Backpacking in Bears Ears

On the joys of finding solitude on the ever-crowded public lands

I suppose the reason I grabbed onto the small, obviously frail Mormon tea shrub as my lifeline-handhold to make the critical move up the steep, loose, snow-saturated slope is because I was a bit lost in thought, wondering if we’d accomplished one of the goals of our trip: Namely to instill the love of backpacking into my friends’ two kids, aged 12 and 14. 

This was on my mind as the first branch of the shrub broke loose and my heavy pack pulled me backwards over the precipice. It was on my mind as I reached out reflexively and grabbed the bush with my other hand, finding relief in the life-saving move before the lurch in my gut when it, too, broke free. And it was with me as gravity took hold and pulled me backwards and downwards. During that split second I had a vision of my body tumbling end over end down the 40-degree slope we had just ascended, forcing my friends to hike back down to recover what would be left of my battered and broken carcass. 

That’s no way to end a backpacking trip. 

G—, H—, their boys, J— and G— had left Durango four days earlier for a family backpacking trip in the wilds of southeastern Utah. They were kind enough to bring me along. G— and I did a lot of crazy backpacking trips together in our 20s. H— is a veteran backpacker, too. But their kids, while having done numerous river, camping, and hiking trips, had never been backpacking, per se. 

When I learned that this was to be their inaugural trip, I felt it was imperative that we choose a place and route that was not too difficult and that offered a taste of wilderness. We wanted to show them that backpacking could be a pleasurable and even meditative way to connect with nature, to be self-sufficient, and to get into places that one might otherwise not see. And that would best be accomplished by choosing a place we knew well.

And so it was that I opened up a map of Southeastern Utah just as we went through the Comb Ridge road-cut while Gabe drove. 

Me: “It looks like we could drop into Canyon X (I’ve changed the name to protect the place) from this road here. Have you ever been on that road? I haven’t.” 

G: “Nope. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, either. Even the Author*.”

H: “Neither of you have been there?! Awesome, let’s do it.”

And so, a little while later we turned off the pavement onto a red-dirt road in what was Bears Ears National Monument for a brief period before being taken out of the monument. It is likely to again be part of the monument in the near future. A big sign at the entrance of the road said: “Impassible When Wet.” We paid it no mind. Perhaps we should have. 

By then it was getting dark and we needed to find a car-camping spot for the night, but every pull-off was occupied by at least one vehicle, many of them overpriced #vanlife vehicles with the requisite overpriced mountain bikes affixed to the rear rack. The Moab crowds have spilled over into the less-populated part of the state, I thought, and it rubbed me the wrong way. I may have shaken my fist and uttered a few unrepeatable epithets like the cantankerous old fart that I’ve become.

I can’t blame the #vanlife folks for wanting to be out there. I do, too. I suppose I’m guilty of a hypocritical sort of selfishness, of not wanting to share a place over which I have absolutely no claim, that isn’t and never was mine to share in the first place. Of course, my ire is also due to the impacts of so many people trodding about on a fragile landscape. But I’m also one of those people with impacts of my own.

As we got further down the road, passing by mine dumps and other detritus left over from the uranium mining boom that played out here from the 1950s to the 1980s, we saw fewer and fewer cars. By the time we were climbing up the side of a steep mesa, we had the place to ourselves. That’s also when I realized that my previous map-reading had been cursory enough that I had missed the fact that we were going to start our journey above 8,000 feet. The weather forecast called for rain and snow. Descending this particular stretch of road, with its saturated surface as slick as snot, was an unappealing prospect.

“It’ll be fine,” I said. “It never really snows or rains this time of year. It’ll just be squalls—if anything. Those weather people don’t know what they’re talking about. What we really need to worry about is a lack of water.”

Before anyone could respond, G— slowed the car to a stop.

