Last week, I decided to take a couple of days and visit White Sands National Monument. I’ve lived in New Mexico for almost three years and decided it was time. There is no excuse not to take advantage of a National Monument or Park when it’s in your backyard.
From what I’d read and heard, WSNM is a spectacular location for exploring and stargazing. During the day, the dunes are beautiful – stark white, with very little relief as far as color or texture go. There is sparse vegetation, mostly consisting of salt-loving shrubs growing in the low areas between the dunes. The occasional yucca manages to find a foothold, even on the dune tops. At night, there is very little light pollution, making for perfect stargazing conditions.
I opted for a “backpacking” trip – hiking into one of the ten available back-country sites. My plan was to go in a bit after mid-day, set up my campsite, explore a bit and relax under my shade/tarp until evening.
Permits are issued on a first come, first served basis. You must walk in to get one. There are also days when you can’t hike or camp: the missile test range is next door, and if they are testing, there’s no hiking or camping. Call ahead.
I drove down to the visitor’s center, walked in at 11:00 am, and had my choice of campsites. From there I drove to the trailhead parking lot, located the start of the dune-field trail, and began my hike in. So far, so good. The backcountry area is actually quite small. The trail is a 4-mile loop, with the 10 campsites branching off of it like spokes on a wheel. Each site is situated in the bottom of a low-lying flat area, behind a sand dune. There is no camping allowed on the dunes themselves. You’d think these low areas would be ideal locations for camping… One suggestion: if you are using a tent that requires staking out, bring tent stakes and a hammer. There are no rocks naturally occurring in the dune field and the gypsum hardpan is basically cement. Pushing in the tent stake will only result in a bruised palm and a very weak stake placement. I learned this lesson the hard way.
After setting up my tent and tarp/shade, as securely as possible, I did some exploring. The Monument website recommends taking a fully charged cell phone, map, compass, and GPS. They also state that often-times GPS coverage is iffy, and your phone likely won’t work. Best to brush up on your map and compass skills. I can see how easily it would be to become lost in the dunes. The wind quickly erases your tracks, and the landscape is starkly white and barren. In bright light, the terrain appears to flatten out and you can become disoriented. The backcountry camping area has Carsonite posts marking the trail, these are set on high areas, making it easier to keep track of your location. The other areas in the monument are not as well marked, so hikers be aware.
After lunch, I took advantage of my shade, listened to a lecture on Greek Mythology and napped. It’s a great place to just hang out. I didn’t have any bugs, no crowds of people, and only one military drone. There are a lot of jet fly-overs, as the monument is located adjacent to an Air Force base, but I knew this going in. The jets were nothing compared to the wind that came on around 5:00 pm.
I’d been checking the weather for a few days leading up to my trip, trying to average out the forecasts from NOAA, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather. NONE of them predicted tent-flattening, tarp-flying, sand-blasting microbursts. If I’d had some sort of hammer-like device, I might’ve been okay, but without one I could not reset any of my tent stakes. I packed up my tent and tarp, and in the process discovered that my sleeping bag was full of gypsum. I packed that up too. After sitting in a ball for 30 minutes, waiting to see what happened, I came to the conclusion that setting up a stove and preparing dinner in this was not going to happen. Of course, that is when I decided that I was getting hungry. At around 5:30 I stood up and took a look around. A small wall of dust was building and heading my way, reminiscent of the 1930’s dust bowl photos my grandparents used to show me. Enough. I packed the rest of my stuff, put my shoes back on (you can run around barefoot as much as you want – no cactus) and hiked back to the car.
As I was heading out, I passed several people hiking into their sites. They looked about as excited for the wind as I was. I now know how I’ll approach this when I go back. Yes, despite my failed attempt, I am going to try again. The place is just too amazing not to. First: go in early to get your campsite, then go do something else until late afternoon. Take a tent peg hammer. Don’t hike in too early – it’s hot in the sun; there is no water, so you must carry it in; the wind will pick up in the early evening, making it difficult to prepare dinner. You can minimize your exposure by going in later, after you’ve had dinner, for example. Or, go in the Fall, when the wind isn’t such a problem.
Backcountry permits cost $3, the landscape is surreal, and the light reflecting off the gypsum is brilliant! Take a good pair of sunglasses, some sunscreen, and a wide-brimmed hat. You can also buy a sled at the visitor’s center – the kids playing in the parking lot dunes seemed to enjoy them.
The advantages of isobutane canister stove fuel makes it extremely popular in the backcountry: clean burning, no spills, and ease of use. The major drawbacks of canister fuel revolve around the inability to transfer fuel between canisters, resulting in partially used canisters piling up, and forcing us to carry multiple partially used canisters to avoid wasting fuel. On top of that, we often end up paying more per unit of fuel, as the cost is disproportionally higher in smaller canisters.
