As the winter continues to poke its icy fingers here and there into the Colorado springtime, I've been making regular escapes to the rust-colored desert sands and intimate sandstone canyons of southeastern Utah.
The desert provides its own adventure, and whether it's the one you're seeking or not, you'd best be prepared for just about anything.
EXPLORING ANCIENT INDIAN RUINS
Rafting whitewater, biking slickrock, and climbing spires aside, Southeastern Utah has an extraordinarily vast collection of prehistoric pictographs, petroglyphs and thousand-year-old Native American cliff dwellings. These early-man treasures aren't on the map. You have to do your research--talk to guides, the park service, BLM rangers, and locals--and then sketch a rough plan to hike into a remote canyon and find the ruins Indiana-Jones-style.
For the most recent trip, I went with a friend to Upper Salt Creek Canyon in Utah. We thru-hiked all of Salt Creek Canyon over a period of three days last year and, as we were new to the experience down there, we didn't allot enough time to explore more than a couple of the ruins.
This time around, instead of pushing through the whole canyon, we set out to hit the south end, make basecamp near an old rancher's cabin, and hike out for three consecutive days to explore the homes of ancient Indians. It was during this adventure I came to the conclusion to always remember a few cardinal rules of crusading the desert terrain.
Caveat: It is a federal offense to disturb or remove any archaeological artifacts. Just because there is a cool-looking pottery shard from 700AD near your campsite, doesn't mean you should stash it for yourself. Artifacts are finite; they don't grow back. Most archaeologists would estimate that nearly all of the ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Southwest have been compromised at one point or another. Cowboys, ranchers, and miners who roamed the Four Corners area notoriously looted these sites. As a result, we have only a fraction left of what was left behind. The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service all tend to leave trails to ruins unmarked in an effort to protect artifacts.
DEALING WITH DUST, DIRT, AND HIGH-HEAT EXERTION
Trekking around in the desert provides a perfect storm of difficult conditions for your body. The exposure, heat, high altitude, and wind lay a pretty gnarly scene for any oxygen-breathing, water-drinking mammal. Add to that, travel over sand and slickrock, becomes a major full body workout complete with stress on the feet and hands.
Absolute must-know's about desert travel:
1.) Sun protection is paramount.
This is not the place you want to work on your tan. It's the place for big, diva sunglasses, a bandana, and a baseball cap or wide-brimmed hat.
In five years of desert travel, I've yet to find a wide-brimmed hat that wasn't entirely nerdy-looking, nor have I have found a great straw hat that wasn't too floppy or provided enough shade for my face. (I am open to suggestions if someone has found something grand). You will often see trip report photos of me with my big glasses, hat, pigtails, and bandana across my face. No, I am not robbing a bank, but I am hoping to prevent epic sunburn, premature crow's feet, and skin cancer.
Bring two bottles of sunscreen and apply it often. I've also grown to enjoy spray sunscreen because it keeps my hands less greasy, but some people disagree with me.
Long sleeves and pants are recommended. I know, it sounds pretty horrible, but if you find clothing that’s loose with a little more room to breathe, it's not half-bad.
Pack extra socks. Think two to three pairs a day, depending on how long you are hiking, biking, whatever. Everything in the desert is dry, except for your sweaty feet. The potential for blisters and other nasty foot damage abounds.
This brings me to my next category…
2.) Take care of your body post-exercise
For your skin, yes, this includes your face, I am a huge fan of Burt's Bees Res-O-intment. Think of a cactus or a palm tree. They have waxy leaves in order to hold in moisture. That is what I do to my face with bee's wax ointment at the end of the day. Skincare fanatics will say this can clog pores, which is true, but when weighing temporary blemishes versus long-term irreparable damage, I chose the former. I also am a big fan of Nivea's thicker creams, which I apply probably twice a day. Again, this all may sound excessive, but the desert rips your skin apart and I want to have a face when I'm 50.
Your feet…oh…your feet. They sweat as you walk, pedal or paddle, and the rest of you just wants a little shade. The result is skin like wet clay, moldable to all kinds of calluses, blisters, and general grossness. The skin between your toes rubs off, all kinds of hot spots ensue.
Here are a few tricks of the foot trade:
If you feel something funny, take care of it right away. No questions or excuses. Whatever it is, it will only get worse.
Duct tape doubles as a blister-preventer.
Pack some kind of breathable footwear, and sandals for the end of the day. The very thought of your flip-flops after a long day of hot, sweaty exercise will keep you going.
Finally, pick a spot on the slickrock and stretch, at night and in the morning. You can start and end the day with a bit of meditation and athletic stretching to center the mind and body.
3.) Don’t overload your abilities or undermine your body
Have a trip plan based on your fitness abilities, scale it back due to the extreme weather and lack of water involved.
Just as this is not a place for you to be tanning, it is also not the place to be skimping on calorie and water consumption.
Your body will want to eat light in the high heat. It will want water all the time. Do it a favor and pack at least quart of water per half hour of exercise, powdered Gatorade or Crystal Light packets, and plenty of snacks. I've grown really fond of Justin's Nut Butter packets. Chewable gels are also great as are the smaller Cliff Bars. (I can't choke down a whole one). Peanut butter and nutella sandwiches are my most recent go-to trail snack.
*MacKenzie Ryan is a freelance journalist whose writing experience is based in the outdoor, adventure, and action sports arena. Her works have been published in Backpacker, Women’s Adventure Magazine, Bicycling, The Denver Post, and Mountain Bike. Follow more of her adventures at http://mackenzieryan.tumblr.com/