Monday, June 29, 2009

Moon Utah Camping Reviewed in the Salt Lake Tribune

The guidebook I wrote, and inspiration for this blog, Moon Utah Camping got a quick write-up in Travel Section of the Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday, June 28th. You'll find it on page H-4 in the Away/Travel and Outdoors Section. If you're interested in learning more about the book here's the link to our site and the Moon Outdoors website promoting the book. You can also order it here off the Utah Camping Blog.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Utah Field Guide - Engelmann's Spruce

Englemann Spruce (picea engelmannii)

Our campground of the week is Spruces in Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains just east of Salt Lake City. Not surprisingly Spruces is named after it's most common tree species, the Englemann spruce. Engelmann spruce are a species we all know living in the United States because of one of our strongest national traditions: Christmas trees. Englemann spruce are often chosen as Christmas trees for their perfect conical shape, well spaced yet gently drooping branches, and vibrant blue-green needles.

Engelmann spruce are conifers in the pine tree family. They are the most widespread spruce in America and are one of the most important trees species in the southern Rockies ecosystem. Found above 8,500 in elevation, Engelmann spruce typically grow in sub-alpine environments mixed in with other similar coniferous trees like blue spruce, sub-alpine fir, and white fir. The trees do best growing in shady conditions with adequate moisture. Living at high-elevation where the growing season is short, they grow slowly, but can live very long lives. Englemann spruce will grow steadily for 300 years and it's not uncommon to find 500-600 year old individuals. Trees as old as 800 years old exist.

Mature Englemann spruce range between 80-130 feet tall with a diameter up 3 feet. Their needles (see the photo above) are blue-green in color, about 1 to 1 1/4 inches in length and spread from a central branch. They grow off the twig evenly in all directions. The needles are sharp to the touch, but not very stiff. The bark is (see photo) thin and scaly and flakes off in small discs. The cones are yellow or purplish-brown and hang from the upper branches of the tree. The cones scales are papery thin with sharp, jagged edges.

Fun Facts about Engelmann Spruce:

1) The tree is named after botanist George Englemann. Englemann was a physician and a botanist and lived in St. Louis in the 18th century.

2) Wood from Engelmann spruce are used in pianos, violins and aircraft parts.

3) Traditionally the tree was used for a variety of purposes including weaving into baskets, carving into canoes, roofing for shelters, dressings for wounds or cuts, and chewed for cough control.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spruces in Big Cottonwood Canyon - Campground of the Week June 25 - July 2

Finally it's stopped raining in Salt Lake and the weather up in the Wasatch Range is getting warm enough for pleasant camping. If you're looking for a quick get-a-way from Salt Lake, one of the most accessible campgrounds is Spruces in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Spruces Campground - east of Salt Lake City in Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest

Spruces is located in Big Cottonwood Canyon less than a half-hour drive from Salt Lake City. Big Cottonwood Canyon is one of the recreation jewels of the Wasatch Mountains and the Salt Lake area in general. Steep, craggy peaks rise quickly from the canyon floor, beckoning campers to come out and explore. Many popular hiking trails of varying length and difficulty leave from the Big Cottonwood Road and make Spruces on of the best campgrounds for hiking in Utah. The 3.5 mile Days Fork Trail leaves directly from the campground and accesses a beautiful canyon and old mining camps. Lake Blanche, one of the best day-hikes in this part of the range, starts a short distance down Big Cottonwood Canyon at the S-Curve parking lot. Hundreds of easily accessible rock-climbing routes have been established on the quartzite cliffs up and down canyon. Some of the most concentrated and popular collections of routes are at crags like Storm Mountain (which has one of the single best crack climbs in the Big Cottonwood, Gordo's Wall 5.10c), the S-Curve, and the Salt Lake Slips (great for beginners). Excellent single track mountain biking trails are located at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon at Guardsman Pass, and via chairlift at Solitude Mountain Resort (the Sunrise lift started running for mountain biking and disc-golf on Saturday June 20th).

For being so close to such a big city, the wild character this campground maintains is remarkable. Stately spruce and Douglas fir trees shade many of the campsites and give the area a lush, alpine feel. Big Cottonwood Creek runs through the campground and attracts fisherman to the open meadow downstream from the camping. Moose frequent these wetlands, providing a good chance for a sighting. The loops and parking areas are paved, and the facilities are well maintained. Thick trees provide good separation between the sites. Spruces is a huge campground and is usually quite busy. If you plan on camping there on a weekend (especially the upcoming 4th of July weekend) make reservations in advance.