Great essay in The High Country News. I am not giving up. An experience I recently had in the Grand Canyon gives me hope. I took an extra layover day, at Indian Gardens, during my Tonto Tour in March. I wanted a rest day to just relax, eat, borrow a book from the little “library” there and enjoy being in the canyon. A young family was camping in the space next to me – three young kids and their parents. No iPads, iPods, Gameboys, whining, complaining, boredom. Those kids were having the time of their lives and clearly enjoyed backpacking. I hope their parents continue immersing them in wilderness-time. Those kids are our hope for the future of wild places.
The adrenalized relationship with the natural world is also an experience of human conquest – the peak-bagger’s pathology. Ironically, it’s not much different from the benighted mindset of corporate accountancy: How many cliffs base-jumped? How many extreme trails conquered? Faster, more. And always the adrenalin payoff Casimiro perceives – not dissimilar to the monetary payoff chased by capitalists.
Grand Gulch, part of the newly established Bears Ears National Monument, is a remote canyon system located south and west of Blanding, UT. Numerous sites dating from the Archaic period to PIII can be found here, as well as some of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the Southwest.
Located on State Route 261, the Kane Gulch Ranger Station is 4 miles south of US Hwy 95 at the upper entry point into Grand Gulch, visitors to the area need to stop by here and register with the ranger and pay the day use fee, or overnight fee if you are backpacking in the canyon. As the name implies, this is a non-developed, primitive recreation area. Access into the canyon is by foot travel, although horse/pack animal access is allowed in certain portions of the canyon. The trails in and out of the canyon can range from steep, slightly technical scrambles to long, flat sand washes with everything in between.
What You Can See
Besides the incredible scenery of the canyon itself, several archaeological sites including Jail House Ruin, Perfect Kiva and Junction Ruin, as well as dozens of granaries and rock art too numerous to count are all located in Grand Gulch, many within day-hiking range from the BLM Ranger station at Kane Gulch.
Surrounding Grand Gulch, Cedar Mesa offers beautiful hiking, primitive car camping (in established sites) and opportunities to explore numerous mesa top sites.
Tips for Your Visit
Transportation on Cedar Mesa can be an adventure in itself. The roads leading off of State route 261 consist of unimproved dirt roads, most requiring at least an all-wheel drive vehicle. Low clearance, 2-wheel drive cars may not get you where you want to go here. Keep in mind that the character of any one of the Cedar Mesa roads can change dramatically after one rain storm. Washouts, sandy areas and arroyo cutting are all part of the adventure.
The ranger station has a good collection of books and maps for sale, focusing on the Grand Gulch/Cedar Mesa area. The rangers will also have information regarding which archaeological sites are open and accessible to the public. In addition, they have current water conditions and weather forecasts. Both are very important for anybody planning on venturing below the canyon rims. For more information on visiting archaeologically sensitive areas, check this link out.
We rescued Hera, a cute Blue Heeler with not so cute issues, about 3 years ago. Last summer, I decided that I’d like to try backpacking with her. She’s a fearful dog so, while she is obedient 90% of the time, we always walk her on-leash. Keeping her on a leash is our choice and not up for discussion. That said, she’s very happy to carry a little backpack for day hikes. She loves hiking! I chose a 3-day hike to do that wouldn’t involve any technical/difficult scrambling or climbing, would have plenty of water and would be less popular with the masses – ie., not Lake Catherine.
For this adventure, I’d take my lightweight, 2-person tent (not enough room for myself and the dog in the Seedhouse). She’s always done well in our big car-camping tent, so I didn’t forsee any problems. Other than the bigger tent, and a bearproof canister for food, my kit would pretty much be the same that I always carry. Hera would carry her little backpack, and in addition to the snacks she usually carries, she’d have a little, lightweight bedroll, some extra kibble and her collapsible food bowl. We packed up, left details about our route and when we’d be home and headed out. Once at the trailhead, I strapped her into her backpack, and me into mine and we started out. Ten steps from the truck a loud clap of thunder announced that weather was over the ridge, and we might have some precipitation. The trail wouldn’t take us anywhere exposed or up high, so I decided to continue on. About 1/4 mile in, it started to hail – little, tiny hailstones. I learned that Hera doesn’t like hail.
She actually managed to slip out of her backpack at one point, and just laid down in the trail. We ducked under a large boulder and let the hail pass. Once she was back into her pack, and it had quit hailing we continued on.
Lunchtime came and I chose a little meadow area, near a creek to stop and eat. She wasn’t sure about eating out in a meadow. The kibble was completely unappetizing so, I offered her a sausage snack. That was apparently adequate trail food. We kept going, passed through a fairly heavy rain squall, hiked up and out of a fog bank, and managed to make about 9 miles. She was a trooper. I chose a nice campsite, overlooking a meadow complete with a little trout stream, and some elk.
