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Know the West

Secret getaways of the National Landscape Conservation System


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."


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.

In 2010, I joined then-BLM head Bob Abbey, Bruce Babbitt, other federal officials and citizen land-advocates for a roundtable discussion in Boulder, Colo., honoring the NLCS's 10th anniversary. Sitting at a long wooden table in the redbrick tower of the University of Colorado's Old Main, we talked about our hopes for BLM's future.

Someone praised the NLCS as a kind of sportsman's Park Service, saying he likes how approachable much of it is, accessible to many kinds of users, not just long-distance wilderness hikers. The BLM manager sitting beside him said she wasn't sure how to treat her national conservation lands. Should she manage them differently from the other lands she oversaw? But she loved the idea. I nervously listened to each, hoping no one could sense my heart pounding. Why had they invited wilderness riffraff like me to this not-quite-ivory tower conclave? Comic relief? When my turn came, I said something like, "Sometimes I pull off the road and I just start walking. This is something you can pretty much do only on BLM."

The table was quiet. I swear Babbitt checked his watch. He is a hero of mine, and I felt nervous speaking in front of him. The former governor of Arizona, he was born there and grew up in a ranch-and-trading-post family surrounded by unbroken public land, some of the Lower 48's wildest country. There, he learned to appreciate unoccupied, untrammeled places. We could at least share that.

I was on the spot, though, so I kept talking -- anxiously trying to explain how these public lands are at the core of Western identity and culture. The sense of openness is unique, I said. In the East, it's hard to even find it at all, while out here, it's all around you. If you didn't protect it, I said, I'd have to move to a different country. I need, we need, places beyond the crush of humanity, beyond permits and ceaseless regulations, where you can carry yourself across a landscape as a human being. Swallowed by industry, roads, or parking lots, it would be just like everything else.

There were a few polite nods. One man, however, smiled broadly and looked me right in the eye. It was Carl Rountree, head of the NLCS. Afterward, he took me aside and, rather than policy, began talking about places: The deep woods of southwest Oregon, the scaly badlands of Wyoming, the marching saguaro forests of south-central Arizona.

I hadn't expected passion at this level of government. I thought Rountree would be a paper-pusher climbing his way through the agency. But our conversations continued over the next two years as we sent notes back and forth from the national conservation lands we visited. Places like Gold Butte, and Ironwood Forest National Monument near Tucson, with its crowds of saguaros and ragged-top peaks, and the lava flows of Oregon Badlands carpeted in ponderosa pine needles. He told me I'd have to see the verdant mountains of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southwest Oregon, and the wild coastlines with literally tens of thousands of rock-points, sea-stacks and islands inside California Coastal National Monument.

"I just love to get out into these areas and stand in a place where it is so quiet it's just overpowering," Rountree said. "There's this incredible sense I've never been able to quite put into words. These monuments and national conservation areas are being managed to provide opportunities for self-discovery, getting out by yourself without being told what you should experience, where you should be experiencing it."

Rountree mentioned Agua Fria National Monument in central Arizona, then asked, "You've been there, right?"

"Only a little, around the edges," I said, embarrassed I had never gone more than a mile or two into its 70,900 acres.

"You need to talk to Rem Hawes," Rountree said.

Rem Hawes doesn't wear hiking boots. The Agua Fria National Monument manager had on what you might expect of a government fireboss: worn leather boots with flashing at the toe. At the younger side of middle age, he was fit and trim, a long-range hiker.

We drove out together one February day from Phoenix with Scott Jones, the Southwest director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated solely to bolstering BLM's national conservation lands, including Agua Fria. After an hour's drive north from Phoenix on I-17, we took an exit where the freeway cut up to the top of a black basalt mesa and drove east into the monument. The road turned to dirt right away and we bounced in a Jeep across the ruts and ditches of bouldery grasslands.

"The monument has a hundred miles of drivable roads," Hawes said from behind the wheel. "Seven miles are graded."

