On the Colorado Plateau, in southern Utah and northern Arizona, there are so many unique canyon and desert environments. In April, under overcast skies, we climbed steeply down into the striped sandstone Owl and Fish canyons, carved by the ages into the high Cedar Mesa. We were making this loop hike, down Owl Canyon and back up Fish Canyon, a loop hike of approximately 17 miles. We started down the slick rock with an experienced group. Cheryl Ames, Carol Munch, Phil Kummer and I are trip leaders for the Colorado Mountain Club. Also, along were Heeja Yoo-Warren, a longtime hiking friend, and Carol’s husband Ed. We were very fortunate to have Dave Manley and Leigh along from the Utah Rock Art Association. Dave has published a book of his rock art photos and Leigh has a Master’s Degree in Archeology. Dave and Leigh are friends with Cheryl who is on the board of the Utah Rock Art Association and who came up with the idea for this trip.
To descend, we had to walk on the sandstone slick rock following cairns consisting of piles of rocks, walking along ledges and eventually making a very steep descent to the canyon floor. The canyons are carved by Owl and Fish creeks into the enormous Cedar Mesa. Logically, the predominant rock of the Mesa and the canyons is Cedar Mesa Sandstone, a light colored, red to brown layer up to 1,200 feet deep, formed from beaches and sand bars deposited by an ancient sea that covered the area during the Permian era, over 300 million years ago.
As we descended into Owl Canyon, we passed our first ruins consisting of a small, round building with smaller granary in an alcove. The Cedar Mesa area has been occupied by people for thousands of years. Between the beginning of the Common Era and the 1200s the area was fully occupied by ancient Puebloan people who left stone structures throughout the area. As we walked through the canyons, we could see small structures hundreds of feet above us in alcoves and on ledges high on the canyon walls. Dave told us that parts of the Colorado Plateau had more people living there in the 1200s than today.
The trail was primitive and very rugged in the upper portions of the canyons. As we descended down the canyon there were vertical drops or pour offs where the streams formed waterfalls during floods. The first one we reached was several hundred feet deep and we had to climb steeply down over boulders and rugged terrain. We climbed down to a lovely small pond at the bottom below a smaller, sculptured pour off. There were several more small ponds in the upper canyons. Several of these pour-offs had vegetation hanging from the rock, dripping water into the small ponds below.
We had been worried about water but were assured that there was plenty in the upper canyons, but we were told that below, where the two canyons came together in a wide-open confluence area, there would be no water. We were told that there was water less than a mile downstream from the confluence area. So most of us limited the water we carried to around 2 liters.
Hiking down Owl canyon we saw many beautiful towers and giant shapes eroded from the vertical canyon walls. Fish and Owl canyons are deeper, steeper and narrower than many of the other canyons in the Cedar Mesa area with an average depth of 500 feet. Because of this, these are particularly spectacular canyons. After we left behind the last water in the stream, we came upon a particularly beautiful collection of tall rock towers and next to them, we spotted the dramatic Nevills arch high on the canyon wall above. Nevills arch is named after Norman Nevill, the first man to take customers on boat trips through the Grand Canyon. Nevills arch has a span of 145 feet and the height of its opening is 80 feet.
As we continued on, the canyon widened until we stopped for a rest at the dry bed of Fish Creek. Here, we decided to turn up Fish Canyon and look for our first camp site there. We were hiking farther than I expected on our first day and I was running out of water. Despite the clouds, it was a warm day in the canyons, and I began to focus on finding water. Others were tired and started talking about finding a campsite before we found water. So I hiked by a large established campsite where the others stopped, and I continued to where I found water, about a half a mile beyond the camp site. The camp site had a large square boulder in the middle which served as an excellent table on which to cook dinner.
The next day was sunny and we continued hiking up Fish Canyon. We continued to see a great variety of shapes, towers and natural sculptures carved into the canyon. I saw a couple of small, ancient structures collapsed on ledges high above us. We hiked on for a few miles following Fish Creek as it twisted and turned and formed small pools. We started to see small trees chewed into points on the end, a clear sign that there were beavers in the canyon, and we arrived at a substantial beaver dam with beaver ponds where a large side canyon branched off of Fish Canyon. Tomorrow, we would hike up the side canyon and climb back out to the Mesa above.
There at this confluence, Carol found a lovely established campsite on a bench above the creek. The campsite had a large, striped butte above it. Utah rock walls tend to be patterned with stripes and even polka dots. The stripes above us were desert varnish, which is as deposit of an iron-manganese solution which runs down the rock when it rains forming dark patterns in the hot, dry climate.
After we set up our camp, Carol and Dave led Heeja, Leigh and myself on a hike a mile or more up the main Fish Creek Canyon. The canyon was narrow with beautiful, high glowing walls. On the ledges of one wall, we saw several stone structures on ledges at three different levels. Back at camp, it rained quite a bit during the night.
The next morning was clear with bright blue skies and we started hiking up the side canyon where we found more pour-offs and pools. We had to grab onto a small tree above us to climb up one short but steep drop off. After a couple of miles, we came to the turn where the trail began to climb steeply up the side of the canyon. The trail twisted and turned up nearly vertical sections in places, around enormous boulders and across stretches of slick rock.
Leading the group, just below the top, I followed the trail to a final rock wall. There the trail became a crack running up through a vertical, twenty foot wall. Dave climbed up the crack first and lowered a rope down to bring the packs up. I climbed up first to help Dave with the packs. The first move of the climb was the most difficult with limited means for a handhold and foothold. With Dave anchoring the rope we were able to bring up the packs and everyone did a great job climbing to the canyon rim. On top we rested and admired the wide view of the canyon and the terrain beyond. From the rim we hiked two miles through the rolling juniper-pinon-cedar forest on the mesa and arrived back to the cars late in the morning.
Leigh, Dave, Cheryl, Heeja and Phil immediately left for home, while Carol, Ed and I spend the rest of the day exploring the area by car. We drove to Muley Point Overlook where we could see a vast territory out to the buttes of Monument Valley over the amazing canyon of the San Juan River with its dark, layered geology. Next we drove down through the Valley of the Gods, a wide-open, rolling desert with huge, scattered buttes, fins and other indescribable rock monuments.
I had previously hiked through the Grand Gulch which is close to Fish and Owl Canyon. The Grand Gulch is not as dramatic as Fish and Owl but is much more intensely filled with ancient ruins and incredible rock art. Together, Fish and Owl Canyons, the Grand Gulch, Muley Point Overlook, and the Valley of the Gods are areas that the administration recently removed from the Bears Ears National Monument. This despite the fact that polls showed that over 60 percent of Utahans supported maintaining the monument. Recent reports suggest that the removal was done to support oil exploration in the area. In fact, I agree that the area should not be a national monument. Instead, the greater Bears Ears Area, including Cedar Mesa, should be designated as a National Park for the enjoyment and appreciation of future generations.