Monday, June 21, 2021

Mildly Terrifying


A new morning!

              A new hike!

I did the Lower Prong loop yesterday, so it just seemed to make sense to do the Upper Prong loop today. (Apr 25)

And if I break from tradition and do the loop clockwise the trailhead is just a few steps away from The Van!

This shot clearly shows the oldest, Permian layer, shot through with horizontal veins of gypsum at the bottom, the relatively smoothly eroded Tecovas layer on top of that, topped by the more raggedly eroded Trujillo layer. At this point in the canyon the uppermost layer, the caprock formed from the debris of the erosion of the Rocky Mountains, has already been worn away. I'm standing on the remains of the Permian Sea. Depending on how far down I actually am, on material laid down somewhere between 300 and 230 million years ago! Long before dinosaurs existed!

So with the sun starting to paint the fins towering precariously above me

 as well as the ridges lining the western edge of the Upper South Prong Canyon

I lay boot to trail,

much to the annoyance of this inhabitant.

In this light I can't really make out enough details to identify it, (OK, let's be honest. I probably couldn't identify it in perfect light either, but it sounds good to pretend that I can.) but it follows me for a while, crying out every time it lights nearby. I can't tell if it's a warning, or a protest, or maybe a little of both, but whatever it is its loud duwee duwee woochi woochi woochi woochi clearly marks my position as I move along the trail.

But that doesn't stop me from continuing up the canyon away from camp, (back there under the red arrow)

the whole time being watched over by the Guardian of the Canyon.

I don't know if that's her official name, or if she has a name at all, but that's what I've been calling her for years.

In my mind she was embedded in the earth hundreds of millions of years ago and patiently waited her turn to be exposed by wind and water to take up her duties of watching over the canyon. And when her time is done there are others like her, still waiting deep in walls of the canyon for their turn to take up the mantle of Guardian.

At a horizontal erosional rate of about a quarter inch per year these canyons are going to be here for a long time and take a lot of watching over!

I know the Guardian's job is to watch over the canyon and its inhabitants and not me, a temporary interloper, but I hope a little of that guardianship is spilling over on me this morning because soon I'm headed up the face of that white ridge there in the background.

There are three sections of trail in this park classified by the park service as Extremely Steep & Rugged.

Having been on all three in the past I propose a slight modification, in that one of those sections be reclassified as Mildly Terrifying to differentiate it from its slightly gentler cousins.

And, of course, that's the one I happen to be headed for this morning - - -

However it's classified, here I'm standing at the base of it and if you look close there behind the branches of that tree you see a large bolder (About Smart-Car size) sitting on the edge of a ledge going to the right.

Nope, as tempting as it is when you get up there, and it has clearly lured in many hikers, that's not the trail, because once past the rock that inviting ledge quickly pinches out to nothing and leaves the hiker stranded above a long drop.

Nope! Not the way to go!

Rather, when you hit the vertical wall at the top of that first scramble, instead of turning right, the proper action is to turn left,

towards this much less inviting visage.

Yep, that little ledge over there is the trail you're looking for. But in order to reach that trail, to get from here to there, you have to drop into this half-bowl right in front of you and scale the smooth-faced, 5' tall lip on the other side.

And, just to make it interesting, this is what is waiting just off your left side when you're in the bottom of that bowl. (As you can see by my foot, the camera is pointed pretty much straight down here.)

Which is why, now that I've finally scraped up enough wisdom to buy them in the first place, back there at the base of that first scramble I used a little bit of that hard-won wisdom to sit down long enough to pull on my spikes.

Those 12 carbide tips do a much better job of grabbing onto the rock than my bare-boots.

So now the question is; why am I doing this? Just - why? (Moms want to know the answer!!)

Well life is a gift, and one best honored by living it with enthusiasm. At my age circumstances could force me into living that life as a sedentary observer. Maybe that happens next week. Maybe next decade. I don't know. But in the meantime I'm going to go out there, I'm going to push myself, and when I come out the other side I'm going to feel alive!

