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n.halberg Author

Your Bucket List is Wrong

Everytime I unlock my phone and click that little, pinkish-purple, camera shaped app, I’m bombarded by stoke. Pictures of The North Face expedition team climbing vertical walls in Antarctica, Renan Ozturk and Chris Burkard flying on ultralight trikes over Bears Ears, and Zion canyoneer guides putting first descents into “superslots” in the remote backcountry all roll down my Instagram feed as my fingers vigorously like images. Soon, my mental bucket list overflows with ideas.

Initially, this is motivation. It pushes me to make the most of every weekend, staying up late finishing assignments ahead of time and driving far too late at night to get to my weekend destination. However, the pressure mounts. For every one check I get on my list, another five boxes appear. I’m pushing harder to do more, go bigger, and become as objectively rad as the people I’m trying to imitate on Instagram. What started out as fun motivation turns into a competition, and I find myself living less in the moment and more for the checkmark.

The epitome of this came last July when my Colorado peak-bagging/backpacking trip was outvoted by my friend’s California beach trip. I was bummed, climbing a 14er had been on my list for months, but I clambered into the car packed with my five friends, flip flops, and sunscreen all the same. I figured California was just as cool, and I could still make the trip worthwhile. As it ended up, nothing extraordinarily adrenaline-pumping or groundbreaking happened. We took short day hikes on small, beautiful trails, slept on friends’ floors, and sat on many beaches. I didn’t even get a clear picture for Instagram, but it was the best trip of my summer.

For once, I was relaxed. I didn’t worry about whether or not what I was doing would make me a better canyoneer, gain me points on the radness scale, or check a box on my arbitrarily decided list. I was living for myself and made the decision that brought me the most happiness. The freedom we had during those five days brought a joy greater than any I had felt after checking any box before.

That trip forged a model for my friends and me that summer. Instead of choosing what we were going to do, we would decide where we wanted to go and go with the flow from there. We’d purposely avoid all pictures so we could be surprised by what we saw, we brought plenty of gear so our options wouldn’t be limited once we got there, and most importantly, we always did what sounded the most fun. We didn’t have goals for our outings, because goals are inherently structured and require planning. We just went.

We discovered a way to truly adventure. We headed into our trips blindly, but full of enthusiasm and ended up creating memories we all cherish deeply to this day. No firsts were made, no feats of adventure completed, and nothing we did would get us sponsored by some cool company. At the end of the day, we would all sit down together and watch the sun set, the fire burn, and the stars slowly creep out. My bucket list didn’t see many checkmarks over those months, but nothing could have made me happier.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

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Be Aware This Spring Break

There are few things as quintessentially American as the classic college road trip. It is an adventure every student should strive to experience before that graduation cap lands atop their head. The memories created driving across a dirt road, windows down, with friends and camping gear in tow are truly special, and the memories made when everything goes wrong, and you’re forced into some crazy predicament, are absolutely unforgettable.

Here in Utah, we have the incredible fortune to be practically drowning in all the possible road trip itineraries. Spend the week,or at least a few nights, exploring some remote corner of the desert, visiting that national park you haven’t been to, or climbing, paddling, hiking, or pedaling that line you’ve been eyeing. Get out and revel in the absurd beauty of all our state’s natural spaces.

While you’re there, remember one thing. We aren’t the first spring breakers here, and we certainly won’t be the last. The reason our pristine natural places exist to this day are because those who took the trips before us were respectful enough to visit as a ghost, and leave with no trace. Pick up your cans, use your wag bags, and please, for all that is good, do NOT carve your name into the sandstone next to that petroglyph. Let’s be sure this great college tradition of visiting pristine places can be carried onto the next generation of adventurers.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Photo by Dalton Rees.

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The Wizard of the Wasatch

Somewhere back in the powdered ladened lines of the Wasatch resides a wizard. Granted he climbs mountains instead of spiraling towers, carries poles instead of a wooden staff, and rides skis instead of dragons, but he’s a wizard nonetheless. His name’s Bob Athey, he has a beard that rivals Gandalf’s, and he’s been flying down fresh powder lines in the remote Wasatch for decades.

The Wasatch Wizard at home on the snow. Photo by Peter Creveling.

Athey started touring in the early ‘70s. He and his then girlfriend went up to the summit of the 10,700 ft Clayton Peak to attempt a graceful descent. “I thought I knew how to ski, and I was all cocky,” Bob said as he was describing that first run. The reality didn’t quite meet their expectations. Rather than hitting swooping turns down untracked lines, they sort of stumbled and fell their way down.

“I had 210 cm cross country skis, double camber, and shoes like that,” he said, gesturing to my hiking boots. Translated from ski jargon, that basically means Bob was woefully ill-equipped for the downhill runs he was trying to make. However, that setup was standard for the time. For whatever reason, touring just wasn’t widespread enough to warrant having its own gear yet.

