Thursday, June 30, 2011

Little Death Hollow - Big In All The Ways That Count

I often wonder how place names came to be, especially those including reference to death. In Utah there are many locations bearing names that focus on mortality, including Death Ridge, Death Canyon, and several Death Hollows, one of which I covered here and here.

When I came across yet another variation on morbidly nomenclatured geographical features in the form of Little Death Hollow, I realized how common it was for early settlers facing loss to mark the place of their misfortune. I want to know why someone was motivated to bestow the name, but was unable to discover why this particular location is associated with tragedy.

Despite the dire name, modern humans have no reason to fear Little Death Hollow. The canyon is one of several tributaries of the Escalante River system, along with Deer Creek, Horse Creek, and Wolverine Canyon, all of which can be accessed from the Wolverine Loop Road. Hikers will find many options for exploring wild and scenic slot canyons here, with multi-day backpacking loops or there-and-back outings for single day excursions. In this post I document a hike about 2/3rds of the way into Little Death Hollow, stopping short of the confluence with Horse Creek downstream.

The entrance to the hollow is found 13 miles south on the western leg of the Wolverine Loop. The inconspicuous parking area has but a single sign marking the trail, but the direction is fairly obvious.

Like the hike into Wolverine Canyon, the landscape here is open and flat, with ridgelines to the north and south which slowly converge to form the boundaries of Little Death Hollow. Cattle are grazed on this BLM land, and these bovines wander back and forth through the canyon bottom, keeping a wary eye on me as I pass by.

The trail meanders along, sometimes in the dry wash bed and sometimes on the benches populated with sagebrush and rabbitbrush.

Heading west the canyon narrows, with walls of reddish brown Wingate sandstone resting on scalloped beds of the Chinle formation, a multicolored pastel palette of clay. Scattered detritus from crumbling cliffs litter the slopes, and large chunks of rock rest comfortably among the junipers.

Hikers should be on the lookout for a large block of sandstone just north of the trail. Inscribed near the base are some archaic petroglyphs from earlier inhabitants of the area, as well as some gratuitous contemporary graffiti left by a thoughtless visitor.

As the canyon walls steadily encroach, vegetation becomes more concentrated in the wash. One species found throughout the region is big sagebrush, which in this case is thriving thanks to a wet winter and spring. This aromatic woody shrub is a vital part of the plant community, providing browse for wild game and helping to stabilize the soil.

Soon the trail disappears, replaced by the obvious choice of walking in the streambed. Geologically the formations here are the same as the Wolverine Petrifed Area just to the north, and careful observation reveals weathered chunks of fossilized stone lying about.

Damp patches of sand begin to appear, eventually giving way to surface water. And where water is present, cottonwood trees and other riparian plants provide a welcome green respite from sun and rock.

Water in the desert is life, and plants and animals maximize the resource to their benefit. This also means a few areas where vegetation has occluded the trail, and a narrow passage requires some moderate bushwhacking.

The canyon walls are close enough to reveal the chiseling and sculpting of water. The most dramatic changes in the rock occur suddenly, as a result of flash flooding or the freeze/thaw cycle, but subtle change is also occurring on a scale too gradual to be noticed by human eyes.

Looking up, this lone tree caught my attention. Far from the moist environment of the wash, I thought it odd that a water loving species would be perched on a barren slope. Only after looking more closely did I see the tell-tale dark streak on the rock indicating a spring high above creating a small oasis.

The thin ribbon of water in the streambed periodically disappears, although the presence of trees and plants attest that it is not far from the surface.

Near the mid-point of my hike, I approach the first in a series of narrows. Smooth water shaped walls confine views of the sky to a rectangular strip, and no plants grow in the flood swept channel.

Alternating between sun and shadow as the canyon winds sinuously back and forth, the silence is absolute. No bird calls or rustling leaves disrupt the quiet, and I am at once filled with reverence and awe, the sensation not unlike walking through the hallows of a massive cathedral.

This truly is an enchanted place, and I linger long while marveling at the unique environment. Large cavities carved into the stone offer smooth benches on which to recline in cool shade, and the blue of the sky is made more intense by its scarcity.

The canyon widens and recedes a bit, allowing for the accumulation of sediment and the return of plants. Almost immediately I notice a small arch high above the southern cliff face.

Continuing downstream the canyon walls are low and rounded, and a sliver of moon hovers over the rock. Benches protrude into the channel, offering opportunities to scramble out of the wash for a better vantage point. I know there are no other human beings for miles, and the sense of isolation and solitude is as complete as I've ever felt.

More narrows await my downstream progress, so I continue along the mostly sandy and sometimes rocky canyon bottom.

The entrance to the next slot area looms ahead, and I plunge into shadow from the bright sunlight overhead.

I reach the end of this hike when the canyon opens up once again. The guidebook tells me there's an even narrower slot ahead, which I will return for some day, but time has run out on this adventure and I need to head back.

