ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SOUTHWEST
Hike B3. Leprechaun Canyon
- Hiking time: 5 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 3.0 miles
- Elevation gain: 500 feet
- USGS Topo Map: Turkey Knob
- Difficulties: 4 rappels up to 30ft, many downclimbs and narrow slots as small as 15in wide
- Special equipment: 80 feet rope, 50 feet webbing, 4 rappel rings, full rappelling gear, gloves and protection for knees and elbows
- ACA Rating: 3B III
The southeastern corner of Utah is a scorched wilderness of sandstone rock, crevassed by the movement of the earth, wind and water and baked by the searing summer sun. Not much lives here: a few hardy shrubs and small animals capable of finding coolness deep within the ground. Some pioneers survived their travels through this land; virtually none stayed for it was not possible to live here. When the Glen Canyon Dam was completed, Lake Powell flooded a spidery maze of canyons and men came by boat to enjoy the beauty of the rock and the water. Roads were cut and paved to allow access to marinas within this network and the beauty of the wilderness surrounding Lake Powell began to be appreciated and enjoyed.
It is a landscape of huge vistas with great redstone cliffs and flat mesas as far as the eye can see. The relief is dominated by the enormous canyons cut by the Colorado river. But that great river also has thousands of tributaries. Each of these has its own canyons, often extremely deep and narrow because of the special way in which the storm water runs off this bare land and cuts deep slots through the slickrock. And so for a huge area, this land is riven through with narrow slot canyons, places of special beauty and adventure. In this collection, we describe descents through several of the slots accessible from Utah Highway 95, the road that runs from Hanksville down to the Hite crossing of the Colorado. Just past the junction of Highway 95 with Highway 276 there is a group of readily accessible slot canyons on the north side of the road that are called the ``Irish Canyons''. This includes Shillelagh, Blarney and Leprechaun Canyons. Each of these have several forks. Here we describe a descent of the Left Fork of Leprechaun Canyon; the Middle Fork is longer and more arduous; the Right Fork is similar to the Left but bypasses a particularly interesting section below the junction of the Middle and Left Forks.
Leprechaun Canyon is very narrow in places, sometimes no more than 1ft in width. Consequently it is not for those with a heavy build nor for those who suffer from claustrophobia. Though the hike is quite short, squeezing through this defile can be both exhausting and very hard on clothing. Wear old clothes and cover your elbows and knees otherwise you will leave skin in the canyon. The Left Fork requires four short rappels and much downclimbing with chimneying, stemming and body-jamming.
The hike is best undertaken in the spring or fall in order to avoid the 100 degree plus heat of the summer (though it is much cooler in the slots). However, the danger of flash floods is extreme and so you should keep a sharp eye out for thunderstorms, particularly late in the day. Even in summer, there may be foot deep pools to wade so be prepared for wet feet.
The trailhead for Leprechaun Canyon (38o1.06'N 110o32.19'W) is a short dirt road spur on the northeast side of Highway UT 95 just southeast of the junction of Highway UT 276 and Highway UT 95 roughly 26mi southeast of Hanksville, Utah. Drive southeast down Highway UT 95 from that junction to milepost 28.1 and look for the short dirt spur on your left. Pull in a few yards and park.
Note that it is particularly important to identify Leprechaun Canyon correctly. Though the canyons to the northwest (Blarney and Shillelagh) provide excellent canyoneering adventures, the next canyon to the southeast, known as Sandthrax Canyon, is much harder and is dangerous for all but the highly experienced. However, if you park in the right spur road, Leprechaun Canyon is almost directly ahead of you and an error is highly unilikely.
From where you parked (elevation 4450ft) hike along the dirt spur road as it veers a little left. The road quickly becomes a rough use-trail that follows the wash into Leprechaun Canyon. As you hike up the wash, look for a large side canyon on the left about 20min and 0.7mi from the start. You want to climb up the apex of the slickrock nose (38o1.51'N 110o31.97'W) separating this side canyon from the main canyon. While steep in a few places this ascent is quite straighforward though it takes a little route finding to avoid steep places or substantial exposure. Make sure that you can access the ridge top even though you may veer left or right to pass some high points. You should detect a use-trail in places. About 4750ft elevation you should begin to get a good view of Leprechaun Canyon and all of its forks below you on the right. As you near the mesa top just a little further on (about 1hr from the start) at 4830ft, follow the use-trail to the right of a low bluff and you should encounter an old 1922 Survey Marker. This spot must have been truly remote in 1922! There is another great view from the rim beside the survey marker.
