The best and worst of the Colorado Plateau

This is a stupid exercise, one which tends to highlight my more willful and generally less flattering tendencies, but I found a similar exercise last fall useful enough that I feel compelled.  Ordering ones thoughts is handy, for historiographical purposes, no matter their prejudice.

This time I’ve gone forth without numbers.


The landscape of the Colorado Plateau is the whole story, everything else is a footnote.  The canyons, slot and otherwise, are as enchanting as anything on earth, manmade or natural.  The mountain biking is simply the best which could be thought up anywhere, by man or super-man.  But our return after years of visiting gave me new eyes for the overwhelming variety (diversity seems too strong a term) found between Zion and the Uncompahgre, the Mogollan and Echo Park.


The high plateaus and their forests have grabbed my attention this time around.  They largely hide in plain sight, the Markagunt, Paunsagunt, Pahvant, Tavaputs, Kaiparowits, and Aquarius, obscured by funny names and the lack of named tourist destinations.  Relative to the actual mountain ranges to the east they both lack recognition and have contributed far more substance to the creation of the areas we all love and visit.  Dark Canyon (Abaho) is mighty, but compared to the grandeur and perennial river of Zion (Markagunt) Dark and Bowdie and Gypsum and their cousins are dusty ditches.

It is this enormous relief which catches enough moisture to reveal the Colorado Plateaus potential, and the high overall elevations which makes the region both what it is and tolerable to visit in the warmer half of the year.


All of this is no longer close to the secret it was 15 years ago, even if many pockets and indeed whole neighborhoods remain off the radar.  The Mighty Five campaign has had too many dollars behind it, and the CP is far too Instagramable.  As mentioned a few weeks ago, Zion and Arches and everything in between is problematically close to far too many large cities.  One should not blame anyone for actually getting outside, and I don’t, but the planning required to get a backpacking permit in the Needles or find a parking space in Springdale is of a far more exacting nature than it was even a few years ago, and this is a trend which seems unlikely to do anything but persist.

Accessibility and crowds have a tense relationship with the landscape of the Colorado Plateau.  On one hand the whole area is riddled with roads, circumstances and ruggedness having held them back entirely in shockingly few places.  On the other, the peculiar nature of the cliffs and canyons makes for different rules of travel than in the more northern forests and mountains.  Just because you can drive within 3 linear miles doesn’t mean you won’t then spend a day getting there, and increasingly often those road miles are rough and slow.  Federal agencies have been fighting a proxy battle with county governments for decades over the degree and and quality of road access, and gradually but certainly the former is tipping the balance towards slower driving miles, which is the last best hope many places on the Colorado Plateau have to remain mysterious.


Lastly, the people.  To live on or near the Colorado Plateau one has three choices: settle in one of the larger peripheral cities (Flag, SLC, Grand Junction, Durango, Vegas), “settle” in one of the few towns within the CP which have an almost year-round tourist economy (Moab, Springdale), or try to make a living in one of the settler towns within the Plateau which are broadly speaking fighting an intracommunal war between the extent to which traditional economies will in the 21st century be sustainable and the savage lure of tourism.  It is far from clear when places like Tropic and Escalante will make a year round, sustainable living off tourism as a community, and even far-er from clear if the fate of Moab and especially Springdale is something anyone would wish on themselves (other than, and perhaps even including, the old timers making a fortune selling their real estate).  The recreation economy is good for those who sell bikes and canyoneering gear to those (like us) who settled as close to the promised land as decency would allow, but it is not clear just how good, long term, it will be for the folks who live within the plateau itself.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with admitting that it, like the great plains, are destined for exceedingly minimal human population, but the persistent kindly and false justifications for places like Bear’s Ears are in the face of 2017 a bit hard to hear.


As for the peripheral towns, I can only say that Fruita has proven to be the least pleasant place we’ve lived, and by a margin which has frankly been shocking.  With the Junction/Fruita area being the 3rd or 4th best mountain biking area in the country there is obviously little to complain about, unless you have to do that ride at 1000 on a Saturday between March and October, and Junction itself is just fine.  Fruita however is two towns in uneasy alliance, downtown being the resilient core of the century old farming community, and the rest being a sprawling bedroom community for those who find the real city to the east too expensive, dirty, or just lacking in grass.  The result is that we’ve had both regular, walking access to fantastic beer and coffee and had to worry like never before about being hit while crossing the street.  Even while pushing a stroller.  I naively thought that a destination mountain bike town would invest in bike-friendly infrastructure, but Fruita is caught between a tourist economy that walk a few blocks downtown and drives their bikes to the trailhead, and a tax base which walks the paved paths within the bounds of their HOA and drives everywhere else.  More than usual I hesitate to condemn it, because what is good about Fruita is really fine, but circumstance suspended I just would not want to raise a kid here.


Nothing at home or out there comes without cost.


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