Water Holes Canyon

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Trip Notes: We Play More Slots: Water Holes Canyon

We'd read some notes on the web about a slot canyon called Water Holes, also on Navajo land, so we'd inquired about it and found that unlike a lot of the local slots, it was still open for hiking (with permit). So we paid for the appropriate permit and headed south.

We made a quick stop at Horseshoe Bend, mentioned in the "Page Photography Guide" we'd picked up at the visitor's center on our first day. It's a 3/4 mile hike in from a pullout off the road to a spectactular bluff overlooking the 180-degree bend in the Colorado River. One interesting thing about Horseshoe Bend which makes it different from the scenic tight bends around Moab (Bowknot, Dead Horse Point) is that Horseshoe is immediately downstream from Glen Canyon Dam, which means that nearly all the sediment carried by this river, the most sediment-laden in the country, has been filtered out. In Moab and in the Grand Canyon the Colorado is brown or occasionally green, but at Horseshoe Bend it's blue and fairly clear. It's an odd thing to see if you're used to the normal appearance of the Colorado! Quite a few boats were floating downriver -- the current is very slow, and one was sitting stationary with several fishing lines out. I guess a lot of boats run from the dam to Lee's Ferry or into Marble Canyon until wherever the first rapids begin.

On to Water Holes Canyon. The Navajo have a little map with a sketch of the geology (the canyon is all in Navajo sandstone, as we'd suspected for Antelope but which none of the glossy Antelope brochures mentioned, which sits on top of a Kayenta sandstone layer) and a rough map. We were told that they prefer people explore in the upstream direction but not downstream, since that direction has dangerous drops which require ropes. After parking, we followed what looked like the well marked trail to the entrance, which turned out to lead to a fairly tricky descent. Probably climbable without too much trouble, but Dave thought we should look to see if there was an easier entrance, so we went back up top and almost immediately spotted a cairn (the universal trail marker in desert/slickrock lands) and followed it to what turned out to be a much easier climb down into the canyon.

Water Holes near the entrance is a perfectly respectable narrow canyon, made of impressive cross-bedded Navajo sandstone with all sorts of interesting stuff embedded into it. It would have been a lovely hike at any time, but it didn't seem very "slotlike" after Antelope. But we headed upstream, and the canyon gradually narrowed until after perhaps a mile, perhaps less, it was indeed a slot canyon: as narrow as Antelope, though not quite as tall. And, the bonus, we had the place nearly to ourselves, for as long as we wanted. (There were two other cars parked in the parking area; they turned out to be together, and we chatted with them later on and picked up some good advice about other local sights. Much later, two cars pulled in just as we were leaving -- some of the folks from our Antelope Canyon tour.)

We hiked and looked and photographed (using the techniques practiced earlier that day) and speculated about geology as we wandered upcanyon. By and by, I dropped back to shoot something or other, and Dave went a little ahead, and when I caught up with him, he was on the other side of a tricky traverse over a mudhole. (The eponymous "Water Holes" are deep potholes which presumably are created by boulders crashing around during flash floods, which then accumulate water, mud and whatever else comes roaring down the canyon.)

Dave said I might have trouble with this particular traverse: it involved leaning across the hole, but it was a bit of a stretch for him, and he thought at the time that my arms might be too short to do it that way. A little tentative experimentation suggested he was probably right about that. He offered that probably just jumping down into the pothole and walking through the mud, then climbing up, was probably the way for a short person to get there; he thought that was probably what he'd have to do on the way back, since the move he'd made on the way in wouldn't work in reverse. I was doubtful, but the hole was partly dry, partly muddy, so at least I could jump down onto the dry part and step cautiously onto the mud to see what it was like.

So I did. The dry part was very spongy and soft: my feet sank in a bit right away, like soft turf. I didn't trust the muddy part at all, and I climbed back out. Dave offered, "Let's throw some rocks down, then you can use them as stepping stones." He grabbed a rock from his side and tossed it down -- and it disappeared immediately. Glup, glup.

It also splashed a bit, revealing to our noses that the contents of the hole were mostly not mud, but cow pie. Cow pie quicksand.

This left us with a dilemma. I had no safe way to get across the hole and see the rest of the canyon. Worse, Dave was now on the wrong side of the hole, with no safe way to get back. (He said some of the stuff just upstream from there was really nice -- but not THAT nice.) Dave started throwing more rocks into the hole, apparently on the theory that he would fill it up and make a pile of rocks he could step on (or something?), but in fact succeeding only in splashing smelly cow poo all over everything. I decided it was time to make a hasty retreat back downstream and take some more pictures of the nice canyon until Dave was done throwing rocks at the poo hole.

Eventually he found a way to get back across, involving a scary maneuver with some poo risk, but he arrived unscathed (whew!) and we headed back down the canyon, stopping frequently for photos.

When we got back to the starting point, we made a detour to go downstream to the bridge where the highway crosses the canyon. More nice stuff in that direction, but just past the bridge we got to the first dangerous drop, and as we'd been warned, it was fairly significant and not something we'd want to attempt casually without safety equipment. At the bottom was a car, apparently fallen from the bridge. Ouch.

Time to head back to the car and back to Page. We climbed up out of the canyon (it was hot up top! Surprising since the temperature was so nice the whole time we were in the canyon) and hiked across the slickrock back to where the car was parked. We were getting ready to go when Dave noticed he didn't have his camera case (with the spare batteries plus the flash cards holding most of the days' pictures) anywhere. Tragedy!

So we went back into the canyon, and we ended up hiking nearly the whole thing again before the missing case was recovered, and chatting with a local woman about the canyon and other good places to go. We left her at the Poo Hole (which she vaulted over casually) and headed back to the car, for real this time.

Mediocre dinner at Peppers, the Marriot's restaurant. The Water Holes Canyon woman tells us that the best restaurant in a hundred miles is in Marble Canyon: Cliff Dwellers. It doesn't look like our schedule will permit trying it this time, but now we know. Page could use a few good restaurants.

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