Let's get the tired old joke out of the way up front. Q: What does BLM stand for? A: Bureau of Livestock and Mining. It's a gasser, ain't it?
Now we can move on to more serious matters, like tundra, old-growth forest, lava beds, prehistoric petroglyphs, the works! And solitude, too-lots of it, with no labyrinthine permitting process to get in the way of your good times.
This isn't your father's Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Granted, there are strip mines, barbed wire and cows, oil wells, and 4WDs to be found on the agency's 264 million acres, but bureau officials are trying to shake the old-joke image, and in recent years have begun warming up to recreational users, including hikers. Budgets for recreation and wilderness management have increased, and last year Beyond the National Parks: A Recreational Guide to Public Lands in the West (Smithsonian Institution Press; 800-782-4612; $19.95) was released. The 400-page guidebook highlights adventure to be had on BLM lands.
"I don't think it's just a sell job," explains Fran Hunt, director of the BLM program at The Wilderness Society. "BLM people are genuinely committed to improving the track record on recreation."
Consider the red carpet rolled out. But the key to having a great time on what Hunt calls the nation's "most overlooked and under-appreciated land" is to know where to go. The agency's holdings span 11 western states plus Alaska-more than five times the acreage of our national parks-and most of it, says Hunt, "isn't signed or in guidebooks. You have to do some digging" to find great backpacking locales.
To help you get started, I spoke to wilderness advocates and BLM field staff, and came up with a list of prime hiking destinations that are diverse, as well as relatively free from mining, drilling, and off-roading. Most are designated wilderness study areas that need the support of determined hikers if they're ever to be elevated to full-blown, federally protected wilderness areas. Keep in mind that the areas listed, like most BLM land, are remote, so safety and self-reliance should be your prime concerns. Map and compass skills and a sense of adventure are also good things to carry along. Where guidebooks and maps are lacking, the best sources of information are local land managers, conservationists, and outfitters.
Eagletail Mountains Wilderness, Arizona
While folks from Phoenix clog the trails in the nearby and well-known Superstition Wilderness, in the Eagletail Mountains the Native American petroglyphs outnumber humans on any given Saturday. In this textbook Sonoran desert landscape, dozens of unsigned trails and abandoned jeep roads crisscross the area's sloping plains, or bajadas, providing plenty of cross-country options. Just don't bump into the hundreds of saguaro-some close to two stories high-that dot the landscape.
The region's eponymous mountain range is a jagged backbone of dun-colored crags that forms the northeast boundary of the wilderness, with 3,300-foot Eagletail Peak the high point. Most of the ancient rock art is up high along the chocolate-brown volcanic cliffs that rise out of these parched 100,000 acres.
Location: About 65 miles west of Phoenix. The most convenient trailhead is at Courthouse Rock. Follow I-10 to exit 81 and go south to Courthouse Rock Road. Head west until you reach a rough, dirt, maintenance road, then turn northwest, bumping along until you see the BLM signs.
Hiking it: The bajadas offer flat, painless hiking, but map and compass skills are needed to negotiate the unmarked footpaths. Some petroglyphs are found near Indian Spring, 3 miles south of Courthouse Rock, and are federally protected, so don't touch! Camping is prohibited near rock art. Carry all the water you'll need (at least a gallon per person per day). Be wary of hiking in washes (flash floods!), particularly during the monsoon season of late June through September. The Eagletails are unbearably hot in summer months.
Resources: BLM, 2555 E. Gila Ridge Rd., Yuma, AZ 85365; (520) 317-3200. USGS topos Columbus Peak, Eagletail Mountains East, Eagletail Mountains West, Hope SE, Littlehorn Mountains NE, Lone Mountain, and Nottusch Butte cover the area.
Black Ridge Wilderness Study Area, Colorado
If the golden arches aren't your thing, try the wildly eroded sandstone arches in this area. According to the BLM, there are more of these geological oddities here than in any other spot outside of Utah's Arches National Park.
Head to prime redrock hiking spots like Rattlesnake Canyon and Knowles Canyon. They drain from the ridges and benches into the Colorado River, which defines the northern border of this 72,000-acre wonderland. A trek down-canyon through one of the seven major slickrock systems is a lesson in environmental science. In the upper canyons, stands of pion-juniper and sage support deer, cougars, and a herd of at least 120 desert bighorn sheep. Spring and summer runoff creates spectacular waterfalls and pools. In the canyon bottoms, dark Precambrian schist, gneiss, and granite sprinkled with pegmatite dikes color the sandstone. From December through March, bald eagles winter along the Colorado River near Ruby and Horsethief Canyons.
