene cover (10,000 years ago to now) to
Proterozoic Era (up to 2.5 billion years ago). A geologist's dream. It passes through some of California's oldest rocks; these rocks also top Monument Mountain, across Pinto Basin to the southwest.
Trailhead and parking at Turkey Flats, 20 miles from Interstate 10 in Joshua Tree
Pinto Mountain on horizon
Topo map and elevation profile of hike to summit of Pinto Mountain, Joshua Tree NP.
The hike begins at Turkey Flats trailhead on Cottonwood Springs Road/Pinto Basin Road. The last half of this hike climbs 2,200 feet in 2.3 miles to summit elevation of 3,983 feet.
Our route across the alluvial fan at base of ridge; the trail travels on spine of ridge all the way to summit of Pinto Mountain in a north/northeast direction (looking at southwest-facing slopes)
Pinto Wash at base of fan
Some of our best and most memorable adventures have been on hikes to desert summits in Southern California with our friend Scott, a Desert Peaks Section hiking veteran. Last year we hiked Monument Mountain in Joshua Tree National Park. This year, drawn to Joshua Tree again, we stepped it up (literally) with a tougher hike to Pinto Mountain summit.
We parked at the Turkey Flats trailhead and signboard, a 20-mile drive into Joshua Tree National Park south entrance from California I-10. Scott had good directions for locating the ridge we would ascend: locate the summit at 32° then locate our ridge climb at 36°. Pretty straightforward direction and approach. We made a beeline toward the smaller ridge to the right of a large, shadowed canyon which is just to the right of Pinto Mountain summit (see directions, above). The flat 2.5 mile distance to the toe of the ridge accentuates the immensity of this sublime desert. A feeling of space and solitude.
To hike Pinto Mountain is to experience two distinctly different terrain types with very little transition in between: flat, soft and casual to steep and rocky. The last half climbs 2,000+ feet over rough and angular rocks and also requires route-finding, occasionally reaching for a handhold. The easy walk across Pinto Basin takes you through soft sand flats and beautifully rippled "dunes", through minor washes before crossing Pinto Wash. We saw a desert tortoise burrow near the dunes. I was surprised at the bright purple blooms of sand verbena vines draped across the sand dunes and an abundance of bright green vegetation in December. The fractured and curled "clayey" soils in Pinto Wash also give a clue to recent saturating rains. As you make the short descent off the dunes, stay just to the left (west) of a long low hill cut by a wash.
Desert Sand Verbena
Scott (left) and Fred heading out in morning to Pinto Mountain summit
The ridge to ascend is just to the left of Fred with the shadows to its left side
Sand dunes ~ halfway between Turkey Flats trailhead to base of Pinto Mountain
Shortly after crossing Pinto Wash, the hike ascends an ever-increasing amount of coarse gravel and boulders, the characteristic feature of alluvial fans where heavier rocks drop out early in its deposition and smaller rocks are deposited at the toe of the fan. We maneuver down through stream cuts and around rocks on the upper alluvial fan as we finally reach the bottom of our ridge. We missed the cairn indicating the start of the ridge trail on our way up and started the climb on the ridge spine, which was alright because we soon ran into the light-to-moderately tracked trail on the ridge. Don't be tempted to descend down the canyon on either side of the ridge - when in doubt, stay on top of the ridge. There are a few places along the 2.3-mile ridge hike where the trail bypasses a high point, however.
Pinto Wash just before base of alluvial fan
Clayey soil that has been recently saturated with water and then has dried and formed fractures into polygonal sections as well as "mud peels" caused by a fracture of clay parallel to its surface.
Approaching alluvial fan deposited from canyon on the left
Hike up ridge to the right of this canyon, and just to the right of Pinto, with vertical rocks and shadows to Pinto Mountain with its white quartzite slopes. Pinto Wash in foreground.
Beginning of ridge trail
Small cairn on the large rock on the right, faint trail in middle of photo heads to ridge
We started here at toe of ridge
The ridge walk was very windy, especially on the saddles. We took a lunch break on the lee side of a bump on the ridge to avoid being battered by the wind. From our spot we could see the alternating light and dark rock; although we couldn't see a trail, we could see our ridge to the top.
Rocks and Joshua trees define Joshua Tree National Park, but if you look closely, you will find among them smaller creatures and plants brightly colored in contrast to the neutral tones. Groups of red barrel cacti randomly dot the landscape, with mounds of curved red spines spectacularly lit by the sun. Scott pointed out a tiny round cactus with a bright red fruit and sharp white spines, sheltered by a "shelf" of equally sharp quartzite - a common fishhook cactus. There was a strange black caterpillar with bright yellow dots and stripes that went from crawling to a curled position as soon as I cast my shadow over it. The best match I could find for this caterpillar is the white-lined sphinx moth, AKA hummingbird moth that has a long proboscis to reach deep for nectar in penstemons, among other flowers.
No other place I'd rather be at that moment!
Rock with flat surface provides a "chair" to sit and rest
Pinto Mountain left (highest) summit
Alternating light and dark rocks correspond with varied rock units (see Geology, above)
Red barrel cactus
White-lined sphinx caterpillar
Common Fishhook cactus in quartzite
Nothing gets in the way of the expansive views of mountain ranges perched on the desert floor in every direction as you near the summit. It doesn't take long before you feel like you are standing far above the immense basin. Creosote bushes make tiny dots on the smooth floor below and washes braid toward the low point of Pinto Basin. The hike goes through several rock units.
Sharp and angular quartzite crunches and clinks under boots and becomes loose and steep as you near the summit. A few trails can be seen through the steep section where I had to hold onto fractured rocks; they all make their way up the ridge line. I looked down the trail to see that Scott had temporarily disappeared under the crags I was on, so I waited until he climbed and appeared again. Suddenly, the flat crown of the summit appears as you emerge from the steep rocks and take a short walk to the summit cairn. We took shelter from the persistent northwest wind at the lee side of the cairn, procured the metal box containing the summit register, and found a page to put our entry for 12/26/2018: "PEACE - from Sue, Scott and Fred - 3 friends who like to hike together".
Summit of Pinto Mountain, 3,983 feet looking northwest
Saguaro cactus sculpture from old wire present on top of the mountain
Scott, Sue and Fred on Pinto Mountain summit
Our summit register entry for 12-26-18
The entry above ours: "Christmas Eve/Dec/2018 - Happy Holidays everybody! We made it to the top". - Ecuador, USA, Argentina
Summit looking north
Together, another summit and memorable day in the beautiful American West!
U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker on Pinto used for triangulation station (main station) for land survey
The wind was cold and blowing steadily, so we stayed long enough to get our photos, revel in our accomplishment, and grab some food for the journey down. The bumpy ridge extended from our feet to the basin. The walk across the alluvial fan, then across Pinto Wash was a welcome change from the quad-burning descent down the last part of the ridge. This time we followed the trail all the way down and found a cairn marking the entry to the ridge.
In the late afternoon, the wind finally stopped blowing; we took another rest, lounging on the rocks and basking in the sun before our flat and long walk across the sand. Colors became more vibrant as we walked toward the sun lowering toward the hulk of mountains across the valley. The light yellow sand we walked in the morning was now a deep golden hue, and the sky above Pinto Mountain now held wispy light gray clouds, tinged with purple. I turned a few times to watch the light changes on Pinto; the white summit, where we had just been a few hours ago, was glowing. The next time I turned around, it was blue-gray in the dusk shadow. The temperature dropped as we walked across soft sand, avoiding burrows. Getting back to the parking lot and throwing off boots, a few cars drove up and people got out to snap a quick photo of Pinto. We got to be on top of that beautiful place today. We were the lucky ones - three friends who like to hike together.
"It is enough to know why I came here: to breathe in the solitude and the silence."
