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Muley Point

Standing at Muley Point looking out over Monument Valley Photo credit: John Knight

Natural Bridge

Natural bridge (or arch) somewhere in The Gulch Photo credit: John Knight

Hiking The Gulch

—Ty Belknap

To reach The Gulch, simply drive US 550 from Bernalillo to Bloomfield, then through Farmington to Shiprock, across Utah to Mexican Hat, and take the steep gravel road up the Moki Dugway. Drive west along White Canyon, then cross the Colorado River just upstream of Lake Powell. Continue to a gravel road up to a campground at Starr Springs at the foot of the Henry Mountains. Make camp and drink beer while watching the sun set on craggy Little Rocky Mountain peak.

Get an early start, and and divide up the supplies. It helps to travel with a cohesive group of experienced outdoorsmen who have brought just enough food, studied for months, and have maps. Drive the back road (unless rain is flash flooding the arroyos) to Capitol Reef National Park. Continue through the fantastic canyon pass, up the steep switchbacks, through the park, then down Long Canyon. Park in a pullout at the mouth of a canyon just past Rattlesnake Bench. This is the Gulch.

If you plan to stay for a week, struggle into your backpack full of gear and food. It probably weighs about sixty pounds, even if it’s a “lightweight” model. Hike about four miles along the stream up canyon. You might want to stop several times along the way to lie in the cool water, shaded from the midday sun by a cottonwood tree—until the creek runs dry. Two liters of drinking water should be barely sufficient.

Collapse in the creek at Water Canyon, which enters though thick foliage from the west side. Pitch a tent here, because the guidebook says this is the last reliable source of water in the Gulch. Be sure to arrive before late afternoon because you need to filter drinking water before Water Canyon runs dry. Make yourself a cocktail, if you choose. It is best to bring intoxicants in compact, lightweight, high-quality form, such as eighteen-year-old single malt. Relax. The hard part is over, except for tying all the food from a cottonwood branch in a bear bag.

In the morning, you may find that the creek is flowing again. It has something to do with transpiration and the water cycle. Fill all available containers with filtered water. Hike up on the hill and dig a hole. Be sure to burn the toilet paper. Then sit on a rock and enjoy a fine cup of Ethiopian from Whiting’s Coffee, and cram down a big bowl of instant oatmeal. Repeat this process every morning.

Hiking without a heavy backpack is stroll in a park full of wildflowers, chamisa, and sagebrush, and other familiar high-desert foliage, like piñon and juniper. Bring a handkerchief and be adept at the “farmer blow” technique, if you suffer from allergies.

About three miles up, there is a side canyon to the south that requires bushwhacking through a lush riparian zone filled with oak, willow, and cottonwood. There are several waist-deep pools in the creek, if you want to take a dip. After about a mile, the canyon branches to the right to a colossal natural bridge bordered by three steep walls. Up another branch, just a quarter mile away, there is another branch terminated by a box canyon—glorious, cool, and silent as a cathedral. Head up a third branch and you will find a slot canyon, five-feet-wide and full of water at the base, that might offer egress if you were being pursued by, say, a posse or band of hostile Indians.

Return to camp for cocktails and dinner of assorted freeze-dried glop that is absolutely delicious. Don’t bother with a fire, because you will be ready to sleep soon after dark. If not, you won’t want light pollution to dim the view of the stars.

As it so happens, the camp at Water Canyon is almost directly across from the only comparatively easy climb to the top of Rattlesnake Bench. It only takes about an hour and can be done after the rain finally lets up in the afternoon and you are tired of reading in your tent. Be careful to test your footing and hand-grabs. The side of the canyon is full of loose boulders, and you don’t want to have a limb pinned like that guy Ralston in the movie “127 Hours.” Bring a serrated knife, just in case. It’s good to have a buddy along for safety, but hiking alone is the only way to experience the infinite solitude of The Gulch.

At the top of the climb, there is a flat, sandy saddle strewn with arrowheads and other archaic hunting artifacts. Climb another half mile to a summit with a panoramic view up and down the Gulch and fifty miles of Canyon Lands in every direction, especially dramatic as the clouds disperse over distant peaks and valleys.

Another side canyon from the top leads to an otherworldly assortment of bizarre shapes, full of window-like pockets eroded into the red sandstone. It is easy to spend a day exploring within a quarter mile radius.

Adventure waits in every direction, every day, until the week is up and you begin to crave the company of your lovely wife. There is a fairly well-defined trail back to the car that may have been missed on the way in, so need to follow the meanders of the creek. The canyon looks quite beautiful without all the weight of food and booze on your back.

Retrace the route through Capitol Reef and, if it’s still early in the day, drive all the way to Muley Point at the top of the Moki Dugway. Car camp here and watch far-off Monument Valley and the Goosenecks of the San Juan River fade into the sunset.

Enjoy a heart-stopper breakfast in Bluff and cruise on back home.

 
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