Trip Report: Downstream to Red Man Canyon

Trip Report: Downstream to Red Man Canyon

Disclaimer: the route described here is stupid, dangerous, and potentially fatal. Please, do not attempt. 

There’s a point in some trips that make you stop, take a deep breath and wonder what the hell you are doing. On this particular day, it was lingering on the edge of a sandstone cliff fully exposed to a 40′ fall with little more than crumbling fingerholds and sweaty feet smeared at awkward angles maintaining grip.

Our journey began as they all do: one idea leads to late night Googling routes and information and finally, under the premise of adventure, a plan emerges with excitement and anticipation. After checking and re-checking maps, Kim and I were determined to begin our hike into Grand Gulch via the southern entrance at Collins Canyon, move downstream, and eventually exit out a little-mentioned side canyon called Red Man. The route would be completely dry and end with a 2.5 mile walk along the mesa top back to the car.

Arrival at Cedar Mesa was met with perfect weather, a stunning moonrise, and an unforgettable sunset. What a great way to start a trip!

After a cool night under the stars with the lingering effects of whiskey and cheap lager obscuring our memories, Kim and I began our descent into Grand Gulch. Collins Canyon, like some other side canyons, shows remnants of both cowboy camps as well as uranium exploration. Tough bastards, those men were.

Our main goal was to reach the Big Panel (famous for it’s alien-like waving figures), but we were curious what we would find en route given the lack of reports from this area. Much to our surprise, there were large panels that don’t have published names, including a large one with polychrome figures. In this instance, one must commit to belly crawling along a narrow ledge to access the panel, and even then, the purchase for viewing the panel is extremely shallow with a good 20′ drop to one side.

Finally, after hours wandering in the sand and stone, we reached the Big Panel. True to its name, Big Panel is quite, um…big. Stretching at least 100 meters wide and alternating between pictographs and petroglyphs at varying heights, one could spend an entire day reviewing the artwork. Of course, the most famous component is the two waving anthropromorphs, whose life-size figures dwarf the other pictographs.

At this point, we had rationed our water in anticipation that upon exploring Red Man Canyon that there’s would be a chance we would have to reverse course and walk back our entire route. We picked our way down canyon, hung a right at the little Red Man pictograph, and began bushwacking our way through an untrammeled field of broken sandstone and tamarisk. We reached a crux point: a chimney move up a slight slot, under a boulder and up to the next ledge that we could not see beyond. Gulp. Kim charged ahead without hesitation and despite our fatigue made her way up with relative ease. I followed and soon we were greeted by a bowl of which we would have to climb our way out of. After exploring options we climbed out across a ledge with just barely enough purchase for crossing. Anyone with a fear of heights or zero rock climbing abilities should take note: this could be a fatal move.

The way out is dangerous, steep, and high risk.

After successfully terrifying ourselves, Kim and I celebrated reaching the mesa top and finding the wash I had gleaned from Google Earth. For the first time in recent memory, the weather held out all day for Kim and I, even providing a tailwind across the mesa to the Xterra.

Roughly 18 miles later, we cracked open a few beers and celebrated our success. This one, we agreed, should never be attempted again. We had enough.

That night we made our way to Moab, met with an old friend, and spent the next morning in Arches to catch the sunrise.

Sunrise behind the Windows at Arches with the still snowy La Sal mountains gathering early light.