- Ann Zwinger, Wind in the Rock: The Canyonlands of Southeastern Utah
On the way down - Scott and Fred - descend ridge to the left with saddles in between high points
Late afternoon sun and deep red hues of barrel cactus
Not officially dunes, but an accumulation of blowing sand adjacent to mountain range
Pinto Mountain in late afternoon - "dunes" in foreground
Canaan Mountain, a towering plateau of Navajo Sandstone is a classic southern Utah adventure through red sand, forested canyons and over ancient sand dune slickrock. Located south of Zion National Park, it is wild and beautiful.
Ponderosa Pine and petrified sand dune on plateau below Canaan Mountain
"It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space."
- Edward Abbey
Driving Directions (from Hurricane, Utah)
Traveling east/southeast on Utah Highway 59, turn left (east) onto Utah Avenue (right before Subway restaurant in 2018) in Hildale. Continue on pavement for ~ 2 miles, then Utah Avenue curves left (north) and becomes Canyon Street. At 2.5 miles from highway 59, turn right onto Water Canyon Road (road becomes dirt). Travel ~ 1 mile to a sign on the right of the road that reads "Squirrel Canyon Trailhead". Trailhead parking is just ahead.
Our route up Squirrel Canyon to lower elevation of Canaan Mountain
We ascended to 6,900 feet; the summit is 7,363 feet
(note: profile illustrates trail starting at our highest point and descending back to trailhead)
Our route up Short Canyon to Squirrel Canyon to summit of Canaan Mountain at 6,900 feet. The highest elevation of the summit is to the left (west) at 7,363 feet
Beginning of trail at Squirrel Canyon Trailhead in foreground, red arrow points to trail that bears right around red bluff on left to go down into Short Creek in ~ 0.5 miles
Once in awhile, we spend more time than we would like just trying to find our trail. It happens to the best of adventurers. This costs precious time, especially when days are short and the hike to the summit is long. Fred and I briefly started in the wrong direction, then had to backtrack to the Squirrel Canyon trailhead. Another look at compass, map, and hike directions to re-orient, then we were on our way, paying close attention to which canyon we were hiking through. There are no signs or trail markers until the climb up Squirrel Canyon, as this a wilderness area (an advantage: not many people on the trail!) We would still make Canaan Mountain, but not the highest point on its summit which is a longer hike.
We stayed in Hurricane, Utah for Thanksgiving weekend in an old Zion NP ranger's cabin. Hiking in and near Zion National Park is a great way to celebrate the holidays. I have been hiking in Zion since the early 1990's. We avoided crowds this time by choosing hikes outside of the park. I was very impressed by the Canaan Mountain Wilderness because of its rugged beauty and all of the sandstone features throughout, and the fact that we basically had the place to ourselves. My kind of holiday!
Entrance into Short Creek
Entrance to Squirrel Canyon one mile upstream from this - hike along ATV road on right side of creek
We chose the Squirrel Canyon Trail instead of Water Canyon Trail, another approach to Canaan Mountain because we read that the hike goes through water in Water Canyon and the temps were only in the 30's and 40's. There must be neoprene boots for wading up streams. I plan on doing this hike again via the Water Canyon approach.
The hike starts by descending through deep orange sand, across a wash, and continues on the orange sand straight ahead. It rounds the red bluff to the left and then drops into Short Creek, ~ 0.5 miles from trailhead. There were a few people riding ATVs on the trails and washes; they looked like they were having fun. The steep canyon walls shaded Short Creek and its huge Cottonwood trees in the morning. This scene looked much different in the afternoon on the way back to the trailhead with the yellow leaves brightly glowing in the direct sunlight streaming through the canyon.
The brief walk up the creek before the trail scrambles up a small bank under a huge grove of Cottonwoods is beautiful. Sand ripples alternating red and black lie under shallow water reflecting the sky. The trail then follows a 4 WD road along the creek, passing by plenty of grey rabbitbrush shrubs whose flower heads glow a cream color in the sun. Patches of white sand are deposited on the bank above the stream, possibly sediment from the white Navajo Sandstone layer further upstream.
The entrance into Squirrel Canyon, about one mile upstream is obvious, as the ATV/hiking trail crosses Short Creek. A wide and relatively flat area at the entrance was covered with autumn leaves. The trail ascends Squirrel via the 4WD road and then a single track trail as the canyon narrows. Oak and maple trees surround and form an autumn canopy of red, brown and green, while green moss and maidenhair ferns dripped water seeping from vertical sandstone walls. The trail transitions from the soft tread of seasons of leaves to hard and angular slabs of sandstone to soft white sand as it emerges from the canyon then tops out on a beautiful plateau underneath The Beehive, an ancient sand dune. In a short distance from emerging, the canyon trail intersects with the Sawmill Trail with a pile of rocks marking this point. As we turned left at this point (west), I glanced back to make sure I wouldn't miss this intersection on the way down.
A somewhat ominous entrance into Squirrel Canyon
The Beehive, elevation 6,476 feet
Seen as Squirrel Canyon Trail opens up onto plateau above canyon
website for climbing The Beehive
Cairns mark route over sandstone while going up Squirrel Canyon
An excellent feature of this hike is that it gains enough elevation to walk through at least two geologic formations. The top of Canaan Mountain consists of the massive Navajo Sandstone which is also observed in the towering walls of Zion National Park. The hike appears to be starting in the red cliffs of the Kayenta Formation (mudstone) that lies below the Navajo Sandstone. The transition I noticed was in leaving the red sands and cliffs behind in Squirrel Canyon and ending up on the white rocks and white sand on the plateau above.
The upper walls of Canaan Mountain are the White Cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, and at the base are the Vermilion Cliffs which can be seen at the trailhead. These cliffs are widespread throughout southern Utah and Northern Arizona. At this location, they face southeast, and in the morning sun the walls are ablaze with intense orange, yellow and red (read more about geology of this area below).
The plateau above the canyon is a wondrous world of layered, cross-bedded, curving cream-colored and orange sandstone, with never-ending examples of eroded Navajo Sandstone features. Huge junipers make you wonder how old they are. Dark and light-striped hoo-doos, domes and platforms in all shapes and sizes are so plentiful - I wished that I was camping up there so I could spend more time looking. Ponderosa pine and juniper contrast against the frozen-in-time deeply angled and curving sand dune cross-beds. The spectacular dark and forested V-shape of the entrance into Water Canyon looms to the south. Time was getting short. We left Sawmill Trail and scrambled up ledges of slickrock to the highest point on the summit north of us, which is not the highest on Canaan Mountain. We found ourselves in yet another world of a flat-topped forested plateau with soft white sand. Only a few hours of daylight left - we had to get back.
Sawmill Trail required close attention because it was marked by cairns sparsely at best, requiring us to "hunt" for the trail sometimes. The trail alternated between soft sand and slickrock, steep in parts. Tire tread from a recent jeep was helpful to navigate the way. With each turn, rise and descent, there is almost an overload of beautiful, stark, weird, unusual sights along with the feeling of elevated space and expanse in every direction.
At this point on Sawmill Trail, the only marker for the trail was these scrapes in the slickrock. It rose steeply over the rocks on this rise
Sawmill Trail weaves in and out of soft sand and cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone
Sand of Sawmill Trail lower left hand corner. We hiked to the right, up to the top
At 6,500 feet with view of the Notch toward the south
Leaves found on Squirrel Canyon floor
Common trees of southern Utah canyons are Canyon Maple, Boxelder, Fremont Cottonwood, Gambel Oak, Shrub Oak.
Ponderosa Pine, Pinyon Pine, Gambel Oak, Manzanita, and Douglas Fir grow on slickrock.
