30 Hour Journey to Reflection Canyon
Our 30 Hour Journey to Reflection Canyon to cross it off my bucket list!!
There’s a good chance almost everyone out there has seen a photo of Reflection Canyon.. It’s on every top list of places to visit in the world. It was included in the photo montage screen saver on Apple TV as of 2012. And it was featured in National Geographic in 2006 in a story called, Glen Canyon Revealed; a photo and a journey made famous by photographer, Michael Melford. This photo, and others like it by the few people who had made the journey to the remote location have haunted me for the last few years. I knew that someday, I would make my way to the sinewy s-curve and take the same route that so few have made the effort to before. That someday came 5 days ago.
THIS PHOTO OF REFLECTION CANYON BY MICHAEL MELFORD:
THIS PHOTO OF REFLECTION CANYON BY MICHAEL MELFORD:
I had researched the location of Reflection Canyon more times than I could count. It is located on the Escalante Arm of Lake Powell in Utah and there are pretty much only two ways to get there. One is by boat, but to get to the top for this view is extremely difficult. The other is to drive through the town of Escalante in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, down Hole in the Rock Road to almost the end, and then hike in 9 miles over trailess terrain. I had gotten my information from Rainer Grosskopf, a German photographer who made the same journey at least twice. Because of his information and both of his trips missing the best time of year, I knew I had to go to Lake Powell at the lake’s water level of the year. Through research I knew that was historically March and April, in spite of many other blogs suggesting go “anytime in the spring or fall”.
I originally wanted to try and do this hike in early to mid-April and then an injury canyoneering in the end of March almost destroyed that plan. I made every effort to get better and test out my ankle before heading out on an 18 mile hike; something I had never done before. Come weekend of April 18th, I knew that my ankle wasn’t quite ready and I really hadn’t planned to go with anyone (I won’t do hikes by myself- have you seen 127 hours??). Then I showed my friend Laura and Chel-c the photo of Reflection Canyon and they responded with no hesitation, “I’ll go!”. We planned for the following weekend on April 24th.
I decided to rent an SUV via Hotwire.com because everything I had read about Hole in The Rock Road was that it was horrible to drive down. Come Wednesday, the weather was also looking questionable. I started looking into planning an equally cool hike on the fly that wouldn’t be bothered by the weather and was coming up with a blank. We decided to just play it all by ear and as of Friday evening, as the car was being packed, we pulled the trigger on Reflection Canyon. We packed enough food & water so that if a storm destroyed the road we would be good for a few days. Then we stopped at Amorino at Town Square to grab some gelato roses for the road. YUM!!! We were ready for our adventure!
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Won’t bore you with the details of the first part of the drive, and tell you the truth I slept for about 3 hours. It had been raining for a good amount of the drive which really wasn’t promising. Once we were in Parowan, UT, Laura and I switched spots and I turned off on Hwy 20. This was a high elevation, on a windy mountain road and i’ll be damned if it didn’t start snowing. Snow quickly turned into a BLIZZARD, correct, you read that a BLIZZARD. In end of April, WTH???? I was white knuckled as I tried to maintain a normal speed and turned on my hazards to hope other drivers on the road would be able to spot me easier as we took some hair pin turns in the near white out. The snow coming at me made me think of warp speed on Star Wars or something, it was that crazy and thick. By the time we hit the end of the 20, we had decreased enough in elevation that the snow had stopped and we turned onto the 89 north of Zion. From 89, we hit the 12, past Bryce Canyon all the way to Escalante; we were over 5 hours in at this point. We stopped at a closed gas station to fill our tank in case we got stuck out there (still constantly checking the weather that promised 50% chance of rain for most of the day on Saturday), and then we turned down Hole in the Rock Rd.
The 1st 30 miles was a well maintained dirt road. Chel-c had taken the wheel because I was surprisingly tired and falling asleep. I managed to catch a little shut eye in that 30 miles until she hit the part of the road that we needed to have a high clearance vehicle for. Chel-c was still hauling ass but swerving back and forth to miss boulders and rocks in the road or going straight over them when there was no choice. Thankfully my rib was feeling a lot better because that kind of ride was so much pain when I first broke it 4 weeks prior. We arrived to our designated GPS Waypoint to park at about 430am. By the time we settled in to nap, it was almost 5am and the alarm was set for 630.
When my gentle alarm went off (I have an obnoxious one that goes off three minutes later) I woke up immediately. It was already quite light out and as tired as I was, my excitement fueled me. I was blown away at the view we had; we couldn’t see anything where we parked just a couple hours earlier and the colors of the landscape and the sky were breathtaking.
