Last weekend AW and the Trifecta were out of town, visiting family in Chicago. I wasn’t able to join, having to work and all, and so it was that I found Friday afternoon rolling up with an automatic weekend-long kitchen-pass.
I had 2 places in mind I wanted to visit- the Navajo Lake/Virgin Rim area of the Markagunt Plateau, and the Tushar Mountains East of Beaver. Both are areas I visited 5 years ago and have been meaning to get back to ever since, but schedules and such never gave me an opening the previous couple of summers. Here was my chance.
But checking with the Forest Service in Beaver, it turns out the higher altitudes in the Tushars weren’t melted out yet, so I mulled what to do. On that same trip 5 years ago, I visited a 3rd destination- the North Rim (Kaibab Plateau) of the Grand Canyon, but the Kaibab is far- maybe 8 hours driving from Salt Lake. In any case I knew I wanted to get a ride in before dark Friday evening, so I picked an initial destination that I could reach in time for a pre-sunset spin, and one I knew well, so as to not chew up time trailhead/route-finding: Red Canyon on the Paunsaugunt Plateau.
I’ve been to the Paunsaugunt both of the last 2 years, and blogged extensively about it. In 2008 I blogged about Pronghorns, Bristlecones and endemic/edpahic wildflowers. In 2009 I blogged about Bobcats and the plateau’s fascinating geologic history. So I’m not doing any new science this post, just a) sharing helmet-cam video of forests, geology and soils I’ve blogged about in those previous posts, and b) setting the stage for the Bachelor Weekend Parts 2&3 which will be chock-full of geology, botany, hydrology and excellent helmet-cam footage.
Note: I originally intended to do parts 1,2 and 3 all this week. As usual, I’m behind and plan to post parts 2 and 3 early next week.
Tangent: But first, a couple of observations on Bachelor Weekend Getaways. It’s funny how when you’re in your early 20’s and have no real relationship or family or career or pretty much any possessions except maybe a 10-year old car, and could take off pretty much anytime for a weekend or week or month living out of your car and kicking back in the woods, all you can think about is finding that special someone, having a family, becoming a superstar in your field, making gobs of money and having a nice big house. But then in your 40’s, when you have a wonderful spouse and family and job and a big house and plenty (if not “gobs”*) of money, as soon as a free weekend rears its head, pretty much all you think of is… taking off for a weekend in your 10-year car** and kicking back in the woods. Isn’t that weird?
*Although, if someone went back in time and told me in my 20’s how much money I’d have today, I’d be like, “Wow!” and it would have sounded like more money than I could have ever spent, because if I’d had enough money back then to buy a trailer and pay utilities for the next 10 years, I never would’ve bothered getting a job. The annoying Catch-22 of growing up is that although your income rises dramatically, so does your standard of living. The secret of financial independence is to have a 50 year-old’s income and a 20 year-old’s standard of living.
**Actually my car is 11 years old, and will be the subject of a tangent in Part 2.
My second observation is that, although many of my friends are plenty adventurous, and love a good backcountry adventure, almost none of them (with the notable and occasional exception of Arizona Steve) do solo getaways. Why is that? Oh, I know what you’re thinking, assuming you don’t know me in real life- that I am some misanthropic cranky weirdo Unabomber-type who has a problem being around other people. But that is totally not the case: I make a living in sales, am very outgoing, and if you met me in real life, you’d be like, “Hey, what a nice, friendly, outgoing guy…” Or maybe you’d be like, “Oh man, what a loud-mouth- the guy never shuts up.” But one thing is for sure, you’d never say, “That guy is a totally shy misanthropic Kaczynski-esque* hermit.” So my question is, why don’t more people do solo trips?
*And to be clear, I do not have a manifesto. Although if you took all the tangents from all my posts and put them together, it could be the Mother Of All Manifestos. BTW, one of AW’s best pieces of dating advice to single female friends is: Stay away from any guy who has a manifesto.
Nested Tangent: I get that in the case of women, there is a safety factor involved. Let’s face it- men are creeps, and a fair number of them will bother a single woman. But for men? No one has ever bothered me in the backcountry… And in fact, for men at least, I’m convinced the backcountry is safer- from a human threat perspective- than settled areas. Which reminds me: at a trailhead this weekend (later on, in Part 3) a middle-aged couple returned to their car from a hike, and I noticed the guy had a 9mm pistol holstered on his hip. People have different views on carrying sidearms (I don’t*) but I find it bizarre that someone would pack heat on a backcountry hike. A 9mm isn’t going to a stop a charging bear or mountain lion. It may well stop a threatening human, but you’re far less likely to encounter one of those on the Virgin River Rim trail than you are in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Midvale, Utah. If you’re going to carry a sidearm around, you should do so in populated areas, not in the boondocks…
*Not because I am anti-gun, but because a) I don’t think it necessary, b) guns are heavy and bulky, and c) every piece of complicated equipment I have ever owned- tools, bikes, etc.- I have managed to injure myself with. If I routinely carried around a handgun, I just know I’d eventually shoot my toe off.
