The public lands that kept us sane

In honor of National Public Lands Day, High Country News staff reflect on access to spaces across the West.


Forest Park, Portland, Oregon. Stl’pulmsh (Cowlitz) land. 

Portland’s Forest Park is one of the nation’s largest urban forests, with over 70 miles of trails, and at least 50 shades of green: ferns, moss, lichen, needles, buds, bluish shadows to neon highlights. On summer weekends, it can be crowded. But it’s accessible.

It’s painful to access natural landscapes as a commodity instead of a birthright, a reminder of our violent separation from the land. When I hike in Forest Park with my kindergartener, we talk about the old Choctaw ways, how our ancestors didn’t have to seek out nature. We talk about colonization, and how the nahullo way is to live surrounded by fences. We talk about the Chinook and Kalapuya people, whose land we’re walking on, and about our own ancestral homelands far away, beyond the Trail of Tears. We talk about the myth of land ownership, how it’s really ownership of a piece of paper backed with police violence. And we breathe in the healing fragrance of damp earth, walk in silence to the healing babble of water at our feet. The shudder of leaves mingles with my child’s healing laughter.

They wade in the clear creek, careful not to step on their relatives the freshwater snails. Downstream, the creek reroutes into an underground channel, which colonizers built to prevent runoff when they paved over a thriving wetland to create industrial real estate that is now a Superfund site. It’s painful. But it’s healing. It’s accessible. We do what we have to do in this era. —Brian Oaster, intern, Indigenous Affairs Desk




Joshua Tree National Park, California. Yuhaaviatam/Maarenga’yam (Serrano) land.

To mark a notable birthday last year, I spent 12 days in Joshua Tree National Park. Friends and family came and went with cake and gifts and firewood, but the time that most definitively fed my soul was a few-day stretch when I was there alone: no agenda, no one to cook for or accommodate in any way, just days laid out before me. I watched the sunrise, perched on a ledge where the silica content of the rock glimmered when the sun rays finally hit it. I hiked the washes, stumbling one day on a heart-shaped crystal that I couldn’t help slipping in my pocket. (Forgive me, backcountry ethicists.) I traversed a boulder-choked side canyon where I was almost certain I was being watched by a large cat, but I nevertheless sat down to lunch on sopressata and a hunk of aged gouda. It had been a tough year for everyone, and I was grateful for what I had and had not endured. The gift of those high-desert days was a return to unfettered time, to a sense of discovery, to the pure feeling of being alive and enlivened. —Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief


Comb Ridge, near Bluff, Utah. Navajo land.

Comb Ridge is a dramatic sandstone crest that runs 80 miles from Utah’s Abajo Mountains to Kayenta. It is home to the ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans, the region’s early inhabitants. One morning in early September, I stood at the far western edge of Comb Ridge overlooking Comb Wash, hundreds of feet below me at the bottom of an enormous cliff. My partner, Trevor, had planned a bike tour over the Labor Day long weekend to commemorate two close friends who passed away a few years ago. He invited a group of family and friends who knew them, and we called the tour The H2P2, or “Here’s to Peter and Paul.” We started at this spot atop Comb Ridge where both Peter and Paul had loved to camp. From there, we’d ride 150 miles back to Durango, where they had lived. That first night of the trip, I listened to the stories of two people I had never met, but to whom I now felt connected through this place and the reverence they held for it. —Sarah Tory, correspondent


Gunnison National Forest, Colorado. Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) territory.

It was late August in Gunnison, Colorado — too hot to be hiking — but the dogs and our bodies needed to get out. Smoke from the California fires remained in the air but had dissipated some. The combination of those urges and that clarity took us into Gunnison National Forest, originally Ute territory. All summer we’d been complaining about the Texas and Oklahoma license plates crowding our parking lots and the commute into town. The local COVID-19 rates were rising, our grocery store shelves vacant. Some out-of-towners gawked at the stunning scenery from their brand-new Jeep Renegades, nearly stopping on the road, oblivious to those of us trying to get somewhere. Then again, it is beautiful here.

Almost 82% of Gunnison County is public land, over 2 million acres. The land has been used for its mineral resources, its water, its hunting and angling riches, for ranching and, of course, recreation, and they are renowned for all these. From time immemorial, people have migrated here to enjoy the valley’s abundance. After a 15-minute drive from our home, we pulled over in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness Area and piled out of the car, dogs leaping with joy. We hiked up a steep grade in the heat — too steep for my pleasure — but at the crest you could spy four other wilderness areas while standing in one: the West Elks, the Raggeds, the Collegiate Peaks and the Uncompahgre. The grandeur of it; how minuscule and petty I am. We hadn’t seen one car, cow or Texas plate on the drive, let alone another person on our ramble. The public lands always remind me of my place. —Gretchen King, managing digital editor  


Grand Teton National Park and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. The ancestral homelands of the Cheyenne, Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock.

