Canyon Tales
It’s a Dirty Devil
by Harvey Halpern

•  April 1988  •

All of my trips to Southern Utah begin in the same way. On a large wall in my house I’ve got 7.5 minute topographic quadrangles arranged sequentially so that I can stare at the geography of Southern Utah, from Arches National Park and the Fisher Towers in the northeast to the Escalante River and all of the threatened canyons off of the Burr Trail in the southwest. I’ve been staring at one particular trip for 8 years—the Dirty Devil River. When I first stared thinking about exploring the Dirty Devil drainage, it was an area about which next to nothing had been written. A 1½ page entry in Verne Huser’s ‘Canyon Country Paddles,’ which mentioned that it was a seasonal river that could be run in 4 days, was all that I could discover.

My hiking partners, Paul and Mark Breneman and Bud Evans, and I weren’t interested in running the river that quickly at all. Our interest lay in the fact that this was seriously remote and seldom visited land—ideal for the pursuit of the wilderness experience. It was only after much correspondence that we came to the realization that it would actually be possible (but far too similar to work ) to backpack from Hanksville Utah to the Dirty Devil’s termination in Lake Powell (or Lake Foul to those who recognize what has been lost). No, the Dirty Devil seemed like the ideal river to be explored from rafts. We could put in right by a road (Utah 24) and take out at the big bathtub (Lake Foul). Never mind that we had never rafted anywhere on our own before—it seemed the perfect means for setting up a basecamp.

My first phone call to the Bureau of Land Management’s recreation manager for the Henry Mtns. Resource Area, Bill Booker, took the wind right out of our sails.

“Can’t be done,” Bill told us. “There’s just not enough water. You’ll need 160 cfs. minimum, and the river’s not running that high. You’ll be dragging your boats more than you’ll be floating.”

But my hiking buddies and I are not the sort of crew who gets phased by reality. The canyon has been beckoning for nearly ten years, undoubtedly growing more popular and known year by year. If the four of us were ever going to explore the Dirty Devil, we would have to do it now—what with families, jobs, etc. another opportunity to explore the Dirty Devil might not arise for another 8 years, and by then our pristine wilderness canyon might be developed, crowded, mined, who knows what. In fact, all of those fears are very real ones as the Dirty Devil is under siege, its federal ‘protector,’ the BLM, having turned its back on the river.

Undaunted, we took our rafts and our fully loaded packs to White Pond in Concord, MA for a ‘dry run.’ Perfection, sitting high on our packs, perusing the scene. What could be better than to transport all of our gear via these nylon tubs, safe and dry. Of course, White Pond is still, clear, and very deep, while the Dirty Devil is moving, muddy, and so shallow as to be practically non–existent in places. But, as I always say, “Who needs reality to throw our plans into a bad light?”

• April 21 — Hanksville, Utah (pop. 250) •

Driving into Hanksville, we cross the mighty Dirty Devil on Utah 24. It looks shallow but, to our inexperienced eyes, rafting it seems to be possible. We head into town to speak to Bill Booker, an extraordinary employee of the BLM (which has rightfully earned its nickname as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining). His love for canyon country sticks out like a sore thumb at the BLM, while his knowledge of Utah’s Backcountry is encyclopedic.

Bill informs us that the river is running at 150 cfs which is much lower than we’d like but, then again, as I like to remind myself, we don’t live in an ideal world. We decide to hike along the north bank for a few miles to assess the situation, but of course were committed to the trip at this point. In any case, if worst comes to worst, we figure we could deflate our rafts and carry them out at Poison Springs Canyon. Harder things have been done (though not necessarily by us).

We hit Jeem’s Tropical Cafe on the northern outskirts of town for dinner. Replete with fine food and fine people, this is a place that knows how to make backcountry users feel at home, a skill the proprietor’s of the Red Rock Cafe (Hanksville’s other restaurant) could use. We knew this was the place for us the minute we walked in and heard Willie Dixon singing the blues on Jeem’s Tape deck.

• April 22 — Robbers Roost Canyon •

After having breakfasted at Jeem’s, we gathered our mounds of gear at the river’s edge and rendezvoused with Bill Rasbold who runs a shuttle service out of Hanksville. In 16 days, Bill would, we hoped, pick us up a few miles before the lake and shuttle us back to Hanksville (a 4wd road parallels the last 4 miles of the Dirty Devil). Bill deflates our balloon a little by noting that he’s never seen river runners with such a small pile of gear, we on the other hand had never gone anywhere with such a gargantuan load. The fact that we’re hedging our bets against raft and/or water failure hopefully explains this discrepancy.

