Moab Happenings Archive
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HIKING HAPPENINGS - September 2023

Aldo Leopold And The Mill Creek Rim Trail: The Approach
by Kathy Grossman

It’s a monsoony morning as I take my dog to the Mill Creek Canyon Trailhead. The wide sand-and-gravel entrance to Mill Creek Canyon is fresh and compacted from last night’s storm, though the rivulets and pools have already dried up. I’m not going into the canyon this morning, though, but traversing up to its south rim. This first section of the trail is a cardio workout of sandy washes and humps of sandstone. The second section begins after plateauing at an intersection, scrambling east to the rim, and becoming a sandy jog along a former Jeep road. This month’s column describes this first “approach” portion.

From the Powerhouse Lane parking lot kiosk, proceed to the sign indicating the traverse to the right. Globemallow bushes line this entry way, and you can catch spectacular orange blooms in May. Consider the quote from Aldo Leopold painted on the side of the powerhouse: “There is as yet no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild plants and animals, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape.” This comes from “The Cheat Takes Over” section in Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, describing the invasion of Bromus tectorum: downy chess or cheat grass. This annual, invasive weed in the grass family was brought from Europe to the U.S., taking over from native grasses. Cheat grass blankets the initial lower slopes of this trail.

Aldo Leopold (1880–1948) is considered the father of wildlife ecology and our wilderness system. His land ethic calls for viewing humans as biotic citizens, not conquerors. Leaving his Iowa home to pursue a career in the outdoors, Leopold helped create the Gila Wilderness in 1924, America’s first wilderness area, and where, back in the day, I joyously backpacked. A Sand County Almanac is a classic environmental text, written in a renovated chicken coop on Leopold’s Wisconsin farm. “Sand county” refers to the state’s deep, glacial deposits of sandy soil. You can arrange a tour—actual or virtual—of Leopold’s old writing coop, called “The Shack.”

I look back across the creek to Potato Salad Hill, a geologic jumble attracting articulated climbing machines from around the world. A South Dakota hiker follows me, commenting, “I’ve always wanted to see the desert!” A German couple comes by with two big dogs, and a local man works his way down, having just ended his shift at the hospital. As I work my way up this corridor of tilted sandstone, I’m reminded of The Burren of western Ireland, the limestone ribs of that lumpy landscape where J.R.R. Tolkien loved to hike, suggesting settings for his epic, The Lord of the Rings.

The Mill Creek Rim Trail attracts a mix of users from hikers to trail runners to mountain bikers. Are you surprised to see bike tracks on this rocky climb? I certainly was. But some guidebooks indeed describe this trail as a bike track. I take comfort in just being able to get out into nature minutes from town, letting my screen-weary eyes stretch into the landscape. Aldo would have appreciated that part of things, perhaps reminding hikers, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

The eroded slabs and rivers of sand along with junipers, singleleaf ash, blackbrush, wavyleaf oak, and various grasses, including Indian rice grass (my favorite), contribute to my feelings of “awayness,” though I’m close to town. This corridor is in full shade on this early summer morning. Three-quarters of the way up, things flatten out, and, bearing left, you’ll see rock lining and an old juniper root snaking across the trail. This designates your way up to the rim. When I eventually top out, the trail points toward the La Sals. At this point, I can turn around and hike—or bike!—back down, or I can continue topside along the Mill Creek Rim. We’ll continue that journey next month.

Kathy Grossman

Kathy Grossman is a writer and artist who lives between Pack and Mill Creeks. Growing up in the shadow of a 31 Flavors shop in southern California, she grew to depend on mint chocolate chip cones. She’s lived in Moab since 2011. .

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