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Moqui Canyon/North Gulch Loop - 2002
"Terra Incognita"


"I just love it when a plan comes together." Col. Hannibal Smith, the A Team

With the explosion of hiking guides over the last few years, it is hard to find an area that you can spend a week exploring that is not written up in detail somewhere. And with the advent of the internet, you can ALWAYS find out lots of information about any place, right? Well, as Hertz likes to advertise, "Not exactly". This year was to be the 20th spring canyon trip that I had planned, and I had been looking for something new and different that was still within the interest level of the crew that would join me. We don't mind taking a rope out every now and then to lower packs, but 150 foot free fall repels are more fun than I want. Staring at the raised relief map of the Four Corners country in our living room, I was intrigued by a 30 mile long gash in Mancos Mesa, just west of the Red House Cliffs, which are, in turn, SW of Natural Bridges National Monument. Some maps called it Moki Canyon, some called it Moqui Canyon. I called it an opportunity.

To say it was tough to gather definitive information about this place is an understatement. The controversial guidebook "Ruins Seldom Seen" describes a tiny piece of the canyon (just enough to get in and out to see some petroglyphs), and Michael Kelsey describes in his book "Boater's Guide to Lake Powell," the lower parts of Moqui, and North Gulch, its primary tributary which flows into it from the north, or did until the waters rose in Lake Powell and drowned the junction of the two canyons. But canyons are dynamic places, and features that exist today may be gone in the blink of a flash flood tomorrow. The internet was not much help. I did find a reference to a loop trip that had been done 10 years previously, when the water levels of the Lake were so low that the junction of the two canyons was dry, but there was no solid information, only a suggestion that it might be possible to cross the arm of Mancos Mesa that separates the two canyons, but not a clue as to where. Slickrock canyon walls can be formidable obstacles, as there is often 200 feet or more of purely vertical, unbroken impassable sandstone. But after hours and hours of study and planning, and one of those more-wisdom-than-first-apparent comments from Will, I had an idea as to an approach that would permit us to go halfway up Moqui, cross the arm of Mancos Mesa, drop down into North Gulch, and return to the Lake. That 9 other souls were willing to invest more than a week of their precious vacation in my scheme speaks either volumes for their perception of my skill as a planner, or for their desperation for a week long canyon trip into "terra incognita." Perception and desperation can be the fuel that gets you to fly halfway across the US, and drive for hours and hours into one of the least populated parts of our country, just to get to the jumping off spot for the trip.

And so most of the crew rolled into lovely Hanksville, Utah early on a Friday evening this spring. As usual, these things never go as smoothly as one would like. This year, our itinerary sported five (count ‘em, 5) different flight schedules to get our crew of ten to Salt Lake City. George and Barbara had flown in on Thursday afternoon, and Ray was just a couple of hours behind them. Diane, a last minute addition, had taken a Friday morning flight through Cincinnati and on to Salt Lake. The remainder of the Knoxville crew, John, Will, Susie and I, had left on the o-dark thirty flight to Atlanta, complete with roosters announcing dawn from the baggage hold. After an uneventful flight to Salt Lake, we were met by Diane as we got off the plane. We all headed down to the baggage area to meet the rest of our firends, since Andy and Sue, flying from Austin, had been expected into Salt Lake nearly an hour ahead of us. We were greeted with blank stares from the early-arriving Knoxvillians,. "Where are Sue and Andy?" we were asked. I said, "I don't know, I thought you had ‘em." Barbara reported that their flight seemed to have come in on time, according to the arrival board, but had been dropped off immediately. And Ray reported having searched the baggage area, and could not find either of them. Fortunately, I had asked my associate Amy to monitor her phone back at work and act as an "incident commander," and when I called her, the first thing that she said was "Well, I have been wondering when you would call." It turns out that the jetway had fallen on the door of A&S's plane as it was backing away from the plane, and after a wasted hour or so of inspection, SkyWest had decided that its ability to hold cabin pressure was "uncertain." So A&S were flying to Houston on Continental, transferring bags to Delta, and getting into Salt Lake at 5 pm. They would rent a car and see us in Hankville that evening. So I thanked Amy, we cancelled the car that we had rented (in addition to the 12 passenger van we had rented (which holds about 8 people and all their gear, as long as you remove the rear seat), and headed for the REI Coop through the rain mixed with snow.

George and Ray seemed anxious to get on the road, I think mainly because we had to cross 7477 ft. Soldier Summit on US 6, and they wanted to have as much time to deal with the snow as possible. I wasn't too concerned, because such was only a couple thousand feet above our present elevation, and I figured the Utah DOT would keep the road in good shape. We compromised by making a relative short stop at the REI Coop, combining it with lunch at Burger King, and we were on our way by 12:45 pm. As it turns out, at Soldier Summit, it was snowing heavily, but not sticking much to the road surface. Thus, the next thing to focus on was our stomachs. Again. The excuse for those of us who had flown in from Knoxville that morning was that by 3:30 local time, it would be body time for dinner. Combine that with having to get up a couple of hours earlier than usual, and I was practically in a crisis mode! Despite the fact that George had a recommendation for Ray's Café in Green River, for the vegetarians in our midst, its emphasis on steaks and beer seemed too overwhelming, so we settled on the Tamarisk Restaurant ( Now just because a place has its own website doesn't mean that the food will be good, or the service expeditious. It was located across the street from the John Wesley Powell museum, and I swear that I could have done the entire museum during the long periods between placing our order and actually having food put in front of us. The Navajo Taco I had was OK, but could not hold a candle to that which you can get in the San Juan Café in Mexican Hat. Try Ray's next time.

After our 1.75 hr stint in the Tamarisk, we headed back on to I-70 for the final run to Hanksville. You go past a sign saying that it is over 100 miles to the next services on I-70, and it is a great reminder that the San Rafael Swell Country is awe inspiring, wild, and worthy of being one of our next National Monuments. We were pulling into the Whispering Sands Motel in Hanksville before 6:15 pm. That I was lucky enough to have chosen the Whispering Sands Motel over the other three places in Hanksville is another tribute to the power of the Internet. At least you could find a photo of the place, and you couldn't for the other three Motels in town. After walking or driving past the remaining places, a note to the wise: When they don't show you a photo, ask yourself: Why?

A couple of calls to and from Amy indicated that A&S would be an hour late landing, and finally, that they had all their luggage and were headed for Hanksville. ETA: 10:30 pm. After we repacked our backpacks - from the flying-on-the-airplane configuration to the hiking-in-the-canyon configuration, we decided that a stroll through the lovely community was in order, and George joined us. Hanksville, Utah and McCarthy, Alaska are two of the smallest towns I have ever spent the night in. Hanksville's claim to fame is that it is a jumping off spot (read: a long way from) Lake Powell and Capitol Reef National Park. It boasts 3 "restaurants" and 4 motels, and probably 20 times as many people. (Interestingly, Hanksville was missed by the 2000 US Census. Someone had to go back and do a special count.) George and Susie and I, electing to walk while Will and Diane went for a run, decided we would celebrate the start of our vacation with an ice cream bar purchased from Hankville's one real attraction: a quick stop carved into a rock dome. The store (not the gas pumps) was actually excavated out of the rock. I guess this represents their attempt at passive solar heating and cooling. Having a real ice cream bar is a caloric extravagance that is only permitted when extreme physical activity is eminent. Either that, or Susie was letting her guard down.

Next day

© Roger A. Jenkins, 2002; Moqui Canyon Complex Photo courtesty of NASA