It’s sort of a rite of passage kind of thing; ski season ends and everyone starts to get that itch to go the desert. I get that same itch. Unfortunately, I tend to get it before the parts of the desert that I like to visit are actually warm enough to enjoy. Nonetheless, I recently found myself fun-employed, again, and itching to head south. While I don’t love backpacking, because that’s just hiking with a heavy backpack, I do love stuffing all of my necessities into a pack and heading into the “wilderness”.
For my most recent trip I decided that I would go alone. My friend Charles calls these solo trips my “vision quests” but I just think of it as an opportunity to get into the desert to lose my mind a little bit. Knowing that I was going alone I wanted to tackle a fairly simple trail. Now, by simple I don’t mean something that lacks a demand for physical strength. Instead I mean an easily navigable trail, preferably one that requires little thinking, no GPS, and not even a Topo map. After an epic that I had getting cliffed out in Twenty-Five mile wash in Escalante last spring (I hate to admit but if my ex-boyfriend wasn’t there things wouldn’t have gone as well as they did) I found myself craving a nicely maintained trail, preferably one with lots of clean water sources and plenty of stacks of cairns.
I did a little research and came across the Under-the-Rim trail in Bryce Canyon. The ultimate selling point was that it was in a National Park. I don’t usually like to go backpacking within the NPS system because of the stacks of regulations, but sometimes those regulations preserve the area, and more important the Park Service tends to provide immaculately manicured trails. So I was off to Bryce. I left a note on the fridge for my roommate so someone new where I was headed; I didn’t want to Ralston myself. I cut east off of I-15 at exit 95 and drove through some of my favorite terrain in the state, Dixie National Forest. As I was driving, I started paying attention to the elevation and the outside temps. It was cold. I also started to notice that there was still snow hanging low on the surrounding peaks. I got a little nervous. As I got closer to Bryce I texted my bestie Nichole, “I’m so f@$%ed” with two snowmen emojiis. I was half joking but kept driving.
When I arrived at the Visitor Center in Bryce I was welcomed with a full parking lot and a stack of tourists asking touristy questions so I had to wait in a lengthy line to acquire my backcountry permit. This is when the list of potential hurdles in my route started to arise. Luckily, I went into this adventure with an open mind knowing that I would be at the mercy of available campsites and other variables. I had a loose plan in my mind; I intended to hike the entire trail (22 miles) but remained flexible. I hoped to spend my first night at Sheep Creek but the Park Ranger scoffed when I shared that with her. “That area is closed due to bear activity,” she informed me. Bears?!! WTF? I was pissed. I spent the summer in Alaska last year and all of my backpacking trips, fishing trips, work projects, and daily life seemed to revolve around bears. It was mandatory to carry bear spray at all times, and occasionally the shotgun came along as well. But I am not in AK, I am in Utah, and with the kind of wildlife experiences I have had in the last year (I have been face to face with a grizzly and fought off a charging moose with a ski pole) I have no desire to deal with animals larger that bunnies. Whatever. My first choice campsite was out. I decided to opt for a site nearby. Unfortunately my second choice campsite’s only water source was a decent hike from the designated camp area and it was conveniently located near the active bear den. I decided that I should cut out the northern part of the trail and instead head south to the Riggs Spring area. Springs sounded nice. The Park Ranger scoffed again. “That area is probably still covered in snow.” Shit. I randomly picked a spot at the north end of the trail for one night. When I asked the Park Ranger if the Yellow Creek site was available she scoffed again (surprise) and told me that, “every backcountry site in the park is available, there are no other humans out there.” Hmmm, no other humans. Finally there was some great news coming out of this Rangers mouth. Wait, is that good news? I couldn’t decide if there were no other humans who loved the backcountry as much I do, or if there just weren’t any other humans dumb enough to go out in the cold. I would soon find out that it was the latter.
The Park Ranger drilled me with questions. Do I have experience with bears. Yes. Do you have a bear canister? No. She gave me a bear canister, which was great because my pack wasn’t heavy enough. Do you have a Topo map? No. She told me I should buy one but that wasn’t happening because I didn’t plan on bringing even a compass. (In my defense, the free Bryce Backcountry Map shows a little relief and I am decent with maps and navigation so I wasn’t going in totally blind.) She finally issued me my backcountry permit and I was on my way just as she demanded that I wait while we check the weather. I knew it was going to be cold (probably below freezing) and I didn’t want to be reminded. But I waited for her to tell me her version of the weather, “only a 20 percent chance of snow.” Shit again. I hadn’t seen snow in the forecast. “Only” a 20 percent chance? I knew my luck; It was going to snow.
