Ouray Badlands

Badlands, so-called because you supposedly can’t grow anything on them, are characterized by their eroded, bare-looking, rounded slopes showing a lot of colorful striations. I’ve been intrigued with them since learning about them at work, enchanted by aerial views of land forms I couldn’t quite figure out but was eager to get a closer look at.

I finally got a much closer look when we went to Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, a place known for its wetlands and migratory birds, to hike on the badlandy hills there. (Yes, badlandy is a word. At least it is now.) It was a steep and rugged climb getting to the top of the hills, but once we were there it was just magical.

Soon after we arrived at the top Chad picked up a piece of something I assumed was a rock, had me look at it, and told me it was a piece of fossilized turtle shell. I’m enough of a nerd that fossils in the wild really bowl me over – in this case I was in disbelief. As we looked, we kept finding more and more pieces of turtle shell. We took photos but left the fossils there, as you should if you find fossils on public land. I still find it just amazing that we were able to go hiking on ground that was probably under water millions of years ago, and discover traces of the former inhabitants, just lying on the ground. Moments like these really help put things into perspective for me.

Walking on the ridges and running up and down the slopes of the hills was a ton of fun. Hiking on terrain like this just might be one of my favorite things to do. The vistas are beautiful, the ground is beautiful, and those hills are actually not as barren as they look. We saw plenty of plants growing here and there.

The only thing that marred the experience for me was that beyond the edge of the refuge, the horizon was littered with the tell-tale shapes of oil wells. Alas, the refuge is literally surrounded by them. That is what drives the economy in this neck of the woods. I can’t help dreaming of an alternative though, where eco-tourism is the force that gives people their paychecks instead of the polluting, depleting oil and gas industry. I imagine some of you out there may think I’m exaggerating, always harping on environmental issues. But I think whatever your stance on the environment, for someone who is an outsider to this region of the country, it is just shocking to see how much of the landscape is marked by oil and gas. Which is one of the reasons Chad and I want to show you the beautiful landscapes that need protection from the spread of industry.

We will return to Ouray for more hikes, no doubt, but I will always have a lump in my throat as we drive past the oil wells to get there.

Yellow Flower Desert Pinnacle

When Chad and I need a quick hike, this is our new favorite location, the place we call Yellow Flower Desert. We discovered this area, just off of one of our major highways, several months ago and were enchanted at how quickly we were able to get to fun hiking terrain. When we went this time, we spotted a location in the distance that we wanted to checkout. As we approached, I thought it looked like a cool natural amphitheater, albeit, with a pinnacle in the middle of it. Chad was drawn to the pinnacle. So we set out towards this spot, and weren’t disappointed when we got there.

 

 

The pinnacle and sides of the amphitheater were about the height of a 3-story building, we figured. It felt like a very special place to both of us. Sometimes you just find one of those places in nature that seems to have a healing energy to it. We both did some yoga poses near the pinnacle, but my favorite pose was simply sitting near it, soaking up some positive earth energy.

The day after this hike I flew back to NC to spend some time with my family, which created such an interesting contrast – being alone in the peaceful desert one day and the next, back in the busy sprawl of Charlotte. Being familiar with different locations is, I think, similar to being familiar with different languages. Both give you a broader perspective of the world. I’m so lucky to be able to learn something of the language of the desert.

Yellow Flower Desert

It’s really amazing how spending some time outside can make you feel so good. Spending time outside in an amazing new location is even more invigorating, refreshing and revitalizing.

We decided to take a late afternoon hike the other day and couldn’t quite find the right place. One place we tried was surrounded by massive power lines, another place led straight to a cell phone tower, and yet another was polluted by the constant racket of an oil well. We kept looking.

We finally found a place that looked pretty decent and decided to give it a go. Chad let me lead the way, and I have to say, I did a good job. We had fun walking over badland-like hills, taking pictures of all the yellow flowers everywhere, and discovering all the vegetation that had come to life in the desert.

It was just that time of day where the lighting makes everything look magical: golden hour. And then we came to a stunning overlook that opened out onto wild open land. It was so exciting that I had to do a little dance. Having grown up in the thick temperate forests of the SE United States, I am still thrilled by the exoticness of the wide open desert. The expansiveness seems to lift your entire being up into the air, and make you feel that you can fly.

You can tell by the number of photos we took that we were enchanted. The extreme close-ups are mostly mine and the beautifully composed landscapes are mostly Chad – especially the clouds. Chad is a specialist in cloud portraiture!

Discovering this place was exhilarating too because it was just off the road, was an easy hike and was very rewarding for very little effort. What a sweet interlude from spring into summer.

 

 

 

 

 

Coyote Canyon

I’m so lucky to have found and married somebody who shares my love of hiking in wild desert places. I’d been wanting to take Kristina to a little canyon in the area I call “the land between” and we went there for our most recent hike. It’s a place I remembered fondly even though it had been a few years since I’d been there. I told Kristina that the place didn’t have a name and that I was calling it “Chad Canyon,” and I asked her if it would be too narcissistic to call it that. I wouldn’t really name a place after myself – even if it’s a place that’s special to me and even if, as is the case with so many of the places I hike, I never see anybody else there.