Campsites, facilities:
There are 97 sites for tents and RVs and three group sites for up to 50 people. Individual sites 10, 35, and the three group sites are wheelchair accessible. Picnic tables, barbeque grills, fire pits, drinking water, modern restrooms, and garbage service are provided. Firewood and ice are available. Pets are not permitted in Big Cottonwood Canyon because it is a watershed.
Reservations, fees: Reservations are accepted at 877/444-6777 or online at and must be made a minimum of three days in advance. Single sites are $18, double sites are $36, triple sites are $54, group sites are $120, and extra vehicles and day use are $6. Open late-May through mid-October, weather permitting.
From Salt Lake City, take I-15 south to I-215 south. Take Exit 6 (6200 S) for Wasatch Boulevard off I-215. Follow Wasatch Boulevard to the Big Cottonwood Canyon Road Rte. 190 (7200 S) and turn left at the mouth of the Canyon. Follow the winding road 10.1 miles up the canyon to Spruces Campground on the right side of the road.
GPS Coordinates:
N 40 38.546' W 111 38.244'

Salt Lake Ranger District, 801/466-6411.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Snow Canyon - Campground of the Week for June 17-24

I haven't talked much about Utah's state parks yet on this blog, but that's not because they don't deserve recognition. The more time I spent outside in Utah, the more impressed I am with the state parks here. Utah has five national parks, and they are amazing, deserving, wonderful places. But because the landscape here is so unique, not every interesting area can be encompassed in the national parks. And where the national parks leave off, the state parks pick up. One of my personal favorites in the state park system is Snow Canyon State Park. Located just north of St. George, this desert canyon offers a beautiful, quiet alternative to the zoo-like atmosphere of Zion National Park this time of year.

Snow Canyon

Snow Canyon State Park preserves a red and salmon colored desert rockscape accented with dark layers of desert varnish, lichen, and basalt. In the northern part of the park, lava flows from as recent as 10,000 years ago cap many of the red rock formations like chocolate frosting on a red and white layer cake. The desert floor is covered with a mosaic of flora, including narrow-leaved yucca, creosote, pinyon pine, rabbitbrush, scrub oak and three leaved sumac. The park is home to the endangered desert tortise and many species of birds, including the lesser nighthawk, Costa's hummingbird, and ash throated flycatcher, rock and canyon wrens, northern mockingbirds, and lesser goldfinch. The park features a paved trail for biking, many hiking trails, and good rock climbing on the red rock faces. Intensely varnished walls make for unique climbing on sharply in-cut holds on the Circus Wall, only a few hundred yards off the main road. In total, there are approximately 180 climbing routes in the park. More climbing info here at Mountain Project. The campground in Snow Canyon is located in the heart of the scenery. Tent sites and RV sites are in seperate areas, making for a pleasant experience for both. The scenic walk-in sites have views south down-canyon, while paved, tightly spaced, full hook-up RV sites have covered eating areas that incorperate local lava rock into their design. Tent sites sport thoughtfully placed red sand tent pads under trees to maximize available shade. Solar-heated showers offer a much-needed opportunity to clean up on desert road trips.

Campsites, facilities:
There are 14 full hook-up sites, 17 sites without hook-ups, and two group sites. Cottontail Group Area accomodates up to 35 people and Quail Group Area up to 50 people. Full hook-up sites have picnic tables and barbeque grills. The other sites have picnic tables and fire pits. Aluminum recycling, garbage service, drinking water, and modern restrooms with showers are provided. A station is available. Leashed pets are permitted.

Reservations, fees:
Reservations are accepted at 800/322-3770 or online at Single site reservations must be made a minimum of two days in advance and can be arranged up to 16 weeks in advance. There is a non-refundable reservation fee of $8 for individual sites and $10.25 for group sites. Full hook-up sites are $20, sites without hook-ups are $16, the group sites are $3 per person (with a $50 cleaning deposit), and the day-use fee is $5. Open year-round.

Directions: From St. George, drive north on State Route 18 for eight miles, turn left into the park, and continue 2.2 miles to the visitors center and campground. Here's a look at the park on Mapquest.

