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Cross-Country to 40 Mile Canyon. My First Use of a Handheld GPS.

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Getting way lost in Cedar Mesa motivated me to get a handheld GPS to avoid the same fate on my first cross-country backpacking excursion in Grand Staircase-Escalante. I found my way, but lost my tripod and my tent.


Elegant Falls, beginning of the narrows in 40 Mile Canyon. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.


My first GPS


My first handheld GPS unit was an Eagle Explorer by Lowrance, purchased in 1996. Due to deliberate errors (now removed) introduced into the GPS system by the U.S military, it was not as accurate as today’s GPS units. Still, I could regularly get within 50 yards of my intended destination on a topo map—as long as I set the unit to the same datum used on the map.


Being new at GPS navigation, I stopped every half mile or so to create a “waypoint” which I thought of as a kind of electronic breadcrumb. If I dropped enough of these breadcrumbs, I could plot my course on the topo map or, if need be, use the GPS to navigate waypoint to waypoint back to where I started."

After practicing with it at home for a few weeks, I felt comfortable enough to try the cross-country trip I had been thinking about for a few years. I drove 40 miles down the wash-boarded Hole-in-the-Rock road to the Sooner Rocks and set up camp.

The weather report called for windy conditions, so I made sure my tent was secured. I put large rocks on the tent stakes and even put a couple more inside the tent for good measure. After a reasonably comfortable night, I finished my morning coffee and oatmeal, and started out across the sagebrush-dotted bench towards 40 Mile Canyon.

Early portion of the miles-long narrows of 40 Mile Canyon.

Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.


As usual, I carried a moderately heavy backpack containing my large format camera, lunch, snacks, water and a water filter, as well as extra clothing and my new survival kit. I also carried a compass, a topo map, and my new GPS unit. My expensive new tripod was not attached to my backpack, but was carried by hand, as was my custom.

I was aiming for a point on the topo map where it appeared that 40 Mile Canyon transitioned from a broad, dry, and unattractive wash into the deep and narrow canyon i wanted to explore. The Straight Cliffs were a major landmark at my back, but on the undulating sandy bench, I could not see where 40 Mile Canyon was. This was going to be a good test of the GPS.

Being new at GPS navigation, I stopped every half mile or so to create a “waypoint” which I thought of as a kind of electronic breadcrumb. If I dropped enough of these breadcrumbs, I could plot my course on the topo map or, if need be, use the GPS to navigate waypoint to waypoint back to where I started.

After a few miles of this, I found myself on the edge of 40 Mile Canyon, just where it deepened and became interesting. It felt like a modern miracle! With no landmarks to guide me, this little GPS device took me exactly where I wanted to go. I was now free to roam across the immense landscape of the Escalante canyons, knowing I could always find my way back.

I paused to enter another waypoint to mark the spot, then pulled on my backpack, and ran through a mental checklist before dropping in. OK, nothing left on the ground. Water? Check. Compass? Check. Map? Check. Tripod? Tripod?

Oh no, no tripod!


Water-filled narrows of 40 Mile Canyon. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.

The tripod was nowhere in sight. I must have left it at one of the places I sat to mark waypoints, but which waypoint?

Picking up the GPS, I tried to remember how to navigate to waypoints. Eventually, I came up with: FIND->WAYPOINTS. That gave me a list of waypoints. I selected the last one marked and pushed GO TO. The screen changed to show me a compass with an arrow pointing in the direction of the selected waypoint and informed me that it was a mile away.

Thinking I was out $800 if I couldn’t find my tripod, I carefully followed the direction indicated by the GPS. Holding the unit level, I kept the arrow pointing directly in front of me and kept walking. I could see the distance to the waypoint decreasing—0.7 miles, 0.5 miles, 0.2 miles, 500 feet—and when the GPS indicated I was 100 feet from the waypoint, I saw the tripod, standing where I had left it.

Another miracle! Now, I was completely sold on the GPS.


40 Mile Canyon from atop a high, dry bench. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes,

I returned to the drop-in to 40 Mile Canyon and finished my hike. 40 Mile was very narrow with high pastel walls gorgeous enough to distract me from the challenge of negotiating its water-filled twists and turns. Upon reaching the junction with Willow, I turned right and walked out that equally lovely canyon, eventually gaining the sagebrush bench I would need to traverse to return to camp.

Having been sheltered deep in the canyons, I was unaware of the building westerly winds that were now steady, biting, and strong. As I trudged across the bench, my jacket flapped in the stiff breeze and I actually wondered if my tent—despite my precautions—would still be standing. When I arrived at the campsite, my tent—with my extra clothes, sleeping bag, mattress, and lantern—was indeed gone.



Willow and 40 Mile junction. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.








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