Hiking to see “The Tree” in the Red Cliffs

Our first planned hike in Utah was to scramble around at our beloved Red Cliffs. Located 40 minutes south and 2.500 feet in elevation below us, the conservation area and adjoining section of the national forest is perfect for hiking in chilly weather. Unfortunately Tom couldn’t go at the last minute so Terry and I headed down with Abby. Once we began walking I thought of my first hike here 2 years ago, both my first hike in this part of Utah and my first time meeting Terry. That day Tom and Terry led me on a route to see a singular (and very robust) cottonwood tree growing in the midst of the sandstone cliffs. I reminded Terry of the tree – which he’s hiked to on numerous occasions – and we agreed to head in that direction.

As we approached a hundred-foot dryfall at the base I asked Terry if this was the correct place because I hadn’t remembered it; as it turns out we had approached at a different angle that allowed me to see a whole other side of the alcove where the tree sits. From there we also scaled the first level of the cliffs on a different route, but once we arrived at the overlook the tree was just as I remembered it. Unfortunately it’s tucked into the south side and so stays mostly in shadow unless you backtrack and climb out on a particular rock. After an apple break we continued north for awhile until we reached a gully that forced us to choose between ascending to the top mesa or descending back to the base of the cliffs. Our intent had been to do the former anyway so after a few false starts we scrambled our way up; luckily we found a steep walk-up that substituted for the last 75 of climbing.

Once on top we stopped again to appreciate the color contrasts between the snow-covered Pine Valley Mountains, the red rock, the blue sky, and the green sage. As on our previous trip, we followed the rim of the cliffs in order to enjoy the views into the valley below before dropping into a tributary of Cottonwood Wash and then into Cottonwood Canyon itself. This time we didn’t spend the following 2 hours inspecting the fantastical rocks in the wash, but we certainly took note of a few of the strangest shapes as we picked our way back to the trailhead.