It’s been a couple weeks since my last post so I thought I’d share a few photos from my recent ramble to southern Utah’s Paunsaugunt Plateau. The Paunsaugunt is the high, bisected plateau situated above Bryce Canyon National Park, forming part of the uppermost “step” of what is often called “The Grand Staircase.” I didn’t go into the Park itself (I’m not big on crowds) but rather spent a week camping and hiking in the nearly deserted Dixie National Forest lands to the west of the park. I figured there’ll be plenty of time for touring the big, crowded National Parks via shuttle bus when I’m old and my knees are too shot to hike in the backcountry anymore.
I’ve been eyeing the Paunsaugunt for a while now. First it was just a bunch of contour lines on my topographic maps, the next seemingly logical destination beyond the Kaibab Plateau of northern Arizona. But then it became a real, physical thing when I saw it standing darkly on the far horizon from a camp I had near Jacob Lake this past summer. Paunsaugunt represents a sort of psychological crossroads for me, offering several interesting options for extending my “known world” of Public Lands rambling to the west, north, or east. The hardest and most time consuming part of this endeavor has been extending my thin line of hikes and camps beyond the “big ditch” of the Grand Canyon. The connection to Paunsaugunt is tenuous and skips across a whole lot of interesting country, but it is there and it’s real and now that I’m past the Canyon I have a plethora of places to go.
Anyway, the Paunsaugunt is a long, narrow north-south plateau that’s shaped kind of like a loaf of bread that’s fallen in the center. The East Fork of the Sevier River runs up the middle of it with a whole network of deep side canyons and drainages feeding into it. A main forest road runs along the Sevier and from it you can branch off into most of the side canyons for dispersed camping or hiking. There is an extensive ATV trail system on the plateau, so if that’s your thing then you could probably tour most of the plateau in a couple of days. Me, I like to walk so I spent most of my time there rambling along ridge tops and looking for high points that weren’t tree’ed in so I could see where I was at.
Here’s a Google Earth overview of the plateau:
The outer edges and the southern end are higher than the middle and north, so if you’re looking for big views or high elevation forest then that’s where you want to be. I camped in three different places, roughly equidistant down the western side of the plateau and then did big loop hikes from them.
One day I hiked around several of the high ridge tops around camp, shooting photos down into the white and red cliffs and exploring the dense mixed conifer growing there.
This was a really hard hike, covering about 3,500 feet of elevation gain and seven miles or so of walking. I’d go up one ridge, see something interesting on the other side, and then have to cross over the canyon to reach it. Did this several times. All the rough rambling was too much for one of my tired old Asolo hiking boots as coming down from the final ridge the right boot’s leather upper started to split apart at the vibram sole. Asolo makes a high quality boot and they got me back to camp without disintegrating entirely, so it was what I used to call a “graceful” failure in my software engineering days. A cheaper boot would’ve just fallen completely apart, leaving me barefoot and SOL in the woods.
This was my fault, of course. Cash is tighter than it used to be so I’m constantly trying to squeeze every last ounce of use from my outdoor equipment before I have to replace it. This time I cut it a little too close. I knew this was going to happen sooner or later and should’ve replaced the worn out boots with a new pair before leaving Flagstaff, but was hoping to get one more trip out of them before parting with the dough. Nope. Fortunately I had a second pair of lighter weight boots along for wearing in camp and while driving, so no real problem from the LPC (Leather Personnel Carrier) failure. But the point was well taken and I got a new pair of Asolos as soon as I got back home.
The next day I moved camp farther south into higher, even steeper country. My legs and feet were still tired from the previous day’s hike so I decided to take it easy and just walked a meandering loop around the surrounding two ridges, photographing aspen and peering over the edge of the Sunset Cliffs. Fantastic!
This is the kind of forest I found myself bushwhacking through for much of that hike:
In an earlier time I think you probably could’ve spooked up a grizzer in there. Today those woods are mostly still and silent save for a few mule deer and the ever-present tree squirrels. Still, there is a kind of presence there that cannot be entirely ignored.
That evening it rained hard, then hailed, then rained some more. The temperature dropped into the low forties. Just before sundown I went back on the ridge behind camp and walked along an old logging road filling in with aspen and manzanita. Not really sure why.
There was something about the grey gloom and the wind blowing through the young aspen and the cold rain that made me pause. A powerful feeling of deja vu crashed down over me like a wave on the beach. I stood there for long minutes with the rain pattering on the hood of my rain jacket, trying to remember where or when I’d been there before. I was about to shrug and continue on when I realized that what I was remembering wasn’t one of my own experiences, but rather one of my father’s old stories.
