Dispatches Tagline
Monday, October 31st, 2011

Navajo Reservation

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011: 2011 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Regions, Road Trips.

Day 1: Silver City to Bluff

Highlights: Rainbows all the way!

The goal of this trip was backcountry hiking and camping in southeast Utah, and the Utah border is a long day’s drive from home, so my goal today was to reach Bluff, the first town across the border, and spend the night in the cheapest lodging I could find.

Beyond this first night, I had no plans, no destinations, and no schedule. I didn’t even know when I was coming back; I would come back when I felt like it. Or maybe not…

Heading north on US 191 through Sanders, AZ in late afternoon, I met a line of school buses pulling out of the school lot. I fell behind a bus full of kids. Together, we drove north through the high, rolling sagebrush and juniper hills of the Navajo Reservation. It had been raining on and off all day, and far ahead of us a partial rainbow arched up into low grey clouds. In the middle of nowhere, the bus flashed its lights and slowed to a stop. Out hopped two tiny Navajo girls wearing tiny backpacks. They didn’t look like they could be older than 4. No road, trail or house in sight. They just headed off together through the sagebrush and juniper and the bus started up again.

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North Mule Canyon

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011: 2011 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Regions, Road Trips.

Day 2: Cedar Mesa and Blanding

Highlights: Prehistoric ruins, water everywhere from yesterday’s rains, disturbing encounter

Looking for a good afternoon hike, I had pulled off of Utah 95 at the upper end of Cedar Mesa onto a well-maintained Forest Service gravel road that snaked up and down and around the maze-like mesa top. The road almost immediately dipped to cross Mule Canyon, where there were already two late-model SUVs parked at a trailhead. I kept going, passing the North Mule Canyon trailhead and climbing higher. After a few more miles I decided to return and hike North Mule Canyon. As I parked at a beautiful campsite under a golden cottonwood, a pickup truck sped past up the road. Apparently a popular road.

An intimate canyon with modest ruins, the red sandstone floor of the canyon sparkling with rainwater pools, this was the perfect hike to start my backcountry experience.

I returned from my hike a few hours later. I thought about camping, and realized it was going to freeze at night. Wood gathering is prohibited here, and I had no firewood and nothing interesting in the way of food for dinner. This trip had been largely unplanned. So I would drive the half hour to Blanding, check into a cheap motel, and go shopping the next morning so I could be prepared for future camping.

On the way out to the highway, I came to the winding descent into Mule Canyon proper. Rounding a curve, I glimpsed a hiker on the road ahead. I slowed and approached him from behind. A tall, skinny guy dressed in the latest expensive gear, striding in the middle of the road. I slowly approached him, expecting him to step to the side, but he kept walking directly in the middle of the narrow gravel road, either oblivious or defiant. So I pulled as far to the left as I could and crept narrowly past him in my truck. As we came abreast, he suddenly turned and looked at me, wide-eyed. I drove on past, checking my side mirror, and noticed that he had a big, expensive-looking camera and was photographing my license plate from behind. So I stopped, and he walked up to my door, aimed the camera directly at my face, and clicked.

He appeared to be about my age, with wild dirty-blonde hair, and his face was tanned and weathered as if he’d been living outdoors for a long time. After taking a picture of me, he held his left arm out to the side, making the “phone call” sign with thumb and little finger. “DO THE RIGHT THING!” he commanded excitedly.

“Is there a problem?” I asked, completely mystified.

He kept making the phone sign, waving his arm up and down, and exclaimed “DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS?”

“No, what’s up, man?”



Still waving his phone sign excitedly, he exclaimed “IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS BY NOW, THERE’S NO HOPE FOR YOU!”

Now I noticed he was wearing earphones, or earbuds. Hence he was listening to music while hiking down the middle of a heavily-used road.

“DO THE RIGHT THING!” he commanded again.

“What are you listening to?” I asked, trying to engage him in a conversation.

But it was as if we were in different worlds. “DO THE RIGHT THING!” he shouted.

We were approaching the two SUVs parked at the side of the road. I assumed one of them was his. “Whatever,” I said, waving goodbye, and accelerated up the road to the highway.

I thought about this encounter for a long time. What was he talking about? What was he planning to do with the photos of me and my license plate? First I thought maybe the phone sign was actually supposed to be the “devil” sign, and he was accusing me of being evil. I thought maybe he was a solitary, reclusive wilderness freak, slightly mentally disturbed. Finally I realized he was probably tripping on psychedelics, not so prudently in a not-so-private location, and had worked me into his hallucination. Let that be a lesson!

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Fish Creek Canyon

Thursday, October 27th, 2011: 2011 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Regions, Road Trips.

Day 3: Cedar Mesa

Highlights: Unforgettable canyon hike, hanging garden, camping on Cedar Mesa

I’d been lucky to find a cheap vintage motor court, the Sunset Inn, in Blanding the night before, and in the morning I left town with plenty of food and firewood for camping.

I headed west, and at the turnoff for Cedar Canyon, I studied my maps and decided to try Fish Creek Canyon. I’m so glad I did.

I got lost immediately in a maze of shallow arroyos crossing the thick juniper forest of the mesa top, backtracked, and finally reached the edge of the canyon. The trail rapidly drops about 800′ over a series of steep ledges; the very top of the trail was a 12′ cliff that required descending a vertical crack. I was alone, far beyond cell range, and nobody knew where I was, so I was super careful.

A late start left me with too little time to explore much of the canyon. I was pretty much running down and back, stunned by the cliffs, the water, the fall colors. That night, I found a campsite along the road back and had a wonderful night’s sleep under the wheeling and shooting stars.

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Dark Canyon

Friday, October 28th, 2011: 2011 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Regions, Road Trips.

