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Of Willows and Water—Hiking from Main Moody Canyon to East Moody Canyon Along the Escalante River.

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

The hike from our Main Moody Canyon camp to East Moody Canyon—only a mile and a half in length—was made very difficult by dense thickets of willows and muddy river water. Was the trip worth the effort?

We set up camp near the Escalante River and considered our options. It was early afternoon and the days were long, so we decided to hike the 2 miles or so to East Moody. My last trip to East Moody Canyon was 6 or more years earlier. At that time, an obvious trail followed the east side of the river, winding its way through willows and up on the slopes of a Chinle formation covered with cheatgrass. I estimated it would take us less than an hour to reach our destination in East Moody about half a mile up canyon from the river—a very photogenic section of canyon walls.

Unfortunately, since my last trip, there had been a major flood of the Escalante River, provoking several rockfalls in this section of the river canyon. Just as importantly, many fewer cows were now permitted to browse in the canyon. Since cows tended to crash their way through thickets along the river, the trails they created were now nearly gone.

I studied the river terrace for a route. The floods and rockfalls of the past few years had provided soil for a new generation of willows—which now grew in a dense tangle.

A half dozen years before, I made camp in an open, grassy area of the terrace and found the beginning of the trail to East Moody. What I saw now was a dense growth of willows. The only way through the thickest of the growth was to try to crash through it, as the cows had. But with my much smaller mass, I bounced off as many branches as I broke, and the ones that did snap tore at clothes and occasionally lacerated skin.

This situation was not rare along the Escalante River—a short distance of thickets often yields to open spaces further from the river. You just have to have faith and push through. Here though, the river canyon was narrow, and the river terraces were thick with an unbroken wall of willows as far as I could see, from the water to the neighboring cliffs. This was going to be difficult, and noisy—maybe even bloody. I started looking for alternatives.

One option was to walk in the river. But I was eager to find the relatively easy path I remembered and thus avoid the muddy river with its potential for a camera-ruining fall. Another was to try to climb up the steep, yet willow-free, talus slope hugging the cliffs on the east side of the river and do a traverse. But things had changed here as well.

The soft Chinle formation was riddled with large holes . Fallen boulders from the cliffs littered the slopes. One moment you were climbing over a boulder, the next you were extracting your leg from a deep hole. My fears alternated between turning an ankle (or worse) in an invisible hole and being swept downslope by a large rock fall. It was nerve-wracking and exhausting.

A dense growth of nearly impenetrable willows carpeted the river terrace, forcing us to find a route either high on the steep, unstable talus slopes, or down into the river. In this photo, I was 50-60 feet above the river, where the Chinle talus slope meets the vertical Wingate cliffs. Huge slabs of rock are spalling off the sandstone walls to rest on the Chinle below. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

After perhaps a half mile of this struggle, the willows thinned and the going got easier. But when the river made a sharp turn towards East Moody Canyon, the flat river terrace we were walking on was pinched off, and the steep Chinle slope met the river. We were forced to make a decision—plunge into the river, or climb over the treacherous rocky outcropping.

I was influenced by my previous memories of nice path high on the slope. so I went up, trying to find it. That was mistake. The path was no longer there, the fallen rocks and boulders on the talus slope were barely at their angle of repose. A simple nudge caused them to slide down to the river.

We descended, sliding down the steep slope into the river, and then wading around a bend in the river.. River walking was far easier than expected and far less dangerous than scrambling on the talus slopes or crashing through the willows. We would not be going back the way we came.

After another 10 minutes, we found a dry wash intersecting with the river. Even though the entrance to the canyon was hidden by willows, the wash indicated the beginning of East Moody.

After finally making the turn into East Moody Canyon, the thickets of willows disappeared and were largely replaced by a new obstacle—huge, fallen boulders of Wingate sandstone. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

It may come as a surprise that the side canyons of the Escalante are not easily recognized from the river. By that, I don't mean that it is hard to know which canyon is now joining the river canyon, I mean that it is hard to tell that any canyon at all is joining the river. The dense growh along the river makes it a challenge to see into a side canyon. Often, the only clue that you have reached a side canyon is the presence of a relatively small wash joining the river.

That was the case here. The wash in East Moody Canyon follows its north wall and was about 10-15 feet wide where it joined the Escalante River. From the river itself, you could only see a small break in the willows lining the river. Once you recognized it for what it was, ducking into the tunnel between the willows led you quickly to an open wash and the beginning of a huge canyon that was largely invisible from the river.

The wash made several twists and turns as it headed up canyon. After a good break for water and a snack, we followed the sandy wash further. Our objective was a remarkable wall about 1/2 mile from the river. Named after a photographer friend of mine, Hyde's Wall is coated with desert varnish and, in the right conditions, turns a cobalt blue with the reflection of the cloudless sky.

I'll show a brief video of the trip to East Moody and to Hyde's Wall in the next post and I'll also include the photo or two I made there.

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