Midsummer Hole in the Rock Trip

Alex

Adventurer
It really started out as the usual midsummer San Juan Mountains trip because there is no more pleasant and wildflower-rich location to spend a 4 day weekend in August. Adam (Gokracer1) and I had the trip planned for a month or so but neither of us could get excited about another trip to the mountains. We tossed about ideas, all of which involved cool, high mountain explorations. None of which kept us awake at night in anticipation. Finally the suggestion of Hole in the Rock Trail came up.

“You know how HOT it is going to be out on that slickrock in the middle of August?”

“Who cares, lets go!”

:D

I had met Jared (xjblue) on our first Hole in the Rock trip back in 2004, hit that trail with him again in 2008 and joined him on several other great Canyon Country explorations in the years between. With only a little arm twisting via email we talked him into joining us on this trip as it just wouldn’t be the same without him. With Adam and my s.o.’s that made a good, small group of 5 people and 3 jeeps.

I have always avoided camping in the desert in the middle of the summer as there are much more comfortable places (like my air conditioned house or the mountains!) to escape the high desert summer heat of Albuquerque. This made packing a little different as the emphasis became staying cool, not keeping warm. We left the big sleeping bags at home. Adam found that he could fit an ARB refrigerator in the space vacated by his two 20 degree bags. I packed 3 reflectorized space blanket-type tarps as well as a whole bag full of bungees and straps to rig then up as portable shade. Then there was finding someplace to store 10 gallons of water per vehicle. The adaptation from alpine camping to slickrock desert travel hopefully complete, we pointed the jeeps northwest early on a Friday afternoon.

Typical New Mexico summers involve daily afternoon thunderstorms. For the past month or so we have had a high pressure system parked overhead that kept our skies an unusually monotonous blue. Running along the spine of the Continental Divide through the Checkerboard Reservation we enjoyed what is called “widely scattered showers and thundershowers” in the sterile vernacular of the weather service. This colorful roadside outcropping of the Chinle Formation has always begged to be photographed and I have made several lame attempts through bug-spattered windshields on previous journeys. Since a late afternoon rainbow appearing over said striped butte while I drive by would probably never happen again, I begged to pull over to capture this moment. The short pause on the side of the road was just the transition needed to put the stresses of an unauthorized early flight from work behind me and to get into the traveler’s state of mind. We took it as a sign that this was going to be a GREAT trip.


Adam and his girlfriend had never seen Lake Powell before so we continued through the night all of the way to the Halls Crossing campground on the bluff overlooking Bullfrog Bay. It is always a spectacular sight to wake up to outside the tent door. Containing a full 80 more feet more of water than my first trip here 5 years ago it was worth getting up early for… especially since the sun’s first rays brought along a significant increase in temperature, making sleeping in difficult.


Daylight made a some initial observations possible. While the mirror of the lake’s surface was rapidly shattered by multiple boat wakes, we shared our terrestrial accommodations with more hummingbirds than humans. The campground was virtually deserted. One of the few vehicles in sight was Jared’s familiar blue Cherokee. It wasn’t there when we bedded down around midnight. It doesn’t matter how remote our meeting place is or how many rough miles of road it takes for him to reach it, he quietly appears out of the darkness without fail.

We packed up our outfits and headed over the little convenience store/gas station across the street. I filled my tank next to a trailered boat set up in the Lake Powell style: red plastic fuel jugs lined up across the stern, 4 sunburned dudes unloading an incredible number of full but surprisingly light trash bags that gave out hollow clanks when dropped to the ground.

Most Hole in the Rock trips are 2 or 3 days long. The appeal of spending 4 days on the trail was the opportunity to take side trips and do some hiking along the way. Since the new trail routing takes a long detour up Nokai Dome to get around Lake Canyon’s washout we continued past the signed Hole in the Rock turnoff to follow the road to its very end on Nokai Dome. This gave is a hazy look at Navajo Mountain and the San Juan Arm of Lake Powell.


There was also a nice overlook of Castle Creek’s canyons along the way


After several years worth of rumors that Lake Powell was drying up it was nice to see blue water where previously there had been mudflats.


That night camp was made off the trail. On the morning drive Adam’s girlfriend spotted an arch which we all checked out.


Interesting rock formations along the way. The space blanket bungeed to the roof rack was my low tech approach to staying cool. Shade followed me everywhere in this treeless land.
 

Alex

Adventurer
Just on the other side of the Chute we break for lunch in the only shade around.