I got her dried off, set up the tent, hung the bear canister and we settled in for the evening. I’m not sure she was having much fun. From the look on her face, she was skeptical. After dinner, we took a walk down to the creek where she saw her first free-swimming fish. She was more than happy to crawl into the tent for the night. I was quite pleased with the results of her first day out, and she didn’t snore at all.
The next day we packed up for a day-hike. No backpack for her! I carried my little summit pack with our food and my water. We did a nice loop hike, exploring several large meadows and low ridge tops. I don’t think she was much impressed with the scenery, but LOVED rolling in the fresh grass – we don’t have any at home.
Back to camp for our last evening. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes discovered our location and took a special interest in Hera. I sprayed my bandana with Ben’s and laid that across her while I ate dinner. It seemed to help.
We slept in, and after breakfast and one last walk down to our trout stream, packed up and started hiking out. We had good weather for the return trip and made good time. There were even several bovines near the trailhead for Hera’s entertainment. She loves cows, it’s in her genes. As much as I would have enjoyed watching her scatter them, I kept her on leash.
We got back to the truck, ditched our packs and headed home. I did stop at a drive-thru for a burger and fries. Hera loves drive-thrus. She knows that those people mean food, and are somehow ok. She’s never once tried to keep them at bay.
After I’ve settled on the perfect location to call “home,” and the tent is set up, my sleeping bag spread out to re-fluff itself, I clean up and change into my “clean” camp clothes. If there is ample water this entails a sponge bath with a bio-degradable soap – currently, I’m a big fan of the Sea to Summit Wilderness Wash, Pocket Soaps. They are little, dry leaves of soap that come in a tiny, super light plastic case. They take up no space, are nice to your skin and are biodegradable. One or two leaves to a half liter of water, and my 8″ x 10″ microfiber towel/cloth and I am clean! After a sweaty, dusty trail day I like to wash up, as much as possible. It helps prevent pack sores, chafing, rash, etc., and keeps your sleeping bag clean. If I’m in a dry camp and don’t want to use the extra water, I carry a few fragrance-free baby wipes, preferably with aloe. These will get the sweat and most of the dirt off until I arrive at another campsite with water. Usually, I try to plan out ahead of time, if my campsites will be dry, or not and try to pack just enough wipes. They are pre-moistened, so weigh a little more than the soap leaves. Once I’m all nice and clean, I put on silk weight base layers, clean/dry socks and whatever insulation the weather calls for. None of this is particularly heavy and really does feel good at the end of the day. It’s worth the extra few ounces, to me.
Collecting and filtering water is usually next on my list of camp chores. I carry a large 6-liter container to collect the unfiltered, “Icky” water. I’ll then carry this back to camp, where I can sit comfortable and filter to my heart’s content. Last summer I switched filtration systems. I’ve used an old Pur Hiker set-up for years. It works, but it’s heavy and slow and I have to sit there and pump the handle, and if the filter gets any sediment build-up in it, this can be a slow process. My new, Katadyn Gravity Camp system requires no pumping, weighs about 10 oz (they say 12, but I get only 10 on the scale) and filters water fast! Fill it, hang it, open the hose clamp (it works like a giant IV bottle) and in a few minutes, you have 6 liters of clean water. The cartridges are back-flushable and compact. I rigged up a cheesecloth pre-filter for mine, and was able to filter Colorado River water for 5 days – it was running very red/brown when I was there – with no problems.
After cleaning up and changing clothes, and securing a supply of drinking water, I usually settle into my evening routine of setting up the kitchen and getting dinner ready. After a “happy hour” of some sort of electrolyte drink (sometimes mixed with a shot of something fun) and a handful of salty, snack mix, I choose a “dinner ball” from my food bag. Some of my favorites include Mountain House’s Biscuits and Gravy, Lasagna and/or Spaghetti. I’ll add a packet of Tobasco sauce or some grated parmesan cheese “product” for extra flavor. I also carry small (sub-film canister) containers of salt and pepper, as well. That’s it for my pantry…
The meal prep is pretty simple: Open the dinner ball, place it in the insulator/stove cover I made out of reflective double insulation, pour in the appropriate amount of boiling water, re-tie the plastic bag and wait 10 minutes. The insulator works to keep the food hot, and when not serving that purpose, covers/protects my JetBoil stove when it’s in my pack. It weighs less than 2 ounces and cost about 50 cents to make.
After dinner, doing the dishes entails crumpling up the empty plastic bag/dinner ball, wiping any food residue off my spoon with an alcohol swab and letting things dry. I’ve taken to “washing” dishes with alcohol wipes, as they are very small/light, the alcohol evaporates and leaves no flavor, you waste zero water. In the desert, that is everything. After packing away the kitchen, rehanging the food bag and making sure I’ve left no micro trash out, I drop the back of my chair a bit and relax. I have a Big Agnes Cyclone chair that I’ve been using for several years, now. I know, chairs are just a luxury item, and you don’t need one. No, I need it. There is nothing like being able to stretch my legs out and lean back after hiking all day. It weighs less than 6 ounces, works with any 20-inch pad and is quite comfortable considering how simple it is. Depending on h0w many miles the day covered, I’ll stay up and star-gaze. Or, crawl into my nest. I may listen to some of whatever audio book I’ve got on my iPod Nano, or take in the local sounds – river, frogs, creek, trees/wind. Sleep isn’t too far behind.
