A Good Hell



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.”



I’m short on long, profound post ideas these days so figured I’d just share the above photograph and talk about an overnighter I recently went on up in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. It was getting to be time to see what the whole tarp shelter thing was about so I got a tarp, aluminum stakes, and fifty feet of parachute cord from an outdoors store and hiked it up into the Wilderness. It was fairly light and l think all together it came to no more than $25, which is a fraction of the cost of any decent quality backpacking tent. So some definite advantages to it.

I had high hopes for this setup but after trying it out I think I’ll stick with my tent. The tarp did what it was supposed to do, namely keep the elements off of my down sleeping bag, but that’s about all it did. It was noisy and rustled in the slightest breeze and bugs were constantly crawling through the living space. I think you could cowboy-up and get used to it but I guess I don’t see the point when I already own a much nicer 1-person tent that doesn’t weigh much more. In any case, it didn’t make for the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had and the next day’s woods rambling suffered for it.

Here’s a bonus photograph taken a few hundred yards above my campsite looking into a small clearing I found in the forest:


They’re very pretty to look at and often make convenient campsites, but it’s super inconsiderate to camp in or near these little clearings. Animals use them and if you’re there with all your gear then they won’t be able to. You can be a better houseguest if you camp farther back in the trees out of sight and smell range and away from any obvious game trails. That way the local residents can come and go as they please and you’ll have less chance of midnight visitors passing through your camp.

If you really want to be a considerate wilderness visitor then you should move your camp on a daily basis so that you don’t stink up the place too bad and the wildlife don’t become accustomed to the human presence. It’s better for them when hunting season rolls around. This high up in the Wilderness they don’t have much to worry about from hunters (most modern hunters arrive with a Ford pickup’s bucket seat permanently affixed to their hind ends) but still, it’s better not to encourage bad habits.



The other day I was riding the bus home after returning a copy of Loren Eiseley’s Night Country to the Flagstaff Public Library when the driver abruptly steered the bus off the street and the diesel motor and all the internal lights shut off. For about ten seconds we all sat there looking at each other in the claustrophobic and unwelcome stillness. Had the bus broken down? Had the electronics died? Then, as if such things were completely normal on that bus line, the driver turned the key and the engine rumbled back to life and the bus pulled back out into traffic.

Finally someone asked “What gives?”

“The ‘stop requested’ sign had quit working,” the driver replied. “I wanted to see if restarting the bus would fix it. It didn’t. Give me a shout if you want me to stop.”

“Oh, okay.”

And then everyone went back to their iPhones or Pokeymon or whatever it is that people do to kill time while riding home these days. All except one, that is.

Sitting across from me was a guy, in his fifties maybe, wearing a ratty and faded USMC ball cap. He’d perked up when the bus had died and now declared loudly to all:

“North Korea is going to set off a nuclear bomb in space and the EMP is going to fry all of our electronics,” he said.

Maybe it’s bad to admit it here, but I’m a bit of a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction going way back. I cut my teeth on Shute’s On the Beach and Stewart’s Earth Abides and when flu season comes around every year I always think about captain trips and the walkin’ dude with his cowboy boots, so what my friend on the bus said piqued my interest. He must’ve seen me raise an eyebrow because he went on.

“All the computers and phones and cars and everything is going to stop working. And then we’re gonna be screwed.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Think it through, man! Think! If the lights go off then we can’t get gas and no food and we’ll have to fend for ourselves. You gotta protect what’s yours from them.”

“Who’s ‘them’?”

“You know, the ones who’ll come to take your stuff. Your food. Your guns. The people get hungry enough the society breaks down and there’ll be no cops to stop ’em. So you gotta protect what’s yours in whatever way you need to.”

“So you mean like a zombie attack?” I asked.

“Nah, man. Regular people from the cities, but desperate like, you know. They’ll come up here from Phoenix after the food runs out looking to steal it from us. Anyone who’s weak will fall prey. So you gotta be  well armed and have stockpiles of rations for yourself hidden away somewhere so you can hole up until law and order are restored. Could take months.”

