How bizarre it is to be walking in a lush, wet canyon - in this very dry land where can the water possibly be coming from? To answer this geological conundrum we would have to follow a seep traveling underground for miles on a journey that may take years to complete. Sandstone, in our part of the world, is fairly porous, and this allows water to drip downward. Moving laterally along the path of least resistance the flow continues until it reaches a canyon wall. When it finally erupts to the surface, it trickles out to form a spring creating that wonderful gift – an oasis in the desert.
Culvert Canyon is one of these unique curiosities – a serene riparian refuge filled with trickles of intermittent water and a collection of pools. The Bureau of Land Management in Moab has identified it as a high-use recreational area to be managed and maintained in its natural condition.
It’s not far from town: to get there drive 4.2 miles north on Highway 191 and then turn left on Highway 279 (Potash Road). Then drive 10.5 more miles just beyond the Corona-Bowtie Arch Trailhead and the Gold Bar Recreation site. At mile marker five, pull off the road and park at the end of a huge culvert, which goes under the railroad tracks - your entrance to the canyon! – hence the name, also known as Dragonfly Canyon.
Tiptoeing through a long dank culvert is literally a light-at-the-end-of-the tunnel happening – an eerie rattling-with-every-step tunnel vision sensation until I’m once again back in the light of day. As I step out on a soft squishy layer of sand, my one mile outing begins with a sign - a hiking focus area, no bikes allowed - a desert bighorn sheep lambing grounds, please keep dogs on leash and under control at all times.
The course through this delightful chasm is not a straight-line stroll. It entails a lot of weaving back and forth around the many pools, thick vegetation and rocky terrain that block the way. Sometimes I find myself backtracking, as I should have gone up rather than down or vice versa - but the heavily used footpath, even with some confusing dead ends, offers enough clues to take me past all these obstacles.
The first overhang along the trail poises over a dark, mysterious pool, which slakes the thirst of cottonwoods, oaks, junipers, rabbitbrush, desert holly and huge bundles of grass. To bypass the second major pool, I swing right and after one giant step and some cautious moves up and down a series of narrow ledges, I am eventually standing above yet another deep, dark pool.
After that minor melodramatic episode, the route takes me down to the gray rock floor of the canyon where I am wandering through a maze of huge boulders with the guardian appearance of sentinels. At first glance it looks like they are blocking my way, but I happily discover they have left me just enough wiggle room to be able to squeeze through. About this time I do a double take when I spy a very hardened hiker doing this barefoot!
Swinging over to the sunny side of the canyon, I can now clearly see water striders gliding across the pools. Two pairs of very long legs on an extended skinny frame, their odd shape casts weird looking reflections on the water. Also known as pond skaters, water skimmers, water spiders and Jesus bugs, they are noted for their remarkable ability to “walk” on water, a feat made possible by the water repellent hairs on their legs that hold bubbles of air.
A seep trickling down from an overhang signals a must-see stop at a way too cool place. I can’t resist the urge to pause and soak it all in - the refreshing sound of the rhythmical drip - the slow, steady trickle of water dampening the rock wall - the hanging garden where alcove columbines and other water loving plants grow.
After that pleasant interlude further passage through the canyon appears to once again be blocked by another sentry of rocks. Having come this far, however, I’m not about to give up, so I scramble above the hanging garden, and ducking through a rock tunnel, I press on until a towering pour-off finally halts my forward progress within this magical canyon.
To advance further, I would have to find a way to climb out, and I’m just not in the mood. Instead, I’m very ready to relax and enjoy a long refreshing lunch break! Curvaceous sandstone walls stained with desert varnish surround me and I feel secure holed up in my own stone fortress where the cottonwoods and willows are just starting to leaf out and the Mormon tea is a vibrant green.
On this deliciously warm day, mourning cloak and white sulphur butterflies are stimulated by the soft caress of sunshine as they languidly drift along with the gentle breeze. A raven’s voice booms from afar - while from atop the canyon wall a canyon wren sings his descending-down-the-scale song. A little later I see him with a twig in his beak so I know he is in a build-your-nest mode.
Finally heading back, I once again savor the first blush of wildflowers in this lovely canyon – the deep purple of the scorpionweed with stems that curl like a scorpion’s tail – the tight yellow clusters of the Newberry’s twinpod – and the brilliant red of the Indian paintbrush. It has also been exciting to watch the seasonal return of the rock wren as he chants his song while up above turkey vultures circle lazily in the sky.
Luxuriating in the many expectations of this season, my hike through Culvert Canyon has been a fulfilling “I am so very ready for spring” exploration! – a walk that has quenched my thirst for the brilliance of wildflowers, the graceful beauty of butterflies, the captivating serenade of birds and so much more.