Category Archives: Nature

Camping Basics

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When I asked for suggestions for topics for my Wednesday posts of special interest to vandwellers, vagabonds, rubber tramps, nomads, and travelers of all kinds, my friend Laura-Marie of the dangerous compassions blog suggested I write about the basics of camping. Good idea! Camping season is upon us, so today I’ll share the steps for finding a camping spot, setting up your equipment, having a great time, and packing up to go home.

#1 Decide where you want to camp. Do you want to camp close to home, or do you want to visit a different region? Do you want to camp in a campground or hike into the back country? Do you want to camp at the beach or on top of a mountain? Do you want to camp in a forest or in a desert? Do you want to be in a remote, quiet location or close to civilization? Answering these questions will help you decide where to camp. (If you decide to camp in a forest, desert, or on top of a mountain, see my blog posts “How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest,” “10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Dessert,” or “Managing in the Mountains” for more tips for a pleasant camping experience.)

If the mere thought of using a pit toilet makes you gag, this might not be the right campground for you.

#2 Decide on the amenities you need a campground to provide. Do you want to rough it in a place with no amenities or stay some place with running water, electricity, hot showers, and flush toilets? Do you want to stay in a yurt with real beds? Will you be pitching a tent or staying in your motorhome, travel trailer, or 5th wheel? Do you need to take a hot shower every morning? Do you gag at the thought of using a pit toilet? Do you want to hike, fish, or collect rock specimens during your trip? The answers to these questions will also help you choose the right camping spot for you.

#3 Do research online before you hit the road. If you want to camp for free, check out both the Free Campsites and Campendium websites. These websites list free and cheap campsites across the USA and include reviews from people who’ve actually stayed in those places. Many of these camping spots are in primitive camping areas on public land, so be ready to boondock and meet all your own needs. (Not sure what it means to boondock? See my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers.”)

National parks, forests, and monuments often offer developed campgrounds. You can get information about and make reservations for your stay at these campgrounds at Recreation.gov. National forest campgrounds typically do not offer showers but often do offer pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings. Campgrounds in national parks tend to be a bit fancier and may include running water, hot showers, and flush toilets.

If you want to camp at a state park, do an internet search for the parks in the state you’re interested in that have campgrounds. State parks often have amenities like hot showers, picnic tables, fire rings, flush toilets, and even visitor centers with educational exhibits. If you need some comforts of home while still enjoying time out in nature, a state park campground may be the right choice for you. (New Mexico has fantastic campgrounds in its state parks. You can read my posts about camping at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, Brantley Lake State Park, Rockhound State Park, and Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. You can also read my post about the New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass.)

Another camping option is a private campground. Some private campgrounds cater to Rvs while others have spots for tent camping too. Some private campgrounds prohibit car camping, so if you’re a vandweller, you may want to carry a small tent for just such occasions.

No matter what sort of campground you decide to camp in, make sure it has the amenities you need before you make a reservation or pay a fee. Get as much information as possible online before you make a decision.

#4 Pack everything you need. Where you camp will help determine what supplies you will need. If you’re not bringing an RV, at the very least you’re going to want a tent, food, and water. If you want even a bit of comfort, bring a sleeping bag. For extra comfort, bring a sleeping pad or air mattress to go under your sleeping bag. If you’re going to cook, you’ll need a portable stove, fuel for the stove, pots and pans, utensils, plates, ingredients, cooking oil, spices, etc. If you’re in a spot with no drinking water, you’ll have to bring your own. If there’s no water at all where you’re camping, you’ll have to bring water for washing too.

Other basic necessities: flashlight or headlamp with fresh batteries (it’s dark out in nature, even in a campground); tarp to go under your tent; rain gear (just in case); pillow (you can get small ones especially for travel and camping); strong stakes to help hold down your tent; small shovel, hand soap, and toilet paper if you are going to be primitive camping.

(For a very complete list of items useful for camping, see my Checklist of Things to Take on the Road.)

#5 Once you arrive at your general camping destination, find your campsite. If you’re staying in a campground, the camp host will probably assign you a site, or maybe you already picked your site when you made a reservation. Ask the camp host for help finding your site, check your reservation confirmation for your site number, or look for a placard with the name of the person who made the reservation on it. If you’re in a first-come, first-served campground, look for a site that’s not too close to the (possibly stinky) pit toilets and not on an obvious incline.

If you’re boondocking, find a spot that’s been camped on before. Look for a place where the groundcover has been disturbed or where there is a fire ring made of stones.

No matter where you are camping, you want a nice flat spot for your tent. (Creeping downhill all night because your tent is pitched on uneven ground is a special kind of hell.) Make sure you aren’t pitching your tent on top of bumpy tree roots. When you find a spot that seems workable, look up. You don’t want a branch falling on your tent in the event of high winds Once you’ve found a flat spot with no dangerous branches overhead, clear away any sticks and rocks. (Another special kind of camping hell is finding you’re sleeping on top of rocks, sticks, and roots.)

#6 Pitch your tent. For a complete step-by-step guide (with pictures!) to setting up (and taking down) your tent, see the WikiHow article on the subject, but for your convenience, I’ll hit the high points here.

  • Practice setting up your tent before your trip. This step is especially important if you won’t arrive at your camping spot until after dark. This will also allow you to make sure all of the tent components are present.
  • Once you’re on your campsite and have picked a place for your tent, unpack and lay out all the items you will need to set up the tent. These items include the tent itself, rain-fly, ground cloth or tarp, tent poles, stakes, guy lines, and a mallet or rock for pounding in stakes.
  • Lay out the tarp or ground cloth where you want the tent to be. The ground cloth will help protect the tent floor from tears and punctures and keep it dry. This bottom layer should be as big (or nearly so) as the bottom of your tent.
  • Lay the tent over the ground cloth.
  • Assemble all the tent poles.
  • Put the poles through the sleeves on top of the tent. Beware: With some tents, poles of different sizes go into specific sleeves.
  • Once the poles are in place, the bottoms of the poles must be attached to the bottom of the tent. Look for pouches at the bottom of the tent the poles can fit into or metal pins attached to the tent that slide into the hollow end of the poles. As the poles go into place, the roof of the tent should lift off the ground
  • If the tent has clips used to hold its fabric close to the poles, snap the clips over the poles.
  • The bottom of the tent should have loops through which the stakes go. Put the stakes through the loops, then pound the stakes into the ground using your mallet or a rock.
  • Stretch out your guy lines and stake then down. You want your guy lines to be taut but not overstretched. Staking the guy lines will help the tent stand properly and will help the zippers slide smoothly.
  • Attach the rain-fly if your tent has one. You may want to leave the rain-fly off on a clear night, but if there is any chance of rain, put it on. Trust me, you do not want to go outside in a thunderstorm to attach your rain-fly.

#7 Set up your kitchen. Your kitchen will be one of the mostly highly trafficked areas of your camp. If your campsite has a picnic table, that’s a logical place for your kitchen.

If you’re camping in bear country, you’ll need to take some extra precautions. In the book Bear Aware, author Bill Schneider offers an entire chapter detailing camping in bear country. One of the most important tips he shares is to separate your sleeping and cooking areas. If food smells attract bears, you want them as far away from sleeping people as possible.

“The sleeping area and the cooking area must be separated by at least 100 yards,” Schneider advises.

Also, he says be prepared to “hang everything that has any food smell” or store those items (including trash, toothpaste, sunscreen, lotion, etc.) in bear canisters.