My friend Sierra and I made a pact when we left the Tetons: No matter what happened, we wanted to rendezvous here every summer to camp in the shadow of our favorite mountains. Pushed out by the valley’s cost of living, sure, but also by our career ambitions, we clung tightly to the idea that these public lands — Grand Teton National Park, the Jedediah Smith Wilderness — would always be there for us to return to. A relic of times past, a place to stay grounded, a common meeting point between our new homes in Montana and Utah. A way of never really saying goodbye. This summer, after scoring highly coveted Teton Crest Trail permits, we invited friends and partners to join us. We walked through fields overflowing with wildflowers, jumped in turquoise alpine lakes, confronted bull moose near our tents and hauled heavy packs over rocky passes. On our last night together, stomachs rumbling from dehydrated pad thai and a splash of tequila, we watched the sun set and talked about exploring the same nooks and crannies with our kids someday. The pact, after all, has no expiration date.  — Kylie Mohr, intern North Desk


Mount Sneffels, San Juan Mountains. Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) lands.  

The sky darkened and the stars brightened, encouraging us along the snow-covered path as we plodded forward, skis underfoot. When we finally made it to the hut, the moon cast just enough of a glow to see Mount Sneffels towering beyond us. Spindly aspen and spruce trembled in a light breeze, and fresh snow fell from branches like glitter. I slept near a wood-burning stove next to my partner, our two dogs with us on a twin-sized cot. The configuration lasted only a few hours as my 75-pound hound stretched out longer and wider, and I woke with half my face pressed against the woody cabin wall. The dogs were relegated to wool blankets on the floor.

Caution loomed over that magical weekend in early March 2021, as southwest Colorado experienced one of its deadliest backcountry ski seasons on record. In the morning, we sipped coffee slowly, relishing the fresh air and the snow, the company of friends — more there for one another than anything else. We’d come from Durango, Gunnison, Telluride and Crested Butte, for a pandemic era reunion. Sneffels was our gathering place. We skied through the trees, on hardly vertical aspects and built a ski jump in a meadow. As we used our skis to flatten and pack the snow, it grew. We shaped it until it swooped like a breaking wave and then took turns launching off it, all landing — or dropping, falling, faltering — onto a pillow of powder. —Paige Blankenbuehler, associate editor South Desk


Canyonlands, Utah.  Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) lands.  

 I was an Air Force kid, ping-ponging from the Northwest to the South and around and back again. Those cross-country journeys opened up the West; at 9 years old, I felt the world unfurling.

Grown up, I’d leave the high-country winters to backpack in desert heat. I hiked until my skin was burnt to slickrock — two or three weeks in Grand Canyon or the Canyonlands, back when you could go days without seeing anyone, only the signs of the Ancient Puebloans who preceded us. The planet is always and everywhere alive, but especially so in the canyons, where the very colors and curves of the stone seem to shiver and shift in the breeze, stretching and sighing as the long light travels through the day. The great stone arches inhale and exhale. Embraced by slot canyons, we spoke in whispers. We felt watched, even weighed, by the spires in the Needles; they were more alert than most geology — clearly aware of us. We walked carefully, and we behaved ourselves.

Just a few months after that, a fall down a long flight of stairs damaged me, irrevocably. All backpacking ended, leaving me hurt in ways nobody could see. Until I took up my pastels again. I could no longer hike into the backcountry, so I painted what it left inside me. The Canyon Country remains. It is an ancient and holy land, and it does just fine without me; it will be there with its rocks and ravens long after I and my artwork and my ramshackle bones are dust. Bright stone and barberry still haunt my dreams, and those memories, by the grace of God, are — almost — enough. —Diane Sylvain, copyeditor


The Grand Canyon. Ancestral land of the Hualapai, Havasupai, Hopitutskwa, Pueblo, Southern Paiute, Navajo, Zuni and Yavapai-Apache Nation.

When I went to the Grand Canyon last November, I was surprised to see how empty the park was. I had read, and written, about the crowds of Americans who had flocked to public lands as an escape from COVID, and I was fully expecting the same when I arrived. But when we got there, we didn’t have to wait in line or fight for parking. There were no tour buses. Perhaps the closure of the Navajo Nation played a part, making it hard for people driving from Colorado or Utah to reach the South Rim.

