With yet another winter storm coming into northern Utah for Memorial Day, I decided at the last minute to escape the rain and drive 4.5 hours southeast to run through another hidden gem in Utah that most people don’t even knows exists.
I had a spectacular 8-hour, 28-mile run in an area unofficially called the Wolverine Petrified Forest. I ran through two long slot canyons, Wolverine Creek and Little Death Hollow, and also visited the Escalante River. The region I was in is protected by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
This area is really off the beaten path. It is about 20 miles southeast of Boulder, Utah (as the crow files). Most people only go through Boulder if they are driving between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. From Boulder, you travel east on the narrow paved Burr Trail for about 18 miles and then drive south on the Wolverine Loop dirt road which passes through the petrified forest and gives access to various trailheads that descend down canyons toward the Escalante River to the south.
The 225-million year-old Wolverine Petrified Forest is the second-largest fossil forest of its age in North America (second to the petrified forest in Arizona). Few people know it exists. I didn’t until a few days before my run. It covers about 3,800 acres and the largest logs (nearly 100 feet long) are on the floor of dry washes in the area. Various other pieces have made their way down the slot canyons that I ran through. The entire region is littered with millions of pieces of black petrified wood.
I left my home at 1:30 a.m., and drove through yet another winter snow storm which slowed my travel. I knew that the storm wouldn’t be in the southeast portion of the state, and sure enough as dawn approached I entered perfect weather for a day of running.
I chose to do a huge loop, starting at the Wolverine creek (dry) trailhead. I would travel down Wolverine Creek, through its narrows, then down Horse Canyon to the Escalante River, and then run up Little Death Hollow to the trailhead. Finally I would run the last couple miles on the dirt road back to my car. I chose to leave Little Death Hollow toward the end because I knew my feet would get wet and muddy from a few pools in the slot canyon. This would normally be a three-day backpacking trip — for those who are normal.
I started my run just after 7 a.m. in cool, but perfect temperatures. It was a spectacular morning to be running in a remote area of Utah. My run started running down a wide-open dry Wolverine Creek. The further I went, the narrower it got.
Within about a mile, I reached an area strewn with petrified logs and stumps. I slowed to check them out. It was an amazing to think that this desolate area was once a tropical forest millions of years ago. Unlike most of the fossil wood in the in the more famous and much larger Petrified Forest National Park, the wood in the Wolverine Petrified Wood Natural Area is typically black on fresh surfaces. The surfaces of many of the logs are brownish when they are first exposed by erosion, but weathering soon removes the brown coloring and reveals the characteristic black color of the wood.
I noticed a couple very fresh hoof tracks in the sand and sure enough, as I rounded a bend in the river I came across a cow with its calf.
The further I went, the deeper the canyon became. The morning light increased and exploded the colors in the canyon as I passed by giant alcoves in the bend of the canyon.
I soon arrived at the narrows, more than a mile long, that carved through the sandstone.
With each turn, there was a new fantastic sight to see.
Water appeared in the river bed. The surface was harder and easier to run on if it was moist from the water. But with all the cow pies around, it didn’t look inviting to drink. I carried with me about 90 ounces of fluid, which would be plenty for my entire run.
The canyon opened up and flowed into the much broader Horse Canyon. I had run seven miles in about 1:30 including all my stops for exploration and taking pictures. The first thing I noticed about Horse Canyon was tire tracks. Vehicles are allowed to drive down near the confluence with Little Death Hollow. When I reached that point, sure enough I saw several vehicles and tents. Shortly after that I ran into a small backpacking group breaking camp for the day. A guy came up to me, curious to know where I was headed. He asked me if I was an ultrarunner. He was Andy Manning from Colorado. In the 90s he ran a few 100s, including a 24:42 finish at Wasatch. It was great to talk to him. I asked him if he knew the best route to climb out of the canyon to the west. He kindly described the route just around the next bend of the river.
I continued on and then started a steep, but non-technical climb up to “the notch.” On the way up I looked down and could see great views of Horse Canyon below.
Once on top, I set my sights on the highest bluff on the mesa, King Bench. Andy told me there were spectacular views up there.
Sure enough, the views were breathtaking.
I spent plenty of time up there resting and enjoying the 360-degree views.
Looking to the south, I could see my next destination, the gorge of the Escalante River, about three miles away by foot. It was amazing to see how it carved through the landscape like a snake.
I made my way back down into the canyon and ran another two miles down arriving at the Escalante River at about 11 a.m. I had come 14 miles in four hours and was at my half-way point.
I sat down and ate a nice lunch on the banks of the river. With all the spring runoff, the river looked high for the location, but not too bad.
It was now time for the most interesting and difficult part, running up Little Death Hollow. The slot at first was narrow and low. I could have run up above on a slick-rock ledge the slot for the first half mile to avoid the pools and mud, but I thought, “That is for wimps,” and I ran right into the slot. My feet were quickly covered in mud and I soon was wading through some short muddy pools.
The pools were never higher than thigh deep, but some were pretty cold. I went through about ten of them.
It was slow going. There were plenty of obstacles to go over, under and around. The most difficult obstacles were the giant chockstones that blocked the slot. These wouldn’t be too hard getting by if I was going downstream, because in many cases you can just leap off them, but in my case I was heading upstream and I had to climb.
I ran into about four difficult ones that would each time have me scratching my head how I was going to climb up and over them. I would use chimneying and other techniques that seemed to make sense and eventually get up and around them. But after all the miles I had traveled, I would start to cramp up as I inched my way up. I would run around a corner, see another one and yell, out, “Not another one!”
At times the slot was just a couple feet wide. It was an amazing place to “run.”
The formations on the walls were a spectacular sight.
I did have some company down there. Lizards would continually notice me and try to race me before giving up and climbing on the wall.
After several miles and more than an hour, the canyon finally started to open up. That was a relief and I could pick up the pace.
I was amazed to see so much petrified wood in the wash littered the entire length of the canyon.
My feet started to dry out but I was a muddy mess from the knees down.
The last two miles were on a defined trail that left the creek bed and went out across the desert. I could now run at a fast pace again. I was surprised to feel rain drops on me from a small rain cloud passing over. It felt great in the warm 70-degrees temperature.
I kept my eye out for the petroglyph rock. I found it easily, not far from the trail. It was sad to see so much modern vandalism carved into it.
I finally reached the Little Death Hollow Trailhead. There was no one around, but someone had kindly left a gallon of water there. I still had some left so didn’t need to use it.
My final 2.5 miles was on the Wolverine Loop road, to run back to my car at the other trailhead.
I took my sweet time because there was just so much to see. At times I would leave the road and just run on the slickrock.
There was also lots of petrified wood to see along the way.
I reached my car at about 3 p.m. My adventure run covered about 28 mile and lasted 8 hours. It had been a fantastic Memorial Day. For me, this is the grandest reward for all the training. It is thrilling to be able to pick out a spot on a map, do a little research, and accomplish a long run in areas that few people have ever seen.