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Friday, January 03, 2014

Wandering In The Red Cliffs Desert Reserve

My hidden valley in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
I spend New Years Day afternoon wandering, with no particular destination in mind, just exploring a portion of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. It was great fun.

Along the way, I spotted the bleached remains of an abandon desert tortoise shell and also a broken Indian arrow point. Admiring without touching, I consider those things payoff for sweat invested in the hike.

The reserve includes much of the red rock visible from I-15 as you travel east from St. George, plus some spots away from the freeway. It is a largely undeveloped landscape of sand, cliffs and cacti, approximately 20 miles wide and 6 miles deep. It was established primarily to protect habitat for the desert tortoise and other sensitive species, but also provides great opportunity for recreation.

The reserve winds around Snow Canyon State Park and provides much of the same kind of scenery. It is a wonderful area for winter hiking and horseback riding.

I hiked in the eastern portion of the reserve, starting at the BLM-managed Red Cliffs Recreation Area, just west of the town of Leeds. I followed the contour at the base of the red cliffs, just to see where I could go, and occasionally climbed up cliffs and explored hidden canyons.

I like to imagine I'm treking into unexplored territory - thinking perhaps if I hike farther and climb higher, I might stumble into a cove or crack that hasn't been seen by humans for hundreds of years. It's possible in this country, where distance is deceptive and hiking a mile can be incredibly difficult, requiring almost as much vertical as horizontal travel.

I found and followed what appeared to be a faint old trail - no footprints or evidence it had been used in years. From the base of the cliff, I followed the trail up one level, just to see what was there, then up another and then another. In spots I lost the trail and so I just trudged ahead, only to pick up the old path again as I moved forward.

There aren't many spots where you can climb the cliffs (without technical climbing skills and gear), but this trail led from shelf to shelf until I cam out on top of the highest visible cliffs. The view was amazing.

At the top, a gentle slope dropped down the other side into a hidden valley boarded by more red rock. As I wandered in the valley I saw, to my amazement, human footprints in the sand. I'd come all of that way, following an almost imperceptible path through difficult terrain, only to find that someone else had recently reached the same spot.

As a kid growing up in the St. George area, I often found arrow heads and occasionally saw a tortoise, a sidewinder or a roadrunner, or other species that are now almost gone. Not any more. Those things pretty much disappeared when the area has become a popular playground. But I still hike with the hope of discovery.

Mostly, I just enjoyed getting out in the warm sunshine. The weather was perfect, with the thermometer hitting a daytime high of about 55 F.

It was fun getting out - getting away from the ice and smog that chock so many cities this time of year.

- Dave Webb

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