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Side Trip: From Moody Canyon Trailhead to the Purple Hills

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

The Purple Hills were simply an intriguing name on a map before a recent trip to the Moodys. The name suggested a colorful landscape that would make for interesting photography. But were they worth the day trip from camp?

A couple of years ago, I invited an outfitter friend to meet me at the Main Moody trailhead and hike with me down to the river. We both wanted to see if a rumored recent rockfall well down-canyon made it impassable to pack animals. We were to meet at the informal campsite at the head of Main Moody Canyon—a simple flat spot just off the rarely-traveled dirt road.

After navigating several miles of road in the serpentine and sandy upper Moody Canyon, skirting huge Wingate boulders along the way, it eventually exits the wash. Turning left, the dirt track climbs a steep hill before continuing on towards its terminus at the head of Middle Moody. Halfway up that hill, there is a flat area of dirt and gravel—about 1/8 acre in size—that overlooks the canyon as it heads to the Escalante River. That was the campsite I had in mind.

Wingate cliffs and Chinle formation to the north, as seen from camp. Strong winds quickly carried the stratocumulus clouds across the sky. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

From the campsite, there is a good view both down canyon and back up the wash. The campsite is surrounded by a landscape of easily eroded mudstones and clays that have been molded into steep rounded hills and etched by narrow gullies. Small dry bushes dot the monotonous brown landscape. Dusty and dry most of the time, the ground quickly turns into a sticky gumbo with heavy rains.

From camp and looking west at sunset, the line of Wingate Cliffs leads to the Escalante River. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

I set up my base camp. My friend wasn't due to arrive until the next evening. Our plan was to backpack down to the river the following morning. I had a day to explore the area around me.

It was silent except for the wind. No birdsong, no animal noises. no planes or cars, No one came down the road. In fact, no one came down the road for the several days I was there.. In the 60 miles between the town of Boulder and my campsite, there were probably only a handful of people. I would have to take extra care to not lose my car key.

After a dinner of re-constituted dehydrated food, I thought about where to go the following day, The night was warm, but windy. I studied the topo map for ideas under the light of my headlamp and with my back leaning against the car—which protected me from the stronger wind gusts. Out of curiosity, I looked for the end of the road on the map. wondering if it warranted a quick look. That's when I noticed the Purple Hills.

The wind died down after sunset. The next week was predicted to be sunny with no rain. After a good sleep, the morning broke sunny and cool. I wasn't quite mentally ready for a long hike the day before a backpacking trip. Maybe a day of exploring the mysterious Purple Hills would be fun.

It was a fairly short drive on hard rock to the hills. A 2WD car with good clearance could have made the trip, so my 4WD car had no problem. After a few miles of driving, I came to a junction. I consulted the Topo map. The road to the right led to the wash that became Middle Moody Canyon. It possibly continued even further to a tributary of East Moody. I'd explore that someday.

I turned left, uphill, towards the Purple Hills.

In this Google Earth screen shot, camp is marked by the yellow pin in the upper left, at the end of the road indicated by the yellow line. Main Moody Canyon starts there. The Purple Hills are directly to the right (east) and mark a high point near the two yellow pins, Directly below (south) those two pins is a pin marking the probable end of the road at Middle Moody, the large canyon heading left (west). The last pin on the far right is in a tributary to East Moody Canyon, On top maps, the road appears to end here, but on Google Earth, the road cannot be discerned past Middle Moody. I'll have to check that out someday.

The dirt road quickly became rougher and more deeply rutted. It led upwards through the colorful Chinle formation that formed the Purple Hills and continued beyond. I followed the road further because I thought it might lead to an overlook of the Waterpocket Fold. When it became clear at a dead end that it did not, I returned to the vicinity of the Purple Hills and parked.

Video of portions of the drive to Main Moody, the campsite location, and the short drive to the Purple Hills. Video by Donald J. Rommes

A thin layer of soil barely covered the broken flat rocks that made up the landscape. There was hardly any vegetation.. I crossed the shallow, twenty-yard-wide wash that would become Middle Moody Canyon and pressed ahead to the colorful Chinle Hills in front of me.

Leaving the faint dirt road and walking cross-country, a wash leads to the gully (one of many) that snakes through the Purple Hills. This photograph was made from the slope of a hill. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

A gully led me into a maze of rounded purple hills. The surface was like dry, crunchy popcorn. Each footstep crushed the coarse surface into finer grains, leaving foot prints on heavily textured soft rock like the astronauts on the moon.

I walked up to the top of one hill and part way down the other side. It was from that vantage point that I made several photos—the first I had ever seen of the Purple Hills.

From my vantage point, and remembering the Google Earth image, I realized this was a broad, circular remnant of the Chinle formation of which I was exploring only a part. The hills looked similar elsewhere. Circumnavigating the Purple Hills would probably reveal other interesting patterns to photograph, but the colors, rock, and hills would be more or less the same.

A wider panorama of the Purple Hills. This rounded area of Chinle formation rises like an extinct volcano from the brown landscape of older Moenkopi—as seen on the Google Earth screenshot above. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

After a few hours photographing and exploring the hills, I had some lunch and slowly returned to camp to await my friend.

An adjacent section of the Purple Hills showing a few scrubby green bushes clinging to the Chinle slopes. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.


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