“I spent several years falling down hills,” Bob recalled, “but the equipment gradually improved.” Soon, Bob was in a pair of nice telemark skis, which were leaps and bounds better than his previous cross country setup. At least the telemarks were intended for downhill slopes. Finally, the equipment was adequate enough to keep up with Athey’s drive. Now, he was really hitting his stride.

By the ‘80s, Athey was bombing downhill as quick as he could. Unfortunately, the economy took a similar trajectory. Unable to get started in a solid career, Athey had to sign up for unemployment. Instead of hanging his head at his bad luck, Bob realized he now had just enough funds and more than enough time, to ski almost everyday. So he did. He called it, “the state ski team.” Since the times were so tough, unemployment got a special extension. It now lasted for 52 weeks. “I was on unemployment for so long they thought I was unemployable.”

The Wasatch Wizard skiing. Photo by Peter Creveling.

For a long time Bob ran his own construction company and would save up enough money to take the winters off for skiing. He started learning more and more about snow science, safely travelling in the backcountry, and touring in general. He submitted reports almost everyday to the Utah Avalanche Center, and did such a good job that a non-profit called Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center raised funds to pay him for it. For fifteen years, until 2007, he was the only paid, full time field observer.

Even with his deep knowledge of the snow, Bob hasn’t been able to come out of every run unscathed. “I’ve triggered many, many, many avalanches.” Bob said. One was especially nasty. It was off Gobbler’s Knob and left Bob with a dislocated shoulder. While the injury was debilitating, the run got named after him, and Bob still has a sense of humor about it. “On their map they call it Bobsled, I call it Bobslid.”

While having a run named after him helped cement his fame, his real notoriety came from a Salt Lake Tribune article. Bob had been on a day hike of Lone Peak one day with an editor of the Tribune. The editor thought Bob was a hilarious character, so he assigned a reporter to go skiing with him and write an article. The reporter, who also worked for the UAC, talked to her coworker there and asked him how this Athey guy had been skiing so much and hadn’t died in an avalanche. The coworker responded with, “It’s magic, he’s a wizard.” When the article came out the title was “The Wizard of the Wasatch” and the name stuck.

Today the Wizard of the Wasatch is as focused on touring as ever. He runs a website and instagram that aim to provide reliable snow reports to anyone needing the information. “It’s ski touring up, skiing down, figuring out what the snow’s doing, avoiding avalanches, skiing deep powder, the whole thing” that interests Bob. “It’s not just the skiing,” he said.

Bob’s interest in snow science, dedication to getting out, and unique character have made him an infamous and beloved figure in Utah’s backcountry community. Although his life has had its hardships, he said that it’s been fun, and that he’s not planning on stopping anytime soon. As long as the wheels on his car are turning and the snow is falling, the Wasatch will continue to host their resident wizard as he carves around its peak’s most remote corners.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Photos by Peter Creveling.

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Bears Ears in Retrospect

The southeastern corner of Utah has seen numerous changes over the past year as Bears Ears National Monument was first established and successively shrunk. Although the battle over the borders has been steadily building since 2010, the history of Bears Ears dates back to long, long before this.

Utah. USA. Detail of Sand Island petroglyph panel along San Juan River. Colorado Plateau. Photo courtesy of Scott Smith.

The first people to inhabit the Bears Ears region were the ancestors of modern native tribes. They existed here for thousands of years before the first Mormon settlers reached the region, and have a history as complex as any other civilization. Understanding all the intricacies of this history is a job fit for a full team of archaeologists, but — fortunately — the important points are simple.

Because multiple tribes lived in this area throughout its history, today tribes that no longer reside in Utah still have important ancestral connections to the land, and all these ancestral people left behind hundreds of thousands of artifacts that now scatter the Bears Ears region. This means that modern tribes, like the Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indians, and Navajo, have strong cultural, historical, and spiritual ties to Bears Ears.

The next main inhabitants of this region were the Mormon settlers. In 1879 they set out on the infamous “Hole in the Rock” journey to settle the then barren area near the San Juan river. Though they encountered and fought against numerous obstacles, including blasting a 2,000 foot passage down to the Colorado river in order to cross it, the pioneers made it without any loss of life. By 1880 the road was open and the settlement of Bluff had begun. Since then, Bluff and other settlements near Bears Ears, like Blanding and Monticello, have grown into proper towns and seen generations of families carve a living out of Utah’s sandstone deserts.

