Leave No Trace

When traveling in the West, you’ll often see that phrase stuck to the back of Subarus and campervans, as well as printed on many of the brochures and maps handed out at national parks, national grasslands and other hiking and camping destinations. While on the road in New Mexico back in May, I was revisiting an old book that I had brought along and I found a new appreciation for the following passage, which takes the concept of “Leave No Trace” to a higher level. The book is God’s Dog: Conversations with Coyote by Webster Kitchell…

   After breakfast we snooped around the ruins, and then we climbed
to the mesa top. We looked down on Pueblo Bonito. We were silent.
Then I spoke what I was feeling.
   “It’s sort of sad and sort of moving to see the ruins people leave.
They worked so hard, and all that’s left are ruins. But because they
worked so hard and left ruins, we remember them. We know at least
they existed. They weren’t completely swept away by the sands of
the desert and the sands of time.”
   “We don’t leave ruins.”
   “And people don’t remember you a thousand years later.”
   “So what? Who wants to be remembered?”
   “We humans can’t imagine not existing. We want to exist at least in
someone’s memory. Or leave a monument that someone will find a
thousand years later and say, ‘Some clever folks lived here.’ ”
   “So what? If you’re not alive to appreciate their wonder at the
monument you left for them, what good does the monument do?”
   “It’s psychological, Coyote, an emotional thing. I admit it isn’t
reasonable. People want to be remembered, so they build monuments.
They have to make their mark on the earth, even if it’s only carving an
aspen. It’s part of being human; the persistence of being.”
   “The point of being alive is to be alive! Why do people waste their
lives constructing a monument so people will remember them when
they’re dead? They could have put that energy into having a good time
or making life better for the human race. Or for coyotes, for that matter,
like you do.”
   “It’s called ego, Coyote. I have been reading some heavy sociology
about the stages people go through. When they’re little, they are child-
like. They don’t have all this ego. They take life as it comes, as you say
they should. Then they get to a stage when they have to differentiate
between self and parents. They start to develop an ego. Which is fun!
It means I am I. I do not exist just as an extension of my mother or my
clan; I exist! And so I want to leave my mark on the earth; maybe on
the Universe.”
   “Maybe ego is what is wrong with humans. Maybe that’s why you
were evicted from the garden way back there.”
   “You could be right. Which may be why in later life, people become
aware that life and goodness and beauty transcend the human ego. In
later years, they get some child-likeness back, but at a more sophisti-
cated level. They see the whole thing and appreciate it and understand
it and don’t have the emotional need to carve their initials in it anymore.
They can just accept it as a wondrous happening, a gift.”
   “Well said!”

~ ~ ~

Quoted text © 1991 by Webster Kitchell


That is the number of National Grasslands in the United States. They are places I visit frequently when I’m on the road…places that offer great opportunities for driving and hiking and stargazing, and are hard to beat when it comes to enjoying solitude and blissful silence. This year, I decided that I need to experience a quiet night alone in each of the twenty grasslands through the joy of dispersed camping.

On my 2020 journey, I was able to check three of them off the list. I started with a return to the first grassland I ever visited many years ago—Sheyenne National Grassland in eastern North Dakota.

Above: View from my tent at dawn; a still mist hovering above the grass


The spot I chose for camping was nicely isolated in sprawling ranchland; there were no houses or farms or moving vehicles visible in any direction, no sound of human activity. After a colorful sunset, with the waxing moon riding through the twilight, the coyotes started their chorus.

Above: My campsite in the late-day sun


The stars on this night were wonderfully brilliant. And my choice of a tent with screen windows paid off yet again. I awoke briefly at one point late in the night, and just as I opened my eyes, a bright shooting star zoomed directly overhead, flying from east to west.


Earth & Sky

Above, light from the rising sun illuminates large boulders on a hilltop in the Davis Mountains of western Texas.

The oldest entry in my blog was posted five years ago today, and tells of a spot in the mountains which is very special to me. The Pontiac and I have enjoyed five tours of these beautiful and peaceful mountains during the past 30 years; I’ve no doubt we’ll be visiting the area again.

