We awoke to sunny skies and chilly air. Luckily nowhere near as chilly as the night before. I had damn near shivered myself to sleep despite being shrouded in a zero degree sleeping bag. Maybe we should have closed the tent fly. It didn’t really matter at this point; we were stoked for the day’s events: exploring the Narrows and side canyons of Onion Creek. Little did we know our hand draw guide book map would soon be proved less than accurate, and our day would become a game of chance.
Skip whipped up some delicious egg and sausage tortillas as Jeff and I gulped down coffee. Soon enough the sun had risen over the rock ledge bordering our campsite. We jammed all the necessary gear into our packs and jumped into my truck. Off we went, east on Onion Creek Road. As we zipped down the road the spots we hiked just the previous afternoon took on a new look; it’s always different on foot. We climbed a steep graded hill and were soon deposited at the head of a valley. After consulting our map we decided that this must be the spot; the guide book described a parking area near the creek and a trail that would lead us into the Narrows.
There was a spur trail wide enough to accept the Xterra, so I cut the wheel and headed toward the cliff walls, aiming to shave some time off of the bland desert scramble over flat, sandy ground. When we arrived at the end of the line we saw a couple on their ATV. They were taking a smoke break (tough work, driving those things around the desert). We asked them if they had been down here before and perhaps knew the lay of the land, alas, they too were Onion Creek rookies. After a few minutes of debate we decided that this was not the right spot. The decision was made to head back to the main road and drive further east.
We had spied an area that looked like it could be the narrows from across the open valley. Again the truck was pointed in the right direction and we zoomed over the graded road. A few minutes later we came to a rocky section that I didn’t care to drive over. The three of us jumped out and hoofed it towards the canyon system just ahead of us. Again we thought we had hit paydirt; the book described a lone campsite near the end of the road, and we were standing over just such a spot. This had to be it! Following a cow trail, we made our way to a small, riparian canyon. It was a typically pretty little drainage, but we began to have doubts if it was the gateway to the coveted narrows. After about a mile we decided it was not the place, and doubled back.
Instead of retracing our steps entirely, we took a side canyon to the north. It seemed like it would deposit us back near the truck. Over the sandy floor we hiked, scrambling around downed trees, boulders and even an interesting dryfall. We wondered aloud how many others knew about this tiny canyon, let alone took the time to hike it. The walk was enjoyable but short; soon we were back at the truck and eager to find the right place. Just as we finished up some snacks, a little Honda pulled up beside us. Inside were a younger couple, college aged, and the driver was having second thoughts about driving over the rocky section of road. They were stoned out of their minds and had some difficulty negotiating the correct way to back the car up and park. We tried our best not to laugh (have to be polite, right) and soon they had it figured out. They talked with us for a minute before setting off to explore our “hidden” canyon area… looks like it wasn’t as secret as we supposed.
I fired up the truck and we headed back down the main drag. The guide book was beginning to become a source of frustration for anyone who read it. The goddamn thing wasn’t very descriptive, and we began to doubt our instincts.
“That first road we took HAS to be the right one. HAS TO.” While we sounded firm in our assertion, I don’t think any of us actually believed it. Against better judgement I drove back down the spur trail and stopped where we had seen the ATV couple. Out of the truck with packs on, we made our way cross country towards the mouth of a large canyon. A half hour of very slow progress was made across the rough terrain before I had had enough.
“This isn’t the way. It just doesn’t make any sense.” My companions agreed and we returned to the truck, somewhat deflated. The day had worn well into the afternoon and we still had not seen the canyons we had come for. Determined not to lose moral, I drove all the way down the road, past our campsite and out to Highway 128. If we were going to get skunked on the narrows, we could still salvage the day by getting a closer look at Fisher Towers. The recreation area was just a mile or so up the road and soon were were pulling into the busy parking lot.
The Fisher Towers took center stage. These gigantic monoliths of crumbling Organ Rock Formation are prized by climbers the world over, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The rock monsters jutted out from the mesa behind them, demanding respect. My mind conjured up images of some post-apocolyptic city long forgotten by time. We hiked to the photo area and marveled at the impressive features. After some time amongst the Towers we gathered back at the parking area, and took one last look at the damned guide book. Jeff and Skip tried to make sense of the thing, and we decided that we would make one last attempt at finding the narrows before giving ourselves over to bourbon and beer back in camp.
The familiar terra of Onion Creek passed the windows, and as we headed over the dicey “5 Ton” bridge, it hit us: the narrows were directly underneath us! I pulled the truck into the first available spot to park and we jumped out. A sense of excitement washed over us as we were on the verge of seeing what we came for. Just as we were headed into the narrows a huge, tricked out jeep came to a stop on the road. The decals read “Dan’s Tours” and Big Dan himself was at the wheel. His jeep was packed with seven tourists, each bundled up and gazing at us with a look of bewilderment.
“Sure enough this is the narrows,” Dan replied to our question. “They used to let us drive right up the creek a few years ago. I’m the last guy to drive it… did it on New Year’s Eve a few years ago. Then they banned us.” We could sense his ire at the closure. “You’ll see tracks from an earth mover that does maintenance in the spring. If he can drive in there, why can’t I?”
Big Dan did have a valid point, but we decided not to debate the value of banning vehicles from the stream. That argument could wait for another day. He put his big rig in gear and shoved off with his cargo of paying tourists. We had a smug sense of self satisfaction: those folks wouldn’t be getting the view that our legs were about to deliver us. Down the narrows we went, twisting and turning with the stream under huge alcoves and rock walls. Atop the walls were shapes and colors of all types: crazed spires of dazzling red and orange with names like “Totem Pole.” The narrows were short and sweet, and before long we had walked down them and doubled back. The real treat was coming up.
The Onion Creek side canyons were formed by runoff from the Fisher Towers. Here there are several washed to hike; canyons within canyons. We ventured up the first one and came to a huge, impassible dryfall. The cursed guide book was finally making sense, and we knew that there was plenty more to see. The next side canyon split several times and we continued north, opting for the left fork at each junction. We passed small pools of water, scrambled over boulders and dryfalls and marveled at the impressive canyon walls. They towered 400 feet over our heads in some spots, the rims adorned with more of the insane rock formations common to the area.
Finally we arrived at one of the more awe inspiring places I’ve been in the desert. We dropped our packs and gazed once again at the Fisher Towers. This view was much different than the one we had in the recreation area lot two hours before; now the Towers shot up from the earth 1,000 feet over our heads. We soaked up the view and snapped a few photos. It was late in the day and though we knew there were plenty more canyons to explore, it was time to head back. We would be losing daylight soon enough, and we were satisfied.
Back at camp we built a healthy fire and cracked celebratory beers. Steaks were grilled and eaten, and soon enough the bourbon was being passed around. There are few feelings that can match the euphoria I associate with a good round of exploring, and this day was no exception. We had overcome a few difficulties (foremost being the guide book) and found what we came for. That night I was warm in my bag even as the rain poured down. Just another chapter in a book that gets longer with each trip to these special places in America. This is one book I hope to never finish writing.