Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chesler Park in Needles

Backpacking with my dear friend Jan in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A loop from the Elephant Hill Trailhead to the Joint Trail and Druid Arch, camping at Chesler Park.
Up the Elephant Hill Jeep road towards Devils Kitchen.
Walking through the Needles is a completely different experience than Island in the Sky. Here, we are down within the canyons, enveloped within rock spires and fins.
The Joint Trail takes us through a giant rock crack. 
As gorgeous as the scenery is, the highlight of the trip is spending time with Jan. As the years go by, I feel more and more appreciative of good trail buddies. Those rare jewels that make any trip a delight. I’m even more lucky that Jan seems to come visit me wherever I roam.
Jan and I take a thousand photos in the Joint, none of which capture the incredible feeling of being surrounded by towering rock.
There is the ease of our shared outdoors rhythm and values— so many miles together means there is no question about stopping for photos of plants, no awkwardness about bathroom stops, no problems deciding how to make plans. I trust Jan’s skills and decision making fully. I trust her advice on life matters. And our ability to laugh and be silly.
Stopping at every biscuitroot to take a photo. Because they are all so cute.

Chesler Park
I also keep making the same mistakes when I hike with Jan. I forget that I’m adapted to the exhausting sand walking and rock scrambling after a few months here, and that Jan is just emerging from the darkness of winter hibernation. Why do I make this same mistake over and over— saying to Jan “This trail is flat” and “I’m sure we can make it back and forth to Druid Arch before dark.” Fortunately, Jan is always a good sport.
See, there is no elevation change here. Nope. Flat the whole way, Jan.

This ladder? The rungs in the ladder are flat. So this trail is still practically flat here. Photo by Jan
I read in a book about Bates Wilson, early superintendent of Arches who worked to get Canyonlands established as a national park, that when Bates took Secretary of the Interior Udall on a hike to Druid Arch, that Bates kept insisting “It’s only four miles.” Totally underestimating the mileage. 
From: “Blow Sand in his Soul; Bates Wilson the heart of Canyonlands” by Jen Jackson Quintan
So at least this is not the first time this has happened on the way to Druid Arch.
We make it to Druid Arch, even though it means ambitious mileage with having to return to our campsite at Chesler Park before sunset.
Our campsite, CP4, is tucked against rock spires and has an expansive sunset view.
Sunset is epic. I watch sunsets a lot here in canyon country, but many are watched solo and even though I like my solo time, nothing compares to the magic of a shared sunset. 
Colors change and get more gorgeous every minute.
More Information

Permits for overnight camping are required in Canyonlands National Park. Make your reservation as early as possible, carry out your toilet paper and poop in a wag bag, and pack in all your own water.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Gooseberry and the White Rim

