8 Reasons to Hike the Boulder Mail Trail Now (before everyone else does)

The Boulder Mail Trail is our guides’ favorite. little wonder!

With lush canyons, pristine slickrock, open skies and unspoiled trails, this is yet-to-be-discovered country at its best.

Tracing the traditional pack mule route from the high deseret* towns of Escalante and Boulder, UT, the Boulder Mail Trail is an awesome opportunity to enjoy the West as it once was.

8 Resons to go Now!

1. A is for Alcove

geologic alcove boulder mail trail
Alcove from the Inside, courtesy Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez

One of the most impressive alcoves in all of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument rests along Esclanate River on the second half of our backpack.

Geologic alcoves are created by water, seeping into cracks, freezing and thawing, and causing the rock to splinter and form large, arched recesses in the side of the cliff face. Ancient Fremont People made their homes here. As the water percolates through the porous cliff it rinses calcium carbonate from the stone — effectively washing away the glue that keeps the stone secure and slowly returning sandstone to sand grains. Fremont People used this calcium carbonate silt to create their mortar mix.

 

2. Never Fear. Death Hollow is Here

death hollow
Courtesy Russ Nordstrand

Far friendlier than it sounds, Death Hollow is an oasis of life — a stunning box canyon teaming with amazing views, perennial waterflow, abundant vegetation (including an intimidating crop of poison ivy and PI impostors … some large enough to sprout their own bark) and ample animal life.

The hike through Death Hollow is inspiring and incredible. The name comes from the preponderance of pack animals who perished along the descent into the canyon between 1910 and the mid 1930s. Today, the only scary things remaining are the aforementioned patches of poison ivy. But the scenery is still plenty dramatic-enough to captivate the imagination,  and to wonder what it must have been like to traverse this stretch with an entire community’s parcels and provisions in tow.

 

3. Crypto is Cool

By Nihonjoe - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
By Nihonjoe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Thanks to its isolation, the Boulder Mail Trail features some incredibly impressive scenes of Cryptobiotic Soil — microscopic kingdoms of cynobacteria and fungi.

Courtesy Mark Larese-Casanova, Dept of Watershed Sciences, Utah State University

What’s so cool about crypto?
Cryptobiotic actually means “living in suspended animation,” which is exactly what this stuff does. The fungi and bacteria grow only when wet and simply hang-out in the interim. This living soil grows about one millimeter per year. As it grows it creates little mountain ranges of blue/green-blackish crust which serve to shelter plant growth, prevent erosion and even suck nitrogen out of the air to fertilize the soil! And while cryptobiotic crust is super essential to the health of the desert, it is also incredibly fragile; one footstep can take between 20 and 250 years to regenerate. So tread lightly.

 

4. Beavers!

Beaver Dam
Beaver activity along Death Hollow, courtesy, Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez

While this might not be the creature you’d expect on a desert hike, the North American Beaver population is alive and well in Death Hollow.

Beaver activity along the Death Hollow section of the Boulder Mail Trail is a major contributor to (and indicator of) the health of this marvelous canyon environment.

5. PotHoles

desert pothole along the boulder mail trail
Anton Creek Pothole along the Boulder Mail Trail, courtesy Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez

In addition to springs, seeps and perennial streams, potholes are one of the primary water sources for resourceful hikers (and all desert creatures).

Potholes can be large enough to hold water for many weeks after rainfall. Here, you can see geology in action — a brief rainfall contributing 20 minutes of erosion to a 10,000-year process.

 

6. Plants

manzanita
Manzanita, courtesy Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez

Indigenous peoples had many uses for plants throughout the Grand Staircase. Berries from this Manzanita plant can be ground into a textured energy gel. And the leaves can be used to treat poison ivy and for brushing teeth. They also have a slight disinfectant quality, and can help treat a urinary tract infection.

 

7. History

boulder mail trail telephone wire
Original 1910 telephone wire strung tree-to-tree between the towns of Boulder and Escalante, courtesy Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez

Like a lot of places in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the Boulder Mail Trail is rich with cultural history. Established in 1902, this route was the original link between the remote town of Boulder and the outside world. A large portion of the hiking route traces the old telephone line that allowed communication from Boulder via a hand-operated switchboard in Escalante.

Pioneer settlement isn’t the only chronicle to encounter on our Boulder Mail Trail backpacking route. Along the Escalante River section of our hiking trip, we’ll pass by several petroglyph and dwelling sites of the ancient Fremont People — rough contemporaries to the Anasazi.

 

8. Watershed

Escalante River / Death Hollow confluence, courtesy Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez
Escalante River / Death Hollow confluence, courtesy Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez

Go West! While the word “watershed” may not stir your inner outdoor passions, it does describe much of what is so wonderful about this hike. From our starting point at the old Boulder landing strip, in aggregate, we hike downhill the entire way — traversing the streams and tributaries that drain the top of the Grand Staircase, into the stunning Escalante River Canyon where we follow the water’s flow as it makes it’s way towards the Colorado River. It’s incredible to think about how the potholes and stream trickles that we find along the way are an essential beginning to the water supplies of Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles and millions of other people.

Escalante River, courtesy Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez
Escalante River, courtesy Ana Maria Lynch-Ramierez

*Deseret. Ever wonder why Utah is called the Beehive State? Deseret was the original name proposed for the state of Utah, and Deseret translates to “Honeybee” in the Book of Mormon. When proposed in 1849, the state of Deseret was meant to cover all of Utah, most of Nevada, half of Arizona and parts of New Mexico, California, Idaho, Wyoming and Oregon. Today, you’ll see beehive depictions all over Utah — on park benches, public buildings and highway road signs. The symbol is meant to remind Utonians that theirs is the industrious home of virtue through hard work.

Scroll down for photo credits.

Crest of the Utah National Guard
Crest of the Utah National Guard

Photo Credits

Special thanks to Mark Larese-Casanova for use of his awesome cryptobiotic soil photo. Mark is a contributor to Wild About Utah, an Assistant Professor at the Utah State University Extension and Program Director for USU’s Utah Master Naturalist Program Director. You can read and see more from him at wildaboututah.org.

Thanks also to wildlife photographer Russ Nordstrand for his shot of Death Hollow. Russ leads photography tours in Alaska, Hawaii, Africa, Utah, Costa Rica and throughout the American West.

Finally, thanks to Wildland Guide Ana Maria Lynch Ramierez for fun and creative shots along the wonderful Boulder Mail Trail route.

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