Heading down Squirrel Canyon
Beautiful canyon with bright green moss, clear pools and waterfalls, thick canopy of oak and maple trees
We saw no one else in the canyon and on the slickrock plateau. It was easy to get sidetracked in Squirrel Canyon while getting almost hypnotized by watching oak leaves floating in clear pools that had ripples on the bottom. As we made our way back to the trailhead, on the ATV trail that runs along Short Creek, a large group of young backpackers were plodding towards us in the deep red sand, laughing and smiling, silhouetted by the late afternoon sun. Huge Cottonwoods, strong and rooted along the white-sand bank with leaves glowing yellow lined our way back down Short Creek. These had massive trunks - the vegetation in this area is so robust and healthy. I'm going back - I can see why the party of backpackers looked so joyous! Next time - Water Canyon!
Geology and History
The age of rocks on Canaan Mountain are Lower Jurassic (201 - 174 Ma). It is capped by 1,300-foot cliffs of Navajo Sandstone. The Kayenta Formation underlies the Navajo. The Kayenta is then underlain by the Moenave Formation. The base of the White Cliffs of Canaan Mountain is part of the greater extent of the Vermilion Cliffs, which extend over a large area of Utah and Arizona.
Key to stratigraphic units in above photo: Eroded Navajo Sandstone on cap of Canaan Mountain 1,200 feet thick; Canaan Mountain is ~ 2,000 feet higher than the plain (Jn). Kayenta Formation (Jk), Moenave Formation consisting of the Springdale Sandstone member (Jms), Whitmore Point and Dinosaur Canyon members (Jmwd). (From Geologic Map of the Smithsonian Butte Quadrangle, cited below).
Temps in the 20's at night at ~ 6,200 feet in late November
Sawmill Trail treks through sand and sandstone
Cairns mark first trail off of Sawmill Trail that treks to the lower reaches of Canaan Mountain summit
Pool in Squirrel Canyon
Along Short Creek
The sudden jaw-dropping, in-your-face view of the Grand Teton Mountain Range as you crest Table Mountain is worth the 4,000-foot gain - it's a view you will never forget.
View of the Grand Teton, Middle Teton, and South Teton from summit of Table Mountain, 11,106 feet
Trip Stats for North Teton (Huckleberry)/Face loop:
"There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games."
- Ernest Hemingway
North Teton Trail (Huckleberry Trail) from North Teton Trailhead to Table Mountain summit
click on map for full Topozone map
Jedediah Smith Wilderness boundary about 1 mile into hike on North Teton Trail #024
Fred and I hiked the amazing North Teton trail to its spectacular summit this past August, at the suggestion of a friend who found out we were going to the "Idaho side of the Tetons". We didn't want to see the crowds of people in Grand Teton National Park, so we hiked out of Driggs, Idaho.
At the end of Teton Canyon Road, 10.5 miles from downtown Driggs, Idaho there are two trailheads. The trail from the North Teton trailhead (North Teton trail, AKA Huckleberry trail) goes to Table Mountain, and the trail from the South Teton trailhead goes to Alaska Basin (another stunning hike where we saw a moose). The Face trail is accessed between these two trailheads. Some hikers ascend via the Face Trail; it is a more direct but steeper, unmaintained route to Table Mountain. We descended via Face Trail but I would not do that again because it is very steep with loose rocks and shallow switchbacks, and my toes got really sore pushing against the front of my boots!
If you want to avoid Face Trail, you can do an out-and-back hike on North Teton Trail for a total of 13 miles.
This hike gets more spectacular with nearly every step. As with most summit hikes, it starts out in thick forest canopy, hiking along North Fork Teton Creek. Multi-colored blankets of wildflowers among bright green grasses and shrubs covered the lower slopes of the U-shaped glacially-carved valley we walked through. Peaks towered above us as tall limestone cliffs seemed to surround, dominating much of the horizon. There had to be a break in those walls to get us on top of the ridge overlooking the valley we had ascended.
Face Trail trailhead located between North Teton and South Teton trailheads at the end of Teton Canyon Road
North Teton Trail (Huckleberry Trail) goes along North Fork Teton Creek
North Teton Trail (Huckleberry Trail) - Jedediah Smith Wilderness
North Teton Trail leaves the North Fork Teton Creek at 8,400 feet, then heads southward through the steep basin and toward a break in the cliffs. The trail then switch-backs to the ridge, climbing ~ 1,500 feet through basin and up switchbacks in about 1.5 miles. The ridge is at 9,900 feet. Table Mountain looks like an altar facing the immense and looming Grand Teton. After the steep ascent from basin to ridge, the trail takes a turn southeastward with its sights straight toward the summit, passing very close to the cliff edge for one last view of the magnificent basin just ascended. Just 1,200 more vertical feet to climb to the summit!
One of the switchbacks that climbs out of basin in a southwestward direction to top-off at ridge (~ 9,900 feet) and nearby intersection with Face Trail
Table Mountain facing the Grand Teton as viewed from switchbacks out of basin
Along North Teton Trail (AKA Huckleberry Trail) on ridge near intersection with Face Trail ~ 10,000 feet
After climbing out of the basin onto the ridge, the trail heads straight toward the summit, surrounded by wildflowers the entire way until the summit block. Table Mountain looms ahead and it seems to take forever for it to get closer. The juxtaposition of the tips of the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen rising behind the low, broad and grounded bench of Table Mountain is a rare sight. This is a great example of Earth's awesome forces; a relatively "young" fault (Buck Mountain Fault) raising old rocks higher than newer rocks in such a dramatic manner. After passing through pines and purple lupines, the trail suddenly opens up to a vast and high open meadow dotted with swaying white bistorts (my favorite wildflower). We saw people the size of small dots on the final incline to the summit. With legs burning, we made our way up this incline to the cool, breezy summit scrambling through a cut in the sharp rocks. A few more steps along the flat summit, and then WOW! It's that sudden "high" you feel on a peak when the earth quickly drops below you as you stand on a precipice (2,300-foot drop in this case), and the world opens up to make you feel like a speck in the middle of it. But this is no "ordinary" summit because you come face to face with the enormity of the Tetons, making you feel even smaller. The Grand is so close you can see its ledges and walls. You have worked to claim your lofty space, but you gaze at a space loftier than the small patch of Earth on which you stand.
Looking down from summit at the final approach to Table Mountain with Roaring Creek and Alaska Basin Trail to the left of ridge (southwest)
Hiking through a sea of American bistort (Bistorta bistortoides) and purple aster on the final stretch to Table Mountain
Sue on summit of Table Mountain, 11,106 feet with Grand Teton and Mt. Owen in background
Summit of Table Mountain
Peaks left to right: Mt. Owen, Grand Teton, Middle Teton
Fellow hikers lingered at the summit. We savored the experience, too, and then saw weather coming in from the southwest. We decided to get off the exposed rock, and on our way down, a lightning storm raged over another ridge. We took the Face Trail # 029 at the intersection with North Teton Trail which saved us time and mileage. Face Trail starts out with gentle decline and ends with a quadricep workout down the very steep pitch with loose rocks. At the end of this trail, a metal sign reads "Face Trail 029 - Very Steep - Not Recommended". Next time, I would go up Face Trail and down North Teton Trail. Or skip Face Trail altogether.
The next day, we hiked 5 miles up Alaska Basin Trail with millions of wildflowers - Heaven on Earth!
Intersection of North Teton Trail with Face Trail ~ 1.5 miles from summit
Face Trail is ~ 2.6 miles shorter on the way down but much steeper!
Spectacular adventure with beautiful scenery throughout, this is a tough hike/scramble to the second highest mountain in the rugged Pioneers with a breathtaking view and steep drop-offs at your feet.
Goat Mountain - 11,913 feet - second highest peak in the Pioneer Mountain Range near Ketchum, Idaho
Our route (in blue) and elevation/mileage profile for Goat Mountain, Pioneer mountain range, Idaho
Elevation range: from 7, 105 feet to 11, 900 feet in 7.7 miles
"The love of mountains is best."
- inscription carved in Greek, found on a summit rock in the Alps by a Swiss adventurer in 1558.
