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NEVADA, UTAH & ARIZONA: Epiphany and Rapture in Our Nation’s Great Desert Outdoors - Zion, Paria Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs,

Posted Jul 31 2009 8:05pm
Paddling leisurely up a stretch of the Colorado where the mighty river flows lazily below Hoover Dam in a wide swathe of aqua green water through scenic Black Canyon, we are enchanted by frequent sightings of encircling hawks, feeding herons, kamikaze cormorants, and other abundant water fowl. But the primo birding pales in comparison to the prolonged glimpse we are treated to of the sanctuary's most famous denizens -- a sizeable herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep grazing on sparse vegetation high above on dry, rugged cliffs.

This group of 13 is comprised of several large males, ewes, and the cutest little lambs imaginable resting peacefully in the shade of a scrub bush. “With limbs that never fail, at home on the most nerve-trying precipices, acquainted with all the springs and passes and broken-down jumpable places in the sheer ribbon cliffs, bounding from crag to crag in easy grace and confidence of strength, his great horns held high above his shoulders, wild red blood b eating and hissing through every fiber of him like the wind through a quivering mountain pine,” John Muir pretty much sums up the grace and power of this “largest of the canon animals.” We cautiously steer our craft toward the shoreline and enjoy several silent minutes watching them nibble at grasses and walk and climb about, occasionally glancing our way nonchalantly, keen eyes aware of and unconcerned by our presence, and with good reason - the 1000 or so sheep that live and roam in Black Canyon's vast purlieus are protected as a “conservation dependent” species from the guns that greatly diminished their numbers in a few decades a nd once threatened to do the magnificent animals in entirely.

As if this encounter doesn’t sate our lust for a National Geographic nature sighting, on the return downstream, on the opposite side of the river, we’re giddy to spot another clan of 14 Bighorns making their way down a rocky declivity. On approach for a better look, the pulse quickens when two big males begin to engage in a rutting match, scraping away at the sandy terrain, rearing up on their haunches, and butting their gigantic curled horns – probably three feet long! - against one another in a dramatic display of posturing and dominance for breeding rights to the hottest females. It’s a m ost impressive spectacle we're fortunate to witness this time of year, since according to a local at the canoe rental place, who has never seen what we saw in five years, rutting battles normally occur during the July to October mating season (although breeding can occur during any time of the year if climactic conditions are suitable, as they must have been on this hot, sunny April day).

The tame river episode ends in heat stroke, sunburn, and exhaustion, capping several sun-drenched, wind-swept, fun-filled days pursuing desert beauty and adventure on a reprisal of our annual Boys’ Trip – homunculus exploits, mild-mannered deeds of derring-do, hardly larger than life picaresque romance, starring the usu al cast of hobbled urbanite Bear Grylls wannabes -- Gambolin’ Man (the Obsesser), Markie Mark (the Perfesser), and Brock Stoker (the Confesser).

We roll the dice and take our chances on a starting off point in Las Vegas, where, owing to Gamblin’ Man’s past transgressions in Sin City, we’re comped a fancy $200 suite at the Wynn (no pun inherently intended) with a view overlooking the frenzied megalopolis and distant surrounding ranges and a bathroom so sparkling clean and commodious you could live in it, no problem. By early afternoon, Brock decides to hook up with an old trading pal whose two acrobatic daughters are Wushu experts and happen to be the stars of the Cirque du Soleil show at the MGM Grand, Ka. Brock ends up spending the rest of day with Bob and is treated to the show and a back stage tour, then late into the night he works babe patrol, so it's a bleary 3:30 a.m. before we see him again, empty-armed and forlorn.

Meanwhile, the Perfesser and I knock out food detail (of course we overbuy), and pick up some camping supplies. We end up actually squeezing in a short hike at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area just outside the sprawling city limits. Red Rock is located within the Mojave Desert and comprises nearly 200,000 acres – or 130 square miles - of colorful geologic wonderlands, perfect for hiking, biking, rock climbing and leisurely car touring, picnicking and sight-seeing . . .a true desert paradise / escape from the 24/7 cosmopolitan party / gambling / shopping / night clubbing scene in Vegas.

