Reflection Canyon/Cottonwood Gulch - 1998, 2004, 2013, and 2020


Well-Known Member
There's a lot of ways to see Reflection Canyon (and Cottonwood Gulch, which is the righthand fork of Reflection), and well worth spending some time there. In recent years, most people seem to focus on getting "that view" from the top, but it's just as rewarding if not more to actually hike up the canyon and forget about the trophy view. This post combines several excerpts from past journals of mine stretching back to 1998. Until 2020, I'd never climbed to the top... The first set of attached photos are from hikes up the canyon, while the last group is from the hike to the top...


September 1, 1998
Lake Elevation: 3691’

Yesterday’s highlight was a walk up Reflection Canyon, beyond the high water mark. (Technically, we went up one of its tributaries, Cottonwood Gulch. That’s the righthand fork. But we reflected, nonetheless.) The canyon reminded me of Bandalier National Monument in New Mexico. Wide verdant valley choked with reeds and cottonwoods, hiding a small stream. High red walls on either side—several hundred feet across the canyon. The trail followed on a bench about 50 feet over the riverbed, at the base of the northerly canyon wall. Cactus at the feet, high stone walls above. Little shade. At a break in the sandstone about halfway up the wall, there were several inlets and caves, many of which could have supported Indian dwellings. One on the north side actually did—a granary with a great view. On the wall just a few feet away was a colorful pictograph of a sheep, with some diamond shapes nearby in a row. White, green, and red paint. Three bullet holes of recent vintage mar the ancient graffiti. I'm guessing the diamonds were a calendar of sorts, possibly indicating the number of days needed to kill that sheep. Or maybe it was drawn by modern poachers to throw us off.

August 19, 2004
Lake Elevation: 3575’

This will be the farthest north we venture. We’ve got to start making our way back, before the lake levels keep dropping. It’s about 6 inches to a foot a day, according to the bulletin posted at the marina. At that rate, week-long houseboaters staying in place might end up high and dry. So we’ve got to race back while we can, before the lake is reduced to a puddle with a thousand houseboats piled on top of one another.

Already the canyons are showing signs. High on the rocks at the entrance to Reflection Canyon, the marker buoy lays silent on its side, still strapped to a heavy chain bolted into the stone. It seems to have died a natural death. The ravens leave it alone.

August 27, 2013
Lake Elevation: 3590’

Reflection Canyon is the site of an iconic photo of Lake Powell first made famous by National Geographic in about 2005, used both by its supporters and detractors, which shows an entrenched meander weaving between giant sandstone towers. The photo is enigmatic. Is this a place of otherworldly beauty, or is it unnatural and grotesque with its bathtub ring, a receding indicator of a future without water? You can read that photo any way you like. But any way you look at it, your eye is drawn to the scene; it’s a place you have to see for yourself.

But down at lake level, as much as you might want to see that the scene in that photo, you can’t. Your perspective is all wrong. You need to be high in the air, or at least up on a cliffside, in a spot that no one can easily reach, to view that entrenched meander. So it’s a false perspective, and whatever message the image might be conveying is automatically suspect. Whether it’s trying to attract or repel, it’s coming from a place that doesn’t really exist without a lot of effort. Too much for landlubbers like us, anyway.

Or boatlubbers. Several turns in, past a single parked houseboat, the water grows still and soon peters out amid ghostly trunks of dead cottonwoods poking from the surface, a fine muddy ooze blanketing the stagnant water at the very end. It’s not attractive, more a deterrent to further passage than anything else. I’d guess that few have ventured this way this summer. But we’re going to try. The first thing you notice as you tie up the motorboat to the muddy bank is that the lake’s high water mark—the white bathtub ring—extends for at least another mile upstream from here. We’re beginning the hike where there once was a lake. And where the lake has been, while a small stream has returned to carve out the silt deposits, the remnants of the past inundation are still there. The most notable evidence is all the tamarisk and Russian thistle on either side of the stream, which defend against passage like concertina wire around a prison camp. It’s slow going at first if you want to get through. Along both banks, it seems the trick is either to stay right in the stream bed, or somehow go around the thickets and get up above either flank. But when you start at the bottom, and you’re trying to dodge the quicksand along the streambed, your first thought is to get above it.

