Note: You won’t get this post without having read Part 1 (yesterday’s post.)
Many years ago, when I was still new to Utah and my mental map of the state was still filled with big blank spaces, I spent a 3-day weekend camping and mountain biking down in the Torrey area, on the flanks of Boulder Mountain. After 2 days I had 1 day left, and got it in my head to do a ride in Red Canyon, 50 miles or so off to the Southwest. Looking at the map I saw a graded dirt road connecting Highway 24 West of Torrey with Highway 12 by Bryce, and without much thought, decided to take it.
The road gradually climbed over rolling high rangelands and then into forest. For the next 3 hours I drove on and on across a high plateau carpeted with dark forests and green open meadows, past lakes and wetlands, through a land that was the complete opposite of what I had expected on a “blank spot” of Southern Utah, like a piece of some other state plunked down between Bryce and Capitol Reef. As I drove I thought, “I need to come back here soon and check this out…” but as it turned out it was 11 years before Bird Whisperer and I made it back up.
All About The Aquarius Plateau
The Aquarius Plateau is the highest, biggest, forested plateau in North America, over 900 square miles, ranging between 10,000 and 11,000 feet high, with over 1,000 lakes. My favorite description I’ve read describes it as a “lost piece of Alaska.” I’ll add another superlative: It’s the biggest, most interesting piece of land in the state that most Utahns know next to nothing about.
To truly explore the Aquarius would take weeks, which BW and I didn’t have. Over the years, though I hadn’t returned to plateau, I’d passed by and under it many, many times. Along its high Southern edge, a dramatic point stands out, marking the Southernmost extension. I’ve seen it dozens of times, from Bryce, from Highway 12, from the Cottonwood Wash road, from Escalante, and even- 2 weeks earlier- from Ellen Peak. It’s Powell Point (pic left), a narrow, 10,000+ foot high finger jutting out from the rim, flanked by spectacular orange cliffs and spires eroded out of the Claron Formation. After turning back from the Paunsaugunt South Rim, that’s where we headed next.
What Is The Deal With Red Aspens?
The route from Bryce/Ruby’s Inn junction up to Pine Lake is well-traveled. After you turn off the pavement, the road is dusty and washboarded up to the campground, and then everything changes. The road climbs steadily and steeply for several miles, working its way through the forests up onto the plateau. As we climbed the forests changed from Ponderosa to Spruce, Douglas Fir and Limber Pine, but scattered throughout were Aspens. As it turned out, we’d timed the trip for the peak of Aspen colors on the plateaus, and the whole day, both over on the Paunsaugunt and now up here, we’d been treated to an amazing show of color. As we drove, I was reminded of a question that’s bugged me off and on for over a decade: why are there so many red aspens on the Southern plateaus?
Most aspens turn yellow in fall. But a smaller number produce anthocyanins and turn bright red. Up in the Wasatch, red aspens- really red aspens- are fairly unusual. You see them here and there, but rarely in big numbers or pure stands. But on the Southern plateaus, red aspens are all over the place.
Side Note: I explained what anthocyanin is and does in this post from last year. You can go check it out if you’re interested; I won’t repeat the details here.
Over on the Markagunt, if you’ve ever ridden the trails around Brian Head or visited Navajo Lake in the Fall, you can’t help but notice the red aspens. On the Paunsaugunt, the road down the East Fork of the Sevier is lined with frequent red stands, as is the Southern rim itself. And climbing up from Pine Lake onto the Aquarius, we were again treated to frequent blasts of red.
From a decade of trips down to these plateaus, I am absolutely convinced that red aspens are more common on the Southern plateaus than in the Wasatch. Why?
Unlike Maples, significant anthocyanins in Autumn aspen leaves are the exception rather than the rule. It’s thought that the conditions most conducive to anthocyanin production are sunny days and cool- but not freezing- nights. Fair enough. But this past September has been probably the sunniest I can remember in the Wasatch, and though the high country’s had a few frosts, I can’t imagine that our nights this past month have been significantly colder than up on the high plateaus.* What else could it be?
*In fairness, I did notice that the frequency of red aspens diminished significantly once we were on top of the Aquarius, above 10K feet.
Anthocyanin production also appears to be at least somewhat material-dependent; the intensity of color seems to be affected by the amounts of magnesium, iron, phosphorus and sodium in the tree, as well as the acidity of the leaves. So here’s my wild, completely unfounded (and probably totally wrong) question/theory: Is there something about the soils of the Southern plateaus- and specifically in the soils of the Claron formation*, that is conducive to aspens producing anthocyanins?
