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Explorer Canyon - 2000, 2002 and 2006


Escalante-Class Member
If you hike the last miles beyond the current end of the lake (between Fiftymile and Willow canyons), and can get past the mudflat that’s built up as a delta where the Escalante River meets Lake Powell, and work your way into Explorer Canyon, it’s worth a visit. The canyon itself is a deeply incised box canyon with walls about 500-600 feet high, which may be hiked for about 1.7 miles. Zane Grey Arch is the key feature in this canyon, found on the left side headed upcanyon, along an exposed Kayenta bench about 1.3 miles into the canyon. There are also nice panel of petroglyphs in this area, both before and after the arch.

The following are my journal entries from three of my visits to Explorer Canyon. They are interesting to me now because they document the declining lake levels of Lake Powell pretty well, and the changing perspective of what it means to have "low" water levels. It's hard to believe now, for example, that I considered 3679 in September 2000 to be "moderate", which is what happens when you're used to the lake being totally full.

Explorer is a rarely listed place, and was even in those days of higher water. Worth the visit, especially if you love total solitude... Just remember to bring water...


September 10, 2000
Lake Elevation: 3679’

Explorer Canyon is deep within the Escalante River system, one of the Escalante’s northern tributaries. It is typical of canyons in the central portion of the Glen Canyon region, with high Navajo Sandstone walls framing the lake, running absolutely vertically to the water without a beach. At the navigable end of the canyon are some silty beaches, but we’ve chosen a slightly smaller beach halfway to the end for a simple reason: little chance for last-minute neighbors. Not that we’re unfriendly. It’s just that one reason people come to Lake Powell (as opposed to, say, Lake Havasu) is for the solitude. Sure there’s a lot of boats here, but the lake is huge, and there’s no reason to have to give up privacy to errant houseboat yahoos flying a pirate flag a hundred feet away.

The full moon already rose long ago, but did not peak over Explorer Canyon’s high eastern wall until about 11 PM. I’d guess it will dip below the imposing western wall at about three in the morning. It is a very pleasant evening, as Vin Scully would say, maybe even better than last night. Earlier southerly breezes have subsided to cricket stillness, a glassy moonlit lake surface shimmering below. Complete stillness but for the rhythmic chirps that come from no particular direction—just part of the landscape. It is still well in the 70s, peacefully comfortable, here past midnight.

The lake level stands at only 3,679 feet above sea level, about 20 feet down from last year’s nearly full pool. To put it in perspective, the all-time low I’ve seen was in 1992, about 3,626 feet. Thus, we are at a moderate level, similar to 1993. This information, when combined with past experience, provides a useful tool for choosing campsites. Our current site, for example, would have been underwater last year, as much of the crumbly Kayenta Formation (good for docking houseboats against) would have been submerged. At our current lake level, I know there should be some nice spots in Anasazi Canyon, should we choose to go there. But in reality, only geeks choose their campsites this way. The best way is to detach the motorboat, explore, report back, say “yeah, I think this place will work”, and ram the houseboat against the shore.

Any given houseboat spot’s inherent advantages tend to conceal themselves until the boat is actually docked. You need the perspective of being onshore. For instance, our spot on the west wall of Explorer Canyon has a nice landing for a campfire, a 100-foot diameter swimming cover, a tanning peninsula, and sufficient side depth to jump in the lake from the boat. None of these features were obvious until we landed. The spot’s quiet solitude, on the other hand, is of course the big plus we could anticipate from a distance.

Fluctuating lake levels also have another subtle effect, positive or negative depending on your perspective. Because of the dramatic annual changes at any reservoir, very little vegetation can take root on the shore. For campers, this keeps the bugs down, and almost eliminates the smell of rotting greenery. But strict environmentalists actually enjoy the shore goo, stench and bugs that an established wetland zone brings. Personally, I like to smell clean, and I don’t like bugs, preferring them to move to the endangered species list.

September 11, 2000
Lake Elevation: 3679’

There are more natural bridges and arches in southern Utah than in any other place in the world. Bridges and arches look similar, but there is a difference: arches may be formed in many ways—wind erosion, typically—but bridges must be created by stream-cutting water. Some would say who cares, and they would be right, as long as they’re not geologists, whose job it is to care about such things.