As I said before, I sleep in a tent. Once upon a time, a well-known archaeologist, on a rock-art documentation trip, woke everyone up at 3 am. She was screaming in pain, all tucked into her sleeping bag, on her groundsheet, after a night spent sleeping under the stars. What happened? An inch-long scorpion decided to investigate the interior of her sleeping bag, and when the archaeologist rudely rolled onto it, it stung her on the shoulder. This story disturbs me. I don’t want it happening to me. I sleep in a tent.
Yes, I know: tents are heavy, bulky, unnecessary, obscure your view of the night sky, etc. They also offer privacy in crowded camping areas, shelter in foul weather and, most importantly (to me) keep uninvited creatures from visiting in the middle of the night. Since weight is something I try to minimize I searched around and settled on a very comfortable, stable and lightweight, single person tent – the Seedhouse 1 SL by Big Agnes. If I leave the included tent pegs at home, it weighs in at around 2 pounds. I cut my own footprint out of a piece of Tyvek 1443 R – it’s a soft, pliable form of Tyvek used to make kites and painters coveralls. It is sewable, water-resistant and extremely lightweight. I’ve also sewn a basic bivy sack out of it, and it works quite well. But, I digress.
Once my little tent is set up, my 800 fill, 20 degree sleeping bag, made by the now-defunct GoLite company, goes in. I love this sleeping bag, it’s warm and fluffy and weighs under 2 pounds. This rests comfortably atop a Klymit Ozone pad, with a built-in, and comfortable, pillow. The Ozone is a couple of ounces heavier than the, now very popular, Neo sleeping pads. It’s also 100x quieter! I’ve learned that the slightest motion on a Neo initiates a crinkling/crunching/crackling noise, reminiscent of the failed “SunChips” bags that made so much noise. There is something about the sound of a crinkling potato chip bag, in the middle of the night, that sets my teeth on edge, like fingernails on a chalkboard. And that’s just if there is one nearby, forget my trying to sleep on one.
Fifteen years ago, I was fine sleeping on a Z-Rest pad. Super light, high R-value (thermal resistance), and it folded neatly on itself. As my joints aged, I progressed to a ProLite self-inflating. It was better, but not much. To that, I added a closed-cell pad underneath. Still, not quite right. I have finally settled on the Klymit. So far, so good. Sleep is important to me. I admire those that can just throw down a tarp and their sleeping bag and go into a coma for 10 hours. I just can’t do it anymore. Simply put, I need a cushioning layer between me and the ground.
Once I’ve selected the proper, level, clear site for my nest, I’ll move on to choosing locations for the “kitchen” and “living room.” This includes appropriate places to hang/store my food, a stable base to set my stove on, and nice place for my chair. A place to call home…
I don’t enjoy carrying a heavy pack. And, while I’m not a zealot or fanatic, I do try to reduce the weight and volume of the gear that I carry on multiday backpacking trips. If you’re looking for extreme ultralight, minimalist tips/suggestions this isn’t where to find them. I’m the Ultralight (UL) backpacking version of Rudolph: I’d be banned from the “UL Club,” not invited to join in the UL Games. My backpack has a well-padded hip-belt and stays. I actually carry a (gasp) TENT! I use an isobutane canister stove (gasp, again). I carry and sit in a chair (Heathen!). I don’t cook/drink/eat out of the same cup. I refuse to rely on leaves when compact rolls of TP are easy to make and carry. I reduce weight and increase efficiency whenever I can, but I do like to be comfortable. You know, I like to enjoy the experience.
Even with all of these, what some would decry as unnecessary luxuries, I manage to carry a sub-30 lb pack on multi-day trips (5-7 day), including water and food. It takes a bit of researching and trial and error, but it’s possible to build a lightweight, but very comfortable kit. Ask anyone that knows me, they’ll tell you I spend a lot of time reading up on gear – I love gear! Show me a lightweight, functional, multipurpose toy and my attention is yours. That said, I don’t like the idea of buying/replacing/tossing a piece of gear every season, every time a new variation comes along. I’ll do my homework, compare different models, variations, manufacturers and try to decide how long the item in question will last, and will a significantly more efficient/useful model come out in a year? Can I modify what I already have to be lighter and more usable? Can I make my own version, better for my purposes? Does it make sense to replace an existing, functioning piece of gear, for a “better” one? Sometimes, yes.
