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Robbers' Roost Canyons, Utah

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Queen of the Walkabout

Joined: 15 Jan 2004
Articles: 35
Comments: 1
 Posted: 8/12/2004, 5:54 pm

This is probably one of the longest solo backpack trips I've taken; although I base camped and day hiked most of it. Nonetheless I was in the Robbers Roost Canyon system one spring 5 days. With all the arms the canyon system is about 60 miles long per Michael Kelsey. He rates it as one of the top backpacking canyons on the Colorado Plateau-- for solitude, beauty and interesting hiking.

It's relatively easy to get to the Angel Point trailhead out of Hanksville, yet these canyons off the Dirty Devil River receive light use. You drive across the almost featureless Burr desert, the sandy road is mostly 2wd but some soft sections may require 4wd or fast agressive driving. At the Angel Point trailhead the view into the Dirty Devil river basin and the incredible Navajo sandstone landscape rivals any big canyon views (except the Grand, of course).

This area is one of the rich ones in early west American history. This "trail" was part of a well known escape route for horse thieves, as they drove their booty down the slickrock into the these mazes of canyons. Most of the canyons are boxed, so they made for natural corrals. This area is also known as a hideout for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the gang. Several locales in Utah and Colorado have this claim to fame.

I haul my abominably heavy pack on my back and start down the trail. Its not an easy route with the climbing up and down, following cairns and at times crossing some really steep slickrock. The cairns come and go but I have read up on the route in one of my trusty guidebooks. I carry with me Pearl Bakers book on Robbers Roost which proves to be a great companion on this hike.

I loose the trail and follow another route. This proves to almost be my undoing. I locate a really tricky descent and rope my pack off, as I carefully perform a controlled slide, my pack suddenly rolls and slides off a small ledge. Its weight pulls me off my precarious perch and we are both sliding down a slope in slow motion, but uncontrolled. As we pick up speed, I am able to throw the rope over a rock horn and perform a self arrest for myself and pack. My pack was a foot away from a 30 foot drop off, it would have probably burst the pack and hopefully I would have been able to stop myself from going over.

I have a big rip in the seat of my pants and skinned elbows. It's a full moon rising as my hiking partner Jerry would say. I manage to safely lower/drag the pack laterally to a more stable place. I get down and then change pants. Usually I don't carry a change of clothes with me but did this time. I trudge along a shelf, locate cairns, the climb up and down more slickrock domes. Off a ledge system to finally reach the banks of the broad but shallow Dirty Devil river. Named by John Wesley Powells first river running party; its a very silty river but not unattractive.

I find a shallow ford and it takes some time to cross. I am not good with distances such as these but I would gestimate 50 yards. The opposite bank has some game trails and thorny vegetaion that just loves me and my hat. I have to rescue it a bunch of times after it is ripped off my head. I work my way upriver a short distance to the small mouth of the Robbers Roost Canyons.

At the mouth you use some runoff corridors as your hiking trail through the willows and brush. Remnants of a barb wire fence cross the canyon, when ranchers used these canyons to wean calves. There is no running water here but lots of seeps and springs. One old rancher stated "that water in Robbers' Roost will make the best coffee you ever drank"; I note that for any of my backpacking trips its true. It made my instant coffee taste great. At the end of my days when I wanted to lighten my pack I just boiled the water to use up fuel and made coffee with it.

Hiking up canyon is another trudge as its in heavy sand if you cut the meanders. I stayed in the winding stream bed as much as I could. The south fork of Robbers Roost comes in a few minutes of hiking upcanyon from the mouth. One can make a technical descent with climbing gear from above. I proceed on up canyon to locate my first campsite. The plan is to have a progressive camp site location up the main canyon and day hike the branches so I don't haul the heavy pack up and down all of the arms. Its spring so lots of flowers- globe mallow, dune primroses, etc. I see some odd tracks in the sand, the swishing indicates its a porcupine. I look up on the rim and see the small Angel arch, the lighting is not good for a photo.

The canyon walls here are a lighter colored sandstone than in the Escalante, with bulging cliffs, some cottonwood trees marking the spring alcoves, the bottoms are very sandy. Its difficult locating a bench campsite, due to light use most of the benches are colonized with brush and cactii. I just had my little experience in Paria so I was not about to camp in a watercourse. I made a small site by clearing some downed small cottonwood branches under the spreading arms of an old giant so I could have some shade. A little rain showed up so I lazed in my tent with my book. Pearl Baker grew up on the rim on the Roost Ranch, her father ran cattle there and she and her mother and sister lived in what could only be called the most primitive of conditions. She also wrote a book on Butch Cassidy and the other outlaws of those times.