From down there, it was hard to say which was the better way to go. Chuck and Shubber take a small path leading up to the left, and although promising at first, soon find themselves bogged down. I can’t see them from the bushes below, but I hear them shouting expletives from somewhere out there. Later, Chuck will describe the place as “Thistle City”, and I’m glad to have avoided it. In there we’re talking about walls of brown Russian thistle 8 feet high in continuous rolling spheres, in some places 40 feet thick. If you can somehow get through that, there’s the spiny green tamarisk, drying in the summer sun. Both can leave you scratched and bleeding, and Chuck is living proof of that.

Eventually, they bushwhacked through to meet up with me back in the stream, where I had continued walking most of the time. I had made slightly better progress on the right bank, skirting the Navajo Sandstone cliffs above the vegetation, dropping down through the willows and weeds where I had to. The soft weeds weren’t nearly as bad as what they were going through.

After a mile or so, we finally broke above the high water mark, and like magic, the thistles and tamarisk just disappeared. It was easy going from there. This is the old Reflection Canyon before the lake. It’s a beautiful place, open and wide between high walls. A little farther up, a waterfall spilled over a sandstone lip, forming a muddy little pond. The canyon wrens called up and down, past the Anasazi granary high on the left wall. In another mile or so, past a few willow-choked side drainages, we eventually came upon another ancient structure. Maybe 10 feet by 15, it’s not much to see now. But it must have been important at one time. Just 30 feet away, there’s a pictograph—a painted panel, rare in Glen Canyon—of a sheep and a string of diamond-shaped markers, red and white. A calendar? Indicating a seasonal hunt? Or maybe the number of sheep killed, the same way that pilots in World War II marked their kills on their aircraft? Who knows? There’s a bullet hole in the sheep’s butt.

Hot and dry, approaching midday, we stopped in the receding shade of a cliff and ate a snack in silence. We looked ahead, saw there was another corner, but we turned around instead. Because of his bloody shins and the thistle forest, Chuck would call this a brutal hike, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy himself.

September 4, 2020
Lake Elevation 3599’

There’s an iconic photo of Reflection Canyon, famous since National Geographic splashed it on its pages in 2005, showing a deeply entrenched meander. It was intended to be both beautiful and a stark reminder that the lake was dropping fast. That was the message of 2005. Since then, amateur and professional photographers have used that as a trophy shot for themselves. It’s hard to get to. It’s likely the original photo was shot from the air, but with a lot of work, soon entrepreneurial photo guides were taking their clients 50 miles down treacherous Hole-in-the-Rock Road, then heading on an overland backpacking journey of 12 miles, following no trail except what their compass told them to do, over the lithified dines and through shallow canyons, nothing but sun and not a drop of water. At the end of those 12 miles, they reached the spot: an overlook of Reflection Canyon where far below meandered an arm of the lake, winding around two standing rocks.

It is possible to reach the same spot from the lake. Again, there are no trails, nor really any obvious path at all. From the lake, you can’t easily tell where to go. But somewhere about a quarter mile south of the entrance of the canyon, there’s a series of small steep-sided coves. At higher lake levels, it might be easy to land at these, but not when it’s at 3599. And yet, the view from the top is best when the lake is low, so now's the time. Russ, Chuck and I surveyed the shore. There was one pretty good place to land, but hard to tell if the steep shoreline could be scaled. We tried. Up we went. Then it became too steep, and realized we’d also have to work our way around a contour far above the lake, with no certainty we’d get much farther. After a few minutes of thought, we backed down, and moved the operation just downstream. From there it seemed better route upward, but at the shore, still no real landing, no place to tie down. But we had extra ropes, and by tying two together, we created a length of about 60 feet, enough to pull it in and wedge the rope into a crack at a sandy spot farther up the slope, which Russ did. Once tied, Chuck and I followed, using the rope as an aid. A steep beginning, maybe 45 degrees, and if you got your shoes wet while leaving the boat, look out below.

