Eardley Canyon & Straight Wash
  • Location: San Rafael Reef, Utah
  • Maps: USGS 7.5í Quads Arsons Garden and Greasewood Draw
  • Access: From Hwy 24, approximately 13 miles south if I-70, turn west onto a dirt road. There are very few roads around here, so it should be obvious when you see this one. Head west and then north on this rough road for 3.5 miles to the parking area next to Straight Wash. 
  • Trailhead: UTM NAD83 z12 544382e 4293138n 4422í
  • Trail: Follow Straight Wash upstream to the west, then it bends around to the south, and in 2.8 miles youíre at Eardley Canyon, a big gash in the reef on the west side of Straight Wash. The lower end of Eardley scenic for several hundred feet before you reach an impassable pool and wall. Descending the canyon from above requires technical canyoneering skills. From the mouth of Eardley, we walked along the north rim of the canyon, up the inclined reef, for about a mile to check out the purported canyon entry. There is no marked route here, but there were a few cairns near the canyon entry point. There is a way to get down into the canyon, but it involves a steep scramble down 650í of loose tallus and boulders, a route that would be hellish to ascend, so you should plan on repelling on down the canyon if you do this. We chose not to. 
  • Fees: None
  • Dogs: No restrictions
  • Weather: National Weather Service Forecast

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September 29, 2012
In the weeks leading up to the trip out to Utah, I scanned the terrain on Google Earth, checking out interesting features of the landscape and looking for cool canyons to explore. A prominent east-west crack in the San Rafael Swell caught my eye, and after researching things a bit, I learned this was Eardley Canyon. Itís a technical canyon, but Michael Kelsey discusses in his guide book a spot up the north rim of the canyon a ways where one can drop down into the canyon, bypassing the technical drops and enjoy the canyon upstream for quite a ways. So, that was the plan.

Griff and I pulled into the tiny sand lot around 8 AM on a typically perfect autumn day in Utah: blue sky, no wind, temperature hovering around 65 degrees. We shoved the cooler under the tailgate for shade, stuffed snacks and water bottles into our packs, and began trekking up the dry wash where 3 tents had been pitched. Brave. I know itís the dry season, but those clumps of twigs and grass wrapped around the cottonwood trunks 5 feet up show you just where and how wild the water can come charging down through here. But I confess thereís been no sign of rain the three days weíve been in the area, and this day also looks to be clear and dry. 

The walk upstream was pleasant as we immediately entered a wide canyon with very high cliffs on either side, the 800-foot southern cliff acting like a giant sun awning for much of the way. Cottonwoods and boxelder trees grew thickly on either side of the wash, and here and there puddles of water sported tiny frogs in the cool shaded air. This stretch took us through the initial uplift of the San Rafael Reef, and in a short time we came out on the west side where the dry wash curved sharply, as if we were hiking up the stem and crosier of a question mark. Boulders littered the wash, and we picked our way carefully upstream. Gone was the shade of the cliff face, as the terrain dropped away to a wider, shallower canyon with fewer trees. Curling around the top of the question mark, we re-entered a deep canyon that was all rock with very little vegetation, but the angle put us right in line with the sun to the southeast, and it was hot. Several large pools of water, greatly evaporated, lined the channel, but mostly it was dry. We slogged on into a fairly straight north-south channel, following Straight Wash behind the reef, and heading south towards the purported entrance to Eardley Canyon. I noted lots of footprints in the sand, but so far we hadnít seen anybody. 

Given the early hour, we were again treated to long stretches of shade as the eastern angle of the sun put it just behind the towering apex of the reef to the east. When we reached Eardley Canyon, there was no mistaking it. It was every bit as deep a cut in the rock as it had looked from the satellite images. A series of large, muddy-brown pools guarded the entrance, but these were easily bypassed, and we walked up over slanted, jumbled boulders into the mouth of the canyon. Completely devoid of plant life, the canyon was all rock, most of it vertical. No quaint slot canyon, this one is huge and forbidding. We hadnít gone more than a hundred meters when we encountered a large pool of the similar opaque, muddy water that could not be bypassed. It was ringed by smooth rock and a 25-foot wall of rock on the upstream end, worn completely smooth by the passage of water and virtually unclimbable. End of the road for us. We admired the bleak beauty of this simple grotto, then headed back down the canyon to Straight Wash. 