Speaking of, here are links to a few archived blog posts about our most recent trip to the Davis Mountains in 2015…

The long-awaited return to the spot mentioned in the post linked above, including some photos of the incredible night sky:

Deep in the Heart of Texas

And a couple of posts featuring photos of the area’s wildlife:

Raptor’s Delight

Acme Little Giant Do-It-Yourself Rocket-Sled Kit

Freshwater Pools of the Canadian Shield

When I left my tent for a morning hike, little did I know that I would find myself in a wilderness rock garden, featuring colorful plants and beautiful pools of cool, clear water. Such was my luck when I chose to camp on the shore of James Bay at Longue Pointe, north of Chisasibi, Quebec.

Just before the hike, I listened to the birds and watched the sunrise from my seaside campsite

Hear the birds and the waves for yourself by watching this brief video, recorded at the above location:    YouTube     Vimeo

Leaving the shore and walking uphill through the trees and brush, I arrived on the high ground of Longue Pointe—the exposed gneissic granite of the Canadian Shield

The pools are perennial fixtures of the terrain, fed only by rain and snow…

Here’s another short video, which will give you a 360° tour of this area:    YouTube    Vimeo

Fascinating microecosystems…

Algae? Pollen? Ribbons of orange floating on the still water…

I never thought it was such a bad little tree: Below, a ragged little evergreen makes its home on the hard stone…

I left the trees behind as I walked westward toward the end of the point…

Above and below, dikes of pegmatite run for long distances across the great slabs of granite…

Terminus: The western tip of Longue Pointe, where the rock dives below the calm, blue waters of James Bay…

A short but extremely satisfying hike…one that I’d like to take morning after morning. Perhaps I’ll be able to stay for several nights on my next visit.

East of Eden

My hike from Buffalo Peaks Ranch to the top of South Park’s Bald Hill

It’s not just me; any visitor to the Buffalo Peaks Ranch will tell you how Reinecker Ridge draws your gaze in its direction. The ridge is an important component of so many of the ranch’s scenic views, and it finds its way into nearly every photograph taken at the BPR. From my very first visit to South Park, I was fascinated with Reinecker Ridge and the thought of hiking to the top. Even more so, I was dying to see the mysterious land on the other side of the ridge.

Two years ago, my friend Jay and I unlocked that mystery with a successful hike to Reinecker’s summit. Looking eastward over this ridge for the very first time, we beheld scenery as grand as anything we could have hoped for: A large valley, devoid of human habitation, ringed by hills and distant mountains, looking as though very little had changed over the last few million years. In the center of the valley stood a large, lonely hill, known to geographers as Bald Hill. We were blown away by this sprawling vista of incredible natural beauty, and expletives were flowing freely as we voiced our excitement. Turning to make our way back down to the ranch, I already knew that my next trip to South Park would include a hike across this beautiful valley and the opportunity to stand on top of that hill.

Follow this link to read the report of our 2017 adventure, complete with photos and video.

After our visit to the top of the ridge, I learned that Bald Hill and the surrounding landscape fall within the James Mark Jones SWA. I spoke with a friendly agent at Colorado Parks and Wildlife Headquarters who confirmed that hiking from Reinecker to Bald Hill is allowed, once the public access season begins each year on the first of May.

I had hoped to summit Bald Hill during last autumn’s road trip, but the season was unusually cold and wet, and snow kept the Pontiac out of the mountains in 2018.

So, during the first week of May, I arrived in South Park on the day before my hike to set up camp and explore the ranch. This was my first springtime visit to the BPR. The cactus blossoms were out, and mountain bluebirds were plentiful…always within sight as I roamed the grounds. They certainly seemed to enjoy chasing each other around the ranch. But it was too early in the season for the other high-country flowers to bloom, or for the majority of the grasses to appear green.

The following day, I was up before dawn, and the clear morning promised excellent hiking weather. Below, the sun prepares to clear the crest of Reinecker Ridge…

This was also my first overnight stay at the Buffalo Peaks Ranch, and it was an unforgettable experience. There was no one else at the ranch…just me in my tent and the serenading coyotes roaming the valley. The stars that night were as brilliant as I had hoped they would be. Not surprisingly for early May in South Park, it was a cool night—about 30 °F (-1 °C) when I awoke.

