Backpacking The Little Grand Canyon – San Rafael Swell, Utah

The Little Grand Canyon is an amazing overnight backpacking trip that is perfect for people looking for a fairly easy trip that wanders through one of Utah’s best scenes. The San Rafael River starting from Fuller Bottom is a popular spot for boaters to put in and typically do a single day float of the river, but we’re going to talk about backpacking the canyon in this post.

Below you’ll find some quick info on the best season to hike this, distance, and other important sources. Then you’ll read further to see a Day 1 and Day 2 explanation of the hike and what you can expect during your hike.

Season: Best done in early to late spring, and early fall. Avoid going June through August as temps are extreme and the river may be flowing at a rate that would be unsafe to ford.
Mileage/Time: Total miles to hike from the Fuller Bottom trailhead to the trailhead near the Swinging Bridge is 15.25 miles. You will split this in two, with day one being 7 miles or so, and day two being about 8 miles.
Where To Camp: Your best option for camping is at the mouth of Virgin Spring Canyon, located 7 miles from the Fuller Bottom trailhead. You’ll have to ford the river to get into Virgin Canyon, but there are two or three great, flat, established camp spots, big enough for groups of 6-8 people.
Waste Disposal: The Little Grand Canyon is located on BLM Land and does not have restrictions on human waste disposal. But please practice Leave No Trace principles and dig cat holes, carry out your toilet paper, and do your business 200 feet from any water source.
Water Availability: You can always filter water from the San Rafael as needed. It is typically murky water and will quickly plug up any filter. Your best water source is located at the end of Virgin Spring Canyon, where you’ll find a large pool and fresh water. Be sure as always to use a filter or chemical drops to treat the water. Cattle typically graze in these canyons or Utah.
Shuttle: Most people do this hike from point A to point B. Point A being Fuller Bottom, and then finishing at the trailhead below Swinging Bridge at the mouth of Buckhorn Wash. You will need to plan to leave a car at the Swinging Bridge Trailhead, then shuttle up to Fuller Bottom.


Route Description:

Day 1: Plan to hike 7 miles this day to make it to Virgin Spring Canyon, so an early start is good to make sure you get the shuttle taken care of before you begin your hike. The Nat Geo Trails Illustrated map is not totally correct as far as where it shows the Fuller Bottom Trailhead. See rest of description for info.

Begin your hike at the small parking lot on your left where the Fuller Bottom road approaches the San Rafael River. There is a trail register box there tat is used by hikers and boaters. Reset your GPS and start walking down the jeep road. You will cross the river after about a 1/4 mile, make sure you stay on the Jeep road as it will allow you to avoid bushwhacking through tamarisk and following cow trails.

Follow the Jeep road for about one mile, it will begin to climb uphill and seem as though you are walking away from the river and canyon. In the distance as you are walking south, you’ll see a red sign with some torn up maps on it. This is where you will turn east (left) where you will begin walking towards the canyon. The trail is easy to follow at this point as it begins to drop into the canyon.

Be sure to look for a small pictograph panel that is easy to miss on your left about 3 miles into your hike from the trailhead. About half a mile past that on your right is an old mine. To the left of a small side canyon you’ll see a trail going up to a hole in some light yellow colored rock with a bunch or yellow tailings. There is also remains of a log cabin with tin cans around this area, but we were unable to find it. As you continue walking down the canyon you will ford the river several times. Make sure to check the current flow rate via USGS. If the river is running higher than 60 CFS, then crossing the river will be difficult, and possibly dangerous.

As you approach Virgin Spring Canyon you will be on the wrong side of the river and will need to cross the river to get into Virgin Spring Canyon. About 5 minutes up Virgin Spring on your right is a very nice pictograph panel about 15 feet above you. If you walk in the wash it’s easy to miss, but follow the trail on the west side of the canyon as you walk up will lead you to a sign that says to not deface the rock. Another 5-10 minutes up Virgin Canyon you’ll come to a dry fall where a large pool of water is located. This is your best source for water and should be your refill for the remainder of the trip, unless you choose to filter water from the river.

