An American Adventure: Part Eleven

The Needles

We left our mountain camp very early and made breakfast at a picnic table beside the Visitor Center. The early morning light was gorgeous, and it was still quite cool. I was eager to get started!

We drove to the trailhead on a dirt road of switchbacks and wondered how more than one car could be accommodated on such a narrow thoroughfare. The parking lot was occupied by several vehicles, and hikers were checking their gear and getting started. After clamoring up the initial ascent on the trail, though, we slowed to allow others to pass and to feel the expanse of the place and let its still beauty sink in. I took a big breath and felt the tears sting in my eyes. The clouds were opening up, the sun was rising through them, the quiet sentinels invited us to enter holy ground. I felt welcomed and embraced and deeply happy. 

I thought of my first trip out West when I was ten years old. My father was fond of exclaiming throughout our journey, “Look! Geology sticking out all over!” I had seen the exhibit at the Visitor Center explaining how all this was formed, but it did not compare to the feeling of being in this living landscape. I began to feel the sentience of the rocks, the sage, and the open spaces. How can I share that? I fear that photos don’t even give you a hint. But perhaps they do. (click on the first to view a slide show of larger images)

As we topped the pass into the Chesler Park area, a small family of hikers passed us. The father was carrying his daughter in a backpack…and she looked to be about 6 years old. I was impressed! I was gratified to see more families hiking together as we made our way back to the car, couples with babies in packs and even a pregnant Mom trailing a very quizzical boy and his Dad at enough distance to give her a break (as she explained)! A hiker with service dog carrying fitted water packs also passed us. Closer to the parking lot, a troupe of costumed folk began the steep ascent. I was amazed to see a hiker in top hat and butterfly wings coming up the trail toward me. (So amazed that I didn’t get a good photo.) 

When we reached the car lot, it was full. Overfull. Cars lined the narrow roadway back to the last switchback. It was just past noon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Which made us think about park usage. Who visits the National Parks? What motivates them to come out? How do they relate to this place?

Now that I’m back in Wisconsin, I’m eager to hear Terry Tempest Williams lecture at the Madison Public Library on July 7 on her book The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. I trust that she will share some answers. 

An American Adventure: Part Ten

Exploring Canyonlands

We entered Canyonlands National Park in The Needles district on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and sought to get ourselves acquainted with the short trails along the main road before heavier traffic arrived. There is a self-guided nature trail showing typical flora & fauna and a Native granary and a trail to a cowboy campground just off the paved road. All around are the beautiful layered and eroded rock formations that give this section of the park its name.

All of these seemed to serve as an introduction to the landscape, but every long view we got that day made us eager to leave the paved road and the congested trail loops and get out further and deeper into this tremendous terrain. 

  So we decided to head up to our cooler campground for the afternoon and get a very early start the next day on a longer hike. 

An American Adventure: Part Nine

Canyonlands National Park

Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer season for travel, and desert areas draw big crowds early, before it gets blistering hot. New park staff are learning the ropes, and kids clamor for their attention to complete the Junior Ranger workbooks. We were warned by a Forest Service ranger at the district headquarters that road construction, park development and crowds had created a 5-mile traffic jam between Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

We decided to adjust our goals. We camped in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in the Abajo Mountains south of the Visitor Center in The Needles district of Canyonlands. We didn’t go to the Island in the Sky area or to Arches at all. This turned out to be a great compromise, I think. It meant that after hiking in the hot, dusty canyons, we could drive uphill to our campground in the forest where it was much cooler. The temperature difference between the canyon high and the mountain low in one day was 40 degrees.

It also meant that we could drive through a stunning change in ecosystems, both ways. It was absolutely breath-taking. Our tent was pitched under aspen and oak, in view of a snow field atop the mountain. 

From around the bend in the road, we could see down into the canyonlands. As we descended down into the Indian Creek valley, the exposed red and white sandstone layers and the dramatic effects of erosion captured my attention. 

This part of the country is more vast and wild than any I had ever seen. I was acutely aware of its majesty and vulnerability. 

As you read this, consider your ideas of land use and ownership. This was and is a continual topic of conversation for me and Steve.