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Burning Man 2013: The Pilgrimage, part 2

Day 3 of our pilgrimage to Burning Man, and since Ross hadn’t laid eyes on the Grand Canyon since he was a little kid, I decide it will be well worth the hour and a half drive from Flagstaff to show it to him the BenStarr way.

I have to say that when it comes to natural wonders, I become fiercely allergic to people.  I simply CANNOT enjoy the wonders of Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon if I’m jostling for elbow room along a railing with a dozen tour bus loads of camcorder-toting tourists.  It will absolutely RUIN the experience for me.  In fact, the first time I went to Yosemite, it was a summer weekend, and the hike to Vernal Falls looked more like an amusement park line, and I left and swore I would never, ever go back.  (I did, but it took a decade, and I did it smart when I went back.)  So when it comes to a place like the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which sees about 4.5 million visitors a year, I have to be VERY careful about when I go and where I go, otherwise I break out in a rash and swear to never visit again.

So, of course, I have this secret spot.  It’s less than a 4 mile drive from the Times-Square-like overlooks in the Grand Canyon Village, but it’s a world away from the crowds.  There are no railings.  No concrete.  And the canyon wraps around you on 3 sides because you’re standing on a point that juts way out into the center, so it feels like the earth has dropped out from beneath you and leaves you feeling really queasy and stunned.

Getting to this secret spot, which isn’t advertised in the park literature, requires a 1 mile hike from an unmarked pullout on the park road.  Which is as it should be.  NO ONE should drive right up to the Grand Canyon rim, step out of their car, and see it.  You have to approach it the natural way…by working a little.

After an incredibly pleasant 15 minute stroll through fragrant pine forest, I make Ross wrap his hands around his eyes to eliminate his peripheral vision.  Then I walk right in front of him, so he can see where my feet land.  He’s only allowed to look straight down at the ground in front of him.  We walk carefully, step by step along the path as it heads out onto a narrowing fin of rock that juts out into the canyon.  A misstep here can result in death.  And there are no guard rails.  Some people might call me crazy for making people walk without peripheral vision, but it’s actually much safer to focus solely on the path beneath your feet, rather than be distracted by the wonders around you.

We reach the point where, if you take another step, you plummet a vertical mile to the canyon bottom, and I have Ross open his eyes.  He’s not one for freaking out, like I am.  But he is overwhelmed.  And he has to sit down from the vertigo.  The canyon drops precipitously on all sides except for the narrow rock ledge behind us that we walked out on.  We are the only people there…the folks inhabiting the other 2 cars in the parking lot passed us on our hike in as they headed out.

We sit and stare, our brains trying to process the vastness.  It doesn’t seem real.  A roll of thunder from behind wakes us from our reverie and we turn to see a storm approaching.  You don’t want to be the tallest thing out on a rock in the middle of the canyon when lightning strikes, but the storm is still 20 minutes off, so we watch the colors in the canyon change as the storm cloud’s shadow encroaches.  With each clap of thunder, the canyon shakes and echoes, and what would normally be a 3 second rumble lasts almost a full minute.  Birds soar in the vast silence.

I’ve sat in this exact spot a dozen times over the past 15 years, each time with someone who is laying eyes on the canyon for the first time.  And I become aware that I’ve never experienced a thunderstorm at the Grand Canyon.  Snow, yes.  But thunder?  The way the canyon amplifies and tosses around the deep tones is just unearthly.

A few drops graze my face and while I desperately want to sit here and experience the raw power of nature, the safest thing is to get off the bare rock, so we head back to the car.  The increasing rain unlocks the scent of the pine trees and the temperature drops 20 degrees almost instantly, but we are spared the downpour until we are 5 feet from the car.

