Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hackberry Canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, Utah

Distance: Day Trip 4-6 miles roundtrip or backpack 20 miles one way.
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Season: Spring or Fall if it hasn't rained lately

Hackberry Canyon is a long, narrow canyon which penetrates into the Coxcomb near the Paria River in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Coxcomb is a fold in the earth that tilts the sedimentary layers up at a angle for some 30 miles along the Paria River and Cottonwood Wash. The best way to reach Hackberry Canyon is to drive down US-89 from Kanab toward Page. Shortly after crossing the Paria River look for a left onto Cottonwood Canyon Road. This rough dirt road goes for 46 miles up to Cannonville in Bryce Valley. Go 14.4 miles up Cottonwood Canyon road to reach the trailhead for Hackberry Canyon. This road is generally passable by passenger cars, although a high clearance 4x4 would be preferred. It is NOT passable after rain, when the soft tropic shale turns into an oozing wet clay that will trap even off-road vehicles.

The route starts off as a pleasant stroll through a sandy, cottonwood shaded wash. As the wash enters the canyon walls, the first signs of water begin to show on the surface. Soon, as the canyon walls close in, the creek grows larger and you will now need to criss-cross over the stream numerous times. Most of the time, it is possible to skip over it, use rocks, or otherwise keep your feet dry. But, occassionally you may need to just step across through the shallow water. Also, water levels vary depending on the weather and season. So, be prepared to get your feet wet.

Also, watch out for quicksand. These piles of sand on the stream banks seem stable and dry until you step on them. At first you sink an inch or two and you can see a huge mound jiggle like it was jello. But, every movement causes water from below to move upward in a process known as liquifaction and you will sink deeper in. Usually you can step out before you sink ankle deep, but Linda ended up knee deep once. I highly recommend you basically launch yourself out as quickly as possible before you lose a boot in that stuff.

The route through this beautiful slot is just filled with amazing colors and sights. The first mile of this hike is really the best, especially because of the cool shade the canyon provides on a hot day. After a little over a mile, the creek leaves the narrow, white sandstone and enters a wider, more sun exposed, red canyon of siltstone. This area has a completely different feel. The stream is allowed to meander more, the vegetation is more arid adapted with cactus becoming prevalent, and the cliffs a bright red. We hiked about 1 additional mile up through this canyon until reaching some interesting purple shale formations.

Eventually, upon reaching a rise that provided a view further down the canyon, we decided that the scenery was not going to change significantly the further we went and it was getting hot. However, I read the entire length of the canyon is 20 miles and end up meeting up with the road further up. So, it is possible, by backpacking, to go the length of it, especially if you had another car to park at the exit.


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