Hunter Canyon – Riparian Reflections
by Marcia Hafner
A free-flowing stream in a desert canyon is a unique geological phenomenon. Starting in the surrounding arid highlands, the water journeys laterally underground along an impervious layer of rock. Upon reaching a canyon it surfaces as a spring and comes tumbling down the sandstone wall. Hunter Canyon is one of those spring-fed geological curiosities - an all season treasure trove of delightful surprises.
This riparian paradise, managed and maintained by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), is just a short drive from town. To get there, go south from Main and Center Streets and turn right at McDonald’s on to Kane Creek Blvd. Then drive 7.5 miles. The canyon is on the left, one mile beyond the switchbacks.
Four primitive walk-in campsites, five car sites ($8.00 fee per night) and an open-air outhouse are located at the mouth of this lovely canyon. Since only horses and hikers are permitted on the trail, it is a good place to avoid the noise of recreational vehicles. Allow four hours to walk the three miles to the head of the canyon. The hiker-established path, with just a 240-foot gain in elevation, is straightforward and well marked for the first mile but beware of sand covering the slanted slickrock, which has a tendency to catch you off guard when it slides out from under you. Hunter’s Arch is on the right side of the canyon approximately half a mile from the trailhead. After the first mile the trail gets tricky because it often splits off in two or three directions - some of which end up going nowhere - be prepared to do some backtracking. The last segment of the trail disappears in the brush, and you’re on your own to beat your way through it to the end of the canyon.
During dry times the stream in Hunter Canyon becomes intermittent, flowing beneath the sand and gravel bed and surfacing only when forced up by solid rock. In the cooler days of fall and winter, the lower stream level makes for easier crossings. Be forewarned that underwater rocks coated with water plants can be very slippery. In the spring and summer the strong and steady flow gushes over sloping sandstone called “slides.” On a hot day Hunter Creek is a refreshingly cool water park playground over slickrock that has been eroded into strange exotic shapes by the constant erosion of water.
The pools, big and small, are alive with fascinating insects, such as water striders, sometimes called pond skaters or Jesus bugs because they have the unique ability to “walk” on water. The key for their float-on-the-water talent is the water repellent hairs on their legs that hold bubbles of air. Long, flat and wingless, they are easy to identify, because their second and third pairs of legs are almost as long as their bodies. Water striders skid across the water with their middle legs, steer with the back ones, attack and grab their prey of aquatic invertebrates including mosquito larvae, with their short forelegs. To attract their next meal, they create ripples on the water, and when threatened they drop underneath the surface to make a fast getaway to escape from their predators.
Sheer Wingate sandstone walls stretch up hundreds of feet to meet the deep blue indigo sky. Ledges - whitewashed with bird droppings – and huge alcoves erupt on the flat-walled surfaces. Seeps of water, at many different levels on the canyon walls, show up as dark, moist spots. Hanging gardens, which have managed to grow in their limited supply of soil, cling tenaciously to their watery stronghold.
On my end of October hike, I watch several vocal canyon wrens scoot in and out of the brush – so intent on a game of tag they forget to stay out of sight. The bold scrub jay hangs out at the top edges of the junipers. Small cottonwoods in their almost yellow “waiting for fall” colors rise up above the willows. Rabbitbrush is bursting with late season seeds and the four-winged saltbush has produced its conspicuous four-winged bracts, which are papery in texture, pale brown to almost white in color. Those wings, produced only by the female plant, are cleverly designed for wind dispersal. Scouring rush, a reedy water-loving plant growing on the stream bank, is accompanied by six foot tall grass bedecked with fluffy tasseled hats that wave in the breeze. A few late season flowers, those hardy ones that linger the longest, are the lavender loveliness of asters, the yellow blooms of the Bridges evening primroses and Indian paintbrush.
The groves of Gambel’s oak, named after William Gambel (1821 -1849), are abundant and thick. Gambel was an avid western plant collector and an assistant curator at the Natural Academy of Sciences (now the National Academy of Sciences). At a height of up to thirty feet tall, this deciduous shrub or small tree provides an important shelter and browse for deer. Native Americans ground the acorns into flour, and then leached it in water to remove the bitter tannic acid taste. An important staple in their diet, they used it to make mush, soup, bread and pancakes.
These springs and streams enhance the desert with the wonderful gift of an oasis in an arid land. They are a precious source of moisture for desert wildlife, produce a profusion of wildflowers in the spring and are a refreshing retreat from the summer heat. At any time of the year Hunter Canyon is a great place to go for riparian explorations and reflections.
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