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Hiking Happenings April 2004

Walkabout with Rory Tyler

Dear April,

Reflection in Courthouse Wash

I’m sorry if I sound like a sap. I know I’m not the only guy in love with you, but I still have to tell you that I think you are the most beautiful, vibrant, captivating month of the year. Everyone morning when I wake in your presence my heart sings your praises and its gratitude. I’m enchanted by your lush, languid character and excited by your temperamental moments. I’m grateful for the generous gifts you bestow and how forgiving you can be. The other months are sometimes harsh and cruel. You, my dear April, are the kindest of them all.
I’m unabashedly fascinated by the way you drape yourself in diaphanous folds of fresh blossoms, soaring birds, scampering lizards, and all the busy bugs and bees. If I live to be a thousand I know you will still be able to overwhelm me with a heady, honey-scented cloud of cliff rose perfume purling along on a canyon trail or with an emerald-backed hummingbird sipping nectar at a scarlet penstemmon. And then, when I’m stunned by your intensity, you express such delicacy and sensitivity that I am compelled to stop and contemplate the near-infinity of indescribable nuance you bring to the simplest moment. For a mere mortal, trying to see and comprehend all that you are is an impossible challenge; one I will always accept with joy.

It’s been a whole year now and I so look forward to taking comfort in your company. Though memories of you nourish my heart and soul every time I pause to savor them, memory cannot compare to the elation I will feel when you embrace me once again. Back in your gracious presence, you will shower me with an embarrassment of treasures and privileges. There’s no way I can ever repay you for what you have already given, yet you will give me more and more. Beloved April, you are the most precious month of the year and I adore you.






Courthouse Wash
As my little love note indicates, April is the month when the desert comes alive. You’ll want your guidebooks, binoculars, and maybe even a magnifying glass to become intimately involved with the abounding life. Springtime comes first to the lower canyons and always makes an early appearance in the accessible and convenient Courthouse Wash. The trailhead is on Highway 191, a quarter mile north of the river bridge. Dog owners, motorcyclists, and marksmen be advised; Courthouse Wash is inside Arches National Park and Fido, Suzuki, and Remington are not welcome here.

The bottom of the wash is wide, level, and sandy. In April water usually flows, so this is a great place to walk in your shorts, tennies, and sandals. There’s a little shallow quicksand here and there, which is not dangerous but can be a bit spooky at first. Later, the kids might wind up playing in it. The sides of the canyon are mostly long sandstone walls that extend for miles. You might spot a raven or red-tailed hawk nest, either in the cliffs and crannies of the main canyon or in one of the side canyons that take off to the right. These side canyons are fun to explore, but present primarily dead ends to all but the most skilled and intrepid hikers. Fair warning! It’s always easier to climb up than it is to come down. Proceed at your own risk.

2000 year old Indian art in
Right Hand Canyon 0f Mill Creek

The Right Hand of Mill Creek
One of the reasons I suggest bringing a magnifying glass is for bug watching. (Binoculars are good for lizards!) There are bees, beetles, wasps, flies, ants, spiders and a billion other bugs running around in April doing all kinds of unimaginable and enigmatic things. Bugs are really fun. Want to have a good time? Find a gorgeous purple-and-periwinkle colored fishhook barrel cactus blossom and settle in next to it. Peer closely into the forest of golden stamens and start looking for all the different critters crawling around in this glimmering glade of pollen-laden pillars, losing yourself for a while in the symbiotic light and motion of a living flower.

Mill Creek is a wonderful place to find that fishhook barrel blossom…or a claret cup, a penstemmon, a cliff rose, an alium, an ansonia, and so on. It also contains a treasury of ancient Indian rock art, which if you come across it deserves your utmost respect. Never ever write or mark on or near piece of rock art. Keep an especially close eye on the kids. Once they see something on the wall they have an innocent and natural inclination to make their own marks. Uh-uh!

Mill Creek has two branches, the North and South, or as the locals call them, Left Hand and Right Hand. It is a wilderness study area so you can take Fido anywhere, but have to keep Suzuki on the Steelbender Trail. A good place to access the Right Hand is above the golf course. Drive south of town about three miles and take a left at the Shell Station onto Golf Course Road. Go a mile to a traffic circle and merge onto Westwater Drive. Follow it another a mile to the top of the hill where it meets the Steelbender Trail. From there the walk is easy and pleasant. There’s lots of water in the bottom so be prepared for a stream crossing or two.

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!

Day Canyon
Day Canyon is completely different from the other two canyons I’ve discussed. It is a narrow, rocky chasm rimmed by perpendicular precipices and soaring columns and towers of Wingate Sandstone. While Day Canyon shares the seasonal charms of April, it is physically more austere and visually more spectacular than the other two. What it loses in the warm-fuzzies it makes up for in grandeur and stature. When you walk up Day Canyon you’ll feel like one of those miniscule brown beetles crawling around in the bottom of a cactus blossom. It’s simultaneously humbling and inspirational.

To get to Day Canyon go a mile north of the Colorado River bridge to the Potash Road, then 11.5 miles on the Potash Road to the mouth of the canyon. The canyon is deep, narrow defile on the right and the trailhead has a wire-mesh gate and broken-down fence across its mouth. Four-wheelers used to drive here but the canyon has been closed to them for a few years now. Now, the trail is cleared mostly by rock climbers. The first two hundred yards of trail wend through a tamarisk grove, then turns left. Shortly after this point you have a choice of staying in the canyon bottom and wending through the tammies and cottonwoods through a stretch sentimentally reminiscent of the enchanting Fanghorn Forest, or you can cross the wash and climb onto a rocky shoulder on the right. The latter option requires a few scrambling moves, but is somewhat lighter and sunnier. Both trails rejoin in less than a mile, climbing up the canyon along the abandoned four-wheel drive road. There is an old cattle trail at the head of the canyon that allows you to climb out if you so desire. Round trip is between seven and eight miles. Keep your eyes peeled for petrified wood. There are entire logs of it exposed in the Chinle formation just below the Wingate.


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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