Canaan Mt., Zion, UT (Vermilion Cliffs Summit)

pics by Harlan W. S.
March 22, 2008


As I did the hike, with all the mistakes and exploration, it was 19 miles with nearly 5000’ of accumulated gain! At the end is a detailed narrative of my adventure.



100k topo map with GPS tracks. The blue track shows the drive in, starting with route 59, from Hurricane, Utah. The red is for my GPS track on the hike.


24k topo.  I had to draw in some of the route on the W side, as the GPS would not track in the deep canyon. The pink dots show the “correct” route as described by Bo and Tamya.


The trail starts out heading N into the narrows,



The first significant waterfall, around 5800’.


View N.  The spur trail cuts up left.


View S, from high up on W side of canyon.  Soon the trail started down.



Elk tracks? The inner tracks are about 4.5” long, and they seem wider at the rear.  At first I thought these were cattle tracks, but there are no fresh cow poops nearby.


The top of the mesa was often covered with icy stretches.


“Grapeshot” iron-rich layer that used to cover much of the mesa.



View of Pine Mts to WNW; “mushroom” made of grapeshot layer on softer sandstone.







View SE from a notch.


View SW from notch.


Some hoodoos.




Hoodoo you think you’re foolin?


Finally, the last stretch.  View N into Zion (West Temple visible); snowy Cedar Breaks area in back.



Window, just SE of summit.


The highest point is at left.


View from the highpoint.  Snowy Signal Peak is in far distance; craggy Smithsonian Butte is in mid-distance.





There was a lot of snow on the route across the mesa.





More grapeshot stone.


There were lots of temporary snowmelt ponds in the wooded areas.




Another view SE.  I saw more views on the way back.


A notch along the way; unknown road to S.


Small deer tracks.



Elk scat.  If you think this is crappy…


Wait till you see the 4x4s tearing up the vegetation.  The motorized vehicles come up an old road to the E, on the only non-cliffy part of the mesa.


Of course, there are also ATVs.  They aren’t legal here, but I wasn’t upset till…



I found their garbage.


The two ATVers had downed at least 3 beers, and simply thrown the cans on the slickrock.





As I am about to cross from E to W, I look NW at the cliffs I had just explored, looking for a safer way down.


I finally drop into the canyon, and must run S through this water to get to the climb-out point.


Finally, after 1st climbing 600’ to the canyon rim, I drop down again to the canyon.




My Canaan Mountain trip was beautiful and very interesting. I wanted to go to the highpoint at ~7363’, on the far western end of the plateau, so I knew – in the back of my mind – that this might be a hard day.  I made the full trip, but not exactly as planned 3 months back, for a number of reasons.


One reason: I had forgotten to re-read and print out the directions that I had first seen on months before, for the route up Water Canyon . Secondly, they’ve had a lot of snow in Utah this year; with the recent warm days, Water Canyon was… very watery with snowmelt. Third, the route was obscured by snow, and to my chagrin, false routes were a bit more obvious from the bootprints of other misled travelers. On top of the mesa, 1/3 or more of my travel was over softening snow, at least for the 1st leg. And fourth, I had a sinus infection.  That hadn’t stopped me from a few intense hikes and a lot of driving in Arizona just two days before, but by the time we arrived in Zion Friday evening, I was absolutely beat and doubted I would hike at all on Saturday.


But with decent sleep Friday night, and a sniff of Afrin, Saturday seemed better.  OK, maybe I would drive to Hilldale and scout out the first part of the route.  I didn’t get a very early start, and eventually arrived at the trailhead a bit after 9 AM Vegas time (I’ll stick to Vegas times; Utah time is an hour ahead).  There seemed to be a decent trail, so I figured I’d just follow the trail as long as I could, then maybe head up the canyon toward the ridge.  The elevation at the trailhead was already 5240’, so certainly this couldn’t be that intense a hike.


Ah, snow. I saw the first patches below 5800’, at the first waterfall. Since the bottom of the canyon was obviously very wet, I decided to follow a spur trail up to the left (west).  There were some bootprints in the hardened snow, and I would follow these prints for the next hour.


Here was the 1st interesting twist of fate. If I had brought the directions, I would have known that one should just continue up the canyon, rather than take the trail.  But with the cold meltwater, that route really would not have been an option, at least not a warm one, since I was wearing leather Pingora boots.


So I continued on the trail, following the bootprints, and I gained elevation.  The trail was a bit hard to follow at times, and covered with conifer needles, but I could always find the snowy footprints at the end of dry stretches.  Up, up I went to 6500’; the GPS wouldn’t track satellites in this deep canyon, but at least the altimeter was working.  And then the trail began descending, became a bit more ambiguous, but still had prints in snow and mud. Then at near 5900’, the trail just dumped over a wall into the stream bottom.  I could see some footprints below, so after a rather hairy downclimb, I was standing in the silt, looking south to more bootprints in the snow, leading up a steep gully to the east side of the stream.  I looked N up the canyon to sheer cliff walls and a water-covered bed, and karma made the decision for me.  I would follow the path up the cliffy east side, gain the gentler slope, and head to the top of the mesa.


Well, there wasn’t really a path on the east side.  I could see where previous human feet had made a faint herd path, and started making a few small cairns that I would recognize (yet wouldn’t be visible at distance to confuse other travelers).  The route was very cliffy and full or scrub and loose talus, disturbingly perched at the top of cliff bands.  I found a water bottle that had obviously fallen out of someone’s pack, and gone through a season; then the trail vanished.  Luckily my GPS began to track well at this point.  So I continued north, and the only other tracks I saw were from a bobcat, and elk… and a mountain lion.