We stop at the first available turn-off, Red Spring in the Calico Hills, and enjoy a good romp high up into the jumbled slabs of fallen rocks and wedged boulders at the base of a red and white sandstone formation. Desert blooms provide color and attract several of over 100 species of birds – including hummingbirds, Great Horned Owls, woodpeckers, towhees, quail, and the long-tailed Phainopepla - that make their way to the oasis of Red Spring. We stroll along a protective boardwalk, taking in the grandeur of the surrounding Spring Mountains, and admiring the oasis of (dried up) Red Spring, reading the diorama displays posted along the way offering up interesting and unusual facts about the history, geology, and ecology of this special place. A small trickle of a stream flows out of a crevice in the rock, the outward manifestation of the miracle of water collecting deep within the bosom of the mountain and the wellspring of abundance which enables so much life to thrive amidst such hars hness. The ancient Paiutes and their mysterious predecessors knew and loved this place well, as archaeological evidence attests to a long settlement period of thousands of years, perhaps dating back to the first aboriginal settlements 10,000 years or more ago. . .current residents also take refuge here - snakes and lizards, and, surprisingly, more than 45 species of mammals, including coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, kit and grey fox, mule deer, burro, bighorn sheep, rodents, rabbits, hares, kangaroo rat, bats and shrews. These elusive creatures – none of whom we come close to spotting - are able to survive and thrive due to the region’s cool temperatures, perennial water sources, and abundant plant life. Again, so much for the d esert being a “wasteland” and a "lifeless" place.

After a night of soft-core debauchery, we rise earlier than expected Saturday morning to hit the road for Zion National Park, about four hours away, arguing about which trail to explore given our limited time. . .would it be the ultra-exciting Virgin River Narrows hike, wading up thigh-deep water through narrow canyon passageways with red sandstone walls rising to 2000 ft., or would it be the Emerald Pools trail to soak in exotic wonders of hanging fern grotto springs and soaring red rock ramparts rising skyward like gigantic oversized obelisks? On arrival, we’re dismayed by the hordes, masses and throngs of people, and so, at t he urging of the Perfesser, who insists on getting away from the nature loving hoi polloi, we drive right through the park, stopping only to pay a $25 entrance fee, good for the return trip, and head to a place another ninety minutes away I had hiked several years ago and longed to return to someday, like today – the Paria River Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area – vast and sublime acreage of desert / canyon badlands located mostly in northern Arizona and spilling into southern Utah.

We arrive mid-afternoon, too late to secure a permit to backpack in for an overnighter, as we had been hoping, so the only thing we can do – pity poor us – is load up our daypack s and head downstream following the muddy Paria River through the colorful open landscape – pink, white, vermilion, greenish tones stark against a bright blue sky – before entering the depths of the canyon. Impressive and whimsical formations, carved over eons by unrelenting wind and raging floods, the land is a Gaudi-like scene of geological oddities - wedding cakes, whipped custards, frogs and hump-backed lizards, swirling voluptuous mounds of rock delighting the eye and amusing the mind.

We’re a bit rueful knowing we won’t cover much ground – about three miles in tops – and will miss the “wave” feature and some of the cooler slot canyons and narrow hi gh wall portions – after all the trail to Lee’s Ferry at the Colorado River is nearly 40 miles long with extra-stupendous scenery along its snaky lengths! – but we have to take it and enjoy it where we can get it - and our short but sweet hike slakes the thirst we all feel for some true desert / canyon hiking and exploration, of sloshing through a pretty riparian red rocked, solution pocketed corridor in classic desert terrain. . . .

The Paria River is flowing muddily this time of year. It’s a revelation, a magical sensation, yet again, to encounter water in the hot dry desert – it’s so refreshing to dip in at the many crossings. At a bend, the Perfesser nearly gives it up as he p lunges thigh deep in quickmud – it can really suck you down. He manages to extract himself but felt the adrenaline rush of danger nonetheless. Time to take a breather, seek respite from the heat, in a narrow shaded slot where we devour our food, sit in silence, engage in small and big talk, and marvel at the geometry of the canyon niche, at golden sunlight on a jutting angle of the canyon wall, at undulating riffles of sand patterns, at a fossil waterfall, at a tiny beige moth on the red rock face, large and small miracles all.

Day's winding down, so we retrace our steps, trudging in the heat, and taking the high road back by climbing up a defile of rocky debris that tops out on the higher cliffs. The views open up to infinity in all directions, and we hope to spot a condor soaring the skies. First relea sed here in 1996, four more of the endangered species were released one month ago on March 15, and the free-flying population now numbers around 65 or 70. . .but we do not see a single one. We’re just grateful to have had the brief opportunity to experience being in the pristine wilderness area, but we will always long in our hearts and souls for a week-long backpacking immersion all the way to the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry – ah, someday, boys, someday.

Onward now, to find a camping spot for the night. . .we turn down Cottonwood Canyon Road, a connector back road to Utah Hwy. 12, snaking through the heart of the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, where you’re not supposed to car camp without a permit, but what the hell, who’s out here to catch us. Nobody, that’s who.

After driving for about 20 miles down the bumpy gravelly road in fr uitless pursuit of a decent pull-off spot, we end up by the river's edge - the same muddy Paria River - as dusk settles, but the wind is whipping so we're forced to retrench to a more sheltered spot. We're dead tired from our long day of driving and hiking and have just enough energy to scarf down some grub. As darkness overtakes the desert, a pack of coyotes can be heard off in the distance, their high-pitched yelping accentuating the vast silence and seeming loneliness of this "empty" and solemn land. Looking westerly, across the river, the massive side of a mountain appears to illume in alabaster flares of hallucinatory trace lighting, and only when I turn to gaze eastward, and see preternatural Albion glow over the dark ridge top, does it dawn on us that a full moon is about to rise and shed its magical light over the landscape.

