A Fall Escape to the Beauty of Canyon Country
Seeing the sign that reads “I-70 one mile ahead” caught my attention. What? We were already down to Interstate 70? My wife, Louise, and I had literally driven south on Highway 6 to the goods of canyon country a 100 times or so before. Why had this time seemed so painless and quick? Our lovely daughter, Lilly, wasn’t in the backseat. Earlier we had dropped her off at school and arranged for her grandmother to spend the weekend with her. And now, two and half hours later, we were on the outskirts of Robber’s Roost. A few weeks prior, I asked Louise if she wanted to get away for a romantic weekend. She responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” However, she knew there was a catch, and she waited for it.
“Well, what do you think of heading down to the Roost without Lilly for a stretch? Do some canyoneering?”
“Ahhh, what about the Romantic part?”
“It’ll be just the two of us. Romance and solitude—trust me!” Louise rolled her eyes, but smiled faintly. As parents, we find it hard to get away without our daughter. Lilly is an apt adventure partner, but escaping without her has its’ own special rewards.
Robber’s Roost is an area of canyon country that sits between the western shores of the Green River and Highway 24 in the central part of Utah. The Roost is a high desert with altitudes approaching 7,000 feet. It got its name from outlaws who used the canyons to hide and to avoid the posse of lawmen after them. The most famous/infamous was Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch. Today, the robbers are gone, but the canyons beg to be explored again by canyoneers and hikers. Access is limited; only a small number of dirt roads crisscross the area. Descending the heads of the canyons requires a full set of canyoneering gear. The canyons twist and turn west as they empty into the Dirty Devil River.
“Are you sure we’re good?” Louise questioned me before she rappelled 80 feet into the black abyss. Previously, I had descended into Goblin’s Lair, within Goblin Valley State Park, so I told her to free-hang on the rope for roughly 70 feet and to have fun. She inched backward and dropped into the black hole. I quickly followed; and before long, we were in the midst of Goblin’s Lair. The lair is an enormous sandstone cavern with walls soaring 100 feet high with a slight opening topside for the sun to peer through. It’s an amazing place, and a nice, early afternoon adventure before we head into the Roost.
We crossed Highway 24 and looked for the brown, rectangular sign marking one of the entrances to the Roost. As I air down my tires, a Toyota 4Runner pulls up next to me asking me about getting to Horseshoe Canyon. “Yep, you’re headed the right way. 30 miles or so…just follow the signs.” When they speed away, and we are left with desert solitaire—clear skies, zero wind, a dirt road, and golden sunrays striking the desert flora. The dirt road on eastern side of Highway 24 across from the entrance to Goblin Valley State Park is the gateway to Horseshoe Canyon, the Maze District of Canyonlands, and Robber’s Roost. Awe-inspiring country! But on this day, the Roost called.
The Roost however, is not “in your face beauty”. You’ll drive miles of dirt roads and see sand, sagebrush, a few cows, and not much else. But have faith; the canyons are some of the most picturesque in all of Utah. Louise and I rallied toward the eastern sky and spotted the LaSal Mountains above Moab through the windshield. The road split a sandstone butte right down the middle and led to our first night’s camp spot. We didn’t park too far off the road; but our worries on this stellar evening didn’t involve traffic. Louise’s phone got a signal, and she checked in with her mother enjoying Lilly’s company and found out all was well. A peaceful, romantic evening ensued.
Our Land Cruiser traversed to the top of Texas Hill, and we took a right turn that leads us past a working ranch and the trailhead to the North Fork of Robber’s Roost Canyon. We sauntered down a desert two-track amongst the sagebrush and sand, ranchers and cattlemen still using these roads to access their herds. We wondered how the cows survive when we reached the head of N.F. of Robber’s Roost. We made final preparations before we grabbed the rope and zipped down into the canyon.
Immediately, we felt captivated. We plodded down some desert two-track with really no signs of life beside some random cows, and suddenly, we found ourselves in a red rock canyon that water had carved through thousands of flash floods over thousands of years. Our footsteps were slow and methodical. Enjoying the smooth sandstone walls, the logs wedged high above out of reach, and the light dancing off the slot canyon walls made this an unforgettable desert jaunt.
Louise hung on the rope and rappelled down a smooth sandstone ramp with small potholes carved by Mother Nature’s forces. Today, we were lucky and found no water in the canyon. The desert sands had soaked it up and/or the sun’s rays had evaporated it by occasionally striking the canyon bottom. We leisurely worked our way down canyon, with a rappel here and there. Nothing too technical but just simple fun. After our last rap, we ascended a crack in the wall and emerged onto the canyon rim. The sagebrush and prickly pear cactus greeted us as we ambled through the sand dunes. Using our GPS, we set our course back to the cruiser. The scene from National Lampoons Vacation movie, when Chevy Chase crashed his car in Monument Valley and hiked out to get help entered our mind. We mimicked Chevy and began to sing, “Over the River and Through the Woods…” Eventually, we made our way back to the Cruiser; enjoyed an ice-cold PBR and drove to a canyon where someone apparently lost an arm.