I left the Visitor Center with less pep in my step. Bears? Snow? Dumb. I thought about backing out and heading to a cozy B&B in Escalante with beers and juicy cheeseburgers. I sat in my car for a good twenty minutes weighing my options. I didn’t want to return to the Park Ranger with my bear canister and admit emotional defeat. I looked down at my Bryce Canyon map and a few words caught my eye, Inspiration Point. Being that I needed inspiration I drove there and got out of the car. This piece of Bryce, a visual feast, was exactly what I needed. I hadn’t spent much time in Bryce and the hoodoos are spectacular. From where I was standing I was able to catch a glimpse of the trail that dropped in amongst the magnificent sand castle formations. Suddenly I didn’t care that I was the only human dumb enough to be backpacking in these temperatures, I had to go there.
Starting the Under-the-Rim Trail at Bryce Point was exciting and dropping into the valley of hoodoos was mesmerizing. When I left my car at three o’clock in the afternoon it was a balmy 47, and the sun was out. When the sun dipped behind the clouds, I was cold. I started to worry about the night. I ran down a mental inventory of every piece of clothing in my pack; baselayers, a puffy coat, a windbreaker, hopefully a beanie, maybe an extra pair of socks. I was going to need all of them. Auspiciously, I wasn’t thinking about that just yet. The landscape of sandstone that looks like it could have been drawn up to illustrate a Dr. Seuss book sucked me right into the land of sandstone pillars and mystifying trees. My wandering in Seuss-land was confronted with a reality check when I dropped into the valley and began to pass campsites. All of the campsites had posted warnings of recent mountain lion activity. The semi-sweet Park Ranger had forgot to mention that part. I do not like them in the night or day, I do not want to be their prey, I do not like wildcats in my camp, I say! I tried to think about something other than being hiking alone amongst the wild felines. The reality is that sometimes, or most of the time, backpacking is just me wandering around in the wilderness pretending that I’m not scared the entire time.
After five miles of what might be some the most beautiful terrain that I have ever trekked through I came to my permitted site, Yellow Creek. Yellow Creek is also one of the sweetest spots that I have ever camped at. The view of the rim above me combined with the beautiful pines nestled on the edge of creek with an easy to access water source, it was perfect. Then the clouds came in. I got my tent set up just in time for it to start snowing. I threw on every layer of clothing I had and enjoyed one of my favorite Mountain House flavors, mac ‘n cheese. After enjoying every last sodium infused creamy cheesy bite, I crawled into my sleeping bag and contemplated breaking camp and returning to the car. Instead I prayed that I would stay warm through the night. It worked! I was on the cusp of freezing all night but I woke up feeling like a got at least a couple of hours of sleep and was beyond delighted when I popped my head out of the tent and saw bluebird skies! No precipitation but it was still cold. I couldn’t feel my toes and didn’t even have the strength in my fingers to flick my Bic. I crawled back into my sleeping bag and waited for the sun to peek up over the canyon walls.
I was all alone in one of the most beautiful places in the world on a beautiful day. I would usually spend a morning like this soaking up rays without the fear of any tan lines but I was unable to partake in my normal dosage of naked in the desert time because of the cold. Just minutes before I was due to collect glorious rays of sunshine the wind picked up. I couldn’t catch a break. I was finally able to boil water for instant coffee and to make goatmeal. (While on the subject I have to comment on the intake of goatmeal. I would never in my real life eat goatmeal. It is gross. It is for goats. So why would I bring goatmeal on this epic journey? I brought it along to add insult to injury. Not only was I miserably cold, I was eating disgusting goatmeal.)
Once I packed up camp, snapped a couple sweet pics of my rad campsite and resumed hiking I was back in my happy place. There was a little bit of sunshine, I was warmer, and the scenery never disappointed me. Every switchback provided views of a different panel of sandstone formations. This trail is the cream of the crop.
Sometime around noon I ran into a couple who’d dipped into a middle section of the trail between Swamp Canyon and the Whiteman Trailhead. They looked like they were from Texas, because they had big belt buckles and big smiles. One of the gentlemen asked me if I was going to hike the whole thing. I wanted to. I didn’t. I felt defeated when I saw snow ahead and opted for an earlier exit back to the road. Hitchhiking is technically illegal in Bryce but luckily I was able to quickly “catch a ride” back to my car with a cool chick named Miles from Florida who was road tripping all over the west. Being defeated gives me a good excuse to go back to Bryce in the future. The five dollars I spent for the backcountry camping permit was well worth it.