The goal this weekend is to finish all the hiking trails in Island in the Sky (ISKY), Canyonlands National Park. Only two remain on the list taken from the NPS’s hiking guide, Gooseberry (6 miles round-trip) and White Rim Overlook (1.6 miles round-trip). My overnight backcountry permit is on the other side of the road from these hikes, Murphy Point (4 miles round trip). Not enough trail-miles to fill a weekend but I have a plan.
Gooseberry Trail dropping through the Windgate Sandstone.
The secret to hiking in canyon country is that endless opportunities for exploration are found by following sandy washes and slickrock. Hiking trails provide a good introduction to desert travel for beginners but are merely a jumping off point. My off-trail plan for exploring extends my trip by taking me to an off-trail route. But first, the established trail.
Rock steps of Gooseberry Trail feel solid underfoot.
The Gooseberry Trail doesn’t mess around with flatness. This rock staircase drops 1400 miles in the first 1.5 miles, providing that falling off the edge of a cliff feeling characteristic of ISKY. Some might say the drop is relentless but my legs find a comfortable rhythm, dancing down softly into the wash. An old climbing book says that this trail was built in the late 1930’s by the WPA and was originally called the Government Trail.
Gooseberry is alive with signs of spring, including the most vibrantly red paintbrush I’ve ever seen.
The Gooseberry Trail joins the White Rim Road near a campsite teeming with mountain bikers and jeepers just waking up and strolling around camp.
Down the dusty White Rim Road following tire tracks. 
This early in the morning, there isn’t any traffic and the White Rim Road is the fastest way to get to my so-called destination. I’ve identified a peninsula of land that juts out into something called Monument Basin (not to be confused with Monument Valley). A patch of green on the topo map. Trees, I hope. Perhaps a seep? I’m just relying on gut instincts. If I had more access to wifi, internet searches could be used to find more information, but I sort of like this way too, purely lines on topo maps.
Following the edge
After the first herd of mountain bikers pass me, I veer off the road towards the edge of the White Rim rocks. This is my plan for staying off the beaten-path— following the folds of the slickrock. Sure it’s much further as the crow flies. The change is immediate and rewarding. Jaw-dropping views as the White Rim rock layer falls away revealing the softer Organ Rock shale below. The sweet sound of songbirds and an unexpected lushness all along the cliff edge. My legs work harder, leaping over cracks and cryptobiotic soil. But it feels good to be fully engaged with the landscape.
White Rim dropoffs, La Sals beyond
Mostly the slickrock here is continuous, but a few times I end up on a dead-end, surrounded by cryptobiotic soil crust. “Crypto” is a living community of cyanobacteria, lichen, moss, and bacteria that holds the soil together and retains moisture allowing other plants establish. Plus it’s beautiful in its own crusty, yellow-brown way. Rather than trampling it, I backtrack to find another route.
I join a faint old road out to the top of the peninsula. A few sparse footprints show someone else has followed the old road too. Who used to drive this road? A pile of rusty tin cans provides some sort of answer.
Monument Basin has beautiful red spires of Organ Rock Shale topped with more resistant blocks of White Rim Sandstone
A spectacular flat rock surrounded by vastness serves as lunch spot and dramatic destination for the hike. It seems like I’m out in the center of wilderness, even though by Gaia GPS calculation I’m just 2 miles from the trailhead, having switchbacked and meandered for miles. If only I had a camping permit for this spot! But instead, I have to backtrack to the trailhead, then drive over to the Murphy trailhead to reach my permitted overnight zone.
Clouds are building, the wind intensifies, storms race around in the distance. Before I find a camping spot, rain starts to fall and I find an overhang to hide beneath. Off in the distance, lightening strikes, making me wonder if I should retreat back to my car and call it quits. But the storm is mesmerizing. I stay.
Watching the storm from a sheltered alcove.
I set up my tent on flat slickrock only to have it nearly blown off the cliff by a wind gust. I’m such an amature tenter- my guylines and rock anchors are no match for the heavy winds at this exposed site. I pack up and move my tent to a sheltered site that I’d passed it up before because it has been heavily trampled and trashed by previous campers. It looks like a herd of cows have been through. Minus the cowpies. I gather up the garbage and orange peels and tuck them into my critter-proof food bag before setting up my own tent. The torn up dirt reminds me of a wound. A gust of wind sweeps up the loose, trampled sand and blasts it against my face.

I follow sloppy footprints in the cryptobiotic soil to an overlook, making my own way on nearby rocks. Mostly I feel sad about how hard it is to not leave a mark on this land. I wonder if I ought to just go home rather than sleep at the already impacted site. I decide it probably doesn’t make any difference.
Clouds break up and the sun pours through.
Storm clouds make for a spectacular sunset. Overnight, rain falls in several waves of passing clouds. The sweet sound of rain on tent. I sleep soundly.
Strong winds bring another wave of rain.
More sunsetting
The next morning, sunrise back at White Rim Overlook. A panoramic view of where I’d been yesterday, and last week, and last month. Now I recognize where I’ve been before— the Needles, Needles Overlook, the LaSals, my spot overlooking Monument Basin. I see more old road scars off the White Rim Road, including that one I followed. How long until they are erased?
Seeing where I've been from the White Rim Overlook
This week at work, I helped plant native seeds for a restoration project at a neighboring Park. Trying to heal disturbed ground. I wonder if those seeds are drinking in this rain. I wonder how long until that damage is erased. I wonder how this landscape will all look in 50 years, or 5000 years.
Light playing with rock
More Information
Backcountry camping permits are required for overnight trips in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Make your reservations well in advance, or you may end up with a less than ideal permit.

Bring all your own water. Pack out all your garbage and toilet paper, and use a wagbag to pack out your poop if a privy isn’t available.

