Pre-GPS, getting lost in the wilderness was a real concern. Better for me to stay in the canyons than to venture cross-country—at least until I was more competent, or had a handheld GPS.
Escalante canyon hiking 101—follow the canyon in, turn around, follow the canyon out. Photo: Willow Canyon at its junction with 40 Mile Canyon. © Donald J. Rommes
Follow the canyon in, follow it back out.
I first started exploring the Escalante Canyons in the mid-1980s. Mostly, I stuck to day hikes in a single canyon. There were so many to explore, I never got bored of simply following a canyon in and retracing my steps on the way out. Besides, it was hard to get lost that way—as long as you paid careful attention to the turns you took. Cairns could be a help when there were a lot of turns, but only if you were the one who placed them.
“Very experienced canyon 1hikers were always looking for a way up and out—sometimes to escape a flash flood, but mostly looking for routes onto the benches where they could access other canyons without backtracking.”
Experienced hikers were always looking for a route out.
After a couple years of day hiking in single canyons, I began to notice that very experienced hikers were always looking for a way up and out—sometimes to escape a flash flood, but mostly looking for routes onto the benches where they could access other canyons without backtracking.
Before long, it was part of my routine to search for possible routes out of any canyon I was in. I began to notice faint horse trails and footpaths I missed before. Sometimes, my suspicions about a possible route were confirmed by the presence of “moki steps”—a line of worn toeholds carved into a steep rock slope by ancient people. It was comforting to know they thought the route was good too.
Over the river, under the arch, through the woods. Unless you followed the canyon, the only way out would be to find a route up the canyon wall and across the benches. Photo: Coyote Arch, Coyote Canyon. © Donald J. Rommes
The sameness of the benches.
Once on the benches, route finding was difficult—it was all sagebrush and rabbitbrush, rice grass and sand, hills and gullies. Landmarks on the horizon became the key to navigation. And a topo map. And a compass. Fortunately, prominent landmarks occupied the cardinal points—Boulder Mountain to the north, the Henry Mountains to the east, Navajo Mountain to the south, and the Straight Cliffs to the west.
The evolving temptation to venture cross-country.
With experience, I was more and more tempted to venture cross country, from canyon to canyon. Still, I hesitated. I was too concerned about getting lost. Whenever I did gain enough confidence, I knew where I wanted to go—a loop hike. If I parked my car between the Willow and 40 Mile washes, a cross country hike through sagebrush would take me to 40 Mile where it becomes a serious canyon. I would drop into 40 Mile, hike down to the junction with Willow, and walk out that canyon. Another cross-country trek would take me back to the car.
Yet, I didn’t go. Not yet. I stuck with my tried and true method of staying in the canyons—at least for a while longer. But something promising was on the horizon—the hand-held GPS.