Unfortunately, these two groups that both have historic and cultural claims to the land, do not see eye to eye on how to use it. The current inhabitants of Blanding, Bluff, and other border towns have grown up exploring the wilderness around them and using it to graze cattle. They’ve been free to roam relatively unrestricted and even collect or sell many of the artifacts they find. To them, this is life. Changing it would be enormously difficult. The tribes, however, see the destruction that is happening to their ancestral lands — mostly in the form of large-scale looting of and vandalism to the artifacts there — and are not pleased.

Utah. USA. Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) in bloom above Hammond Canyon. Manti-Lasal National Forest. Canyon walls are eroded Permian-age Cedar Mesa Sandstone of the Cutler Group. Photo courtesy of Scott Smith.

This is why the Navajo, in June 2010, presented the first proposal to protect Bears Ears to Utah Representative Bennett. The Navajo went around speaking to all the elders of the Navajo nation and other tribes with interests in the area to create a map of all the areas that needed protection. Representative Bennett lost his election that year so the Navajo did not release their map until April of 2011. In July of that same year, Utah Dine Bikeyah (UDB), a Navajo organization set up to specifically handle the process of protecting Bears Ears, turned the map and proposal into a short book and distributed it to political leaders across Utah and Washington D.C. The idea of protecting Bears Ears was now fully on the table, and the debate began.

It took two more years before the state of Utah had a real proposal in response. It came in the form of the February 2013 Utah Public Lands Initiative (PLI). The bill, proposed by Utah Representative Bishop and supported by Utah Representative Chaffetz, sought to solve many of southern Utah’s land debates in one giant compromise. The peak of this was Bears Ears. The tribes, now aligned in the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, wanted Bears Ears to be protected at a size of 1.9 million acres, with the authority to manage the land placed in their hands.The state of Utah wanted to ensure that the people of Bluff and Blanding had their interests represented as well, and wanted to keep the area open to future economic development.

Although nearly three years of debate, discussion, and compromise went into the PLI, it ultimately failed. The tribes eventually pulled their support from the bill, saying that Representative Bishop was continually unresponsive and in the end excluded the tribes from having management authority over the Bears Ears region. By the time the 114th Congress had ended in late December 2016, no vote had been taken on the PLI.

The tribes knew that this was a possibility from the beginning, and so, planned for a backup. They initially sought to have the region protected as a National Conservation Area with the help of the state of Utah (this was the PLI), however, they also knew that the president could establish a National Monument and protect Bears Ears without the state’s help or consent. The Intertribal Coalition had therefore been lobbying President Obama and Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell in case the PLI were to fall through. When it became clear that the PLI would not gain the votes it needed before the end of the 114th Congress, President Obama designated a 1.35 million acre chunk of land in southeastern Utah as Bears Ears National Monument, and granted the tribes’ request for management authority.

Protestors congregate on the Salt Lake Capitol to protest shrinkage of Bears Ears. Photo by Nick Halberg.

The Utah delegation, and many Utahns near the new monument, saw this designation as an obvious abuse of the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that allowed presidents the authority to create national monuments, and a huge overreach by the executive. Almost immediately, the Utah delegation began lobbying president-elect Trump. Senator Hatch was so influential in this lobbying that Trump mentioned him on multiple occasions while discussing the monument.

The first step by the Trump administration in the Bears Ears conflict took place in April of 2017 when Secretary Zinke began touring and evaluating all the monuments designated in the last 21 years. The entire process was wrapped in suspicion, however, as Zinke’s final report on the monuments was not officially released until long after the tour was complete.

On December 4, 2017 President Trump travelled to Salt Lake City to once again use the Antiquities Act to determine the borders of Bears Ears National Monument. This time, however, the monument was reduced by roughly 85%, from a size of 1.35 million acres to 200,000 acres. Grand Staircase-Escalante, a monument designated by Bill Clinton just shy of 20 years ago, was also reduced from 1.9 million acres to about a million acres. The reductions were met with applause from the Utah delegation, and boos from thousands of protesters who took to the Capitol steps a few days before Trump’s arrival.

Across the country, the reductions were met with the same mixed reaction. A bigger question plagued the action: was it legal? The Antiquities Act does not explicitly designate the president the power to reduce monuments, though borders have been altered on a few occasions in the past. Now, the courts will decide the fate of both Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante as the Intertribal Coalition and a collection of environmental groups have sued the president.

Protestors congregate on the Salt Lake Capitol to protest shrinkage of Bears Ears. Photo by Nick Halberg.

The Utah delegation, not willing to leave their victory in uncertainty, have proposed two bills to codify the president’s reductions. Representative Stewart introduced H.R. 4558, which will solidify the borders and create a new national park in one of the monuments’ sections. Similarly, Representative Curtis introduced H.R. 4532, which also aims to codify the reductions to Bears Ears. The bills are being deliberated over in a congressional subcommittee now.

