Sunday, March 23, 2014

Pine Creek Box Canyon, Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Utah

Distance: 4.8 miles one way to Deep Creek (7.7 km) or 8.8 miles (14.7 km) to upper trailhead
Elevation:  6,410 - 7,040 feet (at Deep Creek) or 7740 feet (upper trailhead)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy (to Deep Creek) to Moderate (to upper trailhead)
Time of Year: March - November (Be prepared for ice in early spring and heat in summer)

Located just north of the small town of Escalante, UT is a beautiful box canyon with 1000-2000 feet sheer-walled sandstone cliffs that rivals Zion National Park, but without the crowds. Under the shade of large pines, with the cool flow of a small creek, Pine Creek Box Canyon in the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness is a great escape from the rigors of urban life and a great alternative to the massive crowds that are loving our national parks to death.

You can do this canyon as an out-and-back trail by heading up from the lower trailhead to the confluence with Deep Creek (9.6 miles roundtrip) or as a one-way trip to the upper trailhead (8.8 miles one-way), but you will need a car shuttle back down the road to the lower trailhead. Either way, to access the lower trailhead, head east out of the town of Escalante on UT-12 and turn left on the road 300 E. Follow this road past the elementary school and when you see a Y in the road, hang right. Follow this road up past farmers fields until it turns dirt. Look for a sign and turn right. The 0.3 mile access road to the trailhead is washed out, so park at the road closed sign and walk about 0.2 miles to the trail register and into the canyon.

The first creek crossing near the trailhead
The trail is obvious along the whole route, but there are countless crossings of the small Pine Creek. In the vast majority of cases, it is easy to rock-hop across the creek without getting your boots wet. But, during high flows or if ice covers the rocks in the winter/early spring, there may be instances where you have to step in the water. So, be prepared. But, I managed to do the entire route without getting wet with just one large jump needed on a section without stones to walk across.

The trail starts out in a forest of Ponderosa pines and riparian trees such as cottonwoods, alders, and willows. The Ponderosa pines can survive this low due to the shade of the high canyon walls and the moisture in the soil associated with the creek. Douglas firs appear in scattered clumps, especially further upstream. There are even Englemann spruces scattered along the creek some 2,000 feet below their normal elevations of this region, as their cones wash downstream and the find the right microclimate to survive.

A young spruce (left) finds the right microclimate next to the creek to survive 2000 feet below its relatives

The trail is mostly in the shade, especially useful in the summer heat, but there are openings that allow views up the steep vertical cliffs, but rarely are there panoramic views up or downstream. But, there are a number of talus slopes that connect to the solid slickrock above that you can scramble up to get those amazing views.

Really, you can turn back at any point or continue all the way up to the top. As you reach the upper stretches of the canyon, the forest transitions from one dominated by Ponderosa pine to one dominated by Douglas fir and Englemann spruce. With the winter being warmer and drier than normal, we did this hike in March with no snow on the ground and only a little ice on the creek. Other years, this might be too early.

Some morning ice on the creek

Later, this creek bed will be lush and green with deciduous foliage. Just be on the lookout for poison ivy on slopes and right along the stream bed. Remember, "leaves of three-let it be". The confluence with Deep Creek, which is really inappropriately named as it is a tiny little creek, is a good place to turn around as a goal. 
The view back down the canyon after 3 miles

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