Coal Wash Weekend

Water trough at Yellow SeepI knew that if I didn’t go camping in the Swell this past weekend that I wouldn’t be able to camp there until things cooled off in the fall, so I took Friday off work and headed down to the Coal Wash area with my family on Thursday afternoon. We had worked hard all week to get the camp trailer loaded up so that we could leave as soon as I got off work, and it felt nice to be on the road relatively early in the day. We arrived at our intended camp spot to find a couple of unattended trailers parked there, so we continued down the Dutch Flat Road another mile and set up our camp just past the Coal Wash staging area. After setting up camp and eating dinner, we did a short ride to Yellow Seep. Despite having ridden past there several times, I’d never noticed the side trail to Yellow Seep from the Coal Wash trail, but I saw it marked on a map recently and thought it looked worth checking out. The trail was short and easy, with a lot of wildflowers along the way. Yellow Seep itself wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped. There was an old, unused water trough there, and the seep appeared to be dry. The only sign there had ever been water there was the trough and a few tamarisk and other larger bushes in an otherwise barren area. That evening we just sat around a campfire and listened to the frogs croak in the distance. Yeah, we were surprised to hear frogs in the desert, so we decided to look for some the following evening at dusk.
Hiking near McCarty CanyonThe following day, Friday, we’d planned an easy itinerary. We slept until it was too warm to comfortably sleep any longer, a little after 8:00 AM, then we got up and had a quick breakfast and began getting ready for a ride. We rode the 4-wheelers northeast to the Little Wedge and stopped to hike to the rim of North Salt Wash. I’m planning a hike through McCarty Canyon for some time when the weather is cooler, and I wanted to check out another adjacent canyon to see if I could make a loop hike out of it. I needed to see the exit of the other canyon where it drains into North Salt Wash to determine whether it was doable, or whether I’d run into a sheer dropoff coming out of the canyon. The hike to the rim of North Salt Wash was about 1.2 miles round-trip, but unfortunately I couldn’t see well enough across the canyon to tell whether the loop hike was possible. I’ll have to hike down into North Salt Wash another day in order to figure it all out.
Narrows in unnamed canyonAfter that quick hike, we continued north along the Little Wedge trail and stopped again a couple of miles short of Fuller Bottom. We began hiking toward a short canyon that had looked interesting in Google Earth. Toward the end of the canyon, just before it drains into the San Rafael River, the Navajo Sandstone appeared to slot up. We only got about a third of a mile before Traci and the boys were tired of hiking in the heat, so I left them in the shade of a large juniper and continued hiking alone. I covered the remaining two-thirds of a mile in short time, making my total hiking distance about two miles. The end of the canyon didn’t slot up as much as I’d hoped, but it did offer a nice view of the San Rafael River. I was surprised to see two guys riding horses along the riverbank in the distance, and they dismounted and ducked into some bushes while I was taking in the view. The scene looked really odd, until I heard a chainsaw start. They were cutting down Russian Olive trees, so it wasn’t as strange as it first appeared. I headed back up the canyon and met back up with my family, then we rode on to Fuller Bottom for a quick stop, then back to camp along the road below the Red Ledges.
Frog in North Salt WashAfter eating a late lunch, we rode the short distance to North Salt Wash where some springs had created intermittent flowing water and a few pools in the wash. I was very surprised to see small fish in the water, most of them about one or two inches long. Although we couldn’t hear any frogs croaking in the heat of the day, we still found a couple of them. The boys each got to hold a frog before we let them go, and Torrey even got in on the action, but I made her spit the frog out before she hurt it. 🙂 Torrey also enjoyed chasing the small fish and especially the water skeeters. We went back to camp for dinner, but returned later in the evening and enjoyed the sounds of crickets and frogs along the water. After full dark, I set up the camera on the tripod and we did some light painting with our headlamps using 15-second exposures. The kids loved it, and I got a couple of neat photos.
Canyon across from the DripsSaturday was when we had planned on doing the big ride, the Coal Wash loop. I rode this loop last year with Bradley and it was awesome. I’d intended to set my alarm for 7:00 AM so we could get an early start, and although I forgot to set the alarm, we were awakened at 6:30 by a pair of calves who were interested in the still-hot coals in the firepit. After I shooed them off, I was wide awake and couldn’t even doze for the next half-hour, so we started readying breakfast and packing a lunch for the long ride. Despite the early awakening, we didn’t start the ride until about 9:00 AM. We rode south through Coal Wash and made the obligatory stop at the Drips. Directly across the canyon from the Drips was a short, narrow, winding side canyon that’s barely noticeable from Coal Wash, but I noticed it in Google Earth and was determined to check it out. It turned out to be pretty interesting, and after hiking past the narrows to where the canyon widened up, I placed a geocache.
