Part 2 - The Mesa
Highlighted Ride: Guacamole
Alternative Rides: Gooseberry Mesa, Little Creek
So I have this theory about blogs, and it’s basically that although people state all kinds of reasons and themes for posting blogs, deep down, the real, true, core reason anybody does a blog is to have an excuse to post flattering photos of themselves on the web. Like most of my “theories”, this one’s pretty half-baked, but in any event, here’s a cool photo of me last Saturday up on Guacamole trail, outside of the (bizarre) little hamlet of Virgin, UT. Remember this photo; I’ll come back to it in tomorrow’s post.
Guacamole is a great ride, but it’s not my favorite Mesa Level ride- that would be Little Creek. Little Creek is a geological, botanical and archeological wonderland, threaded by a lacework of singletrack and open slickrock. But it’s also a 1st-class route-finding challenge. If you go to ride it, go with someone who’s ridden it before, or at the very least start early in the day, and leave plenty of time for getting lost. Seriously, people have spent the night out there unexpectedly. Also, my friend Tim (not Raleigh-Dog-Tim, another “Tim”) got injured bad and had to be air-lifted out last year. Do not screw around with Little Creek; plan and prepare.
Gooseberry Mesa is also phenomenal, with arguably even more interesting riding, but, well, everybody knows Gooseberry nowadays.
Guacamole is sort of like a shorter, easier, more accessible, yet less-visited Gooseberry. Though navigation is tougher than on Gooseberry, it’s way, way easier than labyrinthine Little Creek, and it features a similar flora to those sister rides to the South. Again, I’ve stolen the trail map from utahmountainbiking.com, (and you should visit that site for directions and access) but in this case I’ve added to it. The trail in blue is a new side trail which is absent from the utahmountainbiking.com map. It’s fun, spends more time in the un-burnt parts of the mesa, and I recommend it over the “main” trail leading out to the loop.
Up on the Mesa level, above 5,000 feet, we’re in the trees, though they’re shorter, widely spaced trees of exactly 2 species: Utah Juniper, Juniperus osteosperma, and Piñon Pine (which we’ll get all Latin on in a moment.) These trees almost always occur together in the Intermountain West, in areas called- get ready for it- Pinon-Juniper Woodland.
Tangent: The terms “woodland” and “forest” really do have different meanings. A “woodland” features significant open spaces between the trees in question, while a “forest” basically packs them in more tightly. As a rule, Piñon, Juniper and Mountain Mahogany all occur in, and comprise “woodlands”, while PLTs, Aspens, and non-Pinon Pines typically comprise “forests.” Oaks and Maples can form either, depending on the species and location. So while Blue Oaks in California grow in “woodlands”, Northern Red Oaks in Maine grow in “forests.” Then to really confuse things, here in Utah Gambel Oak often grows in brushy, impenetrable thickets called “chaparral.” Got it?
P-J woodland covers huge areas of the west. It’s sort of a never-never land between forest or desert. A lot of outdoorheads are ambivalent toward it; they see it as something to be passed through or by on the way to a desert backpacking or mountain ski trip. I love it. I love the mix of shade and sun, the smell, and the constant sense of one secret meadow leading to another, over and over again.
At first glance, the P-J Woodland on Guacamole looks a lot like the P-J woodland around Moab or Cortez or Gallup or Torrey. But when you poke around a bit, it’s way different. The understory shrubs are a different collection than typical Southern Utah, with plenty of Greenleaf Manzanita, Arctostaphylos patula,(pic right) and Utah Serviceberry, Amelanchier utahensis, in addition to the now ever-present Sagebrush that was absent down on the Floor. Up on the mesas Sagebrush (pic left) is the alpha-shrub, assuming the role taken by Creosote down on the floor. (Although Sagebrush is less common on Guacamole than it is on Gooseberry and Little Creek, I think in part because it’s been slow to re-colonize the burnt areas following the fire on this mesa a few years back.) I always get a kick out of comparing Sagebrush and Creosote- so similar in so many ways, yet almost every detail is different: smell, leaf color, anti-dessication strategy (hairy leaf vs. waxy cuticle.) It’s like one is the alternate-universe version of the other.
Another common shrub is Cliffrose (pic below right), Purshia stansburiana,which grows often grows up into mini not-quite trees.
Fall-On-My-Sword-Tangent-About-Cliffrose: Back in April, when I blogged about Bitterbrush, Purshia glandulosa, I went off on a long, overwrought tangent on how a Bitterbrush saved my life in 1999, a tangent which included probably my most ambitious (and personal) graphic. I’ve since come to realize that the Bitterbrush in question was in fact a Cliffrose. Though the 2 species appear similar (and are closely-related), there are telltale differences in leaf shape and branching configuration that should have clued me in. I apologize for the error. (I’m apologizing to the plant, not to you.)