#8 Keep a clean camp. Food and garbage lying around can attract flies, rodents, raccoons, ravens, and bears. Of course, you don’t want to tangle with bears, but even smaller animals can create a huge mess by dragging food and garbage all over your campsite. Flies carry disease, and no one wants to get sick while they’re supposed to be enjoying trees and birdsong. For more information about dealing with wildlife while camping, check out the great article “How to Keep Animals Out of Your Campsite” on the Camping Cooks website.

If you’re in a campground, dispose of trash in garbage cans or dumpsters regularly. Be sure you close garbage containers securely. If you’re camping in a place with no trash containers, tie garbage bags and stow them securely in your vehicle until you can pack out what you’ve packed in.

#9 Once your camp is set up, you’re going to want to relax and enjoy yourself. Most campers love to sit around a campfire, maybe roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. Of course, before this fun can begin someone has to build a campfire. If there’s already a fire ring on your campsite, use it. Otherwise, build one with stones. Do NOT start a fire on bare ground. Also, you need a source of water, a bucket, and a shovel on hand at all times during your fire building and enjoyment.

If you are allowed, gather wood from around your campsite. Sort your wood according to size. Even if you’ve brought firewood, gather small sticks and dry leaves and needles for tinder if you are allowed to do so.

Place some tinder in the middle of the fire ring. Use sticks less than one inch around to build a teepee-like structure over the tinder. Shove balled up paper in between the sticks. Once the framework is built, light the balled up paper. You need to start your fire small, then add larger pieces of wood. Once the fire is burning strongly, you can add larger pieces. You can get more information about building a safe campfire from Smokey Bear.

Had your campfire fun and now you’re ready to go to bed? Make sure your campfire is DEAD OUT. Any time you leave your campsite, any fires must be DEAD OUT. Smokey Bear can tell you how to do this too, but briefly, pour lots of water on your fire or stir sand or dirt into the embers to bury the fire. Smokey says,

Remember:
If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.

#10 When it’s time to go home, break camp.

Make sure any rain or dew on your tent has dried completely before packing. If your tent is damp when you put it away, you will have to set it up again at home so it can dry, or you run the risk of unpacking a stinky, moldy mess next time you go camping. Pack up the tent in the reverse order of setup.

Clean up your campsite. Practice the leave no trace rule of camping where you remove every hint of your presence. Pick up all trash, including microtrash. Put all trash in trashcans, or if none are available, pack out what you packed in. Don’t leave any trash in fire rings. Be a good campground steward and leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.

If you piled up rocks, sticks, leaves or pine cones before you set up your tent, spread those materials out over the big bare patch where your tent sat.

If you built a fire ring, take it apart after you have determined that the fire is DEAD OUT. Disperse the rocks and ashes so their presence cannot be detected.

Don’t leave any belongings behind. Get everyone in your party to do a final walk through of the campsite to make sure everything brought has been packed up.

I hope you had a great camping experience! What did you learn that I left out? Share your camping tips in the comments below.

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every situation one might encounter on a camping trip. Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you or protect you from every danger you might encounter in nature. You are responsible for our own self! Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp before you get there. If you plan to camp on Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land, call the field office or ranger station responsible for that place and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

Sherman Peak Hike

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It wasn’t my finest hour.

I was lying face down in the middle of the trail, crying and whining.

I was not having fun. I did not want to go on.

The Man stood a few feet ahead of me on the trail and looked at me incredulously.

Do you want to quit? he asked, not unkindly. Do you want to go back to camp?

I know he would have accepted it if I had said yes to either or both questions.

I was miserable, but I was also determined or at least stubborn. I hauled myself to my feet and wiped the tears and snot from my face with the sleeve of my tie-dyed button-down shirt.

Let’s keep going, I said.

One of the giant sequoias with which visitors could get up close and personal .

The whole ordeal started with a camper.

The Man was the camp host a the tiny campground where we stayed that summer. I worked down the road at the store near the trailhead of a popular trail where visitors could get up close and personal with giant sequoias.

One day The Man was talking to one of his campers. The camper told him about the great hike he’d been on. The hike wasn’t very long, only a couple of miles, and the view at the end was amazing. The camper encouraged The Man to go on the hike.

The Man told me about the conversation wit the camper. He asked if I wanted to go on the hike with him on our next day off. I said sure.

Sunlight through the pine needles

I would not call myself a hiker. I like to see natural beauty, and sometimes I have to walk around to do that. I’m not big on elevation changes; I’d rather walk along a flat path. I’m not big on long distances either. Give me a mile loop to conquer, and I’m perfectly happy. A hike consisting of a mile in and mile back is in my comfort zone.

Somehow, I didn’t give much thought to a hike of a couple of miles probably being a four mile round trip. Certainly the camper was a better hiker than I was. Probably a four mile round trip hike was easy for him. It was not easy for me.

Life and death

According to the All Trails website, the Sherman Pass Trail to Sherman Peak (in the Sequoia National Forest) is

a 4.4 mile lightly trafficked out and back trail located near Kernville, California that offers the chance to see wildlife and is good for all skill levels.

One of the folks who left a review on their hike to Sherman Peak in June of 2019 recorded “an elevation gain of 994 feet.”

The SummitPost website’s page about Sherman Peak says,

Sherman Peak, elevation 9,909 feet, is on the eastern side of Sequoia National Forest on the edge of the Kern Plateau. It affords tremendous 360 degree views of the Great Western Divide, the Sierra Crest including Mt. Whitney, Langley, and Olancha, and a bird’s eye view of the Kern River Canyon and Little Kern River drainage.

A flower I encountered somewhere along the trail

I wasn’t in a good mood when we left the campground.

The Man and I were having relationship issues. I wasn’t sure if we would both be able to get our needs met. I felt like I was doing more than my share of the emotional work. I didn’t know how to solve our problems.

I wasn’t happy at work either. The yurt I worked in was always hot. One of my coworkers was difficult to get along with. The tourists seemed dumber than they had been in the past.

I would have preferred staying at our campsite and taking it easy that day. I would have enjoyed working on some blog posts, reading a book, taking a nap. However, The Man seemed to want to go on the hike, and I was pleased that he’d suggested an activity for us to do together, so I said yes.

We got a late start.

When I have an activity planned, I like to get started early. I prefer to start my summer hikes in the morning before the heat of the day sets in. I like to complete my physical activity early so I can spend the afternoon relaxing before cooking and eating dinner.

It was mid-morning before we boarded the minivan and embarked on our journey. The Man drove for a long time before we arrived. As one of the reviewers of the hike on All Trails said, this trail “is a long way from anywhere….”

Here’s the sign that lets visitors know they have reached the Sherman Pass Vista.

The Man parked the minivan in the paved parking area at the Sherman Pass Vista. The camper had told The Man this was the best place to leave the vehicle when going on the hike. After making use of the pit toilet in the parking area, we crossed the road and found the sign marking the beginning of the trail.

The hike started our easy. The trail was relatively flat, and we were making good time without overexerting ourselves. Jerico the dog was having a great time.

We soon found that no one had been maintaining the trail. In some places we had difficulty determining where the trail actually was. There were no markers, no cairns. I was afraid we were going to wander off the path, into the forest, and to our eventual deaths. The Man continued to boldly go. I continued to follow.

The trail got worse.

In several places, trees had fallen across the path. A couple of times I had to climb over fallen trees. The Man’s long legs allowed him to step right over the downed trees, but I had to climb on top of each lot, sit in the middle, then swing one leg and then the other over.