Mount Silverheels catches the first rays of the rising sun…

While the ranch began its morning thaw, I shouldered my pack and started off across the valley (to paraphrase Everett Ruess)…

The easiest part of the journey: Following our 2017 route out from the ranch and over Trout Creek, I was soon across the long fence that runs along the base of Reinecker Ridge…

One more glance toward Mount Silverheels, and then I began the switchback march up the steep slope of the ridge…

My return to the top of Reinecker Ridge, and a beautiful view of the Buffalo Peaks Ranch…

The day’s first look at Bald Hill, sitting right where Jay and I left it two years ago…

So, for the second time in my life—but the first time toward the east—I descended Reinecker Ridge. I was excited to be entering unexplored territory…

Down on the valley floor, I came to the fence separating the BLM land from the State Wildlife Area. After passing through and closing the gate, I followed the fence line eastward. Note the cluster of animals in the distance on the left side of the frame…

(Click on any of the photos to view the full-size version in a new tab.)

When I first spotted them, at a pretty fair distance, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I knew they weren’t cows. By their movements, I considered that they might be horses. Finally, I was close enough to know that I was looking at an elk herd—my first such sighting. This made sense, as there were ample piles of “evidence” scattered across the ranch indicating that the elk had been around in force during the winter and spring…

Of course, they had their eyes on me as soon as I had cleared the ridge, and they were making plans to leave the area. As I moved their way up the fence line, they finally had had enough and made their escape down the valley. I captured a brief video of the elk running along the base of the hill, which you can view through these links:

Watch on Vimeo. Watch on YouTube. (Full-screen mode will give you a better look at the herd, and a better appreciation for the shape and scale of Bald Hill than any of the still photos I captured during this hike. Links open in a new tab. Video duration: 22 seconds.) Making a rough count while watching the video, I’d say this herd (or “gang,” if you prefer) numbered well over 100 head.

With the elk dashing safely to the south, I made for the saddle near the north end of the hill, as the north slope looked to be the best approach to the summit…

At the top: I walked a bit past the summit and then turned around for the shot below, to use the snow-capped peaks to the north as a backdrop. Topo maps show Bald Hill’s maximum elevation as 9,556′ (2,913 m). There, I recorded a video that gives you a 360° tour of the surrounding scenery. Here are the links:

Watch on Vimeo. Watch on YouTube. (Links open in a new tab. Video duration: 50 seconds.)

The view to the east. Plenty of room to explore further on future visits…

Looking southward. Note the patches of pine forest on the nearby hills; my next destination after descending Bald Hill. Probably where the elk went, as well…

View to the west, showing the ground I had covered to get here. Reinecker Ridge, in front of the distant Buffalo Peaks…

Making a direct line for the forest, I descended Bald Hill via the steeper south slope, seen head-on in the photo below. My knees were not happy.

Those who roam the West know how scale gets distorted out here; distances are greater than they appear, and objects are larger than they appear. This hike was no exception; whether moving toward or away from the hill, it always took longer than expected to reach the next landmark. I felt very tiny during my time on the valley floor…

One final look back at Bald Hill before entering the forest. Would have snacked on a mouthful of snow, but the ever-present wind had deposited quite a lot of sand and debris on top of this patch…

Now, I was roaming over gentle hills covered with pines. Plants grow much slower in the thin air of Park County. These old trees were tall enough to provide shade, but they’ll never be as tall as their cousins who live at lower elevations. (Sorry, I didn’t take any photos while wandering through the forest.)

This part of the day’s adventure was an unexpected pleasure. Reminded me of my hikes long ago in parts of California…not just the view, but the smell of the sun-baked pines, the smell of the dry grass, the smell of the dead wood. It also brought to mind old western movies and television shows I watched long ago. Cue Lucas McCain…

In addition to the beautiful scenery, this hike was punctuated by blissful silence and solitude. I never encountered another human during my six-hour circuit. However, once I reached the location of the photo above, I was able to peer over the western slope of the ridge. Far below, I could see a few scattered anglers, silently fly fishing on the South Platte River.

Finally, walking northward along the crest of the ridge, I left the trees behind and found myself back home above the BPR…

I’m looking forward to the day when the Land Library will be fully stocked with books. And I’m hoping that they’ll let me take one up to read while sitting on top of Reinecker Ridge.

Visit landlibrary.org.

Sand Hills Sunrise

Back in May, I was lucky enough to spend the night on a ranch in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, a region that is rich in wildlife and sprawling scenery. Quiet, peaceful, beautiful. This was my first close look at the area, and there’s no doubt that I’ll be exploring these hills further in the years ahead.

Cherry County, Nebraska

(These prints and many others may be purchased at gallery.ridingwithcarl.com.)