GPS coordinates:
N 37 12.168' W 113 38.390'

Contact: Snow Canyon State Park, 435/628-2255.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Camping Field Guide - Mountain Goats: are they good or bad?

One of the animals you're likely to see if you spend any time in the Wasatch Mountains are mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus). Their conspicuous white coats and relatively tame dispositions make them highly visible, especially in the heavily traveled Wasatch Range. They're most comfortable clamoring across rocks, where their soft-hoofed feet give them uncanny agility. Steep terrain provides protection from predators and is the most likely place to spot them.

Mountain goats can be easily recognized by their thick white coats that keep them warm in extremely cold temperatures. They actually grow a double coat, with thick, course outer hairs reaching up to eight inches in length, insulated by a 2-3 inch thick fine wool under-layer. Each spring mountain goats molt or shed this thick coat (notice the partially molted coat above). If you're in an area with goat activity, check on the bushes and shrubs and you'll likely find their fur. By mid-July they've completed this process and begin growing their new coat for the coming winter. These coats allow them to live above timberline even during winter. Though when snow covers their food, I've seen them as low as Storm Mountain in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Another defining characteristic of mountain goats are their dark horns. Both male and female goats grow horns. The horns range between 6-11 inches in length and have yearly growth rings (see the rings on the right horn). These horns look very different than the large spiraling horns of bighorn sheep and are an easy way to tell the two species apart.

Mountain goats have very confrontational personalities. (Watch the video below) Female goats, known as nannies, can be particularly nasty to each other. They are highly competitive, territorial, and protective of their personal space. Fights occur over the best grazing resources, salt licks, and resting spots. Generally a hierarchy based on size and age is followed.

But goats don't limit their aggressive behavior towards their own species. In Washington's Cascade Range where salt is a precious resource, goats have become accustomed to associating people with salt. They'll wait for you to pee and then lap up the salt off the rocks. In both the Enchantment Lake Basin near Leavenworth and on Liberty Bell in the North Cascades, I've had goats mock-charge me while I was still peeing to get at my salt. I've even arrived at the top of a multi-pitch rock climb and had goats waiting for me.

Mountain goats are herbivores and eat a varied diet of grasses, sedges, herbs, leaves, mosses, and lichen. In other words, almost anything.

As with many mountain ranges in the Western United States, mountain goats are not native to the Wasatch Mountains. They were transplanted here by people. There is some debate as to whether their introduction is good for the sustainability of the Wasatch ecosystem. Like other exotic (non-native) species, mountain goats have multiplied quickly and their undiscerning grazing habits have had a negative impact on fragile alpine plants. A lack of natural predators has allowed populations to expand, increasing the pressure on high altitude vegetation.

Below timberline mountain goat's natural predators include wolves, lynx, cougars, eagles, and grizzly bears. Above timberline the only real predatory threat is from golden eagles during the birthing season. The Wasatch Mountains never had, or no longer has wolves, lynx, or grizzly bears. A very dense population of mountain goats is living on Mt. Timpanogos, in the southern part of the Wasatch Mountains.

To better understand the issue of introducing mountain goats consider the case of Washington State's Olympic National Park as described on Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo website:

"There is a continuing debate over the mountain goat population in the Olympic National Park. In the 1920's, a hunting club worked with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the US Forest Service to introduce these non-native animals to this area. The 15 mountain goats transplanted in 1920 multiplied to over 500 by 1977, and more than 1,000 by 1983. Since they eat most plants and create wallow for dust baths and trails, there is concern over damage to extremely fragile alpine ecosystems and rare native plants. After years of debate and dozens of hearings, a plan was introduced to solve the problem. Since the 1980's, over 400 goats have been removed and transported outside the region to the Cascades and to other states. In the 1980's Woodland Park Zoo veterinarian Dr. Jim Foster headed a birth control program of birth control implants and male sterilization for mountain goats in Olympic National Park. This issue is still heated and not resolved. "

How do you feel about having mountain goats in the Wasatch? Do you like seeing them in the high country? Or would you rather have intact plant communities? Is there some way to have both? I'd like to here what people think. Please weigh in the comments.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Morning Glory Arch - A short AM Hike near Moab

If you're looking for a half-day activity in Moab that's perfect for the whole family, consider hiking up Negro Bill Canyon to Morning Glory Arch. The five mile hike is best done in the morning, as the name suggests, when the arch is getting sunlight and looking its glorious best. The trail is approximately five miles round trip, gaining a moderate 300 feet in elevation.