He leaned forward across the aisle. “That’s what I done,” he said. “I’ve got guns and three months food and a bunch of those blue aquatainers stashed in my apartment. I’m all set for when the nukes fly. How about you, buddy? You ready?”

“I see,” I said, thinking of what happened to the prepper survivalists with their stocked caches and hardened bunkers in Heller’s The Dog Stars. “Don’t you think that maybe all that food and water and guns would just draw the hoards right to you? Make you a target? After a while they’d wear you down and then you’d be no better off than if you’d never had it in the first place. Probably dead, too. Maybe they’d eat you. After all, people do funny things when they’ve missed a few meals.”

He was ready for this, of course. He’d thought it all out.

“Nah, man,” he said with a smug smile. “That’s why you don’t tell anyone. They can’t get your stuff if they don’t know you’ve got it.” Then he winked conspiratorially.

“Ahh,” I whispered, leaning forward. “But they would know. Wouldn’t they?”

And then it was my turn to wink and smile.

He stiffened and sat back, eyes narrowing.

“Driver! This is my stop!”

Sinkhole Ramble on the Kaibab Plateau


During last month’s trip to the Kaibab Plateau one of my camps was located near a quartet of limestone sinkholes and I spent one of my hike days walking a big oval through the mixed conifer forest to each one. The above sinkhole was actually a double sinkhole, with one up high and a second deeper one immediately next to it, the two separated by a little rim of grass.

Sinkholes are easy to find if you have access to a USGS topographic map as they have a very distinctive look:


Note the little tick marks pointing inwards from the contour lines in the three sinkholes above. Simply look for those tight coils of contour lines and the tick marks. The closer the contour lines the steeper and deeper the sinkhole will be.

I walked over to the edge of the second, bigger sinkhole and this is what I saw:


This one was about 150 feet deep. Way down at the bottom there were some gophers digging in the grass. I spent about twenty minutes watching them through binoculars as I ate my lunch. (Yes, I am easily amused.)

About a quarter mile away was a third sinkhole. This one was smaller but had much steeper sides and was more forested:


The objects at the bottom turned out to be large log rounds cut by firefighters and rolled by someone down into the hole.


Kind of interesting that they were piled all together like that. Maybe someone had a camp down there.

Check out the blue spruce. It’s always a treat for me to see blue spruce on these rambles as we don’t have many of them near Flagstaff. Mostly you have to go down by the Mogollon Rim or drive to the east into the White Mountains to find them.

Some of the sinkholes on the plateau are really big and have small ponds in the bottom, like Frank’s Lake, which was a couple of miles from my campsite:



I didn’t stay long at Frank’s Lake as there were too many mosquitos and too many miles still needing to be hiked.

I’ve loaded my handheld Garmin GPS with the free Arizona topographic mapset from GPSFileDepot.com, which is mostly excellent and what I usually navigate with. But sometimes the tiny screen on the GPS is confusing or the map will be wrong and I’ll miss interesting stuff. Late in this hike I walked right past the edge of an even deeper sinkhole and didn’t even know it because it appeared like a small round knoll on the screen. I was tired and not in the mood for much more climbing that day so I walked on by. After I got home and looked at my GPS tracklog on the computer I realized my mistake.

The forest near the “hidden” sinkhole I missed looked like this:


Imagine thrashing around through that and then abruptly coming upon a 200-feet deep hole in the ground. Maybe a little dangerous, but I bet it would’ve made for a helluva picture. One day if I’m ever in the vicinity again I might go back and look for it.

Sinkholes are formed when limestone bedrock is slowly dissolved away by rainfall. Cavities form underground which eventually collapse, causing a big hole to slump down on the surface. Much of the Kaibab Plateau is built from limestone (called the Kaibab Limestone) so sinkholes are pretty common there.

