West Canyon is an amazing slot canyon that stems off of Lake Powell at the Arizona/Utah Border. The hike involves hiking in narrow sections (3') through sand, freezing water, and magnificent high walls. Full Trip Report and Pictures Available below!
Smita Brian Anita
West Canyon Trip Report
Who: Brian, Smita, Jim, Anita, Paul
When: June 7 – June 12, 2002
Where: West Canyon, Lake Powell, Utah
Distance: 33 miles total
Elevation Gain: 1500 feet
Average day temperatures: 85 F (shade) to 110 (not even in the sun!)
Average night temperatures: low 60s to low 80s
Number of swimming holes: 20 round trip
Water temperature: low to mid 50s (lower slot) and mid to high 40’s (upper slot)
Longest rappel: 50 feet
Distance from Wahweap Marina: 25 miles
Maps: USGS West Canyon Creek Quad, Arizona 7.5’
Books: Canyon Hiking Guide to the COLORADO PLATEAU, by Michael R. Kelsey (page 218 to 221)
Camera used on trip: Canon Powershot S30
West Canyon is a sandstone slot canyon tributary of Glen Canyon; a canyon which after being dammed in 1962 became known as Lake Powell. Now a national park, the National Park Service (NPS), proudly declares it to be the Natural Playground of America. A few years ago (when the stock market was up and we had a lot of virtual money) Brian and I rented a houseboat and invited our parents and some of Brian’s cousins for a week on the lake. The trip turned out to be a marvelous, and one of our fondest memories was of that of venturing in West Canyon.
The canyon is awe-inspiring. The rich red walls come together, some times as close as 100 feet and go up as high as 600-700 feet. On the previous house boat trip, we did a short hike into the canyon, and after dealing with a fair amount of quick sand, we turned back at the first icy swimming hole. The lake was much higher then, so the walk to the swimming hole was shorter! We vowed to return some day to explore more of the beautiful canyon.
Having drooled over maps, books, and web sites for two years, we were finally able to pull together a backpacking trip through both the lower and the upper slots of the canyon. One book by Michael Kelsey tells us that the whole trip can be done in 2 days; however, having done another trip in his book, and knowing his amazing abilities, we applied our factor of π, and decided we should allocate 6 days for our journey. We could have done it in 5 easily, 4 would have been a slight stretch, and 3 would not have been fun! However, now that we know the route we could quite easily do it in 3 days. I wouldn’t want to try it in 2!
Overall, we had a great group (an important ingredient for a backpacking trip) of people. Brian has probably spent 200 or more days in the Grand Canyon alone over the past ten years, and Smita has done about half that. Paul has been canyon hiking for about 3 years and Jim, though he hasn’t backpacked since he was six, is lithe and nimble in canyon country. Anita had prior mountaineering experience as well.
The entrance to West Canyon is only accessible by boat, so we were dropped off and picked up by Boat Rentals at Wahweap Marina. It is best to arrange this as early as possible, and as we later found out, their pick-up system is flawed, so unless you wish to spend an eternity waiting for them, it is best to have a friend back home give them a call to remind them about the pick-up.
The route is pretty simple since there are no side canyons of significance to stray into. Here’s a summary (mileage and duration is approximate):
1pm to 7pm (3+ hours of rest stops)
Mile 0 1pm Boat drop-off
Mile 2.75 3pm First swimming hole. Lake is ~37ft, so lots of extra walking.
Mile 3.5 7pm Camp site
9am to 7pm
Mile 4 First climbing obstacle
Mile 5.25 Second climbing obstacle
Mile 6.5 Log Hogan
Miles 6.75 Dry Fall
Mile 7 Beginning of the narrows and first swimming hole
Mile 8.75 Big undercut
Mile 9 Multiple swimming holes to squirting waterfall
Mile 9.25 More swimming holes to double falls. Here canyon widens a little
Mile 9.75 Canyon narrows again
Mile 10 Last swim
Mile 10.25 Big side canyon to south
Mile 11 Big side canyon to east. Canyon gets bushy
Mile 11.25 Camp site (3 nights)
Mile 11.33 Exit trail to Rim and upper canyon
10:30 am to 3:30 pm
Mile 0 Exit trail to Rim and upper canyon
Mile 0.3 Top of mesa
Mile 1.5 Top of bare rock with lots of cairns, looking at east fork of west canyon
Mile 1.8 Cross second arm, make sharp right
Mile 2.1 Dome hills (we took an incorrect turn here and lost the trail)
Mile 2.7 Kept going in wrong direction and then turned around
Mile 5.4 Retraced steps and back at base of Exit trail
8 am to 6 pm (3 hours rest stops including time for drilling bolt. Lots of time admiring)
Mile 0 Exit trail to Rim and upper canyon
Mile 2.1 Dome hills (we now took the correct turn)
Mile 2.3 Cactus patch
Mile 2.5 Enter upper slot
Mile 3.1 East fork enters canyon (dry fall)
Mile 4 Canyon opens
Mile 4.25 Back at Exit trail
10 am to 4 pm
Traced route back to second climbing obstacle (Day 2, Mile 5.25)
9 am to 1:30 pm
Traced route back to canyon mouth (boat drop off/pick-up spot). Some of us bypassed the last swimming hole by climbing up 460 ft and around about 1 mile. Also explored side canyon to east just before swimming hole.
