Monday, November 29, 2010

Fish and Owl Creek Canyons, Utah - Backpacking

In recent years, some of my favorite adventures have taken place over the Thanksgiving holiday. This year was no exception. One theme these adventures seem to have in common is cold - from my first winter camping experience at Fisher Towers to my trip to Fairbanks, Alaska to visit Tim - and the chilly tradition continued this year for a trip to Fish and Owl Creek Canyons in Southern Utah.

Fish and Owl Creek Canyons are located just south of Natural Bridges National Monument in the Cedar Mesa area of south-central Utah. These canyons are loaded with the ruins of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) people and many outdoor enthusiasts in Utah claim this loop hike is one of their favorites.

Fish Creek Canyon from the rim at sunset

After an uneventful Thanksgiving holiday, Rob, Ryan, Keith, Melissa, and I left the frigidly cold Salt Lake Valley for Southern Utah. The temperatures didn't warm up much as we headed south, meaning we were in for some cold days and extremely long, cold nights. All part of the fun!

Like little kids - Keith and Rob throwing rocks into the Colorado River and squealing with delight

We arrived at the trail head late in the day and decided we would camp on the canyon rim, waking up early the next morning to make our descent into Fish Creek Canyon. The trail was only about a mile and a half to the canyon rim, and I was surprised how much snow was on the ground. My first thought upon seeing the canyon was that there was no way I was going over the snowy ledge the next morning - it looked very intimidating. We set up camp, started a fire to keep us warm, and had our first back country meal of the trip. After retiring to our tents, the night seemed to drag on forever. It was frigid, but halfway through the night a waning half moon, deep blood-red in color, rose over the canyon rim. I finally started to feel at home.

The wood seemed like a bad idea until we started a fire later that night

My new tent's first frosty adventure

Survival essentials

Dinner time - no fires allowed in the canyon so possibly our only warm-ish night

The route into Fish Creek Canyon was snow covered and steep. A storm was coming for Sunday. Rob and Keith wanted to enter the canyons, Melissa and Ryan were less enthusiastic, and I had some reservations. The big fear was that we'd get to the point of no return and not be able to get out of the canyons. A quick check of the topo showed our exit point was south facing, and therefore most likely snow-free. Assuming we could reach the exit before Sunday's storm, we decided we were OK to enter. Worst case would be getting stuck in the canyon for a couple extra days, but we had enough food and gear to safely extend the trip. So down we went. It was slow going, but generally straightforward and not particularly technical. We reached the bottom of the frozen canyon a couple hours later and regrouped with some snacks and a change of clothes.

In we go!

Last picture as we entered the canyon before the camera went to a safe place for the descent

Me at the bottom of the descent into Fish Creek Canyon

Fish Creek Canyon was absolutely beautiful, with a frozen river at the bottom, towering red rocks walls, and beautiful ice and rock formations throughout. The bottom line, though, was that we needed to cover about 12 miles in order to get out of the canyons before the storm hit the next day. Our sightseeing was done with this time line always in the back of our minds. I hope to return to the canyon when there is more time to enjoy the scenery.

Keith and Rob

Fish Creek Canyon

Fish Creek Canyon

I breathed a sigh of relief as we reached the confluence of Fish and Owl Creek Canyons. I knew we would be able to make it out of the canyons the next morning, hopefully before the snow made for a slippery exit. I felt much more at peace in Owl Creek Canyon. It seemed more open, peaceful, and mild. We walked upstream a couple of miles before calling it a day. Along the way, we caught a glimpse of our first ruins high above us in the cliff, along with beautiful Nevills Arch.

Keith and Melissa

Nevills Arch

Owl Creek Canyon

Owl Creek Canyon

I must have been exhausted because the second night, despite the bitter cold and no campfire, passed quickly. It was already dawn when I awoke - and time to get in gear before the storm hit. We packed up camp and headed up Owl Creek Canyon towards the exit. We missed the trail the bypassed the first waterfall, but it was worth the detour.

The first waterfall - frozen in time

The highlight of the trip was coming up close and personal with the ruins of the Ancient Ones near the exit of Owl Creek Canyon. It is difficult to describe the surreal experience of standing next to ancient history, out there in the open for the world to see, in the middle of nowhere where almost no one ventures to see it.

They were here



A nearly intact Kiva


We made it out of the canyon just before the worst of the storm hit. A cup of coffee at every gas station along the way home helped warm me up. Another Thanksgiving to be thankful for.

Leaving the canyons

The group