In one spot, I had to crawl under a dead tree lying across the path. I’d never before encountered such an obstacle in my limited hiking experience.

Somehow we ended up picking our way through a patch of large rocks. The Man had lost the trail and accidentally brought us through the rocky area. The rocks were all in a jumble, so there wasn’t really space to walk between them. We basically had to walk on top of the rocks or put our feet in the crevices between them. The rocks were jagged, so walking on top of them was not an easy option. I was worried I would slip from the top of a rock and twist an ankle or bust a knee.

When we finally made it out of the rock field and found the trail again, our uphill battle became steeper. We were definitely gaining in elevation now.

It was some time after this that I lay down in the middle of the trail and felt sorry for myself.

We were definitely going up in elevation now.

Another problem I was having on the hike was that The Man walks a lot faster than I do. He has longer legs. He used to be a runner , so his body has muscle memory of going fast. Also, he’s impatient. He crunches his cough drops before they can dissolve in his mouth, and he surges ahead whenever we’re on a hike together.

Even though he was carrying his guitar so he could play when we reached the summit, he kept leaving me in the dust that day. Before we began the hike, I’d imagined going on an easy walk together. Instead I was looking at the back of my partner’s head in the distance.

Granted, my mood had moved from bad to foul, and I wasn’t pleasant to be around. Hell, I didn’t even want to be with me, but I was stuck. I could understand why The Man wanted to walk ahead and be alone, but feeling abandoned only made my outlook worse.

More than once The Man stopped and waited for me to catch up. Several times he asked if I wanted to turn around and go back to the minivan and head back to the campground. Each time I wanted to quit, I ultimately decided to keep going. I was fully entrenched in the sunk cost fallacy which occurs, according to Behavioral Economics website, when people

continue a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort) (Arkes & Blumer, 1985).

We’ve come so far, I thought. Surely we’re not far from the top.

I saw a lot of The Man’s back during our hike to Sherman Peak.

The trail took us higher and higher. The Man disappeared around a bend. I sat down again and cried some more.

I stood up and continued up the trail.

The camper had said the view from the peak was excellent. I hoped it would be worth all our struggles.

Another day, another tree

I came to a point where the trail forked. I could go left or right. The Man was nowhere in sight. Which way should I go?

I picked left more or less at random. I made the right decision. Next thing I knew, the trail had ended. I’d made it to the top! There was The Man and Jerico the dog.

I looked around. We were on the top of an enormous chunk of rock. There was little grass, a few evergreen trees, and some low bushes. One tree with branches low to the ground provided a bit of shade we utilized to get out of the sun.

I looked off into the distance. The view was nice…if a person had never been to Utah and seen the magnificent red rock formations.

To be fair, the view was nice in a California Sierra Nevada way. If I’d never seen that view, I might have been awestruck, but I’d seen what amounted to the same view several times in the prior three years. I’d seen basically that view from Dome Rock half a dozen times. I’d seen that view from Beetle Rock and Moro Rock in the Sequoia National Park. I couldn’t believe I’d just done a treacherous hike and the payoff was something that felt totally familiar.

This is the view I saw from Sherman Peak. The Man drove us up that road to get us to Sherman Pass Vista.

I’d thrown a few granola bars in my pack before we’d left camp. The Man and I sat in the little shade provided by the evergreen tree with low branches and each scarfed down a couple of granola bars and gulped from our water bottles. The Man took out the guitar he’d carried hundreds of feet up and played a bit, but he didn’t have much energy for jamming. We were both tired, hungry, thirsty, and we still had to walk back to the minivan.

The Man played a few tunes and Jerico rested before we headed back down the trail.

After we’d rested a bit, we looked around. There was a wooden shed up there as well as another little building and what I learned later was a radio transmitter. (I don’t know what it was transmitting or to whom.) The were a couple of large propane tanks up there too, but I don’t know if they were full or what the propane might be used for.

Once we were done poking around at the peak, we began our descent. At least our tired legs didn’t have to climb, although other little used muscles complained about going down. We managed to miss the rock patch this time. The worst was behind us.

At the peak we found a wooden shed, propane tanks, and radio transmitter.

Back on the road, we discussed going out of our way to the town with the gas station. We decided it would make more sense to go now while we were halfway there rather than having to go all the way there from our campground later in the week. We knew the fuel in the minivan wouldn’t last another week until we got our next days off and went into town.

If we go into town, I ventured, we could get a pizza.

The Man said he wouldn’t want to wait for dinner once we got back up the mountain. A pizza sounded really good, he said.

He waited in the minivan with Jerico while the air condition kept them cool. I went inside the pizza restaurant to place and pick up our order. The restaurant offered a vegetarian pizza with mushrooms and onions and green peppers and olives and broccoli. That sounded good to me.

I put ice from the soda dispenser in my water bottle and utilized the restroom (complete with a flush toilet and hot running water in the sink) while our pizza was prepared. When it was done, I triumphantly carried it out to the minivan. We devoured the whole thing while the minivan ran and pumped out cool, sweet air conditioned air. It was the best part of the day.

I struggled, but I made it to the top of Sherman Peak!

If I haven’t scared you off completely and you would like to hike the Sherman Pass Trail to Sherman Peak, you can find driving directions and lots of other information on the Summit Post webpage mentioned above.

What’s the worst hike you’re ever undertaken? Tell me about it in the comments section below.

The Man and I are doing fine these days, thanks for asking. In fact, we are doing better than ever.

I took the photos in this post. All were taken during the Sherman Peak hike, except for the one of the giant sequoia.

Your Guide to Public Land

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Brown and white wooden national forest sign reads, El Rito Ranger Station Carson National Forest U.S. Department of Agriculture

What’s the difference between a national park and a national forest? What’s a national monument anyway? What can I do on BLM land? What’s the Corps of Engineers and where is their property? Can I camp in a national wildlife refuge? Are state parks federal land?

People are confused about public land, and who can blame them? There are so many state and federal agencies managing public land that it’s difficult to keep them sorted out. Today I will do my best to clear up confusion by giving you information about the different categories of public land.

National parks are run by the National Parks Service, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior. According to the National Parks Service FAQs,

The [national parks] system includes 419 areas covering more than 85 million acres in every state, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.

Some national parks charge entrance fees, but fewer than one-third do. Click here to find a national park to visit.

According to the website of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park,

National parks emphasize strict preservation of pristine areas. They focus on protecting natural and historic resources “unimpaired for future generations.”

National forests are another designation of public land. According to the U.S. Forest Service webpage called “Managing the Land“,

The Forest Service manages the National Forests and Grasslands for sustainable multiple-uses to meet the diverse needs of people, ensure the health of our natural resources, provide recreational opportunities, manage wildfire, [and] guard against invasive threats…

The aforementioned website of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park sums it up this way:

National forests…emphasize not only resource preservation, but other kinds of use as well. Under this concept of “multiple use,” national forests are managed to provide Americans with a wide variety of services and commodities, including lumber, cattle grazing, mineral products and recreation…The national forests are managed by forest rangers with the US Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture.

The website explains,

Brown metal sign. At top there is a yellow strip that read, Caution Active Bear Area with an drawing of a bear. Below, white letters read, Move all food, coolers, toiletries and trash from your vehicle to food storage lockers day and night.
Bears are not hunted in the Sequoia National Park (where I saw this sign), but they are hunted in the Sequoia National Forest.

