Echo Cliffs, Route 89, Arizona.
Lake Powell, Arizona
Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona.
Cool cave nearby.
Mammoth Cave entrance.
Inside required a flashlight.
Looking out of Mammoth Cave.
Bowers Cave entrance.
Mark climbs in.
Dirty snow in the Ice Cave.
Wizened old guy,
2,000 years old.
Bristlecone Pine Tree.
resemble bottle brushes.
Bristlecone pine cone.
Views on Cascade Falls hike.
The trail follows the canyon's edge.
Stairs make it accessible
Don't move or it might collapse!
Trail snaking along the edge of the cliffs.
Horses and riders greet us on our
return to the trailhead.
Dixie National Forest, Utah: Deep Caves and Spectacular Hikes
Mid-August, 2011 - We left
Monument in Flagstaff, Arizona,
aiming for southern Utah and red
rock country. We got our first
glimpse as we passed Echo Cliffs
where we jumped out of the truck
for a few minutes and ran around
The climate in this desert area is
dictated by altitude, and we
watched the temperature rise
from 75 degrees in Flagstaff at 7000' to 100 degrees in Page, Arizona where we had
dropped to just 3,000' elevation. So our visit to Glen Canyon Dam and sighting of Lake
Powell were limited to viewings from the truck window as we drove by in the blazing heat.
Approaching Kanab, Utah we watched
the Vermilion Cliffs begin to loom on
our right, and once past, we set up
camp and started exploring an
unusual cave near our campsite. This
cave was just a drainage culvert
under a road, but it had cool patterns
in the red and white sandstone. Little
did we know that cave exploration
would become the theme of the next
We continued up the road to spend some time in the cool pines in Dixie National Forest where the altitude is 8,500'. We had
seen a little marker on the map, "Mammoth Cave," and were curious what was there. Like Sunset Crater in Flagstaff, this is
volcano country, and eons ago lava flowed as the volcanoes erupted. When the lava began to cool, in certain places the molten
lava on the inside drained out from the cooling, hardening rock around it, creating a cave or lava tube. Mammoth Cave is one
of these lava tubes.
From the outside it just looks like a big hole in the ground, but once
you are inside the cave the tube extends about 1/4 mile.
Bats live inside, using the cave for hibernation during winter. Because
lots of folks visit the caves in the wintertime, the bats get woken up
again and again with each intrusion, depriving them of the rest and
energy conservation they rely on to survive the harsh winters. So the National Forest Service has placed a grate over the main
tube entrance with a little dog door-like opening for people to crawl through during the summer months. That way, by closing
and locking the "dog door" in the winter, they can prevent winter visitors from entering the cave and bothering the bats.
After watching a family ahead of us shake their heads and leave as
they decided they didn't need to explore the cave badly enough to
crawl through a dog door-like opening, we crawled into the yawning
darkness. Instantly I was really grateful that I travel with a man who
likes to be prepared. Mark whipped out a much needed flashlight and
then pulled a second one out of his pocket for me. For some reason
"cave exploration" and "flashlight" hadn't connected in my mind ahead
of time. I guess I was expecting lighted tunnels!
As we walked, the tube angled slightly, the bright light of the opening
disappeared, and suddenly everything was pitch dark. I mean, inky
blackness surrounded us and I couldn't see my hands in front of my
face. Mark's flashlight got a little dim and he teased me that it might
go out and then we'd be relying on my flashlight… and what if mine
went out too? I stumbled at that thought, because you could get disoriented so easily in there. I sure didn't want to look away
from the little circle of light I was casting ahead of me as I walked. It was really eerie.
Eventually we reached the end and turned back. Only afterwards, when we saw the
photos we took, did we really get a sense of what the inside of the tube looked like.
Other parts of the cave are
shorter in distance and
shorter in height too!
Leaving the cave I noticed
some really exotic patterns
on the roof. Finally we
crawled back out into
We were in a quiet and remote
part of Dixie National Forest,
having driven down several small
dirt roads to make our way to
Mammoth Cave. As we left we started checking out what was down some of the other dirt
roads. There were boondocking spots galore, and lots of people with ATVs and
toyhaulers were set up for a few days of fun.
Suddenly we saw a tiny sign that said,
"Bowers Cave." Mark spotted the cave
opening -- a small hole in the ground. Like
Mammoth Cave, this is a lava tube that
was formed ages ago. Someone had put a
tree trunk down into the hole to make it
easier to crawl down in. A National Forest
Service sign outside the entrance said,
"Bowers cave is an undeveloped 'wild'
cave." The sign went on to explain that
caving is a risky activity for those who
aren't knowledgeable or prepared.
Mark shimmied down into the darkness while I watched from a safe distance above ground, deciding I was neither
knowledgeable nor prepared. He yelled up reports of what he saw. He said it was a good sized room but he couldn't find the
tube leading out. Apparently it travels some 950' but he returned to daylight without finding the path. That was fine by me.
