Over the years, I have had the good fortune of seeing some of the most spectacular places on earth. However, in doing so, I have also ended up spending long spells of weeks or months away from my family, making such experiences a mixture of joy and loneliness. About ten years ago, I actually briefly vowed to give up mountaineering in part because of this after a massive rockfall swept past where I’d walked less than two hours earlier. Alas my planned swan song, wandering up Gannet Peak alone, began first with a dramatic shooting star which seemed somehow to have meaning, and then one of the best days that I’ve ever had in the mountains.
An additional factor has come into play. With older age, injuries take longer to heal and health conditions that used to only strike other people are suddenly within your consciousness. For me, that included problems with my leg that left me hobbling on crutches only two weeks prior to an international trip to fulfill several lifetime goals, and then early this year, an out of the blue diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis, a condition with a mortality rate ten times higher than that seen for those climbing Mt. Everest. As a result, the first day of the Trump presidency saw me in the hospital after a doctor noted that my blood clot was the largest that the technician had ever seen… What followed was more than a month off from running; stopping my usual routine of pull-ups, and even a sudden end to my efforts to build core strength to avoid back pain.
Rather than giving the misfortunes of a body starting to fail as it ages, I’m instead going describe a trip that I took with my son, Dylan, during the first week of June this year - a chance to combine that love of spectacular places with some time with my family. Years ago, I’d gone with him on several hikes culminating in three attempts, the final one successful, at climbing Squaretop Mountain on the other side of Guanella Pass from Mount Bierstadt. However, with him in college busily working towards a career in engineering, I have recently spent more time with my daughter than with my son. But, after a gap of over a decade, we began to do a few hikes together last summer, just the two of us, and have continued that intermittently ever since.
Trail through Time
The conception of the trip was to visit some of the places that are potentially going to lose monument status as a result of the executive order that President Trump signed a couple of months ago that I wrote about in Lands at Risk
. Specifically, I wanted to spend several days visiting portions of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments, as well as some other sites of scenic splendor in the four corners area. So, on the first day of summer vacation (I am a high school teacher), my son and I drove out from the Denver area towards these magical desert lands. Our first stop was the Trail through Time in Colorado; a cool (or actually quite hot) little loop showing several dinosaur fossils still embedded in rock. As luck would have it, when I had Dylan pose beside one of these fossils, I learned that my two year old thousand dollar camera wouldn’t even turn on and the trip was off to an auspicious start. I still had a little point and shoot one, though, and our journey continued.
Dylan on the San Rafael Reef with Planet Vulcan behind him (from the Star Trek movies)
Our next stop was to visit the filming location of the planet Vulcan from the new series of Star Trek movies, which is a section of the San Rafael Reef just south of I-70. Soon, we were driving into the wilds on jeep roads as a sudden rainstorm swept past. Parking the car, we hiked around for a while along the front of the reef, eventually entered a large canyon, and then climbed steep slopes of loose rock and desert plants to a spectacular perch high above the plains to the east. Dylan wasn’t really into the off trail antics, but the location was spectacular, and we returned to the car a few hours later content with the dramatic hike that we’d just taken.
Dylan in the miniature oak forest.
The next day, after a loop including the spectacular Little Wildhorse Canyon, my thoughts were to visit the mysterious Henry Mountains, which were supposedly the last named mountain range in the lower 48. I’d first heard of them some thirty years ago when I read Edward Abbey’s captivating Desert Solitaire
. Leaving the town of Hanksville, we drove miles of dirt road and four wheel tracks into this lonely range of alpine terrain surrounded by scorching desert. Passing the Lonesome Beaver Campground, we ground up steep road to Wickiup Pass at 9,300 feet. However, once there, it seemed as if we’d somehow gone too far in the car, and I suggested to Dylan that instead of a nice road and trail hike, we could instead return to the campground and bushwhack up a distinct ridge to the summit of Mt. Ellen, the high point of the range. And so the next day found us weaving through brush and scrambling steep slopes to the high-above alpine expanses. Later, atop the dramatic North Peak of Mt. Ellen, rather than take the easy but long ridge walk and road back to our car, I saw a clear line down to the northeast and again we were off, stumbling down steep slopes, thrashing though thickets of aspen and fallen trees back towards the lowlands. Eventually, we passed through a strange miniature forest of oak, then past more fallen logs, eventually coming back to the campground with Dylan noting that we’d experienced just about every type of factor that could add difficulty to a hike.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Lower Calf Creek Falls
Returning to Hanksville, I stopped to take a final picture of the range and my point and shoot gave an error message indicating that it too might choose not to work. Distraught, I then forgot to tighten the gas cap when filling the tank, and soon (after purchasing a jug of chocolate milk because chocolate milk is so good) the engine warning light came, leaving us a bit concerned about the miles of dirt road before us.