Virgin Spring Canyon has seen a bit of graffiti and people being careless about their trash. Please pick up any trash you see, and be a steward by practicing Leave No Trace principles. Virgin Spring Canyon has two or three nice spots to camp and this is your best option since it’s so close to a good water source.

Day 2: Make sure you are all stocked up on water and begin making your way down the canyon. There is supposed to be another pictograph panel just before you make the hard right turn on the river and start walking south toward Cane Wash. Cane Wash is also supposed to have decent camping and another pictograph panel located up the wash. We did not look for it on this most recent trip. You will cover about 8 miles this day to the car. The last 3.5 miles are dry and you no longer have to ford the river. Be prepared for a couple steep climbs, but nothing too aggressive.

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Backpacking Essentials – Backcountry Exposure Youtube Series

One of my favorite things about backpacking is the preparation that comes with the anticipation for a trip. I remember getting prepared for my trip down The Paria River with a school class. That trip involved a lot of planning, preparation and mental preparation. Knowing how to get ready for backpacking experiences is vital to whether or not you enjoy yourself out on the trail. 
This has lead me to create a series of videos to share with you all about the Essentials of Backpacking. Everything from gear to use, what to buy, and even the ethics behind being a good person in the backcountry. I love to share my knowledge with people and look forward to seeing the evolution of this series. It will primarily be contained on my Youtube Channel, but I will update with each video here as well. 

Uinta Mountains In The Fall – Mirror Lake Highway Adventures

Fall is easily my favorite time of the year. Seeing the changing colors of the trees and watching the earth change as it gets colder is something that has always fascinated me. I find my excitement for being in the mountains goes out of control when that first touch of cold hits. 
Three weeks ago, my wife and I welcomed our beautiful little girl into the world. Maylin has become our world and we are beyond excited to share our love for the outdoors with her. 
A few days ago we made an impromptu decision to jump in the Jeep and go for a drive up the Mirror Lake Highway. We thought we would also go for a hike if the weather was good enough, but that quickly changed as we watched the temperature drop slowly as we drove higher and higher. So instead of hiking, we stayed in the car and made some stops along the way.
Mirror Lake Highway is a great place to go for easy access to great day hikes, beautiful overlooks, and an opportunity to see wildlife. One of the more popular locations to stop at is Provo River Falls.
There is a nice view point that overlooks the falls, but you can walk down to the water with ease and dip your feet in the water to cool off on a hot summer day. 
After stopping at Provo River Falls, keep driving east and you’ll start gaining elevation quickly, and you come to my favorite place on the highway. Bald Mountain Pass sits at just over 10,500 feet and is one of the highest places in Utah you can drive your car. Make sure to stop at the pass and take in the view looking west. If it’s a nice clear day you can see the East face of Mount Timpanogos. 
There’s no doubt that the Uinta Mountains are a great getaway. Whether it’s for a multi day backpack trip or a day driving in the car. It’s just nice to get out and enjoy. 

Packard Lake – High Uinta Wilderness Backpacking

The High Uinta Wilderness is one of my favorite places to visit, and having it so close makes visiting simple and convenient. This year my wife and I are expecting our first child, and I wanted to make sure I got out backpacking enough times over the Summer knowing that the Fall and Winter seasons would be filled with a different priority.
I rallied some friends of mine and we originally planned to hike into Red Castle, but quickly changed plans because I didn’t want to be too far away from Katie, with her being 9 months along.

Instead of Red Castle, we decided to go a shorter distance and see what Packard Lake was like, off the Highline Trail. All I can say is I was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful and amazing this area of the Uintas is. So lets get into the details.

Packard Lake is located about 4 miles from the Highline Trailhead off the Mirror Lake Highway.

The Highline may be the most popular trail in the Uinta Wilderness. It basically cuts the range in half and covers over 50 miles of terrain. The west side of the highline is vastly different than the east side, but both boast beautiful views and high elevations.

