Grand Gulch Revisited: The Joys of First Timers

Grand Gulch Revisited: The Joys of First Timers

With restrictions lifted and most travel resuming, my eyes turned towards Southeast Utah once again. During the winter I was optimistic about our chances of vaccine distribution and decided to secure permits to my favorite canyons in anticipation of spring travel. Fortunately, that included seven permits for Grand Gulch to introduce some friends and my father to one of the most challenging, yet beautiful hikes in the Southwest.

An Inauspicious Start

The seven us of met late at night on Cedar Mesa so we could camp out the first evening enabling an early start for our hike the next morning. Jason, despite owning three Landcruisers, had left Santa Fe in his minivan only to be shamed into returning and grabbing his FJ80. Kim, Bob, and I left late and somehow (despite driving this route probably a hundred times) took a wrong turn and found ourselves on a gravel road in the oil patches. These were minor annoyances, all things considered, as I received a text from Jason and Steve warning of ‘Lots of black cattle on the highway near camp’. Sadly I did not relay this to Jesse and Chloe…

While standing upon a bluff looking towards the highway, I saw headlights coming our way just past midnight. Suddenly they came to a stop and over the 1/2 mile distance a delayed ‘thwap!’ was heard. Odd. The headlights stopped, circled, and idled for a while. That had to be Jesse and Chloe, right? Eventually the headlights came our way and two wide-eyed travelers emerged from their pickup. ‘We hit a cow’.

Entering The Gulch

Ok, so we weren’t off to a great start. We awoke the following morning unrefreshed, but eager to begin the hike. By 9AM it was already creeping towards 80 degrees and knowing the water situation may become a challenge our packs were sagging from the weight of bottles, bladders, and filters. For Steve this would be, amazingly, his very first time carrying a backpack into the backcountry. For Bob, this would be his first time in Southeast Utah altogether!

After a morning beer and grumbled enthusiasm we began our 12ish mile first day, smartly waiting for the sun to align directly overhead. The side canyon we entered is rarely used despite often times holding plenty of water and hiding some fantastic panels and ruins in its shadows. To our great surprise, large pools of water were abundant from the beginning, making us relax our preconceived water concerns. Relieved of this mental burden, we sauntered mid-day down the wide open white-walled canyon absorbing the sun and adjusting our packs.

For all but Kim this was a new experience. We examined archeology sites left behind from the Ancestral Puebloans, carefully descended rock faces, and began to enter the depths of Grand Gulch proper. By now we had been walking nearly the full day and the intense sun and heavy packs began to reveal momentary breaks in group morale. Soon, though, we found ourselves in awe of one of the more colorful panels in the canyon, which requires a mandatory stop to admire and absorb.

Polychromatic pictographs do not typically age well, but this large alcove is particularly well protected and thus the colors have survived 800-900 years relatively unscathed. Nearby a two-story ruin rest precariously on the cliff edge; a reminder of the ingenuity of these desert dwellers. Nevertheless, we had miles to cover and water to hunt down for now we suddenly were no longer seeing any. Hmm, maybe we should have topped off earlier…

No Water, No Problem (sort of)

Okay, so our target spring was not flowing. No problem, there’s a stanky pool nearby we can pump from. Of course by now its getting dark and our stomachs are protesting, thus our water situation will have to wait. In the interim, we discussed our options now seeing how dry the main canyon was. A quick test pump revealed that the water was a bit brackish, but otherwise fine for drinking. Too bad our pumps didn’t agree. Clogged, spitting, gassed. Uh oh.

Our evening was punctuated with the usual sounds of Jetboils heating up water and laughter echoing from steep canyon walls. We had to start making some decisions realizing that the original plan was untenable due to uncertain water conditions and rather hefty heat. Jesse and I surmised a plan: we could return the way we came and utilize the pools of water we saw while Kim could lead the rest of the group out another side canyon. We would suffer the mileage, but the group as a whole would have cold beer by the afternoon on the mesa top. One could taste it already.

That morning we agreed to split and to shuttle the cars. Before then we had another nearby ruin to enjoy, one which sees oddly little visitation considering it’s unique color. It would not take long for the temperature to begin to rise and the peaceful cool of canyon mornings to make way for the blast furnace of the desert. We split up and went our ways.

Jesse and I made insanely good time, drinking when necessary and hustling to the mesa top in what seemed like an impossible pace. By early afternoon we were cracking open a cold beer and began the process of moving vehicles between trailheads. Kim was leading the old man group (plus Chloe!) to the Green Mask–a panel and spring that holds a special place in our hearts. Unexpectedly, they discovered the spring was producing clear, cool water. Too bad that information was not shared by the rangers. So be it. Our plan was already in motion.

After drinking the spring water to their hearts content, they began the steep climb out during the peak of the midday sun. Their pace would be slow, steep, and straight out. By now Jesse and I had moved the cars and decided to drop into the canyon to see if we could reconnect. After about 1.5 miles, I could hear some laughter from somewhere deep down canyon and gave my signature holler. A howling of a group of degenerates responded, confirming we had reconnected.

After our hike back to the cars we rested our tired feet, feasted on cheap calories, and sipped some cold, delicious beer. Life was good.

An Ode to Friendship

Our final evening we spent on the mesa top under the heavy influence of our natural world. The sudden realization that we were having a laugh-filled evening with some of the best folks I have been fortunate enough to meet weighed on my mind heavily. Jesse and Chloe have been steadfast friends for over a decade and despite our limited time together in the past years, we never miss a beat when we reconnect. Of course, anytime you get to share your passions with your father is a special opportunity and having Steve with us added to the groups hilarity.

What a troop of knuckleheads

Bob and Jason we see quite often, but its easy to take good friends for granted. Being able to mix them in with some college buddies and my father with open arms was an absolute joy. Despite damaging a brand new pickup, bailing on our original plan, tearing up our feet, and feeling rather lethargic overall, this will go down as one of the most memorable trips in recent memory. I could not have imagined a more fun group to experience it with.

For Bob, Steve, and Chloe, this was their first time in the Gulch. I suspect it will not be there last. For the rest of us, it was an opportunity to reconnect to a land we love with people with love as well.

And through the middle of all of it, a canyon runs through it.