‘Running’ this river has become, even here on day 1, an education in and of itself. Trying to find and follow the slightly deeper channels—so that we can minimize the amount of time spent jumping out of the rafts to pull them over the shallow spots—is a skill that we pick up quickly and use often. I can see why William Dunn called this mud flow a ‘Dirty Devil’ upon ‘discovering’ it with John Powell on July 28, 1869. Already my skin is feeling the drying effects of this continuous mud bath and matters will only get worse as we managed to lose our sunscreen here on day 1.

We make surprisingly good time, floating/pulling our boats for 11 hours and covering around 16 miles. More surprising is how scenic the trip has already become. In our minds this was going to be an adventure far from the maddening crowd, provided solitude aplenty but probably a little short on scenery. We were erroneously led to believe this by the few published pictures I’ve seen of the Dirty Devil, all taken from the Burr Point Overlook from which the Dirty Devil looks like a scaled down version of the Grand Canyon. Once you’re past the first sand slide out of Hanksville, the Dirty Devil has the aura of the Escalante River, with its steadily growing walls streaked with browns, blacks, and purple\blues, dotted with flecks of desert varnish glowing blue–black.

A ribbon of water slicing through a dry, dry land, the Dirty Devil attracts more than its share of wildlife. Today we see White–faced Ibis, American Avocet, Long Billed Dowitchers, a Great Blue Heron, and some unidentified ducks, all flying low over our heads.

We finally pull into Robbers Roost Canyon around 6:30, cold and tired but also exhilarated. After innumerable trips hauling our gear off the river and under an overhang, we’re ready for some R and R. So, off we go, up and over the south shoulder of the canyon up onto the slickrock dome wilderness of the surrounding incised canyons. Now we’re in true wilderness—no trails, no footprints, no river route. Just dome after sandstone dome, glowing orange pink with the last drips of sunlight drenching them.

• April 23 — White Roost •

From all accounts, the canyons of the Roost (Robbers Roost, Butch Cassidy’s old hangout, White Roost, and the North Middle and South forks) are the most spectacular canyons of the Dirty Devil, and today’s hike did nothing to dispel that rumor. We start before dawn so that we can climb back up into the slickrock wilderness above us for one more show of light. Then after stashing our rafts and excess gear, we load up our backpacks with four days worth of food and gear and head up the main fork of Robbers Roost.

We’re literally hiking with our tongues hanging out, drooling at the spectacular scenery. Walls streaked with riots of color and shaped into forms that suggest that they are still dripping into their final, permanent form. Reality intrudes upon us in the form of another party of hikers near a huge arch on the East wall. It seems that Mike Kelsey has just published a guidebook to the Robbers Roost and this party is just following his advice—bad timing for us.

Headed up a canyon that we thought was White Roost, we are quickly turned back by a sheer 60–foot pour off. Not a bad mistake as we are rewarded with a cool alcove, lined with hanging gardens of ferns, columbine, forget–me–nots and monkey flower. We trudge along beneath our packs for another mile or so to the actual mouth of White Roost, where we gear down to day packs. The real White Roost is even better than its impostor, replete with alcoves, hanging gardens, desert varnish, streaking, and a host of nearly impossible forms. We make it to the ‘end’ of both forks, the left one ending in a narrow water–filled slot. We’re all pretty exhausted after a 16–mile day.

• April 24 — White Roost •

It rained hard throughout the late evening into the morning and the formerly two–inch deep creek of Robbers Roost is now nearly a foot deep. If only this had happened when we were planning a rafting day! Now it just makes hopping over the stream that much harder. Up and up we go, exploring every sidecanyon on our left until we reach the end of the North Fork of Robbers Roost. The North Fork is punctuated by a very impressive narrows that Kelsey dubs ‘The Crack,’ a slit in the sandstone 150 yards long, of which 65 yards are maybe 20–24 inches wide, ending in two dry waterfalls (believe me you wouldn’t want to be there when they are overflowing with water). You have to scramble a bit and work hard to get to The Crack, but it’s one of those exertions that’s well worth the sweat.

