When I planned on returning to the South West it was the scenery, with its wild, colourful grandeur that pulled me back. I have twice hiked in and around the Grand Canyon for some days, and even if this was now thirty years ago the impressions and images were still vivid in my mind. I wanted more of this area, but which place should I choose? I had put aside a week for this, but with so many spectacular options it's almost impossible to settle for just one or two.
I considered Arches National Park, undoubtedly an area where one could easily spend days and weeks hiking around, but since I was going to arrive in late August, I feared it might be a bit crowded. After some serious trawling on the Internet of the Moab area, my attention was caught by some pictures from Fisher Towers on the eastern Colorado River bank, and finally I found my way to the area between these formations and Gateway, Colorado.
Gateway is a tiny outpost, but has a resort, which makes it a great starting point. With a topographical map in my hands I figured out that it should be, or might be, possible to hike down the Dolores River to the smaller Cottonwood Canyon, where I could get across, possibly, to the Fisher Valley and the Towers. Two nights in a tent would be no problem, so here was a plan to set into life.
The Gateway Canyon Resort is beautifully situated in an open area where canyons merge, dominated by the Dolores River and red cliffs - the spectacular Palisade being the obvious centrepiece, towering right above the adobe style buildings. The place is being developed by John S Hendrix, who after having sold his world known Discovery Channel, decided to make this wonderful outpost into an attractive resort, with fantastic access to the scenic and not much travelled canyons and mountains around. Rooms are not cheap, but the standard is high and the staff both knowledgeable, nice and helpful. On my first evening I had a beer in the bar with MJ, a woman photographer and hiker who was doing some work for the resort. She'd been hiking all over the south west and her stories were a great inspiration. She knew the area, but not my planned route.
In the morning I talked to Luke in the Outpost Outfitters store, but neither he, who knew the area better than anyone, didn't know if it was possible to get through the Cottonwood Canyon up to the Fisher Valley. I still stuck to my plan, and Luke offered to take me down to Beaver Creek, which would be a good place to start the hike. After a few stops to look closer at some vegetation and some very old Indian rock carvings, Luke (a great guide!) dropped me off by the deserted homestead where Beaver Creek joins the Dolores. My water bottles were all filled and I said goodbye to Luke. It was one o'clock. Wilderness here I come!
The dirt road, more like a 4WD track now, meandered gently through the terrain alongside the river, with majestic, red cliffs guarding both banks. The river was lined by green weeds and vegetation, and the valley was wide enough to host some scattered, lush groves of bushes and trees. After a few smaller side canyons I reached Cottonwood Canyon with its barely trickling Fisher Creek. The Dolores continued north with the canyon walls closing in on the riverbanks. A mile up ahead it would turn west and eventually end up in the Colorado River. This scenery - the vastness and the quiet: what an absolutely fantastic place! And what a strange privilege to have all this to myself.
I had walked for an hour and sat down to have a small lunch. Late August in Utah is very hot and I emptied a water bottle much quicker than I had anticipated. I filled it up again and was ready for the exploring part of the hike.
Cottonwood Canyon was wild, very pretty and not too narrow, so hiking in the lower part was easy. A path could be detected, but a lot of the walking was in the partially dry creek bed. Some vegetation supplied a bit of shade, and the greenery contrasted and emphasized the red of the soil, rocks and canyon walls. The blue of the sky added to the palette, while the total absence of sounds - the vibrating silence - completed an atmosphere of natural wonder, vastness and remoteness. I did see some faded footprints in the creek bed, but they could have been more than a week old.
A great rock on the southern side of the canyon, almost a pinnacle, was shaped like a camel, two humps and all, stretching its neck high above the canyon floor. I passed a few side canyons: the Bluff, the Seven Mile - which looked impossible to walk, strewn as it was with big boulders from wall to wall - and the Thompson, with a nice, grassy little area where a little campfire was marked by a small circle of rocks. I passed by a cliff that looked like an ancient jungle temple Buddha, and at places some boulders had to be climbed around. No difficult climbing - I was certainly not going to take any chances out here all alone.
The canyon got narrower, and after some more moderate bouldering I could see the rim where I hoped to make it up. It wasn't more than 40-50 feet above where I was standing, but still a while to walk. Had a biker passed on the famous Kokopelli Trail I would have seen them on the rim right here. Then around the next corner: a water hole, wall-to-wall where the canyon suddenly narrowed to a slot. Above the water a big rock was jammed in between the walls, blocking the passage from above. It took me no time to realize that this was a dead end. I was disappointed, of course, but the possibility for this had been obvious the whole time. The hike had been worth every minute and effort, so there was no reason to hang ones head about having to turn around.
It was now six o'clock and I made my way back down to the Thompson Canyon where I had seen the good campsite. By seven my tent was up, I had washed off today's sweat and dirt by the creek, and a pasta stew was getting ready on the camping stove. From my seat on a rock I watched the evening light fading slowly above the canyon rims. Finally stars and moonlight bathed the valley in a velvety, silvery light.
Sitting there I had to wonder if this whole project was a bit crazy - it might take me more than a day to get back to Gateway. But no, of course not. My mind was also filled with great memories from the past two weeks, where I had come across from the east coast having the greatest time visiting old friends several places. Now it was good to sit here all alone and reminisce. There couldn't be a better place to digest all the impression than here under the stars in a forgotten desert canyon. After all the large cities, Philadelphia, Chicago and Minneapolis, this wilderness put things back in perspective - a reminder of how small man still is on our Earth.
If the evening was good, daybreak was fantastic. I hadn't slept well, but I had to be up early anyways to make good distance in the relative cool of the morning. While breakfasting, packing and starting down the creek, I followed the first sun rays as they hit the mountainsides, and then making their way down till the whole cliffs were glowing in red and gold.
I walked at a good pace only stopping for water and a snap here and there. At a water stop I could suddenly feel someone was watching me. I turned around, and just five meters behind me stood a young fox - or was it a coyote - wondering about the strange visitor. I said hello and slowly got my camera up. It just kept staring at me. It looked away for a while, then bent to lick its paws, and then looked back at me again. After some minutes it was still in the same place watching me as I continued further down the creek.
The wider valley of the Dolores made me an easy target for the mid-day sun, so I passed under every tree that was not too far from the dirt road, and to my blessing a few clouds helped me keep my temperature balanced. In the afternoon, after having returned through the gate to Colorado, I could hear and see a truck by the homestead far over on the other side of the river. Didn't help me much. With no one coming by on this side I realized that I wouldn't make it back for the night, so I started looking around for a good campsite. At six o'clock I scouted a good spot near the river up ahead, but just as I was leaving the road a car turned up. It was MJ, who was going to take her dog for a walk down by Beaver Creek - very fortunate for me!
Back at the resort it turned out they didn't have a room for me! The girl in the reception explained about some work being done in some rooms, but after some hesitation she said: I'll give you one of the suites for the same price. My day was truly blessed. The suite was a full apartment, where I first showered off the dust and sweat from a long, hot days hike, then relaxed with a cup of coffee in the couch of the spacey living room, before descending into the large Jacuzzi that occupied a full corner of the bedroom. What a world of contrasts! I'm sure I would have enjoyed another night in my tent, but I can't say I was displeased with how the day ended. I had a nice, big dinner at the restaurant, another beer with MJ, and then I slept like a log.