Backpacking Boulder Creek

Despite the fact that the calendar has just flipped over to September, here it’s still very much Summer.  We’re in the desert. It’s Labor day weekend.  It’s evening, around 5:30 or so, and it’s still at least 80 degrees.  We have just dropped off the west side of Highway 12’s hogback; a narrow, windy, slip of road riding the steep-sided ridge between Calf Creek to the east and Boulder Creek to the west.  Although I’ve traveled this stretch of road literally a hundred times, driving this tiny wedge suspended between dramatic drop-offs still leaves my adrenals stressed and my palms sweaty.


We are tromping across sandy hills covered still, thankfully, joyfully in Sand Verbena (a good name, I think, for a dog), Spiderwort, filmy white patches of Primrose, and Sunflowers. Soon, the sand spreads out across slickrock washes; stone looking as though the water that formed it were still running in rivulets across its surface.  The ground is nearly white, occasionally stained gold, rust, or rose.  The wash we are following heads down and down, connects with another wash, runs off to the side a little, meanders and then drops off into Boulder Creek.


We move slowly.  I am still getting over a three week respiratory infection that had me in bed and then in bed and then in bed a little more.  I haven’t carried a pack in a while and I feel laborious and clumsy.  Adam skims on ahead of me, sauntering down the slick rock, his walking stick clicking occasionally against juniper roots and sandstone.


The country around us rises in domes, mesas and turrets, castle battlements made of whitish-gold sandstone.  Thirty minutes later we get to the creek bottom; hot, a little irritable and happy for shade.  This section of Boulder Creek is still relatively close to town—more so than our usual adventure destinations—as evidenced by down-canyon-debris.  We pass an old oil drum, some graffiti etched into the sandstone declaring that “Emily is the Shit,” and a scrunched up green metal gate washed down by a flash flood.  It’s obvious that a flood of some magnitude tore through here pretty recently.  All of the ground cover, water loving willows, and tamarisk lay flat, pointing haggardly downstream.  It makes walking down canyon alternately a total pain-in-the-ass-thrash and an easy stroll since you can actually see where you’re going rather than having to battle through thickets of willows, looking for a trail.  Flood debris—bunches of leaves and dirt and bird feathers—rides high in the tops of any tamarisk still standing.  A waterline, like a grimy bathtub ring, runs close to the canyon walls over even the highest banks.  Finding high ground in this flood would have been nearly impossible.


Even as we thrash, Adam and I look at each other every few minutes with wide grins.  It’s a thrash and a pain but we are in the desert!  It’s been nearly two months since our last trip and the last few weeks have seen us stopping every so often to stare out our window at home—looking out over oil refineries, the airport, and finally Stansbury Island and the Great Salt Lake—and sighing, longing vocally for a wet canyon and some Cottonwoods.  Here we finally are.

As I thrash and trip and stroll, I bring the world down to sounds and smell.  There is very little sound. The pitch of the water riffling down creek shifts slightly depending on whether it’s passing over pebbles, sand, slime, or smooth rock.  I can’t hear any birds.  I don’t even hear bugs.  The air smells awesome.  Clean and green and a little mulchy from the flood dregs and that smell particular to rock eroding away under the force of water; whether rain or sprinklers or river.


Because we are still relatively high in elevation—just upstream the city of Boulder sits at 5,810feet— we pass the occasional towering Ponderosa; some burnt out carcasses, lightning struck.  Signs of people become more faint.  We hike nearly three miles and even though we are headed further downstream tomorrow, camp at what according to Steve Allen is an exit trail, forming a loop hike that could take us back to the trail head, up on the hogback of Highway 12.  This trail too follows a wash, ending in a series of narrows, lavish with potholes of varying depths.  We scamper up a short wall to a little ridge overlooking the smooth sandy wash bottom just below the last pothole and just above the final drop to the Creek.  The sand is spotless, not even a bird track.  The sky is clear with no forecasted rain.  We plop our stuff down right in the middle of the sand and lie out.


Our packs are ridiculously heavy for a three day trip.  This is largely due to the mass quantity of food we brought with us.  We are not scrimpers when it comes to food, Adam and I.  Adam is a beanpole and we both have blood sugar issues so we need an almost constant stream of calories when hiking.  Nuts and other usual backpacking fare won’t cut it however, so our food bags are filled with turkey, hard boiled eggs, fresh cucumber from the farmers market, bell pepper…tonight we hover over our cook pot chopping cilantro and green onion to throw into some Pad Thai.