• April 25 — Dirty Devil River •

Today we follow the Middle Fork of Robbers Roost to its end, another dry waterfall that’s unclimbable without equipment. That same box canyon that stopped us also put an end to the retreat of three mule deer that were pushing on ahead of us. We could hear a commotion ahead when suddenly a deer came right at us through the 18 foot wide narrows we were in. In majestic but frightened 20–foot bounds, the first deer sped right past us. Its fear so palpable that we could taste it. Five seconds later, the next deer did the same act except this one was so freaked out that it came directly at me. It’s pretty terrifying to have a 140–pound wild animal charging right at you. I could see the fear and adrenaline in its eyes and smell its breath as it veered away at the last second, headed left, stumbled, and, after realizing it was about to run into a buffalo berry bush, instead bounded up and over the obstacle. Grace under pressure.

After the excitement of the day’s hike, we pack up our gear and move our base camp back down by the Dirty Devil. This enables us to explore some more of that slickrock dome country. We are rewarded with a huge view of domes, fins, deeply incised canyons, the Henry Mountains and the Little Rockies off in the distance. We also come upon some Anasazi pictographs down near the mouth, at the Dirty Devil River.

• April 26 — Camp by the Sawtooth •

A 17–mile day hike enables us to explore the South Fork of Robbers Roost before we head back onto the river. We hike up the broad but deep canyon accompanied by a golden eagle flying overhead until we get to a cooling waterfalls in the Kayenta sandstone. There we ran into a dozen wayward boys from Santa Fe being led on a wilderness trek. I’m impressed by their rappel into the canyon, but their noise level warrants a hasty retreat on our part. It’s just as well, for by the time we’ve reorganized our piles of gear it is already 5pm. We float by Barrier style pictographs near Angel’s Cove (one of the hiking routes into the Dirty Devil) en route to our campsite on a sand bar beneath the awesome Sawtooth, a monolith of golden sandstone that sits atop a ridge towering hundreds of feet overhead. The river meanders around the whole formation so that you get to view it form all sides; however, camping on the Southwest side of the formation means a very cold campsite.

• April 27 — Camp by Larry’s Canyon •

We fight the river today and wind up exhausted as a result, having constantly had to jump into the river to pull our boats over the shallow sections. There’s a seam of nylon between the top and bottom sections of our rafts that manages to rub the back of our calves raw every time we jump in and out, which is frighteningly often. Our skin is red, raw, burnt, and dried to a crisp. The drying action of this slit–filled mud is hellish on our skin. We walk 3 miles up No Man’s Canyon until we come to a waterfalls where we can relax and wash off that devilish mud. Ran into another party of hikers who have had a very hard time reaching this point. Despite being too shallow to raft continuously on, the Dirty Devil has lots of deep holes all hidden by the opaque water. One person in their party lost his camera in just such a hole. Despite our complaints we realized that we chose the right means of locomotion.

Upon reaching Larry’s Canyon we headed upcanyon, despite our fatigue, in search of some clean water to wash off the caked–on mud. En route I came upon two chukars sauntering right up the slickrock.

• April 28 — Camp by Larry’s Canyon •

We’ve decided to reward ourselves with a rest day and it’s doubtful that there’s a better spot for hanging out and enjoying the scenery anywhere on this planet than Larry’s Canyon. Larry’s Canyon is , in a word, drippy. Everywhere you look there are walls covered with strangely shaped potholes. Some form miniature arches; some are finger smooth and 1/4 inch thin. Some are hollow sounding, and some look like alien heads out of some B grade sci–fi movie, dripping, flowing, screaming. We get to sit and relax back buy a lush hanging garden while Canyon Wrens serenade us. To top off a perfect day, the desert flowers are starting to explode.

• April 29 — Camp by Sam’s Mesa Box •

Today, we were able to float down the river hardly ever getting out to pull. It is very slow going but that just leaves more time for thoughtful contemplation of the surrounding walls—each of which is spectacular. Today is certainly the most scenic that the Dirty Devil itself has been. We come to realize that as every sidecanyon here has its own personality, look, and style, every day’s float also has its own unique aspects. An especially impressive section of the river has a monolith near the mouth of Twin Corral Box Canyon (the only tributary canyon we didn’t hike up) that looks amazingly like Rodin’s Balzac. It’s wonderful to be able to float silently down the river listening to nothing but the flow of the water and the whoosh of the birds. A rugged 3–mile hike in the heat has led us to our sandy camp spot surrounded by giant orange cliffs that are lit up by the nearly full moon.

