Water and Fire

On our last day in Utah we decided to do something a little different: rather than do a single hike we opted to do a short, new-to-some-of-us trail followed by a backcountry drive and – provided the deadfall wasn’t prohibitively challenging to navigate around – hike an area torched by the Brian Head Fire of 2017 that had previously been a favorite spot of mine.

The first short hike was to a rather impressive waterfall streaming enthusiastically over the lip of a side canyon. Recommended to us by our friend Lori, this gem of a spot was an shady, easy one-mile stroll from the main road that had me questioning why I hadn’t been there previously. Easy that is until we decided to do some bouldering up to the base of the falls whereupon it became a bit more of a moderate excursion as there was some scrambling and avoiding of slippery rock involved. Still, it was an undemanding walk with a high level of reward. In characteristic fashion we debated taking this adventure to the next level by trying to find a way up the cliffs but either good sense or a desire to move on to the next spot prevailed and we returned the way we came. However, that expedition is now on The List.

Returning to the truck we continued up into the mountains, cresting the mountain pass and then coasting back down 1,500 feet on the far side until we reached the turn off for the dirt forest road that would take us up to some of the highest elevation sections of the forest. The 10 mile drive up the mountain had me remembering our last time here when Tom and I cruised up along the aspen-lined strips of meadow under the filtered light of the glowing leaves; now as we ascended the white bark had been reduced to blackened trunks and there were no leaves to be seen. Nearing the top the aspen gave way to spruce habitat, ravaged by a double dose of bark beetle and fire. But once we parked and began walking the rim overlooking the canyons below we found an island or two of remaining conifers, standing tall amidst the devastation. Mercifully there was still green in the sea of gray and black.

It was heart-wrenching to see the endless acres of charred landscape that bore evidence to the flames that tore down the canyons and drainages below the ski town of Brian Head but it was stunning as ever to trace the formations of red and white limestone below. We marveled too at what the fire had revealed of these formations – the lines and profiles of sculpted rock previously hidden under dense canopy. Walking through the wildflowers, noting the slow regeneration of the ecosystem lifted our spirits as well but enough was enough: the tens of thousands of devastated acres visible to us felt overwhelming after awhile bringing us to turn away from the rim and into some of the untouched meadows and forest.