The hike can be easily shortened by starting early on Day 1 and combining Day 1 and Day 2. Day 3 can be skipped if you know the route since it is a reconnaissance day. Day 4 is necessary. Day 5 and 6 can be combined, making it a total of 3 days. This assumes you know the route well.
Days in Detail
Day 0, June 6th
Paul, Brian, Jim and I drove all night from the Bay Area to Page in Paul’s comfortable new Jeep Grand Cherokee. We had all the gear on the roof of the jeep and put the back seats down to make a cozy bed for 2 people. I think flying to Vegas and driving from there would have been a fine option as well since the 15-hour drive from the Bay area, though pretty in parts, is rather tiring. Anita was smarter; she flew from LA to page via Phoenix and got there on the night of the 6th.
Day 1, June 7th
The 4 of us met up with Anita at Best Western in Page at about 8am. After breakfast, we headed to Wahweap Marina to sign the boat rental papers and to pack. Packing for a 6-day trip is quite involved and when we lay out all our stuff on the tarp it’s hard to imagine that we’d soon be carrying it all on our backs. There’s food, water, food, water pump, more food, cooking gear, extra fuel, food, climbing gear, bolt kit, harness, ropes, sleeping bags and pads, toilet paper, some more food ….
Van, our boat driver, dropped us and our packs off at about 1pm. He requested us to return early on our pick up day and assured us that someone would be there waiting from 2pm to 4pm. And that we had to be there before 4pm. The ride to west canyon is spectacular; I consider the ride alone worth a visit to Lake Powell.
We were quite wary of quick sand when we first started since there had been plenty of it during our previous visit; however, the ground was fairly dry and solid. We got to our first swimming hole in about 2 hours and proceeded to put our packs in 2 layers of garbage bags. We then stringed all the packs on a rope thereby creating a line of buoyant packs which we intended to pull while we swam. It took us a couple of pools later to realize that the easiest and most efficient way to ferry packs is for each person to swim his or her pack across without really taking it off ones back and to line the inside of the packs instead.
It was at the first pool that we all realized, including Anita, how scared Anita was of water. Our plan of interleaving packs and people failed miserably and the strongest swimmer, Paul, pretty much single-handedly towed the rope with all 5 packs. “Guys, I need help” yelled Paul as he realized he was turning into a icicle and pulling all 5 packs single handedly! If Anita was the most scared, Jim was the coldest (at least he gave the appearance of being the coldest). He shook and shivered so much that I thought I had double vision.
The first swimming hole was quite an experience. The water was freezing, the canyon was narrow and beautiful, Anita was scared, Jim was cold, Paul was the brave first swimmer, Brian was the coercer (come on Anita, you can do it ….), Smita was the coolest swimming in her pink panties with three bowties on the front. J (sorry, that’s my perk for writing this trip report).
After the swimming hole, we dried off in the sun and had a late lunch, after which we walked another hour or so, before stopping for the night. It was a hot, dry and windy night. Unknown to us, this was the beginning of a 3-day period of high winds that gusted to 70 miles/hour and capsized several boats on Lake Powell.
Day 2, June 8th
This was probably our longest day. Shortly after starting, we got to our first roped climbing obstacle of about 40 feet, which Brian then climbed with the assistance of a fixed rope that was left behind on a bolt. Brian then threw down our rope and body belayed everyone for climbing. If you’re comfortable climbing, the belay is quite unnecessary for this obstacle. The bolt holding the fixed rope was pretty old and shaky and we decided that we would replace it on our return to the lake.
After about a mile or so, we got to our second roped obstacle and climbed it in the same manner as the previous obstacle. We also decided that the top of this climb would make a fabulous campsite for our return trip; hotel quality really!
