Wednesday, 5/12/21: Hackberry Canyon

The famous Cottonwood Road running through the middle of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

Just up highway 89 is Cottonwood Road, a dirt and gravel nightmare that runs right up the gut of Grand Staircase. 14 miles up that nightmare is the Lower Hackberry Canyon Trail. Just as we turned into Cottonwood Road we noticed a beautiful road grader parked at the entrance. Nobody was manning it but we looked longingly at it, hoping it was going to run up and down Cottonwood - eventually.

Views along the extreme southern end of Cottonwood Road. The Paria River with its white flood plain, runs along the road for a while.

The first 10 miles or so of Cottonwood Road travels through a plateau. When it finally enters the Grand Staircase, the rocky, broken-up, canyon-dissected landscape takes over.

It took about an hour to reach the Lower Hackberry Trailhead. The trail is 22 miles long. We certainly weren’t going to do that. But a brochure we got from the visitors center recommended the first 2.1 miles. There are supposed to be some dinosaur tracks at that point.

The trailhead is located at the confluence of the bone dry Cottonwood River and the bone dry Hackberry River. It took a little reconnoitering to figure out which bone dry river to follow since there wasn’t any signage or trail marking - not a cairn to be seen anywhere. We had Gaia GPS to guide us down the correct riverbed. The loose sandy river bottom was tough trudging.

About a quarter mile into the hike, we entered the stunning narrow Hackberry Canyon. As the canyon walls instantly grew vertically, the sand got even looser. Only the beauty of the canyon seemed to keep us going. This is technically a slot canyon. There is no possible way of climbing out of the canyon. The canyon walls are too high and they are sheer vertical walls. The slot is about 30’ wide, so there is no need to squeeze through anywhere, but it was still quite confining.

Around the half mile point a little water creeped down the canyon. Within a few yards we were walking in a couple inches of a fast running creek. We took off our shoes. The sandy bottom was now far easier to walk on. The water was warmed by the sun but once in a while we’d hit a cold spot. The rest of the trek was a blast.

We met up with an Arizona couple escaping their 100º oven in Phoenix, that claimed to have found the dinosaur tracks. They built a little cairn at their spot. We found their cairn, and what they thought were tracks. Well, I don’t know ‘bout dat. I took a picture of the rock, but I’m not going to call it dinosaur tracks just yet. Besides, Gaia claimed we were already past the 2.1 mile mark. We returned to the van.

At the Lower Hackberry Trailhead, it is confusing as to which dry gulch to follow. The Hackberry River, although dry here, quickly leads up a slot canyon and actually has some running water.

Entering the canyon.

Hmmm, a trickle of water runs down the slot canyon before being absorbed by the sand.

So this is the rock that our Arizona couple thought had the dinosaur track. Big dinosaurs had three toes. He believed the big three holes were from a giant Rex or something like that. Like I said, “I don’t know ‘bout dat.”

Being 3 pm already, we decided not to continue down Cottonwood Road. The entire stretch is 52 miles long. On our way back to highway 89 we noticed that the road was a bit smoother. Sure enough, we overtook the grader. I can’t say that the grader made a super highway out of the rutted road, but it did tame most of the ruts.

We headed back toward Kanab for gas. On the way we turned up Johnson Road, the western road that crosses up through Grand Staircase. The first 15 miles were paved and it went through private lands before reaching public lands. This valley was irrigated and was lush green. A little water and that red and white dust is more fertile that one would think.

Johnson Road, where it entered Grand Staircase, turns to gravel and changes it’s name to Skutumpah Road. Great name, not so great road. The scenery is awesome. We turned around to save Skutumpah for another day.

Johnson Road scenes. Of course, these aren’t the irrigated fields.

Although I already knew this, I was fully realizing that it’s in the northern section of the Grand Staircase that has most of the cool stuff. Maybe we won’t spend a whole week camped at Paria Road. Hmmmmmm......

Glossary of terms used for newcomers: 1) V-Jer. The name of our camper. 2) Saturn. The name of our Van. 3) Duende. Our mischievous gremlin that breaks things. 4) Tata. The good gremlin that helps us fix Duende’s dirty work. 5) The Black Hole. This is what we call Walmart because every time we go in for just a couple of items, we come out spending way more than we figured. 6) QT. Quaint Town.

Dave and Wanda

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