Hiking with a GPS Unit - Lost in Devils Canyon

A recent experience hiking in Devils Canyon, in the San Rafael Swell, reinforced in my mind the advantages of using a GPS navigation unit when hiking.

I was hiking with a Boy Scout troop, intending to wear the kids out by hiking them up the canyon and then humble them with a challenging rock-climb up the steep-sided, slickrock, San Rafael Knob.

It was a great plan which would have provided a wonderful introduction to the Swell — a scenic canyon with a good narrows section plus dryfalls and other obstacles with about the right degree of challenge for a group of rowdy kids who think they are pretty tough.

The knob itself can be climbed easily from the back side, where sandstone slabs provide stair-steps to the summit. But the fun comes trying to free climb up from the front, where smooth sandstone arches up at a steep angle and handholds are rare finds.

Kids love the kind of challenge the Knob poses. They race halfway up, then start to slip and scramble to find a bump or a crack where they can grab hold. Some freeze halfway to the top, unable to go up and too scared to go back down.

It's important to have a good climbing rope secured at the top and a leader ready to drop it down to a kid who gets into trouble. It's also essential that leaders be prepared to rescue kids who freeze halfway up.

The hike begins where the Copper Globe Road crosses Devils Canyon, just below Justensen Flats, off of I-70. The canyon forks at that point, and the road follows the right-hand fork, which looks like it's the main canyon. But it's not. The main canyon heads left, and that's the direction you should take if you want to hike up canyon to the Knob.

But I took the right fork and led the group astray. I had hiked the canyon a couple years ago and thought I remembered the way. "We'll get into some good narrows just around the next bend," I kept saying. "We're almost to a dryfall where we'll have to backtrack and find a way up the canyon wall." But the narrows and the dryfall never materialized.

We had 7.5 minute topographical maps with us and we studied them, trying to figure out where we were. The canyon twists and turns. Side canyons come in. There are rock towers and domes everywhere. I couldn't tell just where we were in the canyon.

My GPS unit did not work in the narrow canyon. It needs to be able to "see" three or more satellites located in different parts of the sky, and that was impossible in the deep, narrow canyon. So we climbed out of the canyon to get a position fix.

"No, that's impossible," I said when I compared the GPS coordinates with my topo map. I started to wonder which was wrong, the map or the GPS. But I was wrong... again.

Devil's Canyon runs almost exactly east and west, paralleling I-70. Since I was sure I was in Devil's, I didn't worry about the north-south coordinate, I just looked at the east-west number and traced along the canyon to that position. Those calculations indicated we had hiked only about one mile, and I knew that couldn't be right. We studied the land formations again but nothing looked right. I was confused.

We hiked to the top of a rise — the highest point close by — and took another GPS reading. Again I followed Devil's Canyon east to the GPS number, and didn't even consider the north-south coordinate. Again the map indicated we had hiked only about a mile.

Then I decided to "test" the accuracy of the GPS by looking at the north-south coordinate and see how close it put us to the canyon's rim. So I followed the grid on the map down and down and down some more. I was amazed. I drew an X on the map where the GPS said we were standing. The ridge we were on narrowed to a point, with a flat below and a canyon cutting to the north and east. In amazement I noticed the map showed those features around my X. We studied the land formations and decided my X marked our exact position. I couldn't have marked it more accurately.

That's when we realized I had led us down the wrong canyon. Instead of going east, we had hiked in a southeastern direction. That explained everything. The GPS proved to be incredibly accurate and useful. The topo maps proved to be accurate and essential when hiking. And I was humbled.

The Devil's Canyon/San Rafael Knob area is extremely scenic, rugged and beautiful. I recommend it, but bring good maps. Take a GPS if one is available. Make sure your truck is in good shape because the road into the canyon is rugged.

Also consider reading a guide book. I recommend Canyoneering The San Rafael Swell (Published by the University of Utah Press). That's the book which got me started in this area. Had I re-read the chapter on Devil's Canyon I would have led the troop to the Knob without incident. Oh, well.