Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Utah: still punching above its weight

Tacking a different tack, I thought I'd pull together some info on recreation opportunities for those of us in the western US. Growing up in Utah, I've often found it odd the way Americans view the state separately as either the odd-ball home of the LDS Church or an outdoor mecca. Traveling around down there and meeting gobs of Europeans and Asians, it seems most of the world has opted for the latter.

In this vein then, and for those who need a refresher, I'll explain some of the outdoor attractions all encompassed within a few hours of each other, snugly couched south of I-70 and east of I-15 in Utah's southern half. The ski opportunities in northern Utah separately deserve high praise, but we'll leave that to others. In terms of geographic context, as Utah sits in the middle of the Western US and Salt Lake's airport is a Delta hub, this region, while remote, is also fairly accessible.

To put the region in context, the US has set aside 58 national parks, and Utah, with only ~2% of the country's land area, has 5 such parks (more then any state save AK and CA); all of these are concentrated in the southern half of the state. The features here include Arches, Zion, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon National Parks; Grand Staircase-Escalante (which is larger than Delaware), Cedar Breaks, Hovenweep, and Natural Bridges National Monuments; Glen Canyon National Recreation area (over a million acres and encompassing Lake Powell); Dixie and Manti-La Sal National Forests; and Monument Valley (as featured in numerous films). There are also a number of state parks and for reference, Salt Lake City, in the north, is a 4-5 hr drive away.

What we have here is a lot of remote wilderness. A lot of rocks, crags, canyons, brush, trees, sand, animals, rivers, and mountains. There are also dark, dark skies. The kind of skies with stars such that, after a moment's glance, you feel as if you could fall into whatever's up there. Amazingly, a few million acres of this desolate earth--and it is desolate--has been preserved. Between the 5 national parks and the Grand Staircase-Escalante Natl Monument, there are about 2.7 million acres protected. Add in the other national monuments and state parks nearby and you nearly have a wild area the size of Connecticut available for your weekend's contemplation.

In terms of where you can settle in for the night, besides the hotels and campgrounds (including developed, primitive, and backcountry) in the vicinity of the various national parks, a couple western US oddities provide extra options. First, unbeknownst to most easterners, the Bureau of Land Management administers immense tracts of lands in the west. In Utah they hold some 22.9 million acres (42% of the state). One of the main benefits of this is that one can often take advantage of their friendly camping policies, which 1) limit you to 14 days at any one site, 2) ask you to pack out what you pack in (duh), 3) avoid camping within 200ft of any water source, and 4) bury human waste 6 to 12" deep well away from streams and campsites. They also tell you to not leave campfires unattended (again, duh), and to use firepans.

The other vast camping resource in the west are the national forests (including the Dixie and Manti-La Sal forests in southern Utah). While the Forest Service does have many designated campsites (see here for Utah's), they have similar dispersed camping policies as the BLM, and officially, what I found was the following: 1) limit your stay in one site to 16 days; 2) camp 100ft away from any stream or water source; 3) do not camp within 1mi of campgrounds (or in the vicinity of picnic areas or trailheads); 4) to prevent resource damage your keep campsite within 150ft of a roadway; and 5) bury feces 6" deep at least 100ft away from any water source. As always, avoid making extra fire pits and practice strict leave no trace policies. It'd be lovely if we could all enjoy these natural wonders in 50 years time.

Go out and enjoy, learn, and protect. Lord knows we, and the remaining wilderness, could use it. To sum up, I'll leave you with the words of Edward Abby, the wise, fierce, and loving defender of the American southwest:
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.

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