After another mile, the canyon widens to some greenery. This place is called Log Hogan which was where we had intended to spend our first night originally. For about a mile or two before this the walking is all sand which proves to be quite tiring. One quarter mile past Log Hogan, you have a choice of going into a small slot, or climbing up the south side. Since it was hot, we opted for the shade of the slot. At the end of the slot, you then have to climb out. The climb there is fairly easy without packs on, so we all climbed up and then raised our packs with ropes. We had used this technique for all of the climbing obstacles. A half mile past Log Hogan the canyon narrows marking the beginning of 5 swimming or deep wading holes that are optimally spaced out for maximum misery. By the second pool, Paul had discovered a doggy-paddle style of swimming with a pack and Jim had discovered how to fly across the surface of the water with his pack slung across one shoulder. Since Jim’s technique looked too surreal, the rest of us learned Paul’s method and by the end of the day we were all able to use it quite successfully. The pack, when fitted right, can almost be used as a buoyant back rest in the water while one can paddle across. As long as the packs are lined with double plastic bags, this works out great.
Though the water is extremely cold, numbing cold; however, the swims are a lot of fun as they are exciting and very beautiful, especially in the narrow sections. They made us curse and laugh at the same time. Anita kept improving in the water with each passing pool, and I think even Jim started to feel a little less cold.
Along the way, there are beautiful undercuts, hanging side canyons, deep pools, narrows and high walls. The scale of the canyon walls is amazing and Paul tried to capture its magnificence by taking short video clips with his digital camera.
Just before a climbing obstacle that Kelsey calls the Squirting Waterfall, we discovered that thw the water slides were full of little leaches. Jim found this out by placing his hand on them thinking it was moss. We had to be careful of what we touched, and we were really careful to examine ourselves completely afterwards. J
We were all relieved after the last swimming hole was behind us and we marched on to look for our camp site which was described in detail in our book. However, after searching for a while and coming up with only reeds and uneven ground, we realized that the above mentioned camp site had probably been washed away in a flash flood. I was very disappointed since this was to be our home for the next three nights.
We retraced our path about quarter mile and Jim and Brian found a camp site about 100 feet up from the canyon floor on some rock flats. This turned out to be a great site for its views, especially of the brilliant night sky. If we had continued another quarter mile instead of retracing our path, we would have found another great campsite. But we were happy with our new home.
Day 3, June 9th
Day 3 was our “rest day”, which on hikes with Brian, could mean anything from a restful few hours of walking to 10 hours of grueling hiking and scouting. Our intent was to find the mouth of the upper slot which we were going to hike through the next day. There was rumored to be a well marked cairned route.
About a quarter mile past our camp site is an exit trail to the rim of the canyon. At the top of this trail we got some beautiful views of more red rocks and canyon lands. The rim of this canyon is one big maze with rolling flat rock and sand dunes. When you walk 20 min and look back, everything looks different. We basically followed cairns, and when the cairns got thin, we took out a map and compass. This got us to a big section of sloping bare rock with many cairns. We followed these cairns and got to a point where there were two forks in the path, so to speak, both had big cairns. We ended up on the wrong path, which we realized later, and spent a frustrating hour looking for our next land mark.
In combination with the intense heat, 30- 40 mph winds, being low on water, and our wayward leader not producing the upper slot entrance we decided it was time for lunch. We had not been in shade for miles, and we were low on water and enthusiasm. Lunch turned out to be a short meal under the scant shade of a 5 inch high little bush. We abandoned our search for the elusive upper slot and headed back, mainly because of the water situation. When we got back to the fork, the rest of us waited for about 15 minutes while Brian quickly explored the other fork. He came back quite certain that this led to the upper slot. The route is well cairned if you know it, but needs a little figuring out if you don’t!
We returned to our camp site by mid-day to pump and drink a lot of water. It was good to cook, eat, clean up and be in bed in day light and we lay in our sleeping bags looking at the gorgeous stars and satellites (Anita counted 16 satellites at one point). Again it was windy windy windy and very sandy too!
Day 4, June 10th
Anita woke up with cold feet. The description of the upper slot (8 ICY pools of water, look out for snakes, if the big pot hole is ¾ full of water you could be in trouble…) was not especially enticing to her, so she decided to remain back at camp. (In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad decision since we probably would have had to push her into some of the pools and drag her across!)
