This is about a second overnight hike I took last month when in Utah.
They’ve been here. Dropping down from Stud Flat, the switchbacks cross again and again a rock slide, mostly black lava rock mixed with a little quartz. The further we descend the more flakes we find. It appears they’ve been here mining quartz. When we arrive at the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek and a small branch flowing out of Tri Story Canyon, there’s a high bench between the two creeks. Walking around, examining the ground, we find several areas with quartz flakes. B finds what appears to be a broken knife. I find a small arrowhead, the point broken off. It must have been tedious work, a slip of the rock hammer and the point breaks, rending one’s labor useless. This site must have been a high summer camp, when natives moved into the mountains to hunt as well as to produce knives and arrowheads. I doubt we’ll find any whole arrowheads, as they would have been taken up the canyon in search of deer and elk. I muse that down in the valley, a hundreds of years after these camps were last used, folks still work with quartz. Now they’re high tech, working in clean rooms under a microscope, etching quartz crystals for computers and cell phones and other electronic equipment.
B and I started out early in the morning, at the trailhead on the north side of Cedar Breaks National Monument. It’s a clear day and at 10,000 feet, the air is cool. We hike due east, passing ancient bristlecone pines and stopping for spectacular views of the red rock breaks with strange shaped hoodoos. Up high, the spruce and fir have been hit hard by pine bark beetles. As they die off, aspen will come back. In other areas, we walk through aspen groves, which transition into forest of fir and spruce as the aspen mature and die off. The forest is always in flux. In addition to the transitional forest, meadows such as Stud Flat are dispersed throughout the high country, providing grazing for animals as well as sweeping views of the red sandstone breaks and the black basalt of Brian Head, a former volcano.
We follow Rattlesnake Creek for a ways, stopping for a break at the place where we cross it the final time. We’ve dropped a couple thousand feet. Huge Ponderosa Pines now dominate the forest. You can tell what elevation you’re at by the vegetation. Without packs, we walk down to where the creek drops some 50 feet into a slot canyon. Tomorrow, I tell B, we’ll be down there, at the bottom of the falls. We leave Rattlesnake Creek and climb up and cross another meadow and walk along a steep south-facing slope that gradually drops down into Ashdown Creek. The cottonwood leaves along the creek bank have mostly turned yellow. Here we set up camp, pack a few essentials and head westward up Ashdown Creek into the vast amphitheatre of Cedar Breaks.
At times, we walk in the creek bed, trying to keep our boots dry. Other times, we get up on the high ground and follow and an old two track road bed, probably from the era of wagons when the residents of Cedar City came up here to cut timber and stones in order to build the first building of Branch Agricultural College (now Southern Utah University). The road continually crossed windy creek in an attempt to stay on the high ground. Large sections of it have been washed away. We pass an old sawmill that cut the huge Ponderosa Pines. After covering a few miles, we enter into the amphitheatre, with the huge red rock cliffs rising two thousand feet above us. We want to go further, but realize we’ll have to hurry to get back to our camp before dark, so we turn around and make it back to camp as the first stars appear in the sky. B has brought dinner, dehydrated Pah Thai. I get out my stove. Using flashlights, I boil water and prepare tea while B builds a fire. We eat by the fire, washing it down with some brandy. Afterwards, we spend an hour or two catching up on what’s happen to each of us over the past couple of years, ever since I moved from the area. A little after 10 PM, we turn in. For a while, I leave the top of my bivy open, looking at the stars, but as the temperature drops, I close the door and fall asleep in the warmth of my bag.
In the morning, the flap on the bivy has frozen with condensation. A water bottle I left outside is half frozen. It’s a cold morning for late September. I crawl out, pulling on long pants and a fleece jacket. B prepares a fire as I get the stove going and heat water for oatmeal and coffee and watch the sun slowly rise above the breaks and fill the canyon with light. We leave our camp, hiking up the Potato Hollow trail, where we explore another large meadow. They’ve been here too. There are hundreds of chips and we find a number of damaged arrowheads and knives that were discarded when they broke during the construction process. B tells me about a perfect quartz knife he once found, further up in Potato Hollow. It was probably dropped on a hunt only to be discovered a thousand years later.
The sun has warmed the air enough that by the time we get back to camp. Our shelters have dried out. We pack stuff up and I change into shorts and a tee shirt, storing my warmer clothes in my pack. Our hike out through Ashdown Gouge will be a wet one. We’ll have to ford the creek time and time again. I try to keep my feet dry as long as possible, jumping from rock to rock which probably is more of a risk than we should take. But soon, a rock moves and I slid into the water, wetting my boots, preparing me for wading ahead. At the junction of Rattlesnake Creek, we stow our packs and with a camera, tripod and some snacks, hike upwards into the tight slot canyon, crossing some small waterfalls before we come to large falls at the end. We also head off from Rattlesnake Creek, going another side tributary called Lake Creek, where the creek drops into the slot between five huge boulders that straddle the tope of the canyon creating a cave like room in which the water flows down the walls.
Both B and I have hiked this canyon numerous times. B tells me about a time he was down here when a flood came out of Rattlesnake Creek. They had to go back upstream and take Potato Hollow out. Being caught in canyons such as these during a flood would be suicide. Mud marks along the canyon walls show that at places the water rises 30 feet. When the water is that high and flowing fast, filled with logs and debris, a person would unlucky enough to be caught in the flood would be crushed against the canyon walls.
As we get to the end of the canyon, we pause and look at Flanigan Arch, high above us. A few hundred yards later, Crystal Creek flows into Ashdown, forming Cedar Creek. High above us is Highway 14, a road that has to be continually rebuilt here every few years as mudslides often wash parts of it away. But today, the road is in good shape and we find B’s jeep where we left it. We exchange our wet and heavy boots for sandals and drive safely home in time for dinner.
Most of the area we hiked in is a part of the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness Area. But in the middle of this Wilderness Area, there is a small private holding owned by descendents of the Ashdown’s. Talking to the ranger after our trip, I learned that there is an attempt for the government to buy this holding and to add the Ashdown Wilderness to the Cedar Breaks Monument, creating a new national park. Both ways, most of the area is already protected and that which isn’t protected only has limited development opportunities due to the nature of the creek flooding on a regular basis. The winters are bitter, the springs and summer brings floods. It’s good country to savor on short visits, like it was with the natives who came here before us. This isn’t the type of country that lends itself to settlement.
Other Stories from my recent Utah trip
Hiking Kolob with my son
Washing my hat
Hole in the Wall Road
Back West again