Eardley Canyon

Eardley Canyon narrows

The Colorado Plateau is home to the highest concentration of slot canyons in the world. The majority of these canyons are in Utah, but Arizona has a fair share as well. Narrows such as these in Eardley Canyon are strikingly beautiful, but they can be extremely dangerous in adverse conditions or for the ill-prepared.

Cliff Dweller Flat is an oddly perfect place to park your vehicle before setting off in search of Eardley Canyon. Old USGS topographical maps label it with an aircraft landing strip. Erosion and grassy lumps have erased anything that once might have resembled a runway. If it ever existed, the only remaining sign is a remarkably straight stretch of dirt road. But we didn’t come here seeking air travel.

The Flat lies roughly 30 miles west of Green River at the end of a short, but entertaining, dirt road. One portion of the road would have been a real bugger with wet weather. You know you’ve reached the right place when the road abruptly ends. If you do go farther, you won’t be leaving with your vehicle.

I’m always rushed before a trip, so I take the typical harassment from my hiking companions as I tie up my pack and switch from flip-flops to hiking shoes. A moderately overcast day with a good wind whipping over the flat makes me change from desert camo shorts to full-length khakis in a hurry. We throw on our packs, mark the two trucks with a GPS waypoint, and head out just past noon.

The edge of the flat overlooks a sweeping basin containing herds of shrub pine fenced in by sloping mesas. After a quick drop of about 200 feet, we’re fenced in too. We don’t know exactly how to get into Eardley, but we’re feeling intrepid and desperately in need of exploration.

Potholes in Hyde Draw

Water from a recent storm collects in potholes along the bottom of Hyde Draw, in the San Rafael Swell.

The shallow washes guide us into Hyde Draw. The geology here is unlike any I’ve seen. Slabs of light orange stone accented by bright patches of rust form the sides of the wash. We stop to absorb the view of some olive-toned water resting peacefully in a descending chain of pools. After some good old-fashioned film photography we realize this is not the way. Hyde Draw drops an abrupt 200 feet to the canyon floor. We scramble to the next highest point only to realize we are in the midst of a maze of draws diving into the heart of the canyon.

After a little reconnaissance we’re backtracking over the next few ridges until we find suitable descent into a feeder canyon. The maps label this one “Straight Wash”. It looks like our best chance. It’s interesting to note there is no clear distinction between Eardley Canyon and Straight Wash. In fact, Straight Wash is labeled as the beginning and the end of Eardley Canyon. Maybe Mr. Eardley just couldn’t handle calling this a wash and stole the opportunity for an eponym. After all, who doesn’t want a canyon named after himself?

It’s a steep scramble. I inadvertently leave a chunk of skin and some blood on a rock. At least it may help me find my way out. On the way down, we distinctly hear children’s laughter, but we see no one all day.

At the canyon bottom there is homogenous, dry sand: it’s the kind that makes you kneel and pass handfuls through open fingers. But there’s no time to waste as it’s late in the day.

Heading down farther, we’re met by budding trees that grow sideways down the canyon. They look like they have been persuaded to grow this way by water. Flash floods must course through here, since detritus marks high-water levels well above our heads. Right from the start, we can tell this canyon is worth at least a few hours’ time.

Paul breaks ahead since he’s been training lately and leaves Tyson and me eating his dust. I call ahead for him. His response tricks my hearing as it bounces off the narrowing canyon walls behind me. Can he be behind me? I mentally correct the error and see him sit down with a congregation of tumble weeds under a tree. When we catch up, I lean over the sideways tree trunk and see Paul unknowingly sitting with his back to a full-size ram. Half the ram’s torso is eaten away by some monstrous predator. Its broken ribs jut into the air. “Whoa, check it out!” We entertain the vision of a stealthy mountain lion lining up to pounce, then falling from above on the bighorn sheep. It would have been a quick kill in this narrow canyon.

The canyon walls rise and darken. Near the bottom where we walk they are almost black. These are the narrows. Running a hand on the cool stone wall pummeled smooth by churning water and rock evokes a feeling of sanctity. This is why we came here. This is what I need so I can return to the city and see what the asphalt and cement are trying to imitate.

We meander down further between the towering walls of Coconino sandstone stained with manganese and iron oxides. We catch drops of water falling hundreds of feet from patches of moss on the rock face. Everywhere are lines–lines in rocks, lines on rocks, lines between rocks. They remind me of the rings in the cross section of an old tree that has been hewn. Like the tree, these also mark passing centuries in this canyon. My flesh and bone are soft and temporary; I will leave no record here, nor do I want to. This canyon has been remarkably preserved from the vandalism and trash that better-known places acquire.

Pocked sandstone layers in Eardley Canyon

Eardley Canyon is one of the few canyons in Utah that cuts through Coconino Sandstone—a layer also found near the rim of the Grand Canyon. Both the upper and lower sections of the canyon are accessible as dayhikes, but traversing the entire canyon requires technical canyoneering.

We’ve made it halfway through the narrows and the sun is sinking low in the sky, so we double our speed back. Paul pulls ahead, again, but this time I shout out a comment about mountain lions lying in wait. He slows just a bit. We pass the lines, pass the narrows, pass the ram, pass my blood, pass the pines, and ascend the flat just in time. Dark storm clouds have masked the sky and a light rain spatters on us and the desert floor.

As we approach Cliff Dweller Flat, the purest, deepest thunder I have ever heard crackles out of the depths of the canyons and resonates in my bones. We stop moving, in unison like animals, and turn around to look back into the fading light—not out of fear, but in palpable awe. Paul is nearest and I can tell he is smiling. I am too. And, as we prepare to leave, the storm behind us prepares to wash away our footprints in the coarse sand.

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