Leaving No Trace in Bears Ears

Posted by Erica Tucker on Feb 4th 2019

By Erica Tucker, Education Director, Friends of Cedar Mesa

Water? Check. Map? Check. Did I remember matches this time? AND my stove fuel?

I’m setting off for my first backpacking trip in Bears Ears and I’m eager to see the canyon walls climb over my head, ancient structures hidden in alcoves, and petroglyphs appearing around the corner. Most of my backpacking has been in the mountains of California and Colorado, and in the often unpleasant weather of New England. This 50 degree November day with blue sky and no rain in the forecast feels like a gift.

Desert hiking presents new challenges and opportunities, especially in culturally rich areas like the Bears Ears. Whereas I’m used to packing (and using!) rain gear, instead I needed to research where I could find drinking water. For clumsy people like me, tweezers are essential for cactus spine removal. And finding a place to pee means looking for something taller than a clump of grass without cryptobiotic soil surrounding it.

Leave No Trace principles vary region by region, and I had to brush up on gentle backpacking practices for the desert environment. Having never hiked in an area with so many artifacts from past cultures around me, I also needed to learn how to “visit with respect”. “Take only pictures” holds true everywhere – add to your photo album but the beautifully painted sherds of pottery need to stay where you find them. And if you like to post on social media, it’s important to remove all references to location and turn off your camera’s GPS. “Leave only footprints” morphs a little as we shouldn’t leave our heavy boot tracks through the century-old, lumpy cryptobiotic soil crust. Note that fingerprints also shouldn’t be left behind, so no touching petroglyphs and pictographs!

My hiking companion is a lovable rescue dog named Roxie, and I’ve had to learn some new tricks for backpacking with her. She didn’t need booties for our [November] hike since the sand wasn’t hot, but she still had to be on leash and not harassing wildlife (or having close encounters with rattlesnakes and cacti!). She loves to swim but the backcountry rangers informed me that people and pets need to stay out of the scarce desert potholes of water – it is all that desert wildlife and hikers have to drink! Most important is keeping her leashed away from archaeological sites. A little digging or gallivanting could destroy what’s lasted for centuries.

Roxie and I made it to our destination in the late afternoon. While the sheltered alcoves looked inviting, I knew we needed to camp out of (and eat, drink, and poop!) away from archaeological sites. I prepared my TrailFork Apricot-Almond Couscous dinner and ate it while watching the sunset light change colors on the canyon walls. Many areas don’t allow campfires, but that was ok with me since I was snuggled up and asleep by the time the first stars appeared. The Bears Ears area provided me with a beautiful introduction to desert backpacking. And if we all “visit with respect”, this experience will remain for future generations.