The next morning I day hike "White Roost" I assume named for the pale color of its sandstone walls. Its a lot narrower than the main canyon and has a few sandy bench campsites. It ends in a fork and huge dryfalls and had large pools of water. I located an old cattle trail out and took that up to the top for a brief look about. Upon my return it was time to pack up and move upcanyon to be closer to the other arms of this canyon system to allow exploration of those.

I go a little above the middle fork and camp. I will explore the interesting North Fork next. The canyon is wetter with seeps but also brushier which makes finding a second campsite also challenging. It's late spring and very warm; shade is at a premium. I find shade, set up and have dinner and return to my book. It's great reading about this general area then being here. It elevates the meaning for me.

The next day, day 3 is very long with a partial exploration of the North Fork. This is a long, branching canyon with high walls and the watercourse is narrow again and plant filled. Bushwack central. I want to get to the "crack", described as a tight slot at the head of one of the branches. I locate it and walk along it, turning sideways in spots. It narrows to almost nothing and I look up. It could be chimneyed if I was brave but to fall would be bad. I think now of Aaron Ralston who had to amputate his arm in Blue John canyon, which is not far from here. I had day hiked in Blue John a year after this hike, realized I was in over my head and retreated. Kelsey gives a technical descent of that canyon.

My day trip takes longer than I thought and I do not have time to get to the "great falls" too in another branch. I stumble in late to camp; I hate cooking in the dark. I am too tired to read. The mosquitos are out and I must get 100 bites this trip.
The next morning I have a choice to go to the great falls or explore the middle fork. I go back up and take the branch to the "great falls". A good choice, its a huge alcove with a notch above that would promise a wonderful waterfall with the right amount of rain. It is also called the mind bender fork by Steve Allen who relates a winter time rappell of this fork with a friend of his. There is some water up here and the alcove is large enough to allow for some nice camping. Upon my return to camp
I took a sortie up the middle fork to the first alcove of Ponderosa pine. Its' beautiful. Back to camp to read even though I am tired, I turn in early; tomorrow is the long day out.

I pack up day 5, a considerably lighter pack , it seems. I have a long day, down the main fork, a peak in the south fork, then ford the river, climb back up the Angel trail to my Jeep. The sandy hiking wears me out. At the Dirty Devil disaster strikes. I am trying to check a spot to ford that is shallow in the middle but may be undercut at the banks. I want to avoid the thorny vegetation (russian olive) I thrashed though the first time. I am trying to stick my trekking pole in the water to check the depth when I slip on the muddy banks and in I go; it's over my head here. My pack is not waterproofed and my camera and film are in an open bag. I surface quickly, recover my footing and struggle to the middle where I can stand up. My film which I had shot has floated out down the river, only one cannister remains and my camera is dripping. I quickly roll up the film in there, remove it, open the camera and remove the battery. Some water drips out.

I cross to the river bank. I check my pack, my clothes are wet but as its warm and as I'm hiking out I am not concerned. The book escapes a true soaking as I had it in a zip lock, mainly to prevent the edges from getting torn. I hang the camera- the backside open to the sun to dry out, off my neck. I lost my favorite hat too.

I hike slowly up and down the Navajo domes to the Jeep. I lay out all the items from my pack on a tarp to dry a bit before I go into Hanksville to get a room. My camera is done, fortunately I had an extended warranty and got the camera body replaced; no questions asked.

Now I only have a few photos of that wonderful 5 days; I'll always have the memories.
Rating: 5.00/5.00 [1]

Author Comments

Joined: 05 Dec 2003
Articles: 0
Comments: 2
 Posted: 8/18/2004, 7:36 am  Post subject: slipping and sliding

I love this article and the adventure. Shocked You definitely had someone watch out over you and kept a cool head.

Can't wait to read about your next adventure.

Rating: 0.00/5.00 [0]

Joined: 05 Dec 2003
Articles: 0
Comments: 2
 Posted: 8/18/2004, 7:36 am  Post subject: slipping and sliding

I love this article and the adventure. Shocked You definitely had someone watch out over you and kept a cool head.

Can't wait to read about your next adventure.

Rating: 0.00/5.00 [0]

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