Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The World's Largest Pothole

I have a love-hate relationship with National Parks. On the upside, they have great infrastructure, great informational resources, and great scenery. Think of Yellowstone, the Tetons, the Smokies… these are America’s best ideas. On the downside, trying to navigate the red tape to obtain a backcountry permit can be absolutely maddening. So I was understandably nervous about last weekend’s trip to Bryce Canyon National Park. There’s really only one backpacking trail in the park, there are camping quotas, and Memorial Day weekend could be the busiest weekend of the year there. Would I be able to get campsites for my nights there?

After driving down on Friday evening and bivvying in the back of my car on National Forest land, I arrived at the park around 6AM on Saturday, long before the backcountry permit office opened. Sure enough, I was the very first one in line. In fact, when the office opened at 8AM, I was still one of only two people there. There was currently only one backpacker in the backcountry. I had my choice of sites and itineraries. Except for one hitch: the entire southern section of the park’s backcountry was closed due to a “problem bear”.

At this juncture I should explain: High-use areas of the backcountry (such as National Parks) tend to attract a disproportionate amount of idiots. These fine folks waltz into the wilderness without preparation whatsoever. They’ve done no research, have not educated themselves on treating Creation with respect… and end up providing bears with lots of tasty human snacks. After bears discover that raiding human camps at night for unsecured food is a prosperous endeavor, bears associate humans with food. You can imagine the danger that a habituated bear poses to campers. So after all of rampant stupidity on the part of humans, and ingenuity on the part of the bears, it’s the bears who of course are the “problem”. They’re relocated to very remote areas or, more often, killed.

I managed to snag a campside in the northern part of the park for a night, and had to settle for hiking about 12 of the 25 miles that compose the “Under-the-rim” trail, which I had been planning to do in its entirety. Because I wasn’t about to try hitching under the officious eyes of the park rangers, I had to take a shuttle bus to my trailhead. The shuttle was designed more as a tourist ride than as a means of transportation, so the whole endeavor took me about three hours to go the ten miles. On the plus side, it did allow me to see some of the sights in the southern end of the park that I would have otherwise missed. Finally, on about noon on Saturday, I got on the trail. I only had about ten miles to do to my campsite, so I took my time. The weather was chilly and nasty for parts of the afternoon. However it brightened up into the evening. I had a wonderful dinner next to a pure bubbling stream, hiked a few more miles, and pitched my tent to shelter me from the winds that were picking up.

Sunday morning dawned cool, but sunny. I was up and hiking by about 6:30AM. The squatters who had taken over my designated campsite (I opted to stealth camp a quarter mile away rather than tolerate their noise and general disrespect) weren’t even close to being awake yet – sitting not five feet from their tents was a garbage bag full of food scraps, evidently. THESE people are the ones who habituate the bears, and ruin it for other hikers and, more importantly, the bears. Rant over.

The scenery on Saturday was a more subtle kind. Most of the day consisted of hikes up and down various side-ridges extending from the ampitheaters. I enjoyed observing different climates and foliage types at different elevations. By contrast, there was absolutely nothing subtle about Sunday. It kicked off with a climb up to the “hat shop”, where orange hoodoos are topped with white stones that look like they emerged from a tectonic haberdashery.

Boring geology lesson: Bryce Canyon is not a canyon at all. It’s more like Bryce-Plateau-Slowly-Eroding-Away, but most people don’t like to contemplate their own mortality and transience while on vacation. The rim of the plateau ranges from 7,000-9,000 feet in elevation. Two hundred days of freeze-thaw per year, combined with extremely flaky sedimentary rock, causes massive frost heaving and frost wedging. As anyone who lives in a wintry climate knows, the freeze-thaw cycle destroys roadways and creates massive potholes. Bryce Canyon is a pothole, on an almost cosmic scale. Often, harder areas of rock resist erosion longer than softer areas, leaving behind pillars of rock called “hoodoos”.

I emerged from my stint in the backcountry by mid-morning on Sunday. Most of the spectacular hoodoos and amphitheaters are actually accessible from dayhike trailheads. I decided to string as many of these hikes together to make one respectable day, although I was still carrying my overnight pack. After running into another critical trail closure (rock slide this time, probably also caused by those naughty and meddlesome bears!), I connected about six different trails, dropping down into the amphitheaters and climbing back up to the rim several times. While some trails (the short ones) were crowded, the insanity of humanity was less oppressive than I expected on the holiday weekend. Clearly, hiking four miles is just too much work for 90% of park visitors! I ended up doing about 15 miles of trail that afternoon, and after dropping my borrowed bear canister off at the ranger station, headed down to the nearby town of Tropic for something to eat.

And boy did I eat! Evidently 15 miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain, with a pack and several liters of water, gave me quite the hiker hunger. I flipped back into thru-hiker mode, and ordered seconds – at a restaurant! I was sorely tempted to order thirds, but figured I should probably leave the place before they put a lien on my car (side note: for this trip, I re-christened her the “Hoodoo-Baru”). I was still rather bummed about missing out on 20+ miles of backcountry hiking and was looking for something to do on Monday. I had pretty much exhausted Bryce (it’s a small park), and my misanthropic tendencies ruled out battling the hordes of humanity in Zion National Park on the holiday. Enter – the pizza shop placemat-map. I noticed that Cedar Breaks National Monument was not too far from Bryce, and the road from Bryce to Cedar Breaks passed through Forest Service land. I decided to sleep on USFS land that night and visit Cedar Breaks in the morning.

Cedar Breaks was totally unexpected, and totally spectacular. It was formed by the same processes that produced Bryce, except Cedar Breaks is 2,000 feet higher; its rim is around 10,500 feet. There was still plenty of snow at that elevation. I arrived very early in the morning; there was no one there. I looked around, did a quick four-mile hike to an overlook, and came back. There was still nobody there! Cedar Breaks was a great, low-key but spectacular way to spend Memorial Day. After a quick hike up a local peak (which, incredibly, was relatively snow-free even at 11,300 feet), I headed back to Salt Lake City.

Overall – Bryce didn’t go according to plan, however my change of plans allowed me to do a couple things that I otherwise would not have done. In the end, it’s as much about just getting out there, sucking oxygen, doing something, as it is achieving a particular goal or hiking a particular trail. A weekend well spent.

Back by popular demand: Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week. The aforementioned mountain, Brian Head, was about a 1,000 foot climb from the surrounding plateau. There’s a gravel road that goes to the summit. But in late May, that’s a merely theoretical proposition. I left the ole Hoodoo-baru right off the main road, and hiked a mile and a half up to the summit. There was no trail, but I was able to dodge the snowfields effectively and got to the top with relative ease. Not so for the poor sucker who decided to drive to the top! Instead of parking where I did, he tried to drive over the snow. Needless to say, he got stuck. So did his two buddies, who came in their pickups to pull him out! In the time they spent trying to extract their vehicles, I had summited, eaten lunch, taken a few photos, and descended. Meanwhile at least one truck was still stuck halfway up the mountain road. When I finally left a scene, yet another pickup had arrived on scene. This one, though, was a contractor, and he was pulling a bulldozer.

Automobiles: your Utterly Impractical Hiking Item of the Week.

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