Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Part 1: Cottonwood Canyon and Speckled Wash

My first hike upon returning to Utah was an incredibly beautiful one despite the clouds. Okay, it was not just beautiful, but totally amazing. This was my first time at the Red Cliffs, an area that features a (stunning) raised reef of red Jurassic-Age Navajo sandstone. Tom, Terry, and I started from the Cottonwood Trailhead and branched out onto the Prospector Trail but ventured off the path almost immediately, skirting the base of the cliffs. Shortly thereafter, Tom and Terry pointed out what seemed to be (to me – having not been here before) a large cottonwood growing in the midst of the cliffs. We hiked towards it then began climbing the rock until we were looking down on the little patch of grass nestled in an small eroded basin.

We continued walking along the reef for a couple miles, deciding to go up to the top for the return hike. Tom and Terry agreed on the best place to attack the cliffs and we scrambled up to the rim. This was particularly amazing not only because we were randomly climbing a cliff but because the views were spectacular. And with stops for rest and for the person ahead to clear the next ledge, we had time to enjoy the incredible sights along the way. Reaching the top we were treated to vistas of the mesa top and the Pine Valley Mountains as well as the look-off from the cliff, all of which were beautiful.

We hiked back along the ridge for another couple miles and I soaked in the 360-degree beauty before we dropped into a wash that would lead back towards the trailhead. Sections of the wash have beautifully-sculpted smooth sandstone walls as well as fantastic erosion patterns but what’s most interesting are the incredibly unique rocks that litter the sandy bottom; there’s a great deal of variety in color and shape but most common here are those with polka-dotted patterns. I don’t recall seeing patterns like this before and I have thus named this area Speckled Canyon.

Finally, we exited the dry bed and crossed the fields of tuff in order to reconnect to the trail. It was a wonderful day — between the opportunity to explore off-trail and the mind-blowing beauty of this area, it quickly became one of my favorite hikes, and a place I look forward to returning to.

View from near the Cottonwood Trailhead, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

View from near the Cottonwood Trailhead, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Prospector Trail, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Prospector Trail, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Baby rattlesnake, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Baby rattlesnake, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Cottonwood tree peaking out from the cliffs, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Cottonwood tree peaking out from the cliffs, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Looking along the reef while climbing, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Looking along the reef while climbing, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Terry looking down on the tree and the basin, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Terry looking down on the tree and the basin, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Looking down on the cottonwood that we saw from the base of the cliffs, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Looking down on the cottonwood that we saw from the base of the cliffs, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Hole in the rock, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Hole in the rock, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Abby surveying, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Abby surveying, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Little arch, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Little arch, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Looking back, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Looking back, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Going up the cliffs (or, what I do when I'm waiting for the person in front of me to scramble up to the next level), Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Going up the cliffs (or, what I do when I’m waiting for the person in front of me to scramble up to the next level), Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Tom climbing up to the rim, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Tom climbing up to the rim, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

View across the mesa, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

View across the mesa, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Looking down and back while hiking along the top, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Looking down and back while hiking along the top, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Tom and I at the top of the cliffs, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Tom and I at the top of the cliffs, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Speckled wash, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Speckled wash, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Speckled wash, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Speckled wash, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Cool erosion in the sandstone, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Cool erosion in the sandstone, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

More interesting erosion in the wash, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

More interesting erosion in the wash, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Polka dot pattern in sandstone, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Polka dot pattern in sandstone, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Polka dot pattern in sandstone, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Polka dot pattern in sandstone, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Speckled Jim, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Speckled Jim, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Speckled wash, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Speckled wash, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Crossing plains of volcanic tuff, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah

Crossing plains of volcanic tuff, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah