Canyon Hiking in Redrock Country -- Utah & Colorado

October 10 - November 4, 2008

Sunset over Cedar Mesa and the Grand Gulch, Utah, as a storm system moves into our neighborhood.


Our first hiking trip to the sandstone canyons of the Colorado Plateau was twenty-five years ago (1983). And even though that first outing was too late in the spring and we were seriously overheated in the oven of Dark Canyon, the unique combination of vast wide open spaces, sinuous water-carved redrock canyons, and enigmatic remnants of the Anasazi who once lived here, keeps drawing us desert rats back nearly every year. This season has given us a spectacular Indian summer with fall weather so pleasant it's been hard to leave.

We love the names out here: Death Hollow, Carcass Canyon, Dead Horse Point, Dirty Devil River, and the Robbers Roost. Disappointment Valley, Stoner Creek, Tarantula Mesa, Hells Backbone, Hell Roaring Canyon, Poison Spring. Muley Twist Canyon, the Bears Ears and Waterpocket Fold. Mexican Water, Sleeping Ute Mountain, Chinle Wash, Tes Nez Iah and Dinnehotso. The Hogback and the Mossback, the Lukachukai and Chuska Mountains... Last Chance Wash.


Sunrise from our camp above Death Hollow.


Liza in Little Wild Horse Canyon.

We wander over, through and between vast expanses of sandstone, meandering along the paths of ancient waterways, up and over sand dunes hardened into rock. It has been months since the summer monsoons so we rarely see water, occasionally a pothole or a perennial stream, yet everywhere we look, we see the patterns of water. We camp on slickrock mounds, mattresses and pillows formed over the millennia. Lizards scurry over their giant ancestors' tracks, and we realize we are lounging on a Pleistocene beach. The slickrock is cracked and layered, solid or fragile, in delicate tones of peach, gold, lavender and mauve, or deep red with stripes of dark varnish. Our boots grip the surface as we walk over steep inclines imagining we are water skeeters on a pond.
The Cottonwood forests are ablaze with gold, glowing in canyon bottoms, their deep roots pulling up water from crevices in the sandstone terrain. As we walk beneath behemoth Cottonwoods -- they must be hundreds of years old -- we shuffle through piles of heart-shaped leaves, some fresh and lemon yellow, others dry and exactly the color of the sandstone, as we bask in the luminous air. Horsetails add a splash of green, cliffrose and tamarisk snag our nylon pants or scratch our bare legs, willows choke tributaries where hikers are scarce.


Deep in the canyons a still silence envelopes us. Not the heavy silence of a dark and ominous space, but an airy, uplifting silence, only occasionally broken by the laughter of greasy black ravens skirting up and over canyon walls, inspecting our progress as we willow-wack our way up canyon, or the heartbreakingly beautiful descending trill of a canyon wren, flitting after spiders on the pumpkin colored slickrock.

After many miles and hours spent in magical canyons, we begin to feel, to see, to sense those who were here before us. Their signs are everywhere: sherds of pottery, decorated with black or red pigments in geometric designs, coiled pots with delicately corrugated texture; carefully constructed dwellings tucked into sweeping sandstone overhangs; and most compelling, painted pictographs and chiseled petroglyphs, messages from those who, for thousands of years, made these canyons their homes. What are they trying to tell us? We find handprints -- their hands the same size as mine -- marking the entrance to one canyon. At another bend in the labyrinth of canyons, the idle doodlings of bored hunters imagining the upcoming hunt for bighorn sheep on the pinyon-juniper plateaus, sweeping mesas high above the canyons. We stop for lunch at a spot with a good view and comfy rocks and discover, sure enough, someone else stopped at this very same spot, maybe a thousand years ago. We notice grooves in the soft but abrasive sandstone, whetstones for smoothing and sharpening blades. All around us are flakes of green and red chert. An ancient hunter sat here pressure flaking a stone, a piece of leather protecting his palm while he carefully struck the stone with percussive taps, until finally, he created a perfect arrowhead.





We find galleries of art painted on sweeping terra-cotta canvasses where mummy-like figures, some six feet high or more, soar above our heads. The panel above, from the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon (Canyonlands National Park) is now thought to have been painted between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago. Many of these "shamanic figures" have zigzags (lightening bolts?) or branches emanating from their heads and shoulders. In another gallery, we find figures adorned with breastplates and long earlobes, reminding us of the Mayan cultures of South America. We find snarling dog-figures, wolf and bear prints, specters and shields, infinity symbols, serpents and suns. With imagination, we see wooly mammoth or bison heads. As we descend into Grand Gulch, we admire a images of Kokopelli, lying on his back then seeming to fly through the air, blowing his flute...or is it a didgeridoo?




Last year we were given a book called The House of Rain by Craig Childs ( In this imaginative and inspiring work, Childs tracks the vanished civilization of the Anasazi across the American Southwest, and synthesizes research from a generation of archeologists to make his case for what happened: During a time of prolonged drought, the society migrated away, south into what is now Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. Today's Hopi, Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni tribes are direct descendents from these Anasazi.

Some of the more quirky and interesting ruins we have encountered are in deep canyon recesses, highly defensible cliff dwellings that mark a time of tumult and violence at the very tail end of the Anasazi occupation of this region. Many of these stone structures are on high ledges or alcoves only reachable by tall ladders (long gone). Others tower defiantly around the heads of well-watered canyons in an attempt to outlast what apparently was a turbulent time. But by around 1300 though, all of these pueblos were left abandoned.






The best part of our extended camping excursion is getting back in tune with rhythm of the heavens which we are so cut off from during our life in the city. The autumn days are getting short, and so we are up well before sunrise every day to cherish the spectacle of the stars disappearing with the dawn as the celestial sphere transforms from its infinite depths to a sheltering sky of robins egg blue. After a cold night in the tent, the ritual of a steaming cup of coffee and the feel of warm sun rays as our nuclear furnace rolls over the horizon once again is a transformative experience.

By late afternoon, it's usually a relief when the glaring sun finally dips below the Red House Cliffs and we no longer have to worry about getting blasted by ultraviolet rays. The desert air cools quickly as the purple-blue earth shadow rises up into the eastern sky. We're still for a moment to hear the howling of coyotes in some distant unseen canyon. One by one, stars appear, and another magical metamorphosis unfolds. As the last glow of the sun disappears over the western horizon and the evening fire dies down to coals, the stars are always unexpectedly luminescent. And on moonless nights the milky way glows so brightly that I wonder how I can ever live in a place where all this magic is hidden from view.