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Hiking Happenings December 2003

Walkabout with Rory Tyler:

Sun Spots

Enjoying the winter sunshine

Between the gaps of the winter storm tracks diurnally inclined, protoplasmic, self-propelled organisms; including, for example, iguanids, ungulates, and ape-family bipeds with the expanded cerebral cortexes (lizards, deer, and people); exhibit genetically induced tropisms by seeking silicon oxide masses that are well-aspected for solar collection and where Aeolian phenomena have minimal impact. Or, simply put, rock walls that are out of the wind can be pretty cozy on any sunny December day.

Hey, no secret there! What a pleasure to amble along a warm rock bench or to snuggle up to a toasty wall, nibbling a yummy snack and enjoying the languid, wandering conversation of an amiable companion. Or perhaps, simply drifting along in a singular reverie in the secure keep of a sheltering alcove. You know you’re not the first, even though it feels like it. For thousands of years people here have been seeking these sunny sanctuaries on chilly winter days. This is the kind of place you’re likely to find the stone chips, charcoal deposits, and rock art remainders of the Ancients. There’s something comforting in the knowledge that, with all the strange changes and peculiar stresses that come along with the “blessings” of modernity, there’s still something primitive and satisfying about the way the heat from the stone soaks into your back. There’s a biological contentment in simply turning your face into the soft winter sun, closing your eyes, and basking in the glory of light and love. And so I will suggest, for visitor and resident alike, three pleasant Sun Spots suitably situated for the archetypal edification of this most pleasantly primal instinct.

A warm rock wall in Hellroaring Canyon

A classic Navajo Sandstone Solar Collector (NSSC) and a great morning warmer! The sun comes up early here all winter. NSSC’s abound but, bang for the buck, no place delivers so much with so little effort as the trail to massively elegant Corona Arch. Drive north out of town, cross the river, take the first left onto Potash Road and go 9.9 miles to the trailhead. It’s a mile and a half to the arch and the first third of that is cold and shady in the morning. Don’t be fooled. Bring the shorts, the sunscreen, a gourmet picnic, a ton of postcards, and your ukelele. Stop anywhere. It’s all good.

If you want to grease some miles, continue down Potash Road another quarter mile to where a big culvert cuts under the railroad track. “Park and Walk” under the Culvert. You have entered the magic kingdom of the Gold Bar Rim; the south-facing Kayenta Sandstone cap of the Cane Creek Anticline. Wide, high, long and sunny all winter. Bear left and up for two miles (but don’t cross any divides) and you’ll get to magnificent Jeep Arch. Further strenuous efforts take you deeper into the Gold Bar Rim and beyond…beyond….

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!

CANE CREEK (again)
For an afternoon, I’ll direct your attention to Upper Moonflower. Take Cane Creek Road about a quarter mile past Moonflower Canyon. A dirt road goes up to the left. As soon as you crest that hill there is a BLM 4x4 trail going left, along the majestic roots of the Behind the Rocks fin complex. (There are some trailers up there, but well away from the trailhead.) It’s your choice whether to stroll along the easy the 4x4 road trail or snuggle up to the rocks for an undulating slickrock sidle. (I’ve laid out a Frisbee Golf Course here, but that’s another story.) The latter option, the warmer choice by the byway, also offers some interesting opportunities to discover several nice petroglyphs, including the impossibly-named and ever-controversial Moab Mammoth. Intrepid walkers may continue around the head of Moonflower Canyon and on to the high, sunny alcove a few hundred yards beyond. Archeological cogniscenti will especially enjoy this south-facing sanctuary.

WATERFALL ALCOVE (Well, that’s what I call it.)
This is more of a “local’s tip”, but for visitors with gumption it’s well worth the effort. The walk includes three icy stream crossings and a precipitous scramble up a steep slickrock incline; not particularly dangerous but, for some, certainly thrilling. The Waterfall Alcove is just above the waterfall in the Left Hand (or North Fork) of Mill Creek. Ask someone how to find Powerhouse Lane, take it to the end, go up the trail and stay left. (The Right Hand fork could certainly be included in this discussion of Sun Spots, but I’m saving it for my ‘spring flowers’ column.) The massive alcove is just above the waterfall on the left, a mile or so from the trailhead. ( The word ‘alcove’, according to Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, is Arabic in origin - al kube. Cf. scenes of Wadi Rum in “Lawrence of Arabia”.}

This amazing indentation is the perfect NSSC. The winter sun shines in about 9 a.m. until around five in the afternoon. When it’s fifty Fahrenheit in town it’ll be pushing 75 in the Waterfall Alcove. Amazingly, the sun never shines into the alcove during the summer. It’s cool and shady that entire season. The Ancients had this figured out, or so one can assume from the intense concentration of petroglyphs and pictographs there. Major habitation site. Why would I disclose such sensitive information? Because I’ve personally run pot hunters out of there twice. The more people of good spirit and good will who know about and visit the Waterfall Alcove the less likely it will be looted and vandalized any further. Oh, did I mention that the roof of the alcove is trimmed by a lofty sweep of sandstone arch? Allah akbar! God is good to us.

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

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