We retraced our path of the previous day and this time took the correct fork. We soon came to what the book describes as the “cactus patch” (aptly named) and following more cairns we got to where we could descend into the upper slot. It is quite wide (50 feet) and it’s easy to get in to the canyon at this point. However, it narrows and deepens almost immediately, and within a few minutes of walking, we were dumbstruck and in awe of its magnificence. We had never seen such a canyon before. The red walls curved gracefully and we could hardly take two steps in a straight line. We jumped into and out of small pot holes and as we went further the canyon got deeper, narrower and even more beautiful. The play of the sun light on the red walls was especially gorgeous. At one point it was so narrow and so dark that we put on our headlights!
Our first obstacle was a dry slide of about 15 feet. We did it with ropes, though if you’re comfortable with heights and don’t mind wearing out the bottom of your shorts, you can just slither down the slide. Our next obstacle was a rappel of about 20 feet into the “big pot hole”. There are two great bolts and a good rope for an anchor (though we used our own rope). Very lucky for us, the big pot hole was dry, so it was quite easy to climb out of it using a fixed chain and rope (Smita used Brian’s shoulders though!)
Further down the canyon, we got to a widening, a drop of about 50 feet, and what looked like a potential swimming hole. However, we realized that we could rappel and avoid the swimming hole. We all ate lunch and Brian set off to drill a bolt for our anchor. Though there was one bolt already there, it looked a little shaky.
The 8 icy pools begin right after this rappel. We put our little fanny packs and day packs into one big back pack that Brian had been carrying. Paul being the strongest swimmer had the honor of swimming across with the pack first. The first pool required stepping out onto a sloping slick ledge using a rope and then jumping into the water. Paul was the first to do it and unfortunately suffered some rope burn as he slipped and slid on the rope. The water was so cold that we were unable to talk for about 10 seconds after jumping in. After the shock wore off we just screamed and screamed “This is crazy!”
We lost count of the pools after about the 4th one. They were all as cold, some were deep and long, some just required wading, some were stinky, some were really short and some were so narrow that Paul got stuck and had to take off his backpack and push it through. Suddenly, the pools ended, the canyon widened, and we were out in glorious sun shine. We were ecstatic at the thought of “no more icy pools” and dried off and took back our fanny packs from Paul.
However, within about 200 yards, the canyon narrowed again, and to our disbelief we were confronted with yet another pool of ICY cold water! As we reluctantly got ready for the swim, we heard Brian yell out “Damn this Canyon!”
Paul’s rope burn was quite bad and continued burning all night. Smita’s cotton stretchy sport bra was used as a cold hand wrap which he would dip into an empty plastic powder Gatorade container full of water all night to keep it cool. The next day, with a little new skin, his hand was in much better shape.
We got back to camp at about 6pm. It had been an absolutely amazing day, definitely the highlight of our trip and worth the insanity of the swimming holes.
Day 5, June 11th
A fairly uneventful day. We packed up from our camp of three nights and walked back the way we had walked in. We were in no hurry and we were hoping that at least some of the swimming holes would be in the sun by the time we got to them. The swimming was just as we remembered – cold and best done fast! That night we camped at the top of the second roped obstacle. This was perhaps our most beautiful camp site. We were camped on flat rock partially under a huge under cut. The silhouette of the rocks at night was magical.
Day 6, June 12th
We timed our departure from our camp site based on the boat pick-up time given to us. The boat driver had told us that he would be there at 2pm and would wait for us until 4pm. We wanted to be there before 2pm.
We had a good walk to the last swimming hole of our trip. Near this pool we went up a side canyon which had a resemblance to the upper slot. It seemed to go on for quite a while, though we only explored it for about ¼ mile.
There are two ways past the last swimming hole, the smart and the not-so-smart. The smart method involves swimming the pool in the same manner as for the 19 pools prior to this one. The “other” method involves walking back on a sandy floor about ¼ mile, walking up tough canyon country for about 500 feet and 1 mile in the most awful, blistering heat. Paul and I were smart. The others took the “other” route which ended up requiring about 1.5 hours more.
By the time we regrouped, the sun was out in all its fierceness. We walked to the next shady spot and had lunch. From there we walked to the mouth of West Canyon and got there at about 1:30 pm. We proceeded to wait for the boat in a little slither of shade.
Well, we waited, and we waited. Past 2pm, 3pm, 4pm and then finally…. the only explanation that we had for our dear boat man’s absence was: “THEY FORGOT US”. Just as we had given up all hope of being picked up that day, some jet skiers chanced by. We told them our woeful story and they were kind enough to go out of West Canyon to the main channel and contact NPS via radio on a house boat. Sure enough, the answer came “WE FORGOT THEM”.
Anyway, all’s well that ends well. We were picked up at about 7:30 pm instead of 2pm. On the positive side, our boat ride back to the marina was most spectacular since we caught the setting sun.