One Fall back in 1985 or 1986 he’d seen a strange bear in the Apache National Forest of eastern Arizona and the location he’d described to me was exactly like what I was standing in now on the Paunsaugunt. The old clear-cut filling in with aspen. The gloomy Fall afternoon. The spitting rain. The creepy feeling of not having been alone and then, like something out of a Lovecraft story, an impossible thing that could not be but somehow was crossing the end of the overgrown road and slipping silently into the dense forest beyond. He’d described the spectral form of what he’d seen in such terrible detail that there was no doubt what it was: a lost grizzly still haunting the Escudilla woods fifty years after the last one had been hunted out by government hired guns. No one would’ve believed him had he told anyone so he kept it to himself, relating the story to me only in the last months before he died in 2013, almost thirty years after the fact.
I guess it was probably one of his tall tales, one of the whoppers he’d sometimes slip into a story just to see if he could get it past you. My dad was kind of like that. The western Apache called it the Slim Coyote and I guess he had an element of old Slim in him… come to think of it, maybe I do too.
It was another hike day so the next morning I broke camp and moved the truck down into the open along the East Fork of the Sevier where a Forest Service trail started. The trail followed Mill Creek up a wide canyon all the way to the Pink Cliffs at the far southern end of the plateau. I followed the trail for maybe a half mile before an old wildfire scar on the point above caught my eye and I left the easy walking for a steep bushwhack through regenerating spruce/fir forest.
For a change it was nice to see a burned mountainside actually bouncing back from wildfire. This fire occurred in 1994, a couple years before the Southwest drought started to really dig in.
At the top of the ridge I walked through the forest to the edge of the Pink Cliffs. From one of the points you could look back on a small part of the Cliffs. These pictures don’t do them or the view southwards justice, believe me.
I found a very old, very steep, very poorly designed foot / horse trail that went along the gravelly edge all the way up to the top where you could look out across the great expanse of the Grand Staircase and see the Kaibab Plateau in the hazy distance. As usual, the Kaibab Plateau was on fire because the Kaibab National Forest are a bunch of fire-bugs (but in a good way, if that’s possible.)
I ate my lunch there on the edge, trying not to think about what it would be like to accidentally slide down the gravelly slope, futilely clawing at the shrubs and loose rock, and then slip out over the cliff edge below into 800 feet of empty space. It’s not as high of a precipice as parts of the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona, but it’s gettin’ there.
During his second expedition in 1871-1872, explorer John Wesley Powell made his survey of the Grand Staircase area from this point on the Pink Cliffs. What isn’t commonly known is that in December of 1871 Powell’s own survey set off a minor gold rush when two of his packers panned flour gold from gravel in the Colorado while searching for a route to Kanab Creek. The news got out and hundreds of potential prospectors showed up, irritating Mormon settlers and the local Paiute indian bands. Because of the escalating tensions and fears that the Paiutes might not honor their promise of safe passage, Powell was forced to end his second great river expedition at Kanab Creek. As for the hundreds of prospectors, most found nothing and left Kanab Canyon “swearing vengeance on the originator of the story.” I couldn’t find any references stating if Powell knew that it was his own people that ultimately wound up ending his expedition. If he did I wouldn’t think he’d have seen much humor in the situation. (But I do.)
Anyway, after lunch I walked north along the ridge away from the Pink Cliffs. There was an old burn scar there and from it you could see north along the length of the Paunsaugunt all the way to the Sevier Plateau and to the northeast (I think) the Aquarius Plateau.
The Sevier Plateau is the dark grey form on the far middle horizon in the above shot. It will probably be the next outbound step northwards for my little rambles. It is higher than Paunsaugunt but has far less trees on it thanks to an escaped prescribed burn a few years back. I was looking at it through binoculars. The rock looks different there, sharper, less eroded, less hospitable for trees, so it may be geologically younger. It’s possible forest never had a very good foothold there. But I need to do some research and see what’s there, see if it’s worth taking a drive up there.
Later, after the hike I moved camp to a canyon farther north where I hoped it would be a little warmer, not far from Tropic Reservoir. There was a Forest Service campground at the reservoir but I wasn’t in any kind of mood for that so found a dispersed campsite up another side canyon. Below this new camp there was a big meadow and I settled into a large already impacted site next to it.
It was after dark when I arrived so didn’t notice that the summer boondock campers had left a little surprise there: an open latrine back in the trees where some nasty bastard had dumped his RV’s black water tank. I didn’t find it until the next morning when I walked around the area on my “magic hour” photography walk.
This was my last day on the Paunsaugunt before leaving for the Kaibab Plateau and ultimately home so I took my time walking around the area. Just down the meadow I found some very old looking aspen trees growing in a copse next to a stock tank.
On one of those trees someone in 1914 had carved the question
It’s a good Hell aint it?
into the white bark in very fine, exquisite cursive script.
I stopped and stared at it, coffee cup in hand. Then, thinking back over the past week spent exploring the Paunsaugunt, I raised the cup as if to make a toast to the unseen and almost certainly dead author of the arborglyph and said:
“Yes, sir. It was a good Hell. A very fine Hell indeed.”