Secret getaways of the National Landscape Conservation System

  • The sun sets under stormy skies in Gold Butte, Nevada. "Three hours from Vegas and I feel like I'm on the moon."

    Craig Childs
  • Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona is 70,900 acres of protected high mesa semi-desert grasslands and riparian forests, a forgotten land sandwiched between high-tension power lines and an interstate.

    © Cheyenne L Rouse
  • A lizard suns on a cairn near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    Nate Clark
  • Gold Butte, Nevada.

    Craig Childs
 

Note: This story is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.

Updated 4/9/13

The only map I have shows the way out of Las Vegas -- always a good thing to know.

It is crisp and folded-up on the passenger seat and it says to take the eastbound interstate, which slowly unclenches me from 16-lane traffic. Overpass shadows slice across me between the glare of towering signs for All-You-Can-Eat buffets and Girls, Girls and more Girls.

I need to get out of here, now.

After an hour, the billboards dwindle. Desert basins and limestone-shuttered hills flow past my rolled-down window. I'm heading for the area around Gold Butte, 350,000 acres of Mojave Desert overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. It's big enough I doubt we'll ever see each other out there.

This is not the sort of travel story that gives explicit directions. You won't need reviews and promotions to find what you're looking for. There's not a viewpoint you simply must see, a monument you must photograph. All you need is a hint or two, the name of a range or a river, knowledge of an exit and of how to handle yourself in the backcountry, and you'll be fine.

I don't need that Las Vegas map anymore, or any map, really. Instead, from the interstate, I focus on mountains arcing into the distance. This is where you start using your eyes to travel.

East toward the slot-machine town of Mesquite, then a turn off the interstate to head south, crossing a bridge over the shallow Virgin River. The road winds into open desert, one side rising into mountains thinly scruffed with creosote, the other dotted with Joshua trees down to a barren plain below. Ahead lie the sandstone-finned, heavily eroded terrain of Gold Butte. Some of the land here is open to whatever kind of industry you can imagine, but most of it is preserved in one form or another -- "areas of critical environmental concern," wilderness study areas. Local citizen groups deserve much of the credit for the lack of mineral operations and ATVs running off-trail.

I'm here because BLM is considering Gold Butte for inclusion in its awkwardly named National Landscape Conservation System, or NLCS. This is an umbrella within the agency protecting its best and largest pieces of land, 887 different sites totaling 27 million acres. Gold Butte would bump that up to 27.3 million.

These properties are known as national conservation lands. The designation is not monolithic: It includes national monuments and conservation areas, official wildernesses, wilderness-quality areas and national scenic and historic trails. These lands comprise a sort of shadow national park system, one largely without the fanfare of signs, visitor centers or guided experiences. NLCS is not much for paved roads or endless, established trailheads. It's more about managing large chunks of public land primarily for conservation. The level of protection varies, and existing uses are often grandfathered in. For example, southwest Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, with more than 3,000 archaeological sites, remains open to statutory oil and gas leasing. Even so, national conservation lands are more protected from industrial activities than regular BLM lands.

As a sort of BLM groupie, I've been exploring these places ever since then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed the NLCS into existence in 2000. The conservation blueprint he created, protecting the kind of open, empty land I prefer to explore, was a novel idea at the time. Traditionally, the National Park Service had taken over whenever a piece of public land was designated a national monument or national conservation area, and the BLM was not known for its environmental protection skills. But Babbitt feared the BLM might lose some of its treasures, and he saw that the agency had a lot of land in need of protection that otherwise was going to slip through the cracks. He also felt it was high time the agency did a better job managing for more than just grazing and energy.

Gold Butte's greatest treasures aren't extractable. Protection proponents had told me of the place's wilderness quality, how it's big enough to engulf the horizon, to swallow you whole.

Half an hour down a cracked, pothole-riddled two-lane, I pass a worn metal roadside sign. Shot-up and sun-faded, it proclaims, "The most exciting thing I have seen out here is a flat tire and a hot radiator." On another road, there's a sign on decaying pressboard that reads, "Warning: The sting of small scorpions around here is extremely poisonous."

Perfect.

Asphalt turns to dirt, and dirt to rock and sand. The sun sets as I head toward big islands of up-tilted sandstone. I don't have the name of a trailhead, or an especially spectacular place. Here, you can take off in any direction you want, which is how I like it. In a time of GPS coordinates and check-marked bucket lists, I'm heading the other way, a Luddite looking for a good place to lay my head. I park at the edge of a geologic jungle gym, a spot that, from a distance, seems like a fine place to walk out to, set up camp, and then keep walking onward. I quickly hop gear onto my back and lock my rental with a chirp, the last electronic sound I'll hear for a while, I hope.

Outcrops and cliffs rise like the sails of tall ships against a sky still aflame with sunset. I begin, unexpectedly, to see rock art: Simple peckings first, then spirals and curl-headed bighorn sheep and images of humans as spectacular or more so than any panel I have seen on a managed trail. I have walked into a centuries-old nest of Paiute petroglyphs. Apparently, this was an important place a long time ago, too.

Jumping down through smoothly worn bedrock into a shallow canyon, I am surprised again to find rainwater gathered in a hole at the bottom. Canyon tree frogs softly pipe around me. The empty desert I had anticipated has turned out to be much, much more.

Before it's so dark I need a headlamp, I drop camp and scramble up to the rocky prow of a hill. The last light is gone. Bats dart around the hilltop. Vegas is nothing but a faint glow to the southwest. The only sign of civilization you can see is the red-flashing tip of a radio tower 15 miles away.

Three hours from Vegas and I feel like I'm on the moon. I look up through the flicker of bats, catching a satellite drifting through the stars. Now, I can breathe again.

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