The Trail Less Traveled

Sometimes you have to go where the guidebooks haven't been, but watch your step.
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Sometimes you have to go where the guidebooks haven't been, but watch your step.

Southwest Editor Steve Howe and I arranged to spend a few days in early April hiking near his home outside of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. We had no real goal in mind other than to get away from the crowds and explore some of the area's less-visited canyons. With a full load of camera gear, we eagerly sought someplace to practice the take-only-pictures-leave-only-footprints mantra. As it turned out, we found a startlingly beautiful valley where we didn't want to leave even footprints. But our trip didn't start so rewardingly.

The first day, we set our sights on Little Wild Horse Canyon, which you pretty much need a guidebook to find. It isn't marked on maps or with road signs. Unfortunately, since the last time Steve had visited, yet another book locating the lesser-known slot canyons in Utah had been published. We arrived early to find more than two dozen cars scattered around the starting point.

"I've never seen this many cars here before," spat Steve, dismayed to learn that Little Wild Horse had been "found." Spring tourism seemed up throughout the area, sprouting clearly visible small cities of tents in some areas. "What are all these people going to do when they get to the section that's only wide enough for one person to squeeze through?" he mused as we sat and discussed our options. Three more vehicles pulled up and parked. I spotted a tent set up next to the sign that read "No camping." Rather than proceed down the now-popular canyon with the herd, we decided to head up to get an overview of the entrance slot and escape from the crowd.

The long, hot climb took us to the top of a ridge where, alone, we could look back down into the narrow slot. At lunch, as we sat high above the canyon nibbling on sandwiches, we watched 50 people pass the entrance point in 20 minutes. The stream of hikers was constant; for every vehicle that left, another pulled up. But not a soul followed us up the ridge, where we explored hidden holes that desert bighorn sheep were obviously using as shelter. Close, but this wasn't quite the experience we were seeking.

The next day, we headed to a different canyon. Again, a near-constant stream of people started up the trail. But when we went off-trail no one followed us. A pattern was developing.

"If they can't see a trail, they don't keep going," noted Steve as we scrambled deeper into the canyon. "Besides, none of the maps or guidebooks mention anything about what there is to see off the trail, so they think they've seen all there is to see." At one point we had to jam ourselves 20 feet up a narrow crack, which would probably stop everyone but the true explorer. From that point on, the only party we encountered was the park's biologist doing a survey of the backcountry's health.

And it's a good thing that we were the sole group of visitors, as we eventually reached a small valley filled with cryptogamic soil. While it looks like crusted dirt, cryptogam is a living composition of moss, li-chen, fungi, and algae. This mixture absorbs moisture and provides nutrients for plant growth. Plant communities often grow in or at the edge of cryptogam. Walking on such soil compresses it, which unfortunately stops the whole cycle that builds the fragile concoction in the first place. And a footprint in cryptogam can last for years.

As it was, Steve and I had to tiptoe circuitously through the valley to the backside of Golden Throne, our intended campsite. I'd never before seen so pristine a location, nor so much cryptogam. We couldn't walk a straight line in any direction without running into mounds of it. I wondered aloud about what would happen if this valley were more accessible.

"The ground would be toast," Steve immediately responded. "All these wildflowers you see would disappear once the crypto was pounded into submission." Which led Steve and me into a discussion of carrying capacities. Every place has a maximum "load" it can handle for a variety of factors.

"Little Wild Horse has a huge physical carrying capacity," Steve noted. "You could run armies through the floor of that canyon and not do any damage other than erosion, which is what created it in the first place."

Of course, the social carrying capacity of the slot was another thing entirely. Even from our perch hundreds of feet above, we could clearly hear conversations from the canyon. At one point, the place sounded a bit like the waiting area of a busy restaurant. Recreation, sure. Quiet, solitary wilderness experience, not a chance.

Back at cryptogam central, Steve ruminated on our home for the night. "This place has no biological carrying capacity, though physically it's quite large and could support several groups at a time while supplying solitude. But it would take only a few humans trampling in the wrong places, and the delicate balance would be upset. Killing cryptogam kills wildflowers, which removes the attraction for birds, and on up the food chain."

Solitude and the rewards of true wilderness adventure come from curiosity and initiative, not from following guidebooks. But every area we wander into has an implicit set of carrying capacities we need to consider. Over the past year we've been studying this issue and the resulting subissues. This month, Jeff Rennicke looks at four-wheel use. Other related features are in the works.

So next time you go off-trail, think about the multiple impacts your traffic has on the area. And remember to stay off the cryptogam.