Lower Courthouse Wash
Lower Hackberry Canyon
Distance: 19.6 miles (plus 19.7 miles by car)
day 1: 6 1/2 hours
day 2: 4 1/2 hours
Elevations: 1,340 ft. loss
• Round Valley Draw Trailhead: 6,100 ft.
• mouth of Hackberry Canyon: 5,360 ft.
Trail: There is no trail for this hike, but the route is easy to follow. You will be walking down the streambeds of two desert canyons. The first 2.2 miles through Round Valley Draw is in the bottom of a very narrow slot canyon and some scrambling will be necessary to get over several chock stones and other obstacles. A 30-foot length of rope will come in handy for lowering packs in a few places. Once you get through Round Valley Draw it is an easy walk down the sandy bottom of Hackberry Canyon. Unfortunately, there is no water for the first 11.3 miles of this hike, so be sure to carry plenty. Some wading will be necessary for the last 6 miles, so you should use wettable boots.
Season: Spring, summer, fall, winter. Spring or fall are the ideal times for this hike. The canyons are very hot and dry in the summer and cold in the winter. For current conditions call the Kanab Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, at (801) 644-2672.
Vicinity: south of Bryce Canyon National Park
The Hackberry Canyon hike is well suited to those backpackers who enjoy remote areas with lots of solitude. It is in a rugged part of the state, between the Kaiparowits Plateau and the Vermilion Cliffs, where there are few good roads and fewer serious hikers. Unfortunately water is also scarce in this region, and the first 11.3 miles of the hike are waterless. Only after the gorge has cut nearly all the way through the Navajo Sandstone to the top of the Kayenta Formation, does a spring finally appear to wet the stark white sand on the canyon floor. At this point the canyon begins to undergo a dramatic change as the colors of life are added to the black and white textures of upper Hackberry. In the next few miles even the walls of the canyon change their hue from the harsh white of the Navajo Formation to the softer reddish tones of the Kayenta Sandstone.
The plateaus above Hackberry have been used by cattle ranchers since the 1800s, and traditionally they have depended on the lower part of the canyon as a source of water for their animals. A couple of trails into the canyon are still occasionally used by local livestockmen, but human activity is only a fraction of what it was at the turn of the century.
At the trailhead, where Rush Beds road crosses the top of Round Valley Draw, the draw is very shallow and uninteresting. The fun begins, however, about 0.5 mile further down the streambed where, in order to continue, it becomes necessary to climb down into a 20-foot-deep crack in the bottom of the gully. The crack is only 12 to 18 inches wide-too narrow to negotiate with a backpack-so you will have to lower your pack in with a short rope before climbing down. The narrows continue for about 1.7 more miles before canyon opens up again. In at least three more places you will meet interesting obstacles that have to be dealt with. Again, your rope will come in handy for lowering packs. At one point it will be necessary to crawl through a small hole under a chock stone; at another your ability to get through cracks will again be tested.
2.2 miles from the trailhead you may see a large stone cairn on the north side of the canyon floor. This marks the beginning of another trail coming down to Round Valley Draw from Slickrock Bench. Day hikers can exit the draw at this point and rimwalk back to their car on the Rush Beds road. The narrows end here and the hike becomes an easy walk along the dry, sandy streambed. After another 1.0 mile you will arrive at the confluence with Hackberry Canyon.
Once you reach Hackberry Canyon turn left and proceed in a southerly direction until you reach water, 7.8 miles farther down the canyon. You will know you are getting close when you see a few small cottonwood trees growing in the sand. Then a short ways farther the sand will turn damp, and finally you will start to see small pools of water along the sides of the canyon. At about the point where the water first starts to flow, 0.6 mile below the first cottonwoods, there is a good camp site on a sandy knoll on the right side of the canyon. This site has been used by cowboys for at least a hundred years. It is also the trailhead for Upper Trail, an old cow trail leading out of Hackberry Canyon to Death Valley. A short length of barbed wire fence at the top of the knoll, and a near-vertical cliff of Navajo Sandstone on the east side of the canyon will help you identify the site.
Like many of the place names in the West, there is an interesting story behind how Death Valley got its name. Cattlemen have long used this valley as a winter grazing pasture for their cattle. Their are no springs on the plateau, however, and the cattle depend on Upper Trail for their access to water. Oldtimers tell the story of how a cow once laid down and died on a very narrow part of the trail near the rim. The other cows were not able to get past the dead cow to go down the trail for water and, as a result, many of them died of thirst on the plateau above. Since that time the pasture has been known as Death Valley.