Sinkhole Development

As I mentioned in my previous Kaibab Plateau post, I think my next long ramble afield will be up into Utah onto the big plateau above Bryce Canyon National Park. But that presents a bit of a challenge: The air conditioning in the red SUV is busted. It quit unexpectedly during the hot part of the drive up to Jacob Lake and the sun beating down through the windshield immediately pushed the temperature in the cab up over 110°, which was pretty damned miserable. It’s an old truck with high-ish mileage and worth almost nothing on a trade-in so I’m considering not fixing it, just letting this repair go and putting the money towards a newer replacement vehicle or just buying gasoline and camping gear for more rambling. But that means staying out of the hot areas until the weather cools down.


Of course, the trick to driving in hot places without A/C is to do all your traveling at night or early in the morning before the Fahrenheit starts to sizzle. So if I head up to southern Utah I’ll probably break the drive into two days, using the high elevation oases of the Kaibab and  Paunsaugunt Plateaus to escape the afternoon desert heat, doing the low-elevation stretches only in the early mornings. That’s the plan, anyway.



It’s been a long while since I put together a cloud post, so here are a few recent highly-enhanced shots of monsoon clouds above Flagstaff. The best shots come in the mid-afternoon when the San Francisco Peaks have had a few hours to bubble the clouds up really high into the stratosphere and the light is streaming in from the southwest, giving the camera lots of contrast and shadow to work with.


To bring out the detail I used Photoshop to do multiple passes over the raw images. The trick is to enhance the contrast between the dark grey shadow and the brightly lit areas with the dodge and burn tools. Of course clouds don’t actually have this level of drama when viewed with the naked eye because our eyes reduce their “exposure” to avoid damage from the very bright light. That’s why clouds normally look puffy and kind of flat white to us. However, if you have dark polarized sunglasses you do actually see something akin to this. My prescription sunglasses are polarized and clouds are infinitely complex, wonderfully intricate objects to look at for me now, much more so than they used to be before I got the polarized lenses.


Clouds are essentially huge mountain-sized reflectors hovering around in the sky and in addition to the visible spectrum they bounce a lot of UV light around too. This is why dermatologists say we should always wear sunglasses and sunscreen when we’re outside, even on cloudy days. Apparently the only time it’s really safe to be outside without sunscreen is when it’s completely overcast and there are no shadows evident at all. If there is a break in the clouds and you can see puffy white cloud tops then UV is being reflected back at you and you’re at risk.

This one is probably my favorite from this session:


I don’t know what the filmy layer of cloud the thunderhead is breaking through is called, but it’s pretty amazing.

It’s looking like July rainfall is going to come in below average for Flagstaff. There was a blip of moisture right at the beginning of the month, then sixteen days of hot, hot, and hot, then mixed weather. The past couple of days have been quite wet but I think we’ll still probably finish the month a tad low.

By the way, did anyone catch the climate weirdness in the graph I made of Flagstaff’s 10-year precipitation a couple of posts back?


Back in July of 2011 NOAA updated the 30-year average precipitation numbers and you can see a tiny shift in the climate in that red line. On average, our summer monsoon got a little wetter, which is good. But the winters got a little drier too, as did the spring and fall dry seasons. So that’s bad. Maybe fluctuations like this are completely normal, but to me it looks like on average our climate here is now about 1″ drier per year than it used to be, with more of the moisture coming down as rain during the summer than as snowfall in winter.

Interesting, huh?**


This shift in precipitation patterns is probably why ponderosa pine are starting to have problems getting reestablished following wildfires around here. Mature ponderosa like lots of winter snow because moisture from the snowpack soaks deep into the ground where their roots can draw upon it during the dry seasons. And young ponderosa need a string of wet springs so they can make it through their first couple of dry seasons until their roots reach down to the deeper moisture reserves. Less winter snowpack and dry springs work against this, making life very tough for them.

** Before anyone starts getting a long face I should probably state that you should not in any way confuse me with a real climate scientist or even a TV weatherman. I’m just an interested guy who reads a lot of depressing climate change stuff online and can plug numbers produced by people who do know about such things into a spreadsheet and make nifty charts.