Boren Mesa – A Cool Mountain Retreat
by Marcia Hafner
It’s summer time and coping with the heat is not easy. You’re anxious for a hike, but a walk in the desert is a recipe for sizzling into fried shrimp. That’s when you should try an altitude adjustment - an upward migration to the alpine paradise in the La Sal Mountains. A gain of 6,000 feet or more to the refrigerated coolness of the high country miraculously drops the temperature to an uplifting comfort zone. We are lucky to have visions of the La Sal Mountains on our eastern horizon year round. We are even luckier in the summer to have this delightful mountain wonderland a short drive away. In less than an hour, you can be hiking on a refreshing, pine-scented trail to Boren Mesa, which is a segment of the Trans La Sal Trail system that skirts the entire western side of the range.
With trailheads at both Oowah Lake and the Geyser Pass Road, you can start at either one. To get to the trailheads, go south on Highway 191 for approximately eight miles. Turn left at the Ken’s Lake - La Sal Loop Road sign and then turn right at the dead-end, which becomes the La Sal Loop Road. After a big elevation gain, there will be a sign to turn right on to the Geyser Pass Road, which is graded and passable for all vehicles, even though a lot of traffic does make it washboardy. The trailhead on the Geyser Pass Road is 3.1 miles from that junction. It is 4.5 more miles on the La Sal Loop Road to a narrower dirt road that leads to Oowah Lake. The road is fine for cars but because of the tight switchbacks, trailers and RV’s are not advised.
At the trailhead on Geyser Pass Road, you can go south (right) on the Squaw Springs Trail or north (left) to Oowah Lake. My hiking partner and I choose left for a round trip hike that starts with a wander through the enchanting waltz of quaking aspen leaves.
Thick fir trees umbrella the trail in precious shade as we drop down to Horse Creek. The evaporative cooling effect created by the deep shadows and moisture in the creek bottom is a welcome respite for summer weary hikers and bikers.
On the long climb up the steeper south drainage, the loveliness of wild roses decorates the lower, moister sides of the trail. Then we lose our shade and notice the warmer, dryer air bringing forth the sun-loving vegetation of Gambel’s oaks, chokecherries and the rich purple blooms of lupines. Further along, the faraway vistas of a hazy desert, Brumley Ridge and the Mill Creek gorge fade in and out of sight.
The trail eases into Boren Mesa, a series of big meadows interspersed with aspens and a wealth of mountain iris. Because it reproduces from rootstock as well as seed, mountain iris can spread rapidly in its preferred wetness zone. Bluish-purple, softly streaked with yellow, these flowers deserve a close-up look. The unexpected beauty of blue flax, waving in the breeze, catches us by surprise – a treasure usually found at a much lower elevation.
Boren Mesa is named after Carl Boren, a cattleman who settled in the area around 1876. From this vantage point we appreciate the lofty vision of Haystack Mountain, Manns Peak, Laurel Peak, Mount Tukuhnikivatz, and Mount Mellenthin. This unrestricted view is an open invitation for birds of prey, as we watch a golden eagle gliding by.
Descending into a mixture of aspens and firs, we are flanked by thick ribbons of bright golden pea flowers. At a fork in the trail a sign brings on the debate - left to Oowah Lake or right to Clark’s Lake? We decide to go the extra mile loop to Clark’s Lake, which includes a rocky scramble down and a stream crossing that is gnarly when high. There are two options – walk through the strong current or cross over a log. If you choose the log, whatever you do, don’t look down at the rushing, forbidding water!
After struggling to open-close a barbed wire gate, we swing right for a short distance to the small, stream-fed reservoir of Clark’s Lake, which is an appealing place for a break. But it’s a cattle hangout - so look before you sit!
Just after Clark’s Lake another battle is fought with a barbed wire gate. Then it’s smooth sailing - a big meadow, two easy stream crossings, a long descent, and some last minute switchbacks to Oowah Lake (elevation – 8,780 feet.) The Civilian Conservation Corps created all the lakes in the La Sals during the Great Depression for irrigation purposes. Old pipes and two cisterns above Oowah, one with a serious hemorrhage, give testimony to their past services. Now it is a popular spot for recreation and fishing.
Crossing the earthen dam, we start a steep ascent out of the lake basin through a wooded growth of Douglas fir -a deceptive name because technically, it’s not a fir. Instead it has been classified as an evergreen conifer. Its coarsely fringed cones are entirely different from real fir cones. Also, Douglas fir cones hang down and fall off whole, unlike “true firs,” which project up and disintegrate on the tree.
At the Clark’s Lake turn off, we retrace our steps back to the trailhead feeling grateful and relaxed with our wonderful escape from the unrelenting desert heat. So if you are feeling like an over-baked cookie – get out of town and head for the fresh crispness of the higher elevations. I can’t think of a better prescription for the summertime doldrums, than going up to where it is so cool.
Special note: A shuttle can be arranged for a one-way hike: Park one vehicle at the Geyser Pass Trailhead and another at Oowah Lake. Less exertion is required if you start at Oowah, because there is less uphill going that direction. This 2.5-mile easy-to-follow trail is well marked with tree blazes and signs. It’s rated moderate to difficult; you’ll have to shimmy over or detour around trees that have fallen across the trail, and also be careful of loose gravel and dirt on the steeper downhill.
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