Besides, let's be honest here, plenty of people have hiked this bit of trail before me and will after me, so it's not like I'm being nearly as heroic as I'd like to believe - - -

An intermediate reward for making the climb is this view back down the canyon from part way up. Just don't lean out too far while snapping that photo!

Once on the other side of that half-bowl there's still plenty of climbing (If you look close, there near the top, just a shade right of center above that bit of slick-rock you can see one of the trail markers luring me on.)

and edging along left to do

before making it to the intersection with the Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail at the top of the ridge.

But there's little respite to be found up there at the high point of this hike before beginning the drop down towards Fern Cave.

On this profile the Steep and Rugged doesn't look all that much different than the Mildly Terrifying, but believe me, when you are the one on the ground Steep and Rugged is a lot less scary than Mildly Terrifying!

That's Fern Cave down there, though it's more of a grotto than a cave.

But the ferns that normally thrive in the cool, (usually) damp environment of this shelter have been looking a little tough for the past couple of years.

This is what they look like today,

and this is what they looked like in 2018.

From Fern Cave I'm working my way down the rugged upper end of Upper North Prong Canyon, thinking the challenging part of the hike is behind me, so just chilling out and minding my own business, when a touch of reality lodged itself into my brain like a pebble in my boot.

In this case reality is a bit of Bison wool laying right in the middle of the trail. You know, fluffy, light-weight stuff that will quickly drift into the snags of the surrounding vegetation at the slightest breeze. And spring around here means plenty of significantly more than slight breezes. Which tells me that this bit of fluff left lying there was on a 1500 pound beast not all that long ago!

It doesn't help the anxiety levels that here in the upper end of the canyon it is so steep and narrow that the trail often has to share the bottom with the creek-bed, which doesn't leave much room to get out of the way if the situation calls for it!

But a few steps later I'm distracted again by wondering how this sign, which is supposed to be about 3/4's of a mile away and some 600 feet higher,

up there on that ridge in the background, managed to get down here.

One of the many interesting things to be found in the Upper North Prong Canyon is a pair of hoodoos called The Last Dance.

If you keep your eye on them as you hike down the canyon from above 

you can actually see, in the changing aspect, the pair dancing around each other up there.

Until they gradually conceal themselves


against the background.

If you are coming up the canyon from below, unless your turn around and look over your shoulder once in a while you may not even know they are there.

Another cool thing that can be seen is the many interesting forms the exposed layers of gypsum can take, such as this bubble that collapsed at some point to form a rustic planter.

But eventually I walk out of the canyon and find the intersection with the North Prong Loop that will take me back to a trailhead, and another  mile along the road from there, back to camp.

I did make a quick stop along the way at the backpacking campsite but honestly it's not all that much to write home about.

A handful of bare-dirt campsites with a composting toilet nearby.

I get all that where I'm at in the South Prong Tent Camp  and I don't have to walk a mile to get there! On top of that, if you are so inclined, which I very rarely am, there's a fire-ring in my campsite whereas here in the backcountry ground-fires are prohibited.

I was pretty much expecting a peaceful wind-down of the day after my hike, but as I was sitting there in camp eating my one-pot dinner and minding my own business, I suddenly had a 1500 pound visitor!

Being camera-less at the moment I gently eased my phone out of my pant's pocket and shot a couple photos. Surreptitiously, as if being captured on film (well - you know what I mean) is the thing that's going to piss him off!

I'd have invited him to the table, but there just wasn't enough room under my 8x8 canopy for both of us. Besides, The Van's freezer is way too small for the other 1499.75 pounds of meat - - -


  1. Loved the Last Dance and the Guardian photos. As for “sedentary observer”, I’m doing my best to avoid that stage as long as possible also.

    1. I figure I'll just keep moving 'till I can't

  2. Beautiful country. Must be nice to hike without being bothered by other people. That is quite a pet that found you. Taking him home behind your van??

    1. Unlike Watson I don't think he will house-train very well - so no!