Chimney Canyon is tucked away in a remote and mostly forgotten part of the San Rafael Swell in East Central Utah. The full length of the canyon is seldom descended and it has been on my list of places to visit for a long time, especially since there are relatively few corners of the San Rafael Swell that I have yet to explore.
It was Easter Weekend and Spring Break, but the canyon sounded like a good destination since it wasn’t popular. Steve Allen, a famous canyoneer of the region said that some people consider Chimney Canyon to be the most beautiful in the Swell. He also said that it is dangerous to descend without prior knowledge of coming up from the bottom end, but we were pretty experienced Canyoneers and have done many canyons in the Swell, so we weren’t too worried. The canyon also has the car shuttle from he**, which is probably one of the reasons that the canyon received few descents. The canyon can be completed in two days, but since the car shuttle was so long, we decided to take three in order to explore the area thoroughly and to get more bang for the buck.
Participants of the trip were my 71 year old dad, my 12 year old son Kessler, and my 10 year old daughter Shaylee, and of course, me.
Me negotiating part of the Chimney Canyon route with a 50 lb pack.
A pretty section of Chimney Canyon. The walls are very high.
The first order of business was the car shuttle. Thursday afternoon, Kessler, Shaylee, and I left from home for the drive to Chimney Canyon. We met my dad near I-70 and made the drive to the old Hidden Splendor Mine, where we left my dad’s old Ford Ranger. We then drove back up to I-70 and west and tried to find Lone Tree Crossing in the dark. This took several hours.
The road was much rougher than I remembered it and we stopped at a rockfall that was mostly blocking the road.
The next morning was rather chilly (22F/-6C) and we continued along the rough road early in the morning. I surmised that something wasn’t right and that we were in the wrong place. We must have been in Devils Canyon (?). We retreated back nearly to I-70 and found the correct road. After a long and dusty ride along sometimes rough roads we finally arrived at the trailhead around 10 AM.
Looking into the depths of Chimney Canyon from near the trailhead.
We found the old trail down into the canyon and continued downcanyon without a trail. The going wasn’t too difficult, though we had several minor obstacles and some slot sections. We also made sure that we explored every side canyon that appeared to be worthwhile. There were some nice side slot canyons that were fun to explore and that had some technical obstacles. Eventually we reached the first real obstacle of the day, a 50 foot rappel, with an old bolt station (and some ancient runners which I replaced). Luckily the deep pothole below the rappel was dry and the rappel was a pretty easy one and not too awkward. My dad isn’t as used to rappelling so he was more nervous. Since we couldn’t see how much spare rope was at the bottom and since I wasn’t sure how deep the pothole was, I lowered my son down in in order to check things out. The climb out of the pothole was doable, so everyone else followed. Not long after the pothole, there was a big chockstone obstacle to negotiate.
This is the descent route into Chimney Canyon.
A slot section of Chimney Canyon.
The colorful upper end of Chimney Canyon.
Exploring a side canyon in upper Chimney Canyon.
Shaylee and Kessler talking in Chimney Canyon. Most of the time, I don't know what they talk about, but they talk for hours during our hikes/backpacks. They get along very well for a brother and sister.
A scene in upper Chimney Canyon.
The first obstacle.
Part of the narrows section.
One of the fun sections.
My dad rappelling in upper Chimney Canyon.
A chockstone obstacle.
Upper Chimney Canyon.
Upper Chimney Canyon.
After the obstacle, we continued down canyon. The canyon was indeed beautiful and interesting and there were more narrows and slots. There were also some fantastic formations in the rock walls. We eventually reached the next obstacle, which turned out to be the crux of the trip. It was a sheer 66 foot/20 meter dryfall dropping into a pool.
Getting to the descent wall bypass on the south side involved traversing some narrow and exposed ledges and loose rock. Kessler and I pushed on ahead to scout out the route. It wasn’t pretty. I found the wall descent route, but I had underestimated the difficulty. The descent wall was reported to be 5.3 in difficulty, but it was also incredibly exposed and falling off it would be fatal. There wasn’t much in the way of possible rappel anchors, so I returned back to the others at the dryfall and decided to look for an alternative route. I surmised that we could rappel onto a ledge on the north side of the dryfall. There was a tree available for an anchor, but it was an awkward and sharply overhanging rappel.
I returned to the fall itself and found out that we had just enough rope to reach the bottom if I constructed a deadman anchor. My dad was scared of rappelling off a deadman, and said that he wanted to try the bypass. I was afraid that it would be too difficult and scary for him, but we decided that we would try it anyway. We negotiated the loose and exposed ledges over to the bypass wall. It sure looked scary to downclimb. I noticed that there was a small bush and an old dead log just up-canyon from the bypass. We could place the dead log against the bush and rappel off that. The rappel wasn’t that bad and I sent my son down first to check things out. After the rappel, it was a rough, but fairly easy scramble down to the canyon floor. We all breathed easy as we knew that it would be our last major obstacle.
This impressive wall in Chimney Canyon is called the Ghouls Wall.
A scramble obstacle to reach the ledges bypass. She probably should have put a helmet on, but she was already mostly up when I returned to this location.