Getting to Packard is moderately difficult. Any seasoned backpacker would see this as an easy hike, but someone new to backpacking would need to take some extra time as there’s a good amount of elevation gain and loss after you leave the highline trail and branch off towards Packard. You’ll start from the Highline Trailhead and after about 2.2 miles you’ll be passing Scudder Lake, which is the first lake you see as you hike. Another .8 miles and you’ll come to the Packard Lake junction on your right. The sign for the junction is posted on a large tree and you cannot miss it. From there, be ready to go up and down several times. There are some steep sections that will leave a new backpacker needing to stop for a breather.

There are three lakes after you take the right at the junction and head towards Packard. The first you come to is Wilder. It’s a beautiful setting and has some great camping, but I suggest moving onward. After some steep trail and following a ridgeline you descend and come to Wyman Lake. Wyman also has some great camping, and a beautiful sight next to a classic Uinta bubbling brook. Again, a stunning view and area, but keep walking another 10 to 15 minutes and make your way to Packard. There is a beautiful meadow just before you head east toward Packard Lake. Stop and enjoy the view and hope to see some deer hanging out.

As you come up to Packard, which is the largest of the three lakes, you’ll notice that you are right up against a ridgeline. As seen in the title image of this post, the lake sits against an amazing overlook of the Duchesne River. You’ll see a waterfall, cliff band, and big open skies. It’s absolutely beautiful! As you approach the lake, the best camping is on the right side between the canyon overlook and the lake. It’s obvious that this is a popular place for scout troops to come, as it’s only 4 miles of hiking. There’s good spots, but we found a great, quiet spot nestled back in some thick trees further back along the lake shore. Let the scout troops coming in to kill your quiet solitude take the large open, over used spots close to the outlet of the Lake.

The fishing in Packard was not the greatest i’ve seen in the Uinta Wilderness. I tried using a fly and bubble, switching between red and yellow humpies, to mosquitos, to renegades, and the Brook Trout in the lake would not take the bait. Jakes Spinner Lures are probably your best option for this lake.

This particular trip was one of the most relaxing backpacking trips i’ve ever had. But it also came with some frustration. I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on Leave No Trace as i’ve been in the backcountry, and try hard to not overdue it, but was displeased with how the area was littered with numerous unnecessary fire rings in such odd and obscure locations. Trash, and the occasional spool of old fishing line spread across the lake shore. Please be responsible when out in the backcountry and Leave No Trace.

I highly recommend this as a great option for a one or two day trip. Access is great, the views never disappoint, and the atmosphere of the lake is enough to make you feel like you are hundreds of miles from any other person on earth.

Hiking The Paria River – Buckskin Gulch – March 2015

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and and above the clouds.” 
Edward Abbey
The Paria River Canyon is an area of Utah/Arizona that i’ve always wanted to visit, but never took the leap to make it down there. You hear about Buckskin Gulch all the time and how beautiful it is. Well I finally got the chance to go after putting in a suggestion to one of my school professors. I am a student at Utah Valley University studying Outdoor Recreation Management. This class that I took is an Outdoor Leadership class, focused on teaching leadership skills and group management in the field. A challenge I was looking forward to. 
This class involves a six day backpacking trip during the month of March. I was beyond excited about going on this long of a trip. 
The Route: Whitehouse Trailhead south to Lee’s Ferry
Day 1 – We arrived at the trailhead and would spend the first night at the trailhead. We had a few hours to kill before we needed to setup beds for the night and get ready for the first few miles of hiking in the morning. We played Bocci Ball next to the river and threw rocks at sticks. You know, what all people do to kill time.

Day 2 – The adventure begins. Adventure is the right word for this day because a lot happened on the first day of hiking. We had a lot of ground to cover, as the first night on the trail would be at the confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River. The water level at this time of year was at an abnormally high level. The week prior to our departure, the water discharge level at Lee’s Ferry was over 200 cubic feet per second. In other words, too high for anyone to hike down. Water level when we got there was mostly never above our knees at the highest, and we were prepared however for lots of time in the water. 
Our first ten seconds on the trail involved a river crossing, and over the next mile we either crossed the river at least eight times, or walked in the water cause the walls of the canyon were surrounded by sloppy mud. The mud would become our enemy for the next four days. After several miles we entered the narrows of the canyon. In some areas of the canyon, the walls are maybe ten feet apart from each other. A truly beautiful sight!
By this time it was getting later into the afternoon, the time we call the witching hour (5pm) was soon approaching. We entered a spot of the trail where we had to truly get wet. 
Excuse the language – it was cold and miserable!

We had hiked almost 11 miles at this point in the day and we were tired and cold from being in the narrows of the canyon for so long. Through much of the narrows we were hiking in water up to mid thigh and then we came to a section where we had no choice but to get wet. A depth we referred to as nipple deep. I went through and was soaked, and the remaining seven of us all had to go through too. If you’ve never been in a situation like that, then it’s hard to understand. This is a level of discomfort and moral destroyer like no other. The water temperature in the canyon at this point was maybe 40 degrees. This is where everything changed.

We started hiking as fast as we could to get to the confluence of Buckskin and see if we could camp in the one spot that is a few hundred yards up Buckskin Gulch. About 1/4 mile from the confluence, Betsy, our professor lost her balance after one of her trekking poles sunk into the mud. She took a full on swim and was wet from head to toe. Once we got to the confluence, the water and wind coming down the canyon was so incredibly cold. One of the people in our group had a thermometer and dipped it in the water. It was 34 degrees! Luckily the one camp spot was available and we dropped our packs and stripped down to get into some dry clothes, get warm and cook dinner. What was one of the most amazing days of hiking, was also one of the most miserable and cold experiences of my life.

Day 3 – This class two years prior to this trip, went on this exact same trip, and the plan for day 3 is to not cover as many miles because the plan is to hike up Buckskin Gulch to the rock fall a few miles up the canyon. We got up, and to be honest, the thought of taking off nice warm thermals and putting my wet shorts and wet cold shoes back on was far from anything any of us wanted to do. Once we had packed up camp we as a group decided that we would try to hike up Buckskin. Now you should know that most of the time, there is no water running through Buckskin. It’s for the most part a dry canyon unless there’s been a lot of rain and later in the year is better to hike Buckskin. There however was shin height water running down the canyon and it was soooo cold! I know I sound like im complaining a lot, but it was something i’ll never forget.

We started hiking up Buckskin and within minutes we couldn’t even feel our feet. It was apparent we weren’t going to make it very far up the canyon. We came to a spot where it got super narrow and we used a trekking pole to see how deep the hole was. We were unable to find the bottom of the hole with the pole. So instead of going swimming again, we opted to turn around and start heading back down the Paria and see if we could find some sun to soak up.

This section of the Paria is probably the most beautiful given the features that are in this layer of rock. The walls are incredibly narrow, and the hiking is amazing. Because there was so much water in this section, we had to hike in the water for several miles, with an occasional rocky/muddy shore to get out of the cold water. We planned to hike five miles this day and camp at the next reliable spring.

One of the students, Smitty, in this section was hiking close to the side of the wall and ended up getting stuck in some quick sand, which also meant he went swimming up to his chest. A great way to start the day.

After covering the miles needed, it was time for us to find a place to camp. We had been hiking kind of in a slingshot method with a group of guys that were down there. They found a place to camp before us, and it would have been ideal for a large group. But we pushed on a little further to an area that was in the sun. Dropped our packs and started cooking dinner.

Lots of water in Buckskin Gulch
Found a low spot of water in Buckskin

Sections like this were fun because you never knew how deep the water was, or where the holes were.

Days 4-6
The canyon starts to open up at this point. There are still really tall walls, but we had left the narrow sections and the layers of sandstone start to change by this point. On this day we dropped our packs when we got to what’s called, The Abandoned Meander, which is a small canyon that the river at one point ran through, but doesn’t any more. This little canyon was absolutely beautiful and is worth the trek up into it. There’s really beautiful, lush vegetation and at the right time of day, it glows from the sun.

The hiking at this point in the trip was just tiring. My shins and the muscles right below my shins were beyond sore. We had crossed the river probably 100 times by now and each day started off with a river crossing. What a way to start the day, get your feet wet and cold. On either side of the river was several inches of thick, sticky mud, which I attribute the sore shins to.