Too tired to fully enjoy it, we crash, my friends in a tent, me under the moon and what few stars are visible. . .sleeping is nearly impossible, as the moonlight is so sharp it keeps me awake, and then some kind of god-awful allergy hits me out of nowhere and I'm all plugged up, can't breathe or stop sneezing. The only relief is to crawl out of my sleeping bag and remain vertical and active - so from about 1 a.m. on, I jog and power-walk, gather firewood, and generally amble about in a bleary-eyed daze, maintaining one helluva lonely vigil until before the crepuscular hour when I finally build a fire for warmth and companionship and make some cowboy coffee. It's a mighty relief when daylight finally breaks and the sun rises to the cackling of a band of ravens and more coyotes howling. A big ol' jackrabbit stirs from behind sagebrush and scampers off. I'm feeling great and yell the standard refrain of bonhomie to my snoring companions - "Once more with feeling, boys!" - and soon everyone’s up, fumbling about way too long preparing coffee by the fire, and, finally, settling on an agenda and direction, we break camp for another day of thrilling adventure and camaraderie.

Retracing our route, we head back to Zion National Park. At the eastern entrance, sick of driving, and leery of big crowds at the Narrows and Temple of Sinawava, we pull in to the first trail head to hike East Rim Trail. There are but two vehicles, and on the entire seven mile out and back trek, we encounter just a handful of other people - so much for millions of visitors.

Zion - originally named Mukuntuweap (“straight canyon” in southern Paiute) - is probably more compelling and dramatic than Yosemite or Yellowstone, and certainly suffers from the same congestion and overuse. In this ancient land, where the Colorado Plateau, the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin converge to create unique ecological oases and islands in time and space, sheer Navaho sandstone canyon walls rise tall and majestic, in flaming polychromes, 2000 ft. high. "There is," wrote 19th century geologist Clarence Dutton, rapt with religious aw e in describing this new Eden, "an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind. . .a glowing response. . .nothing can exceed the wondrous beauty. . .in the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison." Hard to argue with his rock-solid effulgence. At Zion, wherever you end up, whatever your proclivity for enjoying the Great Outdoors - casual strolling and sightseeing, roadside watercolor painting, birding, photography, or rugged hiking and horseback riding in the back country - opportunities for recreation and reflection abound. Despite the crowds, which can be escaped, Zion is truly a place to go to restore the soul, seek spiritual solace, epiphanies and rapture, and rediscover elemental truths of your existence in nature's primal confessionary.

We load up our daypacks, eager to loosen up our limbs a nd get our blood flowing, and set off full of boyish enthusiasm and excitement over being in such an overwhelmingly beautiful place that you just don't get to experience every day. The trail begins at about 5700 ft. in elevation, and ascends 800 ft. to the level rim in a series of easy switchbacks along a sandy trail, with spectacular scenery along the way – big rugged Zion backcountry. We take our time, alternately engaged in conversation and silent contemplative awe. Atop the rim, fantastic views open up in all directions of towering mountain caps, isolated mesas, volcanic knolls, canyons and valley floors. We take a lunch break at Stave Spring, and the spectacular “Jolly’s Gulch” – a 1000 ft. deep crack in the earth from the valley floor where we began the hike to where we now stand, on its dangerous precipice, gazing outward and down, down, down, at the expansive depths of the scene before and around us – landmark features like The Great White Throne (6744 ft.), Mountain of Mystery (6565 ft.), and other natural temples and monuments in the great big open country we long to fully explore.

Trudging back to the parking lot five hours later, hungry, tired, blistered, sore, and short on time, we climb back in the car to knock out a long stretch to put us closer to our morning destination – the Colorado River at Willow Beach, Arizona, eleven miles downstream from the Hoover Dam. We end up camping off a side ro ad east of Valley of Fire State Park, above Lake Mead, just in time to witness another spectacle of eldritch moon rising over a stark ridge. Finally, some good shut-eye refreshes us, and we awake early next morning to an even more spectacular moon setting over purple mountains majesty.

By 9:30 a.m., we're Argonauts on the river, paddling a three-person canoe up the calm canyon, hoping to get in some good soaking at the hot springs upriver, b ut turns out the first springs are eight miles away, so we can't possibly get there and back in time for 3 p.m. debarking. The morning is already hot, and so we row, hike, swim, and enjoy the tremendous Bighorn Sheep sightings to cap off a fabulous four days of too much driving through great hiking country, and not enough hiking in great driving country. Either way, it’s memorable, and satisfying . . .for us three weather-beaten Walter Mittys of adventure travel.
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