IntroductionHog Canyon is an impressively rugged gorge cutting through thick sandstone layers in Dinosaur National Monument. It also guards its secrets well and most of the canyon is seemingly inaccessible. The lower end of the canyon is a gentle and friendly place with a crystal clear stream gurgling through ambient grassy meadows. A century ago, Josie Morris homesteaded the area and kept the lower part of the canyon as a corral since animals couldn’t go very far up the canyon.
Although I had been hiking in Dinosaur National Monument since at least the early 1980’s, Hog Canyon was the earliest of the technical canyons that I attempted in the Monument. This was in April 2003. It took four tries over a 13 year period to finally descend the canyon.
As mentioned, the very bottom of Hog Canyon is warm and inviting, but with big scenic walls, but the upper end of the canyon has a huge headwall. What lay between these two locations was a big question mark. I knew that it wasn't a tight and classic slot canyon, but I still wanted to descend the canyon and it is an impressively deep gorge.
George, Ron, Peter, Kessler (my 14 year old son), and I decided to make an attempt on the canyon on June 18. I had actually posted on a few outdoor forums several other times this year, but this was the first time I could get a group to commit to the trip.
At first, I had planned two full days in the area, but things came up and I could only go for one day. I actually had two canyons in mind (Hog and another one), but since the days are so long in June and since neither canyon was very long on paper, I had hoped that we could descend both of them in a single day, albeit a possible long one.
One thing I did learn however, is that you should never trust a canyon that drops 2300 feet in less than one horizontal mile.
This trip report is a summary of our explorations of Hog Canyon, including past attempts.
We found the canyon to be a very scenic and beautiful canyon, but it was a more difficult descent than I thought it would be.
April 20 2003: Attempt #1This was my first attempt to explore the length of Hog Canyon. After spending the previous day exploring and completing the technical west fork of Box Canyon, which is just east of Dinosaur National Monument (not the other Box Canyon next to Hog Canyon), Steve Mezteg and I made an attempt to ascend Hog Canyon. We found it to be a beautiful canyon, but after much bouldering and scrambling, we reached a barrier falls that we could not climb. I estimated it to be 70 feet high and overhanging in spots. We turned around at that point. It was obvious that if we wanted to see the rest of Hog Canyon, we would have to descend it rather than to ascend it. We were out of time, however.
It was a still a great weekend. The West Fork of Box Canyon was nice and Steve was good company. Steve, who had lost his leg climbing the Diamond on Longs Peak didn’t let it slow him down when it came to climbing and other adventures.
March 31 2012: Attempt #2My brother Richard, his wife Holly, friend McKenzie, my son Kessler and I decided to make an attempt of Hog Canyon. We tried Hog Canyon and climbed up the challenging ridge between Hog and Box Canyons. We tried to stay near the rim of Hog Canyon in order to peer into the canyon. The ridge was 4th class (maybe a little harder) and quite exposed in places, but eventually we found ourselves on a rock dome more than 1000 feet above the floor of Hog Canyon. Crossing the gash in the ridge between the dome and the rest of the ridge appeared to be very technical. I observed the head of the canyon, which was visible from the dome and thought that it held a weakness in the rock that might only have pitches of less than 120 feet to descend.
We did however find a possible route into Hog Canyon. Directly below the dome was a steep chute than led to Hog Canyon. It appeared to be a viable route.
We descended the incredibly steep chute and found that it was quite technical with several 5th class downclimbs and three rappels. It was a little intimidating, but after much work, we made it to the main canyon and then down canyon to known ground. Unfortunately, the chute landed us right at the bottom of the barrier falls that Steve and I had visited previously, so we really didn’t get to explore any more of Hog Canyon. The west fork chute wasn't the best route in the world and was certainly more of a chute than a real canyon. It was a great adventure though.
May 11 2013: Attempt #3This was our third attempt on descending Hog Canyon. Julie, Kessler and I met for an yet another attempt of the elusive canyon. I had wanted to complete the canyon since we only did the left fork last year due to being cliffed out on the approach.
With high hopes we set off up the south face of South Split Mountain for our 2300 feet/700+ meters) approach climb, this time on the east side of Hog Canyon. At first the going was easier than the previous year's route. We ascended and incredible rock ramp to the rim and then attempted to follow the rim as much as possible.
The route was solid class 3, then class 4 and then had two hairy, but short 5th class pitches thrown in. We were stopped at a lateral crack that we couldn’t cross without much risk. We could peer deep into the depths of Hog Canyon and saw what looked like an impressive narrows section.
We were probably 2/3 up the mountain, but we decided to bail on this approach. We came down the canyon to the east of Hog Canyon and named it Nohog.
