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Hiking Happenings January 2004

Walkabout with Rory Tyler:

Catalogue of Quick Jaunts

Mill Creek Canyon & the La Sal Mountains
(from the Dump Wall)

January in Moab means that people linger around the breakfast table and coffee shops longer than in other seasons, leisurely burning their precious moments of winter respite by sipping beverages, chatting with friends, and reading most anything that comes to hand…like this column, for example. Maybe they’re thinking about going for a walk this afternoon when it warms up, some off-the-track place for a few hours, someplace not too far away. They wouldn’t want to waste a perfectly good afternoon in the car. After the fourth cup of coffee and second crossword puzzle, I often get a similar craving and begin to run through my catalogue of quick jaunts. Leg stretchers. Breath fresheners. Mind benders. Luckily, Moab abounds in these gems.

A word of warning. In the winter sandstone becomes very soft and breakable. Don’t count on any thin ledges or insubstantial handholds to support your weight. Make sure anything you step on or grab is bombproof or pay the price.

The Dump Wall
There’s an inviting name for a walk…the Dump Wall. (I make up my own names for places.) Actually, it’s part of the Sand Flats area and you get there on Sand Flats Road. On the right, about 100 yards past the Sand Flats Entrance booth, are the termini of three sandstone fins. You can walk up the little valley or climb up onto the middle fin, where you will see below you “The World’s Most Scenic Dump” (hence, the ‘Dump Wall). The fabulous view of slickrock fins undulating away towards the mouth of Mill Creek Canyon with the snow covered La Sals as a backdrop will engage most of your attention. This is a magnificent place for a sunset stroll. There are several hours of fairly easy walking here and a nice little arch known as Pocket that you might come across.

Sandstone fins at the top of the Dump Wall

Another word of warning. About a quarter of a mile from the road the fins break up somewhat. This is where you want to take a good look at your back-trail. The rock is rather tangled here and, when you return, you want to make sure you’re not taking the wrong route. It’s easy to get rimmed-out on the way back and that means you’ll be backtracking or, maybe, doing something risky. Don’t.

East Portal
Above the Colorado River bridge, on the north-east side about half-way up the cliff, is a beautiful Kayenta sandstone ramp curling around the nose of the headland as it soars above the river. Access is inside Courthouse Wash, less than a quarter mile on the right. The hardest part of this moderate walk is the climb and scramble to the ramp above. Once you’re up there the views of the river, the wetlands, and the Moab and Gold Bar Rims are spectacular. The ramp curves about a mile above the jade-green winter waters. At this point, it’s possible to sneak down to the river or up to plateau, but then you’re working a lot harder and taking a lot longer.

For a lesser walk, go to the Moab Panel of Barrier Canyon rock art at the right side of the mouth of Courthouse Wash. Walk the base of the wall up and to the right. There are a number of interesting shield-figure petroglyphs along this wall and a good view of the river about a quarter mile up.

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!

Polka Dot Man
This walk takes a little more skill and effort than the other two. Desert novices should proceed with caution or not at all. Cross the river and go left on the Potash Road. After the second “Indian Writing” sign go another 100 yards and pull over. You’ll see a mile marker sign with “10” on it. Walk upstream 100 feet and there’s your canyon. It’s a steep scramble and not for the faintly agrophobic or “exposure weenies” as they (and I) are sometimes known. After a quarter mile the trail comes to a protected pocket of sand and stone, a beautiful alcove, and some fantastic rock art, including the aforementioned Polka Dot Man. Don’t forget the binoculars. Proceeding up the canyon connects you to Poison Spider Mesa and you actually loop to the right and back down to the Potash Road in two or three hours.

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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