Because they have different purposes, adjoining national parks and national forests may need to have very different rules. For example, national parks usually forbid hunting, while forests usually allow it. Dogs can be taken on national forest trails, but not those in national parks…

To summarize:

  • National parks emphasize preservation, while national forests allow for many uses of the land and its resources.
  • National parks fall under the authority of the Department of the Interior, while national forests fall under the authority of Department of Agriculture.
  • National parks and national forests have different rules.

Ok, so what about national monuments? Where do they fall in the scheme of public land? How do they differ from national parks and forests?

According to the March 2019 article “The Difference Between National Parks and Monuments” by Ashley M. Biggers,

[t]he primary difference lies in the reason for preserving the land: National parks are protected due to their scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value. National monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest…

Another big difference, according to the Biggers article, is that

Congress designates national parks; in general, presidential proclamations establish national monuments.

Brown wooden Forest Service sign reads, Giant Sequoia National Monument Sequoia National Forest U.S. Department of Agriculure
This sign explains that the Giant Sequoia National Monument is within the Sequoia National Forest.

In some cases, a national forest and a national monument overlap. For example, I worked in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, which was within the Sequoia National Forest.

Let’s move on to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), another agency within the Department of the Interior. According to the BLM’s National History timeline,

the BLM administers the lands that remain from America’s original “public domain.” Created in 1946 through a government reorganization…the BLM is the successor to the General Land Office (established in 1812) and the U.S. Grazing Service (originally called the Division of Grazing and renamed in 1939).

The BLM’s “About” page says,

The BLM manages for multiple use across regions and landscapes, with partners and using sound science.

The same page says the BLM’s mission is

Informational pole sign that reads, Camping Limit 14 Days
I camped on this BLM land in southern Arizona.

To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

I’d heard from several different people that the BLM manages lands “out West,” but while researching this post, I discovered this assertion is misleading. The agency is not limited to managing lands only in the West. The BLM’s “What We Manage” page states

[t]he BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States, and approximately 30 percent of the Nation’s minerals. These lands and minerals are found in every state in the country and encompass forests, mountains, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts.

The Army Corps of Engineers is another entity that manages public land. The Corps Lakes Gateway website explains,

The Army Corps of Engineers is the steward of the lands and waters at Corps water resources projects. It’s [sic] Natural Resources Management mission is to manage and conserve those natural resources, consistent with the ecosystem management principles, while providing quality public outdoor recreation experiences to serve the needs of present and future generations.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. According to the agency’s website,

The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

The National Wildlife Refuge System lands and waters serve a purpose distinct from that of other U.S. public lands: Wildlife conservation drives everything on national wildlife refuges, from the purposes for which each refuge was established, to the recreational activities offered, to the resource management tools used.

Small orange and grey dome tent

Again, I was misinformed. I thought there was no camping available at national wildlife refuges, but a 2017 bulletin on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website says

National wildlife refuges from Alaska to Florida offer camping opportunities that allow visitors to see wildlife up close in a variety of natural habitats.

The aforementioned bulletin also lists a variety of camping options in national wildlife refuges.

The Bureau of Reclamation also manages public land open to recreation. According to the Bureau’s website, these Bureau of Reclamation projects

are located in the 17 Western United States of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

The Bureau’s Recreation page says,

Reclamation projects include approximately 6.5 million acres of land and water that is, for the most part, available for public outdoor recreation…To use and enjoy recreation areas and facilities that are open to the public, no use permits are required.

According to the May 2019 article “Your Guide to America’s Public Lands” by Wes Siler, national recreation areas are

[t]ypically located near major urban areas, and are designed to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for large numbers of people.

The Empowering Parks website says,

National Recreation Areas are managed by different federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Empowering Parks website offers

an alphabetical listing of all our natural national recreation areas, with links to the official site of each national recreation area.

If you prefer the beach to the forest or the desert, visit national seashores and lakeshores. According to the National Park Service,

national lakeshores and national seashores focus on the preservation of natural values while at the same time providing water-oriented recreation. Although national lakeshores can be established on any natural freshwater lake, the existing four are all located on the Great Lakes. The national seashores are on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts.

Wilderness areas were established as places meant to stay quite untouched by humans. According to Wilderness Connect,

[w]ilderness areas are the most protected public lands in America. Managed with restraint, they are intended to be self-willed lands, both philosophically and practically…Found in most states, but concentrated in the west, they protect lush forests, arid deserts, snow-capped peaks, dank swamps and sandy beaches.

Forest Service logo

The U.S. Forest Service says,

The National Wilderness Preservation System is a network of over 109 million acres – more area than the state of California – of public land comprised of more than 760 wilderness areas administered for the American people by the federal government. These are special places where nature still calls the shots…They are final holdout refuges for a long list of rare, threatened, and endangered species, forced to the edges by modern development. They are the headwaters of critical, life-infusing rivers and streams. They are places where law mandates above all else that wildness be retained for our current generation, and those who will follow.    

The last public lands I’ll cover today are state parks. According to Wikipedia,

State parks are parks or other protected areas managed at the sub-national level within those nations which use “state” as a political subdivision. State parks are typically established by a state to preserve a location on account of its natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential. There are state parks under the administration of the government of each U.S. state…

New Mexico State Parks logo

State parks are thus similar to national parks, but under state rather than federal administration. Similarly, local government entities below state level may maintain parks, e.g., regional parks or county parks. In general, state parks are smaller than national parks…

If you’re still feeling a little confused or want information on public land I didn’t include here, see the Outside article “Your Guide to America’s Public Lands” and the National Parks Service article “What’s In a Name? Discover National Park System Designations,” both mentioned above and both excellent resources.

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I took the photos in this post.

10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in the Desert

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So you’re going to escape the worst of winter by heading to the deserts of Southern Arizona (the Sonoran), Southern New Mexico (the Chijuajuan) or Southern California (the Mojave). Maybe you’re going to Quartzsite to attend The Rubber Tramp Rendezvous or to stay in a Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA). Congratulations!

While you probably won’t face seemingly unending days of ice and snow, a desert environment can pose its own challenges. If you’ve never been to the desert before (or you’re a desert dweller who needs some reminders to shake you out of your complacency), here are ten tips to help you survive and thrive in the desert.

#1 Drink plenty of water. Even if your winter desert isn’t hot, it’s still extremely dry. Even in the winter, it’s important to stay hydrated. Drink before you feel thirsty.

#2 Alcohol can dehydrate you, so limit your consumption. The desert environment has probably already dehydrated you, and alcohol can make things worse. Take it slow with the alcohol until you determine how your body is reacting to the dry environment. If you’re drinking alcohol, up your water intake.

#3 Don’t get too much sun. Yes, you’ve escaped the harsh winter and the sun feels good on your skin, but don’t overdo it. Be sure you have some shade to escape to during the hottest part of the day; yes, even in the winter, a desert can get hot. Wear long pants and long sleeves made from light cotton to protect your skin, and wear sunscreen on any parts you leave uncovered. I use sunscreen on my face, and I wear my hat with the wide brim to further protect my face. My hat also provides a barrier between the sun and my head.

#4 Deserts can get cold too, so have appropriate gear. Even if a winter day in the desert is sunny and relatively warm, the night can get cold. Especially if you’re going to be out and about in the desert night, be prepared with long pants, a long sleeved shirt, and a warm hat. If you tend to feel cold and depending on the temperature, you may also need a jacket and gloves. If your ears are sensitive be prepared to protect them from the wind. Check the weather forecast before you head to your desert destination so you know what clothing you may need.

