Start ‘em Early
A first overnight backpacking trip in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
Blue sky peeks through the clouds as I zoom down Utah’s Interstate 15 off the edge of the high country. Juliet looks up from her book to take in the bright red landscape spreading below.
But my mind is still stormy. I had planned a trip to the Uinta Mountains, to be my seven-year-old daughter’s first backpacking experience. When the forecast called for freezing temperatures and snow in the mountains, I turned south. I scanned the state for a sunny forecast, as well as a reasonable drive, a short trail and a rewarding destination. This specific combination required a little research. Capitol Reef National Park was too cold. The trails I was eyeing in Canyonlands National Park were too far for our limited time. The southwest bit of the state was a fast drive and showed sun and 70 degrees, but Zion National Park’s reservable backcountry permits were all taken.
Then I thought of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, a vast conservation and recreation area that encompasses the canyons above the St. George metro area. It was a place I had passed by dozens of times and not thought much about. But it seemed to be the perfect solution. I found a short, accessible canyon in a quiet corner of the reserve. And on this day, when the early fall blizzard had rendered most of our drive along I-15 a bleak gray, Utah’s Dixie proved to be dependably blue.
Yet recent dad fails are pulsing through my head. I pictured the time I had taken Juliet on her first double black diamond powder run at Solitude Mountain Resort, resulting in a head-first fall and lots of tears. Then there was the ill-fated boogie boarding session where a freak wave crashed on her head and drilled her into the ground. This trip needed to be not long, not cold and definitely not boring.
So the stakes are high. We are hiking two-and-a-half miles, and they had better be magic. (Big Hollow trail guide below the article)
We exit I-15 at Leeds, turn past the Silver Reef ghost town, and rally down a Dixie National Forest road along the base of the Pine Valley Mountains to our destination, a pullout where the road curves around the head of the Big Hollow drainage in the upper reaches of Red Cliffs.
There’s no formal trailhead here, not even a sign. No other cars. We hadn’t seen a vehicle since turning off I-15. Juliet is confused. This is it? I tell her there’s not always a parking lot, map, kiosk, people. Is this really a good idea? I am thinking.
Even though I have most of our camping gear, Juliet will carry her own backpack, which she had meticulously packed. She went heavy on stuffed animals and books. The stuffed animals are fine as they compress nicely, I tell her, but you might want to rethink all the books, as they weigh a lot.
Backpacks on, I point out a cairn and we duck under some pine trees.
The canyon is shallow to start and we work our way down a slope of boulders. Big Hollow is an upper tributary of the larger Cottonwood Canyon system that spreads in wilderness through the core of the reserve. We can see Big Hollow deepen further down into sheer sandstone walls. The landscape here is a little different than other parts of red rock country due to the influence of the Hurricane Fault, which exposed the masses of bright sedimentary layers and led to cinder cones producing the igneous rocks scattered in the canyon.