GLEN CANYON NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — The raven can make for a most welcome camping companion.
As the setting sun casts one canyon wall in shadow and its counterpart in gold, the bird silently surfs the thermals along the edges, disappearing over the mesa above and beyond, reemerging to carve the air against the face of the wall.
Lying on the canyon floor and looking up, you could assign some task to its winged pursuits, but there’s a part of you that wants to believe its quarry is nothing but sheer joy.
In that, you have a true partner in Utah’s Coyote Gulch.
Utah is about 80 percent publicly owned, drawing millions of visitors from around the world to such rock superstars as Arches, Bryce, and Zion national parks. For hikers, however, seeking to mine the twin treasures of solitude and echoing beauty, the dusty road best leads to Coyote Gulch and other canyons tucked along the Escalante River.
Certainly the raven’s path to this fracture in one of the most remote regions of the continental United States was easier. On the 30-plus mile drive over the Hole in the Rock Road (set down by a Mormon wagon train 135 years ago and seemingly not maintained since), you’ll be dodging teeth-chattering holes, along with the occasional longhorn bull and road runner. Four-wheel drive is usually not essential, but a vehicle with high clearance and a driver with patience for mile upon mile of washboard rattling are.
You can park and start your hike at Hurricane Wash. The descent to the main features of Coyote Gulch is gradual but long, about 7 miles. For the more sure-footed, experienced hiker, start at the water tanks trailhead (36 miles on Hole in the Rock, then 4.3 miles on Forty Mile Ridge Road). If you get to the water tanks later than midafternoon, count on sleeping in your car, a fortress against the cold tremors of the night winds that whip across the plateau over the canyon.
From the tanks, the 2-mile trail to the canyon’s edge is more instinctive than overtly instructive, although a series of cairns is helpful leading to the abyss. A compass and advance research of maps and local guidebooks are musts; a GPS device, highly recommended.
A must, too, is a 50-foot rope, for the descent into the canyon from this edge will require you to lower your backpack and gear to a series of ledges below. The pitch of the slickrock can reach 45 degrees.
The pinnacle of this adventure is the canyon’s bottom, where your world loses its horizons and gains an almost sacred, linear intimacy. On your left is the majestic Jacob Hamblin Arch. Named after a Mormon diplomat and missionary to Native Americans, the arch is a portal to the western sky. About a few hundred feet before the arch, replenish your water supply with spring water cascading down the north canyon wall.
A slip of a stream runs the length of the gulch, an unassuming gentleness betraying its destructive nature. Upstream of the arch, the waters curve, cutting a cavernous amphitheater into the canyon wall. Bang a couple of rocks together: The sound leapfrogs across the walls and back to you.
Before setting up camp, doublecheck that there are no fire ants around before you stake your tent, then head downriver. After about a half mile of zigging, zagging, and tip-toeing along the stream’s banks, you’ll likely give up trying to stay dry and hike instead through the heart of the water, its coolness contrasting the radiating heat from the canyon walls. The waters rarely reach your calf, though you will most appreciate a pair of water shoes.
From Jacob Hamblin Arch, the stream snakes its way down six miles to where it spills into the Escalante River. Along the carved path, the canyon walls’ scars, scoured hollows, and sensuous curves speak to the epochal violence of energized water against stoic sandstone. The lithe stream is part of a mighty ancient river system that has been remaking southern Utah for millions of years.
Many of the sights are spectacular: Stevens Arch, one of the largest in the region, stands high against the sky near the confluence of the gulch and the Escalante River; Coyote Natural Bridge conveys a primordial sense as you walk through it. Yet, much of the beauty is captured on smaller canvasses: the brilliantly green fern that grows out of a fissure in the vertical red and cream sandstone wall; the patterns of blackened stripes and blotches of manganese and iron oxides, dubbed desert varnish, splayed across the walls.
The treasures are not solely geological. The Coyote Natural Bridge was a central point for the Fremont Native Americans a millennium ago. Their ruins can be found about a half-mile downstream, where pictographs emblazon the north wall.
Yet humanity’s imprint is faded, nearly ephemeral, compared with the fierce beauty of the rest of the canyon. As you return to your campsite for the evening, you may even feel a little inconsequential, until you cast your eyes skyward and find that joy from the flutter of a raven’s wing.