Category Archives: Hikes

100 Classic Hikes Utah is available now!


Drumroll, please… presenting 100 Classic Hikes Utah! It’s been several years in the making, and now it’s live and in color! I’m very excited about this book. Feedback is already coming in, and it’s been great so far.


This book was a lot of work, great adventure, beautiful places, and the product of my literal blood, sweat, and tears. And it’s out now!


I hiked my heinie off for this book, agonized over the hike choices up until the very last minute, conferred with many people over favorite/best/most awesomest trails in the state, and found many new-to-me places for it. You can find the book now at all the major online retailers, and it’s making its way into bricks-and-mortar bookstores as well.


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On the shelves now!

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Filed under Hikes, Photos, Random Musings, Utah Adventures, Writing

Sussing out the San Rafael Swell


In April, I headed out to the crumpled, tumbled, geologically rollicking San Rafael Swell for some adventure time with a friend. It was also a birthday trip for me, making it all the sweeter. What better place to celebrate my birth than in the rugged canyons and colorful yet sere desertscapes of the southern Utah landscape? Spring and fall are the best times of year to head out to the Swell, as far as temperatures are concerned. We had cool nights, chilly mornings, and shirt-sleeve weather during the days.

We met near Goblin Valley, that land of hoodoos and fanciful flights of the imagination. Heading for Ding and Dang canyons, we passed the parking lots for Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons. Being a lovely spring Saturday, the lots were crazy crowded in the way that induces a horrified shudder from desert rats like us who prefer their explorations to be of the more solitary kind, thank you very much. I’m glad people want to be out enjoying the canyons. I  just don’t want to be there at the exact same time.

Luckily for us, since we got a late start to the day, we were almost entirely alone as we made our way up Ding Canyon.


heading through colorful formations toward Ding & Dang

heading through colorful formations toward Ding & Dang


Hordes of people passed us as they headed out of the canyons; mostly young, feet clad in Chacos, and apparently adventurous, they reminded me of a younger me. Having just worn a pair of my own Chacos for an entire day hike, the first one of the spring, my feet were highly annoyed, so I wore enclosed lightweight hiking shoes instead. Happy feet equal a happy hiker.


All set to enter Ding

all set to enter Ding


Ding Canyon and its neighbor, Dang Canyon, are not as well known as other area canyons. Filled with bigger drops and more technical challenges than merely walking, they tend to attract fewer families and casual explorers. My dog, Pippin, was along for the journey. He had a great time except for certain drops and climbs, about which he informed us in frantic whines and howls we were not to attempt ourselves, and certainly not to force him up or over either. Let’s just say there were some moments of fear and irritation on both human and canine sides. I haven’t done as much canyoneering as other outdoor activities, and when I have it’s mostly been not with him along, so he doesn’t have a ton of experience being a rock climbing dog. Since I’m primarily a horse or hiking guide, Pip has by necessity been more into far less technical horse trails, and horses make poor canyoneers. Regardless, we made it up Ding Canyon and partway down Dang Canyon in about two and a half hours–it took that long because of a few instances of needing to coax Pip down from his “alternate” routes around obstacles he deemed too intimidating to tackle. The moral of the story is, take your dog if s/he is athletic, not too large, and not too deeply concerned about heights. Also, consider bringing a dog harness for one good drop in Dang. Otherwise, leave the pooch at camp or at home.


Fun parts for canine canyoneers

fun parts for canine canyoneers


Partway down Dang Canyon is a 30-foot drop (I’m guessing a bit here, it’s not like I measured it). There is a rope that most people can use to either up- or downclimb. We were out of luck at that point, though, since there was no safe way to get Pippin down (I had no harness for him). There’s a ledge to the right (west) side we could have made it over, but not with my terrified dog since there’s a good amount of exposure there.


Drop in Dang Canyon

drop in Dang Canyon

This was our turnaround point, which probably made our total mileage that day about 8 or 9 miles rather than the anticipated 7. On the bright side, it only took us an hour and half to return to the parking lot from the dryfall that marked the terminus of our journey down Dang.


late afternoon light on the way out


Sweet spots to camp can be found all over the Swell. We headed down the Muddy Creek Road and found an excellent site with views out to the Henrys.  Despite being right by the side of the road, it’s a great campsite for the scenery as well as the fact you can anticipate very little traffic passing by.


