Lead the Way

Day Seven

Zion to Arches
Total Miles Hiked: 2.86 (37.56 overall)

Another day on the road and once more the scenery is gorgeous. It’s also really enjoyable to take in while going the posted speed limit: 80 mph! We had a lot of state to cover. Of the five different National Parks that Utah has to offer, Zion and Arches are the furthest two apart. Going from Z to A is a fresh change of pace. We were really beginning to appreciate Utah, maybe it has a bit of a bad rap due to the wimpy beers and excess salt in lakes. However, things started to get a little shady. We were in need of lunchtime refreshments and were desperately searching for a rest stop. Now, normally, every so often there are places you can pull directly off the highway, have a tinkle, stretch your limbs, and suck up some caffeine. In Utah, they are a little confused. After changing highways, we spotted a telling blue sign for a rest stop and exited. We were already looking around for the parking lot area, however we were quickly instructed via subsequent signage to continue back towards the highway we’d just left. 3 miles. To a gas station? The sign in front proudly announced the rest stop, sponsored by Cheveron. It was a Cheveron. Oh, Utah. You got us.

Ceder Breaks National Monument – meadow + forest
Photo by Rachel

Rachel’s Ramblings:
Have you ever gotten lost?  I’m guessing most people have.  However, I’m willing to bet that this happens to me more than the average bear.  I don’t know if it’s because I have a tragically bad sense of direction, or if I’m just too busy thinking about other things I have to do later, you know, after I achieve my destination.  In either case, I’ve been lost a fair number of times.  I’ve actually stopped calling it “being lost,” because that sounds too negative.  Now, whenever I find myself off the beaten path for some reason, I am “on an adventure.”

Leaving Zion – one last view of the sandstone walls.
Photo by Rachel

Lucky for Meridith, I took us on one such adventure when we were traveling from Zion to Arches.  But really, who wouldn’t want to pass back through Zion and see all those amazing sandstone formations one more time?  Basically, I got my easts and my wests a little confused and, BAM, our adventure had begun.  Lucky for me, after I gave Meridith many “I’m sorry”s accompanied by my best doe-eyed sad face she forgave me and saw the good in the situation.

Dixie National Forest – freshwater riparian area
Photo by Rachel

Our new path would take us through Dixie National Forest (http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/dixie/home)!  This is quite a large national forest (almost two million acres according to their website), and in the high elevations that we were driving through is dominated by aspen and various conifers.  This area is also dotted with many lakes.  Many of the lakes we passed were lovely with intact floodplains.  We admired the scenery of Dixie National Forest, about to be back on track when…the road was closed ahead, and we were redirected into Cedar Breaks National Monument.  At this point, we were just rolling with it. 

On the 70E in CO:  We crossed over those mountains 
and were uncomfortably close to the clouds.
Photo by Rachel

Cedar Breaks National Monument (http://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm) is an equally beautiful place to visit.  We drove through the high elevation forests, and saw some really stunning vistas.  I love high elevation meadows like the one pictured.  In front of all the meadows we passed were signs reading “Don’t Drive on Meadow.”  While that might seem like it would go without saying, it’s an excellent move on the part of Cedar Breaks to keep traffic off the meadows.  Subtle changes in elevation (like those resulting from foot traffic…or cars) can have major impacts on meadow ecosystems.  You might also notice in the right of the meadow pictures a stand of dead spruce trees.  We noticed this in Cedar Breaks and Dixie.  This is the result of the native spruce bark beetle which has reached epidemic proportions in recent years.  You can get the full story here (http://www.nps.gov/cebr/planyourvisit/upload/Why%20Are%20The%20Trees%20Dying%20Site%20Bulletin.pdf).  The current scientific theory is that a fungus is weakening tree’s natural defenses so trees that should fight off bark beetle infestation end up succumbing to the attack.  They are working on the problem, and increased scientific understanding is feeding directly into management action. 

After passing out of Cedar Breaks we were (finally) back on our original route and heading out of Utah and into Colorado!    

Getting lost while on a park trail is a major concern that you should keep in mind when hiking. Many parks have trails that are well developed and easy to follow. Other trails may be a bit more difficult to follow if they are a more natural terrain or if heavy weather is present. Some mountain trails experience white-outs that make things rather difficult to navigate. The current solution to this dilemma is about as simple as they get. You’ve probably already seen it and perhaps didn’t recognize the significance.

Rock cairns.

Or, rather, those silly little rock piles that you see everywhere.

They are actually handy little guides.

I’ve seen them lots to mark switch backs and overgrown trails.

Maybe if Zion had used them to mark the route to Arches we wouldn’t have gotten lost…I mean gone on a surprise adventure.

Question of the Day:
Have you ever been hiking a trail that used rock cairns? Did you know they were so helpful?


The Top of the Top and the Bottom of the Bottom

Day Two

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Total Miles Hiked: 10 (11.5 overall)
Birds wake up much too early in the desert. We’d set our alarms for a respectable7:45, but since neither of us could locate Nature’s snooze button, it was even earlier when we emerged from our own tent cave. Was just as well, it was helpful to get an early start while the last cloud stragglers remained to hide us from the sun. We packed up our inaugural camp site (not before snapping a photo or two and scarfed down a apple and granola bar breakfast of champions) and took off to the far end of the park. We’d consulted with our handy Fodor’s Guide to the National Parks of the West and decided on the recommended Yucca Canyon Trail.