Granted, we have all heard of Aaron Ralston and his struggle for survival, which eventually led to his cutting off his arm; resulting in Blue John Canyon becoming infamous and popular. Blue John Canyon got its name from an outlaw cowboy named John Griffith who reportedly had one blue eye and one brown eye. In this canyon, he allegedly hid horses that he had stolen. Regardless, Blue John Canyon is worth your time and energy.
Louise and I awoke from a great night’s sleep in our rooftop tent. The desert remained quiet and peaceful. Sunrays shined the slickrock as we sipped our coffee from our French press coffee mugs. We checked with grandma who reported that all was still well with Lilly. We are both amazed at how easy and relaxing a morning like this was without the need to care for our lovely daughter. Our conversation took us to pre-kid times and all of our travels and adventures. Reminiscing was fun but also deflating. We are both stunned when we realized how long it has been and how quickly it went. Little Bluejohn, a small fork to the west of the Main Fork of Blue John, was our destination, so off we went.
Little Bluejohn required a straightforward 20-foot rappel to start; it was a nice warmup rap. I belayed Louise for a semi-technical down climb, and we continued down canyon. Soon enough, we started an 80-foot rappel with webbing tied to a Juniper Tree about 10 feet from the drop. I checked the webbing, and we tied in for the descent. The rappel was adventuresome because we just walked down a sandstone wall. Another straightforward rappel leads us into the twists and turns of this canyon. The width is around 12 inches but walls tower 100’s of feet above. With the sunlight striking the canyon bottom, it was simply stunning. Where Little Bluejohn intersected with the Main Fork of Bluejohn, we dropped our packs and wandered up the Main Fork for a while. This is the fork that Ralston descended on his fateful day in April 2003. We retraced our steps, cinched our packs, and made our way up and out of Blue John Canyon. Our eyes scanned the walls looking for weaknesses—cracks and openings to gain higher ground. We topped out on the canyon rim, turned on our GPS, and began the 45-minute hike back to the truck. Once again, the high, desert country is nothing overtly appealing, and you would never know what lies hidden in those canyons unless you venture there. With smiles on our faces, we joined hands and hiked back.
The Land Cruiser started, and we spotted dust billowing up in the distance. Our first sign of humans in two days! Yes, there’re people going to places like the Maze of Canyonlands and Horseshoe Canyon, and there are ranchers working their cattle—
but don’t count on it. Be prepared to enjoy the solitude. Louise and I turned right and headed north. We had driven this road numerous times in the past; but on this day, it seemed perfect. The road was in good shape; the western sun glowed over the land, and The Dave Matthews Band played. Louise and I turned off the road and headed east toward the LaSals. One of our favorite campsites was within reach. We crested the sandstone knoll and found no one at the campsite. We pulled onto the slickrock and immediately deployed the rooftop tent. I setup the shower for Louise, the warm water felt wonderful for both of us. A cold PBR, campfire, and views galore made it an unforgettable evening. Louise created some amazing turkey tacos, and we both realized that this was an unforgettable night. And, reality struck; this was our last evening before parenthood and responsibilities resumed priority.
Morning dawned clear and blue. Today’s adventure would remain on the mellow side. We bagged the ropes and gear. Our destination was a canyon on the rim of the Green River. Our path followed an old two-track closed to vehicles by wilderness designation. It’s a casual hike with 360-degree views. The San Rafael Reef to the West, the Book Cliffs to the north, the Maze to the south, and LaSals to the East; we felt awe-struck as we moved. Our trail descended over slickrock leading to views of the Green River. Louise explored and spotted it first: five arches set back into the canyon wall. The arches are not enormous but make for a picturesque lunch spot. As I snapped a few photos; Louise tried her cellphone. Sure enough, she got a signal and texted her Mother. Technology—love it or hate it? Procrastination and delaying reality were our intentions on this wonderful afternoon.
The Land Cruiser headed north along the Green River Road, toward the town of Green River. We took the right fork after we crossed the San Rafael River and headed to the Chaffin Ranch. This ranch, or what is left of it, has one unique feature: a geothermal cold-water geyser that shoots off approximately every 30 minutes. This geyser provided the fresh water for the ranch many years ago. Louise and I basked in the sun and the cool water droplets cascading down from geyser’s spurts. Our thoughts turned toward the trials and tribulations of the ranchers trying to make a go of it on this desert land, a tough life. We wondered whether Cassidy and his Wild Bunch enjoyed this same geyser many years ago…
We stopped at Ray’s Tavern in Green River for a burger and a beer. The place was hopping, and travelers of the desert where exchanging stories of their weekend adventures and planning for new ones in the future. We savored our late lunch. No, it wasn’t a romantic lunch at the Four Seasons; but it was a lunch with just the two of us in canyon country. Heading north on Highway 6, our romantic weekend was in the books. The realities of the world and parenthood were a mere 180 miles away.