Happy Canyon / Poison Spring (Hanksville, UT)
Since more than ten years, when I first had set foot in the upper reaches of Happy Canyon near Hanksville, Utah, I carried with me the idea of a multi-day solo hike down the Happy Canyon drainage, across the Dirty Devil river, and then via Poison Spring canyon up to Highway 95. This year (2008) brought the opportunity, and in early June the conditions were just right to pull this off: The spring runoff high water in the Dirty Devil river that would make crossing difficult had already abated, and there had been sufficient rain to make it likely that the various seeps and potholes that I needed for drinking water along the way would indeed contain water.
Planning and Preparation

From studying the USGS quads and other maps, I concluded during the preparation that the entire hike would be around 55km, but knowing from experience that these canyons twist and turn like crazy and that these tight turns don't show up on the quads, I cautiously added 20% to the total distance, just in case. Around three days, with two nights "out there", should do the trick. The one touchy point in the entire calculation was water, with the only really reliable water source being the Dirty Devil river, 30+km from my starting point near Hans Flat on the rim above French Spring canyon. But before I go any further with the descriptions, let's have a map (see [0] for a separate map and altitude profiles)

For the starting point of the hike, I chose a nifty CAMPSITE (38.23671/-110.21296) at the end of an old mining trail that leads to an abandoned drill hole about 5km to the southwest of Hans Flat Ranger Station (Maze District of Canyonlands National Park). This is a camp site that I had used in the past, because unlike the North Point camp site within the park, this one is free (as in beer) and offers more solitude with just as good a view. From Michael Kelsey's book [1] and past experience, I knew that an old and criminally steep cattle trail led from the unnamed canyon to the southwest of this camp over a break in the wingate cliffs down to the bottom of French Spring Fork. Once down there, the going would be reasonably level, following first French Spring and then Happy Canyon, all the way to the Happy Narrows and the Dirty Devil. From various sources I had learned that it was possible to get up and down the massive rubble of the Shinarump/Chinle slope just across the Dirty Devil from the mouth of Happy Canyon. I counted on this in order to reach the old mining track which is running along the base of the wingate cliffs on the western side of the Dirty Devil. This mining track leads all the way south to the Poison Spring canyon, where it intersects with the dirt road that descends from Highway 95 through Poision Spring to the Dirty Devil river and offers a comparably easy way to hike out to the highway.

Before we get to the hike itself, a WARNING is in order: This route, especially the middle stretch of Happy Canyon around The Pinnacle, is about as remote and as far away from help as you can get in Utah. While I hiked the entire stretch solo, completely on my own, I am used to serious hiking in this remote area of Utah. Even so, I was carrying my ham radio gear to be able to get in touch with my travel companion Boris in case I needed help. There is no (no!) mobile phone reception for like 99% of the hike. If you are not a licensed radio amateur, I suggest that you invest in a Spot Messenger [2] before attempting this hike - I was carrying one of those in addition to the two-way radio. A broken ankle, heat stroke, and especially running out of water are always a possibility, and can quickly have fatal consequences with daytime temperatures around 30C and nighttime temperatures dropping to near freezing. None of the waypoints and descriptions here come with any guarantee for accuracy, and chances are high that you will either not find the water sources indicated herein, or that you will find them dry. Do not blame me or this description if you attempt this hike and end up staying in the canyon forever, fertilizing a lone juniper. You have been warned!

The Hike - Happy Canyon to Dirty Devil to Poison Spring

Boris shuttled me out to the camp site, my designated starting point, where we cooked a spectacular chili for dinner and then spent a windy but pleasant camping night. The next morning, it was time for me to get marching, but in view of my anticipated treck of 3 days and the meager rations I had opted to carry, I used the opportunity provided by the ice chest and propane stove in the truck to have one big time hearty breakfast. Ain't no beatin' good ol' eggs and hash browns fried in pork fat and supplemented with generous amounts of bacon. Yay! In terms of equipment for the hike, I wasn't carrying much. No tent. No pad. No sleeping bag. No stove. After my last year's experience at BOSS Boulder Outdoor Survival School (read report), I had opted to go on this hike with the same 1950s-style of blanket pack that I had carried while on the BOSS course: Basically, clothing, food and water bottles are wrapped up with a wool blanket into a self-contained unit that is surprisingly easy to carry. Together with an old army poncho, the blanket offers some (very) basic comfort during a night. Since I had to carry a minimum of seven liters to be able to reach the river (or hike back to Hans Flat) also under adverse circumstances, the pack was quite heavy. I'm aware that an "ultralight" backpacker probably owns a tent, pad and sleeping bag that in total weigh in at less than what my wool blanket weighs alone, but hey, I prefer my outdoors cheap and low tech (with the exception of emergency communication gear, where I go for the maxx and lug both a ham radio TRX and a Spot Messenger).