“Is that a bird?” he said. We all peered out at the headlight-illuminated road, where a creature the size of a kitten, its feathers fluffed up, just sat there, unmoving. I hopped out and slowly approached it. It stared up at me with its big eyes and something like reproach then, after letting me get much too close, it spread its wings and took flight, disappearing into the night. We kept driving. Two minutes later we came across the same bird—a burrowing owl, perhaps—again sitting in the middle of the road. This time it flew off before we could get out. A minute or so later, there it was again: beautiful, moving, and somewhat creepy. An omen, perhaps? 

Finally, we reached a place from which we could embark on our journey, and we set up a hasty camp for the night. When morning dawned, we realized this was no trailhead and there was not trail at all whatsoever. Perfect. All we’d have to do is walk across the mesa to the rim of the canyon, drop down into it, and then stroll leisurely along the smooth canyon bottom as if it were a boulevard. Within a couple of hours we’d be lazing around a big, flat camping spot and drinking from deep pools of cool, clear, desert water. 

As you may by now have gathered, things did not go quite so smoothly. Walking across the mesa consisted of fighting our way through a veritable jungle of Gambel oak, each branch like a talon reaching out and scratching skin, tearing at clothes, and, I later discovered, purloining hydration pack tubes. Getting into the canyon required its own brand of bushwhacking, combined with tedious route-finding, sketchy down-climbs with heavy packs, and a great deal of cursing—at least on my part. The sought-after boulevard along the canyon bottom was in fact a boulder- and brush-choked horror show, requiring acrobatic moves and knee-smashing leaps. The only way to keep the kids—and adults, for that matter—moving, was with the promise of Sonic burgers when we emerged a few days later or maybe sooner, as the life-sustaining potholes were all bone-dry.

Finally, seven hours after embarking, we reached water at a place that also made for a decent camp. The small pothole held maybe ten gallons of stagnant, murky, green-tinged liquid, its surface covered by a strange sheen and dozens of dead bugs. We all stood around it and gaped at it for a moment, perhaps wondering how it would taste. Not that it mattered. It would do. It had to. And besides, the view down-canyon from the campsite, atop a 30-foot pour-over, was spectacular. Canyon X’s walls provided a perfect frame for the deep orange Wingate sandstone-capped buttes in the mid-ground and, far beyond that, the dark form of Naatsis’áán or, to the Hopi, Toko’navi (also known as Navajo Mountain).

Pueblo people had surely gazed upon this same view over a span of millennia, living in villages on the surrounding mesa tops or tucked away in alcoves until they packed up and moved onward, planting footprints in another land. Perhaps the Diné leader Kaa’yelii and his clan came to this remote canyon—not far from the Bears Ears—when Kit Carson went on his killing rampage in Canyon de Chelly. And Posey and Mancos Jim and other Paiute and Ute people likely trod this ground, as well, hunting for game that had become increasingly scarce on the mesas since the invasion of the white ranchers and settlers in the 1870s and 1880s.

Much of what is now public land in southeastern Utah may at first glance appear to be pristine and wild and untrammeled by humans. A closer look reveals quite the opposite. The relics of the Puebloan people who lived here for thousands of years are woven into every piece of the landscape, some of those artifacts are readily apparent, others are obscured by earth and time and people who came later and wrecked the sites, either intentionally or incidentally.

The sage flats and forests lining the rim of Canyon X have been grazed heavily, the soil forever altered, the native grasses chewed down to nubs. Entire mesa-tops nearby have been cleared of old-growth piñon-juniper forests to make way for forage and, just as often, noxious weeds and cheat grass. The place is spiderwebbed with rudimentary roads, most of which lead to uranium prospects or mine adits. And more recent recreational users have left their mark, as well, whether it be social trails across the cryptobiotic soil, pieces of webbing left on chock-stones in slot-canyon pour-overs, toilet paper and human waste scattered across slick-rock, or stressed out wildlife trying to avoid hikers, bikers, or OHVers.

