Keeping Utah's Outdoor Secret

Should secret wildernesses be revealed? Utah's Anasazi artifact hotbed Cedar Mesa begs the question.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

I know a place where the unicorn is the last one at the watering hole. It’s a tiny lake hidden on the side of a mountain, encircled by forest primeval, its still waters reflecting the surroundings like black glass. There are no trails leading to it, and it’s so small, so delicate, that this place of magic and wonder is nameless on the map.

Where is this garden of earthly delights?

Some folks wouldn’t tell you. They’d say that after “discovering” a “secret” territorial gem devoid of human intrusion, the only way to keep it pure is to pull the ladder up behind you. Disclose the location, they warn, and the barbarian hordes will quickly descend and desecrate the place.

Which brings us to Peter Tassoni, who’s penned a guidebook giving directions to ancient ruins that are all that remain of the ancient Anasazi culture. A Hiking Guide To Cedar Mesa: Southeast Utah hits store shelves this summer—no small miracle, considering the outrage that’s been hurled at the publisher, the University of Utah Press.

“Cedar Mesa is supposed to be a huge secret, a sanctum sanctorum open only to those souls lucky enough to be recognized by the initiates,” says Jeffrey Grathwohl, director of the University of Utah Press. “Yet a lot of people know about the region. I knew there would be some controversy, but I felt it more important to impress on people the protocols of site visitation. They’re going to visit anyway.”

Such sightseeing is probably due to the existing gold mine of info on this and other Southwest parcels that have a historical allure. A quick scan of Backpacker’s bookshelves turned up half a dozen guidebooks, including titles such as Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen. A typical excerpt, this from Wild Utah: A Guide to 45 Roadless Recreation Areas, reads, “(Anasazi) artifacts remain, richly displayed in the recesses of Grand Gulch, Slickhorn, Fish, Owl, Arch and Mule canyons.” There are also Web sites that point, in detail, to more ruins and rock art in the Four Corners region.

But let’s not deep-end with Cedar Mesa, since Tassoni’s book is only one briar on a particularly thorny bush: Should so-called “hidden” or “special” destinations be revealed to the hiking world through guidebooks, the Internet, and magazines like Backpacker?

The “silence is golden” crowd holds that doing so destroys the very quality that makes these places attractive: their solitude. Similarly, they say, identifying historically sensitive areas is like giving artifact thieves a treasure map. As well, they contend that there must remain places no one knows about, so there’s still the possibility of discovery.

The “tell all” faction points to the fact that these places tend to be on public land, where we all have a right to venture. There’s also the high likelihood that the spots are already on a map or in a guidebook. Then there’s the matter of stewardship. The more fans the land has, the more protectors there are who will fight for its preservation. A classic example is Arizona’s Glen Canyon. One of the best-kept secrets in the Southwest, Glen Canyon was dammed in 1963, only a few years after outraged opponents beat back a proposal for a dam near the better-known Dinosaur National Monument.

As for the looters, the U.S. Geological Survey has quadrangle maps for every square inch of the United States. Thieves know where the artifacts lie, and energy companies know where to mine and drill. To them, the land holds no secrets, only profit potential, and they’ll find a way to get their booty—unless hikers get there first and demand protection.

There are confident, highly skilled outdoorspeople who shun guidebooks and magazines with where-to-go stories. They possess the Columbus attitude and can strike off on their own, able to find new, uncharted territory. But many others among us, with a love of wildlands that’s just as devout, need a helping hand if they’re to see places worth dreaming about and fighting for. They need advice and directions to travel the backcountry safely, and that’s where the printed word provides a necessary service.

“I’ve been touched by this landscape and would prefer to keep its teachings and secrets to myself,” Tassoni says of Cedar Mesa in his preface, “but I cannot. The experience of the desert should be available to everyone with the motivation to encounter it.

“Guidebook or not, more visitors are coming each year. It’s my hope that (A Hiking Guide to Cedar Mesa) will promote a heightened awareness of the area’s sensitive natural and cultural wonders, while emphasizing each individual’s responsibility to minimize the negative impacts of visitation.” (To their credit, all sources that I checked stringently emphasize the Leave No Trace ethic.)

Some would say that both sides are simply posturing and espousing a heap of self-righteous indignation. Be that as it may, everyone should agree on one point: The land is there to be enjoyed, to be nurtured, to nurture us. There are no such things as private playgrounds, unless you have a deed to the land. Now, back to the question some of you are busting a gut to scream in my face (“Why not tell everyone where your unicorn is, huh fella?”), here’s your answer:

It’s gone. A fire burned the area, roads were bulldozed in, loggers salvaged the timber. The resulting erosion choked the lake to death. One of the friends who shared the location with me returned a few years later, then phoned me with the obituary.

Maybe the answer is that once you find a special place, enjoy it, relish the qualities that make it so, then never go back. Tell others about it if you wish, but let it live as a sweet memory, because even if you mention it to no one else, it won’t be the same when you return. It’s the cycle of life: All things change, except those places you hold dear in your heart.