When our friends John and Val asked us to climb Goat Mountain with them, we seized the opportunity. Fred and I usually do these adventures by ourselves, so it was that much more fun to be with fellow climbing enthusiasts, especially since they had been to Goat before, so we could be able to cover the 7.7 miles to the summit expediently.
Ask anyone who has hiked and climbed in the heart of the Pioneer Mountain Range, and you may see their countenance change to a look of knowing bliss and reverence as they tell you about its sheer beauty and wildness. Granite crags, spires and domes hang raw and exposed over glaciated basins dotted with car-sized boulders and wildflowers in meadow grasses. Hike to Pioneer Cabin, built high on a bench at 9,400 feet and get a spectacular view of the main Pioneer Crest to the east. The following photo of Pioneer Cabin was taken a few years ago, and now I can say that I have walked up that wide valley to the top of Goat Mountain, the peak situated on the left horizon in this photo.
Pioneer Cabin (elevation 9,400 feet), built in 1937 looks to the east at Duncan Ridge, Handwerk Peak and Goat Mountain
The southern route to Goat Mountain ascends the wide basin seen in this photo
North Fork Hyndman Creek
The weather forecast said it was to rain in the afternoon. John, Val, Fred and I started on the trail under blue skies and found ourselves pummeled by frigid winds and ice pellets when we got to the summit of Goat Mountain. Not a fun time to take photos, however it adds excitement to the trip and knowing that not many people get to experience the sudden advancing of fall and winter in mid-September at nearly 12,000 feet on a precipice. We got down the main crest pretty quickly.
The first 3 miles of this hike treks along the west side of North Fork Hyndman Creek with its colorful quartzite boulders and crystal clear water to an intersection with the trail that leads to Pioneer Cabin at 8,200 feet. Continue straight into the valley ahead, walking over branches placed across the trail to steer Pioneer Cabin hikers to the trail that takes off to the left. The pointy, fang-like Handwerk Peak appears as you walk through a sagebrush and bunchgrass valley to a crossing of the North Fork Hyndman Creek, another 0.6 miles past the intersection. Then, climb through the white cliffs, through an obvious gulley that separates the cliffs to a shelf above. Stay to the left (west) of the creek whose water sources from the unnamed basin between Handwerk Peak and Duncan Ridge. Our party accessed this basin two different ways: Val, Fred and I hiked the west side of the creek to near the base of Handwerk Peak. John crossed the creek earlier and ended up waiting for us further up this grass-filled basin south of Handwerk.
Intersection with Pioneer Cabin Trail (to the left). Keep going straight over branches to valley ahead
Named after Ted Handwerk, who served in Italy during WWII
John in lead walking north toward the base of Handwerk Peak on its south side
Route goes through the white cliffs just above John in the photo and turns northwest, staying to the west of drainage
We crossed the narrow stream at the bottom of the basin and walked through tall bunch grasses at first, and then short grass as we neared the cirque wall at the end of the basin. Aim for Florian's Nudl, a fin-shaped dome on the ridge above the cirque. Goat Mountain is the prominence to the left on the ridgeline.
The walk through this basin is a sensory experience of contrasts. Native, aromatic grasses are soft and quiet underfoot, like a huge gold carpet while the cold, ragged mess of walls and boulders looms ahead, sweeping down both sides in a U-shaped curve, typical morphology of glaciation. At the end, you run out of grass, except for a few patches distributed among the boulders. We went straight up the steep boulder wall in front of us, and came down the more circuitous route that contains more grassy areas to the right side (east) in the cirque. A huge boulder with a white "X" across its face lies at the entrance to the boulder field. Next time I do this climb, I will find this boulder and go up to the right; this route descending seemed longer but less steep. It's hands-on boulder climbing either way.
Basin between Handwerk Peak and Duncan Ridge
Head toward Florian's Nudl, the fin-shaped dome toward the center of the ridge
Heading towards Florian's Nudl
Goat Mountain on far left of horizon
Our route up boulder field at end of basin to Goat Mountain
On the hike down, we made a wide curve to the right in this photo: more distance but less steep
The boulder-hopping was stable; rarely did I step onto a "tippy" rock. John practically ran up the rocks, while the three of us followed, grasping onto the granite and grass to hoist up. During the long climb, the skies became darker, and when we finally reached the top, we were assaulted by stinging ice crystals and a brisk, frigid wind. What timing! Snap a few photos, look at the squalls of rain around us, try to maintain our balance on the top of a narrow Pioneer Range ridge with 1,000-foot drops on both sides. Celebrate the breathtaking (literally!) 360-degree scene; commit to memory. And then get down. Goat Mountain has a double peak - we didn't get to the second (north) prominence which is slightly higher.
Florian's Nudl - Use this landmark for direction when climbing from basin below
Named after Florian Haemmerle, an original instructor of the Alpine Touring School and the original curator of the Pioneer Cabin
Fred near top of Goat Mountain
John heading down shelf above boulder field
Florian's Nudl above him
Looking down upon the basin we ascended, between Handwerk Peak and Duncan Ridge toward the southwest
John went down the direct steep face. Fred, Val, and I hiked toward the east side of the cirque. Descending down a gully near a sheer wall, we heard water rushing under rocks and I suddenly saw something white. A mountain goat stood calmly watching us at the bottom. We stopped and stared at each other. It posed for us a few minutes, then slowly ambled toward the rock wall. It looked like it was growing its winter coat. We joked that the goat was taking note of humans' relative incoordination while traversing rocks. We had seen mountain goat hair in the tundra grasses on the way up the mountain.
We met up with John at the bottom of the boulder field. A refreshing, cool rain onto the bunch grasses made a clean, earthy scented air, which I breathed in deeply. Tall grey walls rose on either side. Occasional large boulders sat solitary and we took a short break on the lee side of a large one. Probably dropped out of the receding glacier. We resumed descending the basin and when I turned back to see the cirque and the ridge, curtains of rain covered most of the view. In our chatting, we didn't pay attention to staying close to the stream drainage and got too far to the west, so we took some extra time route-finding, thrashing through brush, navigating more boulders, and crossing streams to get back to the trail.
A gentle rain cooled us the last two miles of the hike. In the cloud-covered dusk, we saw two bow hunters emerge from the woods in camouflage. The sky on the horizon was clearing. We raised a toast to our awesome 11-hour day with the excellent beer at the Power House in Hailey. We celebrated getting to the summit together in a spectacular mountain range where we saw no one else on the trail. We celebrated the fact that we are lucky to be able to see things that most people don't, and that our bodies are able to take us there.
Boulder with white "X" at beginning of climb out of basin
Sue and Val at the top!
Walking down toward basin towards east side of cirque
Appearance of the Mountain Goat. Website by the British Columbia Mountain Goat Society, copyright Smithers BC Canada.
A Brief History - Pioneer Cabin.
Digital Geology of Idaho - Idaho Basement Rocks - Idaho State University.
Lopez, Tom. 2000. Idaho - A Climbing Guide: Climbs, Scrambles and Hikes. The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA.
Metamorphic Core Complexes - Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology.
Hike the remote cross-country route of the last mule U.S. mail delivery in the Phipps Death Hollow Wilderness Study Area through slickrock sandstone and sagebrush flats
Descending into Death Hollow from northern route of Old Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route
"If ever monuments are erected to unsung heroes, probably the tallest should be for those who brought the mail."
- Nethella Woolsey, Escalante historian
Northern section of Old Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route travels southwest from trailhead near Boulder Landing Strip to Death Hollow. This trail descends to Sand Creek, climbs to Slickrock Saddle, then descends again to Death Hollow.
It was the vivid colors in Death Hollow that I remember most when Fred and I hiked the Boulder Mail Trail 18 years ago. Bright blue skies, red rounded rocks, orange and yellow cut walls, verdant willows: the whole scene reminded me of the hues on the art class color wheel. We saw only two other people on the trail that day - two guys swimming and splashing joyfully under steep walls. So extraordinarily different this hollow was from other streams I had hiked before whose colors, albeit beautiful, are usually various shades of brown, grey and green. Here, in the middle of an immense sandstone sea, we had color combinations only the desert can produce.