A perfect example of this is my new stove. For several years, I’ve been using a very lightweight, titanium stove by Snowpeak – The Litemax. It comes in at under 2 oz, busts out over 11,000 BTU’s, and takes up hardly any space in my pack. That said, I’ve always found it susceptible to the slightest breeze – you have to build elaborate windscreens to protect it – and, it takes almost 3 1/2 minutes to bring a pint of water to a boil. I never put much thought into this, and just accepted it. I would carry a medium (8oz) canister of fuel for it, for a 7-day trip and it would be empty, consistently, at the end of the trip. With the stove, pot, stabilizer, cup/bowl, and lid the whole kitchen weighed in at 15 ounces. Last summer, I participated in a gear-testing outing, organized by my employer. Several of us went out to test prototype tents, packs, shelters, etc. We each had our own cooking equipment, and I was able to witness a variety of stoves and set-ups. Jetboil stoves made up the majority. While those of us using traditional, open burner stoves (my Litemax, an MSR Whisperlight, an MSR Pocket Rocket, etc) were still waiting for our kettles to boil, the Jetboilers were already a couple minutes into actually rehydrating their meals. The system stoves were significantly faster. The other standout feature I noticed was their fuel canisters – the Jetboil devotees all had the tiny, 4 oz canisters and had fuel to spare at the end of the trip. They were significantly more fuel efficient, under 2 minutes to boil a pint of water. I decided to upgrade. I purchased a Jetboil MiniMo. The MiniMo has a regulator and valve that enables effective use in cold weather, something that other canister stoves leave you wanting, and great simmer control. On its inaugural trip, my recent 2-week Grand Canyon trip, I got 10.6 quarts of water boiled with one, 4 oz canister. My old Litemax averaged 4.5 quarts of water boiled with the same size canister. The system weighs just under a pound, and by switching the included lid with a lighter one I already had, I shaved off another ounce. I didn’t have to build a single windscreen. I ditched the lighter I needed with my Litemax (I do carry emergency matches) because the built-in igniter on the Jetboil is reliable. I’m a convert.
Continuing with the cooking theme: anther way I reduce weight and volume and increase efficiency in the “kitchen” is by repackaging all of my food. Friends that I camp with like to joke about my “dinner balls.” I am a freeze-dried food devotee. I find it tastes better than dehydrated, and side by side, usually holds more of its nutritional value than dehydrated. It’s easy to prepare. Most importantly, it’s lighter and more compact. I’ll repackage the meal, tossing the original, bulky packaging, using food safe oven roasting bags or crockpot liners. Just pour the dried meal into one corner of a roaster bag, twist it down into a small ball, tie it off with a twist-tie, trim off the excess and write the water measurement and boil time on the outside with a marker. If I do it right, I can get two meals bagged with one roaster liner, one in each corner. These weigh significantly less, in this form than they do as packaged by their manufacturer, and after I’ve eaten, the empty bag is much smaller to carry out than the empty, heavy foil pouch. No muss, no fuss.
Next, I’ll rant about my camp “furniture” requirements. It has to do with the fact that I will NOT sleep out, under the stars, on a groundsheet. Something about scorpions, spiders, mice, packrats, sudden downpours….
Woke up and got going as early as I could. My goal was Tanner Beach, and that would be a 10.5-mile hike, across the most rugged terrain of my trip, so far. It would also be the hottest day of my 2-week journey, across the appropriately named Furnace Flats section, below the Unkar Overlook. Yay me. The morning started out, as usual, a quick breakfast, pack up, hit the trail and enjoy the morning shade as long as it would last. The first mile, or so, of trail wound it’s way along the lower end of Escalante Creek (a dry wash) and began to ascend up on to the ridge, immediately north of the drainage just as the sun devoured the last of the shade. Perfect timing. The route is easy enough to see/follow. It is narrow and sloping in many places, so careful footwork is required. I just kept up with my “…get there when you get there.” mantra, and listened to the theme song from “The Great Escape” play itself over, and over again in my head. PLEASE! Someone change the record! I stopped for a quick snack on the crest of the ridge and took in the view. It never gets old, looking around in the canyon. I also found my first tick of the season, and the second tick I’ve ever seen down here. I noticed it scurrying up my pant leg as I stood up to put on my pack. I gave it a good thump and sent it over the edge. Not today, my friend. Not today.
