Backpacking the Kokopelli Trail – Part 2

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Day 5 – Ups and Downs

April 13. Trigger warning: Skip the next two paragraphs if you hate annoying conservationist chatter… about cows.

Depending on who you ask, our public lands are littered with hundreds of thousands of cattle, or free range beef just “grows on trees.” In Utah there is one cow for every four people, so you’re bound to run into them in the woods. Often ranchers take government subsidies to pay very little money to graze their stock on our public lands, which sometimes even includes National Parks! They become millionaires off our backs, then sell us a product that isn’t necessarily good for us, whether ethically or whether it contains ecoli or whether it clogs arteries. It just doesn’t seem right. Beyond that, sometimes ranchers poach grazing on extremely remote public lands in order to get free range and food for their stock. I have found cattle grazing inside Bryce Canyon and in Grand Canyon National Parks. Those are small slices of “true wilderness” that we pay for! If I sound annoyed it is because after walking across Utah twice I have seen the destruction these massive animals cause to delicate remote areas, especially Utah’s rare riparian areas. They went and moved and culled (killed) the bison from Grand Canyon North Rim because of wetland damage, but they will continue to allow cattle ranchers to run the Western States wilderness. Nevermind the slaughter of wild horses to protect grazing for cattle. People would rather have beef than wild places, fine, but I’d like to be able to hike without the fear of a cow horn goring me, and it’d be super cool to be able to drink wild spring water without filtering it two times to get the shit taste out. Myself and friends have been terrorized by cows on the Pacific Crest Trail, but this morning was the first time in Utah where cattle were standing me down on top of a gated pass. Impasse!

This group stood me down for nearly five minutes before finally agreeing to MOOVE.

Eventually they began to scoot, but given the road continued down a fairly narrow canyon, they were angry and disorganized and my footprint was definitely multiplied as they scattered this way and that off the road. I worried a rancher would come on a side-by-side and give me hell for… walking? On public property? Why is this even a thing when there was a huge pasture just minutes to the west? Anyway I’ve gone on and on about the problem with cows on public land and the hypocrisy of “free range meat” so I’ll stop now. If you keep reading you’ll find out why I know for sure this range has wildcats, and so, what with such food around (calves) I’d be a little weirded out if I was biking the next mountain section alone. All said I was stuck behind them for 20 minutes, walking slowly. As a hiker I could have probably avoided all that bovine nonsense by just heading straight up Fisher Creek. Or maybe not. I wasn’t yet sure how deep the snow would be.

A view down on the tilted/upheaved (at center) mesa I just walked around, with Fisher Mesa in the background, from mile 97.

The geology that I don’t understand has gotten really interesting about right here because of the Uncompahgre Uplift and stuff like that. (Don’t I sound smart?) 🤓 Most the plateaus are level with the earth surface around here except for some, and those really stand oddly out because of the angles they jut out of the Earth at. I’d been climbing a hill for a while yesterday, and this morning I came down it, but then I was amidst a geologic formation that was below when I started! Like I said earlier, this landscape of canyons and bluffs, with a black sheep of an igneous range in the background, is confusingly kaleidoscopic yet asymmetric.

Moab Fault National Park placard description of geology

This National Park Service placard describes the Moab Fault, but also illustrates what is also happening in the northern foothills of the La Sal Mountains, at the west edge of the Uncompahgre Uplift. This type of uplift is also seen plainly in other areas, such as the San Rafael swell and Capital Reef, and more subtly (invisibly) inside the Grand Canyon. Whenever the rock layers are whimsical or don’t seem to make sense, one must imagine that at some point the earth was pushed up from below until it ripped open, and the wound edges set aside at an angle. Often this results in asymmetry where one side of a canyon does not match the other, or abrupt forays into new rock layers after having simply taken a turn on a hike.