On a very warm day in June this year, Fred and I hiked this trail again. The sandstone wall of Death Hollow as the Boulder Mail Trail enters it from the north is bright yellow and grey. I wondered if that rock surface could really be that colorful, and checked the colors of vegetation in the images I was taking. Maybe it was a reflection of the sun? Sandstones can be yellow due to dissolving of calcium carbonate, a common cementing material. The grey vertical stripes looked like weathering stains to me.
Death Hollow where Boulder Mail Trail enters from the north
These days, the Boulder Mail Trail trailhead is generously marked. The first 1.5 miles trek steadily down a bench through a pinyon/juniper/sagebrush forest. Views suddenly open up as the trail drops down into sandstone hills and gulches of the Sand Creek tributaries. Rock cairns mark the trail for the remaining trek to Death Hollow (and then on to Escalante), except for a few sandy stretches where the trail is marked initially by a cairn.
Boulder Mail Trail trailhead sign and register
Nearing transition from plateau to shallow Navajo Sandstone canyon. Look at that marvelous open country in the distance that we get to walk through!
The trail zig-zags through a sandy opening of a shelf of eroded orange sandstone layers and deposits you onto the immense slickrock. As you leave the plateau behind, two and even three cairns can be seen ahead, linking the trail to Sand Creek. So much to see in such a stark landscape: grey lichen, aged wood, sand pockets, and water-smoothed channels.
You never know what you may find on slickrock
At 2.7 miles, cross Sand Creek, flowing in mid-June. Walk on right (west) side of creek through willows for ~ 0.2 - 0.3 miles to cairns that climb out of creek bottom and briefly switchback over a knob. We had to backtrack here because we followed the creek too closely to the shore. The climb from Sand Creek to the highest point on Slickrock Saddle is ~ 500 feet. The initial climb out of the creek is steep, then alternates between less steep and steep rises (see profile chart, above), trekking around the northwest side of a large dome with hoodoos on top.
Telephone wire installed 108 years ago runs along the trail as it treks through long stretches of deep sand in a pinyon/juniper forest. This segment leads to the summit of Slickrock Saddle Bench at 6,600 feet and the first view of Death Hollow.
Telephone line installed in 1910 runs along trail - insulators attached to trees like this one above in a dead Ponderosa Pine
First view of Death Hollow from top of Slickrock Saddle Bench - last bit of sand hiking in foreground
As you make your way off Slickrock Saddle Bench, the shadowy chasm of Death Hollow becomes deeper and deeper; you know it's there, but it just won't reveal itself right away. It's tempting to stare in awe at this unique sight, but stay focused on the cairns, too, because the trail swings south and skirts around a knob at 6,617 feet, heading for the best way off the bench. Next, the trail switchbacks and treks in a northwest direction. The steepest part lies ahead, and you wonder how mules delivering mail in the early 1900's walked across this precarious descent. A passage from the book "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante" reads:
"To a reader sitting in a comfortable arm chair it is hard to describe the beauty of the Death Hollow Trail or the fear caused while sitting astride a horse trying to make its way safely over the rough terrain. It is said that horses' legs literally quivered as they gingerly picked their way down the trail."
- Jerry C. Roundy, Escalante resident and author of "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante"
This trail was known in the early 1900's as the Death Hollow Trail, and it was the shortest route between Boulder and Escalante. It was the fastest route if one was in a hurry, for the wagon road between the towns was a longer distance. Parts of this trail were "blasted out" in order for safe horse passage. Tales of cream cans and eggs being delivered via the Death Hollow Trail among other trail experiences are described in Jerry Roundy's book. The residents of Boulder and Escalante finally received the mail service they had been petitioning for in 1902 when the first government mail carrier's contract was given to an Escalante resident, who would deliver mail using the Death Hollow Trail twice per week.
I'm more aware of my balance on the steep slickrock; most of the texture of the rock enables my boots to grip well, but there are smoother patches to look out for. I imagine what it was like to lead horses and mules over this section. Did they slip? During the winter was there ice? What would this place look like with several inches of snow? Or under a full moon? I believe the Death Hollow Trail mail carriers were pretty tough, and they got to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
Starting at ~ 5.25 miles, the well-marked trail switchbacks and descends 600 feet in 3/4 of a mile to the thick vegetation of the flowing creek in Death Hollow. Some moss-covered rocks were slippery to step onto. There's a sweet tent spot at the terminus, and from the paths seen on the treeless part of the shore on the descent, there are probably more tent spaces available.
This time we didn't hike down Death Hollow as we did 18 years ago, although the water would have cooled us off in the mid-80's temperature. Vegetation along water seemed thicker this time, but the colors and textures no less beautiful. The cool shade, chatter of water over rocks, sudden splash of colors and tall vertical walls in Death Hollow contrast with the bright and open, mostly shadeless trek across sandstone country.
After resting in the shade, we started the 6-mile hike back, looking forward to the largest elevation gain of the trip - 1,450 feet. On the way back, we took a break at Sand Creek, near huge rounded basalt boulders, probably from Boulder Mountain, whose basalt age is 6 - 16 Ma, and whose run-off streams provide water for Sand Creek.
There's always numerous adventures awaiting me, and seeing Fred walk across the slickrock is even more fulfilling than the hike, which is hard to beat. One of the best parts of life is the hope of future adventures in the beautiful American West. Next time - the entire Boulder Mail Trail!
Two days earlier, Fred and I hiked from Escalante to Mamie Creek along the Boulder Mail Trail (the southern portion). Although we didn't get all the way to Death Hollow, I feel that portion of the trail is even more gorgeous. We had the Phipps Death Hollow Wilderness all to ourselves that day, as we saw no one else. It's days like these that I will remember reverently - forever.
Below are some images of the portion of the Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route south of Death Hollow.
We ran into a retired biologist who took this photo of us after a detailed discussion of Fe+3, ferric iron in the rocks - very interesting to me, but Fred not so much!
Thank goodness for cairns!
Slickrock Saddle Bench
Basalt boulders near Sand Creek
Images from south portion of Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route - Escalante to Mamie Creek
Prickly pear near junction of Pine Creek and Old Boulder Mail Trail
Heading up to Antone Flat
South end of Boulder Mail Trail from Escalante trailhead
Trail goes to the left of large drainage and then treks to the right in this photo on the smooth portion at the base of plateau
Boggs, S. Jr. 2012. Principles of Sedimentology and Stratigraphy, Fifth Ed. Pearson Education, Inc.
Hackman, R.J., and Wyant, D.G., 1973, Geology, structure, and uranium deposits of the Escalante quadrangle, Utah and Arizona: U.S. Geological Survey, Miscellaneous Geologic Investigations Map I-744, scale 1:250,000.
Parry, W. T. 2016. Geology of Utah's Mountain, Peaks and Plateaus. Friesen Press, Victoria, B.C., Canada.
Roundy, J. C. 2000. "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante". Art City Publishing, Springville, Utah. 355 pp.
A unique opportunity to see a near-relict, pristine desert ecosystem on the most inaccessible mesa in Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument: No Mans Mesa, accessed from Lick Wash trail is solitary, remote, and undisturbed.
View of Park Wash and Navajo sandstone cliffs from rock fan of No Mans Mesa
This hike follows the 4-WD road to the right of wash
"In sublimity - the superlative degree of beauty -
what land can equal the desert?"
