Training: Water Canyon Peak

Published by Don Gilman on

Nearing the summit of Water Canyon Peak, views towards the greater Canaan Mountain Wilderness are sublime.

What is it about summits? For me, climbing mountains has never been an ego-driven affair, I don’t climb to say I have done this mountain or that mountain, or that I have climbed X-number of peaks over 14,000 feet. It’s about the quality of the climbing, the challenge and the scenic beauty, not to mention the companionship of my fellow ascenders. Yet, if I don’t successfully get to the summit of a peak, it drives me crazy! Peaks that I have been unable to reach the summit of I call my Nemesis Mountains. Facetiously, of course. Few mountains every truly feel like foes.

One such peak was Water Canyon Peak near Hildale, Utah. Hildale, along with its sister town across the Arizona border, Colorado City (that is not a misprint) is one of my very favorite places to hike and climb mountains. The surrounding area is like a slightly smaller version of Zion National Park, minus the crowds. In fact, in five trips to the area, I have yet to encounter a single person on the trails, yet the vistas are (in my opinion) equally stunning.

The views of The Beehive are simply stunning.

Several years ago I had taken a young couple on an attempt to reach the summit, but there had been snow, and we turned back short of the apex. It wasn’t hugely painful for me, we were on the summit plateau, it had been a glorious day, but it still bugged me like an itch I couldn’t scratch.

On November 26, 2018, I returned with my mountain companions, Anne and Faith. Anne and I had managed to get in quite a bit of hiking together in the weeks before, but due to an illness, Faith had been unable to take part in any adventures for almost a month. Our little trio has become a wonderful friendship, so to be missing one aspect of our trinity had been a bummer. It was wonderful to have us all together again.

It was a crisp morning on the trail as we set out, stepping over the nearly-dry Short Creek, and heading east into Squirrel Canyon. We headed north into this scenic gorge, the towering bulk of The Beehive (one of my very favorite mountains) in the distance. This trail is unique for our area in that for much of its length, you follow running water. Having moved from Oregon four years previously, where the trill of streams is nearly omni-present, it is almost a physical relief to hear flowing water.

Faith, aka “Fire,” enjoys the views from the summit of Water Canyon Peak

We chatted and laughed as we hiked, catching up on our lives. I value these women warriors so much, they are some of the best friends I have and it is always a joy to share the trail with them. Their support of my crazy idea for Climb to the Light is so important to me. We’ve all suffered through bouts of severe depression and they both believe in suicide prevention as much as I do.

After about a mile and a half, we reached the junction with the northern lobe of Squirrel Canyon. At this point The Beehive is a dominating presence, lording a thousand feet above the valley floor. I looked longingly at the steep route up through its cliff bands, wishing I had the time to climb both peaks that day. But alas, I would have to be content with climbing Water Canyon Peak today.

The initial couple miles of the trail is nearly flat, an easy hike with few uphill sections, but as Squirrel Canyon narrows, you launch uphill with a vengeance, gaining almost a thousand feet in the next mile. But this also where the views open up and you get your first mind-blowing views of The Beehive:

The first stunning view of The Beehive.

This spot makes a great lunch spot, so we stopped for a few minutes to eat, hydrate and rest. I could take in that particular view for days and never get sick of it. In fact, I plan on returning and spending a few days in that area on a backpacking trip.

After we rested, we continued on, the ascent relenting slightly as we headed north. After about three and a half miles, we reached the junction with the road that ATVers use to access the wilderness (this is illegal. No motorized vehicles of any kind are supposed to be in any wilderness area.) We turned west for a short distance before heading up the gentle northern slopes of Water Canyon Peak.

Crossing Water Canyon Arch was a bucketlist item for me. Awesome exposure.

We zigzagged our way up the stunning landscape that is the Canaan Mountain Wilderness, past numerous hoodoos, twisted, bonsai-like fir trees, stately ponderosa pines and endless, colorful slickrock. Soon we reached the highpoint of my previous adventure on Water Canyon Peak. On that trip, I had seen what I hoped was the summit (but you can never really tell when climbing mountains) and we headed towards this point. We were all pretty cold at this time, and I knew we would probably get back to the car around dark, so I had decided silently that if that wasn’t the summit, we’d turn back there. So I was praying it was the true summit

We reached the final, gentle ridge leading to that high point, and I could finally see that we had, indeed, reached the summit! I was so happy. And it turned out to be a magnificent place, with numerous hoodoos clustered around the high point. I took the time to scramble up the true summit, a crumbling rock about eight feet high. Faith found a crag of her own to take in the beauty and Anne likewise found a spot to sit and absorb the gorgeous scenery.

But I had one more goal in mind, and I knew I had to hurry if I was going to get there.

To the west of our mountain is Water Canyon (namesake of the peak), a popular destination, well-known for its beauty. Towering a thousand feet up the eastern wall of this canyon is Water Canyon Arch, a large span detached from the main wall of our mountain. I had long wanted to visit this spot. I knew you could walk across this airy perch, and it had become a bucket list item. It was southwest of the summit, so I scrambled down and after a little searching, I found it.

Walking across this arch is mind-blowing. As a climber, I have experienced plenty of exposure, but there is something unique about walking out on a 20-foot wide, downward-sloping bridge of stone perched 1,000 feet above the canyon below you. But it was awesome.

Despite intense knee pain, Anne perseveres down the steepest stretch of the route on Water Canyon Peak

After walking across the arch, I rejoined my companions and we headed back down the mountain. Anne, unfortunately, has been experiencing significant knee pain while descending mountains, and this trip really took a toll. We took our time, and while it was very painful for her, Anne powered through and we reached her Subaru just as the last light bled from the sky.

It was another awesome mountain climb, and one more nemesis mountain became a friend.

Water Canyon Peak

Roundtrip mileage: 10.3 miles

Elevation gain: 2,500 feet

Calories burned: 1,600

My GPS track of our adventure on Water Canyon Peak


Don Gilman

Don Gilman has been climbing mountains for 20 years, beginning with an ascent of Mt. Thielsen in Oregon in 1998. He has been dealing with severe depression and suicidal ideation since he was nine years old. He also deals with PTSD and anxiety on a daily basis, and uses climbing as a form of therapy. In 2014, he woke up to find his then-13-year-old son had hung himself. Fortunately, his son survived, but that event has become the motivating factor that has made suicide prevention the most important cause in his life.

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