Camp with a view

camp with a view


It also sported an architecturally ambitious fire ring as well as artistic stone pile. High winds in the middle of the night knocked down part of the fire ring. We set up a great dinner space and enjoyed the hell out of our evening out in the middle of a beautiful nowhere.


most excellent campsite, far away from everyone else even though it was right off the road

most excellent campsite, far away from everyone else even though it was right off the road


Curiosity pushed us southwest down the road, as neither one of us had ever traveled that way before. I’d recommend a high clearance 4wd, although a 2wd passenger car probably could make it at least part of the way under optimal (read: dry) conditions. We each have extensive experience driving crazy two-track roads in the backcountry; this road was about par for the course. If you don’t have experience with that kind of driving, I wouldn’t recommend it. Be prepared, as always, to self-rescue. The joys of backcountry travel!


Bentonite hills along the Muddy Creek Road

bentonite hills along the Muddy Creek Road


We stopped where the Muddy crosses the road. An old, long-abandoned homestead sits nearby. With clear views of the Henrys and the impressive bulk of Factory Butte, the settlers clearly knew what the heck they were doing when it came to picking a spot to live.


Abandoned homestead nar Muddy Creek with a sweet view

abandoned homestead near Muddy Creek with a sweet view


Next we headed north, then west again on the north side of the Swell, making our way to Crack Canyon.


Crack Canyon is easily accessed by a maintained dirt road

Crack Canyon is easily accessed by a maintained dirt road


This canyon begins with rolling waves of slickrock that are easily navigable. The plenitude of “cracks” (aka solution cavities, or the prettier-sounding “taffoni,” which are merely holes carved out of the sandstone via millennia of wind whipping around sand particles) lend the canyon its name, as well lending photographers much fodder for images.


The cracks in Crack Canyon

the cracks in Crack Canyon


Crack Canyon slips, slides, meanders, drops, and narrows as it carves its way through the Swell. Early on, a semi-subway section beckons with its almost cavernous overhang.


Crack Canyon getting deep and mysterious

Crack Canyon getting deep and mysterious


With the lowering light and the brisk wind that had chased us all day, every way we looked presented those breathtaking natural images one commits to memory and tries to commit to the camera lens.


Spectacular late afternoon light

spectacular late afternoon light


Again, we were stymied at a drop by Pippin’s insistence that  going over it was pretty much the worst thing we could ever hope to do. At any rate, it was only getting later in the day, and after our longer-than-planned jaunt the previous day, we were perfectly happy to turn around so we could make camp.


Fascinating shadow play on the rocks inside the canyon

fascinating shadow play on the rocks inside the canyon


Our campsite that night was in a small wash framed by short, narrow walls, right along the road to Crack Canyon. (Note: don’t camp in a wash or anywhere it seems water might rush through if you suspect significant rainfall.) Not another human soul was around, despite several cars and four-wheelers having been scattered around the parking areas when we’d started out. It was a peaceful evening, although quite chillier than the night before. The Swell is an amazing place for camping, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, but I do suggest you get a little off the beaten path if you want more solitude. Venture a little farther down the roads, explore around the next bend, and you might just find the perfect spot to pitch your tent, tackle your hike, and enjoy the immense beauty and huge landscape of this remote, enchanting area.


 “Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view." -Edward Abbey

“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” -Edward Abbey


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Phipps Arch Hike






Phipps Arch beckons with its curiously thick shape, quick name that trips off the tongue, and of course its location in the ever stunning Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Of the two routes to choose from, I went with the lesser known, less easy to find choice. It’s really not that hard to find (the power of the Internet remains quite strong when it comes to directions). To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend this route, the one that departs in precipitous fashion from the side of Highway 12. The seemingly miles of torturous slogging through deep sand scarred both my psyche as well as my calf muscles for days to come. Two things in this route’s favor bear mentioning, however: its remoteness will likely ensure your solitude throughout, and it’s certainly pretty for the most part.

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start of the hike


Each turn of the trailless hike presents new vistas. Desert potholes filled with water beckoned to my hot dog. (Don’t count on these actually having water after a long dry spell, although they probably fill well during summer monsoon season. These photos are from early April.)

a real desert swimming pool

a real desert swimming pool


The sandy slogs remained resolute in the face of my marked lack of enthusiasm for treading through them. With Pippin as my cheerleader, we somehow made it.

facing down the sandy sections

facing down the sandy sections


Taking a close look at snippets of sandstone along the way reveals the astonishing artistry of nature.

desert designs

desert designs


The Staircase is filled with canyons and rock domes and spires and nooks and crannies that demand exploration. It’s a wild place for sure, one that will never be tamed.

