Dear Abby of the Red Rocks: There’s this guy at work who’s really cool and pretty cute too! We’ve been talking about hiking, and yesterday he asked me on a date . . . to go hiking! He wants to do the Juniper Trail, a hike new to me, and then have a picnic at some stone chairs on a mesa overlook. He said he’ll bring the food. Is this a good idea? – Nervous Nelly in La Sal
Dear Nervous: Well, you work with this guy, so this isn’t a blind date, but any kind of date can be nerve-wracking, right? You’ll want to make a good impression and so will he. Remember, he’ll be nervous, too! On a first date many years ago, I remember over-preparation by me and showing-off by him. I topped off some fresh strawberries with some Reddi Wip. On another first date, my guy drove us to the La Sals for a mushrooming foray. We tailgated with ham-and-Swiss-cheese sandwiches, as I remember. He’d also prepared a thermos of coffee and a thermos of martinis. Man, I remember thinking, this man can cook!
The Juniper Trail Primitive Hiking Loop is a roughly two-mile roundtrip in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, a treasure of 9,000 acres of domes, bowls, and sandstone fins. “Flats” means relatively level areas. At Mile 2.5 from the Entrance Station is the world-famous Slickrock Bike Trail (and your last available vault toilet before reaching Juniper’s trailhead). I’ll assume you have a current $25 Sand Flats annual pass; otherwise, a day-use pass is $5. My advice: get the pass!
From the Entrance Station, go about six miles to the trailhead, which will be on your left (west). This hikers-only trail has no water, some scrambling, and exposed cliff edges. But, oh, the views! Geology, birds, blooming cacti, lovely deep-green piñon and juniper trees, including other-worldly twisty, dead juniper sculptures. In early spring, Utah junipers won’t yet have their berries (actually tiny cones in a waxy coating) nor will the piñons have their cones with pine nuts (seeds actually), but these trees will be your only reliable shade.
Look for bright blue dots and dashes painted on the rocks at your feet. This is a mostly easy hike, though, with some rocky steps and exposed sections, it can be moderately challenging. Dogs, even puppies, are welcome, though your canine buddy may need help with some of the bouldering.
You know the desert drill: hat, sunscreen, plenty of water (even on cold days), snacks, a first aid kit. This is cactus country, so don’t forget tweezers. Conditions can turn windy, so you might stash a vest, jacket, and gloves in your daypack. Stone chairs built for two are midway on the mesa’s loop, though I’ve seen four people squeeze into this space. And bring along some Reddi Wip. It gives any dessert a playful, romantic flourish. You can leave it in your pack if the mood is wrong.
Wear proper hiking boots, something GearHeads or Moab Gear Trader will have. This trail has exposed drop-offs and some scrambling, so your shoes will need some grip. Also, Nike makes a Juniper Trail off-road shoe, described as “built for rocky trails.” You could get yourself a pair, though I don’t recommend trying out new shoes on a first date.
For a man’s perspective on all this, I asked my boyfriend, who said, “It’s a lot like taking your horse out on a trail for the first time: you’re looking at temperament, stamina, and if they’re paying attention to what’s around them.” You can take that perspective for what it’s worth, Nelly. Good luck!
Kathy Grossman is a southern California cartoonist and writer who has lived in Moab since 2011. That same year, she traveled to Scotland and visited Muir’s birthplace. You can read more about Muir at Sierraclub.org, including J. Parker Huber’s “John Muir’s Menu” and Muir’s “Bathing in Salt Lake.” See also kathygrossman.com/writing for “Feeling very American at John Muir’s birthplace.” California celebrates John Muir Day on April 21.