Then near the mesa edge, of all things, I saw an ATV track.  I knew there was a long, old, rough jeep road on the east side of the mesa.  Ironically, the east side route is about the only place one could find a class 1 break in the cliffs; but this route is also far too long for foot travel.  Officially, this road had been closed to motor vehicles since the 1970s.


As I neared the 6900’ elevation, I met a large group of friendly backpackers.  They seemed to have a lot of local trail knowledge, and at least one had a mild accent typical of SW Utah, so I’m guessing he was a native.  They told me they had come up from Water Canyon.  Their boots were dry, so they couldn’t have slogged far through the stream.  I remarked that I was amazed that they could do that hairy stream crossing with the big packs.  They were quite puzzled; to them, Water Canyon was a trail, without any big descent to the stream.  Hmmmm, the mystery deepened.


I continued on WNW, with more ATV tracks, some old, some probably just days old.  I had mapped out a route in the middle of the mesa, near some old jeep roads; but the soft sand (especially where churned up by ATVs), and the alternative softening snow, made the going slow and tiresome.  I began to posthole in the snow.  (There are many lunate structures of sand, about 3-10’ high; I think that in some dryer time, these were dunes, now partly covered with manzanita.) Still, at my current pace, I should make the summit at 1 PM, a decent turn-around time.  The middle of the mesa didn’t have many views, but was a wonderland of shallow half-frozen ponds.


About this point, I saw what appeared to be a slick-rock route a bit more north, with some neat hoodoos, so I wandered that way, congratulating myself on finding a faster route.  It was scenic, but became increasingly rougher, till I had to look forward to a significant downclimb.  I grudgingly checked my GPS, and realized this bit of spontaneity would require me to cut back through soft sloped snow to get to my original course.  So I lost and regained elevation and also lost some time.  So I picked up the pace.


At last I espied the highpoint; after 2 hours of trudging across the treed mesa top, with occasional views, the top looked pretty neat.  The area was rougher, the mesa had narrowed quite a bit, and there were no recent ATV tracks for the last mile.  I jogged across the hoodoos to make sure I was on the highest, and took a few pictures.  It was 1:15PM, but I wasn’t too worried, as I would surely not make the same navigation errors on the way back.


The initial part of the way back was actually fun, as I stayed closer to the south rim, and was on slickrock a good part of the time.  The route was more up-and-down, but the footing and views were better.


Then I saw and heard the ATVs – and one modified serious 4x4. Man they were tearing up the landscape.  I try hard not to dislike anyone, so I convinced myself these were probably OK guys; life in Hilldale is probably a bit tame, so everyone has an ATV.  Then I saw the garbage; I know it was fresh, since my GPS track had me walking across this very slickrock in the morning. The ATVers had downed a few beers (Bud Light is a favorite of health-conscious ATVers everywhere) and simply thrown the cans down.  As I looked around, I realized they had jettisoned orange juice bottles, water bottles, etc.  My benefit-of-the-doubt feelings vanished. A bit further on, I saw 5 gallons of cached gas.  I thought about making a fuel modification, but decided I should really concentrate on getting down before dark.


“Stick to the plan” I told myself, “follow the GPS tracks when available, otherwise find your old footprints and the few small cairns.”  Then I saw some ruminant prints – how much could it hurt to follow them a ways?  Surely these critters must know a non-cliffy way to the river. That was great until the prints disappeared on the slickrock.  I made two useless descents, only to find myself looking out over towering cliffs.  Yet I could hear someone shouting across the river valley! “Hey! Hey! Are you OK?”  What the…?


OK, now I was REALLY sticking to the plan.  I traversed to the east side of Water Canyon, and found some of my footprints from the morn, as well as my three small cairns.  After many false starts, I dropped down into the canyon.  I knew I was probably a bit north of my morning crossing.


The next surprise came when I looked south and saw the footprints in the snow, the place I had been in the morn… and in between was about 100’ of 6”-deep water.  I sure as heck didn’t want to climb back up the cliffs, so I gritted my teeth and ran through the cold water, then pulled myself up the sandy, very steep class 3+ to the faint trail above, using too many vegetable holds.  OK, I would rest, put on some neoprene socks, and just ignore my water-soaked boots.  The rest was a trail, and should be easy. 


It wasn’t that easy. It was now about 4:15 PM or so, and the deep canyon was pretty dark and a bit cold. My GPS hadn’t been tracking in this part, and some of the snow had melted, so some footprints were gone.  Still I made the 600’ of gain slowly, taking a few short wrong turns, always back-tracking when the footprints petered out.  I knew there was an enormous cliff below on my left (east), and didn’t want to be too creative. Then at ~6500’, I realized I was on a hitherto unseen spur trail to the top of the ridge; perhaps this was where I should have gone this morning, and this was why the backpackers looked so dry.  Yep, Bo and Tanya’s site shows that this trail would indeed have made life easier.  In any case, I backtracked down to a very faint junction, lost the trail a few more times, backtracked, and eventually dropped onto a clearer trail near in the gully bottom.


I jogged out to the car by about 5:20PM.  Ironically, the water in the back of the car was warm – after all, it had been in the sun all day – and the warmth “tasted” good. Just before I reached the car, I saw two tough-looking hikers; one said, “Wow, I see you made it down OK!”  I’m guessing these were the folks who were shouting from across the valley earlier, when I was perched on top of a very large cliff, looking for a way down.  If they only knew.