The first mile or so of the hike is a drop down from the campsite to the green valley to the southwest. There are several possible notches in the sandstone through which you can descend - but there are also several others that will leave you rim-locked 5 meters above the valley floor. I'm deliberately not going into more detail - things that come hereafter are ten times more hairy, and if you can't make it down to the valley at this early stage without route finding help, you should definitely go back to the campsite, climb into your shiny SUV, crank up the air condition, and drive back to civilization. How about a second breakfast at the Red Rock Restaurant in Hanksville [3]? It's only 90 minutes away, and they serve some really nice homestyle pancakes! Or you can head out to Green River, about two hours to the north, and have a whomping trucker breakfast at West Winds Truck Stop [4]. Why would you go hiking and live off pothole water if you can have these civilized amenities?

Still reading? OK, so you apparently want to go hiking after all :-). Once down in the valley, the going is easy, just aim roughly south, heading for CATTLETRAIL (38.21847/-110.22647). If you look at this waypoint in Google Earth, you'll see that it is on the eastern side of a 300m drop down the Wingate sandstone cliffs. CATTLETRAIL is where - yes - a cattle trail starts that was constructed in ancient times to get the walking steaks up and down the cliff. I remember from years ago that the trail was pretty much OK, but it basically drops down a sandstone rubble slope, and especially in the lower stretches the former trail is all but gone now. While there are cairns (little rock piles) that mark portions of the trail, some of these cairns lead to nowhere because large portions of the original trail have been wiped out by rock slides. You'll pretty much have to route-find your way down the slope. The only further fix point is what I call the "NOSE" (38.21692/-110.22714), passing right underneath this one is as far as I can tell the only safe way to get around the bend in the cliff. From there, it's all down the rubble, steep, dusty, dangerous. If you are hiking in a group, leave ample room between hikers, as almost inevitably loose boulders will start to tumble when stepped on. A 20kg chunk of sandstone coming from above and behind can ruin any hiker's day real quick. This picture shows the slope from down below, looking back up. The red dot marks the notch underneath the "nose" through which you have to pass while coming down. The slope might look pretty harmless on the picture, but remember it's about 200m altitude difference between the red dot and from where this photo was taken. Once past the slope, the going levels out rapidly, but there are about 300m of bushwhacking and boulder hopping left until the canyon opens up. The probably most dangerous portion of the hike is already behind you.

There is one big advantage in heading downcanyon: It is mightily hard to get lost. Coming upstream, you would have to study the map at every fork of the canyon (and there are many) to check how to continue - but going downstream, never mind the many side canyons, the way forward is always reasonably obvious. Which I didn't mind one bit, as it allowed me to let the mind wander and to soak up the scenery and solitude. And there's lots of scenery to be had - from the towering Wingate cliffs all the way down to the massive slabs of siltstone whose wavy ripple patterns are ample testament that where you are standing used to be tidal flats of an ocean shore 250 million years ago. These layers of sandstone, siltstone and rock shale are also a good place to look for fossils - I spent some time looking, but didn't find anything special. If you do, please leave things in place and take only pictures. A bit further south, you'll get to what I call the "SHADEROCKS" (38.17931/-110.25955), massive boulders that should offer some shade for a break at any time of day. It was almost noon when I got there, and with temperatures above 30C, a shady rest was very welcome.

The broadside of the Pinnacle Following the canyon onwards, a view opens up that has the peak of Mount Ellen (3512m, Henry Mountains) almost perfectly centered between the canyon walls. The peak is about 50km away as the crow flies, and since you are about to dip lower into the Dirty Devil drainage, you won't see Mt Ellen again until you climb out of Butler Wash/Poison Spring Canyon about 2km from Hwy95 and the end of the hike. Twenty mintues further, some Tamarisk is growing on the canyon bottom, and while this is usually an indication that there is some water nearby, Tamarisk plants have long tap roots that can reach deep to water that never finds its way to the surface. Nevertheless, I was hopeful, because I was approaching one of the spots on this hike where I hoped to find some water. Not that I needed it badly - I was still carrying ample supply - but the wise lesson learned at BOSS is still very much with me: In the desert, never go past a good source of water without a full belly and a full bottle. One canyon bend further, the canyon floor started to show the tell tale marks of water, mainly a snow white cover of salt and minerals that evaporating water had left behind. Another turn in the canyon, and there was the SPRING1 (38.16318/-110.30482). There wasn't much to it, I'd guess that the seep didn't produce more than about a cup of water per minute, but this was enough to fill a couple of wibbling pools complete with algae and even numerous tadpoles. I happily employed my trusty Katadyn water filter, and tasted the result: A bit briney, but perfectly drinkable, and even considerably cooler than the water that I was carrying in my pack. In short: I was one happy canyon hiker right there (pun intended :)! If you ever come up to such a water seep in the arid southwest, please do your utmost not to spoil the water - no dipping of hands, feet, hats, etc. It makes good sense to wetten down your hat for cooling, but do so from your water bottle, and a good stretch away from any present surface water. Seeps like this one in Happy Canyon provide subsistence to a wide variety of animals.

