2011 Huge Cave in Maple Canyon

Another gift of nice weather in late October, and thus another quickly planned trip to get out of the house. And a chance to wear stylishly garish colors during the deer hunt. This time I was more interested in just getting out and hiking, and wasn’t even necessarily looking for a cave trip. I was searching for some hikes that have been on the back burner, and stumbled back across another Utah website. (They stole my brilliant idea to list and describe all the interesting places in Utah, but they had a headstart before I thought of it. So they can keep it.) I had browsed through their site in the past looking at their descriptions of places I had been and others I wanted to visit, and seeing their site again triggered my memory of a trip I had been meaning to make.

Maple Canyon is an interesting little spot tucked away in conglomerate rock cliffs. Southeast of Nephi, it is a relatively quick hop from the Wasatch front to spend a day or a weekend. I had heard it is renowned as a  rock climbers paradise, and after visiting it I can see why. I have done some climbing, but never seriously pursued it. Walking around in Maple Canyon I kept finding myself thinking how fun it would be to climb that spire, or that crevice, or even that big wall over there…

Hidden among the big cliffs and spires, there is a spot I have only seen referred to as Huge Cave. Rumors abound that it is a single room the size of a football field. I am well used to overly exagerated descriptions of caves, but it still seemed intriguing enough to go and see what was there.

Travel Directions: To get to Maple Canyon from the Wasatch Front, head south along I-15 until Nephi. From Nephi head east through the mountains until Fountain Green, stay on the west side of the valley and head south to Freedom. At the first road in Freedom you will head west and follow the road a short distance back northwest into the canyon itself. The pavement stops shortly inside the canyon, but it is a well maintained road up to the campground. (We encountered actual signs pointing out the turns from Fountain Green on. And a Google search of Maple Canyon Campground should get you there as well.) 

Once you reach the campground, there are some choices of where to stop. There is a couple dollar day use fee for the campground area. Signs are everywhere, but the obvious place to pay is right when you reach the campground by the first kiosks you encounter. Rock climbers can go anywhere and find something to do, there are better climbing websites to explain their climbing options. If you are headed for the cave, you want to follow the road along and go to very far end of the campground. About 100 feet before you leave the campground there is a small pullout on the left. There is a kiosk back in the trees 30′ or so that describe the hiking trail system. You are looking for the Right Fork Trail, and headed most of the way up toward the “Viewpoint” labeled on the maps.

Kiosk at the trailhead

The hike itself isn’t too long. Less than a mile one way. There are several small side trails that take off to the various climbing routes. Only one side trail stuck out as potentially big enough to be confusing, and you stay left when you hit it. The trail immediately starts to climb steeper than it has been to that point. It isn’t horrible, but I was happy to stop and catch my breath a few times.  You are headed to the “Pipedream” climbing area, we encountered a sign tied up on a tree with some rope. This is the more heavily trafficked trail, and you can’t miss the cave or the climbing routes as you get close.

Huge Cave itself is eye catching right from the start. About 20 feet up the wall, and a big black hole. We free climbed up into it with heavy hiking boots without any trouble, but both of us are well over 6 feet tall and have done a fair bit of scrambling in the past. A rope and someone confident enough to lead climb and belay would probably be a safer plan. Also be aware there are several pigeons that appear to live in the cave, that can be surprising as they fly out the entrance. There are plenty of big hand and footholds in the cobbles, but it is high enough that a slip and fall would be very bad.

The entrance of the cave has a three foot wall that you actually climb up and over, stepping down into the cave. The “entrance” is obviously an area that simply eroded open as the cliff has eroded back, happening after the main void had formed. It certainly isn’t the size of a football field, but it is impressively large none the less. 

The uphill end narrows down to a small crack. The downhill end has a large dirt pile, and had some minor water flow on the dirt that had come from the continuation of the crack system recently. The whole interior is fairly dusty, and pictures with a flash will look like a snowstorm if you have walked around much at all. It is interesting to walk around and try to hypothesize how the void formed, but there isn’t much more to look at than the big open space and ubiquitous conglomerate rocks. (There are a couple bolts we noticed inside, so somebody has done some interesting climbing.)

