Trip Report: Behind-the-Rocks Traverse (Moab)

Behind-the-Rocks Traverse (Moab)
By Donn Seeley
HIKE 04/23/2022 MSD

Starting in 2009, I made four annual trips, exploring the Behind-the-Rocks area just south and west of Moab. This area is full of fins and joints in Navajo sandstone, and navigating through it is really tough. It's also spectacular, with big walls and deep canyons, full of unusual topography. On each visit I worked out a new route, and it became apparent that in spite of the insanely difficult terrain, there might actually be a class 3 route through the maze from one side to the other that hit the highlights of all of my trips. I spent hours poring over maps and satellite photos and came up with a possible overall route. In 2012 I finally tried to put it all together, and we did succeed in crossing from Hidden Valley to Pritchett Canyon, but we ran out of time for the wonderful lower section and had to come out through an escape route in the middle of Pritchett.

Ten years later, I decided to try again. I figured that if I didn't need to spend as much time on routefinding, we could do the whole route in a day.

But first we had to battle the weather. The forecast for Friday kept getting wetter as the week wore on, going from a 20% chance of rain to a 40% chance and then to a 60% chance. On the drive down US 6 from Price, the rain and wind were brutal. My passengers, Hong and Bob, weren't excited about setting up tents in a muddy campground, and Hong used her phone to make motel reservations in Moab for the night.

When we arrived in Moab, there were heaps of hail in the gutters. After unloading Hong's and Bob's baggage at the motel, we drove to the reserved group campground in Kane Creek. I had warned some folks about the wet conditions by text, and a few of them had declined to come on the trip. Others showed up at the campground and set up tents in the mud. The campground had a couple of picnic tables under a shelter, and when the rain squalls passed through, we shivered under the roof. I managed to cook dinner in spite of all of this, and afterwards I drove Hong and Bob back to Moab. When I returned, there was another squall, and at the end of the squall the sun came out briefly and made a gorgeous rainbow.

Saturday morning was cool but dry. I decided that we should prepare to do the long traverse hike, but be ready to bag it if the conditions at the start of the hike showed that it would be muddy and unpleasant. I let the starting time slide a bit, hoping that the landscape would dry out.

After leaving a shuttle vehicle and picking up Hong and Bob, we drove to the Hidden Valley trailhead. We hit the trail a bit after 9 AM. The Hidden Valley trail has been improved in the last 10 years, and it's much easier to follow now. We had fantastic views of the white-cloaked La Sals as we gradually climbed up to the Moab Rim. The trail was in fine condition, so after checking out some petroglyphs, we stepped off the trail and into the fins.

My memory of the route was actually pretty good, given that 10 years had passed. The scenery is still insanely gorgeous. We got to visit many beautiful overlooks and to admire the artistically stained Navajo sandstone walls. There was plenty of scrambling, and some of it was a bit challenging for class 3. The soil wasn't particularly muddy, although there were pools of water in places. I had managed to erase a lot of the bushwhacking from my memory, though, and we ended up in a few thrashes. It was chilly when passing clouds blocked the sun, but warm when the sun was out, so it was hard to decide what layers to wear.

The group did a great job of sticking together and helping everyone get through the tough spots. I was amused and a bit concerned at the notorious “5-foot drop” pour-off, though. As on every previous trip through here, everyone looked at the overhung drop and decided that it was too hard. I kept saying that it was just 5 feet, and that became a running joke for the rest of the trip. Eventually Hong volunteered to be lowered over the edge, and by standing next to the lip, she demonstrated that the drop was almost exactly 5 feet. After that, some people just jumped it, while we lowered others using muscle power.

I made my one major routefinding mistake shortly after. I managed to walk past the ramp that goes up to the final notch, and we ended bushwhacking down a narrow joint. Eventually I told people to wait while Gabe and I scouted the lower end, where I was forced to conclude that we were off track. We backtracked and quickly found the ramp. I got some fun photos of Connie and Hong in the notch, and we then descended the (much longer) ramp on the other side.

There were motorheads in Pritchett Canyon when finally reached the jeep track. We saw a couple of Jeeps with lift kits, which surprised me a bit, since the Pritchett track is in terrible condition — even dirt bikes have trouble on some parts of it. The BLM rates it a 9 out of 10 on its difficulty scale.

We made it back to the Kane Creek road at Pritchett in about 9 hours. That's really good time for this gnarly route. Everyone deserves a medal!

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