& Straight Wash
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September 29, 2012
In the weeks leading up to the trip out to Utah, I scanned the terrain on Google Earth, checking out interesting features of the landscape and looking for cool canyons to explore. A prominent east-west crack in the San Rafael Swell caught my eye, and after researching things a bit, I learned this was Eardley Canyon. It’s a technical canyon, but Michael Kelsey discusses in his guide book a spot up the north rim of the canyon a ways where one can drop down into the canyon, bypassing the technical drops and enjoy the canyon upstream for quite a ways. So, that was the plan.
Griff and I pulled into the tiny sand lot around 8 AM on a typically perfect autumn day in Utah: blue sky, no wind, temperature hovering around 65 degrees. We shoved the cooler under the tailgate for shade, stuffed snacks and water bottles into our packs, and began trekking up the dry wash where 3 tents had been pitched. Brave. I know it’s the dry season, but those clumps of twigs and grass wrapped around the cottonwood trunks 5 feet up show you just where and how wild the water can come charging down through here. But I confess there’s been no sign of rain the three days we’ve been in the area, and this day also looks to be clear and dry.
The walk upstream was pleasant as we immediately entered a wide canyon with very high cliffs on either side, the 800-foot southern cliff acting like a giant sun awning for much of the way. Cottonwoods and boxelder trees grew thickly on either side of the wash, and here and there puddles of water sported tiny frogs in the cool shaded air. This stretch took us through the initial uplift of the San Rafael Reef, and in a short time we came out on the west side where the dry wash curved sharply, as if we were hiking up the stem and crosier of a question mark. Boulders littered the wash, and we picked our way carefully upstream. Gone was the shade of the cliff face, as the terrain dropped away to a wider, shallower canyon with fewer trees. Curling around the top of the question mark, we re-entered a deep canyon that was all rock with very little vegetation, but the angle put us right in line with the sun to the southeast, and it was hot. Several large pools of water, greatly evaporated, lined the channel, but mostly it was dry. We slogged on into a fairly straight north-south channel, following Straight Wash behind the reef, and heading south towards the purported entrance to Eardley Canyon. I noted lots of footprints in the sand, but so far we hadn’t seen anybody.
Given the early hour, we were again treated to long stretches of shade as the eastern angle of the sun put it just behind the towering apex of the reef to the east. When we reached Eardley Canyon, there was no mistaking it. It was every bit as deep a cut in the rock as it had looked from the satellite images. A series of large, muddy-brown pools guarded the entrance, but these were easily bypassed, and we walked up over slanted, jumbled boulders into the mouth of the canyon. Completely devoid of plant life, the canyon was all rock, most of it vertical. No quaint slot canyon, this one is huge and forbidding. We hadn’t gone more than a hundred meters when we encountered a large pool of the similar opaque, muddy water that could not be bypassed. It was ringed by smooth rock and a 25-foot wall of rock on the upstream end, worn completely smooth by the passage of water and virtually unclimbable. End of the road for us. We admired the bleak beauty of this simple grotto, then headed back down the canyon to Straight Wash.
We sat in the shade and tanked up on water. The canyon is a deep slice in a sheet of rock that descends at a sharp angle towards straight Wash. From the wash, there is no canyon wall at all to the west, and we simply found a spot near the mouth of Eardley Canyon and walked up. The hike up the slope was fairly easy, with no major obstacles. Often we could get right on the edge of Eardley Canyon and look down into its depths, at one point admiring the uppermost pool we had visited from a height of several hundred feet. The canyon quickly increased in depth, and soon we were 700 feet above the channel, high up on the dry rim with only gnarled junipers and cactus for company. Some canyons are wet and lush oases in the desert, but not Eardley. The higher we got, the more we could see up stream of it, and it was mostly barren, with a scattering of junipers and sagebrush in the narrow band of soil near the bottom. Mostly what we noted were the nearly-vertical walls of red rock, all broken and crumbled at sharp angles, very unlike the smooth undulating canyon walls of the Navajo and Wingate sandstone further south. Voices rose up from below; unintelligible mutterings so distorted by diffraction within the narrow canyon walls it was impossible to tell even how many humans were in the group. Maybe only one guy, muttering to himself. We watched from above, but could see nobody.
The sun was beating down
on us, and even at this late date in September, it was hot. We found a
rock overhang and took shelter from the sun for awhile. I checked my phone
and indeed, the elevation and clear view of the horizon gave me great cell
service, so I called and talked to Andra for the first time in 4 days.
All’s well at home. After a bit of water and snacks, we returned to the
uphill climb. We passed a few cairns, then reached a point where
the rock ended at a cliff and we backtracked a bit to a jumbled pile of
boulders at the base of another cliff where cairns showed a route leading
over. We followed, and before long we reached at another cliff, having
followed cairns to the edge. We looked down the steep slope of loose boulders,
700 feet or so down to the dry wash in Eardley Canyon. It certainly looked
possible to engage in a controlled slide down the tallus to the dry wash
below, but looking up-canyon at the dry, sun-baked wash, I couldn’t imagine
myself wanting to spend any time down there. Then there’s the issue of
the pools down canyon, and the requirement of hiking back up this dusty,
Starting out in Straight Wash