Location: On the Colorado-Utah border, about 10 miles west of Grand Junction. You can get to the arches in Rattlesnake Canyon by starting at Flume Canyon, just off highway 340 south of the town of Fruita. To access the mesa-top trailheads at Knowles and Jones Canyons, drive northwest of Colorado National Monument to the crossroads of Glade Park, then proceed west on BS Road.
Hiking it: There are more than 77 miles of canyons waiting to be explored, but no well-marked trails. Pollock Bench Trail runs a strenuous 7 miles to the 14 arches in Rattlesnake Canyon. Canyoneering, boulder hopping, and scrambling skills are helpful in descending from the mesas in the southern part of the wilderness (elevation 6,200 feet) to the Colorado River basin (elevation 4,400). In some spots, you might have to lower your pack by rope. Summer temperatures can top 100ºF and winter on the mesas brings snow. Carry all the water you'll need. Gnats are bothersome from May through July.
Resources: BLM, 2815 H Rd., Grand Junction, CO 81506; (303) 243-6552. You'll need USGS topos Battleship Rock, Mack, Ruby Canyon, Sieber Canyon, and Westwater.
Editor's Note: The area was designated as the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area on October 24, 2000.
Lockhart Basin, Utah
"See the area before it's filled with oil wells." A pitch from the West's most inept tourism bureau? Hardly. It's sage, and a tad sarcastic, advice from Kevin Walker of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (www.suwa.org). BLM officials have approved two wells but the National Park Service considers Lockhart Basin "a logical part" of nearby Canyonlands National Park, says Walker. Still, it could take two years to annex the area. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, if you're hankering for true Edward Abbey backcountry, this is your destination: vertical orange walls rise above blue-gray shale badlands, minus the crowds or trails of more popular national parks like Zion and Bryce Canyon. And are the folks sticking to those national parks missing out! Rocks balance precariously on tiny spires and yellow prickly pear flowers peek out from between sharp spines. Pottery shards litter the deep backcountry and lucky hikers may cross paths with mountain sheep or cougars.
Location: About an hour south of Moab. To reach Hatch Point on the basin's rim, take UT 191 south to the exit for Needles Overlook. Proceed west toward the tablelands. To reach the basin, continue south on UT 191 to the Needles exit, and head for Canyonlands National Park. Turn north on the dirt road near the park boundary.
Hiking it: It's about a 2,000-foot drop in some places from rim to basin, and there are no established routes up or down. In other words, proceed with caution and carry a compass and accurate maps. Pack in all your water. It's best to hike in the cooler, snowless months of March, April, October, or November.
Resources: Above the basin's rim: BLM, 82 E. Dogwood, Suite M, Moab, UT 84532; (435) 259-6111. Below the rim: BLM, 435 N. Main St., Monticello, UT 84535; (435) 587-1500. Topos include LaSalle 1:100,000-scale map and 7.5-minute quads Eight Mile Rock, Harts Point North, Lockhart Basin, North Six-Shooter Peak, Schafer Basin, and Trough Springs.
White Mountains National
Recreation Area, Alaska
You half expect Jack London and White Fang to step out from behind a black spruce or rock outcrop in this million-acre tundra-lover's paradise.
Beginning about 30 miles north of Fairbanks, the White Mountains offer ridgelines speckled with alpine tundra and lush riparian lowlands fed by rushing waters, most notably the National Wild and Scenic Beaver Creek. The fauna, too, is from the pages of The Call of the Wild: grizzly and black bears, moose, caribou, and dall sheep.
Two trails provide access to the area. Summit Trail runs 22 miles above treeline, then plunges into the Beaver Creek drainage to a newly built recreation cabin. Quartz Creek Trail stretches 16 miles into the Alaskan high country to its namesake watershed.
Location: North out of Fairbanks, take Elliott Highway to milepost 28, which accesses the Summit trailhead. For Quartz Creek, follow Steens Highway to milepost 57 and turn toward Mt. Prindle Campground.
