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Hiking Happenings July 2005

High on the Porcupine
by Rory Tyler

When it gets hot in Moab you can head down to the river or up toward the mountain. As much as I’d like to walk on water, I’m apt to be reminded by friend and foe alike that I’m just not that kind of guy. So, as a hiker, when the temperature goes higher and higher so do I. One of my favorite places for getting down is on top of the Porcupine Rim, overlooking magnificent Castle Valley and the Colorado River Canyon in the distance below. I love this area for it’s fantastic views, extravagant formations, and intriguing ecology. Besides that, it’s usually about seven degrees cooler than the desert. In the old days, many Moab families retreated to the mesas for most of the summer and it’s still a darn good idea.

There is not, to my knowledge, any common name for the area where Sand Flats Road tops out on the north end of Wilson Mesa. I’ve got a map that calls it Malloy Park, but I’m not sure anyone but the Forest Service calls it that. I’ve even heard locals reference it as Chessler Park, conflating its identity with a famous feature in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, to which it bears little resemblance whatsoever…except, perhaps for the oxygen rich atmosphere that pervades both decidedly alien landscapes. This is also where the famous (to mountain bikers) Kokopelli Bike Trail connects to the Porcupine Rim.

You get to this area on Sand Flats Road; a pretty good, unpaved road that runs about twenty miles from Mill Creek Drive in Moab, past the Slickrock Bike Trail, and on up to the La Sal Loop Road. The cattle guard that marks the boundary between Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service property is a good reference point. It’s 12.7 miles up to the cattle guard from the intersection of Mill Creek Drive, and it’s 6.7 miles down from the intersection of the La Sal Loop and Sand Flats roads. There are always some rough spots on Sand Flats Road, but it’s usually negotiable for most passenger cars. If you’re nervous about driving on steep switchbacks next to big drop-offs, take the Loop Road. However, in case of rain, never use this upper segment unless you have an affinity for deep, slimy mud.

You can ramble ‘round up here the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is from a Forest Service camp on the edge of the Porcupine Rim. This is the best place for a hiker to access the Kokopelli Bike Trail. The two-track to this camp is .3 miles east of the above-referenced cattle guard. A power line crosses Sand Flats Road just a few yards from the turn-off. The camp is about a half mile from the Sand Flats Road on a high-clearance drive. If you’ve got a passenger car, park it on the road.

You’ll know it when you reach the rim…and how. These views rival anything in the Four Corners. Facing the rim, you can turn left or right on the Kokopelli Trail. Going left, the trail tracks the rim and is very level and easy for a mile or two. I prefer turning right. This way climbs more, but gives you awesome views of the canyons below, as well as the mountains above. It also gets you into an unusual ponderosa/pinyon pine ecosystem that I find quite compelling. The upper route affords a lot of convenient opportunities for off-trail excursions. Once you’re in here, the temptation to start exploring is almost irresistible.

The harder row-to-hoe is to bushwack the ridgeline that parallels Sand Flats Road from the head of Rill Creek Canyon to the Forest Service camp. Any walk in this area has its rewards, but I’ll recommend two particular access points to speed you on your way. The first, and easier, is from the top of Rill Creek Canyon. If you’re driving up from town the road gets steep and twisty after the ten-mile mark, with the canyon deeps to the right. The top of the canyon is obvious. Hike from there, across its head to the bottom of the mesa, then work your way around to the right. The further you go the more interesting it gets without ever getting terribly risky or obnoxious.

The second option is to get on top of the mesa. There’s good access a half-mile west, or down, from the cattle guard. Walk up and behind those sandstone towers at the west end (not the towers on the east end!) of that skyline ridge with the two small hoodoos on it, and you’ll probably find something that sort-of looks like a trail. If you do access the top, pay very careful attention to the exact location of your entry. There are other ways to get off of here, but you don’t want to go there. I’ve got a map that calls the point of this ridge “The Tombstones”, but I don’t call it that because I hate those morbid old cowboy names, as much for their lack of poesy as for the dolor with which they taint otherwise unremittingly inspirational topographies.

I suggest wearing long sandals. The oak brush is thick up here, and the strange and beautifully eroded boulders, which you’ll be climbing over to avoid some of that nasty tangle, are very sharp and edgy. Unlike the stroll around the bottom of the mesa, this area can sometimes be the very definition of risky and obnoxious. Nonetheless, the views are exotic, numerous, unexpected, and unique. For a place that doesn’t really have a name (or one that I care to use), it gets star-billing on this hiker’s marquee.

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.

Cryptobiotic soil garden


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