Enough of that reverie, though. I was arrived at the crux of the matter, the problem of this trip: the mountain. I wasn’t able to get reliable beta online or from rangers, and I didn’t know the quality of the snowpack, so I just wasn’t sure how my snowshoes would cut it. Once I had climbed to 8000′ on the dirt road, snow lined the roads, which were mainly just muddy and pocked with brown puddles. I kept going and the snow never got deeper than about 5 inches. That had been packed down by ATVs, so I continued upward in my sneakers without difficulty. I got stuck behind a pack of wild turkeys, but they behaved much more politely than the cattle, disappearing quickly into the woods. I thought a bit about how it could be amazing to visit this area in the fall, to see the aspen tree colors. I’ve heard this area has some amazing aspen groves.

snowy mountain range viewed from a snowy forest road in Utah La SalView of La Sal Peak (right center, 12k) and Mount Waas (left center, 12.3k) over a massive piece of private land from mile 103.5 of the Kokopelli.

I felt pretty reassured that I’d be able to deal with the snow for at least the first part of the next day. The route maxed out just a few hundred feet higher in elevation, and I’d hit concrete shortly after that. So that worry was put aside. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared, but it seemed like the snowshoes were gonna be overkill.

I slept near a corral just shy of mile 105, with water nearby, gushing off the mountain. It was just inside the corner of a private property, but one of the only places I could find without snow or slush. It was a frigid night and I didn’t sleep very well. I woke up a couple times to heat water for my hot water bottle. Also I was paranoid someone would find me and kick me out, or worse. It was silly because obviously nobody would be up there lurking at night with that snow (obviously?), but I’m not exactly logical when I’m tired!

Day 6 – Cat Hunters, Trail Magic, and Snowshoeing

April 14

Early the next morning I was walking along, enjoying the quiet stillness, and the occasional mind-blowing vista over my right shoulder, when I began to hear what sounded like a dozen dogs barking, and motors. WTF? That circus grew loud as it got closer and closer, and I debated hiding in the woods until it passed. Was I safe? (This is always a question when hiking solo in the woods, woman or not. I decided anyone with that many dogs in a vehicle wouldn’t have room for a dead body, and stuck to the road.) And when the circus passed by, I realized what it was by the fact the entire bed of a farm truck was covered in Leopard Hounds. Those dogs square danced amongst each other in a weird fury while barking like the end was near, but somehow managed to not fall off the truck. And then a second truck full of dogs passed. These are hunting dogs, and a crew this large is NOT hunting turkeys. They track and tree cougars. Why the hell people hunt animals they generally don’t eat, when animals and their ecosystems are disappearing at escalating rates, is beyond me. I guess these folks’ grandchildren can all eat… beef. Keep in mind the hunting season runs November to May… another good reason to not be on the Kokopelli in April.

This dirt road meets with a well-traveled paved scenic road and I spent 6 hours walking that. It was a lot of paved road walking. At one of the view points, I met a couple on a long scenic drive and we chatted for a bit. Telling them that I had “walked here from Colorado,” was a bit of an exaggerated truth, but a good enough story to compel them to feed me a little fruit and cheese. That was a really nice treat. Using the pit toilet was also a really nice treat. What am I like?!

Nearly black and white forest landscape on CR 73 due to 2008 wildfire. Only the sky has color. Snow makes it white.Aftermath of the 2008 Porcupine Ranch wildfire at the foot of Horse Mountain, near mile 117.

When I left the long and windy paved road and dropped onto the Porcupine Rim trail, it was finally time to use my snowshoes. There was just barely a legitimate need for them, and so I definitely used them. I therefore did not feel like such a fool for having carried them so far. That was redeeming and pretty fun, actually!

View of the La Sal Mountain Range from near the top of the Porcupine Rim Trail. Snowy April 2019

I decided to hike a little way off trail between mile 121 and 122 where I had identified a pond on satellite. This turned out to be a pond created on slickrock by a small man-made dam. It was a very pretty area, and I decided to stay there. Except one thing: it had been destroyed by cattle. There was cow shit everywhere. There was cow shit on cow shit. Everywhere. The water I collected to drink tasted like cow shit, even the stuff I got from rivulets heading into the pond from snow melt. I understand the water was probably FOR cows, but I don’t understand WHY THE FUCK cows are up there in the first place. How the fuck can I get away from them?! Where is the water FOR humans and other beings?

