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Hiking Happenings August 2005

Look to the Mountains
by Rory Tyler

When it’s depressingly hot and nasty in the canyons, the La Sal Mountains are there providing shade and solace for sun-scorched eyes. When thunderheads come rolling across the desert, the La Sals are there, wringing the well-springs of the future out of the stormy clouds. Few places in the world provide a contrast as compressed, dramatic, or accessible as the sky-high gardens of the La Sal Mountains floating far above the stark, stony precipices of the canyon lands. Summer can be the hell-season in Moab, but heaven is only a half hour away.

The La Sal Loop Road provides the easiest access into the La Sal Mountains. It makes a sixty-mile circuit from Moab, up to the mesas that skirt the peaks, and back down to the canyons. Any basic area map will show you how to get to the Loop Road. If you access the Loop Road by going south, it meets the Geyser Pass Road about twenty miles from town. The Geyser Pass road crosses the range 10,500’ above sea level, while Moab is at a mere 4,000’. (On a map, the La Sal Pass Road, where it leaves the Loop Road at Pack Creek, might look like a tempting way to access the southern part of the range. However, if you value the integrity of your vehicle’s suspension, not to mention your lower lumbar, I suggest going the long way round through the town of La Sal, thus avoiding a long, rude, brutal four-wheel ordeal.)

Any side road, sidetrack, or trailhead along the Loop Road will provide a fine excursion, but my favorite hikes start along the Geyser Pass Road and at Warner Lake. It’s seven miles from the Loop Road up to the Warner Lake Campground at 9,200’. The lake, a small reservoir, is surrounded by vibrant meadows, a leafy aspen canopy, massive granite-shouldered mountains, and squadrons of mosquitoes and Boy Scouts who are so happy you’ve come. Bug dope will help in one instance, but not the other. The reservoir is fed by a chipper little flower-lined stream that tumbles its way down six miles and 1,500 ‘ from Burro Pass.

For an intensely aerobic option, consider the Dry Fork spur three miles from the trailhead. If you’re in slow mode, just amble under the trembling canopy of quaking aspens, enjoy the lacy emerald light, and scan tree trunks for various man-and-animal-made markings. This has been a popular place for people to carve their names, initials, and vows for over a century. Many of the Hispanic names belong to herders from the old days, when it was the summer grazing capacity of the mountains, not the winter desert grazing, that limited herd size in the region. You can also find scrapes where winter elk gnawed the bark off the white aspen boles, and even a tree or two that registers the memorial claw marks of a bear cub scampering his way to safety.

The Geyser Pass Road has several terrific hiking options. The first is the Trans-La Sal Trail, three miles from the Loop Road turn-off. The trail goes north (Boren Mesa) and south (Squaw Springs) from the car park. The northern spur takes you to Oowah and Clark Lakes, two more small reservoirs, but neither as scenic as Warner. The south spur isn’t as vertical, but seems a little wilder as it passes through some very primeval canyons, meadows, and canopies.

The Gold Basin turn-off is 5.5 miles from the Loop Road. The Gold Basin Trail follows Brumley Creek two miles up into a glacier-carved cirque surrounded by the highest summits of the La Sals. About two hundred yards from the trailhead you cross a fallen aspen. As soon as you cross it, take the trail to the left. This is an outstanding place to meet up with such local luminaries as elk, deer, bear, weasels, and walkers. If you’re interested in bagging a peak or two, use the trailhead at Laurel Meadows, .8 miles from the Geyser Pass Road intersection. This puts you on Brumley Ridge, then on to Mounts Mellenthin and Peale. It’s all very straightforward. It’s fun to come down the grassy avalanche chutes into Gold Basin, but don’t try the scree slope on Mel’s northwest side unless you’re doing primary research on the angle of repose in Tertiary batholithic exfoliates…and I bet you aren’t. If you get up to the peaks, the ridgeline west to Mount Tukhanikavats (just say Took) is doable, but problematical. Leave the dog.

At Geyser Pass, turn left to Moonlight Meadows. These many acres of spring-fed lees get heavy rotation from bovines and bikers alike, but they’re still well worth a visit. There is also a trailhead near here for Burro Pass. An avalanche demolished the trail on the north side of the ridgeline, but this is still a good way to ascend Haystack Mountain.

Now, to change the subject slightly… “Look to the Mountains” is one of the best books about western land use I’ve ever read. It’s a no-nonsense history of the Manti–La Sal National Forest by Charles Peterson. (It’s where I learned about grazing patterns in the La Sals.) Published in 1975, it’s out of print now, but there’s one in the library if your car broke down in Moab and you need to shade-up for a few days. By the way, if your car did break down in Moab, welcome to your new home! If you long for your own copy, used ones carry a premium price, but I have it on good authority that a deal can be struck with a certain local book-monger.

Peterson writes, “While I have focused primarily upon the development of the Forest, I have been concerned also with the character of the society that depended on the Forest, and have attempted to understand the interrelationships of society and forest.” And he succeeds nicely. This article isn’t about Peterson’s history, of course; it’s about hiking in the La Sal Mountains. But, since I’m stealing his title, I confess my crime forthwith and apologize by paying homage to his valuable work.

Cryptobiotic soil garden

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.



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