I had seen several pictures of the rock formation called "The Pinnacle", but all of them were depicting it in its prime pinnacly aspect, so to speak, as seen from the west or even from Bert Mesa on the far side of the Dirty Devil. Not too many people hike far enough to behold the - admittedly not very spectacular - "broadside" of the Pinnacle. Further downcanyon, there were two more seeps, one at (38.16075/-110.34359), the other at (38.15337/-110.35480), but both were barely barely trickling and only just provided enough humidity for a little moss to grow. No chance for a drink at either of the two, but after having filled my belly and bottles back at SPRING1, I didn't need it anyway. The canyon below the Pinnacle had been my initial goal for day one, but since I still felt spiffy enough and there was plenty daylight left, I decided to push on to the head of the Happy Narrows. Two hours later, at 6:30pm and after 29.74km according to my GPS, I stopped for the night on the northern shoulder of the canyon, about at the start of the Narrows. In addition to being an all-around nice spot, my CAMPSITE2 (38.13253/-110.38371) also provided a perfect view of the Pinnacle. I had my (admittedly weird :) dinner of two baggies of tuna, a bowl of instant garlic mashed potatos mixed with lukewarm water, and a handful of beef jerky. Then I hung back, tried to ignore the obnoxious gnats who didn't seem to give a beep about my insect repellant, and watched the colorful spectacle of the warm red light of the setting sun painting first the entire valley floor, then the talus slope, and finally only the tops of the Wingate cliffs. Time to tuck in. The rocks were as comfortable to sleep on as rocks without the benefit of a camp mat can be, and I spent an uneventful, albeit surprisingly chilly night, during which neither mice nor other critters developed any interest in my meager food supply. Either they weren't in the neighbourhood, or they didn't like my garlic breath :).

The next morning began long before the sunrise - as soon as it was light enough, I got up to do a few pushups in an attempt to get the chill out of my bones. The bitter cold and a little dry shrub nearby gave me the idea to try and prepare a hot oatmeal for breakfast. I didn't carry matches, but the flint and my knife worked like a charm again, and there was just enough heat to be had from the little twigs to get a cupful of water to boil. Aah!

Once the sun was up and the light started to reach the bottom of the canyon, it was time to head into the Narrows. The Happy Canyon narrows are a rough and rugged sorts, with big rocks and boulders strewn on the canyon floor. Don't expect something like the famous and fotographed-to-death Antelope canyon - while there are tight, narrow and deep sections in the Happy Narrows, this is more a wild, scenic "all-natural" slot than something for the front page of "Utah Tourism". But that's perfectly how I prefer my canyons to be. Since I was not carrying a rope (and anyway didn't have anyone with me to belay) I was a little nervous at first about the possibility to encounter a massive so-called chokestone, a boulder wedged into the canyon with a serious drop on the far side. But luckily there was no such obstacle present, and I happily ambled my way down to the Dirty Devil, following the tracks of a coyote. Even though the prints were so fresh that the drops of water left around the tracks on the far side of a puddle were still running, I never caught a glimpse of the animal itself. After about half an hour, the canyon walls started to open up again, and after two more turns, I caught sight of the Wingate walls below Bert Mesa on the far side of the Dirty Devil. A meandering little while later, and I reached the Dirty Devil river itself. Halfway stage on the hike.

The river, true to its name, was murky beyond belief, and except from the ripples at the surface and the flow pattern, there was no telling how deep it would be. So I took off my pack and pants, put on my sandals, and carefully waded out into the yellowish-grey soup. The deepest part turned out to be about 40cm, far less of a problem than the gooey muck near the shore which, albeit only ankle deep, literally sucked at every step. But I easily made it, and made it back again to get my pack, and then across for good. Back after the hike, I checked the USGS water gage for the Dirty Devil [5], and it showed 21cfs (0.6m3/s) of discharge for the day I crossed. Especially during the summer months, after thunder storms, the flow frequently peaks above 1000cfs (28m3/s) which in the narrow canyon must be quite a spectacle - but one I would only want to witness from a safe distance away.

