Beyond Castle Valley: The Amphitheater Loop Trail
by Marcia Hafner
If you are looking for a tranquil, less traveled desert trail with great views of the Colorado River and its surrounding topography, then the Amphitheater Loop Trail is for you. A description of this new trail is found only in the most up to date guidebooks and maps. Consequently, even many local hikers are not aware of something special that was added to the Bureau of Land Management trail system in 2004. To further its secrecy there’s no trailhead signage on the highway, and would-be hikers pass it on by with no clue of its unique existence.
To get to The Amphitheater Loop Trail from Moab, drive north two miles on Highway 191 and turn right on to Highway 128. Continue 23 miles and turn left into the Hittle Bottom Campground. The trailhead is immediately to your left. Hittle Bottom has twelve primitive campsites, some of them canopied by old cottonwood trees. Amenities include vault toilets, a picnic area and a paved boat ramp that receives steady use. This spot is more popular with boaters than hikers.
All that remains of the early 1900s homestead at Hittle Bottom is a rock-walled dugout that was originally owned by the mail carrier Tom Kitsen and his family. In those more primitive times, travel from Cisco to the burgeoning townsite of Castleton, on the edge of the mountains past Castle Valley, was a slow, arduous trek. Tom Kitsen carried the mail from the post office at Cisco to Castleton and would stop at his home, the mid-way point between the two towns, to change his team of horses. The name Hittle refers to the family who took over the homestead from the Kitsens.
A hidden gravesite south of the dugout commemorates Tom’s mother. Evidently a normal every day chore of taking water from the river ended in disaster when she fell in, caught pneumonia and died.
The wide valley along the Colorado River from Castle Valley to just past Hittle Bottom is known as “The Richardson Amphitheater,” and the Amphitheater Loop Trail goes through the heart of it. It’s a 2.7 mile hike that is rated moderate in difficulty. Within the semi-circular contours of cliffhanger walls, it wanders through a natural amphitheater that is layered with Moenkopi and Cutler sandstone.
Dr. Sylvester Richardson established a small settlement on the river in 1886 at the mouth of Professor Creek, a reference to one of Richardson’s many previous occupations. Mary Jane Canyon, which is formed by Professor Creek, is named after Richardson’s wife. In 1890 a section of Emery County was broken off to become Grand County and Richardson was appointed to serve on the newly created county commission.
Richardson, a multi-faceted and somewhat eccentric pioneer, built the first post office and store in the region, with the later addition of a school and hotel. He brought supplies in by boat to serve the farmers and ranchers in the valley as well as for prospectors living up in the nearby La Sal Mountains. The town of Richardson was not connected by road to Moab or points east until a toll road was opened in 1902 using a ferry to cross the river at Dewey.
Starting at the informational signs this, “for-hikers-only” trail immediately crosses the highway. After a short distance on a sandy trail through the stubby plant growth of greasewood, it splits and the loop begins. The suggested direction of travel is to go right to get better views of Castle Rock, the Priest and Nuns formation and the backside of Fisher Towers. Soon, you will be so close you can touch two distinctive rock formations that have an engorged, pregnant look. At that point, there is an optional left hand turn to a viewpoint of the river corridor and Hittle Bottom. Since it’s only 150 feet out of the way, why not take it and enjoy the view?
When the trail drops down into the wash be mindful to follow those cairns because it’s easy to get distracted and wander off the trail. The entire basin along the wash collects moisture so it comes as no surprise that the majority of the wildflowers are found here, most noticeably the explosive orange-red Indian paintbrush. Extra wetness also encourages plenty of thick, healthy rabbitbrush and in the fall this wash will be golden in its autumn rush of colors.
As you walk toward the head of the drainage, make sure you keep a careful eye on the cairns. It seems so natural to just continue following the footprints up the wash, but eventually it bumps up against a stonewall. Then in frustration you’ll be trudging back to find the cairn that directs you back on to the trail and out of the wash. The 250-foot climb up a steep gully to the top of a plateau at the base of the cliffs is the most strenuous and difficult part of the trail.
Up on the mesa there is the blessed relief of easier, flatter walking through Mormon tea and blackbrush with rewarding views of long stretches of the Colorado River. Then it is an up and down stroll crossing different desert habitat zones from the drier south facing grassy uplands to a lower, north facing, bottom-shaded forest of over-sized junipers with an appealing ground cover of lush green grass. The final descent goes back to the beginning of the loop and the short, sandy walk to the trailhead.
The newness and obscurity of the Amphitheater Loop Trail have kept the numbers of hikers in check -- the last time I walked this trail I had it all to myself. After distancing myself from the highway, it does feel like an empty outdoor amphitheater with only the prevailing sounds of nature -- from the gentle breeze that rattled the rabbitbrush -- to the bird song of black-throated sparrows and house finches that filled the air while I walked and soaked in the amazing scenery.
Biological Soil Crust (aka)
Cryptos (krip’ tose):
The surface of
Moab’s desert is held
together by a thin skin of living organisms known as cryptobiotic
soil or cryptos. It has a lumpy black appearance, is very
fragile, and takes decades to heal when it has been damaged.
This soil is a critical part of the survival of the desert.
The cryptobiotic organisms help to stabilize the soil, hold
moisture, and provide protection for germination of the seeds
of other plants. Without it the dry areas of the west would
be much different. Although some disturbance is normal and
helps the soil to capture moisture, excessive disturbance
by hooves, bicycle tires and hiking boots has been shown
to destroy the cryptobiotic organisms and their contribution
to the soil. When you walk around Moab avoid crushing the
cryptos. Stay on trails, walk in washes, hop from stone to
stone. Whatever it takes, don’t crunch the cryptos
unless you absolutely have to!
Cryptobiotic soil garden