wild & woolly Grand Staircase-Escalante landscape

wild & woolly Grand Staircase-Escalante landscape


Big cats need water, too. There is little need to worry about stumbling across a mountain lion in any desert ramblings, unless you’re cruising around at dawn or dusk calling “here, kitty, kitty” while covered in aroma of fresh deer kill. Although I’ve seen recent tracks many times in my life, I’ve yet to encounter a cougar in anything but my imagination.

tracks heading to water

big cat tracks heading to water


Claret Cup cactus offers an incredible splash of springtime color. The red is so shocking amidst the browns and tans and russets and buffs of the surrounding landscape, the blossoms stand out like the visual version of a siren.

claret cup cactus flower in full glory

claret cup cactus flower in full glory


Don’t tangle with the spines of the Fish Hook Cactus. This one was in bud. I probably missed the blooms by a day or two.

beautiful fish hook cactus

beautiful fish hook cactus


A stagnant area of water still creates remarkable beauty with its coloration and the play of light bouncing off the water onto the rock walls above.

hidden beauty

hidden beauty


You can’t see Phipps Arch from the canyon below. It is revealed only after a climb that is not for everyone. Drop offs and scrambles require balance and a trust in one’s abilities. This photo, taken from the canyon below, is aimed right at the arch, which is to the left of that tiny figure standing on the rounded dome of rock in center mid frame.

you can't see it, but Phipps Arch is hiding up among those rocks

you can’t see it, but Phipps Arch is hiding up among those rocks


For those who make it up, the arch is quite interesting to behold.

Phipps Arch

Phipps Arch


Pippin is accustomed to posing for photos in the backcountry. He makes a great model for scale, I think!

faithful hiking companion

faithful hiking companion


Rock and sky from under the arch = classic Utah view.

looking out from beneath Phipps Arch

looking out from beneath Phipps Arch


Although the arch is cool, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as one of the best area day hikes–at least not from the Highway 12 route. I need to do the Escalante River route for a fair comparison. But if you’re an arch-bagger, head on over. The serenity is sublime.


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100 Classic Hikes in Utah: or, I get to explore more hiking trails!





I recently signed a contract with The Mountaineers Books to write a guidebook to be called 100 Classic Hikes in Utah. Part of their “100 classic hikes” series, it will cover the best, most popular, most loved, and/or most dramatic hikes in the state. (That will be somewhat subjective, of course, but I hope to adhere mostly to universally acknowledged stupendous hikes!) There will be short jaunts, day-long hikes, and extended overnight backpack trips.


To say I’m excited is a slim description. I’ve already done a lot of the hikes that will be included, but there are some I still need to set foot upon. That’s a lot of traveling I’ll be doing this year. Ah, so many more days and nights out under the vast Utah sky, getting to explore new places, deepening my appreciation for the natural wonders of this state…. Pretty damn cool, really.


endless views of tilting sandstone rumpus out to the Henry Mtns

endless views of the tilting sandstone rumpus out to the Henry Mtns, from Navajo Knobs in Capitol Reef


The names alone of many Utah hikes are enough to pique curiosity. In general, Utah has some of the damnedest place names I’ve ever seen. They’re awesome, really. Ed Abbey wrote about place names in southern Utah in Desert Solitaire, calling them “the folk poetry of the pioneers.” A great list, which maybe in some other post I’ll quote at length.


Consider what hikes with these names might look like: Chocolate Drops Trail. Little Death Hollow. Fiery Furnace. Robbers Roost Canyon. Black Dragon Canyon. Angels Landing. Dead Horse Point. Goblin Valley. Cheesebox Canyon. Ferns Nipple. Desolation Lake. Amethyst Lake. Lost Lake. Fable Valley. Beartrap Fork. Donut Falls.


unexpected blooms found in Pine Creek/Box Death Hollow (I believe it's a Richardson's Geranium but not sure)

unexpected blooms found in Pine Creek/Box Death Hollow (I believe it’s a Richardson’s Geranium but not sure)


Don’t you love it when your imagination may take flight and soar in giddy wonder when regarding names like that? Or places like Bryce Canyon (which has its own great trail names, such as Fairyland Loop Trail).


geologic beauty of Bryce Canyon in winter

geologic beauty of Bryce Canyon in winter


Enough rambling now. I have a lot of hiking and writing to plan out for my year.


