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Cistern and Ramp Canyons - San Rafael Swell

Summary: A moderately difficult loop hike with a sketchy climb/descent and some route finding problems through two canyons with some nice, if short, narrows.  Do not attempt these hikes if the forecast calls for heavy rain.
Directions: Drive along Highway 24 which runs between I-70 to the north and Hanksville to the south. Near mile post 137 head west on a paved road following the signs for Goblin Valley State Park. After a few miles the road continues straight and branches left towards Goblin Valley. Stay straight at the intersection and head towards the reef. A short distance later the pavement ends. Continue straight on the main well graded road for 17 miles. When you reach a junction for I-70 (right), follow the sign for Tan Seep/Reds Canyon, 2.7 miles later you'll reach another junction, follow the sign towards Red Canyon/McKay Flat. One mile later you'll reach another signed junction: Reds Canyon (straight), McKay Flat (left). Turn left and drive 8.5 miles to the turn off for Hidden Splendor Mine. Turn left towards the mine and drive 7.9 miles and look for an unnamed road on the left. Turn left. Passenger cars can drive in a short distance to a level spot that is ok for camping. High clearance vehicles can drive right up to the entrance to Ramp (follow the hiking instructions below). 
Road Conditions: Passenger Car
Navigation: Difficult
Length: Not sure - plan on 5-6 hours, more if you loose your way.
Date Hiked: October, 2001
Weather Conditions: Warm and sunny
Required Skills:
Hike Description: You can perform this loop in either direction (down Ramp and up Cistern or vise versa). There is a tricky, and potentially dangerous, climb in Ramp Canyon (I am not an expert climber by any means and went up and down this climb twice, though it took some effort). It is easier to climb up this route than down, so I describe this route below (the only drawback is that if you are unable to negotiate this climb then you'll be stuck and forced to retrace your steps). Make sure at least one member of your group is a good climber - a 50 ft rope might be a good idea to assist the rest. If you head down Ramp instead you could fix a rope at the drop and after completing the loop, walk back down Ramp and retrieve it (this might add 45 minutes or so to the hike).
From the Hidden Splendor Mine Road turn off begin walking towards the reef. In about 20 minutes you'll come to a junction with an old sky blue wreck of a car off to the right. Stay left and walk the prominent drainage towards the head of Ramp Canyon. Just before you reach the head of the canyon look for a ORV road on the left that runs along the back side of the reef. Turn left and follow this steep road as it climbs up, then drops steeply down into the next canyon over (this is Cistern Canyon). Walk down Cistern Canyon - there are no major obstacles and the canyon is not terribly remarkable (though there is a rather large chokestone in the lower end that you walk under - a photo of this chokestone is on the cover of Steve Allan's "Canyoneering" book). Once through Cistern follow the wide drainage out until you see a prominent wash entering in on the left hand side. Turn right and follow the stream bed towards the prominent break in the cliff wall you see off to the west (this is Hunt Draw). Now the tricky part. When you near this pass turn right and hop out of the stream bed. Look for another smaller drainage that heads north at first, then continues west. Follow this smaller wash west as it parallels the reef, eventually heading into it. The trail heads into the outer part of the reef and begins climbing and snaking through drainages in the gray, crumbly, gravel hills generally in a westward direction (this section is difficult as well - follow the foot prints if there are any). The trail climbs to a dusty hill then drops just as steeply down the other side, snaking through more drainages as it goes. Finally you exit the hills right into a fairly prominent wash that heads right (towards the reef) and straight (continuing west). Do not mistake this for Ramp Canyon (as the author did), continue straight and head west some more. This wash twists it's way west, drops down a slick rock slope and finally reaches a junction with a major drainage (which, like Cistern, is about 45 ft across). This is the drainage of Ramp Canyon. Head up the drainage as it winds it's way towards the reef. Just after you pass a long sloping section of slick rock which is on your right, the canyon bends right and heads into the reef. A short ways later your progress will be blocked by a pothole and dry fall. Back up a little and climb the yellow slick rock slope on the left of the dry fall until you are well above the canyon bottom (this is one of the ramps for which the canyon is named). Head over a shoulder and look for a route back down into the canyon about 100 ft up canyon of the drop (I placed a few cairns marking this route when I was there). Once back in the canyon, continue upwards passing through a short stretch of nice narrows. Just above a tiny plunge pool you'll reach a large chokestone and the sketchy climb. There is a 4-6 inch ledge which runs up the right side of the canyon (facing up canyon) to the bottom of the chokestone. The ledge is steep and smooth, but there are some pretty good handholds. Inch your way up this ledge. If you are placing a rope at this point, probably the best place is to tie it around a pinch point created by a smaller chokestone on the right (facing up canyon) just at the top of the ledge. Pass the rope through a hole at the base of the big chokestone so that it drops right underneath this rock (the slope is less steep through that section, which makes the climb or descent easier). Most people could probably hand line it up the rope in that section, or if you want to make it even easier, tie knots at 1-2 foot intervals for a better grip. Once above this obstacle, there is another short stretch of narrows as well as some more, if smaller, ramps to ascend. The upper part of the canyon widens as you follow the wash, which then becomes a road. Follow this road right back to your car. 
Rating (1-5 stars):
The author and his wife hiked Cistern to Ding and Dang Canyons then attempted to return via Ramp. We went up the wrong drainage and, as it was getting late in the day, decided to play it safe and return via Cistern. The next day we hiked down Ramp Canyon, followed the drainage east to the point where we had made a wrong turn the previous day, established the connecting route, then returned via Ramp. The author climbed/descended the difficult section of Ramp twice, but fixed a knotted rope for this wife to use as a hand line. We completed this hike in 5 hours.
Maps: USGS: Little Wild Horse Mesa and Hunt Draw (1:24,000)
Books:  Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau - Michael Kelsey
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.
The big chokestone in Cistern Canyon. A water scored scoop in
Ramp Canyon.