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Johnson’s Up On Top – A Quick Wintertime Get Away
by Marcia Hafner

For those winter-weary sun worshipers looking for a comfortable snow-free hike, Johnson’s Up On Top with its fabulous long distance vistas can’t be beat. The wide-open southern exposure of this area provides the distinct advantage of quickly melting any snowfall away. Another bright note is the absence of deep shadows that have a way of chilling you down. Instead, on a clear day you can enjoy your walk in delightful, uninterrupted sunshine. I have recently discovered the plusses for hiking this time of year on Johnson’s Up On Top and have made it my quick wintertime get away.

During my first hour of walking on the winding, “so easy on your knees” dirt road, I often meet up with a few hikers, joggers, and equestrians. It’s a good place to bring your dog, but since there is trapping in this area, you need to keep a close eye on your canine companion. It doesn’t take long on the uphill section before the entire length of Spanish Valley unfolds beneath me. The unrestricted views of Mount Tukunikivatz and South Mountain - both covered with deep snow – and the ragged ridgeline of Behind The Rocks keep luring me further up the trail for higher elevation more in-depth angles of this spectacular scenery.

Horace Johnson, who had a homestead in the south end of Spanish Valley, ran his herd of cattle up on the mesa and it became known as Johnson’s Up On Top. Once I am “Up On Top” there are a multitude of roads to choose from and then everyone spreads out on a vast expanse of terrain filled with blackbrush and Utah junipers. This landscape, which is heavily traveled by deer, stretches out and grabs me with its sprawling unrestricted viewpoints and again I can’t resist the urge to continue on to see what breathtaking sights still lie ahead.

The long-lived Utah junipers are the ancient guardians of this dry landscape and their subtle green foliage brings visual relief to the otherwise dull brown color scheme. Junipers are slow to grow but long to live. Somehow they tenaciously cling to life for hundreds of years, and whenever I see one that looks half dead I wonder how many centuries have passed by since it sprouted from a tiny seed.

Commonly called cedars, Cedar Breaks National Monument and nearby Cedar City are named after this tree. Covering vast acreages, they and the pinyon pine are the most dominant tree species in the southwest.

The healthier trees are loaded with pea-sized gray-blue berries. The botanists, however, classify them as “cones.” The berry-like, fleshy pulp is the covering on the hard-shelled female seed cone, which is readily consumed by a variety of birds and small mammals. The male and female cones are borne separately on the same tree, but the tiny pale brown male cones that grow singly or in small clusters are so obscure I have to determinedly look long and hard over an entire tree to pick them out.

Native Americans used the juniper for many purposes, including the construction of ropes, bags, and sandals. The shredded bark became the matting for their beds. They also ate the berries fresh or in cakes. Dried berries were strung into beads, a practice that still goes on now. The Hopi Indians liked it for medicinal and ceremonial reasons and the Navajo built their hogans and fence posts from the wood of the juniper. And today, just like in times gone by, it makes excellent firewood.

Where the road abruptly ends, I am looking down on the steep walls of Mill Creek Canyon and the cottonwoods that thickly line the streambed. Eye-catching pillars of sandstone jut far above the canyon rim. Leaning on a rock that is protected from a light breeze, I am off in my own private, meditative world. I stretch out to bask in the radiant warmth of the winter sun and lazily watch the puffy white clouds slowly drift across a magnificent deep blue sky. In the stillness of the crisp air I can hear the shrill nasal calls of a large flock of pinyon jays - those erratic wanderers who are constantly on the move in search of food.

Johnson’s Up On Top is owned by the State Of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, commonly referred to as SITLA. It was granted to Utah by the federal government when it became a state in 1896 for the support of public schools and other institutions. The Common School Fund (public schools) owns 95% of the trust land and all its earnings are put into a permanent fund with interest and dividends distributed to it as a beneficiary. The trust land totaled 7,475,297 acres at statehood. Since then half has been sold to private owners. More than 30% of what is now private land was originally trust land. This means the strong possibility exists that some day all that I see around me on this mesa could become a destination resort named Cloudrock. But for now I relish that wonderful sense of release that getting away from the concerns and pressures of every day life brings. I am not that far from Moab and Spanish Valley and yet it feels so far, far away. So if you want to try this quick wintertime get away, do it now before the proposed resort breaks ground.

The solitude of Johnson’s Up On Top is just a few minutes drive from Moab. Take Highway 191 south out of town for about five miles to the La Sal Loop Road turn-off, which dead-ends at Spanish Valley Drive. Go left for about a mile to the pump house and green gate on your right. The road is open to motorized vehicles; when it is dry, a two-wheel drive vehicle can easily negotiate it, but I highly recommend parking at the bottom so you can enjoy the pleasurable stroll up to the top.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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