• April 30 — Same Campsite •

A difficult hike upcanyon surrounded by towering Wingate cliffs. Logs of petrified wood litter the canyon floor.

A tremendous wind has picked up at dusk. It is strong enough to blow away a fully staked out tent loaded with gear. The gale force winds howl constantly throughout the evening leaving an 1/8–inch deep layer of sand everywhere inside our tents.

• May 1 — Camp by Happy Canyon •

We woke up to a cold grey sky that is punctuated by the constant wind. It’s truly frigid out, which forces us to hike with all of our clothes on. This doesn’t bode well for our rafting experience, which starts around noon. Being up front on the rafts is numbing as our wet feet lie over the top of the raft catching all of the wind (which we were to find out later gusted up to 70 mph). The sun finally makes a guest appearance around 2:30 which is a godsend, as without it we couldn’t have made it to Happy Canyon without risking hypothermia. Thinking that we have arrived at Happy Canyon we pull our boats up onto the bank and reconnoiter with maps to determine if, in fact, this is Happy. Our first order of business is to get out of the wind as we’re freezing. As soon as we do, we hear a loud boom, which I jokingly said must be our rafts blowing over. It dawns on all of us that this might actually be possible, so we scurry back to the boats. Sure enough, one of our rafts has been picked up, with well over 100 pounds of gear in it, and tossed unceremoniously into the mud!

• May 2 — Happy Canyon •

The wind keeps us all evening, broken only by the lonesome hoot of a Great Horned Owl. Our original plans for Happy Canyon were quite grandiose; to hike upcanyon to its head by the Orange Cliffs and then to slip on down into Ernie’s country and the Maze (probably the first time the Maze would have been accessed from the Dirty Devil River, and certainly the most circuitous route into the Maze.) The allure of the canyons of the Dirty Devil have proved our undoing; how could we pass up these gems when we might never be back? No, the Maze which we spent 13 days hiking in 1984 would have to wait for us to return via a more conventional route. Instead we load up our backpacks with 3 days of supplies and start a mad dash to see how far upcanyon we can get.

The going is, from the outset, very slow as the first topographical challenge that confronts us are the Narrows of Happy Canyon. You can’t go quickly here because it’s just too darn beautiful. A narrow convoluted crack that rends the earth’s skin for nearly two miles, sinuous curves undulate beneath overhanging walls that are 100 feet tall and barely three feet wide in spots. The sheer force of nature is driven home very clearly by the giant logs that are wedged 40 feet overhead—this would be death in a flash flood and they obviously occur with regularity for Happy Canyon drains a huge area.

All these flash floods have left pools of mucky brown water that necessitate either stripping down or plunging ahead and suffering wet clothes. My big mistake is deciding to walk through with my camera strapped to my chest. Even though I am moving slowly there is no stopping myself when I walk off the hidden underwater shelf into suddenly neck–deep water. The effectively puts and end to our ‘dash’ up Happy Canyon. Amazingly, I find that, after drying out, my camera still works. I’m depressed but not devastated since I feel lucky to have experienced one of the richest, most grand visual experiences one can have—a hike through the Happy Canyon Narrows. We return to our campsite by climbing and traversing above the narrows (easy) and then scrambling back down to the canyon bottom (hard). This enables us to get some big views of the Dirty Devil and Fiddler Butte through the descent is quite tricky.

• May 3 — Poison Spring Canyon •

Our first rapids, finally an adrenaline rush from the water itself. We explore two unnamed sidecanyons both of which have spectacular but short narrows. My ‘waterproof’ bag opens up, necessitating a long stop to dry out my sleeping bag. We pull into Poison Springs late and must send two people upcanyon to search for water in the failing light. Despite having brought in nearly 20 gallons of water and supplementing with fresh water wherever we find it, we’re running low.

• May 4 — Mouth of Fiddler Cove\Hatch Cyn •

We have another hard day pulling rafts on the river, a river that is rapidly drying up and disappearing on us. We hike up the spectacular Fiddler Cove canyon for 6 or 7 miles, the whole way huge sandstone pinnacles stare down upon us. It feels as if no one has been this far up the canyon in a long, long time. We spend a bit of time watching a humming bird tend its empty nest.

