I’m confident that every person has a place where it all began. A special place that caused the spark that fueled the fire within for the thing they love. For me, the place that started my raging inferno of love for backpacking was the Boulder Mail Trail.
I always loved the outdoors, adventure, hiking… you name it. I didn’t mind getting dirt under my nails, or roughing it in a tent for a few days. I always lived my life with a bit of wanderlust; traveling, hiking, exploring new places and countries and enjoying life outside as much as possible. But I wouldn’t have said then that it was my passion. That has since changed for me.
The funny thing about this adventure was that it was by pure luck that it even happened in the first place. Back in 2013 when the US Government shutdown, I was scheduled to complete a hike in the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, because the shutdown meant that the National Parks were also closed, my plans had to change at the last-minute. I had an option to reschedule, or to choose a new adventure: and one of those adventures was the Boulder Mail Trail. Aside from some short overnight trips and hikes, this was my first true “backpacking” experience where I would cover a significant amount of miles, pack everything I needed to survive for a few days on the trail and be significantly removed from the functioning world. At this point in my backpacking career, I didn’t own my own equipment (other than a pack I bought for a trip to South America a few years before) or have any idea what I was in for. Green, excited and eager, I joined up with the Wildland Trekking Company and embarked on my “crash course” in backpacking and what would be the start of my everlasting love for adventure.
First things first, what the heck is the Boulder Mail Trail? Truth be told, when I made the decision to switch to this trip, I’d never been to Utah and I’d certainly never heard of Escalante or the Boulder Mail Trail. I went on a gut feeling, and I’m glad I did. The Boulder Mail Trail is a hidden gem in the high desert of Southern Utah; found in canyon country in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area. This historic trail (now a great backpacking route) was once used to transport mail and supplies between two towns in Utah; Boulder And Escalante (a feat you will soon see is nothing short of incredible). The trail traverses a series of canyons along a route whose landscape looks like another planet. Slick rock, deep canyons and sandstone formations make up the most of the terrain. It was perfection to a gal who had no idea what to expect.
After a long drive and a car shuttle, our small (but mighty) group of hikers and our incredible guide were dropped at the trailhead. Thankful that the October temps were not a raging 100 degrees, we departed into a wide open landscape of sagebrush and sand and headed off into the abyss.
It was real to me then, that this was the start of an incredible journey. While sunset came early on a fall evening, the campsite was nothing short of amazing. Our guide whipped up a delicious feed of chicken curry and rice (yes, I remember every meal we had on this trip). I was amazed at the ability of our guide to create such a hearty and flavorful feast in the backcountry. And yet, another fire was fueled within me… I too would someday strive to become a backcountry chef myself.
While desert to most means barren land + hot scorching sun, I’m here to tell you that I did not find that desert in October at an elevation of over 6000 feet. The temps dropped near freezing at night, leaving my gear and my sleeping bag covered in a nice layer of frost in the morning. This excited me, so I knew this backpacking thing would be my jam. Following a hearty breakfast of fully loaded omelettes, the day set off following a trail of cairns along slick rock, to a canyon appropriately named: Death Hollow. Death hollow (not to be confused with the deathly hallows) is a massively deep canyon which plummets a sheer 1000 ft+ downward to a green oasis of lush vegetation. The question that left my head spinning while I peered over the edge… was how the %@#$ was I supposed to get down there.. and live. Oh, did I mention that Death Hollow gets its name because the pack mules who used the Mail Trail, would fall into the canyon to their death.
At the hand of our expert guide, all members of the group safely (and quite easily, in fact) made it to the bottom of the Death Hollow Canyon. The trail left behind the moon-like terrain and entered a vibrant, lush, green space; complete with leafy vegetation, towering ponderosa pines, flowing streams and colorful canyon walls.
I assure you my photos do NO justice to its beauty. I was in love with this serene oasis. HOWEVER, I was not in love with that giant climb BACK OUT of Death Hollow on the other side to reach camp for that evening. And so began my ever-growing hatred for steep uphill hiking.
The Boulder Mail Trail often crossed large sections of telegraph wires like a blast from the past; some of which was still intact and draping down over the canyon walls. Was anyone listening on the other end? · · · – – – · · · S-O-S… this uphill is killing me! During the trudge back to the top of the canyon, I learned another very valuable lesson in backpacking: that the best places on earth are the ones you have to work the hardest to get to. Since that day I’ve never stopped working to find them. The view from the top of the canyon was impossibly perfect. It was crazy to think that such a vibrant ecosystem of life can exist in such a dry desert landscape. It’s a prime example of how water feeds life in these parts.
I certainly owe part my passion for backpacking to the Wildland guide who lead the trip along the Boulder Mail Trail. She was an inspiration to me; a well seasoned thru hiker, a strong and independent lady, and incredibly well versed in the art of kicking ass at backpacking. She had a passion for the outdoors that was infectious. I learned leave no trace ethics and respect for the trail and fellow backpackers. I learned of unique desert plants, of soil that lives, how to get yourself out of quicksand (this happened), what creatures were leaving prints in the sand (she could spot them like a hawk) or what went howl in the night. I picked her brain for 4 straight days and became a stronger adventurer because of it.
The Boulder Mail Trail is not very well known, which meant that the trail was quiet. I saw maybe four other hikers and one small group of backpackers the entire trip. I never had to share a campsite with another group. Serene campsite on night two of the trip was along the Mamie Creek drainage and was my personal favorite. I called it “Echo Point,” because the massive rock wall looming overhead echoed back the howls of the coyotes in the distance. Downstream from the campsite at Mamie creek, was a unique natural bridge and waterhole that was worth exploring.
Foul weather threatened the following day. Thankfully it was only a few miles of hiking along the Antoine Flats until finding camp that night. This would be a “dry” camp, meaning there was no access to a water source. As a result, I learned about being resourceful in nature. Pot holes in the slick rock are great collecting spots for water in this terrain, and we were able to filter the water we needed for the night and the morning about a mile before reaching camp.
As the storm clouds rolled in, our guide had just finished cooking up a feed of delicious steak fajitas (you did indeed read that correctly). I remember hoping I would wake up to a snowy view in the morning as I crawled into my sleeping bag that night. Perhaps this was foreshadowing my present day love for winter backpacking!!!
I didn’t get to wake up to snow but it was a pretty chilly morning to hike out. Thank goodness most of the last day was downhill. The leaves at the base of the canyon had started to change color to vibrant yellows. This was my first taste of desert landscapes and I was fascinated with how the vegetation adapts to survive here. This may have been my first trip to Utah, but it certainly hasn’t been my last. Utah quickly became one of my most favorite States to seek adventure and I have returned more than a handful a times since this initial trip.
This was an adventure of great beginnings for me, and one I will never forget as long as I live. It may have been the time in my life, the company I was with, the beauty of canyons or the energy of the trail… or some culmination of it all. I’ve been hooked ever since. I am thankful I joined the Wildland Trekking company for this adventure because I think the experience of a guided hike offered me exactly what I needed to learn, and to gain the confidence and knowledge of what backpacking really meant and could be for me.
While standing on the edge of Death Hollow in the desert of Utah, a place I would have never dreamed I would EVER be, I found a missing piece of my life puzzle. In that moment I was hopelessly unaware of the impact that day would have on me going forward; of the journeys and adventures would lie ahead for me, of this hobby that would become an incredible passion, of the strength I would find from the trail and within myself to conquer so many things in the future. Unaware of the impact that hike had on my life that day, I just sat on the edge of that canyon, and enjoyed the incredible view.