The history of Bears Ears is complex, and the debate is far from settled. As the court cases and legislative pieces progress, the possibility of Bears Ears borders once again being altered is high. There only seems to be one thing certain about the landlocked, arid corner of Utah: it has made, and will continue to make, big waves.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

Cover photo courtesy of Gary German.

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Camping in Style

I packed my bag just like I had hundreds of times before. Sleeping bag on bottom, stuff sack with clothes above that, and water bladder, camp shoes, food, etc. crammed in all the gaps. This time, however, I left out the stove and warm pajamas. There would be no need for them because I would be sleeping in the backcountry’s most luxurious accommodation: a yurt.

A true yurt is an impermanent, circular, dome-shaped dwelling. The form originated among the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. Modern, American yurts have deviated greatly from their origins. Today, they are often built on permanent wood platforms, use thick, reflective insulation to cover the walls, and have a host of modern amenities. Utah is one of the few states in the United States that has yurts on public lands available for rent.

Hiking to the yurt. Photo by Nick Halberg.

Typically, reservations are booked months in advance for one of these coveted spots, but when I looked at the online calendar (found at brorayurts.org), I saw an opening. I called the reservation number the next day and booked the first of five yurts in the Lily Lake Hut system. This series of ski trails and yurts are located in the northern part of the Uintas, near the Wyoming border, and are managed by the Bear River Outdoor Recreation Alliance. Weeknight fees are $50 and weekend fees bump up to $75, after you pay the one-time $20 fee to become a member of BRORA. Compared to other getaways, it’s a pretty good deal.

With a heave and a thud my friends and I lowered our packs out of the truck and into the mud puddle that was the parking lot. Sitting across from us on the horizon were the peaks of the Uintas, covered in snow and shimmering beautifully. The trail started out a slushy mess, but soon turned to solid snow. After walking short two miles later we arrived at our home for the night—Bear Claw Yurt.

Fireplace inside the yurt. Photo by Nick Halberg.

We were instantly impressed. The yurt itself was located in a secluded grove of Douglas-firs, had a picnic table outside, an outhouse close enough for the inevitable midnight run to relieve oneself, and a stack of firewood that’d last any pioneer through the harshest winter. Indoors was even better. Three bunk beds lined the left wall, allowing enough room for eight people to sleep; the center was filled with a circular table and four benches; and to the right stood an old cast iron wood stove that looked as if it’d come straight from an Alaskan trapper’s cabin. There was no running water or electricity, but lines fed propane to a Coleman stove and lantern, and the cabinets were stocked with dishes, pots, and pans.

A sunset from Lily Lake. Photo by Nick Halberg.

The sun was still reasonably high in the sky when we arrived so we picked our jaws up off the floor, dropped our packs, and headed farther down the trail to the nearby Lily Lake. We arrived with just enough time to catch the glowing pinks of a fading sun. Within a half hour of our return to Bear Claw we were seated around the little table enjoying warm bowls of chili, Hawaiian rolls, and grilled asparagus. The perfect ending to a peaceful weekend.

 

 

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

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Bomber and Company: More Flashy than Functional

I stray far from the frivolous. Every item I purchase, or think about purchasing, is weighed against the possible experiences I could have for the same cost. Spending $50 to replace the rain jacket I lost last October? No thanks. I’d rather swing by Walmart and grab a dollar poncho before heading up into the Uintas for an overnight backpacking trip.

Needless to say, when Bomber and Company’s package showed up in the mail for us to review here at Wasatch Magazine, I was skeptical. At first glance, these seemed frivolous. I was, we’ll say, half wrong.

In the neatly packed box were five items: the Bomber Barrel (duffel bag), the Mini Bomber Travel Kit (amenities bag), the B-2 Nano Blade (truly tiny pocket knife), Bomber Carabiner Paracord Keychain (exactly what it says), and the Bomber Firestarter Paracord Bracelet (bracelet of woven paracord with firestarter flint). At first sight, all these products absolutely nailed one main factor: design. Everything was sleek, black, and modern, from the cleanly woven paracord zipper pulls on the duffel to the tactical shape of the “world’s smallest pocket knife.” The whole lot was a solid mix of tactical survival with modern, everyday city life. Anyone carrying these items would certainly give off the outdoorsy, bad-to-the-bone, Bear Grylls-esque, “I survived behind enemy lines for three days eating only cactus,” impression.

However, from a first impression, I suspected this is where the products would end. The actual utility of these items seemed like an afterthought. That didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to use these pieces of trendy gear like they were advertised. I ended up with mixed results.

The duffel is easy to rate. It paired with the travel kit to make for a very useful bit of luggage. I toted it along on a weekend backpacking trip to Zion National Park’s Kolob Canyon and found that it served perfectly as my “doesn’t belong in the backpack” bag. That is, the bag with all my snacks, books, chargers, etc., that would not be accompanying me on the trail. I found the bag to be a good, medium size with a simple number of pockets, just enough to hold all your small bits without acting like a puzzle when you have to get something out.