So it’s a matter of perspective and interest. There is a common philosophical position taken by some, usually conservative Christians, that science itself is flawed, and that the scientific method is not sufficiently reliable to yield dependable (and true) results. I can’t agree with such a blatantly untenable position, but I gained a better appreciation for some of its rougher edges today, and why it even exists at all.

Zane Grey Arch is one of many in the Glen Canyon region, and according to the maps, located in Explorer Canyon not a mile or two upstream from our houseboat’s parked location. The guidebooks tell the story: it was named after the early 20th century pulp fiction writer by a local Utah man, not because Zane Grey ever saw the arch (he didn’t, though he featured the region in some of his stories), but because it sounded like a good name. And it is, except when one considers that it’s like naming a similar natural feature Danielle Steele Arch. But Zane Grey it is, and this morning Chuck and I were going to find it, following in the footsteps of thousands before us.

But even on a simple hike like this one, it’s important to be prepared, and we weren’t. Count the mistakes:

1. We left too late in the morning, nearly 10AM, on a cloudless day promising to bring the full force of the late summer sun;
2. We believed the guidebook, which promised a one-hour roundtrip; and

The first two errors are almost forgivable; the third is not. We violated Hiking 101: BRING WATER, BRING LOTS OF WATER. But we brought none, walking a rocky trail under a scorching sun, with an overoptimistic guidebook. At least I wore a hat.

These factors were not fatal as it turns out, but they did conspire to impair our judgment. Explorer is a beautiful box canyon, maybe ¼-mile across, with a sluggish plant-choked stream meandering at its base. Oaks and willows provide a green contrast along the streambank to the crumbly brown terraces of the Kayenta Formation stepping up and away from the water to high rocky benches above. From there the sheer Navajo Sandstone walls tower overhead, vertical faces of red rock, stained white, gray and black by water, like vertical tiger stripes. It’s a standard look in these parts, but never dull or routine. Just grand, even majestic.

Several trails lead up the canyon, all on the left (looking upstream), but at different levels relative to the creek. They meander and interconnect in many places, like a railroad switchyard, so it’s possible to follow many paths on one hike, depending on the whim or weather. Each had its merits. The trail nearest the creek offered shade, but little else. Visibility is poor in the thickets, which require a lot of bushwhacking. You also have to constantly scramble up and down to cross those pesky side drainages. The upper trail, on the other hand, follows the Kayenta bench top, and is much easier to follow, much more direct. It is also hot. Sunbaked devil campfire hot. Naturally we followed this path.

Forty-five minutes, and where’s the arch? The book says it’s supposed to be… Of course, things are often not as—or where—they’re supposed to appear. I look back downcanyon into the sun, now high in the southern sky. No arch. It’s broiling hot, my mouth is drying fast, and so is the sweat on my arms. Sunstroke soon? These are some of the signs, but I hope I’m wrong. We look for and find shade where we can, sometimes in little alcoves, more often in the cottonwoods below. At least I wore a hat.

After an hour-plus of hopeful hiking, my body was losing patience. Where was the arch? I checked the book again, we should be close. And this is where Judgment failed me, Logic disappeared, and the scientific method headed for compromise.

Retrospective logic is clear, as it always is: the arch had to be up there, more or less where the guidebook said. But toss that out. After a midday bake in the dry Utah sun, that broken pile of sandstone columns in front of us could have only one explanation: it was Zane Grey Arch, fallen and destroyed like a Roman ruin. It had to be. We couldn’t find it in a box canyon, so it MUST BE GONE. And here was the evidence. A photo in the guidebook even seemed to confirm it: there it was in black and white, in a spot that looked very much like where we were now standing. But when you looked up from the book, there were the surrounding features of rock and trees, but no arch. Just a pile of rocks. Had we discovered a recent natural tragedy? Had it fallen because of human overuse? Chuck agreed—IT MUST HAVE.

Natural disaster is an adrenaline rush. We had to tell someone, a ranger maybe? Now revitalized by our unexpected find (a good thing too, with no water), we turned back for the boat, a little disappointed there was no longer an arch, but excited over the possible pathetic discovery…. Until we turned the corner.

There was Zane Grey Arch.

It was still standing, proudly spanning a boulder strewn alcove on the west side of the canyon. Just like the book said it would. Hmm. It was probably mocking us from its stony silence. Sheepishly I admitted private embarrassment and disappointment about the arch’s true status, but was also relieved it was still there. Like the Star-Spangled Banner over Fort McHenry in 1814, an unexpected sight and inspiration. Long may it wave.