We also found a very dark slot that was so narrow that you needed a headlamp to get through. We also discovered a fine double arch and one other huge arch (the longest I know of in northern Utah) and likely almost never seen by anyone else.
The canyon had several tricky downclimbs, but we were able to get through and only did one big rappel.
In the late afternoon we explored Hog Canyon from the bottom in order to view the final rappel yet once again.
We weren't successful in reaching our intended goal, but it was still a good trip.
June 18 2016: Success!It was time for another attempt of Hog Canyon. Kessler and I finally found three more willing partners to give it another shot.
Because of our previous difficulties on the approach to the head of the canyon, we decided to take a different approach to the problem and to do a car shuttle to the top of the Yampa Plateau, where we could hike to the head of the canyon, hopefully without too much difficulty. I had also thought of using an alternate route from the bottom of South Split Mountain which stayed away from the rugged rim of Hog Canyon, but in June it didn’t sound appealing to climb that steep route that was fully exposed to the sun.
Peter, Ron, George, Kessler, and I all gathered at the Welcome Center in Jensen to discuss logistics. Since we planned on doing two canyons this day, I suggested Hog Canyon first since the second canyon planned was more of a slot and would be more shaded for the afternoon. Hog Canyon faces south and gets more sunlight, so it would be nice to not do it in the afternoon.
We decided to leave two cars at the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument and to leave mine at the mouth of Hog Canyon and to all pile in George’s truck to drive to the top o the plateau. The ranger at the entrance warned us that the road was in very rough condition and that we would beat up our vehicles trying to attempt it. With two 4x4’s and some trepidation we decided to try it anyway, since the alternative driving route entailed a long roundabout way through Colorado and the Harpers Corner Road.
In reality, we were relieved to find that the ranger’s report was grossly exaggerated and the road was actually well graded, though steep. I could have taken the Subaru, I said out loud. It was a very scenic drive as well. We started in the desert and there were many pine trees by the time we reached the top of the plateau. We navigated by map and GPS in order to locate the less used road to the Yampa Plateau. This road was much less used, but still not extremely rough. We stopped just before the steep drop into Docs Valley. It was a good place to stop since the road was very washed out below this point. It had taken us 1.5 hours to reach this point since leaving my car at the mouth of Hog Canyon.
We sorted out gear and decided to leave lunch behind since we expected to be at the vehicles in a reasonable time for a late lunch. It was destined to be a hot day, so we took 2 liters of water.
We followed the old track down into Docs Valley and then around the hills to near the head of Hog Canyon. There were some up and downs in the already hot sun, but we were sure glad that we didn’t try the alternative route up South Split Mountain.
Once we located the correct drainage, we headed down in. The drainage was very rugged and had quite a bit of bushwhacking. It was slow going. It was evident that Peter, Ron, and Kessler (the youngest three members) were the strongest members of the group with George and I going strong, but lagging slightly behind. We still were in high spirits and made it to the big drop down into Hog Canyon. It was a huge drop. Topo maps are misleading. Even though the topo map does show a big drop, the drop is even bigger than the map indicates.
We had 520 feet of rope available (one 120 foot rope and two 200 foot ropes), an additional 200 feet of pull cord, and maybe 200 feet of tubular webbing. I had told everyone that from the dome I had spotted a place where the rappel sequence might be 120 feet or less. We only had to find it.
George discovered that sometime during the rugged approach to the fall, he has lost his 200 foot rope. Not good. I sent Kessler back with George to see if they could find the rope. Since the last part of the approach was the most rugged and the most likely place to find the rope, I expected to see them again in a few minutes.
Ron and Peter checked out the drop in detail and Ron threw the rope down in a few places. Peter thought the rope was at least 30 feet short of touching the bottom, but it could have been farther than that. We decided to look around for other routes.
Peter and I took two different routes to the bench above and then traversed it west. At one corner I found a route which looked a lot better than tying one down the initial drop. We could see all the way down canyon from the ledge. Ron joined us shortly after and set up the anchor, while I took off to look for George and Kessler.
I left the water back at the packs near the drop and set off, expecting to meet them soon. I became more and more worried since I didn’t see them. I made it all the way back to the vehicle without seeing them. Where were they? I was really worried. It was unusually hot for June as well.
Worried, I headed back down to the canyon and down the drainage (easier said than done) where I still didn’t see them. I climbed up to the bench and found that Ron and Peter had completed the first rappel and were waiting for us on a ledge. I expressed my concern that I didn’t find George and Kessler and said that I might need help. I told them that I would go back and look for them. When I walked east back towards the big drop though, I was relieved to find them. They never did find the rope, but got another one from the truck.