In the era when the volcanoes were active, flowing lava didn't leave
just vacant tubes behind, it also left enormous piles of sharp, jagged
black rock. This stuff is razor-edged, and climbing on it is extremely
difficult. We passed a large lava flow on our way out to see our last
cave: the Ice Cave.
Like the other caves, the Ice Cave appears to be just a dark hole in the
ground on the outside, and you have to do a bit of scrambling to get in.
Here on August 19th we found there was still a large pile of dirty snow
leftover from last winter.
Granted, we had been told
that winter didn't really end
here until mid-July this year,
but still, a snow pile in August
is impressive. Something about the
orientation, elevation and thickness of the rock
above keeps this cave very cold so the snow
doesn't melt. A ranger told us that the man
who owned the land before it was acquired by
the National Forest Service had used the ice
cave to keep food cold over the summer
months, like a huge refrigerator.
After all this cave exploration we had had
enough of underground tunneling and were
ready for some above-ground activities. We
drove past the scenic Navajo Lake overlook on
our way to the trailhead for the Bristlecone
This mile-long trail wanders through some
wonderful woods on a soft dirt path, and we
breathed deeply, filling our lungs with the rich
pine scent. The Bristlecone Pine Tree is
considered to be the oldest living thing on the
planet, and we couldn't wait to see what it
It turned out that there were quite a few of these
ancient trees on this trail, and the oldest ones
were about 2,000 years old. The bristlecone
pine grows only in Utah and Nevada on high,
barren windswept slopes. You'd think that the oldest
living thing in Nature (some trees in Nevada have
been measured at over 5,000 years old) would prefer
a fairly cushy existence, like a comfy retirement home.
But perhaps achieving that kind of extreme old age
requires a kind of gritty toughness that scoffs at any
but the most rugged lifestyles.
What makes the bristlecone pine tree able to live as
many as 60 human lifetimes is its ability to stop
growing all together when things get ugly. When the
going gets tough -- drought, wildfire, etc. -- this old
tree just stops. Maybe there is some wisdom in
What I liked about these guys is that they have a
fantastically wizened appearance, bent and twisted
into gnarled shapes. Most of the tree is dead
wood, the heart of the tree seemingly laid bare to
the elements, the grain of the barkless wood clearly
visible in striated colors. But a thin thread of life
snakes through the tree along a vein just under the
dead wood, and branches that resemble bottle
brushes hang in clusters from the living parts.
The Bristlecone Trail Hike had been one of two that a
forest ranger had recommended to us, and a day later we
tried his other suggestion, the Cascade Falls Hike. "It has
a nice view and a waterfall at the end." Hmmm… it might
be okay, but it didn't sound all that unusual.
When we took our first footsteps at the trailhead our
hearts leaped. What an incredible view! It turns out this
spectacular 1.6 mile roundtrip trail meanders along the
edge of a stunning red rock canyon. You are positioned
about halfway up the cliffs, wandering along the contours
of the red rocks on a perfectly groomed gravel trail.
Our cameras clicked along at full speed. Every
view in every direction was gorgeous. A little
brother and sister, about 3 or 4 years old, walked
along with me for a while. They couldn't wait to
get to the waterfall, but all along the way they
were saying "Wow, look at this! Look at that!"
I felt the same way. The
whole trail was a feast for
Forest rangers have
installed really solid stairs in
certain places, so people
young and old can enjoy this
rare hike. From the little kid
on dad's shoulders to the
oldest grandma with a
hesitant step, everyone on
the trail wore a grin from ear
Utah's canyon country is full of surprises like this. This area would no doubt
be a national park if it were located in any other state. But Utah is so
overloaded with national parks that a little gem like this is just that, a special
gem to be enjoyed by the public without the fees, hype, extensive literature,
crowds, "do's and don'ts" lists and the roaming rangers that are so often a
part of the national park experience.
It was a Saturday afternoon, so Dixie
National Forest was teeming with Las
Vegans escaping the heat for a few
days. But the trail, although busy and
loved, was not overcrowded.
We turned a corner and suddenly the
sound of rushing water filled our ears. It was crashing down
the rocks through the lush greenery far below us. A few
more twists and turns along the canyon walls and suddenly
there it was, Cascade Falls, in front of us.
The little boy I had seen earlier was
standing on the viewing platform
staring at the falls. "Look at that!" he
said to me.
"Wow, that's awesome!" was the only
response I could come up with.
We hiked back out vowing not to take any more
pictures. But the cameras wouldn't quit. Even at
the parking lot at the trailhead the cameras kept
going as two horses and riders showed up at the
edge of the woods.
We had come to this neck of the woods to see
Cedar Breaks National Monument, but we'd
already spent a week in the neighborhood without getting there yet!