The below photo is one of my favorite from the trip. Here is the group all together, I knew very little about each person in this group before we left, and after 6 days on the trail with them, there was a respect for each person that wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been on this trip. I remember walking through the river at this bend in the canyon, and I looked behind me and the light in the canyon was glowing, the rock was glowing, the river was glowing, and it was kind of a magical moment. I had to take a few seconds to just stop and appreciate the absolute beauty. It was then that I requested we all get together and get what would end up being the only group shot of the trip.
The photo doesn’t do the light justice, but you can appreciate the beauty.

Trail to Wrather Arch
Wrather Arch
Selfie Time!

What’s amazing about the lower sections of the canyon is how fast the landscape changes. I think you hike through three different layers of sandstone through the lower 15 miles of the canyon. It’s truly an amazing place though. We camped at obvious camp sites each night, which were convenient to good springs. Because of a knee injury, our pace the last couple days was much slower than anticipated, and the last night of camping was at Wilson Ranch, which if you end up having to camp there, we did find water from a spring at the ranch.

An incredible trip that was highly anticipated for many weeks leading up to it. Even though it was my first experience using WAG bags and having to carry all that extra weight, I wouldn’t trade the experience gained in that canyon for anything else. Friendships were made and an appreciation for the wildness of the area will stay with me forever.

Harris Wash to Neon Canyon – Escalante Backpacking Trip – Trip Report

Lets talk about what it means to go on a full on adventure when backpacking. When you make the mistake within the first five minutes of your trip and end up missing the trail, that then eventually leads to a massive unplanned detour, you can say you’ve been on an adventure. More on that later. As you may already know, I am a Outdoor Recreation Management major at Utah Valley University. This trip to Escalante in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was part of one of my classes this semester. For the class we planned trips that were then voted on and one of them became the trip for the class to go on. My trip was what was eventually voted on. I had never been to Harris Wash before, but had been to Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral many years ago. 
The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSEMN) is an area of Utah that is located near Capitol Reef National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. In 1996 President Clinton designated the area (1.7 million acres) as a national monument. The canyons of the Escalante hold some of the more popular canyoneering areas in Utah, including Neon Canyon, Zebra Slot, Harris Wash, Coyote Gulch, Ringtail, and many others. In short, this area is incredibly beautiful and provides endless opportunities for exploring and getting that solitude that should come from being in the backcountry. 
I was incredibly excited to be going on this particular trip. I’ve always wanted to hike through Harris Wash, and make some kind of a loop through another canyon in the Escalante area. When I did some planning I realized that it would not be unreasonable to hike through to Neon Canyon and then backtrack a little and exit through Fence Canyon to the Egypt Trail head. 
Here is a breakdown of our trip.
Harris Wash to Neon Canyon – Escalante, Utah
Recommended Days: 3-4
Approximate Miles: 25 (I do not know exact, due to a mistake on our first day. But see our GPS maps below)
Day 1 –
We traveled from Orem, Utah to Escalante and down the Hole In The Rock road. We parked our car at the Harris Wash trail head. From the Harris Wash turn off it is 7 miles to the trailhead. A higher clearance vehicle would be recommended for this road. We shuttled our other car to the Egypt trail head. It is just over 1 hour from the Harris Wash trail head to the Egypt trail head. We slept that night at the trail head of Harris and planned to hike the entire length of Harris the next day to the confluence of the Escalante River.

Day 2 –
We woke up early to get packs together and ready for hiking down Harris Wash. Non of us had been to Harris before and was a contribution to our missing the wash. We strapped our packs on, and started hiking down the road to the left of the permit box found at the parking lot/trail head. Within 100 yards there is a stream bed. The stream bed had obviously seen some aggressively high water in the recent months. There was no trail, however there was a road the went through the stream bed, and we for some reason stayed on that road. We totally missed the wash (by a big margin), and just kept hiking on the 4×4 road. I kept thinking to myself, “this is not right, we are not in the right place. This is nothing like what I read about when planning the trip.” We kept hiking. At mile 5 we stopped and pulled out the maps and figured out our UTM. We were so totally not in the right place, obviously. We decided to keep walking down the road and see where it lead to. There wasn’t much room for error in staying on the road and we could also see the Escalante canyon in the horizon anyway. We weren’t lost, just not in the right place.