The fiasco brought up two puzzling questions. How did three people scan the same route we had done twice without seeing any signs of the lost 200 foot rope? How did we miss each other when following the route back to the vehicles and then back to the same drop?
I was very thirsty and I had to drink nearly a liter of water, even though I was trying to ration it. I was relieved to find out that George and Kessler drank much water while back at the truck.
The rope problem seemed to be solved, but it came at a high cost. We lost almost four hours during the incident. Even rationing, we drank a fair amount of water.
George was exhausted and said that he would rest and then hike back to the vehicle. He gave Kessler and I a little of his water and all of his webbing (about 100’). I respected George for his decision and it turned out to be a good one since our challenging were just beginning (though we didn’t know at this point how challenging the canyon would end up being).
Kessler and I climbed back up to the ledge and followed it to where Ron and Peter were. I yelled down happily that I had found George and Kessler and that George was going to head back. I asked if we should come down to the ledge. They yelled in the affirmative and Kessler and I made the near 200 foot rappel down to the ledge. Since they didn’t have the other 200 foot rope at the time, the rappel was rigged with one 8.3 mm rope and a pull cord. I am not a fan of long single line thin rope rappels, but luckily for this one, Peter was kind enough to provide a belay while sitting under a shaded and safe little alcove in the ledge. I was especially thankful since on the rappel I went over a bush which pulled up my shirt which got caught in the rappel device. It wasn’t hard to get it out, but I had to rip it.
Unfortunately, Peter and Ron had been baking in the sun on the ledge for several hours. Peter had also made a very tiring ascension of the rope to near the top of the rappel. There was only that tiny little alcove spot with any shade at all on the ledge. On the plus side, I promised that once we get done with the technical section of the canyon, there would be a crystal clear spring spurting from the rocks.
I retrieved the rope and pull cord from the anchor, knocking down a big rock in the process. Luckily we were out of the danger zone and not standing in that area.
Even though we had rappelled nearly 200 feet down to the ledge, we were still several hundred feet above the floor of the canyon. Ron and Peter had explored the ledge and found a possible way down on the north side of the ledge we were standing on. When the ledge we were standing on pinched out, there was another tinier ledge and tree about 40 feet below. I rigged a rappel of a root of a bush that was growing in the rock. It seemed solid, but there was one problem. George, who turned back had most of the rappel rings. I rigged the rappel without a rappel ring, since it was the shortest of our rappels down the three stage 420 foot drop. I didn’t want to leave any caribiners behind just yet.
Ron rappelled down to the ledge and rigged the tree for the final rappel down the headwall. After tying into the tree and leaning over the cliff, he could see that the rope would reach the bottom.
Peter followed and rappelled the remaining near 200 feet down to the base of the headwall. Kessler and I then followed and made the very dirty and loose rappel through a crack down to the ledge with the tree. Kessler when down the big drop first while I tried to retrieve the 120 foot rope. I couldn’t budge it. I really regretted not using a biner as a rappel ring (although I have done probably done well over one thousand rappels, very few of these were without some sort of rappel ring). I would have rather sacrificed the biner than the rope. Try as I may, I couldn’t budge the rope, but I did succeed in showering myself with rocks. Unfortunately, this was the only rope pull that we didn’t test out first, probably because of the exposed ledge at the tree.
Now what? We had wisely brought two sets of ascenders, but they were already with the others at the bottom of the headwall. I could ask someone to tie them to the rope and I could haul them up in order to use them, but I was already feeling weak from being in the hot and direct sun for so long and was worried about running out of water. I was also worried about pulling loose rocks down on myself since I was already doing that even before I tried to ascend the rope. I didn’t think I could ask someone else to ascend the almost 200’ foot rappel and up to me and then to ascend up the next one. Disappointed, I decided to leave the rope where it was. I sadly (it was one of my favorite ropes) hooked into the rope and made the last big rappel to the bottom of the headwall. The device and my caribiner were very hot by the bottom! Unfortunately, we didn’t get many photographs of the headwall descent, but Kessler did manage to get one of me on the last sequence.
Ron and Peter had done an excellent job of pioneering the route down the headwall. The question I had however, was where the route down the headwall was that we saw in March 2012? It appeared as if it had a much shorter rappel than the 420 foot drop that we just completed. Did we miss it? Was there an obstacle in my field of vision that obscured part of the cliff? Was I fooled on the length of the drop due to the sheer immensity of the canyon walls? I still don't know.
I expected that the hardest part of the route was now behind us, but the next section of canyon was still unknown. We still had 1300 feet to descend before we were in known territory.
