Ranger Trails: Ute Canyon: a perfect place for the serious hiker

Ute Canyon is defined by natural splendor. You might say that about every nook and cranny at Colorado National Monument. Still, Ute’s broad-shouldered expanses instill a sense of awe in the most experienced of hikers.

A Wisconsin friend of mine — he’s been almost everywhere and done nearly everything, at least in the wild — once told me the sight of Ute Canyon took his breath away. But he couldn’t say why. Perhaps it was his lack of oxygen.

Here are my reasons for loving Ute:

■ Surprises. From its lower junction at the Corkscrew Trail, Ute takes you across black slabs of Precambrian rocks, winds through a silver-green sea of sagebrush and deep into high grass and cottonwoods before zigzagging up hundreds of feet to Rim Rock Drive.

If you don’t enjoy walking along sand dunes, you might want to skip the Ute Trail. Certain sections of its sandy composition require serious slogging, especially on hillier sections.

■ Lizards. There aren’t many lizards in this canyon compared with No Thoroughfare or Monument canyons, but what few you see in Ute deserve special attention.

The species called Plateau Striped Whiptail is unique for what it lacks: males. The Plateau Striped Whiptail (scientific name, Aspedoscelis velox) is an all-female species. Somehow, they manage to survive without the assistance of any dudes. Quick as lightning, these whiptails have a dark body with six light-colored stripes running along their backs. Their reproduction results in babies genetically identical to their mothers.

Eight other lizard species in the park do have males as well as females, we are happy to report.

■ Seven miles. That’s the one-way distance a hiker will cover from the Wildwood Trailhead to Rim Rock Drive. It’s less popular than other trails, so you can hike for hours without seeing another human being. This can be a good thing, but not always (see below).

■ Running on empty. After six hours of hiking several miles, including Ute Canyon, my water bottle’s last drop was gone and my mouth parched. With a couple miles between my car, and me things began to look grim. My tongue felt swollen. My legs slowed to a weak shuffle. Dizziness followed. 

Park rangers aren’t supposed to get dehydrated. But I had done just that, embarked on a cool summer morning for a long desert hike without sufficient water. My common sense had left me in trouble.

It was obvious how unprepared I was for the dry heat of the afternoon. By the time I lucked out by running into a trail crew, my voice was about gone. They shared their abundant supply of cold water, a kindness that I could barely thank them for. 

To make matters worse, my co-workers decided to search for me because I had failed to contact them for several hours. I was embarrassed for being so irresponsible. Now when I hike Ute Canyon, I carry enough water to drown a ranger.

■ The name itself. This canyon honors the Native American people who once called much of Colorado their home. It reminds us the Utes, a centuries-old culture famous for basketry, bead work and pottery, epitomize the enduring strength of the human spirit.

The Utes, hunter-gatherers who once roamed Colorado from the Rockies to the high desert, survive on reservations. The Northern Ute live near Fort Duchesne in Utah. The Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute live in southwestern Colorado.

As I’ve learned more about the Utes, this canyon has come to represent a spiritual place for me. 

Sandstrom is a park ranger at Colorado National Monument and teaches at Colorado Mesa University. If you have an interesting story to share with readers, he can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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