Fish and Owl Creeks, Utah

Introduction

Fish Creek and Owl Creek are two deep canyons in Cedar Mesa, on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, southeastern Utah. They are lightly visited, with some estimates of about 5,000 visitors per year. Most choose to come in spring or fall. In the summer, temperatures can be over 100° F; in the winter, ice and snow make entry and exit difficult.

Cairn near the start of the trail in Owl Creek.

A trip into these canyons offers a wilderness experience, solitude, and the chance to see Anasazi ruins and wildlife. One can descend into Owl Creek, follow it up to the confluence with Fish Creek, ascend Fish Creek and climb out of the canyon, and then cut across Cedar Mesa to return to the trailhead. This trip is about 17 miles, but it is possible to make a much longer trip by exploring some of the side canyons.

Natural History

Cedar Mesa consists of Cedar Mesa sandstone, a remnant of sand dunes from the Permian period, approximately 270 million years ago. This pink and white striped rock is the same rock as most of the buttes in Monument Valley to the south, and the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park to the north. This dune sandstone tends to break along vertical cracks, called joints.

Today, Cedar Mesa and its canyons are home to mule deer, bobcats, and ringtail cat.

Getting There

Fish and Owl Creeks are located in southeastern Utah, approximately 40 miles southwest of Blanding, and 35 miles north of Mexican Hat. To reach the trailhead, take 191 south out of Blanding for about 4 miles. Turn right (west) on Utah 95 and follow this road for 29 miles to the intersection with Utah 261. Turn left (south) on Utah 261. In about 4 miles, you will see the Kane Gulch Ranger Station on your left. This is a good place to get information and advice. Another mile or so past Kane Gulch Ranger Station is the dirt road to the trailhead. Turn left and proceed about 5 miles.

Trip Advice

The BLM handout says, "This is a trip for experienced hikers only!", and I agree. Unless you have previously hiked in the Southwest, and unless you've been on several three-day or longer backpacking trips, I don't advise starting with Fish and Owl. There are plenty of neat places in nearby Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park that you could visit instead.

There are a number of factors which make a trip to Fish and Owl challenging. First, the remoteness of the location: the trailhead is far from the nearest town. If you get hurt, it may be a long wait for help. Second, getting out of the canyons requires an 800-foot climb up - not so easy if you have a twisted ankle or other injury. Third, the trail requires a bit of route-finding, as cairns are widely separated (especially in Fish Creek) and easy to miss.

Don't go alone! There are several places where having a partner is useful -- the first can help boost the second up, and then the second can pull the first up. Also, lowering and raising packs by rope is pretty difficult alone.

Flash flood debris surrounding tree trunk in Fish Creek.

Don't go if the forecast is for rain! Fish and Owl are narrow in places, offering little chance for egress, and there is a significant risk of a flash flood. Also, the dirt road to the trailhead is impassable when wet.

(March 17, 1999) BLM has instituted a permit and fee system for hiking in Fish and Owl Creeks.

Trip Report

We visited Fish and Owl Creeks in October, 1998. The weather forecast was good for the first day, but 30% chance of rain for the second day, and 50% chance of rain and thunderstorms for the third day. We ignored our own advice, above. In retrospect, we probably should have come back another time.

On the first day we had good weather. We arrived at the trailhead at 11 AM, and set off down the trail. For the first few hundred feet, we hiked on a gentle slickrock incline. Then suddenly the trail dropped out from under us. "We're going down that?!" was my reaction.

The trail went down quite steeply, and in some places we had to sit down and gingerly inch our way forward. After about half an hour, we met a couple filtering water on their way out of Owl. They would be the last people we would meet on the trip. They warned us to be careful, as just a few days earlier someone caught their backpack on a rock, lost their balance, and was badly hurt in a fall in the canyon.

Pour-off in Owl Creek, requiring a detour.

In another hour we were at the bottom of the canyon. We had to climb over a large boulder, and detour around some pour-offs (waterfalls that are often dry). One detour was poorly cairned, but a glance at the map would have shown a long detour to the left.

We stopped for lunch next to a large pool, where we could filter water. Seventy feet above us, someone had pitched a tent on a slickrock ledge, but we didn't see anyone around.

Towards dusk we arrived at Nevill's Arch. It had taken us about six hours to go five miles.

The next morning we had breakfast, and as soon as we set off, it began to rain. It would rain continuously for the next 14 hours, with the exception of an hour for lunch.