*Remember, the reds diminished on top of the Aquarius, where the aspens grow not out of Claron-based soils, but out of the soils derived from the volcanic rocks capping the plateau.
Anyway, that’s my (half-baked) “theory”.
Right where the road tops out a 4WD road branches off to the South, leading to the Powell Point trailhead.
Side Note: The road, 3.6 miles to the trailhead, is rough and slow-going (pic right). If you’re camping at the trailhead (which is a really nice camping spot) then it’s worth the time and effort to 4-wheel in, but otherwise you’d be far happier riding a mountain bike over this stretch. It would also make a great trail run, or a pleasant- if long- round-trip hike.
As we approached the trailhead (and the rim) the forest changed, with Bristlecone Pines appearing everywhere. Most places you see Bristlecones, they’re old, wind-swept and gnarled. An exception I’ve blogged about before is over on the Paunsuagunt, especially near Red Canyon, where they grow straight and tall. Up by Powell Point they also grow straight and tall, and if anything they’re more impressive up here, where they thoroughly dominate the coniferous forest around the trailhead and the point itself (pic left). Even straight and tall, they’re still easy to pick out; their bottlebrush-looking needles give their branches a unique, full-but-skinny silhouette*.
*That’s not a very good description. But really, once you learn to pick them out, they’re a cinch to recognize from a ways off.
We parked and hiked the easy ¾ mile trail out to the point. I was immediately disabused of the notion that the Paunsaugunt South rim was the end of the world. This was the end of the world. We could see from the Henry Mountains to Brian Head, and South to Navajo Mountain and beyond*. Looking down we saw sheer, eroded Claron-cliffs, higher (and more intimidating) than any we’d yet seen.
*And actually, the visibility was compromised a bit due to smoke from wildfires far to the West.
Tangent: BW un-nerved me by repeatedly throwing rocks off the rim. Though I kept him a safe distance from the edge, I still couldn’t help feel a momentary twinge of panic with each rock sailing out…
Yes, I know it’s bad form to throw rocks off cliffs. But when you’re out in the middle of nowhere with a 10-year old boy atop a ~1,000-foot sheer drop, it seems somehow cruel and unusual to deny him the pleasure.
We made it with about 3 minutes to spare. I’ve seen many beautiful sunsets- this might have been the best*. Immediately following, the orange cliffs below us practically glowed in the twilight with a weird orange light that seemed somehow their own. And as I looked back at BW, hoping he’d remember this moment when he was old and I was long gone, the same strange light lit him up.
*Again, probably in part due to the smoke.
Bird Whisperer’s birth did not go smoothly. During the long labor his vital signs bounced all over the place, and he was finally delivered via C-section. We saw him for only a moment before they whisked him off, and he was gasping strangely, sucking air in short, cut-off breaths. They told us we’d see him soon.
The doctors stitched up Awesome Wife, and we repaired to her room. Time passed, and we got to wondering where our new baby was. We asked a couple more times, and were assured we’d see him shortly. Finally, after an hour or so, a nurse said I could see him, and escorted me to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). At the entrance, the NICU doctor- a small, cheerful man with a somehow elfin appearance, greeted me and directed me to BW’s bassinet, saying with a little half-laugh, “Yeah, he was hurting when he came in, but he’s doing OK now…”
Something in his tone, a sense of relief, told me that for a bit, everything had not been OK, and all of a sudden, with a bit of a start, I realized that our little man may well have been in danger, and that things maybe were touch and go for a bit.
If you haven’t visited a NICU, it can be unnerving. It’s where newborns in the roughest shape go, and is filled with small plexiglass bassinets holding very small babies, often premature, most with various tubes in them, many with bandages. But in the center was one baby who seemed bigger and healthier than the rest. Lying under the warming lamp, clad only in a diaper, sleeping easily, Bird Whisperer’s golden hair* seemed to capture the yellow-orange light of the lamp and make it his own. And as I got my first long look at my son it seemed that he somehow glowed with the light of life itself, a light that made everything else dim and faint and gray in comparison.
*Baby-blond, since faded to a light brown.
10 years later, looking back at BW in the twilight on Powell Point, he seemed to glow with that same light, with a strength and force of life that filled me with hope and pride and joy all at once, that made the troubles and worries of the world seem trifling and inconsequential. I think he’ll do just fine on his journey. I’ll be here when he gets back.