I woke up feeling refreshed… a rare thing for me in the backcountry.  A peaceful night of sleep and blue skies had us all ready for a day of exploring.  Although we had been lost and cold as hell just hours before, Skip, Jeff and I were all chomping at the bit to get back into the river.  Breakfast was downed and our bags loaded for a full day of fun… it was time to be off!

The creepy looking entrance to Ringtail Canyon

Just 100 yards from our tents we plunged back into the Escalante River.  The water felt even colder than it had the previous night; it also looked to be running a few inches higher.  Must have been a storm somewhere in the mountains, or maybe the start of the spring melt.  Either way our legs were soon numb.  We passed our neighbor’s camp- empty.  No doubt they were out exploring the area as well.  Having walked this portion of the river already helped quicken our pace.  Soon we were passing the mouth of Neon Canyon and exchanged hellos with the group still camped there.  Back into the river and up the opposite bank, snaking our way slowly towards Ringtail Canyon.  I had read it was a 15 minute walk downstream to the mouth of Ringtail, but our progress was slow.  We took our time marveling at the red rock walls and tiny details along the river.  The sun was shining brightly overhead and I took to just plodding right down the river in some spots.  The water wasn’t so bad once you were in it for a few minutes, the numbness wearing off with every step.

Finally we saw the wash that leads to Ringtail.  No sign of anyone else in the area.  We scrambled up the slickrock shelf and over a couple of boulders to the mouth of this tiny canyon.  A triangular shaped entry was shrouded in darkness… it sure looked creepy!  All of us decided to leave our packs near the entry; headlamps and cameras were all that we brought inside.  Just steps from the entrance the air temperature dropped and the light dissipated to almost nothing.  The walls were only a foot wide, sometimes less.  All three hikers giggled and breathed in awe at this amazing slot.  The floor narrowed so much that only one foot at a time could be placed in the crack.  Moisture was heavy on the walls and we even stepped through a muddy pool of water- much colder than the river.  A chockstone blocked our way until we found the proper angle to squirm through.  Another 50 feet and we came to a halt.  Above us was the clear route ahead but the mud and sparse handholds had us thinking twice.  Should we try to continue despite the risk?  I volunteered to take a closer look, and my chimney technique only got me a few feet up the obstacle.  I ventured that we should turn around; we only had our water shoes on and traction was at a premium.  My partners agreed, we spent a few minutes reveling in the darkness of Ringtail before doubling back.

Skip basking in the faint light of Ringtail

We retraced our route up the Escalante to Neon canyon.  Our time at the Golden Cathedral the night before was great, but we wanted to see this landmark under full sun.  Just fifteen minutes of walking got us back to the sacred site:  this time the Cathedral was basking in glorious sun and was even more impressive.  Two of the men from our neighboring camp were there also.  Along with their dogs they had brought a tripod and some serious camera gear.  They were shouting to some disembodied voices high atop the canyon walls.  It seems that some of their group was planning to rappel down through the Cathedral and they were hoping to get some glory shots of the event.  Sadly, the canyoneers above us had been turned around thanks to a large keeper pothole in upper Neon… we wouldn’t be watching anyone come down via ropes.  Our canyon friends packed up their gear and headed off.  We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed a lunch of cheese, apples and Clif Bars.  Photos were snapped and soon we headed back down the canyon.

Classic victory pose under the Golden Cathedral

One of the neighbor dogs rushed towards us… seems he was confused by the voices echoing off the canyon walls.  He walked with us until we found his master- he laughed and chased after his pup.  At the mouth of the canyon was a large group of folks.  Our neighbors were doling out advice to a few day trippers as we walked past.  Everyone is friendly down here; every person walking the river or one of these canyons is connected by a bond, a shared enthusiasm of seeing the truly wild and beautiful places in America.  Back at camp we broke down the tents and loaded up the backpacks; it was time to head out.  As we readied our departure, a large group strolled by.  They asked the typical questions:  How far until the river?  Is the water cold?  How deep is it?  Did you go to Ringtail?  Is it dark?  Etc, etc.  We answered each as best we could, leaving out the details so as not to spoil their personal discoveries.  One of the younger travelers was worried- if the water came up to our waistlines, would she really be able to make it?  We laughed and wished them good luck; I hope they found what they came for.

As we trudged back up the sand and rock trail the wind kicked up and the skies grew dark.  I always trust the National Weather Service’s detailed and accurate predictions, and it looked like the 90% chance of rain was going become 100% real.  Our goal was to make it back to the truck within 2 1/2 hours.  As we began our final slickrock ascent, we saw a man carefully picking his way down with two horses in tow.  Campers near the river told us that there was a guide and horses in the area, but this was the first we had seen of them.  Even though he was clearly in the middle of serious business, the guide took a moment to humor our questions.  He was setting up for a six day adventure:  his clients would explore up and down the Escalante and be treated to delicious dinners that his beasts were now carrying down to camp.  I prefer roughing it with my backpack, but I can see why the allure of a guided trip is hard to pass up.  We crested the last rocks and topped out in the parking lot… it had only taken us 1 1/2 hours to get out!  All three of us did some back-slapping on our achievement.  The guide was soon in the lot with us.  We asked him if he lost his horses and he laughed:  seems that he takes four horses at a time and was simply returning to collect the other two.  What a job!

Romping around Devil's Garden

The Xterra rumbled over the Egypt Road, then back up Hole-in-the-Rock road all the to Devil’s Garden.  Two years ago we had camped in a great spot near this small attraction. Our luck was good and the spot was empty.  Soon we had remade camp and cracked beers.  The sun was out in full force again, but high winds still had us a bit chilly on this early spring day.  After a few brews we explored the Garden:  spires of rock rose up from the sandy floor, each streaked with orange hues and possessing their own personalities.  Some of these rock people were short and squat, others tall and lanky.  Some stood alone while their friends were clustered in groups of three, five, even seven.  Our feet were tired and before long we headed back to camp.

What followed was the norm:  eating some tasty grill food and indulging a bit too much in both beer and whiskey.  Zepplin blared from my truck and we howled at the moon.  The weather had held up, to the north and south we could see the flash of lighting, but over our heads there wasn’t so much as a cloud… pretty good fortune if you ask me!  Sure, we killed my battery and needed a jump in the morning, but when you’re in the desert with good friends there isn’t much that can kill the vibe.  Just another trip to the lonely lands of southern Utah.  You’ll find solace and splendor here that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and that’s what keeps us coming back.

Escalante: a strange and beautiful place
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