Biologist love this shit and so do dung beetles.


We had to backtrack a little to find the well-marked turnoff for Rattlesnake Springs/Slaughter Canyon cave and from there it was as simple as following a few signs. You have to drive through private lands to get back onto National Park property, but immediately following the transition we spotted a sign for Yucca Canyon. Terribly excited, we parked and practically skipped down the gravel road towards the mountains and canyons. We oooh and ahhh’ed over the types of critters that only science nerds would get excited about. Seriously, when was the last time you were pumped to find a bunch of dung beetles rolling poop? The trail took us along the border fence, closer and closer to the canyons ahead. Eventually the path turned directly towards the mountains and we knew we were close….

Oh. Well then. Onward.

To the trail head?

Looking around in a daze, we realized that we’d been walking along the road that was intended to bring us straight to the canyon trail head. For at least a mile.

We would just now be starting our 6 miles to the top.

No turning back now!

Over the next three miles we ascended 1,575 ft to the top of the true trail. While that last mile was strenuous and we’d slowed considerably since first leaving the car, the final view of the surrounding area was a worthwhile reward. The flat top featured a transformed landscape from shrubby desert plants to a juniper grove where mule deer bounded away from our intrusion. We slowly snacked on raisins and dried apricots, each unwilling to be the one to suggest heading back down the mountain. We were a little beat.

“Grad school has made us soft.” RDW

This little guy greeted us at the top.

But we seemed to make it down the mountain in record time. Knowing we still had to traverse the stretch of road we’d originally mistook for trail was slightly daunting. A lot of the joy from our initial jaunt was gone. It didn’t help that the clock was teasing us. If we hurried, there was just enough time to make it back to the caverns for a second self-guided tour. But this time we could enter through the Natural Entrance we’d seen the bats emerge from the previous night. Last entrance time was 3:00. We could make it!

We didn’t make it. Rolling up to the visitor’s center at 3:05, we felt a good deal disappointed. The Natural Entrance tour would’ve allowed us to descend the 750 feet into the caves via switchback trails instead of the elevator we’d taken yesterday.

But we were too late.

We decided to take advantage of the facilities while we were around and fill up our small army of water bottles and bladders. We’d also have to get a back country permit for the night.

The PA came on. A voice delivered its message.

We looked at each other.

“Did he just say we had 15 more minutes before the Natural Entrance closed?”

“I think so. Should we go?”


We fumbled around for a moment, arms still full of water containers, unsure what our next move should be.
I looked down at my flippy floppies that had replaced my hiking boots. Those wouldn’t do.

We made it back to the car to deposit our water bottles back into their cooler and switch back into appropriate foot gear. I opted for my trusty rope sandals. Cave paths don’t get too wet, right? (Hint: they do.)

Standing at the Entrance once more, we marveled once more at the memory of the bats still fresh in our minds. We marveled at the ingenuity of Jim White, the first known explorer of the cave, for being inquisitive and determined enough to enter the cave back in 1898 with only a ladder he’d fashioned out of wire and wood and a lantern between his teeth. He might have been one of the Original American Badasses. We stopped marveling long enough to go further into the cave. Where we promptly did some more marveling.

Deeper and deeper into the caves, we enjoyed the views, but kept ever vigilant for a stray bat or other rogue cave critters. Eventually, we came across the most glorious sight I’ve yet to behold in a cave.

Iceberg Rock.

Rock is a bit of an understatement. Iceberg Granddaddy of all Boulders might be more appropriate, but still underselling it.

And our first impressive view of this gargantuan beast of solid rock that had fallen from the ceiling at some point in the past was still the ‘tip’ of the iceberg.

Cave formations rock!

Once I’d stopped flipping my mind over the size of the rock, Rachel was able to drag me further down the trail. She did not fully grasp the awesome as I did. I be she would’ve respected my new favorite rock had she’d been around when it came crashing to the cave floor. BOOM! The trail took us down and around Iceberg Rock, then back to the elevators that brought us down the previous day. Back up and out to the information desk once more. We got our first back country permit of the trip and headed back to the far par of the park to hike in and find a suitable section to camp.

After stopping at the secluded, yet rattlesnake-free Rattlesnake Springs for a quick lay in the grass and birdwatching, we were bouncing along the gravel road towards our desired trail. Ahead in the road I spotted something. Something brown. Something brown and fuzzy. Something brown and fuzzy and leggy. Mustering all of my ecologist training I swerved off the road and threw the car into park, yelling at Rachel to get into science mode as well.

We leaped from the car and ran to investigate.

We totally ecologied him. Photo by Rachel

Our first desert tarantula. He was quite ready to get out of our way and back to minding his own business, so we snapped a few photos and back on the road.

The area surrounding the trail was pretty heavily vegetated, but we managed to find just the right spot. And thus I backpacked for the very first time. 1/2 mile from the trail head might not be far, but it counts! And so ends day 2.

Question of the Day:
Have you ever taken a wrong turn that turned out not so bad?