This is the story of our journey through Forbidding Canyon. Forbidding Canyon is a spectacular and seldom visited canyon system on the west slopes of Navajo Mountain. The plan was to meet Jason and Sonia near the mountain and then to spend 8 days exploring the canyons, climbing peaks/buttes, and any side trips and side slots.
After meeting Jason and Sonia at Inscription House the night before we left a car at both the Cummings Mesa and Cliff Canyon trailhead (with much trial and error since roads on the Navajo Reservation go both everywhere and nowhere. Sonia had also brought her poodle along and I was a bit skeptical because the animal was so small.
Jason in Forbidding Canyon on April 6 2009.
After waking up with 22F outside, we all left the vehicle and set off to find the Cummings Mesa stock trail. Decades ago this was a well constructed trail, but it hasn’t seen much use in about 70 years and the elements have ravished it and it took some route finding. Eventually we lost a trail, but it didn’t matter much as we just set out cross country and made our way through the cliffs and bluffs directly into the East Fork of Forbidding Canyon. We found some really interesting rock formations along the way. Woodrow the poodle showed us all up by showing us that his tiny little body could scamper up and down cliffs better than we could.
We dropped our packs here and set off to explore up the east fork for the rest of the day. We found that the East Fork was a spectacular gorge with high walls, narrows, huge cliffs and alcoves. We explored the alcove to find some ancient artifacts such as arrowheads, bone fragments and large pot sherds. Of course we left everything in place.
After exploring the East Fork for several hours we returned to the packs and headed down the gorge to its confluence with the main fork. We found a wonderful campsite next to a nice waterfall.
Heading down to Aztec Creek from Round Rock.
This is a section of the East Fork of Forbidding Canyon as viewed on April 5 2009.
After a discussion we decided to forgo exploring up the main fork of Forbidding Canyon and to explore down canyon. We explored down canyon and made a few detours around some deep pools, but we found that on one long bypass we needlessly climbed to high into the bluffs. We explored one side canyon, but found that we couldn’t go that far without some tricky climbs. It was also brushy in the lower end, but we pushed the route as far up canyon as we could without climbing gear. Other than that the day was mostly uneventful and we camped next to a waterfall at the confluence of Forbidding Canyon and Tsagiato Canyon.
Aztec Creek tributary.
Watery passage along Aztec Creek.
Camp is below and in the shadows.
Sonia’s knee was hurting a little bit, so Jason and I set off to explore some slot canyons and to climb some bluffs and cliffs towards Cummings Mesa. We followed the rim of the slot canyon we had found and agreed that the slot looked difficult and impressive. We found that we could climb up the cliff bands much farther than we thought and we continued up through the Navajo Sandstone. Since our little excursion was expected to be short we chugged water in the morning and didn’t take any water and food up the cliffs. Jason thought that there was a possibility that we might push the route to the top of the huge and towering cliffs of Cummings Mesa, but without much water I declined to push the route up.
Jason and I separated and he set off to try and climb Cummings Mesa while I decided to stay close to some potholes I could drink and to climb some of the lower peaks and domes. I succeeded in climbing two of the domed peaks and could see Jason up higher and above the next cliff bands.
Jason was unsuccessful in pushing the route all the way up the towering cliffs, so he returned to where I was. We drank more pothole water and decided to explore the benchlands some more and to go to various viewpoints.
After climbing down through the bluffs and cliffs, we descended the slot canyon mentioned above, but we didn’t do the last section. I wanted to descend the rest of the slot canyon, but Jason suggested that if we couldn’t downclimb the final pitch (which looked quite difficult), re-ascending the slot would be a difficult proposition. We then returned to camp but met Woodrow along the way. He must have heard our voices and climbed up the cliffs to meet us. We had expected a short jaunt of about an hour, but we whittled half a day away on exploration.
We all discussed our next course of action. We all wanted to explore Tsagiato Canyon, but the weather forecast for the next day wasn’t good. I was worried that the main canyon below might be unsafe if it rained since there were rumored to be either some difficult climbing to bypass slots or swimming through several of the slots themselves. After a discussion, we sadly decided to press on.
After doing some easy hiking we came to a narrow section of the canyon where the water filled it wall to wall. We noticed a bench on the left, but I decided to test out the direct route through the narrows. I waded all the way through first and found the cold water to be belly deep. The long wet section could be avoided, but would require climbing some old moki steps (steps original carved by the ancient people and perhaps improved later by the Navajos.