A manmade pond on Utah slickrock near the Kokopelli / Porcupine Rim trail. Heavily disturbed by cattle.I moved a lot of cow pies out of the way so I wouldn’t have to look at them. I just lost my shit.
I’m not pleased.
Cryptobiotic soil is all that stands between Utah and annihilation by desertification. The biome allows small seedlings to take hold in sandy soils. These days you only find it places where cows can’t go. It’s easy to kill by stepping on it, and takes dozens of years to grow to this height/quality. Without it, sandy soils disintegrate into dry sand.

Day 7 – Over and Out

April 15. This part of the trail almost felt designed specifically to wow Jeepers and MTBers. Either that or my body and knee just weren’t having it. There were quite a few significant drops and whoopdees and stuff I might have gone apeshit for ten years ago. It almost felt weird to be hiking it. I know there are trails that people cannot bicycle (such as the PCT) but maybe there are trails that people can’t walk, haha. Then again, I probably just couldn’t walk anymore. I was pretty fried.

white jeep wrangler on moab jeep safari porcupine rim127 miles in and only now having to deal with the incredibly loud and peace-disturbing Jeep safari groups. Check out the amazing beard on that guy.
Looking back from mile 133 of the Kokopelli – on the Porcupine Rim Trail. The snow does look a little more intimidating from afar.
View of Canyonlands and the Colorado River from red cliffs.Drinks Canyon, then Jackass Canyon then BOOM! We are back on the Colorado River, finishing just how we began. Mile 136 of the Kokopelli.

Since I didn’t feel like struggling with fetching my cache, hitching to town, and finding a hotel room, I decided to camp on the ledges above the river and finish the Trail in the morning. I enjoyed gorgeous views of the sunset on Canyonlands, and gorged on all the backpacking food I was still carrying. It was my first warm and dry night on the trail.

The next morning I arrived at the cache I had placed near the end of the Porcupine Rim Trail (Kokopelli) in a side canyon. I know people live in these canyons so I was very careful about placing it somewhere inconvenient and out of line of sight from the amphitheaters in view. Yet when I got to my cache I quickly realized it wasn’t humans I should have been worried about at all… it was rodents? Wait, what? I fished the umbrella out and found this:

Picture of the top of an umbrella with holes chewed in it.

Convenient place for a hole in an umbrella. I was so confused, because all I had cached was a PFD, a packraft, paddles, and my silver hiking umbrella. When I saw the holes in my umbrella I panicked for the packraft. But luckily there were no holes in the packraft and the PFD was fine, too. But why why why would an animal chew an unsavory umbrella like that? I was shook.

I walked all the way into downtown Moab, right through the parade of Jeep Week, yet again. How have I timed these hikes to coincide with Jeep Week, TWICE?! Unless Jeep Week or Testosteroni Balogne is really your thing, I would urge anyone to just avoid Moab that week. My walk into town did involve quite a bit of getting cat-called and screamed at. Weird hiker lady with huge backpack and PFD and rat-chewed umbrella walkin’ through town, looking tired and dirty. WOOOOHHHOOOOWAAAAAAGGHGHHHHHHHH! Not one of them thought to offer me a ride.

Later that evening, over a nice Thai dinner in Moab, I learned that my boyfriend thought it would be cute to stash Hershey’s kisses in my umbrella. All I could do was laugh. Oh ha ha HA you silly! It’s weird how grave offenses can seem so cute when you’re in love. Should have dumped him right then, haha. Instead I started preparing for the next leg of my Colorado Plateau traverse, which involved picking up a canoe the next day and paddling the Flat Water to Spanish Bottom. There was only one problem…