It is a mystical experience following a path carved through the heart of rock. Words alone cannot describe the feeling of being separate from the rest of the world, or the utter stillness found between stone and sky. In a place like Little Death Hollow, it is easy to understand the intimate and necessary connection between us and nature.

If you ask me, the name has it all wrong - this is a big life affirming place of renewal and fulfillment.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Navigating Capitol Reef - Pioneer Register and The Tanks

The relatively recent human history of Capitol Reef includes the early anglo emigrants, notably Mormon settlers dispatched to the region by Brigham Young to establish a foothold in this wild and frequently inhospitable land. Their story in the area is told in various ways through National Park Service interpretive programs and displays, and I recommend taking time to learn more about the colorful and interesting people who populate the pioneer era of the Waterpocket Fold.

One place to start is in Capitol Gorge, which was the primary passage through the Reef for those traveling to and from the area. When dry, this sandy wash bottom was wide enough for a wagon or in later years an automobile, although it required frequent clearing after summer flash floods. The "road" was in service from around 1884 until the completion of Utah Highway 24 through the Fremont River Canyon in 1962, and today is used to access trails leading to Golden Throne and the Pioneer Register and Tanks.

This photo courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

To get here, follow the Scenic Drive south to the Capitol Gorge turnoff. The graded dirt road travels two miles through the upper end of the canyon, with several twists and turns through sheer walls of sandstone. Like the Grand Wash spur, this detour should be avoided when thunderstorms threaten heavy rain, as the wash bottom can flood without warning.

At the parking area, the trail heads east through the canyon. There is no grade, and the walking is very easy, although there is short climb at the end to reach the Tanks. Total distance for the round-trip hike is only 2.5 miles, making this a good choice for those with limited time.

Towering above the hiker, mostly smooth walls of the Wingate formation enclose the stream bed, at times blocking the sun. Small shrubby plants struggle to maintain a foothold in the channel, persisting in spite of the ever present threat of being swept away. Mineral stains paint the rock in vertical streaks, and the base of cliffs are worn smooth by abrasive sediments carried downstream in periodic muddy torrents.

One great pleasure to be found in canyon hiking is observing the many different forms that water and wind sculpt out of the base rock. The patina of desert varnish on planes and angles adds to the aesthetic appeal, and provides opportunities for the imagination to conjure familiar objects within the natural wrought stone.

There are also a couple of smaller side canyons that intersect the main branch, allowing for the possibility of off-trail exploration.

Another object of note are steel bars driven into the canyon walls at regular intervals. These were placed for the purpose of carrying telephone wire in the early days, allowing for contact with the outside world. Given how isolated the settlement of Fruita was until the highway was built, this hardwired link must have been a great improvement in communication, providing a way to get timely news and information about the wider world outside.

After a short walk, the first inscriptions of early visitors begin to appear on the walls. This "pioneer register" was a way for folks to mark their presence in the world, not entirely unlike what graffiti is today. Here however the names and dates are chiseled into the rock, leaving a lasting legacy. Unfortunately some modern day vandals have also added to the panels, in some cases obscuring and obliterating the genuine historical record.

After investigating the marks of those who came before, the hike continues downstream. The walking is still very pleasant, and the grand scenery provides lots of diversion for the eyes. In this section the canyon slopes away from the wash, with a gentler profile and rounded appearance. Even though the walls are not as sheer, there is still no good escape should a flash flood come roaring through the gorge.

After rounding a bend, a sign appears for the spur leading to the Tanks. Leaving the wash, the trail climbs up a rocky slope to the north on a fairly steep angle.

The ascent is short however, and quickly deposits the hiker on a terrace which provides a good panorama of the surrounding area. Here is the view downstream to the east. The passage through the Gorge continues on, eventually leading through the Fold and into the desert beyond.

These images show the view back up the canyon, and reveals a complex architecture of Navajo sandstone domes and pinnacles looming over the lower gorge.

Walking along the bench allows for glimpses into the narrow drainage where the Tanks are located. Here is a small natural bridge spanning the cleft.

On the north side, an eroding cap of the Carmel formation lends a rose brown tint to the white sandstone.

Hematite, a form of iron oxide, creates the appearance of flowing stone.

The trail reaches the narrow channel where the Tanks are located. The chain of shallow basins in the stone are natural reservoirs, and frequently hold water when all other sources are dry. The name of the Waterpocket Fold is derived from features like these found throughout the area, and their existence allowed people and animals to survive extended dry spells.

The hike into Capitol Gorge really is a trip back in time, allowing the visitor to compare how different life was for the early settlers of the region. I often wonder how well contemporary people would manage if suddenly all of our modern conveniences were taken away, and if we would be able to adapt to that kind of life. I'll probably never know, but it's an interesting question.