Continuing down canyon there were several water filled slot sections. All of them could be bypassed via tricky climbs, sometimes on old moki steps, but there was one section that Jason and I couldn’t resist. We dropped the packs and did the slot directly. We jumped off the waterfall to find (as we expected) the water was ice cold. We swam through the long pools of the slot and emerged happy and cold.
We continued downcanyon through more and more obstacles until we came to what was the last one; a huge waterfall in the gorge. Jason chose to climb the left wall to a high and exposed bench while Sonia and I climbed the right. Jason shouted to us that our side was impossible and that we should return, but later he also shouted that his side too was impossible because the ledge pinched out.
Now what? We were sort of confused. I found an old monument with JW inscribed on it (almost certainly left by John Wetherill in the early 1900’s). I must be on to something. I found a series of brushy ledges leading down a steep chute that was only a 15 foot drop into a pool. It appeared that with a short rope we might be able to reach a protruding rock and from there jump into the pool. I assume this was part of Wetherill’s route, but the lower part of the ledge had collapsed.
I shouted to Jason and he lowered his pack off the cliff on his (left) side of the canyon and then he returned and came to the right side. We climbed down the ledge route I had found and it appeared that we may have to jump in the water for a long swim. Jason climbed down first with some webbing we brought for a handline and found that there was a ledge next to the pool that we could use without swimming. I lowered the packs to the others before climbing down myself. We all made it down the ledges and skirted the pool at which time after which we made good time to Cliff Canyon. Exhausted, we set up camp just after sunset.
Swimming through a section of Forbidding Canyon on April 7.
Moki steps along Aztec Creek.
A high route bypass.
John Wetherill inscription (early 1900's).
Today was the day we had been waiting for. We would finally complete our route through Forbidding Canyon all the way to Lake Powell. We expected it to be fairly challenging. We found out that the rest of the canyon was very spectacular, but not difficult. We even found we could avoid the rumored “mandatory” long swimming section by climbing up and traversing some ledges. After completing the canyon to below the high water mark of Powell (Jason went on a little farther) we returned up canyon to camp.
Jason on a high and exposed traverse to find a way around our final obstacle on April 8.
Since we were a day ahead of schedule (due to our missing of Tsagiato Canyon on April 7) we decided what to do with our extra day. We had the choice of going over to Rainbow Bridge or to explore the high benchlands over to Cathedral Canyon. We found a route to climb up the domes and cliff bands and found some fantastic pictographs (Harvey Halpern told us about them since he explored this lower canyon extensively) up on a smooth wall. They were in absolutely pristine condition since very few people have visited them in modern years. They were really nice and the largest painting looked like a dinosaur.
We continued up the cliff bands and ledges to the top of the Navajo Sandstone. We followed the sometimes rugged (and sometimes easy) benches over to the head of Cathedral Canyon enjoying all the fantastic scenery and views along the way. On the way back I almost got hung up on a ledge, but I was able to slide down it. After returning to camp we decided to push on up Cliff Canyon and up to the junction of Redbud Pass and Cliff Canyon. It was a great and rewarding day.
A highly unusual view of Navajo Mountain taken from the benchlands between Forbidding Canyon and Cathedral Canyon. Getting to the area where the photo was taken takes several days and requires climbing skills.
Sonia and I wanted to spend a layover day here to go over to Rainbow Bridge, but Jason thought it would be nice to get home a day early. I didn’t mind so much since I could do some exploring on the way home, namely at the Comb Ridge and besides the weather forecast for the next day wasn't that great anyway.
All that was left was to hike out the old Rainbow Bridge Trail and back to Jason’s vehicle. We would even be on an old trail (used quite a bit between 1922-1965 before people started to come to the Bridge by boat). The trail isn’t used much anymore, but is still in pretty good conditions. It was rather relentless though and had much elevation gain. It climbed ruthlessly out of Cliff Canyon and then crossed up and down three more canyon systems. It wasn’t too hard, but now by day 6 we were all beat up, bruised, scratched, bloody and tired so it slowed us down a bit. It took us seven hours to complete the nine miles and was a great trip with good friends.
Starting up Cliff Canyon.
This photo is looking down Cliff Canyon from near the rim.
The flanks of Navajo Mountain are near the end of our journey.
South Rainbow Trailhead.