This is my fifth year spending time in southern Utah. There’s never a problem finding new places to explore. A major criteria in April, as spring break crowds arrive, is finding the quieter, less-visited options. Cedar Mesa limits visitation to 20 overnighters per trailhead.
For me the best thing about spring break in Utah is getting to spend extended time playing with my bestie hiking buddy Joan.
The first decision to be made is direction of travel, clockwise or counterclockwise. It’s a bit of choosing your poison and playing to your strengths. At the mouth of Fish Creek Canyon is a 10-12 foot crack and a steep 600′ talus slope. Would you rather go up or down? We both prefer ascending these conditions and thus decided to go counterclockwise, descending the much more gentle rock scrambles and slickrock down through Owl Creek Canyon.
The scrambling was slow and somewhat technical. The trail is considered more of a route with advance navigation skills required. You’ll find some cairns along the way to help guide your progress. Using a tracker like Gaia, which shows the trail, is helpful.
Sometimes it’s best to take your pack off to scramble those rocks. This is when having a buddy is beneficial.
With a wet winter, we were happy to find plentiful water allowing us to minimize our water weight.
With plentiful water came multiple crossings but with minimal effort we kept our feet dry.
There are some ancient sites and rock art along the way to be viewed up close or from afar. In this case, you’ll find a metal case with information about this particular cliff dwelling. Part of the permit process requires watching a film which discusses expected behavior around the sites to protect them for future generations.
It’s good to have great vision, binoculars or a zoom lens to capture the details of the dwellings high up on ledges.
An example of a cliff dwelling you might miss if you spend too much time looking at your feet.
Nevill’s Arch is the largest along this route, and is a sign you’re getting near the confluence of Owl and Fish Creeks.
We camped near the confluence so we could spend a day exploring lower Fish Creek Canyon. Another permit requirement is using existing campsites to minimize impact.
The next morning we were out early to catch reflective light as we began our travel downstream.
It’s always tempting to follow somewhat established aka social trail. Sometimes you find a prize, others you’re left wondering.
On our return trip we scouted from a different angle and found this arch. Maybe that’s where the trail led?
Other times you find yourself trying routes that don’t quite work out. Too steep, too crumbly, too scratchy . . .
Tamarisk groves are NOT hiker friendly!
The reward for exploration, possibly the remains of a signaling tower.
Doing a little research in advance might help with locating POI’s such as this.
Another permit criteria is not adding to museum style arrangements such as this one, nor removing items previously placed there.
When you find pieces on the ground, you’re expected to look but not touch.
Light and shadows may prevent you seeing some things in the morning you’ll find in the afternoon like this fantastic site. If we’d found earlier, we would have taken a better look.
When you forego social trails, you miss out on unusual sites such as this one at ground level.
We didn’t find many petroglyphs, but this one of sandals was interesting as Joan had recently read about the importance they played in differentiating tribes.
The light didn’t work in our favor on this panel but if you look closely you can see the turkey on the left and a few figures toward the right side.
In these deep, narrow canyons the sun disappears early.
Another decision is how many nights you want to spend in the canyon. We met groups spending anywhere from one to five nights. We thought two was right, but would recommend one more if you want to get further down Lower Fish Creek Canyon.
As we began our slow ascent up Fish Creek Canyon, we found it more sandy, with more water crossings, and more obstacles and a less obvious path than we’d experienced in Owl Creek Canyon.
My favorite part was walking the slickrock sidewalks.
So much back and forth, pick your poison. We both did a pretty good job keeping our feet mostly dry.
The reward for creek walking was occasional waterfalls.
While scouting for petroglyphs, we stumbled upon this stunning rock. Gotta love geology!
There are two very important navigation signs to watch for including this one that points the way up, up, up to the rim. The other is making a left at Fish Creek Canyon fork.
Then the true climb out of the canyon begins. It’s a combination of rock climbing, scree climbing and finally shimmying up the slot.
The recommended method for ascension success is frequent rest breaks in shady areas.
There is also a nice canyon wall to study for ruins. We found at least one and while I can see it on my camera it’s a bit too blurry to share here.
And finally, time to face the crack.
We utilized the recommended method of cord to haul our packs up. Teamwork is key; Joan’s my hero!
Her well-earned break between pack lifts. So convenient that this little seat was perfectly placed.
After our successful summit, we celebrated with some yummy chocolate Joan had saved for the occasion. Go team J&J!
Once at the top, we had views back down into the canyon from where we’d come. The loop without our detour is about 17 miles.
A nice view of Bears Ears. Upon leaving the trailhead, we noticed the right ear still sported a bit of white.
The Abajos on the other hand were very white. In fact all the mountains around southern Utah have more snow than I’ve seen during my past five spring visits.
Flowers were just starting to pop.
- Good navigation skills are recommended for this route. You may find some helpful and others not so helpful cairns, as well as both human and animal trails. Lots of options. Using a hiking tracker like Gaia can be beneficial.
- Available water can be slightly alkaline. I recommend bringing a flavor additive. Using a prefilter is helpful to strain floaters and swimmers.
- Respect ancestral sites and rock art by following LNT guidelines as well as turning off geotags on your photos before sharing on social media.
- Be wary of the biological soil by camping in established sites, walking on rocks in washes or on established trails.