- John C. Van Dyke
Lick Wash Trailhead sign 18 miles down Skutumpah Road; large ponderosa pine and Navajo Sandstone walls ~ 1/2 mile down Lick Wash
Hike route and elevation profile - Lick Wash trailhead to top of No Mans Mesa
Route travels southeast down Lick Wash, then meets with Park Wash to travel northeast to northern tip of No Mans Mesa
Entrance into Lick Wash, shortly after trailhead
Towering sandstone walls dominate on the first mile of Lick Wash hike
I was excited to get to the top of No Mans Mesa, since I do field work surveying ecological sites, work on conservation of a rare plant, and volunteer for habitat restoration. Fred and I had attempted to hike to this mesa 3 years ago, but the condition of Skutumpah Road was too risky after a few rainstorms.
At a bend in Lick Wash about 2.5 miles from the trailhead, after steep walls had given way to a wider, less-constrained channel, Fred and I got our first view of No Mans Mesa. It's long length and towering 1,200-foot white walls were just emerging from morning shadows. Like a fortress it stood, looking impenetrable, at least to this first view. There's a small passage, however that climbs through the walls to the top, and we were hoping to find it. The next goal for this journey was to find the intersection of Lick Wash and Park Wash, and locate the trail that would take us past the LeFevre line cabin, through the sagebrush flat of Park Wash, then to the bottom of the rock debris fan located on the north side of No Mans Mesa in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
We had driven 18 miles down Skutumpah Road to the Lick Wash trailhead and hiked the wash in a southeastward direction. I was prepared with the excellent hiking route directions from the website Earthline: The American West. Sure enough, at 4.0 miles, we reached the large Park Wash that continues the hike in a northeast direction between the walls of Calf Pasture Point and No Mans Mesa. Massive white Navajo Sandstone walls of Calf Pasture Point kept us in shade but only briefly, then we merged into the blazing sunlight of wide Park Wash, walking on a sandy trail that shortly intersected with an even sandier four-wheel-drive road. What a unique place to be in this remote wilderness! We trudged up the road that parallels the wash to the first shade we could find under a juniper and took a break. It was here that we saw what was unmistakably the rock debris fan that we would have to ascend.
First view of No Mans Mesa 2.5 miles down Lick Wash
View of debris fan (rockslide) on northernmost point of No Mans Mesa from 4-WD road
At 4.5 miles into the hike, we reached the dramatic scene of the LeFevre cabin dwarfed against the bleached Navajo Sandstone overhang of Calf Pasture Point, and tucked under ponderosa pines. At ~ 4.9 miles, trudging in the sand, we passed a fence line, walked a few more minutes and found a defined stock (and human?) trail leading toward the debris slide. We crossed deep Park Wash, wove around sagebrush and found ourselves at the bottom of the debris fan.
From this point, Fred and I gazed at the top of the steep cliffs 800 feet above, squinting into the sun. Somewhere up there was our only passage to the nearly pristine crest of No Mans Mesa. We followed a faint trail and located our first rock cairn trail marker a few hundred feet up the rock slide and after this, the cairns were usually easily seen and numerous enough to follow the trail (June 2018). Back and forth the trail switchbacks to the top of the fan. The transition point from exiting the debris fan to entering the steep cliff walls is a rock "bridge" ~ 20 feet across with a steep and loose gully tumbling down to the right.
LeFevre cabin in Park Wash - 4.5 miles from Lick Wash trailhead
Cairn marking trail up debris fan. Park Wash with trail below
Eroded bedding provides a staircase as you walk on more solid ground. The trail gets steeper and more exposed. Stunning views open up. It appears that in some places sandstone has been chiseled to make the trail, probably by Jepson, the goat herder in 1927. From the wash floor, the cliff walls looked impenetrable - now we were squeezing through the only known passage to the top.
Then suddenly we were taking the first steps into the relict, almost surreal world of No Mans Mesa with its relatively long and flat terrain, nothing but blue sky above. Savoring each step, I felt grateful to the Mesa for letting me in. Fred and I lunched in pinyon pine shade near a ledge of burnt orange rock with hints of blue-grey - part of the Carmel Formation. It was rather warm in the sun and many wildflowers were in seed. There were no cheatgrass seeds getting stuck in my socks, only open bright sand weaving around healthy bunch grasses and small sand dunes sprouting native Arizona thistle. On a short walk around the top, I found chert debitage, a white rock flake that shows evidence of stone tool-making. Surprised by the presence of sand dunes, I then realized that in fact, Navajo Sandstone was created by deposition of wind-blown sand into large dunes (eolian environment). It was originally red: it was turned to a brilliant white color after reducing fluids dissolved the iron oxide from the grains of the deeply buried sandstone.
Trail shortly after crossing "bridge" between talus of debris fan and entrance into cliff rocks
Nearing top through break in cliff to No Mans Mesa
Trail appears to be chiseled into the rock at a few places
Finally at the top!
View from top of No Mans Mesa of Park Wash and Pink Cliffs
According to the study A Comparison of a near-relict site and a grazed site in a pinyon-juniper community in the Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah, no non-native species were found on the study plots on No Mans Mesa. This study compares vegetation species cover and richness, cryptobiotic crust cover and soil on No Mans Mesa and Deer Spring Point, ~ 2 km southwest of No Mans Mesa. Deer Spring Point is accessed by a road branching from Skutumpah Road and is grazed in the summer by domestic livestock. Characteristics for these two study sites are similar: same geology, elevation, soil, aspect and plant community type.
Major findings comparing plant communities in the grazed site and the non-grazed, near-relict site:
Sue holding chert flake on top of No Mans Mesa
In our short exploration of the top, I was aware of just about every step on that isolated, ecologically "pure" mesa elevated above lands that held invasive plants in this remote wilderness. I felt I was taking steps about 200 years back in time before invasive species were introduced.
Reluctantly, I walked out of that beautiful land and committing to memory what this place looks like. We found our steep entrance and hiked down past the rusty mangled fence that Jepson must have used to keep his goats on the mesa. Still not a cloud in the sky on this mid-June day. White wash and trails curved their way through the dark sagebrush flat 800 feet below us. This time, as we neared the lower section of the debris fan, we veered north and found a less rocky and more sandy descent to the valley floor.
By this time we were hiking in full blazing sun - it was getting pretty darn hot. Pausing to rest under any shade we could find, we bypassed side canyons that would have to wait until next time we were here. At last we reached the cooler narrows of Lick Wash and shed our sweat-soaked shirts for awhile.
I wish I were in the shade of those sandstone walls, sliding my hands over the ancient and eroded beds, hearing the crunch of the purple-hued trail, and smelling the ponderosa pines. We will be back here, but time keeps ticking. A recently retired friend, talking about his planned adventures, said to me, "I don't know if I have enough money, but I sure as hell don't have enough time!"
Lick Wash narrows
Native Arizona thistle
Northern No Mans Mesa
Arizona thistle (Cirsium arizonicum) against Navajo Sandstone
No Mans Mesa
Loamy sand of No Mans Mesa
Making our way down - a few loose rocks
North tip of No Mans Mesa
Ascend left side (northernmost point)
Navajo Sandstone cliffs of Calf Pasture Point
Atkison, Ron. Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region. 1998. Falcon Publishing. pp 288-292.
Gregory, Herbert E. 1951. The Geology and Geography of the Paunsaugunt Region Utah. Geological Survey Professional Paper 226. United States Government Printing Office.
Guenther, D., Stohlgren, Thomas J., Evangelista, P. 2003. A Comparison of a near-relict site and a grazed site in a pinyon-juniper community in the Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah, In book: The Colorado Plateau: cultural, biological and physical research. The University of Arizona Press, pp. 153-162.
Mason, Lamar R., Andrews, Horace M., Carley, James A., Haacke, E. Dwain. 1967. Vegetation and Soils of No Man's Mesa Relict Area, Utah. Journal of Range Management 20: 45-49.
This superb steep ridge hike out of Arrowrock Reservoir in the Boise Mountains treks through blankets of wildflowers and provides an exhilarating view of water and mountain ranges. It's our final "Grand Slam Peak".
