We hopped on a plane to Vegas and drove straight to Yosemite.
In November, Brent and I took ten days to climb the varnished Navajo Sandstone of Indian Creek, hike crests and washes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and run beneath 200 million-year-old walls that have been whittled into canyons, arches and towers.
In Yosemite, we hiked along the rim of The Valley and around Half Dome. Our goal for the week: cover 100 miles on foot between California and Utah. (See the nose of El Capitan?)
Every time we tread west, I find the community I’ve been seeking: the people with worn gear and good food. The people who lead conversations with experience, not opinion. The folks with patches in their clothes who call their senators. I like the dirtbags who understand the way things work.
After camping in Camp 4, we headed toward Sequioia National Park to see the largest trees on earth.We racked up more miles on foot and bought oranges and olives on the side of the road. The Generals are worth the stop.
When you enter Zion National Park, you experience something really cool. The main road is winding and hilly. The landscape is beautiful but not astounding. Suddenly the road delves straight into the cliff and you travel through a super long tunnel. It’s so long, in fact, there are several small windows and telephones in it. When you finally reach the end, you are blinded by the bright colorful walls encircling you. Squinting and Blinking my eyes back to focus, the beauty of the place washed over me and made my heart double beat. Zion is magic.
This trip we dove into the back pocket of Zion – the Kolob Canyon area – which is also the terminus of the 50 mile Zion traverse (depending which direction you traverse, of course). It’s a route I’ve had my eye on for over a year, and we actually hiked the first 9 miles of it to get to the hidden Kolob Arch. I won’t post a photo of the arch. You’ll have to hoof it. This area is also a mountain lion wilderness, so aside from feeling hunted almost the entire day, we had an absolute blast (no lionesses encountered). There are a few remote backpack sites along the trail, and it’d be a fine place to make camp for a weekend and explore.Fall in the desert is amazing. I wondered if it would feel dead and barren, and it did, but I was taken aback by the colors. I’m learning that there is no bad time to travel to Utah. True, the weather was rarely warm, but we are Minnesotans. This makes us masters of comfy thin layers and slow to complain about any weather above ten degrees.
Our miles racked up – both on foot and on our road trip – and our vacation became a Tour of National Parks: Arches and Capitol Reef next.My favorite hike may have been the Navajo Knobs 9.5 mile trail. It’s a strenuous climb up the reef to an unbeatable panorama. You can see Cohab Canyon, the Fruita district, the whole Fremont Valley. We passed three people the entire hike.Heads up: the cairns are easy to follow up, easy to lose on the way down. The knobs themselves are rock formations (I’d also like to go see the goblins some time). I suspect they are the fingers reaching out of the mound in the photo above, but I do not know for sure.
We took a hiking break and stepped into our harnesses.Like ultrarunners, climbers are good people. We met up with friends in Moab and pulled up to Supercrack Buttress (one of the most notorious and brazen places for crack climbing in the U.S.). In the parking lot we found an organic chemistry PhD student and a park ranger looking for a belay. It was a good day for us all. I was humbled by the endurance and technique demanded by the walls.
There are named, unmarked routes through the Fiery Furnace that require scrambling, rappelling, hiking, and crawling. Together, we linked Krill and Lomatium to navigate through the maze.
Highlights include Skull Arch, Surprise Arch, and the Kissing Turtles. To hike in the furnace you must acquire a back county permit and watch a safety presentation. There are no trails in the furnace and you must tread carefully and astutely.We went back a second day and were lucky enough to snag permits again. We didn’t see a soul.From the parking lot, it doesn’t look as vast and interesting as it is when you get down into the fins and hoodoos. In the distance, the La Sal mountains sit. I will take you that direction soon.
Canyoneering in Arches was an unexpectedly amazing piece of the trip. With GPS and decent data (it’s still a lot of searching and then set up to find the routes even with a guide), canyoneering takes you to interesting places way off the beaten trail.On one route, we found Paleolithic scatter and arrowheads everywhere. There were only a few exposed sources of that particular type of rock, and around those sources are tens of thousands of shards and broken triangles.
I finished our trip with a race, Dead Horse 50k. It is named after Dead Horse State Park, which has the iconic gooseneck mesa with cliffs guarding the muddy Colorado. The course starts just outside of Moab and runs a lollipop loop up single-track slickrock mountain bike trails at the foot of the La Sals.
The morning of the race was cool, nearly cold. It was not high altitude by any means, but it’s a few thousand feet higher than MN. My turf is woody, brushy, muddy trails with low visibility. This race was hard-packed sand and bare rock. It nearly felt like pavement. I vaguely wondered if it would be a fast course.
We started out as a herd. Then, we were a pack. The sun rose over the mountains a few miles in.The pack dwindled into a line. Eventually I was alone. We wandered into low desert on the Colorado plain. The gigantic rule of desert running: don’t step on the crypto. “Crypto” is the black biologic crust of the desert geology. It’s a mix of cyanobacteria, green algae, microfungi, mosses, liverworts and lichens that form a black, bumpy layer on the sand. If you tread on the crypto, it takes decades to rebuild.Only a dozen miles in, I started having a hard race. I was surprised. It seemed impossible to catch my breath and my quads started to complain. Maybe I pushed it too hard this week, I thought. You didn’t taper. Of course this isn’t going well. When I’m racing a trail I rarely look at my pace; it fluctuates all the time and it’s often a poor indication of how hard I’m working. When you run on pavement, pace indicates exactly how hard you’re working.
I started to accept that this was going to be a rough run.The trail was smooth and clean. I felt like a wimp. There were switchbacks, sure, but they didn’t actually climb. They weren’t steep, or stairs, or even exhausting. I was passed by a few people. I passed a few people. Just kick back and enjoy it, I told myself.The scenery began to change and I saw several small canyons falling away beneath my feet. Total untouched beauty in every direction.By mile 15, I was dying for an aid station. I wanted to be at least half done. As I grabbed a corn quesadilla, the volunteer announced, “You’re about halfway! It’s all downhill now!”
How had I not noticed that the lollipop was slanted? The whole first half goes up, the second half takes you back down.I had no idea that I had climbed 3,000 feet up. It’s not a gargantuan ascent, but it’s more than I had expected to run continuously. It was a false ascent according to my eyes. My legs knew better.
The next part of the race is known as Bull Run. It is dancy downward steps on stone, and it is fun. A dude in a Colorado buff flew past me yelling, “Downhill is new life!” I laughed, but I also agreed wholeheartedly. Rather than aching, my legs turned over easily and quickly beneath me.I found company with two gals from Colorado. They were from “the front range” (I had to ask what that means), and they were fantastic women. I really enjoyed their company, and we shared more than a few miles together on the way down. With laughter, the miles slip past without looking at your watch.
Our merry company picked up another runner (affectionately nicknamed “Run Bum,” the race director of the Ute 100 as well as the Georgia Death Race), and we all pushed each other to finish fast, fueled by jokes and stories.I dropped back to take a picture of my new friends. I tripped on nothing and tumbled backward. I seem to manage to fall in every race.We sprinted across the finish, and I was astonished to see our time. I smashed my 50k PR. These girls kept me going.
By the end of the week, we’d put more than 100 miles on our shoes and uncovered a dozen new gems. I can’t wait to go back.