Some of the formations in Chimney Canyon. These are all over the place in the middle section of Chimney Canyon.
This dropoff was the final obstacle in Chimney Canyon. To bypass it, we had to traverse some scary ledges to the left.
The canyon widened out slowly, but it was still beautiful, had high walls and some running water, and had some really nice rock formations.
Some of the rock texture on a vertical wall in Chimney Canyon.
Another impressive wall.
A wide and easy section.
We made our way to the North Fork, which we wanted to explore. We explored all the hidden grottos and side drainages of the North Fork and it sure was beautiful. Unfortunately, I left my camera back in the pack at the junction of the North Fork and main canyon.
Starting up the North Fork of Chimney Canyon. Unfortunately, I left my camera behind after this photo was taken and the best scenery in the North Fork was yet to come.
The typical scenery in the middle section of Chimney Canyon.
The North Fork drainages were spectacular and are reminiscent of the canyons in the Escalante country, with high walls, narrow canyons, and running water. We took one drink at a spring in a hidden grotto. We explored the two main branches of the North Fork as well as some very pretty hidden grottos in the side drainages. It was getting late, so after thoroughly exploring the area, it was time to return to the packs in the main fork were we continued down canyon. There was one small waterfall that made a fun obstacle.
The first spring we reached in Chimney Canyon. We were glad to reach water, which meant camp wasn't that far away.
Bypassing a small waterfall and big pool in Chimney Canyon.
We camped at a spring and old mining camp and at the junction of the South Fork and the Main Fork. It was a long, but very rewarding day and we didn’t have much daylight left by the time we settled into camp. At camp, there was a pet dinosaur that Shaylee fed.
Shaylee feeds the pet dinosaur that we found in camp.
The next day we decided to explore the south fork of the canyon and hike the old mining track, known as the Pasture Track. We bypassed the small waterfall near the mouth of the South Fork. We explored the South Fork first, which had two main branches and several smaller ones. The right fork looked more promising, so we explored that first. At a huge rockjam and fall, progress appeared to be blocked. We found a bypass on the left side that involved climbing up a small cliff, but my dad decided not to make the climb. The kids and I climbed the wall and explored the rest of the canyon. Eventually we reached a towering headwall and the biggest alcove that I had ever seen. There was definitely no way out of this drainage.
A wide and easy section of South Fork.
A massive arch in one of the branches of the South Fork of Chimney Canyon. It's huge, but I'm guessing that few people have seen it.
We then headed back and explored the left branch. It got better as we climbed up canyon and running water began to appear. The canyon was very scenic and had a massive arch and a pretty waterfall with travertine stalactites. Eventually, after several obstacles, we reached an obstacle which couldn’t be bypassed without some rock climbing gear. I wondered that if we could bypass this technical pitch, if there was a route to the rim. We returned back to camp after our explorations.
Some of the desert flowers we saw in Chimney Canyon.
Next on the list was the old Pasture Track, used by miners in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. We hiked down canyon and located the track and followed it north, passing an old Ford Car along the way (it must have been a really long way to the nearest gas station from here!). There were some spectacular volcanic dikes sticking out of the canyon wall and some petrified wood as well.
What's left of an old 1940's Ford car in the lower end of Chimney Canyon. There's no way you can get a car (or truck) in there now!
A volcanic dike intruded into the sandstone of Chimney Canyon.
Unfortunately, some dirt bikers had illegally found a way into the canyon and track and had torn up the place a bit. This was really disappointing in this deep in the Wilderness Study Area.
We had hoped to reach an overlook of The Chute of Muddy Creek and to look into its deep narrows, but we eventually ran out of time. We got a distant look at the narrows, but didn’t have time to route find through the cliff bands and to get a closer look. With fading daylight, we returned to camp. It was another great day.
High above the Chute of Muddy Creek (which is in the white rocks below).
Today we decided to use the old mining track past the Little Susan Mine and eventually to the Hidden Splendor Mine. The first order of business was to locate the old and faded mining track. We found it without too much trouble, though we lost it a few times enroute to the abandoned mine. We took a break at the Little Susan Mine and explored the old ruins. They were still in good condition, though some of the cabins had collapsed.
The wide lower section of Chimney Canyon (enroute tojust before it narrows again.
Huge rock walls dominate the scenery in lower Chimney Canyon.
The long abandoned Little Susan Mine.
Hiking the old abandoned mining track near the Little Susan Mine.
After exploring the mine area, it was just a walk along the benched and down a very scenic little canyon to Muddy Creek. The water was fairly cold, but it was clear and we had to wade it a few times before ascending the final rock bench to the vehicle. After reaching the vehicle, the only thing left to do was the long car shuttle.
This side canyon was our descent route to Muddy Creek.
Crossing Muddy Creek. The water was chilly.
It was a great trip and it was nice to see the entire length of Chimney Canyon. My consensus was that it was a great trip, but because of the long car shuttle, it was a one-time experience. We also had to carry much technical gear for three days. If I return to Chimney Canyon, I would most likely hike it from the bottom end and return the same way.
Even though it was Easter Weekend, we didn’t see another soul the entire time.