From the crest of the first ridge, the trail contours around the red, shale slope and maneuvers through a steep, boulder covered section. Mercifully, it was slightly shady here, and I made decent time despite having to pick my way around the rocks. It was here, almost exactly halfway between the Tanner and New Hance Trailheads, at 11:30 am, that I encountered four invincible male hominids, aged 19 – 25. They were all gingerly picking their way through the boulders when the one in the lead looked up, quite startled to see a lone hiker on the trail with a backpack. All four were dressed in light running kits – minimalist hydration bladder packs, a couple Gu pouches, running shoes/shorts/t-shirts. Their packs weren’t big enough for any kind of water filtration, extra clothing or substantial food. I just assumed they had come up from a camp at the river. The one bringing up the rear paused to catch his breath, so I said “Hey. Nice day for it.” He asked where I was headed, and I told him my itinerary for the day. I asked where they had spent the night before, and he looked confused. “Did you camp at Tanner or Cardenas?” I asked. “No.” he replied. “We came down the Tanner this morning.” “Wow,” was all I could muster. “We’re running out the ‘New something…?'” “The New Hance?” “Yeah! That one. It’s my first time here. I’m just following my friends.” At this point I decided not to break it to him that he still had 15 miles to go, the easiest 15 miles were actually behind him, and that it would get really warm before they even got to the river, which resembled chocolate milk and was the only water source between themselves and the rim. “Well, I need to get moving so I can get a good campsite. Have a nice run.” I didn’t see any helicopters circling the next day, but they usually wait 24 hours, so…
From that point, I just continued on around and out onto the ridge overlooking the Unkar area. The “hilltop ruin” is located a short way off, and is worth a visit. The views from the structure are amazing. So is the ancient finger of gravel bar it’s perched on! The next leg of my hike was spread out below me – Furnace Flats, Cardenas Creek, and heat waves, visibly radiating up from all of it. I can’t imagine what this place would be like in July. I don’t really want to. I’ll stick to spring. The trail from the Unkar Overlook winds down to the sandy flats by Cardenas. I walked down to the river, ate lunch in the shade, by the beach and found a 1/2 full bottle of sunscreen! Perfect timing, this find, as my little stash was empty and I was starting to pink-up on my shoulders. Thank you, unknown person, for the extra UV protection AND moisturizer, thank you. I checked my water supply and decided I had enough to make it to Tanner. Time to move on, it would only get hotter as the day wore on.
The trail leads away from Cardenas Beach, winds through the sand dunes, past several well camouflaged prehistoric sites, and strikes out across the dark brown/black gravel covered “Furnace Flats.” The ambient temperature was around 80 that afternoon, and it felt about 20 degrees warmer. By the time I crossed out of the Cardenas Use Area and entered the Tanner area, I still had a mile or so to go, and I was sucking air out of my hydration bladder. Mercifully, the distance went by quickly and I got to Tanner between 2:30 and 3:00 without feeling too miserable. I snagged my favorite campsite, at the west end of the area, under some junipers, with a rocky beach.
My first chore was collecting and filtering, and drinking water. This would be my last afternoon/evening at the river (on this trip) and I set up my sunshade, rinsed off in the river and enjoyed being there. By dusk, I realized I had the entire area to myself. I walked up river to the little ledges campsite on the other side of Tanner Creek, and, no one. I was the only human at the mouth of Tanner Canyon. Well, it should be a very quiet night.
The day would turn out to be my last in the canyon, for this trip. My original plan called for tanking up with enough water to hike up to a dry campsite, above the Red Wall. It would mean carrying extra water weight for the day, but I would have a shorter hike today, and a really short hike the next day. I was up and out of Tanner by 8:05 am and had a shady hike for the first 90 minutes. At 9:30 the sun rose above the canyon rim and there was no ducking it. The trek across the Dox is hot, and a bit tedious – it seems to go on forever.
Once you’ve ascended above this, the trail steepens and you get fewer flat sections to catch your breath on. There are a few little places, here and there, to rest in patches of shade, and I took advantage whenever I could. Before I knew it, I was at the break in the Red Wall and could see my destination for the day – just up there. I topped out on the Red Wall at 12:30, ate a handful of cashews and then started down the trail to my intended campsite.
I’ve camped up here before, and I like a particular site, between two big, cube-shaped boulders below the trail. It is situated directly below the Desert Watchtower, and if the wind is right, you can hear the tourist chatter on the tower. It was another hot afternoon, so I pitched up my poncho/tarp against the large boulder, for some shade and ate lunch and rehydrated. I was just relaxing, enjoying the shade and the nice, cool breeze when it occurred to me: “Why is there a cool breeze?”
I looked out from my tarp, just as a gust of wind whipped up a dust devil. Large, dark clouds had started building up on three sides. By this point, I had no idea what the weather forecast was. The bulletin board at Indian Garden had a 4-day forecast posted there, but that was 7 days ago. What was blowing in, and would it impede my hike out, up the friction slabs at the top of the trail? It was about 2 pm, so I decided to give it an hour, and see what happened. By 3:00 the clouds were beginning to consolidate and the wind was increasing. It was decided: Take enough water to hike out, put on the dry socks and head for the top. It would make for a long, steep day, but I wouldn’t have to navigate potentially wet slick rock slabs at the top.
Besides, a beer and cheeseburger suddenly sounded pretty good. The only potential issue, aside from how tiring I knew it would be, was finding a place to stay that night. I had a campsite at Mather CG reserved for the next night and had nothing planned for an early exit. I also wanted to try and get out and to the Village by 8:00 – a hot shower would really be a treat, and they close at 8:00. I drank a liter of water, ate the last of my chocolate and cashews, laced up my boots and started out.