From there, I knew the direction we needed to go was basically due north, and not that far as the crow flies to reach the overlook. Maybe a mile at most. But it was impossible to see any sort of path because of intervening drainages, steep canyon walls, incised dry pools and other obstacles that didn’t seem like much until they were right in front of you. From a small bench, it seemed to me the best path was switching back right up the slickrock slope. Russ had another idea, following a narrow shelf of black rock along the face of a steep slope, a defect in the slickrock, from where he’d make a difficult upclimb above another small bench. He went for it, and from down below, that looked pretty challenging. But he made it, and soon emerged up on the top waving down to me. One possibility for sure, but didn’t seem like the safest approach. Then there was Chuck’s route. He went east, following a lower path, toward what seemed to be a more circuitous way to the top. I stood toward the bottom, in view of both, waiting for the reports. Russ, I could see. He made it. But there were tough spots. And then Chuck, I couldn’t see for quite some time. Was he alive? I waited. Finally, after about 10 minutes, he appeared on a hill on the horizon. Still not at the top, but Russ could see him too, and it looked like a viable path.

I went Chuck’s route.

It was easy enough to reach Chuck in just a few minutes. And from there, not bad at all to get up to Russ. But Chuck was already wheezing from the 100-degree heat, and sought shade, telling us to go on without him. And so we did. Up on top with Russ, the terrain was uneven, but mostly gentle, and easy to see the different routes ahead. Up and down, and in the little sandy spots, there were footprints. We weren’t the first ones here. We continued north without Chuck. Couldn’t be that far. And there, a small partially disassembled cairn seemed to point the way.

Sooner that I’d imagine, there we were, at the edge of the cliff. What a view! That was it! The meander. I guess it felt like an accomplishment of sorts, but really, was I just falling for the photo-lemming mentality? I don’t know, it was something to see, that’s for sure. Down below, a houseboat wound its way through the two towers in Reflection, oblivious to that they were being viewed from high above. Cameras came out.

What’s overlooked in most discussions involving this spot is that there’s more than one great view from up here. Due south, it’s a long view of a great stretch of Lake Powell, past the mouth of Hidden Passage Canyon to the right, then beyond Music Temple all the way down to the mouth of Anasazi Canyon, several miles away, all framed by the backdrop of the blue dome of Navajo Mountain. We turned the cameras in that direction too, and sat just there for a few minutes.

And then we were gone.

It was much simpler to return to the boat since we knew the best path. It was Chuck’s route. And on the way down, there was Chuck, still waiting in the shade of the overhang where we left him. The whole walk, not counting stops and thinking, might have only been 30 minutes. For us, by the time we figured it all out, it might have been an hour and a half in the hot sun. The hike is not for everyone. It’s certainly not straightforward, no obvious path. No shade either. But it beats a 12-mile one-way backpack, and you reach the same place. After a couple of tangerines, we were back at the boat and headed south...


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I really love this. The passage of time visiting the same spot with different water levels is great. It's nice that you have kept a journal of your explorations. It's a shame that someone felt the need to take aim at the pictograph. I would love to visit this part of the lake someday, but we are north side people and rarely venture too far south.


Well-Known Member
Thanks! It is fun to compare notes from past trips, and glad I thought ahead all those years ago to catalogue the notes and photos... glad you enjoy them now! And yes, it’s well worth visiting that part of the lake someday...
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Well-Known Member
Thank you JFR! I have many regrets in life I suppose, but one is that I/we never made a journal of our LP trips (maybe 150 visits over 50 years). With so many trips most were very similar -- launch about 1700 on Thursday, anchor in Friendship or Dungeon by dusk, tours and raft ups from Escalante south, home Sunday. But there were many special trips to north end, end of the San Juan, and scores of long, arduous, but fun, hikes. I am so glad that your posts refresh my feeble memory. We will be in Reflection Friday!