After the cave, we decided to continue hiking the loop over the viewpoint, and back down the Middle Fork trail. It is fairly steep heading up, and the trail was obviously less used and even partially washed out in a couple places. We decided we had to be on the right route when we found some extensive trail work creating stairs and erosion control. We followed our way up to the top, and followed the trail along the top of the cliffs. Despite the overcast and cloudy day, we still had some beautiful views looking down over Maple Canyon and out into the valley beyond.

The Middle Fork trail appeared to be more heavily used most of the way along. There was also a very impressive arch just a few hundred yards off the main trail, and one of the more impressive things to not miss if you are in the area.

On our way back out of the area, we noticed an interesting looking slot canyon. We decided it couldn’t go very far up, and decided to check it out as sunset rapidly approached. It was a very fun little spot, that was a fairly impressive slot canyon that was generally about 20 feet wide. After scrambling through some large boulder piles we found ourselves at a 30′ waterfall with a rope hanging down. We decided that was a good time to turn around in the semidarkness and cold, and found our way back out to end our day. (After doing some research later, the Box Canyon is private property that the landowners have allowed the public to continue to visit. Please be responsible and leave no trace if you visit so future access isn’t restricted.)

2011 Last chance to get out of the house?

Late October in Utah, and the weather starts to heavily impact my inspiration to be out and about. The forecast for the weekend looked absolutely beautiful, and there was no way I could stay inside all weekend long, no matter how many projects were waiting.

I checked with a few of my regular troublemakers, and was absolutely striking out. Lee came to my rescue by being available on Saturday, and willing to just randomly wander around Logan Canyon for a while. I had a potential lead that snow had been keeping me from checking off completely in the past, so a destination was set. I shuffled my weekend projects and goals around a little, and a loosely concocted plan jumbled its way into existence.

Saturday morning was a slow start, even by my own low standards. I had been out to a show the night before with friends, and had warned Lee it would be best to make sure I was out of bed before he started driving to meet me. My eyes had been open at least two full minutes before I received a text message asking if I was up. I dragged myself into the shower, knowing I had an hour to work with.  After showering I very slowly strung together some basic hiking gear. For a trip intending to walk around and maybe take pictures, this should take 5 minutes or less. After 15-20 minutes, I decided I may not be as awake and energetic as I would like to be. Luckily Lee had his own delays getting to the house, and since we didn’t have much of an itinerary, I puttered along until I had everything loaded up and ready.

On the drive from Salt Lake up to Logan, the wonders of modern technology might have intervened to save my life. Lee had a desire to try a breakfast sandwich from a fast food chain that was being advertised. His GPS not only gave us a location along our route, but also a phone number to confirm they were still serving said sandwiches at 10:30. (Like I said, slow start.) At the time I didn’t realize those sandwiches were the most real food I was going to eat for the next eight or nine hours. We anticipated actually walking for maybe 4 hours–eventually I will learn this is never going to be true.

By noon we had stopped and borrowed some forgotten orange items from relatives, covered the drive, and located our parking spot on the side of the road. (The opening day of the deer hunt seemed like a reasonable time to at least consider safety.) Lee wasn’t impressed by the overly steep start to get up along a ridge. I reassured him Steph had done this part of the journey before, and we weren’t in a big hurry. We slowly meandered up the hill, enjoying the perfect temperatures and beautiful fall day. There were still some pockets of spectacular colorful leaves on the trees, and we contemplated some of the various types of bedrock as we sat on outcrops for photo/breathing  opportunities.

Fall colors high in Logan Canyon

About the time we reached the high point of our planned trip, we made the mistake of looking at the cliffs above us. There were wet spots on the rock, and it seemed that someone should investigate this new development. Two summers of pattern searching have instilled a bad habit in me of making sure to check things while I’m close, so I don’t have to return if it isn’t warranted. Mostly this is a bad habit because sometimes I really don’t want to climb another couple hundred feet up the hill. But of course we went ahead and climbed up to investigate.

