Risk and Reward in the Utah Backcountry

Photography by Sinuhe Xavier and Justin Clifton

You never know what worse luck your bad luck saved you from” – Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

Some trips just start out on the wrong foot, no matter how much prep you throw at it. This is the story of one such journey that took place during the record setting rain of September of 2013.

The trip was a scouting mission for an upcoming project, covering many miles with few extra-curricular activities. The plan was to drive north of Hite Marina along the Orange Cliffs through Canyonlands NP to Green River, then down to Moab and on to Lockhart Basin exiting at Natural Bridges NM. In 4 days, yeah that’s about a 100 miles a day mostly off pavement. Under “normal” circumstances that is completely reasonable, not a whole lot of time for dilly dally, but certainly enough to make sure roads are open and the way they should be.

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Justin Clifton prepares coffee after a long soggy night along White Canyon.

A crystal or glass embedded in the sandstone.

Evidence of those who came before us.

Utah Highway 95 126 miles between Blanding and Hanksville, with nothing but a lonely outpost at Hite Ranger Station in between. Perfect.

White Canyon flash flooding.

The clouds kept rolling in and the puddles only grew.

Clearwater Canyon rose two feet in a matter of minutes.

Justin Clifton watches as the flood waters reached it’s peak, we moved the truck to higher ground and estimated the water had risen by 3-4 feet since our arrival. The flood last 2 hours and disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

This is bentonite, it absorbs water and takes on the viscosity of oily quicksand. This was shot from the comfort of the drivers side window. One boot in the muck and you could easily add 5 Lbs. To your weight.

Inspecting the Flint Trail one switchback at a time. These were not the conditions you’d want to have to back down any section of the trail in.

The washouts along the route made for a tricky climb up the Flint Trail.

The sun set as we arrived at Panorama Point leaving just enough light to watch the fog cascade over the cliffs.

Catching the desert socked in like this is really pretty amazing. Justin and I wolfed down our oatmeal and wandered around the wonderland that is Panorama point.

Everything was taking a beating.

Everything but this little guy… Something tells me he’ll be fine…

The fog rolled in and out making for a surreal desert experience.

The rangers at Hans Flat were already having a good time by the time we arrived.

Catching the sun and wind we dried out our wet gear in the middle of the San Rafael Desert.

We rallied through Moab, filled up with fuel and grabbed some provisions before heading south on Kane Creek Road where we were met with the deepest water yet.

With more weather moving in it was decided to pull the plug, there was no way of telling how bad the road would be once we were in Lockhart Basin. We turned around with our tails between our legs and headed back to Moab.

The Birthing Rock just outside of Moab.

No vacancy was a common sight all the way from Moab, UT to Kayenta, AZ. Apparently every other camper in Southern Utah was looking to get some shelter.


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Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.