That was a boast. The dwindling arteries of roads in the monument help spread people out, he explained, rather than drawing them to a single place. The monument has no center, no viewpoint, no ramada at the end of the road with a lonely row of picnic tables waiting just for you. It is wide-open, challenging country -- what makes the West unique.

"There are some places your classic visitor can go here," Hawes continued. "You can look on a map and find a destination, but the bigger purpose here is that the landscape itself is a destination. Where is the one waterfall everyone's supposed to see? Where are the geysers? This isn't that kind of place."

"It's not the Devils Tower experience," Jones added.

Ruts turned to naked boulders and dust, and Hawes downshifted into 4-low. We parked at an unmarked spot near towering metal pylons and then got out with daypacks. I peered up the tight sway of high-tension power lines that cut across the middle of the monument. Walking under and past them, we could hear the hum and crackle of electricity high overhead. I thought, This isn't wilderness.

The power lines, Hawes pointed out, are part of what protects Agua Fria's sense of solitude.

He gestured toward the barely discernable motion of semi-trucks six miles off, visible through a gap in the rolling dry grass and agave stalks. "I-17 on one side and the power lines on the other form a boundary, and people really don't think about what's in between."

Tiers of half-mile-wide canyons carve down through the mesa's edge where we walked. You wouldn't see them unless you stood at their edges. Palisades and steep boulder fields led to garlands of cottonwood and sycamore, some of the canyons running with streams or at least prosperous springs.

Like Gold Butte, Agua Fria takes in a big sweep of land, in this case most of a mesa 10 miles long and six miles wide, crowned with high-desert caprock, and wreathed at the base by the Agua Fria River, where clear, cool water flows beneath tall saguaros, carving the mesa's southern edge into steep, rugged drops.

Jones and I followed Hawes down a flood-polished channel of basalt, ducking around spiny mesquites. Barrel cacti grew among agaves and black, bubbled boulders. "Right up here you start seeing them," Hawes said.

At first, we found simple etchings on boulders, stick figures and rectilinear designs. Then we saw hundreds of delicately pecked images of animals, people and great, interwoven spirals on flat walls of basalt outcrops. We were in the thick of the 11th century, the Perry Mesa culture, ancient Puebloan people living in the high desert of central Arizona. You'd expect the ground here to be beaten smooth by visitors, little arteries breaking away to view each rock art panel. But there were no trails at all.

As we explored the galleries of rock art, hopping from boulder to boulder, we encountered a fat, dust-colored rattlesnake. It barely buzzed, lazy with the morning. We crouched and watched it slowly glide through the grass.

"It's locals' territory," Hawes later said, describing what national conservation lands tend to have in common. "The ranchers know this place -- the hikers, people on ATVs, horseback. Blue-collar sign-shooter ATV groups … are a major base for us."

The monument is loaded with four-wheeling opportunities, but much of it is accessible only to foot and horse. The Arizona Wilderness Coalition has recommended two wilderness study areas here, totaling 28,667 acres that would seal off the more remote country.

At a gap, we climbed up through caprock to the smooth mesa top. On this higher, wind-blown sweep, the ground was littered with broken pottery, sherds dating back several centuries, in some places so thick you could scarcely avoid stepping on them. Early agriculturists once lived here, pueblo-dwellers, corn and agave growers. Calling to each other, bending down and picking up design-painted sherds to show each other, we slowly worked our way toward a rise. It turned out to be a rock-stack of ruins, an ancient pueblo at the mesa's edge. The depressions of old room-blocks and the checkerboard rise of mostly toppled walls took up nearly an acre. Hawes had been here before, though he hadn't remembered exactly where it was. Every time, he said, he has to find his way anew.

At the crumbled edge of this pre-Columbian citadel, we looked down stair-stepped cliffs and boulders into a canyon-bottom riparian zone a few hundred feet below. There were no trails. Hawes told me the place was not something you'd even pick up on the Internet as a destination, a canyon unnamed on most maps.

Below the ruin, we sat out of the wind. "Last day of freedom," Jones said to Hawes.

I asked what he meant and Hawes explained that he was taking a higher position within the BLM managing a bigger, more broken-up piece of desert outside Phoenix. No national conservation lands.

