David and I decided to attempt our fourth try for Hepworth Wash Arch in Zions National Park. We know how difficult this hike is so we strip our day packs of anything that could save weight; i.e. flashlight, gloves, etc.
We drove down to Springdale Friday afternoon and stayed in a cabin at the Zions Hotel & Campground. (Only $50 per night, which is cheap for Springdale Utah just outside the entrance for Zion National Park.) We decided to rent the cabin for another night since we were sure what condition we would be in after our hike.
Saturday morning we had breakfast at the Bumbleberry Cafe before driving into the park. We drove up through the Zion tunnel and parked in our usual parking area next to some restrooms, just outside the tunnel.
The hike begins by dropping into the small wash next to the outhouse and then climbing up some short cliffs on the other side. By skirting around some brush, you can climb up to the mouth of Gifford Canyon which is mostly hidden by the brush. The first mile hiking south up Gifford Canyon is a lovely walk in the cool shade of the deep canyon. It had rained (heavily) several days before ant that made walking in the wet sand much easier. However, it also made for quite a few water pools that had to be skirted.
As soon as we hit the first major dryfall, it was time to start climbing the west slope of the canyon. Having done this three other times, we had a good idea of the best route to take up the steep slope.
At the top, the hike has now been a total of 1100 feet of elevation change from the bottom of Gifford Canyon and a hiking distance of about 2 miles from the parking lot. Even though there are still cliffs and rocks towering above this point, this is the highest we need to climb. Now the path is downhill.
By walking directly west a short distance, we could look west into another bowl and drainage which seems to dump west into Hepworth Wash, visible in the distance. We had tried to access Hepworth Wash one other time by dropping into the bottom of this bowl only to discover a deep dryfall that stopped us. This time we were heading to some cliffs on the opposite northwest wall of this bowl. A seam in the rocks created a bit of a ramp and allowed us to descent down into the bowl. At the bottom of the seam, we continued northwest across the broken hillside and followed several rock cairns until we were at the foot of more cliffs which we believed hid the access into Hepworth Wash.
We couldn’t believe we had to climb these cliffs to continue our hike! I tried what I believed was the best route and was stopped when I began to fear for my life. Instead, we descended to the bottom of the bowl to verify that we couldn’t get down using the rope we had brought along. Then it was back to the base of the cliffs again with a renewed determination to climb them.
I was finally able to get mostly up the cliff but there was a bad area that really scared me. It required a walk along a four-inch ledge at the edge of the cliff. One slip would have been disastrous. Then along comes David, right behind me and calmly walking across the thin ledge. I had no choice except to bravely do the same. By the time we reached the top of this cliff area, my knees were shaking.
We were both exhausted by now but we decided to continue since this is the closest we had been able to access Hepworth Wash. Before us was a steep rock ramp to the bottom of the bowl and below that was the dryfall. We hoped that it would be easier from that point on.
We headed down the ramp but soon hie more cliff drop-offs. We were able to get around these by dropping into a narrow crack and climbing down the loose rocks in there. It was so narrow, I had to remove my pack to get around trees that had insisted on growing in there.When I had made my way most of the way down this crack, it suddenly dropped off at a steep cliff. To get around this part, we climbed up and out of the crack to discover that we were past the ramp cliffs and could again descend using the rock ramp. This required about a hundred feet of ‘stemming’ hand over hand along the side of the ramp cliffs.
By the time we made it to the bottom of the ramp and canyon drainage, I was spent! We had only made it into Hepworth Wash and we didn’t know where to look for the arch that was supposedly there.
We had decided that since we had 11 hours of daylight after leaving the vehicle, we would hike for 5 1/2 hours and then around and go back. Here we were at the bottom of the access to Hepworth Wash and we had been hiking/climbing for 5 1/2 hours. Still, we decided that the going would be really easy now and would just have to hurry.
Here we find two sets of fresh mountain lion tracks. Cool! You gotta love any country where there are still mountain lions running around.
Now we need to decide whether we turn up canyon or down canyon to look for Hepworth Wash Arch and we are hurting for time. The map indicates that down canyon (east) has the more interesting cliffs so off we go through brush, deep sand and even some dried up swamp area. A mile later we turn a corner to finally see Hepworth Wash Arch hanging on a cliff.
Wow! It’s gigantic!
The thought of heading back the way we had come is more than we can handle. We decide to try another route we had considered near the end of the canyon. A half-hour later we discover a dead end. Now we are REALLY going to have a hard time making it back before dark.
Back to the mouth of the side canyon, up the side canyon to the slanting slot canyon, up the rock ramp, the crack, then more ramp, down the short cliffs, then across and up the bowl to the top where we enjoy a brief rest to watch the sunset. We are dragging and stumbling now. We head down the steep slopes into Gifford Canyon and are within a couple of hundred feet of the bottom when it becomes too dark to see. I take my best guess of where we might be able to get off the rock slope and onto the dry drainage. I dangle my feet off the end of the rock and am glad to feel the loose dirt of the sides of the drainage. Soon we are on reasonable flat ground and stumbling the last mile back to the parking lot. We even get a little help from the moon through the trees.
We used sticks to probe the ground in front of us and stumble onward, grateful to be off the steep slopes. All goes well though very slow until we reach the drop-off across the wash from the parking area. Here there are several small cliffs that need to be climbed down. However, this side of the hill receives no moonlight and we can’t tell where the trail is supposed to go. We stumble about blindly until we have made our way by chance down to the last cliff. Now there is either a shear drop off below us or a steep rock face that is climbable when you can see the handholds. To get to this point we tried lighting pages of a small notebook. That gives us about 3 seconds of blinding light to examine the route before leaving us night blind and with singed fingers. David even plays with using the flash on his digital camera to light the way. It was worth the try but it didn’t work very well.
Across the wash from us is the parking area and a restroom. Suddenly a vehicle turns into the parking lot and parks in front of the restroom. People start getting out and heading for the restroom. The vehicle is still running and using the headlights to light the restroom area. The entire far side was is lit up but our side is pitch black. David and I start yelling to the people in the vehicle but they can’t hear us because of the vehicle engine. As people begin to get back in the vehicle, one person leaves the vehicle and walks over to the edge of the parking lot closest to us. He can hear us yelling. They turn off the vehicle and we are able to hold a conversation across the wash. At first, they thought we were pulling a joke on them — “You want us to drive over there?” Then we are able to make them understand that it would be helpful to us if they could turn their vehicle so that the light shines across the wash. The vehicle is turned and suddenly our entire hillside is lit up. We were sitting on the edge of the drop off that was the trail and with the light we could easily see to descend to the bottom and climb up the other side to the parking lot. We thanked them for saving us and collapsed in my SUV.
In spite of our best efforts, we slept in warm beds in Springdale that night.