Cairns

A Throwback Tale

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Peekaboo Trail

Cairn. I rolled the word around in my head, almost like a chant, matching pace with the sound of my feet hitting the slick rock. Canyonlands National Park in Utah was an adventurer’s dream. I was taking a much-needed break from Arches, the tourist trap only 45 minutes to the northeast. After being run into by one too many inconsiderate photographers, I was looking for some good hiking trails off the beaten path.

The visitor’s center was tiny, showcasing some of the local flora and fauna as well as the particular geology of the park. The list of trails was comprehensive; many were long and remote, boasting miles of solitude surrounded by canyons.

The Peekaboo trail caught my interest; it was an approachable 10 miles and rewarded you with a “peek” at the end of some ancient petroglyphs. I loaded up my pack, double-knotted my hikers, and went on my way.

The sun was hot, but not fierce, and my mind began to wander as it normally does during my long walks. After thinking of something meaningless for a couple minutes – let’s say food trucks – I stopped to take stock of my surroundings. I was off trail… or was I? In forested parks, the trails are well-marked by packed dirt and handy signs every junction. Here in the Utah desert, however, cairns were the beacon guiding the way towards the final destination.

They were also easy to miss.

I soon realized that constant vigilance would need to replace my usual daydreaming m.o. while I hiked. My initial irritation at this concept surprised me. Was I so arrogant that I couldn’t stand to actual pay attention and “work” to find my way? Certainly not.

I plodded on.

For those unaccustomed to the ways of hiking, cairns are piles of rock that vary in size from 6 inches tall to taller than a human. On the Peekaboo trail, the cairns were good-sized, meaning most of them were about a foot tall and easy to spot. It amazed me that someone had taken the time to gather rocks and stack them on top of each other, basically erecting a sign that read “follow me – stray ye not from the path”.

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Hunting for cairns in all the right places

So I followed. I put aside my random thoughts about penguins, Lisa Frank, and the invention of soda, and decided to actually pay attention. I eagerly looked for the next marker, confident that some well-meaning and intelligent park ranger would not lead me astray with these cairns.

In the end, the petroglyphs were interesting, yet it was the hike itself that was most memorable. Following piles of rocks for 5 miles in and back felt akin to being guided on an epic treasure quest. Here’s the part where I could throw in some deep metaphor about people in my life who have guided my way, leading me along my quest for discovery.

But no, this is purely about rocks.

I promise.

 

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Petrified Forest Recap

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Length of Stay:

  • 3 days, 3 nights

High:

  • Painted Desert Inn lantern tour
  • Investigating an ancient petraglyph calendar which perfectly aligns with the summer solstice
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Nice landscape, nice sky!

Low:

  • Falling down a soft rock strata during one of my back country expedition

Favorite Hike:

  • Agate House
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Agate House – an ancient dwelling made from petrified wood

Favorite Treat:

  • Sopapilla (a Mexican deep-fried pastry)

Stony Wood and a Haunted Inn

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Petrified Forest national park is chock-full of fossilized wood. Based on the pictures I’d seen, I figured that there may be a couple of key places where one might be able to see this mineral-permeated organic matter. After all, how much “rock-wood” can actually be found in an arid desert-like environment?

Apparently a lot.

Thanks to plate tectonics, this area of Arizona used to be near the equator, resulting in a lush, rain forest environment. These trees got buried under layers of sediment, became saturated with minerals, and turned to stone. (This all took many, many years, of course). There are big chunks that can be found at the Long Log section, and smaller multi-colored pieces that are strewn all about the Crystal Forest.

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Crystal Forest

It’s pretty. It’s unique. It’s science!

I also had a chance to tour the Painted Desert Inn, an old traveler’s rest stop that now serves as a museum. In the spirit of Halloween, we took the entire tour in the dark. Using only glow sticks to light our way, the ranger told stories and tall tales about a myriad of suspicious and creepy behavior that happened in the old inn. Spoiler alert: someone actually did die there. We entered the basement through a locked door – a place where park visitor’s are only allowed to go once a year. The floor creaked and the dumbwaiter was super eerie.

Was it truly haunted? The park rangers and volunteers seem to think so.

Was it semi-historical and fun? You bet!

One Big Canyon

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“I hope you’re not scared of heights, cuz I’m going to assign you one of our tallest mules.”

“That’s fine. Will I be riding that one over there?”

“No, yours is in a separate corral. She needs to be isolated from the other mules.”

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Me on Cher, the “troublesome” mule

And that’s how my mule riding adventure at the Grand Canyon began (not the most comforting thought to be told you’ll be placing your life in the hands of an ornery animal who has social issues). Yet mule riding and the Grand Canyon go together like peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, and other food-related famous duos. How could I not ride on the back of one of these stubborn, sure-footed creatures overlooking one of the most famous canyons in the world?

My ride was fabulous. Cher ended up being a little bit of a handful, but didn’t launch me off the edge, so I was happy. Each turn along the trail brought another view of the canyon’s sheer expansiveness.

The Grand Canyon sure is big!

Zion Recap

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Length of Stay:

  • 3 days, 4 nights

Highs:

  • Unique hikes
  • Scenic drives
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The view from the top of Angel’s Landing hike

Lows:

  • Litter! (Tossing sunflower seeds, nut shells, and food scraps on the ground is rude and unacceptable. Yes, it may be biodegradable, but it’s not native to the desert environment, it’s an eyesore to your fellow hikers, and it will take a long time to decompose) #leavenotrace

Favorite Hike:

  • Angel’s Landing

Favorite Treat:

  • Fry sauce – apparently this is a Utah thing.
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Hanging gardens along the Virgin river

Full Circle

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Last November I visited Zion national park and was completely astounded at what I discovered. My eyes were opened up to a whole other world that existed beyond my day-to-day reality. Looking up at the cliffs, barely acknowledging the below-freezing weather, something inside of me shifted. A blatant desire was born – a passion to see more of the beauty in America hidden in plain sight within our national parks.

Thus, Zion has a special place in my heart. Returning to this park made me realize how far I’ve come on my journey – both geographically and experientially.

Many people see Zion as a sacred place. In fact, early pioneers named various features of the park in such a way as to describe a spiritual awareness. Angel’s Landing, Court of the Patriarchs, Temple, Great White Throne… all of these majestic places are truly awe-inspiring.

Despite the crowds, I enjoyed viewing parts of the park that I didn’t have a chance to during my first visit. The Narrows was an interesting hike. Wading through water along a slender canyon was an enjoyable challenge. It was slow-going; I was extremely cautious not to lose my footing on the slick rocks and plunge into the 49° water. The Museum of Human History was another place in the park that was fun to explore.

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The Narrows

I reveled in the feeling of coming full circle at Zion national park. Looking back at all of the adventures I’ve had fills me with a genuine sense of fulfillment. And now I look, once more, to the future. Ready to engage in more exploits and take on the world… one park at a time.