I got up to Stegosaurus Rocks and met a couple resting after their hike down. He said the weather forecast didn’t look bad, but the buildup and wind hadn’t been predicted. I bid them farewell and kept hiking. From that point, the hike out isn’t too terrible. There are a couple of loose, steep sections (where have I heard that before) and, where the trail crosses through the drainage, large sandstone steps that trail crews have constructed. After ascending the Coconino formation, you start a series of switchbacks that wind through the trees. At the bottom of the Kaibab formation, you’re in the forest and the temperatures are significantly lower that what you’ve been used to. I zipped my pant legs back on and kept going.
At 6:00 pm, 2.5 hours after leaving my little site below the Tower, I came to a set of stone steps that climb up, and abruptly end at the edge of the paved road leading to Lipan Point Overlook. And, with that, I was done. I walked the short distance down to my truck, found a note from my wife on the dash, and thanked the canyon gods when the engine turned over without any hesitation.
I drove into the Village, and immediately found the campgrounds booked up for the night, “NO VACANCY!” I then headed to the rim and went into the lobby of the El Tovar – the rim’s fanciest accommodation. They also have access to any available rooms at the other hotels. As it turns out, the only room available, on the South Rim, that night, was in the El Tovar and they offered me a ridiculous deal on it, despite how I looked and smelled. The receptionist was actually quite excited to hear about my trip, and when I told him how long I’d been out, he took another $50 off the price of the room. Nice people, those folks at Xanterra.
I took the longest hot shower I’ve ever taken, well, not too long. It is the desert, after all. You don’t appreciate hot water and soap until you have been rinsing off in 50 degree, silty, chocolate water for days. It was at this point that I noticed my tan. I’d spent time at the beach in my climbing bra, burned through my long sleeved shirt on the trail, had pinked up around my pack straps, had worn my pant legs rolled up, or zipped off, been barefoot, worn my boots with my shorts. It all made for some interesting “topo lines” on my skin. Think “pink zebra.” After my shower, I found a cheeseburger, salad, ice-cold IPA and phoned home.
Usually, I find myself feeling down at the end of a backpacking trip. I put time into planning them and anticipating them, and then they’re done and behind me and I feel somehow disappointed, for lack of a better word. I haven’t experienced that this time, yet. I put more planning and effort into this trip, than usual. It’s the longest solo hike I’ve ever done, the longest number of days I’ve put in on a backpacking trip – period. I wasn’t afraid at any time, leading up to or during, that I wouldn’t be able to do it. My only real concern was how I’d do being along with my head for ten days. I’ve never done that before. Prior to the trip, that sounded like a lot. Looking back, it wasn’t much. I was in shape for it. I had prepared materially for it. The only equipment failure I had was a blown tent zipper (no biggie). I had worried about what it would feel like when I would catch site of the Tanner Trailhead, my endpoint. Would it be sad, would I feel disappointed that it was over? As the signboard at the top of the Tanner came into view, I didn’t experience any of that. I understood there, that I had taken this on for my own reason, to do the thing. Not how many miles I would cover in total, how fast I would do it, how “burly” it would be, what would my time be when I set my trekking pole tips at the trails’ end? My goal/reward/project was to go through the experience of the whole thing. That was it. All along, I’d been telling myself that I would get there when I get there. Well, I was here. Getting here was just part of the package. I had been rewarding myself the entire way, by just “doing the thing,” by just getting to know myself in this remote, rugged, potentially lethal, spectacularly beautiful place. It’s wasn’t the PCT, AT, or someone else’s “epic” journey. It was my journey, that I planned and executed and thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. I think I’ll be able to ride the high for awhile, then I’ll head out on the next one.
The hike from Hance Creek down to the river, and Hance Rapid (the mouth of Red Canyon) is about 6.5 miles. Heading-out Hance Creek is pretty easy, not too steep or loose. I left my campsite at Hance Creek around 7:30, and had good hiking weather – not hot, nice breeze, etc.
Even in mid-March, as you drop lower into the canyon it can feel hot. The reflected heat always feels about 15-20 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. The hike down to Hance Rapid is also dry. Along the way, you hike through Mineral Canyon, a very interesting section of the Tonto. You pass through layers of petrified water ripples – shallow lake or sea shore deposits. These sit directly atop a huge, cemented cobble bed, resembling a frozen river bottom. It’s pretty cool.
As I was heading out this canyon, I passed two small, separate groups that were hiking out the Grandview. They’d come down the Tanner a few days before and were enjoying their last couple of days on the trail.
After you leave Mineral Canyon behind, you arrive at the top of a sloping rock garden. The trail winds it’s way through the large boulders, often marked by cairns. There are a lot of good places to duck into the shade here if you’re overheating. You can see Hance Rapid, and you can hear it!