List of hiking trails in Canyonlands here

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Horse Canyon

On an overnight backpacking trip to Canyonlands National Park with Jan, a wrong turn led us down the right path.
Jumping back and forth across Salt Creek.
The original goal was Angel Arch, largest arch in Canyonlands. Ambitious mileage, especially with the sand. But we missed our turn to Salt Creek Canyon where it splits from Horse Canyon. By the time we realized our mistake, we were already at an arch named Paul Bunyon’s Potty. Naturally, many jokes were told and hilarity ensued.
Paul Bunyon’s Potty is a large pothole arch.
A short detour took us to an Ancestral Puebloan site that invoked wonder and contemplation. Despite my initial reluctance (which took the form of my insisting we backtrack before I realized the error in my ways), finally the poorly conceived original plan was abandoned in favor of our organic and delightfully spontaneous new route down Horse Canyon. Checking of maps revealed several intriguing sites, side canyons, and arches. How could a singular ambitious goal make sense in the face of lollygaging and discovery? Especially with Jan, who is the master of lollygaging.
Built by the ancient people.
The reason that we’d not even considered Horse Canyon was that our maps showed this as a jeep route. But we couldn’t see any signs that vehicles had been this way for a long time (we’d later find out this area was still closed to jeeps this time of year). And once we passed the turnoff to Tower Ruin, there weren’t any recent human footprints either. Another win.
Jan leaves behind the first human footprints for a while.
Best of all, our backcountry camping permit was for the entire Salt/Horse Canyon zone, so we were free to camp anywhere. Perfect!
Gorgeous cottonwoods. 
Chasing mourning cloaks.
Exploring washes.
When the washes get rocky, it’s a pleasant break from the tough sand walking.
Canyon walls seem higher the further up the canyon we venture.

Climbing down is always more difficult than getting up.
Finding a suitable campsite away from trails takes some time. We roll out or sleeping bags on top of a rocky perch and wait for the sky change.
It’s early so Jan reads us a bedtime story, part of an ebook by Keith Foskett. 
Finally the sky turns subtle purple and slowly grows darker.  (photo by Jan)
I feel completely restored and happy to be surrounded by rock and spires, waiting for the full moon to rise. The night is quiet and we wake to the soft hooting of an owl in the predawn.
Castle Arch is the most stunning arch I’ve seen- so fragile-looking and so very out of the way. The canyon is choked with plants and we have had enough bushwhacking for the day so decide not to push on further for a closer view.
The next day, we visit Castle Arch and Tower Ruin, which Jan thoughtfully suggested we save to the end. Truly the icing on the cake of our fantastic trip!
Full of wonder at the people who lived at Tower Ruin and what their lives would have been like.
More Information

Permits are required for all overnight trips in Canyonlands National Park. In this area, bear canisters are required and all human waste must be pack out to protect this incredible place.

What’s so special about this canyon is that water has brought people here for the last 7,600 years, and there is a rich history of the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples here. The Salt Creek Archaeological District, of which Horse Canyon is a part, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Do your part to help protect the archaeological sites and incredible pictographs by staying off them and not touching them.

Read more about Tower Ruin here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Wonders on the Wilhite Trail

Turns out I was completely wrong about the monotythic redness of the rocks. They are green, blue, pink, yellow, and thousands of shades of every color of the rainbow out here in Utah’s canyon country. Add rain and the rocks transform into wild creatures of iridescence that sparkle and defy categorization.
Through the Wingate layer.
Only the rocks are categoriezed. Each layer has a name and an order, mapped out in stratographic columns. We teach the elementary school students the rock layers by relating the shapes and colors to a layered sundae. The Wilhite Trail skips along the whipcream softness of the Navajo Sandstone before plummiting strait down the stacked-on-end kit-kat candy layer of the Wingate.
Seeing the layers and ancient environments they reflect.
I am on a solo backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park. As I switchback down from the top of the Island in the Sky towards the White Rim Road along the Wilhite Trail, I imagine a giant sea here and then great sand dunes, roving dinosaurs above and the scurring trilobites way under my feet.

As my mind often does as I hike, I reflect on my week. All the field trips for students in the park. All the things I've learned.

This week’s field trip was to Delicate Arch. At 3 miles round trip, it’s a long hike for students. As sweep, I hike with the students in the back of the pack, which we all know is where the magic happens.

“One thing I like about you being my friend,” a student says to me as we trail behind the rest of the group, “Is that you jump around to different topics. But you remember my questions and then come back to them.”  The field trip has been going on for two hours and we are already friend-level.

“My big wonder,” he says, “is how did the rocks get this way.”
How did these rocks at the end of the Wilhite Trail (called the Holman Slot) get this way?
The student has other “big wonders” that he wants to talk about. Some of which humanity has been grappling with for many generations (and some of which I tell him he has to ask his parent about.)

The important thing that sticks with me is this phrase “my big wonder.”  I keep thinking about this conversation as I hike. I wonder a lot but someimes I don’t have a “big wonder.” Most of my wonders are small, and involve petty insignificant details. Even out here, backpacking in the spaciousness of the canyonlands where it should be easier to remember the insignificance of our tiny concerns. Yet, for hours all I can think is, “Will the wind ever let up? How can it be so cold? Are those clouds going to dump rain? Will the wind ever let up?  Wow much longer can I keep glueing these shoes back together? Will the wind ever die down? Will the sand and sunscreen ever get out of my eyes? How can there be this much wind?” Big wonders get pushed aside, as I lean into the wind.