Utah wildlife like this bighorn sheep can be abundant on many backcountry trails

Utah wildlife like these bighorn sheep can be abundant on many backcountry trails




Filed under Hikes, Random Musings

Hike of the Week: Navajo Knobs

I’m resurrecting the Hike of the Week posts. I will *try* to get one up every week…that will be a good challenge. Heh!

Let’s start off with one of the harder but more rewarding destinations in Capitol Reef–the Navajo Knobs. So called because a) they’re in the Navajo sandstone layer and b) they look like giant knobs, the Knobs are a 9.3-mile round trip hike with a 2,400-foot elevation gain. Yes, yikes. Trust me, though, it’s well worth it at the end! Bonus: if you go all the way to the Knobs, you’ll have actually done two hikes, since you pass Rim Overlook on the way.

How to do this hike:

1. Park at the Hickman Bridge trailhead and start uphill.

fall color at trail's start

2. When the trail splits (signed), head north (right) to get on the Knobs trail.

3. Go up. And up. Then up some more. Take breaks, breathe, enjoy the views when you have them.

the trail and the views

4. The hike consists of meandering switchbacks that provide blessed flat stretches, and long uphill climbs, mostly over sheer rock. (No, you aren’t in danger of falling off a cliff.) Just motor on!

5. Pull over at the signed Rim Overlook and take a gander (and breather) at the views. Then push on.

looking down at Fruita orchards from Rim Overlook

6. When you reach the actual knobs, the trail will wind up below (south) and then behind (east) them. To achieve the actual pinnacle involves some scrambling, which may be too much for the heights-averse. But if you do, the 360-degree views should astound.

looking north from the Knobs

You can see east to the Henry Mountains (and even to the Abajos if it’s clear enough), southwest to Boulder Mountain, northwest to Thousand Lake Mountain, and everywhere else. The horizon seems limitless, and the scope of Capitol Reef’s rugged beauty extensive.

7. Return the same way.

Endless views on the trail. Henry Mtns. in background

Tips on doing this hike:

1. If you think your knees will protest, hiking poles may be helpful.

2. Late fall, winter, and early spring are ideal times to hike the Knobs. The trail is exposed most of the way, meaning it can be unbearably hot in the summer while providing welcome sunshine in the cooler months.

rugged Capitol Reef country northeast of the Knobs

3. No go if storms threaten! You’re too exposed to lightning danger.

4. If you decide to add in the Hickman Bridge trail, tack on another 1.6 miles to your hike.

Random facts about this hike:

1. Along the way you’ll encounter plenty of black boulders that seem to be air-pocked. These are volcanic rocks (andesite basalt), remnants of Boulder Mountain’s days as an active volcano.

volcanic rock

2. Just barely up the trail from its start, there is a small offshoot with a sign that faces you south. You’ll be looking at Pectol’s Pyramid, named after local Torrey resident Ephraim P. Pectol. Pectol had a dream, and Capitol Reef is a partial result of his vision.


Pectol's Pyramid from a high up vantage point



Filed under Hikes

Photo of the Week: Cohab Canyon

This photo of riotous color is from a hike I did in Cohab Canyon, located in the always stunning Capitol Reef, with friends at the very beginning of October. October just became my new favorite month here. I adore the colors, the crisp air, and the lingering warmth in the days. Ahhh…. (I try to ignore the fact that it heralds the approach of winter.)

Cohab Canyon is a relatively easy trail, but accessing it requires some uphill hiking that might tax some. If you have iffy knees, think carefully before tackling this one. I like to start on the Fruita side–the trailhead is well-marked along the Scenic Drive, immediately south of the large barn right by the Gifford House. The switchbacks here offer great views all the way.

When you get into the canyon itself, the rock formations are bedazzling to  the eye, as are their colors. Tangerine, cream, gold, tan, brick red, and more…it’s a photographer’s paradise, especially on a bluebird day. I was pretty thrilled on this day because the lighting conditions and flower display were about perfect.

This trail meets up with the Frying Pan Trail, which leads to Cassidy Arch. You’ll be backtracking unless you have a car drop at the Grand Wash parking area, or alternatively at the other Cohab Canyon trailhead on Highway 24, just across from the popular Hickman Bridge trailhead.


Filed under Hikes, Photos

Hike of the Week is Sunset Point

[photo courtesy of Jennifer Howe]

I’m talking about the one closest to my home. The one in Capitol Reef National Park. Read all about it over here on my NileGuide blog. Then comment, dammit, and go visit it when you can. The hike. Well, the blog too.

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