Utah Trip - Bell and Little Wildhorse Canyons

No - go up and around to the left

After a long absence I had gone to the fall 2013 GMT weekend. I was determined to make it a regular event so I began planning for spring 2014 right away. I reserved time off at work. I made my hotel reservations. In spite of my preparations it all unraveled at the last minute. The week before I discovered that we had a weekend event at work that wasn't covered - both of my colleagues were committed. I had to cancel at the last minute. What can I say. Boy, was I pissed!

To make up for missing my wargaming convention I resolved to do some serious hiking the very next weekend that the weather was nice. I always like to try to get to the Utah canyon country at least once every spring if possible. So I spent the next week watching the weather forecasts every day. The springtime weather can be perfect for hiking in the Utah National Parks or it can be rainy and a bust. The weather was looking good. On Thursday morning I did a quick check for hotels and made reservations at the Comfort Inn Green River. At noon I left work and hit the road.

The trip down was straightforward, at least until I hit bumper-to-bumper traffic from Ogden to Spanish Fork. Why do I always manage to leave so that I hit rush hour traffic in Salt Lake? It doesn't matter what I do, I always hit downtown Salt Lake at exactly 5 pm. You can set your watch by it. Eventually I made it through, got over the mountains, and reached Green River at 8 pm. There wasn't much to the town. I grabbed dinner at Subway and settled into my hotel so I would be ready for an early start the next morning.

Following another hiker through the narrows

Or not. My dinner really didn't agree with me. Instead of getting up and making a quick dash to the trailhead, I ended up spending an hour in the bathroom. It looked like this was going to be a really short trip. Finally I decided to give it a try only because I didn't think I could make it for eight hours in the car driving home. I figured that if I had trouble I would be better off waiting till tomorrow to tackle the long drive. I stopped at the minimart on the way out of town, bought Pepto Bismal and Immodium AD and headed for the trailhead. An inauspicious start.

Once I was on the road I felt a little better. It took about forty five minutes to drive to the start of the hike. By the time I got there I felt well enough to hike.

My plan for the day was to do an eight mile loop hike that combined two slot canyons. I was in the area known as the San Rafael Swell. It consists of a large, dome-shaped upthrust of rock about 70 miles long by 40 miles wide. Similar to nearby Capital Reef National Park, as the rock was pushed up the existing rivers and streams wore down their existing channels. So unlike most areas where canyons start in the lowlands and climb to the highlands, here canyons cut through the highlands and emerge on the other side. I had never done any hiking in the San Rafael Swell before but was excited to explore it as it is known for slot canyons - extremely narrow and deep gorges that are much deeper than they are wide.

Little Wildhorse - you really do go through the narrow slot

The hike that I had selected involved two slot canyons that shared a common start. A short distance up they split and the standard route was to hike up Little Wildhorse Canyon, come out on the other side into the San Rafael desert, hike about a mile to reach Bell Canyon, and return down it to the starting point. The total distance was about eight miles. Traveling in slot canyons can be difficult. Sometimes the narrow sections can be blocked by debris, or can just be too narrow for a person to get through. Sometimes there are rock steps in the canyon that require technical rock climbing or rappeling to get past. The sport of canyoneering is equivalent to technical mountaineering but the goal is to pass through a canyon rather than to reach a summit. But Bell and Little Wildhorse Canyons have a reputation for being good starter slot canyons for hikers. They require a little scrambling to get by obstacles, but don't have any spots that are actually technical to get through. My guidebook called them "Slot Canyons for Dummies".

Narrows in Bell Canyon

Because they are technically easy, Bell and Little Wildhorse Canyons are very popular. So I picked them for the first hike of this trip, which was a Friday. I figured crowding wouldn't be so bad on a weekday. But when I got to the trailhead it turned out the guidebook knew what it was talking about - there were twenty five cars there. Not as bad as Zion National Park but not exactly wilderness solitude either.

The trail started up a dry wash. As I walked the walls started to rise and to close in. Soon the first narrow slot appeared and I followed another hiker into it - and stopped. The slot was completely filled by a pool of water with an eight foot high, smooth rock step behind it. This didn't look so easy. I looked at the other hiker. We both shook our heads and backtracked. Sure enough, there was a rock cairn beside the beginning of the slot that marked where we were supposed to climb up and around the obstacle. That turned out to be the only spot the entire day where I had to go up and around instead of straight through an obstacle.

After only about a half mile I reached the junction where the two canyons split. I went to the right up Little Wildhorse Canyon. It was quite impressive. The walls were maybe three hundred feet high. The bottom of the canyon was maybe fifty feet at the widest point but in the first mile there were three narrow sections where it was three feet wide at most. In a couple of spots it tilted perhaps thirty degrees so that while it was wide enough to pass through, it was necessary to crab along on my hands - I couldn't stand up straight. Sometimes there were boulders or short rock steps that I had to scramble over. Good fun.

Hikers dwarfed by the walls of Bell Canyon

About a mile from the junction I emerged from a narrow section into a shady alcove where there were about twenty people sitting around taking a break. As soon as I passed them I saw why - just beyond the canyon narrowed again and there was a pool of water that reached from side to side. While I was contemplating whether I could get by this spot without getting my feet wet some people came down and waded through the water. Talking to them, they said that ahead there were a lot more pools that required thigh-deep wading. Not for me. I decided that this was a good turn-around point.

I went back to the junction and turned to head up Bell Canyon. Just then I met two guys coming back. One was wearing a Singapore tshirt so I asked him about it. Turned out he was European but had lived in Singapore for three years. Small world. They said they had done the loop but confirmed that they had done a lot of wading in Little Wildhorse Canyon. I had made the right choice.

Bell Canyon was wider than Little Wildhorse, but very scenic. Eventually it too narrowed and there was quite a bit of scrambling to get by minor obstacles. Nothing was too difficult but it was a good workout. In spots there was water but with some effort I always kept my feet dry. Eventually the canyon walls started to fall away again and I began to come out into the desert on the other side. I walked as far as the dirt road that led to the end of Little Wildhorse Canyon before turning around. The trip back was fun too. I had been steadily getting better since my low point in the morning. I actually felt stronger as I neared the end of the hike than I had at the start. That was unique for me.

Approaching the far end of Bell Canyon

I was back at the car four hours after starting. I didn't do the eight mile loop but I covered about the same distance going up and back each of the two canyons. Both were beautiful and had lots of narrow sections with easy obstacles that provided good sport. Little Wildhorse was crowded, many of the groups families with kids, but they all turned around where it got wet and went back to the trailhead. Bell Canyon had few hikers even though it was just as good a hike and even longer.

An excellent hike. I was glad that I hadn't given up when I didn't feel good that morning.