View Full Version : Red Canyon Explorations

October 23rd, 2009, 16:14
Southern Utah as a couple of Red Canyons that I know of, there are probably a few dozen of ‘em scattered around the Southwest. This Red Canyon is the one that runs from Hwy 276 to the shore of Lake Powell. The roads are here thanks to uranium prospectors and have been mostly forgotten since their departure. I have been exploring it a few miles at a time over the past few years and have enjoyed every bit of it.

The Loose Screws group needed a reunion since we have not all been together since Fall Fling 2008. Jared and Ranger Rick made it, as well as new recruit Adam and his girlfriend. My wife accompanied me as she knew this was going to be a fun trip.

The first order of business was a reconnaissance of Moqui Canyon, a 20 mile long gash in the earth just over the mesa from Red Canyon. Maps show a zigzag road heading down one side, up the canyon a ways and out the opposite rim in a similar fashion. Poking around the internet I found a writeup by some motorcyclists telling about their ride down the “Dune of Doom” and up to Mancos Mesa on the other side. The return trip involved pushing their bikes up the sandy switchbacks, hence the name.

What we found there was a narrow, 600 foot deep canyon with sheer Navajo sandstone walls. A sand dune created a slope up a short side canyon and miners had cut an unlikely set of switchbacks down it to access Moqui Canyon as this was the easiest way to reach Mancos Mesa.

The switchbacks looked doable but this short stretch nearly at the canyon bottom looked quite narrow.

A lady was relaxing in the shade of an LJ at the top of the switchbacks reading a book. She said that her husband had ridden down on his motorcycle and reported by radio that just getting down was tough. Jared and I aired down to single digits and tentatively followed, stopping at the second switchback to investigate the rest on foot.

That last part that I worried about was narrower than I had feared:

Going down the ravine didn’t look like an option either

The canyon bottom looked like easy driving, but we declined to drive any further, figuring that we would spend the whole 4 days we had allocated for this trip just trying to get back up. The Dune of Doom will remain for another trip.

The sand was dry and soft, except for this weird, glacier-like flow capped with a hard crust that we did not break through on the hike back up. What looks like tire tracks in this photo is the “sand glacier”:

A better look at the “sand glacier”. We stopped driving before the road got really steep and had no trouble getting back up. I think we could have driven all of the way up from the canyon floor if it were not for the narrow spot at the bottom.

These piles of sand came out of Jared’s boots

We caught up to LJ lady and her moto mate later in the weekend, sure enough he had to push his bike up parts of the switchbacks. He reported that there was a fence across the road on Mancos Mesa, it is now a Wilderness Study Area.

That night we camped in the East Fork of Lake Canyon, the dead end part of Hole in the Rock Trail. Exploring along the way we encountered this wagon wheel. I had seen photos of it before, it was nice to find something new on a trail I have done several times.

Jared had a birthday earlier in the week so we helped him celebrate it. You are sooo lucky that I forgot to bring the party hats! party1:

More to come...

October 23rd, 2009, 17:06
This trip was loosely planned around the following framework: Friday attempt the Dune of Doom. Sunday night, camp at Lake Powell. In between, we’ll figure it out as we go! I know I have great wheeling buddies if a plan like that is good enough for them.

Part of the reason for camping in the East Fork was the opportunity to get gas at Cal Black Airport on the way back out. 87 octane was good enough for 3 of us but Adam opted for 100 octane gas for his supercharged JK. We had a nice chat with the proprietors and headed down to Red Canyon proper. Ranger Rick has shared his story of finding meteorites in Red Canyon, I also found what I thought could be a few meteorites there too. We stopped for lunch at the Chocolate Drop and Adam and Jared found a bunch on a bench of the Moenkopi Formation.

They have a dull sheen that really stands out in this sedimentary landscape. Most of them are smaller than a fist. They are all look like they started out as a lumpy wad of something, but are now rounded and without any sharp edges. They are surprisingly heavy, I would guess about 50% heavier than a similarly sized piece of sandstone.


Triassic wave ripples on a nearby bench

I’m not sure what the rocks were but we collected a few. I suspect that they are something other than meteorites. There were too many of them and I suspect the miners would have done something with them if they actually were from outer space. Scratching our heads, we drove out of the canyon bottom and into the colorful Chinle badlands near the Chocolate Drop.


There were several options after that. We explored the length of Blue Canyon, the first time for all of us.


The rocky, serpentine route took us back to Red Canyon where we arrived at dusk and made an easy camp next to the road. The sky was unfolding above into a spectacularly moonless night.

More to come…

October 26th, 2009, 08:44
We enjoyed a restful night but for some reason woke up early. Rolling out of our tents we were greeted by a sky full of colorful cottonball clouds. It was going to be a good day.

Last night’s campsite was chosen simply because it was the first flat spot we found in the gathering darkness after exiting rocky Blue Canyon. We unfurled tents at the roadside with no thoughts other than getting a good night’s sleep as we all had gotten an early start the day before. It turns out that even the most random roadside campsite to be found in Red Canyon is quite beautiful.