Looking down into Leprechaun Canyon
Now on the mesa top, it is easier to discern the use-trail. Follow it along the canyon rim for several hundred yards and you will come to the first of two small forks that form the start of the Left Fork of Leprechaun Canyon. Contour around this first small fork to the apex between the two forks. You should reach this drop-in point (38o2.08'N 110o31.71'W and elevation 4940ft) about 1hr 20min and 1.5mi from the start.
Team downclimbing At junction with Right Fork
Before beginning your descent check carefully to ensure that you have found the right place. The two small forks are both about 100yds long and have one small, easily descended step at the rim followed by a 20ft cliff that is mostly undownclimbable. The descent of this step is just to the left of the apex between the two small forks. From there you should be able to easily walk down the slickrock to the junction of the two small forks and the start of the Left Fork of Leprechaun Canyon.
At the slickrock junction of the two small forks, the streambed drops about 30ft into a narrow slot. This necessitates the first rappel. The anchor is a deadman in a small water-filled pothole just a few feet back from the lip. You should rebuild the deadman to ensure its viability. In doing so it is wise to extend the webbing all the way over the first edge of the lip. While this may make the entry to the rappel a little harder it greatly eases rope recovery. You will note the grooves in the rock worn by the ropes of previous visitors. From the bottom of this first rappel it is but a short distance to the top of the second, a 20ft drop from a sling into a shallow pool. During our descent we found webbing anchors at all of the rappels though you should be prepared to replace the webbing. There followed some great narrows with a number of challenging downclimbs.
About 3hrs from the start at an elevation of 4680ft you will arrive at the top of the third rappel, a 30ft drop from a deadman anchor into a knee-deep pool. It is possible to climb around this rappel on the left side but the rappel is safer. More narrows follow. The canyon broadens briefly before closing in again and here you come to the awkward fourth rappel, a 15ft descent using a webbing wrap around large boulder. About 20min later and 3.5hrs (and 1.9mi) from the start at an elevation of 4580ft you will come to the obvious junction of the Left and Middle Forks of Leprechaun Canyon (38o1.82'N 110o31.73'W). Take a few minutes to explore up the Middle Fork which is very narrow (about 1ft wide) and, as mentioned earlier, is an arduous descent. Downstream of the confluence, the canyon also becomes very narrow and you begin the most challenging section of this hike. Not only is it physically exhausting but it is also quite damaging to your clothing. Few people escape with intact shorts!
In Belfast Boulevard Zigzag slot at end of Leprechaun Canyon
The challenge begins almost immediately with a section of inclined slot that is only about 15in wide. The inclination makes it surprisingly difficult to move forward. Then the slot drops deeper and you may want to get out your headlamp for it will get even darker. Next you come to a place where a substantial rockfall has blocked progress along the slot. Depending on the deposition of sand in the canyon bottom you may have to climb over this rockfall, but we were able to crawl and squirm underneath it in the dark. Here you do need your headlamp. The crawl ends at a 12ft downclimb where you chimney down in the dark. This is followed by more 15in narrows that open up a little before you abruptly arrive at the end of the very narrow slot and at the junction with the Right Fork (38o1.76'N 110o31.76'W).
The junction with the Right Fork (elevation 4540ft) is marked by many names scratched into the sandstone. You should arrive here about 4.5hr after the morning start. You might take a moment to climb up the Right Fork but your way is soon blocked by a substantial drop that is the last rappel in the Right Fork.
While the junction marks the end of the super narrows, just downstream there is a spectacular, broader slot including a section known as ``Belfast Boulevard''. Here a broad tunnel down below (often with a shallow pool) allows passage but has a high and very narrow slot up above it. Belfast Boulvard suddenly opens up into a beautiful broad canyon where you feel able to breathe again after hours of constriction. After a few hundred yards of easy hiking there is one last section of narrows cut into the canyon floor. These short narrows have an interesting zigzag section but soon end as one returns to broad canyon. From here it is an easy walk in the wash down past the nose where you began the ascent earlier in the day. You should reach the trailhead (38o1.06'N 110o32.19'W) a little over 5hr from the morning start having covered a total distance of only 3mi.
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Last updated 6/20/04.
Christopher E. Brennen