HIKING HAPPENINGS December 2010
Jacob’s Ladder - A Step Back In History
by Marcy Hafner
The term “Jacob’s Ladder” suggests a title for a biblical story, not a trail that clings precariously to a break in the side of a 400-foot cliff. Accented with abrupt switchbacks, it is also commonly known as “Jackson’s Ladder” – a more appropriate name since John Jackson, a forceful rancher, established this steep, ladder-like trail as a short cut from the Shafer Basin country to Moab in the early 1900’s.
Old timers remember this trail being used mainly for horses. The large herds of free-ranging cattle, which Jackson owned, were instead moved into the Shafer Basin by swimming the bovines across the Colorado River. This turned out to be a risky maneuver and tragedy struck in March 1913 when Walter L. Clark, an employee of Jackson’s, drowned while trying to retrieve a boat that was being used to herd the cattle to the other side.
Jacob’s Ladder can be accessed either by the Amasa Back Trail or the Jackson’s Trail. I prefer the less crowded non-motorized Jackson’s Trail, which angles up the cliff on the north-facing side of the Colorado. Consequently, during the fall and winter it stays in the shade most of the day.
To get to that trailhead, go south on Main Street and turn right at McDonald’s on to Kane Creek Blvd. Then drive approximately five miles. Just past the cattleguard, where the pavement turns to dirt, there are two parking areas. Turn in at the second parking area. The trail, which is two miles in length, starts immediately to the left of the bulletin board.
The first segment on the trail is a more recent and very welcome addition that provides an easier crossing over Kane Creek. During high water, however, usually May and June when the river backs up into the creek, it may be impassable.
After crossing the creek, I immediately devote my attention to the uncertain footing on the damp rocks. At a particularly awkward lengthy ledge I not so gracefully butt-slide myself down! Then I cautiously continue to plot my route past several very exposed spots above the creek - an unfortunate slip would result in a chilly dunk in the water!
Following Kane Creek to its confluence with the Colorado River, the pathway wanders through a riparian zone of tamarisk, lacy filamented grass, willows and huge cottonwood trees with leaves that glow yellow in the late fall sunshine. Edged by sagebrush, saltbush, rabbitbrush and greasewood, this is a good place to see the birds: chickadees, song sparrows, spotted towhees, scrub jays, juncos and white-crowned sparrows flock to this choice location.
Having left the restricted visibility of the wet zone, the trail now steadily climbs through exposed layers of Kayenta Sandstone while giving increasingly expansive views of the river and the imposing, intense cliffs of Wingate Sandstone that thrust up from the shores of its meandering waterway. With the steady gain in elevation the angle and perception of the far-reaching red rock country constantly changes offering a sweeping panorama of Poison Spider Mesa and the Moab Rim. Almost at the top, the already stunning canvas is enhanced by the cooling vision of the La Sal Mountains rising in the distance, freshly dusted with the powdered sugar appearance of fresh snow.
As you top out at the saddle you will see a sign for the Jackson’s Trail. A little further on new signage posts a map with a description for two new trails - the Rockstacker, an ultra technical mountain bike trail and the Pothole Arch, a trail with rolling slickrock domes.
The Jackson’s Trail ends at the crest as it merges with the Amasa Back Trail, a popular jeep and mountain bike route that follows the wide switchbacks of an old uranium exploration trail down to Kane Creek. Now I’m on the massive landmark known as the Amasa Back. Named after the cattleman, George Amasa Larsen, who arrived in Spanish Valley in 1880, the Amasa Back is a three-mile, cliff-sided ridge that forms a gooseneck hundreds of feet above the Colorado River.
To continue on to Jacob’s Ladder, I go right and walk a few dozen steps on the Amasa Back Trail before turning left on to a jeep trail that quickly ends at a turnaround. From there I pass under some power lines and follow the two cairns along the rim. Then I swing right and advance towards several more cairns that mark the spot where Jacob’s Ladder begins. This steep, rugged trail is not that distinct. As I start this endeavor I sharply remind myself that unless I want to walk the many miles to Hurrah Pass - when one goes down, one must also go back up!
A common route for mountain bikes, it is also part of the course for the 26-mile Tour of Canyonlands Mountain Bike Race. On the way down, I meet a guy carrying his bike up who considered this feat no big deal! He tells me he can easily do it in 25 minutes. In fact, several years ago he did it twice – up once with his bike and then down and up again with his girl friend’s bike!! Chivalry still lives on!!
Jacob’s Ladder ends at Jackson’s Hole, an abandoned bend in the Colorado River referred to as a rincon. A big rock marks a turnaround for the road to Hurrah Pass. A little further, a solid stone fortress, which was once surrounded by the waters of the river, dominates an enormous chunk of ground, while the vague structures of the Potash Mine appear in the far background. On this last t-shirt and shorts day of October, the steady warm sunshine is undisturbed by the few puffy clouds that contrast vividly against a clear pastel blue sky. The silence and solitude are stunning - a wonderful break from our noisy technological society. The only sounds to be heard are the occasional buzz of a fly, the echo of a raven’s call and the enchanting trill of the rock wren.
Those sheer rock walls now behind and above me stretch in a semi-circle around this dished out, sparsely vegetated area. I can see the top from whence I came, but the entirety of the trail has disappeared within the encasement of tumbled down rock and I struggle to pick out a trail that seems to have vanished into those thick rock walls!! On my slow tiring thrust up through a channel of loose rock, I find a marvelous kokopelli petroglyph making it obvious that this route was discovered long before the early settlers arrived.
In the 1960’s an above ground pipeline was laid from Moab through Jackson’s Hole to Potash. It crossed Jacob’s Ladder in several places and that hurdle halted the herding of horses. Now the equine herds that once traveled this route have given way to the modern mode of hikers and bikers.
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