We hiked down an old road and came to a place where there used to be a bridge. There’s a well-built structure on either side of the wash that it crossed, but the bridge itself has long-since vanished. I told Kristina that I like seeing things like that – things that show a lack of permanence of human-made structures – and she responded by saying “wabi sabi.” “What’s that?” I asked, and she told me it’s a Japanese term for something impermanent. For example, in Japanese culture it could refer to a cup with a chip in it. The old roadway we were walking on was a good example of that because it showed signs of once having been covered with pavement but was now just a two-track with desert vegetation growing in it.

After a while we left the old road and headed east toward the canyon, and as we approached it we saw some pronghorn antelope in the distance – at least five of them. We watched them as we walked down a gentle slope to a flat sandstone area at the rim of the canyon. We’d been waiting for a good place to eat the snacks we’d brought with us (earlier we’d joked about staying in our car to eat them instead of hiking, but this was much nicer). It felt so good sitting on the slickrock in the warm sun. The temperature was great, and so was the view around us. We seemed to be at the point of transition from shallow wash to canyon.

After eating our snacks and relaxing on the rim we hiked down into the little canyon, which gradually got deeper and deeper, with a series of steep drops. In some places the canyon dropped over sandstone bedrock that had been eroded to form interesting holes and pockets by the action of the occasional water that flows through the area when there’s a big enough storm. There were also huge chunks of sandstone that appeared to have fallen from the cliffs on the sides of the canyon. They made a great place for doing wild yoga, and we enjoyed doing some poses there.

This is my kind of area! It meets three of my criteria for a really awesome place: no stumps (easy because there are no trees), no ATV tracks (too rugged for them), and no sign of cows (evidence elsewhere but not down in the canyon). What we did see a lot of was rabbits and rabbit tracks.

We also saw a lot of coyote tracks. In one place there were a bunch of their tracks next to a little pool of water left from the most recent rain storm. It had been a few days since the storm but the canyon walls and rocks had sheltered the water from the sun and kept it from evaporating, and the coyotes were coming there to drink. Kristina noticed those tracks first, and as we looked at them she commented that with all of the tracks we were seeing maybe we would get to see a coyote, and I replied that I certainly would enjoy that.

We saw more cool rocks, did more yoga, and admired some cliff swallow nests built on one particular cliff. We also admired a beetle, and marveled at some vegetation that was barely hanging on despite the erosion around it. We got to the place where the little canyon joins a big wash and we stopped there for a break before continuing our journey. As we hiked up out of the wash I was busy taking pictures of the view of the below us when suddenly I heard Kristina say, “Look, a coyote!” I looked up just in time to see a beautiful coyote run up the slope above us and over the horizon. I was reminded that sometimes getting caught up taking photos of one thing can let you miss, or almost miss, another thing.

I was hoping for another view of the coyote as we came out onto flat a area above the wash but Kristina thought the coyote would be long gone – and she was right, because we didn’t see it again.

“I can understand the coyote taking off since it has fifty dollars hanging over its head,” I said and explained that in Utah taxpayer money goes to pay fifty dollars for each coyote a person kills. It’s done in the name of keeping deer numbers high, even though a brochure published by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources points out that coyotes don’t actually have any effect on the state’s deer population.

The coyote that we saw was the first one Kristina has ever seen and one of the few I’ve seen. It was a fleeting moment, but one neither of us will forget. In honor of the coyote, I’ve decided to give up my namesake. We both decided “Coyote Canyon” is the best name for our secluded little canyon.

     

Desert Wash in the Land Between

Why would you want to go out hiking in a place where there are no trails, no other hikers, and probably no signs of civilization at all? I never asked myself that question before meeting Chad, because going out hiking on trails was a rare enough treat and reprieve from my place in the noise and grit of a sprawling city.

But then I met Chad and not only was he an avid hiker, he explained to me that he likes hiking in places that don’t require you to stay on trail, better yet, in places that don’t have trails. One of the first places we explored off trail together was a certain desert wash.

I now call this wash my happy place; Chad calls it “the Land Between.” We have yet to see anyone else here (and as a plus there is no risk of running into any large, hungry carnivores). The only signs of civilization are from some markers for mountain bikers, who apparently cross through the area at some point, though not the part we hike through.

For those of you who live where water is abundant, you’ve probably never heard the term “wash” used in this way, as a noun. A wash is a creek bed that is usually empty, but can suddenly be filled with rapidly moving water during a rainstorm. The water drains into the river, leaving the wash empty and, incidentally, forming an easy trail to follow.

This time we decided to do a one-way hike, leaving a car at either end of the wash. We started hiking in the late afternoon, enjoying some unseasonably warm weather and lovely sunshine that surrounded the autumn foliage of the few trees and riparian scrub with golden light.

As we walked downstream we noticed some differences in the wash between upstream and downstream. Upstream (and at a slightly higher elevation) there were juniper and cottonwood trees, and the stones on the wash were mostly grey and gravely; downstream there were no trees and the rocks were bigger and much prettier in pinks, purples, and surprising stripes.

As we continued on our long hike, we saw the lighting and colors change as the day progressed and took a delight in knowing that we were marveling at landscapes that few others have seen.

Towards the end of the 8 mile hike my legs were aching in ways they haven’t ached in a long time, but mostly I was thinking about how amazing it felt to be out in untamed nature and to get more familiar with a place that was already dear to me.

Walking in places like this always makes me wonder how many other incredibly beautiful wild places are out there, unprotected, not part of any official wilderness area or park. And the answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this post? To know the world, to love it better.