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Lower Porcupine Rim Trail – River to Rim
by Marcy Hafner

Colorado RiverWith each step up along the Porcupine Rim Trail, I am entranced with the constantly changing perspective of the Colorado River as its diminishing image pops in and out of my field of view. Intrigued with this dramatic riparian scene hundreds of feet down, I am anxious for more and keep pacing upward until those long range, in-depth river scenes completely disappear from sight. That doesn’t happen until I swing south on to the rim of Jackass Canyon – a 3½-mile walk from the river edge to the top.

From its mountain stream origins in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River flows southwest through Colorado, Utah and Arizona. It also serves as the boundary dividing Arizona, Nevada and California and ends its 1,450-mile journey at the Gulf of California in Mexico. During its course from mountain to sea, the water level drops 2½ miles as it thrashes through the rapids of many canyons including Westwater, Cataract and the Grand Canyon.

The formation of our canyons started about 10 million years ago when this area was uplifted several thousand feet by tectonic forces. As the land continued to rise, the pressure and volume of water increased and the rivers cut deeper into the thick solid layers of sandstone leaving behind the sheer walls that we see today along the Colorado River.

Colorado RiverTo get to the Porcupine Rim trailhead, take Highway 191 north out of town for three miles and turn right on to Highway 128 (the river road). Then drive three more miles to the parking area on the left. In the spring, summer and fall, this is a popular mountain bike route and you need to get an early start to avoid the congestion on the trail.

Before you start your walk, take a short pause to scan the cliffs on the opposite side of the river. Bighorn sheep sometimes hang out in this area and on my last outing the white butts of two rams and five ewes caught my eye. After a few minutes of grazing, they moved up the steep cliff face with amazing rock bounding skills – an agility that helps them evade their predators. The older, dominant ram was endowed with massive, strongly curled horns and it would be awesome to witness him and his rival during the rutting season (November through December), as they raced at high speed toward each other until they reared up and slammed their foreheads with a resounding thud - a boom that can be heard for a long distance. Air spaces in their skulls absorb the impact, but even still, injuries and death can occur.

To approach the trail I swing right through the culvert and walk under the highway on a recently marked route that is easy to follow. On the single-track up to Jackass Canyon, no motorized vehicles are allowed. At that point it turns into a multiple use trail. The entire trail to the Sand Flats Road is 15.6-miles long and travels along to the very edge of the Porcupine Rim with marvelous views of Castle Valley. Recently it became incorporated with the newly created 25-mile downhill “Whole Enchilada” mountain bike trail, which begins at Burro Pass in the La Sal Mountains.

Initially the route twists around a side canyon that includes a streambed that glazes over with ice in the winter. Then it steadily angles up to follow the cliff benches until eventually I am on a ledge with one cliff below, one cliff above. Little sunlight can reach over on this north-facing slope and on this cool wintry day I am in the shade most of the time until I reach the uppermost part where a break in the cliff wall enables me to swing south into full glorious sunshine. The trail now levels out and gently wanders above Jackass Canyon, a box canyon bordered by the Negro Bill Wilderness Study Area.

Now that I have topped out on the rim, the river views disappear and the sparkling silhouette of the La Sal Mountains takes command as I continue along on the plateau in a southward direction looking for a good place to take a break. I choose a spot above the end of the canyon, which by now has fizzled out into a rounded depression where I hunker down beside slabs of rock that provide a barrier from the chilling breeze. Here I get so comfy as I relax in the solar heat that is generated off the surrounding sandstone.

In the quietude of this off-season day, the subtle rolling landscape that supports a huge growth of blackbrush and stunted junipers soothingly stretches out before me. To the north and west, fragmented rock formations and bands of cliffs present a jagged profile clear to the horizon. The pastel blue sky is punctuated by the flight of two ravens that are faintly heard from a long distance. For a while I am entertained by the antics of a big flock of busy bushtits that often hang upside down as they glean their diet of insects from the foliage of trees and shrubs. Steadily communicating to their comrades with their high-pitched notes, these roving small gray-brown birds with their long distinctive tails quickly clean up the food supply and move on.

Shortening daylight forces the issue that it is time to abandon my comfortable haven of warmth, which won’t remain cozy much longer. I am reluctant to give up my sunny fortress to retrace my footsteps down in to the shade, but on the other hand, I look forward to focusing on the river views in reverse order. With each step down, the river grows in magnification.

Late fall through winter is the prime time, in my opinion, to witness the river at its best - when the heavy load of mud and silt from the spring run-off has settled out to reveal a lovely translucent blue-green cloak that gleams with reddish reflections off the cliff walls, and the improved clarity makes it even possible to observe the rocks on the river bottom. The crowds gone, I have this mellow trail mostly to myself and I can savor undisturbed the rim to river scenery.

Special note: When muddy, this trail is difficult to walk on. During the summer an under supply of water can have serious consequences. Take plenty and drink often.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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