As you continue down Hackberry Canyon from the campsite the water begins to flow a little faster, but the stream is seldom more than a few inches deep. Dense vegetation lines the banks, and the easiest place to walk is in the center of the flat, sandy streambed. Wading shoes are very useful for the remainder of the hike, as you will be in the water more than half of the time.
After about ten minutes you will pass another fence, built across the canyon floor to keep cattle from wondering downstream, and a mile farther on you will see Stone Donkey Canyon coming in from the right. Stone Donkey is a box canyon with no access to the top, but it has nice spring near its mouth which adds to the meager flow in Hackberry.
1.9 miles below Stone Donkey Canyon there is a new feature in the canyon that was added in the fall of 1987. In that year a large rock slide came down from the west side of Hackberry, creating a dam across the canyon that backed up the stream for several hundred yards. A number of dead cottonwood trees reveal the size of the lake that was formed. The lake has subsided now, however, and it is not difficult to find your way across the rubble of the slide.
If you are observant you may see another trail descending into Hackberry Canyon from the west side a short distance upstream from the rock slide. This is the Lower Trail, another cow trail leading up to Death Valley. Nearby, the words “W.M. Chynoweth, 1892” have been scratched into the canyon wall. The Chynoweths were a prominent ranching family in southern Utah, and the name appears more than once in the area’s cowboyglyphs.
The next item of interest is Sam Pollock Canyon, 1.8 miles below the rock slide. If you have the time and energy you might want to drop your pack here and make a side trip into this canyon to see Sam Pollock Natural Arch (1.6 miles each way). The bottom part of Sam Pollock Canyon is filled with huge boulders from the cliffs above, and a lot of scrambling is necessary to get into the canyon. After getting through a half-mile of sandstone rubble you will be confronted with a 20-foot vertical pouroff that blocks the upper half of the canyon, but don’t give up yet. About 200 yards below the pouroff, on the east side of the canyon there is a relatively easy way up to a ledge above the pouroff. Once you are on this ledge you can walk upcanyon on a vague trail to a point just above the pouroff and then drop 15 feet back down to the streambed. The route is not difficult at all, but it is a little exposed at one point so be careful with your footing.
Once above the pouroff it is an easy 1.1 mile walk up the streambed to the arch, located near the top of the canyon on the north side. There are also more cowboyglyphs in the vicinity of Sam Pollock Arch. In a small cave just north of the arch you can see a glyph scratched into the rock by another member of the Chynoweth family: “Art Chynoweth, 1912”.
Continuing down Hackberry Canyon, be sure not to miss Frank Watson’s cabin. Watson migrated to Utah from Wisconsin at the turn of the century. Upon his arrival in Utah he changed his name, for reasons unknown, from Richard Thomas to Frank Watson, and for the next fifteen years remained completely out of touch with his relatives in Wisconsin. Many people came west at that time to begin a new life, and few newcomers were ever questioned about their past. Watson went to work for a while in the nearby town of Pahreah (now a ghost town in Paria Canyon), and in about 1914 he built his cabin in lower Hackberry Canyon. The cabin is still in surprisingly good shape after all these years.
The Watson cabin can’t be seen from Hackberry creek, so it is easy to miss. It is situated on the edge of a sagebrush-covered bench, some fifteen feet above the west side of the streambed 0.6 miles downstream from the mouth of Sam Pollock Canyon. As you walk downstream watch for a large red sandstone boulder, about 15 feet in diameter, on the west side of the stream. At the foot of this boulder you should see a vague trail going up the side of the bank to the cabin, which is hidden in the sagebrush only 100 feet away.
2.5 miles downstream from Watson’s cabin Hackberry Canyon makes a sharp turn to the left and knifes its way through a ridge known as the Cockscomb before converging with Cottonwood Wash. For the last 1.8 miles the canyon narrows to twenty or thirty feet, with cliffs of Navajo and Kayenta Sandstone dropping precipitously from the convoluted Cockscomb to the waters edge. It is very scenic. Finally Hackberry Creek emerges from the ridge to join Cottonwood Wash and the road back to Kodachrome Basin.
Content provided by David Day of utahtrails.com. Click here to order his book Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails.