A Tour of the Cedar Mountains: Cedar Breaks National Monument and the Bristlecone Pine Trail
As I mentioned in my post about driving through the Rockies, big mountains make my heart sing. Now that we were back in Utah, I was ridiculously eager to go explore the local Cedar Mountains, a section of Dixie National Forest. I had been in Utah for about 6 weeks from mid-March to when we left for our trip to Lake Superior in late April, but the roads other than the main artery were still closed, snowed in for the season. In fact, we had delayed our departure by a day due to snowfall in the mountains, and as we left Tom’s house we encountered snow and ice on some sections of the road above 8,500 feet.
But now in the first week of September the roads were open and the mountains were calling my name. Tom and I drove up along SR-14, a road I’ve become very familiar with, giving me the complete tour as we transitioned from red rock and pinyon/juniper at 6,000 feet to ponderosa pines and aspens at 7,000 feet, to aspens and pines around 9,000 feet. Pointing out trailheads and describing all the potential hikes here made me downright giddy as I marveled once again at the beauty of the forest here. As we climbed the frequency of open meadows increased, interspersed with stands of firs and aspen, the yellow-tinged grasses moving with the air and contrasted to the deep green of the trees. Near the summit of the road at about 10,000 feet we stopped for the first excursion of the day – The Bristlecone Pine Trail.
Bristlecone pines are a hardy and frankly amazing species. Living to about 5,000 years, some of these trees are among the oldest living things on the planet, able to withstand extreme temperatures, high winds, and poor soil. It is common to see a bristlecone that is partially dead since these trees will divert energy to the the living parts without be affected by the dead wood that may be thousands of years old. They are an inspiring species. Either living or dead, these hardwood trees are sculpted over time by wind, eroding like stone into some twisted, gnarly shapes. Living terminal branches are characterized by bottle brush pine needles, dark in color.
We walked the short and informational Bristlecone Pine Trail as it cuts it’s way through stands of firs to a grove of the ancient trees. I spent time following the twisting branches as the wound around and around and then we got back into the car to head up SR-143 to Cedar Breaks National Monument. A excited as I’ve been to see the mountains, it’s quite possible that I was even more excited to go to Cedar Breaks National Monument. Tom has been talking this trail up I think for a year and a half and with good reason. But first I have to mention how in love I was with the drive to the trailhead at the monument which ascends further into the mountains and passes these amazing meadows ringed with aspens and fir trees. You’ll see plenty of photos of these types of meadows in the coming weeks.
Finally we got to the trailhead and walked to the rim. I was floored. Much like Bryce Canyon (which I say for reference though I hadn’t seen it yet at the time), Cedar Breaks is a bowl-shaped canyon filled with thousands of hoodoos and spires. Unlike Bryce, of which its actually the same rock formation, the amphitheater here is more eroded though it boasts a greater array of colors which range from reds and oranges to yellows and purples. It also averages 2,000 feet higher than elevation in Bryce which thins the vegetation in the area, particularly around the exposed rim where only the stalwart bristlecone can survive.
After an inappropriate amount of gaping I began the 3.6 mile hike out to first Spectra Point, then the Ramparts Overlook. While you are able to see the entire amphitheater from either overlook at the main parking area, it is only by walking the rim that you are able to catch glimpses of different clusters of hoodoos and see all the gradations in colors. Though it’s less than 4 miles, the trail out to the Ramparts Overlook begins at 10,500 feet and will quickly tire you with it’s elevation changes if you’re unused to hiking at altitude. The bonuses of the altitude are the prevalence of pikas and marmots, the latter of which I was sure I had captured a photo of when he crossed the about ten feet in front of me. Alas, my photo only shows a shaded patch of dirt and no marmot.
Cedar Breaks is mind-blowingly beautiful. I had a grin plastered on my face the entire hike whether I was crossing open space along the rim, admiring the bristlecones, or walking through the firs. I kept diverging from the trail to sneak peaks into the canyon, eager to see how each new view was different from the last. Once I could see the full range of colors – particularly under full sun – I was hooked. I’ve seen quite a bit of sandstone and many incredible, beautiful rock formations, but the glow off the hoodoos and amphitheater walls at Cedar Breaks is something special.