By the looks of things, however, the stretch of canyon in which we found ourselves had not seen any people in a while, probably because of the difficulty of access and the lack of adrenaline-junky attractions. I saw no sign of cattle, whatsoever—no desiccated cow dung, no hoof-prints, native grasses grew in bunches above the wash, and the cryptobiotic crust was intact and healthy, marked only by narrow game trails where the tracks told the tale of a rather large mountain lion stalking deer. I reckon one or two of J.A. Scorup’s rangy cattle may have gotten lost and made it down here, only to provide a convenient meal for a wolf (which roamed these parts back then, prior to being extirpated). Ancient junipers, with gnarl and girth, are plentiful. And even during this dry year, stacked upon so many dry years before it, the canyon bottom felt almost lush where the fresh leaves of shrubs contrasted brilliantly against the deep black of desert varnish.

Like many others, I have been concerned about all of the buzz about a national monument causing a flood of visitors to converge on the region’s public lands. And the plethora of car-campers we saw on the way in confirmed those fears. But it also became clear that there will always be pockets of solitude to be found, even amid very popular places, so long as getting there remains somewhat challenging. And in that I find hope.

Even more comforting was the fact that the teenagers not only took the difficulties in stride, aside from a few snide remarks about their parents’ perverse notion of a family vacation, but also seemed to revel in the challenge and the reward of being in such a spectacular and wild place.

G—’s new water purifier did wonders for the first several gallons that we pumped from the dank pothole. The water tasted good, despite the mild green tint. But then the flow slowed to a dribble before giving up completely, regardless of how fast one pumped. Apparently the algae had clogged the thing entirely, rendering it defunct and us potentially thirsty. We started rationing water so as to have enough for the sure-to-be grueling hike out the next day. And we grudgingly came to terms with the daunting prospect of a coffee-less next morning. Meanwhile, we watched the sky warily as clouds thickened and the temperature dropped. 

“It’ll just be little squalls,” I said, my voice wavering and my confidence in my meteorological skills waning. 

Sure enough, the pitter-patter of rain against my tent woke me in long before dawn. For four hours it came down, transforming the dirt through which we would travel that day into a sticky, slippery muck. As we crawled out of our tents, the rain became big-flaked snow, which blanketed the slopes above us with white. The potholes were all full of cold, clear rainwater. We would get our coffee after all. My spirits, however, were dimmed by the concurrent realization that I had packed no rain gear save for a wool sweater. I was reminded of something Craig Childs once wrote: “There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst and drowning.” I wasn’t in danger of either of those. But I was a bit worried that I might add a third way: hypothermia.

The climb out of camp was a bit like scaling the north face of the Eiger in December, if the Eiger were made up of loose sandstone boulders, gloppy red-brown mud, and the occasional tree or shrub, clinging to the slope. As first our packs, and then everything in them became saturated with water and coated in slush and snow, they grew considerably heavier, causing that much more pain in quads and shoulders. We grunted, growled, rasped, and whined, comforting ourselves with my (dreadfully wrong) prediction that we’d be able to avoid bushwhacking on this route, and with visions of Sonic burgers and tater tots dancing in our heads. 

We were maybe three-fourths of the way up when I grabbed ahold of the Mormon tea shrub and then the other. I was suspended there for what seemed forever before arcing backwards, toward certain bodily harm, if not death. But in the very moment that I had surrendered myself to my fate, a perfectly placed piñon tree gently caught me in its arms. Trembling, I jumped up and brushed myself off, feeling lucky that the rest of the crew was out of sight when I made my nearly fatal faux pas.

“Nice bush jump, Jonny!” Yelled H— from nearby, laughing uproariously. I guess someone had seen, after all. But what did I care? I was alive, I was with friends on a slope in Utah in near-white-out conditions, and we only had another four hours of so of snow-soaked, hypothermic, sob-inducing, disoriented bushwhacking to go, followed by a treacherous drive across impassible-when-wet roads through country from which all reasonable and intelligent humans had fled. What could be better than that?

Best of all, the kids were eating it up—suffering and all—and I’m pretty sure the legion of backpackers has two new members.

*The “Author” is Michael R. Kelsey, writer of guidebooks focusing on Canyon Country. I refuse to even flip through the guidebooks. But I won’t get into that here.