That spot was the jumping off point for our hike to Old Settler Natural Bridge. I had spotted it on a map and mentioned its location as “somewhere down the canyon at the bottom of the Chute” to Jared on our last trip. With instincts for all things geographical he located and photographed it, but I missed out on that hike. Seeing the bridge was one of my goals for this trip.

The hike was short but fun, with pools and potholes to dodge and cottonwood shaded pocket gardens where sand was trapped. Several of the potholes held water and a lively population of frogs despite being the middle of summer.


It seemed as if we were the first ones to ever see the bridge. There were no cairns marking the way, nor any graffiti scratched into the sandstone telling us who had come before. Its graceful arc was the product of a pothole and an alcove that had eroded together.


It was impossible for us to get on top of or below the bridge but it was well worth the time spent to reach it. Coming during or after a rain would involve wading or swimming as all of the pools would be full, but it sure would be cool to see the water cascading beneath the span!


After viewing the bridge we continued on to the end of the trail where we all lounged in the shade of Adam’s jeep and enjoyed the scenery. Everyone was kind of pooped and punchy from a couple of days of nonstop motion. I will forever think of the location as Camel Rock Camp due to an incident that occurred there. Sitting in the late afternoon shade our view was dominated by this rock formation that bore a resemblance to a dromedary at rest. Somehow I found myself donning a makeshift turban, then clambering up the rock to affect a Lawrence of Arabia pose.


That night’s camp was simple, as were every other camp on this trip: an air mattress plopped down on the warm slickrock. It was quick, easy, cool and best of all it gave an unobstructed view of the night sky.


Moonrise came after 3am, allowing us to enjoy a clear view of everything in the sky, including the Milky Way, a few tardy Perseids and Jupiter with 4 moons.


Jared and I had always wished for more time on previous trips so we could hike down Cottonwood Canyon to the lake. This time we did it. We left before sunrise to avoid as much heat as possible, especially since the canyon ran east/west and would be sunny all day long.
 

Alex

Adventurer
I had hiked down as far as Cottonwood Hill on my last trip and thought the route was well marked and easy to follow. It turns out that the rest of the trail down from there has been either reclaimed by the abundant vegetation of the canyon bottom or washed away. It sure felt like an off-trail hike, despite the intermittent covered wagon emblazoned posts marking the way. Look carefully for the trail in the following photos:





Didya see it? Neither did we. Those pictures were just from the easy parts of the trail. I was too busy the rest of the time.

After 3 hours of hiking we called it quits here. Register Rock is just out of sight, below the cleft of Hole in the Rock but on this side of the lake. This area would be better explored from a boat.


On the return trip we tried climbing up out of the canyon bottom and following the Kayenta bench. It was easy going for a little while, we even saw cairns…

But the bench soon got cut by a side canyon and we either had to go the long away around or drop down into it. In the spirit of the original Hole in the Rock expedition we took the shortcut.


Jared hiking back up the Sand Hill. Cottonwood Hill's dugway is seen in the upper left, the rock that gives Aladdin's Lamp Pass its name is on the skyline, right.


Considerable work went into the road cut on Cottonwood Hill


I would suggest only hiking down this far because that is the end of any visible trail for at least the next 3 miles. It ended up being a little over 5 hour hike, when we got back to camp we were pretty hot and tired.

After resting and relaxing in the shade of our camp we hightailed it out, driving almost all of the way to the end of the trail, then shortcutting back to the old routing and back down into the now dead end Lake Canyon. Jared found us a nice spot in the canyon bottom that kept the morning and evening sun out and we all slept for a good 11 hours that night.

I was curious about the status of the washout that had closed this part of the trail so in the morning we walked down to view it. We didn't want to drive as 2 out of our 3 Jeeps had low fuel lights illuminated.

First a little history on Lake Canyon. It gets its name from a lake that existed here in 1880 when the San Juan Mission passed through. This canyon has year-round water due to springs flowing into it. A large sand dune formed a natural dam a couple miles downstream from where we camped, forming a lake. The pioneers crossed Lake Canyon on top of that sand dune dam, as it filled the canyon from wall to wall and made for an easy crossing point. Throughout the existence of that lake, sediment had built up in the water, gradually filling in the canyon behind the dam. In 1915 the dam got flooded out and ever since the sediment backfill has been washing away. This backfill is up to 2oo feet deep and made an easy route for us modern day visitors follow and cross Lake Canyon. In those huge rainstorms of October, 2006 a considerable part of this backfill was carried away taking a crucial part of the road and the easy route up and out the west side of the canyon. The BLM blazed a new route to Hole in the Rock using part of the Nokai Dome Road, which is what we now use.

