Wilderness Ethics Trip #2: The Southwest

It was the summer after sophomore year of college and I was going on another college road trip. After dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings with the whole group, I knew it was going to be another great Wilderness Ethics Trip!!! This time, we were heading to the American Southwest by car, or rather, UD vans!!!

Sunset Mesa Verde

Itinerary: June 16-30, 2011

June 16: Drive out to North Platte, NE

June 17: Drive to Moab, UT

June 18: Whitewater Rafting

June 19: Mountain Biking & Arches National Park

June 20: Horseback Riding & Canyonlands National Park

June 21: Canyoneering & Canyonlands National Park

June 22-23: Visit Zion National Park

June 24-26: Hike the Grand Canyon

June 27-28: Visit Mesa Verde & Great Sand Dunes National Parks

June 29-30: Drive back to Dubuque

Cody at Fort CodyWe met up in the morning in the Goldthorpe parking lot to pack up the vehicles and take off. I jumped in Dale’s van, along with Trevor, Maria, Jess, and Shaun. Cody, Tori, Colin, Luke, Betsy, and Sharon were in the other van with Paul at the wheel. The first day was a long one, we spent over 12 hours in the van driving, but we really got to know each other better. It was a good group of people and I was really excited to spend the next 13 days with them! We stopped in North Platte, NE for the night and camped out at a campground near Fort Cody- an amusing little tourist spot. It poured on us all night… I was thankful my tent didn’t spring a leak! The next day we were forced to stop pretty early into the drive. Trevor at Fort CodyTori was feeling pretty crummy and the chaperones thought it’d be best for her to get some medical attention. We all took this time to dry our stuff in the parking lot of the hospital and enjoy the beautiful weather- this would later change. Me and Jess even went for a short run. Then it was back on the road and through the Rockies of Colorado. The weather had taken a turn for the worst, a crappy mix of rain/snow bombarded our van, making the windy mountain passes even more nerve-racking. We drove late into the night with the mindset of Moab or BUST! Needless to say, we made it and set up camp in the dark. Anxious to visit our surroundings, me Trevor, Luke, and Cody went on a night scramble up the cliffs that lined the nearby Colorado River. From our vantage point, the passing car headlights looked like fireflies.


Our first day in Moab seemed to be all about one of America’s most important rivers: the Colorado! I woke up extremely early due to some noisy neighbors and decided to go for a run. I followed the Colorado River like a puppy following its owner with a treat. It was as if the river was saying “Come with me, I have something to show you!” The rest of the morning was taken up with a whitewater rafting trip down this amazing river. Our guide, Joel, really made this trip. He took us down the most exhilarating routes, fought alongside us in our battles against the other rafts, and even showed us a place where we were able to cliff dive. Later that day he gave us an off the clock lesson in slack-lining, a sport that involves balancing on a tightrope. I was pretty bad at it but it was still a lot of fun.

Day #2 in Moab started with a bike ride in the surrounding area. This was unlike any bike ride I had been on before though. The trail was a painted line across the desert with rocks, ditches, and anything else in between. We needed heavy duty bikes to stay upright with all those obstacles. Somehow I still managed to crash. Our afternoon was spent exploring Abbey’s country: Arches National Park. As part of this class I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a memoir of when he spent two summers in this area in the late 1950’s. It was interesting to see how much the park had changed, much of what Abbey himself had predicted. Arches was gorgeous, and we had time to see several of the natural rock formations for which it was named. Easily my favorite, and the most famous in the park, was Delicate Arch!

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

The next day we went horseback riding through the desert. My ride for the day was a wily mule named Johnny Reb. We had a great time together and were one of only two mules or so that could keep up with the horses cantering. Our hiking excursion took us to another nearby park, Canyonlands. There we visited another amazing arch and witnessed wonderful landscapes spread before our eyes. The final day in Moab took us on a canyoneering adventure. Canyoneering involves rappelling down into canyons using a set of ropes and then hiking out. It definitely got the heart pumping, especially those first couple of steps over the edge. It was a blast!!! That night we went back to Canyonlands National Park, this time visiting a different section park. The highlight was definitely a wonderful sunset that would be our last in Moab.

The drive to Zion National Park from Moab took a good part of the next day. Lunch at a barbecue place in Cedar City, Utah allowed a nice break from driving. Upon entering the park boundaries, huge Navajo sandstone cliffs of red, pink, and white greeted us. Unfortunately all 3 campgrounds were already full so Dale was forced to book a spot at a nearby park called Sandy Hollow. The reservoir turned out to be a nice place for relaxing and cliff diving. That night we had our first campfire of the trip and slept sprawled out underneath the stars. Our early arrival time the next morning ensured us a full day of exploration at this beautiful park. We started the day out with an 8 mile round trip trek up to Observation Point. This provided some great views of the valley and the wonderful sandstone cliffs that rise above on both sides. Back on the valley floor, Mariah, Trevor, and I took a short break to refill our water bottles and eat a small lunch. Re-energized, it was onto our next challenge: Angel’s Landing.This was a very challenging hike with lots of switchbacks and a steep grade. Mariah and I took our time, resting frequently in what she called “shady breaks”. About 3 miles up the trail followed a narrow ridge upwards, with heavy duty chains in place to give assistance. An ominous sign stated there had been 7 deaths here since 2004 (pretty scary). Needless to say, we stayed focused and made it to our heavenly (pun intended) destination. Early pioneers had named this spot because they believed it was inaccessible to man; only angels could reach it. I think without the chains it would still be. We were pretty beat after these two intense hikes, but went on a few shorter hikes just for something to do. Though the Virgin River was impassable right now due to high water levels, we still went to see the creator of this wonderful valley. It was a preview to the larger one we would visit the following day.