We drive east and I attempt to show Ross another stunning vista at Grandview.  But there are people.  Lots of them.  I watch as one guy flippantly flicks his cigarette butt onto the trail, and I stare at him, open-mouthed.  What exactly about this place makes him think it’s his personal trash can?  The naïve part of me wants to believe that a single glimpse of something as stunning as the Grand Canyon can awe anyone into a respect of nature, but that’s just not the truth.  In fact, in a hundred short feet of trail, I pick up a dozen cigarette butts, two straws, a plastic shopping bag, and a Styrofoam cup.  The part of me that wishes everyone in this country could lay eyes on our national park wonders is almost dead.  Anyone who deliberately drops trash on a trail in a national park does not deserve to be there.  Ever.  Thank heavens I’m not running this country, because I would imprison ANYONE caught littering in a national park for a full year.  I can be a very forgiving person…too forgiving, as my friends can attest.  But littering in nature is something I will not forgive anyone for.  Ever.

This is one aspect of Burning Man that continually amazes me every year.  One of the core values of the event is Leave No Trace.  One would imagine that when 65,000 people get together in the desert to  build a temporary city, throw a giant party for a week, and burn giant wooden structures, that the place would be a total disaster when everyone leaves.  But the Bureau of Land Management sends out a team of rangers after the event is over to walk across the entire footprint of the event, looking for trash.  The last 5 years in a row, they have yet to come up with more trash than will fill a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.  In the aftermath of 65,000 people camping out and burning things.  It is truly incredible.  So, Mr. Cigarette Butt Flipper from Grandview Point on August 19 at 2:30 in the afternoon, don’t ever try to show your face at Burning Man or you might end up being burned at the stake yourself!

Electric blue waters of the lower Little Colorado. Image courtesy of norcalblogs.com

We head further east out of the national park to a spot that, for me, at least, is even MORE impressive than the Grand Canyon, and most tourists whizz right past it, eager to get to the park.  It’s the gorge of the Little Colorado River, a tributary of the Colorado River that flows into the Grand Canyon near its eastern end.  This impossibly narrow, dark, deep gorge hides a river that, for much of the year, flows an electric translucent blue due to dissolved minerals in its waters.  But during the summer monsoon season, and the spring melt in the mountains of central Arizona, the Little Colorado flows thick and muddy, scouring out the rock and making the canyon ever deeper.  The Little Colorado is one of the least visited places in the mainland US.  The upper canyon is filled with deadly quicksand, and the lower canyon has only a couple of routes down into it, all of which require intense scrambling and route finding skills.  Very experienced canyoneers have died down there.

The Hopi sipapu, navel of the earth, where their people emerged into this world. It is requested that visitors not climb the dome. This is not my image, it appears courtesy of bobbordasch.com

But it has been a place of pilgrimage for the native Hopi people for many centuries.  In fact, deep within the Little Colorado gorge lies the “sipapu,” or the navel of the earth.  For the Hopi, this is the center of the universe, and it is where their people were birthed into this world.  The sipapu is an ancient hot spring dome, and seeing it has been at the top of my must-do list for many years.  But several attempts at descending the gorge have been foiled by Mother Nature in years past.  I figure when I’m ready, she’ll let me down there to respectfully gaze at the sipapu, and bathe in the electric blue waters of the Little Colorado.

For now, Ross and I stand on the razor edge of the gorge and our stomachs churn with vertigo.  The fierce wind buffets us as we cautiously peer into the seemingly bottomless depths.  The hair on my neck stands up and my body screams “DANGER, DANGER, DANGER” at me.  I meet a young Hungarian/Belarusian couple on the edge of the cliff, and he’s trying to convince his girlfriend to take a picture of him scrambling down to a narrow ledge about 6 inches wide, with nothing below it but 3,500 feet of thin air, but she is panicking and refuses to do it.  He fights with her as he’s lowering himself into the precarious position, and I realize the best thing to do is just to take the camera from her and snap the shot to stop the fighting, so that he focuses on his safety rather than his anger.  My stomach shreds into bits as he cautiously climbs back to safety, and I tell him that was a very, very foolish thing to do and to please be more careful in the rest of the park.

At dinner in Flagstaff that night at Criollo (a fabulous restaurant that sources all their ingredients locally), my new friend Eston, a park ranger, makes an interesting comment after I tell him the story.

“I’m actually way more scared of places like that now than I was before I became a park ranger.”

“Really?  That surprises me.  I figured you’d have walked across so many narrow ledges by now that you wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at it.”