• May 5 — Mouth of Fiddler Cove\Hatch Cyn •

Hatch is like a microcosm of the trip, delighting us with constantly changing scenery of a wondrously varied nature. Everywhere we look there are steep walls, dripping pot holes, garden–lined alcoves, fantastically colored streaking, caves, a long narrows in the White Rim sandstone, and even a large arch high on a cliff side. We see a Snowy Egret on our return hike, a hike made ominous by the starting up of another terrible windstorm.

• May 6 — Red Benches Canyon •

Another sleepless night as the wind tears at our tents all evening long. Despite being all zipped up, we’re inundated with sand. Our sleeping bags are full of it and even our mouths are gritty from the constantly drifting sands.

Breakfast is a grim sight; the four of us, bleary–eyed from having had no sleep, are huddle together with all of our clothes on trying to stay warm. We really have no choice but to go on; we certainly don’t want to miss our rendezvous with Bill Rasbold, but the thought of jumping back into that frigid water to pull our boats is a hard one to face on no sleep.

Finally, the water is consistently deep enough to float on, but this horrible wind is blowing directly up the canyon. Even padding full steam ahead, we can barely keep from going backwards; we’ve no choice but to wade in and pull the boats.

Just as I leap into the water to pull, a giant gust hits us and flips our boat perpendicular to the water, dumping Paul head over heals into a deep pool. Our first real emergency; one soaking wet friend in 50 degree weather with a steady 40 miles per hour wind (that day 4 house boats would be blown over on Lake Powell). We jump (or rather wade) into action getting ashore, putting dry clothes on Paul, building a fire and eating some chocolate.

The wind blows all day long, making us work our tails off to get to a great unnamed canyon near the Red Benches. If you’re willing to work, you can climb out of this canyon and get up on the slickrock at the base of the Red Benches. The view is well worth the effort, which pretty well sums up our whole trip. Of course if we’d gotten a chance to savor the day’s great visuals—probably the highlight of the actual river scenery—or if my skin didn’t feel like it was ready to fall off in painful masses, I’m sure I’d appreciate it even more. Nevertheless, we’re all sad to be leaving our riverine wilderness tomorrow, that is, if we can find the right pullout and if Bill is actually coming for us.

• May 7 — Civilization •

We’re actually much closer to the pick–up point than we realize and Bill is indeed there waiting for us with roast beef sandwiches from Jeem’s Tropical Cafe. I’m going to miss this river, but my skin is mighty glad that they sell moisturizing lotion in Hanksville!

•   H.R. 1500   •

The battle over Utah’s BLM lands promises to be one of the most important and hard fought, wilderness struggles in America. The BLM, as directed by the landmark Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, inventoried to the public lands it caretakes for potential inclusion as permanently protected wilderness. Of the 22 million acres of BLM administered lands in Utah, the agency originally classified just 2.6 million acres as potential wilderness areas (Wilderness Study Areas–WSA). Environmentalist;s legal appeals raised this to 3.2 million acres spread out in 82 WSAs across the state, from the redrock canyons of the Colorado Plateau to the isolated mountain ranges of the Great Basin such as the seldom visited Wah Wah mountains. The BLM has recommended a scant 1.9 million acres of this priceless heritage for wilderness protection.

In response Representative Wayne Owens (Dem, Utah) has introduced HR 1500—the Utah Wilderness Bill—a visionary bill that would protect 5.1 million acres of spectacular wildlands. Though this fall significantly short of the Earth First’s 16 million acre proposal, it would still protect whole ecosystems while imposing no significant hardships on the people who live in Utah. Introduced in the spring of 1989, HR 1500 has already garnered the co–sponsorship of 100 members of the House of Representatives. Through none of the other 4 members of the Utah delegation supports HR 1500, public opinion research done at Brigham Young University suggest that a majority of Utahns support additional Wilderness designation to a level roughly corresponding to Owen’s Bill.

The Dirty Devil River has been particularly hard hit by the BLM’s neanderthal–like recommendations. They recommend mutilation of the heart of this great wilderness by trisecting it into three separate areas totaling but 93,700 acres. Owens’ bill would fully protect 255,000 acres of this wilderness wonderland. Areas dropped by the BLM include the river itself between Sam’s Mesa Box and Poison Spring, Fiddler Butte, the Red Benches, and North and South Hatch Canyons.

Harvey Halpern

 tales  ‹›  new 

© 1990 Harvey Halpern
Originally written for Outside Magazine,
surviving 2 stages of review before an article
by David Roberts was selected instead.