When we lay down to sleep, the crickets are really getting going; pulsing rhythmically into the night.  After a few games of cards, we turn our headlamps off to flee the gnats and mosquitoes.  A few minutes later, without the mesmeric drawing power of the light, the bugs recede and we settle in to a peacefully star-lit night.

The next day we proceed down canyon, stopping at the first real show of entrenched narrows for second breakfast.  We lounge under an alcove, alternately eating our Thai food leftovers and scrambling down into the narrows for a swim.  When we continue on, the canyon is filled with willows and rose bushes that tear at our legs and drive us to criss-cross the stream again and again looking for a clear path.  Then, hurray! a smooth rocky sidewalk rises up out of the creek for a stretch, making for delightfully cruisey walking.  Just around the corner, Deer Creek intersects Boulder Creek and we find our exit point; a few moqui steps and a solid juniper bush mark our passage out of this layer of sandstone and up onto the next. We find a relatively flat expanse of slickrock, a few Ponderosas and junipers for shade oozing fragrantly, and settle in for a lazy and utterly quiet afternoon.


I read. Adam naps and takes short walks up and down the creek, closely examining a patch of thick green moss, some bug larvae, fish hiding beneath the stream banks.  I find a deep enough section of creek just below our hangout to take a dip.  I watch for birds and look around at the gold walls.  I eat a little and wander around barefoot.  Adam eats a little and sleeps some more.  The afternoon passes.  We don’t see another person all day.

Just before sundown we hike out, back up onto the golden-white citadels and boulder-strewn mesas above.  At the base of a steep pass we will need to mount the next day, we make camp and look out at the view.  Across the creek stretches a slickrock play ground called the Brigham Tea Bench.  Between the domes and scalloped tops of the bench lay little green valleys, filled with gold flowers and pinion pine.  We sit, lean back on our packs and watch the day slowly disappear.


The next morning we are hiking by 6, trying to beat the heat of the sun and get back to the truck by 10.  The walk is a constant delight as this is country I have never seen except from the distance of the road and the isolation of my car. We leave our pale, sandstone bench and follow a quickly narrowing wash between two massive orange walls. The wash becomes a steep pour-off, which we scramble around to continue our ascent, and soon we are flies scrambling up apparently vertical slickrock.  Twenty minutes later, Adam directs us to a little ascending chute, broken with rocks and roots, like a secret passage between the lower land of the canyon and the sloping PJ covered crust above.


Climbing up, out from the chute, the world changes dramatically.  I am, for a time, traipsing above all those towers and castle battlements that loomed above me on our hike in. To the South, the mesa I am walking on drops off abruptly. Below, slickrock and patches of coarse grass and PJ roll down to the Escalante River where Cottonwoods billow thickly.  Fifty yards or so in front of me, a ridge of stone like a spine spills off my mesa for a hundred feet, widening as it arcs to the ground, forming an enormous arch. Adam tells me there are pictographs along its flanks, and I file the information away for a cooler season’s exploration.


Crossing the mesa, we kick through sand and a deep layer of pine needles and dried juniper berries, almost missing the remains of a prehistoric pithouse. These dwellings date from before the Ancestral Puebloan clay houses and granaries that are tucked, like an illusion, into alcoves half way up the walls of many of the canyons stretching from here to Lake Powell (where many more haunt its depths).  This pithouse could, at one time, have been dug inches or feet into the ground. A woven, wooden superstructure chinked with rocks could have hovered over the pit and a ladder could have provided entry from a hole in the roof.  Now it looks like a shallow grave, nosed about by animals and bugs.


We skirt the mesa, looking for a way down its West side. Following a series of ledges, chutes and shallowed out depressions in the stone, we come through a formation of rock shaped like hundreds of orange and gold pipes from a massive church organ, spreading down the rock face almost to the ground.  Slowly, we pick our way through this visual cacophony for several hundred feet, edging along and occasionally stopping to lower our packs.  I feel as though I’ve been away. Far away, rather than a few hours hike from my truck, and the site of Highway 12 coming into view in the distance is oddly jarring after the cloister of the canyon.  I am soothed, however by the smell of sweet sand verbena, warming across the sand in the late morning sun and leading us back to the truck.

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