“Well, yes, I’ve been in some really precarious places, but that’s not what changed my mind.  What changed my mind was retrieving bodies from down in the canyon after accidents or suicides, and seeing exactly what happens to the body after it falls that kind of distance.”

Wow…that’s a sobering comment.  I know that many folks make a pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon to commit suicide.  Luckily, most of them fail.  But Eston continues, “We really don’t know how many people try to kill themselves in the park, but it’s way more than what gets reported.  Every single time we go down to retrieve a body, we find 2 or 3 others.”

So those secret dreams I harbor of being a park ranger some day just flew out the window.

Ross and I say our goodbyes.  Audrey is an old friend from high school, and though we don’t see each other that often, she’s one of those people that’s just so real and self-knowing that I’m instantly comfortable in her presence.  She is incredibly easy to love.  And her husband Scott, a Grand Canyon ranger who I’ve now had the pleasure of meeting twice, is a perfect match for her.  They are such good people.  And this time they introduced me to Eston, also a park ranger, and his partner Jonathan, a Canadian who works as an archivist at the university.  So I think I’ve found my dream team for that descent into the gorge of the Little Colorado!

Now, it’s on to Las Vegas…my least favorite place on planet earth, but often a necessary stopping place in the vast wilderness of the West, for one night, because we need a shower and hair dryer to do the all-important pre-Burning Man hair dying.

I hope to get one more blog posted Wednesday night before leaving for the remote wilds of the Black Rock Desert where the event is held…and after that you’ll have to wait a bit for pictures and stories of the insanity that is to ensue!

Utah Series: Hot Springs

Those who follow my blog regularly know how obsessed I am with natural hot springs.  They never cease to amaze me.  The fact that toasty warm water seeps up from beneath the ground and provides us with a natural jacuzzi just blows my mind over and over.

In this special series where I’m highlighting my favorite spots in my favorite state, Utah, I’m going to introduce you to some favorite hot springs of mine…some of them are popular and heavily visited, and others are more obscure and remote.

We’re stOgden hot springarting in the north of the state, just outside the town of Ogden, Utah, less than an hour north of Salt Lake City.  Here you’ll find a hot spring tucked into spectacular Ogden Canyon, where a series of beautiful stone pools sit just above a rushing stream and provide an INCREDIBLY hot soak that’s very popular with folks from the nearby town.

Depending on their state of repair and the level of the creek, there are anywhere from two to eight soaking pools here in Ogden Canyon.  The temperatures in the pools are all on the very high end, above 104F.  This makes the pools a fabulous place to soak in the fall and winter.  But if you happen to visit in the peak of summer, when I did, the icy stream may end up being more comfortable!  Ryan and I ended up having to shield ourselves from the blistering sun with the sun shade from my car!

You know you’re a dedicated hot spring soaker when you’re soaking in 104 degree water on a 100 degree day!  *chuckle*  Most people would think we’re crazy, but I had wanted to soak at Ogden for years, so the summer heat wasn’t going to stop me.  It’s important to bring a bucket with you to this hot spring, so you can ladle cold water from the creek into the pools to cool them off.  Some of the pools are so hot in summer that you can’t even get into them without bailing in water from the creek.

Luckily, the sun went down below the canyon wall, and at sunset the air cooled off considerably.  Of course, this brought the crowds from town, so we no longer had the place to ourselves.  Two of the upstream pools were broken at the time of my visit, so everyone was crowding into the hottest pools downstream.  But it was still a fabulous soak, and when you get overheated, you can plunge into the icy stream to cool off.

The next spring I’m taking you to is less than an hour’s drive southeast of Salt Lake City.  Even though it’s a pretty stiff 2.5 mile hike each way to this spring, it is WILDLY popular with both locals, as well as hiking buffs from nearby Salt Lake.  This is Diamond Fork, or Fifth Water hot springs:

Fifth Water hot springsMany hot spring enthusiasts consider Diamond Fork to be the best hot spring in the country, if not the planet, and I was VERY eager to visit.  My trip was on a rainy autumn day, and even though I broke my personal rule of NEVER visiting a hot spring on a weekend, it was the only time I could go.  I was hoping the rain would keep the crowds at bay, but as you can see from the photo, I wasn’t lucky.

