Tough Utah desert meets even tougher canine
My self image took a real hit last May during my first ever hiking-camping trip to southeastern Utah’s desert-canyon country. I’ve always viewed myself as being athletically gifted and invincible when hiking with Kathy and Greg. However, after an out of control slide on slickrock into a sandstone pit in Hunter canyon and repeatedly feeling physically drained in the dry desert heat, I shockingly realized that, yes, I was “vincible” like everybody else. How distressing to not be permitted to accompany my humans on an afternoon hike at White Wash Sand Dunes because they believed I was too weary from a hot morning badlands hike south of Green River. This was the first time in my canine life that humans viewed me as not being physically up to the hiking task.
Even though I easily handled every high elevation summer, 2013 hike with my humans in Colorado and Wyoming, I still fretted about my Utah shortcomings. Desperately wanting to redeem myself in Utah, I jumped (and I still jump very high) at the opportunity to again accompany Kathy and Greg on their October, 2013 travels which included four hiking days in southeastern Utah.
Even with air conditioning, riding in our truck’s backseat felt cramped and uncomfortable while driving several slow, bumpy miles west of Moab. After parking near a jeep road junction, it felt great to be outdoors. I exploded into a peppy run, stretching my muscles as I raced in figure 8’s while carefully avoiding lots of cactus.
Walking up and down through sand and over rock, we approached a long, jointed sandstone cliff, finding a cleft where one soaring wall slanted abruptly into another wall, creating a dark chasm known as Tusher Tunnel. I pranced through it to a sunny opening at the tunnel’s other end while my humans took their time. It was spooky and my barks echoed off the ceiling.
Once through the tunnel, we explored and sniffed several caves along the rim of a broad, horseshoe shaped natural amphitheater topped with an appealing chimney formation. Greg, being Greg, wished to climb it, but he couldn’t find a safe approach. Still, he had fun.
That evening, we camped near the edge of a mesa overlooking Long Canyon, east of Dead Horse point. Before supper, we took a leg stretcher walk on a jeep track descending into the canyon. It was neat watching the sun set between the canyon’s widening walls, but not as neat as the following morning when we hiked from our campsite on a narrowing finger of land which soon became a parade of sandstone fins. Even I felt dizzy when looking down those sheer vertical cliffs.
Yet, even those exciting vistas paled when compared to what was to come; a return to the fabled Porcupine Rim Trail. In May, my humans and I hiked from its southern trailhead off the Sand Flats Road, but even more exciting was our October trek from the Rim’s Colorado River Trailhead off the Cisco Road.
The Porcupine Rim Trail is the Holy Grail for mountain bikers from all over the world who come to test their skills on its spectacular route. Indeed, the Porcupine Trail is almost exclusively the domain of mountain bikers as for some inexplicable reason; we never saw another canine or hiker there. However, the trail is so unique that Greg says it deserves National Recreation Trail designation.
Leaving the trailhead and glad to be off leash after crossing the highway, I raced ahead of my humans on a gradually rising “single track” path, stopping to rest below a fortress like sandstone wall. The higher we climbed, the grander our views of the surging Colorado River and an alien landscape beyond imagination. How did this world of bizarrely sculpted towers, endless canyons, and petrified sand dunes come to be? I could only wonder. Wishing I could swim in the river’s alluring waters, I settled for a brief dip in a grass fringed pond midway up a side canyon. Gaining elevation, we passed under a series of unscalable slickrock domes. From my vantage point, reaching those heights looked impossible. Bidding farewell to the Colorado River, our trail turned south, following the rim of Jackass Canyon. Looking across that terrifying gorge, the desert became more fierce and contorted. Monolithic buttes towering above craggy box canyons typified the harsh, but stunning terrain.
To me, mountain bikers are the world’s friendliest and most courteous outdoors people as they were always cheerful and polite when cycling past us. Many stopped to pet and praise me, saying I was a beautiful, well behaved girl.
While the bikers were amazed to see hikers on this challenging trail, they were truly mystified when we suddenly began hiking off trail after lunch. They just don’t know my Greg and his love of high points. After crossing the head of Jackass Canyon, Greg suddenly felt drawn to a nearby high unnamed mesa. This not easy climb proved to be well worth our effort, ending with top of the world panoramas, colored with overwhelming beauty.
My final two days in Utah revealed something I never suspected about humans. They’ve not always lived in modern cities and their homes did not always have electricity, modern plumbing, and technological conveniences. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen the evidence with my canine eyes after we traveled west of Blanding where Highway 95 cuts through the extraordinary, seventy mile geologic phenomenon known as Comb Ridge.
Greg first hiked in Arch Canyon in May, 1994 after having read about it in Michael Kelsey’s Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 1st edition. He well remembered the broadening canyon’s easy access, dramatic formations, and an extremely remote archaeological site near the top of a side canyon rim.
Fast forward nineteen years. Greg wanted to share Arch Canyon with Kathy and show me what archaeological ruins were; crumbling remains of dwellings inhabited nearly 1,000 years ago by prehistoric people called the Anasazi.
Yet, the canyon’s mouth appeared so altered that it initially confused Greg. Flooding from recent powerful monsoon storms had created huge pools of standing water and left piles of debris everywhere. Initially our passage was so difficult that we had to thrash through jungle thick vegetation.
Sniffing the walls of a pueblo ruin, I detected abundant wildlife scents, but none from ancient humans. I assume that the early Anasazi had to be as tough as canines to survive in such primitive settings. Kathy said that unlike in national parks where ruins are stabilized and reconstructed, those on BLM lands are frequently left alone. For me, walking through the depths of this enormous canyon beneath ponderous, sky scraping pinnacles while bypassing forbidding side canyons, contrasted greatly with the previous day’s higher Porcupine Rim vistas.
Michael Kelsey’s comprehensive Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 5th edition, is the only guidebook anywhere detailing information about little known, secluded sites such as Hidden Pool and Split Level ruins, located along Comb Ridge’s eastern flank and accessed by the rough Butler Wash Road. Two miles apart, both difficult to locate sites were reached via relatively short, primitive footpaths through small, intimate, unnamed canyons; definitely wild, but enjoyable backcountry hiking. Both canyons had us clambering up and down (easier for canines) shallow, brushy ravines leading to rocky corridors where the Ancient Ones established their homes. As in Arch Canyon, we found rectangular structures braced against sandstone walls, some with surreal petroglyphs pecked into nearby cliffs while others contained pictographs, including eerie red handprints on an alcove ceiling. Entering those ancient habitations, we humbly passed through windows in time, respecting the past.