Rather than heading directly to where we would winch ourselves out of Red Canyon we went in search of the Rainbow. Ranger Rick has a story about getting lost and spending a stormy night where he, his wife and dog all bivouacked inside their Cherokee. He remembered seeing “RAINBOW CANYON” emblazoned on the sandstone nearby. The map shows a 4wd road going through a Rainbow Canyon between our present location and Lake Powell. With only a couple of wrong turns we found ourselves driving down the canyon on a road that looked like it had not been used in years. Within its confines we came across modern pictographs that matched Rick’s description in 2 separate locations.


Would you believe that Rick’s Rainbow Canyon sign was supposed to be near Red Canyon Road? So there is still another sign painted on a rock somewhere in the vicinity that we have not yet found. I wouldn’t mind another visit anyways, there was a lot to see there… like these prehistoric Spanish tiles:

Joining Red Canyon again we headed directly to where we would find the exit.
The elevation here is 3653 feet, about 20 above the present lake level. It is still 50 feet below the full pool level of the lake and the landscape reflects the influence of this flood and ebb. When the lake was above this point a considerable amount of sediment dropped out of Red Canyon’s runoff onto what was then the lake floor. It had built up a thick layer of loosely packed sand which promptly began washing away when the lake level dropped. Tamarisk follows the receding water all around Lake Powell, here was no different. The invasive weed did what it was imported to do, growing in thick stands which stabilized the loose soil. The tammies allowed vertical cutbanks 20 to 50 feet high to form as the sand washed away, walling in the lower part of Red Canyon.

Unsure of what to expect when we found the exit, we brought along gardening tools and planned on doing some work to make it passable. It was in pretty good shape, other than some tammie saplings sprouting in the road. Many hands make quick work and I soon winched myself up and out of Red Canyon, anchored to a 30 foot towstrap wrapped around several clumps of the profuse trees.

I backed out of the way and quickly reeled in the rest of our crew using a snatch block on the same anchor.

Once everybody was up we had a nice lunch in the shade of a tunnel cut into the vile weed, then exited via another tunnel through the tammie jungle.

It wasn’t long before the serpentine road winding across Moenkopi benches and over Chinle badlands brought us within sight of the lake.

What we found there was a first class campsite on a rocky bench overlooking a broad sweep of Good Hope Bay. There was nobody else around, either on land or water. A couple hours of daylight were remaining. Adam stood where land meets water and wondered what we were going to do for entertainment…
More to come…

October 28th, 2009, 08:12
After 3 days of bumping along behind the wheel Rick knows what he wants to do:

From the beginning I planned on jumping in the lake to wash off several day’s worth of trail dust. There are not too many multi-day desert wheeling trips where this is possible. I even planned the itinerary so we would arrive there at the end rather than at the start. Going the other direction would have been much easier, we could have slid down the sand into Red Canyon instead of winching up out of it. After taking a cool bath and shaving I filled the solar shower for my wife to wash off with. The rest of the crew had other ideas…

Adam and Amanda where born and raised in the desert, neither of them really cared for the water. But after a few days in the wilds of southern Utah they were willing to push their boundaries.
Amanda took some convincing…
…but the lure of the lake proved irresistible.

Refreshed, we settled in to enjoy the evening’s next activity- watching the colors of the lake and sky as day evolved into night, then back to day again.


I can’t think of a better way to appreciate a beautiful setting than by sleeping out under the stars. I have recently begun weaning my wife off our bombproof 4 season tent. We were the last ones in the group to pick a campsite…the only level spot left was this block of sandstone surrounded on 3 sides by a 20 foot drop into the lake. To my amazement, my wife agreed to a simple air mattress/sleeping bag arrangement perched over the dark waters.
Surrounded by good friends and my adventure buddy wife, with an otherwise deserted, 180 mile long lake at my feet and countless stars decorating my ceiling, I think I know how it feels like to live like a millionaire. This really makes me appreciate the freedom currently given to every American to use and enjoy our public lands. I am taking every opportunity to get out and visit what I can, while I can. If the Red Rock Wilderness Act gets passed into law trips like this will come to an end forever (http://www.naxja.org/forum/showthread.php?t=1008982). Please take a moment to write your congressman.

One more post to go...

October 28th, 2009, 10:13
Nobody was in a hurry to pack up and leave on Monday, our final day. The wind came up during the night, it was the closest thing to bad weather we experienced for the duration of our trip. Even that was not too bad, the overnight temperature on the shore where we camped was a balmy 72 degrees.

Packed up but not ready to leave!

We drove out up the Blue Notch Road. It is very twisty and smooth and was great fun to drive. Since the wind was behind us the trick was to try to stay out of your own dust, which was tough as the Chinle clay surface creates a dense, powdery dust.

One last look at the lake from Blue Notch Pass

Down the other side, homeward bound.

We aired up and said goodbye to Jared at Hwy 95, but not before getting visits from an NPS Ranger and the owner of the nearby Happy Jack mine, “just checking that we were all right.” Welcome to civilization.

Ranger Rick has had a lot of overheating issues with his tow rig this summer, which continued right up to this trip so we made sure it was ok and started the drove home in convoy.