True to the adage, I of course decided to fill up belly and bottle from the Dirty Devil - as murky as it looked, it was still water after all. The taste wasn't too bad, but even though I tried hard to get my water from a puddle at the fringe of the river where the muck had set to the bottom, I still ended up clogging my Katadyn filter after pumping only three liters. Oh well - these filters are designed to be field serviceable :) and a little cleaning later, it was reasonably ready for use again. With the drink, I snacked on two energy bars to gather energy for the 200m climb up to the old mining road. Across from the mouth of Happy Canyon is a rubbly SLOPE (38.13666/-110.40091) that allows you to get above the otherwise towering canyon walls. From there, keep climbing in roughly northwesterly direction, following the occasional cairn and faint trail, until you reach the mining TRACK (38.13949/-110.40765) above. Uff! Now for the good fun - pretty much all of the next 10km or so follows the mining track, and except for the lee of a few house size boulders, there is no shade to be had until you reach Poison Spring canyon. So it is hot going, but well worth it, with a stunning new view of the Dirty Devil canyon after every turn, and some sections of the trail strewn with massive chunks of petrified wood. The view down to the mouth of Happy Canyon (the red dot) isn't too bad either, and from a bit further south, a view opens up into the entire Happy drainage, all the way to the Pinnacle and far beyond!

About four kilometers before the mining track joins Poision Spring Canyon Road (PSCR), the track turns into a recently graded jeep road, and there are several new claims staked out nearby. This used to be Uranium mining country - I wonder if some of the big mining conglomerates are out salivating in anticipation of a new Uranium energy boom to follow the high oil prices. As is evident from the maps, the mining track joins into the PSCR a good stretch above and away from the river. If you run out of water following the mining track, you can either descend to the Dirty Devil river along Poison Spring road (about 45mins) or gamble on water to be had from one of the seeps or springs further up in Poision Spring canyon. Since I had "filled up" my seven liters of carrying capacity back at the river crossing, I was still amply watered, but admittedly getting a bit weary by the time I reached PSCR (38.1173/-110.46575).

My original goal for the day had been to get as far as WALLSPRING (38.12558/-110.49052), a quite reliable water source. Walking up to the spring, the canyon floor turned bright grassy green, and a little later I was "welcomed" by dozens of deer flies. As much as I hate those suckers, they are a sure indicator for water to be had. The spring is tucked into the canyon wall, and though I sure could have drawn water from any of the puddles nearby, I wanted to see the spring itself, so I bushwacked my way through to it. It was worthwhile - the water flowing out of the pipe is crystal clear and ice cold. After pumping and tasting, I happily poured out the remainder of Dirty Devil brine and refilled three bottles anew. All the while of course, the deer flies were feasting on me as well, and in spite of my increasing wearyness and the time already at four in the afternoon, the deerflies were all the "motivation" I needed to push on. I checked out the petroglyphs near the spring, but didn't linger for too long.

Hiking out to the highway seemed within reach for the day - the only problem was that there would be nobody waiting for me, Boris didn't expect me out until a day later. But for this eventuality, we had beforehand agreed on a radio contact at 6pm, so I picked up my pace to get as high up in the canyon as possible, as I had no doubt that the towering Wingate cliffs near the spring would make radio contact impossible. 5:45 came, and I was up in the Navajo sandstone section of Poison Spring caynon by that time, but still tightly walled in. Now what? I turned on the radio, and when the first call from Boris came in a bit later, I could just barely barely hear him. I didn't bother to respond - his side of the connection had a full 50 watts going into a decent antenna on the roof of the pickup truck, whereas I carried a tiny hand-held radio with a meager 5 watts. I rustled up some energy, dropped my pack, and made a mad dash up the steep sandstone slope that walled in the canyon. Just in time - another call came in from Boris, in much better quality, and I responded. Darn! He still couldn't hear me! But he DID get enough of a static buzz to assume that I was trying to answer - and told me to "press the send button twice if I could hear him OK". Twice I clicked. And on it went, click, click click, answering Boris' carefully phrased questions, until I had conveyed with clicks alone that I intended to hike out that same night and was planning to reach the highway about two hours later. His answer "I'll be waiting, and I got cold beer" was sweet news indeed!

The entire hike was 67.8km according to my GPS, and took me two full days to traverse. American light beer is more yellow water than beer, but boy did the first few gulps taste good!

© 2008 Daniel Wesemann     (back to travel overview)

If you go for this hike, please let me know your experience! Drop an email to hcn++at++wesi.ch! Thanks!
[0] Overview map and altitude profile and a normalized track for Google Earth
[1] Michael R. Kelsey, Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, ISBN 978-0944510223
[2] Spot Messenger, www.findmespot.com
[3] Red Rock Restaurant, Hanksville, www.redrockcampground.net
[4] West Winds Truck Stop, 585 East Main Street, Green River, UT
[5] Dirty Devil water gage, waterdata.usgs.gov