#5 Watch for Critters. You’re less likely to see a rattlesnake in the winter than the summer, but the snakes are still around. Especially on a warm and sunny day, rattlers may be on the move. Don’t stick your hands or feet into any crack or crevice you haven’t first visually inspected. If you do encounter a rattler (or any other snake) give it a wide berth so it has plenty of room to escape. Don’t poke or prod it, and let it be on its way.  If you are bitten by a nonpoisonous snake, clean the wound and get a tetanus shot if you need too. If you are bitten by a poisonous snake, get to an emergency room ASAP.

Turn your shoes upside down and shake them out before you put them on. This will help prevent your toes from meeting any unwelcome spider or scorpion visitors. Check out these tips from the Mayo Clinic about what to do if you’re stung by a scorpion before you need them. Maybe print out the tips and include them in your first aid kit.

Coyotes aren’t likely to attack an adult human but it does happen. They’re known to snatch cats and small dogs (even in broad daylight!) and lure larger dogs to their deaths. Don’t leave your pet unattended in the desert! Stay with your dog when it’s outside and keep it in your rig when you can’t watch it.

#6 Don’t get too close to cholla. Pronounced [chaw-yah], there are more than 20 species of this cactus in the deserts of North America. The joints of this cactus are attached very loosely and will easily attach to a person or dog who brushed by. The joints are full of spines, and if you touch them, you’re likely to be full of spines too!

Keep inquisitive dogs away from cholla. When a dog tries to sniff cholla, it usually ends up with spines in its nose. The dog then tries to use its paws to scratch at the spines in its nose, thus getting spines in its paws. The situation can quickly escalate into a full-blown mess.

According to the 2013 articled “How To Remove Cactus Spines From Your Perforated Body,” by Chris Clarke

Many desert rats accustomed to living in cholla country will carry a large comb with them: it’s an excellent tool for prying cholla stems off yourself.

#7 Be ready for wind and the dust it can bring. I grew up in the Deep South where the wind was nothing to get upset about unless we found ourselves in the midst of a hurricane. I began to learn about real wind when I moved to the Midwest, but I really didn’t know wind until I spent time in New Mexico and Arizona. A desert wind is quite a wind. It can blow hard for hours or days on end and whisk away folding tables and chairs and other gear you may have outside your rig. Any tents or easy-ups must be held down securely so the wind doesn’t blow them away and mangle them in the process.

Without moisture to hold it down, desert dust is easily blown around, sometimes leading to poor air quality. Be prepared to stay in your rig with the windows closed when the dust is at its worst.

#8 Don’t camp in arroyos or other low-lying areas. An arroyo (pronounced [uhroi-oh] and also known as a wash, gully, gulch, or ditch) is a place where water flows when it rains. (Yes, it rains in the desert, sometimes in the winter.) Even if it’s not raining where you are, a flashflood caused by heavy rain upstream can fill an arroyo with water suddenly and unexpectedly. I’m not talking a trickle of water; I’m talking enough water to wash away your camp.

In a footnote to a 2016 the Scientific America article “Instant Peril: Flash Floods (and How to Survive Them)“, author Dana Hunter offers some advice.

I can tell you from bitter experience that even though that flat, sandy wash bottom makes a bonza place to pitch a tent, it is horrible if there’s a thunderstorm in the night. At worst, you’re swept away and drowned. At best, you’re awakened in the middle of the night by the stream that’s now flowing through your sleeping bag, and you have to haul your soaked self and belongings to high ground. In the dark. In the rain. And you’ll do a terrible job pitching the tent. Where you won’t be able to sleep because you’re too wet.

#9 Be careful when driving through or parking on sand. It’s easy to get stuck in sand. Bob Wells has an excellent article about getting stuck and how to get unstuck on his Cheap RV Living blog. I suggest reading his post “Getting Stuck: How to Avoid it and What to Do if it Happensbefore you encounter desert sand.

#10 Old mines are dangerous; don’t go in them! There are thousands of abanoned mines on Bureau of Land Management sites throughout the deserts of the Southwest. I saw one while camping on BLM land outside Ajo, Arizona and did some research, leading me to write a blog post about what I disovered. The the BLM’s FAQ on Abandoned Mine Lands says such mines can lead to physical and human health hazards.

  • Physical hazards: Unsecured AML [Abandoned Mine Lands] sites pose a risk of death or serious injury by falling down open mine shafts.
  • Human health hazards: Exposure to toxic gases and chemicals, cave-ins, explosives, and water hazards endanger human health

If you see any signs like the one pictured here, stay safe by keeping your distance.

Don’t be discouraged! Being prepared for the challenges of the desert can help you avoid the environment’s pitfalls and increase your chances of enjoying yourself. I was in my 40s before I grew acquainted with the desert, but now it’s my winter destinations of choice. You might find you grow to love it too!

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you for or protect you from every problem you might encounter in the desert. Only you are responsible for you! Do your research before you head to the desert, use common sense, and think before you act.

I took all the photos in this post.

Windows Trail

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North Window

The next big adventure at Arches National Park for the Lady of the House and me was the Windows Trail. The Windows are on one side of a large parking area, and the Double Arch is on the other side. The Lady and I had gotten a late start that day and only had time to see one of the attractions. We decided to hike the Windows Trail and see the North and South Windows and Turret Arch.

Before we left the parking area, we took advantage of the pit toilets there, and I got just close enough to snap a photo of the Double Arch. Those necessities out of the way, we started our hike.

The sign at the trailhead told us there were actually two trails around these formations. One could return to the parking area via the longer and more difficult primitive trail. The primitive trail goes around the back of the Windows. It is less developed and climbs a hill. Because we had limited time and wanted to conserver our energy, we decided we would skip the primitive trail on the way back and return on the same route we’d arrived.

Stairs leading to the North Window

Calling what we had to do to get to the Windows a hike is something of an exaggeration. The path starts out as a flat stretch, and where it goes up (with only a 150 foot elevation gain), there are steps to help visitors with the ascent. Compared to the Cave Spring Trail I’d hiked the day before (where I climbed down ladders!), the walk on the Windows Trail was barely strenuous.

As we walked up, we saw people standing in the opening of the North Window. Again, the humans looked tiny in the grand scale of nature. The Lady encouraged me to go ahead of her so she could take photos of me standing in the Window.

From a distance, the window looked like a good-size opening in the rock, but when I got close, I realized the opening was actually huge, enormous, immense. How in the world had nature made a window in that massive rock? The main answer, of course, is time. Secondary answers are wind and the sand it blows through the air. Human are not just physically small in the grand scheme of geology, but also ridiculously short-lived.

Tiny me facing the North Window

After The Lady and I got our fill of the North Window, we took the short walk to the South Window. Substantially fewer people were looking at the South Window, although it was no less spectacular than the one to the north. We had a few peaceful moments at the South Window before strangers approached.

South Window

As we walked over to Turret Arch, I saw a man aiming a camera in the direction of the North and South Windows. There must be something cool going on over there, I thought, so I turned around to look. From our vantage point, we could see the North and South Windows side by side. Wow! It was a good reminder that sometimes it’s a good idea to turn around and contemplate what’s been left behind. (It’s also a good idea to pay attention to what people with fancy cameras are doing.)

