Ups and downs of desert hiking |

Ups and downs of desert hiking

Heather McGregor
Post Independent Editor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Heather McGregor Post IndependentNevill's Arch stands on a bend in Owl Canyon. It's named for explorer, pilot and river-runner Norm Nevill of Mexican Hat, Utah.

BLANDING, Utah – Cedar Mesa is widely known for the hundreds of cliff dwellings, granaries and rock art panels tucked into the alcoves of Grand Gulch, which draws thousands of hikers each year.

Off to the east of Grand Gulch is a separate canyon system cut into the Cedar Mesa sandstone, Fish Creek and Owl Creek. Commonly called “Fish and Owl,” the parallel canyons connect at the top via a 1.5-mile overland trail and meet several miles downstream at a remote confluence, making a 17-mile loop trail.

The canyons are tough to get into, with a long, steep descent at the start and a long, steep ascent at the end. They have just a few archaeological sites, the trail transects some harrowing vertical exposure, and the streams run dry for miles at a stretch.

Nonetheless, backpackers and day hikers are drawn to Fish and Owl for the physical challenge, the solitude and the breathtaking spots of otherworldly beauty.

My husband and I had heard about Fish and Owl for years, but never got around to exploring the canyons until early May. We spent a leisurely four days backpacking the loop down Fish and up Owl, making the final ascent from Owl on the morning of the fifth day. Our schedule left plenty of time to take photos and watch birds, to relax in the shade midday, and to experience four beautiful campsites.

On our third night out, we camped on a knoll just above a huge pool on upper Owl Creek, at its confluence with a side canyon. The site was a very small clearing of gravel, hot and dry, with Utah juniper and prickly pear cactus nearby.

But below the knoll and down the canyon 200 yards, the narrow canyon was filled brim full with a deep pool of water, fed by water dripping 10 or 20 feet into the pool from seeps in the overhanging sandstone. (This obstacle is what sent the trail on a steep 200-foot vertical scramble up the side of the canyon and along a sharply sloping contour.)

The sound of dripping water hitting the pool, amplified by the close sandstone walls, was pure magic in that dry, deserty setting. And once the sun set behind the cliff walls, frogs lurking in the reeds up and down the canyon started an off-and-on chorus that lasted until the waxing moon set after midnight.

This trip was also the debut for my new backpack, a sandstone-colored Osprey purchased in February and my first new backpack in more than 30 years. Man, was I overdue for that upgrade! Pack technology has come a long way since the late ’70s, when my external frame pack with its seven zippered compartments and strap-on stuff sacks was the hottest thing going.

Carrying a body-hugging, balanced pack with a form-fitted suspension was a huge breakthrough. My knees still took a beating, but I felt stable and comfortable carrying a full load.

The next morning, we climbed up and around a boulder-choked declivity along a sandstone cliff, which offered up a toe-curling degree of vertical exposure, and reached a smaller pool rimmed by a sandy, willow-covered beach.

As birders, we were in for a treat. We spotted a pair of black phoebes working the insect hatch above the pool. After a few minutes, one swooped into the darkness under an overhanging ledge of sandstone. I pulled out my binoculars and focused. There, clinging to the cliff wall under the ledge and no more than a yard above the water line, was a mud-daubed nest where the phoebes were raising their young.

All along the way, Fish and Owl canyons had shown us one amazing sight after another: ancient oak trees in a grove of vivid greenery, broad expanses of sandstone pavement, the stunning Nevill’s Arch, a shallow pool teeming with tiny fish, a dozen types of wildflowers in bloom, mysterious rings of desert grass.

If it weren’t for the precipitous entry and exit, I imagine this place would be overrun with hikers. As it was, we saw about 30 people over four days, all of us rewarded for the tough vertical with a lovely hike down one desert canyon and up another.

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