Some people may shrug and call The Grand Canyon nothing more than a big crack in the Earth. Well one glance told me these people are not only ignorant, but must also be insane. This place is much more than a “crack”… in fact, its not even just one, but an assortment of chasms into the Earth’s core. The mastermind behind this magic, the Colorado River, still continues its assault on the land today, though the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams have significantly slowed its progress. Erosion has helped to create the wonderful spires and ridges that one can see in every direction. Needless to say, my first sight of the canyon was mind-boggling. I spent the whole first day studying its beauty from the South Rim. We camped this first night at a site in Mather Campground large enough for all 13 of us. The night was spent going over our plans for tomorrow’s hike, as well as preparing our packs and gear. I slept that night on my tent’s footprint with an unimpeded view of the night sky… simply wonderful! An early rise the next morning insured we would get our hike into the canyon done well before the scorching heat of the midday sun. We took the South Kaibab Trail down, stopping about halfway down for a group picture at Tip-Off Point. By 10 or so we were at the canyon bottom soaking our heads in the Bright Angel Creek. Just past noon the thermometer at Phantom Ranch, the small lodge that rests at the bottom, read 120 degrees Fahrenheit!!! Our activity was limited to sleeping in the shade or wading in the creek. My group actually remained at a campsite here for the rest of the day, while the other group hiked onwards to a campsite at Indian Gardens, a campground another 4 or so miles up the Bright Angel Trail. I tried to sleep that night, but a combination of the heat (it never really cooled down), the wind blowing sand, and restless thoughts of the hike back up prevented me from making any real progress. At around 4AM, Shawn, Mariah, and I gave up trying and decided to head out. It was cool hiking with just our headlamps as guides! The hike up was strenuous, but doable. I chugged ahead and made it to the top by 8AM… I had successfully hiked into and, more importantly, back out of the Grand Canyon! It was awesome seeing everyone achieve the same result after me… we were especially proud of our professors Dale and Paul (and Sharon)! That night we rewarded ourselves with ice cream and a beautiful sunset at the rim. My first Grand Canyon experience was a great success!!!

It was sad to leave the Grand Canyon after how great of an experience we had just had. But there was more to see! We began heading back East today with our drive taking us first through the four corners area of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. We stopped at the official four corners monument, which was nothing more than a tourist trap. Then it was onto Mesa Verde National Park, a park dedicated to the ancient cliff-dwelling peoples that used to inhabit this whole region. We went on a self-tour of the Spruce House, one of the many ancient dwellings that still remained. That night Mariah and I went out for a hike and got to see another wonderful sunset… I could really get used to doing that every night. The next day we went on a guided tour through the Balcony House, a cliff dwelling that required some acrobatics to get to it. Not only did we have to climb up several ladders during the tour, we also had to crawl at one point and squeeze up a tiny stairway. It was a lot of fun! From here we continued East to another national park: the Great Sand Dunes. Just as the name says, the park’s main feature were the rolling sand dunes- something I would never have guessed Colorado contained. These things were big too, some reaching heights of almost 800 feet. Hiking here was ridiculously hard; every step sunk your foot deeper into the sand. Four of us made it the mile or so to High Dune, the second highest dune in the park. We didn’t dare try to go on to the highest that was another mile or so… we were beat. We had fun jumping off the sides of the dunes too, or running full speed down them only to tumble into the sand at the bottom. It was really similar to playing in the snow, though snow doesn’t collect in every pore and leave a nasty grit in your mouth. That night we had a delicious spaghetti dinner and fell asleep to the sound of a guitar- a group nearby had a sing-a-long of sorts that lasted into the early morning. The next two days made for some more bonding time in the vans and the hotel we stayed at in Nebraska. Dubuque was a welcoming sight, though it was tough to say goodbye to all these great people, some of who were graduating and I probably wouldn’t see again.

All in all, Wilderness Ethics Trip #2 was a great success!!! Congrats again, Dale.

Written by Jake G

I'm a 26 year old who loves to hike, bike, backpack, and explore the outdoors. I'm a Midwesterner who currently resides in sunny Arizona. I hope to inspire others with my adventures and maybe give some advice for your future vacations. Follow me as I travel around the country and...
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