Fifth Water hot springsThe soaking pools at Diamond Fork are strung along a cool stream both below and above a fairly big waterfall.  In the summer, the stream is warm enough to swim in, but in fall you gotta stick to the pools.  There are many pools of various sizes and temperatures.  The ones in the photo to the left are the most coveted and deepest, but there are some shallower ones below the base of the waterfall.  If you have trouble finding seclusion, the Kokopelli Pools are a slick and mildly dangerous scramble up above the waterfall:

Fifth Water hot springsUnfortunately, with all the rain, the icy creek was overflowing into these pools, making them too cold to soak, so we had to stick to the crowded pools below the main falls, which were lovely with the autumn colors:

Fifth Water hot springsThere is a cave behind the waterfall that you can carefully climb to…in warm weather, of course!  And the creek below the soaking pools is so heavy with dissolved minerals from the hot springs that it runs a pale, milky blue and remains tepid for almost a mile before it joins a larger creek.

Fifth Water hot springsMost wilderness hot springs like this are relatively uncrowded and it’s common for most users to soak au-naturel…sans clothing…er…naked.  Which is definitely the way I prefer to enjoy nature’s bounty of geothermal water.  But Diamond Fork is plagued by several factors that make it unwise to soak nude there…the conservative Mormon influence on law enforcement has caused the local police to drive from the nearest town to the remote parking lot, hike an hour up the canyon into the wilderness, and arrest groups of hikers soaking nude, charge them with public indecency, and force them to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.  Which is completely and utterly ridiculous.  Luckily, a high court overturned the local court’s decision, and to my knowledge, no one ever arrested at Diamond Fork is still on the sex offender’s list.  At any other hot spring in the country that requires an hour-long wilderness hike, you’ll find virtually everyone soaking naturally…but not here.  So don’t forget your swimsuit at this one!

I have to admit that after well over a decade of anticipation, Diamond Fork did NOT impress me to the extent that I had hoped.  Perhaps when I can hike there midweek in the off season, camp in the canyon above the pools, and have them all to myself in the early morning hours…I’ll change my tune.  But there are so many other wonderful wilderness springs that DON’T look like a public swimming pool on a July weekend…so for now, I’ll stick to those!

And one of them is Gandy Warm Springs, in remote western Utah just a stone’s throw from the Nevada border!

Here in the middle of a very parched, arid desert, a river of 82 degree water explodes from the side of rugged mountain riddled with caves.  Gandy is a long way from anywhere, and aside from occasional swimmers from the handful of ranches in the area, you’re likely to have it all to yourself.  You’re not likely to find yourself anywhere near Gandy unless you’re visiting America’s least-visited mainland national park, Great Basin, which is less than an hour away, and home to the oldest trees in the world, the bristlecone pines.  From Great Basin, it’s a half-hour drive on a good dirt road to the turnoff for Gandy, and then half a mile of VERY bad dirt road to the springs.

This is rattlesnake country, so if you decide to pick your way up from the waterfall to the beautiful soaking pool and caves above, be extremely cautious in the tall brush.  I saw 2 rattlers on my visit!

The upper soaking pool at Gandy is a real gem, even though it’s a bit chilly for the cool seasons.  Locals have cleverly crafted a fire pit next to the pool, for a bonfire on warm summer evenings.  Just above the upper pool is a small cave that the stream funnels into:

There are caves all over the place here…up on Gandy Mountain behind the springs are several large caves that are gated.  The local ranch can provide tours with enough advance notice.  But there’s a cave behind the lower waterfall that can be explored by anyone with a bit of an adventurous spirit.

It doesn’t look like an extensive cave upon first glance, but in the back of this overhang is a narrow passage that requires you to duck underwater for a couple of feet to emerge in the larger passage beyond.  (Be EXTREMELY cautious if you decide to explore the cave!)  The passage goes back about 50 feet and the water is chest deep with a fairly stiff current, and in places you have to hold onto the walls of the cave to prevent it from sweeping you back toward the entrance!  The walls of the cave are beautifully decorated with stalactites due to the constant dripping water.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos in the cave because the steam from the warm water fogged up my camera.  You will need a waterproof flashlight to explore the farthest corners of the cave, and make sure you have a friend stationed at the entrance in case you need help.