Desert bighorn sheepAfter the Drips and the nearby side canyon, we continued to the fork in Coal Wash and took the South Fork. We stopped to find a new geocache, and also at a couple of springs to let the kids play with the tadpoles. Since I’d done this ride before, I didn’t make an excessive number of photo stops along this stretch of trail like I normally would. We climbed out of Coal Wash on the Eva Conover Road, then headed across Secret Mesa toward Eagle Canyon. Just before dropping down into Eagle Canyon, we stopped for lunch at the same place I’d stopped last year. Instead of sheltering from the wind and rain like my last trip here, we were sheltering from the sun and heat while we ate lunch. We continued the ride by dropping down into Eagle Canyon, then we followed Eagle Canyon under the I-70 bridges. Before reaching Eagle Canyon Arch, I saw an old water trough that I hadn’t noticed the last time around. We stopped to investigate and found a developed spring with water being piped into a small metal basin, and the water was milky-white and smelled of sulfur. I wouldn’t even let Torrey drink out of it.
Meat hanging in the Ice BoxWe began climbing out of Eagle Canyon toward Swasey’s Cabin. At the top we hiked to the Ice Box, which is a small cavernous crack in the cliffs where the Swasey brothers supposedly stored food. It was nice and cool inside, and we all enjoyed our brief stay there. We also checked out the cabin and used the nearby restroom. The cabin is the approximate halfway point of the ride, and it was was 3:00 PM–time to decide which route to take back to camp. We could drop down into Cane Wash and over Fix-It Pass, or we could take the shorter route across the Devil’s Racetrack. Last year I’d done the Cane Wash/Fix-It Pass route, which I knew to have a few difficult spots, but there was a stretch of Devil’s Racetrack that I hadn’t ridden before so I wasn’t sure which way to go. Traci made up my mind by suggesting Devil’s Racetrack since it was shorter, so that’s the way we went. We made a stop at Dutchman Arch so the kids could hike around, then continued on our way into new territory for all of us.
Three-wheel motion on Devil's RacetrackDevil’s Racetrack was tough. I’m glad we were going north because we crossed a couple of steep downhill sections that would have been extremely difficult going up. There was one rocky downhill section where I rode Traci’s 4-wheeler for her. A couple of miles into the trail we got to a really nasty uphill section. There were some tall ledges with rocks and logs stacked up to make them less difficult, but they were still steep enough to make me nervous and uncomfortable. The last time I did something this uncomfortable I ended up dropping my ATV off a cliff, so we approached this one with caution. My winch cable wouldn’t reach all the way to the top of the series of ledges–besides, there was a curve about two-thirds of the way up–so I anchored to a small juniper part of the way up. I stayed on the ATV while I winched it up the first couple of ledges, but I had to dismount on the last ledge because my machine was trying to go vertical. I pulled the front-end down while winching and got it to the curve in that section of trail, then moved the anchor point to another juniper at the very top of the series of ledges. The last bit of winching was a bit easier, and I made it to the top and breathed a sigh of relief. I positioned my ATV near the first juniper and winched Traci’s machine up the first section, then reset and got her up the last ledge. We were elated to have made it past the obstacle, but even more nervous about what may lie ahead.
The end of Devil's RacetrackFortunately for us, we soon reached the point where I’d ridden to from the north in 2008. I knew at that point that, although the trail ahead was rough, there was nothing overly difficult between us and our campsite. We made slow progress toward the North Fork of Coal Wash, where Devil’s Racetrack ends, and I kept a close eye on my GPS as it counted down in hundredths-of-a-mile increments with excruciating slowness. There were a few fast sections of trail as we neared the north end of Devil’s Racetrack, which were a welcome relief from the rock crawling we’d been doing for what seemed like hours. When we reached Coal Wash shortly after 6:00 PM, we stopped briefly to revel in our accomplishment, but then hurried back to camp where we could relax and enjoy dinner and some cold drinks.
Degree confluence - N 39° W 111°We didn’t originally have plans for Sunday, but the previous evening I remembered that there was a degree confluence nearby, where north 39° and west 111° converge. I consulted the map on my GPS and figured that it was only a third of a mile hike from the nearest road to the confluence, so we made that our goal for the day. We had hoped to sleep in, but we were once again awakened by a cow, this time a longhorn bumping her horns on the side of the trailer. I went outside in my pajamas to chase her off, but she wasn’t impressed, and just stared at me without moving. I grabbed my 4-wheeler key and started it up and chased her off, and even then she only reluctantly left our camp. We took our time fixing breakfast this time, then set out for what we knew would be a short ride and hike. The ride was nice–not as scenic as Coal Wash, but beautiful in a desolate way as the trail followed the bottom of a ridge of Morrison Formation hills. We parked on the side of the road as close as it got to the confluence, then walked the rest of the way. There was, not surprisingly, a cairn at the confluence, and I deconstructed it and placed a geocache there, then built the cairn back up around the container.
View from camp just before departingWe went back to camp and immediately began loading up the truck and trailer so we could go home. Just as it felt good to get to camp early on Thursday, it felt good to be leaving early on Sunday. I would have time to relax at home before the new work week began. It felt really great to have sneaked in one last desert camping trip for the season. I may still camp in the Swell a time or two this summer, but only in a tent, and probably alone. I won’t be back with the trailer and my family until October. For now, I’m heading for the hills to beat the heat.
Here’s a video of several clips from throughout the weekend:

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