Ron commented on how beautiful the canyon was, but water was what was on most of our minds. Luckily much of the route should be shaded from here on. Towering walls surrounded and enclosed us in a spectacular box canyon.
Although the gorge wasn’t technical at this point, it still dropped quickly and was strenuous. There was lots of bouldering and scrambling. The steep slickrock made a pleasant descent in a few places, but in most places the going was very rugged. Peter was out of water and the rest of us were nearly so. I was starting to suffer from the heat and dehydration. We had less than a liter of water left (the water George gave us). Kessler, Peter, and I shared the last of that water. The water was hot, but was needed. Thoughts of the spring were in our minds. Every time I tilted my head down, water would pour out of it from sweat that was getting trapped in there. At this time, we decided to take off our helmets for a time. We were just losing too much water from sweat.
After much scrambling, which seemed endless at times, we finally found ourselves at the head of the narrows. Ron thought the narrows looked too brushy, and wanted to bypass them. I wanted to descend them, especially since the greenery seemed to indicate that there might be water somewhere in there. We split the group, with Ron staying on the west rim of the narrows and the rest of us descending. Ron had plenty of rope and so did we.
At this point, Peter was starting to suffer from dehydration and let us know that he felt weak. We did a difficult 5th class downclimb into the narrows and to a bench where we took a short rest. I rigged the next rappel down a brushy crack to the floor of the canyon. This time, we left behind a sacrificial biner. I didn’t want to take any chances losing the rope. After we were down the rappel, we continued downcanyon. It was a beautiful section of canyon, but there was bushwhacking in places that slowed us down, even though the bushwhacking wasn’t severe. There were several drops to bypass or downclimb as well.
We met Ron again at the top of another rappel in the canyon. He had rappelled back in the canyon at this point. Ron rigged the rappel. This was the easiest and most pleasant rappel in the canyon. It was in an especially scenic section of the canyon as well. I was asked if it looked familiar and if it could be the last one and I answered in the affirmative hoping that this was the last rappel. It did seem shorter than I remembered though.
I rappelled first in order to get photos, and Peter went second. We suggested he go on ahead so he could get to water. We told him to yell if he reached water, but we heard nothing but silence. I went next in order to get photographs. Kessler went last.
Ron didn’t seem to be suffering, or at least didn’t tell us about it, but Kessler’s and my mouth was extremely dry by now and it was hard to swallow.
We continued down canyon and found Peter standing at the top of a big rappel. Apparently we weren’t done yet. I rigged this one with the last of the 100 feet webbing left to us by George. That made a total of 125 feet of webbing used in the canyon, much more than expected!
Again we sent Peter on ahead after he rappelled down first so he could get to water. After completing the rappel, we continued down the steep canyon with much bouldering. Peter yelled up some advice for us to stay left. After much scrambling we heard Peter yell up canyon that he had found the trail and less than a minute later he yelled that he was at the spring. Elation! Soon we met Peter waiting for us at the trail and we all walked down to the water. The clear and cold water flowing out of the rock was incredible welcome and we all spent much time drinking the refreshing water and letting it cool our throats and quench our thirst. It was now later than 8 PM!
Upon reaching the spring, the character of the canyon immediately changed. It was still beautiful, but much gentler. Tall green grass surrounded the clear flowing creek. The canyon was wide, but the walls were still impressive. Instead of scrambling, bushwhacking, and rappels, there was a nice and nearly level trail. There was some healthy looking poison ivy around, but it was easy to avoid. We were tired (well, at least I was), but we knew that the end was near. It was an easy hike back to my vehicle which was left at the lower trailhead. After thirteen years and four attempts, Hog Canyon was now fully explored!
I drove us all to the entrance of Dinosaur National Monument. George was called and wasn’t far away. Ron had a cooler full of ice and ice water!
Unfortunately, Kessler and I had to get going and couldn’t stick around. I felt bad that we couldn’t wait for George, but we had somewhere to be early in the morning and still had a two hour drive ahead of us.
Hog Canyon was a spectacular descent, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. If anyone does, let me know and I’ll be happy to provide a reward for returning my rope. Somewhere near the head of the canyon, George’s rope also lies hidden somewhere and is waiting to be found.
AftermathHog Canyon was beautiful, but difficult; 11 hours to go two miles (the canyon itself was just under a mile long). Anyway, I am learning that my body just doesn't take the abuse that it did 20 years ago. The kind of trips where you come home exhausted, take a shower, patch up the wounds, and still leave blood stains on the sheets in bed the next morning, where you have to use the work week to recover for the weekends are taking a toll. ;)
I used to say that if everyone's not bleeding by the end, it's not a real trip, but I must say that I am ready for some easy weekends. Something like climbing the Colorado 14ers or something similar.