The two paracord items, the bracelet and keychain, also proved at least functional. They clearly were still created for form over function, though, they did still function. The firestarters on both worked (after scraping off the black coating). I found that by wrapping the keychain around your knuckle and using the separate circular striker, you can throw decent sparks off the flint and steel. Of course, if your fire-making skills aren’t already pretty solid, it won’t be of much use.

The B-2 Nano Blade, on the other hand, I found frivolous. I saw no use the tiny pocket knife could provide that a much cheaper Swiss Army knife couldn’t. At least you get a toothpick with the Swiss Army. It only seems useful if you want to feel like a marine while opening your envelopes.

The major downside of all these products ties into their biggest positive. They are all far too expensive. The duffel catches a cool $200, while the paracord products each hit the $23 mark. The hopelessly small pocketknife asks a steep $35. To me, this only reinforces that these products were made for looks, not necessarily use. They aren’t bad, but paying that much for an extraneous piece of gear isn’t something I’m chomping at the bit for. These are targeted towards consumers who are trying to put on a facade and don’t mind paying a little bit more for it. For that market, they’re doing great.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

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Trodding Across the Trans Zion Trail

After a full summer of living 30 minutes from Zion in the often overlooked and mispronounced town of Hurricane, Utah, my girlfriend Libby and I found ourselves avoiding the park. We had explored all of the big hikes in the main canyon, squeezed our way through some slots off the side of the main roads, and camped on top of the main rims. Just as I felt our recreational opportunities in Utah’s flagship park were expiring, I looked at the map. There, right smack in the middle, was an empty field. The only mark cutting through it was a series of dashed lines forming a winding path: the Trans Zion Trail. This past fall break, we finally worked out a window large enough between her work schedule and my classes to give it a shot.

Zion National Park. Photo credit @surfnsnowboard.

The Trans Zion is a beautifully classic, almost 50-mile backpacking trip that links paths starting from Lee Pass Trailhead in Kolob Canyon to the east entrance of the park. It is one of the most easily accessible and spectacular multi-day trips in any park in Utah, and it offers solitude that cannot be found near any of the more popular parts of Zion. Because of time restraints, Libby and I decided to start at the traditional beginning (Lee Pass), but end at The Grotto, cutting out the East Rim, ending in the main canyon instead of the east entrance.

Our itinerary was moderate, averaging 10 miles a day. Some people run the whole trail in a day, others take nearly a week to complete it. Since permits are needed for every camp, you will have in the backcountry, day mileage as well as trip length is heavily determined by the availability of those permits. We lucked out and ended up with the following itinerary.

Day 1: Lee Pass TH to Hop Valley A (about 9 miles)

All Trans Zion trips start at Lee Pass, which means you’ll need two cars or a shuttle. Libby lives in Hurricane still, so her friend dropped us off, but Zion Adventure Company also provides this service for those without such connections. From here, we followed the La Verkin Creek Trail for 6.9 miles until it met up with the Hop Valley Trail. Near the very end of La Verkin Creek is Kolob Arch. It’s only a quick 1.2 mile detour, and it is absolutely worth the 30 minutes it takes to see it. Campsite 10 is just past this junction, and Beatty Spring is usually flowing there. It’d be a good idea to fill your bottles here, or in the creek itself, before heading up the steep switchbacks to the Hop Valley Trail. There was not water above the switchbacks for us. We camped in Hop Valley A, a picturesque camp hidden in a grove of Ponderosas beside a sandy wash, but any of the later spots along the La Verkin Creek Trail (ideally camps 7-10) would provide a similar mileage day. Hop Valley B is another good option.

Zion National Park. Photo credit @surfnsnowboard.

Day 2: Hop Valley A to Wildcat Canyon Dispersed (about 13 miles)

Rise early to get out of Hop Valley before the sun is too high. The trail is beautiful, yet sandy; I would not want to slog through there at noon with a heavy pack. After about 5.5 miles, we reached the Hop Valley Trailhead. Unfortunately for us, it was here that we discovered Libby had fractured her knee and had to quit the trail. Had we continued, however, we would have followed the Connector Trail 4 miles, passing the beautiful Pine Valley Peak on our right, and joined the Wildcat Canyon Trail. From there, we would’ve continued about 3.5 miles until reaching the beginning of the dispersed camping zone, where our permit would have allowed us to camp anywhere out of sight of the trail. The backcountry office told us that Wildcat Canyon Spring was flowing, so we would’ve had water nearby our camp.