Walking down the canyon we found that another 100 yard or so of the canyon had been lost in the past year. Take note of the 2 people standing at the left edge of the photo for scale. In 2008 you still could just barely drive up and out next to the large dead tree in the top center. That is a lot of sand to wash away!

Also notice the white “bathtub ring” stretching down canyon, this entire area was filled with sediment! The dark bands are alternating layers of organic matter deposited in the former lake bottom.
 
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Alex

Adventurer
There will be no reclaiming that route, although camping is quite cool and peaceful in the remaining cottonwoods up the canyon.



There was nothing left to do at this point other than start the drive home. The only malfunction of the trip occurred in the Lake Canyon marsh on the way out. It was just deep enough that Jared’s jeep took on some water and he thought it prudent to shut it down. Adam dragged him to dry land and Jared pulled the plugs to pump out any water that may have gotten in. We covered his grill with a tarp and sent him right back into the drink.


Notice the water coming out the tailpipe? That probably drained into the submerged exhaust while he waited to get pulled out. I suspect that it started running rough due to wet spark plug wires.


Adam going through


We made a quick stop at the Fortress Ruin overlooking the east fork of Lake Canyon. It turns out that it really is an Anasazi structure. I found the research report done by C. Gregory Crampton in the UNM library, this is what he said about the site:
The Fortress is an Anasazi structure built of limestone that was excavated by a University of Utah crew in 1960. They found that the walls and floor were finished with clay mortar although there are few traces left of it now. It was a large, open pueblo that is suspected of being a gathering place, not a defensive arrangement due to the prominent location and low, easily approachable walls. Analysis of artifacts show approximately equal amounts of pottery from the Kayenta and Mesa Verde cultures in direct association, suggesting that the two cultures intermingled in this area. The estimated time of occupation was 1150-1300AD.


I had heard from Frenchie La Chance that you could buy gas at the Cal Black Municipal Airport, which is right next to where we exited on the old Hole in the Rock Trail routing. This was of great interest to Adam and I, who were on empty.

Sure enough they sell jet fuel and 87 or 100 octane unleaded. The only person working there was a descendant of the Hole in the Rock pioneers named Jeff who was happy to chat with us about their story. I think he was happy to see some people as he is required to remain on the premises 24/7 because that is the only place that sells aviation fuel between Page and Grand Junction. Apparently the Lifeflight helicopters refuel there before taking Lake Powell accident victims to the nearest hospital. Other than that he averages about 4 flights a day. Don't be shy about dropping in to buy gas or chat, he said to tell all of our friends to come visit.


Talk about full service, he even brought out an air compressor for us to use!


August is an interesting time to do Hole in the Rock Trail, if you are prepared for the heat. We didn’t see another human being in 4 days on the trail. The weather is much cooler in April or October but you have to share the trail (and sometimes even camping areas) with several other groups. We didn’t see any tire tracks on the trail before us and the black tire marks had weathered off most of the slick rock portions too! It really felt like a wilderness experience.
 

mph

Expedition Leader
Excellent Write-up and Exploration! I totally understand the "desert bug" you got. I was supposed to go to Colorado too and decided to head south. Nothing like the desert and the "wilds" it offers.
 

Larry

Bigassgas Explorer
Awesome trip Alex!

Two buddies and I traveled the Hole in the Rock route for several miles in early July as we headed home from a weeklong trip around the Arizona Strip, Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods. Unfortunately, we began the Hole in the Rock route late in the afternoon on the final day and ran out of day light before reaching the end due to a detour to Halls Crossing for gas and ice. We had to pack up and head home early the next morning so we hope to head back next year to follow it to the end as well as travel the off shoots.

It is great to see you pictures to know what lies beyond where we camped. I think we made it about half way to the end.



The old halftrack at the start of the trail was great.





 

Saline

Adventurer
Nice trip report! Kudos to you all for heading out there in August! I too have been curious about heading out there in the summer. I frequent the Robbers Roost/Dirty Devil River area northeast of Hole in the Rock.
 

scarysharkface

Explorer
That's a really neat report. Great pictures and descriptive narrative. Certainly makes me want to go there!

John :smiley_drive:
 
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