Backpacking in Coyote Gulch
When we had spring break as teachers, we would head out to Northern Utah to ski. When we retired, we were able to extend our ski time to include hiking in Southern Utah. Utah is a very diverse state topographically. You can be skiing up North and then ten days and five hours later be hiking in the deserts of Southern Utah. Photographing in Southern Utah in the spring (April) is such a delight. The weather is temperate, desert spring flowers are in bloom and, being from the cloudy Northeast, the sunshine is welcome and abundant.
For this spring trip, I had been reading “Photographing the Southwest, Volume 1”, by Laurent Martres. Volume 1 covers Southern Utah. Volume 2 covers Arizona. The books are very informative for highlighting not only the most scenic locations, but he gives great photographic advice as far as when and where to take the best photos. He also gives good directions to each location. While reading Volume 1, I came across an intriguing description from Martres of one particular hike. As he notes:
“I have had the good fortune to visit over seventy countries and to trek to the far corners of the world and I rank Coyote Gulch up there with the greatest hikes of all”
What a sales pitch! I was sold. So along with hauling out our ski gear, we shipped out a box with our backpacking equipment. We planned to hike into Coyote Gulch and spend three days and two nights. According to Martres, he preferred hiking in from a place called “Crack-in-the-Wall”, near Forty mile Ridge Road, off Hole-in-the-Rock Road to the Redwell parking lot.
Now for a little logistical information. Hole-in-the-Rock Road is a dirt,wash-board desert road located just outside the small town of Escalante. As the guidebooks suggest, it is best to have a high clearance, 4 wheel drive vehicle to navigate this road. From our experience, having a 4 wheel drive, high clearance vehicle increased the comfort level of driving the wash board ridges that cover large parts of certain sections of the road. At only fifty-four miles long, and with most hiking sites within the first 40 miles, it can still take an hour or more to travel 30 miles. You might reach 40 miles an hour driving on some portions of the road, but 20 MPH is the more the norm. The road, at least in April, was traveled, but I would not say was busy or one that you would use to hitchhike to your car, if, for example, you put in at one destination and needed a ride back to your car up the road. Therefore, to hike the whole 13 or so miles of Coyote Gulch we would need to enlist a shuttle service to drop us off at Crack-in-the-Wall and then we would hike back to our car at the Redwell parking area. Redwell parking area is located at mile 31.5 on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, while Crack-in-the-Wall parking area is located at mile 36. So we needed a shuttle for five or so miles. I contacted some shuttle services and they were all charging $300.00 or more for the shuttle service. That seemed quite exorbitant for the service rendered, but the services said it covered the wear and tear on their vehicles because of the rough nature of the road.
While talking with the Shuttle service, they also suggested that April would not be the optimum time to be down in Coyote Gulch. Because Coyote Gulch is very scenic and offers a steady water supply, something to cherish with desert hiking, it was a very popular place not only for boy scout troops, but college students on spring break. Outfitters we talked to said it had been very busy down there already. They suggested several other places we might want to try instead and, based on their suggestions, we decided we would do a backpacking base camp into Neon Canyon and Golden Cathedral. This option, also, alleviated the necessity of the expensive shuttle.
We arrived in the small town of Escalante and headed for our little cabin from Escalante Outfitters. These were great little individual cabins, with a communal bath. It was clean, with towels and only $45.00 per night. A great deal. We took a day to get organized and do a day hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls before we headed out. While buying last minute groceries and talking with the local merchants, they said that it had been busy, but they seemed to be in a lull right now. As we would be hiking in on a Thursday and hiking out on Saturday morning, we thought we might be missing the weekend bump of activities. With this new set of information, we made a sudden last minute change to go into Coyote Gulch after all. We would not use the shuttle service, but instead park our car at Redwell, hike in and camp for two nights and then return to Redwell. On the second day in Coyote Gulch, we would day pack downstream towards the Crack-in-the-Wall entrance.
To hike in Coyote Gulch, youwill be walking in and out of the Coyote Gulch stream bed many, many times and, sometimes, it is just easier to walk straight down through the ankle deep water, itself. To that end, we shipped out some water shoes with neoprene socks, which worked exceedingly well. Before we left, we bought the Soloman Tech-amphibian shoes. with Neosocks. These were lightweight, but sturdy, with good treads and a good release of water. The Neosocks were mostly used to help protect our feet from the filtered sand and rocks from the river. Some people might like them for the warmth they provide while walking in mountain feed streams and rivers. In addition to the shoes, we would be carrying a tent, sleeping bag, food, clothes, and, for me, photography equipment. I tried, a best I could, to cull down my photography equipment to keep my pack within a reasonable weight. I decided to carry my Nikon D7000 with the kit 18-200mm lens as my sole lens. I carried this camera on my belt with the lightweight Peak Design Capture Camera Clip. This clip is well made and designed and allowed me to have my camera at the ready while hiking. I would highly recommend this device for its functionality and minimum weight. Along with my camera, I brought a Benro Travel Angel tripod, a cable release, a Hoodman loupe. I also brought several ND filters and a polarizer. As much as I might, the backpack was still very heavy for me. I was glad that I would only be hiking with it in and out of Coyote Gulch and would have the relief of a day pack while down in the Gulch.