A short history of the Southwest: the Anasazi made this area their home for hundreds of years. Then they mysteriously disappeared. Shortly afterwards, Ranger Rick began exploring the area. Whenever I travel with him it seems like he knows where every pictograph and granary is hidden. This trip was no different. He mentioned that we should check out some ruins just before Arch Canyon, which we did. We pulled up to find a majestic round tower perched on a canyon rim, along with a couple of other rock piles marking the sites of former structures.

What an impressive canyon it guarded


Sitting on the canyon rim, enjoying the scenery and wondering if we could ever leave this place we started noticing other ruins down in the canyon. It seemed that there was something built under every ledge on the south side of the canyon and even a few on the north side too.

Adam and I picked our way down through the ledges to see a couple of them up close.


A last encounter with the local wildlife at the round tower on the way out

We enjoyed the golden cottonwoods in their brief time of autumn glory but were also pleased to see a wildflower growing out of a nearby crack still blooming in mid-October.

I was a great trip to enjoy the last of the nice fall weather. Thanks for coming (or reading) along!

October 28th, 2009, 10:24
Thanks for sharing your trip with us......next time, call me! I would love to take a trip like this.

Great summary, unless we are vocal and press our elected officials to preserve motorized access to our public lands....they will be closed under the hands of the Freedom-robbing eco-terrorist movement.

October 28th, 2009, 11:02
wow - awesome pictures and trip report!

October 28th, 2009, 11:15
wow! Awesome pictures.

Kudos for not bothering with the tent, I love camping like that when it's warm enough and I have a way to keep the bugs away. I think I need to buy a hammock for the future, faster to set up/tear down than an air mattress or therma-rest and where I am there are almost always trees to tie one to.

October 28th, 2009, 11:29
I was awaiting the final installment before commenting. Outstanding pics and write up as usual Alex, thanks for sharing.

I'm really looking fwd to visiting that area of Lake Powell. I loved the air mattress under the stars.

October 28th, 2009, 12:59
Great write up Alex! It was a great trip to!

October 28th, 2009, 13:45
Looks like a fantastic adventure, Alex! Thanks for sharing it wth us!

October 28th, 2009, 14:17
Just how old do you think I am? I was born within the last millinium, you know. (What's a millinium, anyways?)

October 28th, 2009, 17:17
Shortly afterwards, Ranger Rick began exploring the area.


Rick, I think a millenium is one thousand years so that puts you exploring S. Utah well within the time right behind the Anasazi abandonment wich was only 700 years ago. :D

Those rangers asked us four or five times if we were all right, like we didn't know if we were all right :dunno:.
"oh yeah jonny is in the back of a jeep mostly dead from too much good clean fun, we almost forgot!"

If I knew you would stop at some ruins I'd have gone home via Blanding/Moab.
Probably a good thing though, the old 4.0 wasn't happy with the long drive home as it was.

This post does not refer to a real life person named jonny in any way, any coincidence is purely by accident and all/any injuries or parties referred to in this post as being injured on this trip are only fictional, no humans (or animals) were harmed in the making of this post

October 28th, 2009, 17:36
Man. One maybe I'll be high enough on the "cool kid" list to be invited on one of these runs.

Brad M.
October 28th, 2009, 23:49

Alex, great report and awesome photos! Thanks for sharing. Can you give the specs on this shot, i.e. how long shutter was open?

October 29th, 2009, 07:25
Man. One maybe I'll be high enough on the "cool kid" list to be invited on one of these runs.
I asked you about it when we chatted on the phone last month about cameras and such. You said you were going to the Swell instead of the Fall Fling, I said I was going exploring in Red Canyon... remember? You didn't sound interested at the time. :callme:

Maybe this would make a good chapter trip next year? :rtm:

October 29th, 2009, 07:29
Alex, great report and awesome photos! Thanks for sharing. Can you give the specs on this shot, i.e. how long shutter was open?
Thanks! 17mm lens, ISO 1600, f/2.8@ 20 seconds. Right click and save the photo, you can get the full exif data.

October 29th, 2009, 08:30
I asked you about it when we chatted on the phone last month about cameras and such. You said you were going to the Swell instead of the Fall Fling, I said I was going exploring in Red Canyon... remember? You didn't sound interested at the time. :callme:

Maybe this would make a good chapter trip next year? :rtm:

I for some reason thought you were going a little later. I didn't think I could have afforded to make two trips.

Next time I'll listen a little better. :D

November 3rd, 2009, 12:37
I figured out what these rocks are:

They are hematite, a common terrestrial mineral - not meteorites. The identifying factors:

Mohs scale hardness of 5.5-6.5: scratches glass but not quartz
Bright red to dark red streak
Very dense
Non-magnetic unless heated to high tempratures
Commonly found in sedimentary formations
Harder than pure iron, but much more brittle
Is responsible for the red color of many tropical, ancient, or otherwise highly weathered soils.

Hematite is used as a red pigment, I wonder if that is what the Anasazi used for their pictographs? They are also carved into figurines or beads for cheap jewelery. One piece kind of has a heart shape to it, I may try carving it into a paperweight for my wife. A bench grinder cuts the material, albeit slowly. The newly cut surface sure is shiny!