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Hiking Happenings July 2004

Walkabout with Rory Tyler:

Aspen, Utah

No billionaire oil sheiks. No movie moguls. No trophy homes, wives, or sports cars. Unlike Colorado, when you say ‘Aspen’ and ‘Utah’ all you get is trees in the mountains. To some this might seem unglamorous and pedestrian, but for my money being a pedestrian is plenty glamorous, especially when you’re strolling through a shady glade of stately aspen trees on a summer afternoon. If you’re intent on hiking Moab in July, aspen groves certainly rate as one of the more comfortable options and the nearby La Sal Mountains provide ample opportunity.

There is, of course, a sameness to aspen groves anywhere in the west. It doesn’t matter much if you’re in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, or Wyoming, once you’re in the trees it’s going to look and feel much like any other aspen colony. That’s a good thing. Along with the cool shade, the stately white boles and shimmering green canopy of an aspen grove provide a sense of nobility that few other forests match. It’s as if you were in a giant monument to some Greek god or great person; Nature’s equivalent of the Parthenon or Lincoln Memorial. Simply strolling through the airy esplanade and its knee-deep carpet of lush green might be satisfying enough, but knowing a little bit about this fantastic ecosystem enhances the experience.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about aspens is that each grove is actually a single organism, a clone. When a hillside becomes available for colonization a single tree will send roots and runners across the entire available area. This is why all the trees in one grove are nearly identical in size. They are sisters of an age and acting as a single organism. In the spring, each grove leafs out at a slightly different time than its neighbors. In the fall, each turns color as a unit. As the grove matures and dies, all its members give up the ghost collectively. The largest organism in the world is considered to be an aspen grove in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.

Another interesting aspect to aspens is the scarring on their trunks. The distinctive eye-shaped formations the cover the boles are the result of a self-pruning strategy. As the trees grow and the canopy ascends, each tree cuts off the sap to the lower branches. As those branches atrophy and fall off, they leave these distinctive scars. I’m not usually prone to anthropomorphism, but in an aspen grove it’s almost unavoidable. When I walk among the aspens I frequently get a feeling that the forest is a sentient being, watching me through its aspen eyes. Woo-ooo-oo! Spooky.

Aspen bark is very sensitive and, once scored, it holds the mark for the life of the tree. Elk will eat the bark of the trees, especially during some leaner moments of the winter, leaving vertical score-marks three to six inches long about four or five feet above the ground. A more subtle mark to look for is that of the bear claws. There are a lot of bears, the mostly harmless black variety, in the La Sals. When a bear climbs an aspen its claws sink into the soft bark and you can actually track the bear’s ascent by these distinctive marks.

The last scarring phenomena to look for are dendroglyphs. Dendroglyph is a high-falutin’ way of saying ‘carving on the bark’. The aspens in the La Sals are full of these carvings. The oldest ones go back a hundred years to the cowboys and shepherds who ran their herds and flocks in the La Sals every summer. Later, but still before air-conditioning, many Moab families would spend large parts of the summer retreating to the mesas and green glades that skirt the mountains. There are numerous memorials to young love, memorable excursions, and risqué ribaldry. The temptation to carve into aspen bark is strong and there are fresh dendroglyphs every year. While I don’t condone the practice (aspen trees are prone to fungal infection and any breach of the bark is potentially dangerous to the individual and organism), I certainly understand the impulse. In fact, as an avid reader, I even welcome the occasional literary diversion.

Warner Lake

It takes about an hour to drive on the La Sal Loop Road to Warner Lake and it includes a gain in elevation of almost a mile. This gain translates into a loss of ten to fifteen degrees which, combined with the relaxing green of the forest, can be quite a relief. This is an easy walk, especially if you stroll past the lake and up the Wet Fork of Mill Creek. The trail follows this stream to Burro Pass, about five miles up the trail (don’t believe the sign). This is a particularly lovely and soothing excursion. If you make it as far as the pass you get a great view of the Uncompahgre Plateau to the east. There is also an option to take the Dry Fork Trail. It’s not nearly so relaxing and is brutally steep near the summit

Oowah Lake
The turn off for Oowah Lake is also on the Loop Road, but you don’t climb as much in your car as you do when driving to Warner Lake. This means that you’ll be climbing on foot and the first mile of the trail is quite steep. I suggest going to the left, taking the trail about two miles to Clark Lake, then looping around to the right to complete a nice circuit. A more intrepid party with more time on its hands might continue up the canyon from Clark Lake to Moonlight Meadows and Geyser Pass, which is quite a lovely area if the cows haven’t trampled it yet.

Geyser Pass Road
You also reach the Geyser Pass Road (named for a guy called Geyser, not a thermal phenomena) from the Loop Road. About four miles past the intersection it meets the Trans LaSal Trail. You can take this trail north to Oowah Lake. There is a delightful little spur just before you begin the climb to Boren Mesa that is well worth exploring. Or, you can take the trail south towards Pole Canyon. This path is a little more demanding and offers more of a variation between aspens and firs. Either option crosses some lovely, tumbling mountain streams in fairly short order.

Rory Tyler leads custom rock art tours and backcountry hikes for people of all skill levels for Canyon Voyages Adventure Company.

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!

 

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