Here’s a short video of the springs:

Back in civilization, there’s a pretty stellar hot spring less than a mile from I-15 near the village of Meadow.  Meadow hot springs is on private land, but the owner has generously made it available to the public, provided you follow his rules: no alcohol or drugs, and no nudity.  Scout troops normally conduct cleanups of the area, which is regularly trashed by local partiers.  Meadow is one of the more unusual hot springs out there.

A collection of 3 large pools sit in a meadow at the foot of the Wasatch mountains, but unlike most springs, these pools have no outflow.  They are just holes in the ground filled with hot water.  The level of the water varies significantly throughout the year, as does the temperature, but the pools don’t release any water into a stream.  Which is just bizarre.

The main soaking pool is so deep (over 30 feet)…also unusual for hot springs…so there’s a rope stretched across the pool for you to hold onto while you peer into the crystalline depths of the pool:

You can camp on the flat ground near the parking lot, and I often do.  I’ve visited Meadow hot springs half a dozen times, and it’s always a fabulous soak.  Here’s some video to give you a closer look:

Utah has many commercially-developed hot springs, and I normally avoid these places because they come with crowds and clothing-required policies.  However, I make an exception for one of the most unique geothermal areas anywhere…Midway.

In this gorgeous, historic town settled by Swiss immigrants, most of the groundwater is hot, and the fields and farms are irrigated by geothermal water.  On cold winter mornings, it looks like the fields are steaming, and this is one place where, even when the ground is buried under snow, tomatoes and melons can grow in geothermally-heated greenhouses.  Here you’ll find the historic Homestead Resort, which has been a wayside stopover for weary travelers for more than a century.  On the grounds of the resort is “The Crater,” one of the world’s most striking hot springs, hidden inside a massive limestone dome made of minerals deposited by the spring over millenia:

The water in The Crater is clear blue and over 65 feet deep…so deep that local outfitters offer SCUBA lessons there.  In fact, this is one of the only places in the world where you can spend the morning on world-class ski slopes (in just-over-the-hill Deer Valley and the Park City resorts), and the afternoon SCUBA diving in warm water!  The water in The Crater varies from 90F to 96F, which, in chilly alpine Utah, would normal restrict soaking to the warmest summer nights…but since you’re inside a cave, it makes year-round soaking possible!  It’s really an extraordinary thing.

Early soakers had to descend a rope through The Crater’s opening to access the water, but in the early 1900s, the resort blasted a hole through the side of the mineral dome, which lowered the level of the water to the current level (which does fluctuate throughout the year), so now you access it by a tunnel.

The Crater is the largest of a whole series of hot spring craters dotted across the area where hot water rises to the surface along a fault line.  The puzzling thing is that the level of water in each crater varies…two craters right next to each other may have water levels that vary up to 20 feet between them, and water in a crater uphill may be lower than the water level in a crater downhill from it.  The whole place is really bizarre.  Some of the craters are right next to the road:

The only other soakable crater in the area is on the grounds of the stunning Zermatt Resort, located right across the street from The Homestead and owned by the same folks:

This is a world-class resort and spa (which often wins Best Resort in the state), just 20 minutes from Park City, but even in peak season, their prices are a fraction of what you’d pay over the hill in Park City’s stuffy, posh resorts.  And they run shuttles to Deer Valley all day long in the ski season.  So it makes a perfect base for you ski fanatics, because you can ski the country’s best powder during the day, and soak in 100F geothermal water at night in Zermatt’s beautiful hot spring crater:

Many other craters lie on the grounds of the resort, one of which has a waterfall going into it.

Next week I’ll be highlighting Midway as a destination, because it’s such a cool place.  There’s incredible food, family farms producing artisan products, world-class small inns at unthinkable prices…all just a stone’s throw from Salt Lake.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of Utah’s natural hot springs.  There are states with more thermal water than Utah…but none have the wide span of unique features that you find here in my favorite state.

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