Adventure Pro reader Thomas Helm shares an array of images from a magical backpacking trip through Utah’s Owl and Fish canyons on Cedar Mesa

Cedar Mesa, Utah, is a magical place begging to be explored while also treated with care and respect. The mesa takes visitors back in time, both culturally and geologically. Its mysteries have drawn me to the area many times, to explore, learn, appreciate, and renew. 

In late winter I decided to take a break from the snow and go backpacking on Cedar Mesa. The plan involved a loop through Owl and Fish canyons, starting and ending at the same parking area.  

Getting started
Owl Creek Canyon
The trail at the bottom of Owl Creek Canyon provides easy hiking for much of it.Thomas Helm

I started my two-night, three-day backpack trip by obtaining a permit at the Cedar Mesa ranger station. I hit the road the next morning to the Fish and Owl Canyon trailhead, my beginning and ending point. As the five-mile road to the trailhead is wet and muddy this time of year, I was relying on the overnight freezing temperatures to harden the road to the trailhead. Fortunately, it was passable before the sun broke over the horizon. I was encouraged to find only three vehicles at the trailhead.

A waterfall in Owl Creek Canyon, which had plenty of water during my trip.Thomas Helm

Cedar Mesa had good snowfall in the winter. That fact along with some spring rains boosted the water flow in the canyon streams. Water availability is critical to survival in these canyons.  My pack is lighter with less water, a fact that goes noticed!

The trail drops into the canyon quickly and is very rugged.  The canyon is quiet and peaceful, and alive with a springtime profusion of flowers. Once into the canyon the trail is an easy walk. This wilderness is as unforgiving as any, while as dazzling as many.

First camp

My first camp was at the junction of Owl and Fish canyons on an elevated flat spot that gave me a commanding view down the canyon. I had the whole place to myself, no sounds except natural ones, and my own voice as I talked to myself.  I slept well under the tranquility of a star-spangled sky. 

A small, ancient ruin on the descent into Owl Creek Canyon.Thomas Helm

The next morning I was up at sunrise, and the morning stillness was enchanting.  The temperature…cold! After breakfast I headed up Fish Canyon on an easy trail, crossing the stream a few times. It was easy to lose at times, but not hard to find again as the canyon walls channeled me like guardrails. 

Surprisingly, I met a few people along the way, but usually had the canyon to myself.  The day was one of being mesmerized by the constantly changing rock features and canyon walls. The songs of birds singing joyously over the bounty of spring often reached my ears.

Second camp
Camp on the second night: The Milky Way was my tent.Thomas Helm

My second night’s camp was a spot recommended by the volunteer ranger who provided my permit. It was on a nice flat spot high above the creek in a side canyon off Fish Canyon. Easy to miss, this side canyon is also the route out of Fish Canyon to connect to Owl Canyon, enabling a loop trip back to the parking lot and my parked vehicle.

Fish Creek Canyon
The view from the canyon rim into Fish Creek Canyon shows the area of my second night’s camp.Thomas Helm
A final effort

Nearby, a small, gurgling waterfall puts me to sleep after the sunlight leaves the canyon, and starlight enters.  I arise at first light, wanting to make the steep climb out of Fish Canyon before the sun radiates the canyon and makes the climb out a hot one. After an hour of climbing I reach the overhanging rim rock. An eroded crack in the sandstone provides access to the rim after a final and challenging climb through it.

Indian Paintbrush
“Well done, human!”

As I emerge, eyes reaching the ground level of the mesa top, I am treated to the Indian Paintbrush in this picture. It greets me, saying “well done human”!

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