Day 3: Wildcat Canyon Dispersed to West Rim 5 (about 8.5 miles)

We would’ve spent the day more or less on the West Rim Trail. Depending on where we camped in the Wildcat Dispersed zone, we may have had about a mile before joining the West Rim. Once there, we would encounter some steep sections, but the views, I’ve heard, are unmatched. Again, the backcountry office told us that West Cabin, Potato Hollow, and Sawmill Springs all had at least a small water flow. Any site towards the bottom of the West Rim would be ideal (meaning sites 1 through 5). The even numbered ones are put online for reservations, so they’re likely taken already, but the others are kept for walk-ins. We had to get to the visitor center early the day before our trip so we could be first in line to grab a spot when the doors opened at 8 a.m.

Day 4: West Rim 5 to The Grotto (about 6.5 miles)

Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park. Photo credit @surfnsnowboard.

This final day should’ve be the easiest. It’s pretty much all downhill (so anyone with bad knees will rue this day) as we would’ve hiked from our site to Scout Lookout, where we should’ve been able to add a quick 0.8 mile detour hike to the top of Angel’s Landing, and eventually end at The Grotto. From there, we planned to take the park shuttle back to the visitor center where our car would be waiting.

Needless to say, Libby and I were disappointed we couldn’t finish the trail. The one night we did get to spend in Kolob enchanted us with a sky heavy with stars and orange cliffs that glowed during sunset. Ain’t no valley high enough and ain’t no canyon low enough to keep us from getting to Lee Pass again soon.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

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Saving Our Zion from Ourselves

Half a century ago, American author and essayist Edward Abbey laid forth a description, in his classically cynical style, of the forces pushing the National Park Service and ultimately shaping our public lands. In his mind, there were “The Developers,” the ones who wanted to see as many cars crammed into Yosemite valley as possible, and “The Preservers,” the ones who wished to see none. As Abbey put it, “the most important issue and perhaps the only issue [between these two factions] is the one called accessibility.”

Fast forward 49 years, and this issue is no longer just the ramblings of a grumpy man living alone in the desert, but the central concern of many popular national parks. No park is more worried about it than the fifth most visited park, directly four hours south of Salt Lake City.

Zion has been experiencing massive growth since its founding nearly a century ago. In my lifetime alone — 19 years — park visitation has increased by about two million people annually (from 2.3 million to 4.3 million). From 2015 to 2016, the jump was a little under 700,000. Those are numbers nearly on par with Disney World, something that would make anyone batting for “The Preservers” shiver in their goretex boots.

It bears noting that increased park traffic is good, to a degree. As John Marciano, the public affairs spokesman for Zion National Park, said, “Every person or vehicle that pays the admission fee and enters the park is a vote for the park.” Lawmakers and influencers see these “votes” and realize how valued places like Zion are both as an economic resource and a part of Utah’s unique identity. Zion played a huge role in generating the $8.15 billion tourists spent in Utah in 2016.

The fact remains though, too many visitors can lead to a degradation of Zion as a natural place.

Shuttle line at Zion National Park. Photo credit Zion National Park.

Because of Zion’s special configuration, most of the park’s 10,000 daily visitors stay within a narrow seven mile corridor along the Virgin River. Even there, the visitation is compounded to just three trailheads: Angel’s Landing, Emerald Pools, and The Narrows. This quickly leads to issues. In the main canyon there are only 12 designated trails, but over 800 social trails, totalling 35 miles. The animals in the park, especially the chipmunks on Angel’s Landing and the squirrels in The Narrows, are so tame they’ll roll over and play dead for a piece of your Clif Bar. Sure it’s cute, but it’s not natural or how a healthy, protected ecosystem should function.

None of this even mentions the incredible lack of infrastructure that exists in the park. Inside Zion, there are perhaps 1,000 parking spots, enough to cover a 10th of the visitors on an average day. Lines for the shuttle can frequently back up to the bathrooms or parking lot and run multiple hours. Throughout the main canyon there are maybe 40 toilet systems — 40 for what is sometimes, on a holiday weekend or busy day, 30,000 people.

“We have to do something,” Marciano says. “The visitor experience is diminished and the resource is being trampled.”

This begs the question, what can be done? How do you add accessibility to a place already so highly visited? If you’re one of Abbey’s “Developers,” the answer is easy: develop.

“There’s an empty space here, or there” Marciano says, motioning across the fence in front of us to a field, sarcastically embodying a “Developer.” “Build a big parking lot.”

Crowds at Zion National Park. Photo credit Zion National Park.

Fortunately for Zion, and us, this is not an option. Legally, the park is mandated by Congress to “protect [their] resource in perpetuity as it is.” Slathering the ground in fresh slabs of tar and concrete certainly would violate this. Ethically, neither Marciano or Jeff Bradybaugh, Zion NP superintendent, want to see the park become any more degraded by adding more parking lots. One point to the “Preservers.”