Fred and members of the Summit Sisters on summit of Mt. Heinen - 6,336 feet
Trip Stats (Southeast Ridge Approach):
"In the end you won't remember the time you spent working in your office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain."
- Jack Kerouac
Our route and elevation profile up Mt. Heinen's southeast ridge
5 miles to summit with cumulative 3,700 feet of elevation gain
Arrowrock Reservoir is lower right - hike begins adjacent to the Irish Creek Campground located 14 miles in on FR-268 from turn-off of ID 21.
click on map for PDF
Stepping onto a mountain summit, no matter how high, is always cause for celebration. The top of Mt. Heinen was even sweeter because Fred and I celebrated the completion of the four "Grand Slam Peaks" with members of the Summit Sisters, a women's hiking group who were doing the same in May, 2018. Since then, we have summited Mt. Heinen two other times this year: in September we took a friend and his two boys, Deacon and Kaleb and in November we took our friends Val and John. Deacon and Kaleb were working on completing their four Grand Slam Peaks. We had recently summited Goat Mountain with Val and John, a very tough hike, and now we were on another tough hike up Mt. Heinen.
Tom Lopez, author of the website Idaho: A Climbing Guide hikes four summits for spring training: Mt. Heinen is the toughest. The other Grand Slam Peaks are Lucky Peak, Cervidae Peak, and Kepros Mountain. Fred and I use Lucky Peak for training, and we will definitely be back on Heinen because it's skinny single-track, perched on a ridge most of the way is surrounded by knee-high wildflowers, peaks, and views of Arrowrock Reservoir. The green and lush vegetation reminded me a bit of Crested Butte, Colorado hikes.
Deacon, Fred, Kaleb and Greg on summit of Mt. Heinen - September 30, 2018
Arrowleaf Balsamroot with Arrowrock Reservoir in the distance
Initial steep climb out of Irish Creek Campground, on the shores of Arrowrock Reservoir
The trail in sight starting at FR-268 adjacent to Irish Creek Campground on Arrowrock Reservoir is steep and straight up - it vanishes over the ridge on the horizon. To know that this is only the beginning of the climb and that there is so much more elevation gain is the fun part of the challenge. The initial climb levels off into a beautiful meadow, but only for a short distance and then it climbs unmercifully again utilizing a few short switchbacks, to finally top off at Point 5402 at 1.8 miles where perspective can be gained. Mt. Heinen still can't be seen, not for another mile or so.
It is at this top-off before descending into a shallow saddle where Point 6137 comes into view as the left-most of twin points on the horizon. It has one tree on top. That is the landmark for the trail, as it contours around the left (west) side of this point and then heads almost due north.
The wildflowers - mostly Arrowleaf Balsamroot - were at optimum blooming the end of May. Threadleaf phacelia and bright purple penstemon were so lush and healthy. At times the vegetation grew so abundantly over the trail that we had to pay attention to where we were going. This is a ridge hike, open and airy as you walk above the landscape as the hillsides below fall away into undulating blankets of green and yellow with distant blue-gray mountain ranges surrounding. The trail is easy to follow most of the way but it gains a few "false summits" before Mt. Heinen comes into view. Closer to the peak it becomes less wide.
Like Mount Kepros, after the initial steep ascent and onto the ridge, the trail makes a series of hill climbs and saddle descents. Near the summit, the trail treks through Idaho Batholith granite.
Parsnipflower Buckwheat or Whorled Buckwheat
Fred and Sue on trail to Mt. Heinen
View from crest of initial climb, 1.8 miles from trailhead
Point 6137 is first seen as the left point on the horizon with the single tree on it - trail goes on the left (west) flank of this point and then heads due north to summit
On the way down, stay on the ridge you ascended by walking around this point to the left and staying on ridge that leads southeast
Point 6137 - trail changes direction from NW to north as the trail curves around the base of this point on its west side
At Point 6137, we passed a group of three people who had decided they would turn around, except for one hiker, a member of the Summit Sisters who hiked with us for a while and then joined up with the rest of the Summit Sisters members on the trail further up. It is at this pointed rise with a single tree that Mt. Heinen can finally be seen - the furthest peak on the left/end of the ridge. It is here that the trail winds around Point 6137 to the west and then heads straight north to Mt. Heinen.
On the autumn hike with Greg, Deacon and Kaleb, I became "temporarily bewildered" and walked down a small trail to the west of Point 6137. We ended up thrashing around thick brush to the west of the trail for a short distance, but then with the help of Greg's track app, we found our way back to the trail. When in doubt, stay on the ridge.
On the spring hike, we made the 5.0-mile hike to the summit in 2 hours and 50 minutes. One by one the Summit Sisters joined us in celebration. By then, an ominous dark cloud came over us, so we all decided to descend.
I recalled Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s quote:
"Perhaps climbing a mountain is nothing more than an act of worship,
and reaching the barren perch of a summit is to experience pure awe."
Admittedly, some summits are more spectacular than others, but each summit is cause for celebration. Mt. Heinen is the last on the ridge that runs to the northeast of Irish Creek and there is ultimate satisfaction in getting to the end of the ridge. Most peaks are hard-won, or in other words gained by hard work and effort, overcoming obstacles that get in your way, whatever they may be (in my case, tired legs and burning quads!).
I was impressed with Deacon and Kaleb on our second Mt. Heinen hike; they have been getting fit by hiking Kepros and Cervidae. They did great on this tough hike and we had a celebration at the top in the warm autumn sun surrounded by hillsides dotted with shrubs whose leaves were turning yellow.
The last mile to the summit is a ridge ramble on moderately difficult terrain, at times maneuvering around or on top of granite rocks. The summit geological marker post can be seen from a distance. Grand Slam peaks are done! The May Mt Heinen summit got us in shape for a summer of summit hiking. Mt. Heinen also gave us a new perspective on the land of Southern Idaho and the vastness of the Boise National Forest.
The last mile of descent was the most difficult part of the hike because it is so steep on loose gravel and rocks. A walking stick is helpful for this part. When I needed a rest, I had an awesome scene in front of me of the Arrowrock Reservoir.
Walking toward a "false summit", or as I like to call them "pseudo summit"
Approaching summit USDA geological marker placed in 1946
John and Fred on summit of Mt. Heinen - November 2018
Summit of Mt. Heinen looking north with red felt flag attached to marker
View from summit of Mt. Heinen looking east
View to NW from Mt. Heinen summit
Fred on summit of Mt. Heinen
4 Grand Slam Peaks Completed!
Greg, Deacon, Kaleb and Fred on initial climb to Mt. Heinen
Kaleb is about 2.25 miles into the hike - headed to the rise on the horizon
Val and Fred heading down toward Arrowrock Reservoir
Arrowrock Reservoir and Irish Spring Campground/dock on the way down the trail
A spacious ridge ramble in the Danskin Mountains with abundant wildflowers and views of snow-covered Trinity Mountains and Arrowrock Reservoir
Kepros Mountain Hiking Route and Elevation Profile
Trailhead (green circle) begins at summit of Blacks Creek Road from large parking lot. It initially climbs a steep motorcycle track whose tread can be seen on 3 short hills from parking lot. Trailhead at 4,780 feet, summit at 5,422 feet
Trailhead for Kepros Mountain looking west - motorcycle trail can be seen on 3 short and steep hills
Blacks Creek Road in foreground
"Even though age diminishes our physical capacities, it will happen even faster if we don't test ourselves."
- Mike Carlson, Five-time Race to Robie Creek Champion
Three down and one to go after summiting Kepros Mountain - that is, Fred and I have completed three of the "Grand Slam Peaks" that Tom Lopez describes in his website, Idaho: A Climbing Guide. Lucky Peak, one of the Grand Slam Peaks is our frequent training hike. Cervidae Peak is another that I posted on my website. Kepros is the third. Mount Heinen is the fourth and final peak of the "Grand Slam" we will summit in the next few weeks.
