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Backpacking in Grand Gulch

A few years ago I lead a backpacking excursion through Grand Gulch a few days before Easter. Carrying tents and sleeping bags and foodstuffs on our backs, we hiked seven and a half miles the first day, forgetting – with each mile – the cares of the world. Focusing, with no agenda, solely on enjoying the canyon. I've hiked many wonderful red-rock canyons but I've never felt so completely captivated by a place as I did on this trip. It was outstanding.

"There's a ruin that's not on the map; I think I'll go explore … I'm hungry; guess we'd better stop for lunch. The sun is setting, better find a campsite." It was a wonderful outing.

I didn't realize how completely I had put off the cares of modern life until I reached the trailhead – the highway – and was confronted by 65-mile-per-hour traffic and cell phones. I felt a cultural shock, for a moment, as I mentally shifted gears, then threw my pack into the back of the car and headed for the city. I relived the hike in my mind as I drove home, thinking – with each mile – that I should have stayed for three weeks, not just three days.

A friend had persuaded me to take his Varsity Scout troop into the Gulch. I had misgivings initially. Boys (even good boys) are often noisy, crude and obnoxious — some of the realities of modern life that I try to escape by fleeing to the canyons. I didn't want to impose a gang of teenagers on people seeking solace in the Gulch. And I wasn't at all confident the teens would appreciate the canyon and respect the ruins.

I was pleasantly surprised. After a rowdy night camped near the trailhead, the kids settled down and enjoyed the trip. Actually, they were too tired to get into much trouble. After supper one evening a kid squealed and a leader immediately hushed him. But before I could launch into a lecture on the need for quietude, I noticed it was only 7:30 p.m. Everyone in camp was asleep by 8:30.

I saw only one bit of litter during the entire 23-mile hike. That was a candy wrapper I picked up and carried with me. I'm pleased to report we left the canyon in pristine conditions. We watched carefully and the kids just didn't drop garbage... much. When one slipped, a reminder from a leader quickly solved the problem.

The kids were fascinated by the ruins and showed great respect.

The Scouts were all experienced backpackers but this was the toughest hike they had ever undertaken. Normally 23 miles in three days wouldn't be a great challenge but Grand Gulch is rough country – up and down and scrambling over rocks and up dry falls and across the stream dozens of times. It was grueling. The kids met the challenge well; it was the adult leaders who sometimes dragged behind.

I experienced a remarkable rush as we climbed out of that canyon. It was a great thrill to have completed the tough hike through such remarkable country. But the greatest sense of accomplishment came knowing I had helped the kids complete such a spectacular hike. It was the kind of trip they will talk about for years.

The most popular backpack trip here is a loop from Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon – 23 miles. You can hike further to other exit points, or all the way to the San Juan River – almost 52 miles below the Kane Gulch trailhead.

I chose to hike the loop backwards, from Bullet Canyon to Kane Gulch, so we could talk to as many other groups as possible. Traveling against the popular flow gave us the chance to talk to a dozen different groups. It was interesting to see how long they planned to be in the Gulch and where they were from.

Most groups were taking 4-5 days to do the Kane to Bullet loop. Our 3-day schedule was too tight. We camped at the trailhead and hiked 7 miles the first day and 10 the second. We hiked 6 miles then drove home the third day. Physically, we were able to do it, but the trip would have been more enjoyable had we spent another day in the canyon. Several times we saw places we would have liked to explore, but didn't feel we had the time.

Of the 12 parties I talked to, only two included people from Utah. I talked to people from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and California. Grand Gulch is a world-class hiking destination. It is strange more Utahns don't appreciate its wonders.