Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Tales from the Crypto – Gravel Canyon

Posted in Utah by canyoneering on April 8, 2010

Gravel Canyon, 3BIV
approximately 8 miles
Cedar Mesa


So about that title, “Tales from the Crypto”, what does it mean? Crypto refers to cryptobiotic soil, which is a crust like layer of soil formed by a cluster of living organisms such as algae, cyanobacteria and fungi. The organisms within the soil release a material that binds the soil particles together into the crust like material. This soil is prevalent in arid regions such as the Colorado Plateau. To see a photo of cryptobiotic soil during our trip in Cedar Mesa click here. Living in and exploring the southwest, I have seen my fair share of cryptobiotic soil but never to the size and scope as in Cedar Mesa. This was just one of the many wonders we found while exploring Gravel and Cheesebox Canyons in this awe inspiring wilderness.

As we approached Gravel Canyon from the car park it was cold and I guess that would make sense as it was early in the AM and we were at over 6600 feet above sea level. We quickly descended through a series of side canyons negotiating through a fair amount of snow. The narrows and the water began. The former tight and beautifully sculpted. The latter cold and crystal clear. Though never too technically difficult, for several hours the canyon barely relented presenting us with fun down climbs, boulders to climb over and under and lots of long swims. The scenery was magnificent, way beyond what I was expecting.

When the narrows finally did relent, Eric and I climbed and traversed the multi tiers of cream-colored Cedar Mesa sandstone to two separate sets of Anasazi ruins built into the canyon walls that we had spotted from the narrows below. The exposed and strenuous climb to reach the ruins made experiencing them up close all the more rewarding. In addition to walking alongside a series of well-preserved structures we saw pottery shards and partially fossilized corn cobs. It was beyond amazing to stand in this place and think back to the time where people actually lived and raised their families in this very place.

Returning to the canyon bottom, Eric and I moved quickly to try and catch up to Chris who had gone ahead. The canyon dropped sharply into another set of narrows filled with water. The sun was now at the highest point in the sky and direct light was penetrating into the bottom of the abyss, illuminating the sparkling pool below. Very inviting. Having worked up a serious sweat climbing to the ruins with 7mm wetsuits half on our bodies, I foolishly chose not to fully zip back up my armor before climbing down into the narrows. Soon as my body submerged into the freezing water I knew I had made a serious mistake. Halfway through this long swim I felt my muscles tighten and my body constrict. I was certainly going into shock. Eric swam alongside me while yelling at me to keep moving. The moment we could stand he helped me get fully into my suit and zipped me up as I immediately peed into the fully enclosed neoprene and instantly felt the life return to my body.

After catching up to Chris we found our exit, a beautiful side canyon, which formed into a narrow slot before we climbed out onto the rim above. The long rim walk back to the car was through the most expansive, crustiest and largest cryptobotic soil I have ever seen. We reached the car just before sunset, fully exhausted and inspired; quite the way to start the trip.



4 Responses

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  1. […] Read “Tales from the Crypto – Gravel Canyon” […]

  2. Steve Schwartz said, on April 8, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Beautiful as always. I’m amazed those corn cobs and shards were in tact after all these centuries. Does that imply that almost no one ever goes where you guys did?

    • canyoneering said, on April 8, 2010 at 3:25 pm

      No, it doe not imply that nobody went where we went. In fact, there are multiple sources that provide information on where Gravel Canyon is and where the ruins are. Having said that, Gravel Canyon though a known route is remote and physically demanding so sees less traffic than other places. The ruins themselves are easy to see to from the bottom of the canyon but quite difficult to climb up into. So even less people that visit the canyon actually go up into the ruins. Unfortunately information about these ruins cite that in the past there were more artifacts than now, suggesting that people have illegally taken these artifacts. People that visit Indian ruins should look but not touch and certainly not take.

  3. […] Read “Tales from the Crypto – Gravel Canyon” […]

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