Trip Report: Fear & Moaning in Step Canyon

Trip Report: Fear & Moaning in Step Canyon

Kim was gone and I was bored. Where else to go other than Utah?

I guess that was my first mistake. I tried to hurry that weekend and packed minimally. Simply my day pack, a few camera items, no tent, little food, and a little less sense. Without hesitation I left Santa Fe for Cedar Mesa, driving through the Friday twilight to a small campsite out on the mesa. Waking up, I headed for the Ranger station and queried them on the conditions: water was guaranteed, but otherwise the conditions were unknown. I was the first to go into Step Canyon that year.

With Teva sandals strapped on firmly and my pack weighing a little under 25lbs, I was confident that this simple overnighter would be a good solo journey that I needed much after a claustrophobic winter. Step Canyon comes in from the north on an unmarked road. I discovered this a few years ago with a German buddy and decided I needed to come back and take a closer look. I knew of multiple panels, including the Quail Panel which I photographed a few years earlier, but was looking for a little more ‘oomph’ to the shots. After parking the truck and double-checking my list, I happily trotted off on the old Hole in the Rock Trail and made my cut down into the canyon below.

Pool, Step Canyon

It was within the first mile that things began to seem suspicious. The grass had been chewed to the roots and the game trails seemed trashed. The horse shit was so ubiquitous that I didn’t even bother to avoid it. Clearly, someone had wintered a herd of horses in the upper reaches of this canyon. As I was coming through the last few narrow bends before the canyon opened up I spooked an unkindness (yes, that’s what a group is called) of ravens. Then it hit me. Vomit, without consideration, spewed from my mouth almost instantaneously. I was upwind of a rotting carcass. It looked to be a quarter horse that didn’t fair too well over the winter. A coyote scampered from within the rib cage.

After gathering my stomach and thoughts, I quickly skirted past and pondered the poor animal’s fate. No food? No, there were still some plants left from the larger herd. Sickness? Possibly, but its size and overall appearance would suggest otherwise. Predation? Not here….

Dead Horse

Now, though, I was moving much slower. Nothing is more ominous than a dead body whilst trekking alone. Between that and my weakened stomach, I still had a long way to go before I would setup camp (AKA, a sleeping bag on the rocks). The entire canyon was eaten up and the poor soil torn to all hell from many hooves moving to and fro in this narrow space. I felt bad for both: the animals and the canyon itself. I came upon my first set of petroglyphs, took some shots and continued on my way deeper into the void.

I came to the first set of pour offs. Here, water had carved itself a trap where it falls steeply from the sandstone into a hole that usually contains a pool for most months of the year. In years past there were stacks of stone placed at the easiest access point. Not this year. It was clear from looking at the condition of the canyon and the debris left behind that this canyon saw some serious flooding. Tossing my pack gingerly, I then lowered myself like an amateur rock climber down upon the bench below. First one complete, second one complete, only then did I consider coming out. I’ll deal with that tomorrow.

Pour Offs

Now, at the bottom, a wily little cactus quill decided to sneak between my foot and the sandal. Youch! Hobbling like a fool I sat down, quickly reaching the arch of my right foot to remove the invader. Unbeknownst to me I sat directly on top of an anthill, immediately receiving retribution for the damage my ass had caused.  Standing up, brushing every bit of exposed skin and now freshly awakened, I began to consider turning around. No. Too far now, just stick this one out.

I wish I had. Coming around a bend a little more than a mile from my cactus interruption, I removed my sunglasses as the sun was setting. Just then, almost too serendipitous in timing to be ignored, a limb snapped back, hit me in the eye, and caused a pain I have never experienced. It started out numb, like a bruise, then almost immediately the pain traveled deeper and faster, becoming a searing ache at the base of the right eyeball.Why?! What did I do to deserve this?

Sitting down to calm my nerves and my cold sweat, I found my Leatherman and removed the tweezers. Prying my eye open, I had to slowly remove the small spikes that had penetrated the flesh below the eyeball itself. Minute amounts of blood were shown, but nothing to warrant SAR. Instead, I took my time, cleaned out my eye and realized that my contact had also been removed. Now, without depth perception, light was fading fast and I needed to make camp.


It started to get cold. I sat there on my sleeping bag on the edge of a bench overlooking Grand Gulch below me. What the hell? I’ve done many solo trips into this canyon before without fail. Maybe that was it. Maybe my karma ran out. I kept my bandana near as I soaked up the ooze being emitted from my eye. Goodnight, fair canyon. You won this time.

Campsite View

Blech. I awoke in the middle of the night to a puddle of something gooey emitted by my wounded eye. Sleep would not come easily, so I sat there and watched the stars, planes and satellites traverse my narrow section of sky. At first light I gathered my things, shot a few images just to appease my desired ‘purpose’ and began my ascent back out. I took water from the spring, ignored some panels I wanted to visit, and began what felt like a march. I arrived at the pour offs, wishing I had taken the time the day before to start some rock piles for assisting the ascent. I was half blind and at this point had a ‘don’t give a shit’ attitude hanging over my head. I threw my pack up, crawled on my belly, looking the 40′ below into the pool of stagnant, dank water, and committed to making it up. Arriving without issue, I crawled up the next ledge equally successfully and marched past the dead horse without acknowledging its existence. This trip was done.

Arriving at the car with a cold beer waiting for me to free it from its aluminum cage, I sat down, contemplated my journey, laughed out loud, and then pounded the froth as if it were manna to help me survive. I drove home that evening in a windstorm, half-blind, half-intoxicated from my journey, but mostly with a sordid satisfaction in what had occurred.

“How was your trip?”

(scroll down if you want to view some wounds)