Beef Basin Explorations

You had me at “non-family friendly trip”. Rob has been exploring Beef Basin for over 10 years and still has more to see. He sent me an invitation to join him on a trip with a scope that exceeded what his wife and kids would be likely to enjoy. To be honest, Beef Basin has never been more than a long, bumpy “shortcut” home from the Needles over the Abajo Mountains for me. But I know Rob has an insatiable desire to know more of this area and coupled with his incredibly through research I knew it would be a good time.

I have been over Elephant Hill more times than I can count so you could probably say that it is my favorite area to explore. I had some unfinished business with the Needles… I went in May with the intention of hiking to Druid Arch but never made it. With an early enough start I could drive to Chesler Park, hit Druid Arch and make it to the designated meeting point near Beef Basin Spring. I talked Rob into joining me since this hike was still on his to do list. We planned to meet at the Needles visitor center at noon, when I arrived I found Marty already there. He would drive over Elephant Hill with us and continue on to camp while the rest of us hiked. Rob’s Dad Marlin was providing the wheels, friend and fellow explorer Dave was along too.

Yours truly, with Marty, Dave and Marlin at the switchbacks that descend into the Needles Backcountry after fixing a smushed trailer wire connector on Marlin’s Tacoma.

I forgot to mention it at the time but there is an old airstrip on the flat right there. You can pick it out pretty easily in Google Earth. I walked it on my May trip, you would not be able to use it now as the desert is reclaiming it. Even if it were freshly graded it looks pretty short and has a bit of a slope too.

Marty coming down the switchbacks. Having just met him I have already become a bad influence and convinced him to drive straight down them, rather than backing down per NPS signage.

Dave and Rob admiring nature’s handiwork at SOB Hill. The Park Service’s plan is to leave this alone. I managed to puncture a sidewall here in May. Rob had a better line for the long, low slung Toyota. He had his Dad reverse it down alongside the rocks in the foreground and back into a small slot just out of sight to the right of this photo, then then drive straight forward down with the rock slabs hugging the passenger side.

We made it to the Joint Trail parking area with undamaged vehicles, leaving Marty to go on to our campsite in Beef Basin. Rob & crew are all SERIOUS hikers, we did the 8.8 mile round trip in about 4 hours, with time for dinner at the arch and returning through the Joint Trail after dark. I was prepared for cold weather but hiking at that pace kept me plenty warm without having to add any of the layers I had in my pack.

Sorry about the blurry photo, the only illumination was from our LED headlamps.

We pulled up into Beef Basin Spring camp 9ish to find Marty there with a fire already built and Randy for company.

Having been on the go for 18 hours I conked out immediately upon reaching camp but awoke to find that the local population had experienced an overnight boom. As I have come to expect, Jared appeared out of the darkness along with brother Brian. Dave’s Springbar tent bloomed during the night, joining him was son Logan. This brought Beef Basin’s census tally on this fine November morning to 10.

Today’s marching orders were for Fable Valley and Gypsum Canyon. The route would take us into the spring-fed canyon bottom. It was promised to be almost entirely off trail and would feature lots of bushwhacking. Lemme tell you, when Rob describes a hike that way you take him at his word.

This is our eager crew at the trailhead.

Early views into the forked heads of the canyon.

This is one big canyon.

Jared, making good time on the slickrock bench at the canyon rim. If you are like me and thought those camo shorts are the only pants he owns, Brian divulged that his brother actually owns three identical pairs of them.

The easy walking soon came to an end as we descended into the canyon.

Rob guiding the group over one of many obstacles on the descent.

From then on the route became downright STEEP. The lower slopes of the canyon were loose rock and dirt resting at angle of repose. Every step threatened to send a cascade down upon our companions below. It was in this area that I surfed down an alarmingly long way on a slab of sandstone that I thought would hold my weight. It was the worst fall I have experienced in all of my time hiking and it left me shook up and sore for a while. I could understand why Rob did not want to do this hike with wife and kids, at least not for the trial run.

Randy and Jared coined the term “trail-ish” during one of their previous adventures. When your hike strays from any known trail, ventures beyond what respectable people consider a “route” and has become nothing more than a desperate journey to anywhere other than your current location by whatever means necessary, the path you end up following can be described as trail-ish. It would be generous to call those last hundred feet or so down into Gypsum Canyon trail-ish. Ten hikers found about 10 different ways down, some of their choosing, others more by accident.

Once we all reached the bottom and collected ourselves we found a crystal clear stream just wide enough to step across flowing through a bed of sand and rock. It provided life to an abundance of vegetation, much of which was at the peak of Fall glory. It was a worthy reward for the effort required to get here and would be a great place to spend some time. Unfortunately we had only 4 hours of daylight remaining and were unsure of the way back up to the rim. One thing was certain; we were not going home the way we came. The most likely ascent was a slope spotted on the opposite canyon wall about 1.5 miles up from where we landed. What obstacles stood between here and there was not known, the goal of this hike was to find out!

The variety of scenery found along the confines of our route was quite amazing. There was a park-like glen.

Cool grottos that would have their share of swimmers in a warmer season.

Your random jungle, southwest style.

The boulder gardens you would expect to find in any canyon.

A sandstone sluice:

But this garden would not give up its secrets easily. Progress was slowed by overhanging ledges.