One day, we hiked down the Bright Angel trail to an overlook of the Colorado River, where we ate our lunch and squabbled with squirrels trying to steal our crumbs. For a while, we were the only ones there, watching the dark green water move through the steep canyon walls. On our way back I filmed a short video message, wishing my dad a happy 70th birthday. Our family was supposed to all celebrate the milestone together back in Colorado, but COVID had put a wrench in those plans. Walking back up the steep switchbacks, I remembered the story of how my dad and his brother, Joe, two guys from Missouri, took a trip to the Grand Canyon in their early 20s. They wore jeans and carried a gallon jug of water between the two of them, and he recounted, with a laugh, how they had to ration their water, filling it up once at the river before heading back up the trail. There was no shade, and they had to stop at each switchback, slowed down by exhaustion and dehydration. It was one of those adventures he looks back on fondly. COVID may have taken away our time together that fall, but remembering him tell that story about that day and walking the same set of trails made me feel close to him — and close to home. — Jessica Kutz, assistant editor South Desk


Castle Rock Campground, Fishlake National Forest, Utah. Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) land. 

A stream ran next to our camp so we listened to the sound of water all night long. In the morning, we hiked the Joe Lott trail, climbing with the river, canyon, and forest surrounding us.
Mary Zachman, finance and human resources administrator


Desolation Wilderness, near South Lake Tahoe. Nisenan territory.

I grew up in Florida, and my first real look at the Western U.S. was a post-college trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. I have countless memories of peaks and traverses, high water fords and hilarious animal encounters. I tasted my first fresh apricot in Southern California and cried at Crater Lake, just because the water was so blue. I walked through desolate char from too-hot forest fires and had my first anaphylactic reaction, fortunately just three miles from “town.”

But my favorite public lands in the West — even now, after being in the West for more than two decades — are Echo Lake and the Desolation Wilderness. My hiking partner, Jean, and I stopped at the post office at the Chalet at Echo Lake for a resupply and befriended an older couple, who invited us to the Fourth of July picnic that evening — even welcoming us to do laundry at their lake house, like family. We brought hot dogs and made dozens of friends, then slept on the mountain’s edge, overlooking Lake Tahoe, watching fireworks. The next day we didn’t get very far, swimming in crystal-clear lakes in the Deso Gray area. I found out, 20 years later, that the sweet couple we met were the best friends of the parents of HCN’s senior development officer, Paul Larmer. Small, small and magnificent world. That it’s on fire now is heartbreaking to me. —Alyssa Pinkerton, director of philanthropy



Delta-Nucla Road, Uncompahgre National Forest and Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, Colorado. Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) land.

The first time I followed the Delta-Nucla Road, it was into the fading light. My best friend was at the wheel of her Jeep. We were delighted to discover that there was a route home from my partner’s home in Monticello, Utah, that didn’t require braving the inevitable traffic of Moab or Telluride. We hurtled through Disappointment Valley as dusk turned it into a wide expanse of monochrome colorscape. After rounding a few switchbacks, our headlights started to illuminate juniper and piñon instead of sagebrush, then aspen and pines stretched above the beams. Finally, they vanished entirely into the dark cliffs off the tight turns. Her foot became heavier on the brakes as we nervously exchanged a few words — I bet this is beautiful in the daylight — wondering at the views her headlights weren't showing us. 

In the year since that trip, I've driven the dirt road through all seasons and weather —even once, in early December, when I discovered that it is not an all-season road, as three feet of snow scuffed the underside of my van. I've dodged hunters slowly taking rounding turns in their pickups as they search for deer along the horizon, cattle attempting to claim the road in addition to their grazing allotments, and weekenders speeding along the middle of the road in their OHVs. All along, I've been thankful for the shortcut to my partner at his new job. A four-hour drive spent swearing at highway traffic turned into a three-hour adventure without so much as a gas station along the way. Sometimes I even had enough time to stop for a hike at the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau. —Luna Anna Archey, associate photo editor


Palouse Divide, Clearwater National Forest, Idaho. Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene) land.

The late winter air was damp and chilly on my cheeks, the snow fast under my cross-country skis: a little old, but still slick and fun. It was March and I was at Palouse Divide, a Nordic ski area near my home in North Idaho. The place is pretty quiet, basically just a few miles of narrow trails that cut across hillsides and through groves of towering cedars and pines.

Eventually, I came to a familiar intersection, a spot where I usually turn my ski tips left and huff up a steep slope, then loop around to the parking area. It was already late afternoon, but I wasn’t ready to head back, so this time I turned right, into the woods, thinking the route would pop me out farther up the road above the car. 

I found myself skiing faster and faster, trying to outrace the setting sun. I reveled in a few swift descents down the rolling trail, but as the twilight deepened, the lack of light flattened the snowbanks and ski tracks into a uniform white expanse, and I started thinking about how easy it would be to catch an edge and break a leg. Finally, the evergreen trunks a wall of black around me, I admitted that I was nowhere near where I thought I’d be, so I turned to retrace my tracks. Driving home in the dark, I figured I’d better throw a headlamp in my pack next time. —Emily Benson, associate editor North Desk

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