The desert is full of surprises, and a stream flowing through a very dry land is the biggest surprise of all. Where can all this water possibly be coming from? To answer this geological conundrum we would have to follow a seep underground for miles on a journey that may take years to complete. Sandstone, in our part of the world, is fairly porous, and this allows water to drip downward. Moving laterally along the path of least resistance it finally erupts to the surface as a wonderful gift – an oasis in the desert.
Kane Creek is one of these unique curiosities – a serene riparian refuge that is a magnet for wildlife – a year-round band of water that overflows with deep peaceful pools and powerful waterfalls – a watershed that nourishes huge groves of cottonwoods –and a wandering course of water that ends its journey at the Colorado River.
A jeep trail winds back and forth across the floor of Kane Springs Canyon, as it covers a distance of approximately 13 miles. The lower trailhead starts on Kane Creek Blvd., but on my most recent hike in early November I began at the upper trailhead. To get there I drove approximately 15 miles south of Moab on Highway 191. Then just beyond the crest of the hill, after passing the rest area and the Hole-In-The-Rock gift shop, I parked on the right side of the road at a pullout with a metal gate.
Immediately after the gate, a sign directs me to take a sharp right for the steep half mile descent down to the creek, where I enter the water loving world of willows, tamarisk, Russian olive and cottowoods with their fluttering leaves of gold. Right away the stream crossings begin, but at this time of year the water level is low and with the help of a walking stick I manage to keep my feet dry.
At this point the canyon is wide open with plenty of room to roam as I wander amidst those beckoning groves of cottonwoods. This time of year I am seeking the sun and the coziness of a particularly appealing spot is irresistible. Leaning against a rock wall, I luxuriate in its radiant warmth while absorbing the marvelous flavor of fall - the strong contrast of autumn leaves against a brilliant blue sky - and crinkly, dried up leaves one by one gently sailing to the ground.
Before long the trail disappears in the creek, and I have to circumnavigate through the thick brush until it pops up again on dry land. By this time I’ve been hitting pockets of birding hot spots. Some species of small birds do have a habit of hanging out together: mountain chickadees, ruby-crowned kinglet, titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch and a flock of chatty bushtits - tiny, group-oriented gray birds, who are always on the move.
Ever so slowly this canyon narrows its girth; curvaceous walls climb higher and higher. The road gets very rough and an abrupt abutment must be negotiated. Now I can see why this jeep route is rated difficult. How can these off-road vehicles possibly do this? It is tricky enough just walking down!
Shortly after that difficult spot, I am fascinated with a big seep – a huge area of water dripping down a mossy rock wall covered with alcove columbines, a hanging garden tenaciously clinging to the vertical, slippery surface. It seems like a hard way to make a living, but they have just what they need - plenty of water and enough dirt in the cracks for them to grow and thrive.
Continuing on I am intrigued by a waterfall gushing into a big pool deep enough for a cool dip in the summer. The sun shining on the water shoots up swirling reflections on a patch of shade underneath an overhang. Mesmerized by this constant squiggly motion, and with a dozen bouncing waves of light sliding down the wall, this is the perfect place for my lunch. Comfortably I lean against the trunk of a cottonwood to watch this magical performance go on and on.
After that delightful dalliance, I reluctantly pull myself away and move along to a fork with a sign – left for the high road or right for a low road that is too narrow for jeeps, and with its formidable appearance I opt for the high route.
Now I am walking on a shelf, a smooth going ledge within the cliff wall that leaves just enough room for a road. With the low road still in sight at the bottom of the canyon I peer down on a green metal bridge, which was built over a rotted out wooden one. Before long this narrow passage turns into a nasty course of big boulders covered with loose gritty dirt as it steeply drops down to merge with the other road. At this juncture rather than going the extra distance back I decide to try the spooky lower one.
The next stream crossing has the deceptive appearance of dropping off the edge, and the last part is definitely a butt slide down! A little further I’m finally at the bridge, which is certainly needed. With the deep chasm below I can barely make out the roaring water beneath.
The last crossing on this alternate route is next to a concrete retaining wall. Here the water glissades down a series of sliding board rocks into another big swimming hole. Above the roaring surge of water, the powerful song of a dipper rings out. Looking downstream there he is on the edge of the water. His odd habit of constantly bobbing up and down with about sixty dips per minute is a behavior that easily identifies this stubby slate gray bird of swiftly flowing western streams.
After a short climb I’m back to the original road. Days are shorter now, and I realize I shouldn’t dally much longer. The sun hangs low on the horizon as I reluctantly retrace my steps and savor the special moments of this day - the nostalgic season of fall – the embracing warmth of the sun – an amazing light show – a riparian paradise birds can’t resist – an intriguing hanging garden - and the joyfulness of a bubbling stream filled with refreshing pools and waterfalls. The round trip mileage measured 5.6 miles, but this enchanting place made the walk easily flow on by.