The trouble is, Zion is not getting less popular; something still needs to be done that can fix both of these problems while still preserving the park. Luckily, we have some inventive people in the office down south. They’ve put their heads together and have begun creating the Visitor Use Management Plan, or VUMP, which aims to do two things: First, maintain accessibility, and secondly, protect the park. Creating and implementing this VUMP will be a long road — an estimated five years — and requires intensive data collection to ensure the right solution is implemented. The park is confident that by the end of that time when a solution is reached, it will be the right one.

Part of this confidence derives from how much public input they are receiving. In mid-August, the Preliminary Alternative Concepts — the first “proposals” for how to mitigate overcrowding — closed their public comment period. These included ideas such as a reservation system to enter the main canyon, allocating time slots that certain groups could do certain trails, and changing nothing (an option that is looked upon poorly by the park). Well over 1,000 responses were received. Now, the park is sorting through all that data and will come out with a Preferred Alternative, which will have its own public comment period as well.

Zion is grateful for any and all ideas or comments the public has to make on this issue. By the time most of us graduate, these policies will be in place. If they are effective, other parks dealing with the same issue of accessibility and overcrowding could adopt whatever system Zion implements. This means that adding your voice now, while the park is encouraging you to do so, could not only affect the future of Zion, but the National Park System as a whole.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

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Reaching Heights in the Uintas

The high alpine is an environment so sodden with life and beauty that it has drawn words of praise from everyone, including the likes of John Muir and beyond. Truly, “the mountains are [always] calling,” but with classes and busy schedules, it is sometimes harder than that famous line makes it seem. Nevertheless, a bit of tedious time management can free up a weekend to head out and connect with the most spiritual and uplifting of natural places. In Utah, this means a trip to our tallest range, the Uintas. Here are a few of the best mountains to stand atop, triumphant and graceful, in our state’s most dominating range.

King’s Peak

King’s undoubtedly lands at the top of anyone’s list. If the stunning 6,000+ feet of prominence (how high the actual peak separates from the ground) doesn’t take your breath away, and if the beautifully exposed final ridge walk can’t do so either, then at least you can say you’ve stood on the tallest point in Utah. The most popular route to sack this peak is Henry’s Fork. From there, the trip is a little over 12 miles one way, and it gains about 5,200 feet of elevation, making it possible to ascend in one day. It’s more typical to take two days or a long weekend and split up the mileage a bit. Other approaches include one from Yellowstone Creek Trail (17 miles one way) or Uinta River Trail (50 miles round trip). All routes will eventually end at Anderson’s Pass which is just an hour ridge walk away from the summit of King’s Peak.

Mount Emmons

Although three peaks in Utah tower just a little higher than Emmons, this mountain is massive and visible from far away. It practically draws you to its peak. There are two approaches to get to the top. The Uinta River Route covers 27 miles round trip and 5,600 feet of elevation, while the Swift Creek Route notches just below it at 25 miles and 5,400 feet of elevation. Emmons itself rises to a sturdy 13,440 feet, but it only flashes 930 feet of prominence. Regardless, the route is far less trafficked than King’s, and it can offer an incredible rewarding outing if enough effort is put forth.

Mount Powell

Acclaimed as the most beautiful of Utah’s 13ers — or 13,000 foot mountains — Powell can offer one of the most pleasant winter ascents anywhere in Utah. It sits nearby maintained and plowed facilities, meaning the roads should be passable year round. Almost every face of the mountain can be ascended without much difficulty, and the mellow slopes mean prime backcountry skiing is plentiful. If you do try to attempt a winter ascent, be well prepared and up to date on avalanche dangers and safety. In the summer, however, no special skills are required — just determination to battle through the mosquitoes and a good judgment when it comes to thunderstorms.

Tokewanna Peak

If solitude and remoteness are what you’re searching for, Tokewanna is where you’ll find it. The trails are poorly marked, especially towards the summit, and although it is the closest Utah 13er to a road, it is still a 15 mile roundtrip journey. If you’re good with a map and compass, and a little bit lucky, you’re almost certain to be one of the few to experience standing on the peak of a 13,000 foot mountain with no one else in sight. Middle Fork Blacks Fork is the most used trail to ascend the peak, meaning it should be the easiest to follow. Still, there are no promises of an easy route find to the top. This adventure is one you have to work for yourself.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

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Beyond The Mighty Five

Many Utah folk try to enjoy the outdoors. If you’re among them, you’re likely either a part of the classic motor-tourist family, or you’re a semi-adventurous backroad traveler. If you identify with the former, you cram your trunk and zoom off across I-15, I-70, or some other highway to join the crowds craning their necks up in Zion, strolling along the canyon at Bryce, or waiting in line for their picture under a sweeping ceiling of stone in Arches. If you fit in with the latter, you might hit the backroads of Capitol Reef to stop in Cathedral Valley or brave the heat of Canyonlands to see The Needles. Either way, more likely than not, your itinerary will begin and end with the Mighty Five.

