Hiking West Canyon above Lake Powell
The bottom of the canyon is covered with deep, smooth sand, so clean and inviting that I took my shoes off and walked barefoot for the first mile of the hike — from the lake up-canyon into the first section of narrows. It's pleasant, easy hiking in that area, wading ankle-deep up the little stream and scurrying over sand bars, between sheer, caramel-colored canyon walls and past gardens of wild plants and shrubs.
It feels good as the wet sand squishes between your toes. It's fun splashing barefoot into the stream. I seriously recommend — for the first time ever — that you pull off your shoes and carry them when you hike the lower part of the canyon. It just feels so good. And besides, that makes it far easier to pull your feet out of the quicksand.
Quicksand? Yes! Sand that is saturated with water so it allows your foot to penetrate easily, then holds on with a vacuum grip as you try to pull free. Struggle and you often sink deeper and become more tightly stuck.
The sand in the bottom of the canyon is a dynamic, almost living thing that changes from day to day. I recently camped near the mouth of the canyon and hiked the bottom section that evening with no problem. I returned the next morning and sank up to my thighs in several spots. The difference? Heavy rain during the night pushed a flood down the canyon, saturating the sand bars. When the sand dries it provides firm footing. But when it is saturated it is treacherous.
If you step onto a sand bar and the sand begins to jiggle you know you are in trouble. Most of the time you will sink up to your ankles — or perhaps your knees — and you will be able to pull free with just a little exertion. Now and then you'll sink deeper and you'll have to struggle a minute. On one trip two foolish boys in my party teased the sand — seeing how deep it would suck them — and became dangerously trapped. We dug and pulled and pried for about 40 minutes before getting them out.
Blocky boots or shoes provide resistance and make it more difficult to pull free from the sand. With naked feet you can point your toes and — usually — pull free with little effort.
So, kick off your shoes and let the sand tickle your toes. It really does feel good &
Up the Waterfall
West is one of my all-time favorite canyons — and it takes more than a pleasant hike over scenic quicksand to earn that distinction. It's the waterfalls that make West a thrilling hike that challenges the best canyon hikers.
In many sections West is a tight slot with high, sheer walls, choke-stones and pools so deep you have to swim. But those features are common to many fun slots on the Colorado Plateau. It's the running water — the stream in the bottom of the canyon — that makes this one unique.
Imagine wading into a pool that extends into a dark crack in the earth's crust. You tentatively push forward, feeling your way through the deep water. Suddenly the bottom gives way and you find you have to swim. You continue forward, following the contorted twists and turns of the narrow canyon. You brush the walls as you swim, and bump your knees on submerged rocks, but never touch bottom.
After swimming 50 yards you round a corner and discover a seven-foot waterfall blocks your way. You swim directly into the torrent, the clear, cold water hitting you in the face as you search of a handhold above or a foothold below. Finally, you find footing and a way to pull yourself up — right up the face of the waterfall, which completely fills the narrow slot.
West Canyon offers 15 miles of pure adventure. It's a very tight slot in places, with swimming holes and waterfalls that vary in difficult from day to day — most of the variation coming from the changing water level in the small stream. If the canyon did not have the stream and deep pools it would be similar to the hike in Little Wildhorse Canyon, only a bit more difficult. With the water hazards it becomes a challenging playground for the adventurous.
Chart your Torment
Still, you don't have to be an iron man to enjoy West Canyon. You go in from the bottom and return the way you came, so you can hike as far as you feel comfortable and then just back out. The first-mile-and-a-half is relatively easy and not particularly dangerous — if you don't mind a little quicksand and you're not afraid to swim into a dark hole. If you like to hike/wade/swim you can enjoy the lower section of this canyon and just turn back when you come to that first big waterfall.
However, the canyon literally pulls you forward — its siren song is hard to resist. It can get you into real trouble if you try to push beyond your skill level. Remember, you've got to come down every waterfall you scramble up!
A few words of warning & Only strong hikers should venture beyond the first waterfall. Physical size (height) and strength are important on this hike. Older teens who are experienced hikers should do fine; it is definitely not a good choice for Boy Scouts.
It's all but impossible — and very foolish — to hike this canyon alone. The optimum group size is three. Even strong adults will need to help each other get up and over some waterfalls. Bring a rope to hoist up packs — and people.
Everything that is not in a water-tight bag will get soaked. It's possible, but difficult, to get full backpacks up the canyon. You'll need a small tube to float them over long swimming holes.
There are sections where the canyon opens up and it is possible to camp. It's also possible to connect to old trails that will take you to the top of Cummings Mesa, or down into Navajo Canyon.
Flash floods are a serious danger here. Watch the weather and never hike the canyon when there is the possibility of thunderstorms anywhere in the drainage.
This is a warm-weather hike. It is pleasant in the canyon from May through late October.
The mouth of West Canyon is 26 miles up-lake from Glen Canyon Dam. The easiest access is by boat from Wahweap, but it is possible to boat down from Bullfrog.
The part of West Canyon inundated by the lake is very scenic — it's a great boating destination in and of itself. It's alternately wide and narrow, with many coves and sculpted slickrock walls. As you boat into West Canyon you will think you see its end, then the walls open up and you find you can go farther and farther and farther. There are submerged rocky hazards near the mouth of the canyon so boat carefully.
The lake level will determine how far back into the canyon you can boat. Sometimes you will be able to tie up along shore and begin hiking directly up the stream. Other times shallow water will force you to tie up a short distance down-canyon and then jump into the lake water to begin the hike.
Hiking through the shallow lake water seems a bit strange at first, but it's not a big deal because you're going to get soaked anyway. The major challenge comes from the muddy lake bottom. You'll sink a few inches into slimy mud, but the water shouldn't be more than waist-deep.
When I hiked the canyon the day after it flooded there was considerable debris in the water at the lake's end. There was also a scummy foam on the surface and the lake water stank. It was a challenge jumping into it.
But then I started hiking, letting the wet sand push up between my toes. I could hear the roar of the flood-swollen stream as it rushed out of the slot and I could just imagine the chocolate-colored flood water slapping down onto my face as I tried to climb that first waterfall. I never could resist a siren song.