We were hoping to get ourselves together and hiking by 7 but making sure we had everything took longer than expected and it wasn’t till 730 that we were following the Waypoints from Rainer Grosskopf. I had never used GPS before but fortunately had downloaded the app (Topomapsapp.com) at my friend, Dianne’s suggestion and the correct map we needed prior to getting on the road. It was pretty simple to learn to use and I had usage down pretty good by the time we were a few miles in. I kept my own waypoints as we went along; we weren’t following the ones I had downloaded perfectly. Now Rainer had used the elevation on a Topographical map to choose a route that had the least elevation increase and decrease so as to not be climbing in and out of slot canyons all day. This route took us close to the mountains to the west which was what I would have followed were I not using GPS, but it seemed to take us a lot farther out of the way than necessary. As the hike went on, we found ourselves taking some short cuts on his route.
Now, I know I mentioned before that there was no trail, but we came across many cattle trails that meandered through the desert. What I wanna know is, where were the cows going? The terrain varied at many times from soft, deep sand, to slick rock, to deep ravines and slot canyons. We followed somewhere between the waypoints I had downloaded that were to the west, to the start of Llewellyn Gulch and Cottonwood Gulch Canyons as we could without having to backtrack at impassable crevices. At the top of Llewellyn, I spotted webbing for an anchor; I made mental note to see what kind of rappels were in that canyon later through research online.
Now we were keeping a very steady and rigorous pace, and I was really starting to feel it. I was making every effort to be super careful on my ankle and I was for the most part but I realized, I hadn’t been very active for the last 3-4 weeks and it was definitely affecting me. I was feeling weary and my legs were and butt were burning. I did twist my ankle a couple times on the way there, but nothing really too bad.
We had a series of rocks to the southwest that for the first half of the way to Reflection Canyon were sort of a beacon to the right in the distance for us- especially in the part of the hike my girls dubbed “the Tundra”; 2-3+ miles of hiking across sand and shrubs. Were I to go back and not have GPS, I would use the beacon of rocks to direct me where to go. I kept referring back to the GPS points and we made adjustments in our route based on the terrain we could see in front of us, the elevation we were seeing on the topo map, and the waypoints. My GPS usage was quickly killing the battery on my phone but I’m prepared like a girl scout (having been one for years) and had an eternal battery to plug into.
The last couple miles approaching Reflection Canyon were the toughest of the day. Laura and Chel-c were often quite far in front of me, with me shouting which direction we needed to go every so often. In my head I was the weakest link, and it was really bothering me mentally at my slow pace and my lack of endurance. I trudged on, determined to make it to my destination although I kept wondering over and over, “How will I ever make it back?” My hiking boots I wore were my 5.10 Canyoneers which have proved to be so great on slick rock and steep declines or scrambling. I quickly realized that my toe nails were a tiny bit too long; I was started to feel a lot of pain from them pushing against the steel toes that were built into my boots as we descended the gradual amount of elevation towards Reflection Canyon.
I could see our destination in the distance. By this time I was pretty damn good at reading the GPS and pointed out a series of rocks we had to get to the top of, “That’s where we have to go.” To our left we had just come upon the canyon above the one we were heading to and we could see the emerald green water carving through the treacherous walls below. It pushed me. It gave me strength knowing that we were so very close to something I had dreamed of seeing with my own eyes for so long.
The girls reached the top a bit before I did so they were well into their picture taking when I set my bag down and took a seat. The view was every bit as incredible as I had imagined, and then some. The storm had still managed to hold off and although the sky was completely covered with clouds, it wasn’t an overcast completely gray look; the clouds were dark and menacing looking storm clouds. I sighed with relief; I was worried that we would hike all the way out here and not get the beautiful photos I wanted to get. In an effort to get overhead sun on the canyon without deep shadows, I had planned to arrive about noon, and it was 12:30. We really weren’t far off the mark, having taken exactly 5 hours to arrive.
As I studied the view, I noticed that the spine in the S-curve was still underwater. The depth was 3590 feet above sea level this week, which I thought should have been low enough for that spine to have been high and dry; I’m guessing 3580 would put the finishing touches on the snake like canyon. All in all, I was happy with what I saw and my tripod was already set up before I had even come to that conclusion. I thought it was some sort of luck, or irony that a boat happened to speed through the canyon; reminiscent of the original iconic photo by Michael Melford.
