Two years ago I hiked to Hurst Bridge and had a wonderful time during my relatively short visit to the maze of canyons, cracks, sandstone fins, and ridges at the top of the San Rafael Reef. A couple of days after that hike I was reminded that Exclamation Bridge is in the same area as Hurst, and I’d missed it. It was supposedly difficult to find and difficult to get to even if one could find it. I meant to go back before winter hit but I never made it, and I sort of forgot about it after that. During the past week I decided to give it a shot, but I spent a lot of time worrying about whether the weather would allow me to do the hike. It was very rainy all week, and I heard about many roads that had been washed out and closed due to flash flooding. It had finally cleared up by the weekend, so I left my house at 8:30 on Saturday morning hoping that I’d be able to drive to the trailhead without encountering any washouts.
I got to the turnoff from UT-24 that leads to Ernie Canyon and only encountered a couple of small puddles left over from the recent rains. I tried pushing through the Iron Wash crossing in 2WD and got stuck, but pulled out of it easily in 4WD. There was one other wash crossing that gave me pause–the near bank had a shallow sandy entrance, but the far bank was steep enough that my front bumper almost touched it before my tires began to climb the bank. I made it up without any problems, though, and from there it was easy driving to the trailhead at the WSA boundary.
I started the hike at about 10:40, and immediately I was hot enough to remove my sweatshirt, even in the shade of the narrower part of Ernie Canyon. I’d done all of this hike up until Hurst Bridge once before, so I went quickly without stopping much for photos. Unlike last time, I kept my eyes peeled for rock art on the northern canyon walls, and just as the canyon began to widen I spotted some very faint pictographs. I left the canyon bottom and began the steep climb up onto the Reef, and made it to Hurst Bridge about two hours after I’d started.
I passed under Hurst, and from there on out it was all new terrain for me. I’d chatted with Bill, who’d been to Exclamation before, and got some pointers on where to exit the Hurst drainage and re-enter the drainage closer to Exclamation. There was a huge impassible chasm cutting across the drainage between the two arches, so exiting and reentering the canyon was a must. I exited the Hurst drainage to the south, right on the edge of the chasm, and climbed to the top of the ridge that parallels the canyon. From there I scrambed over to the next crack west of the chasm and began climbing down that crack. Bill had been part of the way down the crack and thought it was possible to downclimb the last portion and end up in the drainage below Exclamation, but getting back out might require a handline. I’d brought some rope to use as a handline, but I eventually found the climbing to be too much for my abilities even with the rope. I downclimbed a vertical, bouldery section near the top of the crack, then down another steep cliff-like section, and Torrey followed. She wasn’t eager to do it, but with some prodding and even carrying her part of the way, I was able to get us both farther down into the crack. We eventually came to a section with a purely vertical downclimb with no hand- or footholds, and it was only 70 horizontal feet from the bottom of the canyon where I wanted to be. That downclimb alone was too much for me, but from that vantage point it looked like there was more difficult downclimbing below.
I reversed course and had to climb back up everything I’d just come down, and I had to lift Torrey up much of it. It was hard, but not terribly dangerous. I was very proud of Torrey for being able to handle all the climbing, and happy that she trusted me enough to follow wherever I went. We got back to the top of the ridge safely and continued west along the ridge while looking for another way into the drainage above Exclamation. I hiked north down off the ridge and ended up just above Exclamation Bridge, but with a 6′ vertical drop that didn’t look like it could be climbed back up. I jumped off the drop anyway and landed in some soft sand, confident that I would be able to find another way out of the canyon. Getting Torrey to make the jump was more difficult, but with some encouragement she did it.
I hiked all around Exclamation, taking photos from many different angles. I also looked around for another way to get below the arch, but everything required rope to rappel down into the canyon, which would then have to be climbed back up. I did some exploring to the north of Exclamation and found a nice vantage point from which to look off the edge of the San Rafael Reef into Ernie Canyon and beyond. I tried finding a different way back to Exclamation other than the way I’d come, but everywhere I went I encountered cliffs and deep chasms blocking my way. I eventually backtracked to Exclamation and then hiked up the drainage from there trying to find a way out, since I couldn’t climb back up the way I’d jumped into the canyon.
I found a spot that I thought I could climb up and out of the canyon, but it was sketchy. I climbed up the first part which wasn’t too steep, but then it got really steep, and I had to traverse one spot that had me genuinely scared. One slip would have sent me tumbling down the cliff about 30′ back to the bottom. It was only about 8′ across that scary spot, but I made it across and ended up in a little alcove in the cliff face that I was sure I could climb up out of and safely make it up to the top of the ridge from there. The only problem was that Torrey wouldn’t or couldn’t follow me across that sketchy spot. No matter how much encouragement I gave her–calling her to come to me, and even yelling at her in a threatening voice–she wouldn’t attempt it. I managed to get her up as far as another small alcove just below the one I was in, and my intention then was to try to get her leash attached to her collar so I could pull her up the last few feet to where I was. I couldn’t reach her, though, so I ended up feeding one end of the leash through a carabiner attached to the other end, and I used it like a slip knot to lower down the cliff and get around her neck. Once I got it around her head, I gently pulled the slip knot tight and began encouraging her to jump up to me. She jumped but couldn’t quite make it, so I pulled on the leash for a brief second and got her the rest of the way to where I was. Upon reflection, it was stupid to attempt such a sketchy climb without exploring farther up the canyon for an easier climb out.
After that, I easily gained the top of the ridge and followed it back toward Hurst. I hadn’t intended to, but I ended up above Hurst Bridge, so I took a few photos from that vantage point, then continued back toward where the truck was parked. On the way back I took a detour to explore a small side canyon, maybe about 1,000′ long, that ended in a deep dryfall that had recently seen a lot of water. There wasn’t much to see there, unfortunately, but it had caught my curiosity on my last trip and at least I satisfied that curiosity. The rest of the hike felt like a long slog. My legs were tired and sore and my feet were beginning to hurt. By the time I got back into the bottom of Ernie Canyon my back and shoulders were hurting from wearing my backpack, so I removed it and carried it to my side the rest of the way back. I got to the truck at about 5:10PM and spent almost half an hour sitting on the tailgate and enjoying the food and drink that had been waiting for me there in a cooler.
GPS Tracklog and Photo Waypoints (Google Earth .KMZ Format)
GPS Tracklog and Photo Waypoints (Google Maps)