Hiking it: The White Mountains' two trails undulate gently across alpine ridges before ending with steep descents into riparian bottomlands. Elevations range from about 1,200 to 2,700 feet. Alaskan weather is notoriously unpredictable and arctic winds can send temperatures plunging within minutes, so be prepared for all conditions. This is bear country, so watch for grizzlies; food must be stored according to recommended methods. Stream crossings can be risky in summer, when heavy runoff raises the water levels.
Resources: BLM, 1150 University Ave., Fairbanks, AK 99709; (907) 474-2200. Ask for recommended maps.
El Malpais National
Conservation Area, New Mexico
El Malpais (Spanish for "the badlands") brings to mind a famous Mae West line, slightly altered: When it's good, it's very good, but when it's bad, this lava-and-sandstone region is even better.
Stretching across 263,000 acres of western New Mexico, El Malpais is arguably the most diverse public terrain in the Lower 48. The National Conservation Area (the less popular big brother of the adjacent El Malpais National Monument, run by the National Park Service) hides three separate and unique treasures. At 62,000 acres, the Cebolla Wilderness is the largest tract, replete with remote rimrock country, a 165-foot-high natural arch, and a rich Native American presence, both past and present. Residents of the nearby Acoma and Zui pueblos gather herbs and medicines here as they have for thousands of years. West Malpais Wilderness is home to the area's largest kipuka, a Hawaiian word for an island of vegetation encircled by a sea of black, jagged lava. Chain of Craters Wilderness Study Area is a 15,000-acre region boasting dozens of volcanic cinder cones, some reaching heights of up to 10 stories, set amid cool stands of piqon-juniper and ponderosa pine. The WSA is bisected by a stretch of the Continental Divide Trail.
Location: About 100 miles west of Albuquerque. To reach Cebolla Wilderness and West El Malpais, take I-40 west to NM 117 south. Homestead and Armijo Canyons, off County 41, are good launching points into Cebolla. Continue on NM 117 to dirt County 42 north to reach West El Malpais. Chain of Craters is south of Grants via NM 53 and County 42.
Hiking it: If your time is limited, head straight for Cebolla Wilderness. The region east of 16-story La Ventana natural arch is a breathtaking land of deep arroyos, forested mesas, and stunning petroglyphs, but no trails. Farther south in Armijo Canyon, near a Chacoan site that dates back to the 1200s, an unmarked path leads east to a spring and ascends a broad mesa separating Armijo and Homestead Canyons, making for a great 10-mile loop hike. Hiking into and out of Cebolla's narrow canyons can be strenuous, but at least the sandstone won't shred your boots (and skin) like West El Malpais' lava flows will. Be cautious when walking on the rough, ankle-twisting pahoehoe lava flows, and use a hiking staff. Chain of Craters and its rounded cinder cones are a bit easier on the feet. Regional elevations range between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, so be prepared for freezing weather in winter. Summers can be scorching. Carry all the water you'll need.
Resources: BLM, 435 Montano Rd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87101; (505) 761-8700. Call about appropriate topo maps for your specific trip, as well as detailed directions. Or contact the BLM visitor center on NM 117, 9 miles south of Grants: (505) 240-0300.
Silver Peak Wilderness Study Area, Nevada
In the parched alkali lowlands where summer temperatures commonly soar above 100ºF, the Silver Peak range is a naturally air-conditioned sky island that probably sees fewer visitors than Gilligan's Island ever did. Access to the high country is via a mazelike canyon with volcanic walls painted in shades of white, pink, and green. If you're looking for a different palette, visit nearby Silver Peak Caldera, a 4-by-8-mile collapsed magma chamber that's been repaved with lava flows and sprinkled with pieces of obsidian and petrified wood. The 34,000-acre WSA is topped by Piper Peak, a 3-mile-long plateau that reaches 9,450 feet toward the sky and offers dizzying views of the White Mountains and Sierra Nevada to the west.
Below the ridgelines lie cool, brushy stands of pion-juniper and at least seven year-round water sources. This ecosystem supports one of the largest desert bighorn herds in the region, an endangered species of spotted bat, and groups of feral horses.
Location: Near the Nevada-California border midway between Las Vegas and Reno. From US 95 just north of Goldfield, take Silver Peak Road west about 50 miles to Fish Lake Valley on the west side of the range. Hike into the WSA through Icehouse Canyon northeast of the village of Dyer.
