Lee Wash Main Side Canyon is an isolated and challenging but very impressive canyon featuring stunning views from above along with beautiful color bands and rock patterns on the walls. Difficulties encountered on the hike include having good route-finding abilities to reach the canyon rim and advanced bypass skills to access the canyon bottom. Topographical maps of the hiking route can be found by clicking on the buttons above. GPS coordinates for the parking area at the bend on Hwy 190 are 36.379967, -117.594886. GPS coordinates for the top of the major dry fall at the canyon head are 36.415401, -117.554819. GPS coordinates for the advanced bypass gully are 36.421281, -117.543957.
1 1/2 years after completing an epic one-way hike of Lee Wash with my friend Josh, I returned to the area to do a solo hike of Lee Wash Main Side Canyon. Because our hike of Lee Wash had been so long (16 miles one-way), we did not have time to explore the main side canyon on that day. And that turned out to be a good thing. I say that because it allowed me to create an entirely separate hike that would have a unique starting point and route. In addition, it gave me the chance to see the entire main side canyon from above, which is something that would have been missed had we been able to do both canyons in one day. As you will see within the full set of photographs, the views from above are absolutely breathtaking and not to be missed. Lee Wash MSC (Main Side Canyon) is 2 miles in length from the head of the canyon to the junction where it joins Lee Wash. Within Lee Wash MSC, there are two major dry falls. The 1st major dry fall is at the canyon head, while the 2nd major dry fall is a short distance down canyon from that spot. Both major dry falls cannot be safely climbed down due to their great height. (As a side note, I did not see any evidence that canyoneers have ever descended this canyon.) Before I get into a description of my route and hike, I would like to add an important word of caution. The routes I took into and out of the canyon floor are not recommended for the general public. The bypasses were extremely challenging and should not be attempted by those without advanced bypass skills. However, the hike to the head of the canyon and along the canyon rim can be safely done by those who are good at route-finding and know to stay safely away from the edge.
For my hike of Lee Wash MSC, I came up with a route that would allow me to hike across the Darwin Plateau. The parking area for the newly-created route would be at the northernmost bend on Hwy 190, about 3.8 miles past Father Crowley Point and about 2 miles before reaching the turnoff for Saline Valley Road. The elevation at the parking area is 4,760 feet, which meant it would be fairly cold in mid-March. The hike began by descending down a small hill to reach the plateau, which stretched off far into the distance in front of me. I had marked a couple small hills which I would be passing by the right side of to use as aim spots. But my main aim spot was a much larger red hillside in the distance which was the gateway to Lee Wash MSC. Leading up to the hike, I had been hoping that the terrain would be fairly easy across the plateau, as it looked to be mostly flat on satellite imagery. And, indeed, the terrain was good with the exception of dealing with some minor wash crossings and sections with larger rocks on the flat ground. A cold wind was also blowing across the plateau, so I was glad to be properly prepared for that. Upon reaching the tip of the red hillside, I dropped into the main wash which leads directly toward the canyon. The sandy terrain made the hiking even easier and I was able to make quick time. This first portion of the hike from the parking area to the head of the canyon is 3 1/2 miles in length with an elevation drop of 500 feet. Upon reaching the canyon head, it was a truly stunning moment to walk up and look over the major dry fall at the deep and narrow canyon which spread out below. Outside of nearby Rainbow Canyon, there isn't really anywhere else in the park where there are such dramatic sheer cliffs on both sides. After circling around to the west a little bit to get some views and pictures, I backtracked and then began hiking along the canyon rim on the eastern side. Along the way, there were many impressive viewpoints looking down into Lee Wash MSC. And these were not just bare cliffs dropping off, these were cliffs covered with color bands, striking patterns, and unique rock layers. The hike along the eastern rim was nearly one mile in length. While doing research at home, I wasn't sure if it would be possible to find a bypass into the canyon bottom or not. The most likely place to do so appeared to be a major gully adjacent the bottom of the canyon. When I reached the top of this gully, I found that it started out with an impassable dry fall. Thus, I had to do a bypass just to start the bypass. Once I found my way into the gully by circling around to the left, I found the terrain to be quite difficult. The gully bottom was covered by small and large boulders. Every step had to be carefully thought out. Eventually, I worked my way down until I came up on the rim of another impassable dry fall. Thus, I had to find yet another bypass just to complete the bypass and reach the canyon floor. I was able to do so by staying to the right and carefully working my way down a steep hill. Upon reaching the canyon floor, I headed down canyon to check out what I had missed. There turned out to be a really interesting hillside covered by formations with red and tan colors. Heading back up canyon, I passed by the major dry fall which emptied the gully I had climbed down. The canyon got more and more beautiful the farther I progressed. It was neat to be able to see the terrain on the side of the canyon which I couldn't see from above because it was the side I was hiking on. There were many towering walls with sheer cliffs and interesting features. The highlight as I passed the mid-canyon point was being able to see all the color bands and rock patterns up close. They had looked incredible from above, and they were even larger and stood out more from below. I passed through sections of narrows, climbed a few minor dry falls, and was generally overwhelmed by the spectacular scenery all around. Progress up canyon was abruptly stopped when I reached the base of the 2nd major dry fall (with the 1st major dry fall being at the canyon head). It was a great stopping point, as some of the best scenery was on the walls all around this enclosed area. I had managed to hike 1.8 miles of the 2 mile-long canyon while gaining about 800 feet in elevation. Not wanting to backtrack the entire distance, I looked for another way out of the canyon. And I found a route which happened to go through, but it is best described as extremely challenging. It was very steep and it had to be done just right or it would not have gone through. After climbing up to the western rim, I continued hiking along the top of the canyon until I returned to the top of the 1st major dry fall. From there, it was a long cold walk back to the vehicle. And I got back just in time, because I saw a snowstorm hit the exact area I had been hiking in a short time later. The hike was 11 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 1,750 feet. My hike took place on March 17, 2018.
This hike contains sections of climbing, exposed bypasses and/or high dry falls and may require safety ropes and equipment in order to complete the entire hike. Those without the proper training, experience, and safety gear should not attempt to take a bypass route down into Lee Wash Main Side Canyon but should only enjoy viewing the canyon from above while keeping a safe distance from the edge of the cliffs.
Many more photographs taken during our visit are available for viewing for this destination. To see all of them, choose one of the two options presented below. The two options are Slideshow viewing and Trip Report viewing. The Slideshow option allows for viewing larger images with an autoplay option and a full screen option (available on most browsers). This option works very well for large computer screens and tablets. The Trip Report option allows for viewing smaller pictures in a standard scroll-down format and enlarging of any panoramic photos taken during our visit. Click on the option of your choice to view all of our photos from this destination. The Slideshow format opens in a new browser window and the Trip Report format uses the same browser window for viewing.
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