We arrived at the confluence of Fish and Owl Creeks, which was a brushy plain occupied by cottonwoods filled with bright yellow leaves. There was a clear junction where one could turn right, to explore lower Owl Creek, or left, to ascend Fish. (The trail to the right was obvious, but had been blocked off with branches to deter you from making a wrong turn.) If it hadn't been raining, we might have been tempted to detour, but the continuous rain dimmed our spirits.

Nevill's Arch, Owl Creek.

As we ascended Fish Creek, we stopped twice to watch Mule Deer. The day was very grey and chilly, and the cotton clothes we wore were getting soaked. We changed into polypropylene, Gore-Tex, and wool, and had lunch during a brief respite from the rain.

The hiking here was quite easy, over a series of slickrock ledges. After a few miles, Fish Creek began to get narrower, and the constant rain made us think seriously about the possibility of a flash flood. We tried to keep possible routes of egress in mind, were we to hear the "freight train" sound that would signal a flash flood.

At about 5 PM, we began to search for a campsite. Our first choice was abandoned when we realized that five feet above us was some flash flood debris. We had to backtrack half a mile to find an accessible bench fifty feet above the canyon floor, where we would be safe from any flash flood. The ground was muddy, and we were cold and wet. We set up the tent and crawled into our sleeping bags. It continued to rain until midnight.

At midnight I awoke and heard the water rushing in the creek below. It sounded like a torrent. Would we really be able to make the exit tomorrow? It didn't sound promising.

View of Fish Creek Canyon from the rim of Cedar Mesa.

At 6:30 AM it began to rain again, hard. It rained until about 7:30 AM. We debated staying put and waiting for better weather, but in the end we decided to pack up and go. When we climbed down from the bench to the canyon floor, the water in Fish Creek was muddy red from sediment, and the water level was noticeably higher. As we followed the trail north, we were forced to wade, sometimes in thigh-deep water, to make progress. (Under normal conditions we would have been able to hop from rock to rock.) We used a walking stick to probe holes to gauge their depth.

Finally we reached the place where the trail starts sharply up to exit Fish Creek. We climbed up, resting frequently. Although there were no really dangerous exposures, the uphill grade was significant. Finally, we reached the last 20 feet of the climb, where there was a crack too difficult to ascend with packs. We got out our rope, and I climbed the crack. My hiking partner attached the rope to the packs, and we lifted them up. Finally, he ascended the crack.

The view from the top of Cedar Mesa was remarkable. We rested, and celebrated our exit from the canyon. It remained to traverse two miles of a winding path on Cedar Mesa back to the Owl trailhead.

Trail along Cedar Mesa from Fish to Owl Creek.

Advertised as flat, it was hillier than I expected, covered with pinyon and juniper.

Maps

For this trip you'll definitely want to have maps. The best are the USGS 7.5" quads, available from the US Geological Survey. You'll need Bluff NW and Snow Flat Spring Cave. Your group should have should have two copies, in case of loss or separation.

Maps can be purchased, for example, at the San Juan Resource Area BLM headquarters in Monticello.

The map in Michael Kelsey's book, listed below, may help identify the locations of ruins and arches.

Trails Illustrated also sells the waterproof Map 706 (Grand Gulch Plateau), which has the advantage that you can read it in the rain, but the detail in this 1:62,500 map isn't anywhere near as good as the USGS 7.5".

After Your Trip

Fish and Owl Creeks are part of a BLM Wilderness Study Area. This means they are being evaluated for wilderness status, which would exclude road-building and motorized vehicles. If you think it's a good idea, you might want to write a letter expressing your opinion to BLM.

While you're at it, send a big donation to SUWA, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. These fine folks are trying to save wild Utah.

Books and Articles

The following sources discuss the Fish and Owl Creeks loop in varying detail.
  1. Michael Kelsey, Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 3rd edition, Treasure Chest Publications, 1995. A very valuable source of information. You can buy this in many bookstores in Utah, or order it by mail. Warning: Kelsey is a strong and experienced hiker, and tends to significantly underrate the difficulty and number of hours required to complete hikes for the average person.
  2. Dave Hall, The Hiker's Guide to Utah, 2nd edition, Falcon Press, 1996.
  3. Bill Cunningham and Polly Burke, Wild Utah, Falcon Press, 1998. Excerpt about Fish and Owl Creeks here.
  4. John Perry and Jane Greverus Perry, The Sierra Club Guide to the Natural Areas of Colorado and Utah, Sierra Club Books, 1985. Brief description of the canyons.
  5. D. E. McIvor, Birding Utah, Falcon Press, 1998.
  6. David Roberts, The trail less taken, Boston Globe Magazine, October 23, 1988, pp. 24-25, 50-56. Good description of the loop hike, done with an infant!

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