Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ocean of Stone: Box - Death Hollow Part I

Box-Death Hollow Wilderness. The name alone entranced me for years. A relatively small, mysterious area about which I knew next to nothing, this intriguing sounding spot in south-central Utah invited exploration ever since I saw it on a map over 25 years ago. Once I finally had a chance to see in person what no contour line on paper can accurately portray I knew I had to check it out.

As a wilderness area Box - Death Hollow has to be explored on foot, although a good idea of what is contained within the boundaries can be gleaned from vantage points around the periphery, including Highway 12 and the aptly named Hell's Backbone road. Comprised of tributary streams which form the headwaters of the Escalante River, the name derives from two geographic features found within. The first is The Box, a sheer walled 10 mile canyon on the west side through which Pine Creek flows.

The second major canyon is Death Hollow, named for hapless livestock which plunged to their doom from sheer sandstone walls. Despite the morbid nomenclature, Death Hollow is a place of surpassing beauty, as is the entire wilderness around it.

There is one designated trail in the wilderness, although others exist that do not merit "official" status (read: they see no maintenance nor does anyone take any responsibility for their use). I have yet to hike the named trail which travels along Pine Creek into the Box, but it's on my list to do soon. For this post I'll share a recent experience on a route that crosses the heart of the region.

Boulder Mail Trail

As names go, the Boulder Mail Trail is quite descriptive. Before the construction of Highway 12 linking the community of Boulder with the outside world, supplies and correspondence had to be transported on horseback across the no-mans land of Death Hollow. The route traverses open benches and terraces of Navajo sandstone for 16 miles, and crosses three canyons enroute. Much of the terrain is bare slickrock studded with occasional islands of ponderosa pine, and some route finding ability is necessary.

The entire hike can be done as a point to point with a car shuttle, or if you are traveling solo a partial trip is possible with a "there and back" approach. I have done the latter as far as Death Hollow, which is an easy 4.5 miles one way from the east side. It is recommended that one way hikers begin the journey from this direction, as the east side is about 1000 feet higher than the west end, making the trip a bit less arduous.

The best time to visit this area is generally spring or fall, since summer heat and flash flooding can present hazards to casual hikers. Water is available in Sand Creek and Death Hollow, but shade is at a premium and bare expanses of rock dominate the landscape. Winter is cold with frequent snow and freezing temperatures; ice becomes a hazard when trying to negotiate exposed sections along canyon walls.

The east end of the trail is located above the town of Boulder, along the Hell's Backbone/Posey Lake road. The turnoff is not signed, but ask a local how to get to the Boulder "airport" and they can give you directions.

The airport is nothing more than a dirt landing strip along McGath Bench, marked somewhat whimsically with the fuselage of an old aircraft stuck nose first in the dirt. When I visited this spring, the sad state of the windsock assured me there was no need to watch for low flying aircraft.

The beginning of the trail is quite innocuous, starting as it does high on the rim through a dwarf forest of pinyon and juniper. Views are limited to the surrounding trees, and the path occasionally opens up into a sea of sagebrush. This is Utah, after all.

After more than a mile, glimpses of white sandstone begin to appear in stark contrast to the dark green layer along the horizon. When the trail finally breaks out to the edge of the canyon, the views are well worth the extended stroll through the trees.

The slickrock benches of the canyon present few opportunities for vegetation to gain a foothold, and soon naked rock dominates the scene. This Navajo sandstone landscape is beautifully illustrative of a depositional environment found in deserts and at the edge of ancient seas. Ripples frozen in stone evoke waves lapping at some long ago shore, and cross bedded layers pull the eye this way and that as the mind seeks to make sense of the overarching pattern.

Looking ahead, the open expanse invites the visitor to ramble aimlessly, but the actual trail is fairly well cairned. Picking a simple line through gently descending bowls and dips, it is hard not to just stop and stare slackjawed at the scenery.

Nearing the bottom of the basin, a small but vigorous stream called Sand Creek appears out of the north. Fed by snowmelt and springs from lofty Boulder Mountain, the water supports a riparian community of willows and cottonwood, as well as industrious beaver.

Amidst the sinuous waves of undulating stone, incongruous black basaltic boulders appear out of place. These volcanic orbs were transported from surrounding plateaus by glaciers during the last ice age, worn smooth through the lapidary action of grinding ice.

My surroundings are nothing short of sublime, and I decide to stop here for a bit to absorb as much grandeur as possible before continuing on to Death Hollow. It's only a couple more miles, and I've got all day to enjoy a truly spectacular setting. Life is good....

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