Getting lost on the way to the trailhead was the first sign that this wasn’t going to be your typical Utah spring break backpacking trip. Eventually we got back on the right road up towards Bears Ears Pass. When the road started to deteriorate into a snowy, muddy mess a few miles below the summit, and we had to stop to help another vehicle out of the ditch, we should have questioned the wisdom of our objective: a 40-mile, multi-day loop hike through the Dark Canyon Primitive Area. Instead, we parked off the side of the road, and started hiking towards the Bears Ears, a landmark that back in the late 90s felt like it was off the map, but has since gained national attention from recent political fighting over the Obama administration’s designation of a 1.35 million acre National Monument by the same name.
With hopes that the snow would dissipate on the other side of the pass, we kept walking up the road on a frozen layer of snow. It was easy hiking and our spirits were high, but a few miles below the pass, our luck took a turn for the worse. The frozen layer softened, and soon we were postholing through knee-deep drifts. We made camp early, still four miles from the trailhead, and got up at first light to hike while the snowpack was still frozen. Soon the temps rose and we were wading through slush once again. Eventually we did make it to the trailhead and even a short ways down snow-filled Woodenshoe Canyon, but with our painfully slow pace and a limited number of days for the trip, we were forced to turn back.
With 70 degree spring temps, there was no more strolling on top of frozen snow. It took another day and a half to walk the eight or so miles back to where we started. And it would have taken us longer, had we not stopped to fashion snowshoes for ourselves out of old plywood signs we commandeered from a roadside corral. After running ecstatically down the last half mile to the van, we were exhausted, sunburnt, stinking, and cut-up from repeatedly plunging our legs through the icy snow. Thank god for wild places like the Bears Ears that are vast enough to get lost in, untamed enough to challenge us in ways that are tough to plan for, and beautiful and inspiring enough to keep us coming back for more.
We need more wild places like these to maintain an essential spirt that makes our country unique and great, not less. Earlier this spring, the Trump administration signed executive order 13792 mandating a review of dozens of the largest National Monuments that have been designated by the last three presidents under the authority of the Antiquities Act. The list of prize public lands up for review, which the president has said could include turning some federal public lands over to states with questionable conservation records, includes national treasures such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante, Upper Missouri River Breaks, Hanford Reach, Bears Ears and many more. Hopefully the public outrage from the majority of Americans who recognize the folly in rolling back protections for our spectacular, natural landscapes will be great enough to put the brakes on this outlandish executive order. Learn more and weigh in by July 10 at Regulations.gov. //