I made it down to Panguitch by about 6:30PM on Friday, followed the Sevier River* South out of town for several more miles, and then turned East on Highway 12, driving up through Red Canyon and onto the plateau proper, where I turned off on a dirt track and parked at an informal campsite in Ponderosa forest**, and was rolling within minutes.
*Remember this river. We are going to return to it briefly in Part 2, and then again in greater detail in Part 3, for a riveting, hydrological stunner.
**Bonus Tip: If you’re on a road-trip in the West and looking for a place to car-camp, try for Ponderosa forest. The wide spacing and minimal ground-cover almost always result in plenty of accessible, low-impact spots to pull out and unroll a bag. P-J woodland is usually easy car-camping as well.
As I’ve posted previously, the coniferous forests of the Paunsaugunt are unique in the world, featuring 4 different pines (Colorado Piñon, Ponderosa, Limber, Bristlecone), a couple of other conifers (Utah Juniper, Douglas Fir) and the occasional Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany. Specifically, the plateau is the largest contiguous area of Bristlecone Pines in the world. And unlike Bristlecones in places where you typically think of them (i.e. windswept, high-altitude peaks and ridges), the Bristlecones of the Paunsaugunt grow- for the most part- straight and tall, and typically occur mixed in with other conifers, as opposed to pure stands. They’re also shorter-lived than their high-altitude counterparts, for reasons of fire, soil erosion, and beetle-predation, which I covered in the original post.
Given their relatively straight & tall form on the plateau, you might not initially recognize then, but their short, densely-packed* needles (pic right) give their twigs a distinctive bottle-brush silhouette, which, once you know it, makes them a cinch to pick out at a distance. In this clip I roll past one on the left at 0:17 and again on the right at 0:22 (OK so that second one is pretty scraggly, but it is on an exposed ridge. BTW, apologies for the poor contrast in these clips- I was riding mainly West just before sunset, and the helmet-cam struggled with the contrast.)
*5 to a bundle (fascicle.) So is Limber Pine, but Limber needles are maybe 2X as long, so they’re easy to tell apart.
Botanical Side-Note: OK, I said I wasn’t going to cover any new stuff in this post, but before we move off plants I just can’t resist. First, riding the Ponderosa forest near my campsite at dusk (as well as when I awoke the following dawn), the forest floor was practically littered with Yellow Evening Primrose, Oenothera howardii, which I blogged about way, way back when on Little Creek. Primroses (our common species up here around Salt Lake are Tufted Evening and Birdcage- both white) have a cool genetic feature, ring meiosis, which I covered in that post. But I’d never seen them in such profusion before. Many of the wilting flower heads turn a deep, sunset orange, and the yellow-orange clumps are real eye-catchers.
I spotted a new flower on the ride as well. Not one of the Pausaugunt endemics (blogged about in this post) but Woolly Daisy, Eriophyllum wallacei. Yes, I know, you’re thinking, “Great, another yellow daisy-thingie…” and while that’s certainly the case, it’s worth checking out for 3 reasons: First, it’s one we don’t get up here in Northern Utah, but is common and widespread across the Southwest, so it’s a nice one to be able to ID (check out the hairy leaves, the hairy stem, and the shape of the ray flowers (“petals”), those are your best clues.) Second, it has- like every flower- a cool little story, in that it’s architecture is water-opportunistic. In dry seasons it blooms a single flower to a plant. But in wet seasons it branches repeatedly, sprouting multiple inflorescences.
Side Note: Those I saw were all single-stalkers (pic right), which surprised me, given a) that Southern Utah has had a fairly wet June, and b) at 8,000 feet, the Paunsaugunt tends toward the top of it’s altitude range, and so would be presumably the wetter end of that range as well. But perhaps the coarse-grained Claron-formation soils don’t retain moisture well enough to induce branching flower-heads…
And third, in case you haven’t already figured it out, Yellow Daisy-Thingies long ago conquered the world; we are just along for the ride.
And speaking of soils…When we revisited the plateau last Fall, I blogged about the geologic origins of the plateau, and the unique character of the Claron-formation soils. In this clip you get a feel for both the fascinating contours of the terrain, as well as glimpses of some of the stunning scenery provided by the otherworldly erosion of the hoodoos. This clip starts out slow, with me cresting a couple of tight switchbacks, but then the view opens up at around 0:50, so stick with it. Though the clip doesn’t do it justice, I’d argue that this is the most scenic singletrack in Utah (and that’s saying something.)
Wow. Love that trail. I continued descending to the West and then North, eventually reaching and crossing Highway 12 for more riding, before circling back up onto the plateau via the paved bike path as the moon rose.
The riding was good, but horse and bike traffic have picked up in Red Canyon over recent years, and by now- mid-summer, many of the trails (and particularly the switchbacks) are getting pretty moon-dusty. By the time I rolled back to camp in the dark, I’d already made up my mind…
In the morning I was heading South, to the Kabaib Plateau.