Plug Hat Butte and Jones Hole
Mom came out to visit in September 2002 and I decided that she could see all the mountains she wanted in New Hampshire but never any desert. Thatís why we drove right past the gorgeous northern mountains of Colorado to get to Dinosaur. It had been almost exactly a year to the day that I left Dinosaur after spending all summer working there. That was a sunny Friday in late September and I drove out at 12 noon under a blue sky and brilliant sun with the sunroof down and the rock n roll blaring. What a day. Now I was back. The journey wasnít easy, however. In North Park we hit a patch of ice and the car spun 450 degrees before grinding off the left side of the road about 20 feet, raking up sagebrush, bunchgrass and lots of mud but amazingly, inflicting no damage on the car. After that mishap I slowed down considerably, not knowing what lay up ahead, and it took us most of the day to travel the typical 5 hour drive.

Near Plug Hat ButteMom had been through the desert once, in New Mexico and Arizona, about 17 years ago. Thus, the sinewy sandstone ridges and stark, spacious landscape that inspires even those of us lucky enough to visit on a routine basis to redouble our contributions to the Sierra Club, simply amazed her. I wonder if there is anyplace on earth quite like it. Temperate and tropical forests seem to me to look much the same no matter where you go, but Americaís western desert...what a place. You feel like you should be required to show a passport just to enter, and perhaps the great state of Utah wouldnít be against such an idea, but thatís beside the point. The wide expanse of rock and juniper and blue sky that stretches so far you can feel the curvature of the atmosphere as it is pulled down to the round surface of the planet shuts anyoneís yapper real quick. People just watch the hills as if they were watching elephants on parade, with a keen interest usually shown only to animate objects. Everything here is worth a second and third look. 

The evening was coming on as I drove up the Harperís Corner road and pulled into a little BLM campsite that Iíve spent many nights at. With the sun went the heat and the cold descended as if it came straight from outer space. We quickly put the tent up under a canopy of low pinyon pine and threw in our gear. It was cold enough that we just skipped dinner and went right to sleep. 

The next morning we got up around dawn and decided to go hiking right off rather than waste time preparing food for breakfast. I led her on the route I had so enjoyed the year before along the edge of the mesa near Plug Hat Butte and around to the north end where it drops down into a narrow slot canyon whose end Iíve never reached. It had rained only days before and the soil in the canyon was gumbo and stuck to shoes like glue. I mustíve collected 6 inches of mud on the soles of my boots within ten steps. I had to frequently stop and locate a good sharp-edged rock to scrape off the gunk. Nevertheless we continued on into the cool, dark crack of the canyon and meandered next to a trickle of water that curved along a smooth rock channel at the very bottom. We would have gone quite far, since the day was gorgeous and the scenery equally so, except that Mom developed strange physical ailments that may have been some form of dehydration/altitude sickness. At any rate she nearly passed out and felt cold and chilled, though it was fairly warm. We stopped and she rested, then we turned back and slowly made our way back to camp. She had to sit and rest ever so often. We finally made it back to camp and she had some water and food and that seemed to help. Later, when we were back in Fort Collins I showed her a photograph of the canyon we were in that I had taken on a much longer hike into itís depth last year. She was very disappointed that she did not get to see the area depicted in the photograph.

We packed up camp and drove on up Harper's Corner road to the overlook, stopping at just about every pullout to get out and hike around a little. Here we were able to get the best view of the intricately carved Yampa canyon. After several hours of that, we drove west into Utah, then around north of Vernal and into Joneís Hole, picking up a backcountry permit from HQ on the way. The hike into Joneís Hole has already been detailed in two previous accounts, so I wonít pound the issue anymore than necessary. It is a beautiful place, thankfully protected safely in the confines of the monument. I have no doubt developers would be down there already building trophy homes were it not for that protection. We got started on a warm sunny midday, a Friday, and were blessed by wide open trails completely empty of any humans. We walked along, and the fatigue Mom had been stricken with earlier had evaporated as she hiked along as quick as I ever do (significant because I am about a foot taller than she and 30 years younger). Being late September, many of the box elders were turning yellow and dropping their leaves on the trail to make a rarely seen mosaic carpet of leaf and earth. Very beautiful. 

We set up camp in a shaded sandy clearing surrounded by box elders at the juntion of Jones and Ely Creeks. After everything was setup and stowed, we hiked the short bit up to Ely Falls. Upon returning, we cooked dinner and sat around, enjoying the silence broken only by the crisp multi-toned chatter of Joneís Creek nearby. At dusk we took a hike downstream, but did not make it all the way to the Green River. Thatís another trip. The evening did not cool off as much as it had the night before.

The following morning, after a quick breakfast at dawn, we took a wonderful hike up above the campsite into the canyon walls that eventually let out on top of a fabulous mesa with grand views in all directions. On all sides the rock gave way to gaping fissures a quarer mile wide backed up by mammoth pillars and fins of golden sandstone that turned rusty red in the edge-of-day sunlight. We hiked all around, trying to find paths through the maze of cryptobiotic crust. Iím pretty enamored by the hardy cryptobiotic crust. It is a black, often sharply pointed black covering on desert soil made up of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus, much like lichen. I talked with a professor at CSU recently about cryptobiotic soil and he said that in the west, soil with intact cryptobiotic crust can withstand hurricane force wind velocities without blowing away, but without it, can be swept away in seconds with a hairdyer. Stomping on the crust can completely destroy it in many cases, a devastating act when it can take up to 2000 years to regenerate. So anytime your thinking about the pros and cons of cattle grazing in the desert, think about how much cryptobiotic crust a 1500 pound heifer pounds into oblivion in one year, and think about the erosion potential on that. 

We spent a lot of time on top of the mesa, walking to all sides and sitting to admire the views. I had been here before with Dave but it was no less exciting to see the familiar pillars and walls again. I imagine that sometime around my 80th birthday Iíll be back at that same spot, and it will look exactly the same. I hope it does. After several hours we headed down. Despite my careful attention to our upward route, I missed the right crack to shimmy down on the way back and we got sidetracked. This turned out to be serendipitous as we found a group of very secluded petroglyphs. It is interesting to imagine that there once was a people who called this place home. Better than my home. And they have been called ďsavagesĒ? Back at camp, we threw everything into our packs and hiked uptrail along the rushing water, encountering nobody. We had a quick lunch at the trailhead, then drove back quickly under a sunny sky to Fort Collins in time to meet Andra for dinner at Cazzollaís.

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Page created November 8, 2002
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