The wind intensifies. I worry about finding a sheltered campsite in my at-large backcountry camping zone. It should be easy enough, yet the requirements are that I have to be so far from the road and there are a lot of cliffs I can’t make it down, a lot of cryptobiotic soil that is off-limits.
Watching the rain clouds pass over.
Finally, a campsite is found and the rain starts falling just as I get the last stake of the tent in and toss my pack inside. I listen to the weather roll through, soft rain falling on my tent, and watch the sky. It’s only 5:30 PM. Plenty of time for “big wonders” tonight.
Sleeping out under the stars, there is time for Big Wonderings.
There is something about watching the sky that allows one to take a step back. To imagine the big time frames. Beyond the where do I want to backpack next weekend. Making a 5 year plan doesn’t seem so daunting. Maybe I will even contemplate our place in the universe. I wonder at communities and how they form complex webs to sustain us and make our lives meaningful. I wonder at mass extinctions and the vastness of the sky and outer space. I wonder about language, about Parks, at how our minds develop so much between 2nd grade and 3rd grade but sadly not much between 38 and 39. I wonder at how much the 3rd graders have to teach us 39 year olds.
They seem so young.
I fall asleep content, wake up with lots of energy to climb back up again, ready for another week of field trips, hopeful about the future.
Morning mist.
More Information
The Wilhite Trail in Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, is 6.1 miles and 1600 feet down to the White Rim (Jeep) Road. Going south and east on the White Rim Road to Murphy Hogback is another 10 miles, then it’s only 4.8 miles back up to the Murphy Trailhead. If you had a shuttle you could park another car here, but I didn’t so I roadwalked to the Wilhite Trailhead (no shoulder in some places so be careful!) which only took a couple hours.

Only saw one bicyclist and two dirtbikers on the White Rim Road, so plenty of solitude (hiked February 17-18, 2017).

Backcountry camping permits are required for all overnight trips. Carry all your own water and pack out your poop.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Syncline Trail, two years later

Hiking the Syncline Trail in Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park trail two years ago, I was at a turning point. After a lifetime of working in academia doing scientific research, backpacking for a season on the PCT made me realize I needed to do something different with my life. Surrounded by inspiring backpackers at the Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador retreat gave me a chance to ask, “How do you find a balance between long-distance backpacking and work?”
Syncline Trail, ISKY
The answers I got all pointed one way. “Find a well-paying day-job that pays good money and allows you flexible time off to backpack.”

Not what I wanted to hear. Sitting in front of a computer all day? Dedicating my time to something that no longer fueled my passions? Been there, done that. Being on the PCT and having every day feel like “wow I’m doing exactly what I want to do and believe in” showed me I could no longer comprimise on a day job that made me feel burnt out. 
Back to this trip... I'm out here solo now. Piecing together several trails with roadwalking to create my own route. Now I live here. A few steps closer to finding my own solution to the work-backpacking balance problem. This winter, I’m an SCA at a park, though last year I was an NPS employee and hope to (update- will!) be again. The pay isn’t much but my days are spent taking children to the park on field trips, or roving park trails or talking to visitors at the front desk. And I get all the free backcountry permits I want for my days off.
Under a ledge out of the rain, I look back to where I've been, close my eyes and inhale the refreshingly rain-scented air.
Because I am curious about an Ancestral Puebloan tower called Fort Bottom, I going beyond where we hiked last time, following the Upheaval Canyon down to the Colorado River.

A pool of water is teeming with critters. With this much water, there should be birdsong and buzzing insects, the sounds of life. I wonder why I’m not having to swat away mosquitoes and noseeums or bees. It is so silent.
Whirlygig beetles whirl and the water striders stride around.
After descending to the wash, there is sweet music of dripping water. I stand on the bank trying to see where the water is flowing and a bug flies into my eye. As I try to retrieve the dead body out of my eye with my sunscreen covered fingers, my eyes start to sting and water up until I can’t see, and yet suddenly everything is right with the world and I remember where I'm coming from and where I am going.
I join the White Rim Road for a few miles along the Colorado River, as the rain intensifies.
Sometimes mud happens.
Weathering the storm.
Colorado River wanderings.

Fort Bottom Ancestral Puebloan site perched on the high point above the Colorado River.
Narrow trail out to Fort Bottom.
Climbing up to see the Tower.
From the White Rim Road, it is 11 miles back to the Alcove Spring Trailhead through Taylor Canyon. Then about a mile roadwalk to the Syncline Loop trailhead. There’s no sunset with the dark rainy skies.  So I lay in my tent and think about what if felt like two years ago to not know what I would do next. I wonder where I will be two years from now.
In the morning the moon hangs low as the rain gives way to morning glow.