We hit mile 9 and looked at the map again. Figured out exactly where we were, and decided a point in Harris Wash that we wanted to drop into. Leaving the road and crossing the desert following a drainage we were all pretty tired. Eventually we got to the edge of Harris Wash and started looking for a place to descend into the canyon. After finally finding a place to drop in, we realized we hiked 11 miles to only get a few miles into the wash. We dropped in maybe a half mile below the narrowest point of the wash. Fighting with the Russian Olives and Tamarix we decided that it would be smart to find a place to camp for the night, as it would be getting dark and cold within an hour.

Day 3 –
Like I mentioned above, Harris Wash and the surrounding area had recently seen a very large flood come through. The amount of debris and destruction made getting through the canyon incredibly difficult and time consuming. There was debris in some areas that was over 7 feet in height. The flood had downed massive cottonwood trees and made for just a total cluster cuss for hiking. With the water being so cold, it was hard to stay in the water for more than a few minutes. Otherwise, we would have just hiked down the stream bed the entire time to get to the confluence. After a few more miles of hiking, we finally found ourselves at the confluence with the Escalante River. We took 10 and got some food and water in us.

We hiked from there a few miles down the Escalante River. The original plan was to get all the way to Fence Canyon and then find a nice place to camp near Fence Canyon. We had a really hard time making good time due to some foot problems, and again the amount of debris, lack of trail, and amount of river crossings we had to do. We found a nice place to camp about 2 miles from Fence Canyon.

Day 4 –
This is the day that I had been waiting for the entire trip. About 12 years ago I hiked from Egypt to Neon Canyon to go see the Golden Cathedral. I’ve always wanted to go back and see it again, and one of these days, i’ll actually go back and do the slot and famous rappel down through the cathedral.

We hiked to Fence Canyon, and the girls in the group stayed back as we grabbed some food and water, to then hike the roughly 2 miles to the Cathedral. We planned for 2 hours from the mouth of Fence to get to and back from Neon. Hiking really fast, with no packs, we quickly got to the mouth of Neon. Neon is one of the most beautiful desert canyons i’ve ever seen, and is something that everyone should be able to see. Pictures really do not do the canyon justice. We took lots and lots of photos while walking up Neon. Before we knew it, we turned the corner, walked through a narrow slot and there it was, the famous Golden Cathedral. We were the only ones there, and it was so peaceful and beautiful. After taking more photos and just enjoying the sight, we started back for Fence Canyon.

I remembered the last time that I was there, we walked past some Petroglyphs. I couldn’t remember exactly where they were, but we eventually found them. This panel of Petroglyphs is found maybe half a mile from the mouth of Neon Canyon. I’ve noted them on the map photos below. The panel is a very large panel, and has some amazing petroglyphs on it. Unfortunately, many people have done some serious graffiti on the wall. Most of it probably from cowboys many years ago, but there is some recent graffiti that was sad to see.

We eventually made it back to Fence and met back up with the girls. Strapped our packs back on and made the roughly 3 mile hike from Fence to the Egypt trail head. I forgot how steep and strenuous the last half mile or so of that section to the car is. It felt so nice to finally be back at the car and headed home, but it was also a sad moment to know that the trip was already over.

Overall it was a fantastic trip, and I could really careless at this point for the mistake of missing the entrance and such to Harris Wash. It may have actually made for easier, and better hiking with the amount of flooding that happened in the area. The area is beautiful, and is something that everyone should take time to go see. This is a great trip and allows you to see a lot of the Escalante in a short amount of time.

Day 2 – Shows our massive detour and where we descended into Harris

 Night 1 near the trail head

 Informally named – Moqui Balls in a large deposit area

 Harris Wash before we dropped into it

 Looking for a place to drop in