The footpath follows a clear, year-round stream, and you'll hardly notice the gentle uphill grade. Kids will love jumping across the rocks in the frequent stream crossings. Its also a great place to bring your dog. Keep your eyes peeled for the many sagebrush and whiptail lizards.

Camping: William Gransraff Campground (formerly known as Negro Bill Campground) is right across the street. This campground, like many of the sites along this section of the Colorado River, has been cleared of invasive Tamarisk trees. The trees were burned leaving the site charred and unappealing. However, the BLM has done a nice job of reworking the campground with fresh gravel and new sites making the spot far more attractive.

Campsites, facilities: There are 17 tent sites. Picnic tables, fire grills, and open-air vault pit toilets are provided. There is no drinking water. A garbage receptical is available at the nearby Goose Island Campground. Leashed pets are permitted.

Reservations, fees: Reservations are not accepted. The fee is $8 per site. Open year-round.

Directions: From Moab, drive approximately one mile north on Hwy. 191 and turn right on Rte. 128. Continue along the Colorado River for four miles to the parking area for Negro Bill Canyon on the right side of the road.

GPS coordinates: N 38 36.807' W 109 31. 874'

Contact: Moab BLM Field Office 435/259-2100.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Camping Field Guide - Ponderosa Pine

Part of camping is understanding the natural environment around you. The better naturalist you are, the more you'll enjoy the time you spend outside. Periodically on this blog I'll talk about the natural history of Utah, including the flora and fauna, topography and geology, and different habitats. The first topic is a common tree found in much of the state. If you go camping in Utah, you'll probably run into one of these beauties.

The Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa Pine trees can be found in much of the mountainous terrain in Utah and are often times the dominant tree in the forest. They are particularly prevalent in northeastern Utah in the Uinta Mountains and in the Flaming Gorge National Monument. This large specimen in the photo on the right can be found in the Firefighter's Memorial Campground. There are two subspecies most commonly growing in Utah, the Southwest Ponderosa and the Rocky Mountain Ponderosa. Outside of Utah these trees have a extensive North American range including parts of Brittish Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and Nevada.

Okay, you ask, but how do I identify them?

Ponderosa pines have yellowish-orange bark with older trees displaying a distinctive black lining in the deeper folds of the bark. The bark smells very much like vanilla. Because of their yellow colored bark, Ponderosas are often called "Yellow Pines."

Another destinctive characteristic of Ponderosas are their long sharp needles that grow in bunches of three. Their needles are approximately 8 inches in length (5-10 inch range) and grow in clumps at the tips of the branches. I learned a good way to identify tree needles when I was on a NOLS course almost 15 years ago. Just remember that pine needles start with the letter "P". So do their characteristics. Pointy, prickly pine. That's easy right?

The largest Ponderosa on record stood 232 feet tall and was 8 1/2 feet in diameter. It was 600 years. More typically the species reaches heights of around 220 feet, and is about 4 feet across. The lucky ones live 400 to 500 years.

Ponderosa Pines are drought tolerant and like lots of sun. They also thrive in wide variety of soils. So it's easy to understand why they do so well in Utah. Historically, high frequency, low intensity wildfires helped stands of Ponderosas thrive by clearing out underbrush providing young trees with plenty of sunlight. Older trees have thick bark, and a high canopy of branches, making them very resistant to fires. It's very common to see mature stands of Ponderosa with charred black bark around their bases. Look up at their branches and you'll notice the trees are still perfectly healthy.

Ponderosas reproduce by dispersing seeds on a two-year cycle. Their cones mature and shed in August. Each cone can produce up to 70 seeds. These seeds are distributed by birds and rodents eating and transporting them away from the parent tree.

Fun Ponderosa Pine Facts:

The inner bark of Ponderosa Pines was used by Native Americans for food. They also produced a medicinal salve from the bark to treat backaches, rheumatism and dandruff. Keep that in mind next time you're missing your daily shower on a camping trip!

The name Ponderosa comes from the tree's large, ponderous size.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Kane Creek Road Undeveloped Camping - Campground of the Week for June 8-15

Moab is packed on the weekends these days. Last Friday night driving northeast along the Colorado River on State Route 128, I was rudely reminded of how busy the campgrounds around Moab are during this time of year. It was around 9PM, about as early as you can reasonably can get to Moab after working a full day in Salt Lake. As we followed the river away from town, each campground we came to was completely full. Which begs the question, where can you camp when all the developed sites are taken?

