Hiking Happenings September
On the Edge
by Rory Tyler
Lately I’ve been hanging out on
the edge. In this case, on the edge of Mill Creek Canyon.
A phrase like ‘on the edge’ seems to have been
created by the Department of Poetic Licenses specifically
so writers can allude to something like ‘survival’ or ‘enlightenment’.
But, after rummaging a while through the Yard Sale of Accumulated
Folly that serves me for a memory, no precarious existential
phase comes into focus as an apt simile for the simmple act
of strollling to the Mill Creek Rim and being overwhelmed
This precipice is a special place. A sheer-walled sandstone
canyon hundreds of feet deep, its walls covered with desert
varnish abstracts, streaked lichen, intricate cracks and
fissures, and filled with lush cottonwood groves. The entire
scene is framed by the stone-cut horizons of the Moab Rim
and the La Sal Mountains. It’s not a large area, but
what it lacks in breadth it makes up for in intensity. With
your feer solidly on the slickrock, and oblivion only inches
away, there are the invetible fantasies of flying. Alas!
Ground-bound plodders that we are, the best we can do is
hang our feet over the edge of a the cliff and jealously
exercise our overactive imaginations while the ravens soar
and the swallows whistle past.
The Mill Creek Rim is a quintessential slickrock archetype
composed entirely of Navajo Sandstone. For me, the Navajo
is the most interesting and attractive of Moab’s ancient
desert remains. Here, the inexorable forces of erosion reveal
the edges of ancient, wind-lain sand dunes - fragile ridges
of rocke etching the graceful, rolling shoulders of golden
stone. Each declivity is filled with exotic, bonsai-like
cryptogamic gardens. The slopes and walls are spattered everywhere
with multi-colored lichens. These remarkable organisms are
symbiotic cooperatives of bacteria and fungi that thrive
on naked rock. The bacteria digest the stone, which provides
nutrients for the fungi. The fungi use the nutrients for
photosynthesis, which provides fuel for the bacteria to do
their work. And so on. In some species the process starts
in a single spot, then expands out in ring-like colonies
that, when the lichen finally dies, leave circular scars
on the surface. The conflation of color and shape, the intermix
of all these geological and biological elements, is one of
the things that makes it so delightful to amble in the Navajo.
The eroding slopes and and symbiotic gardens also make it
incumbent on hikers to be particularly careful where they
put their feet. The sidebar on this page describes cryptogamic
soil and the ‘why and how’ of conscientious locomotion.
Less obvious, however, is the damage that can be done to
the stone itself. The delilcate veneer of wind-spun ridges
that often limn these stony contours cannot sustain the slightest
bit of weight. In a splilt second an unconsidered footfall
can crush what it took Nature untold centuries to reveal.
It might seem that a few crumbled flakes of stone can’t
amount to much, but consider the possible impact from decades
of unenlightened plodding. As my experience grows, I am ever
more embarrassed when I feel the snap of a stone beneath
The best way to get to the Mill Creek Rim is from Campsite
Cluster E on the Sand Flats Rode, about three miles from
its junction with Mill Creek Drive. Cluster E is also the
trailhead for the four-wheel drive track known as ‘Fins ‘n
Things’. You’ll recognize it as a dark, sooty
smudge across the tawny terrain. Here, only the blackened
scars of the lichen remain and the slickrock is covered with
a loose, chaotic crumble of crushed stone. Thank goodness
group like the Sand Flats Team, BLM, Grand County, and Red-Rock
Four-Wheelers got together years ago to keep this situation
from getting out of hand and devastating the entire area.
(The Sand Flats model is an excellent example of a successful
multi-use strategy for high-impact recreation areas.)
You can easily get to the Rim on the ‘Fins ‘n
Things’ trail, but it’s a little depressing.
I prefer to start at Campsite #5, cross the sandstone hump
there to the wash on the other side, go up the wash and cross
the ridge, then down to the edge of the canyon. It’s
about three-quarters of a mile. There is no trail, but if
you keep the pyramid shape of Mount Tukhanikivats at the
10 o’clock position you’ll be fine. Use extreme
caution. A few years ago a young mountain lion fell to its
death from this precipice and I’ll bet it had more
experience than you or I, not to mention twice as many feet.
Rory Tyler is available
for cowboy poetry/campfire song gatherings which include
lore, science, history and lies of the Moab area. (Suitable
for all age groups). Rates are negotiable. Give Rory a
call at 435-260-8496.