Hiking it: Although topos might show springs and creeklets, don't count on them. Seeps have a way of drying up and getting fouled by livestock just when you need them most. In other words, carry all the water you'll need. Winter snows can blanket the Silver Peak Range, and flatlanders can't discount the threat of altitude sickness. There are no trails in the WSA, so route-finding and bushwhacking experience are required, and watch your ankles on the uneven volcanic terrain.
Resources: BLM, Building 102, Military Circle, Tonopah, NV 89049; (775) 482-7800. Ask for the 1:100,000-scale BLM maps Goldfield and Benton Range. The BLM recommendation to grant wilderness designation to only 56 of Nevada's 110 WSAs excludes Silver Peak. Fight for Nevada's backcountry with the Friends of Nevada Wilderness (www.nevadawilderness.org).
Channeled Scablands, Washington
If your thighs don't like switchbacks, head for this region of rolling hills and shallow canyons, which BLM Recreation Specialist Diane Priebe calls "a little Monument Valley." This 10,000-acre patchwork of public lands was once blanketed by miles of lava beds. During and immediately following the most recent Ice Age, cataclysmic floods rushing from present-day Montana to the Pacific Ocean scoured the land like huge pads of steel wool, carving out wide channels, coulees, buttes, potholes, and basalt towers. Hence, the name Channeled Scablands.
Today the flatlands are covered by sagebrush steppe seasoned with rabbit brush, bitter brush, and a kaleidoscope of spring wildflowers. The canyon bottoms hide creeks and lakes that support coyotes, bobcats, and the rare sage grouse, as well as a variety of flora. There are few maintained trails but plenty of open country with elevations averaging about 2,500 feet.
Location: About 57 miles west of Spokane. Take US 2 west from Spokane for 30 miles to Davenport, then head south on WA 28 to Harrington on the eastern edge of the Scablands.
Hiking it: Fairly level cross-country hiking is the rule here, except for occasional traverses of deep channels. Know your way around a compass and topo. Many of these public land parcels abut private property in a checkerboard fashion, so check with BLM officials about access rights and be sure to respect them. The Scablands are remote, but don't be surprised to crest a ridge and see a power pole or cow off in the distance. Portions are open to grazing and off-roading; call the office below and ask how to avoid these areas. A number of lakes popular with anglers dot the area, but take all the drinking water you'll need, especially in summer when temperatures top out above 90ºF.
Resources: BLM, 1103 N. Farcher St., Spokane, WA 99212; (509) 536-1200. You'll need 1:100,000-scale maps Ritzville and Coulee Dam. Also, 7.5-minute topos Coffee Pot Lake, Irby, Odessa, Pacific Lake, Rocklyn SW, Sullivan Lake, and Swanson Lake.
Thatcher and Eden Valley Wilderness Study Areas
When you come here, bask in all that these adjoining lands have to offer: old-growth conifer forests, oak savannas, bugling tule elk, and steelhead and king salmon runs for starters. When you get home, join the California Wilderness Coalition's effort to win wilderness designation for these 23,000 acres, plus 47,000 more in the adjacent Mendocino National Forest. (Check the Web site at www.calwild.org)
It's easy to see why it's a battle worth fighting. There are no fewer than seven diverse habitats within Thatcher and Eden Valley that support an incredible variety of flora and fauna, including unique 50-foot Sargent cypress trees, river otters, fields of rare native bunchgrass, and bald eagles. Intrepid hikers can drop from
chaparral-scented ridgelines at 6,500 feet into the verdant watersheds of Thatcher Creek and the National Wild and Scenic Eel River.
Location: About 130 miles northeast of San Francisco. Take US 101 north just past Ukiah to CA 20 east. Turn northeast onto Potter Valley Road to Lake Pillsbury. Pick up dirt road M1, which runs along Estel Ridge toward Bald Mountain and the study area boundary.
Hiking it: Abandoned jeep roads on Long Doe Ridge and Horse Pasture Ridge meander in all directions and head deep into the backcountry. Artesian wells and vernal pools are found throughout the area, and creeks and rivers usually run year-round.
Resources: BLM, 2550 N. State St., Ukiah, CA 95482; (707) 468-4000. A map of Mendocino National Forest is handy to have, as are the Covelo 1:100,00 topo and 7.5-minute quads Brushy Mountain, Covelo East, Hull Mountain, Jamison Ridge, Newhouse Ridge, Sanhedri Mountain, and Thatcher Ridge.
Matt Purdue is author of Adventure Guide to Nevada (1998; Hunter Publishing; 800-255-0343; $15.95).