HIKING HAPPENINGS June 2010
Between The Fins – An Uncrowded Walk
by Marcy Hafner
We refer to it as the “Cross Over Canyon” because it crosses over from Kane Creek Canyon through a series of elongated fins to an overlook of Pritchett Canyon. With its hidden alcoves and crannies, this charming lush canyon always casts a magical spell, especially in the spring when there is a bounty of wildflowers. It’s a regularly used trail and yet, to my knowledge, no official name has been given to it.
Base jumpers travel on this trail between the fins for their ascent of Tombstone Dome where they make their jump, a feat I have witnessed several times. So before you start your walk, look up. If you see someone on the dome above the road an extreme event just might happen. Watching a person in freefall does make my heart rate go up a bit. That loud snap, sounding like the firing of a shotgun when the parachute snaps open, commands instant respect. Landings usually happen on the road, but some even manage to zoom in next to a parked car.
To get to this trail, go south on Main Street and turn right at McDonald’s on to Kane Creek Blvd., where the pavement will end in approximately six miles. Then continue on the well-maintained dirt road for another half mile to the parking area for the Amasa Back trailhead, which appears on the right. The trail starts directly across from the parking area and is marked with a “Hiking Trail Only” sign. There is another unsigned short trail to the left that goes to some petroglyphs, which are well worth taking the time to look at.
I would rate this trail as moderately difficult. It’s easy at first as it follows the streambed, but the walking gets serious when the strenuous climb out of the canyon bottom begins. Don’t get sidetracked with a well-used trail to the right - that quickly dead-ends in a box canyon. Be prepared for the boost up on a pile of loose rocks to the ledge above, about half way up the trail, although it is possible by scouting around to find an easier route. Heavy exertion is required to scramble up the remainder of the twisty trail to the last tricky section - a slab of slanted slickrock where boots with good vibram make a big difference. It’s difficult to get traction on this portion of angled rock; if all else fails, you can knee and crawl up the last few feet. Once you’ve accomplished that, you’ve accessed the final level of the canyon, where a large panel of bighorn sheep pops into view. Now I take a deep breath and stroll over for a close look at these petroglyphs. The big mystery to me is how could those etchings have possibly gotten so high up on the brown varnish? A piece of the puzzle is obviously missing! My personal assumption is an ancient ledge that supported those prehistoric artists has long since slid away.
After following the sandy wash a short distance, I seek out a rock that makes an unusual chair. With a comfortable backrest, I lean back momentarily to enjoy the stone walled, rimrocked scene from my desert throne, as I listen to the short ringing trills of rock wrens. Perfectly named, they prefer a rocky habitat where they can construct their nests within a narrow rocky confine and usually lay out a walkway of small flat stones or pebbles that lead up to the entrance of their home.
Moving along, I arrive at a small alcove with water seeping out of the canyon wall. This is always a must stop for me. How can I pass up the many water-loving plants that thrive in this oasis? On a hot day the sound of dripping water in this cool, refreshing refuge with its damp, musky odors is so soothing; I have easily daydreamed away a lazy summer afternoon here. I study the progress of the alcove columbines that hang from the moist canyon wall and estimate that it is several more weeks before their delicate creamy white blooms will be a marvel to see. Found mainly in moist alcoves, a rarity in a parched land, this columbine is endemic to the Colorado Plateau.
On this spring day in early May, I walk through the thickness of oaks, singleleaf ash and fenderlerbush adorned with delicate white flowers and continue past shaggy barked junipers and stately pinyon pines as the scent of cliffrose fills the air. Tall yellow daisies are a delight to watch as they elegantly weave and sway in the breeze. I pause to admire the bright red Eaton’s penstemon and the large clusters of purple rimrock milkvetch.
Indian paintbrush prefers rock crevices and contrasts vibrantly against the tawny sandstone. Best of the flower show, however, goes to the lovely pink lavender flowers of the Whipple’s fishhook cactus– a treasured offering of the desert.
Mormon tea, with its broom-like appearance, is an odd-looking, medium-sized shrub and this is a banner year for its tiny, strange-looking yellow flowers. It grows up to four feet high and its smooth segmented green branches have no apparent leaves. It is in the ephedra family and Native Americans used it for medicinal purposes by brewing the branches for stomach and bowel disorders, colds, fever and headache. They also prepared an ointment from the dried twigs as a remedy for burns.
Early Mormon settlers made a beverage from this plant by placing a handful of the green or dry stems in boiling water and then let the brew steep for twenty minutes before adding a spoonful of sugar or strawberry jam. I have tried this concoction and that sweetener was definitely needed!
After passing a cavernous alcove high on the cliff wall, the trail splits – left is the route taken by the base jumpers, right goes over a rock incline to the overlook of Pritchett Canyon. I choose right, knowing that further along, I will be forced to make another choice - stay on the fin to the right or go left into the wash. Both routes are marked with cairns and either has its rewards. The high route leads to lofty wide-open views; the low route provides the intrigue and shelter of rock walls. In the summer I opt for the shade of the low route.
Soon I’m peering down into Pritchett Canyon and up at the numerous sandstone fins that lead to the Moab Rim. The smooth lines of rock fins present a dramatic roller coaster profile – an artistry of rock landscape sculptured by geologic time that flows and tumbles against a bluer than blue sky. This canyon is named after Thomas Pritchett, an early settler in Moab who lived in a fort here during the winter of 1880-1881. He was the first Justice of the Peace in the valley and performed the first marriage ceremony in Moab back in 1881.
For all my excursions into this unique canyon, I rarely see another soul, and I cherish that solitude. An uncrowded walk-about on an unnamed route adds a sense of mystique to a day’s outing. In the spring, it feels like a stroll through the Garden of Eden and on a hot summer day, it offers the cool relief of shade. I return again and again for the scenery and the feeling of seclusion, as well as the limitless opportunities to explore the many cross country routes that spin off this trail.
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