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First Day Hike and erosion

January 5, 2016

In the interest of staying as physically and mentally functional as possible, for as long as possible, to counteract my tendency toward couch-potato inertia and “exercise program” boredom, I’m finding myself fiercely glomming onto any excuse to make physical activity a part of the structure of my everyday life, particularly during the winter months, the dark season of 10,000 excuses.

I’ve already created a tradition for myself of going for a run on Christmas day. I’m quite enamored of the #optoutside movement, where people go out and hike, bike, ski, swim, etc., on the day after Thanksgiving, instead of hitting the Black Friday sales at the mall.

I just this year learned about the First Day Hike tradition promoted by the National Association of State Park Directors, from a Star-Herald story that outlined First Day Hikes in Chadron State Park and Ash Hollow State Historical Park.

I was tempted to go to the Ash Hollow event, as I’ve never visited that park before, but a 200-mile round-trip drive for a couple-mile hike seemed excessive, particularly when there are so many other hiking options nearby.

I thought about hiking in the Wildcat Hills, but a Facebook post from Scotts Bluff National Monument changed my mind:

first day hike suggestion

Hiking up Scotts Bluff is a favorite activity now mostly denied me because of that massive rock slide. As an alternative, you can hike and bike up Summit Road during daylight hours before the park opens or after it closes, but in the wintertime, that’s not a very appealing or practical option – except when a holiday closure enables a hike in the relative warmth of mid-day sunshine!

Scotts Bluff it is!

Yup! The Summit Road gates are down, which means walkers and bikers can go up! (Except when the closure is a result of a safety issue, of course.)

Yup! The Summit Road gates are down, which means walkers and bikers can go up! (Except when the closure is a result of a safety issue, of course.)

Deer tracks in the snow. It was kind of fun being able to read evidence of the comings and goings of bird and mammal. Humans included. Judging by the shoe prints, three people ascended the bluff ahead of us that day. I was surprised. I thought there'd be more.

Deer tracks in the snow. It was fun being able to read evidence of the comings and goings of bird and mammal – humans included. Judging by the shoe prints, three people had ascended the bluff ahead of us that day. I was surprised. I thought there’d have been more. I guess everyone was still sleeping off their hangovers?

It wasn't just critters leaving tracks in the snow. There was some ambling mineral matter as well. These holes in the snow were made by the bounce of tumbling rock that'd come loose from the bluff.

It wasn’t just critters and people leaving tracks in the snow. There was some ambling mineral matter as well. These holes in the snow were made by the bounce of tumbling rock that had come loose from the bluff.

Closures of the road and hiking trail up Scotts Bluff are not uncommon.

Back in May I’d meant to write a post about erosional incidents, but I never got around to it.

A May 9 post on the Scotts Bluff National Monument Facebook page:

A May 9 post on the Scotts Bluff National Monument Facebook page.

A May 27 Facebook post, which shows the results of a rockslide on the lower trail in the same place that’s currently under tons of rock from the most recent slide:

A May 27 Facebook post, which shows the results of a rockslide on the lower trail in the same place that's currently affected.

A picture I took in March of a smaller rock slide on the upper trail near the steps. This section of trail is now closed for another reason: undercutting.

A picture I took in May of a smaller rock slide on the upper trail near the steps. This section of trail is closed for another reason.

Here’s a picture I took of the current rockslide, from the trail that leads south from the parking lot up top. You can see the piles of rock on the lower trail (the white diagonal streak towards the bottom of the picture). But to me, the scary part is the upper trail. See the pine tree and the horizontal white streak? That’s the upper trail. Note all the rock that’s missing from just below there. How much more rock would have to fall before a giant chasm opens up in the upper trail?

undercut

Why is all this happening? Soft rock. And I don’t mean Fleetwood Mac.

Let’s take a peek at local geology, courtesy of some images I took in the Scotts Bluff National Monument visitors center.

hjgfjghf

“The plains were built up by the deposits of silt, sand and gravel washed down by rivers 30 to 40 million years ago from uplands to the west. Winds blew ash and dust from volcanoes far to the west, probably from what is now the Rocky Mountain region.”

fvzv

“More recently, probably within the last million years, accumulation of the sediments slowed down, and the rivers cut broad valleys into the plain, separated by high tablelands.”

rock formations

“The bluffs of this region, protected by hard rock caps, have worn away more slowly than the surrounding plains.” 

But, wear away is what they continue to do. And that upper trail lost its supporting Brule soft siltstone (or was it Gering soft sandstone?), and looks to be held up by little more than a layer of old, compacted volcanic ash.

There’s good reason for this signage in the park (which I frequently see summer visitors ignore completely):

Yes, there are rattlesnakes in the nooks and crannies off trail, but if you happen to get too close to the wrong cliff edge, you may get a scary and painful if not lethal lesson in local geology.

Yes, there are rattlesnakes in the nooks and crannies off trail, but if you happen to get too close to the wrong cliff edge, you may get a scary and painful, if not lethal, lesson in local geology.

I’m anxious to hear what the geologists and engineers have to say about the stability of the remaining trail. It’s possible the trail may be closed for good. It occurred to me that Summit Road may one day suffer the same fate – perhaps it will have to be closed to cars then, and will become the new hiking trail.

Out of curiosity, we plowed through the snowdrifts at the top of the Saddle Rock Trail to see where National Park Service staff closed it off. It was earlier on the trail than I thought, before the first switchback.

I was ever so glad to see that the snow was unblemished and people weren't being stupid and hiking beyond the sign.

I was ever so glad to see that the snow was unblemished beyond the sign; people weren’t being stupid and hiking on closed trail.

Bugman happened to have a quarter with him, so we decided to give the rock slide a look-see through the old binocular viewer thingy.

It appeared that other people had the same idea, as there were a lot of footprints in the snow in front of the viewer. Also - dang, that metal gets cold!

It appeared that other people had the same idea, as there were a lot of footprints in the snow in front of the viewer. Also – dang, the metal on that thing gets cold!

A mono view through the binocular viewer thingy. There were tracks in the snow on the upper trail, but they were deer, not human. Thank goodness.

A mono view through the binocular viewer thingy. There were tracks in the snow on the upper trail, but they were from deer, not humans.

But enough about the slide! We had a lovely hike up the bluff, despite it. The sunshine on my face felt so good! (Though I could’ve used a balaclava to counteract the windchill when hiking through that first tunnel. Brrr!)

The air was uncommonly crystalline, and Chimney Rock and the Laramie Mountains stood out clearly in the distance. The wind-sculpted snow clinging to the sides of the bluff was fascinating (but did not photograph well). And best of all, I got to spend some time poking around in the natural world with my dear Bugman. What a great way to start 2016!

Happy New Year, all!

Happy New Year, all!

I dig the First Day Hike!

Copyright 2016 by Katie Bradshaw

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