I didn’t want to take a break yet because I was worried that I might miss the good clouds, or that maybe it would start raining over our heads. I started shooting in spite of the grumbling in my stomach or the dryness in my mouth. The rock we were situated on had a downward slope that got dangerous pretty quickly and although I had taken my shoes off, my socks and my ankle brace were making me slip a bit. My weariness was also a set back for sure and all of the above plus not wanting to risk my equipment kept me from climbing down to a better vantage point; in hind sight, I actually quite prefer the higher vantage point because of the ability to see more of the water as it snakes around the the peaks of the canyon. I got busy- I took individual photos, hand held auto bracketed HDRs and manual HDRs on my tripod. Check out other versions of the photo I took by other photographers HERE.
The girls wanted photos of them doing handstands on the edge which some may feel was reckless for fear of us tumbling into the abyss. I did a headstand as well (although it definitely wasn’t my best that I’ve done) and made sure I was far enough from the edge that I would not tumble over; the photos look like we are close but we were quite far and safe. By this time, I was ravenous and dug into the sandwiches and snacks I had brought. I had carried a 3 liter bladder for water as well as 4 extra bottles. I also had my camera, tripod, food, and 2 extra lenses. The extra lenses were pointless and I’m not even quite sure why I brought them. We spent about an hour and a half total on top of the canyon before the wind began gust and try to take off with our stuff that was strewn across the top of the canyon. We took that as a sign that it was time to leave and quickly packed our stuff to leave. It was 2pm when we got on our way headed back.
Of course, the clouds started to break and the sun and blues skies shined through because of the same exact wind that was driving us from the top of the canyon. We shared a pack of power bar energy chews and between those and the break we had taken I had gotten my second wind. We only casually followed our waypoints on the way back, instead choosing to cut as close to the canyons as we could to shorten the trip back. We also took our time, taking breaks as we needed them instead of rushing across the rough terrain. Our third of the way marker was the same series of rocks we had passed to the left of on the way to Reflection Canyon, this time passing much farther to the right of them. We were making almost a straight line back towards the exact mountain that we had left the rental car at the base of; being mindful of the arms of the different canyons we knew we needed to skirt around. As we got closer to Llewellyn Gulch, we decided to drop into the top of the slots to cross them instead of following the waypoints the long way around; this saved us a ton of distance in our hike back and it really wasn’t difficult to do.
I was really powering through the hike at this point, taking the lead even on some occasions. It was about 5pm when the rain started but we were prepared for this too as we had spotted the storm moving towards us. Raincoats had come out although the rain was much lighter than we originally expected. I regret not having created a GPS track of our way back because it was not a difficult route and saved a lot of time. We arrived back at the car by 6pm, which is an hour less than it had taken us to get there; in spite of taking a lot more breaks.
Because of the rain, we threw our packs quickly into the back of the car, and changed out our shoes only delaying long enough to grab some food to bring up front with us. Chel-c took the wheel and mobbed back down the 2 hour long Hole in the Rock Road back to Escalante. In spite of being pretty exhausted, I was awake for much of this ride inspecting all of the stuff we missed on the way in while it was dark. I had no idea that so many of the trailheads for canyons and hikes I had heard of were along this very road. Laura spotted of all things, a boxing ring off the side of the dirt road, somewhat hidden in a canyon. We are not sure why it is there, or how it got there, but we backed up long enough to verify that was what she actually saw. At some point after we got to the better part of the dirt road, I dozed off only to be woken a bit later by honking as we raced towards cows that were blocking the road. Of course the sound of our horn startled them out of our way; the girls laughing their asses off as all of this was happening!
We continued on our merry way, stopping only for pizza in the town of Escalante. We decided not to stay another day because of the weather forecast that would keep us from exploring the slot canyons we were desiring to. I drove the next 2 hours and that including driving down Hwy 20 again, through snow again although the conditions were much lighter than the previous night. We switched drivers in Parowan again and I slept the 3 hours all the way back to Las Vegas. We arrived by 2am making our entire journey right around 30 hours RT. We emptied the car, and after the girls took off, I jumped in the shower and headed to the club at 230am. But, that’s a different story for another night!
I feel such a sense of accomplishment in having crossed this particular item off my bucket list. This one I had to work for and plan for a lot more than most of the others. And I am happy to have such beautiful photos to share from our lovely adventure. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed creating them, and stay tuned as it won’t be long until I post my next bucket list adventure! 2 more weeks to Havasupai Falls!!!! Oh and if you want my waypoints, you can download them HERE
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