One last thing about Cliffrose: when it flowers, in late April (pic left), it produces one of the few desert wildflowers that really smells great. I always have a tough time describing smells; the scent of Cliffrose blossoms is somehow vaguely reminiscent of honey, and yet it doesn’t really smell like honey at all. (I know that makes no sense, but smell it next April and you’ll see what I mean.) When in bloom, larger Cliffroses are often buzzing with wild bees, and make nice places to pause for a moment on a ride.
Another common shrub here, also absent from Southeast and South-Central Utah, is our old friend, Shrub Live Oak, Quercus turbinella, or as I usually refer to it, Turbinella Oak. Turbinella is a live Oak, with small, prickly, gray-green leaves persistent throughout the winter. Under the right conditions Turbinella can grow into a small tree, but it’s always a shrub up here on Guacamole.
Tangent: A great place to see Turbinella in tree form is Snow Canyon State Park, along the Petrified Dunes trail, along the wash bottoms along the South side of the orange sandstone monoliths (pic left, Twin A for scale.) Another stretch of almost-tree-like Turbinella grows along the East side of I-15, around mile marker 25.
We’ll come back to Oak in a minute, but first let’s get to today’s Botanical Spotlight.
Jeopardy-Tangent: When I wrote that line above, I imagined Alex Trebek saying the “The Daily Double!”, and then the audience would always applaud. That always bugged the crap out of me. Why would the audience applaud when the Daily Double appeared? Shouldn’t they hold their applause for when the contestant answered the Daily Double question correctly? It seemed really odd for the audience of what was (is? Is Jeopardy still on the air?) arguably television’s most cerebral game show to be applauding for a purely chance event that represented no achievement whatsoever…
Botanical Spotlight: Piñon Pine. There are 2 species of Piñon in Utah, out of a total of between 11 and 15 species throughout the Western US and Mexico. (Ignore the Wikipedia entry on Piñons- it’s way wrong.) Colorado Piñon, Pinus edulis, (range map right, needles below left) is common across Southeast and South-Central Utah, as well as Western Colorado, New Mexico and much of Northern Arizona. Singleleaf Piñon, Pinus monophylla (range map, needles in paragraph below), is common in Western Utah and across Nevada. The two are easy to tell apart. Colorado Piñons have two needles per fascicle, while Singleleaf Piñons are the only pine to bear one needle per fascicle. There are other differences: Singleleaf nuts are a bit longer, have thinner shells, and are- in my opinion- a bit tastier.
Where the two species meet up, they often hybridize. On range maps, this Southwest corner of Utah appears to be on the edge of the ranges of both species. When you look closely at Piñons up on Guacamole, or over on Gooseberry or Little Creek, they’re almost always single-needled, indicating P. monophylla. But every once in a while, if you poke around long enough, you find a double-needled Piñon around here. And even more interestingly, over on Gooseberry, at my favorite campsite along the North Rim of the mesa, there’s a Piñon which is entirely single-needed except for one prominent limb, on which the all the needles occur in pairs.
The obvious question is: could these be hybrids? But frustratingly, Singleleaf Piñons can occasionally be double-needled as well. So until I can draft a real botanist into spending a day poking around up on the mesas with me, this one will probably remain an unsolved mystery for me.
OK, so back to Oak. There’s one more section of Guacamole worth checking out, and that’s actually the final 0.7 miles of road leading up to the mesa. I’ve talked a lot about Gambel-turbinella hybrid oaks this year up here in Northern Utah, and how rare and significant they are up here. But down in Southwest Utah, in addition to Turbinella, Gambel Oak also occurs up on the mesas, usually tucked into North-facing side canyons. (It also grows extensively on the slopes of the Pine Valley Mountains, just a few miles to the West.) And as a result, Gambel-turbinella hybrids are fairly common around the Mesa level. On the left, along steep pitch of the access road up to the Guacamole trailhead, about ½ way up the final climb, is this beautiful F1-ish-looking hybrid, with leaves about to drop.
Also of interest on this last stretch of road is the moss. The road climbs along a steep, North-facing rock wall that is covered with carpets of Sphagnum. And what’s more, up on top of the mesa, all along the trail, smaller patches of Peat Moss are quite common- far more so than on either Gooseberry or Little Creek Mesas. Why this is I can’t say- another head-scratcher…
The Mesas are the best part of any trip to the Virgin River Basin; they have the best riding, the best flora and the best camping. (P-J Woodland is probably the best car-camping environment there is- plenty of open spaces, windbreaks and firewood.) Every time I finish a Mesa-level ride, no matter how tired I am, I’m left wanting for more, like there’s something I didn’t quite get to check out, or some piece I need to ride again. And even before I get home, I’m thinking about the next trip down.