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.
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 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.”
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?
I took all the photos in this post.