There is of course a lesson in this. Two actually. The first is about the nature of faith. Sometimes factors that impair judgment can lead one to draw erroneous conclusions, seemingly based a scientific approach, when we’re really just talking about making a good guess, something to fill in the blanks of the mind. A good fit. Faith. It’s a common religious principle. But the flaw is not in the science, or the method, just the mindframe of the one applying the tools. The fact is you can’t justify faith in scientific terms. To try to do so is to invite trouble.

The second lesson is this: bring water. Bring lots of water. At least I wore a hat.

August 11, 2002
Lake Elevation: 3632’

In Explorer Canyon, across the Escalante just upstream, Chuck, Shubber and I visited Zane Grey Arch. Its smooth, almost muscular form remains unchanged from a previous visit a few years ago. Time stands nearly still on the Colorado Plateau; changes tend to be subtle, or just the opposite—catastrophic. Usually changes can’t even be noticed, a little erosion here, some deposition there. Lake Powell’s fluctuating water level is maybe the most obvious change, and that’s manmade. But the land—the land is rock steady. This of course led to Charlton Heston’s confusion in Planet of the Apes. Not only did he botch the basic question of where he was, but when. Clearly, he never visited Utah before rocketing away from his drinking problem. Apes or not, the place does not change willingly.

The Anasazi were an agent of change. The Ancient Ones left granaries, a few etchings in the rocks of sheep, warriors, quasi-psychotic symbols—but little else. So it is a mystery: who were they? What were they doing? Why are they gone?

We need to know.

Future generations of sentient apes may ask the same questions about us. And other questions: Why were there dams? And odd watercraft? Clearly must be religious in nature. And they’d be mostly right.

Shubber saw the devil in Explorer Canyon. It was Chuck Fudge. He may have lacked the pitchfork, but the horns and tail were there, he swears. A quick dip in the lake after the hike doused that vision, but Chuck doesn’t deny that he felt like hell after the hike. Even with a gallon of Gatorade sloshing in his distended stomach and pouring from his sweat glands. Late, he called his feet “canyonburgers” marinated in sweat, dirt and blood.

August 22, 2006
Lake Elevation: 3604’

We stayed put today, and enjoyed the benefit of our 400-foot high vertical Navajo cliff to the east, which effectively kept our site in the shade until the afternoon. By then, though, all but Khawer and Garrett had departed for nearby Explorer Canyon. Both Chuck and I had been there twice before, drawn to it again by its Anasazi petroglyphs and Zane Grey Arch. But lake levels are lower than before, which made the hike more difficult in two ways: 1) it was longer; and 2) a lot of tamarisk had clogged the banks just upstream of the lake’s end, itself jammed with downed logs. So just route-finding past the obstacles became a chore, but we did it. In so doing, though, we used a lot of our water. There is little shade on the hike, except for a stolen moment in a small overhang, and when it’s 90+, the whole canyon is basically a convection oven. Literally, since the walls radiate heat. Up and over, bushwhacking tamarisk, progress was slow. Ultimately, we began to run low on water and had to turn back before we got to the arch. As Chuck explained to the others, you can see the arch on the photos from previous years stored on his laptop.

00-09-11 Explorer hike 1 3679.jpg02-08-11 Explorer hike 4 3632.jpg02-08-11 Explorer hike 12 glyph 3632 edit.jpg02-08-11 Explorer hike 13 3632.jpg02-08-11 Explorer hike 16 Zane Grey 3632.jpg02-08-11 Explorer hike 11 glyph small 3632.jpg06-08-22 Explorer landing 3 - small 3604.jpg

02-08-11 Explorer hike 5 Zane Grey 3632.jpg02-08-11 Explorer hike 3 3632.jpg


Escalante-Class Member
One caution for anyone wishing to hike up Explorer Canyon today. Not only is it about 4 miles of hiking over the sunny mudflats in the Escalante just to reach Explorer Canyon from where the lake currently ends between Fiftymile and Willow, once you get to the mouth, you'll likely be confronted by a large entrenched pool at the mouth trapped by sediment from the Escalante. You might be able to work through the shallow end of that pool toward the left as you face the canyon, but you will most definitely get wet and likely have to swim just to reach the canyon. All that to say, if you can make it to Explorer now, you'll have earned it.


Well-Known Member
Thank you, JFR, for the trip down faded memory lane! The pictographs and arch photos are "Oh, I remember those" moments.