Initial single track trail
Top of Shafer Butte north of Boise on distant horizon
The ecology in these foothills near Blacks Creek Road may be described as "reference" - an area with mostly native plants that shows us what this land looked like in the past; an area that has not been disturbed. I didn't see many invasive plants and 2 species of astragalus were healthy. It was a delight to walk on a trail near Boise devoid of cheatgrass, in a landscape full of sagebrush and native grasses.
The easiest way to find this unmarked trailhead is to drive Blacks Creek Road 11 miles north from the exit ramp off I-84 until it reaches a summit and begins to descend. We parked at the large lot on the east side of the road along with some trailers and people getting their ATV's ready to ride trails to the east. The trail to Kepros Mountain begins on a single track going straight up 3 short steep hills to the west off Blacks Creek Road.
From beginning to end, this hike in late April is a wonderland of green and vivid hues of purple and yellow dotted throughout. Hiking through these sagebrush hills gave me a light feeling of air and space and a renewed appreciation for the landscapes of southern Idaho.
Larkspur and Arrowleaf Balsamroot
The initial single-track trail winds through a sea of sagebrush over rolling hills and past rusted metal signs and occasional core stones of granite. There are some bypasses around the highest elevations: we took a good one that met up with the ridge jeep trail to avoid more climbing, about 2 miles into the hike on the east (right) of the ridge. The bypass was not at this time marked with a cairn, however, the path it took was clear. At this point we saw our first view of Lucky Peak Lake and Boise to the west. Along most of the hike the snow-capped Trinity Mountains loom on the east horizon. As we climbed, vegetation became even more thick and green. Tree line is reached about one mile from the summit. Creeks cutting through rollling hills to the east were tempting to explore.
Single track trail meets with jeep trail ~ 2 miles into hike; it stays level, then winds up and down to Kepros Mountain left-center horizon
Idaho Batholith granite - Trinity Mountains on horizon
Arrowrock Reservoir from summit of Kepros Mountain
Pretty sure this is a gopher snake - looks like a rattler but this one had no rattle
From Kepros Mountain summit looking northeast to Arrowrock Reservoir
George Kepros, according to Idaho: A Climbing Guide website, homesteaded in this area and this is how the Mountain got its name. I looked into the history of this land and found a George N. Kepros, who is buried in Boise died at age 92 in 1973. He may be the man that Kepros Mountain is named after.
The final push to the summit is steep. Fred and I hit this summit on the perfect day - high clouds, expansive 360 degree views that we were unaccustomed to seeing, as we hadn't been in this "neck of the woods" before. This perspective of Lucky Peak, a summit we have been on many times, is unique because the north side is so forested - this is not seen from Boise looking at its south slopes.
After signing the summit register and enjoying a peaceful break, we hiked the nearly 5-mile trek back to our truck. As Fred led the way back, I kept falling behind because there were so many things to photograph. There's some climbing to do on the way back. We took the same bypass on the east side of the trail that we took earlier to the single track. So peaceful is this hike, and late April/early May probably the best time to do it. Fall hunting season probably not a good time.
So far Kepros is our favorite of the four Grand Slam Peaks - but we haven't hiked Mount Heinen yet. We will let you know what we think after we summit Heinen, the last of the Grand Slam Peaks!
Kepros Mountain summit looking west - Lucky Peak mid-horizon
Mertensia (Mountain Bluebells) on top of Kepros Mountain
A rugged and beautiful off-trail trek up Breakfast Ridge in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness through a saguaro, palo verde and ocotillo "forest".
On Breakfast Ridge parallel to Sabino Canyon facing north
McFall Crags on most distant left horizon. This route treks over the first major rise (4,000 feet) between two large saguaros in this photo
"As for me, I am tormented by an everlasting itch for things remote."
-Herman Melville, from Moby Dick
While scouting the web for a mountain to climb in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, I stumbled upon the blog Earthline: The American West, where I saw the detailed description for a hike to McFall Crags and Rattlesnake Peak and the quote above. "Remote" is a relative term: this hike takes you into the spectacular canyon country of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness where you will not likely see anyone else, however it starts among the throngs of visitors at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center. As the ridge climbs higher, the view of the Tucson metropolis opens up to the south, but to the north loom rugged crags, canyons and domes. The reward for charting the best route around tangles of thorny Palo Verde trees and long prickly pear spines on a trek with little or no signs of human impact is a more intimate connection with and a greater awareness of this rugged land.
A rare Crested (cristate) Saguaro
Following the detailed directions from Earthline's McFall Crags and Rattlesnake Peaks blog post, we set out with quick pace on the Esperero Trail from the visitor's center for 1.3 miles and entered Rattlesnake Canyon wash. The map below shows our route ascending the east flank of Breakfast Ridge and then a parallel route of our descent off Breakfast Ridge and into Rattlesnake Canyon wash to the west of Breakfast Canyon. Next time, I would just ascend and descend the wider Rattlesnake Canyon to the west - it is a beautiful and easy walk marked with footprints and cairns. Or, get onto Breakfast Ridge sooner out of the wash for more firm footing, as described in Earthline blog.
Figuring out which wash to go into and which ridge to mount can be confusing; experience with using a topo map is necessary.
As we walked up the ridge, Fred noticed a saguaro with a weirdly-shaped crown (photo above). Crested saguaros are relatively rare and are caused by an unusual mutation where cells divide outward instead of in a circular pattern. The Crested Saguaro Society has counted ~ 3,000 cristate saguaros.
Our route to second major rise (4,420 feet) on Breakfast Ridge
Shown is our ascent to the east up onto Breakfast Ridge and our descent to the west off the ridge and into Rattlesnake Canyon wash.
I recommend using Rattlesnake Canyon wash to the west of Breakfast Ridge to climb east onto the ridge.
Knowing we had a Frost gelato as our reward, we continued up the ridge, trying to avoid thorns and spines, but getting scratched anyway. I should know to wear pants when bushwacking in Arizona, but Idaho hiking is a whole different animal, and long pants aren't required unless it's cold.
This is a trek of beauty everywhere you look. Breakfast Ridge is a route to many intriguing places to experience and summit, with pretty steep canyons on either side. At the top of the first major rise at 4,000 feet, we found ourselves at eye-level with a blooming saguaro. Go straight up and over the first rise with occasional hand holds onto gneiss for balance. Rocks are stable on this short and steep section.
Gneiss cairn on Breakfast Ridge
From the first rise, walk down to a saddle and then up again toward the second major rise, with somewhat more open routes to take around clumps of prickly pear, palo verde and ocotillos. From the second rise at 4,420 feet, we could see Rattlesnake Peak and McFall Crags. Sabino Canyon Trail #23 traverses down the wall of Sabino Canyon to the east. I didn't see any hikers on that trail, adding to the feeling of "remoteness". Unfortunately, we were running out of time and turned back at this point. Next time we will start much earlier so we can summit Rattlesnake Peak.
First major rise at 4,000 feet on Breakfast Ridge facing south (return hike)
On the descent, we got off Breakfast Ridge and into Rattlesnake wash - a great way to observe geology: foliated gneiss cliffs and rounded boulders while walking through soft sand. Ending our "remote" hike, we walked down the tram road to the Visitor Center - Frost gelato, here we come!
Route-finding on ridge around thick vegetation
Quartz vein in mylonite
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) blooms
So much to climb!
On Breakfast Ridge near second main rise at 4,420 feet
Descending Rattlesnake Canyon
One of Tucson's highlights and reward for tired and scratched legs - a Frost gelato
Bezy, John V. 2004. A Guide to the Geology of Sabino Canyon and the Catalina Highway, Coronado National Forest. Arizona Geological Survey, Tucson, AZ. 56 pp.
Cristate Saguaros. 2013. Resource Brief - National Park Service - Saguaro National Park, Resource Management Division.
About this blog
– "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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