Biting gnats are parasitic organisms similar to mosquitoes and are capable of very annoying bites. However, while mosquitoes pierce the skin and feed with mouthparts similar to a hy- podermic needle, biting gnats have scissor-like mandibles that cut the skin to produce a small, bleeding wound. In the process of biting, saliva penetrates the skin causing an allergic reaction. This reaction is minor in most people, though it can be severe in rare cases.
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.
Trump aims attack at national monuments: 20 at risk President Trump is ordering a “review” of about half of all national monuments designated since the beginning of 1996, a sweeping action that is intended to shrink boundaries and reduce protections. The executive order will put more than 20 national monuments in the crosshairs, ranging from rare wildlife habitat to Native American archaeological ruins, stretching from Maine to California to Pacific islands. Photo: California Coastal National Monument. C
President Trump is expected to sign an executive order Wednesday that could end up shrinking — or even nullifying — some large federal national monuments on protected public lands, as established since the Clinton administration.The move is largely seen as a response by the new administration to two controversial, sweeping national monument designations made late in the Obama administration: the new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah considered sacred to Native American tribes and the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada near the Bundy Ranch, site of the 2014 armed standoff over cattle grazing on public land.
The great outdoors is all over social media. On Instagram, the hashtag #nature has been used more than 20 million times. Attach a geotag to your photo of last weekend’s campsite, and your followers can tramp to the exact same spot. Some nature lovers worry about the downside to this: Is Instagram funneling hordes of people to places that can’t handle this crush of admirers? Are those filtered, perfectly tinted pics sending a message that people can always go where they want, when they want, and how they wa
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.
Managed by the National Park Service, Mesa Verde is situated on top of Chapin Mesa in southwest Colorado, just thirty miles from Cortez on Hwy 160. The road to the park, and all interior roads open to the public, are paved.
What You Can See
There are over 4,000 known archeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park, ranging from Basketmaker II mesa top farm/village sites to Pueblo III cliff dwellings. Only a small percentage of the sites in the park have been excavated. Several of the spectacular cliff dwellings are accessible to the public via guided ranger tours. Stop by the visitors center on the way into the park to pick up a map and reserve a place on a tour. There are also several self-guided trails leading visitors to villages, pithouses and irrigation features.
Tips for Your Visit
Plan for two days to see both sides of the park. There are two main “loops” with plenty to see and do. There is a camp ground in the park, as well as a lodge and assorted dining facilities. If you plan to stay in the lodge or campground, make reservations early. They fill up quickly. There is a fee to enter the park, this varies depending on when you plan to visit. The pass is good for 7 days.
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.