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Across the Grain
The Boulder Mail Trail, Day 1
Sunday, April 5
Our objective for this day -- the first outing of the trip -- was the Boulder Mail Trail. Originally used as a route by Native Americans, it was later used by early Mormon Settlers as a means of transport and communication between the two remote outposts of Escalante and Boulder (a very small settlement about 20 miles northeast of Escalante). The route does not follow the south-eastward trending grain of the land, but rather across it, cutting across numerous drainages and canyons, both big and small. As a result, it is fairly strenuous, involving a significant amount of up-and-down. The total length is just under 16 miles (or about 25 kilometres).

We planned to complete the route in the Escalante-to-Boulder direction (a.k.a. the 'uphill' direction). The night before saw Brian and myself shuttling one of the rental vehicles to the Boulder side of the trail, and everything was in place to allow a short drive to the trailhead on the edge of Escalante. Outside the motel rooms, the morning had dawned crisp, clear, but cold. Frost touched the tips of dry desert grasses.
courtesy BConnell
Frosty Morning at the Prospector
Boulder Mail Trail
We found the start of this backpack a bit different from most. The trailhead was in sight of Escalante, not far beyond the town's High School. Usually, our backpacking trips start from some sort of semi-wilderness trailhead. However, given that this route follows what was effectively the historic transportation link between two towns, I suppose a trailhead such as this was not suprising.
Approaching BMT trailhead
Escalante BMT trailhead
BMT backpack prep
By 8am, our cadre headed off from the Escalante Trailhead, angling downwards towards the first obstacle of the day: the Escalante River. The Escalante constitutes the primary drainage for a large region; it is perennial and can vary widely in flow. As one of several such watercourses along the Boulder Mail Trail, we had come prepared with water footwear.
Our BMT permit
Heading off on the BMT
Thickets near the Escalante
The Escalante, however, was barely much more than a gentle burbling creek, and it was a simple matter to hop across a few well-placed stones. I made the first of several downward revisions to my assessment of expected water levels during the trip.
Escalante-BMT crossing
Escalante only a trickle
Canyon of the Escalante
The route of the Boulder Mail trail is not well-marked as it crosses and then exits the immediate vicinity of the Escalante River. I made a slight error when I failed to take note of the entrance of Pine Creek from the north -- a marker that indicates the departure of the Mail Trail from the banks of the Escalante. As consolation, the group was treated to a close -up look at the water gauging station on the banks of the Escalante a few hundred yards beyond. The water level was much lower than even the lowest reading on the lowest gauge marker.

Retreating back a few minutes to Pine Creek, we re-routed onto the correct route, and a relatively flat and enjoyable walk up the banks of Pine Creek ensued. The early morning sun had now risen sufficiently to bathe the canyon bottom in which we walked, highlighting the brilliant white-yellow Navajo Sandstone on the walls around us. Well-developed cross-bedding was much in evidence, leading to a short explanatory conversation between Pu and I on the subject of aeolean depositional environments.
Escalante R. Rain Gauge
Admiring the Buds
Hiking along Pine Creek
Shortly thereafter, while finishing the walk through the section with sandstone walls, we encountered the jarring and unexpected visual of a residential house. The route we were following had contoured back to the edge of the town, and this was an outlying home. Upon seeing this, I had the strong impression that the route of the Mail Trail thus far was a re-route -- an alternative start to the original route that spared current landowners from needing to deal with the comings and goings of syntho-clad outdoorsfolk. If this was in fact the case, I reasoned, then it would likely not be long before we merged with the path of the actual historic route.
courtesy BConnell
Navajo Cross-bedding
Not far from Civilization
Reeds near Pine Creek
After spending more a few more minutes weaving through and along the brushy banks of Pine Creek, we finally came to a spot where several cairns marked an abrupt angling away and up from Pine Creek, and the first real elevation gain on the route.
Starting the ascent
Back towards Escalante
Escalante and Aquarius Plateau
The route, now well-marked with cairns, ascended moderately steeply. It tracked somewhere in the vicinity of the big white 'E' (for Escalante) set into the hillside, but we didn't encounter it (nor did we actively seek it out). Soon we treated to a wide panorama. The town of Escalante -- a small grid-like etching of human activity on the dry, wide arid landscape -- lay below us. Above and beyond to the west was the ten-thousand-foot high snow-covered flats of the Aquarius Plateau; to the south, the long ridge of Fiftymile mountain stretched off diagonally into the distance. And not a speck of cloud to be seen (much to Pu's chagrin).
Brian climbs on the BMT
Heading towards the Flat
Indian Paintbrush
Obtaining a brief respite from the climbing, we crossed a sandy height of land, and soon entered the first of many stretches of wide, white Navajo slickrock. In these sections, the Boulder Mail Trail is relatively well-marked with cairns, and with reasonably careful attention, it is not hard to follow. In places, we noticed hints of the historic nature of the trail: an old rusted-out horseshoe, faint chip marks in steeper areas on the bare rock sections.
Bonsai-like tree
Partway-up break
Faint remnants
courtesy BConnell
Heading away from Escalante
Chugging ever upwards
He climbs alone
Presently our climb ended on the edge of a sandy, wooded flat. A low cliff edge provided an excellent spot for us to catch their breath and have a solid mid-morning snack. We had reached the edge of Antone Flat -- one of the high plateaus we would have to cross on our journey. Our elevation was now over 6,700 feet - one thousand feet above our start point in Escalante.
courtesy BConnell
A snack at the edge
The Aquarius Plateau
Starting across the flats
After climbing steep slickrock, we found the next stretch to be a pleasant change of pace. The going was now flat; the trail a sandy track that meandered across a landscape dotted with desert bushes and tall pine trees. The only downside was that the trail was extra sandy in spots, making forward progress a bit like being on an exercise machine with the resistance setting on high.
courtesy BConnell
Sandy path
Admiring nature along the BMT
Picturesque little butte
We continued traversing across Antone Flat, enjoying the alternation between stretches of clean white slickrock and semi-forested sandy sections. Here and there we encountered picturesque outcroppings of cross-bedded Najavo sandstone, or intricate jointing patterns in the rocks beneath our feet. I dubbed one section the "brains" section -- It really does resemble a whole lotta petrified brains, all packed together.
courtesy PChen
courtesy PChen
Picturesque little butte
Hiking across the land
Experimenting with Video
courtesy PChen
Cairns mark the way
Sandy section along the BMT
Approaching a brushy flat
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