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Hiking Happenings February 2005

On Top of Sand Flats with Fins and Things
review by Carrie Switzer

In January I had one objective for a day hike, and that was to stay warm. I contemplated three possibilities: Fisher Towers, about 20 miles northeast of Moab off of State Route 128; Castleton Tower in Castle Valley; or Sand Flats. I chose the latter because I had forgotten water and my dog when I went to Castle Valley early one morning. I’ll be looking for warmth in February and March as well, so it is likely I will get around to the other two in the coming months.

Sand Flats is a recreational vehicle area and famous for the Slickrock Bike Trail. Although not advertised as such, it is a great place to walk. Straight east off of Millcreek Drive, right outside of town, Sand Flats Road meanders past the recycling center, the old Moab Landfill and Lions Back Campground. There are Bureau of Land Management campgrounds and OHV trails beyond that people come from all over the world to see. I thought I’d hoof it on Fins ‘n Things, a nine-mile, three-hour trail by jeep that I only scratched the surface of on foot. But oh, what a surface!

There is no mention of a foot trail at the campsites I stopped at, so I chose campsite E-7 when I saw the familiar Fins ‘n Things trail marker. I parked in one of the empty campsites and read that the trail requires the high clearance of four-wheel drive vehicles, that much of it is slickrock, some soft sand and a few boulders. Nothing my feet couldn’t maneuver, I thought, which I found to be true for the first couple of miles – the sum of my excursion. I walked, climbed and ran – up and down - as a near-full moon rose and the bright January sun set.

It’s a great walk in an aimless sort of way, as unless you pack overnight gear a hiker is not likely to do the 18-mile round trip in and back. It also requires certain attentiveness as the slickrock surfaces go on and on, and it would be easy to get lost if one didn’t stay on the trail – which, remember, is not a walking trail and is marked for the benefit of vehicles.

Hence, if you’re walking on Sand Flats, look for painted dinosaurs on the slickrock to mark your direction, rather than cairns, and wooden markers with arrows along the dirt and soft sand. The remarkable scenery is not repetitive; it’s just that there is so much of it that it becomes difficult to tell where one mound ends and another begins. The feeling is of being very much in touch with earth and sky, and only earth and sky. The campgrounds and roads are invisible to the eye from a very short distance out.

Cryptobiotic soil garden

In the midst of some of the largest landmasses are islands of soil with vegetation growing from seemingly nowhere. They must have formed from a pool, many of which are found interspersed among other boulders throughout the Sand Flats land mass. Off the trail the cryptobiotic soils grow thick – some like balls of moss – encouraging anyone to look on in awe but never veer from the trail.

Walking with an imaginative eye for being in a motorized vehicle of some sort I can see the adventure in such a trip. It is rated as a 3-1/2 on a scale of 1 to 5 by the Red Rock Four-Wheelers, who with the Bureau of Land Management help maintain the area. It is a heavily used tourist attraction that I imagined would be visibly worn by such monster vehicles as those that visit every spring. But, as mentioned earlier, there is evidence of untouched ground, pure desert growth, that is not only protected from the motorized vehicles, but is probably unnoticed by them. So while a hiker can envy the sharp turns and roller coaster-like jeep trails, jeepers may be missing the pedestrian view to an equal disadvantage.

The magic of this walk is that it is not designed for the walker, and it is very easy to feel on top of the world, quite literally, with the view of snow-capped La Sal Mountains, Porcupine Rim and miles and miles of slick rock. A walk on Sand Flats can be as long or as short as one chooses, as long as the hiker pays attention to their direction. I wouldn’t go in the dark, and I wouldn’t go in the middle of summer. There is precious little greenery, no shade and no water outside of the little potholes still holding some melted frost in the afternoon sun. Few people are around, and the campgrounds make a nice picnic spot to return to.

I may return with a dirt bike someday, just for kicks. I know I’ll return on foot, and probably frequently.

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