Day 4: Cedar Mesa to Hanksville

Highlights: Very long rough road over bedrock, huge canyon, scary trail

Dark Canyon is a vast complex of very remote country, similar in scale and appearance to the Grand Canyon. After the previous day’s adventure, I wanted to try getting even farther off the road. After looking at the map, I decided to try to hike into Dark Canyon and spend the night there.

Much of the road in is laid directly on sandstone bedrock. VERY slow and hard on the little truck. A long drive across the plateau, winding around buttes and small mesas, until you finally get to the edge, and the canyon opens below you, monumental.

In the photos, I included the warning sign about the trail into the canyon. I was bummed that fires are not allowed, because I didn’t have a stove. I figured I would have to subsist on nuts down there.

I packed my old Swiss army surplus rucksack for an overnight trip and optimistically headed down the trail, with a supposedly 2 mile walk to the edge for the descent. Actually it’s a bit farther than that. I was already running late due to the hard drive in. Finally I reached this point, a 50-foot cliff requiring a downclimb, followed by another mile or so across a lower ledge. My feet were hurting in my lightweight hiking boots, my shoulders were sore from the hard leather pack straps, and there was apparently a fairly dangerous 1,200′ downclimb ahead of me, with nothing but a cold dinner at the bottom. Again, I was alone and nobody knew where I was. And the book at the trailhead showed that BLM rangers patrol here no oftener than once a month. It really hurt to give up on this one, but I swore I would at least come better prepared with a good pack and sturdier boots in the future.

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Mount Hillers

Saturday, October 29th, 2011: 2011 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Regions, Road Trips.

Day 5: Hanksville to Burr Trail

Highlights: Hike in a snow-covered burn area, interminable drive on extreme washboard, spectacular campsite

The Henry Mountains rise to 11,500′ in the midst of the Glen Canyon area, a long ways from nowhere, surrounded by the rugged canyons of tributaries to the Colorado River. This mountain range is unusual because although it’s heavily forested, it’s also grazed from bottom to top, and it’s administered by the BLM instead of the forest service. I like that because I “know” BLM land and am more comfortable exploring lands with few “tourist” amenities, where you can camp or hike anywhere.

Since yesterday, I’d been gazing appreciatively at these snow-covered mountains, whose slopes were blanketed in fresh white down to almost the 7,000′ level. The Henrys are crisscrossed by long, rough gravel and dirt roads that are mostly passable with 2WD, and I wanted to get up into the snow and do some snow hiking for a change. Mt. Hillers, and the south end of the range, looked interesting to me, and on the map I found a “loop road” that I could pick up on the east side.

This road followed a creek valley up into a recent burn area where all the trees had been killed and replaced by thickets of new growth. I saw several hawks hunting, finally coming to “Quaking Aspen Spring”, fenced off from cattle, where a healthy-looking coyote watched me curiously from a willow thicket inside the fence. The elevation was about 7,000′, patches of snow lay in shadow along the road, and above me loomed the peak, behind a protected, snow-covered basin populated with the bark-less skeletons of ponderosa pine. I really wanted to get up into that basin, but the slopes along the road were covered with impenetrable gambel oak thickets.

The coyote wandered off and I continued up the road, hoping for an opening of some kind. As I rounded the base of cone-shaped Cass Creek Peak, a jeep trail appeared, climbing steeply up the slope. I didn’t want to risk driving it with my little truck, but it might be a good approach to the basin below Mt. Hillers. I had lunch in the warm sun, tempered by a chilly breeze off the snow, then started up the trail. As I rounded a curve toward the basin, I noticed a little black bull rising to its feet in an oak thicket about 100 to the left of the road. It watched me as I continued up the trail. I came over a rise and a lake appeared before me at the foot of a gnarly-looking pile of volcanic talus. It was a 4-acre stock pond created with significant effort, including a big earthen dam and a feeder well, but there were no other cattle in sight beyond the little bull. So I continued past the lake, picking my way between thickets of oak, until I came to an abandoned 4WD trail that seemed to lead up into the summit basin. Parts of the road were blocked by fallen, fire-killed ponderosa logs or new aspen sprouts, now 10′ tall. I noticed a higher roadcut and climbed up to it. And another, still higher – all now abandoned and overgrown. I was finally up in the summit basin, but I couldn’t get beyond these abandoned roads because the slope was completely covered with oak thickets. Still, it was a beautiful place in the snow! On the way back down, I again encountered the little bull, resting in his thicket, and he again rose to watch me pass.

Back in the truck, I continued over Stanton Pass and found a trailhead to the summit on the west side, overlooking Capitol Reef National Park, with a late-model SUV parked there. It was late afternoon, I had a couple hours of sunlight, and should start looking for a campsite. Descending through pinyon-juniper, the road became exceedingly rugged. Suddenly, crossing a creek in a little vale, I encountered a big truck towing a stock trailer up the mountain. I pulled as far to the side as I could, and they passed me, thanking me: two middle-aged cowboys with four saddled and packed horses in the trailer. Shortly after that, I came upon two young bundled-up guys on an ATV herding three huge steers down the road toward a corral in the distance on the spur of a ridge. The slope here was very steep, and I had to creep behind them until they got to a place where they could walk the cattle off the road. I waved, marveling at the bulk of the shaggy beeves that seemed to dwarf my truck.

With cattle all over these mountains, insects can be a problem. The loop went on forever through beautiful high country, and the road threatened to rattle my truck to pieces, but every time I found a promising campsite, the bugs would quickly find me. So I continued on as the sun set, hoping to make it to the Bullfrog highway and from there, to lower desert and hopefully more campsites along the Burr Trail.

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