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Hiking Happenings April 2006

The Big
by Rory Tyler

Day Canyon, Moab Utah
Day Canyon

If bigger is better then Moab’s terrain is better than most. The chief geological component of the Big in Moab is Wingate sandstone. When you see sheer, red vertical cliffs hundreds of feet high stretching on for miles and miles, that’s Wingate sandstone. At Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park you can drive right up to the edge of the Wingate cliffs that ring the great canyon and peg your personal Wow-meter with ease. But getting your itty-bitty boots on the ground and doing the bug-on-the-wall crawl is even more effective.

Wingate sandstone formed about 200 million years ago in a vast, sterile desert and was revealed in the more recent millions by the canyon-cutting action of the Colorado River. The cliffs often sport a gleaming black sheen. This comes from a peculiar substance known as desert varnish. To the best of our knowledge, bacteria living on the cliff walls digest dust and rock over untold centuries, leaving a black manganese-oxide residue on the Wingate and other geological formations.

Because of the decidedly vertical character of most Wingate exposures, the majority of people who know it intimately are rock climbers. For those of us without whipcord physiques and nerves of steel, getting into the Wingate can pose a problem. Good Wingate hikes are limited, and rarer still if you’re not ready to climb and claw and struggle…not everyone’s cup of tea. But there are a few places in the Wingate that lend themselves to the pedestrian pursuits of the less gifted.
If you like it when things are looking up, Day Canyon fills the bill. It is a narrow, rocky chasm rimmed by perpendicular precipices, soaring columns and towers. Day Canyon makes you feel like one of those teeny beetles crawling around in a cactus blossom. All that color and form ringing you round and you’re there at the heart of it.

To get to Day Canyon turn on the Potash Road north of town, then 11.5 miles to the mouth of the canyon - a deep, narrow defile on the right. The trailhead has a wire-mesh gate and broken-down fence across its mouth. It was once a cattle trail, then a 4-wheel drive road (now closed to cars), and is maintained these days mostly by rock climbers. When the trail turns left after a few hundred yards, you have a choice of staying in the thick brush in the canyon bottom or crossing the wash and climbing onto a rocky bench on the right. Go for the bench unless you prefer doing the Fanghorn Forest shuffle through thickets of invading tamarisk. Both trails rejoin in less than a half mile. For a longer walk, there’s still enough of the old cattle trail left to climb out. Round trip is seven or eight miles.

To start at the top, try Hell Roaring Canyon. A white sandstone bench wends along the canyon rim for miles for nice low-impact walking. Here, you can really see how the Wingate sheers off once the underlying geological formations have eroded away.

To get to Hell Roaring Canyon take the Deadhorse Road, Highway 313, for 8 ½ miles and turn right on a gravel road at the far end of the giant red mesa you’ve been paralleling for a few miles. (It’s made from Entrada sandstone.) When the road turns left and splits, go straight on the Spring Canyon fork. Four miles from Hwy 313 you cross a cattle guard. Turn left on the dirt track, go another hundred yards, and the rest is self-explanatory. The head of Hell Roaring was a key point in one of the region’s main Indian routes for thousands of years. An ancient trail leads from the top of the canyon to the floor, but good luck finding it.

Last but not least, the transect. My preference is to start from the bottom, using up the most energy while I’m still fresh. Kane Creek Road (turn at McDonald’s) leads you to some fine Wingate transects. The canyon widens four miles from the cattle guard where the road changes from paved to gravel, where a dirt road takes off to the right. This former uranium mining road, now a mountain bike trail, follows the slope of the geology up and up to some great vistas.

An ambitious, experienced hiker will drive another mile and a half to the crest of a hill topped by a mottled, brick red Cutler sandstone outcrop. A ridge on the left leads to a gap in the cliff line. This is a hard-core, off-trail route. The top consists of several wildly branching canyons that start shallow and entrench radically as they converge to the north. The Wingate undulates and rolls here, rather than dropping precipitously, because the erosion hasn’t cut through to the bottom of this sheer-prone formation. Once you know this way you’ll have a lot to do for quite a while, but be careful. It’s remote and confusing, so pay careful attention to where you’re going and where you’ve been and don’t take chances. (A lot of local hikers have thanked me for writing this column. This last route is really for you and I hope you have a lot of fun with it.)

Rory Tyler is available for cowboy poetry/campfire song gatherings which include lore, science, history and lies of the Moab area. (Suitable for all age groups). Rates are negotiable. Give Rory a call at 435-260-8496.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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