North and South Windows

Turret Arrch and window

The Lady and I decided we didn’t need to get up close and personal with Turret Arch. I took some photos of it, and we were content to look at it from a distance. To be honest, I was already in rock overload, and we still had The Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Monument Valley ahead of us.

I wish we could have spent several days in Arches National Park. I would have enjoyed exploring the area around Double Arch, and I think I would have enjoyed an early morning hike to Delicate Arch. Maybe I could have even survived a ranger-led hike in the Fiery Furnace, “a natural labyrinth of narrow passages between towering sandstone walls.” In any case, I hope there’s another visit to Arches National Park and the Windows in my future.

Me with the South Window

 

How to Stay Safe and Healthy in the Forest

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  Let’s face it: a lot of us boondockers are city kids who’ve found ourselves spending a lot of time in the woods now that we’re living in our vans (or motorhomes or truck campers or cars or whatever). The forest can be a worrisome place for folks who didn’t camp much during our formative years. While I don’t sit around worrying about treachery at every turn, I do believe in taking precautions to keep myself and my belongings safe. Sometimes it’s easy to let our guard down when we’re surrounded by the beauty of nature, but vigilance is important, especially for folks out on their own.

Whether you’re camping in a tent or a motorhome or something in-between, you want to stay safe and healthy during your time in the forest. These tips can help you if you’re spending just a weekend out in the trees or moving from forest to forest while living nomadically.

#1 Don’t leave your belongings lying around. You may be honest, but your neighbors may not be. Whether you’re in a campground or boondocking in the wilderness, it’s a good idea to put valuables away when you leave your camp. If you’d be sad if an item were stolen or if you can’t afford to replace it, lock it up before you go.

If I’m camping somewhere for more than one night, I’ll often set up a tent to use as my storage shed. If I leave camp, I can easily stow my stove, propane tank, and tables in the tent. It’s quicker than packing everything into the van, and while it won’t stop a determined thief, it will slow down someone who can’t resist easy pickings.

#2 Don’t open your door to strangers. Just because you’re out of the city doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious about who you let into your living space. If a stranger knocks, talk through a window. While I believe most people in the world are good at heart, don’t let a bad apple into your rig by mistake.

#3 Make sure your campfire is dead out when you don’t want to supervise it anymore. Going on a hike? The fire needs to be dead out. Going to bed? The fire needs to be dead out.

If you set the forest on fire, your safety is at stake too. If you’re away from your campsite or asleep when your campfire starts a wildfire, your property and life will be in danger.

The Forest Service gives these tips for making sure your campfire is completely out:

  • First, drown the campfire with water!
  • Next, mix the ashes and embers with soil.
  • Stir the embers after they are covered with water and make sure that everything is wet.
  • Feel the coals, embers, and any partially-burned wood with your hands. Everything (including the rock fire ring) should be cool to the touch. Feel under the rocks to make sure [there are] no embers underneath.
  • When you think you are done, take an extra minute and add more water.
  • Finally, check the entire campsite for possible sparks or embers, because it only takes one to start a forest fire.
  • Remember…if it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.

#4 Keep your pet leashed and under your control or in your rig. If coyotes are in the area, small dogs and cats are at risk of being snatched. If you’re in bear country, even a large dog is no match for an adult Ursus americanus (black bear), much less an Ursus arctos (grizzly bear). Dogs antagonize bears and bears attack dogs. Protect your dog by not letting it run loose.

#5 Speaking of bears, don’t attract them with food and garbage left around your campsite. Keep a clean camp. Food and garbage lying around can attract not just bears, but other critters like flies, rodents, raccoons, and ravens. Of course, you don’t want to tangle with bears, but even smaller animals can create a huge mess by dragging food and garbage all over your campsite. Flies carry disease, and no one wants to get sick while they’re supposed to be enjoying trees and birdsong.

If you’re in a campground, put trash in garbage cans or dumpsters right away. Be sure you close garbage containers securely. If you’re boondocking in a place with no trash containers, tie garbage bags and stow them securely in your rig until you can pack out what you’ve packed in.

If bears are a problem where you’re camping, store all food and trash in bear boxes if provided or use your own bear canister.

#6 Beware of falling branches. It’s nice to park in a shady spot when the summer sun is beating down, but a falling branch can wreak havoc on your rig or tent. Look up before you pick your spot and notice any obviously dangerous tree limbs. Even if no limbs seem to be in danger of falling, remember that a high wind can send branches crashing to the ground with no warning.

A Forest Service website gives tips to keep you and your belongings safe from falling branches. Read all about it before you head off into the woods.

#7 Don’t pick up critters. The forest where I work seasonally posts warnings about plague and hanta virus. Picking up a sick animal greatly increases one’s chance of infection. In most wild places, wild animals won’t let humans get anywhere near them. If a cute little critter lets you pick it up, it’s probably not healthy. Don’t risk your well-being by picking up a creature that might be infectious.

#8 Watch out for snakes. While most snakes aren’t poisonous, you still don’t want to be bitten by one. Even a nonpoisonous snake bite may require medical attention. When a friend of mine  was bitten by a rattler in his own driveway, he ended up spending a couple of nights in the hospital. I certainly don’t have the time or money for anything like that.

For a comprehensive guide to keeping your space free of snakes, see the great article “How to Keep Snakes Away from Your Campsite” on the TakeOutdoors website.

#9 Wash your hands. E. coli doesn’t take a vacation just because you’ve left civilization. If, like me, you don’t have running water in your rig, you can set up a handwashing station in your camp. I use a seven gallon water jug with a spigot so I can control the flow of water and conserve the precious resource. At a bare minimum, wash up after performing elimination functions and before handling food.

#10 Know what creepy crawlies and flying critters you need to protect against. In certain areas, bug bites can be more than a temporary annoyance. Do the local mosquitoes carry the West Nile Virus? Are you at risk from getting Lyme disease from the ticks where you’re camping? Do you need to worry about brown recluse or black widow spiders? If the pests where you’re camping are poisonous or carry disease, you’re going to have to be extra vigilant about protecting yourself.

Ticks are creepy whether or not they carry Lyme disease.  If you find an attached tick during a full-body inspection, you’ll want to remove it immediately. Go to the Centers for Disease Control website to learn the steps for removing a tick. You may want to print out the steps to include in your first aid kit.

The Mobile RVing website has a good article on “How to Control Mosquitoes at Your Campsite.”

The Pronto Pest Management offers “10 Tips to Protect Yourself from Ticks While Camping.”

The USA Today website has an article with tips on “How to Keep Spiders from Campsites.”

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every single danger one might encounter in the woods. In life we run into situations that could lead to harm, whether we’re in the city or the wilderness. I hope these tips help you plan for your health and safety when you leave the concrete and venture out into nature.

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you or protect you from every danger you might encounter in the forest. You are responsible for our own self. Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp in before you get there. Call the local BLM field office or Forest Service ranger station responsible for the place you want to camp and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

Balanced Rock

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The first major attraction The Lady of the House and I visited at Arches National Park was Balanced Rock. The rock is balanced because two kinds of stones are eroding at different rates. A sign at the trailhead explains “The caprock of the hard Slick Rock Member of the Entrada Sandstone is perched upon a pedestal of mudstone. This softer Dewey Bridge Member of the Carmel Formation weathers more quickly than the resistant rock above. Eventually the faster eroding Dewey Bridge will cause the collapse of Balanced Rock.”