"Is this what you wanted to do on your last day?" I asked.

Hawes looked past his boots, propped on a boulder, to the canyon open beneath him, and laughed, "This is what I would do every day if I could."

Now, anytime I drive I-17 north of Phoenix, my mind wanders into the monument. That stretch of freeway no longer seems just a quick way to get from here to there. Instead, it's the edge of a much larger landscape, one not dominated by us.

Rountree has remained my enabler, sending me notes with new locations, places I just had to visit. He mentioned Sonoran Desert National Monument south of Phoenix and I found myself sitting on one of its high, craggy ridges at sunrise, first light streaming across the desert with not a trail or road in sight.

One place he spoke about, often with a longing sigh, was Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Starting in high alpine elk-and-spruce, the 1.9 million acre monument -- the largest in the system -- takes a dazzling plunge through canyons and cliffs into the desert. Containing a thousand miles of dirt roads in various conditions, the monument is seven times the size of nearby Zion National Park.

On a warm week in early March, I hooked up with a friend to backpack 20 miles cross-wise, in and out of canyons on the northeastern lobe of the monument. He was a fishing guide from the nearby town of Escalante. We didn't follow trails. Instead, we let our bodies carry us, scanning ahead for gaps, feeling routes with our hands and through our bootsoles. We also didn't bring enough rope, so we did a lot of sliding on our asses with full packs.

Wherever we saw cairns, we destroyed them. The most gaudy stackjobs we pushed over, redistributing their rocks to wipe them from memory. Others we just kicked down, leaving a rock or two as a more subtle route-marker.

My friend told me that if you don't control them this way, cairns swiftly overpopulate, establishing new colonies hither and yon, until you can't go anywhere without seeing them. His way of keeping the land wild was to take them down.

This wasn't so much an act of sabotage, as compliance with NLCS strategy. Ace Kvale, a global mountaineer-adventurer turned volunteer backcountry ranger for Grand Staircase-Escalante, actually thanked me for removing cairns in his monument. I told him I had been a little hesitant at first, just following my buddy's lead, but it felt good. Even Rountree told me he'd kicked down cairns.

"It's in the mission statement of the monument to preserve wilderness characteristics," Kvale said. "Places tend to get over-cairned and eventually people are just following the dotted lines. They need to keep their eyes open, not just follow breadcrumbs. We want them to experience the wilderness on its terms."

Kvale, like many NLCS backcountry rangers, goes by specific guidelines for cairns in little-visited country. On major routes and trails, you should be able to see only one at a time. He tends to knock over every other cairn in places like this, leaving the rest as reliable but not ostentatious trail-markers. Out in deeper country, however, in untrailed wilderness, he takes down almost every one he sees.

"I think of true, untouched wild nature," Kvale said. "We have that here in the canyon country. If you're out that far, you shouldn't need cairns to find your way. I don't mind seeing a subtly placed one or two rocks tastefully done at an important juncture on a route, that's OK. Just a signal to let you know you're on the right track.

"We're not trying to get anybody killed," he added. "You just have to know a little about what you're doing out here."

But there was one cairn that really caught the attention of my buddy and me. It was made of two softball-sized rocks leaning against each other, the sandstone of one weathering into the sandstone of the other. No telling the exact age, since any lichen had been blasted off by wind. This subtle cairn was on an exposed rock-dome leading into the dim hole of a canyon. It was exactly the kind of thing Kvale would let alone, probably using it, like us, as a marker for a way down through perilous country. Maybe it was put here by hunters 50 years ago, or early canyoneers in the 1960s. I like to imagine it was much older than that, left by Paiute travelers who stitched their way across these canyons much as we were doing today, traveling across this far, wild land with their senses heightened, eyes constantly scanning for the next step.

That cairn, we left.

Craig Childs is a High Country News contributing editor and author of more than a dozen books, most recently Apocalyptic Planet. He was born in Arizona, teaches an MFA program at the University of Alaska and lives with his family in western Colorado.