Down in Coyote Gulch-
We were all packed and headed down Hole-in-the-Rock Road to Redwell. Our goal was to hike half way down the Gulch and camp somewhere near Jacob Hamblin Arch. Heading out from Redwell, we were immediately struck with the fact that though this part of the trail had been traveled it was not the most traveled part of the Coyote Gulch trail. There were tell tale footprints to reassure us, but we hiked for five hours and did not see one person or one sign to let us know we were on the right track. The trail from Redwell to Jacob Hamblin is a rambling, loosely organized set of paths through the cottonwood thickets. The trail is less scenic than further down, hence, the lack of traffic. As long as we were following the Coyote Gulch stream bed, though only a small trickle at some points, we assumed we were heading in the right direction.
After about four hours, we did happen upon a stake that pointed the way out to Hurricane Wash and then a return to Redwell. From this point, the scenery became very dramatic as we were walking surrounded by the beautiful, varnished red sandstone canyon. As we found out later as we talked with other campers, a popular route for many was to put in at Crack-in-the Wall and head out via Hurricane Wash. Past this intersection, we hiked another forty-five minutes and reached Jacob Hamblin Arch. The arch is a scenic camping point for many hikers and when we arrived, though not exceptionally busy, campers and their tents were scattered around the west side of the arch, which offered many camping opportunities. We decided to hike around the bend to the east side of the arch and found an exceptional camp site with abundant space, a magnificent view of the arch and a water seep just across the river that provided water that did not require filtering. Thus, we filled up our water bottles right from the seep. We setup what would be our camp for the next two nights. Though the canyon walls echoed even from a person talking softly, the campsite was quiet that evening with only the babble of the stream flowing past.
That night I decided to set up down stream from our camp for a night shot of the Arch. I was hoping for a moonless, new moon, but, instead, was greeted with a clear, quarter moon shining from behind me and highlighting the arch. Despite what I was hoping for, I used the moonlight as a fill light to highlight the canyon and the arch and then waited for the sky to get dark enough to show some stars through the arch,which would convey the night time. I played with various ISO’s aiming for a balance between light and camera noise. It is always hard, it seems, to capture the grandeur of the scene in front of you. I settled on an exposure of 10 seconds @ f/4.0 @ ISO 2500 for the shot you see on the left.
The next morning, we left camp and hike several hours down stream towards the Crack-in-the-Wall entrance. It was Friday and it became evident fairly quickly that this was the more populated part of the hike. We met several of the infamous boy scout troups as well as some family groups. I would not say that it felt crowded, but it was definitely busier than we had experienced the day before. At some point, a ranger told us, in the near future, they were working on regulating the traffic down in the Gulch. Not only for crowd control, but to control the fact that some folks do not treat the wilderness with the respect it is due. Leaving trash and human waste behind without regard for others visiting the area. At one point, we met a ranger with a garbage bag, picking up let over trash.
That aside, the trail from Jacob Hamblin Arch down past the Coyote Natural Bridge and onto the Cliff Arch was amazingly scenic and featured the most famous highlights of the Gulch. It was fun and quite a different experience to be walking in the stream bed for long stretches surrounded by varnished walls, which contrasted beautifully against the vibrant green cottonwoods in bloom. It was an amazing study in contrast.
Upon returning back upstream to Jacob Hamblin Arch, we found the place around the arch to be the end destination for most of hikers we had seen that day. Selfishly, we did not offer to share our superb site with others, so many folks seemed scattered at various points up and down the river on gravel sand bars. The sound of echoing voices was very evident that evening as people settled in, but, mercifully, even the boy scout troops settled down as night came on and the canyon was peacefully quiet for sleeping.
Hiking out of Coyote Gulch-
As we were packing up to head out our last morning, Saturday, we talked with a family that was heading out a steeper, escape trail right out of Jacob Hamblin Arch. We had talked with many folks that were hiking out through Hurricane Wash and we entertained heading out that way so as to have a different visual experience than just repeating our trip back to Redwell. We, however, were uncertain about being able to get a ride to our car. The young family we were planning to hike out with said they would gladly give us a ride to our car- and, besides- they had a rope? Spoken of briefly in the guide books, this route out of Jacob Hamblin required a steep scramble up a couple of pitches at the outset on some rather featureless sandstone. To emphasize this point, we met two gentlemen returning from attempting the same route earlier that morning. One’s knees and elbows were badly scraped and he was visibly shaken by the slide he had taken down the face. They did not have a rope and, thus, decided to hike out via Hurricane Wash instead.
So, with this knowledge fresh in our minds, we decided to accept the family’s offer to follow them out via this trail. How hard could it be right? They had young children after all. Gerry, my wife, was excited. She had been teaching rock climbing at our high school for years. I, on the other hand, had some trepidation. I filed to the back of the line as the father scramble ahead to get the rope setup. Gerry, with backpack on, made it up the pitches with seemingly little trouble. I on the other hand, with my heavier backpack, was glad to have the rope assistance on several occasions. I seemed to be able to find footholds, but no handholds in the smooth sandstone. I would not have wanted to attempt these pitches without, at least, the assurance of a rope.
Once on top, the distance to their car was only an hour and half, but the scenery was so dramatically different than being down in Coyote Gulch that it felt like being on a different planet. The desert sandstone had dramatic folds and arches and the desert sand provided space for a beautiful array of desert spring wildflowers.
If I were to do this hike again, or suggest it to someone else, I would suggest going in at Crack-in-the- Wall and out via Jacob Hamblin Arch, as this gives you the most dramatic highlights of Coyote Gulch and the Coyote Stream bed. Though, I am still not sure how to arrange a car pick-up. Despite running into the boy scout troops on the second day, I am glad we took the risk and ventured down in to Coyote. We lucked out, and though busy, it was not so busy as to be unpleasant or take away from the beauty of the wilderness experience.