High, narrow traverses with nothing but water, or rocks, or wet rocks to break a fall.

Pouroffs occurred regularly. Some could be skirted.

Others required us to gingerly climb whatever slimy footing they offered.

Rob ushered us through it all, his calm demeanor and ever present smile soothing those of us who had no interest in rock climbing but who found themselves facing a simple choice: climb rocks or call Gypsum Canyon home.

The exit route turned out to be a good choice for this particular day. The sun had retreated from the depths of the canyon and we now followed its last rays up a southwest facing slope. This is where the serious bushwhacking came in.

I could not imagine what this would have been like if the leaves had still been on all of this shrubbery.

The best rock climbing was saved for the end. This chimney was the easiest way over the last ledge barring us from the plateau.

Our happy crew, finishing the hike at sunset. Dave was our pathfinder for much of the way, he is an avid canyoneer.

With nightfall came a rapid drop in temperature. We enjoyed 60’s and sunshine on our hike but retreated to camp for warm food and a hot fire. We enjoyed sharing yarns of previous travels, some new and others old favorites worth hearing again… like the tale of Scouty.

Our first full day of exploring had come to an end. It was a complete success. “Paradise”, the word, comes from ancient roots meaning “a walled garden”. I can’t think of a more apt word to describe what we found in Gypsum Canyon’s depths on that day.

Beef Basin is known for its high density of Anasazi ruins. Today we would concentrate on finding them, some familiar and others new to us. Rob prodded us out of camp at the crack of 9, sleepy and cold but in high spirits.

First destination was L House Ruin. It was an easy walk from camp. Jared (or was it Rob?) brought along a copy of the Rudy Report detailing what was found during the excavation of this site in the 50’s. The paper helped us visualize what this looked like when it was inhabited. It also had photos taken during the excavation. The research team backfilled everything when they finished with the site so now there is not a whole lot to see. We poked around for a while, sharing any artifacts found and returning them to their place. (Don’t tell anybody but I found the blue grama seed heads of more interest at the time.)

I’ll bet that everyone in our group loves tracking down evidence of this lost civilization. Randy brought along a good challenge: find a petroglyph panel that he had seen in a photo with vague hints to its location. While ruins are common in this area, petroglyphs are mysteriously absent. We set off to a suspected location where we looked around, found some granaries but soon ruled it out for the petroglyph hunt.

Our lunch spot, with a great view of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone cliffs.

After lunch we moved on to the next suspected location. It seemed that we were getting warmer; the trail was littered with lithic scatter. It was here that I found my first projectile point.

Jared scrutinizes my first projectile point before tossing it back.

Despite signs of Anasazi usage, this area did not look like the correct place for that panel. On the way back to the vehicles Marty spotted a ruin on the next ridge. We headed over to have a look.

While admiring this ruin somebody spotted another one, higher up on yet another ridge. Rob and I headed over to see if there was any way up to it. The climb was a bit of a challenge but we soon realized others had been here before: there was a rope dangling over the last ledge to access the cliff dwelling.

The rope turned out to be the only way up to the ruin itself, so we put it to use. For our efforts we were presented with a 2 room cliff dwelling. One chamber seemed to be a granary; the other showed the heavy smoke stains of living quarters. The roofs were still sheltering both rooms. The larger one had a hole knocked out of the front wall, the work of pothunters, I suspect. Despite the plunder, there was a higher density of artifacts here than in any other ruin I have visited.

Corncobs by the dozen.

Potsherds everywhere.

The best specimens were these 2 pieces that seemed to be from the same jar.

An even more amazing find was this 800 year old corn husk.

And just when we weren’t looking for one, a petroglyph! I converted it to black-n-white to show more detail. My 2 cents – a person with a large Adam’s apple wearing an astronaut’s helmet is thinking about a guy (obviously) from another planet.

I do not know what the maker was thinking when he or she stood there pecking away at the sandstone several hundred years ago. The accompanying architecture clearly speaks of a lonely, desperate existence. Were spacemen preying on the Anasazi? Were the Anasazi preying on each other? Were they simply victims of an environment that could no longer support them?

I stood for a little while in this place that was home to a handful of people for a few years, hoping to understand what this was like for them. The intervening centuries brought changes in culture and technology that ultimately make it impossible to draw any parallel between my existence and theirs. The mystery remains and that makes me happy. If I had all of the answers I would never need to come back.

Rob and I climbed down to find that the rest of the group had scattered off in search of other ruins. This was our last full day here so we also wanted to make the most of it. We dropped off Dave and Marlin in camp, where they guarded the chocolate chip cookies that Logan left out from marauding ravens. I heard that most of the cookies survived.

I asked Rob to show me around some more, he suggested High House in Ruin Canyon. It was a 3 story structure placed on the spine of a ridge that we could reach before dark.

We went for a look, getting there just a few minutes before Dave and Jared. The structure was big and dramatic, with t-shaped doorways and a layout that clearly started out small and was added onto in several stages. But the site had been excavated and stabilized. It seemed sterile compared to the raw and secret condition of the little 2 room cliff dwelling we had found earlier. Sorry Rob, but you ruined me. That little gem is what I will compare all future Anasazi experiences to. Fingerprints in 800 year old mud mortar trump 25 foot high walls every time. Thanks for a GREAT trip!

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