Tracking Water

We woke to the sounds of the coursing Colorado River and the towering walls of red and gray Redwall limestone. Feeling rested after yesterday’s rock hopping, we packed up and started our hike up Kanab Creek and its canyon.

Kanab Canyon, a milestone that has long been in our minds. Now here we are. Kanab, meaning willow in Paiute. It’s also a 50-mile creek that flows from the Vermillion Cliffs of southern Utah down to the Colorado River – it is the largest tributary of the river on the north side of the Grand Canyon. Kanab may have been flowing before the Colorado cut the Grand Canyon. People have lived in the canyon for thousands of years. And John Wesley Powell’s 1871 expedition team found gold near the confluence of Kanab and the Colorado. We found fresh fruit…. yesterday.

This stretch of the Hayduke is storied in my mind. The contour lines on our maps, the note of Showerbath Springs, and hikers we have met speak in dreamy tones of Scotty’s Hollow. Thinking of Ryan and Ben’s search for and gift of water found in an unexpected tank. Drop-N-Roll, Bubbles, and Pinup’s fun photo shoot. Curious to interpret and calibrate the comments from previous Haydukers that note the slippy rocks and boulders ahead. From the lowest elevation of the Hayduke (1,887 feet) we’ll walk gradually walk out of the Grand Canyon to the Arizona Strip and the last leg of this remarkable route. All these aspects have me intrigued to experience Kanab Canyon.

At its mouth, Kanab’s floor is wide, the creek shallow, and the Redwall towers hundreds of feet above. The floor is intermittent cobbles, Muav sidewalks, and boulders to steer around. We climb up small cascades. We splash through pools. Minnows and fish bigger than our hands swim in schools in the creek’s eddys. Sandy benches are covered in mesquite, prickly pear, and flowers. Rocky shelves are home to agave and grasses. Hanging gardens of maidenhair fern and golden columbine drip water from hidden springs. Kanab is a wonderland, and easy stroll by Grand Canyon standards, no wonder it is very popular hiking destination.

Seven or so miles up Kanab Creek, the wading is hip deep, the boulders and large blocks must be scrambled or negotiated, and the swimming holes beckon. Though unlike yesterday where we baked in the sun 50 feet above the Colorado, today we are damp from the creek, comfortable, not feeling the need for a dip as the high walls of the canyon protect us from direct sun.

Amid the rock hopping, we stop for a break on top of a large boulder to snack on the delicious apples. Swallowtails flit about. Canyon wrens call. Single-leaf ash, mesquite, and hanging gardens add a lush feeling to this rock and water world. Always there is the sound of Kanab Creek vigorously plunging over boulders.

Just before Scotty’s Hollow we flush three bighorn sheep from a resting spot. They splashed across the creek and up the slope across the way from us, stopping to watch. We’ve now seen more than 15 sheep in two days. At the entrance to Scotty’s Hollow we turned in. Curious to get a feel for the magical world that is around the bend. We admired the waterfall swirling down the smooth, scalloped limestone. Filled our water bottles. Noted another spot that would be fun to come back to and properly explore.

At the famed Showerbath Spring we braked for a snack. Appreciated the monkey flowers. Filled our water bottles from this novel source. And took a few pictures – but I’m no Pinup. The water chilly, I was happy to have my umbrella. I did put it down long enough to look up at the limestone stalactites hidden amid the ferns and monkey flowers. Best of all, we watched a ewe bighorn trot down toward the spring. She seemed curious about us, but wary, and resigned to bound off.

Upstream the algae thickened, the schools of fish and clusters of tad poles petered out, the mud turned to flakes, and eventually the water dried up (or went below all the rocks). Such change. We’d been surrounded by water. Now the creek bed was dry, dusty and cactus grew on the dry banks. No water in sight. We needed to find a source for tonight and for the next day (our next reliable water is in at our cache in about 35 miles). A party of four that was hiking down canyon had told us we’d find water a mile or so north of Jumpup Canyon. We were on the lookout, senses tuned to all signs of water: lush vegetation, frog song, places that looked like a tank might be enclosed.

Hearing the ribbit of a frog from a cleft with grotto-like vegetation we turned in. I was sure it was Ryan Choi’s “second cleft, chockstone water“. The water Ben Deumling had told me so much about. Gabriel thought it was only the first cleft… plus there was a dead bird floating in the water. So maybe we should keep going. Fair enough. But another mile up canyon, there were no other clefts and there was no water in the creek bed as the hikers had suggested.

We turned around and went back to the frog song cleft. Confident that it was indeed the water source described by Choi and Deumling. We sat in the cool shady chamber, preparing to contort under the chockstone to reach the tank of water… but the dead bird. It just wasn’t appealing. So we formed a game plan, possibly annoying but a round of roulette we were welling to play: we’d scour the canyon walls for possible pour offs and potholes, nurse the water we still had, and hike the 5 miles to where our maps noted there can be water (but not noted with confidence mind you). If water wasn’t there, we’d backtrack to the chockstone dead bird water. It would mean ten extra miles. But otherwise it’s 29 miles with no potable water (well, there is the “radio active, cattle fouled, don’t drink water noted on our map), in a hot, dry stretch to the Arizona Strip. We’d play it smart.

A couple more bends of the canyon, we saw what looked like an overhang with a small alcove walled by mesquite, ash, and lush vegetation. Gabriel turned in and called me to follow a few seconds later to a lovely pothole of green, living water. We were relieved and delighted! No extra 10 miles!

We filled our containers while swatting bugs from our eyes. Eight liters apiece for the next leg. Heavy, but necessary. A few bends later we found a sandy beach to set up the tent and escape the bugs. A hot night, we didn’t even need our sleeping bags.

Day 54: 15.2 miles; 789.7 miles total. Mouth of Kanab Creek to just north of Jumpup Canyon.

GPS: not needed; people sighted: six backpackers; roads: none.


How nice to start the day with fresh fruit.


Gabriel strolls along the Muav sidewalks.


What’s that around the bend?


Some steps are deceiving.


Nice sidewalks of Mauv, towering walls of Redwall, and a hint of the boulders to come.


Asters grew on the sandy benches above the creek.


Mukmuk liked poking around all the different pockets in the walls of Kanab Canyon.


Breakfast time view of a lovely hanging garden. We are curious what is up there?


Gabriel and a living room-sized boulder. Some of these would make for scrambling with effort.


Easy scrambling, minimal effort here.

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Thanks Bubbles, DNR, and Pinup for the umbrella inspiration.


During our stop at Showerbath Springs we had a sheep encounter (it’s in the center of the picture).


This sheep came trotting and bounding down the slope toward Showerbath Spring. It paused when it saw us next to the water, tilted its head, looking at us, and waited. A minute later, seeing that weren’t leaving, it bounded down the shelf and continued down canyon.


Desert rock nettle – we saw “hanging baskets” of these flowers growing out of the cliff walls above our heads as we walked up Kanab Canyon.


Around another bend and the plentiful waters of Kanab Creek are gone.


Approaching the curious sound of a tree frog’s song amplified by the rock walls of this cleft in the canyon. Where there’s a frog, there is likely water…


Gabriel inspects the tank inside the cleft. Sure enough, there is water. And a dead bird in the water. 😦 The frog stopped its lovely calls while were in here poking about for water. 


A little ways up canyon from the frog song cleft we found this lovely pothole of water. We tanked up here.

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In the tent on this warm night to escape the bugs and ticks (I pulled one off… yuck, but yay).