Amazingly enough, Utah’s wilderness extends past the borders of its five famous national parks. While they are a sight to see, and worth many full days of exploration in their own right, confining your itinerary to include only those parks means you’ll miss out on everything else our piece of the Wild West has to offer. Fortunately, there is another, less popular contingent of public lands endorsed by the Department of the Interior. They are our national monuments, and Utah is home to eight of them.

Cedar Breaks National Monument. Photo by Esther Aboussou.

National monuments are not quite national parks, though they are often confused. Parks are designed to inspire awe and wonder in their visitors by showcasing some of the country’s most spectacular natural features. Generally, monuments are smaller than parks, by at least about 2,500 acres. Monuments are far more specific; instead of highlighting a general region, like Zion Canyon or Yosemite Valley, they protect a specific resource for historical, scientific, or recreational use. They can be as small as a few blocks or as large as a couple million acres depending on how large the resource is. Monuments are typically less established than parks and see fewer visitors, meaning it is far easier to find a trail without tourists.

Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado border, is home to one of the densest collections of dinosaur bones found anywhere. Since its founding, the 80-acre park has expanded to well over 200,000 acres and now encompasses vistas and canyons as stunning as anything found in Canyonlands. The best way to see the park is to imitate the late John Wesley Powell (the legendary, one-armed figure who first mapped the Grand Canyon) and raft from the Tolkein-esque Gates of Lodore to Echo Park along the Green River. These are undoubtedly the two most stunning areas of the park, and are both a long, circuitous drive on 4×4 roads, making a raft the best option.

Bears Ears is also on the list of historic marvels. The monument derives its name from a pair of buttes that distinctively mark a section in the area. The 1.35 million acres protects so many historically important aspects, listing them is nothing short of tedious. On the short list, there’s Alkali Ridge, Hole-in-the-Rock trail, Grand Gulch, Big Westwater Ruin, and many more–as that’s not even mentioning the deep traditional and cultural significance five different native tribes attribute to the land. Most of the protected area is undeveloped. The intent of the monument is preservation of these historic spots, not exploitation for recreation.

Up farther north, near Lehi, Timpanogos Cave sits under the shadow of its namesake mountain. This monument has no giant lizard bones or ancient villages, but the underground caverns are so fantastic, dragons would nest there if they ever existed. Follow a ranger on a guided tour through any of the three caves and be dazzled by the alien, underground world. To kill a day or two afterwards, you may as well hike Mt. Timpanogos, the second tallest peak in the Wasatch range.

While the weather is still nice, be sure to spend plenty of time exploring the largest of all the U.S. national monuments, Grand Staircase-Escalante. The monument’s 1.8 million acres encompass three main areas: The Grand Staircase, a haven of scientific knowledge uncovered by a unique erosion process; Kaiparowits Plateau, a massive geologic wonder extending all the way to Lake Powell; and the Canyons of Escalante, a canyoneer’s ultimate playground.

The next two of Utah’s monuments are also best explored in tepid weather, and oddly enough, by car. Monument Valley, more widely known as the place where Forrest Gump stopped his famous “run,” sits on the southern bord

A tree at Cedar Breaks National Monument. Photo by Esther Aboussou.

er, extending into Arizona. Go at night, find a spot that will allow you to comfortably face your tent east, and wake with the sun to one of the most classically western views in the world. Natural Bridges is famous for its very uncommon and non-classical views of rock bridges, as the name implies. Drive the loop around the monument and be sure to check out some of the largest natural bridges in the world. It’s like a mini Arches with a fraction of the visitors.

When the weather finally does turn, head just a few miles outside of Brian Head to check out Cedar Breaks. Reminiscent of Bryce Canyon, the monument has a ranger cabin open during the winter months to greet you with a warm fire and cup of cocoa. Grab your cross country skis or snowshoes and trek out for a true winter adventure to one of the state’s most gorgeous canyons.

National monuments are an explorer’s chance to dig deep into the historic, geologic, and cultural wonders of our land. They preserve those places which heighten our legacy and preserve our heritage. They remind us of days past, when creatures five times our size roamed, or when settlers ten times our imagination travelled. They inspire us with their deep canyons and expansive views, and lift our souls to see the most beautiful aspects of the natural world. They set the foundation for a huge part of Utah’s economy by establishing four of our state’s beloved Mighty Five. They are as integral to our country as any national park, and should be protected, explored, and loved.

n.halberg@wasatchmag.com

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