Along the way we discovered a small spring and several seeps being forced out of the hill by a non-porous bedrock layer. There were several small solution features, but nothing big enough to consider calling it a cave. We continued to check along the cliff band until an obvious stopping spot. Along the way we spotted some very obvious holes in the cliff areas we were headed to originally. Not only were the holes exciting and inspiring, more importantly they were all downhill from our current location!

Downhill turned out to be almost as exciting as working along the cliff band. It was steep terrain covered by leaves, and occasionally damp and muddy from seeps. We were both glad for gloves and hats partially protecting us as we zigged and zagged down the hillside. Along the way we stumbled across several more solution features, and found the dark spot I had seen a year or two prior that had started this whole event. It turned out to be a large fracture system with piled boulders that created a perfect shadowed entrance to a five foot long overhang. It was dissapointing it didn’t do more, but nice to finally take it off the list of back burner items to visit someday.

Original hope, up close

Further down a gully between the cliffs was another feature I had seen in April that I wanted to check out. It had looked like a small cave entrance with dirt and vegetation that could be dug out of the way. I headed to the left side wall to hit my lead, and Lee kept working the right side. I found my feature and was momentarily ecstatic. There were deposits of spar over an inch thick visible. Further investigation proved my “dirt” was actually solid bedrock. And the spar deposits seemed to originate from a hole smaller than my fist. Wonderful feature, but definitely not a cave I would be getting into.

Spar in a feature

About this time Lee was yelling something to me about whether I wanted to check out any of the holes near him.  I hadn’t looked back his way for a few minutes while I was checking on my hole. I asked him where they were, since there wasn’t anything obvious from my spot sitting by the spar. I stood up and took a couple steps back his way to get a different view through the trees, and it became apparent which holes he was asking about.

Black and "cavey" looking

Glorious black round hole! My crashing adrenaline rush from the spar moments before went through the roof. Four to six feet wide for certain. Absolutely looks like it is going directly into the bedrock. And I need to get some of the crazy people rounded up before I come back to try and visit it. I suppose I will consider having a lead that intersting looking a good problem to have.

At this point we had to decide our exit strategy for the day. As fun as it would be to keep checking the cliffs, we were going to run out of daylight soon. Back up over the ridge would require some time to get up the hill with reasonable rest breaks. Downhill to the river would take far fewer rest breaks. But down to the river could be an issue if we were trapped between the water and the cliffs. We knew we could wade the river this time of year, but the two of us have a long history of going out of our way to keep our feet dry. It would be a shame to have to wander down the road back to the vehicle in dripping jeans!

We decided to chance going downhill, and work along by the river. As we stumbled through the scree piles below the cliff, Lee was even dissapointed we were missing sections of the cliff that could be checked with more time. He’s not even the one who necessarily cares about finding caves, he was just along for the excuse to get out for the day! He had observed during the day that looking for something greatly reduces the number of miles you have to cover to fill a day, and there was some satisfaction in knowing you had seen everything there was to see in an area before moving along. We occasionally looked back over our shoulder as we worked our way along the river, and found we definitely had another excuse to putter around some when we came back for the high lead. The twilight made it tough to tell if the hole went back very far, but it certainly looks promising for now.

The hole can’t be seen very well from the road, but I think the ledge system below it is visible. So hopefully I can check it with binoculars and see if it can be traversed. If necessary to get there from above, the rappel would be even more exciting than the round high lead we found earlier. Maybe more exciting than I want to deal with myself.

We lucked out, and could get back over some low cliffs without getting our feet wet in the river. We had just enough daylight left to drive up the canyon and try to spot everywhere we had been during the day, and then enjoy the fall leaves on the way down the canyon. I was mulling over what we could call our discovery if it panned out into a nameable cave. “Get out of the house” cave seemed too long to be functional. Lee asked if “OutHouse Cave” was an available name. I haven’t heard of another one offhand, so that may end up sticking. We’ll have to prove it is a cave worthy of such an elaborate namesake first of course… :-)