At Arches, visitors are not supposed to climb on any formation with a name. A sign at the trailhead of this particular formation specifically declares in red print, “Climbing on Balanced Rock or its base is prohibited.” The day we visited, two young men had either failed to get the message or just didn’t care because they had climbed Balanced Rock. They were a good ways up the Dewey Bridge Member, looking like tiny insects high on the formation.

Can you see the tiny little man in the neon yellow shirt way up there on Balanced Rock?

I was worried for the safety of the young men, and I was perturbed by their flagrant disregard of the rules. I’m not one for rules for their own sake, but I’m sure people climbing on the rocks wear them down, and even minute damage would be amplified if only a fraction of the one million visitors each year climbed on them. Prohibiting visitors from climbing on the popular, easily accessible formations certainly protects the rocks. The prohibition against climbing surely helps people too. It’s all fun and games until someone slips and falls from 50 feet up, crashes to the ground smashing his/her skull and other important bones, and lies on the ground in excruciating pain while waiting for an ambulance to make a thirty minute drive into and through the park so the EMTs can load the injured party into the ambulance for a ride to the nearest hospital.

On the other hand, it was exhilarating to watch those bold souls standing so high on Balanced Rock. Of course, I knew the rocks were massive, but seeing humans scrambling around on them helped me understand how huge they really were. The young men were nearly insignificant next to the immensity of the rocks.

I was relieved when the young men returned to the ground. Even though they were rule breakers and daredevils, I didn’t want to see them fall. They may have been wrong to climb balanced Rock but the story of their visit is exceedingly more exciting than my story.

Balanced Rock from a different vantage point

There’s an easy path around Balanced Rock, and The Lady and I walked it so we could look at the formation from many different angles. I was amazed by how different the formation looked depending on where we stood in relation to it. Of course, I had a theoretical understanding of how the look of something changes in relation to the viewer’s proximity to it, but it was fascinating to experience the phenomenon myself in relation to Balanced Rock.

One day, the underlying layer of mudstone will erode to the point it can no longer support the caprock of Entrada sandstone, and the caprock will fall to the ground. How soon that will happen, no one knows. What if it happens within our lifetime? The Lady and I asked each other. We agreed we were glad we’d seen it as it stood on the early April day of 2018, and we’d be even happier to have seen it if the capstone falls during our lifetimes.

Do you think they’ll change its name when the top stone falls? we wondered.

The Park Service will have to post new informational signs if the capstone falls. Of course, Balanced Rock may stay balanced for a good long time. When it falls, there may no longer be a Park Service or a United States of America or civilization as we know it. It may fall in a lonely landscape with no humans around to see or hear the first moments in its next state of existence.

I took all the photos in this post.

 

 

Arches National Park

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The Lady of the House and I got to Arches National Park early in the afternoon. Once again, I was impressed by the rock formations visible from the parking lot near the visitor center, and once again, The Lady gave me a knowing smile. She’d visited this park the previous summer, and she knew what magnificence I would see shortly.

We didn’t see this formation from the visitor center, but I think it was one of the nameless formations that impressed me.

During The Lady’s visit the previous July, she and her companions had hiked to Delicate Arch. She said it had taken them about three hours to hike to the Arch and back. The trail was in the direct sun, she reported, and they were quite tired by the time they returned to the car. While I would have liked to see the iconic landmark up close, I didn’t really want to use my one day in the Park getting there and back. The Lady said there was a viewpoint a short walk from a parking area where we could see Delicate Arch from a distance. I decided seeing it from a distance was good enough for me if that meant I could also see other fantastic natural beauty in the Park.

From the visitor center, I drove the van up up up on the narrow, winding road. I mostly kept my eyes in front of me, but my furtive glances to the side showed me the deep drop to the world below. Arches National Park really is above it all.

Balanced Rock

Our first stop was at the Courthouse Towers area. I felt so tiny surrounded by ever taller rock formations. I already felt like I was literally on top of the world, yet the world rose up taller around me. How was a person from the flatlands (even someone like me who’d been living among mountains for some years) supposed to make sense of this geology?

Our next stop was Balanced Rock. One day the top rock will fall, and I’ll feel grateful I was able to experience the formation when it was all in one piece. Will they rename the formation when the top rock falls? Will we call it “Formerly Balanced Rock” or “Fallen Rock” or “The Rock Formerly Known as Balanced”?

After walking the short trail around Balanced Rock, I drove us to the parking area with Double Arch on one side and The Windows Trail on the other. We decided not to walk the trail to Double Arch, but I was able to snap a decent photo of it.

The walk to the North and South Window Arches was not very strenuous, and the visual payoff was fantastic! Across from the Window Arches is the Turret Arch, so a visitor gets to see three thrilling formations for one expenditure of energy.

Double Arch

Back in the van, I drove to the Fiery Furnace lookout. The trail here is apparently quite challenging. A limited number of permits for self-guided hikes are issued each day, or folks can go on ranger-led tours of the area. The Lady and I had signed up for neither due to time constraints (and my probable inability to enjoy a quite strenuous hike). So we contented ourselves with stopping briefly and taking some photos.

Our final destination of the day was the Delicate Arch viewpoint.

Before we got on the trail to the viewpoint, we saw a rustic cabin that I wanted to take a closer look at. The National Park Service says it was built in 1906 by John Wesley Wolfe to please his daughter Flora. The Lady maintained Edward Abbey stayed in this cabin during his two seasons (1956 and 1957) as a park ranger at Arches, but I could find no official information confirming that assertion. (Once back home, The Man of the House, who was then reading Desert Solitaire, said Abbey spent a night or two in the cabin during his time in the park, but hadn’t lived there extensively as I had imagined when The Lady said he’d stayed there. I think there should be signage saying “Edward Abbey slept here” or something to that effect.)

Turnbow Cabin, part of the Wolfe Ranch. Edward Abbey slept here, maybe once or twice.

I looked at the cabin and thought, I could live here, although hauling water would probably be quite an endeavor, and I bet it’s dark out there at night. Of course, it’s probably hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but I could imagine myself living there. I wonder how many other visitors even consider the place as a possible dwelling for themselves.

We took a short walk to the viewing area, and there it was—Delicate Arch. It didn’t look so big from where we were standing, but The Lady assured me it’s huge when one is standing right under it. The informational sign says the Arch’s opening is 45 feet high and 33 feet wide. That’s pretty dang big! The Lady pointed out the people standing around the Arch; they looked like tiny colorful specks, as if someone had thrown confetti around the formation.

Delicate Arch, from a distance

We contemplated Delicate Arch for a few minutes. It’s “carved in Entrada Sandstone”, the sign says, and “is composed mostly of the Slick Rock Member. The top is a five-foot thick layer of Moab Tongue.” I zoomed my camera’s lens in for a few grainy photos. Maybe someday I’ll hike out and see Delicate Arch up close, but in the meantime, I’ll revisit it on nearly every Utah license plate I see.

I took all the photos in this post.

Cave Spring Trail

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My first ladder

The Lady of the House had told me about the ladders.

On some of the trails she’d hiked during her family vacation in Utah, visitors had to climb up or down (or up and down) ladders to get to different levels of the trail. Today I would experience my first ladder.

We were in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. We’d just hiked Pothole Point Trail, and now we were on our way to Cave Spring Trail.

It was early afternoon and warm. I was glad it was early April and not full-on summer because despite the mild temperature, the sun was beating down. The last hike had mostly been in direct sun, and even with long cotton clothing covering m body and my big hat covering my head, I knew the sun would wear me down. Hiking in the sun and the heat—well, that’s not my idea of a good time. But as I said, the heat wasn’t so bad, and I was enjoying myself.

