On the Kaibab Plateau

If the peaks of tall mountains are "sky islands," then the Kaibab Plateau of northern Arizona is a sky continent.  A vast, tilted shelf of ancient seafloor, it stands proud above the surrounding desert, rising 9,200 feet beyond sea level at its highest point.  1,600,000 acres of the Kaibab — the greatest part - are designated as a National Forest of the same name, guarding it from some, but not all of the depredations of civilization (on which more below).

Like a continent, the Kaibab has its own mountains and canyons, cliffs and [dry] coasts, various weather zones, and commensurately varied ecological communities.  Its climate ranges from verdant to arid, its ecological zones from towering Ponderosa Pine forests to alpine meadows to desert scrub.  Due to its isolation by elevation, it also has unique species — including in one of the rarest categories of categories of unique species - its own mammal.  That animal is the charcoal-grey Kaibab squirrel, a prankster that sports not only tall, tasseled ears, but a pure white tail to boot.  Its overall appearance leads one to think it would be more at home in a Tolkien wood than in an Arizona forest — and with a speaking part at that. 

Nonetheless, I had decided to begin my canyon camping vacation on the Kaibab not so much to sample its unique attributes, but because of its convenient location.  The Kaibab uplift is part of the greater Colorado plateau formation, and lies about halfway between Flagstaff, Arizona (from whence I departed by rental four wheel drive) and several spectacular national properties in southern Utah, set aside by the Clinton Administration during its last year in office: Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase Escalante, and Canyonlands.  And there are other lesser known but equally spectacular surrounding areas, some of which I’ve backpacked before.

On arrival, I quickly learned that the Kaibab has its contradictions as well as its charms.  Despite the fact that you can spend a day — or many days, if you so choose — without seeing a soul, it has hundreds of miles of well-graded gravel roads, the result of decades of logging.  And while that logging in earlier times was rapacious and destructive, today it is being conducted in a far more responsible fashion.  No more are open scars left by the monstrous skidders used to drag out logs.  Nor is there clear-cutting, or management of land to produce a crop of similarly mature trees, reminiscent of a cornfield.  Instead, there is selective harvesting of only the most mature trees, and removal or burning of the slash (branches and smaller logs) that used to lie on the devastated, eroding landscapes of days gone by.  But for the roads and the easily ignored stumps, after a few years you could easily be unaware that any logging had occurred at all.

Similarly, while the Kaibab is grazed by cattle, the fences are few, and the stock is sparse enough that you will seldom, if ever, see a cow, and over-grazing was nowhere apparent that I traveled.  All in all, the Kaibab National Forest presents a very pleasing contrast to the many National Forests I have traveled in in more arid areas.  Too often, they were over-grazed to the point of severe erosion and destruction of traditional vegetation.

The National Forest’s motto is, of course, “Land of Many Uses,” so some visual evidence of the resulting compromises among uses is to be expected.  Sadly, only 8% of the Kaibab has been set aside as wilderness (i.e., there is no vehicular access at all), but happily, the management plan for the balance seems to be working rather well here (I’ll return to fire management, and the varied opinions of the “warm fire” of a month ago in my next post).  Working well, that is, if you don’t mind some of the language used to describe management practices:  trees that are harvested are “over mature,” (bad trees!) and hunting season is “wildlife management season”  (we’ll teach you a lesson…).  But those are quibbles rather than complaints.

Another contradiction is in access.  Despite the ease with which you can penetrate within hiking distance of anything worth seeing (outside the wilderness areas) via the network of logging roads, the Kaibab is an amazingly empty place.  Why?  Because it is simply awfully far from anywhere, and everywhere.  Flagstaff is hundreds of miles by car to the south, and Flagstaff itself is served by a single airline, which flies only small propeller planes into the tiny airport (when it feels like it: allow lots of time for delays).  Phoenix, in turn, lies hundreds of miles to the south of Flagstaff.  Salt Lake City is even farther to the north than Phoenix is to the south.  Farther yet to the east lies Santa Fe.  The closest major city is Las Vegas, a very long and winding local road to the West.


The Kaibab is therefore an unpopulated area almost half the size of Connecticut that few people ever visit.  Those that do fall largely into two categories.  The first comprises those that simply drive through on their way to visit the northern rim of the Grand Canyon during the months that access is permitted, using the single paved road that transects the plateau from north to south.  And the second is that group of dedicated, loyal citizens that arrives each fall to help manage the wildlife (deer, specifically, the other species being largely left to address life and death on their own).


But there is much to do on the Kaibab if you wish to visit. 


For example:  My first night, I camped on the eastern rim of the plateau, and watched the rays of the setting sun wash the Vermillion Cliffs across the Grand Canyon with color, a service it offered the ridges, ledges and hoodoos spread out below as well, each graced and fringed with the rich green of pinyon pine and juniper.  In the clear light of sunset the reds and yellows of the cliffs came alive, almost vibrating in intensity.  After the sun was gone, I was treated to a less extravagant but equally pleasing display, as the same tones remained warm and glowing in the long twilight that followed.   Almost imperceptibly they faded, as swallows curveted above my head, catching the insects wafted up by warm breezes from the abyss below.


In the morning, the show was reversed, and I sat just as happily to watch the reel rewind.  This time, whirring hummingbirds would suddenly visit, as did more raucous Pinyon Jays.  Looking down at a single douglas fir rising up a hundred yards below, I watched as a  single strand of silk, twenty feet long, was released by a spider.  Slowly it spread farther and farther on to the breeze, glistening in the sun as its maker spun himself a chariot to take him who knows where, and then let go of all he knew to go there.


The next day I crossed the plateau and set up camp overlooking the Colorado once again, but this time facing west.  I hiked the rim of the plateau for most of that day, finding the remains of pit houses and small puebloan dwellings, the latter last inhabited 800 years ago, the former abandoned a millennium before that.  In the evening, the solar show was just as magical, as the dead forms of ancient pinyon pines raised silent arms in skeletal silhouettes against the golden glow that took an hour to resolve into darkness.  This time, bats both tiny and large flew silently overhead, sometimes only a few feet away, representing a few of the more than 20 species that call the Kaibab home.


As the colors of the day slowly faded, the planets, and then the stars came alive, more alive than you can possibly imagine, unless you have watched them emerge from 9,000 feet closer to where they live, and thirty miles from the nearest electric light.  To the east, lighting flashed, too far away for its thunder to follow. 


When at last all light save the stars had disappeared, I could easily see the shape of a nebula stand out like a blace void across the enormity of the Milky Way.  How remarkable to be in a place where the remarkable is an absence of stars, rather than how many stars can be seen. 

I can think of no better example of why I come back so often than this.  Here, the most exquisite pleasure is to simply watch the sun rise and set — a pursuit that would seem to be an unrewarding use of an hour at home.  But in deserted parts of the southwest, it seems like the only rational thing to do.

For more selections from Not Here But There: A Wilderness Journal, click here