About 45 minutes or so, the trail unceremoniously dumps you out at the edge of the beach, and when you pass between the two cairns, you’ve come to the end of the Tonto Trail. You’re now on the Escalante Route, that will carry you east to the Tanner Trail. The trail goes along the beach for a short distance, past a couple of larger boaters campsites and then ascends up slightly, into the sand dunes. This little bit doesn’t make for pleasant hiking, with a pack on, but the dunes are quite scenic and, when I went through, covered with Sand Verbena flowers.
My destination for this afternoon was a campsite, by the river, at the top of Hance Rapid. There is a very nice site situated under a small grove of large mesquite trees, and I usually stay there. It is really set up for multiple tents/people, so I opted for a small, single site in the willows below. The big site is for sharing with friends and, again, I didn’t want to take up more room than I needed, in case a larger group showed up. As it was, I didn’t see another human soul all day or that evening. I had the entire area to myself! I took advantage of the shallow, sandy bottomed river by my campsite and cleaned up, rinsed clothes and just relaxed and enjoyed the roar – Hance Rapid is a loud one.
After a light dinner of Mountain House Lasagna (one of my favorites) and some chocolate, I crawled into my tent and fell asleep to the roar and vibration of the rapid. I wanted to get an early start tomorrow, and would be looking out for my friends that had put in on a raft trip, seven days prior. I knew they’d be floating through this section (15 – 20 miles) and hoped to at least catch a glimpse of them. I know, total long shot… I also had the infamous “Papago Slide” to deal with in the morning, and wanted to put it behind me before it started to warm up.
Papago was waiting for me. I woke up early, even though I knew I only had around four miles to hike, today. My plan was to hike up to the mouth of Escalante Creek, and if the beach was dry and available, camp there. First, I had to maneuver up the Papago – a 20-minute crawl up a large, cone-shaped talus slope. The trail ascends this thing because the river cuts it off at the cliff edge below. It’s about a 45 degree slope, completely covered with assorted rubble/boulders/rocks in various stages of “stability” or, instability depending on where you put your feet. The trick is to keep an eye out for the “trail” (the obvious route previous hikers have taken), check the slabs you’re going to step on and make sure they’re solid, and move quickly. If you’re going up, I find the right side to be preferable. About half-way up, small stones began tumbling down past me, and I looked up to see a family of “Bumblies” trying to descend, in mass, down the upper left side. I asked them to please wait until I was up and clear of them, and they seemed quite surprised to see me. I’m not actually sure how they got to where they were, but when I suggested going down one at a time, and following the cairns, they agreed that it sounded like a good idea.
At the top, I stopped to take a photo and yelled “Hi!” to a kayaker floating past, below. He told me there was a large group of boaters camped about 1/4 mile up-river, and I might find my friends there. I’d been really lucky on my trip, so far. Maybe it would be Kat and Joe!
After you get through the “Slide” you have to down-climb the Papago Ledges. It’s a short, easy, class V section of slabby ledges. A section of rope or cord comes in handy here for lowering packs. Being solo, I chose to use caution and lowered my pack down all three short, down-climbs. Reshouldering the beast, I hit the edge of the beach and walked over to the rafter’s camp. They were just finishing rigging their rafts for the day when I caught sight of my friend Joe – I’d know those striped boardie shorts anywhere. I casually strolled up to him (he didn’t know I was in the canyon) and smiled. He looked a bit shocked, let out a few endearing expletives and gave me, and my pack, a giant bear-hug. “What the #$&* are you doing down here?!?” After recovering, he told me where Kat was, and I went over and startled her. She knew I would be in the canyon but, like I had also assumed, didn’t think we would actually intersect on our trips. It was really fun running into them. Just like I was, they were having a fantastic trip! After catching up for a few minutes, it was time for them to get going, and I needed to start my hike up as well. Kat gave me a much battered can of beer, that I would “put in the fridge” once I made camp. I waved them all on their way, and started out, on my way.
Hiking up, into the mouth of 75 Mile Canyon is one of the best sections of trail, anyplace. It’s a gravel wash that leads into a very lovely slot canyon. You wind your way along the bottom to where the slot canyon ends at a pour-off/bowl. An easy scramble up and you’re back on the main trail again. The entry into the slot reminds me of the Paths of the Dead in The Lord of The Rings – “The way is shut.”
A quick hike around from the top of the slot canyon, and you descend down to the river along a route of mixed dirt path and stone ledges. Here, I found the beach I was hoping would be dry and empty, dry and empty. It was all mine. I set up my camp at one end of it, put my beer in “the fridge” and enjoyed a long afternoon at the beach: wading, drawing, filtering water, snacking and relaxing.
There was a breeze blowing that evening, so after dinner (Chili-Mac washed down with a cold beer) and cleaning up, I put the fly on the tent. It helps keep sand dunes from forming inside. Tomorrow would be a long, hot, mostly dry day with a lot of narrow, up-hill trail to cover.