The Lady had read a description of Cave Spring at the visitor center or maybe in the informational newspaper about Canyonlands she’d picked up during her last visit to the park. She knew this was the hike with the ladder. I was calmly excited to climb a ladder on a hike because it’s not something everyone had done. Climbing a ladder on a hike would probably make me a little tougher, gave me a little extra trail cred. Lord knows I need all the trail cred I can get.

The first interesting stop on the trail was the cowboy camp. According to the sign at the trailhead, this first alcove served as an open-air bunkhouse. I’m not sure when this particular area was in use, but the sign says cowboys lived in isolated camps like this one from the 1890s until cattle ranching was discontinued in Canyonlands in 1975.

Cowboy artifacts. The photo on the sign shows them better than this photo of mine does.

I don’t know  if the items in the alcove are the actual items left in this particular spot by actual cowboys or if they were set up here to represent what a cowboy camp might have looked like. The sign alludes to the fact that this is the real deal, but doesn’t come right out and say so. When I believe real cowboys left these actual items in this particular place, I feel real lonely. Did the cowboys know they would never return and decided these items weren’t even worth taking out, or did they think they’d be back someday to pick up their things? Did anyone ever miss the blue bowl left on the table?

The actual spring in the cave on the eponymous Cave Spring Trail

The next point of interest was Cave Spring itself. Located in more of an alcove than an actual cave, the trailhead sign calls it “one of the area’s few year-round water sources.” No wonder the cowboys wanted to camp nearby! There wasn’t a lot of water there—barely a pool—but enough for people to live off of when other sources were dry. I love the vivid green of the plants growing by the spring, especially against the browns and tans of the rock and dirt.

We soon saw that cowboys weren’t the only people who utilized this place. The sign at the trailhead says the area “contains evidence of almost 1,000 years of human use.” Past the cowboy camp, near the spring, we saw cave paintings.

We saw the handprints first. They’re not actually paintings, but the outlines of hands held up against the wall of stone while some white pigment was thrown or blown around the fingers. Who was this person who centuries ago decided to lean an “I was here” mark on the stone? Were there two people leaving evidence of their lives on that wall? (Only while looking at my photo of these hand outlines months later did I realize the outline on the left is that of a right hand—well, unless the person had the back of the hand pressed against the rock and not the palm as I’d first supposed.) Why is the outline on the right not very good? Was the wall too bumpy there for a good outline? What is the white pigment and how has it lasted for centuries? Did the person who left this mark imagine someone so far in the future would see it and wonder about it? Some of these questions may be answerable (how I wish I’d been able to attend a ranger talk at this site!) but the thought process that went into these marks will forever remain a mystery.

We saw more prehistoric art by the spring, these pieces produced with a rusty orange pigment. Most of the figures appear to me to be humanoid—I could see what I thought were meant to be arms and legs—but I have no idea what the figures are supposed to represent. Gods? Shamans? Aliens from outer space? Mom and Dad? Were these figures religious representations or the equivalent of a child’s drawing of the family fastened to the refrigerator door? Again, I doubt we’ll ever know with certainty.

The last of the rock painting we saw depicted hands again. I’m not sure if these were actual hand prints or paintings of handprints. The bright orange one to the far right looks most like an actual handprint done by someone who wasn’t very good at making handprints. (The outline of the thumb is barely there.) The others that look more spirally in the palm—was that from slightly different positioning in repeated printings? I wish now I had paid attention to the size of the hands, perhaps taken a photo with my own hand close by for comparison. I also wish I had seen the trail guide the sign at the trailhead describes as offering “more information on the human history of the area.”

The first part of the hike had been mostly in the cool of the shade. Especially near the spring, the air was damp and almost chilly. Soon after we saw the last of the rock paintings, we moved out into the open and back into the sun. It wasn’t long before I was climbing my first ladder!

There were actually two ladders on the tail. The trailhead sign says, “Past the spring, two wooden ladders lead to views of the surrounding terrain.”

View of the surrounding terrain

The ladders weren’t as rickety as I had feared. I thought they’d be more rustic, but they were held together with modern metal bolts and washers. (Not to worry, I’d get my share of rustic and rickety ladders at Natural Bridges National Monument.)

Why ladders? I wondered. Did the native people of the area use ladders to get to different levels of the land? Were ladders less cost prohibitive than were metal or wooden stairways? Did wooden ladders blend into the landscape better than other options did? I have no answers to these questions.

Past the spring, this is not a trail for people with serious physical limitations. I made it down the ladder ok, but I went slowly and carefully. I gripped the rung in front of me before I moved to place my feet carefully on the rung below. I wouldn’t say I was scared, but I would say I was definitely cautious. I certainly felt tough once I had my feet back on the ground. Oh, yeah! I do hikes that involve climbing ladders! I’m a badass!

As someone who enjoyed studying anthropology, the human history aspect of Cave Spring Trail made it one of my favorite hikes. I was fascinated by what’s been left behind there by humans of the past. And did I mention I climbed down two ladders while hiking that trail? Did I mention I’m a badass?

Badass with a big ass, and I’m ok with that.

I took all the photos in this post.

 

Pothole Point Trail

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Pothole Point in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park was the first trail The Lady of the House and I hiked on our epic road trip in Arizona and Utah. At just .6 mile, it was a good way to start.

Pothole Point Trail is named for the indentions in the rock which are known as “potholes.” After a rain, each pothole is an ecosystem of various snails, beetles, worms, and shrimp which have hatched from eggs or emerged from dormancy.  Each ecosystem is fragile, and visitors are encouraged to keep hands and feet out of the potholes. Even when the indentions are dry, eggs may be lingering in them, waiting for a rain so they can hatch. Other creatures may also be in the potholes, also waiting for rain to move into the next phase of their lifecycle. A hand or especially a foot in a pothole could crush delicate life.

We were lucky to see these potholes filled with water.

The Lady and I were really lucky; all the rain the night before had filled the potholes. We were both excited to see the potholes filled with water; they really stood out when wet.

The hike was mostly across bare rock. The trail was marked by cairns (pronunced \ ˈkern \) because there was no visible path of well-worn dirt or trampled vegetation as one might see in a forest or desert. All we could do to navigate was follow small piles of rocks. It was my first hike with only cairns to guide me.

A cairn marking the trail.

Visitors are asked not to build cairns of their own because too many cairns or cairns built in the wrong places can be confusing to hikers. Unfortunately there were many unofficial cairns along the trail. Fortunately, The Lady was really good at navigating and kept us on the trail. Had I been alone, I might still be wandering around from one pile of stones to another, never finding the way back to my van.

Not only does the trail take hikers across bare sandstone, there’s very little shade along the way. I was glad for my big hat and glad we were hiking on a spring morning. I would not have enjoyed this hike nearly as much had I been doing it at midday in the summer.

The Lady and I took frequent water breaks, thanks to her reminders.

The trail wasn’t crowded, probably because our visit occurred before the high tourist season of Memorial Day to Labor Day. I absolutely encourage anyone who can manage it to do their exploring of any tourist attraction during the off-season.

Pothole Point Trail is a loop, and I was glad to see my van when we circled back around. I enjoyed the scenery and the company, but I was glad to get out of the sun and take a little break while driving us to the second hike on our itinerary. Next stop: Cave Spring Trail.

Some of the scenery we saw while hiking Pothole Point Trail.

I took the photos in thie post.