One good (legal) alternative is the undeveloped sites out Kane Creek Road. If you drive all the way out Kane Springs Road past all the BLM campgrounds and continue by Hunters Canyon, you'll eventually reach a series of "undeveloped" campsites. The sites are actually labeled and numbered by the BLM and offer fairly good alternatives to the established campgrounds, especially when they are your only option. The further you continue down the road, the closer you get to Canyonlands National Park (and this isn't the touristy part of the park). The scenery is quite spectacular as well. There are no facilities at these sites, so bring everything you'll need. And oh yeah, it's free!

Campsites, facilities: there are about two dozen sites scattered on either side of the road. There are no facilities other than fire rings and rocks to sit on. Bring your own tables, chairs, water, and any other supplies you'll want or need. The nearest toilet is at Hunter Canyon campground a couple miles towards town on Kane Springs Road.

Reservations, fees: Reservations are not accepted and camping is free.

From the intersection of Center and Main streets in Moab, drive south on Main for 0.7 mile and turn right on Kane Creek Boulevard. Stay left at the junction with 500 W and continue on Kane Creek Road for about 9-10 miles. Look for the undeveloped sites on both sides of the road.

GPS coordinates: N38 28.877' W109 36.138'

Contact: The BLM Moab Field Office 435/259-2100

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Dragonfly Canyon - Canyoneering in Arches National Park

Over the weekend my wife Sonja and I had the chance to meet up with our friends Melissa and Tom and do a little canyoneering in Arches National Park. We chose Dragonfly Canyon as a half-day introduction to what the park had to offer. The canyon turned out to be excellent: short and sweet - a perfect half day adventure. It offered a few minor technical challenges including two short (15 foot) swims through muddy pothole style pools, and two rappels of 65 and 130 feet. Despite being less than a mile from the main park road, the canyon instantly felt remote, even though it was a busy May weekend.

While Dragonfly Canyon is a straight-forward canyon, it does require some technical skills and equipment. In order to complete the passage down canyon you'll need helmets, harnesses, a rope, and dry bags. Expect to swim through cold water and have the skills to safely rappel. Bolted anchors are established for both the rappels. Take plenty of water as well, because the walk out of can be hot. Allow 3-5 hours for the trip.

Directions: From the center of Moab drive north on Highway 191 for 5 miles. Turn right into Arches National Park and continue 6 miles to a turnout on the right side of the road. The turnout is just over a mile past the bridge. If you reach the pullout for the Petrified Dunes, you've gone too far.

From the pullout walk south across the slickrock towards the canyon rim. Look for the prominent dome features in the direction La Sal Mountains and aim for them. Do your best to not walk on the cryptobiotic soils by staying on the slickrock whenever possible. A quick ten minute walk will bring you to the canyon rim. Enter the canyon at the north end via a steep, but non-technical ramp.

GPS Coordinates: N38 39' 43" W109 35" 03"

Route Details:
Immediately after entering the canyon you'll encounter the first potholes filled with murky water. Wade the first and swim the second and third holes to reach a small but adequate platform to rappel from.

The first rappel is about 65 feet and ends in a shallow, dirty pond. Throw your rope to the left and work to the right as you descend to avoid ending up in the muck. From here it's a short, easy jaunt to the next rappel. The canyon will start to constrict again, narrowing into a V-shaped shallow slot. Slither through the narrows or stay as high as you can by chimneying or bridging the span with you body to reach the next rappel station. The bolt anchors can be found on the left side of the wall. We saw a snake here in this little slot, so be aware they're around. This top half of this long rappel is a bit awkward, the higher you stay by pushing out away from the rock, the easier it is to negotiate.
Continue down into a beautifully lush chamber of red rock and bright green cottonwood trees. Savor the spot before continuing down canyon. Upon reaching the Courthouse Wash (where another trail intersects the canyon) turn right and hike back out to the road. This will put you about 1.5 miles down the road from your entry point pullout. A short car shuttle saves a 1.5 mile walk back up the road.

Contact: A great source of information (and the source of much of the information here) for Dragonfly Canyon is

Camping: See the earlier post on Devils Garden Campground for the nearest camping to Dragonfly Canyon or order my guidebook Moon Utah Camping.