However, with the main objective for the trip visiting the two monuments that the Trump administration is working to reduce or dismantle, we pressed on. In addition to seeing these areas, our most ambitious physical objective was to basically repeat the hike described by Matt Lemke in his excellent Red Breaks page
. Thus, the next day saw us driving down into the monument (via a quick stop at Pando aspen forest – argued by some as the world’s largest organism by mass). That day, we hiked up to the beautiful Lower Calf Creek Falls. I guess what impressed me the most was that there were young couples, a group of motorcyclists, student groups, families, and solo hikers all out enjoying the spectacular terrain on equal terms. It didn’t matter if you were a billionaire, millionaire, or even someone who’s net income was in the tens of thousands or less. You were on equal footing here, and to me that is one of the most wonderful aspects of a place such as this - something that in my mind is worth fighting to retain.
Red Breaks Slot Canyons
Big West Branch
The next day we headed out into the cool dawn towards the Red Break slots. It was our hardest day, and would be the longest hike of Dylan’s life. I’ve never felt all that adept at describing a play-by-play for a hike. What I write always seems to come across as boring but suffice to say that the main slot was wonderful with nice twists and turns in a narrow canyon. The Big West Branch Slot, though, transcends to sublime, with frequent chokstones punctuating the narrow canyon passages. The way kept getting tighter and more dramatic until we were squeezing our bodies through the narrow walls, our packs held out in front as they just didn’t fit otherwise. Then there was a fabulous section of turns and alcoves aglow with the mid-morning light. Finally, we came to a finale or crescendo so narrow that passage was done in grunts and lurches, producing a culmination that was both annoying and a perfect end to perhaps the finest slot canyon that I’ve ever entered.
Dylan after exiting the narrows
Big West Branch Slot Narrows
The Cosmic Ashtray
The Cosmic Ashtray
Next, we headed overland towards the Cosmic Ashtray. This started out slowly before eventually coming out on beautiful slabs of slickrock that continued nearly uninterrupted to the unique ashtray. Ever since I’d seen a picture of the thing, I’d wanted to go there, partly because it is just an unusual and strange formation, partly to walk on the beautiful colored sands, and partly to climb the rock jutting up in the center of the formation. Arriving some time later, I dropped the rope that I’d carried all through the canyons and rappelled down to the sands. It’s a strange and wonderful place is about all that I can say. Bizarre… However, when I circled around the central rock and got to the most likely line of ascent for that central rock, I realized that my body was about twenty years too old and several months of not doing pull-ups short of making the moves needed to reach the top. This was a father and son trip, though, and soon thoughts of a long ago ascent of Kismet by Dwight Lavender entered my mind, an ascent including a shoulder stand to overcome some obstacle along the way. As a result, I returned back to where Dylan was, and together we re-entered the Cosmic Ashtray, climbed the sand dune, and trading shoulder stands, were both able to stand atop this strange rock sunk way down in a deep pit in the middle of the desert - a wonderful and fulfilling culmination to a phenomenal hike, made even better because we’d done it together.
View from the top of the pinnacle in the Cosmic Ashtray
Dylan on the top of the pinnacle in the Cosmic Ashtray.
The trip continued with nice hikes, unexpected surprises, and desert scenery that verged somewhere between bleak and phenomenally sublime. There would be sunsets, finding that a descent that looked so promising on Google Earth wasn't, a scare with a mountain lion and much more, but for this portion, I thought that I would include some pictures instead of text as perhaps those show things better than a verbal description, so below are some pictures from some of the places that we went.
Smoky Mountain Road; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Scenery along Smoky Mountain Road; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Scenery along Smoky Mountain Road; Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument
Scenery at the edge of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Features in the wall of a canyon; Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument
Scenery; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Slot canyon; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Clouds and Sky; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Mollies Nipple; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We paused near here on the way to climb the peak and listened to the solitude. On the return trip a few hours later, there were prints from a mountain lion crossing our path. Dylan was looking at his phone at the time, and I crouched down to compare the identical size of my palms to the prints. Fortunately, we didn't become cat food.
Near Paria; Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Lower Antelope Canyon. It was a different sort of experience but still very beautiful.
I think that Forrest Gump ran somewhere along here...
I'm rarely one to bring a stove... Stuffed green peppers with a tomato-tuna fish sauce.
As a science teacher I had to geek out on this.
Comb Ridge; Bears Ears National Monument
Desert Badlands in the early morning light
Out of the desert and back in Colorado and the beautiful San Juan Mountains.
Those are a few glimpses of our trip to the amazing scenery in the desert southwest. I sincerely hope that future generations will be able to experience these lands as we did.
I would like to thank Matt Lemke for his page on the Red Break slot canyons, my son for joining me on the trip, and my wife for her patience in letting me see these phenomenal places.