We sat in the shade and tanked up on water. The canyon is a deep slice in a sheet of rock that descends at a sharp angle towards straight Wash. From the wash, there is no canyon wall at all to the west, and we simply found a spot near the mouth of Eardley Canyon and walked up. The hike up the slope was fairly easy, with no major obstacles. Often we could get right on the edge of Eardley Canyon and look down into its depths, at one point admiring the uppermost pool we had visited from a height of several hundred feet. The canyon quickly increased in depth, and soon we were 700 feet above the channel, high up on the dry rim with only gnarled junipers and cactus for company. Some canyons are wet and lush oases in the desert, but not Eardley. The higher we got, the more we could see up stream of it, and it was mostly barren, with a scattering of junipers and sagebrush in the narrow band of soil near the bottom. Mostly what we noted were the nearly-vertical walls of red rock, all broken and crumbled at sharp angles, very unlike the smooth undulating canyon walls of the Navajo and Wingate sandstone further south. Voices rose up from below; unintelligible mutterings so distorted by diffraction within the narrow canyon walls it was impossible to tell even how many humans were in the group. Maybe only one guy, muttering to himself. We watched from above, but could see nobody. 

The sun was beating down on us, and even at this late date in September, it was hot. We found a rock overhang and took shelter from the sun for awhile. I checked my phone and indeed, the elevation and clear view of the horizon gave me great cell service, so I called and talked to Andra for the first time in 4 days. Allís well at home. After a bit of water and snacks, we returned to the uphill climb.  We passed a few cairns, then reached a point where the rock ended at a cliff and we backtracked a bit to a jumbled pile of boulders at the base of another cliff where cairns showed a route leading over. We followed, and before long we reached at another cliff, having followed cairns to the edge. We looked down the steep slope of loose boulders, 700 feet or so down to the dry wash in Eardley Canyon. It certainly looked possible to engage in a controlled slide down the tallus to the dry wash below, but looking up-canyon at the dry, sun-baked wash, I couldnít imagine myself wanting to spend any time down there. Then thereís the issue of the pools down canyon, and the requirement of hiking back up this dusty, loose-rock trail. 
 ďIím not going down thereĒ, I said. 
 ďIím glad to hear you say that because thereís no way I was going down there,Ē Griff dryly observed. 
Iím not sure if this is the bypass route  Michael Kelsey is talking about in his book, or if thereís a better one via a mapped side-canyon up the way, but we decided weíd seen enough of lower Eardley and felt little need to soldier on up the rim to check out possible descents further on. Instead, we turned tail to hike back down. Near the bottom, with Straight Wash in sight, we stopped in the shade of a massive boulder and enjoyed the cool rock and quiet times. I shucked off my boots and socks and tore in to various bags of nuts, chocolate, dried fruit. I was voraciously hungry. After eating, we both sat for quite awhile enjoying the scenery of Straight Wash below, and the ocean of burnt rock stretching off north, all tilted and jangled with a million pockets in the rock, tiny ravines, cracks and hidden hollows beneath boulders much like the one we sat in for lunch, that have surely never felt the foot of man. 
 From our perch high above, we could clearly see a trail worn through the grassy bench that shortcut around the question mark bend of Straight Wash, with only a minor gain in elevation. It looked to save quite a few steps, so when we finally did get back down into Straight Wash, we watched the east bank of the channel and took the narrow patch up and over the thin ridge, and indeed we did cut off some distance. We plodded down the last stretch of the canyon, entering again the hall of cottonwoods and boxelders and their welcome shade. When we returned to the truck, all the other cars and tents were just as they had been. We never did see the owners of the voices in the canyon. We pushed the cooler back into the truckbed, then drove off down the road to find a restful camp for the night. 

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Starting out in Straight Wash

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Very dry and hot stretch around a bend in Straight Wash

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
The mouth of Eardley Canyon

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Lower Eardley Canyon

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
The pool and impassable wall in lower Eardley Canyon

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
As far as you can walk up Eardley

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Eardley from above: The first impassable pool

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Hiking up the reef

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
This is the descent into Eardley, marked by a few cairns. 
You might be able to make it down, 
but you'd be hating life on your way back up.

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah
The shortcut in Straight Wash on our way back

Straight Wash and Eardley Canyon, Utah


 


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