We get to the end of a canyon with a seemingly impassible dead end - a 50-foot dryfall cliff that threatens to end our trip. "I wonder if we can go up that way," I half-ask and half-tell Erminia as I point to a steep slope covered with a minefield of loose rock and sand. "I think you're underestimating it," she says. I head over to it undeterred and hopeful. Maybe this is the bypass route.
Using my hands and feet, I slowly try to climb up the scree. But it quickly becomes obvious that this way is too steep and volatile for my comfort level. "Damn, she's right again," I concedingly think to myself as I watch her climbing up a gentler slope. She's now well ahead of me and gaining ground. I retreat and follow in her footsteps.
Her way is noticeably less steep, but it has just as much loose rock. Progress is slow as it always is when going off-trail but especially when it's up a talus slope such as this one. I take another step and start to notice something very unsettling. I feel the watermelon-sized rocks I'm standing on start to move and there are car-sized boulders all around me. I need to get off this slope. I quickly jump onto firmer rock as I envision an impending avalanche of rock slide doom beneath me. "Gosh, that was a close one," I think to myself.
We are on a mission to find "Blow Sand Canyon" - the unofficial name for a very scenic and remote pocket of land in Capitol Reef surrounded by towering domes of golden Navajo Sandstone rock. I first heard about this area from reading a post by Michael Lanza on his excellent blog, The Big Outside. The name was coined by Steve Howe, a Torrey resident who spent years working out a 17-mile off-trail route through a maze of sandstone canyons in the heart of the Capitol Reef backcountry. The "Beehive Traverse", the name he gives for this labyrinth adventure, is "one of the most magnificent journeys we’ve uncovered in 45 years of world-wide trekking," he states on his website. I've been captivated to piece together the mostly unpublished route ever since reading Michael's trip report on it several years ago. Finding Blow Sand Canyon, a spot that Michael claims is one of the highlights of the Beehive Traverse, is the first step to unravelling this mystery.
After reaching the top of the talus slope, a welcome sight comes into view. It looks like the remaining way past the dryfall that stopped us in our tracks is clear and navigable. We go past it and further into the canyon not knowing what lies ahead.
Just a few hundred meters in, it becomes clear that this canyon is different from most. The rock walls are a brilliant shade of yellow; the fineness of the sand resembles grains found only in a premium Florida beach. We travel past huge rock tanks filled with water. Erminia and I can't help but smile as we traverse through this beauty. So far this route is living up to Steve and Michael's hype.
As we approach the end of this canyon, we are stopped by an extremely narrow fissure in a rock wall that is too narrow to fit through and with sides that are too steep and smooth to climb up. "This must be the butt crack," I tell Erminia. Michael described this area in his blog post (apparently Steve aptly named it) and I knew it was coming - I just didn't know when.
The only way past the ass is to fully embrace it. We place our hands on one cheek (wall) and feet on the other. Then we chimney above and across the canyon floor - a technique known as high stemming. Having never done this before, we both are awkward (me more than her) and feel filthy. However, slowly but surely, we make it past this obstruction.
Shortly after escaping the butt crack, we notice a small slope that appears to be an entrance into what we believe is our destination, Blow Sand Canyon. Excited and anxious, we climb to the top of the slope where we are met with an incredible view. It is indeed the spot that we have been seeking, and it does not disappoint. Towering yellow walls guard an oasis of grass and trees in the middle. We climb off the sandstone and onto a wash where we setup camp for the night. With the Milky Way illuminating the canyon, I go to bed with a smile knowing that we are that much closer to discovering the full route of the Beehive Traverse. But I also wonder what lies beyond these walls.
The next morning we say our goodbyes to this beautiful area. Our trip is so short-lived, but Erminia has a night shift to work so we regretfully head back. Coming back the way we came, I was nervous about descending the sketchy rock fall bypass that we climbed up earlier knowing full well that we were probably in greater risk of a rock slide coming down than we were going up. Thankfully, as we were getting ready to descend, Erminia noticed a much easier route down to the floor of the canyon than the one we had ascended. It made the exit a breeze and made me wish we had spotted this way when we were trying to find a bypass route. All we had to do was go a little further up the canyon and we would have noticed it. We were too impatient and tried to ascend the first route we found. Good to know for next time, though.
To date, I've backpacked through Lower Muley Twist Canyon, Upper Muley Twist Canyon, Lower Spring Canyon, Chimney Rock Canyon, Grand Wash, Frying Pan, and Sulphur Creek. Each of those trips are unique and gorgeous Capitol Reef classics. Sulphur Creek and Spring Canyon are right up there, but, out of all of those, I enjoyed hiking this short route the most. This one is just different from the rest. Part of it was probably because it was almost completely off-trail in a very remote section of the park. Part of it was probably because we were trying to crack the puzzle of the Beehive Traverse (and are still trying to). All I know is that I am counting down the days when we return and discover the other sections of the traverse. We will be back.
Note: Out of respect for Steve and Michael, I've chosen not to divulge the route that we did. However, I will say that there is enough information online to piece it together. You will have to make an effort in finding it, though. I spent days looking over topo maps trying to come up with a viable entryway into Blow Sand Canyon - and even then I wasn't sure it would work. Embrace that it's just part of the adventure. And if you get it right, it is well worth the effort.
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